The one before last

Your hands are still old frayed cloth,
hardly ever warm,
unadorned by rings or polish, but scratched up
from your cat Saint-Mary
whom nobody likes, but you’re too attached
to the rough animals that hurt you.
I ignore her when I visit you,
but still insist on serving the tea.

You say, sit down and warm up those slippers I gave you
Christmas last year
or the one before last.
Did I knit you that scarf, do you keep yourself warm,
do you remember that war,
no, you were too young for that war,
that was the year we left home to come here.
I remember that year better than
the one before last,
will you drink all your tea,
you’re a good boy
for remembering me.

You’re an old lady now
(you call yourself that),
filled with all sorts of living
that others can’t hear.
Do you still alphabetize your grocery list,
and grow rosemary in your kitchen?
Do you still draw those pictures
of the beach from before the war?
Your sister died then
and your mother did, too.
You loved that place, sadness and all

and then you disappear in front of me,
far away into the years as you watch
the sea wash over the sand,
when you were not the last one
left to listen for it.

Have I told you about when I was a girl,
you ask. Yes, you have,
and many times to the same sad end.
But I listen, you see, and I think Mary does too
because she stops biting into the slippers you made me
the year before last, and she watches
you with her cultured cat eyes.

For a while I disappear with you and we walk the beach
and feel the salt as it bites into our pores
and I press a smudged rag into
the flesh of my boots
and wipe away the sand
with the shoe polish you keep
beside the wooden box of milk bottles by the door,
and I hear the high laughter of girls,
all the sisters,
gone now,
all gone.

and then the air is dull again
with Lemon Pledge and cat food
and a motorcycle drives by
and I am still here and
you are still counting the rocks in the sand
and we are separated by the decades again.

Come visit me again, you say.
You know I will when I can, I say.
I know your hands are old frayed cloth
and are finer every day, like antique lace.
Mine are growing more finite and painful.
I wonder if you will still remember me once the tea is all drunk
and the years gather more space between us.
Will the beach still be there for you
when we are finished with this wander,
and will you remember to bring my slippers
for when I visit?
You still smell the sea,
but I will always smell the rosemary
growing in your kitchen.

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A place for departing saints

I watched the widowed mother

pause on the steps of

Matilde of the Sacred Heart,

a sight in black and white

posed in a black polyester dress,

maneuvering

cautiously down

cracked white concrete,

and I studied her

 

studying my children

across the street

in the

catholic park,

riding their bicycles and hiding

behind summer trees and sharing

their lovely laughter,

 

and it gave her

and it gave me

and it gave us

a précis of her new world.

 

she considered the words

spoken in

the privileged language

of prayer,

still, inside, chanting, inside,

in an idiotic, monotone

 

an old rubric

gutted by a god

prone to soliloquies

 

and

she hailed a cab

for someplace else.

Our usual fable

We wash the bone mud
from our torsos,
and if there is a word for this,
it is sorrow.

We see the frustration
in the lean faces of our children,
the dirt griming their arms,
the hollowness griming their bellies.

You and I will fumble with 
our usual fable:
this will pass
and it will pass soon
and it will pass as we sleep
and the land will turn green again
and the sun will turn warm again
and the fields will grow thick again
and we will rest all our doubts,
but yes, this will pass.

A malingering moon watches
over us,
and the baby studies the
cracked face through the worn curtains
in her room.
There is music downstairs
to accompany our fable:
I have my father’s old guitar and
you tap a pencil
on the kitchen table to 
the plink of wash water in
the beaten feed bucket.

You sing indistinguishable words,
soft enough
to be a prayer and perhaps that’s what it is,
you say it is,
but it fades into hushes until we
can barely hear the sounds you meant for God.
We take turns wrapping our hands
around each other’s fists, 
and then we rest them on the gathered tablecloth,
my guitar on my knee,
Sally on your lap,
and I thank God we cannot see each other’s eyes
because I know there is resignation in them
and I know there are ashes in them
where a fire once burned,
but the fire has burned away 
and I cannot see that in you again,
I will not see that in you again,
and yes, this will pass.

We take each other to our rest
in our crumpled bed, with its heavy iron posts
that flake with rust
that you wash away with a dry rag
every morning,
and you sweep away the dirt that falls
out of my cuffs and pockets 
every night.
We will pray about love
to each other
and we will pray about love
for each other
until sleep takes us
and it will.
Like the days before it,
this one has finally passed.

The storm

We sit cross-legged on the scatter rug and listen to the rain peck at the windows. The water fractures itself against the screen and it draws patterns I want to trace with my fingers. We have a box of candles on the kitchen table, for when the dark comes back inside. She leans into me whenever the rain turns loud, and her face is solemn and so still. Outside, the wind carves itself into the hickory trees. She can’t hear me offer up comfort, so I lean back into her. We listen. We wait.

The man on the other side of the door

This is a place of unremarkable geometry, of hand hewn beams and reclaimed cabinets, of cotton curtains and poplin tablecloths.There are stout lines built around her silly feminine froth. You might savvy her girlish moods: the bright New Orleans yellow in the hallway, or maybe the baby doll figurines on the bookcase. But don’t forget, this is my home, and it is a place of unremarkable cruelties. 

There are stains in my study that look like ketchup, but are not. There are sudden movements that turn on all the security lights.There is a smell that is barely masked by the nine dollar dirt that feeds her windowsill herbs.

I’ve heard all these sounds before, but this one is closer, and I know why. There is a man on the other side of the door, limping, wet from the chase. He beats on the glass with the heel of his hand. I turn on the porch light because I know. I’ve been expecting him for twenty years, back from a time when my life was fraying. He took the left road and I took the right. I don’t want to see him now — for us to see each other, really — but his t-shirt is torn from armpit to belly, and I swore to him. He is older now, of course he is, but his eyes still show his fury, and mine have turned soft and careless. 

Richard,” was the only word he had to say, and I knew it was time.