Allegheny

by Rodney DeCroo

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1.
On the night of my first breath in a delivery room at Allegheny County General Hospital, my birth father whom I will never meet is asleep on a bus disappearing into the mid-west. His name is Frank Houser. His jacket is crumpled between the side of his face and the window. It is the 29th  of December, but he dreams rain coming down so hard, long strands strike the glass as if to shatter it. My father’s hands are twitching in his lap and when he looks down a sparrow is nesting as if in the crook of a tree. Warmth like joy fills my father’s body because so delicate a creature has chosen him for safety. He lightly strokes with the tip of a finger the small brown head. The bird begins singing into the darkness of the bus. Its high, sweet trilling goes out among the sleeping passengers, drawing each breath into its praise. My father knows he is as much this song as anything else in his life. When he looks outside the rain has subsided into a blazing mist lit red by the furnaces of steel mills along the river. Upwards through the mist, against the darkness, black smoke over the city like the sparrow’s notes, traveling through my father’s hands into the night of  this place that he is leaving. When he looks down again his lap is empty. A woman nudges him awake as the bus pulls into the Cleveland terminal. Piles of plowed snow are crusted black beneath the white lights of the empty parking lot. He stares out the window, trying to remember what he was dreaming. He is asked if he is getting off here and he says no, he has much further to go.
2.
Behind The Gasworks On Railroad Avenue- Where white storage tanks sit in gravel and tar, my brother and I push our bicycles into a vacant lot of dust and far apart trees that throw skinny shade against a white one storey brick and concrete building that was once a factory. We lay our bicycles on the ground and sit with our backs against the coolness of the brick wall. Our legs thrust out before us in the dust. It doesn’t matter that we are wearing cut off jeans and our legs will be stained with the dust and our sweat. We are too young to separate ourselves from the day with its load of sunlight and dirt. We are tired and do not talk, we turn the dirt through our fingers and my brother says look and holds his hand out to me. Two pieces of pig iron in his dirt smeared palm. They’re as black as crow feathers I say. He puts them in his pocket. Says quietly, crow feathers, boy that’s a good one. We sit a while longer. I notice our breath rising and falling and how effortless it seems. This is the summer day that comes back to me when my brother I haven’t heard from in a year or two calls tonight to say he is living in Jacksonville in a treatment center and no liquor has passed his lips for three weeks. His ex-wife, who won’t speak his name, will let him see his son if he stays sober for a year. He still has the two pieces of pig iron wrapped in cloth in a drawer. He says they help him to stay sober and do I remember that day and how I said crow feathers. I see the white storage tanks, barbed wire, gravel, and tar. Yes, I say, and set the phone softly down (music bridge/ transition into second poem on track) An Odd Gift The tulips you gave me have wilted. They sag like the bent necks  of horses drinking at the river’s  edge beneath a hard sun. The vase  you placed them in is brighter  now than the shriveled petals that only days ago were the color of fire not rust. When I was five my father put me on a horse. It was like being astride a planet.  A sharp kick and the entire earth  moved beneath me. My father yards ahead, blue work shirt patched a darker blue by sweat, rode without turning once.  The huge slabbed muscles of the neck, the rolling might of that wide warm back carried me as safe and light as air along the path  into the forest shadows. The river shone in pieces  between the pines like flickering coins tossed in the dark.  I scarcely held the leather reins. The horses knew the way to water  and brought us there with easy gait  and snorted breath to fill their thirst. In this evening’s half-light your dead tulips seem to glow, like dark eyes of horses as they bow their heads to drink.
3.
Allegheny 02:31
The Allegheny What a filthy river! Lined with steel mills and factories, to swim in it was to smell for days the oily stink against your skin, a nausea-twist in your stomach, uneasy reminder of the river’s phlegmy, dark-green clutch. It was as dangerous as it was dirty. The bottom dug out for gravel, unnaturally and unevenly deep, held invisible currents, eddies, undertows that could pull, suck and hold you down until you drowned or throw you up again to limb-flash, flail and suck for air. Each summer it claimed a child from the cancerous towns along its sides, as if it were a angry, wounded god demanding tribute. Each summer we gathered there to fish for monstrous carp and catfish no one would ever eat, to swim and dunk each other beneath the blinding water, to watch the rich kids carve into the current white-tipped waves, bronzed bodies balanced on single skis behind small, sleek powerboats. By the docks we bobbed in water warm as blood, the sunlight marching like fire across the oily surface to burn away all but summer’s touch. We swam beside the hulk of coal barges black as the bible’s curse that tore the earth. All summer we swam in it. What a filthy river!
4.
The Oil Drum 05:05
Oil Drum We throw balled up sheets of newspaper, dead twigs and branches into a rusted oil drum. We light several matches and toss them inside. The paper catches fire and soon flames are crackling and our shadows begin to loom and waver against the trees and the river. We pass around stolen cans of beer and pop the tabs and laugh as foam spills over our hands and onto our sneakers. My brother Chris asks if I like the taste of beer. 'Fuckin' right I do!" but the truth is I hate it. Doesn't matter though because I've already begun at thirteen to need it. We talk about girls and lie about the things we've done with them. I count each can and wonder how many more I'll need for later that night when we go to the Ches-A-Rena to roller skate and watch the girls we've been lying about. We talk about our friend Denny sent away to Shuman Centre for burning down the building where he lived with his mother and sister who drink more than most men and fight almost as hard. Once they attacked two girls twirling batons in the middle of the July 4th parade because the sister said they'd called her a whore at school. Jeff jokes and says some big mutant's probably nailing Denny's ass as we speak, but it's not funny because Lester's going to youth court next week for stealing a handgun. He might be sent away just like any one of us could be the way things happen so fast. We're all quiet as we stare down into the oil drum at the flames that leap into the air as if trying to fly back to the stars above us. I look at the bowed heads of my friends. It's as if we're praying or giving a moment's silence for someone or something we've lost, which is exactly what we're doing.
5.
The Lightning Catcher On a Friday evening in deep summer my father has come home from the tavern, and sits in the kitchen in his work clothes. Cigarette burning in one dirt hardened hand, with the other he grabs me by the arm, laughs as the coal dust makes me sneeze, says, "You can catch lightning in your hands if you're quick enough," pushes me away and reaches back for his beer. The flicker of fireflies in the air dims and the alley is dark except for the weak street-lamp light outside Cooper's Tire Garage. I let a mayonnaise jar drop from my hand, it shatters against concrete, my captive dying fireflies crawl out over the glass. I hear beginnings of thunder and climb the fire escape that hangs down from the side of our apartment building, go to the tar roof. The Allegheny River curves dark green below me, car headlights move along Pittsburgh Street, beneath rail-yard lights the train tracks run black through the glare of white gravel, and the steel bridges more numerous than I had ever imagined connect up darkness with darkness as I stand on that roof scabby-kneed surveying what is suddenly my kingdom. Beyond the hills across the river, jungles explode with trip lines, fighter jets roar and tear apart the sky and earth until it is all a tunnel in which napalm glows out of sightless eyes surrounded by black clouds and smoke that slide behind my father's words, his silence and his eyes. My streets and car headlights blur. They are my fireflies. Thunder pounds like detonating shells, stripping the air. When the lightning hits, it blinds me. I could be crawling over the tar, sharp rain falling around me or standing in darkness above the house, shaking. I feel someone moving behind me. I know the smell of tobacco, sweat, beer, and coal dust.  I'm quick enough to know it's my father.
6.
A Boy’s Prayer Of Stones I try to remember the small boy I once was. There’s evidence that he existed: photographs, home movies, my mother’s stories. But I can’t lay claim to even a single authentic memory. So what does one do at 3 a.m., full of self pity as the body goes to shit, potbellied, root canal toothache, sore foot, bad knee, bad back, lonelier than hell, and worst of all, unable to remember who I once was. I can’t be that boy again. I imagine he turns away from me as from a stranger, the unknown adult as much a puzzle to the boy as the boy is to the man, and neither of us certain of anything. But the boy is sunlight and water, the darting tumble of a sparrow’s flight, and moves through the day with a grace courtesy of the garden though the man has learned forbidden apples wait everywhere. Sunlight is never more or less than sunlight, wind never more or less than wind, rain is rain, and the moon is always there. Only a boy with his scraped knees and dirty fingernails can know these things and have a love for them as abiding and constant as the stones he gathers and places beneath his bed or on window sills, small prayers he offers to the presence that walks beside him wherever he goes and is both the world that contains him and he himself and all he encounters. The years still distant when the stranger he will become will struggle and fail to know these things and to remember him.
7.
Everywhere You Look You wake from a dream and stare into the blackness of the room. The window behind your head is open. A breeze, soft as hair, comes in through the curtains and touches your chest. You remember her hair. A single strand was like the touch of fire against your skin. Is there a way to talk about this without seeming absurd? Her face in the dream is hard, as if she is wearing a mask. As if the years of your life have been pressed into the image of the face that stares at you from across a table. It is mid-afternoon and the sunlight over the tables and the traffic and the white awning that reminds you of a great, solitary wing anointed with oil, is heavy with a silence you wish to touch, but always refuses you. She watches her finger drawing an invisible sign on the table cloth. Everywhere you look are signs you cannot read. It has always been this way, from the waiter who shifts his eyes away from yours, to the filthy river that sang to you more than any prayer you were forced to utter to a god you hated, to your mother's screams and your father's drunkenness. She lifts her eyes across your forty two years to meet your gaze. She is the river, the snow fields, the neon in the rain. She is everything that has been taken from you and never returned. You lie in a room that she has never left and never will.

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released February 25, 2012

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Rodney DeCroo Vancouver, British Columbia

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