On Being a Man

Join The Dillydoun Review in celebrating National Poetry Month with

A Poem by F. Cade Swanson

“You’re a pretty big wheel, ain’t you?”
my grandfather asks.
Words tossed my way
from a green armchair
in the dark corner of the front room
of his Appalachian home.

It’s like an impromptu game of catch,
his words propelled with disdain
at the soft boy standing in his home.

Maybe it’s my dad’s fault.
Surely it’s my dad’s fault.
Mom has told me it’s my dad’s fault.
Mom uses heavy, sticky words like grandpa does.
This was her dad.

I was nothing like the men my grandfather knew:
strong, dominant brutes with calloused hands
whose days were spent underground
in the dark coal mines of Kentucky,
where the beauty of my grandfather’s otherworldly ice blue eyes
went mercifully unnoticed.

The men he knew lived in perpetual darkness,
entering the mines in the morning before dawn
and exiting at dusk,
the blackness seeping into their lungs
and slowly, painfully robbing them of air.
These men didn’t waste their breath
on unnecessary words.

My dad, the man my mother chose,
relishes the light,
his sensitive hazel eyes perpetually watery from being outside.
His hands are soft,
in spite of years of janitorial work before he joined the military,
reflections of his days working retail
and the brief time he taught high school history.
His words are too plentiful to be heavy or sharp,
like a constant barrage of ping pong balls that,
while irritating if beamed in your direction,
are never dense enough to leave a scar or sting when they hit you.

But the heavy sticky words my grandfather threw at me?
My mom taught me to catch them all
in my small, soft hands,
and not let them fall.
Hold some in my heart.
Hold some in my head.
Hold the weight of others like a hammer or pickaxe,
feel their burn like flares from a stick of dynamite
until my hands, too, became calloused.

I stare at him awkwardly, waiting for direction.
My mother is nowhere to be found
but also deeply present.

I respond to him like my father would.

“I guess I am, Grandpa. I guess I am a pretty big wheel.”

He glares at me,
those blue eyes glowing in the dark corner of the room.
He raises his strong, thick hand
like he’s going to strike me.
Watches me to see if I flinch.
Waits for me to retreat.
Waits for me to fall.

He reaches out, squeezes my shoulder hard,
and expels a deep disappointed sigh
(my mother learned that from him, as well)
as I turn and walk away.

F Cade Swanson is a queer dad who grew up in Southeast Virginia. He runs a community center in Seattle, Washington and his work has appeared in Soliloquies Anthology, Nine Cloud Journal, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, Day Without Art 30, Ailment: Chronicles of Illness Narratives, HIV Here & Now from Indolent Books, and Stonewall’s Legacy Anthology. Check out some of his published works at fcadeswanson.com

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