Cara Stoddard

To a Player Piano, Grand Rapids, MI, 2010

The way my father’s calloused fingers
plucked tiny checkers,
careful and patient, counting aloud
as he skirted the perimeter
of backgammon’s felt-and-leather stage,
teaching me addition
in the pediatric ward.
The only other sounds:
the ding of elevator arrival
and helicopter wings.

My skin raked bare
by drug, scalp shining feathery
under fluorescent lights,
and my father, still scraping together
some semblance of order,
scolding me for itching out my eyebrows,
Pick out mine instead.
as if he wished he could take my place
or that we’d all end up unchanged.

These are the moves of brown and ivory stones
kept in neat rows, progressing in circles
from one corduroy cradle
to another, Move one guy six and one four, or this one
 His stones advancing counterclockwise
against the trajectory of mine
like a sweeping negation.
The muted rattle of dice in felt-lined cups
again and again
both of us traveling nowhere.

Maybe it was all just practice
for what was to come,
the way his tissues fell
into mindless replication
like a child pianist
repeating the same measure.

In the months before he died,
I found the backgammon set
buried in an antique dresser drawer.
His mind had been rollered flat by illness,
his fine motor skills rendered imprecise,
but backgammon came easily
each gesture rising
from the wreckage of memory.

In the lobby of the hospice hell-home
where we let him die,
some restored Steinway
kept playing itself
from a pattern punctured in paper,
the notes laid out like barcodes,
each perforation a premonition of its sound
that suck of air
the way a choir holds its breath
just before beginning
the way a father leaves his daughter
filled with holes.

Cara Stoddard is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Idaho. Her essays and poetry have previously appeared in Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Knockout, and The Gettysburg Review.