Family Portrait

Great tarry wings splatter grayly up out of the blinding glare of
the open-hearth furnaces. In the millyard the statue of some old
bastard with a craggy grin is turning shit-colored above the bowed
heads of the night shift that comes crunching in between
the piles of slag. That’s my father washing at the kitchen sink. The
grimy water runs into the matted hair of his belly. The smell of
scorched cloth and sweat adds its seasoning to the ham and
cabbage. The muscles of his back ripple like great ropes of greased
steel. An awesome thing to see! Yet he never raised a hand in
anger against any man—which was a very lucky thing. A soapy
snort escapes him with the sound of a thunderclap, and my kid
sister vigorously rattles the lid of a pot. In the parlor my grand-
father lies, two days dead. “Aye, and the only statue for him’s a
spade in ‘is stumpy teeth now.” “—A lapful of withered nuts to
make the muckin’ grasses grow . . .” “—Hush you are, for here
be the priest with his collar so tidy and lady-clean.” “—Liked
his bit of drink, Hughey did, God take the long thirst out of his
soul and all.”

I myself remember once after a brush with Mrs. Hannan, who
happened to be passing hard under his window one morning, he
told me, “Ah, there’s only one thing worse than the rich, my
lad . . . and that’s the poor, and that’s the ruckin’, lyin’, unman-
nerin’, snivelin’ poor, my lad!” and a great whip of tobacco juice
lashed out onto the tar-topped road.

On, on into the small hours went the singing and the laughing
and the gay, wonderful story-telling . . . and all the while the
candle wax dripped slowly down my grandfather’s shiny black
Sunday suit.

:: Kenneth Patchen, Red Wine and Yellow Hair (1949)

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