|Stop Your Sobbing
It's Jackie calling from New York: "Your heart," she says, on behalf of my new underwriters: "Did you have a minor problem with your heart in 1991?"
And me thinking, Jackie, why New York? and No, I had a major heart problem in 1991, but it didn't involve rhythms, blockages or enlargements. The fact is, Jackie, I forget, it was just a hiccup on the EKG. I tell her the name of my old New England physician--"He plays tennis with Richard Wilbur, how about that?" I say to be chatty; "Very nice," she says, "Who is he?" and hangs up. Now she can sic a thankful insurance industry on my undependable heart.
Then B. phones from North Carolina: "This time," he falters, "I've really broken her heart." And as I push away the student poems and screw the cap on my pen, and settle into the arcs and swoops of his anguish, I imagine all those students counting on getting their poems back tomorrow, and how I will break their hearts in my tiny, ordinary way 1/by not giving back poems until Monday; 2/by giving back all the poems, but with cursory comments; or 3/by staying up all night, channeling insomnia into naked heart truths which 3a/they should never hear from any teacher, or 3b/they should always hear from every teacher, not just me, because if they hear those truths brusquely and often enough they might not end up like B. pronging every heart he gets near, or like Jackie, whose core has been reduced to old chewing gum by bureaucratic trivia, or like me: a marginal noise-maker, impossible to please, heartlessly crossing out line after line of their artless confessions.
And no matter which option I choose, no matter what B. admits and Jackie uncovers, it will be unreliable. I can already imagine the worst example--as B. details what he did, and how many times, with the woman two doors down from his family, on the carpet in her family room--and what I'll be tempted to do to it in return: one of those sidewise comments, abrupt and slashing as a curse, about the misuse of the heart in a love poem: how it's just another mistake, subject to gross enlargement, difficult blockages, and bad rhythms again and again and Jesus, it's just got to stop.
Color of the Heart
The man in the plum-colored sweater squeezes lime through the cracks of his fist into a glass of tequila and grapefruit juice. The sweater was his father's, boxed among golf shirts mailed to him on the birthday of the old man's death. Since opening this box, he has been drinking his way toward his father's last true size. He's glad the sweater fits, though the plum hue reminds him of a tick fattened on dog's blood, a tick you pry off and step on. Gold rings the sweater's neck and wrists, light as the first downy mustache he coaxed forth at age sixteen. The only conviction he held, then, was in the pose he held for the bathroom mirror: I will never be what my father has done. What was it, but provide, and after work escape engineering blueprints in Golf Digest, in string arrangements of songs from the 40's? His father's meditation at age forty-six consisted of the trajectory of a Titleist, the slight fade at the end of its ascent, when it looks to slice into the woods but then drops-as though remembering an obligation-into fairway. Now the sweater's gold wrist bands handcuff the son as much to his outlived repudiation of fatherhood as to the naked old body he turned on the hospital bed to relieve its terminal sores.
When he helped the nurse roll his father over, there was the radiation burn tucked inside a buttock the color of white butter. He shut his eyes, foolishly reminded of a beauty mark above the lips of a star brought close in movie-house dark. The burn was the color of this sweater he embraces from the inside out. But the face in the dark of his closed eyes, now, is a father's, and its silent lips communicate the strange glory of the death-bed: how a son could stand this close to the back parts God revealed to Moses, and live. How the buttery flesh he held and beheld as it rolled, with an involuntary sigh, was his own, studied and filled and earned to the last inch. At the moment he re-covered his father's nakedness, he saw his mother laying out the clothes in which he would continue-a slowly infolding embrace, a family story told in the night to no one until the bottle is finished, until he finds himself pulling the threads at his left wrist loose with his father's right hand.
Robert Hill Long's poems, prose poems and flash fictions have appeared in anthologies--Best American Poetry 1995 (Touchstone), 1996 Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry (Monitor Books), Flash Fiction (W.W. Norton), Drive, They Said (Milkweed Editions)--and in numerous journals across America. His books include The Work of the Bow, which received the 1995 Cleveland State University Poetry Center Prize, The Power to Die, and a book of flash fictions, The Effigies. Robert Hill Long currently teaches at the University of Oregon. His work can be seen online at Web Del Sol.