The 1970’s were full of firsts for many people. Richard Nixon became the first president to resign from office. Raul Castro became the first Latino to hold the office of Governor in the great State of Arizona. My mother, Anita Ortiz, became the first in her proud, Hispanic family to marry an Anglo. Thomas Gordon, my father, became the first in his Anglo family to marry a divorced, single mother of non-European descent, although they were fond of describing her as “Spanish.” Thomas and Anita then went on to have me, their first child together, but not their first child. My half-brother, Luis, was my mother’s first.
Shortly after my birth, my mother returned to work and started attending college. While school was in session for my mom and brother, my dad’s mother watched me during the day. Until I started attending school myself, this is where I spent half of my life. My father’s family lived across the city and a world away.
My grandparent’s white ranch house sat on a little over an acre, nestled between old orange groves. Set far back from the street, the long drive stretched out lazily next to the neat rows and rows of trees that hid the neighbors’ houses. Out behind the drive and the garage was the back acreage, where my grandparents always kept a couple head of cattle and let the neighbors’ horses graze.
The little ranch had a rhythm as steady as a heartbeat. Every morning that I was there, my grandmother would give my grandfather a lunch packed in a shiny metal lunchbox, a thermos full of coffee, and a kiss. In the morning, he always smelled like a combination of mustache wax and aftershave, his wavy, grey hair neatly parted and combed. He would walk out the door, off to his job of designing jet and rocket fuel, with a pen and mechanical pencil in his front pocket, his keys, and a pack of Camel cigarettes in his hand. In this house, everyone spoke English without an accent or a brogue and the breeze carried with it the sweet smell orange of blossoms and fresh cut grass.
Summers in Arizona could give the Devil heat rash. My mom drove a 1973 AMC Hornet, which had a special setting on the air conditioner for “desert climates.” This did nothing to prevent crayons from melting into the floor mats, vinyl records from warping, or the big metal seat belt buckles from branding us while we waited for the air conditioning to kick in. My brother and I would threaten to report my folks for child abuse if they tried to drive us across town during the summer. So, if my parents ever needed a sitter in the evenings, on the weekends, or during the summertime, we stayed with someone from my mom’s large extended family, all of whom seemed to live within a five-mile radius of us. It was within this tight circle that I spend the other half of my childhood.
When I went to my grandparent’s house, the routine was always the same. My mother walked me up to the house. The adults exchanged pleasantries. My mother told my grandmother when she could expect her to return. My mother gave me a kiss and I waves goodbye from the back porch.
With my mother’s family, it was a crapshoot. We’d drive up to one of the aunts’ houses; my brother and I tumbled out of the car like excited puppies, tripping over ourselves to get to the house and out of the sun. We’d knock on the door and if someone answered, we’d turn, wave to our parent and go inside. As soon as we passed the threshold, they’d back out of the drive. There were no arrangements made, no pick up times discussed. If the door opened, we went inside. If not, we trudged back to the idling car, reluctantly got back in, drove a couple blocks in any direction, and repeated the process. The first house we usually hit was my Tia Gloria’s house.
Gloria was my mother’s oldest sister. She and my uncle Hector had five kids ranging in age from their early twenties to just a few years older than Luis. All seven of them lived in a little yellow house in the middle of the barrio. Their back yard was home to an old pickup that had wood running boards that creaked and moaned when you stepped on them, and a handful of wiry chickens that left their eggs all over the yard including in bed of the truck. Two mutts named Frito and Lay protected the chickens from cats and hawks and other poachers, but mostly they slept in the shade under the truck.
In this house, accents came and went, thicken and soften depending on the audience, the mood, or the weather. Some spoke Spanish heavily peppered with English, other English sprinkled with Spanish phrases and slang.
Here the air was heavy with the sticky, sweet smell of cooked citrus juice coming from the big brick processing plant that made the syrup for Squirt soda at the end of the street. Any noise coming from the plant was drown out by kids laughing, dogs barking, music playing, and people talking to each other over fences and through the open windows and screen doors. The only time the noise subsided was when everyone headed inside for dinner.
By the time the Ortega family settled in for a meal around their Formica and metal table, my Tia Gloria and my cousin Sofia had been cooking for forever. It was amazing to watch those two women gracefully glide and spin around each other in that tiny kitchen. Even the food seemed to be a part of the dance, somehow popping, bubbling, and sizzling in time to the Tito or Celia Cruz songs coming from the radio that sat on top of the fridge.
I so wanted to be a part of the culinary ballet, not knowing that I was witnessing was a finely choreographed performance, honed over years of practice. When I rushed in and begged to help, I did nothing but throw them off their steps. As a five year old, they banished me from the kitchen, ordering me to go play. But I didn’t. I perched on the arm of the couch, so I still had a clear view of their dance, and sulked.
Tio Hector came home from working at one of the farms that used to surround the Valley and found me pouting in his living room. Every day for the better part of a week, he walked in the door, kiss me on the top of my depressed little head, and ask “¿Que pasa, mijita?”
“Nada,” I responded, trying to look as dejected as possible.
“I’m not allowed to help. I’m too little.”
“Then go play.”
“It’s too hot.”
Then he patted me on the shoulder as if he understood the troubles weighing down my soul, and he headed to the shower to wash off the bits and pieces of his day that stuck to him. But after a few days, he’d had enough.
“¿Quieres ayudarme?” he asked me.
I paused before I responded to his invitation to help. I hoped that it didn’t involve standing in the backyard, waiting to fetch tools or beer while he worked on that ancient truck. But, even that was better than doing nothing.
“Si, como no.” I finally answered.
Every day after he came home and showered, he worked with me so I could master my new responsibilities. The first day I watched.
“Mira, mijita,” he began. “Take one of the papeles and lay it like this.”
He laid the tiny rectangular sheet of paper on the coffee table in front of us. He sat on the sofa and I knelt on the floor between his bare feet, both of us facing the table. He hunched over me, so that the paper and his hands were directly in front of me. As I watched, I could smell the Ivory soap on his freshly scrubbed skin. He grabbed a pinch of what looked like pencil shavings from a pouch, and laid them in a neat little row on the edge of the paper.
“Mira, only this much. No mas or it falls out.” He put my index finger over the row.
“See, only as wide as your finger,” he instructed. Then he nimbly rolled it into a tight little tube with his leathered and calloused fingers. He picked it up and held it out at my eye level.
“Pick it up like this. Okay? With the edge of the paper facing up so you can lick it like an envelope.” I turned to watch him quickly swipe his tongue along the edge.
“Not too much vavas. You don’t want to make it wet.” He continued his lesson. “Okay, this is important. Gently run your finger over the edge to press it down. Remember, gently, just to get paper to stay down. Don’t pinch it or mush it.”
We practiced that way every evening for days. The first cigarette, I watched. The second, we did together, his sun baked farm hands guiding mine, still baby pink. The third, did on my own. By the end of the week, I graduated. From there on, it was my job to have three cigarettes waiting for Tio Hector. After he got home and showered, I went in the backyard with him and looked for any eggs the chickens may have hidden while he smoked the first cigarette. When he was done, we washed up for dinner. I never saw him smoke the other two. He saved them for just before bed and right after breakfast the next day.
One day my mom came earlier than usual to pick us up.
“Hola,” she called as she walked through the door. Tia Gloria and Sofia paused just long enough to stick their heads out from the kitchen, returned the greeting, and returned to cooking.
“Monica, go find Luis and tell him it’s time to go,” my mom ordered.
“Just a second,” I said as I brought a tightly rolled cigarette up to my lips and licked the edge.
She just stood there, dumbfounded, and watched me as I smoothed the paper down and set the cigarette next to the other one I had finished just before she walked in the door.
“What are you doing?” she finally asked.
“Making cigarettes for Tio Hector,” I proudly stated. “He taught me.”
“It’s true,” Tio Hector said, his voice coming from behind my mother, which made her jumped a little. He was beaming at me, his pride nearly matching my own. My mother’s face did not mirror ours.
“I don’t think she should be doing that, Hector.” She sounded worried. My heart sank. I didn’t know why she wasn’t happy too, but I knew enough that it worried me. However, my uncle didn’t stop smiling at me even for a second.
“Why?” he asked.
I watched her struggle for an answer. Then, after what seemed like an extremely long time, she finally offered something up.
“Well, it doesn’t seem right that she knows how to roll cigarettes but she can’t even tie her own shoes yet.” I watched both my mom and tio’s faces.
“Maybe she should learn how to do that first,” she offered.
“¡Aye, mija!” Tio Hector exclaimed dramatically putting his hands over his heart and rolling his eyes. “You don’t know how to tie your shoes?”
I shrugged my shoulders, not quite understanding why this was a big deal. The flip-flops and sandals that I wore during the summer didn’t have laces to tie. Tio Hector smiled down at me and put his hand out. I smiled back and handed him his three neatly rolled smokes.
“That’s fine,” my Tio Hector said to my mother. As I stood and started to follow her out the door, Tio Hector asked me, “Where’s my hug?” As I hugged him, he lifted me up, kissed me on the cheek, and softly said, “Gracias, muñeca.”
The next day, all of my family descended on our house for my brother’s birthday. Most of the houses in our neighborhood were older, filled with what my dad called “blue collar families”, and had tidy yards with a bike or skateboard strewn under a tree or on the sidewalk. And almost all of them had swimming pools.
Our swimming pool was ancient and the plaster would peel layers of skin from your feet. But it was ours and in the summer, we practically lived in it. We were also the only ones in the family on either side with a pool. So everyone showed up any time there was an excuse to use it, like my brother’s birthday.
I loved it when my Grandpa Gordon would come over to swim. He taught me how to swim like a frog and side scissor kick. He’d throw coins into the deep end, and my brother and I would see how many we could grab before we had to come up for air. When we got tired, my grandpa and I would share an inner tube or raft, and just float around until it was time to eat.
After my grandfather had shared a second piece of cake with me, he was sitting on the pool deck, smoking a cigarette. I sat down next to him and picked up his pack of Camels.
“How many are in here?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Let’s look on the package.”
I examined the box until I found the number.
“20!” I exclaimed. “Wow. It would take a long time to make all those.”
“They have machines that do it really fast,” my grandpa assured me as I handed him his pack.
My mom was walking around the patio and pool deck collecting plates and glasses. She called me over to help carry the stuff she’d gathered.
“Don’t talk to Grandma and Grandpa Gordon about cigarettes. Okay?” she said quietly. She had that same look on her face as before, as if we were going to get in trouble.
“Why?” I asked, all my concern punctuating my question.
“Well, it’s just not good manners, I guess.” She said, her eyes hopeful that I would either understand or just leave it there.
“Is it bad?” I asked and heard her let out an exacerbated sigh.
“No, not bad. It’s just not polite.”
The whole next week at the Ortega house, after Tio Hector came home, I learned to tie shoes. He taught me as patiently and methodically as he had before. He brought out every shoe his kids owned and set them out on the floor in front of the TV. I practiced, while he washed up. If I knotted up one shoe, which I inevitably did, I just moved on to the next one. By the end of the week, when our mother came to get us, I eagerly showed off my new skill.
After that, I went back to rolling cigarettes. It took a few days for my mom to catch on that I had started production again. But when she saw the three cigarettes waiting for my uncle on the coffee table, the look returned to her face.
“I don’t think Monica should make cigarettes anymore,” she announced as Tio Hector walked into the living room.
His thick black hair was still wet from his shower and he had slicked it back. He looked like Ricky Ricardo in cuffed blue jeans and a white t-shirt instead of a suit.
“¿Por que?” he asked. His voice sounded like he was tired of this conversation before it began.
“It’s just not right,” she began and looked up to see how even that much of the objection registered with him. He just looked at her and then at me, waiting to hear more.
“The tobacco is full of chemicals and nasty stuff,” she continued. “She shouldn’t be touching it. What if it turns her fingers brown?”
Tio Hector smirked at the idea. Then he looked her straight in the eye. “That’s not the problem,” he decided. “What’s wrong?”
My mom flushed, took a deep breath, and then blurted out, “White kids don’t roll cigarettes.” She took another deep breath. “What are the Gordons going to say when they find out their granddaughter is rolling cigarettes?”
Although she said everything very calmly and quietly, she looked embarrassed and guilty.
“I think they have machines that make cigarettes,” I offered, trying to help. However, this only made her more upset. Tio Hector went over to her, gently wrapped her in his arms, and hugged her for a minute.
“Calmate,” I heard him tell her. “Esta bien.”
He stepped back and swept her hair away from her face with his finger. “You can’t avoid it, Anita,” he said. “She’s going to brown up sooner or later, and not because of the tobacco. I promise you, they will love her either way.”
She sighed and the redness that showed up in big angry blotches on her cheeks and neck began to fade. Tio Hector pulled her close again until I heard her say, that he was right and she was sorry. As we drove home, Luis kept asking why no one was talking and what was wrong. I didn’t answer because I didn’t understand what happened or how to explain it. So, we were quiet.
The next time I went to the Ortega house, there was a little box wrapped in comics from the Sunday paper and tied with a bright piece of yarn sitting out on the coffee table.
“Mija, that’s for you,” Tia Gloria told me. “Pero, escuchame. Don’t open it until Hector comes home.”
All day I was drawn to the little, neat package. I ran my finger over the fuzzy yarn until I accidentally untied it. Luckily, I could tie it again, but I couldn’t remember if I needed to double knot it or not. I did anyway, just to be safe. I held it up to my ear and shook it, then quickly set it back down. Finally, Tia Gloria took it away and put it on the kitchen counter because I was driving her crazy. That day I drank a gallon and a half of water just so I had an excuse to go into the kitchen and see if it was still there.
After what seemed like ages, Tio Hector came home. I asked if I could open the gift as soon as he walked in the door.
“Just wait until I take my shower,” he instructed.
“Hector!” Tia Gloria yelled from the other room. “Don’t be mean. Let la niña open it!”
I ran to retrieve it from the counter and hustled back to sit next to Tio Hector on the couch. As I peeled away the paper, the glossy box underneath showed a picture of a toy I’d never seen before. In my experience, boxes were reused a lot, so you couldn’t trust the picture on the outside. I quickly opened it to find the same curious toy I had seen on the box. I looked up at my Tio Hector and said thanks but with a question mark hanging on the end.
“It’s a machine,” he took it in his hands and examined it. “A machine that rolls cigarettes for you, like you said.”
He handed it back to me and pulled the instructions out of the discarded box. For the next few days, we learned how to use my new rolling machine. It stayed at the Ortega’s house and I used it every day that I was there, although we never spoke of cigarettes again.
A man told me there was nothing he would rather keep noticing—and he pointed to the spaces between palm fronds, chinks of turquoise and a few clouds. Just now, into this recollection, wanders an egg on a green dish.
On library card stock I have written either Distant Noise or Distant Nurse. The former, with its taint of oxymoron, suggests the story of an enchanted chain-saw marooned on a desert island. The latter evokes the severe hair and pointed chin of a person from my past.
Into our lives comes a small cat, scratching at the screen door, its expression weary and disillusioned. Oh come in, we say, and we give it a little saucer of milk, which it laps up. Then it begins to talk to us in our own language. It is full of complaints concerning the economy, the world energy situation and life on this planet, the great mystery being that we weren’t consulted, we are helpless pawns of the universe, yadda-yadda. In other words, not only a smart cat, but a phenomenally bitter cat.
MOUSE CHOIR, AN OPERA
1. Today a mouse choir will perform for us Verdi’s la donna e mobile, which means woman is fickle.
2. The mice with their weak chins and strong noses have ferreted out our desires which are otherwise secret.
3. Kafka had a habit of incorporating mice into fiction.
4. Our desires are not so extraordinary, claims Rigoletto, a grotesque dwarf.
5. Adorable in bonnets and knee socks, they approach the stage like a band of 3 year olds, uncertain of what is required, bewildered…
6. Kafka had a habit of visiting prostitutes.
7. Verdi began an affair with a soprano “at the twilight of her career.”
8. They assemble in a pool of greyness.
9. There was, for example, one called Josephine, a soulful queen.
10. woman is fickle woman is fickle they will soon sing, but they know not what they sing.
11. We, on the other hand, with our hidden desires, our secret yearnings…
12. How we long to be placed in another era, among a new crop of mice!
13. Before singing, it is customary to squeak a little
14. as if pumping the air out of a room.
THE CORPSE AND ITS ADMIRERS
The coffin is grey with gold curlicues at the corners, at each of the four corners, although we only see two from where we are sitting with our mother. Each curlicue of a golden color has a shiny ring of silver around it and then some dots. The dots are very small.
The oak casket is very big. It is 10 feet. Maybe it is 20 feet. The feet of the corpse jut up from it since it is a shallow casket. Picture a pork chop in a crepe pan and that is how the body looks in the casket: jutting up, the nose pointed and white, the feet in their brown cordovans.
Our mother is crying. She is fishing around in her patent leather purse while crying and her face is very red and ugly. Picture a wadded up piece of cloth soaked in bloody nose damage and you will get the feeling of her face. In her patent leather purse are the following items: sunglasses, a movie ticket stub from The Paradine Case starring
Gregory Peck who falls in love with an imprisoned woman, Kleenex, lifesavers, both of which are in blue and white packages.
For a murderess, the Paradine woman is exceptionally well-dressed.
The purse of our mother has a gold clasp shaped like a fish.
Also there is some change at the bottom and some flakes of tobacco, given that our mother is trying to quit smoking cigarettes.
We are embarrassed at the noises our mother makes when she weeps. Picture a siren interrupted by a braying sheep and also a coughing giant and you will have some idea how she sounds.
I myself am sewing a sleeve on a blouse.
The corpse does nothing. This is its advantage. There is a fly on the casket, resting languidly on one of the blond oak lintels. In a bad mood.
Now, my sister whispers, he will have no more bad moods.
I myself nod wisely, the blouse which is of a silky and thus slippery material slithers around on my little lap.
Yes, I say. I have only 10 stitches to go. Maybe 20. Then I will sew a little something onto my sister’s head who has begged me for some time to do this.
The corpse’s nose is long and white-tipped. From here we can only imagine the soft flare of the nostrils. Or maybe it is a hard flare. We can vaguely recall the teeth, yellow from the smoking of Pall Malls.
My mother who has given up smoking now removes a black veil from her purse. 10 feet long. Or 20 feet. Very long, it unfolds and unfolds, it seems this unfolding will go on forever, my sister Razor whispers to me, and soon we are covered in it, like insects trapped in a spider’s web.
My mother is bald and so is my sister. Once, at her request, I stitched the words WEIRD ZONE onto my mother’s scalp.
My father, who is dead, is not a skinhead but a corpse.
My mother covers us with her veil, still weeping, still shuddering under the veil but now we are part of that shuddering since, beneath the spider web veil, my sister, my mother and I make one shape.
We are thus part of the shape of my mother.
My father is crying in his casket but his tears are the tears of corpses which go inward and keep the body from thawing and melting away.
The blouse is made of vinyl (I think) and has little rubber buttons. I am sewing the sleeve, I just realized, in the wrong place.
Inside the coffin my father is sneezing. My mother reaches into her purse. Once more she reaches into it and this time removes a half dozen tacos which she divides among us. Then salsa and little plates of rice. Then spoons.
My father, when alive, was not a stitcher. He was not an eater. He had his moods which hammered themselves into our tumbling home, into our mother’s makeshift spirit. He was not a weeper.
No thank you, I tell our mother. Even so, I cannot seem to work up an appetite. The corpse is still sneezing and weeping, more copiously now: picture a jackhammer drilling into a human brain and you will have some idea of the racket which is beginning to assert itself into the air surrounding the coffin.
Perhaps he has allergies, my sister whispers.
All the while I am stitching the sleeve on the blouse—and it is going much, much better now, thanks for asking, creating a neat little seam in the shape of scythe. I am trying to think of a prayer to say for my father’s soul and the effort to do so makes me recall several moments: jumping rope, my father at one end, laughing with his mouth full; or driving over the bridge, my father saying he was frightened and so could not look; or singing for him at a large party and his face beaming and beaming. Hard to believe a face so white and frozen could have beamed so warmly or that in the cave of his arm we had felt so protected. Nevertheless.
The Paradine woman, a master of duplicity, manages to destroy Gregory Peck who she hates for luring her lover (Louis Jordan) into suicide. His career over, his love unrequited and disdained, he returns to his nice wife (Ann Todd) who comforts him like a mother.
Not that our own mother is all that comforting. She distributes tacos from her voluminous purse and now she is chewing loudly. So many noises in this room! My mother chewing and swallowing, my father weeping and sneezing, my sister whispering, and I am making the sound of she who stitches a sleeve onto a blouse and who will soon stitch a little something onto the scalp of my sister.
The great moral lesson of The Paradine Case is that we should not trust attractive foreigners, no matter how beautifully dressed. Another way of saying this is that we must stay within our familiar realm and not venture forth. Don’t flirt with danger. Be safe. Or for me, a stitch in time saves nine.
Now that the father is dead, our lives will surely change. He who had been our armor, our jailer. He who stabbed us with his words and then caressed us. We who were stabbed, then caressed, defended and incarcerated. We may have murdered him, too.
At some point it occurs to me that we are all everything, that nothing separates us. Picture a parade of ants going toward a picnic arranged on a red-and-white checked tablecloth and then picture a foot coming down. We are all things. The ants, the picnic and the foot.
Time was too long each winter. Each spring
death clung to our tongue. Just below
it milled failure and success: lambing seasons
that arrived to survive, the job
that finally paid, the art of making love
even when we felt less than whole. We knew
the Bible would fly off the table
at a moment’s drink. That the dog’s sound
sleep meant mining activity along the Big Laramie
River had not lasted past 1882. A hundred years
of lack dread-fed today. She said something
or other. He heard something something something.
We cattle-swung regret, lumbering in
from the wheat, our heads jostling side to side,
mumbling as if our mouths meant medicine.
Suicide was not an option. The pawnshop
was too far south, and we didn’t want to register
defeat. It was easier to watch documentaries
of the Civil War in the palm of the hand
to a bluegrass backdrop that said those times
of cloud cover were cruel. The Denver Mint,
too, was south. The silver had long run
out downstream from what our grandmothers hoped could be
permanent indoor plumbing. Sure, we’d grown
far enough to shit indoors, but now the smell
of a hundred years of struggle lingered
long minutes inside, crawling
up the wall. We tried to take
walks, even when it rained, the sound
on our roofs a rustle of restless regret
keeping us locked in homes whose walls
displayed photos of how we’d aged. Each smile,
given on cue, somehow meant falling through
the boards. How we thought the present was here
to stay. How our tongues held dread. How a spring
lamb, unsteady and weak, might bleat defeat.
it lay there, flopping, fish-out-of-water
and my heart trembled on the curb
the usual fisherman’s tales
a woman onlooker upset, that’s animal cruelty
flapping in air, fingers hooked
to its spiracles as its mouth gaped and shut
barbecued stingray is commonly eaten
in Southeast Asia, the flaps, or wings,
most desired for eating
my friend, the doctor, well, it’s not really torture
the lower brain, the lesser feeling
the uncertainty of recent findings
caught one once with five-foot fins
it can live a few hours out of the water, it’s fine
caught a two-to-three-hundred pounder
nociception is the ability of an organism
to identify or notice a harmful stimulus
and react by reflex to avoid it
my heart at the curb, flipping
I walked away, I could not stop
When she screamed, I thought it was a child.
Later, she would refer to this sound as a “school-girl” sound,
which is – I’ll admit – what it sounded like. But I dislike the connotation
of weakness and young womanhood, to scream like that. It probably isn’t
the sound I would make, being wiser about these things and not new
to the idea like she was. I would like to think I’d have shouted,
stood tall, clapping my hands—
thok, thok, thok
But this is just what I imagine. And anyway, even if I would have been
more butch in my choice of sound, is that some sort of judgment
on what sounds emerge from what bodies
Who sings and who sighs
Who whispers and who lisps
It was what she had wanted,
in a way, kept wishing it, and then it happened, and I should have
gone with her, but she said no, and how was I supposed to know
that she wanted me to insist—
When it happened, I thought it was a child. Then, I thought
she must be witnessing it, and how exciting to get what she wanted.
To see it like that. And I wasn’t that worried about the child.
I wasn’t even worried about her.
It was in the quiet, after, where I opened the screen and looked out
at darkness I could not see into—
that was when the fear came.
The snow could be a metaphor for whiteness.
My marriage could be a metaphor for whiteness.
Here is what won’t kill me: my non-blackness.
My what are you, anyway. My almost-whiteness.
When we carried the baby out into it the first time, so eager,
he cried as it hit his face – such coldness, such whiteness.
The latest viral video: cop tipping the wheelchair off
the curb, crosswalk looming, screen gone to whiteness.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to die
in the snow, covered in a whiteness that feels like blues—
You undo it. You undo it, I’m sobbing, you fix it,
so I am not so alone in the face of your whiteness.
Another black body drops in the blueblack night.
At work: we have to start talking about whiteness.
Sometimes, on the mountain, I fall. Everyone far ahead
of me, my slow turns through the wide, sparkling whiteness.
I don’t want it to be personal. I don’t want it
to be my story, our story, inescapable whiteness.
I know his daughter, another body angry as I am
careening down a hallway, get your white-ass hands off me.
She worries, through tears, that our relationship
will not survive it. Her whiteness.
When I panic I feel like I’ll stop breathing. Consider
not breathing, succumbing to the bright light’s whiteness.
There is no snow left in our yard. We mourn
the losses of a changing climate. We miss its whiteness.
We never call each other’s names. I love you,
baby, as we lie down, finally, in the darkness.
AUTOPSY OF A SHADOW
The letters in the cabinet I carved for a girl who gave me the sea
in bits glass bits frosted white near the vase under shadows that lifted
from the portrait each evening at five sometimes seven by the East-
facing window swaddled baby oil painting one eye peeled white like a blister
down the blue-flaking hall frying onions salt fat I remember fingernails
shed a Spring much later petals loquats that April had its way with
the mind gathering attachments the materials even then the singleness
of a toy feeling the grip of many hands yes my pulse even then
accumulating a past forgotten bastard dialects my ancestors died
trying to unlearn or redeem in marsh-water winters next to Newark
& The Passaic the ghosts of natives who traded for crosses Dad said
traded into cages of the worst kind the mind back at doors of buildings
of our beginnings on Evergreen Street now & to this day flag-poles
the color of old keys the smell somehow of tidal water sun-tan lotion
the one room two died in granny Anna’s black-banana arm wheezing
single engine plane passing nothing they could do when they came
with white wagon mea culpa Mama said & sat knitting in the new length of light
on the lawn the women I remember whispering honey into strollers
hauntedly I thought as I walked twenty-two alone wanting to be Thomas
Paine accruing waxwings in the center of town the statue tomb girls
spinning colorful ropes such small half-circles worlds my head among
objects both living & dead among my head so many capacities the two-
stories the one-floor the bedroom in back the front the yard to yard
these rooms that will outlast you I told Louisa once in spite
just ruined geometries over which clouds pass & alterations of light
Note: Several phrases and fragments herein are refracted from the work of George Oppen.
AMONG HALF GODS
Say drip chambers, veins. But there is no English equivalent
or how brothers say goodbye
to each other
while a parent’s fine hair falls out
with the strings of crickets, the autumn of the brownout
along the Eastern seaboard. No word for
The Year of the Folgers Can Full of Shit By the Bed.
I could say Jesus is a raindrop on the rail
on E. 17th Street—say: he is
a field nurse wheeling blown ends
to build a pyre
somewhere never caught on film—
the flesh smoking slowly
before it catches, a dampened
December will still mean nothing in that switchblade pool hall
in Holmesburg, Philadelphia.
The way I pray
has everything to do with those prime numbers
separating into pockets; how some memories cannot
or touch. From the back window,
you could see orange coal-cars, rusted blues, the ones
with hardened shit took-on
in the farm valleys,
& ones with messages scribbled
in black. Like Wishes are horses. Like Freedom. Like Fuck
When we whispered into the bourbon
there, it told us eternity—
but it was a species like any other, half-god
among half-gods. And I say god, but I mean I hope
our bodies keep the trees awake forever. Or I mean
if I could cup in my hands
what I don’t know about
the body or the soul, I would want it to look
like Laramie, WY seen from above, its sagebrush sprouting
around mesas half-erected by Time, & tilting
West, & farther west, & west
& west: into the great deserts of light.
But there is only one way to say Thanatos—
it belongs to the snows
filling up the hands of statues, & all the remembered
dents of breasts in tall vanilla grass,
& how my father said I am not afraid
of Ezekiel’s valley, watching old men
walk the gravel in the park
the spring we could not revive the hydrangeas.
It’s the cig smoke made him weep. It was his mama’s face
I think, returned
into the liberated dark. And how could I want any end
but this? To die
as stars do
in a hand-cut lake: obsidian disk.
Note: Yuputka describes the sensation of “walking through the woods at night, or a phantom crawling on one’s skin” in Ulwan, a language spoken by indigenous Nicaraguans.
Salt heavy—my oxen skin overrun & ringing
Sunday plum—bodies whetted & sold in the East—
fruits without flowers—the winter prostitute
steel plowed—tender how she glows
as the ocean would have me losing ear & piece—
passage through veil—each tooth in place for feast
in the haunt of our Lord—so we bend—
fever in quarters—marred as the crown comes portal
—renewed vagina—the anus a master throat—
…debts I give back despite the dead—Cyclamen
without ascent—ascending bloom in gain
to lay waste—the sun landing
on every spider
The slow mineral seep and drip
of groundwater, finding each crevice,
the cold spreading, downward—
the imagined weight of her breast,
spreading to fill my hand
(still and folded in my pocket)—
today the weather wheels its long arc above us,
rippling the lake,
stroking the turning trees,
the moving air felt, not seen—
and hardly felt.
The balance has shifted, the dose (stable for months)
off, again. Round blue pill in my palm,
what will it be today?
Is it hunger or dread, this sinking?
I want to learn to soothe myself, one mother tells me,
tucking the blanket around her sedated child.
Yes. Imagine sinking under lake water.
Feel it hold your limbs, quieting, your hair
a cloud around you, shifting
with each insistent swell
I’ve touched that dark,
felt the gliding suck of it like
a wave retreating,
pulling at the beach.
The dead woman’s muscles
spread slack from the bone
so her body pools on the bed,
from every cell. You can slip
the breathing tube easily
out of her quiet throat.
Swarms of midges billow
from the tops of the cedars in streams,
falling to hover low over the still river—
specks black against the sky,
white against the dark water.
Light filters through various thicknesses of cloud.
It had been years, but now
there is this warm shoulder
brushing mine. It won’t last.
I touch a question to her hand.
As long as they don’t bite.
Bodies glancing off our skin like snow.
In the bassinet,
the tight-wrapped child,
skin purpled in death—
wrinkled, like she was left
too long in the bath.
Where the water belongs,
dripped three times
onto the forehead
so it falls back
behind the ear, the wispy hair,
here is the new
doctrine, the child dead
before she was born,
the mother leaning
back in her chair,
my cold hands,
and the water.
I swam in the ocean once,
current dragging at my legs,
the beach a pile of boulders, waiting.
With each wave, the horizon
over my head, again,
again, and I rose
battered and freezing,
salt in my mouth,
and it was morning.
If there’s one thing nobody wants,
it’s a mare lame in both fronts.
You pinch the fetlock
arteries for the digital pulse.
You pack the shod hooves
with turpentine and sugar
to draw the soreness.
You thumb the jugular for a dose
of horse tranquilizer. You run
water for mud to cool her.
You pull the shoes with pliers,
because somebody made a mistake
nailing shoes, a big-
shouldered man, mouthy,
full of Jesus and guitar
songs and a daughter with a bad
heart and marching orders.
Listen, he talks while he’s working,
looks like he got a little carried
away. Now here’s a lesson.
Here’s a basket of lessons,
a burning cedar tree of lessons,
horsehide to hammer to a tree
of lessons you memorize.
The bony column ends in the so-
called coffin. Hoof-shaped,
it balances a whole horse.
Don’t let sand and clay
come close. Any fool knows
that half-inch spares the kingdom.
Jesus won’t tell his secret,
coffin bones like a compass south.
Coffin bones a water witch down.
Jesus boy coaxed her close to hell.
Jesus boy hammered the door
of horn and carved initials.
I’m looking for a hole
to bury a horse. She’s watching
the empty pasture:
cedars like scarecrows
where their crowns died branching.
Iron posts, ghost fence.
Hawks slide the sky
like knives slicing fat meat,
a rubbery parting of clouds.
A pond spreads flat
as wax paper downwind,
smudge of water shine.
Someone says, the pond’s low,
we need rain. Someone says,
that would be a pretty pasture
if we mowed. Those trees
break the blades. I never learned
how to fix the broken blades.
She doesn’t lie down but she
can’t walk. She’s watching
the empty pasture.
She doesn’t want to miss
crow or frog or spun web
or cross stuck with nails
for shoeing horses. All day,
hobbles to the water barrel.
Drinks like someone deserted,
dying. One day
a man drove the gravel
on a mission. He hammered
and talked about television
and Jesus and the whole story,
and if I keep telling this
everybody’s going to live
forever, including the ones
who don’t deserve it, not
because they floated to heaven,
black wings trimming the fat
of the sky to quick, only
because you caught me
rubbing something hard
between my palms, not
a bit for a bridle, not
a stirrup to rest my boot,
not a shovel to dig
the grave, keeping my promise,
but she’s just a horse
so she can’t be thinking
where will she go
before she falls, and she looks
like I do when what happens
to a man with a mouth and tools
for killing and a hawk
shearing the sky and a devil
slapping its tail
on hell’s open door.
The history of glass, the story of coins—
both long tales of fire and trade.
A little girl flickers away from her mother’s
tour group to rub the mummies. Lo
lichtzot, you can’t cross
back that far.
Before the forensic question,
the pipe mortar was used to siphon
food or water to the dead
in return for their faithful testimony.
Under glass, a woman lies with a dog:
all knees to chests, hands
for their pillows. We grind
our own sleep out of asphalt.
Which once we could trade
for obsidian, conches, basalt,
lifting the corners of the land’s
ancient skirt, bargaining further
away from our rest.
In the museum café people order cakes and coffees,
salads heavy with olives and cheese.
This is not how I want to be buried.
Burn me instead, record the blues
of the flame on the page of my body.
What have I done to the metaphor of fire,
thousands of years removed from its light?
George Lakoff would say, your fire is a thief
that goes on a journey. At whose end
it sells itself.
Fire is a commodity
with free will?
Except I am the thief. I took this land
a land is a cloth
took it in, to walk from one hem
to the other and then
I sold it,
can be worn and bought and sold,
to the next traveler I saw.
Seventeen, in a constant state
of non-emergency. Walking with my dog,
I’d invite neighborhood girls to join me.
During the day we would follow the trail
through the woods. At night, skirt
along the road by the edge of the forest,
lucky to see fireflies hover
over a puddle by the ‘no dumping’ sign.
This was the summer of the DC sniper,
who added a small, romantic danger
to wandering our lobbyists’ suburb.
Now when my friends mention
the sniper attacks, they talk about
how hot it was, the nervousness
in which they felt unmarked.
I think about walking by the woods,
slow-talking Kate or Priscilla,
or Priscilla’s sister. I was a coward
when it came to kissing, late to realize
if I didn’t make a move
I would never take a girl’s first blush,
run my hand into the unknown.
With every girl I kept their secrets
so well I forgot them. Whose were
their faces? The red dot of the sun
bloomed among its rolodex of clouds
as I woke alone. Each friendship
a surprise that required reconciliation
with my romantic life and the fantasy
I believed it would become.
Trickle of the almost creek,
dogs barking, back-firing
cars; I listened
to an increasing number
of lonesome smiles
letting evening come on.
The un-starred sky
telling us no one
That breath held
as the shared light
zeroed in on the two of us.
He sets a black chess
in a ceramic bowl
stirs ashes with vodka
into homemade tattoo ink
retraces the fading
the faded line
a second year
of scrawl down his leg
he knows the needle point
like pubic hair
metal to skin
where thousand mile
away slips away
by stick and poke
a strange curve
down thigh skin
inscribes a timeline
memory of her
hands guiding the needle
years that follow
this scar’s endless
drip blood and ink since
she last left
since she last
left he burns
a chess rook
royal into carbon
black ash ounce
of vodka its carrier
two years retracing
extending this thread
single cord pricked
down his left leg
a question mark
depending on the day
it’s almost noon
and she’s still in bed with a headache
the bedroom bursts with light an electrical storm rages
in the quiet space of her skull
her children move further and further away and grow
their own moons
this can’t be right
the data don’t make sense the figures seem to suggest
they’ll never come home
the shadows seem to suggest she’s alone
mother pulls the covers over her head and curls
into a molten ball
when did she become such a lump
of dense matter she starts to harden a little
god she could kill
for some water she could drink