~This poem was previously published in Southwestern American Literature (2011).
At the Paisano
James splashes across bathroom tiles,
steps past a pile of dusty clothes
reeking of too many takes,
and plops his damp body across the bed
that takes up most of room 223.
The bottoms of his feet cool
on the bed’s iron frame; his arms
splay as though resting on that rifle.
He glances at the radiators, the iron
desk—like a goddamn prison.
His balcony looks onto an alley.
Rock’s room looks onto the indoor pool,
where he can keep an eye on the boys.
James wishes he had one now.
A flotilla of teenage girls shrieks
every time he passes through the lobby,
inching their breasts forward in trade
for a smile or an autograph.
Not one of them can give him
what he needs. Sal would like to,
but he didn’t even rate a room
at the Paisano—goddamn Hollywood
hierarchy, even in this shithole town.
He lights a cigarette, takes in a long drag,
laughs at how Liz calls them fags.
He thinks of the hired hand
who has been teaching him how to lasso—
real hat, real boots, no need for wardrobe.
Those calloused cowboy hands,
those sun-crinkled eyes.
His hips stiffen. His star rises.
Ride, cowboy, ride.
~This poem was previously published in Southwestern American Literature (2009).
On several occasions I shook his hand,
with its two missing fingers, like grasping a claw.
But these times were few—perhaps once a year,
when your sons are in Texas
and you arrange for them to see their grandfather—
never as public as weddings or funerals
or other extended family gatherings
where I am neither invited nor allowed.
We meet halfway in neutral San Antonio,
at a Mexican restaurant where your father knows
the owners, like his father did before him:
Jacala’s is rigged with history against me.
We always arrive late, which gives him time
to liquor up on tequila, only the premium kind.
The seating has been arranged in advance:
grandfather and grandsons at one end of the table,
you and your brothers buffered in the middle,
your sister and me at the other end.
Depression descends like a black mantilla,
and I bide time through each drawn-out joke
(which I swear are the same ones
he stupefied us with at last summer’s meal).
Everyone laughs because everyone knows
exactly what the old man expects—
but he never expected a gay son who would leave
a wife and two children, and he never expected me.
He has never stepped foot in our house;
after I answered the phone one time,
he also stopped the occasional call.
Years later, “Hi, how are you?” is still an effort.
He looks directly through me
like I’m an empty seat at the end of the table.
The Tex-Mex platter, dun-colored and greasy,
is a reminder I should have stayed home.
I’ve only seen photographs of the farm
where he lost his fingers in an accident,
machinery fallow and rusting near the barn.
This time I am home, sick for a week and pissed
that you’ve driven three and a half hours
to attend the annual Christmas gathering,
that you’ve chosen them over me.
I find out later that a cousin asked about me,
but the rest of the family went on pretending
you are straight and single. Or do they
still think of you as married? You should
have been back by now, so I brood,
your death looming like a bright red poppy.
Cruel as your father, I decide your ashes
will be scattered in a Hill Country field
before I ever let him know what’s happened.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
The inspiration for “At the Paisano” came from a visit to the Hotel Paisano in Marfa, Texas, while I was teaching a poetry workshop in nearby Alpine. Marfa is famous for being the filming location of the epic movie Giant, and during filming all three of the main stars—James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson—stayed at the Paisano. The 1930’s hotel is filled with memorabilia surrounding the film, and the rooms the stars stayed in can still be booked, which is how I was able to gather some of the details of Dean’s room (as opposed to the Taylor and Hudson suites). I found it interesting that two of the leads in the film were closeted gay men, and the third was a quintessential “fag hag,” but their lives were so hidden from America that to this day when I read the poem I have people tell me that they didn’t know Dean was gay. I also felt like the hierarchy of rooms was indicative of the studio system of the 1950’s, like the fact that Sal Mineo—another closeted gay actor—had to stay in a lesser motel. The James Dean in whose voice the poem is spoken is a modern interpretation, what I picture as the voice the studios kept him from having. The sex appeal, of course, is there, but it’s not heterosexual!
“Family Wills” was a tough one to write, and most of the details in it are true, what I’ve come to think of as a mini-memoir in poetry, as opposed to prose. My partner and I have been together for sixteen years now, and to this date, I’ve never been to the South Texas home where he grew up and where my “father-in-law” still lives, nor has he set foot in our house in Austin, the difference being he’s been invited to our house but refuses to come, while I’ve never been invited there. San Antonio continues to serve as a rare meeting ground, but it’s awkward at best, and my feeling is that the couplets of the poem suggest the hesitation of all parties involved. The first part of the poem describes one of these San Antonio meet-ups, and the second part expounds upon the feelings of exclusion as the “father-in-law” and I reach a shared ground of cruelty, hate begetting hate. Nobody wins, and to this day my partner is sadly stuck in the middle.
ABOUT SCOTT WIGGERMAN
Scott Wiggerman is the author of two books of poetry, Presence and Vegetables and Other Relationships. Recent publications include Spillway, Naugatuck River Review, Contemporary Sonnet, Comstock Review, Assaracus, 14 x 14, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and Hobble Creek Review, which has nominated Wiggerman for a Pushcart two years in a row. He is also an editor for Dos Gatos Press, publisher of the annual Texas Poetry Calendar, now in its sixeenth year, and a book of poetry exercises, Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, co-edited by Wiggerman and his partner David Meischen.