Stephen Carson

Associate Director, Membership Management, Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab, MIT

The Penalty Tent

is what we called it
on that trip to the Keys
when the wind snapped
the A-frame’s slender poles,
leaving it to sag
and billow and heave
like some monstrous
orange genie.
After that,
we strung it up to trees,
sent the sloppy drunks among us
to sleep there.

I never told you
how I put that tent
back together, even though
I’d bought another. How I
sewed new tie-downs and
massaged the jammed zipper
back to motion. You don’t know
I built poles
like strong new bones
from conduit pipe.

Now, you’re telling me
how hard it is to raise kids
and pay bills,
about your new appreciation
of the Christmas
I’d almost forgotten,
the first in West Virginia,
the first after Dad got sick.
You remind me of the tree
as thin as fish bones
and tell me (something
I have no memory of)
how that year, the tent
was the only gift
the four of us were given.
I’m standing in my basement
rubbing the day-glow rip-stop nylon
between my fingers,
feeling the thin ribs of it.
Twenty, thirty dollars at most
in nineteen eighty. How
our mother must have stood there,
that money in her hands,
with her husband just out of the hospital
and the four of us at home.

In the basement, my heart
blows open
and all the rigid poles give way.
The guy-lines snap and whip,
and I’m holding
tight to the cloth
as it is falling
as I am falling
twenty years
to a moment I never remembered
all this time.

 


Appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of Passages North Magazine.