“Message from Goldberg, the Landlord with Crutches” by Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell


When you are old and I am dead,
keep this rent-producing property,
and please, collect the rents.
Go out, if you must,
in your house slippers
with pink fur on the instep
and your shepherd, Gaia, on a leash;
mutter at the bus stop
that stuff about your mother;
pick up empty bottles from the street,
and do without combing your hair,
but, please, Sarah, stomp up the stairs
on the first of the month so they hear you coming,
shave-and-a-haircut knock and call out Landlord
with your eye against the peephole.
Don’t trust Grudin the plumber—
he’ll sell you your own toilet—
but Harold, the attorney, is reliable,
and, Sylvia, at Citibank, is good for munis,
but don’t buy an annuity from her.
So much has gone wrong
in the kitchen and the crutches
and Elliott with his asthma,
and the physical miss between us,
and I am so bitter that
the books in the back bedroom are strangers to me now.
Remember the Kandinsky,
that skinny book of Kandinsky prints?
It’s in the back bedroom,
in the shelves under the window.
Now I’m only Goldberg, the landlord with crutches,
and you are Goldberg-the-landlord-with-crutches’s wife.
When you die, Sarah,
Russell, the guy
who owns the car wash next door,
will buy this building from your estate,
and then he’ll send his son, that pretentious prick,
to clean out our apartment, and he will
smoke a cigarette in our back bedroom
and look out through the accordion gates
down Church Avenue towards Boro Park,
where we first met outside the candy store
when you asked me to buy you a cigarette:
two cents for a loosie, and it came with a match.
He’ll find the Kandinsky book,
sit on the bookcase, smoke his cigarette,
look out our window, read the introduction,
admire the pictures, and keep it for a souvenir
of how he suffered working for his father,
or as some kind of perverted proof
that he’s superior to all the mercantile idiots
like his father and me, who worked for what we have.
He’ll keep the Kandinsky on his bookshelves
when he goes to school in Syracuse;
keep it in his apartments in Brighton Beach,
Park Slope, Greenwich Village, Chelsea;
keep it when he gives up his stupid dreams
of becoming an artiste—he never had talent—
to become a lawyer, get married, move to Jersey,
have a kid and bookshelves, bookshelves everywhere,
twenty, thirty years boxing the same books,
college books, grad-school books, his wife’s mysteries,
until, one day, after his wife leaves him,
he’ll remember you, Sarah, and your scruffy shepherd,
and me, with my two amputated feet
lost in a trolley car accident,
swinging on polio crutches from one property to the next,
shave-and-a-haircut knocking, calling out Landlord,
and he’ll reimagine us as icons
of the fashionable style and aching loss
he likes to think he understands,
the way that what you wanted as a kid
can be shunted into tedious commerce,
and he’ll go down to his basement
and pull out the Kandinsky book,
and see how the show was mounted in May of 1945
just months after Kandinsky himself had died,
and he’ll picture us, Sarah,
when we were young and hip,
how we went up to Harlem
to see Lucky Roberts play stride piano,
how we went to see Kandinsky
at the Museum of Non-Objective Art
before it was called the Guggenheim,
when we were in love, before the trolley,
before Elliott and his asthma made me a bitter puss,
buying that book on the last day of the show,
which was such a big deal for you—
you said, Please, Elias, please let’s get the book,
in my ear you said it, your lips on my ear
so it hummed in my head,
and what would later be your stiff, gray hair
was beautiful brown, and down to your shoulders,
in waves I compared to Barbara Stanwyck’s,
and you said, No, I don’t look at all like her,
but you did.

from At the Car Wash
2023 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner


Arthur Russell: “I thought I could escape my father and his car wash in Brooklyn, run away to Manhattan and succeed as an actor or as a writer and never have to reckon, as an adult, with his cruel opinions of people and the world, but I fell back into his orbit and worked closely with him for many years, and when I did escape, it was only through the door that led to law school, the profession he had chosen for all three of his children, possibly because he had dropped out of law school himself. At the Car Wash is a book of poems written over the last eight years, poems that I continue writing beyond the work between these covers, dredging, sorting, reordering and sometimes celebrating, but always reckoning, almost forty years on, with the reckoning that made me.”

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