Jeffery Berg's reading at Harpur Palate's launch party last April stands as one of the highlights of my two-plus years in Binghamton. We were all transfixed by this astonishing, scary poem–one, I think, that grows deeper each time you hear it.
"I had been thinking about how to tell this story for a while. The refrain 'on this night, in 1974' started going through my head, so I began to shape a poem. Lots of things came out of it that I don't think I was necessarily conscious of at the time: the layering, the secrets and family myths." -JB
"1974" originally appeared in issue 9.1.
On this night in 1974,
my Dad smokes cigarettes with his cousin Curt
outside the White Castle
in Chicago–sidewalk still wet
from yesterday's rain. Dad
will graduate high school
this May and will marry Mom
next year, but for now,
guessing it's a cop, he sees
a black Oldsmobile looming
in the gated lot. The driver
is John Wayne Gacy, a man Dad will remember
on the evening news in 1978,
my two older sisters reenacting
Little House on the Prairie, running around
the four room Lake Forest apartment
in bonnets and Snoopy nightgowns.
TV cameras will record men
in coats, thick-knotted ties,
exhuming the bodies of boys
from a crawlspace.
On this night in 1974, the man in the black
Oldsmobile offers Curt and Dad
a joint. Curt, standing in the rain-sheen,
hands in his pockets–corduroy pants,
a red-checked shirt, refuses.
It is a simple "No thanks."
Curt and Dad walk away from the black
Olds and back into the White Castle.
Or maybe that's not how it goes tonight.
Maybe Dad takes the joint
from Gacy's fingers–smokes it,
stares at a bug skimming the surface
of a rain puddle.
I know that Dad never gets in the back of the car–
isn't driven to a ranch house in Des Plaines
with its underground, unbreathable smell.
I know Curt only for his name
printed in blue ink on the white flesh
inside of the green Apple logo
on his Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP
that will eventually find its way
to my record player in 1987
in a ranch house in South Carolina
on the eve of a Little League Championship Game,
I'll listen, sitting on my legs, staring at cream carpet.
I'll find out that Curt will kill himself
in 1977. Hanging himself in my great aunt's basement.
I will mop the basement with bleach as a 15 year old
in 1995 and find his stack of "National Geographic"–
flipped-through rainforests, ads for Colt 45 and lime green Fords.
My great aunt–hair tied-up in bobby pins,
strapped sandals, denim skirt, white blouse,
standing against the washing machine,
staring at the stairwell, still remembering,
will ask in a low whisper,
"Have I ever told you about Curt?"
It's on the day of the Little League Championship Game,
in a brown station wagon that I'll ask my Dad
about Curt. Why did he circle Dad's name,
Dave, in blue ink in the printed lyrics
of "When I'm 64"?
and he'll tell me Curt was his cousin,
his best friend who died in a car wreck.
In 1997, the year of my first kiss
with a pockmarked boy from gym class,
hands behind our backs in the locker room,
deodorant caked in his armpit hair,
I'll be in the den, watching a cable TV show
on serial killers–John Wayne Gacy:
childhood swing set accident, blood clot in the brain,
Kentucky Fried Chicken, clown,
boys (mostly 15 year olds) in his ranch,
bludgeoning them killing them,
covering their bodies in lime, bodies to rot
in the crawlspace. 18 minute execution
in 1994. Dad will come into the room,
stand in the doorway, sweaty from mowing the lawn,
and will tell me about Gacy in the black Olds,
the offered joint
on this rain-sheen night in 1974.
I'll stay up late one night in 1988
with a Ouija board in the dining room
lit with Mom's Thanksgiving candles,
wax dribbling on tablecloth, my sisters in their
punk rock hairdos and purple eyeshadow,
their Lee Press-On-Nails pressing on the pointer
that will tell me I will die
when I'm 63 years old.
There's a strange luck,
standing at the plate in '87,
scared to swing or swinging, flinching,
missing the ball, knowing
Dad will be there in his tea-tinted sunglasses
even as the sun goes down, seated in bleachers,
spitting Redman Chew in the dirt,
forever easygoing, missing a friend.
On this night, though, in 1974,
they are together, alive at White Castle,
sitting across each other in a booth,
salting their fries, listening to Stevie Wonder's
"Superstition" on a mahogany radio in the hot kitchen
where the mustached prep-cook waits
for fries in oil. Curt, the boy
in the photograph in my aunt's
top dresser drawer, with his
smile, his sideburns, tortoise-rimmed glasses,
the red-checked shirt.
Dad scribbles a love poem
for Mom with Curt's blue
ink pen on a paper napkin.
Tonight, by the Illinois river,
Gacy lounges in his black Olds–
seats musty from rain,
radio dial burning orange.
He smokes a joint,
waiting for the boys.