After Larry Levis
My father beat a man’s face
to the color of dusk; dark purples
and reds followed by the blues and blacks
of the night being swept over Tilzapotla. The man,
Claudio Ocampo, had just slammed my grandfather
to the ground, a knee pressed against his spine,
over the sale of a cow that wasn’t producing milk.
I heard the cracks of his ribs
as my father ran out of the house
to knock him off my grandfather,
his fist unhinging this man’s jaw—
the splatter of blood spit out onto the cobblestone
mixed with the dirt; a mirror of the sky.
When it was over, my father and grandfather came in
and we ate our pan dulce with hot chocolate
on the second story balcony, listening
to the crumbs falling into our laps.
On the plane back to the states,
while his hands healed from the swelling,
I asked about the fight. I’m sorry
you had to see that, he said.
And that’s all he ever said of it.
I never understood this apology.
Sometimes, while we play football in the dusk,
I stare through the cement and bricks,
the exhaust of this city in summer,
and realize I’m looking at blood again.
A small flicker drying, mixed with dirt,
It used to make me think of love, looking at the sun
dipping into the mountains. In Fresno,
that light was furious. Now Fresno darkens
as the wire from the street lamps is stolen—
my father is dying. His hands have lifted
so many cigarettes from pocket to mouth
that his breath is disappearing like the lights
from the streets. When I visit I hear his coughs
wake him in the night. They wake me.
And we’ll sit in the cold
of the backyard looking up at the stars
and I’ll remember my father telling a younger me
that when we died we went to heaven
and became the stars we see at night.
For years I believed we would all become stars.
Now, we don’t talk about endings,
or stars, or the way his fists undid
a face. We just watch the sky
as if it could bring back breath
and love, the sparkling sugar
at the bottom of a paper bag
that once held warm pan dulce
many years ago. We both light
cigarettes and blow smoke
as if we were cities
and the streets were going dark
as dusk gives way to night,
as a son shuffles from one lamp
to another trying to stay warm
and safe under their glow.
But tonight, Father, it is dark
here in Riverside, where the earth just rattled,
and the walls cracked, like the bones
that one night you broke dusk
out of a man’s face. Yet here
when I think of you, I can almost believe
that the street, as it rolls into the hills,
leads to the stars.