It begins very early. When they leap
into your arms, blue and slick and shiny,
like a bunting in rain. Or when they rise
and turn like a whale and your wife's belly
goes taut, and she calls to you, "Look, look!"
Or when you hear whosh, whosh, whosh, of radar
and nurses count heart beats and they're somewhere
between boy and girl, and you don't really
care to know for sure. Or, in that instant
of the twentieth try, when you know this
time the heavens opened to your summons.
So it doesn't surprise you those other
times later—when he toddles through the room
yelling languages you've forgotten, when
he climbs upon the chairs and then upon
the table and stands proud like Sir Edmund
Hillary, when he grazes rubber balls
past your left ear, when he dances circles
to "As Time Goes By" til he plops backwards,
dizzy—that the heavens are still open,
that dawn never shifts into day, that light,
always new, streaks golden upon this world.
Ours wives don't love us any less than long ago,
just in a different way, like water becomes ice.
Where once there was a calm and wide river full of fish,
the silver of their affection still swims below.
Now we must cut circles through the crust to catch them.
Think of it their way. We were once a sky,
large and clear and bright with the promises of spring,
but we became thunder and rain and then dark clouds
that descended upon them cold and heavy with snow.
My mother would tell a story about a storm in Illinois.
The ice and snow began to fall upon the winding two-lane,
and my father halted to dress the chains in ungloved hands.
Jacking each back tire, quickly adjusting the links,
while chill filled the car and my mother quieted
the girls in the back seat, who had started their whimpering.
God damn, it was cold, but what was he to do?
They weren't a mile down the dangerous road before
suddenly the chains wrapped themselves around the axle
with the roar of bombers and land mines and tommy guns.
They hunkered down on tins of sausage and saltines
while men in thick coats and boots repaired my father's mistakes.
It became the story she told at holiday office parties,
the secretaries' eyes stilled in skilled anticipation,
the eggnog, laced with rum, lifted to the fissures of their lips.
My father filched a smile from some cold place
along a road that took him to his titles and gray suits.
My mother's voice became more liquid with each retelling.
A colleague tells me about her divorce and the settlement.
The husband got the house, the good car, and left her and the kids.
His girlfriend, thin as fishing line, has moved in.
At night in the old bed, the new woman spins dreams
into the air she screamed and cried only six months ago.
The colleague, who tended the laundry of her career
until her children were old enough for school,
is two months behind on her bills, and her husband,
always starched and dry cleaned, is filing suit for her sons.
One happy hour after work, I don't know why I took her there,
I buy us both a scotch, mine straight up, hers on the rocks.
I have nothing to tell her. What am I supposed to tell her?
"You understand? Your heart!"—Robert Hass
When I speak to my ex on the phone about our son
I imagine my voice is singing like a mockingbird
in March. It's full of flourishes and deep enthusiasms,
playful in a way she could think she had inspired
this thing so engaged, so focused, so intent on joyful
communion that the million ears of pear trees
all across town would open themselves into white
blossoms merely to resonate in shared concern.
But my body, no longer home with hers, goes slack
in the dark greens of a couch I purchased a few
months after having moved myself to Splitsville.
My new wife and sons racket about in the kitchen
concocting some kind of hippie cookies from flax
and wheat germ and eggs from our free-range hens.
Now the fabric on the couch is beginning to rend
and I force myself not to fiddle with the tear.
We have a perfect divorce, my ex tells old friends
over her chicken fettuccini and mid-priced
chenin-blancs. I know because they praise
me when we bump into each other at Whole Foods
near the cheese. You handled it so well, they say.
Yeah? I say. If they only knew the dread of those
evening calls—as if my parents were still living,
one of them tethered and tubed in intensive care,
the telephone's silence always a threat ready
to break and scatter like change in thin pockets.
I read a story in the Times by a daughter
of a woman who abandoned her husband when
he turned irresponsible with Alzheimer's, leaving
him and his weaknesses to other women, children
and hourlies. He'd developed the impossible habit
of requiring attention, someone to watch him
with matches, someone to prevent him from straying
from the neighborhood after midnight, his memory
empty as his wallet. After he'd been rendered to ash
and last bills paid, she claimed him once again,
placed him and their forty-odd years together
on a shelf, perhaps, to brag about with old friends.
Then six months later, she had a heart attack
and died. This is true—I read this story
while eating cookies on a Sunday afternoon in spring.
Then late that night, after the family had gone upstairs
and to bed, I telephoned my first son now away
at school and told him quietly about the orchard,
root stock and grafts, about the fact that Galas
need other trees, like White Mollies, to set their fruit.