American Portrait 19

by Ken Harnisch

Tying his mullet down
In a thrice-wound rubber band
60-year old Richard Butler
Watched himself in the mirror
And outside of some craggy lines
On his well-worn face
Thought he looked good for
His age.
He picked up the letter again
Yes, one of those antiques in
Cursive script, and read it once more;
Squinted at parts of it, trying to remember
The night the daughter referenced in the
Body of the document was conceived.
He vaguely remembered a Willow
The “seed I would not destroy”
And he struggled to put long-ago
Pieces of a jigsaw puzzle
Together  that had, years before,
Been rendered improbable by a brain
Addled by too-loud music from the Dead and Janis
And chemicals of dubious legality  
Consumed in copious amounts
It was enough to remember Star, whose name, he thought,
Might have been Margaret in the life before the streets.
Sometimes, fleeting visions of long brown hair
Shining in a veil came to him, along with threads of some
Song about wearing flowers in it if you went
To San Francisco.
“She wants to find you, though heaven knows why,”
The letter said, and one more layer of the onion
Peeled from Richard’s eyes. Yes,  now he saw it:
Silly Star had grown
Tired of the Life, which was not as free as advertised
And still had the annoying trait of being top-heavy
With Macho even as everyone smoked nirvana
And proclaimed Utopia
Now he saw himself helping her onto a bus,
Her swollen belly almost touching the steps
As she vanished into the darkness.
Darkness being an apt metaphor
Given that she’d moved to Orange County
And married her a Republican
Kept in sometimes touch with phone calls
And these letters
And spoke of a growing stringbean
Who “regrettably” looked
Too much like her father
For her husband ever  to claim paternity.  
“I knew she’d ask one day. I was always hoping it would be tomorrow.”
Richard scratched the dome of his forehead
And did his best to remember more.
But memory was a luxury to
A man who never owned one
Worth preserving. It was his charm
And quick intelligence
That had seen him through;
Gotten him free meals and
Jobs that by dint of experience
And academic accomplishment
He would otherwise never have had.
And he couldn’t remember a one
Or what he’d done to earn a paycheck
Living in the moment, as it always seemed
And having nothing to show for any of it
Except a  38-year old child whose name,
He was told, was no longer Willow
But Wilhelmina.
“Don’t scare her, whatever you do,” the letter
Implored. And then a sentence later, it said:
“On second thought, please do.”
And Richard Butler blinked, missing the irony
Much as he always had everything else.  


Posted on 12/19/2008
Copyright © 2023 Ken Harnisch

Member Comments on this Poem
Posted by Gabriel Ricard on 12/19/08 at 05:55 PM

I really love the voice in this, the way it brilliantly captures the energy and form of a great short story but still remaining very much a poem. Awesome work.

Posted by Melissa Arel on 12/21/08 at 03:56 AM

You are, and always have been, a great story-teller! Another slice of American pie [and life]. great job Ken.

Posted by Carolyn Coville on 01/07/09 at 12:42 AM

what an evocative story and memorable character. I love how you never seem to forget the simplest details, such as the "thrice-wound rubber band" that really make the APs come alive. So...does he meet up with his daughter? What happens next? :)

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