My stepfather held onto the wall,
Drunk and thanking God my hair was short ---
My scalp the pink of a scar, the illness of an eye.
He knew only so many words. One night the word
Was implements. We practiced in the kitchen,
He with more beer, me with a coloring book
Of extinct birds. It was hard to get away ---
Elbow raking across the table,
And the pounding of fists that pounded boxes all day.
The table wobbled and the metal screws
That held the Formica top to the legs
Loosened. He was a heavy man
While he talked. He had words for blacks,
Stalin, the yellow race that could jump up and down
And destroy us all. While he talked
I kept my hands under the table
And tightened the screws I could reach.
I was scared the table would collapse ---
The salt shaker would rain its bad luck on the floor
And Mother would crumble her face into
Her apron of butchered flowers.

When he didn't come home from work,
I sometimes pressed an ear to the table,
My fingers on the screws. I listened to faraway sounds,
The just-dead howling through strata of rock?
Brother was on the couch with his fingers of nothing-to-do,
Mother was polishing the chrome coffeepot,
Flap of skin wobbling under her bluish chin.
It was scary at home. I tightened the already tight screws.
I had done everything to keep him home ---
Spell, cut my hair, and, staying inside the lines,
Color extinct birds, in flight.

--- From Home Course in Religion
Gary Soto
©1991, Chronicle Books

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