IN WHICH YOU DO YOUR PARENTS' GROCERY SHOPPING
AT THAT DISCOUNT PLACE ON ORISKANY BOULEVARD
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.
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.
THE FINE ART OF STANDING
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.
WHEN THE MEXICAN MEN COME IN
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
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
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
with the door to the upstairs closed tight behind us. It
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,
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
"It's the kind of thing
the Holocaust Museum wants to archive."
more canceled checks, and look!
A box of canceled checks.
I start to make a joke
but then I see you
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.