I Thought My Father Was Time
Jack Butler

because he frightened me.
Spooky the cut of the yellow light as it crossed
the white wall of the one house I knew
with shadows of cottonstalk.
End of the day, and he would walk,
that thin man, home
from the tractor shop.  All I could see
looking up from my play,
all that the long long light could show,
a struggle of stem and blue ghost,
his monstrous shadow writhing as he strode my way.

For all the times it happened, there was not one
I turned and looked into the sun.

Flight instructor, mechanic, plantation hand,
wild hair and youngest brother,
he'd married that slender redhead you see in all
the forties movies, pure sex and steel
but innocent as a glass of milk:  my mother,
who fought his drinking to a standstill and made him change
his Luckies for a pipe.  War over,
we lived as tenants on the family land
all those slow undefined years, the middle range
of the century, before the madness set in.

Why do I dream him now
as I saw him then?  --Those inset blue pale eyes
as pitiless, intolerant,
as mine were weak, unclear, the lipless, thin
line of the mouth, the cruel hook of the nose.

Night after night on the battlefront
of being, a lean, then fat man haunts me, waits to see how
long I go naked in church.

It might have been he beat me, but he didn't, much.
Once after a prank
of pepper up his sleeping nostrils, a stunt
I'd no doubt gotten from a cartoon.
Oh he erupted grandly as any Katzenjammer
uncle, but I had not foreseen
the trickster caught up in his trick like a broken plank
in a whirlwind.  Once when I lost his hammer.

Dreaded, those whippings, unpleasant,
but rare, and not unusual then.  That wasn't
the reason.  But he frightened me, frightened me long
before he ever stood
in a thunderous pulpit announcing how  good

could hardly bear the sight of evil
and so must hurl us down to that sulphorous level
of never-ending flame, unless
we came down front before the goodbye song
concluded:  Almost, but lost . . .

Talk about less than zero.
But to be fair, hellfire and brimstone were not
his major topics.  He preferred the less
spectacular professions, taught
the gentle ministrations of charitas,
the operations of the Holy Ghost
(my favorite invisible superhero).

He frightened me, my father,
long before sex.

The first time I lost my virginity
I was soaping it up in a Louisiana bathtub,
and there it was, hard (rub-a-dub-dub),
and then there it was, another kind of lather.
Lucky I didn't get a complex--
the best he could explain,
was You know how, when you need to pee,
in the morning, it's stiff?
That's how it is when you love somebody.  His voice rough
with terrible shame.  In the car, at night,
driving the Pontchartrain
causeway.  I can still see the black water
out my window, the silent radio's green light
and maybe I heard thereafter
someone sobbing under the silence while I slept,
some windblown girl with auburn hair
who hadn't known it would be so dirty,
who hadn't known it would be so bad.
Maybe I did
and maybe I didn't.  Oh the demons crept
hobbling and hopping about the fire
till I was thirty,
until I learned that they were only
their own long shadows.  True,
But that wasn't it,
oh that wasn't it.

He frightened me before I grew angry
and learned to curse
like a river of boiling music tearing along
full of tree-trunks and houses and bodies, before I knew
separate-but-equal was shit
and the war was wrong
and my country was twisted and sick and corrupt with power
and murdered the weak,
and said so, and said the Baptists were worse,
that he in his fried-chicken preacher fat
just sat in his recliner, sat
and kicked back and let it happen, so we didn't speak
for several years.

I thought my father was time because he frightened me,
and he frightened me to tears
this summer.  Frailer than smoke
on the mountain, an old man gone lean
again, shade of that Air Force captain who took
my mother's heart, he was so glad to see
his prodigal son,
I thought for a moment his mind had gone,
he had forgotten my name,
his own. And in the next moment time
was rolled away,
and there he was at last:  My father,
as real as anything.

And so we came together.
I sang for him in church, and he said,
I didn't know you could sing.
I put my hands to either side of his head
and held it, and he said, Do that again.

What can I say of the man?
His heart more fragile than a china vase.
His gaunt and stubbled face.
The uncommon grace
with which he met his death,
completely unafraid, praising with his last breath
his Maker and the life
that Maker had given:  his path, his work, his wife.

I thought my father was time, and never knew
time was my father, and my father's father.
Oh it was time that frightened me wild.

I am walking toward you out of that fire,
and I wouldn't bother
to speak these words, except that you
may still be watching some shadow on a wall
and I want to say there's nothing to fear,
nothing to fear at all.

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