“Summer Afternoon” by Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell


With a bucket of sealant and a spent mop on a slow day,
my father sent Prince McMichael and me to muck the buckled seams
along the carpet rolls of pebbled roofing winter freeze and thaw left leaking.
I watched him swab the tar around the skylights and scuppers,
and asked him about his life, what he wanted, why he worked at the car wash.
It was my boss’s son privilege to do so.
He said he didn’t care what work he did, the older men were drunks
who wasted their money on the numbers. He jabbed his blackened mop
for punctuation. He called women bitches, but it was women
he cared about most. He lived with his moms, his sister, and her son.
When the sealant was used up, we sat on the parapet where the roof
looked out over Konwaler’s Drugs to the white brick row houses on East 8th.
We smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Below us, the cars turned into the car wash.
I asked him why he hadn’t come to work the day before.
He said he’d hung out with his moms, his sister, and her son all morning
and waited for a girl all afternoon at the entrance to the Union Avenue station.
He’d talked to her the night before, but he didn’t know where she lived,
only that she worked in Manhattan and got off at five.
It seemed to me an inconceivable romantic strategy to take a day off from work
on such a thin hope, and yet I could imagine him in the guayabera he changed into after work,
with his hair picked to a smooth dome and a cigarette dangling from his mouth,
passing a calm hour with one foot up on the rail around the subway entrance.
I started to tell him about the woman in Syracuse who’d cheated on her husband
with me, but he showed no interest.

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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