by David Huddle
When I was twelve, a man was burned
not quite to death at my father's
factory. Recovered enough
to walk the town, he didn't know
what to do with himself—a ghost
whose scarred, fire bubbled face made you
look away, though not my father
who felt responsible and so wouldn't
refuse the man's eyes when they fell
upon him. The burned man held no
grudge, thought the accident his
own fault, and sought my father out
as the one whose eyes told him yes,
he was still alive.
So they held long
conversations on the post office
stoop, which I observed from the car
where I waited, where I could read
my father's stiff shoulders, the way
he clutched the mail, how he tilted
his head, even his smile that was
in truth a grimace. I knew just
what my mother knew—my father
had to let himself be tortured
once or twice a week, whenever
Bernard Sawyers saw him in town,
lifted his claw of a hand, rasped
out his greeting that sounded like
a raven that'd been taught to say
Hello, Mr. Huddle, how are you?
They'd stand there talking in the town's
blazing sunlight, the one whom fire
had taken to the edge of death
and the other invisibly
burning while they passed the time of day.
Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac featured this poem last February, and I've re-read it many times since then. I'm not sure if I love it, or if it's just true.
I picture it - every line of it - in downtown Humboldt, on the north side of the cobblestone square, where Dad's office lines up along the road with the bowling alley, one dilapidated apartment, the attorney's office, a "stand-up" bank (where your mother stands facing the teller at the grates, as compared to the "sit down" bank across the way), an empty coffee shop/Amish bakery, and the post office. This street is where the marching band halts to play a tune during the parade at the Richardson County Fair. It is also where this poem would be lived in my town.
I have seen my father shake hands simply because the other needs to know that he is worth the pause. I know that face that "seeks out the one whose eyes tell him yes, he is alive." The "burned man" is sometimes physically disfigured. Other times, he is horribly ill at ease - socially repulsive - or blistered inside some other way, and people leave an empty ring around him, trying hard not to look and even harder not to engage, "poor thing, bless his heart."
I have wondered if I have the patience and the strength of this father and mine, to "invisibly burn" my selfishly-lined insides away in relationships. I am also the burned man. I have sought that gaze myself, hoping that someone will look hard enough into my eyes to declare me alive, taken from the edge of death, worth the time.