Cold, that’s how I was. I couldn’t shake it off, especially
those last days and nights doing all the right things
in the wrong spirit, in the antithesis of spirit, more
machine of son than son, mechanical, efficient, wiping
and cleaning and so having to see and touch what it would have
sickened me to touch and look at if I hadn’t left my body
to the automatic pilot of its own devices so I could do
what needed doing inside the deprivation chamber of this final
chapter, which the TV looked out on glumly through game
show, soap, old sappy black-and-white unmastered films.
I was cold all the time, I couldn’t shake it off till
I was free of her, however briefly, in the parking lot
or at home for a quick drink or toke, anything
to draw some vestige of fellow feeling out of hiding
hiding deer-like in a clearing at the end of hunting season,
starved but fearful, warily sniffing the scentless air,
breathing in the fresh absence of her scent too new
too sudden not to be another trapyou’re dutiful,
she’d say when I’d come back, as always, I’ll give you that.
And I was cold: I couldn’t help feel there was something
scripted and too rehearsed even about her dying,
laid on too thickly, like a role that every book club
romance, soap, musical and greeting card had been
a training for, role of a lifetime, role “to die for”
and O how she would have played it to the hilt
if not for the cold I couldn’t shakewhich must have so
enraged hernot my lack of feeling but my flat refusal
to pretend to feel, to play along (was that too much to ask?)
and throw myself into the part so we could both, this once
at least, rise to the occasion of what we never shared.
That final day, for instance, the way the Fighting Sullivans on TV
seemed to watch us watch them as a taunt or dare parade their
small town big war grieving fanfare across the screen,
the five sons killed in battle, only the old man holding back,
not crying when he’s told the news, not breaking down or
even touching the wife he still calls mother, a stoicism fraught
with all the feeling he stuffs back down inside him as he grabs
his lunch pail, heads to work, just as he would on any other day,
the only hint of sorrow the salute he gives as the train chugs past
the water tower on the top of which the apparitions of his boys
stand waving calling out goodbye pop, see you around pop
and as the credits roll she’s asking if there’s anything, anything
at all about the past, the family, her childhood that I’d like to
hear about before she dies, her voice decked out so gaudily
in matriarchal sweetness that I freeze, I shake my head, say,
no, ma, no, I’m good. And just like that the scene is over,
the sweetness vanishes into the air, into thin air, like the
baseless fabric of the mawkish film, an insubstantial pageant
faded as she nods and grimaces and turns away
relieved (it almost seemed) that that was that. Was us. Was me.
The role that I was born for, and she was done with now.
And yet it’s never done, is it. The pageant’s never faded.
Shake off the cold and it gets colder. There’s just no end
to how cold the cold can get, not even on the coldest nights,
not even if I throw the windows open wide and turn
the ceiling fan on high and lie in bed, uncovered,
naked, shivering inward back into myself as if to draw
the cold in with me deeper, down to the icy center stage
where I will always find her frozen in the act of turning from me
while I freeze in the act of saying no.
Alan Shapiro's most recent book of poems, Life Pig, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2016.