THE OLD HOUSE
BEFORE THE PHONE GOES DEAD
Nirvana or This?
SO MANY ARRANGEMENTS
At the Count of Ten
THE OLD HOUSE
Sitting beneath the mesquite, I see them drive up in a truck. The man tells
me he lived here when he was a boy. Points to the old shack where I store my
bike. I encourage them to walk around the property. The father leads the way. He
feels the rotting wood on the shack, peers inside the window. Nothing is left
but an old toilet.
I imagine him sitting on the steps as a boy, the steps his father built. The coop filled with chicken. The freeway just a two-lane road connecting Mexico to Arizona.
He tells me his father bought that house for fifty bucks from Fort Huachucha, loaded it on a truck, and brought it here himself. His wife and daughter listen intently. Apparently this is their first visit to his old house.
I tell him the neighbors still gather at the old adobe house next door every Sunday. They sing, play guitars and accordians, throw horseshoes until early morning. He laughs. Tell him the old man died this year. "Just like the old days. That old man was my dad's age. He had to be eighty-six."
He looks at my daughter, and asks how old she is. "I was seven like you when I moved here." He steps away from the fire ants. "Pour grits on them. They'll eat it and bloat right up until they explode."
Slowly they return to their truck and drive away. I find a box of grits in the kitchen, pour them over the ants, and sit beneath the mesquite tree waiting for the monsoon storm.
BEFORE THE PHONE GOES DEAD
I answer the phone and listen
to a woman ramble on about
how she has locked her
keys in the car
and nothing is going right.
"I know this is the wrong number
and I'm in this dark parking lot."
Then the phone goes dead
and I'm left wondering if
I should trace the call,
notify the police,
or simply finish reading
my daughter her books before bed.
Phone rings in the middle of the night
and I must decide whether to answer it
or wait until morning to see who has died.
I pick up the receiver but say nothing.
"Pendejo! ¿Sabes quien es?" he laughs.
I have no idea who he is and remain quiet.
"La cagamos," he continues.
"Portate bien," I say before the phone goes dead,
hoping he'll believe he's called his mother by mistake.
On a hot afternoon the phone rings
and a man begins talking about how there's
only four hundred more miles to drive
and everything will be fine this time.
He's sorry about what has happened
and is certain it won't happen again.
"Baby, I can't wait to see you.
Baby, why aren't you saying anything?"
"I think you have the wrong number."
"Quit clowning, Baby."
Then the phone goes dead.
Body stretched on dirty cement floor,
my twisted tongue flexed and searched
slithering beneath the custodian’s lunch table,
while the speech therapist coaxed foreign sounds
from my contorted face. She praised the guttural noise,
the mutilated diphthongs bouncing off concrete walls,
our strange appreciation of nonexistent words.
Standing in the long line,
burdened by suspicious border patrol agents
and a heavy backpack,
I see Bob's blue truck.
It looks the same as it did the day
he left Michigan for Oregon,
a place he believed to be hipper,
more appreciative of guitar builders.
Bob's old truck idled in the vehicle lane,
packed way too high, tied down with a tarp.
One strong wind could lift the tarp
and the guitars would soar like helicopters.
I run to Bob's truck and the agents follow,
breaking up our embrace by demanding Bob
empty his truck, every bit of it, and me my pack,
layer by layer, piece by piece, strewn on the ground.
And somehow Bob thought this was a sign from God:
we meet at Canadian border just to put our pieces
back together, Instead of hitchhiking wild and reckless,
I'm to sit in the front seat of his old blue truck,
and we'll return to Michigan, the land of stability,
proof of God's plans, and Bob will build guitars
and drive a bus, and I'll teach crazy people,
and he'll quit smoking, and I'll settle down.
But I return to the line, gather my pieces,
and slowly walk across the border
while his old truck drives down the highway,
and somehow I know my life will always be like this-
stange crossings at borders; second chances;
forced exposures, layer by layer, piece by piece,
reaching that raw empty level, that raw unknown depth.
Now that I've reached 40, I wonder if I'll notice the onset of menopause the
same way I recognized
the early signs of pregnancy; if the physical and emotional changes will be apparent, like
the tender breasts and missed periods, the weepiness,
the hunger for foods that didn't exist.
When my daughter was two, we flew to Wyoming
and visited an old lover I hadn't seen in years. Undressed, he looked at my naked body and squealed,
"You have stretch marks on your back!"
Not only had I never seen these, and they'd be hard to see since they were supposedly on my back, but
I can remember asking close friends in moments of
extreme vanity if they had noticed any stretch marks.
Beneath my shirt they'd search and report,
"Not a one." It's possible that my friends
were just being kind or had weak eyes.
I told the old lover he was crazy. Still, he insisted they were there.
I flew to visit another old lover I hadn't seen
in ten years. That first night in bed, he looked
at my body and said, "I remember when your breasts
were small and firm. I miss those." After four years of nursing, four years of another life this old lover knew nothing about, he looked at those breasts that were once his, and lamented the loss of youthfulness, and I wondered why I was flying
all over the country looking up old lovers
who noticed but never understood
my creased geographical paths,
the indentations of lost youth,
of new journeys,
of lives that have separated
but somehow reconnected,
like the crow's feet etched around my eyes
from years of not using protection in the sun,
the wrinkles, sagging breasts, maybe even stretch marks,
all the paths travelled exploring unprotected love.
I look out the window and watch my six-year-old
daughter engage in her private world of Dogga Land.
Surrounded by stuffed animals, she lines them
up for rides. Today is carnival day. Boxes
have been transformed into Ferris wheels. Rubber
bands stretch across sticks for tight rope walkers.
Nonstop talk. Dogga Land is a happy place. I wave
but remain non-existent since we're separated by
a window. Either I come out or I am not a part
of Dogga Land. Then I notice two tiny stuffed puppies
that she's spinning around in the dust, making up
a carnival song as they whirl and whirl. I look
closer and notice it's my diaphragm they're whirling around in.
Unfortunately, it's the most action my diaphragm has seen in years.
No longer invisible, my daughter smirks before
waving, her way of proving she knows something she shouldn't.
Nirvana or This?
Sitting atop the bus with other travelers soaring down a frigid Himalayan
highway, we approach a low, narrow tunnel and realize the driver isn't going to
let us off. Those on the edge jump into the snow bank, while those of us in the
center burrow beneath the luggage, wondering if the darkness will ever end.
After we survive, the driver stops the bus and seems disappointed to see no
fatalities. Now that the road is safe, he insists we remain inside the crowded
"Last week an Australian lost his head going through a tunnel like this," a tourist reports. "I thought he'd stop. Our driver must be into Nirvana, thinking he's doing a good deed by rushing others into another life."
All the seats are taken, people are piled on top of each other, and so we stand. Being a woman, I'm offered a seat on a man's lap. I'd decline and remain crouched in the aisle. I miss the panoramic view experienced on top of the bus. The locals don't seem to travel much and are heaving out the broken windows. Jagged edges cut them while vomiting. Parents lean young children out the window so they can relieve themselves. I sing "Proud Mary". People sing along, but only a few know the words. Some just clap their hands. Others howl. Could Nirvana be better than this?
The first day we were paired off, I was the odd leftover
and handed a broom, while the pairs smirked, certain
their assembly jobs had more status than my bucket
and broom. It may have been true, but my broom danced,
and my bucket carried a tune when the pickles splattered
against the sides. When the smirkers displayed envy and
asked for an exchange, I'd trade my broom and bucket
for their places on the line, examining endless pickles,
and filling fast moving jars. It didn't take long for
me to start missing my broom and bucket. They were
relieved for the break from endless pickles and forced
chatter, and I was refreshed by the forced chatter
and mindless repetition, though, more than ready
to dance across the floor, sweeping up the pickles
that never made it to the jars. My boss was so proud
of my work, she promised me a pair of rubber boots.
Instead of simply dreaming about pickles, that night
I dreamed about those boots while sleeping outside
beneath the stars. The next day the boots weren't there,
but the promise remained. My broom and I danced
and pirouetted around the bucket. That night while jogging,
I stumbled over a pickle from the previous night's dream
and broke my ankle. When I called in at work to say I had to
quit, my boss said she had brought my boots to work. The
boots I had already named Ethel. I told her I was sorry, but
I wouldn't be back to say good-bye to my broom or hello
to Ethel. Restlessly dancing in my cast, I wondered
what more I could expect from life at seventeen?
SO MANY ARRANGEMENTS
When friends are busy on the phone
making funeral arrangements,
I quietly move their kitchen table
the TV, dresser, and chairs.
Vacuuming is too noisy,
so I sweep sweep sweep
move it all
clean it all
arrange it all.
After a friend died, his family had already
taken care of his house before I arrived,
leaving me with nothing to do. Feeling that need,
I planted the flowers he usually planted in the spring,
and the neighbors came by wondering why I was planting flowers at a dead man's house that no one would water
after I left. But they said nothing.
Go home and arrange books.
Read the books for survivors of suicide
searching for the words
that say it's not your fault.
Read the books on grieving
looking for tales of similar anguish.
Read the books about losing a parent
hunting for the story about your mother.
Read the books on healing
wondering if it's ever possible.
Rearrange the photo albums.
Change the address books.
Arrange the memories to ease the loss.
So damn many arrangements.
People ducking beneath wet umbrellas,
avoiding the woman's hand reaching
out from the window ledge. "Spare
change?" she asks to no one in particular.
"Spare rain?" a man laughs running to his car,
giving the woman one last look before crawling
into the driver's seat, while the woman remains
crouched, filling her hand with spare rain.
At the Count of Ten
When I say ten, think of red.
One, he always volunteers in my classroom.
Two, my students think they’re hypnotized.
Three, one hour passes with everyone quiet.
Four, he’s such a nice man, I hope this works.
Five, this reminds me of high school. Pretend or not pretend?
Six, I pretended. They applauded. Felt foolish.
Seven, there’s no way I’m pretending I have my period.
Eight, glad he’s not charging me for these sessions.
Nine, tells me I owe him ten blank tapes after period begins.
Ten, think of red? Red. Red. Red. Red. Red.
After we finish our session, he gives me a tape
of his voice leading me into menstruation.
I listen to it in bed with a glass of wine.
Then I listen to it without the wine. The background
sounds like water dripping. Bloody water?
At the count of ten, think red.
Every week I return to his office.
He says I have a cold body temperature.
Hooks me to a biofeedback machine. No period.
Let’s try hypnotism again.
When I stand up, I’m disappointed
there’s not a puddle of blood on my chair.
He tries so hard. Such a nice man.
Six months pass without a period and I visit
my physician. He puts his gloves on, inserts
his finger, shows me bloody glove and says,
“You should have sex more often.”
The next day I bring the hypnotist
a box of blank cassettes.<?/fontfamily>
Relieved, he smiles.