The Sign in My Father’s Hands

—for Frank Espada

The beer company
did not hire Blacks or Puerto Ricans,
so my father joined the picket line
at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, New York World’s Fair,   
amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.   
But the cops brandished nightsticks
and handcuffs to protect the beer,
and my father disappeared.

In 1964, I had never tasted beer,
and no one told me about the picket signs   
torn in two by the cops of brewery.
I knew what dead was: dead was a cat   
overrun with parasites and dumped   
in the hallway incinerator.
I knew my father was dead.
I went mute and filmy-eyed, the slow boy   
who did not hear the question in school.   
I sat studying his framed photograph   
like a mirror, my darker face.

Days later, he appeared in the doorway   
grinning with his gilded tooth.
Not dead, though I would come to learn   
that sometimes Puerto Ricans die   
in jail, with bruises no one can explain   
swelling their eyes shut.
I would learn too that “boycott”
is not a boy’s haircut,
that I could sketch a picket line   
on the blank side of a leaflet.

That day my father returned
from the netherworld
easily as riding the elevator to apartment 14-F,   
and the brewery cops could only watch   
in drunken disappointment.
I searched my father’s hands
for a sign of the miracle.

Martin Espada, “The Sign in My Father’s Hands” from Imagine the Angels of Bread. Copyright © 1996 by Martin Espada. Reprinted with the permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Source: Imagine the Angels of Bread (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1996)
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