Detroit Crown

by Benjamin Alfaro

The years before my grandmother’s ascent,
each week a trip, my father’s hand would steer.
Her small apartment wedged inside the steel
tenth-floor suburban tenement, intent
to be a box for those we loved to die.
I asked my father why, rebuked silence.
A plan to die, her brave gift, defiant.
She’d feed us while he’d uncork a sly flask
and sit, patient as a sniper in chair.
I’d study the wall or draw portraits of three,
while he’d breeze by allegations driven
at his breath. She had forgiven the years,
though we’d abruptly leave, heedless. This was
our routine of what love had spared for us.

Routine was all that love had spared for them:
Frida offers bread to mi abuelo
José de Jesus Santiago––slow
as sun, on a crate of wheel bearings, lends
an exhale. He laughs with men, whose skin chalks
and beads amid leaden heat. Basket full
harvest as she waves them over and pulls
cigarillos and matches from a box.
She gifts José a temporary flame,
a sip of cold cajeta from her tin.
He turns toward his neighbor’s golden skin,
extends the gifted bread, as if bouquet.
Jornaleros carry turbulence billed
with miles between and finish the day’s work.

The miles between us, frantic as life’s work,
are ghosts of them I carry. When I speak
of my grandfather’s death it is smoke-sweet
and static. His drift, his ill-conjured face.
As much myth as miracle, as herald
of fate, father of fractured heritage.
A gift of bar gospel, spilling. Pillaged
in woodgrain; He, a thousand masks. Feral.
He is fish tale. Liquor-lit brash, hollowed
my father to ghost. He chimneys up frets
of Southwest barrooms, ends buried, balanced
in the mouths of the ones he loved. Swallowed
amid memories of hands, ample debt––
History, a brave imagination.

His history, grave imagination
or fact: my grandfather quickly walked back
from the frozen river, north. Hauled rucksack
to the Ford Rouge plant for work, new nation
of capital that disregards accents.
Labored in overcast and boundless snow.
Stamped steel frames without complaint, no need for
rebuttal when told his wage: twenty cents.
Known as the barrio’s lone mayor, king
of quick talk. Married Irene, 19 years
his junior. She prayed between evening snare,
lawyered for wives that too felt the tin ring
of hands from husbands in summit. How fear
whispered like pencil lead in postwar air.

Whisper the wars like ink staining the air
all the names I scratch under skin, the thought
taken to harvest a second chance. Hot
one summer: my father first born, full-haired.
A silent trigger, his father’s presence.
How, each time, he would whiplash his neck back
when the name was mentioned. That told it. Packed
it into his padlocked mind to ferment––
typical, shrivel like box elder leaves
on dry concrete. My grandfather still died
proud, while his son and I swallowed divorce.
Bared witness to what my father the thief
became. Lineage of men that will try
to excuse the summit of their hand’s course.

To excuse the summit of a hand’s course
is our family crest, kept lies pristine.
Her stories, a lighthouse, revealed fourteen
years after her death. In her bravest dance,
she would scour the city’s gloom, alley lights
to brothel bedrooms, each drug den and street,
trying to find the sons strayed in the heat.
Irene was gratified by the small life
she’d made herself. Heart as big as Belle Isle
when she’d rummage the dark, open-veined land
to revive her family. I don’t know
if my father was of those that strayed while
she searched. I still don’t seek to understand
my flock’s formation, our murder of crows.

My family is a murder of crows.
My arms, rusted shovels from which I first
excavate the delicate. Let wane, burst
into oblivion. Tug at the holes
tattered in every photograph, each
epitaph––namesake, endless. Ceaseless rage
when I consider the tools that set stage
for my own conjuring. Excuse the leech
dancing on skin, asking to take me back.
Every flaw and fracture, mine. I know
to follow the path, to mend what’s meant
for me to learn from. I’m buried in back-
logs of lost ghosts. Recall from scratch, a throne:
the years before my grandmother’s ascent.