Poem of the Week | April 05, 2021
“Betting the House” Austin Araujo
This week’s Poem of the Week is “Betting the House” by Austin Araujo!
Austin Araujo is a writer from northwest Arkansas. Currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University, where he won an Academy of American Poets Prize, his poems appear or are forthcoming in Shenandoah, Memorious, Pleiades, and The Rumpus, among others.
Betting the House
Once, I was sick and so home from school
for the day. My father and I shared a shower,
the steam rising off my seizing chest. And I, shivering,
began to notice his body for the first time,
daring then to study the hair lining his legs
and arms, which too concerned me,
for they were darker than mine and muscled.
He palmed my brow, using the other hand
for the back of my neck, to keep me still enough
to catch the full pressure of the water on my head
which was so hot I thought I’d lose my hair,
the heat loosening myself from myself.
He told me to hold my breath
until I got bored or began to strain,
and then release. And after we dried
ourselves, he warmed bowls of menudo,
and we ate and drank them on the couch,
in the first house my parents rented together,
a pink two-bedroom with a mulberry tree shading
the backyard, its fruit staining our hands and feet.
My mother and brother standing side by side,
giggling with what they could paint
with the berry’s juice, their faces sticky
with an ink not at all like blood, not at all
watercolor, but maroon as the menudo
I finished while I faded into child-slumber,
El Chavo del Ocho buzzing on the TV. Later, at
my parents’ first and newly mortgaged faith, deep
in the Arkansas countryside, we were surrounded
by all types of birds, sighing branches,
bricks splitting apart where the moss
overtook them, surrounded by those nights
dragging the drunk of my father from the truck,
up the hill, into the house, onto bed.
And because our bodies will not last, I will
forgive him for crossing into the night when,
despite my coaxing, and my mom’s coaxing,
and my brother’s coaxing, despite his own past
and future departures, despite my final effort,
blocking the door with the full weight of me,
despite drifting in that moment between us,
of sizing each other up, in which we had to decide
whether or not to fall into more brutal discourse—
despite not stumbling into that fight,
which I surely would have lost, for my father, drunk
or not, shorter than me or not, would not have let
a pimpled and shy sixteen-year-old child lay hands
on him. He left, truck keys in tow, wobbling along
from drink and dope. The project of loving this man
won’t end. This man who, when he came to Arkansas,
did not trade tequila for whiskey, did not begin
dipping snuff, leaving the brown juice in bottles
hidden in every room, who did not
crawl into the thickets of a country
song looking for sorrow,
who would rather wake up each morning
recalling the silhouette of a lover’s face,
who would rather know what I wrote
on the side of the paper lantern I loosed into the night,
the flame sashaying in the sky like the docked tail
of a dog which vibrates instead of wags
when licking the blood from my brother’s ear,
smearing the dark pool across its mottled fur.
When my father was granted citizenship,
he wore a maroon polo and a thin goatee—
the hair serving only as an allusion to the two
bare patches of skin just below his bottom lip.
He barely smiles in the photograph of the judge and him,
taken, I think, by my mother, and his eyes don’t tighten
in delight, his whole face blooms with surprise,
brow reaching back toward his hairline as if bolting
out the door behind the two of them standing
shoulder to shoulder, his lips parting slightly
as if about to speak. My parents printed the photo
for my brother and I to study after school, to understand
what becomes of the boy who crosses a river
with plastic bags covering his feet instead of shoes,
who slept in the park for days waiting
for his older brother to come back. But what happens now
to this man who disappears into the shadows to piss
while finishing another cigarette? What happens now that
the border patrol agent uses his fist to stamp the passport
and not yet the man’s face when on his pilgrimage
back across to a mother who twirls her curls behind the ear
when nervous? What happens to the man now that
he’s naturalized? When my father signed the paper, I sat
in a desk sneaking sips of Sprite in the second grade
at Robert E Lee Elementary in Springdale, Arkansas
where a concrete lion stood watch at the front door
baring green teeth. We, the children, would imagine
its flaking paint was its shedding of scales.
We would say its ribs rose and fell.
We would swear the lion’s toes curled
in the anguish of poor sleep. Once, my father
gripped a weedeater, slicing dandelions
and chipping rocks outside my bedroom
window, already far in his marathon of drink.
He’d come to reteach me how to work,
his blue, paisley-patterned bandanna soaked,
blades of grass, dirt, and flower petals
smudged along his forearms,
grease from the mower’s oil staining
his fingers and knuckles, eyes
pooled with tears like storm water.
I wore basketball shorts, a gray tank top,
and a pair of black Asics. All the while
he was listening to the never-solemn groove
of cumbia out of his truck’s stereo, swaying
his hips and arms to the rhythm, the clear
articulation of the bass guitar thrumming
in my ear, the shimmer of accordion keys scoring
the green trimmer falling out of its spool. My father
swaying with the whacker as slowly as he once twirled
his sister for the fifteen children crammed in the living room
who passed tamales and sopes around watching
them spin one another with a touch so light
they seemed to glide smoother than the song’s
trombones. His grasp of this machine leaking oil
could be grace if not for the desolation
of cutting the grass while drunk. Who was he
doing this for? What was he doing there at all?
After dusk had fallen, after my brother had come
from his own work to help me, after my father
had stopped dancing, after he let me quit
helping him with whatever it is yard work
maintains, my brother and I lifted him
from his seat in the dirt to the cab of his truck
and we drove an hour to a motel.
We put him to rest. The drive home strung
with trap beat after dirty Southern trap beat.
We bet the house. We bet that home-
making and lawn mowing would solve
the cold and trembling of our family.
We bet it all. We placed a wager thought
to be reasonable. We guessed that a home,
that property, would lead us toward
a new understanding of one another.
We thought that’s what families did.
We bet the house. We bet the yard.
The fence. The dog, too. How they
buried the dog, the father and the younger son,
the older boy nowhere to be found.
My father became a naturalized citizen of the United States when I was a child and somehow we, as a family, sensed that we had begun to live the right way. This poem is a practice of reckoning with the commonly-held belief that achievement or assimilation can save you. I attempt this by studying the various terrors and tendernesses of the house I grew up in and by culling a narrative out of instances my father and I tried to care for one another. The piece grew out of a desire to linger in my looking at my father, out of wanting to see him beyond the narratives I’ve already honed and polished for him. Though big and a little messy, I hope this poem practices seeing my father more clearly, more precisely. I hope it allows him his complexities and that it allows me mine.
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