Reaching for Stars

moon climbing large
Collapsing onto the bed, he moans
“I don’t feel good.”
Every night he doesn’t feel good.

What would Good feel like? I want to ask.
The absence of pain?
A month of snow days?
Maybe this Good lays a path and clears debris,
one smooth downhill grade.
Or better still, buoyancy
as if weightless
on water cooled by twilight
and the wings of loons
dipping low.

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On This Body

Mother Earth Odjig
Mother Earth, Daphne Odjig

Eyes like a growling. Eyes like a treasure box. Storefront reflection, candid photograph, inverted glint on spectacle glass.

Eyes tethering me to corporeality.

They write their stories on my body. Make their confessions on my body. Cast the runes and decode the signs and plan their fortune on my body. Ink the map of their nightmares on my body. X the spot of their rescue on my body.

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Listen Now

starry-night

Itzhak Perlman was riding shotgun when the October moon slid out onto the horizon. The soloist’s strokes teased from the slimmest strings the opening notes of Beethoven’s violin concerto.  Other players followed and a rumble rose from deep in the bouts of cello and bass, swelling to a roar and thundering through my ribs, pressing out the tears.  The stoplight was seconds from green so I pressed back.  It took some effort.  It took my breath.

The moon lay herself down in a hammock of treetops and followed us with her sleepy gaze.

Across town, a young writer of mysteries saw her too.  What echoed across the dusk to his ears was Don McLean’s “Vincent,” at least the opening verse.  His song reached in through the passenger side window and wound around the Berlin Philharmonic.  I pulled into a jammed parking lot.  They grabbed their instruments by the neck and careened off together, streaking light across the purple sky.

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57. Things I Can Smooth: The Lines

She perches on the powder-blue cushion that pads her brass vanity chair. Lifting her chin, she smooths a dab of cold cream into the barchan expanse of her throat. The tray on the counter is mirrors and filigree. It holds the fluted light, reflecting back a tessellation of silver lipstick tubes. They stand alongside brow combs and kohl pencils, upright in frames whorled with beads and rhinestones.

Fanning out on the glinting surface are brushes thin as needles and broad as petals, brushes as coarse as thistle and fine as down, virgin brushes and brushes worn to nubs. For the baser applications, tissues the color of an Easter sky pop from the top of a crocheted box. Cotton balls in a nesting tower press their breathy faces against the glass.

At her back, a wooden cabinet with worn brass handles opens to stacks of folded washcloths and bath towels. The linen fits in a perfect geometry between containers holding a disco-flash plastic spectrum: Pert and Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, Aqua Net and Johnson’s Detangling Spray. There, too, extra bars of scented soap, boxes of band-aids for every joint and laceration, hair nets and pink sponge curlers and shower caps and amber tonics with squat-lettered labels fading into oily glass.

Up around the ceiling and down to the chrome fixtures and hidden pipes drifts a perfume of clay dust and crushed flower, spun cotton and wood stain.

From a round box, she lifts a fluffed ball the size of a kitten. Powder whooshes just inside the low lace neckline of her satin slip. She plucks from a bouquet of combs and hairbrushes a pick to fluff her thinning auburn curls.

On the side of the makeup case she carries in her purse is a tiny mirror. She chooses a tube from among the silver array and twists it awake, tracing color across her mouth before dropping the lipstick in the case and snapping it shut. In the small rectangle of glass, her lips peel back. She frees a blue tissue and dabs a coral smudge from her teeth.

 

Believe What Keeps You

At the moment she thought
she had reached the apex
of beautiful,
she lit every burner
and eclipsed
city night.
He veered
her way. He stayed.

We have no idea how the years work
in our favor.

At the end
of the platform is a sign
that says
You talk,
we listen.
Together we survive.

Eyesight weakens and vision
grows sharper.

She wears the powder blue dress
and smokes a joint
tilting back her gold
mane, a flashing howl
against the open chord
he plays with bare knuckles
and a mouth full of glass.

Hearing deafens as perception
cleaves lyric
from lie.

 

Kid Gloves

From the steamer trunk where we keep the dress-up clothes I unfold a pair of ivory gloves. Tiny rhinestones dust the wrist and blanket stitches trace the bones. I slip them on. Their buttery grip hugs my skin. I can barely bend into a fist, but that’s not what they were for.

Her voice flits in from somewhere back then. Little golden-haired me, cracking my knuckles. She, fretting.

“Oh, sugar. Don’t do that. You’ll have to wear gloves when you’re older.”

How is a kid supposed to consider her own hands? Her own faraway adulthood? The mind, kinder than the most well-meaning loved ones, guards against premature knowledge of time’s merciless work.

The threat’s vague consequence quavered at the edge of focus and refused to sharpen. Would my busted flesh swell taut and hot? Maybe, but I couldn’t stop. I took my knuckles into the bedroom, the shower. Shame pricked, echoing every snap. There I would be at 40, I imagined, carrying regret like a scar, tucking once-were-lovely hands into kidskin shrouds.

In the trunk now is her scent. Maybe it’s the scent of her house? By the time I knew her, one was the other. Traces of it slip loose of language. Musty? Floral? Sort of like old dollar bills. And bath powder. It’s nicer than it sounds.

I pull off the gloves and begin to look through things my little boy has ignored. A few pieces of coral costume jewelry. Pins with cloisonné baubles dangling from gold chains. I unfold a floor-length embroidered Chinese robe. It is far too big for my bird-boned grandmother, but who in the world would have worn it? I dig deeper. Tucked into the corner of the trunk is the aquamarine pillbox hat, all metallic threads and glittery flourish. Once she had a dress that matched. I’ve seen the faded photos but they don’t begin to capture the gleam. This getup belongs in a Mardi Gras parade.

At the bottom of the trunk rests a folded, floral something-or-other. Table linen? An apron? I packed it all in a rush before the house and all its contents were sold at auction. I shake the fabric out to its full length and marvel at this piece of her.

I had forgotten how bright my grandmother’s taste. Big rust and teal flowers leap across a creamy field. It is a sundress, darted and tailored while also falling out in soft flare. The whole creation is edged in a turquoise border that rises into ribbon-thin straps. It is a masterpiece. I trace the tiny seams.

We say, “I wish I’d known them when they were young.” Maybe if we don’t meet them as children, it’s a failure of imagination, not timing. Every one of us is still a kid, still climbing the tree, still ducking from a blow, still burning for that first kiss. I knew her as a girl without even realizing it. I was busy looking at my hands picturing them old. She was looking at hers, remembering.

She danced in this dress. She danced even when she couldn’t anymore. I try to imagine her in it, her burgundy curls kissing her bare neck and shoulders. That image, too, refuses to sharpen into view.

I do know this: before children, my grandmother was a petite hourglass of a thing. My barrel chest would have swallowed hers whole with room left for dessert, yet her cup size was at least three times mine. Even before she began to shrink, the top of her head barely grazed my chin. She always wore lipstick.

I hug the dress close, carry it to my room, and shed my jeans.

With deep breath and a little tug, the zipper – did it really just do that? – makes it over my ribs. Fabric hugs me in a pinch at the waist. The chest gapes open enough to stow a sack of flour but the rest of it slips like gift wrap around my frame.

I couldn’t be shaped more differently than the woman who first inhabited this dress, but it stands a chance. I wish I could give her a fashion show. The last of those was nearly twelve years ago and the other way around. I sat in her bedroom and helped her try on the blue chiffon she chose to wear into the ground. How is a young woman supposed to consider death? The mind, still kinder than truth, continues to stand to stand guard. We laughed together on her bed. It never occurred to me that it would be the last visit, even as we chose her pallbearers and picked out her silk slip.

On that trip to Oklahoma as in all the others, I ran out into the early morning, charging up past farms to Cemetery Hill and back down around the 4-mile loop. Flushed and stinking, I stretched in her living room while she ate breakfast in her robe. “You’re such a strong girl,” she said, patting my thigh with a powder-milk hand. I felt immense next to her. Bovine. But there in her own body, she was giddy with the memory of motion. “I used to touch the floor,” she said. “With my palms flat like this.” She tried it, right there in her robe, giggling as she dangled her tiny fingers and reached.

The ghost girl twirled into view. Her hips swayed. I couldn’t even see her right there next to me, fanning out those feathery hands. She was still a dancer, still turning one pirouette after another into breathless almost-flight.

I understand now because I feel it too.

Not in the dress which I peel off and hang in my closet. No, her pretty was – is – so much finer than mine.

No, I feel it here in this other now.

Now, when I go down to the basement. When I wrap my hands three times at the wrist then up through the fingers, locking the thumb. The music is cranked to a click shy of distortion. Megadeth. Nirvana. Anything that drives. No sleep till – pow pow – Brooklyn! I watch the man and lick my lips.

Then the bell.

Then.

I use my teeth and rip the Velcro tighter on the glove. My hands tighten to fists.

I am up, one – one two. Remembering the rhythm but also slipping outside of it. The first time we went three rounds. Then four. Then, once, half drunk on Shock Top, we cussed and slogged through five rounds. I know retreat is not an option so I give in. The weak left, the strange feet, the wobble. Then, the grrr, the slam, squatting for the upper cut, shuffling for the left hook that always feels like a wet noodle compared to the right. There is a clock but no time. The only event is this shuffle, this tuck, this goddamned bag, this blow. Except that it’s not true, at least not yet, because when the exertion is so total, I’m counting every beat. When he grunts, 30 more seconds, come on, I think fuck. Then haul back, hands up, wham.

When I forget to keep the curl tight inside the glove, all the padding in the world doesn’t help. I feel the crack and the moment of wrong impact a split second too late. The skin slips. There is no rest. The heavy bag lets you know if you’ve slacked or misjudged. It smirks while you wobble. So, I zero in. I hunker down, square myself, and pound.


In the morning, my body groans in the shower then winces its way into trousers. Knuckles burn. On my way out the door, I double back, remembering to take the dress. On my lunch hour, a co-worker sends me past all the bargain cleaners with on-site tailors to the custom seamstress one neighborhood over, telling me that suffering the cost is better than regretting a discount.

The bell chimes as I open the door. From between poofs of sheathed tuille, a little woman pops out and scowls. “What you need done?” She is built like my grandmother but does not smile as much. She scoots me into a dressing room. “You put it on,” she points and disappears.

Under the fluorescent lights, I strip down. Five panes of glass stretch to the ceiling, each claiming a unique angle. I step to a platform scuffed with the eager feet of hundreds of brides-to-be. I drop the dress over my bare shoulders and freeze. Then I flex, unsure if I’m seeing something real. Whose back is this? The sea-blue ribbon tips over and the zipper gapes. Muscle rises there, rippling, coarsely cut. The scapulae, biting against ridges like the twisted braid of a banyan tree. Can this be me?

The tailor returns with a hedgehog of glinting quills strapped to her forearm. Gathering and folding, she tut-tuts. The gap is huge at my schoolboy chest but she does her best. “Not easy,” she says. “Have to cut. See? Here and here. Line is. . . tricky.” The dress is so many shapes in two different fabrics. “No one make like this now,” she says. “Nice,” she says. She bends to the crenellated hem at the foot where the inverted castle wall notches up into the field of the skirt. “Take long time to make.”

She orders me to reach for the ceiling. My arms shriek. Last night’s 5 ½ rounds were a rout. I made all the moves but the bag did all the damage. The tailor steps back and assesses. The skirt flares from my waist and kisses my calves. I twine my hands together in the air. The scrape there, the purple place between the pinky and the ring finger of my right hand, barks. I’d let my grip fall open at the wrong moment and I’m paying today. On a sweaty strip of webbing now limp in the bottom of a laundry bag, a bit of my flesh festers.

“You have to wear bra,” she says, grabbing at my breast and getting a fistful of the impossible darts. “Still too big here. Okay?”

“Yes,” I say. “Okay.”

She leaves and I straighten the straps, catching sight of my hands. Brown from the sun. Bruised. They are dry, too. I’ve never had the discipline for the Pond’s my grandmother applied religiously. Here, a sheath of rattlesnake diamonds. I turn in a slow circle. The skirt whispers open

Oh, sugar. You’ll have to wear gloves when you’re older

and I stretch my bruised hands wide.
 

Beautiful

It’s that
lifted cheek. Those improbable toes. The scent of raspberry in the fold of a yellow rose. That flourish in bottle blue mosaic, this single climbing vine. That black damp and wingbuzz at the mouth of shuttered copper mine.
This fountain. A canyon. That monarch. Those mountains.

It’s that
way his back bends when he feints low and away from his aim’s first trace. This just-right note down in the smoke and bass. The kiss under apple blossoms, and come to that, the apple. It’s this skin. The juice.

That taste.
You are, we whisper. It is so, you gasp. Make me feel, I plead.

It’s that
jump shot. Midnight walk. That sword of beam and concrete, this tower of glass.
This hot scalp of infant hunger burrowing into breast.
The swell, the salt, the foaming crest.

It’s that
Do you? That have you? That what if?
This yes.

A first spoonful. A last ember. The clasp on the chain at the back of the neck. That creak of opening, this bed of silk. The light biting at corners. A sweet sucking clench at the intake
of breath before

That letting go.
Your masterpiece in oil and the way water cuts channels through

This everything.

It’s that
key in your hand.
Those notes in script
you can’t read yet.
The drawstring, the marble, the button, the pocket.
The jar with no label.
This canvas still wet.
It is so, you say.
You are
I reply.

This is

we claim
It’s this.