Age (Karen Emmert)
I love the skin of age
and the age of old skin.
A part of me can’t wait for
cells that have reached past their days of glory,
that tell textured stories of resilience
and a satisfied lack of youth’s brilliance.
For scars that blend into wrinkles,
and freckles which warp into moles, sprouting black
pastures of perfect follicles.
Backs will hunch,
reality will lose clarity,
where many might
wish to rewind,
in visible lengths of life.
4th of July (Melanie Cornejo)
Young fingers, moist and warm
Hold their sticks of slivered wood
Stained blue, splintered
Ready to attach themselves to
Ice blue tongues
Young fingers tune the radio
Two notches higher than mother allows
Young legs sway to music
In shorts two hand lengths shorter than Daddy’s ever seen
Sea salt and sweat tangle untamed hair
Once fair skin comes to life
And blue eyed boys melt hearts
Like popsicles in July.
Glycerine (Allison Wachtel)
I saw it in your room
but I didn’t think you played
It was slathered with stickers,
like someone had taken the fast food receipts
and T-shirt logos
and saline beer bottle carpet stains
from the parties my neighbors threw
that the skinny coughing lamp
pretended not to watch from my window
and had slurped them into a guitar
You never mentioned it
but I knew what I heard
The pistol-eyed sirens on your forearms,
the thumping burnished bullet that scoffed at wind
and edict, and perhaps physics
(because we were having an adventure)
and the cross that you never talked about—
the cross that was not my star—
blazoned on your chest
I’m still not sure what happened
with the door closed, lights on, roommate home
but I noticed your clean counters
and how your apartment smelled like Oklahoma chili
and how you asked why I wasn’t smiling
Then something poured out of you and your guitar,
and I sat in twingng silence
Shaunika (James Bland)
I was lying
on the porch hammock
when she returned my call.
Hips and booty
bursting out of string bikini.
I don’t know what I said,
but after she hung up,
I held the phone in my hand,
pretending it was her hand,
her delicate flesh and blood.
I lay back in my hammock,
lazy as a cat,
the fan blowing blowing Shakespeare’s onion-skin pages:
Hamlet, As You Like It, The Tempest
Oh God, I’m in love
and will never read anything else again!
I Was 18 and Alive (Kailynn von Kronemann)
My kid sister hates, detests, loathes the sound of balloons popping. You know, I’ve never really looked into the depths of psychological analysis. Beyond the surface-level tourist attractions of the Elektra Complex and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, anyway. But I think I could take a go at where this stems from. It comes from a birthday party in our Grandfather’s backyard.
Nana and Papa were from the old country, the bottom boot, Calabria, Italy. That place where everything is in direct dissonance with here. Papa never understood the need for wrapping paper. He took it upon himself every year to present gifts to his grandchildren with an alternative casing. My seventh birthday present, a cherry red bouncy ball and collection of shined jacks, was given to me in hollowed chicken eggs. But his greatest wrapping was unveiled at Tilla’s ninth birthday. Papa paraded us all out to the little vineyard for his presentation. The backyard-sized grapevines were decorated with yellow balloons tied to purple ribbon tangled in the bunches. It was as if each vine had its own sun, because Papa their creator had deemed it. Why share a sun, one happiness, one life, when there can be so much more?
With broken English and gestures of a man trying to paint the sky a deeper blue, he proceeded to take shy Tilla to the center of the vine. One by one he stabbed the once-happy-to-simply-be-inflated elastic balloons, letting a different coin drop to Tilla’s feet. As the generations of extended family laughed, Tilla collected each coin and skipped along to meet Papa at the next balloon. Her eyes danced, with what I can only describe as rejoicing. Papa grinned, very pleased at this year’s reaction. And he began to laugh. His laugh could swallow sound—that’s how triumphant it was. No matter what was on your mind, Papa’s laugh would alleviate it, so your only functioning process was conforming to its unadulterated happiness.
I didn’t know it right then, but this would be Papa’s last gift wrapping. As he pierced the final balloon, he collapsed on the dark soil before the yellow stream of elastic could feel gravity’s harsh pull.
They say it was a brain aneurism. But I wonder if it was the laugh. Maybe you’re only allowed a certain quota of happiness, and once you run out, it’s over. Sure explains why the good have that uncanny habit of dying young. Sure some people dig their nails in real tight to this existence. But really, what’s the point? Might as well be content to be nothing. But I don’t know. Maybe there’s more than that.
Just like there’s more than those aging albums of faded 3 by 5 glossed pictures and overplayed home videos to remind me the way he used to raise his eyebrows before he would enunciate words that began with w’s. I need more than some rewindable short short’s versions of him to prove it was all real. That it is all still something, that he is still someone. I suppose he’s not, he’s an effect, a before, no longer an after. A memory. But hey, maybe that’s really something. That’s it. You are now everything that you once were. Your traces are you, and it just happens to make all the difference. Those bread crumbs of existence are just as pertinent as Christmas dinners you attended. Maybe more so. While those dinners can be recollected, your boundless aftershocks of choices and actions reverberate far beyond old stories. Perhaps legacy is greater than the present. May as well live it every second now. I guess it goes back to what Papa told me on my egg-filled seventh birthday.
Never one for shallow actions, Papa had thought about how to wrap the jacks for quite a few weeks. He stumbled around with the idea of peeling back the petals of fresh rosebuds to slip the tiny metal pieces in with the pollen, but he decided on the eggs.
Eggs, because believe it or not he enlightened me to know that “I was to be his constant chick.” Not exactly what you want to hear as a seven year old boy who was hoping to unwrap a black power ranger action figure after cake and ice cream. At the sight of my confusion, he began to unfold his source of inspiration. He had had a flock of chicks as a kid, apparently his closest companions at age seven. He would take them on daily walks. But turns out being the shepherd of chicks is a lot tougher than one would expect. Perhaps Jesus had the right idea with opting for a human herd. You see, the chicks were never settled with simply following one another in a single filed line. Each one insisted on finding his or her own path home. Luckily, they were never quiet about their latest trailblazing discoveries and sang their tweets with each new sight. Before the sun set each day, Papa was able to usher the defiant individuals back to their old home on top of the hill. Papa took me on his knee for this last part of the story. Leaning in close enough for me to feel the warm air from his round nostrils on the tip of my nose, he told me “You understand, you are my chick. Don’t go in the line. Don’t follow. Go ahead, Christian, look around and remember to make some noise for it.” The trace of an echo from a life of singing, laughing, dancing, is where he is. Where it all is.
The Terrible Times of a Tightrope Walker (Katie Bierach)
When dragons cart-wheeled into the carnival tent,
breathing lollipop breath, and seized four girls hostage,
neither clown nor tightrope walker could comment.
The traveling show, “Madame Foofoo Presents,”
flaunted feats of high voltage by Carter the Ostrich.
When dragons cart-wheeled into the carnival tent,
tumbling in just after the psychic’s portents,
the company cringed that they’d laughed at her presage.
Neither clown nor tightrope walker could comment
when it happened the next night. The repeated descents
on the Big Top wrought terror, no costumes to salvage.
When dragons cart-wheeled into the carnival tent,
grinning wet teeth, swinging pink tails of tridents,
inhaling suspense, causing more and more wreckage,
neither clown nor tightrope walker could comment.
The girls were ransomed at twenty-five cents—
but are zombies of violent reptilian knowledge.
When dragons cart-wheeled into the carnival tent,
neither clown nor tightrope walker could comment.
One Last Visit to the Shore (In Memory of Joanne) (Marsha Markman)
It was a working holiday in that cottage at the shore
the rumpled loft where we laid claim
to long-forgotten treasures put to rest
your easel on the marred plank floor
my laptop on a scarred pine desk
before that great majestic Bay.
We marveled at the likeness of our crafts
paint upon a canvas
symbols on a page
a dryer’s whir across wet oils
the subtle click of keys
stories told, lessons learned
each in their own symmetry.
When dusk depleted our best light
when sailboats turned to harbors safe from storm
we trod the barren rumpled sands
where tides wash castles built by tiny hands
We gathered shells to place upon the sill
memories to savor once again
from children to the women we’d become
from years behind to years and years ahead.
“Friends forevermore,” you vowed
“You are my history,” I said
But all too soon the tragic news
you without a cure
through days of pain and numbered weeks
we once more traveled to the shore
to stroll the sands at water’s edge
to bathe in cool, white foam.
You smiled and wished for one more year
I spoke of miracles, of hope
but hope and miracles were not to be
you were gone, my dearest friend.
But, Oh! the joy of all those years
and one last visit to the shore.
Fear of an English Degree (Shelby Morgan)
I hang in the air of the library, still and cold,
And glance over at the table on my right,
Seeing a student’s notebook filled with
Sketches of the electron transport chain,
and notes on passive vs. active transport.
I look over to my left and see theorems and formulas,
Stabbed from every direction with little arrows,
Explaining and understanding.
I go back to what I’m supposed to be reading,
One single line of Sappho on a white page . . .
“I do not expect my fingers to graze the sky.”
They read about curing diseases and discovering the meaning behind nature,
I read about reminding myself that I’m shorter than the sky . . .
For Nicki Bonomo (Christa Youngern)
I guess you didn’t want to mar your memory,
so I tell myself that’s why you won’t answer.
I tell myself that’s why you don’t text.
What would we say
Now that everything is so insignificant?
I guess you didn’t believe me
when I said if your meds made you a zucchini
I would not be ashamed to be seen with you.
If you couldn’t walk anymore I would wheel you,
and if you couldn’t speak,
then I would order you something tasty.
You said you wanted to be in a cave with Wilson,
so I bought a competition volleyball
and slapped a rosy handprint face on it.
I left it swinging on your side view mirror
because you weren’t home.
I understand you don’t want to talk about death,
and diseases and drooling,
don’t want to talk about how your body is deteriorating,
but while you’re on your island
waiting to die,
I’m alone in our good times,
bobbing on a raft a quarter mile off the coast of your pretend island.
You wish on falling stars and tunnels and birthday candles,
And I’m the only one who knows what for,
(And I’m sorry that my problems never match yours.)
I don’t wish on tossed pennies anymore, but I pray
for Nicki Bonomo.
For the Silver Octopus (Katie Bierach)
I am confronting you with questions, silver octopus,
lounging underneath your twisting tentacles,
despite my near-bare chest tense with winter cold
on this still afternoon, the storm’s next day.
When children dive through your swirling arms
do you damn the alchemist who transformed
your dear black ink into leaking, melted frost?
Could you see your sculptor carving your bulging eyes?
And do you tire of your posture, your head thrown back,
fierce and forgiving, forever frozen away from the sea,
your two arms trailing, straightened across cement
like the sunshine-curious roots of sidewalk-cracking trees?
What modern Medusa hardened you in this hectic park?
Who caged us inside its sharp wrought iron fence
among white Frisbees like flying clamshells
and the grungy grunting of malodorous loping dogs?
Leaves fill your funnel and the Os of your eight arms.
As a new stone statue, I worry over wind and dust
and the sandy children seated on my paint-thick mermaid tail,
rubbing warm, jellied fingers on my necklace of stone pearls.
Bus Stop (Michelle Kane)
Rain needles the air
Like tiny lightning bolts
A shower of slivered diamonds, liquid gems,
Bouncing off the pine trees’ gleaming needles
Sliding slickly through a pepper tree’s filmy leaves
To the bench’s cold metal-mesh below.
The bus stop bench is two-thirds full:
One third—a man in a slim grey suit
One third—a woman in a blouse and skirt
One third—an empty space filled by rain.
The suit plasters to his back like cling-wrap,
Soaked-through nylons encase her legs,
Their eyes scan traffic—hushed and rushing
As it skates and sloshes across the slate grey street.
The white bus, color-splashed
With vibrant posters and flashy ads
Is not in sight.
“It’s running late . . .” the man says.
The woman nods.
Rain falls between them, in grey sheets like aluminum.
Shivering, fidgeting, they watch.
Just across the slick, wet street
The brown-brick comfort of a coffee shop beckons
Brimming in coziness, caffeine, and warmth.
The window sign pulses O-P-E-N in neon pink letters,
Blazoned against the tin-like silver of the rain.
“Do you know the time?” she asks.
“It’s nine sixteen . . .”
At nine nineteen
The eight fifty-five bus hisses by.
Its vivid ads a blur of color,
It rolls past the bus stop bench,
Now three-thirds empty.
The window table in the coffee shop is two-thirds full.
Our Earthly Souls (Kevin Bowen)
With aching was the water shivered. Every drop of liquid that filled every sea felt the pull, that innate yearning, towards something. The water filled the cracks in the Earth, the would-be empty spaces. It sloshed against distant lands to the lull of unheard music, to the waltz of the moon, to the silent quaking of some far away, dislocated rock.
A desolate figure sat on a damp, rotted-out log, waiting for the water to lap over his toes and reach up for him. He sees the longing of the ocean. It cries out in the fall of the waves and the rise and pull of thin wet panes over dark sand.
He’d heard stories about how long ago all land was one great mass, and all of the water, another. All the land had risen above the sea like a gargantuan mountain reaching up toward the heavens.
But nobody knew the whole story. One man had told him, by the dim light in a corner tavern, how over time the land broke apart, into continents and islands.
Milky light from the lanterns and the restless glow of the fire had fought off the darkness that had settled in the room; and this mixture added a dramatic backdrop to the old man’s shaky voice. The boy felt uneasily aware of the tenseness of his skin, the stiffness of the back of his chair. He was discomforted by this man’s wisdom, by his every movement and every word. He quietly watched the man look down, watched him scratch the bottom of his chin, heard him sputter soft coughs, almost imperceptible. His ancient eyes, nestled into pale, rough skin, had oceans behind them, and the boy was afraid to look too deeply. The old man shifted in his wooden chair, stirred the fire, and spoke:
“So the great ocean filled in all the spaces that had been created . . . do you understand?”
“I think so,” the younger lied. What all was there to understand?
The man chuckled delicately, knowingly. “Son, I mean have you ever been in love?”
Now, from his perch on the soft wood, he searched again into the layer of water above the sand, and answered:
Yes, I have been in love.
Three of them ran through fields and made up games to be forgotten. His memories of Adam and Dawn were like sugar that was in short supply. Those sunny days, when their laughter left indelible shadows on the hallowed ground, were marked by the eternal, unforgettable promises sealed by hands pressing together smears of blood, and later with dangerous words that proved the understanding that comes with age. All of his memories were tinged with red and if memory could make a sound, his would sound like their voices.
Dawn had these eyes that reflected the world in a way he had never seen anyone’s eyes do. He thought of her movements, of her dance, and of her smell with a longing that rivaled all four oceans. The tide rose with the setting sun. He looked out and thought of her kisses, glimpsed views of the smile lines on her cheeks as she leaned in. He tried to wrap his mind around how at one moment in time she could be so close and at another she could be on the other side of the sea. She was alive, and breathing, and waking on some other continent, maybe Europe or Asia, but she was no longer with him. And Adam was in a very different place.
Perhaps the ocean was whispering this truth, because suddenly he felt in the deepest crevices of his soul that the water was not just between them, but also connected them, as if its currents carried all their thoughts, back and forth to one another.
He could not see just how small he looked sitting next to an ocean that stretched to the edge of the world. To his back was an expanse of a wasteland that also went on into the distance. Blanketing the ground here were eternal plastics and decomposing papers and rusting metal; the careful mind could make out the tips of guns, the casings of bullets, the faded ink on abandoned propaganda, the tattered love letters folded up into fourths; and it might wonder about the instinct that brought all these things into being . . . wonder what energy, lying in the embers of every living soul, inspired their creation.
But this one’s eyes were on the sea, and the sea overwhelmed him. He couldn’t grasp it. All he could do was recount Adam’s last words, again and again:
“Look for me in the ocean.”
One Cloth (Marsha Markman)
We are the innocent
the reckless, some say
a curiosity in this land
where I have seen much
that you have yet to see
a tapestry of
from playful moments
to frightful doubts
the cool cream of your skin
the warm toast of mine
Topiary & Sonotube (J.T. Ledbetter)
(STAGE PROPS) TOPIARY, a tree, & SONOTUBE, a nice column.
Opening (and closing) night of Henry James’ adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.
(As shadows draw across the stage TOPIARY lifts his branches to her in the gloom.)
TOPIARY: (suffering from ennui) It is more than one can bear, is it not?
SONOTUBE: (stiffly, being a tube) Yes. It is, yes . . . Je suis fatigué . . .
(Geese glide across a glassy pond trailing their pink legs, the water running in a V behind them. Not so much behind them, as following them, much as a wake of water might follow geese.)
TOPIARY: On stage, as in life, one waits for something, some sign to speak.
SONOTUBE: Have you been to the DMV?
(Both move slowly, as a tree and column would, downstage. Their fingers touch across a Rosy Dresden desk. N.B. It MUST be Rosy Dresden-my aunt has a very nice one. Their talk solemn, dreadful, inordinately soft.)
TOPIARY: But soft! Shall we, are we not destined, driven-how to put it? LOVE?
(The question asked, TOPIARY lifts a branch in the dark, questing—but he touches nothing, the stage being dark you see.)
SONOTUBE: I see no blue water on lovely legs, no cloaked Arabs in mind-bending sun. Just a postcard backstage, showing a large lady working her toes in the sand, her massive haunches ponderously rhythmical, intense, her dirty gauntlets billowing beside a colorless sea.
TOPIARY: (scratches his terminal bud) What?
SONOTUBE: What dim light breaks in your faux fern-like head?
(She yearns to climb his branches, but hears instead the lap of water, and sees, across a bay, trimmed trees, like espaliers against a pearly sky. Stage hands must be in black.)
TOPIARY: Aprés agrèment, paix!
(Having none, and not bloody likely to get any, the line is delivered with a sardonic toss of leaves)
SONOTUBE: Yo, Top: your slender branches rise! Given the Bard's script, it
does seem an unseemly waste of bark and sap!
TOPIARY: (Notes she is leaning, much like that hideous thing in Pisa)
Are you, in a word-but what word,?—are you, not to put too fine a point
on it, dreaming of those columnar days of the Greeks and Romans?
SONOTUBE: Pithee, drink this potion. (She watches his branches go limp.)
We are star-crossed lovers. I drink to the fickle-finger of fate!
TOPIARY: (Not affected by the poison, he springs across the stage to her)
I feel pretty, I feel bushy, I . . . but soft, what pile of rubble is this?
Ah, Sonotube, the bird ‘wert’ (Homage to Shelley) will nest nevermore
in my branches. But wait! The cruel draught works. Alas, I am
firewood . . . but she was some column, that one. Geeze! what a tube.
(Hautbois play off stage [far off stage] as lights dim to black, leaving them alone on a darkened stage full of silence, to great rhetorical effect.)
Masquerade (Rachel Lichtman)
Spinning ‘round, they waltz
While true selves die.
Each face concealed by craft and guile,
And one whose smile rests deep,
Beneath the mask and face alike.
Never (Sabrina Hernandez)
At that halting moment
When you deeply kissed me
And butterflies fluttered through my veins
I didn’t love you.
While watching summer sunsets
And eating half-melted creamsicles
You held my hand with sweet sticky fingers.
Still, I didn’t love you.
When we’d lay by the pool
As the rays of sun sank deep into our pores,
You threw me in the water and brushed
your ice-cubed lips against mine.
But still, I didn’t love you.
As we sat at dinner and our families conversed,
You spoke secrets across the table with your eyes,
And I understood every word.
Know, that I didn’t love you.
When we were swamped with work
And our lives were written into planners
You scheduled yourself into my books,
And left me presents to find.
No, I didn’t love you.
When I saw you playing pool,
Your eyes focused on that 8 ball,
I watched as she slinked up beside you
And kissed you.
That look of admiration, between you two
Pushed me forward as I pushed past her and whispered
I never loved you.
Burning Woman (Sig Schwarz)
Abiding with zen mind
You nurtured a ferocious garden
Of soul food images and words,
This hybrid of Monet and Dali,
Of Mary Shelley and Audre Lorde
And, oh yes, George Herbert and Jane Austen too . . .
What indeed were you thinking, girlfriend,
Stealing such necessary fire, inordinate paradox,
Yet again from the heavens
So that we might see this apparent wasteland
For the first time really
Even as against all odds our inner landscapes
Yours and ours
Continue to green and grow
In your illuminations?
Reminiscence (Christa Youngern)
JACK STARTED IN THE ASSISTED living neighborhood of the nursing home but soon digressed to Reminiscence. In the days before euphemisms it was called the Alzheimer’s ward, but that sounded as scary as the disease actually is, and they didn’t want that. His mind had gone, but his eyesight was still sharp—9258, he saw the nurse pressing the keypad. 9258, he repeated in his head. He committed the digits to his cloth handkerchief in neat curly lettering. His washed-out green eyes sparkled with possibility against the richness of his cinnamon colored cheeks.
“What are you writing down?” Chris asked softly, dealing out the playing cards.
“Your mother’s 800 number,” he replied. The other men laughed but Chris only continued dealing cards as if he had not heard.
The women were folding the pink cotton napkins next door in the kitchen. The staff of the home would have done it, but the ladies found the motion soothing—perhaps it reminded them of their glorious homemaker days. They were probably tranqued up. Sales of tranquilizers quadrupled in the 1950s.
He knew it would have to be after dinner. He slurped broccoli cheddar soup mechanically, his spoon dipping smoothly into lukewarm cheesiness.
“Why the hurry, Jack?” Oh, it was the pretty young nurse with the gold necklace and the sweet perfume that reminded him of something sinuous and eternal. The one with black hair pulled straight into a ponytail, who called him by his first name instead of chopping up his last one.
“This-soup-is-amazing!” He exaggerated, trying to convey genuine feeling. Actually, he couldn’t taste many specific things anymore, only general sensations of saltiness, sweetness, and bitterness. Sweetness is most prominent among them; it’s the last taste sensation one loses as age cripples the sensual capacity. She smiled at his appraisal, like Mother Theresa beaming on all the poor folks she came across. He would miss her, but he had to see Jess again. When he saw her, he would tell her that Mother Theresa worked the evening shift in his neighborhood, and sometimes tucked him in before he fell asleep.
As they finished their sugar-free ice cream sundaes, Chuck, a chubby former horticulturist with a slow ambling way about him, leaned in and whispered conspiratorially,
“Hey Jack, I’m gonna uproot the snapdragons after dinner . . . wanna come?”
“Nah, Chuck, I gotta beat those old fools at Gin Rummy after dinner; thank you though,” and thumped him on the shoulder.
Chuck shrugged and said,“Your loss.”
The dinner crowd began to filter out of the kitchen. Some wandered to their rooms, where they lived in a tumultuous state of memories, lost in black and white photographs of dead loved ones. Memories encased in frames, attainable by a glance and hospitable for hours. The others would go to the television room and let their minds be occupied by old films from their day, or sitcoms, or talk shows.
Now was the moment. He rose from his chair and cautiously moved towards the door. He pressed the numbers on the worn keypad, damning himself for being so slow. I used to stop grounders with these hands. He shook his head. Something electronic gave a soft beep of acceptance and a green light flashed. A thrill vibrated through his spidery capillaries.
The door was much heavier than he thought it would be, but it gave in enough to shuffle shoulder first into the next neighborhood. The magenta carpeting distinguished the short windowless corridor that led past the main dining room, then to the front doors of the establishment. Before he could discover whether his body would mutiny, the door clicked open behind him: Mother Theresa.
Eyebrows furrowed at this misplaced human. She asked,
“Jack, what are you doing out here?” She was holding the door open, which made him nervous. An alarm sounded if it was ajar for too long. I might make it out. He turned and started down the hall.
As he slid his orthopedic sneakers, he could hear the chatter of the assisted living folks finishing their meal, their fading prattle and the clink of cutlery flooding his mind: The sounds of near freedom. He sped his pace as he entered the big dining room; he saw a glimpse of light from the large windows before rough carpet smashed his face and chest. The wind was knocked out of him for the first time since his college baseball days. His lightly freckled cheek stung, and something felt wrong in his wrist. He looked down at his feet . . . untied shoelace.
He winced as he heard running footsteps from the door. Incoherent voices spoke in sympathetic tones, soothing, motherly; his vision became dreamlike. Face still against the carpet, he let go of any composure he had left. His breath started to come out as sobs, and tears wet his contorted face. He couldn’t stop and he hated that. He tried to get himself up, but stronger arms took hold of his in an effort to help; he twisted to slap them away and fell to the floor again.
“Just leave me alone,” he said. He could do no better than the pathetic gasp of a hurt and injured old man. He didn’t cry for the pain as much as the humiliation.
“Just leave me alone!” he managed in a tone less like a whimper. The nurses saw a helpless old man crumpled on the floor; they did not see the pool of embarrassment and shame that he had fallen in.
“Don’t move Mr. O’Holloran, we’re going to get help”—but he wasn’t hearing them. He raised himself up, he made it to his knees, and then to his feet, before he tottered dangerously backward. The wallpaper that surrounded him seemed like conveyer belts moving in opposite directions. The nurses stabilized him and tried to turn him around to Reminiscence, but he would not go. Resolutely grasping his wrist, he headed forward, only to be pulled back by the webby grasp of the nurses, Mother Theresa among them.
Jess’ disappointed face was projected on the hall as he pushed forward like a sleepwalker. All he heard was her melodic voice saying come on, dad as he tried for the exit once more. They held him back again, this time constraining his arms so he physically could not continue. The strawberry on his face wrinkled as saltiness slid past the lint and fuzz sticking to it.
“Theresa!” he said, meeting her eyes. “Please let me go, Theresa. I have to see my daughter.” The young girl stood back and covered her mouth as she watched. “Theresa please, please!” But even if she understood his blurred words, she could not humor him. Four nurses were forced to carry his jerking form back into Reminiscence while he screamed nonsensically. As they passed the threshold, Jack latched his fingers across the frame, trying to hold on. He was no match for their youth. Not aware of his last act of defiance, they moved him right past it, lifting a few keratin-weak fingernails in the process.
The room Jack waited in was dim, with two poufy arm chairs sitting across from each other and a soundtrack of beach waves playing from a machine. This was the relaxation room, where they put residents who lost control of themselves to calm down for a while—a time-out spot for octogenarians.
“Hello, Jack,” the portly woman said as she entered the small space. She planted herself across from him. The armchair wheezed. She must have held some authority because he had not seen her before. Probably works up front where she doesn’t have to see the fogies. Jack stared sideways in response.
“Why did you try to leave your neighborhood?” There was that pleasant gentle tone again.
“I was trying to leave the home, dummy.” The woman didn’t miss a beat.
“Why did you try to leave the home?” He didn’t acknowledge her, so she asked again.
“Why did you try to leave, Jack?”
He closed his arms across his broad pointy chest and looked straight at her. “Because I need to see my daughter!” The woman leaned back in her chair as if she were personally wounded by his words.
“Jack, we’ve had this talk before. Remember?”
“You don’t know me. I’ve never seen you before.”
“You have seen me before, Jack, and I explained to you why you couldn’t see your daughter, and why she doesn’t come to visit you.”
Her tone and the fake crashing waves were patronizing him. He felt like a student talking with the principal: unwilling, resentful, self-righteous.
“Your daughter is dead, Jack. She died three years ago, right after you came to live with us.” His face loosened; his eyes went numb and lost focus on the glowing lampshade.
“I remember the day it happened, we couldn’t get you to eat. You had to drink purées for two weeks.” His mouth went dry. He was no longer there.
“I’m so sorry, Jack, but you shouldn’t have tried to leave. People care about you here.”
The armchair re-inflated as the woman stood and left the relaxation room. What a fool they had let him be. Why had no one told him his daughter was dead on those mornings he crowed about her visiting him? Why had they made excuses for her not showing up? And where did they send the letters I wrote? He stayed in the muted room until bedtime, when a couple of nurses walked him, feet dragging down the empty dim hall, off to his quarters.
That night two months ago after the large woman talked to him, he tried to recall the conversation she claimed they had. It might be true, but he didn’t want it to be. He could hardly distinguish between dreams and reality now. Since he couldn’t clearly remember, he decided it wasn’t. Either way, he had a new idea.
He dressed in front of the mirror. He slipped on his favorite jacket, a brown leather bomber, over a wrinkled white softball league T-shirt. Short fresh fingernails in place, he lovingly enhanced the stature of the yellow panache in his black fedora.
“Jack, you’re a handsome son of a bitch.” He smiled while admiring himself, permanent junk at the border where teeth and pink gums meet. He rubbed his wrist; it was achy but healed. He walked as straight as his spine would allow to breakfast. The nurse pouring the water greeted him cordially:
“Good morning, Jack! How did you sleep?”
“Beautifully, Linda, just beautifully.” He smiled. He was always sure to smile until he felt the creases form. “How did you sleep last night?” he asked, bordering on flirtatiousness.
“Oh not bad, not bad. I’ve got to stop drinking so much coffee, though. It makes me jittery.” She shook the water pitcher mockingly. The ice clinked before it dropped in his cup.
He thought that being nice would be a difficult task, but he found he quite enjoyed it. Because he was tricking them, because his niceness had a motive, that was the enjoyable part, he imagined it was something like what a bank robber feels. He figured they thought he had changed and started to accept the place, but he was only relearning the game. The game he had played as a black engineer in the sixties, the game he thought he was entitled to leave behind once he got old and decrepit. Just when he thought there was nothing more to learn about life, he learned the game was never really over.
The minute and a half grits and powdered eggs were delicious. He politely asked the nurse for seconds, and then thirds. It was difficult to get residents to eat even the small portions served to them, so she obliged, happy at his heaping appetite. She did not think of the reason for it, or his curiously handsome dress, or his especially friendly demeanor. Though they watched him closely in the weeks after his first effort, they were quickly convinced of his newfound attitude and went back to focusing on other residents with more obvious needs: the squeaky wheel policy.
He sat down for cards with the fellas after breakfast. Bull Shit was the game, and Jack had perfected it. The goal was to make the other players believe that you had cards you didn’t as you placed them face down in numerical order. If a player called “Bull Shit” and you were lying about your cards then you had to take the whole pile. When you had no more cards you were the winner. His lies were as good as his truths. He had control of the game now; he bluffed every day and no one suspected incongruity. Nobody really cared for him here, not even Theresa. So it was with special relish that he lied to her. He knew it was bitter, he knew it was petty, but he had nothing else and he knew that too.
When he was finished handing Chris and the others their asses he meandered out to the garden, a little sliver off the side of the main building with a few sprouting azaleas and blooming bulbs of various colors. Disconnected snapdragons lay on the ledge. Chuck strikes again. There was a two-foot retaining wall that intersected with a larger concrete block wall. His eyes narrowed, his lips curled up; no one was in the garden.
He took his hands out of the pockets of his worn-out jeans, grabbed a beat-up round metal barstool, and walked over to the little wall. He put the stool into the greenery behind it and blew into his palms; it was a sunny morning but chill. Very slowly, and very cautiously, he raised one black dress shoe to the top of the bricks, then the other; he had double knotted his laces tightly this morning. He followed the advice of an old baseball coach and moved quickly but did not hurry. He picked up the narrow stool and set it in front of him so that it touched the taller wall. With the help of the barstool, he had his chest and arms over the top of the cement block wall, and with a little hop he was straddling the bricks on top of it.
Staring down, he saw the shadowed forms of the oak leaves on the toes of his over shined shoes. There was a cool breeze at this level that brought the scents of early spring: wet cement paths, the blooms of apple trees, and day-old cut grass. The ground was lower on this side of the wall—an unexpected hitch. As he contemplated this, Mother Theresa happened to stroll out to the patio arm in arm with sweater-laden Chuck. She inhaled sharply, ran to the wall and said,
“Jack, stop! Stay where you are, don’t move!” He knew what he had to do, because this was his last chance to see his daughter, and he was determined not to screw it up. “Help! I need help!” The head nurse ran outside just in time for Jack O’ Holloran to drop out of sight.
A couple of squirrels darted away as the newcomer snapped fallen leaves. He heard the crack in his ribs and felt the pain from the fall but he could only smile.
“I made it,” he said.
On the other side, people were screaming directions at each other, and footsteps were hurrying to the nearest exit, but Jack couldn’t hear it. His jeans were moist with dew, but he felt warm. He didn’t want to move; the spaces of light between the branches of bright green leaves caught his full attention, alternately waving and winking at him. In the gaps he saw forms of memories playing, indistinguishable at first but clear after a moment. He and Jess, a piano recital, a speech club debate, going shoe shopping for prom. The light overtook him as he bought them Hot Dog on a Stick at the beach, dipped the dog in mustard and tapped it to her nose. She wiped it off, smiling, and walked away from him toward the sand, corndog in hand, as she looked over her shoulder. Light from between the leaves bleaching the memory in his mind, she called to him.
“Come on, Dad, it’s okay, follow me.” She was almost to the sea now. He stepped in her bare feet prints as she waited for him at the shore with her hand extended, corndogless.
The gang of nurses rounded the building and found him in a heap in the shadow of the oak tree, lying unnaturally but not making a sound, fedora crunched under his head, eyes quarter moons in the atmosphere of his face. Jack had already taken the hand of his daughter as she led him over the sea. The nurses were afraid to move him as they waited for the ambulance, but the closer it got the further away Jack was. By the time the sirens were audible, all he felt was her hand, and all he saw was blue misty light.
Saturdays at Miss Emily’s Bakery (Marianne White)
It was a cloudy Saturday.
She came out of Ms. Emily’s on 17th.
She was carrying small yellow sponge cakes for her grandparents.
Her hands wrapped in white silk gloves.
I looked at my own hands, filthy from coal dust.
Small wooden splinters sticking to them from the shovel resting on my shoulder.
She walked to her taxi cab, her black heels clicking on the pavement.
Her taxi cab pulled away and I returned to work.
It was a rainy Saturday.
The fat drops bounced off her blue umbrella as she walked to Ms. Emily’s.
She looked beautiful that day.
Emerald green hair pins, red lipstick, soft brown wool coat
The hem of her pale green dress peeked out the bottom.
Everything about her a bright contrast to the grey sky and my dirty overalls.
She hailed her cab, and I returned to work.
It was a bright Saturday.
She walked right past Ms. Emily’s.
Arm linked with her husband’s.
She had that fake smile, the kind I pictured her saving for fancy business luncheons.
The kind she would keep in an expensive jeweled box she received on her wedding day.
The kind she would never have if it was my job to make her happy.
Divinity (Karen Emmert)
If god is love and
nights under winter light
glimmer hints of reverence,
then you can feel her.
If god is compassion and the
company of bird and sky
then you can see her.
If god is wonder and
days within summer’s singing
impress delicate understandings,
then you can hear her.
If god is knowledge and
the dialogue between wind and
waves echoes deliverance,
then you know her.
She cannot be confined
to metaphors of light
to titles of domestication
or specific denominations.
She is nights under winter light,
and wonder within