Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998
with the night falling we are saying we’re sorry
we’re sorry that it’s too late
we’re sorry for your pain and we’re sorry
for our pain and we’re sorry for what we did
and didn’t do
we’re running through the dream shouting we’re sorry
we’re standing up at the birthday parties
in our conical hats
the tears streaming down
telling our children and your children and their children
we are sorry we are so sorry
and we’re sorry that we keep saying we’re sorry
even after you have told us
that sorry doesn’t cut it
that sorry is the thief saying please
the rapist saying thank you
the murderer saying I love you
listen please we’re sorry and we love you
we’re sorry if we don’t hear you
thank you for listening
dark though it is
The kitchen table was round.
The father sat at 9 o’clock
nearest the back door, the mother
at 3 o’clock nearest the stove,
the child at 6 o’clock across from the window
at 12. These weren’t exactly assigned seats
like in school, where you looked out a window
at the trees across the street and wished
you were out there among them. But that was how
it ended up . When the father died
the child took his place at 9 o'clock
across from the mother, who remained
at 3 o'clock for five more years, until
he turned 18 and slipped out the back
door. Then she was all alone at the table
and we don’t know where she sat.
And it’s too late now to ask her.
Maybe she moved into the family room
and ate in front of the television, which
had been verboten for a whole round-
table era. But more likely she remained
at 3 o’clock, at that table, in that kitchen,
in that house, where time passed heavily
like a bowl of peas being passed around
from mother to father to son, who kept on
pushing them around on his plate
with his fork, for a whole only childhood,
trying to make them disappear.
I didn’t want to play for a losing team.
That was what it boiled down to.
I mean, the Jews got slaughtered,
everybody knew that. And as a kid
I was big into winning.
So I wanted nothing to do
with being Jewish. I stopped
going to Hebrew school. I boycotted
my own bar mitzvah.
I studied German in high school.
I married a lapsed Catholic and didn’t
look back. Things went along winningly.
We celebrated Christmas and New Years.
We were Americans. We were Democrats.
We were Red Sox fans. My kids
never heard of the Four Questions
and they never asked why
I quit that team all those years ago,
though today they vaguely know
that I am still somehow vaguely
part of that team–I know it myself–
even though I don’t
play for that team, don’t root for that team,
wouldn’t be caught dead
in the uniform.
“Vee got out in de nick of time,”
says my grandmother.
Her double-u’s are vees,
her tee-aitches are dees. “Dat’s how
vee saved our lives.” Her ar’s
are tiny gargles, little swallowed drum rolls
down in her throat. I try
to help her with them, to raise them up
into her mouth. “Repeat after me, Bubbie:
I’d really rather; rrreally rrrather.”
But they refuse to budge,
they’re stuck down there, dug in, planted,
rooted. And because my mother was only ten
when our family fled that nightmare,
her double-u’s were vees, too, back then.
“The reason I speak English now
without an accent,” says my mother,
“is because the very day we arrived
Zadie announced: ‘From now on
vee speak only English.’ None of us
knew a word of English.” “Vee knew a little
from school,” corrects my grandmother.
“And die gehorsame Tochter I was,” says my mother,
“I dutifully complied: I spoke only English
from that day forward. With an accent
for a number of years, but then the accent
disappeared.” My grandmother nods,
smiles, says nothing else, keeping her vees
to herself. But her vees are “we”,
her vees are us, my family, me. And the music
of those vees and tee-aitches
and drum-rolled ar’s–all the variations
on that theme–whenever I hear it in the mouths
of people speaking English with foreign accents–
plays in my ears like a dirge: beautiful, foreign,
familiar. Faintly heartbreaking.
Back when we learned how to hold our pencils,
I was the best pencil holder in class. Mrs. Morvay
said so. My pointer with its perfectly peaked knuckle
pointed downward in an excellent slope, joining
the tip of my thumb in a perfectly triangular pinch
on the leeward side of my perfectly sharpened pencil,
auguring good things to come. But good form and good
writing went the way of parchment and quills. Jon Winkels,
who sat behind me and whose pencil holding couldn’t hold
a candle to mine, is a vice president now at J.P. Morgan Chase,
and Arthur Lafferty, whose pencil luffed and lurched crookedly,
sailed on to become a rich entertainment attorney at RCA,
while I’m still sitting here with my poor number 2 pencil
and good form, writing in perfect obscurity, waiting to be praised.
Author Paul Hostovsky’s poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net Awards, the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. See his website: paulhostovsky.com