Peeling the Handle - Terry Tierney

My father’s jackknife
shaves spears of sunlight
from a cloudless sky
as he chips scabs of red enamel
from the wooden handle,
white primer underneath, fresh skin.
My small hands ape his fingers.

He sits below me
on the steps to our door
slathered with battleship gray,
my mother in the kitchen
boiling potatoes.

In a later year
they show me a dull gray photo,
thick boards of the stoop firmly nailed,
the Quonset hut with lace curtains,
door set in its corrugated curve,
bare yard, pale 1950 Chevrolet.

When I recall that morning
on the steps, my mother laughs,
another infant invention.
But I know she worried,
the potatoes boiling over
those nights he came home late,
stories she thought I would not remember,
how she waited for three years,
how they eloped after the war,
hope chest stuffed with lace and sterile gauze,
the veteran housing on an old base
ten miles of gravel from his new job,
farther in the drifting snow.

I never learned why
she asked him to whittle the handle
though the masher looked so odd
with patches of red and white.
Was it the grip or the peeling paint,
gritty flakes when she chewed?
Or was it the pinewood steps,
the temporary apartment far from home?
Or the one thing she could control.

Terry Tierney was raised in Minneapolis, and he still hates the Lakers for leaving, even though he has since migrated to California. After serving in the Seabees, he completed his BA and MA at Binghamton University, and earned a PhD in Victorian Literature at Emory University. He taught college composition and creative writing, and survived several Silicon Valley startups as a software engineer. He lives in Oakland with his wife, a Librarian from the University of California, their two Persian cats, and their enthusiastic Golden Retriever. He is the author of a poetry collection, The Poet’s Garage, and the novels Lucky Ride (a 2022 Maxy Award Finalist) and The Bridge on Beer River (July 2023), all published by Unsolicited Press. His work has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies. More can be learned at