Willis Barnstone

In Our Life Watch

In our life watch we are down to five
or six Pierre Grange watches, a jeweler’s box
of soft Swiss straps and a few
precious stones we are selling off to pay
the Greystone Hotel bill and meals.
Dad and I leave early each morning
on our rounds in the labyrinths
of narrow jewelry stores downtown.
How will we eat after our loot is gone? No worry.
Some way. I love this summer in New York,
best in my life. Not Camp Modin in Maine
with its daybreak lake and canoe trips
but real city watch shops with grownup men
we waylay and haggle with. On Sunday
we prowl Coney Island or the World’s Fair.
Dad was twelve when he left home and school.
I’ll soon be twelve and I’ve got
my father as my closest pal. We celebrate
each sale, each trade. One afternoon
with a twinkle he slaps down 300 bucks
for a diamond—most of what we have
to live on. Next day sells it for a thousand.
He finds the way. Things get so good
we spend our Sundays watching Gehrig
and DiMaggio knocking leather into the bleachers
or Peewee Reese catching the impossible.
We miss the Series when dad goes West
but I grab wartime trains to meet him
on our swinging life watch through red
mountain states and Mexico adventures.
In Mexico City he marries a child bride
and I’m living with Spanish children
from the civil war in a barred-in orphanage
where I share a room on the roof.
Then, too soon, dad and I talk all night
in our New York hotel. Lying on narrow beds,
we conjure up Rembrandt’s beggar in baggy
nobleman’s dress, how the Swedish Angel
wrestler hugs a foe till he drops inert.
Then the hill of debts. Am I father tonight?
In the morning I leave for Maine,
he’s on a plane to Mexico where he must
pawn his soul for silver. No luck.
He flies to Colorado, plays a last card
at a Denver bank. Loses. Van Gogh’s face
against the wall, he climbs high to the roof
where he folds his coat, places it
on a stone bench near the ledge, his hat on top.
He steps over the low railing, leaps,
and floats in blind sorrow out into May sun.
Dad’s fallen again, but we can’t wake early
and look up a small jewelry shop
to peddle our wares and hearts,
our soft Swiss straps or cold diamond,
since death at last has cleaned us out.

Wills Barnstone
Wills Barnstone is a director of From the Fishouse. He is the author of more than a dozen collections of poetry; the most recent is Life Watch (BOA Editions, 2003), in which In Our Life Watch appears.
Poem, copyright © Willis Barnstone, 2003
Appearing on the Fishouse with permission
Audio file, copyright © 2005, From the Fishouse