My Father’s Practice Book – Michigan Quarterly Review

My Father’s Practice Book

I saw him prowl the streets, not a cheetah in the nature documentaries he would 

watch endlessly, saying I like animals better than people, not the first baseman 

he used to be leaning at the edge of the infield dirt, but a man with a camera 

in his hands, searching for the faces of the people he would call our people 

in the circle of the lens. I trailed him, knobs of knees and elbows, first beard 

curling around my jawline, camera bag on my shoulder with lenses and rolls 

of film, watching him crouch and glide, waiting for the long fingers to scroll

and snap at me, my signal to stuff another roll in his hand, the whir and click.

I heard him boom his greeting on the street, repeating his name like a chant 

to ward off calamity, Frank Espada, an organizer’s incantation on the corner 

in Brooklyn years ago, handing out leaflets about the rent strike or the picket line. 

Now, he spoke the tongue of a lost island, lost mountains too big for shopping bags 

to bring aboard the plane, lost names the cops would confiscate in bags as evidence. 

Tape recorder on my hip, I heard the soliloquy of the witness, white shirt ghostly 

in the mirror blackened by the landlord’s fire, the whir and click, and in the circle

of my eye saw the tenants wandering the night, refugees of gasoline and smoke.

I was his son, always el hijo de Frank, and since I was el hijo de Frank, I drove

miles off the map to a labor camp so I could deliver the portrait of Don Pedro,

farmworker on a cane, vine of nerves crushed in his spine from too many years 

stooping for tomatoes on the vine. The others in camp gathered to see the print, 

and a man said: Es como una pintura. It’s like a painting. Don Pedro studied 

the picture of his face as if he could use it to shave, nodded to me, and tucked it 

away, back to his room, straw fedora on his head, cane squeaking across the floor.

I would drift away to an island of icicles called Wisconsin. Many years later, 

my father’s compañero Julio from the days of rent strikes and picket lines wrote 

him a check, saying it’s time: his first book at age seventy-six. The Puerto Rican 

Diaspora: The faces on the pages crowded around to watch him as I once did, 

cultivating light and darkness in every face, the veins in his hands like vines.

Waiting for the boxes from the printer, my father wrote in his Practice Book, 

etching his name on the page as if learning the letters at a desk in Puerto Rico,

as if he would be graded for his penmanship by the teacher in Red Hook, Brooklyn

who squinted at his name and said: Francisco is too long. Your name is Frank.

He would be signing books: first green ink, then blue, then black. He would

be signing books: the loop of the letter F, then loop again, faces on the subway 

without eyes or mouth. He would be signing books: Frank, then Frank Espada

then FEspada filling the second page, the birds of his name black in a white sky.

He would be signing books: En la lucha, in struggle, for Julio, with many thanks.

He would practice in the Practice Book, waiting for the boxes from the printer.

After the boxes from the printer, after the luminous pages of the first book,

after the books signed and shipped to the studios of PBS or the El Puente 

Academy for Peace and Justice, after the books handed out to college presidents 

and poets in barrio poolrooms, after the praise in cards and letters, after the price

of the book dropped, after the boxes emptied of books, after the photographs 

of sunsets taken from the deck did not sell, after the rent spilled like coffee 

staining the pages of the book, after the bill for the lights glowed like a cigarette 

burning a hole in the pages of the book, came the letter at Thanksgiving:

Dear Friends and Family: This is a difficult request, for obvious reasons. However,

the circumstances are, to say the least, dire, for we find it impossible to make it

on our only source of income: Social Security. At the moment, we are approaching 

the edge of bankruptcy. If we cannot raise the necessary funds we will be dislocated. 

The rental market is not kind to our kind, an elderly couple (82) with no solid income, 

a dog and a 25 year old car. This morning we decided we will not move from here. 

We determined that doing so may just finish us off. Therefore, we are asking your 

participation in this rescue operation for a loan of $500. We hope this request 

does not, in any way, prejudice our friendship, which we cherish. Frank & Marilyn.

Fifteen months after the checks for the landlord and the power company, 

I signed another check for my father’s cremation at a mortuary by the Pacific.

He would never hear about the box labeled Frank Espada at the Smithsonian 

American Art Museum, my fingers at the corners of a print, flipping it over 

to the sight of my own scrawl in pencil on the back, the title, the date, the city. 

I showed the keeper of the archives, who held out a pair of white gloves for me.

I tuck a snapshot inside my father’s Practice Book. The face in the snapshot

is the face of el hijo de Frank, camera bag hanging from my shoulder where any 

thief on the street could snatch it away, so oblivious is that face, my glasses

crooked in the circle of the lens, lopsided smile crooked as my glasses, 

my face a page without lines where anyone could write the rest of the story, 

the crooked letters of his name, a book that would somehow pay the rent. ■

Martín Espada has published more than twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist, and translator. His most recent book of poems, Floaters, won the 2021 National Book Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, a Letras Boricuas Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is a professor in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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