Scoundrel Time

Protégé

(1)

The street between the subway station and the church is narrow,
cars beaded along both sides like rosaries God in His hurry

to the rain’s press conference had forgotten on top of the sock drawer.
Sidewalks like teeth crammed into too-small gums, hustling

each other for drops of sugar-rot, go on darkening, cracking for miles
under the row-homes’ stiff red lips until they are touching the glass

intestines: Center City, Philadelphia. An easier metaphor than
the dentist’s office, where I was safe once among the white clay

molds and scalpel, a desk clear of debris, and spider-less walls where
shadows played the frangipani’s romance against an iron twilight: my father,

who was calm then, and spotless, as he excised from mouths
the roots of injury. He had, of course, his magic tricks. Like asking

a seven-year-old what the number of Israel’s tribes times itself is, and while
she tries to recall a desert she has never seen, and the sea behind it, which she has,

and how many names could be hiding in the grains of sand that bind the seen
to the unthinkable, pulling out with a flick of the wrist so quick it – the baby

tooth, like childhood itself – might not have existed at all were it not for the hole,
tasting of iron and twilight, its truth cauled now in the clearest jar of alcohol, maudlin,

almost, under the plastic Christ’s painted damage, glancing off other primeval
truths, pre-cavity, boiled-egg white, never to be part of her speech again.

__________

(2)

Such small sorrows, these. The most honest things I own
and have no use for. I go to meeting after meeting with words like
“defense” and “community,” stack assurances in red lettering on the table
beside the shrimp crackers, promise to pick up the phone no matter how
cudgelblack the sky. You are not alone, I tell terrified factory workers,
terrified parents, terror itself, you are this other condition speech
has no right to enter without a warrant – the seafaring instinct

heated like a sheet of metal, recast into a bowl where rain
collects and small islands form out of the ants’ drowned ambitions.
Sometimes I think the gambler with slurred speech and shaky hands, half-
asleep in the grey folding-chair at the back of the sanctuary, is God
by his capacity to survive on rumor. Plainclothes. Tinted vans. Authority
is a matter of inhabiting two origins at once: of and over. I practice
words I have to believe in like rubber soles slapping concrete

in that warehouse from half a lifetime ago, men and women
folded over sewing machines, puddles of nylon, split fingernails, their salt-
touches on unflagging needles under the watch of a florescent army.
At home, the piano is waiting with its elegies; its mother, the black
moon under the eye, is stirring a potful of cow bones. Forget the other
eye, which did not migrate with the rest of us. Sill there, chalk-dry
in the courtyard, widening every time it sighted a plane’s white belly.

__________

(3)

I like to take my time between the station and the church,
to nod at elders on their lawn chairs by the entrances of corner stores
where everything from instant noodles to garden shears are sold
by insomniacs who in another life were doctors, radio hosts, kids
throwing rocks at tanks and each other. To run my fingertips across

the sun shattered on a chain-link fence and the laughter behind it.
I like to hear the brightness of my mother tongue like cans crushed into
pavement and the parakeet green of streets announcing themselves
like they’ve never carried a foreign passport. Good day, Morris, have you
noticed the Mole growing on your Broad? You might want to Pierce it.

So what if none of this is mine? Neither were the flying ants that broke
the floor’s seams during rainy season. The lights would go out, and the dark
thrash with their hunger. I didn’t know then what “no one” meant. I was
happy – yes, happy! – in my terror when dirt-feathered wings like the dead’s
fingernails brushed my eyelids and the insides of my thighs. All those

years I heard and misunderstood their plans, seeping through slits
between the door and doorframe that separated the front of the house,
which belonged to us – God, family, the rotary phone’s nuclear yellow –
and the part without a toilet, where two girls from the village – who washed,
swept, cooked, and whom I always thought of, conveniently, as immortal –

wrote letters, sometimes, to mothers who might or might not still be alive.
I’d offer to help when I felt like being a good person, and I did want to want
to be a good person with the capacity to believe that the deep-fried bulbs of ants
served the morning after a storm with eggs and glasses of powdered milk
really were seeds of the exotic pomegranate. That wings carpeting

the floor like tiny drafts of ill-fated words, words simply asking for
a breeze to shake the shapes out of them, might be elevated to some other
destination than the dustpan, than baskets of fire crosshatching the sky.
But I was already learning how to live with all those bodies crowding
my mouth; there was ever only light, and more light, after rain like that.
__________

(4)

Back on the island, Ganesh lived, crouching, just outside my parents’ bedroom window.
At dusk, I often caught him staring at the scepters of papaya and orchid our neighbors
laid at his feet. That they’d spoil untouched on the dishes woven of banana leaf was
an object lesson in contrast and comparison: my parents’ I Am That I Am, once mad
for the scent of burning animals, had evolved to desire no more than our most private
private language about our most banal humiliations. For years I heard His voice, felt it
at my back like the crisp white of bougainvillea spilling through the gate’s metal bars.
In stadiums where we were packed by the tens of thousands, I saw it fell grown men
like timber and reassemble them for maximum yield in the free market economy.
Oil. Tourism. Slums and slush funds for the Smiling General. Two countries later, I
still hide my jealousies. Like my uncle, the one who would not bend, who gambled even
the steel braces of his house and left my cousins with nothing but the imprint of a cross
in a grey palm. It had to be enough.
Listen.
There was a head of hardened lava, a lantern in the mountains. A god built from
the opened graves, and over him, the night hung like a hammer.

__________

(5)

My father’s signature began with a bold O, the ink looping
at its top before scrawling illegibly away: from right to left it looked
like a worm wriggling its way into a mouth rounded by wonder.

I practiced forging it as much for the pleasure as necessity – it didn’t
fit the way he crossed his arms while surveying the white tiles for fugitive
strands of hair, or how I paid for every dirt stain on my hand-me-down

jeans with a beating. It was his claim to love Elizabeth Taylor though
his head would nod into his chest halfway through any one of her films;
the sound of petals drying redly on his canvas, which reigned over

the dining room while volcanic ashes like manna rained. O, dandruff
of heaven! Give us this day our daily transfixion, who are built of primary
colors and childlike palms waving to every tourist for their magnificent

scraps! He dreamed of windmills, the absence of dog shit in rivers
we praised as a symbol of God’s deliverance. One winter, he drove me
and my sister to a Christmas tree plantation near the city limits

in Richmond, British Columbia, where a scarlet windmill stood
like a man struck by sudden, perfect understanding. Night was filing into
gaps in the rows of fir like a reserve battalion, or memory, mixing

with the patches of frozen mud where trunks in their green gowns
now being lashed onto the roofs of station wagons had kept the snow from
collecting, while false bells and true laughter chimed, and the moon,

our one faith, rolled back its eye. My father pointed at the enormous,
frost-hushed blades above us and said, “That is why we came.” I could not
forgive him for that, not while he lived, not when they thawed under

spring’s eagerness and still did not stir. He’s somewhere else now
like snow emptied of the axe’s ringing, while I lose sleep over my forgeries:
this hand, this eyelid, this piece-by-piece abandonment of a plan of escape.

__________

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