Grandfather’s Breath

You work. You work, Buddy. You work.
Word of immigrant get-ahead grind I hear
huffing through me, my grandfather’s breath,
when he’d come in from Saturday’s keep-busy chores,
fending up a calloused hand to stop
me from helping him, haggard cheeks puffing
out like grey t-shirts hung between tenements,
doubled-over under thirty-five years a machine
repairman at the ball-bearing factory, ball-bearings
making everything run smoother—
especially torpedoes. He busted butt
for the war effort, for profiteers, for overtime pay
down-payment on a little box of his own,
himself a refugee from the European economy,
washed ashore after The War to End All Wars.
Cheap labor for the winners.

I hear his youth plodding through the hayfields
above Srednevas, and the train that wheezed
and lumbered to the Trieste, the boat where he heave-hoed
consumptive sister, one-two-overboard.
I hear him scuffling along factory smoke choked streets
of Cleveland, coughing out chunks of broken
English just to make it to Saturday morning balinca—
how he grunted off a week’s worth of grit
hurling wooden balls down the pressed dirt court,
sweaty wisp of gray hair wagging from his forehead,
This is how the world turns. You work hard. You practice.
And I hear his claim as we climbed the steps
of Municipal Stadium, higher, into the cheap seats,
slapping the flat of his hand against a girder,
I built this, Buddy. I built this.

But mostly I hear how he’d catch
what was left of his breath after those Saturday chores,
pouring out that one, long, tall cold beer
that Grandma allowed, holding it aloft,
bubbles golden as hayfields above Srednavas,
before savoring it down and taking up
the last task of his day off—cleaning the cage,
letting Snowball, canary like the ones once used
to test coal mines for poison air, flap clumsily free
around the living room, crapping
on the plastic covered davenport and easy-chair
they only sat in twice a year.

And I’m still breathing, Grandfather, that day
you took me down the basement to the cool floor
to find out what was wrong. Come on, Snowball,
fly. Fly! The bird splayed out on the same linoleum
where they found you, next to your iron lung,
where Grandma mopped for weeks after,
pointing with arthritic fingers, See. There.
There’s where he fell and bumped his head.
See the specks of blood?
She can’t work out.
One fine morning when my work is done
I’m gonna fly away home, fly away home.
Come on, Snowball, fly. Fly!

Copyright © 2004 by Ray McNiece. From Bone Orchard Conga (WordSmith Press, 4th Edition, 2004). Used with the permission of the poet.