A gopherwood box

cloud-formation

I.

Boyd Henry over there, he watches me. I have never seen a child so committed to watching. He is four years old. I love him, Lord, but his intensity wears on me. He plays with his toys under the porch, and the dried-up mud and boot-grit falls on the back of his neck. He flours up the dust, and it powders most of him, but his neck gets it worse. He shows me his dusty palms when he sees me seeing him.

Lorianne is on the porch with him now, and her hands are curled around his small shoulders. I’m grateful that she loves him, because Boyd Henry is different from most. He is my gift, he is my surprise.

Today is wash day, the day I float away. Watching Boyd Henry makes me lonely to think there was a time before him. It makes me lonely whenever the wash water from the bed sheets drips onto my arms, because it bears the same coldness and travels down the same hollows of my skin as it did last week, and last month.

The sheets and towels are to be washed first. They need to hang before the rain catches them. The wind has swelled up, and it tugs at my kerchief like a kite. Boyd Henry stops wiggling in Lorianne’s arms, and he watches me as I adjust it. Son is already dirty, and he will turn into mud when it starts to rain. Daughter will wipe him down with a washcloth when she can. I smile for my children.

The crows,” says Lorianne, and she points to the sloping yard.

There are a half-dozen crows on the other side of the field gate, and they glide low to the ground. Abruptly, they ascend, like barn swallows, and there is a strenuous fold and unfolding of wings. Their constructs are not made for elegant flight, and they rise in an awkward lurch, and nearly collide with one another.

Lorianne’s face is serious, but she giggles at the strangeness of it. “Why were they flying like that, Mama?”

I don’t know,” I say, and it frightens me that I cannot answer her. Would her father know? This was his land before it was mine.

I left my mother’s house when I was young, and then I left my grandmother’s when I was done being foolish. I came here when I married Javier, and I have stayed here since he passed, six years ago. This land belonged to his family, and then to him, and now to me. But it is my children’s home now, his daughter and my son. I keep my pictures and trinkets and combs in a box carved from gopherwood, under my bed. It is all that I have left from my life before him.

II.

The rain is hard, as promised. We sit inside our little living room and listen to the tin noise. It is a loud and anxious sound. Lorianne has her collection of crayons on the rug, and she hunts for the right shade of rain. Boyd Henry watches her, and he peels off the crayon papers, one color at a time, like he is unwinding string.

I stare at the wood stove and the slow tangle of flame. How long will it keep us warm, how long will it give us light?

And the rain, it still falls, seven days in.

Boyd Henry, over there, he watches me watching him. And Lorianne, she loves me in my distraction, loves me in my worry.

My children are silver abstractions in the light. Every drop of rain cast its own shadow on the window, and each shadow weaves into the next, until they form a coarse cortina. The world we know is smaller because we are separated from the land by the sky.

Mama, when will the rain stop?” asks Lorianne.

Bless the child, the faith of that girl, that she believes the rain will ever stop.

I don’t know, Lorianne,” I say. “What do you see when you look outside?”

Boyd Henry studies my face, and Lorianne studies what lay bare beyond the window.

Rain?”

Of course, honey. What else? Look harder.”

Rain and puddles. And Mama, Boyd Henry is out there!”

I can smell the rain, I can smell the hay, freshly mown. “He’s right behind you, Lorianne.”

But he’s–” She turns, and Boyd Henry shows her his dusty palms. “But I….”

You saw his reflection, that’s all.” I breathe in the sweet clean smell of hay.

No, he was standing in the rain. And I didn’t see my reflection, or yours. Just him. Mama?”

A mirage,” I say, and sound foolish to myself. “The rain can do strange things if you stare at it too long.” I can smell Javier’s aftershave as I tend to the small cuts on his hands. I still cannot see his face.

I think the rain has stopped,” she says, and she presses her hands against the glass.

I can smell the hay, freshly mown. The rain smells just like his aftershave.

I think we can go outside now,” I say, and my two children reach for their boots.

(photo from Pexels.com)
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Fifty-four years following an unfinished burial

pexels-photo-208637

I.

The pigweed is choking out the old summer garden, 
and these morning glories have finally figured out 
the shortest distance between the dirt 
and the kitchen floorboards. 
 
The family pictures, all gone 
except for this one of Henry leaning against 
Mister Sam’s blue Chevrolet Coupe. 
You can see cousin Laurel’s shadow falling
across the patch of dandelions beside his boot,
him with a grin, and 
her, well, I don’t know
what happened  to her,
no one ever said whether living or dead.
 
That picture slipped behind the pantry shelves
and no one noticed it missing
for almost 60 years. 
Henry died back in ‘62. 
 
Spring, 1973,
another twister shredded 
the porch and the backyard tool shed. 
No one was hurt but 
for the way we thought about things.
We stayed on that particular patch of land.
Where else would we go? 
What else did we have?
 
Youngest brother Davy lost to lung cancer 
back in ‘89,
sister Marlene broke her hip down cellar
and it grew a blood clot, early winter, 2003. 
Mom, bless her heart, heart attack at 52, 
Dad, soon after that, broken-hearted 
and emphysema, 55.
And the rest that was left, cousins
and further-back kin,
well, they drifted away, you know, 
they just drifted apart.
 
There is no real hole in the moon
when it hoists itself up as a curled pale shaving,
it is the illusion of its incompleteness 
that sets your mind to doubt.

II.

Me and Lucille, we are the last ones. There is a particular sorrow in saying, ‘Remember Cousin Muriel?’ because no one does. Loo’s memory is fading, and I am right behind her. The years, you know, they pile one atop the other until the weight closes the lid. 

“They drift, honey,” Loo says, reading my mind again. “The memories, they drift like leaves, out of order, random as curtains. Sure, I remember Muriel.”

We are lying in bed, hearing/not hearing the oscillating fan that escorts us to sleep, thick family quilts piled by our feet, sardine-colored light pouring through venetian blinds. It is my turn to cook breakfast, but the floor is still cold, and I can see every word of our conversation turn to vapor. 

“I remember Muriel,” she says, and she squeezes my hand.

III.

Said my Loo: She was a very pale girl, short brown hair. Mousy hair.

I remember her lipstick, said I, what color would you call it? Brown?

Some kind of maroon, I think. It was an ugly color. Muriel introduced us, you and me, do you remember that? You were frightened of her, and that made me laugh. I don’t know why, because she scared me too. You lived just past the four-way stop, where it turned into Baltimore Road, and I spoke to you for the first time at church. You were quite a bit older.

I was two years older, Loo.

But I was a girl, she said. Two years is a lot at that particular age. 

Go on about Muriel. How did you know her?

Oh, said Loo, she sometimes taught Sunday school class, whenever Miss Barbara was ill. Her voice was so deep, like quarry water. She scared most of the girls, but she had a look in her eyes, a bedevilled look, like everything was a clever joke she constructed.

She was oddly built, I said. And her voice did come from her feet.

But she could recite those passages like she meant them. She could have become a preacher, in a different time.

And did she?

Did she what, dear?

Did she believe what she read, the gospels and the epistles, the psalms and the songs?

I don’t know, said Loo. I know she cursed when she was angry, which was often. Such vile words.

I remember her funeral, I said. It was an odd thing. It was so quiet until near the end of the service. You could barely hear the preacher speak.

No, wait, said Loo. I remember that, too.

Remember? Someone from town noticed she had been buried in the wrong plot.

They put her beside your cousin Henry, was that it?

Henry was not kin, I said. I’m not sure of his distinction. He was a friend of cousin Laurel, I think. Henry died the year before. Scarlet Fever? I know that Muriel was afraid of him, she made mention of it to everyone. No one ever explained to me why she was afraid of him. Oh, what a foolish mistake that was, burying her in the wrong spot. It made the whole thing feel so unfinished. I was twelve years old, and even I knew it was a bad thing.

Did they ever move her to a different spot?

No, I said. It would take too long, and cause too much sorrow for the family to go through it again. The church planted a rosebush between the two plots as a compromise, but the roses always died. In time, everyone who attended the funeral passed, or forgot, or stopped caring. Because that all happened in the old century, you know.

Just like us, said Loo, rather bitterly. From the old century. And then she smiled. But we still remember, don’t we, Charlie?

For now, I answered. This damn room isn’t getting any warmer. You want your eggs scrambled or over-easy this morning?

Oh, honey, you know how I like them. I trust you.

IV.

Take a look at this picture. It was taken by someone I don’t remember, of someone whom I can barely recall. But I remember the event, the time of day, the slant of the sun, the sound of the bees surrounding the morning glories, the smell of the illicit beer on Henry’s breath, my father laughing behind me, my mother watching through the kitchen window, and I remember my cousin Laurel sliding away from the camera. She was a shy girl.

Mister Sam drove his brand new Coupe straight onto our lawn, and he parked it beside the side porch. My father loved the lines of that car, coveted it for himself, and wanted a chance to drive it. The car was beyond his means, but he didn’t hold it against Mister Sam. They were friends.

Someone pulled out their box camera, Henry stepped in front before anyone was ready for a formal shot, and the picture was taken.

But look closely. Focus in on the shadow that leans into the dandelions by Henry’s foot. There is a second shadow intersecting the primary one. It belongs to me, reaching for a kiss from Laurel. She was trying to move away from me, and her shadow bumped into the portrait. She was afraid of me. It wasn’t my first attempt at a kiss. And she wasn’t the only cousin from whom I attempted one.

“Don’t,” she said, and then she ran away. She didn’t say anything when I met up with her later, when we were alone.

I have lost my dear Lucille, and my heart grows more weary with each step I take towards her stone. We were the last of our time, me and Loo, and now I’m the last. I will lay roses on her grave every day until I am unable, and hope they will survive me. She is the only one I need to remember.

It is the illusion of my completeness that sets my mind to doubt.

(photo from Pexels.com)

Unintentional harm

There was a bruise on her thigh
the size of my eager young thumb,
the shape and color of a cat’s serving of
Neapolitan ice cream.
It was not my intention to cause her such a harm,
but it was the mark of my drowning eagerness for her,
a thoughtless expression of my wretched rawness.

I did kiss her quick,
a slight sweep upon her hip,
my lips a light touch upon her caramel skin.
She did not flinch or brush me away,
and in her eyes I saw a reflection of myself:
ragged, thin, braced against a cracked nighttime window
framing my narrow frame into a surprising self-portrait.

And I, unexpected, delivered her no preach of the affection
she had overwhelmed in me.
She poured over my every pore,
and my thirst for her was abated, though my heart was dispirited
that I caused her even this unintentional harm.

Soft brick window wells

do they still hold sleepovers
behind the textile plant,
on those burned-out chesterfields and
the la-z-boys with the brown foam
spilling out of the arms,

and do the bricks still smell like homemade
Portuguese wine
and wet takeout cartons

are the psalms still written on the plywood windows,
random angry verbs and treatises on
Vietnamese honey bees, and
big-G Gods and little-g goddamn ex-wives,
it’s all there, Mister Tinn, a written history
of living drunk on lower Caraway Street

but do you know what it is,
what it really is,
it’s all hidden in the uncomplicated folds of
the fabric of her skirt
like laurel leaves
under my fingers
that certain shade of green
and that certain breath she held
when she saw me approach her
and then

leave
and I’m

flicking cigarette butts into
coffee cans and soft brick window wells
clotted with three years worth of dead leaves
and I’m hoping
maybe something will ignite

and hey, there’s the new kid Carlos explaining again
the harmony of Samdhana yoga
to those with no fucking flexibility, he says
there was too much oneness between the sangria and his breath
when he tried his Yin posture on his teacher and her husband
swore he would beat the living shit out of him
if he tried that kind of

harmony
again

so do you think maybe he’s old enough
to end up dying here
with the rest of us

damages

these
there
are the scars she said a fleshybrown
hook on her belly a rage of adjectives against her
skin by hand under shirt under skirt look
here where the skin broke
at the damages she tolerates
for not knowing
his rages against the surface part of her,
the retractable blade
went here, look, touch these damages
they are only torn fabric silk and muscle bleeding
dye and plasma, dying
you hear a different meaning
from the language she has given you

The state of the body

He looked so hollow in his little box, surrounded by God and all the unlit penny candles. The living lines of his face were erased. I could see the gray in his hair, a fine drift of curls I had not noticed before. His untamed eyebrows were freshly barbered, his flamboyant complexion struck butter-dull. This is what was left of my father: a plastic sculpture of what he looked like, not who he was. This was not the Papa-Monster who rubbed his 12-hour beard across my giggling face, or the Singing Papa Bear, his hushed baritone leading me to the good sleep beyond the bad dreams. 

The church was empty and I stood alone. Perhaps Father Miguel was behind me, watching me become a man at eleven years of age, perhaps waiting for the first manifestation of physical grief, I do not know. I did not cry or whimper or buckle. The church could have been full, it did not matter, I was still alone, and it was right that I should be. Alone with my father. The state of his body did not matter, except that it meant his soul was nearby, studying me, listening to me, reading my heart. He helped me to walk through the rest of that day, and the days that followed. My grief, I decided, would be a private thing, something between him and me.

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.