it jolts from your mind at rest,
a bugbear out of childhood.
A word, a tone, a grimace
no grownup meant you to see.
Through a glass of years, darkly,
it gathers shape, then fades.
There is no one alive to explain it.
Late. Very late, and why was I awake
to hear the knock, the opening front door,
a pause, a muffled sob, and the name “Justine!”
urgently spoken, in my father’s voice?
I stood. Opened my bedroom door a crack.
That name: someone they drank with once a year,
she and her husband. Old friends. What did it mean,
her strangled weeping, that sob-gasping noise?
Why were my parents bundling her indoors
to the spare bedroom? And once she was inside,
what were they whispering—clipped, tense—to each other?
I caught the word “police”—my mother’s hoarse,
high whine. And then he saw me there, my father,
and ordered me, too sternly, back to bed.
I’d helped address the Christmas cards
to names kept in my mother’s book.
Here, from a name I hadn’t seen,
was a card she set for a second look
on the doily-covered dining table.
A note in cursive, hard to read—
not much an eight-year-old was able
to puzzle out of what it said,
the only hint my father’s frown,
his gruff “She’s got a hell of a nerve,
writing to you.” He tossed it down.
They let the conversation swerve.
Her hands, lifted in horror to her mouth,
were hard to understand. Yes, it was late;
yes, he was late. But here he was, so happy,
swaying a little as he pantomimed
the way it all went down, the storytelling
always his favorite role. How he had guided
the fraught negotiations to their yes,
how all the men in pinstriped suits had praised him,
how many times they’d drunk each other’s health
(how many? had he counted the Manhattans?)
before they’d helped him get behind the wheel
to weave the hour-long way back home to her
and the children who were not supposed to see
her stand there, covering her mouth in fear.
This is childhood’s essence:
always to grope in the dark.
What the grip finds, it hoards
to worry in its fingers.
To tell, like rosary beads.