{the #MoSt Poetry: 16}

Prompt #16 (for December 30th): Believe it or not, yesterday’s Prompt #15 marked the halfway point of NYPC 11! Okay, here’s today’s challenge: Listen to this live performance (after you’ve finished reading the prompt, of course) or to this one recorded in a studio, or to both. If you can do so, try not to watch, but to listen — at least the first time. The write a poem inspired by either performance/musical composition — or both, or one you compose in your head as you write. Ready…Steady…Go!

11:59

the size of a fist
this heart, half-formed and shadowed
clings to one small thing –
faith – clutched firm in two hands, leaps.
and now the clock strikes the hour

This is Just a Reminder:

apology, by rosalyn taylor

I
don’t know how to say I’m sorry.


All
along, I thought it was you I was afraid of…

Now
it looks like it was


a world without you

that
scared me so bad all along.


Sorry
for leaving you

You couldn’t help it when you left

But
I had a choice.




16

Waking
up in my own bed is a luxury. The morning routine gets rolling, then snowballs,
Anthea and I moving around each other in a quick bathroom ballet.
She doesn’t bang on the door when I take too long, and I don’t take
more than a minute over my ten minute shower. We share the mirror, wash out the
sink, pick up our towels and overall are being very careful with each other. We
exist in separate bubbles of politeness, none of our edges overlapping, none of
our thin sides touching. The peace is fragile.

Our
last family therapy session is today, during second period, with Dr. Slauson.
Talking with her one on one at the hospital was actually easier than I thought,
mostly because my mind was still full of everything Auntie Harlyn had been
saying. Dr. Slauson’s little gold pencil was still, and she listened to me as
I told her all about Dad. She only
started writing near the end of our session when I told her that Anthea had
probably been right.

“So,
you think you’re a traitor too?”


“Well…”
I’d shrugged, stuffing my hands into my pockets. “No, but… Maybe. I should
be more…like family, I guess.”

“Life
isn’t about ‘shoulds,’ Rosalyn.”

“It’s
not?”

Dr.
Slauson had asked me what I thought family should be like, but I couldn’t
answer her. She said we’d talk about it more in our family session.

In
my room, I open my backpack, and shove in my history binder.
I am looking forward to turning in all of my back work.
My teachers, who probably gave up on me weeks ago, are all going to be
surprised. Just getting back on track with my grades makes me feel like the
world I inhabit isn’t quite so shaky.

I
zip my pack, make sure I have my music and drop my phone into my pocket. I have my means of communication back, but I still haven’t
found the right words to say to Natalie and Jenae. I am dreading going back to
classes and having to explain, just as much as I am looking forward to hearing
exactly what Wes was wearing, what he looked like, and how he’d spoken
my name when he’d asked about me…

Anthea
practically bowls me over in the hallway, and we thunder down the stairs
together. I stop by the kitchen to tell Auntie Harlyn goodbye, and grab an
orange. She pushes a zip-top bag of fiber bars at me, fussing about decent
breakfasts, but I just hug her and stick them in my pocket.

Anthea
is eating leftover pizza, which, she defends to Auntie Harlyn, is a completely
balanced meal. When we finally get outside, Anthea doesn’t cross to the other
side of the street, but stays in step with me as we walk to our stop. She finishes her slice in time to get on the bus, and the
driver only gives me a harassed look as I shove my orange into my pocket and pay
my fare.

“Roach.”
Anthea is sitting in the seat in front of me. “Mom’s picking us up at
eleven.”

I
nod and busy myself with peeling my orange.


“Don’t
be late.” Anthea puts her feet up on the seat and slides until her back hits
the window. She stares out at the morning, fingers twisting in her hair, as we
turn up Sixth Street.

I
roll my eyes as I savor the tart sweetness of an orange section. Unbelievable.
Miss-know-it-all would have nothing to say to me at all if she didn’t have
something to be telling me every time I turn around. I am so full of
aggravation that I almost don’t hear her when she says, “Joe broke up with
me.”

“What?”
Surprise leaves my mouth slack and open. I close it around a juicy piece of
fruit, then shove the orange into my cheek guiltily. “Sorry,” I say
indistinctly. “You…have a fight?”


Anthea
shrugs, then nods, still looking out the window across the aisle. “Well…
kind of. But not really. He just…” She shrugs again.

“You
guys dated a long time,” I say cautiously, feeling my way into the
conversation. “It’s kind of cold, right before a dance and everything, for
him to…” I swallow the words ‘dump you’ but can’t find good
substitutes.

Anthea
sighs. “He wouldn’t have gone anyway.”

“Oh.”

The
bus wheezes as its doors creak open for disembarking passengers. Someone’s
toddler starts to whine, and Anthea turns in the seat and puts in her earbuds. I
finish my orange silently, the conversation finished.


…it wasn’t a half-bad story, it just needs some work…

The Sessions: Notes on a Therapist

It is a classy room, with clusters of tropical plants in the corners, a selection of plush chairs, and a glass-topped table. The lighting is discreet, as is the box of tissues on the corner of the table. The expected couch is absent. She perches on the edge of a recliner, ankles crossed, hands folded primly. Her fingers are locked into a death grip, as she watches the silent psychologist writing, and writing, and writing on that accursed pad of paper…

What is it you want to know? Can I tell you my family stories? I suppose I could, but how much of what I know is true, I couldn’t tell you. Why do psychologists always ask these kinds of questions, anyway? If I understood my family, do you think I would be here with you?

What? No, I only mean that family is the basis of the mess I’m in.


No. Really. I’m not blaming them. That’s such a cliché.


Fine, fine – don’t start writing on that pad again. I’ll tell you everything I know.

I don’t know where I get some of these stories. My dad, in his rare moments of sociability, will tell a yarn about a hunter being treed by a bear, and of his whacking the beast with the end of his rifle. (Why didn’t he shoot it? That part is never explained.) The hunter’s wife stands on the ground a ways away, shouting to the hunter to see if he’s all right. The hunter deflects all offers of help. “Help the bear!” he shouts to his wife. “Help the bear!” My father would echo that refrain whenever my mother would offer to massage the knots out of his legs after a particularly hard workout. “Help the bear,” he would grunt, forcing his stiff legs into a painful v-stretch. “Help the bear,” we would mutter after he spanked us, imaging a grizzly ripping him to shreds.

What? I’m showing some signs of aggression? No, I’m fine. Don’t write anything on the pad.

I learned some of the other stories from my grandmother, who is famous for running her profanities together in a sort of palindromic cursing. “God dog it,” she says which is somehow, of course, funnier and more whacked than just saying damn, but to her, it is much safer than invoking the Powers That Be to do any damning on her account, thank you very much. I learned the story of the bathtub from her, how that girl bathed while she was menstruating, and something happened with the plug, no, the drain –

Forget it. It was one of those weird cautionary tale things anyway. My grandmother is scandalized with bathing while bleeding. She must fear that somewhere in the city’s sewer system we are breeding some race of über humans who will come and wipe us out. Kind of like that Alligator movie, only more interesting. When I speak to my grandmother on the phone these days, she nods off, or tells me of people who have died, people I never knew in the first place. “Oh, really?” is all I can say. I’m sure they died of that bathing thing.

From Willie, my great-grandfather, I learned the greatest stories of them all. No cautionary tales there, he told straight up lies, and I believed them all, ate them down like toffee candies. He used to sing the most ribald words to hymns in church, and sit there like a pious saint while we struggled not to laugh. Once he told me that the bubbles from dishwater would cause hair to grow again on bald men. I was little and bored with the company my grandparents were entertaining. After being primed, I duly scooped up a double handful of suds from my grandmother’s sink, and deposited them on my grandfather’s head, while Daddy Willie cackled away in the background like a madman. It is a testament to the inevitability of ridiculousness in that household that my grandfather didn’t even blink, just wiped the suds off of his neck and kept talking to his guests. He never even asked me why.

For myself, I was disgusted that his hair didn’t return. It never occurred to me to that hearing a story from one bald man about what would help another bald man made no sense – but what did I know? I was six. Daddy Willie was eighty-three that year, and rode a big tricycle around town, since my grandfather had finally stolen his car keys and his car, since Willie would’ve hot-wired it had he found it. (Some of us just don’t go gently “into that good night.”) That old fox died the next year, within a day of, and in the hospital room next to my great-grandmother, Miss Emily, whom he had loved and adored and hated and reviled and divorced and followed around for the rest of his life until death did them part.

I love how their wedding vows got them in the end.


We laughed all through the hymns at his funeral.

I could tell the story about my oldest sister, but my grandmother says it’s always dangerous to speak of evil aloud. I will say this though, if she were an animal, she would be a pit bull with a diamond collar, owned by a Barbie-clone with an SUV.


What do you mean I sound hostile again? Have you met my sister?

Some of the stories I know have been archived, like the one about the teacher who kept my mother after school and kept his hands crawling up her thighs while she completed some bogus assignments he had for her. Little kids are so defenseless and so easily shamed. I didn’t hear this story until I was older, and my mother awkwardly hacked out some syntax to ease the wall around her heart. The day my grandmother called to announce that he had died, had been cleaning his gun and shot off his testicles and bled to death, my mother …danced. My God-fearing, peace-loving, mild-mannered, plain-faced, hair tucked up in a sensible coronet of braids mother laughed and laughed and lifted up her hands and whacked her thighs and laughed some more, and then, and then — waltzed out and bought red shoes, leaving us kids blinking and a little afraid of her. She grew wings that day, and has since become a hawk, running her school, swooping down and pouncing with silent talons on those who would take away any child’s dignity. That’s a true story, there, if you count truth that stands tall in the shadow of camouflaging lies.

I know a story about my Aunt Tandy, whose twenty five year marriage is such a war zone that she’s like soldier back from combat – if you slam a door, she loses the last five minutes of her short term memory. It’s horrible to say it, but I can’t stand her. She’s spineless, toadying, even with me, even with us. I thought growing up meant that no one could tell me what to do anymore; no one could force me to do what they wanted. All Uncle Brian had to do was lift his fist, and she was his slave. What if that happens to me? What if I lose myself in this relationship, and then lose my mind? God help me, that woman scares me.

Excuse me?


All right – all right. It is my own story that you want to hear, the tales that beat and surge in my own pulse. But it’s not my own stories that I can see. I know who I am – part hen, part hawk, part fox, part pit bull. We’re all the sum total of our families. My future is written in their lives just as surely as their faces in the mirror are reflected in mine.

But our time’s up? Already? Well. Thank you… No, I don’t think I’ll be here next week. No, no, there’s no need to reschedule. I think a little retail therapy might do me just as well. They’re having a sale on mirrors at Marshall Field’s… I keep thinking if I just can just find the perfect mirror, I will finally see myself…

The Sessions, Fictions,©2008

Sleeper Stories: Irresistible

Tandy is still wearing her suit after church, picking nervously at the hem of her Harris tweed skirt. She has put on some weight, but her eyes are still huge in her too thin face, and her crossed arms are all angles and elbows as she stands and stares out of the window.

She looks so much better now that it is hard to see her as the same woman who arrived here two months ago, looking hag-ridden and death-shadowed, her hair thin atop her head where he had yanked it, trying to get at her face one last time. I have only seen him once, and it was dark that night, and he would not come inside my grandmother’s house. I always wonder if his face is battered and scarred. I always wonder if she gives as ‘good’ as she gets.

At least she’s calmed down a bit. Tandy was so manic when she arrived that my flesh would crawl every time she looked at me. Her voice reminded me of the rattle of dice, her conversation a gamble flung across an anonymous table, her direction uncertain, her destination unknowable. At least she’s calmed down some. For all the good it will do her now.

On the shallow church steps, the minister had taken Tandy’s hand and paused, solemnly looking into her upturned face, his eyes somber. He hadn’t seemed to mind that he was holding up the rest of the line of worshipers, anxious to get out to their cars and into their homes, out of their stuffy suits and into their sweats and slippers and pot roasts.

“Estandia, I understand you’re going home.” His rumbling voice had not formed a question.

“Tomorrow. Very early.” Tandy, with a wincing smile, leaned away from the large man.

The minister’s voice was as gentle as he could make it. “Take… care of yourself, won’t you?”

Tandy smiled meaninglessly, her eyes seemingly disconnected from the content of her head.

“Take care yourself, pastor,” she replied jauntily, slipping into the crowd of the faithful, their Sabbath best as concealing as fall foliage…

Mama has called us to the table for dinner, but Tandy is still standing in the den, futzing with the buttons on her jacket vacantly. She shifts on her thin legs, her feet encased in the leather pumps Mama loaned her. Tandy left her dress shoes when she left home, packing only odd bits of ephemera, the flotsam and jetsam of what had been within reach in the tumbled rooms of her house. I overheard my mother tell my father that the house was almost destroyed – furniture broken, pottery shattered, clothes strewn. “That house is a war zone,” she said.

Tandy is going back to that house. Tomorrow.

After the service, Brenda and Darelle caught up with Tandy at the car.

“Don’t make us come down to Texas, now,” Brenda warned in her usual mix of humor and threat. “Don’t make me come down there and kick your butt. You take care.”

Darelle closed her eyes and sighed. “She doesn’t need anybody else kicking her butt,” she murmured sotto voce, and Brenda had the grace to look chagrined.

“Take care of yourself, girl,” she reiterated nervously in a high, bright voice. “Just let us know how you’re doing.”

Darelle looked at Tandy gravely, biting her top lip. “Tandy,” she began hesitantly…

“Goodbye, my dear,” Tandy caroled, moving in close, bussing Darelle cheerfully on her round cheek. “You girls stay sweet. ‘Bye now. Take care. Take care…”

“Tandy.” Mama is gently drawing her sister toward the table. “It won’t stay hot all day.” Tandy stumbles a bit, lost in her reverie, but then her smile brightens, and she practically lunges toward the table, pulling Mama along in her wake.

“Everything looks great, Deenie,” Tandy grins, invoking my mother’s baby name while surveying the loaded table, reaching out for a piece of bread, then pulling her hand back at my father’s glance. “I could eat a horse,” she continues, then brays raucously at her little joke. Cringing, I grope for Mac’s hand under the table.

Aunt Tandy is leaving tomorrow, very early, to board a plane and return to her big house in Texas. Aunt Tandy’s husband has been phoning and phoning, initiating friendly banal conversation.

How’re ya’ll doin’ up there? Is it raining yet? Ya’ll been up to Frisco?

Apparently, now that the hairline fracture of Tandy’s skull is healed, all is forgiven. Now that the bruises have yellowed and faded, it is all right for him to make mention of her return. The locked room where the paramedics resuscitated her body, the hospital room where she lay with restraints upon her spindly arms lest she do herself some further harm are all a part of ancient history. Bewildered, we stand around wordlessly as Tandy packs, unwilling participants in her roulette game. I look at my poor family, locked in our own private combat. We don’t know how to act in someone else’s war. And Mac, so new to our epic struggle, is still trying to understand what he has gotten himself into…

By the time my father brings in the dessert, I long to stopper my ears and cease this rattling flow of conversation. My aunt is in rare form, laughing and joking and spinning off into little stories of her time in Hawaii, and how she was tempted to really give someone the “one fry” they asked for when she worked at a fast food joint on the Big Island. Now she is off and away on another topic entirely, debating with my father the origins of German Chocolate Cake, when coconut isn’t from Germany, and neither is chocolate. “They’re both New World foods,” she insists earnestly. “This should be called something else entirely.”

My memories of Tandy’s time in Hawaii culminated with her coming to “stay for awhile” with my cousin Melita, then three. Tandy’s arms and legs had been marked with funny yellow splotches. At six, I had thought that she’d had chicken pox. She told funny stories, though. It didn’t matter that she had old scars.

“It’s based on Black Forest torte,” my father is waxing expansive, the resident expert on Germany now. I roll my eyes and ignore them both.

Tandy’s relationship with my father is based solely on bantering insults and mock aggression. Mostly, my father’s wrathful temperament makes his aggression real, but we’re being polite these days, all of us stepping lightly, treating Tandy like she will shatter if we speak too loudly. After twenty five years of her particular brand of hell, I’m not sure if anti-aircraft missiles would make a difference, but we all try… we are all trying… it is all very trying…

I am shredding the bread with the icy lump of margarine which my father neglected to take out of the fridge until the last minute, as usual. I am thinking that it is his little conspiracy, we should eat our bread plain and like it, darn it, when suddenly my brains snaps back into my head, and I tune in to Tandy’s voice. My father has just told her she doesn’t need a slice of cake that big, and Tandy’s expression has taken on a flirtatious petulance, obscene somehow on her death’s head face, and she is crossing her stick thin arms across her narrow chest.

“Stop telling me what to do,” Tandy pouts. She turns to us, laughing, “Your father doesn’t think I’m forty-six, he treats me like I’m six! You’d tell me every breath to take,” she complains to my father.

Around the table, we all chuckle politely, my mother smiling courteously, all of us playing into the genteel family scene.

“He’s just getting you ready to go home, isn’t he?” Mac interjects blandly, taking a bite of salad.

* * * *

There is a silent heartbeat, and then my father guffaws. My mother breaks into a nervous smile, more a grimace, and shakes her head. My older sister snorts and busies herself with pouring the juice. Tandy is fully present, for once, eyes wide and is that… anger on her face?

My rapidly indrawn breath comes out in a hiss between my teeth, and I cast an exasperated glance at Himself. His left eyebrow jumps, a nervous tic, and I immediately give him a quick nudge, reassurance. I know how much it takes to speak the truth at my father’s dinner table.

“I had nothing to do with that,” I betray him cheerfully, reanimating us. “I’m just sitting next to him.”

“You! You!” Tandy sputters, pointing her fork at Himself. The brief glimpse beneath her veneer is over, and her smile is back. But the mask is tarnished, there is a sadness to her voice, and her chin is tense.

“You are so bad,” my sister exclaims.

The conversation stutters to life again on different topics. We go back to talking about the cake. Yes, the cake. That seems safe…

Early, early this morning, Tandy got on a plane to go back to her big house in Texas. Her husband of twenty-eight years was waiting for her. There was a reunion.

My mother offered to pay Tandy’s way out for Thanksgiving, but she won’t come. She has her grandchildren to consider, her four children who ignore her and “borrow” her car and her cash card. Her husband, who leaves holes in the drywall with his fists. Tandy has to call the workmen to repair the bedroom doors. Those lovely French doors that the paramedics damaged so badly…

I wonder when I will see her again. Sometimes, I don’t think I will. She always goes back. Mac says it’s like she’s the iron to his magnet.
I think it’s more like she’s the sailor to the rocks, the lemming to his cliff, the bite of the razor to her sickened flesh. She is drunk on this illness, led toward him by some unknowable call.

She will go back, and she will fry. She’s like a moth to a flame. Be ware, ladies. He’s irresistible.