Phong Nguyen

Senior Paper: On Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” by Rosa Guttierez

             after Eric Puchner

In olden times, people depended on wheelbarrows and chickens. In his poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Carlos writes about the way things were when he was alive. In this essay I will argue that when he wrote this poem Carlos was tired and thirsty, which is why he wrote such a short poem.
      I know Carlos was tired because he starts the poem with “so much depends.” From taking care of my grandfather, who is also named Carlos, I know that Depends is an adult undergarment. Before you start to think maybe adult undergarments are sexy because of the words “adult” and “undergarment,” let me stop you by saying that he poops in them and it’s my job to change him.
      I feel a little bad writing about my Grandpa now because I can still remember a time before he was demented, when he’d just retired from the shop. He used to sell bowties in an old-timey store called “The Gentle Churchman.” Really. But he actually hated his customers and when he retired he refused to play golf or tennis with any of them and just wanted to ride a motorcycle in the mountains, which he did during the summer before he went demented.
      Then gradually he’d forget stuff. Like dates and names and words, and then the whole English language. He started speaking only Spanish and believed he was an apprentice tailor working for “Señor Caruthers.” Finally he forgot where he lived, and he pulled his motorcycle into his old driveway at 122 Biddlebaum St.—do you know the street, Mr. Haley, the one that dead-ends just before Route 15 with the Bait & Tackle store on it? Nowadays it’s a rough area, but back when he lived there it was just another neighborhood—and walked into the house, even though it was owned by totally different people who thought he was breaking-in entering. They called the police and he was institutioned until my parents ran out of money and now he lives at home under their care, except both of them work full-time, and my mom works a night job, so it’s up to me to take care of him.
      Because of my grandfather Carlos, I can understand why Carlos the poet writes about olden times, specifically why he writes about Depends, which symbolizes tiredness.
      Carlos the poet also writes that the wheelbarrow is “glazed with rain water,” symbolizing how thirsty he is. I can understand being that thirsty because my sister Jenna is really competitive and she convinced me to run a half-marathon, because she’s at Furman University, and I’ve already started to train, and the first couple of times I ran, all I could do afterwards was lay on the couch and drink like a gallon of water. Whenever she comes home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Jenna says she wants me to train with her, but I know she just wants to show off her running body and make me feel low self-esteem.
      Long-poem writers might disagree with Carlos writing a short poem, but as a tired thirsty poet Carlos does a good job of communicating his feelings. I wish I could communicate my feelings as well as Carlos does in his poem about a wheelbarrow. Whenever Jenna visits at first I feel excited to see her because she used to be a cool older sister that introduced me to a lot of firsts, such as substances. Jenna also introduced me to Matt, a boy between our grades who was my first partner. I won’t say romantic partner, because his philosophy was “keep it real” and that meant his rule was “no girlfriend drama.” After Jenna left for Furman, I used to feel like being with Matt was one way of staying close to her, and I would write “Rosa and Matt” inside a heart in my notebook, but I would never show it to him, because that is sort of like girlfriend drama. But the first day after Jenna comes, the excitement always goes away and she’s telling me what I should be doing with my life, and she’s got a point sometimes, but it’s kind of like a piece of brain just oozed out of my ear and grew and grew and turned Jenna-shaped. Like she’s actually still a part of me, but like a really negative part of me that wears yoga pants and a yin-yang pendant underneath a pink tank top that reads FU.
      But if I could just communicate my feelings like Carlos does in his tired, thirsty poem, I’d tell her that she doesn’t understand how different my life is from hers at Furman, that Grandpa has gotten really bad these days and now I have to feed him too. Have you ever thought about how much a person eats just to stay alive? I measure all of his food, blend it on pulse so that it turns out mushy but not liquid, sprinkle his crushed vitamins into it—because he won’t swallow them even if I lie and tell him that they are Viagra (I’m sorry, Mr. Haley, for being gross, but my Grandpa still believes abuela is alive and even though he’s lost so much of his memory for details, he still remembers that Viagra is a thing)—then I literally have to wait until he starts to fall asleep enough to open his mouth, so I can shovel the food in. He hates it, but he doesn’t spit it out, and he clamps his lips shut until he forgets and starts to fall asleep again, and the pattern repeats itself.
      As far as the white chickens go, to be honest I don’t even know what they symbolize, because I think of chickens as food, not as poetry. If they were penguins or something, I’d think maybe Carlos was being iconic. I mean, obviously they don’t fly, so maybe the chickens also symbolize tiredness. On the other hand, chickens are food, so maybe they really symbolize that Carlos is both hungry and thirsty.
      I don’t understand why he chose chickens instead of any other sort of bird. The only pet I was ever allowed to have was a parakeet, and it actually died from insomnia when I forgot to cover it at nighttime since it lived on our lighted porch. I pretty much neglect things like watering plants and doing my homework and covering up parakeet cages because I always have to be there for Grandpa, and there’s nobody else to do it.
      The parakeet’s name was Cheery, and he was trained to say “hello” and “good night” and “yes, sir.” Jenna taught Cheery to say “tough shit,” but she didn’t get in trouble because it was around the time when Grandpa was kicked out of the institution and Mom had to take off of work to move him home.
      We still had the wire cage with bamboo perches, but no parakeet in it, and Jenna was standing there with her dark brown hair tied up in a swirl, so high it almost touched the bottom of the cage, trying to get me off of the couch. “Let’s do another run around the block,” she said.
      “No thanks,” I said.
      “Don’t be that way,” she said with a sorority smile. “Let’s just go.”
      But I’d already said no, and I didn’t want to have my arm twisted. “I’m not up for it."
      Jenna was standing there underneath the parakeet cage, waiting. She’s shorter than I am, but she’s got that big energy that little people have. She clicked her tongue at me. I was stuck on dad’s couch, feeling like I wanted to stand up, but not wanting to look like I’m about to go for a run. “Grandpa is—”
      “Would you just run with me?” she says.
      “—getting bad,” I say.
      Jenna’s mouth was open, but she wasn’t saying anything. Her eyebrows crinkled inward, and she made a motion as if to sit, but decided against. “It’s like I’ve given you everything,” Jenna says.
      “What?” I say. “What do you mean?”
      “I share everything with you,” Jenna says. “My car, my clothes . . . my friends.”
      That is when I realize that Jenna is the one who actually wanted to be Matt’s girlfriend and couldn’t be because she was so full of girlfriend drama and couldn’t keep it real. Her eyes squinted and she bit the corner of her lip aggressively.
      I turned on the TV because I can’t stand uncomfortable silences. It’s just my luck that the show The Biggest Loser turned on right at that moment.
      “Go on and run,” I said, fixating on the measuring tape that is being pulled around the waist of a woman who could no longer fit into her clothes.
      Matt is a pizza parlor employee and an amateur MMA fighter. Which means that he can spin dough on his knuckles and also break bones with his knuckles. I once saw him headlock a guy until he passed out, and the weird part is that that was at the pizza parlor. He doesn’t usually win his fights at the gym, but Matt says that he loses on purpose because if he won all the time, then he wouldn’t learn anything. I feel the same way about Jenna, who wins every argument all of the time. Even though she goes to Furman University, I wonder if she ever learns anything.
      Carlos sounds kind of desperate when he says “so much depends,” which makes me think maybe he was learning something. What was he learning though? To answer this question I will look at the words in the poem.
      Carlos’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” is 16 words long, which is 22 syllables, and 87 characters. If he were alive now, he would probably tweet his poems and have enough room left over to hashtag #tiredpoet and provide a link to his tumblr. But I doubt he would write about wheelbarrows and chickens. Instead he might write about bacon or cats. He could still write about rain water, though in modern times he might also choose to write about Vitamin water or Diet water.
      I’m the only one at my school who doesn’t have a smartphone but I do have a computer at home. I probably spend too much time on it, because I’m starting to develop thick thighs from all the sitting down, but Matt says he likes a girl with some back. Luckily I have some back, and now I’m wondering if that’s why Jenna wants me to get fit, because she knows Matt prefers my voluptuary form. It’s like there’s a war going on over my body and Jenna and Matt are invading armies. The problem is that Jenna always wins and Matt usually loses and I don’t want to get fit if it means I’ll lose my back and Matt will find someone more buxom.
      Now I’m wondering if there was some compare and contrast going on with Carlos’ poem, with the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens. One has color and the other does not. One is dead and the other is alive. One is a useful tool and the other is chickens. I think that the cool thing about chickens is that they are pretty round and meaty for a bird, but they don’t worry about how other birds see them. Plus they make eggs for everybody. If I could just make everybody happy the way chickens do, and not worry about what I looked like while I did it, then I’d be pretty content with my life. Do you think maybe Carlos was jealous of chickens?
      Jenna wants me to be jealous of her, probably because she is jealous of me and Matt. I watched two sisters on this reality show that were going through nearly the same thing. They both slept with the same guy and now they were seeing each other for the first time since they had fought over him. It was a big reunion, and after a flare-up of emotion, they forgave each other. The difference is that Jenna never slept with Matt, she just had feelings for him, and now I’m wondering if maybe she’s still a virgin and her whole bad girl routine was just a way of looking cool, just like her new healthy yogi routine is a way of looking cool for her friends at Furman.
      This spring break was the worst family gathering we’ve ever had. It started out with Papa insisting on having an outdoor barbecue even though it was really too cold. He invited a bunch of friends from the hotel where he works, and one of the guys, Gordo, got really drunk and said some inappropriate things about me and Jenna. I had been taking care of Grandpa all day even though Mom was around, and I felt like being called a “hoochie mama” was a final straw. I told Papa he should stand up for us, and he said I was being sensitive, until Jenna joined in and said he should probably take revenge by sleeping with Gordo’s swamp donkey of a daughter. For a while at least Jenna and I were on the same side, and we were joking about it when Matt came over. He didn’t think it was such a funny story and he went up to Gordo and said some racial things to him, so lots of other people started taking sides and generally acting like a bunch of roosters.
      In all of the commotion, nobody had been watching Grandpa and then suddenly he was just gone. Matt had left the gate’s latch open, so by the time we noticed Grandpa was missing, he could have been anywhere. The sun had already set and it took me a long time to calm everyone down. Gordo’s buddies drove him home without it coming to a fight, but Matt was all pumped up and bellicose afterwards, and trying to blame Gordo for what happened and wondering if he should follow him to where he lived and punish him for losing my Grandpa.
      We were driving around slowly in his red Charger looking for signs of Grandpa and for some reason I chose that moment to say, “You want to know something weird? I think Jenna has a crush on you. Isn’t that cute?” I laughed.
      He was quiet for a long time, peering out the window now and then, though his neck was straining, so I’m guessing he was still looking for a fight.
      Finally he shrugged. “A college girl, huh?” he said, and smiled at me. He must have thought I was really joking with him. He shrugged. “College girls put out.”
      I suddenly felt hot in the face. What was he talking about? I’m the one who’s got some back! And I put out!
      Mr. Haley, I want to apologize to you for writing about adult situations. I learned from sexual education class that 75% of teens in modern times are sexually active, so you probably guessed I was putting out to Matt from when I called him my “partner.” I know partner means lots of different things to different people, but in our case it means we are partners in having sex. Jenna is in the 25% who are not sexually active. I learned this from her, but she didn’t have to tell me. I knew from the way she kept on trying to get me to have relations with boys, but never had a long-term boyfriend herself. Was she not putting out? Was that why she couldn’t keep a boyfriend?
      Adult situations aside, I started to become scared for Grandpa. Losing my Grandpa, even for a day, was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. I was so worried about Grandpa that after a while I didn’t even care that Matt was thinking about Jenna putting out, and I would have run away from his red Charger and never turned back if I knew it meant I could find Grandpa.
      One memory I have of Carlos the Grandpa is where he just got home from a motorcycle ride all the way to South Dakota. He smelled of oil and dust, and he walked funny from all the sitting he’d had to do for thousands of miles riding on his hog. He already had completely gray hair and tanned skin, but now he also carried something else in his face, something around the eyes, that said “I’ve been to the mountaintop and the view was amazing.” He unzipped one of the many pockets on his jacket and picked out a bag, which he dropped into my hand. When I opened the bag, I saw a sticky mess. It was some kind of chocolate that had melted, and for some reason, I cried. He was on his way into the house, but when he heard me cry, he turned around and got down on one knee so that I would be taller than him.
      “Rosa,” he said, and he took the bag from my hands gently. “Don’t worry. It’s still chocolate.” He dipped his hand into the bag and it emerged with a finger coated in creamy liquid chocolate, which he ate with eyes closed in joy. Watching him enjoy the chocolate was somehow even better than enjoying it myself.
      Driving around in the Charger with Matt, I felt terrible, because for a moment I thought, if Grandpa is gone, then I won’t have any more responsibilities and I’ll finally be able to concentrate on school and maybe even apply to college. I had another awful thought, which was that I wished Grandpa wouldn’t make more trouble for the family, like breaking into his old house. That’s when I thought, “Abuelo! His old house! Of course!”
      “Go to Biddlebaum Street,” I said to Matt, and he laughed because Biddlebaum Street has a dive bar that serves minors, and he thought I meant that I had given up and wanted to get drunk instead. “Seriously, Matt, go to Biddlebaum and drive near to the dead end.”
      So Matt did a U-turn and headed towards Route 15.
      The lights were off at 122 Biddlebaum so we stopped in front. “Who lives here?” Matt says, switching the car off, and everything turned dark because there were no streetlights on Biddlebaum.
      “Grandpa used to,” I said. “This is where my dad grew up,” I said.
      We sat there in the quiet and the dark for a while. To tell the truth I didn’t know whether I wanted to find Grandpa in the house or not.
      “So what are you waiting for?” he said.
      “Would you come with me?” I asked.
      Matt unbuckled his seat belt and opened the door. He was already halfway down the overgrown walkway when I got out the passenger side to follow behind him in the darkness. The lights were off in the house, too, but only the screen door was closed. Matt smacked the frame of the screen door with the flat of his hand. “Hey,” he said. “Grandpa,” he kept saying.
      “Calm down,” I said. “You’ll scare him away.”
      “Grandpa’s not shy,” he said. “Are you, Grandpa?”
      “He might not even be here,” I said.
      “I can see him in the recliner!” Matt said, and pulled open the screen door. He stepped in the house and I knew it was a bad idea but he was still full of adrenaline from the almost-fight at the barbecue so I didn’t reach out and try to stop him. There was an old light-skinned black man who wasn’t my grandpa sitting there with a phone in his hand pointed towards Matt like a gun. Matt knocked the phone out of his hand and grabbed him by the wrist.
      “That’s not my grandpa,” I said.
      “What?” said Matt. “Sure it is.”
      “You don’t know what my grandpa looks like?” I said.
      “I called the cops,” the old man said, like a confession.
      Matt gave me a look that was blank and sad. “Fuck this,” he said, and walked out of the house to his car, leaving me on the porch of a familiar but strange house—the same porch where my grandpa gave me the gift of melted chocolate.
      When he pulled away from the front of the house, I realized he wasn’t turning back, and I ran after the car at full speed, but that didn’t make a difference to the Charger. At first I was running to catch up with Matt, and then he was gone and I heard sirens and I imagined I was running away from the police, then after a while the sirens went away and I was just running for the sake of running, to feel the air in my lungs and the wind on my cheeks.
      Then, thank God, out of the corner or my eye I saw the glow of a used car lot. It was after hours but there was the silhouette of three men talking, one standing with his hands in his pockets, one standing with his arms folded, and the third straddling a motorcycle. I knew immediately from the slight hunch and the cowlick that it was my grandpa, even though it was out of the corner of my eye and I was far away.
      As I jogged over to them, I heard the man with folded arms saying, “—to vacate the premises, without delay, or face the legal consequences,” then he tried to say it again in Spanish. He wore a white uniform and a badge. He reached out with his arm to grab Grandpa’s elbow, but Grandpa pulled his arm away.
      “Unless he wants to buy the bike,” the other man said. “I’ll sell you the bike, even though we’re closed. After-hours special: 5% off.” The car salesman’s tie was loose, and the top button of his collar was undone. He didn’t try to repeat himself en español.
      My grandfather muttered to himself, “Algún día las cosas serán diferentes.” Someday things will be different.
      “Hey,” I said, so they wouldn’t be startled by my approach. “That’s my grandfather. He’s ill.”
      The security guard folded his arms again. “Are you the one responsible for this man’s care?”
      “I am,” I said. “But he—”
      “He’s trespassing on private property,” said the security guard, “and he’ll be arrested unless he vacates the premises immediately.”
      “—or unless he buys the bike,” said the salesman. “I won’t press charges if he makes a purchase.”
      I felt angry towards these men, the salesman and the security guard, even though I knew that both of them were just doing their jobs, just like I was just doing my job by taking care of Grandpa. But Grandpa didn’t have a job anymore, so they treated him like he didn’t even matter.
      “Abuelo,” I said, “ven a casa.”
      He didn’t reply immediately, but he shook his head with disappointment. At first, I thought he was disappointed by my failure to take care of him, but then he reached out for the salesman’s neck. The security guard reached for his taser, and the salesman backed away slightly, until they realized that Grandpa was just trying to fix the man’s tie. The salesman smirked a bit, but tolerated Grandpa redoing his tie.
      “Eso es un caballero,” Grandpa said when he was finished, satisfied with his work.
      On the walk home, we passed by something that stuck with me for some reason: it was an empty scissor lift truck—I guess the phone company left one out overnight—next to a telephone pole covered with the greenest moss I’d ever seen, and a pair of night birds (I don’t know what kind, but they were small and dark) perched on the wire.
      All of it glowed under a streetlight, and I don’t know why, but the scene felt important to me. I felt tired and thirsty, just like Carlos in his poem, and my senses felt sharper, my memory keener.
      Does that work for a conclusion, Mr. Haley? I should summarize my arguments, but the final paper is due on your desk in thirty minutes. So I’ll just tell you what happened when I got home: Jenna gave me a hug. She didn’t say, “Thank you for taking care of Grandpa,” but she implied it with her hug. I said that she and Matt could be together if she wanted to, but that I didn’t think he was such a caring person. Maybe she should wait until she found somebody who deserved her. We were both crying. “I’m so sick of waiting,” Jenna admitted.
      “I’m sick of running,” I admitted. I was sick of taking care of Grandpa, too, sick of Papa and Mama working all the time, sick of being the sadder sister. “Let’s be sick together.” Then we made fake throw-up noises that echoed into the night.