Because the burn's unstable, burning too hot in the liquid hydrogen suction line and so causing vortices in the rocket fuel flaming hotter and hotter as the "big boy" blasts off, crawling painfully slowly up the blank sky, then, when he blinks exploding white hot against his wincing retina, the fireball's corona searing in his brain, he drives with wife and sons the twisting road at dawn to help with the Saturday test his division's working on: the crowd of engineers surrounding a pit dug in snow seeming talky, joky men for 6 a.m., masking their tension, hoping the booster rocket's solid fuel will burn more evenly than the liquid and keep the company from layoffs rumored during recess, though pride in making chemicals do just what they're calculated to also keys them up as they lounge behind pink caution tape sagging inertly in the morning calm: in the back seat, I kick my twin brother's shin, bored at 6:10 a.m. until Dad turns to us and says, in a neutral tone, Stop it, stop it now, and we stop and watch: a plaque of heat, a roar like a diesel blasting in your ear, heatwaves ricocheting off gray mist melting backward into dawn, shockwaves rippling to grip the car and shake us gently, flame dimly seen like flame inside the brain confused by a father who promises pancakes after, who's visibly elated to see the blast shoot arabesques of mud and grit fountaining up from the snow-fringed hole mottling to black slag fired to ruts and cracks like a parched streambed. Deliriously sleepy, what were those flames doing mixed up with blueberry pancakes, imaginings of honey dripping and strawberry syrup or waffles, maybe, corrugated like that earth, or a stack of half-dollars drenched and sticky...? My father's gentle smile and nodding head— gone ten years, and still I see him climbing slick concrete steps as if emerging from our next door neighbor's bomb shelter, his long-chilled shade feeling sunlight on backs of hands, warmth on cheeks, the brightness making eyes blink and blink... so like his expression when a friend came to say goodbye to him shrunken inside himself as into a miles-deep bunker... and then he smiled, his white goatee flexing, his parched lips cracked but welcoming as he took that friend's hand and held it, held it and pressed it to his cheek... The scales, weighing one man's death and his son's grief against a city's char and flare, blast-furnace heat melting to slag whatever is there, then not there— doesn't seesaw to a balance, but keeps shifting, shifting...nor does it suffice to make simple correspondences between bunkers and one man's isolation inside his death, a death he died at home and chose...at least insofar as death allows anyone a choice, for what can you say to someone who's father or mother crossing the street at random, or running for cover finds the air sucked out of them in a vacuum of fire calibrated in silence in a man's brain like my father's —the numbers calculated inside the engineer's imagination become a shadowy gesture as in Leonardo's drawing of a mortar I once showed my father and that we admired for its precision, shot raining down over fortress walls in spray softly pattering, hailing down shrapnel like the fountain of Trevi perfectly uniform, lulling to the ear and eye until it takes shape in the unforgiving three dimensional, as when the fragile, antagonized, antagonistic human face begins to slacken into death as in my own father's face, a truly gentle man except for his work which was conducted gently too— since "technicals" like him were too shy for sales or management, and what angers he may have had seemed to be turned inward against judging others so the noise inside his head was quieter than most and made him, to those who knew him well, not many, but by what they told me after he died, the least judgemental person they'd ever known—who, at his almost next to last breath, uncomplaining, said to his son's straining, over-eager solicitation, —Is there something you need, anything? —That picture—straighten it... his face smoothing to a slate onto which light scribbles what? a dark joke, an elegant equation, a garbled oracle?
Copyright © 2005 by Tom Sleigh. Previously appeared in Colorado Review. Reprinted with permission.