Poems Long division at the dinner table

francine j. harris

Under the windowsill flowers, my father, stark like
math without calculator, sitting so still and nothing
but a blackened gum eraser and little yellow pencil
at table, among the kitchen pastel, a noon window
as I divide big number into big number, add another
line, another mark he bemoans with the rule and deep
voice at the back of his throat, and the face he makes
when I miscalculate, and then sit more with him, carry
one and drop three and lay it at the back of more odd
number and if I get stuck, he might nod, tell me work it
out
, hand me scrap paper, which we never throw away; we
distrust easy and waste, because longhand might be hard but
is the best way, with multiplication in the margin, and another
line carried, one below impossible math, what on this god’s
earth does twenty-seven go into, as he heats coffee on the
tiny stove and my mother stitches balls of his socks under
lamp with a magnifying glass, and an odd number makes de-
cimal which means now we are into fraction, his gum eraser
marred up and black with sketches, maybe, or math he used to
decide to whom he owes, what he might make on the street, how
many hours he has, how late he has to stay out to make enough
for it, and in mornings he leaves, as if for work, and in summers I
sit sometimes after breakfast at the kitchen table doing that divis-
ion until I figure it out; it could take a very long time if he doesn’t
let me round up; I used to wait for him at the window, like it’s really
a miracle if you think about it, an odd thing someone should figure out
long division like that, the whole thing about carrying and stacking lines
under lines so perfect they became the only way you can work out the math.