After Elizabeth Bishop
Around 11A.M., two days before he died, my old man drove me to Gatsby’s Bar on the north end of the strip. This was summer in Virginia, 1984, back when my father was lighting cigarettes with the wrong ends in his mouth. Looked like a blues singer.
Gatsby’s was full of grown-ups on stools. Hangnails and Marlboros. Big words and sad songs. My old man told me we’d stay awhile, and he pulled a rolled-up magazine from his back pocket. “Look here, my boy.” We studied the photographs inside, girl-parts I’d never seen. There were girls doing jumping jacks with their breasts up high, girls holding teddy bears, kissing off their lips. There were girls in every color—some smiling wide, others covering their mouths like a hiccup. None of them had clothes on. “Let me sit on your lap,” one caption read. It felt wrong and good to look. He flipped through the pages and I nodded “go on.” He slapped the magazine on the bar when we finished, pointed at the redhead in a sailor pose on the back cover. “Now ain’t she a slut and half?” And what surprised me most was my own voice, from my own mouth, saying, “Sure is.” I, we, were men for the first time together, our eyes glued to Cindy from Daytona, 5’2, in need of a captain.
My old man said, “three minutes and you’ll be ten years old.” He knuckled me in the cheek as he said it, whistling “Hey, Lucy, you ought to give my boy a birthday dance.” I stared at the jukebox pulsing purple in the corner. I stared at it to stop that feeling of knowing him as a person. My old man, my father, Leonard, quick to kick me into a limp, “better sick than sorry.” My old pa, who had me drag my feet around and hang my mouth all dumb for better parking spaces.
I looked at the bodies around the horseshoe-shaped bar. Blue jeans and slumped shoulders. Cowboy boots with heels. There were crossed fingers and cross necklaces and the black spaces of missing teeth, all gleaming under the same blue glow of fly zaps. I knew that I’d never seen anything so strange, that I’d never felt this wrong, but to them, this was just another Sunday.
And then I was back in it. Lucy handed me a shot of something brown and said, “Plug your nose, kid.” I threw my head back and took it. Sagging women blew me kisses. The music beat on. My father wrapped his arm around me, singing something slow.
T Kira Madden