national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

“Tell Me Why” performed as a modified pecha kucha

Paolo Yumol  • 
Oberlin College

For my father


It all has to come from somewhere; the manhole vapor, the broken

melodies, the shambling vagrants pulled out of the dark like knotted

ribbons from a magician’s cloak. The sun itself rising reluctantly,

a hand begging for attention. Everything must have a source.


        or Meandering Observation

Here Charlie pauses to take another drag. We are watching a man unload

fire extinguishers out of a van, each one bright as a pillar of candy.

“Even these,” he says, gesturing. It seems like a joke, so I laugh,

though it doesn’t strike me as funny. His smoke is swallowed by light.


        or “Idée fixe”

Inspect any fixture of your life—any object or person—

intently enough and it shimmers like a mirage, imbued, suddenly,

with a deliberate history: the baby teeth rattle in their jars,

the bedroom shadows shift and ebb like tides, asserting their life.


        Song for My Father

The image of my father sitting on his bed, for instance, wavering

like a flame, cradling his head in his hands as if it were the last good

thing he owned. He had just learned that his mother had died,

killed by a truck. By the lamp, he curled with quiet immolation.


        Song for My Grandmother

I never met her. She was working as a domestic servant in China

at the time. I have no choice, however, but to believe that she was

full of song. The moments when I catch my father, moving brusquely,

brow furrowed, humming, clenching the melody in his teeth.  



Charlie meanders wistfully a few feet farther down the block. Troubled

by the contents of his own psychic closet, he rarely shows up to see me.

Watching him, I realize that I’ve always been fond of the way his feet

move as if fractured. This, too, must have come from somewhere.


        One for Joni Mitchell

Driving once over the bridge, he put on a CD of Joni Mitchell, live.

“My mom always liked this one,” he was saying, when all of a sudden

the recording fell apart, spilling its contents like a mouthful of broken teeth.

The disc was scratched. He sighed. “It almost sounds better ruined.”



My father himself could never get a grasp on the finger-picking pattern

of Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why,” no matter how many times he practiced it

in secret, hunkered down in our basement. I identify a certain ironic injustice

in this; calloused everywhere else by history, his fingertips remain tender.


        and, why not, One for Neil Young

As in a story an old guitar teacher told me about him. Early 1970s:

Working as a cook at a diner somewhere in California, he once went out

and found Neil leaning on the hood of his car, playing a harmonica.

“Oh, lonesome me,” Neil sings sometimes, wailing as if in mourning.


        Oh, Lonesome Me

And to think, sitting on a stoop on Ocean Avenue, the midnight corridor

of parked cars arranged like a funerary procession frozen in time—

because my own loneliness must have been the corpse of some

accident—hearing, from the top of the stairs, my father break a song.  


        Second Verse

Charlie stops for another cigarette when we hit 22nd. The vacancy

in his eyes when he glances up at me is almost arresting; sometimes,

he regards me as he would a sudden reflection of himself in a storefront

window, smirking at a fault in his appearance. Then, blinking, he turns.



One afternoon, driving angrily, silent and steady as a scalpel,

my father swore at me—I’d said something unkind and reckless—as he

tore up the road. When he pulled into our garage, however, he didn’t

unlock the doors. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what got into me.”



And I thought about how it wasn’t uncommon for his own parents

to punish him with a belt across his back, or by stacking dictionaries

on his upturned palms. His anger towards me, in contrast—hovering,

hesitant—looms overhead, as large as love, tragic in its captivity.


        or Ostinato

Waking up with this like an awful song in our hearts, an infectious

musical phrase from which we will never be released: the walls

obtain a shade of dulled despair. “It all has to come from somewhere,”

we think, chucking nickels to the ocean as the fog has us for breakfast.



For instance, the time Charlie, having given to the night all that was left

to give, drove us to the Sutro Baths, the cliffside ruins of an old swimming pool

complex overlooking the beach. Tableau of lack. He began to cry. Unsure

what to say, I asked him about his coat. “This?” he sniffed. “It’s my father’s.”


        Ad lib

Familiar tune; to misquote the lyrics of a beloved song seems at first vicious,

the sordid business of a child making ungodly chimeras out of the limbs

of destroyed dolls. But how else can I pay homage to the lifelong labor

of making me? To the melodious spirits, seen or unseen, from whom I come?