by Mary Kennan Herbert.
My brother barbecues steaks for our dinner
outside on his apartment's little balcony,
overlooking a pristine California alley where
poinsettias are growing wild. Christmas weeds.
A one-legged jay perches on our terrace railing,
waiting for handouts. Tame as a parrot.
Every Friday evening in Santa Monica,
new Californians make a sacrifice of steaks outdoors,
in homage to being here, not where they used to be,
in our own Hollywood backdrop on Pacific time.
Here the sun is always warm on my tourista arms.
"Wait till you feel the fearsome Santa Ana winds,"
my brother smiles. He unveils a new mythology.
The beef sizzles. The sun dazzles.
The intense California sun fires up my desires:
a sunset as perfect as a painted sky in a movie
gives us a backdrop for the grill, gulls
overhead, leering Royal Palms, and the hungry jay.
My brother points west: "Twelve blocks straight ahead,
the Pacific Ocean. It's right over there."
Later, looking for the sacred sea, I crossed streets
in Santa Monica, marveling how traffic comes
to a synchronized halt. Now that's power.
Do not abuse it here in paradise.
MON ONCLE WAYNE
My mother wrote that she hated living in St. Louis.
"That dirty, grimy city!" Well, it wasn't Gay Paree. Non,
St. Lou-eee was a gateway well known for its smog-shrouded
winter air. Probably reminded her of Mr. Death, not too pretty,
his baggy sleeves coated with coal dust. His scythe needed a shine.
She preferred childhood summers on a farm in Tennessee,
where she and her brothers frolicked and roamed free, gamboling
through unmown fields. Summer was eternal. Warming to her
nostalgic reverie, she relished ticking off the names of her brothers,
sharers of rural mischief. Their shrine was the family barn,
built of rough-hewn logs, virgin timber. It stood more than
a century, until torn down to make space for a new highway. After
Viet Nam. Priorities change. Jersey cows, the team of mules,
a trio of dogs, one for each boy. All gone now. The brothers,
full of tricks, hiding from her, up in the haymow. All gone now.
One died young. Jeff. Her favorite, of course. Jeff, the Good One
(listen to Billy Joel on this issue), plucked suddenly before he
could enter seminary. He wanted to be a minister; held two jobs
all through his last, hot summer so he could buy new clothes
worthy of the study of theology. Packed them neatly
in a brand new trunk, and then expired. Meningitis. They
could hear him moaning with pain two floors down, he lay curled
like a baby in his hospital bed, like a fetus, like an unborn lamb.
O God, why him, my mother cried, why take away the boy,
the boy who loved to run barefoot from the first of May,
the boy who loved animals, baseball, and each new day. I
never knew this uncle, the perfect branch of the family tree,
the one she praised and mourned all her life. How could the other
two brothers ever compete with a sweet memory like this one?
The oldest was Clinton, solemn, intelligent, terrible-tempered,
who enjoyed wrestling all comers into Weakley County dust,
red clay and Mississippi mud. Clinton read the Bible too, mastered
his temper, tamed his thoughts, but turned inward, not out.
Prayerful, tight-lipped, honorable. Playing his cards close
to his chest, sturdy, a pillar. Not preacher material, but
who knows. He kept his lawn fertilized, well sown, trimmed.
He was not afraid of Mr. Death. His son heard the Call,
became a man of the cloth, spreading the Word through
grimy cities, telling about a man born in a barn. Then,
there was Wayne, the brother who always made her laugh,
center of their countryside buffoonery, whose highest calling
was the art of waiting. A waiter. Uncle Wayne showed us
showmanship, the art of fine dining in a good restaurant.
How the napkin is draped over the waiter’s arm, just so.
How the waiter bows ever-so-slightly in deference when
presenting caviar or, in our house, beans. Bon appetit!
Uncle Wayne explained nuances of French cuisine,
described the chef's specials à la française, revealed
secrets of many a menu. Beans! C'mon! Made us laugh.
Do you think St. Lou-eee is some backwater? Le H20
stagnante? There is a French heritage here on the banks
of the Father of Waters. Chouteau! Let me tell you about
sauces, the secret of French chefs. Wayne's country-boy eyes
gleamed. The sauce is everything! Saucy kids in the hayloft.
Dare you to climb up, they yelled at Mom, age six. You’ll
get ticks on you, she cried out in retaliation. Maoooo,
lowed the cowed cows, heavy with milk and ideas. Veal,
stated Wayne, should have a light sauce, light as a summer
nightie. Uncle Wayne! How could you! Tsk tsk, said someone
in the shadows. Do waiters always wear tuxedos, we asked.
Do waiters always look like penguins? A waiter is proud
of his heritage, said Mon Oncle Wayne. Formidable!
Sometimes he would play ragtime on St. Louis pianos in bars
downtown, he had talents in other places, other times.
Fancy hotels. Remember the Chase-Park Plaza. Remember
the name, think of elegance. Later, leaky faucets. Peeling paint.
Cows give milk. Calves become veal. Some live, some die.
Up in the haymow, who could predict ministry, waiting tables,
painful death? Teeth clenched, eyes locked on yours.
My mother would forgive him of anything, even his divorce,
his small vices, because he was the brother who could
make this poem finally smile. Ah, he could bow with style,
sing too, his imagination carrying him swiftly from hay
to hey, you remind me of a French movie I saw, years ago.
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