My Lovely Assistant

by Patrick Phillips

After the episode of That’s Incredible!
in which a whole family of Armenians
in sequined shirts ate fire
and spewed blue, burning plumes, my brother
tied a cottonball to a bent coathanger
and dipped the end in gasoline.

What made us who we are,
one crazy, fearless—one always afraid?
I stood by the ping-pong table
in our mother’s only sparkly dress,
playing the role of Patricia, Lovely Assistant

because he was bigger than me,
and a master of the headlock,
and threatened, with his breath of snot
and bubble gum and cigarettes,
a vicious wedgy if I didn’t.

So I handed him the silver Zippo,
not knowing what future waited for my brother,
still thinking I could save him
who hated being saved—

who took my dare one night to lie
on the yellow stripe of Brown’s Bridge Road
and stayed there talking to himself,
pointing to a satellite adrift among the stars,
while I begged him to get up.

What sat in an upstairs bedroom
giggling at the click of our father’s .38.
Who loved the sting of the torch
sizzling his spit-glazed tongue.

So I kept one eye on the door, knowing
from experience how it would end,
how all things turned finally to anger
in that house, where he leaned back, shark-eyed,
and took a swig from the red gas can,
the spitting image of our father in a rage.

He stood between me and that pain.
Knowingly, he raised the magic wand up to his lips.
I sit and wonder what it means—
my brother’s sweet face
bursting into flames.

PATRICK PHILLIPS is the author of three poetry collections, Elegy for a Broken Machine(Knopf, 2015); Boy (Georgia, 2008); and Chattahoochee (Arkansas, 2004), which won the 2005 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He has also translated When We Leave Each Other: Selected Poems of Henrik Nordbrandt (Open Letter, 2013). His honors include both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Fulbright at the University of Copenhagen, a Pushcart Prize, the Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a Discovery / The Nation Prize from the 92nd Street Y. His poems appear in magazines such as Poetry, Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review, and The Nation, and have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s radio show “The Writer’s Almanac.” He grew up in the foothills of North Georgia, and now lives in Brooklyn and is Associate Professor of English at Drew University. “Barbershop” appears in Elegy for a Broken Machine (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).