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Huge hunks of the silver maple
we’d just cut down killing the grass,
trunk pieces split into quarters
a good hundred pounds each,
and my father’s start with the trouble
in my head again as I loaded
the biggest ones into the wheelbarrow,
metal scrape and sawdust, tightrope balance
to the woods’ edge, then back again
for the heaviest ones left,
seeing him over my shoulder
those nights of geometry and physics,
telling me to start with the trouble,
get through the toughest parts first,

advice I breathe in again as I bend my knees
and back, advice I used after he left
and I fought men twice my age—
one who broke into my mother’s car,
another who punched my sister—
always a fight in front of me and more
waiting with men whose lives would always
be like this, or worse,

and me running
after them with bats sometimes, taking out
legs and arms in the middle of a city street
few cops rode down, always shaking as I did it,
never able to drive the bat down and through,
never able to roll someone over on his back
and rip the corners of his mouth like a mask,
and because of that I was always afraid
in that El-dark neighborhood.

Start with the trouble, I’d hear him say,
as if even he believed there was a clear line
between trouble and no trouble,
as if there were a corner I could turn
and slip shadowlessly away from shouts
and whores, burned-out buildings and cars,
graffiti on storefronts and schools,
from the boys we called huffers
who poured paint thinner
into rags they held to their faces,
the friends beaten into stuttered words and steps,
others in jail for twenty and thirty years,
still others stabbed on the street
while buses passed and kids shot hoops,

as if he could ever find his way
through the trouble he carried silently
in lunchbox and cigarettes to a place
where he could rise from his hunch
at the kitchen table to laugh and play catch,
to be with us at the end of trouble,
where we might sometimes hold each other,
where we might live in a house
with no roaches and far from other houses
set against each other like rotten teeth,
where the phone would ring
with voices just wanting to say hello,
where music would play and we would sing,
where my parents would dance,
put us to bed early, and have the evening
with each other, then the next evening,
where the car would always start
no matter how much snow piled up,
where we would hang pictures
from Jersey shore vacations,
where we would walk into the yard
on summer afternoons and shake our heads
at all of our trouble at the start of things,
where I’d feel his arm around my shoulder,
see the other around my sister’s,
hear him say again Start with the trouble,
you hear me? Make it through that,
mark my words, and you’ll be home free.

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