My Parents’ Honeymoon, Atlantic City, 1941
I see them on the boardwalk the morning after
their wedding, my father in his fedora, handsome
like Fred MacMurry, and my mother beaming
with love they had vowed for a lifetime.
The night before they had danced
to “In the Mood” in the Statler Hotel
before stealing upstairs to move to their own music,
that giving choreography of hands and tongues.
Then, in the salt-aired morning, they worshipped
in St. Michael’s Church where each Latin hymn
was a love song and their prayers entwined
in the stained glass glow above the statues.
And all day they basked in the sharp April sun
as they walked miles of sand in the scent
of taffy and sauerkraut. I see them stopping
to gaze into the foamy motion of waves
to recall those June nights they were heat
against each other in the chill of a midnight swim
when “Moonlight Serenade” from an outdoor pavilion
seemed like music for only their ears.
When the shadows darkened the boardwalk,
I picture them strolling back to their room
to press their clothes together in a suitcase
they would carry for the next twenty-one years.
And then, driving north on old Route 9,
my father works the gears in the ’38 Packard
as he shields his eyes from the splash of sun
that paints the dusk into a marigold.
And Penny, my sister, as big as an angel
on the head of a pin, lives her first day
in the life of my mother. They all sit close,
my family, going home for the very first time.
Letter To My Principal
I came to school late today
and I am sorry.
I do remember your note
about my punctuality
but a calf was born last night
and I found him blinking
into his first morning.
he was so tiny and white,
like a dab of marshmallow
upon the spearmint grass.
So, please understand
I was caught in a sunrise
so gold it changed our barn
to pink and sponged the dew
where the calf lay startled
at the light after life
in the black pond of the womb.
I was set to leave, I swear I was,
but his mother, her eyes dark plums,
began to bathe him with her tongue
moving like a paint brush
up and down his milky face.
And when he gazed at me
and mooed like a nervous bassoon,
what could I do but stay
until he stood on his own
and began to tiptoe
as if the grass were eggs.
Home Team, 1959
First base sidled the front of Cinkota’s Bar
where Hungarian refugees lifted Rheingold
to toast the life of immigrants till shouts
moved them to stagger down the steps, noses red
as sponge balls, and watch our strange game
where home was a hint of white in the early dark.
They’d mill about, drinking and pointing,
then one would ask, “Please, yes?” and we’d nod
and make room for foreigners loving our American
game that they played with the grace of maniacs.
Their baggy black pants and white shirts flapped
like flags as they stomped Albert Street chasing
fly balls that hid in the maze of wires waiting
to dive through cupped hands, sting their noses,
and skip among the wheels of Mr. Toth’s DeSoto.
They’d giggle themselves helpless as they tumbled
headfirst into bases and swung at underhand pitches
with the fury of lumberjacks chopping oak trees.
Later, they’d buy us bottles of Coke that chilled
our hands in the air of August and, as we grieved
the clench of next month’s classes, they rejoiced,
like winners, these men who had fled the death
of Budapest, made it home with us on Albert Street
where we opened arms and cried, “Safe! You’re safe!”
While you were working,
struggling with a cast iron tire rim,
your heart gave up and you,
fifty-three, a God-fearing Irish truck driver,
bent to your knees one last time.
They said you asked for “me drivin’ cap”
when they raised you on the stretcher
and, as your hometown blurred through the ambulance,
you clutched the old hat like a steering wheel
until your fingers stiffened on the tattered brim.
And I, a block away,
followed your breakfast advice
and pummeled the New Street bully
who was extorting my route money each day.
Blood pumped from his startled face
as I found the power in my thirteen-year-old fists
only you knew had been there.
From loading docks of Jersey towns,
your friends, working men,
came in Sunday suits, blank-eyed,
hands cracked with cold,
to circle your casket,
a gleam of burgundy on the morning snow.
Then somewhere in the murmur of a “Hail Mary”
I peered through the towering shoulders
to find the Raritan River flowing silver
in the valley below your grave
and I was five again, floating on that river
in a truck tire tube, laughing so free
as you waved from shore in blue work clothes,
your smile a second sun in the August sunshine.
I didn’t see the tugboat prowling downstream
that shattered the Raritan into roller coaster waves
and flipped me into the wet darkness.
I stabbed at the water, wild, screaming, “Dad!
Help me!” but the river wrenched me under again.
I remember praying as you had taught me.
Then your hands were those of God
in a Bible picture as they pierced the water,
clutched me under my shoulders,
and lifted me up into the life of summer air.
You carried me ashore, holding my face
against your sharp Saturday beard
and calmed my crying with “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
Your battered work shoes sloshed up the beach
as my dripping trunks purpled your shirt
and inched chills up your arms that held me close.
On the way home,
your wipers slapped away a thunderstorm
as I lay against you in the truck,
sleeping safe to the beating of your heart,
as constant as the falling rain.