10-Line Tuesday

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. 

April 9, 2019

poem from an empty mind

Take what slips in—the leaf-blowers, a memory of a green velour dress, a blanket
made by a woman who wasn’t your grandmother—and walk through the threshold. 
Maybe this will take you to a wedding chuppah, a farm in rural Massachusetts, a road
with inconvenient potholes, a tray with lemonade glasses, a sign for fresh eggs, a field of
dandelions interrupted only by a pair of horses, and these will travel you elsewhere, 
to a town in southern Indiana that reunited you with an LP you hadn’t heard for years.
Not two feet away, there’s a painted seashell, an incense stick burnt down to its final inch, 
and below that a toy the dog has lost interest in, and more than a few clots of dust. 
While you are waiting for a greatness that may never appear, what about that photo 
on the mantel. The shutter clicked before you were ready, and aren’t you beautiful still?

April 2, 2019

cilantro

For days, a cluster of cilantro has been leaning against the left side of a thick glass,
its stems submerged in tap water and a twist tie wrapped around its middle. Nearby,
meals and cocktails have been assembled, bowls of popcorn poured into coral-hued
ceramic bowls, sleepy conversations held over cups of dark French roast. By the time
we leave this beach house, it’s possible no one will have snipped any leaves into an
impromptu salsa, or minced a handful into a salad, or even stooped over the counter
to inhale a bright, grassy whiff. Maybe when we reached into that particular chilled bin
in the produce aisle, what we were thinking about was spring, and how long we had
waited for this reunion, and how relieved we were that our bodies were still carrying
the same deep joy we’d remembered, our own greenness right at our fingertips.

March 26, 2019

primer

For the first time, you wonder if you’ve brought enough paint. In your mind,
the room wasn’t nearly as large is it looms now, the ceilings less catastrophically high.
What you’d pictured was a tidy, nesty scene and your arms - outstretched - almost
touching the walls opposite. At each surface, you feel suddenly, freshly enfeebled,
which is strange because you are usually good in a crisis situation. Why now,
absent of catastrophe, a ticking clock nowhere in sight, are your doubting
the basal impulses that tugged so deliciously at your sleeves? Whatever gripped you
at the outset is still here, clutching the tail end of the handle, and it is enough.
Once you set the first stroke down, you’ll be shocked by your own steady hand, and
how the walls, newly touched, will reach for you, soaking up everything you give them.

March 19, 2019

Franklin Avenue in March

A woman in her late 40s is making her way through traffic, bright yellow sneakers
flat against the pedals of a bicycle that once took her down the California coastline.
You can still catch her mooning over that trip - the relief of a pint of strawberries,
the climb up Quadbuster, the swishy palm trees greeting her in Ventura - but here,
on the busy, bumpy pavement that marks the far end of town, she’s gone further back
than that. She is five years old in a red cotton dress with flowers at the hem, pink feet
in buckled leather sandals, coasting on her first real downhill. Maybe it’s because it’s
the day before spring, or maybe it’s because it’s true what they say about bicycles, or
maybe it’s the way her feet rotating on the pedals look like two small suns, beaming
at the drivers beside her, saying hello to the world again, or as if for the first time.

March 12, 2019

shoveling my mother’s driveway

We always complain about the hard swivel of Emily Lane, the way parking the car
becomes a kind of vehicular acrobatics, made less thrilling at the end
of the 4-hour drive from New Jersey. After Sunday’s incursion of snow, I find myself,
shovel in hand, bending like a monk, lungs drumming in my ears as I scoop the blade
along the curves and make piles at their border, where the asphalt meets the edges
of a buried front lawn. It feels like prayer in the way taking out the trash feels like
devotion, which is to say the resemblance can be seen only from a distance. I make
slow, stiff progress, then shake my boots off in the breezeway before coming inside,
where my mother is composing a late lunch, her silver hair haloing around her
as she leans over the cutting board, slicing the tomatoes into perfect circles.

March 5, 2019

mythic

On Margie’s dining room table, a set of ikebana vessels make, despite the absence
of flora inside, something of a centerpiece. Over lunch, I imagine her,
some coming spring morning, gathering stems, fingertips gentle as pillows. I picture
a flat lay on a dampened towel and Margie, making the first, crucial placement.
Maybe it was the eastern light stretching into the back windows as we ate, or the way
the snow from two days ago has begun receding, or that my stepson, so often poised
for disappointment, received good news today, and he can, for one suspended moment,
envision a different narrative blooming in front of him, petals wider than his own palms.
However the axis pitched, Margie’s table fills with vernal promise, and the flowers -
mythic - tilt their faces skyward, taking me with them.

February 26, 2019

Build…That…Mall!

After 16 years, the American Dream is finally coming to East Rutherford, New Jersey.
A few miles before the Lincoln Tunnel, the bones of a waterpark have emerged 
through a pitched glass roof. Inside, a jigsaw of rollercoaster tracks and the faint outline
of what seems, this side of Route 3, to be a ski slope. Maybe the $5 billion price tag
will have been worth it once the highway ferries eager shoppers to spin
the golden roulette wheel of capitalism’s crowning achievement. But from here, with bulldozers
scattered like a stunned army, it’s hard to see anything but the cataclysm of excess,
a crash site posing as a carnival. How much entertainment do we really need, and will
450 additional retail opportunities be enough to keep the ice caps from melting?
I see boys in the sandbox, fists on their gears. I’m not buying what they’re selling.