The Whales Off Manhattan Beach Breaching in Winter
I have never wanted anything but to be understood and accepted,
except from my father, from whom I wanted to be appreciated,
but he did not believe in praise. If I got a 96
he thought it was thrifty to ask where the other four points went,
because acknowledging success was prideful.
I was so hungry for his praise I got to know his mind as ancient Greek sailors knew
the islands of the Aegean, how their shapes rose on the horizon, conjuring their
olive groves and the monsters in their caves.
I searched his inconsistencies for deeper hidden consistencies.
I listened for approval in the caverns of his silence
and read his eyes for signs that weren’t there
from boy to man, and still he was ahead of me, withholding praise
and holding out the possibility of praise, and withholding praise again.
Then he got sick and very old and spent the last two years
of his life in a bed in a home that smelled like a bowel
that had been washed with minty disinfectant.
He was embarrassed by immobility and proud in his mind.
He took no visitors, and referred to himself as “The Potato In The Bed,”
and to the anti-depressant pills they gave him as “Nursing Home Not So Bad.”
His legs swelled, grew purple, oozed pus, scabbed over.
He spoke like an oak tree.
His fingers were smooth flesh purses of stymied bone.
And yet, when he could no longer reach the control that made his bed rise,
he invented a string with a 3/8 inch nut tied to one end and looped over
the bed rail to help him fish it up. Patient as a prisoner planning an impossible escape,
he loved his engineering, he loved his invention; he loved his mind.
His weight dropped. His eyes were failing, Sundays afternoons, that autumn,
we were watching the Jets, when he said, “Shake me.” I looked at him sideways.
He blinked and smiled winsomely, almost coquettishly, like a high cloud on a summer day.
“Like a baby,” he said. “Shake me like a baby.”
I knelt astride him on the bed and threaded my fingers under his shoulder blades.
I lifted a little, then let go. “Faster,” he said, like the air
rushing out of a tire when you depress the pin in the valve.
So I went faster, maybe one pulse every two seconds, up an inch and down again. Then he
began a moan, but so low I could not hear it, only a vibration in my chest,
and the whales off Manhattan Beach breached and fell back into the water.
It was crying, but not the regular kind, because he was talking with someone
I had never known. And then he fell asleep. I got off the bed, and sat
in the chair again, and the Jets were losing, and the linoleum was thick with wax,
and I imagined the factory in Germany where they make linoleum, big steel rollers,
the smell of bitumen, and I dreamed they were slicing the linoleum into squares and putting it into boxes; and then we both woke up, and I went home.
The next week, he said, “I asked mother to shake me like a baby. She said no. Embarrassed.”
Then I mounted the bed found his shoulder blades and did it again,
strange massage for the places that his heart had ceased to serve, and this time
he moaned loudly and shivered and dropped into a thick, robust, snoring sleep, as if
it was 1943 and all of the other men were off at war, and he and his friend Artie
had all of the girls to themselves, and woke up in their cars at dawn, disheveled,
dirty, thicklipped, thirsty, sure of themselves and what came next.
When he woke, he asked for water, then we watched the Jets, though he could
not see much more than the field of green, and twice asked me the score.
Then, with his voice so low only a motion detector could hear him, he asked,
“Why is it no one understands me but you?”
by Arthur Russell
Editor’s Note: Irony and pain converge at the end of this narrative poem via allegory. Sometimes life is quite painful.