I’d walk the empty rooms,
go up on the roof and watch the evening
around Pico and La Brea braid into night.
I made paper-mache wolves there,
figures of women, the front room
filled with torn newspaper and flour-water glue,
everyone facing the windows.
I’d gone alone there to find work,
stayed on the top floor of a forties duplex.
When I’d call home, my father would say
‘it’s a means to an end’ but I couldn’t
tell what the end was.
He worked the stockyards, carried a knife,
crews drinking their way through each shift,
fighting over the meat they would steal.
I wanted some clue but couldn’t find one,
pasting on the inked paper at night,
my hands caked with the blackened paste.
They’d come every Wednesday evening
and I began to wait for them when the dark seeped,
their rumble of vowels rippling across the air
as the shapes appeared,
silhouettes floating what grey light
remained between the apartments.
The children walked ahead, scouts calling back
what the next building had left for garbage-day,
lifting the dumpster lids,
picking from the bins along the sidewalk.
Words scraped the air like the hushed rasp
of palm branches wind pushed across the stones.
They pulled an ironing board out, a frying pan.
The woman rolled a shopping cart
and the man loaded what they found, a tricycle,
a rake, scavenging Sycamore Avenue.
I wanted to walk the evening with them,
search together, be part of their tribe.
When the groan of police helicopters would wake me,
searchlights scouring the alleys,
I’d crawl back through a scatter of dreams,
gusts of a song about a river blowing through the room.
I’d swim with the current
until I’d make myself get up,
cast my morning vows
and promise to talk to the first woman I saw.
When they were small, I’d line them up
before we’d go into the grocery store,
spit on a tissue and wipe their faces,
straighten their hair, inspect.
They say now I was marking them.
I’ve watched how ravens raise theirs.
By fall, big enough to fly for an hour,
the parents lead the grown ones
away from the nest up the mountain forest
as they squawk and loop,
following to a new silence.
The old book of cobbled myths
prescribes how fathers
should rub the newborns with salt.
The patriarchs dictated,
they must mark the children,
perform the ritual
as a sign of their covenant with god,
disinfect the corrupt tendencies of the heart,
so that the child would be truthful.
But it is no guarantee.
A man survives by not giving up.
He sifts his doubt through the screen of night,
finds what there is to save, tries again.
I am a stalwart man.
She said she passed it on to me.
When she was small she’d kneel and pump
the grinding-wheel pedal by hand for her father,
blades riding the whirling stone
shooting stars into the shed’s attic.
I’ve only seen him in a picture,
a wiry stern-faced man standing in a field.
He taught her a strict practice;
shear once along the ewe’s belly,
keep the wool long for spinning.
The snow has fallen all day,
flakes like leaves drifting,
burying every scrap and hole.
Found one of the old hens
frozen in the hay chute, brushed the snow
off the square boulder by the stream
and laid her there, offered to the sky,
the black scavengers that will land
when I walk back up the hill.
I will show my children,
when they come to dinner today,
what carried me over the hill of fifty
when I was so tired with all my doubt;
this morning twins, two new apple faces
in the corner of the ewes’ stall
peering through the crowd of legs.