Letter to My Father on His Birthday

The house on Road 64, where you were born. Mulberry trees. Umbrella trees. The barn in back, the garden in front. The water tank and swimming hole, pruning shears, horses, plows, the brush burner pulled through uneven vineyard rows. The rifle you found, the rabbits you killed, the roadrunners you chased and never caught. The German neighbor across the road who opened his gate so his cows could roam your yard. The anger your father felt. Your mother making bread. Raisins. Walnuts. Roosters crowing. Chickens. Eggs. Cheese. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, onions. Honeysuckle and lilac. Your two big brothers and your little sister. Grandview School, grades one through eight. Playing �Dare Base� with long-legged laughing girls. A vineyard on the way to school, its long canes frozen black by frost on the twenty-fourth day of May. Snow on the valley floor, 1932. Swimming in the ditch. Coyotes, squirrels, doves, pheasants, quail. Raucous crows, mockingbirds, blackbirds, robins, sparrows, tomato worms by the barrel. Plums, apricots, peaches, grapes, pomegranates, persimmons, figs. Relatives sipping coffee and reading fortunes in the grounds. Neighbors coming to visit. Finding cigarette butts and smoking them beside the road. Sitting in the shade. Shaving in seventh grade. Was this your life, or is it one I made? Did you live it, or did I? You�ve gone on. Whose life am I living now?

I should be more eloquent. I�m not eloquent at all. Looking back, I think your life was a poem, or a line in an even greater poem. It was a poem when you were tired. It was a poem when you were hungry and alone. The poems I write, the kind with words, are rooted in experience. Much of the experience is imagined. All of it is real. But I don�t have to imagine loneliness or sweat or hunger, or the feeling of my feet on a narrow country road. I know how to use a shovel and a hoe, and am well versed in the messages that rise along their handles until they reach my calloused, dirty hands, then pass through my sunburned arms and find shelter in my brain. For you it was the same.

I paid some bills today. It reminded me of your frequent bookkeeping sessions at the kitchen table. There were so many dollars and so many mouths to feed, for so many days, weeks, and months, until the next crop came in. The figures had to be verified, weighed, and reconsidered. Barring loss to frost, hail, or rain, the money earned was a little more each year. So were your expenses. In 1964, an eight-foot tandem disk for the vineyard cost 800 dollars. Now it costs thousands. Around the same time, or maybe a year or two later, a six-pack of Lucky Lager beer was a dollar thirty-five. Why do I remember something like that? Because of the can openers they gave away at the grocery store? Because I liked the taste of beer? For some reason, I don�t recall the price of cigarettes. I know they were cheap. So was a box of cigars. So were batteries for the transistor radio � nineteen cents.

Let us not forget the five-acre patch of watermelons we raised in 1972. A few of the melons � the variety was called Peacock and the field was planted by a man named Petinak � were bought by none other than Cliff Cash, the produce man at United Market in Dinuba. Cliff was someone you knew well and fished with on occasion. You�ll be glad to know I said hello to him just before your funeral. I hadn�t seen him for many years. We shook hands in the funeral home in Fresno, and without hesitation I said, �Cliff, are you ready to go fishing?� He smiled and said he was.

Damn it. Damn it. . . . I haven�t seen him since. Is he still alive? I remember his house on El Monte Way.

So. Cliff Cash bought some of our stupid beautiful melons. We hauled them to the store in the 1965 Chevy pickup we liked so much, and unloaded them one at a time into shopping carts out back, then wheeled them inside to get them out of the sun. Cliff paid you the going price at the moment: 100 dollars a ton, or 5 cents a pound. To me, it was a sacred transaction: sweat realized, money honestly earned. Now I think, if only poems could be sold in such a simple and straightforward fashion: nourishing and refreshing morsels for so many cents a pound, take the damn things home, for crying out loud. Put them on your table. It�ll do you and your family good, and cure your constipation.

You�re shaking your head, old friend, but I mean each and every word.

The sun was having
a conversation with the earth,
and we were listening in.
The fruit trees and vineyards groaned.
I am not eloquent,
but death is an eloquent poem.

July 2, 2005

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Also by William Michaelian

Winter Poems

ISBN: 978-0-9796599-0-4
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
ISBN: 978-0-9796599-1-1
80 pages. Paper.
Cosmopsis Books
San Francisco

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