Heller Landecker




You put a quarter in the slot

and it frees your cart;

then you get your quarter back when

you return the cart. Sometimes

you give your cart to the

next person who comes along,

the person who's looking at you like

that quarter is hard to come by.

You walk through the aisles,

among the piles of canned tomatoes,

the crates of grapefruit, strawberries,

the granola bars, jelly, more jelly,

the toilet paper, shower seats.

There is a peculiar smell, like

cardboard and the walk-in

cooler at the Rayburn Diner

that terrible summer before college.

A child wails. There is a teenage

girl translating the labels

into Polish for her mother.

They're laughing. Their fingernails

are like stars.

Out in the parking lot the sun

honeys the scattered dandelions,

the plastic bag that dips and twirls

and scudders, the Hyundais and the

Chevys and the beat up Mercedes,

the child, howling now into his mother's

shoulder as she whispers, "Mijo, querido,"

you, as you wheel the

groceries to your car.

Someone's strawberries

have fallen from a cart

and they're strewn like

rubies on the hot

blacktop; such crimson beauty,

such romance, such unexpected wealth.

You can't help it.

You kneel down.

You pick one up.




It must have seemed like a sea of linoleum,

wave after orange wave of it knocking me over,


at ten and a half months, not having yet mastered

the fine art of standing, thrown by a fury of black and white speckles.


The creased, yellowed photograph captured me

clutching the ancient grey pillar that rose from the center


of the kitchen like a pier; I'm bobbing against it

in uncertain weather, risking a splinter or two


for the steady, if treacherous comfort it offered.

The wood was worn smooth and as silky as mouse fur


in various places, if you were able to find them.

I know, to this day, how it felt on my fingers.


And there in the background I see that my mother

is already turning to straighten a painting or maybe


she's stretching to turn up the radio. Lana Turner's

legs in a dairy farmer's kitchen. My father,


attempting to capture a moment: she's turning and leaving,

I'm hovering, weaving, knowing it isn't okay to let go.





You start to put on your favorite gloves,

the leopard print with the finger loop,

and you notice as you ease first the left

and then the right one up to your elbows that

a seam is beginning to unravel. But

you admire, still, the way they accentuate

the gracefulness of your arms, the poise that

you know is underpinned with rock-hard

muscles that take you through your moves

every night, and for a moment those gloves

remind you of mud up to your elbows when you

and Genevieve Gray dug up rocks from the banks

of Alder Creek and piled them one by one

—you must have been eight or nine that summer

before fourth grade, when everything changed—

and built, the two of you, a dam to block

the waters flowing lazily behind her house.

Then you're back in your dressing room, steady

rumble of the already-packed house riding in

on the draft that slides through the gap beneath the door

and you wonder if maybe you should go for the latex set;

gloves, g-string, bikini top, since the leopard print

didn't hold up so well, but then you remember

your mother's allergic reaction to the latex bandages

after that first operation, when the rash around the incision

spread like wildfire across her stippled skin,

and you wonder if maybe that's yet another

Helpful Trait she passed down to you;

that and a taste for top-shelf vodka

and a spectacularly supple spine

and a predilection for men like Harry, who owns the club

you dance in, whose gray-green eyes used to

remind you of your father's. That last time he hit you,

you were off the floor for a week, waiting for

the bruises to heal, and there was a

certain satisfaction, you had to admit it, in

the amount of money he lost because his

best dancer wasn't sliding up and down

that pole every night. You wonder,

as you cut the dangling thread from the glove,

if that's enough to keep him from swinging at you

again, and you doubt it—he always gets that

look in his eye just before all hell breaks

loose and you know for a fact that he's not

in there any more; there's no reasoning with

a husk of a man intent on breaking something,

and the something is you. You worked so hard

on that dam, you and Genevieve—wandering

farther and farther into the woods, gathering sticks

and more rocks and filling in the gaps with mud and

leaves and whatever else you could find. And it held.

You built something strong.

You knew, somehow, to poke little holes in the most

solid places, so the water could flow through

in rivulets—just enough to keep everything

from falling apart. You reach for your glass

and toss back the dregs as someone opens the door

to the dressing room and the smell you were waiting for,

the sweet/sharp scent of industrial dish soap wafts in,

and you know the restaurant next door has closed,

and Jorge and Miguel and, with any luck, Eduardo

have gotten off work and

are waiting to watch you dance.





I don't even know if we knew that the Beatles

had just broken up or if we would have much

cared, but there we were, swinging our

legs from the ledge that looked out over the

sea of your basement, singing "Eight Days a Week"

as loud as we could in our quavering nine-year-old

sopranos, having spent the morning racing across the

cold concrete floors in those beat up pedal cars

which, now that I think about it, had

probably once belonged to your brother

who died before you were born, the one

we weren't supposed to mention in front

of your parents, and I was totally okay with

that, they terrified me, your father with his

frequent cigars and my mother's suspicion that

he drank quite a lot, and your mother with those

eyebrows that jack-knifed violently across her

forehead beneath oddly red hair.  No. We

would whisper about it while glancing up

often to make sure no one was approaching, and

you told me how he'd been hit by a car on his bike

right in front of the house and they'd found his

body in pieces all over the four-lane, a story that

obviously made an impression, though I have no

idea if any of it, even the brother himself ever happened,

we both knew you lied about practically everything but oh,

it was luscious, sharing our secrets

and memorizing songs and eating those tuna fish

sandwiches your mother made on Wonder bread—

at my house we ate the hard-crusted kind from Napoli's bakery,

so I couldn't believe how flat a sandwich

could actually get—and Kool-Aid, also not from the

Whole Earth Cook Book my mother was totally into

back then, so imagine my surprise,


when shrieks of laughter turned into snorts and

Kool-Aid flew right out of my nose and landed

in puddles on white paper plates and soaked into the

Wonder bread like blood on a sponge, and that was it for the

sandwiches, and also for your mother's patience, and

thus we ended up back in the basement, belting out the Beatles

with the door to the upstairs closed tight behind us. It must

have been October, or maybe November; we were

stuck inside because of the weather, and by the end of

December your mother had already shut the garage door

and turned on the car

the night before our fourth grade Christmas party.

I waited for you that morning, Gen.


I waited for you;

but around ten o'clock Miss Miller announced to the class

(I felt like she was looking right through me)

that you wouldn't be coming to school that day,

after all.





Highway maps from 1960,

a Thin Mint cookie, dusty,


the heavy iron hole-punch

I remember using when the perfect

paper circles were

enough to make me happy.

Plastic case for holding

rolls of stamps,

now sitting empty.

Was it Washington or

Jefferson on the stamps

that cost a nickel

and could get a letter anywhere

that we would want to send it?


Letter opener, ivory.

Letter opener, silver plated.

Letter opener, hammered copper

with a bright enameled handle

that my mother made

before she got

too scared to drive to Utica,

before the final firing

of the kiln she bought in Philly,

and before she only painted

what she noticed out the windows.


Pale green account books

dating back to 1946.

The cost of your first tractor,

your first heifer,

and the combine

that you bought in 1970,

never failing to mention

that it cost you more than

all the land, the house,

the barn, the chicken coop.

"Save them," you tell me

when I look up from their pages.

"It's the kind of thing

the Holocaust Museum wants to archive."


Canceled checks,

more canceled checks, and look!

A box of canceled checks.   

I start to make a joke

but then I see you

leaning forward,

elbows resting on the surface

of the desk we're excavating,

holding up your head

as though your life is in my hands.

Heller Landecker
is a mother and psychotherapist in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This appearance in Innisfree and another in the fall 2010 issue of The Louisville Review are her first publications of poetry.



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