The Creaking Gate

by Jim Daniels

Across the alley from my grandfather
lived the Callahan’s, who lost Joe Jr.
in WWII. Early on Sundays, Mrs. C
opened the gate and slipped through
his yard, a shortcut to St. Rose.
Rusty squeak, then the soft clock of her heels
against cement, toward God.

Mr. C spoke with his absence, and my grandfather
spoke with his—two out of his own three, dead.
My grandmother put on the thick pancake
make-up of the dead, then rattled her bracelets
across the street to mass herself
while my grandfather slurped his cereal
and winked at me.

Mrs. Callahan had asked permission,
and my grandparents gave it. The church
had buried their children with proper ceremony.
The rusty creak of mourning swung
through their lives. Why speak of it?

*

Those houses, both gone now—even the church,
leveled, holy ground obliterated by Detroit’s despair,
the large, ornate, intensely solemn building
turned into one more Detroit mirage.

My grandmother scrubbed me rough
in the big tub of their drafty bathroom. My grandfather
let me climb the twisted tree in the yard without comment.
Three photos of my aunt and uncle discovered in a box
as we hurried to beat the bulldozer, which plowed
easily through the wood frame, then moved on.

The Callahans’ went down first, alley gate
opening onto piled rubble. The twisted tree
survived, petrified by grease, smoke, grief.
Please believe at least some of what I’m saying—
the photos dissolve into doubt.

*

They never mentioned the dead children.
She got mugged, then he did, though they had no money.
Memory leaked from their bandaged foreheads.

My grandmother would not claim or name
those photos in the box. She died in the sterile gloom
of a room empty of memory. My grandfather
lived twenty more years, cruising past the empty block
on Benitau St. until the police stopped him
for driving too slow.

*

The church right across the street, but as a boy,
my father was always late.

When the gate creaked, I’d get up from my cereal
And look out the window and wave to Mrs. Callahan.

She scrunched into herself and gave a furtive nod
as if we were sharing a secret. Yep, I’d say to my grandfather.

It’s her. He kept chewing. They never made me
go to church. To give me a secret too. So we could share

at least that. And never speak of it.

 

Jim Daniels’ new book of poems, Birth Marks, was published by BOA Editions in 2013. His next book of short fiction, Eight Mile High, will be published by Michigan State University Press in 2014. A native of Detroit, Daniels teaches at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

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