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Witness This

ISSUE:  Summer 2014

Every April we unsheathed sofa cushions from their glassy wrappers,
perched tea on our laps, and became an audience for his four-decade
victory lap, the Great Wall, the Blue Lagoon, the Panama Canal, the
unsmiling projection of him and his second wife against the world’s great
achievements, as if his dodging the sinkhole were an epic that
needed witnesses other than his own camera.

Each photo narrated, lingered, without joy but studious observation,
while dust swirled in the projector’s haze, and you sat, middle-aged,
your own family seated in halo, swallowing your rage and your grief.
It should have been your mother there, dressed in linen, leaning
against the cool crutch of a terrace railing, the half-drunk glass of
rosé ghosting a day’s pleasure spent peering into Capri’s too-
green-to-believe water.

She was the worker, though, the one who plated dinners at five,
and wiped your tears and kept you company and mixed the drinks,
and told you secrets, and huddled you against her sisters’ menthol’d
embraces in their tiny apartments above the capitol, where they
lived alone, except for when certain men came to visit and they
put on furs and stepped in and out of Buicks with the practiced step
of women who knew how easily gladness could combust.

Your mother’s heart burst of this pain while you were away, and
so there was a life, foresworn of travel, its decadence and abandonment
of what mattered. So we carved our way down interstates, crammed
into a car with holes in the undercarriage, inscribing our childhoods
onto the hot blank slate of the Central Valley, its mean brown flats,
the spooky irrigation canals, the fields your father once worked
a long time ago, before he grabbed a rung and held on with the
clench of a man who knew how to survive.

He traveled into his middle nineties, the leaf season in New Hampshire,
the Alaskan coastline in April, the Rocky Mountain express across
Canada, but he never visited your dying wife, the one who also
dreamed of Paris, and ordered cakes from England, and who read
of Russian revolutions, but who saw none of it, even when you knew
she was dying, and then it was too late: the sons arrowing back, the
taking turns sleeping on the sofas, the theater of morphine, the curtains’
pleas for privacy.

Fifty years later the post brings me your first Christmas card together,
a photograph snapped from the summit of Machu Picchu, you and
your second wife, the one who gets to travel, peering into the mist
of this stony place, and I wonder what it is I am supposed to witness,
other than your happiness. I wonder who this picture is for. Only my heart
refuses what the eye cannot deny. And I wonder if its clench
is the one which will help me survive, or the one that will keep
this absurd carousel turning.


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