10-Line Tuesday

August 27, 2019

burnt ends
for the Jones sisters

You will have to get off the highway. You will have to slog through a lumpy stretch 
where the street has slid into disrepair, where the parking lots have abandoned 
their frenzy of commerce, where the view has thinned and paled like a ghost. You will
have to lean into your basest instincts - hunger, hope - to light your way, to let 
whatever warm glow they might cast catch the pavement. You will have to hold 
your gaze to what you can’t see yet. You will have to erase from your mind 
the signs you thought would be there. You will have to ask for what you really want. 
You will have to sit at an empty chipped table and wait. You will have to know 
the difference between meat and bone. You will have to use your hands, 
and when you do, the sweet, peppery stain of your work will follow you everywhere.

August 20, 2019

on the drive home

Pop songs with ubiquitous slant rhymes—“time” and “mine, “move” and “love.”
Nathan’s hot dogs and Aunt Ann’s pretzels. An overpass lined with flags. 
A compact from Quebec. A semi from Indiana. A horse trailer. An Airstream.
Signs that say “Thanks for visiting.” Signs that say “Welcome.” Signs that say 
“Express Lane” and “Exit Left” and “Divided Highway.” Signs like fortune tellers, 
like a shake of the cookie jar, like diamonds. A silver water bottle. Cold red grapes.
A bookend of apple trees. The smeared remnants of a squirrel. Deer, unperturbed,
grazing a stone’s throw from the shoulder. The unshakeable metaphors of departure
and arrival. Mileage like a promise. A sky you can almost feel.
The foot, steady on the gas. The hands, tender at the wheel.

August 13, 2019

the sideliners

They are not taking the stage. They’re shy of microphones, slip like young deer
toward the vicinity of an exit, where they are comforted by the hard shape of a door.
Whoever they meet will immediately forget their name, their line of work, what color 
their eyes are. They will shift imperceptibly when the room crowds, narrowing
their already tidy real estate. They will exhibit an infinitesimal patience as the jostle
of bodies rubs the veneer of jubilance thin. And they will listen. They will pay
delicate attention. They will sense the colliding perfumes of ambition and mishap. 
They will memorize the creases of loss. They will name the gleam in the eyes of lovers.
They will feel the nodular geography of disappointment, the slopy turns of desire.
They will carry these stories home. They will tell them to no one. 

August 6, 2019

sorry not sorry 

That I took an extra candy from the office bowl, leaving butterscotch and peppermint.
That when I spoke to the rabbit at the wild strawberry patch, I did so in a baby voice 
I normally loathe. That I snapped a sprig of thyme into a pair of eyebrows, 
just for the photograph. That I didn’t read all the sad poetry in that
expensive literary magazine I subscribe to. That I slipped over the gate that warned
”Do not enter.” That I need room to dance. That I stay a little outside conversations.
That I still believe I will find my lost boot the next time I drive through Minnesota.
That I didn’t finish that lunch in my grandmother’s Florida kitchen 42 years ago. 
That I left. That I stayed. That when I tell the truth, it can be hard as cold plums. 
That I still say goodnight to my dead father. That I pretend he’s answering back.

July 30, 2019

exodus from the Dollar Tree 

Before I arrive, I am frothing at the thought of the store’s refrigerated aisles,
respite from a heat index that has been tipping the scales for days. Once inside,
bright star-shaped signs announce the week’s specials. It turns out a slim stack of quarters
can net me an off-brand ribeye steak, a five-pack of flea collars, 
a tower of party glasses festooned for a bridal shower. Musak floats overhead,
and earthward, the squeaky third wheels of shopping carts and the sounds of plastic
heaped on top of plastic. The shelves are full; the sales slapdash, almost desperate 
with appeal. The paper towels look threadbare; the birthday favors, saccharine.
The oasis I’d dreamed up is a glut of frigid cheer.
Whatever I wanted, it turns out, was never here.

July 23, 2019

stars

The house is old. The driveway, fissured with weeds. A basement beam appears
to have wilted at the center, giving the room a sad, sagged look. We cross our fingers 
when the plumber comes, fumbling with the nomenclature as he taps the walls 
and speaks of the pipes threaded there like veins. There is always some brokenness 
whose origin we are aiming to identify, wielding the rubber handles of tools like
kid soldiers. When that fails, we scrub the lid of the washing machine until its gloss 
returns, tighten outlet plates, straighten picture frames, water the cactus in the window,
sink into the wicker porch chairs with some cocktail we’ve fashioned out of our
salty disappointment. Meanwhile, our bodies keep churning their countless engines, 
scouring and sloughing while we lean back and watch the stars come out one by one.

July 16, 2019

a brief inventory 

In pink report cards, Mrs. Carlson’s glowing remarks have trailed me like comet tails 
for 40 years. At the onset of every move, I reunite with her bubbly cursive extolling 
various virtues—a mastery of the weekly spelling test, a growing social competence, 
an aptitude for math. I have an enthusiasm for learning - she writes - 
that makes it a pleasure to teach. Now, decades from the shiny, cacophonous halls
of Wenonah Elementary, I can still slip myself into the hard plastic desk two rows 
from Mrs. Carlson’s gaze, still hear the chirp of her morning announcements, still spot 
that wide, uninhibited grin, still feel the soft, grey paper with the faint hash lines
cocooning my efforts, and the flourish of checkmarks beside every word I got right.
Did she know even then I’d still be here, tilting my head, listening for her footsteps?

July 9, 2019

Scotch
for David

The peaches, holding court on the market’s rustic tables, look infomercial-perfect, 
bathing in a humid July morning that has already sapped us. We glance, drowsily,
at the slatted baskets. Had the season advanced so far already? The day before, 
we’d gotten a call we couldn’t have predicted, news of a man who slipped away 
while a Yankees game wound down its last innings in his living room. I thought of him, 
still enthralled by his home team, settling back in a chair as if it were an old friend, 
a finger of Scotch to his right, as I reached into my small canvas bag and made space. 
Maybe the peaches wouldn’t be at their sweetest, their skins hiding a subsurface ruin, the pit
rutted with quiet disease. Maybe David should’ve skipped the game, or opted out of that Scotch.
But who can blame any of us for taking any swig of summer we can get?

July 2, 2019

let’s not sit this one out

It’s hot, as our fathers used to say, as blazes, the signs pointing ardently toward caution.
They are not without reason, our faces already reddened by the first wave of effort, 
and the forecast unrelenting. But the opponents are in it for the kill, lungs sustained 
by the kind of fire that spares nothing and leaves claw marks in the dirt, as if Earth 
were being dragged against her will. They rush to the field in droves, so it’s tempting 
to do as our former teachers once advised, swivel our cheeks away from trouble, 
turn a deaf ear to the theater of taunts, and exit the stadium untouched. They didn’t see 
this coming, those sanguine purveyors of stale graham crackers and Dixie-cupped juice, 
but they were wrong even then, our flimsy defiance a poor cousin of courage. 
A film of char remains from any silence. We cannot make this same mistake again.

June 25, 2019

advice for the newly hatched
for C.

Later, you will admire the tree you came from - its artistic notches, the flourish 
of branch and bark, the sweet density of leaf and blanket of shade, how the view 
often tilted in your favor - skyward - where clouds drifted into whatever shapes 
you wanted them to be. You will tell stories of your past in the way of myth,
each vignette pearlescent as dew. You will pluck good fruit from the old stems,
and the skin will still be soft and yielding. For now, though, offer your betrothal 
to this strange, quaking new body. Admire the heated voltage of your fear, your blood 
circling the drain. Remember you are merely at the outskirts of your own ballast, 
that the swaying will go on for awhile, and then it won’t, and then it will again.
This is and isn’t the beginning. This is and isn’t the end.

June 18, 2019

homage

Who knew these cookies still existed, Dutch Cocoa from Archway, 12 to a pack, 
that a New Jersey grocery 3,000 miles and 37 years from when I last ate them
would carry, at nose-height, a whiff of my childhood, that when I reached up, 
they’d return me to the San Luis Obispo Kroger’s on a weekend run with my father,
after a ballet class I wanted to love but couldn’t because all the other girls looked like 
flamingos, one preening embellishment after another, while I stubbed my toes 
against an unforgiving barre. It didn’t matter. I floated through the bright aisles
at the helm of the cart while my father plucked a cellophane bundle from a high shelf,
a dozen sugar-dusted disks peeking through, then slid it behind the bread and eggs,
and we glanced at each other like twin defectors, a quiet rebellion glowing in our eyes.

June 11, 2019

thirds

No one cares where the second-tier towels are kept. The ones we take to the beach
are rolled up like fancy cannoli in the canvas bag a few steps from the back screen door, 
and the dark grey ones bought to match the new bathroom are slung intimately 
on the hooks of bedroom closets. But in the dankest basement corner, 
beside rusty curtain rods and old paint, an assemblage of orphan linens jostles for space 
in a tiny cupboard. It is the picture of neglect and privilege, an extravagant remnant 
of houses traded up for newer models, the castoffs we keep lugging to the next place.
Yet these are the ones that do the dirtiest work, dabbed at muddy hatchback floor mats,
wiping up metastatic kitchen spills and the desperate leavings from an incontinent dog.
They bear the marks of error, a carcass rimmed with birds. I fold them into even thirds.

June 4, 2019

the softball team is thriving

A hard loss to a longtime rival might have pummeled their spirits permanently, left
the girls to sputter their season to a close. But at the sharpest pinch of disappointment,
something steered them away from the abyss and here they are in the headlines
of the local paper, glistened by four straight victories and a spot in the conference
semifinals. I could envy their luminous statistics - the muscle that gave the outfielder
her three runs, or the senior shortstop who clocked in a homer and four RBIs -
but instead my gaze pitches toward a field cross-hatched with cleat marks, the earth
bearing a balance of joy and heartache as the bleachers sway with revelers.
Aren’t we all carrying some measure of mutiny against our unbeatable odds,
our hands creased with resolve and our blood clotting willfully with hope?

May 28, 2019

between seasons

After the cherry blossoms disappeared, a certain malaise lingered, a feeling of being
between seasons. Every few days, the brief revving of a lawnmower could be heard,
as if someone were simply testing the engine. In the produce aisle, tomatoes still held
the strange waxy pallor of winter, and - as if to rekindle the spirits of the shoppers -
boxes of California strawberries had been placed strategically between rows of
demoralized greens. We were all trying to get somewhere, such was our impatience -
no, our disdain - for this ellipses of waiting. Our mouths were watering for change.
Later, we’d try, and fail, to remember what were doing in the weeks before
summer sank its syrupy teeth in and fall came tumbling after. We’d say, “It’s all
going by too fast” as beneath our feet, the soil churned every loss into gold.

May 21, 2019

milk ducts

The ultrasound technician and her gluey wand. An examining table like Isaac’s
sacrificial altar. I watch her eyes for trouble. The screen undulates with lines.
We are intimate strangers. We are strangely intimate. There is a pattern of delicate
spring blooms on my thin robe, a strip of pale blue at the neck. She points to a wiry 
cable of white, says “These are your milk ducts,” and I am surprised by the tenderness
in her voice. For a liminal moment, I picture a brood of babies at my breasts.
I picture everything that might have been, but wasn’t. And then the wand moves on, 
and soon, I am given the all-clear and released into a humid May afternoon, flooded 
with relief and something I may never be able to name. But it looks a wiry cable just 
under my skin, and it sounds like the technician’s tender voice, and it’s haloed in white.

May 14, 2019

when we sat in a circle and told stories to each other

The first warm evening had come. The light was longer than yesterday. Arthur arrived
with a fistful of poems and a hug. Emilia sidled in the way she always does, like a vapor
traveling between continents. This time she also brought twin cans of grapefruit-
flavored hard seltzer, which she poured evenly between us. By then we had transfigured
the rows of folding chairs into a wheel, and sat with our legs splayed into half-formed
spokes. Naya was there, she said when her turn came, just to listen, and she did. Bud, 
another first-timer, entered in a jacket and tie, which he unloosened as soon as Della
had finished. He had my father’s beard and a voice gentle as dandelions. Robin’s hands 
were so delicate. He said, “This is personal.” It was a Wednesday. Our faces 
were turned toward each other. We could have been anywhere, but we were here.

May 7, 2019

whirligigs on the Delaware River

The water’s rushing under the Frenchtown Bridge and we stand, equidistant, 
between banks. It’s a perfect May afternoon, sun-dappled and warm, and absent of
appointments and deadlines and jury duty, we have time to stand here and lean a little 
over the hand rails, allow our gaze to drift up- or downstream at its own
amphibious rhythm. Which is why, perhaps, we’ve spotted the flocks of maple seeds,
frenetic on the river’s skin, translucent mementos the wind’s dropped on its dash 
through the valley. Whatever happens next could look like this, like whirligigs 
on the Delaware River, and it could feel like craziness or it could feel like good fortune.
A branch is stuck at the center pillar, 30 feet below, and I guess it could feel like that, too.
But then we’re moving, steering our bodies on, because we can, because it’s what we do.

April 30, 2019

remember me

When I last saw Kelly and her sister, we lathered our faces in beauty creams and were
parading around my apartment on the corner of Lyon and Jackson. They were seven
and nine; I wasn’t yet 30. Later, trolling the aisles of the grocery store for treats, they 
pretended I was their mother. So when Kelly’s note arrives - “Remember me?” - 
I am back at the candy display at that CalMart on California Avenue with two 
pony-tailed daughters tugging at my wrists, golden afternoon light winking 
through the fog. The memory feels sharp after such a long absence, or perhaps because
Kelly’s old enough for a fiancé and a life in Seattle, and her sister has a 6-month-old son,
or because even through her note I can hear Kelly’s tiny voice, which is to say I can hear
my voice, and I answer back, Yes! Yes! because once a mother, always a mother.

April 23, 2019

the orchid, as seen from a kitchen windowsill in suburban New Jersey

I was reading about a man on a business trip, freshly arrived at the Cinnamon Hotel
in the capital city, whom colleagues are now eulogizing in the company newsletter.
A celebrity chef and her daughter are also among the dead; another lost his wife 
and three of their four children. I am hunched before the screen, dumbly lifting a 
slice of toast to my lips as heavy fonts explode and the toll mounts. Which is perhaps 
why, later in the morning, I am astonished to discover the resurrection of blooms, 
slung across each stem like a teenager, almost defiant with beauty. What can we make
of such of infuriating contradictions? I can only stand there in a muddle of relief 
and sorrow and fury and joy as a warm spring enters in carefree little drifts,
scattering crumbs from the table in every direction. 

April 16, 2019

spackling the rectory

This isn’t my place of worship, but neither was the Notre-Dame-du-Roncier 
in the Breton village where my Jewish father led the chorale for years and spoke 
a version of French that endeared him to the locals and kept the choir membership
robust. Something about this building—the stained kitchen wallpaper with faded
leaves, the tear in the porch screens, the sticky front door—equally speaks to me 
to fix it all, or at least, like my father might have, to coax a little of the old glory back. 
The walls soak up the paint I give them; I add another coat. Maybe everything needs 
more tenderness than it lets on. When they sang, my father’s choir looked half in love,
cheeks slackened by joy, and listening, we, too, were suspended somewhere between
heaven and earth, the cathedral all around us, and in us.