3 poems by Gale Arcuff


 I never knew what hit me when I died
 that morning–I fell, between leaf and blade
 while I was swinging on a rotten rope
 from east to west–I had my right foot
 in the loop at the bottom of the line,
 like a stirrup, and was holding on with
 both hands until just east-to-west became
 north-to-south as well and soon I rode in

 circles. It was a circle broke the thing,
 the privet limb growing out like someone’s
 arm aiming a finger shooting at the
 Evening Star. I felt the break and was free
 until I landed on my shoulder blades
 and spine and tailbone. Father was sitting
 nearby, in his old lawnchair, reading his
 newspaper. His heard me and came over,
 knelt–I remember that–and put one hand
 on my shoulder. I couldn’t breathe, like one
 of those dreams where you think you’re drowning: you’re

 underwater and you’re drowning, and you
 die and then you’re awake, coughing for air
 as if you’re newborn or have been holding your
 breath but at last you can breathe but you breathe
 as though you’ve never drawn breath before. Catch
 your breath,
 he says. Take it easy, now. Just
 rest while you get your wind back. Are you
 I can’t yet speak. I don’t know how

 but it will come. We’re holding hands. His is
 large, like a paw, and swallows mine and
 he grips firmly but doesn’t cause me pain.
 Life, that’s what this is. That’s what I am. I

 remember now, take deeper breaths until
 I roll over in his direction, prop
 myself on my elbow, then my hand. I’m
 sitting. Why did you want to break that rope,
 he asks, but it’s not a question.
 It hurts to laugh. I’m sitting with my knees
 pulled into my chest. To rise I fall, to
 my left, and now I’m ready to crawl. He

 helps to raise me. I’m breathing easier so I
 walk over to his empty chair and sit
 while he goes to get another. We sit
 side by side, the rope like a snake beneath
 the tree. I can’t tell if I’m young or old.
 I know who I am and can count fingers
 and remember my address but something
 isn’t right, or right in an unseen way.

 Father fakes reading the sports section. His
 right wrist and hand are shaking. It’s not breeze.
 I want to ask him if he’s alright but
 this is my moment, like a birthday or
 straight As on my report card or other
 job well-done–mowing, hoeing, or cleaning
 out the garage to surprise him when he
 comes home from work and has a place to park
 that’s more like a bedroom for the Chevy
 than a doghouse for an automobile.

 I wait for him, open the garage door
 so he doesn’t have to do it himself.
 Sometimes I stop him at the open door,
 like a traffic cop–thrust my palm forward
 and up and strike that pose. He could run me
 over but he doesn’t, with the car or
 his anger. He plays along. Sometimes when
 I walk out of the way he sounds the horn
 and makes me jump, both feet leaving the ground.
 Then he enters, laughing. I will get him

 when he opens his door–let him climb out,
 then I climb on him. You’re under arrest,
 I say. I pull his wrists behind his back
 and cuff him with my palms but he fights back
 in play and takes control and overcomes
 me instead. Then he lets me go and then
 pretends to chase me. I run away but
 he never follows. All this is love, love,
 whatever love is–whatever love is

 it hasn’t left or died but it’s away,
 somehow, like breath you lose or a garden
 that wilts or a toy that breaks and you mourn
 because it’s hurt, can it feel the pain, does
 Heaven have room for broken toys and lost
 dogs? Yes, Son, he still assures, as I lie on
 my bed, thirty-seven years later. Yes,
 it does–for people, too. How beautiful
 it is–wish you were here with me to see
 it but there’s no rush, take your time. Plenty

 of time
. It’s what he read in the paper,

 I’ll bet. His hands were shaking, shaking up words
 into revelation, what they really
 mean. On the side of the car it is written,
 underneath and over Chevrolet, God.
 The rope on the lawn is the sibilant
 in snap, stun, grace. Ssweet the sound that saves.
                                –Gale Acuff

I watch my father pour salt on slugs by
the dog’s bowl. I like it too much and he
frowns, Father, that is. A little relish
for death is good, he means, but not too much.
He lets me do it and I pour too much
salt until the slug looks like he’s wrapped in
concrete. You don’t need to use so much salt,
says Father. Salt don’t grow on trees, you know.

I look over at the apple tree. I
look at Father again and ask Just where
does salt grow? He smiles but I can tell he
doesn’t want to. You don’t grow salt, he says,
you mine it, or take it from the ocean.
How, I ask. Well, he says, you dig it out,
or in the case of seas, evaporate
it. Oh, I say. I push my luck–at least
it’s mine, I understand it–what’s that mean,
evaporateWell, he says, watching my
slug harden inside salt, you take some sea
and let it stand until all the water
goes back to the sky and there you are, salt
lying at the bottom of your bucket.
Oh, I say, And you can hurry things on
if you boil the water–the salt remains,
it don’t boil away. I breathe another
Oh. I don’t know what a sigh is yet, not
the word anyway, but that was my Oh
and it sounds sad to me. I don’t know why.
When we’re finished I put the salt shaker
back on the kitchen table, alongside
its friend, the pepper. I like to think they’re
married, that Pepper missed her Salt, who went
to work but now is home, and he missed her.
She’s still pretty full but he’s half-empty.
They don’t have any children, however,
and they don’t know how lucky they are.
                                          –Gale Acuff
There’s nobody I love more than God save
Miss Hooker, my Sunday School teacher
and more beautiful than God is handsome,
though it may be a sin to say so but
I’ll risk it because I’ve got nothing to
lose except maybe my soul, of course, since
Miss Hooker’s old, 25 I guess, to
my 10. So even if I marry her
her red hair and green eyes and those freckles,
she’ll die on me. When I’m 16, say, and
mature, she’ll be 31 and if we
want to have babies, which we will, then she’ll
be gone before they ever grow up. I
don’t know where babies come from yet, only
that you shut the bedroom door and turn out
the light and maybe lock it, too, the door
I mean, and put something over the key
-hole so nobody can peek in, then lie
down on the bed and I guess go to sleep
after you shake hands like you mean it and
kiss each other on all your lips and more
than once and all this gets God’s attention
and a few months later after the wife
gets fat and the husband more nervous,bam,
you get a boy or a girl and the wife’s
thin again, and there’s a mystery there
that I’m not old enough to know about.
When I ask my parents they just tell me
to wait a couple of more years. I’d ask
Miss Hooker but she might be afraid that
I’m about to propose and anyway
I don’t want her to turn me down, not yet,
at least not until I’m man enough to
take it. I’ll be shaving and my voice will
sound more like Father’s, or Mother’s when she’s
really angry, and I’ll be driving, and
working if I have to. That’s how you get
money and how you get married, Father
says, but not too happily. But he should
know, he’s a geography teacher. I
can’t marry God anyway–why should I
throw Miss Hooker over for Him? Maybe
I can have both, just love them in different
ways. You have to be pretty wise to do
that. Reverend Horluck’s married and has three
kids to boot. Maybe I’ll ask him why our
God is a jealous God, which was what his
sermon for today was about, only
he jumped and shouted so much I forgot
the words he said in between. And cried, too,
there at the end. I don’t know much about
life but I know guilt when I feel it. Me,
I can wait until I’m dead for God to
make it clear just what He’s been on about.
Until then, I’ll worship Miss Hooker, which
may be a sin but it’s His own damn fault.


Gale Acuff has had poetry published in many journals and has authored three books of poetry. He has taught university English courses in the US, China, and Palestine.