An Urn Among Music Boxes by Tom Hunley

An Urn Among Music Boxes


My dad is made of balsa wood.
He’s wider than he is tall,
taller than he is deep.

On his face, you can read
“Footprints,” the sentimental poem
that everyone’s mom sticks on the fridge.

My dad has Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Roundup® from the farm next door infected him.
First an allergic reaction to meds
made his tongue swell up, gave him a rash.
Then came tests. Then came the diagnosis.

In the hospital, he couldn’t talk
except by spelling on a board.
A machine breathed for him.
He ate through a tube in his nose.

If you open him up and turn the key
inoffensive music should come out.
It’s my task to open him up, turn the key,

and listen, knowing the music will wind down.


I guess I retire from Walmart
my dad wrote from his hospital bed,
but nothing could make him quit

flea markets, so here we are
my sisters and I, lifting boxes
arranging inventory on tables

like kids again doing whatever Dad says—
hard work but also a cakewalk
started and stopped by the rhythmic

orders coming from Dad’s still-damaged voice.


Last night, in the deep fog on 234E,
two deer galloped in front of my car
and I had to swerve to miss them

as Lou Reed music set my stereo reeling.


Test each music box, my dad says.
If there’s no music, don’t put it on the table.
If the glass is broken, don’t put it on the table.

Dad, this one’s not a music box.
It’s an urn. It has instructions
on the bottom for storing ashes

and no music comes out.
My dad says Morticians charge
bank for those. $5 per music box.

$10 for the urn. My dad’s a music box.
My sisters and I are music boxes, too.

When the music stops, someone will land in the urn.


At 8am, a vendor, crossing the street
to get something from her car
gets hit by a vehicle going 50mph.

I hear it and hope it isn’t my car
getting hit. Then I hear Ohmigod
and Get up, Mama, and minutes later

a lady holding a coffee maker
asks Will you take $3?
and my dad takes her money as

his friend Shawn directs traffic,
and an ambulance comes
as does a helicopter like the one

that airlifted my dad two months ago
and a teenage girl, trying to figure out
which music box to have her boyfriend

buy for her opens several boxes
at once and there’s this cacophony
of chimes and my dad says

Quit standing around, son. We’ve got work to do.


Tom Hunley’s latest books are Adjusting to the Lights (winner of the 2020 Rattle Chapbook Prize) and What Feels Like Love: New and Selected Poems (C&R Press 2021).

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