When he quit school to join the Army in '43,
my father's American Dream
was the gold of the fringe on Old Glory
flapping in the breeze above the town hall.
I don't know which part of that dream
continued to fuel his aspirations
20 years after Normandy,
after the silver had already tarnished on the star
he had been awarded for bravery.
And what fragment of the dream's foundation
finally collapsed and died inside him
the day he snapped at me,
"Dream in one hand, spit in the other,
see which one gets full first"?
Perhaps it was then he came to believe
that working himself to death
was the only promise the dream had left him.
And the few times I was up late enough
to see him sprawled in his rocking chair,
a beer bottle in one hand,
a cigarette in the other, and him,
coiled like a mainspring--silent as a secret--
staring past the window,
his eyes wearing that same glassy look
I'd seen in the eyes of trophy animal heads
mounted on hunting lodge walls.
It was then I vowed to never end like him,
and every day since, my life's roadmap
displayed no meandering blue highways,
only 6-lane asphalt dragstrips
I barrel-assed down at full speed
until I was so white-line hypnotized
I realized there was nothing left inside
and took the only exit--
a town whose name sounded like Despair.
Everyone here tells the same story--
elbows on the bar,
hunched over a shot and a beer--
seduced by a dream never intended for the likes of us.
The waitresses sport purple quartermoons
beneath their eyes,
and no longer hustle for tips.
They can't remember why they smoke so much,
why their men never stayed,
or when their feet weren't always sore.
They no longer slap away brash hands
trying to cup their asses or
brush against their defeated breasts.
Remnants of their dreams, like peanut shells,
lay scattered across the barroom floor.
Does anyone here even recall what it was
we were striving for?--
our noses pressed against the confectioner's glass
behind which everything we wanted
and nothing we could have
until that hollow look our fathers wore
replaced our own faces.
And who among us would not choose
some other story--
or at least imagine a better ending?:
to not dry-up and die inside
of this slow disease
there is no pine box for.
Who among us would not trade-in
that straight-jacket clock,
that cement block and chain of responsibility--
the next 40 years scrambling up before the sun,
toiling in anonymous sweatshops
someone always standing over us
demanding more and paying less
to shore up his version of the dream
while we struggle for one more day
to outrace ruin's voracious tentacles,
until nothing--not brain, not muscle,
not even self-respect--remains
to remind us of what's been lost,
to chide us for how cheaply
we bartered away our own dreams
in order to chase the lie.
Jeff Rath is a 2007 R.E. Foundation Award winner and a Pushcart Prize nominee. His previous works are The Waiting Room at the End of the World--2007, In the Shooting Gallery of the Heart--2009, and Film Noir--2011--all published by Iris G. Press.