A different chintz, plush as a blown-up hothouse,
argued from each carpet, wall, and chaise,
turning modest lodging into wraparound tropics.
Bolts, the dry rose of powder in a compact,
draped the blinds, hibiscus sprouted on the spread,
ferns incised a divan where doilies crept
like ground cover over spots especially worn,
and squiggly living plants evaporated in the swarm.
This was The Phoenix, my father’s only garden.
Weighed down by room keys strung like smelt,
he mopped as if his swab could gild each fault.
He bore silver kegs into the cellar and the bitter
draught scaled frigid pipes, burst forth in gold shatters.
Roomers left him envelopes of personal effects
as security when they had nothing else: Lockets.
Wedding rings. Gems and junk were given
back at once and no one was evicted.
Stoutly stylish Mrs. Anderson kept house.
She wore hats trimmed with flora and fauna, corsets
made to order, and dozed off with food on her fork.
Her mild heart dribbled quirkily
the day she knocked to find the transient
—like a chastised schoolboy flourishing
his tongue, his eyes the saucer eyes of things pent
up in night—hanging, as if there’d been no point
wide as the point beneath a dancer’s toe to bear his weight.
By dark the blinds were seamed with fire from bales
of light behind them. The Phoenix fueled
the hope of slaves before emancipation,
the close sod cellar sheltered their escape.
My father, who believed the sun had cause
each time it fell through casual windows, posed
that happy folklore, though the walls’ dark rings
and chains told tales of black flesh caught and wronged.
But Dad’s hotel became a sanctuary
in his mind. So he was standing sentry
when a dapper fellow buzzed the desk,
produced a gun, and asked for rags and dust,
for rocks and tin, by which he meant hard cash.
Afraid the thief would find the strongbox flush
or a shooting ruin business, Dad swore Cap Graves,
the police chief, lived next door, lured the burglar to the river,
and with brimstone diction took his mind off murder.
My father thought he’d never die with silver
in his pocket. He worked to keep us solvent.
Coke and 7-Up arrived in wholesale caseloads,
a ticklish liquid candy that made wise kids
befriend us. I wrote with golden pens
that told the hotel’s name, and under linens
bought in bulk we slept like mortal fallen ghosts,
“The Phoenix”’ stitched in red across our breasts.