Richard Fox was born and bred in Worcester MA. He attended Webster University, as much artist colony as college, in the early 1970’s. These diverse cultures shaped his world view and love of words. He is the author of two poetry collections: “Time Bomb” (2013) and “wandering in puzzle boxes” (2015). When not writing about rock ’n roll or youthful transgressions, many of Richard’s poems focus on cancer from the patient’s point of view drawing on hope, humor, and unforeseen gifts. He seconds Stanley Kunitz’ motion that people in Worcester are “provoked to poetry.” smallpoetatlarge.com
A Prose Poem
By Richard Fox
1. Uncle Louie learns a shipmate’s ropes on the voyage from White Russia to the land where streets are paved with gold (1899) Uncle Louie, eight years old slips away from Aunt Yitta in steerage wanders passageways, ladders, decks peers into the engine room Simon the sailor grabs his collar, drags him to the poop deck Stay out of there, runt. Ya ain't got sea legs, might bump into a boiler. Burn ya skin like bacon on a grille. Uncle Louie shadows Simon, carries tubs of wash, hangs laundry on lines, learns to spit high over rails. Crew laugh at his accent but feed him words, teach him how to tie knots, roll cigarettes, hide from officers, throw dice, beat a cut deck. Tossed by typhoon’s waves, Simon feeds him white bread. Uncle Louie coughs, burns with croup. Simon pulls whiskey from a hidden panel, steals aspirin from the dispensary. Uncle Louie gargles, swallows, sleeps. His fever breaks. Above the bridge on a wide beam, Uncle Louie tracks constellations, listens. Captain and First Mate smoke cigars, talk their talk. We’ll raid Simon’s whiskey stash tomorrow. Toss the braggart in the brig, bread and water. Uncle Louie waits for officer’s morning mess, sneaks through shadows, pulls bottles from the panel into a potato sack. Uncle Louie takes the back ladder to steerage, slides the sack into Yitta’s trunk, covers it with delicates. The officers march Simon to the panel— open it—find dead air. Uncle Louie catches Simon’s eye, winks. Last day of the voyage, Simon glides his pinky ring—gold, blue garnet—onto Uncle Louie’s middle finger. They share a cigarette at the bow rail. Rainbows glint off white caps. Uncle Louie disembarks beneath the Statue’s gaze. Under his choppy steps, Ellis Island sways. 2. Uncle Louie feels his sea legs ripple (1909) Uncle Louie slashes a carcass, loses his job at Minkins Meats. Finds day work loading crates of fish into sea containers. Too many newspaper columns, even Yiddish, urge for Prohibition. Maybe if he didn’t gulp nips, he wouldn’t be fired so frequently. A horn pulls every eye to the ship entering the harbor, The USS Michigan, one of the new dreadnought battleships. Uncle Louie watches the crew ballet from station-to-station. Old Glory snaps in the wind. White uniforms glow in morning light. Uncle Louie leaves the pier for lunch break, trails sailors, young men, crisp blouses, laughing, walking with legs bowed. He looks down at his coveralls stained with fish guts. Simon’s garnet ring on his right pinky glares. The seamen jut their jaws into each other’s faces when joking. They salute, then mutter at an officer crossing their path. Uncle Louie thinks of Simon running the rigging, teaching him how to carve canes, lures, goblins. Uncle Louie strides the length of the Michigan, reads her flags, admires her lattice mast, super firing twin gun turrets. A Petty Officer, creased garrison cap, marches by, nods. Uncle Louie sets his legs, feels the deck glide under his feet. 3. Uncle Louie tracks his mentor to a sick bay (1913) Uncle Louie’s ship anchors, His Majesty’s Naval Base, Portsmouth. Shore leave, he journeys north to Widley, Simon’s hometown. Finds The George Inn, the pub featured in late night tales. Uncle Louie pulls up a stool, slides his hand on the oak top, admires the wide grain, sees the reflection of his garrison cap. The landlord eyes his stripes, nods, What will it be, Chief? Uncle Louie removes his cap, spots the rows of taps, bottles. A pint of your best local ale, a dram of your favorite whiskey. If you’d like to join me, pour a round for yourself, my treat. They toast the King, the President, The Royal Navy, The US Navy. Uncle Louie asks I have an old friend from Widley, Simon Bell. You know his family? The landlord refills the whiskey glasses. Yeah, I know the family. Know Simon. We were school mates. He liked to mix it up, always in trouble. Made me laugh. He’s in a bad way now. Cancer. Royal Portsmouth Hospital. Uncle Louie pays his tab, adds five pence, thanks the landlord. Takes a cab to the hospital, stops to buy a pint of rum. A nurse leads him across a ward larger than a barracks to a bed. Uncle Louie looks down at a shriveled body, face all bone. Simon’s green eyes sparkle. Little Louis. Am I dreaming? Have I died? You’re the big one now. A Petty Officer! Simon bites his lip, holds his stomach, stifles a feral wail. You always pop up. Where I’m not expecting you. What has it been. Fifteen years, twenty? Still wear my ring? Uncle Louie holds up his right hand, bounces light off garnet. Middle to pointer to ring to pinkie. I’ve carried you with me. Was hoping we’d tip a few at The George Inn. Guess that’s out. Brought a pint of Pusser’s Rum. We can toast the old days. Simon coughs. Sorry, shipmate…I’m a bloody sack of bones. Can’t sit up. Even with laudanum. Tell you what. Wet my lips. Take a slug for you. A slug for me. I get a taste. You get a double. I watch. Uncle Louie wets the ring pinky with rum, leans over Simon, tenderly coats his lips, twice. Takes two healthy swigs himself. He holds Simon’s hand in his. They sit in silence. Simon closes his eyes. Uncle Louie waits.