“The Gray Man” by Jimmy Pappas

Jimmy Pappas


Part I: The Visit

I visited my father one Saturday at the nursing home
where we had put him against his will because he had
become too much work for us, he who had worked hard
all of his life, worked hard to make other people rich,
richer than he could ever hope to be. He was a gray man
now like a character in an Ingmar Bergman movie, so I
looked for the translation of what this all meant, but it
got lost in the white sheets; and I tried to figure it all
out by myself, but I too got lost in the white sheets that
covered his sleeping body. I decided not to wake him,
this gray man who had once been a stark man, who had
once been a man filled with action and life, and I sat in
a chair by his side, sat and looked down at my gray man,
my gray child, I who had become the father and he who had
become the child, our role reversals making the movie even
more complex, more difficult to translate, and I looked again
at the white sheets and saw only white sheets that smelled
of shit and piss. There were no English words, words that
I could understand, words that could explain all of this,
words that could explain him, words that could explain me,
words that could explain all of the things that have happened
between us, words that could explain why we behaved the way
we did. Even Bergman was never fully understandable,
even his words got lost in white shirts and a white background,
but at least he had words, at least there was an attempt at
translation. Here there was nothing, only my gray man, my gray
child, lying there sleeping on his back, waiting for my arrival.


Part II: An Earlier Incident

One day I approached
the nurse at the desk,
I’d like to take my Dad out
for an ice cream cone.

The nurse responded,
I’m sorry but … No.
I’m worried about him.
He could fall out of the car
or get hurt in some way.

For a few seconds
I could not speak.

I wanted to say
like Clint Eastwood
in Dirty Harry:
Go ahead, make my day,
tell me I can’t take my father
out for an ice cream.

I wanted to say
like Jack Nicholson
in Five Easy Pieces:
Why don’t you just
take this sign-out sheet
and stuff it between your legs, and …

I wanted to say
like Clark Gable
in Gone with the Wind:
Frankly, my dear,
I don’t give a damn;
I’m taking him out
for an ice cream cone.

But what I really wanted to say was,
What’s the worst that could happen to him?
He could die? Look at him!
He’s dying now! It doesn’t fucking matter!
He just wants an ice cream cone with his son!

I said

I acted the way
my gray man
me to act,
respect authority
and do what I’m told,
so I did what I was told.


Part III: The Gray Man’s Arrival

There is something,
something I
want to tell you,
I need to tell you,
his arrival here.

He did not want to come.
He screamed when he arrived.
He screamed when they put him in his room.
He screamed and begged us to please not do this to him,

but we,
his children,
did it anyway,
did it
and turned our backs on him
both literally and figuratively.

We turned our backs on this gray man.
We left him there.

And now I beg him
(in my mind only)
to forgive me.

But that is not what I wanted
to tell you
about his

What I wanted to tell you

what I really wanted to tell you

is that I

I was busy


no not I.


Part IV: Another Earlier Incident (of Little Importance)

I waited so long for this moment.

I wanted to tell him
that I loved him,
so I waited
and waited
and finally
I said it,
I love you, Dad.

And he said


Part V: The Grand Finale

For my own selfish reasons,
I did not wake him on my visit.
I waited until he woke up on his own.

I sat there for almost an hour,
reliving our lives together
while studying the sheets,
and when he finally
woke up,
he smiled at me.

My gray man smiled at me.

from Falling off the Empire State Building
2019 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner


Jimmy Pappas: “My Dad told me before he died about a creative idea he had to make ‘mythology cards.’ They would be like baseball cards. He would draw a figure from Greek mythology on one side, and on the back of the card would be a story about the drawing. I realized he was sharing with me an artistic dream of his that he could never do now. I promised him that I would finish my first book of poetry and get it published because that was my artistic dream. We all have in us this godlike desire to create.” (web)


Jimmy Pappas is the guest on episode #34 for the Rattlecast. Click here to watch live or archived!

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