The man who wrote the book I’m leaning on
to nail down the first draft of this poem
died yesterday. Truth, I never liked him—
his arrogance, his floor to ceiling vanity.
But he could write, work wonders with
words, arrange whole seasons in a sentence,
bring the cherry back to the cheek in a
dreary time. Meaning, he could squeeze out
tender, though where that tender came from
I never knew, so careful he was to conceal it—
his practiced scowl, the hard casing of
his eye. Surely a biographer will uncover
the painful source of that softness. Even
the rockface of a mountain beaten by time
and weather chips away. Besides, who can measure
another’s suffering? Who dares? Let the years
have their way with him. He wrestled
with language until the end, and that’s enough,
which leaves me running with the crowd
to lift a glass. Here’s to the man who kept
one eyebrow perpetually cocked and hoisted
toward the ceiling. A man I feared—
sneerer of the less than, the not as good as,
the pitiable of no account. But before
he’s safely under—dirt packed down,
the obligatory daisy—I have to confess.
He was my author-on-a-pedestal, my scholar,
my shining star. The light at the end of the tunnel.
The light shrieking toward me on the tracks.
It sneaked up on me, that bare-
legged, mosquito-bitten itch
of my fifteenth year, taking me
over, leaving the books
unopened on the bedside table.
That July when I periodically
took off to scramble
up the hills to be alone
as if an answer waited there
for me—a diagram, a directive,
or a pattern I needed to learn
how to piece together and sew.
If you insist, you could say
it was my summer of biology
coming due, for what was I
but a girl on the edge
not knowing what to make
of my heart, hung out like
a for-sale sign on my sleeve.
But looking back,
what I remember is a green
jostle of leaves trembling in their
bath of light: the morning sun
filtering through in a great
spill of generosity, the way
one would wish to spill, pouring
it out all one's life, pure and unfiltered
from the heart’s bucket, hitting each
dried and speckled thing until it shone.
The Mystery of the Cat
I am being fed early before the others.
Mother says being four I can’t wait.
I can wait. I am swinging my legs,
feet not touching the floor.
New dress, white with blue flowers.
We are in Brooklyn, Great-grandpa’s
apartment. Passover, first night.
I’m trying to figure out what I saw
hanging from a hook behind the door
in his bathroom. I think it’s a secret.
That’s why I'm watching him.
He’s sitting at the head of the table
frowning like the picture in my book
of Moses seeing a bad thing coming.
Everyone’s a little afraid of Great-
grandpa but me. If you don’t wash
before coming to the table he knows.
He knows everything.
He has a white beard like God
and eyes that go right through you.
I always wash my hands, not like
Cousin Herbie who’s got red hair,
picks his nose, and fights all the time.
Great-grandpa will die in January
when it snows, collapse in schul
while praying. The rabbi says
that means he’ll go right to heaven.
I don’t know anything about heaven.
I only know he’ll not be in his
chair anymore, there at his place
at the big table where he belongs.
When he dies I will cry all day.
It will be my first death.
I may be little but I know
what I’m scared of and it's not death.
It's big dogs, big dogs like King
straining at his chain, snarling—
his mouth all teeth and dripping.
King, the German shepherd
Daddy dragged me to, insisting
I pet him, say nice doggie, nice,
while he's yelling, “Don't be afraid
or he’ll smell it on you.” But I was
afraid. And I’m afraid of the thing
I saw in the bathroom when I
went to wash my hands. It’s ugly
and I’m not sure what it’s for.
Mama would know, but she won't
tell me, which makes it a secret.
I don’t like secrets. Grownups
have secrets. They listen to the radio,
whisper to each other, then tell me
to go out and play. I’m not a baby.
I can tie my shoes and write my name.
I know what’s good and what's bad.
And I know who I love: Mama,
Daddy, and Betsy my doll. I love
ice-cream too, topped with sprinkles,
and red apples. I don’t like broccoli.
I hate broccoli. And I don't like big
dogs or what I saw in the bathroom
that looks like a whip. A thing with
nine leather strips, each ending in
a knot to hurt or punish, but who?
And why was it there? Great-grandpa
is gooder than good and wouldn't hurt
a living thing—praying all the time
in the old words so God understands.
Maybe they whisper to each other
late at night in the bathroom—secrets,
grown-up secrets. God’s voice coming
from under the tub where it’s dark
or from behind the mirror on the wall,
saying something bad is coming and
Great-grandpa will need that whip.
At the circus, Aunt Nellie bought me
a toy whip. My cousins got balloons.
But that whip isn’t this whip. This whip
would belong to a bad man with boots
up to his knees and a big dog. Maybe
Great-grandpa once ran from a man
just like that, grabbed his whip and never
gave it back. My Great-grandpa is the
bravest man in the world. Only trouble is
it’s 1938. That man would have bought
another one, a bigger one, by now.
Alice Friman’s seventh collection is Blood Weather, LSU Press. Her last two are TheView from Saturn and Vinculum, for which she won the 2012 Georgia Author of theYear Award in Poetry. A recipient of two Pushcart Prizes and included in Best American Poetry, she has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Massachusetts Review, Gettysburg Review, Georgia Review, Plume, and many others. She was poet-in-residence at Georgia College until 2017. She was the subject of our Closer Look in Innisfree 9. Her website is alicefrimanpoet.com.