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Four Poems, by Juan J. Morales


Death Jokes

My dad never flinched when he talked about death;
in fact, he roused future plans as casual as planting
his garden every spring. From there, jokes bloomed a smirk on his face,

“When I die, I’m going to be buried with my checkbook,
so whenever you spend money, you’ll have
to tell me hello.” I laughed

and didn’t feel fear for
his life ceasing yet. I didn’t know the plummet
inside I would feel when I got the call.

He always danced past death to say, “Maria, when you
kick the bucket, I’ll lock the door, never answer, and pray
everyone leaves me the hell alone.”

In the other version, Dad would say to us,
“When mama goes, I’ll tie my hammock up to the first
damn trees I find in Puerto Rico.”

I’m still learning how death can joke back and
join you for a sit on the patio,
and how it can entice a smile for Dad’s death jokes,

nesting like the memory of his backyard
that thrived with peach trees and lilacs, all blossoming
around now empty garden beds,

where he used to tend to tomatoes, cucumbers, squash,
radishes, and onions until harvest. I’m left imagining him there,
telling me one last punchline.


Grandpa Money

My dad collected imperfect coins.
He ordered limited editions and all
state and national park quarters.
He especially loved change
made at the Denver Mint.

He handed out
two-dollar bills
to my daughters and my nieces
and called it
“Grandpa Money.”

He gave me
a gold Sacajawea to have ready when
he asked for it
on his deathbed,
something we never got to do.

Ever since he’s passed, we are finding pennies
in odd places,
the old wheat ones,
Lincoln face-up, scraped, and
always unclaimed.

My mom and sisters believe
Dad leaves them
for us on dusty ledges, empty
table tops, and our
lonely hallways.

Everything he presents
is mislaid in our bedrooms
and offices but never spent.
We do not use them
to cover eyes or pay tolls.

We accept his bread crumbs
from the afterlife,
as reminders that
we are lucky to be here
and together now.



*On a bleary-eyed morning, after two-and-a-half hours of sleep, I swapped Facebook messages with cousins in PR. I told them my father was on his way to the crossroads, passing on, and other ways to avoid saying he was going to die.

*At the end of a night when I didn’t sleep in the hospital, my sister texted two hearts and I replied, “I love you, too.”

*In waiting for family members to arrive for goodbyes, I sent them a photo of my dad’s tattoo, and we talked about getting it in his honor, instead of all the other arrangements.

*I played phone tag with the Purple Heart, VFW, and retirees until we secured our father’s military honors. Whenever they gave me condolences, I wanted to tell them, “Not yet.”

*My work friend texted me a question and then insisted on bringing us soup. The first spoonful told me I didn’t realize how hungry I was because I felt so gnawed-up inside.

*On a phone call I took in the ICU, my tío told me in Spanish that he was a rock rooted in the river for me to hold onto. I hope I translated it right and wondered if Dad could hear me talking to his brother.

*My niece asked about making plaster handprints, so the kids, who weren’t kids anymore, could chronicle Abuelito’s hard-working hands. I told her about the first days in the ICU when he rested in bed, eyes closed, hands held up to the afterlife.

*Thursday night, when we took him off life-support, the whole family surrounded him, and I held his hand, telling him it’s okay to go. In English, Spanish, and tears, I promised to tell his story. He held on for two more days.

*My brother sent me the hospice care rep’s name, telling me to leave a message.

*Whenever asked, we explained how no one saw Dad fall during his morning walk. We only knew the damage the doctor showed us on the scans. Everything else we carried was mystery, swirled with love and grief.


One Year Later


At the end of the beautiful war movie,
the screen goes dark
except for a dedication
to the director’s grandfather,
who survived to tell of WWI.
I leave the theater, crying
uncontrollably. My friends understand but
feel uncomfortable. I grieve
alone in my car and prepare to visit
the military cemetery
in two days. I dwell on
the melancholy of Dad’s survival
stories, hopeful that the wars within him
are finally resting
even if he is not.



Then, he is everywhere
like those lucky pennies, always heads up.
We are wondering Dad,
a trickster, and if we somehow
kicked him awake.
We do not tremble
or turn away
when we sense him.



Mom tells us she found Pop
in bed, during the witching hour.
When she asked him if he
was going to work, Dad told her
he didn’t have to leave
until five-thirty. She keeps insisting
it just felt too real. He vanished
when she climbed
out of bed
to make him coffee.



My sister’s home security footage
records orbs and streaks
of light manifesting in
her kitchen and living room.
In one clip, several orbs emerge
around my father’s
favorite hat. She invites him
to talk to her. We obsess over
her orb videos, seeking signs from
the afterlife and knowing
deep down
that they are all just dust.



After a snowstorm, the neighbor,
also named Jose, clears
the snow from my mom’s walk and driveway.
Mom thanks him, and he insists
her husband, Mr. Morales, told him
to help. My mom tries to ask Jose
when this happened, but the timeline stays
unclear. A few days later, after
another accumulation, a GI living
a few doors down
clears the snow and gives Mom
the same kindness.



On Groundhog Day,
the cemetery
is almost empty,
and we apologize
for forgetting flowers.
His epitaph, chiseled
in the cold, stone slab keeps
what feels holy.
His response waits for
each question we have—
“When they call
to me, I will
answer them.”


  • Juan J. Morales is the son of an Ecuadorian mother and Puerto Rican father. He is the author of Friday and the Year That Followed, The Siren World, and The Handyman’s Guide to End Times, winner of the 2019 International Latino Book Award. His poems have appeared in Acentos Review, Big Other, Breakbeats, Vol. 4: LatiNEXT, Crazyhorse, Hayden's Ferry Review, Pank, Terrain, War, Literature, & the Arts, and elsewhere. He is a CantoMundo fellow, a Macondo fellow, the editor/publisher of Pilgrimage Press, and professor and department chair of English & World Languages at Colorado State University—Pueblo.

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