My grandfather died asking for it, sweet, greasy juice of bird-who-didn’t-run-fast-enough, yellow smear of chicken fat on a bagel. Tubes in and out of every hole in him, total failure of the body to endure its own appetites, and his scared sons leaning over him, hungry for last words. “Sure wish I could taste some schmaltz,” he rasped, and he died. Sentiment comes and goes, but food is serious. The old man in charge of the kosher butcher shop has a white flowing beard, hooded eyes, a hawk-like nose. He wears a jeweled and embroidered yarmulke and a bloodstained apron. Those blazing eyes see right through me, I can tell. They know I go to temple only once, maybe twice a year, to hear the Kol Nidre and say Kaddish, just for the unbearable sweetness of the minor key. And he can see that I shop kosher only because it tastes better, while at home I eat pepperoni pizza straight from the box, but he gives me my heavy bird anyway. Even the faithless should eat well. In the parking lot behind the shop, Leroy approaches with his rags and Windex. Says today’s real bad, no one will even talk to him. Tears in his eyes, he describes the meal he wants to buy around the corner at KFC: “Two pieces, a breast and a leg. Mashed potatoes. Green beans. A biscuit. Gravy.” Hunger, the common language that unites us. I give him a dollar plus all the change I have and later regret not letting myself give more: a five, a twenty. Enough is a miracle to have, even for an hour. Not much else can furnish that full feeling, besides the kindness we yearn for: our poetry, our schmaltz.
This poem previously appeared in Whiskey Island.