Hair tells family secrets, like lips and skin: my chestnut curls and waves that intractable thicket—one month’s tropical growth— Mamá called maleza de manigua, jungle scrub. What will the neighbors think? Locked in the bathroom, I brushed hard against the grain—pig bristles, nylon quills, chrome needles, nothing tamed my guava bush, not even the wire brush Papá used for mange of rust. I rubbed sores with Mamá’s alcohol and iodine (mixed in squirt bottles to disinfect the house of ghosts). Prune this wild boy, Mamá told the barber as she pulled my hair, grimacing, red fingernails drawing blood. Cajoling the cranky pedal with grease, Luis el barbero pumped up the chair he’d bought at a Hialeah junkyard, strop stained by rain; la barbería squeezed between a butchershop and cigar factory— "America, Love It or Leave It" macramé nailed above hooks where viejos hung canes, Panama hats. I slumped angrily, shoe kicking foot rest, hands clenched under white shroud, plastic Virgin Marys scowling at me for hating Mamá. Luis thinned the bush with toothed shears, straight razor hacked outer growth as Mamá reminded him my abuelos were Spaniards—her Catalan father’s eyes between gray and blue, Roman nose, his brother’s hair just like mine, curlier even. Tío Octavio looked Semitic, Mamá said, you’d think he was Henry Kissinger. Fat and bald, back hairs brushed up like cockatoo’s crest, Luis shook his head, eyebrows raised, smiling like someone who’s heard this before. Any hair’s better than none, señora, any hair.
In your uncle’s workshop by Havana Bay,
Your pudgy hands, stubby fingers turning
Lithe with wood, cloth, springs, bone, coir,
Your life a reverence to sawdust and burl
As you labored each day in the heat and the light,
Standing on a plank jacked up by bricks,
A ring of tools cuffed to your small wrist,
Your palms and soles callused to stone
As you fluted gadroons, flounced damask,
Beat down unruly tacks to martial rivets.
O padre mío,
I learned to craft words watching you sew
With the finest thread and not leave a trace—
To be patient, steadfast, reverent in my work.
Don’t dawdle, don’t waste, you’d say, but save
What you can’t use today for another day:
A scrap of cloth, a stray idea, an orphan verse.
gazed in wonder as you made the bucksaw
Sway like a violin’s bow against strident wood,
How you ironed wrinkled linen to vellum,
Or straightened the crookedest of nails
Because anything can be fixed. Praise you,
Papá, my poet of hammer, needle, and shears.