Poetry 2013 / Volume 44

Can You Smell It? — Patrick Johnson

Engulfed by a disintegrating armchair
Before a greyhound-gnawed coffee table
I played chess with my grandfather.

The pieces were cheap plastic.
His house smelled of cigarettes and age.
I never saw him smile.

I asked him to show me the grandmother I never met.
Head down, he indicated a cabinet of dusty photo albums.
At eleven I realized he rarely showered.

That year my family moved.
My brother’s last friends said goodbye.
I hugged my grandfather, though he barely noticed.

My mom’s new job ended at 5 P.M.
My father’s started at 4 P.M.
I cooked rice or potatoes every night.

My brother (at thirteen) decided
This life wasn’t working for him.
Hope the next one is better.

I needed the familiar scents of my grandfather.
We visited on green Christmases.
Each year someone disappeared.

At sixteen, engulfed by brightly colored flowers
Before a gleaming brown casket,
I said goodbye to my grandfather.

Lights pleasant as flashlights pressed against my open eyes.
Room smelled of air-fresheners, death, and cheap flowers.
The low murmur of friends, family, and dirges seemed irreverent.

My grandfather’s face may as well have been wax.
Odors of preservatives rolled from his casket.
I wished it was he that reeked to high heaven.

While they buried the casket in dark earth
My father wept; I couldn’t.
I tried.

I never saw my mother cry.
She said she shed her last tears for my brother.
She couldn’t come to the funeral.

Now twenty five and engulfed in darkness save my lighter
In my bathroom before a mirror I never look in
I bend over sink with freshly lit cigarette smoking in my hand.

My grandfather said chess pieces were people:
My family consists entirely of pawns.
My scent is the same as my grandfather’s.

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