When I was growing up, it seemed
everyone in my family
smoked, my father and grandfather
burning one out back on the porch,
uncles crowding a basement bar,
all the ashtrays over-spilling
with butts, not just the men either,
older aunts, girl-cousins, their clothes
stinging of cigarettes and cheap
perfume. At house parties, the guys
would gulp straight from cans and shoot pool,
un-crease tobacco pouches and
stuff pipes to Skynyrd or the Dead,
that airless room a thick bear-hug
of warmth, as if by filling their
lungs with smoke those kin could somehow
fill the silence that loomed inside
them, not have to talk but still bring
a small part of a buddy home.
Once after more than a few shots,
Uncle Jim, a retired marine,
decided it was the right time
to muscle a hundred chin-ups
from Aunt Abigail’s laundry pole
in the backyard, to show us what
a man of sixty could still do.
We stood in a circle to watch
his performance in the winter
dark, saw the spark of his cigar
lurch toward the metal bar, then
tumble down like a falling star.
He knocked himself out in one pull.
When we got there he was asleep
and we were astonished to find
the nub of his stogie still clenched
in his lips like the headlocks he’d
catch us in when what he really
meant to say was, I love you, man.