John L. Stanizzi
I know that my V-V neighbors will understand implicitly what I'm about to say. For me, winters become more and more challenging...the frigid cold, the dark, the isolation, the pains in the body that are amplified in winter. Add to that the profound, unfathomable reality of losing some "one" or "two" people who have been THE cornerstones of your life....not "a" cornerstone...or a "couple" of cornerstones....but THE cornerstones, and you will understand, to some extent, my protracted absence from Verse Virtual. Or perhaps you didn't even notice. Either way, I feel very blessed to know that the V-V Community is there. And of course, we've lost V-V friends, as well. My dear friend, Dick Allen comes to mind immediately. My point is, I'm working toward emerging from a dark place (we've all been there), and V-V is such a welcome balm to help ease the journey home. Grazie. -JLS
"The Things that I Used to Do" is the elegy I wrote and read at my Dear Uncle Gus's funeral. I still cannot believe nor accept that he is gone. It's crippling.
THE THINGS THAT I USED TO DO
"The things that I used to do, Lord, I won't do no more." -Guitar Slim
-For my uncle, Augustino Thomas Aiello
-November 26, 1938 – October 18, 2017
Summer afternoons I played alone
on the first-floor back porch,
three lopsided wooden steps up,
just outside a battered door
of oak and chipped blue paint
that hid a hallway
of linear perspective and splattered shadows
dark and yellowed at their edges,
and right there,
where I slid the tiles of my number puzzle,
was the plane mirror of Mrs. Lewis’s window
backed by thick black drapes,
stained and frightening.
And if by mistake I cast my eyes
in the direction of that window,
all I saw was a stop-bath reflection, fogged,
in black and white of a cow-eyed child,
his insides as jittery then as now.
One afternoon I stood on that little porch,
and heard the squeak and bang of your screen door.
With one eye shut,
I squinted against the back of my hand,
looked directly into the sunlight with the other eye,
and strained to fashion your shape
from all those bolts
and hot blurred opticals of summer heat.
You emerged four floors up
beyond the swayback sagging anchor fence,
with what seemed to my eight-year-old eyes,
to be a rock ‘n roll attitude –
the Sacred Heart of Jesus bright and flaming
across the delts of your upper left arm,
black-rimmed Buddy Holly shades,
a glide in your stride
as you pushed your chest out
and clicked your shoulder blades together a couple of times,
yawning and looking out over the North End,
shimmering heat rising from the tar roofs,
and you, Kooky Burns, scratched your belly nonchalantly,
and took in the vision of your turf.
Your big Gibson sunburst
was hung over one shoulder --
--Elvis half concealed
in the filthy stage lights of an Albany Avenue noon.
Like all the other kids,
my imagination was swollen
with The Big Bopper, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Gene Vincent,
but now – unlike all the other kids –
you were going to marry my aunt,
and become my uncle,
I had seen you swagger down the avenue
in your skin tight white tee
and a high, slick pompadour which,
if it were not black,
would have been chrome.
I knew right away
that you’d teach me good.
The three steps
were so heavily coated with years of brown paint
they appeared as corduroy,
each stair with its centered, concave worn spot
beveled by years and miles,
right down through the colors of history,
and finally into the natural wood,
the inconspicuous antiquity
of comings and goings,
humdrum or frenzied.
That’s where I began to practice being you.
I started by going to Jimmy’s Five & Dime
on the corner of Brook and Mather,
and buying a comb for a nickel.
Then, dipping my new comb into a glass of water,
I began to rehearse slicking my hair back,
checking my reflection in her black window –
I didn’t care about old Mrs. Lewis anymore.
I had rolled the sleeves of my baggy white undershirt
up over my bony shoulders,
and I was studying hipness.
This was ’62 – Cuban missile crisis days,
and I had seen your army photo,
my mystical portal into
the terrors of manhood,
and so you mustn’t ever see me weeping
with horror about war,
crying into Big Millie’s plaid couch,
or hear me gagging on my tears in the shower,
hoping to soap away terror,
and the nightmares of ashes.
I remember the night you taught me the word rod –
it was fall, chilly.
You had on your black motorcycle jacket
over your tee –
silver buckle, silver buttons, silver studs,
You said, Know what a rod is?
No, I said.
You scanned the street
making sure it was clear.
This is a rod, you said,
opening your leather down around the belt line,
pulling the jacket away from your shirt
just enough for me to catch a glimpse
of a heavy brown pistol grip,
the rest of the rod shoved down
between your jeans and your belly,
and everything changed.
I learned that night that many of the things
I’d end up finding exciting
would, more often than not,
also be very dangerous.
We continued walking down the Avenue,
my hipness taking on
a darker, more serious tone.
The landscape got flustered.
It always does.
Decades passed --
evaporated, Father Shanley had once said to me,
October’s nearly noiseless leaf against leaf,
that unhinging of constellations scattering in the air,
stealing as they fall,
the singular history of each leaf.
—Your first diagnosis came in 2000.
Had I known enough to pay attention,
I might have recognized the sound of despair
in those tumbling leaves.
I should have practiced the word goodbye
with the same fervor that I practiced slicking my hair back
in Old Lady Lewis’s window.
But I’m going to put that one on you, Unc.
You took this cancer thing with the same attitude
you took everything.
Hey. It is what it is. What the fuck you gonna do?
I got fuckin’ cancer and some day it’s gonna fuckin’ kill me.
You make the best of it, right?
What the fuck,
you said to me one night under a cloud of heavy smoke
at the Let it Ride table at Mohegan Sun,
a din of bells and whistles and rock music,
shards of conversation in a hundred languages,
and the names of lost people over the P.A.
Let it Ride.
It’s a no brainer, you always said to me.
A couple of days before your soul said enough,
you lay in your hospital bed
in the gray room
in the gray light
waiting for the full tide
of gray to roll in
and cover everything.
Your voice had already washed out to the bleak sea,
along with your language.
Even your tattoos,
faded but always boisterous,
You were repeating some silence which
seemed to be saying
—I want I want I want
And I wondered, what did you want?
Did you want your legs back
that had been paralyzed by radiation,
so that if you chose to succumb
you could simply get up
and walk out full of rage,
stride with the style of an avenue hood
rod in his waist,
or with the pace of a man
who had spent years folding the wild
into quiet acceptance
that meant simple gardens,
a glass of wine,
and the squeak and bang of the screen door,
which you knew would eventually hasten you along
among October’s leaves
fallen and spent?
©2018 John L. Stanizzi
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