John Rybicki

from The Blood and Light of Memory

Baby’s Breath

My little brother has a bloated Moby Dick peg leg, and a shit bag hanging over his belly. He’s beating his palms against the window because I hauled the trash can in from the street and didn’t place it in the right spot on his spider web. When I climb back inside both of them are smoking, though mom has her feet up on the love seat so her forehead can fall down on her knees, this after the latest flash fire from her youngest.

My Jack Russell wags his tail like it’s Christmas when we come to visit. We puff out our happy pretend faces and coo sweet sounds to him. When my little brother beats his hands against the glass at least it’s a palpable kiss, a smack against the backs of God’s eyes. Two palms. Two eyes. I lean in and whisper to mom with springtime in my voice. Soon old piano bars bloom inside her and she smiles again. Now she’s singing to the ghost crowd how Ireland got its name. After a time I whisper St. John’s Hospital into her ear and it fans out inside her. There’s that ghost train of patients she cared for, and they follow us when we go to the grocery store or mall to find shorts and shirts for her eighty-four pound frame.

Grandma Marjorie’s sewing machine still ticks in the back room of their house on Piedmont, where she tends to her younger siblings. I’d have to hang six constellations around your throat to tell you their stories. Our great affable grandpa Wilbur called Michael Me-how. Me-how is smacking his palms against the train windows with the life he never lived flashing past on the other side.

They may saw his leg off if the swelling doesn’t go down. It would make a nice necktie for my mom or Michael or me to wear. Michael is saying go fuck yourself into the phone so I lean in close again and pour my springtime voice into mom’s ear like we’re riding in a bucket on a Ferris Wheel spinning round and round with glittering lights all over our arms.


When You Grow

My sister Lisa’s the six-month old bundle of twinkling fingers and toes in my mother’s arms at the top of the stairs. I’m the five-month old loaf of neurons, the soon to be Huckleberry Finn blooming in her belly when she trips and launches herself into space. She makes her body into a mitt curling my sister in her arms the way a football player might receive from the sky the very Christ if God tossed him down to this world. In other words, my mother gives her back in mid-air to the jagged steps and lands and thumps down in an avalanche with her lower back taking the brunt of the blows. Mom would occasionally point her finger during my boyhood days to remind me that she was never able to do sit ups after the fall. And once a month I’d watch half in awe as her little moon belly swelled when the waters came. Before mom’s fall, as the family story goes, I was destined to one day become a doctor when I grew up. As my doughy head banged against each step on the ride down, it altered my vocational future. The first thump made me a trumpet player. Then I became a fire fighter, carpenter, fiction writer, chef. Mom kept surfing her body down the staircase holding Lisa aloft. When I hit my head on the last step I became a lover of this gritty world. So the sunlight sifts its fingers through my bedroom window each morning. Like a bright ringing bell, it lifts me out of bed, and I write to tell the world it is good.


Last Sand

You reach to fold down the collar on your father’s shirt, swing his arm around your neck for the slow climb up the stairs. Those rocks of nicotine weigh his body to the plush carpet half way up. You tell him you’re sorry, and he barks back, “Sorry, what the fuck for?” Then he purses his lips and tugs a couple toots from the inhaler you taught him to use. The two of you soldier it up the steps to the landing and chair with the box of tissue next to it. He drops down with that rocking chair creaking in his lungs, and your Jack Russell licks at the dried blood everywhere on his legs. Some nights now you make the ride up the stairs with that cargo strapped to your back, your hands on your father’s nowhere wrists now that he is gone. Then you crawl past the foot of your parent’s bed where you watched as a boy the Vietnam War flash like some dark comic book. You crawl into bed, enter his body and lie down in those embers to rest, some of them his, some of them yours, some of them just crushed stars. And you leave where it fell behind the backboard the last tissues he used to wipe at his running nose.


John Rybiki
John Rybicki’s latest book of poems, When All the World is Old, is available on Lookout Books. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, Field, Triquarterly, Ecotone, and in The Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies.

The above prose pieces are a part of a memoir, The Blood and Light of Memory, about his boyhood days growing up in Detroit.