Kelly McQuain is the author of Velvet Rodeo, the winner of BloomMagazine‘s annual poetry chapbook. His writing has appeared recently in The Pinch, Redivider, Weave, Chelsea Station, Assaracus, Kestrel, Mead and Chelsea Station, among other journals. His work has been collected in such anthologies as Men on Men, Best American Erotica, Skin & Ink, The Queer South, and Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books. McQuain’s occasional columns on city life appear in The Philadelphia Inquirer. He teaches at Community College of Philadelphia.
My father’s name for me was shit-for-brains those autumn days we spent clearing the hillside of brush, the whine of his chainsaw in the buzzing cold, my arms numb from stacking wood in the truck. I was distracted, never moved quick enough, wishing the day would fall aside like dead leaves, eager to return home come dusk to a home that wasn’t a home, not really, but another of my father’s make-do inventions: a cinderblock building he built for his auction business but moved our family into when he lost the house we rented.
Sign painter, antiques dealer, real estate salesman, auctioneer. And now, an architect. My father’s old self-hoods constantly sputtered into embers. I was less a son than a reluctant assistant to a poor-man magician robbing Peter to pay Paul for each new venture. I learned lessons in painting and polishing junk; I made the honor roll in teenage resentment. I learned what I did and didn’t want to become: slapped together like the walls of our modest apartment, chipboard thin when I wanted to keep everyone out: I pictured myself in a different kind of life. In my bedroom, there wasn’t even a window.
But then my father bought this little half-cleared lot up a winding, dirt-road holler: the old family farm, a half-haunted orchard sold off piecemeal by an uncle. And now, the promise of our first good family home, an overdue correction, but couldn’t Dad see I’d be off at college before the foundation he poured cemented?
I watched him stay up late over stubborn blueprints, told him river-rock siding was a good idea but windows needed to open. It took years, but he laid the gas and water lines himself, managed the house’s framing and the laying of its roof. Then cancer: a lifetime of smoking and cleaning paint from his hands with turpentine-soaked rags. He died in the “temporary” cinderblock apartment, left us all with work undone.
My father, the architect, made impossible blueprints this shit-for-brains somehow finds a way to follow: All the things I want to finish but don’t, they keep me up these late-night hours. I’m still clearing brush out of my head up that hollow, chainsaw-teeth biting into soft pulp. I want leaves and branches to rise back to their trees, but time won’t reverse —it only devours. My father stands in the failing light. Yells for me to hurry up.