In memory of Robert Kirkpatrick, killed 2/26/93
We called it "The Country" and it was.
Those summer Fridays after work
my favorite uncle, Bob, would drive
from Brooklyn to his five room bungalow
on a postage stamp of ground by Crandon Lake.
He loved that house, fixed it board by board,
sawed and leveled, joined, planed, and painted
until what he'd made had matched his wish.
And we loved driving there with him,
my brother and I, piling into the Bug,
then riding out over the Narrows, over
the gleaming bridge built in our lifetime,
that nameless mansion on Todt Hill
our midway marker to the Turnpike,
its stench of chemical and slaughterhouse,
its refinery stacks like votive candles.
Whippany, Hope, Netcong, Sparta, Swartzwood—
the names fled past on the new interstate
into signs on roads of diminished light.
At the last mile, winging down the long hill
overlooking the lake, he'd shut the engine,
the headlights, open all the windows.
We'd glide to the driveway by the moon alone.
Here, too, even before we came, the lots
had been divided, the cut-out homes
propped on hillsides, scaled into squares.
And still, fleeing city neighborhoods
like the other weekend pioneers,
I could almost imagine virgin woods
as I explored swamps, thickets, discovered
deer bones in the backyard, or coming back
from play saw my uncle and aunt, framed
by light of the kitchen window, the house
hovered over by darkening birches.
For years, at Christmas in my parents' house,
he'd oblige the crowd of family
by crooning his version of Moon River
into his scotch and soda, my aunts, my mother,
laughing as their husbands drowned each other
in background vocals tuneless as radios
scrambling through stations. I remember
nightlong, my uncle cracked walnuts,
squeezing each shell between his thumb
and finger till the tough pith snapped,
its trove falling into his palm. "You try,"
he'd say, and laugh as I pressed hard,
my face flushing, the nut unbreakable
as a diamond, until his hand cupped mine,
clamped down vise-tight,
and I'd feel the stone pop.
Those times I might have been his son
when he'd show me how to throw the curve,
his strikeout pitch in the minors,
or when he'd tell us how he fought in Korea,
squinting his eyes to make us laugh,
a sit-com schtick that went no further
—"I'm the original Archie Bunker"—
as he smiled and turned away. In years since,
I could still see his ruddy face aglow
under citronella torches on his patio
long after he sold the house, moved upstate
from the neighborhood, my memory of him
fading to a white shine, like that picture
I took of him as he took mine, everything
above the neck cancelled in the flash.
On the morning of the explosion, my aunt
waving from the screen door, TV voices
from inside flung against February air,
my uncle backs his pick-up from the driveway,
flicks on the country station, rides out
his winding side street to the Thruway,
then along the Hudson and the Palisades:
Pearl River, Tappan, Tenafly, Fort Lee.
The silver plank of the bridge juts
fantastically from cliffs, the cross-hatched
girders of its towers rising over the site
of the defunct amusement park, its slogan,
Come on Over, a huckster's parody
of words carved in stone above the harbor.
As traffic slows crossing the bridge,
maybe he muses looking out at the river,
admiring its slow expansion against stone,
the cruise ships lulling at midtown docks,
the vaulting skyscraper where he works.
He wouldn't linger over the island in mist
where my great aunt was turned back
seventy years before, where his own people
came, mingling streams of German, Scots—
You should love this country or leave it.
Lunchtime underground: the garage
suspended like a womb in bedrock,
the world above a gleaming crystal
of glass and steel. I see him
in mid-joke—the one about the parrot
and the black man—his eyes squinting slyly
anticipating the punch line, when it hits.
Now, he's a public image, adrift in space,
a sensational headline, SIX KILLED
BY TERROR BOMB, his face shocked white
at the bottom of a crater the talk show host
begged my aunt to witness on camera
for the ratings wars. He's the wedding photo
flashed on the news, the presidential letter
on the family shrine, not the man who held
my brother and me in laughing headlocks
that blinding day at the country fair,
all strong-armed play and bruising innocence,
but a carved name on a monument, an American.