— for John Peery
When Ganesh marries my mother,
I am 18, my own man
in the eyes of the law; but barely a zygote
in his eyes. He calls me spermling
the first time we speak in private;
I tell him I know a doctor
who can do something about that nose.
Trunk curls up, perhaps to strike?
— a smile beneath
that touched the ancient folds around his eyes.
Kid, he says, we'll get along fine.
In my neighborhood, unseen trains
shake the ground every day at 5.
Streets without sidewalks slide between houses
tiny as boxcars, or old and rambling
as the stories the fogeys at the gas station tell,
like them eaten from inside and about to fall,
unlike them divided into 4 apartments each.
Ganesh and I play Xbox
before my afternoon shifts (of course he's great,
with all those hands he's at least two players
at once) and I steal glances
at his impossible profile, framed
by the dusty window: lumpy wrinkled nose
like a seasoned draft guard, curled
in inverse question mark of concentration;
on this day, clad in coveralls
with the bib undone: How is it, I wonder,
that you feel like you belong?
As if he heard, he mumbles,
Wherever someone loves me, I'm in like Flynn.
No, no, Mom, I don't want to know
(but as always, she tells me —
I know, he could use a few weeks at the Y,
and yeah, he's a lot older than your father
but turn off the lights
and you wouldn't know it. Sure,
sometimes the beginning is way better
than the end, but who cares
when he gets the party rolling . . .
Oh, when he gets rolling . . . and that trunk!)
No, no, Mom, I don't want to know . . .
I still don't have a clue how they met.
Mom can't remember, and my stepdad
always changes the subject, spins me
yet another harrowing first-person account
of leading his father's troops against demonkind.
For me there was no warning: after a long
afternoon behind the Burger King counter
I come home, to find him on the couch,
Mom asleep against his pillowy chest,
a bowl of popcorn in his lap, quietly munching;
his huge ears fanned out, cupped forward
as he watches Temple of Doom on cable
and giggles under his breath. In retrospect
I was far less surprised than
what the moment warranted.
As we wait in matching tuxes
for the justice of the peace to call us in
I feel new respect, even affection —
he didn't have to do this, we all know it,
but he agreed without a gripe when Mom asked.
See, kid, he whispers around a tusk,
your mother, she has this vivaciousness, this pluck,
this drive to defy all odds and plow on
that's like a bath of rakta chandan
for pranapratishhtha — she makes me feel
alive, you understand? This aatma
I want to catch with all my hands, and when
it flutters, let it go, watch its flight in awe,
then catch it again. An essence such as that
pumps new blood through an old heart.
Do you comprehend?
I nod "I do." I knew
you would, he says. You have it too. An arm
around my shoulders; three more hands
pinch my cheeks. Too bad you're not a woman.
A grin, a wink. The moment nearly ruined,
but some part of me still flattered.
After the vows and the happy tears, he lifts
his trunk to kiss me wetly on one ear.
My son, he says.
At the reception, for the first time, I see him dance.
No wonder Mom can't get enough.
You would think,
with a household god
(of great luck and strong starts, yet!),
that I wouldn't still be slaving behind
the grease-smeared Burger King counter
(to be honest, I'm in dual-job hell;
come night, yo no quiero Taco Bell).
I finally ask him about this lack of riches,
and he sighs and blinks those dewy eyes.
Spermling — he wags his trunk — it don't work
like that. Luck, okay, luck, is when
you're driving in downtown Manhattan, fighting
for every gap that opens in all that hurtling metal,
and your car, it's been threatening to stall
since the last tollbooth on the Jersey Turnpike,
and you made it, but your tank's on Empty,
and you beg that car, Please don't die —
and it's like it hears you, like it's packed with prana,
and goes twenty miles further than possible,
and just when you feel rigor mortis
in the gas pedal, there is a pump station
at this corner, that you didn't see seconds ago —
and the $20 you thought you dropped
at the rest stop is in your pocket after all.
All four hands spread wide.
That's what luck is all about.
You would think, given all the above,
that I'd have never come home
in the early a.m. to find Mom
in the kitchen dark, crouched
over the cooking sherry, her silent tears
revealed when the lights come on.
What's wrong with me, she asks.
Is there some little demon inside me
that refuses to believe I deserve this?
Why don't I want to be happy?
I ask, Is it the other wives?
She shakes her head.
How distracted he seems when he's present;
how lost she seems when he's gone.
Mothers, he grumps one morning
and pauses Halo to rest his chin on his hands.
No, not yours.
Some mothers sure do hate
to give up their sons.
Did I ever tell you
what my mother did to me?
A dirty trick.
It was, you know, long before time
really got rolling, and I was playing with
my kitten, and I played with her a little
too rough (but I didn't mean to; see,
it had only been a few years since
Shiva first fused my head on).
I came home and my mom was bleeding
from her bindi, and when I asked what's wrong
she says to me, what ever I do to any ladki
I do to her. How cruel a thing
to do to a son! But I was still young,
didn't see it that way then. So I vowed
to never ever marry.
A few millenniums of celibacy
will make you decide there's some consequences
you can live with. So I took three wives —
take that, Mom! — but you'd think by now
she'd forgive me. Her unhappiness,
well, sometimes it still comes through.
He offered me the remains of his beer
(I refused) then polished it off with a chug,
Is it so hard for a mother to want
eternal happiness for her Dumbo-headed boy?
I haven't shared a word of this with Mom,
I look at these checks I drag home,
compute how they add up with hers,
we need every bit of luck we can hold onto.
But one late sleepless night
I Googled my stepfather and gawked
at hundreds of prettified statues and
read about Ganesh Chaturthi:
days of hymns and feasting,
red silk and red ointment,
the eleventh day my stepdad's image
submerged in the sea, symbolizing
his journey home to Kailash,
bad luck drawn away like pilot fish
following his wake.
And I love him so
that I can't bring myself to ask him yet:
is it when he leaves
that misfortune truly goes away?