A belly billowing over your belt buckle,
as we swapped smokes outside the church,
the sandy lines of L.A. dusk making outlines on the street.
I spoke my graduate-level vocabulary,
big, fattened up words that I pushed out of my mouth
with more awkwardness than a Mack truck,
words that fell backwards and sideways out of my mouth,
as you said, “Yeah, well I don’t know what the hell all that means.”
For years we went on like this,
you nudging me with a finger and a sarcastic expression
you squeezed out of thickening cheeks,
laughing at something I didn’t realize yet—my big walled-in, walled-up self.
Still, you kept showing up, your belly pushing out
from your shirt like the footballs you threw when you were young
We smoked still, sometimes you quit, sometimes I did.
The years walked on
The years threw off their panties, got naked, said this is me, time, here I finally am.
There was a stay in the hospital
and later that week, we went to House of Pies,
you shoveling piles of greasy food
into that stomach you made jokes about,
the baby below, the bulging basketball team inside your shirt.
There was dialysis, a heart attack, a stroke
You started to get better.
You were walking every day, attempting to
pull me along with you under that golden ball of Southern California sun
where I’d let just about all those words burn and fry,
left them at the sides of freeways,
kicked them to curbs, crushed them beneath car wheels
“Want to walk today?” I asked.
“Nah,” you said, your voice filled up with smoke again.
“Gimmee a ham sandwich and a side of pancakes, toast and eggs,”
the laughter pushing and breaking against your insides,
squashed inside your stomach, crushed inside your lungs
We met on and off for years,
after meetings, in diners, at the pizza place.
With all the words gone and nothing left to replace them
I sat emptily across from you.
“You okay?” you said.
“Yeah,” I said but there was and still is
something missing, slashed, dug out
and an empty space left where those words were.
An empty space that went to your funeral today, that wanted to say thank you and, I’m sorry I wasn’t more.
The doctor came into the room, said I had all the time I wanted.
Was there any way to get all that I wanted, I thought—
to pull it back from behind us, from yesterday, last year,
from that day
I sat all afternoon with
a handful of minutes
that were nothing to look at—
as bent and bunched as spoons
as cold and flat as dimes.
Was there a way to pull time back from
walking into nearby rooms,
into the next hours and days,
any way to hold it there by the neck—a paralyzed poster
of that great grandfather—that
heckling, hawking day dweller and night dweller, back-room dweller, every-room dweller.
Maybe there’s more time back there
where M was walking
like a slow and steady beat
beneath the bluebells
beside the stone New England churches
the 18th century cemeteries
the tea room
the ghosts of Edith Wharton and Thoreau.
Maybe, I thought, we can stash some away, Francis,
stuff it into our socks and paws—
minutes, hours, seconds,
maybe we don’t need to take any of it at all,
maybe we can just get away without it seeing—
leave it back here
flopping around on someone else’s clock
pulling down someone else’s day,
maybe we can go where it can’t find us—
to the desert, to the cactus, the farthest shore.
Come on, Francis, let’s go—you
with that feathered cap of fur,
that brown tooth that sticks sideways out,
along with that leg, as I first saw it ten years ago
rainy and brown.
Let’s go with those pointed ears of yours,
leave this disease
go drag-race past all of them—you
with your head hanging out the front window,
the wind brushing through your beard—
and, like the music that later plays alone with me in my car,
running with us
to wherever the minutes aren’t.
NICOLE HOELLE has an MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has published nonfiction, drama, and poetry in such journals as Third Coast Magazine, Gulf Coast, Barrow Street, Sundog Lit, New American Writing, The Maynard, Jacket Magazine, and Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. In 2013, she was a semi-finalist in Four Way Books' first book contest. She taught ESL for four years and currently teaches English Composition, Speech Communications and Reading at several colleges in Southern California.