My Mother Making Donuts
The church ladies all ached
with age. Their hair stiff as steel wool,
faces grayed as frozen meat,
flashing quick smiles
when Mom served
pineapple upside down cake
on china from the hutch we mustn’t touch:
oil the pan first next time, don’t beat
the eggs so much, this was something they knew more
about than this young, pretty
girl who lived in her mind and hid
stacks of Harlequin Romance novels.
Born in St. Louis and stuck in a town of 7000
souls; Wynne, The City With a Smile
(in Old English, she once told them, wynne meant joy
and tried to smile when they said college
sure didn’t teach you how to cook.)
A man once came to our door selling encyclopedias.
The church ladies warned herâ€“
he’ll ask if your husband’s here,
and when he finds out you’re alone, a little
thing like you? They ushered him away, threatened
to call the police, their husbands; we’re armed,
they said, these women who knew as much
about the world as a catfish knows
about life outside the pond. My mother caught him
on the way out. “Ask anyone around,
I’ve been selling this route for years,” he said.
“Those women are fools.”
She saw something she’d almost forgotten
in his angry eyes
and bought everything he had.
1 Brushy Lake
The ancient pecan tree ached for sky, throwing
nuts like hail stones onto the dirt road bordering
the milo field. Mom spread a blanket across
the still-green grass beneath the limbs stretched
like sea anemones. From the green and wheat-colored
basket, she drew fried chicken, mashed potatoes,
biscuits with homemade jam, corn from the garden
by Mamawâ€™s house, celery sticks stuffed
with pimento cheese, chicken livers to split
with Julie Beth. They waited and watched Dad
roll up the road from checking the pump
at Brushy Lake, or cross from the rice field
on the back side, idling along in the old â€™57 Ford,
not even raising a cloud on the dusty road. Heâ€™d
ease up with his door already open because
he never closed it, slide out, and run water
over his dusty hands from the cooler in the back.
Mom and Julie would run up, hand him iced tea
and lead him back to the blanket, shaded
from the massive blue of Arkansas sky, a staining
of white for clouds, while cattle chewed grass tips
on the other side of the fence. On the way home,
Dad took Julie, following Mom who tapped
her breaks at each curve as though she feared
losing control at any moment. He cursed
her caution instead of wondering what caused it,
and rode her bumper home, the second in a line
stretching down the highway.
My fatherâ€™s nine surviving siblings gathered
each year in the house on the hill for Thanksgiving
dinner. The Aunts lined all the food up
on Aunt Louiseâ€™s counters, deserts on the kitchen
table. Mom would bring pineapple slices with a dollop
of mayo and a slice of American cheese on top,
jello from a box which was promptly placed
in the back under the cabinets. How to compete
with a family of Southern epicurists who guarded
their brother nearly as jealously as their recipes
for ooey-gooey cake, Mississippi mud pie, sweet
cornbread, uncured ham, turkey so tender it falls
from the bone, green bean casserole…? Julie Beth,
who loved pineapple, helped finish the plate off. Mike,
who loved jello, handled that. â€œThereâ€™s a lot of food,â€
Dad would say, â€œNext year, you should bring less.â€
A quick ride down the hill to cousin
Shirleyâ€™s to pick up Avon, Julie Beth
looking forward to playing with her second
cousins, Mary Beth and Lisa, when suddenly
Momâ€™s legs stop working. Not asleep, not
cramping just not responding. Panic and then
the emergency brake, Julie Beth surprised and Mom
scared as she began to recognize patterns
from her fatherâ€™s failing years. A moment to collect
and Mom took the long loop back up the hill
slowly; Julie Beth watched her cousinsâ€™ house falling
out of sight afraid to complain because Mom was still
4 Johnny Hill
Summers when Mom was off from teaching
we vacationed on a family friendâ€™s horse farm,
slept in the bunk house, fished in his lake.
Julie taught me to drive on the long gravel road
between the gate and the dock, me sitting
on her lap while she worked the pedals. Mom
wore such fancy clothes for a vacation, we thought,
vivid green vests and feathery hats, while we wore jeans,
tee-shirts. She, afraid to stray too far from the building, sat
in a folding chair, prim and straight, frowned
as her legs twitched, her hands fidgeted like wayward
children, while we snuck off to stick flowers in the liquid
hydrogen tank and stomp them to see them shatter.
There was something draining in the air other
than mosquitoes. Guests came in waves. Dad, after a few,
would dance with the ladies while Mom watched, face
twitching like her hands. But in the morning, they always
lingered in bed, Dad, dozing, Mom, finally still.
5 Bus Stop
Every school day, the nurse would help Mom walk down
the winding hill to the bus stop to meet me.
Maybe I was twelve, maybe tenâ€”too old
to still have Mommy meet me at the bus, especially
when, after I crossed Killough to Dodd Hill, she
would grab me in a tight hug, eyes wide
and scared like a wounded animal. I learned to dart
behind the bus, back to a side street,
and down the long line of pines to the Fish Shack
where Mike and Dad worked. The whole time,
the nurse yelled after me, â€œBoy, come to
your Momma!â€ while the other kids snickered
and Mom said nothing.
6 The Hill
After school, Iâ€™d trudge the mile
through the thinning houses of the nearest
neighborhood, climb the barbed-wire fence twined
with rust-colored cow hair that marked
our land, and cross the sea of weeds and yellow
bitter-weed flowers by the stock pond, to the big hill
behind our house where, most days, I could already hear
Mom at the back door, moaning out over the hills
like a wraith. This was what it was to be trapped
in a body she could barely control, a mind crumbling
apart. Dad spent long nights out drinking, Mike and Julie
disappeared when they could. Mom would moan
until she heard Dad stumble home, then collapse
into a hoarse sleep. I thought she was trying to break
my mind. Each night, I dreamed the secret of escape: all I had
to do was push my legs beyond the limits of endurance
to run faster than a fox whoâ€™s caught the scent
of rabbit, faster than the rabbit who escapes; as long
as no human eye saw me, I could be free. Mornings, I woke
in a stiff body, spent awkward days avoiding the eyes
of classmates, teachers with underpaid consciences. Afternoons,
I stood, with the wild wheat swaying in the breeze,
and pounded my thighs to force them to run, to run, to run.
The straight iron legs of the kitchen
chair dig into the linoleum, leaving light
gashes from the table to the fridge. I stand
on its unmoored black cushion to reach
into the freezer. Plastic
whiskey bottles with their spouts
cut off, filled with frozen lard rest to one side.
Their mottled white fat begs use; it leaks a loam smell.
I stick my nose in, breathe deeply, imagining bacon ice cream.
I will lie and say I was ten, twelve, old enough
to be unattended, but then why did I need
the chair to stand on in front of the old stove
with burners so coated in grease splatter
we let them burn clean before each use?
Pancakes were easiest, ham steak, another
chair for the oven whose filament also caught
fire sometimes, giving biscuits a smoky, charbroiled edge.
Wild children, my sister and I nested like rats,
rearranging furniture to fit our gamesâ€”Crocodiles
in the Carpet (donâ€™t get bitten!) or Table Slide!
My favorite was when weâ€™d pull a chair
up to a closet and hide in the plywood
cubby-hole up top. Even above the piano, we pasted
pictures cut from momâ€™s magazines, scribbled
our names in crayon, left notes for each other: â€œMeet
me in Momâ€™s closet. Urgent! Signed Boo.â€ Iâ€™d run
to Momâ€™s bedroom, climb a kitchen chair
to find my sister, whispering so the Indian Marauders
wouldnâ€™t come for our scalps
as Mom, lost, stared glazed- eyed at a point
just above and beyond the TV screen.
When weâ€™d exhausted the closet clubhouses, weâ€™d pull
a chair up to the door between the kitchen and living room,
take turns climbing up to perch, one foot on each knob
on either side and ride the door while the other
pushed. Call it sound construction; by the time
weâ€™d outgrown this, the door was only warped so much
that it couldnâ€™t pull-to completely.
Momâ€™s china cabinet stood slightly removed
from one wall. The dining room chairs huddled
around a table the polished mahogany
of a coffin, their thin frames curved
like the graceful legs of an insect. Their seats
had collapsed in on themselves, so only one or two
could be balanced upon successfully. After Mom
became sick, Dad never threw anything away.
We thought he was cheap. The house
filled with junk: Momâ€™s old
clothes, piles of letters and magazines.
The day after Thanksgiving, three years later,
the house burned. Secretly, we were relieved
to not have to face an un-cleanable storehouse
of broken memories, until my brother and his wife threw
out the couch we had jumped on until the springs
broke, the table we used to slide down, the piano
we hid messages in, and all the old chairs
no one couldâ€™ve sat in even if they hadnâ€™t
burned. All of it smoke-stained and mildewed, yes,
but also ours. She spent weeks replacing everything
with new, clean, orderly furniture, chairs
you could sit on without fear of falling through
the seat, closets free of scribbles and bowed
shelves, no more clutter, no more spiders or mice
or Indian Marauders: a house we no longer recognized.
But My Legs Remember That Road
After Huntingtonâ€™s Disease settled in
like an uninvited guest, my mother started
her walks. Back and forth, down the gravel road
from our house to the cattle gap, from the gap
to my auntâ€™s house, from my auntâ€™s, back.
It wasnâ€™t so much that she was trying to outpace the disease;
she was trying to remember the way home,
grinding each step into the gravel,
working it into her legs until they could remember for her.
I was young when this all started.
I knew only that her father died with his fist print
still buried in the metal of a car door,
so deep and perfect you could see the outline
of his wedding ring,
though he could not recall his wifeâ€™s name.
She wrote, as well. Every evening, after dinner,
she copied one line after another on college ruled paper:
her name, her birth-date, her childrenâ€™s names, her husbandâ€™s;
things she needed to remember. We kept
these pages in her old hope chest
with her wedding gown, her photos.
But my legs also learned that road, tagging
behind her like a stray calf, the dust
that tasted like unsweetened chocolate,
the jerk of her stops and starts, the chorea
of her path, crisscrossing the gravel like a dance floor
as she fought her way back into control.
My Father Spreading Mayonnaise
My father spreading mayonnaise with a fork.
My father calling me sugar.
My father jumping off the tractor, lifting me from the hard clumps of dirt where I fell, too scared to cuss me.
My father in the kitchen, reading as the sun comes up.
My father always carrying a rifle in his truck to shoot snakes as he cuts levees.
My father pushing my mother and then standing over her, scared.
My father taking his mother out of the hospital by force so she could die at home.
My father asking how old I am.
My father catching me stealing from his wallet.
My father glaring at me and my shoulder-length hair at his sister’s funeral.
My father falling out of his truck, drunk, and rolling down the hill.
My father lying on the couch for three days in DT.
My father telling me he loves me.
My father on the couch, uncomfortable in my apartment.
My father in his fuzzy house shoes, calling my fiancÃ©e sweetie.
My father drinking champagne in the rice field and listening to big band music.
My father carrying his son in law through the house by the throat after seeing bruises on my sister.
My father meeting his illegitimate daughter in a soybean field and taking her fishing.
My father sending me hundred dollar bills through the mail.
My father walking through the woods quietly, with a gun but not hunting.
My father flirting with the girls at the grocery store.
My father’s picture that looks like a young Ronald Reagan.
My father in uniform, on a ship to Japan.
My father at Nagasaki.
My father in a suit at his brother’s funeral.
My father refusing to go to the hospital.
My father’s red skin and black hair going gray, his legs, blue and veined, his breath steaming in winter.
My father’s smell of rain.
My father quoting Shakespeare while skinning fish.
My Mother Making Donuts
My mother making donuts and jam in the kitchen piled with stacks and stacks of dirty dishes.
My brother taking us on family drives in his Gremlin, Saturdays.
My father working half days on Christmas.
My sister and I playing school until my mother started throwing dictionaries.
My mother eating bowl-fulls of onions with ice cream and not leaving the house for years.
My father taking me out to the fields to work with him.
My mother throwing tantrums
My father staying out late, drinking while his buddies scold me for trying to bring him home.
My sister sneaking out her window after my father threw her boyfriend out.
My brother reading westerns all day.
My father buying plastic sheets because my mother wet the bed.
My sister bathing my mother and trying to trim her fingernails while my brother held her down.
Me feeding my mother tuna casserole.
Me at school, fat, in cheap clothes.
My father buying my mother a walker because she keeps falling down.
My father hiring a nurse to take care of my mother.
The nurse quitting.
My father hiring another nurse.
That nurse quitting.
My brother, my father and I dropping my mother off.
My father visiting my mother at the nursing home.
My mother not remembering.
Visiting Cousin Rob in Little Rock
His wife was blond and pretty like mom
used to be in pictures. Their house
was so clean I was afraid to sit, so I stood.
These people lived sober lives without fear
of the man screaming in the kitchen,
the woman dying in the bedroom, the smoldering
eruption of frustration, spiked down
like butterfly wings on a page for too long.
We left late instead of staying the night,
my brother grumbling, listening to Jethro Tull
on the radio. In the darkness of Fair Oaks, we came
to a railroad crossing. A train thundered past,
sudden clouds of fire engulfed the roof
of the locomotive. My brother turned
down a side road and paced the thing. The heat
wafted against us. The engine of his minivan
growled, angry as he pulled ahead. The highway
crossed the tracks, we turned and cleared the bump,
for a moment, darkness all around except for that
fiery thing less than ten feet
away, bearing down on us.
I could see my brother’s short hair
framed in fire.
He slowed as it passed behind us, not even
blowing a whistle. The adrenalin
drained out of me, taking everything
else from that day with it, the fear,
the anger. “Why’d you do that?” I said
â€œIt’s late,” he said, “I didn’t want to wait.”
That wasn’t it, but I knew what he meant.
Dad said there was no future in the farm
heâ€™d built with his brothers from the dirt
up, so he sent his sons off to bag
groceries, stock produce, flip
burgers while his brother and the bank
carved up the land and kept
the white meat. We knew fish
and cattle, rice fields and soybeans.
We knew jeans and family, sunup
to sundown, the names of the people
for whom we worked. My brother put in
thirteen years on the line before
being replaced by an elsewhere of lower
wages, looser laws. I filled a desk for nearly
a decade before standing in front of one
myself, giving my time to anyone who would
listen. Dad got old, took a position on
the couch, and filled his hours with TV
and crossword puzzles. These days, he canâ€™t even
hear the trucks laying down a parking lot
in what used to be the family vineyard.
I have no memory of your voice. I can’t rewind
and play it back like some tape recording in the spinning cogs
of my thoughts. I have no records, no paint
splattered on the walls of the cave
hollowed between our lives that we two grew within.
That cry I uttered when I was pulled from you,
splayed before the world is also forgotten.
So we are even.
The echoes have been long going,
but are now terminally forgotten, and I can mourn
the colors of all the days we missed by keeping eyes
solely on each other’s throats, but they’ve passed.
Mother, outside, today, there was a purple fire
like Mars riding down to trample us all. The world burned,
and was renewed in light.
I just wanted to tell you.
Walking through My Fatherâ€™s Fields, Home
The windows creaked from the heat
the day we bundled my mother up
and hauled her off like an old Christmas tree,
taking only a couple of suitcases
and her sickness with herâ€”this dying stranger
who hadn’t left the house
since before I could remember, and whom I’d sat watch over
for more than my 15 yearsâ€”watched her wither
like a lake bed, until I was sure there was nothing left
of her but dust.
â€œWeâ€™re taking her to the hospital.â€
I pulled on pants good enough for town, and shoes,
as my father and brother led her out the door,
half the time carrying her and her confused moans
to the old International truck. I climbed in the back.
My father drove faster than usual,
which still wasn’t very fast,
past the barn, the sheds and tractors, the fields.
My brother said the silage looked sparse,
and my father, that it’d gotten scorched by the drought
and we’d be lucky if it lasted the cows through winter.
I scanned the yellow blighted field as we rattled
down the long gravel road
peopled by cows that’d jumped the fence
which we didnâ€™t stop for. They
grew small and quiet behind us
as the trees gave out, and the gravel
turned into asphalt with a bump.
The fields became houses.
The edge of our land bordered the county hospital.
We pulled into the cracked and ugly asphalt parking lot and waited
while Dad went to get an orderly.
Behind us stretched cornâ€”I could barely make out the cows
grazing in the fieldâ€”and beyond that the road, then the pasture,
and hills. Somewhere back there was the house,
just a mile or so away.
I turned back to the truck as they came for her.
My brother walked over to me
and pointed off to the south to the nursing home
they’d just built on a corner of layout ground
that used to be ours. Thatâ€™s where they’d take her
when she was all checked in, he meant.
We’d brought her into town so she could die proper.
If she made it through the year, she’d be able to see
our winter wheat outside her window and maybe think of home.
â€œDadâ€™s finishing it all up,â€ my brother said, â€œwe can go.â€
I nodded and glanced at the truck.
Instead, we walked to the barbed wire fence,
which was overgrown with a wall of trees and weeds.
We scaled it and plodded through the still young corn,
not speaking, growing slowly separate
as we spread out to drive the cows
back to pasture.
Poems in this collection previously appeared in the following journals in similar forms:
â€œThe Bankâ€ appeared in Toasted Cheese
â€œBut My Legs Remember that Roadâ€ appeared in Barnwood
â€œChairsâ€ appeared in Verse Wisconsin
â€œEnvoiâ€ appeared in Poesia
â€œRelicsâ€ appeared in Bolts of Silk
â€œWalking through My Fatherâ€™s Fields, Homeâ€ appeared in Lifelines