THE LANGUAGE OF FORGIVENESS
The road to my friend’s house runs
along the east side of the Licking River.
On summer days you might find boys
fishing on the lower banks
or roughhousing knee-deep and shirtless
in the cold, dark waters.
Standing on the levee at dawn,
after the fog has lifted
and dispersed over the valley,
you can see soot from the factory furnaces,
a vaporous sludge hovering
over the men and women as they walk out,
another graveyard shift behind them,
another eight hours straining glue
from the pits of the tipple-tower,
until the glue is molded and shaped
into a teapot or white-winged dove,
the bargain trinkets boxed and shipped
to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
The final time we spoke,
my friend was on his way home
from the factory. His voice was hoarse.
We talked about bosses, baseball,
that night he climbed the water tower
to spray-paint his declaration of teenage love.
He chided me again for moving away,
for leaving our hometown and selling out
in the big city, and I said something
about regret, and there was silence
that he filled with a yawn,
and if rest is the proper word
then maybe my friend can rest now.
Death, when slow and certain, is considerate.
When I was a boy and my father got sick,
he had six months to write a letter,
enough time to explain why
he refused to marry my mother,
and why for weeks he would disappear
without taking a change of clothes.
Instead, on his deathbed he gave me a book
about Crosley Field, and told me a story
about watching the Red Legs sweep
the Cardinals in a double-header,
the memory of rookie lefthander, Joe Nuxhall
staring down the great Stan Musial,
and how he wished I would have been there
to see the audacity of youth.
For thirty years I’ve kept that book in a shoebox
with my baseball cards and silver dollars.
Maybe all that survives is the language
of forgiveness, and maybe
the language of forgiveness
need not be written or spoken or sung.
When my friend’s daughter heard the noise
from her upstairs bedroom,
she thought it was a glass breaking.
She never heard a gunshot before,
except on television or in the movies,
and this sounded different than that.
When her mother yelled,
Don’t come downstairs, your dad hurt himself,
she thought he had cut his hand,
and then, How bad could it be?
Later this morning at Sacred Heart
I will recite the Holy Rosary,
and after praying for my friend’s soul
maybe I will hear back
from the God I seldom believe in,
the God I taught my children to disbelieve.
Maybe I will see his plates on fire
and spinning, one for each child forgotten
or fondled or slapped around,
one for each child shot up or safely buckled
and driven into a lake,
and one for my friend’s daughter,
a child spared by her father
as best he could.