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Bitter

Joseph Bathanti is the author of five books of poetry, one of which (This Metal) was nominated for the National Book Award.  His first novel, East Liberty, won the 2001 Carolina Novel Award.  His latest novel, Coventry, won the 2006 Novello Literary Award.  His book of stories, The High Heart, won the 2006 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction.  He is the recipient of Literature Fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council in 1994 (poetry) and 2009 (fiction), the Sherwood Anderson Award, and many others.  He teaches at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.  “Bitter” was originally published in his book, Restoring Sacred Art (Star Cloud Press, 2010).  Download PDF to print.

 Knowing these days it takes a while

for my mother to get to the phone,

I let it ring and ring until she answers.


It’s an accommodation

we’ve silently agreed upon.

Her voice, with the accent on hell


in hello, has not changed

in the fifty years I’ve known her.

It still delights me, in that first instant


before she knows who’s calling,

when the world still holds promise.

But often enough the news is bad.


I am calling to find out

the arrangements for Nicky.

“How’s Phyllis?” I ask.


“Skinny as a rail. I don’t know

what she’s going to do in that big house.”

I don’t know either,


so I inquire about the weather.

The temperature in Pittsburgh is nine degrees,

the biggest snowstorm in five years expected.


“It’s so bitter,” she sighs.

Because of the cold, my father does his walking

in the long halls of the big apartment


complex they moved to when they started

getting old and the neighborhood

and the house on Mellon Street, where I grew up,


got to be too much for them.

Last week, he caught his hand

in one of the building’s heavy steel doors,


and broke a bone in it.

The hand turned black, but he waited

five days before going to the doctor


where all they did was put it in a brace.

Still, he can’t get a glove on,

and it’s minus-28 with the wind-chill.


To warm the hand, he draws it into his sleeve.

This morning, they went out to buy mittens,

but everyone was sold out.


My mother declares

that from one of my father’s wool socks,

she’ll make a mitten for his bad hand.


“What’s the difference,” she says, and I agree,

picturing them in a blizzard,

fighting their way,


with the rest of my ancient family,

behind the casket, up the frozen

hills of Mount Carmel,


my eighty-five year old father,

broken hand in a sock, trying

to keep my mother from falling.