I spent two years living in Santa Fe, having earned my BA from the College of Santa Fe back in 1999. (It’s a long story, but I did my first year of undergrad work at Carnegie Mellon, left for a year-and-a-half, returned to community college for a semester, transferred to CSF for two years, and did my final year at Columbia College in Chicago. On the plus-side, I got to live in Pittsburgh, Santa Fe and Chicago, so it wasn’t all bad.) I spent my second year living with three other guys* in a house just outside of town that was entirely too nice for four college students. That drive from El Dorado to the college that we made every day partially inspired today’s poem. See, there were two ways to get into town from our house, and the route we took less often was on a barren road. Nothing but hills and desert and the occasional car. And for some reason, when I read this poem, it’s all I can see. More than my father, more than the father, more than Tino, more than anything. Just sitting in the back of that truck, taking that road into town. It’s strange, the things that stick with you, but there’s no getting around the power of memory. I wouldn’t say I’m nostalgic for that period in my life, yet it definitely left an undeniable impression I can’t shake.
This poem is a good 10 years old, probably closer to 12. It was included in my MFA, and it’s actually one of my favorites. There’s something about the speaker’s voice that is so non-judgmental and naive that the poem still resonates with me. The truth is, the speaker should be petrified, but at that age and at that time, he doesn’t realize it. So now, when I look at this poem as both a grown man and a father, I have a different sort of appreciation and terror than I did when I wrote it in my early 20’s.
How My Father’s Crew Prepared to Paint
Because I didn’t know then where nerves ended
and the shakes began, I thought my father’s
predawn routine of twitching was a given,
the long, measured belts he’d pull from whatever
bottles weren’t yet empty, and at last
the absolute composure, his body methodically
quiet while he loaded the tired pick-up
with work and his own captured likeness.
He crammed the bed with his two-man crew
only moments after first light eked
through the piñon trees. And then
only after the last cracked-open can of Tecate
slid down Tino’s throat like motor oil
did my father peel out from the driveway
and descend, half-drunk, into town,
me sitting shotgun. I spent every summer
till eleven that way, certain of our normalcy.
I let my father parade me everywhere,
trotted out from job to job like a mascot,
expected to learn an honest day’s work.
I passed time eyeballing his soiled bandana,
relentless in my begging to strap the black
kerchief across his nose and mouth, to tie it off
in a V the way bank-robbers of the Old West used to.
The men were liquored up by then and howled
the native songs of their youth, kept their butts
plastered to the railing of the truck, extended
their paint-splattered grips to one another
for balance while my father dodged traffic
and swerved across the highway like a scared animal.
Carlos prayed through his laughter. Tino
winged his empties from the back, tossing them
just right so they arced through the breeze
like stones skipped across a lake.
So when my father got that heap to town —
when he finally arrived at the work site
as a well-strung bundle of confidence, his truck
teeming with a drunken crew wailing chants
through garbled, booze-happy laughter —
he had some explaining to do.
Today’s post is for Mike, who was one of those roommates. Also, he just found out he’s having a little girl, so congrats, sir.