Christmas Break, 1997 

Ben Jackson


If I try to remember Mom, her diet
of floating ice, crisp torso then
the thigh’s hone, face slanted to hardwood
as to the sharpening block, all I see
are the girls surrounding her, whispering
or wailing, I couldn’t tell which.
I was watching an island being born
underwater on Discovery Channel.
Black, egg-shaped rocks bulged
from the lava’s steady swell, forming
like Gothic cathedrals a drawn-out miracle.
I closed my eyes, fast-forwarding
to a wince of steam, a boat idling through
floating pumice, and all along the coral
the fish traveling in pairs. When Mom came
downstairs I hardly recognized her
behind the plume of cigarette smoke.

Dad had already unbolted the door, waiting,
as if to say look at what I’m capable of!
All night the wind, circling, circled back.
And no snow, not when paradise
kept changing its rules, unapproachable
as the lone tree no one could name
out there on the bluff. I used to think of it
as tamarack, the best for breaking up
and burning, or as the red oak I climbed
after school, to tell my brother my heart,
my heart is racing. On Christmas
I thought of Dad in his leased apartment
in Des Plaines watching the cold front
on the Weather Channel, its blue spine
stuck to the Great Lakes, and then,
of course, his snoring on the sofa,
the black galaxy on the imageless TV.

Nights I counted glow-in-the-dark stars
on my bedroom ceiling, assigning
to some of them a story, some a flower
or a wound. Beneath thick sheets I listened
for the 11 o’clock freight, lay a palm
on the carpet for the gathering hum.
And I listened, waited for the first bird.
If I had cracked the door I would have
found my brother blacked out on the jamb,
the twin Marlboro burns up his forearm,
or whittling with his Swiss Army knife
Dad’s best kindling down to crude knives.
Instead I watched my grief inhale, exhale.
Each morning I opened the window
to a field of snow—lone deer prints
crossing our backyard, icicles splintering
on pavement—thinking, tomorrow
we’ll have to go back to school, tomorrow
and tomorrow and tomorrow.