I am sleeping in the bedroom
down the hall for another night—
having spent the last two away
from my wife, in a narrow bed,
feet dangling over the edge,
unsure how to fold my long arms
as I bump against the rear wall
of the coldest room in the house.
All night, I hear my son coughing
for long intervals, a noise like
a shovel scraped and scraped and scraped
against the frozen ground until
his breath returns, like welcomed snow
hissing over rooftops before
another sudden coughing spell.
I hear my wife’s voice soothing him
to sleep like violin music,
and I trail that sweet sound, fingers
in air conducting in the dark,
as if my hands play some small part
in coaxing his tired, little lungs
slow and easy until the dawn.
The Last Words of My Neighbor
After he buried his son,
words had no motion. Motion
became his words. His mind strained
yet he said nothing at all,
not to me, not anyone,
not even when he ordered
the second cup of coffee
or when the waitress spilled some
on the scuffed toe of his boot.
Life became a forefinger
pointed, a jaw that couldn’t
be pried, the tug on a sleeve,
a favor left ungranted,
the slap of a wooden gate,
a watchful calculation
of regret against restraint.
Some nights, from our bedroom window,
we’d see his ramshackle pickup
wobbling along the embankment
of the alley, a rut he dug
for himself. He’d let the truck fume
while he sucked a Camel cigarette
down to a nub, then fling it still-glowing
into the brush. A little drunk, though
we didn’t know it then, he’d stumble out,
go around to the other side, lift
his daughter down, as if she were
a tool carefully hung in its place,
a stringy-haired beanpole, pretty though
amidst the wreckage and gray exhaust.
She got free lunches because Uncle Ted fell
from a roof and hadn’t worked in years.
We’d peek to see his tattooed arms,
big hands petting the neighbor’s lab
at the fence. We’d giggle as he fumbled
to unlatch the gate, lumber to the porch,
Cousin Becky lost happily in the backyard
playing with our toys. We thought
of yelling down as he pounded on the door,
crazed, shouting at our mother: I know
you’re in there, goddamn it,
I’m your brother, for Christ’s sake!
But it might as well have been nailed shut.
We didn’t answer, instead looked
up and down the alley, to the other
row houses, waited for neighbors to peek
through curtains, stick heads out doors.
We learned never to say a single word.
Robert Fillman won the poetry contest at the 2016 Pennsylvania Writers Conference and has been featured as a “Showcase Poet” in the Aurorean. Recently, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Blueline, Cider Press Review, The Comstock Review, Kestrel, Pembroke Magazine, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Salamander, Spillway, and others. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate and Senior Teaching Fellow at Lehigh University, where he also edits the campus literary magazine, Amaranth, and runs the Drown Writers Series. He lives in eastern Pennsylvania with his wife, Melissa, and their two children, Emma and Robbie.