• Willis Barnstone


Father, you come to me in spring,

in fragments where I hear you sing

Caruso, lying proudly in the tub,

soaping, scrubbing, crooning rub-

a-dub, and I burst in. You laugh.

You always laugh with me. We’re half

a cake when we’re apart. You leave

for keeps when I am ten. I grieve


because I’ll never know you in

our flat again. We almost win.

In secret night you come one year

and leave at dawn. You disappear

through the boiler room. The Drive

is windy, cold, but you’re alive

and I’m in heaven. Mom is glad

It’s almost as if we have dad


again. But you go far, and then

we write and call and meet again.

For one whole summer I’m with you.

We’re at the Graystone. You are blue

at first. You’ve lost your business and

we sell what’s left––soft Swiss watchband

straps for GPs[1], some rings, a pearl,

two sapphires. Then you unfurl


a velvet cloth with diamonds small

as warts. Just chips. A chintzy haul

even for thieves to live on but

we have a blast. Before you shut

the door one morning you declare

“This is the day I will repair

our poverty!” You make a grand,

buying and selling diamonds hand


to hand. Religious faith in stone

shines on your face and we atone

in Coney Island where the sub-

way drops us for some fun and grub.

By summer’s end your soul is fresh,

we’re brown and happy, and the flesh

is ready for our winter flight.

You’ll wander far through western light


in a white Buick convertible,

and I’ll tap inner light in school,

which is what Quakers specialize

in when they shake and close their eyes

to silent mind. When school is done

I grab the train. It’s spring. We’re one

in love. You tease, warn me, “Stand straight

and you can face the world.” I hate


hello-goodbyes but never dream

they too can end. We are a team,

a gang of two, and so we blow

across the Rockies. Mexico

in just a week. I’ve turned fifteen

and learn to kiss. A skinny bean

of a kid. Everything we do

is hot. A double date, just you,


me, and the Franco sisters sail

through the Distrito Federal.[2]

Back seat. With young Marti I neck.

My first kiss. In this huge Aztec

square of the Zócalo begins

the alcohol of sex. Wild winds.

Marti sews a red guitar on

a hanky for me. I leave at dawn


for school. In my high Pullman berth

I lose her gift but not the birth

of voyaging from lip to lip,

pausing to board another ship.

Next year in Colorado Springs

my date’s your wife, your wings

are high. Business in Mexico

is good and keeps you on the go.


Years skip. I am mostly alone,

but I’m a nut who loves you on

the phone or golf course where you let

me caddy. God I must forget.

He’s never there. You are a match

for him and not a bore. I catch

your weaknesses. So what? I’m sick

of perfect people. Heretic


or angel, nothing in between

is what I find. But I come clean

and start to worry. Things are bad

again. Too much. I know you’re sad.

You climb, you fall. Exciting ways

but uncontrolled. Now college days,

I always call. Krauts, Japs and war.

We stick tight no matter how far


our map may be. New York. I come

down weekends when you’re back with some

free hours. I bring you three Van Gogh

prints. We drink beer. Those spring days throw

me in a crazy mood. The best

for us. You’re broke again. The west

put silver in your hands and took

it back. You rushed it. Now I look


at you with sorrow as we talk

all night, bed to bed and I balk

at your despair. “You’ll always win

and come into your own, even

if it takes a year We shall meet

next week. Even if we hit the street

together, we will overcome.”

Night call to Maine. “Come now. Please come,”


you say.” “Exams tomorrow. Day

after, I’m there with you.” (My way

seems crazy now.) “My term

is over.” I am a bit firm,

surprising me, “Goodbye,” I hear.

At dawn I call. You disappear

ten days. I’m in the blue-walled dorm

where Hawthorne lived. A sudden storm


explodes outside. It’s nothing. Soon

over, and I am on the phone.

Dad! Exulted. No. It’s his aid.

“Your dad flew to Mexico, tried

to borrow money. Failed, and failed

with Marti too. She bailed. Derailed

he flew away. A Denver bank

also turned him down.” So you sank


and climbed steps in full morning

to the top of Sterling Building

in Colorado Springs, and fold

your coat neatly, hat on top. Gold

glasses by hat. These you leave for

us. If kids screamed in street before

your move, could their danger have stopped

your plunge to peace. Just my droplet


of make believe. You leaped from roof

down seven floors. The spring gave proof

again of its great force. In May,

in lovely May, you died. That day

saw you float terrible with grief

I’ll never know. There’s no relief

for me, which is good. It keeps

you close. Constantly your dive leaps


into my sleep, and in my bed

is where you live. I dream. Your head

appears. We’re swimming in the Sea

of Galilee. It’s nice to be

out in the middle. You frog kick

beside me as we chat. “We’ll lick

this silly problem of your death,”

I say. You smile. In the same breath,


I hear Caruso. What a dog,

horsing around with light! I jog

to shore. Soon it’s Tibet, Shanghai,

exotic safe. I ask you why

you haven’t changed. “The soul does not

lose light.” I hope you’re right. But what

you are in me (and I am blank)

is you. You’re with me now. I thank


these sixty years of no escape.[3]

At times I sob but mostly gape.

The foolishness of life now let’s

me joke. I like to laugh. My bets

are you’ll outlast me. What can I do?”

I’ve had a sad time without you.

I have an awful voice. I can’t sing.

Caruso, sing for me next spring.






[1] Girard-Perregaux is a fine watch made in La Chaux de-Fonds, Switzerland, at a firm going back to 1791. was for decades a leading wholesale importer in the U. S. A.

[2] Mexico City.

[3] From 1946 to 2016. Age 18 to 88.