Little Red Book

By Jeffrey Harrison

Featured Art: Le Code Noir by Pierre Prault

I unearth it while cleaning up my office,
The Little Book of Common Sense Investing
that my father sent me two years before he died,
its bright red cover like an accusation,
a yellow Post-it bearing his cheerful
half-script still attached: “Jeff—even if you read
only the first part of this book, you’ll get the gist.
Return it some time, no hurry. Love, Dad.”
I chose to place the emphasis on “no hurry”
and hadn’t cracked its little crimson spine
when, a year later, he asked me what I thought.
When I told him I hadn’t gotten to it yet,
he said he wanted it back, so he could lend it
“to someone who might actually read it.”
“But I might still read it,” I said half-heartedly.
“No, you won’t.” Which made me all the more
determined not to read it, so I said fine,
I’d send it back. But I never did—and then
he got sick, and our investment
in that particular contest seemed pointless.

But here it is again, this little red book
so unlike Mao’s, as if my father were making
a move from beyond the grave. Okay, my turn.
Is it because I need to prove him wrong
even now, or that I want to make amends
belatedly for disappointing him yet again
that I open the book and begin reading?
Or am I doing it in his honor? And is he
still trying to tell me I invested
in the wrong things?—poetry, for instance.
“Counting angels on a pin,” he said once.
Which is just the kind of cliché I find in the book.
Later, though, he claimed to like my poems,
the funny ones at least. And if we drew a graph
of our relationship over his last decades
it would look a lot like the Dow: a steady ascent
with several harrowing jagged downward spikes.
The little red book says nothing about those,
though it does advise not getting too caught up
in the market’s dramatic nose-dives.

Unless, perhaps, you’re trying to realize
your loss—another topic that the book,
with its rosy perspective, blithely avoids
as it enthuses on “the miracle of compounding.”
But instead of getting annoyed I feel an odd
joy: my father could have written this book.
He too was an optimist who liked to talk
about money, and so I used to ask him questions—
What’s the best kind of mortgage to get? Is life
insurance a good idea?—and those led
to some of our least fraught conversations.
That’s why he gave me the book. And he
was right: I get the gist after two chapters.
And the suggestions seem helpful, if limited—
I even underline a few sentences.
Still, that other book, the one about losses,
would be more complicated, and harder to write,
its author finally coming to understand
that, no matter what the future brings,
he won’t be able to ask his father’s advice.

Jeffrey Harrison is the author of six full-length books of poetry, including, most recently, Between Lakes, which was published by Four Way Books in 2020, and Into Daylight, which won the Dorset Prize and was published by Tupelo Press in 2014. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among other honors. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and journals, as well as in Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize volumes, and other anthologies.

Originally published in Issue 19. (NOTE: author said they “could be convinced” on republishing this, but didn’t explicitly give permission.)

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