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There She Goes
by P.J. Taylor
The Best He Could
My dad took us out to eat most evenings.
At Piccadilly Cafeteria, I'd push my tray
along the serving line, load it with my favorites
glowing beneath the heat lamps: chicken and dumplings,
fresh biscuits, and strawberry shortcake. I'd speed-walk
to keep up with my brother as he threaded his way
between tables till he found the one he wanted.
Overhead, dim chandeliers hung like showy birds,
their light barely reaching the walls papered in gold
with burgundy velvet flock. I remember the soft
drone of silver-haired diners who wiped the corners
of their mouths with red cloth napkins and lined up
to load their finished trays on the conveyor belt.
If I try hard, I can see us sitting at our table.
Me, still dressed in my blue-gray uniform
and tight brown ponytail. My brother, sun-bleached
cowlick jutting up from his forehead. My father,
skin and bone in his pale dress shirt, his blue eyes,
his aged, pitted face, his thick, dark hair, and false,
even teeth. I can see him lift his fork to his mouth
with swollen hands. I can almost hear his thoughts
turn as he chews his food, as he looks at us wondering
if we'll remember him, know that he looked after us
the best he could.
One night we made Amy's mom take us
with her to the bar she owned. We didn't want to stay
and listen to grumpy Aunt Mary with her blue-rinse beehive
talk back to the Arizona Roadrunners playing hockey
on her transistor radio. Ignoring our pleas for sips of beer,
her mom handed us a bunch of quarters warning us
to leave the men at the bar alone.
Men dressed in cowboy hats and boots,
low riding jeans and snap-button shirts straining
over beer-filled bellies. Men with pinched, red faces
and eyes squinting in the smoky, boozy haze
billowing beneath the dim ceiling lights. Men who
ogled Amy's mom, flirting with jabs and winks.
Men who teetered their way to the john
and teetered their way back, some slowing to spatter
us with their reeking breath and dirty offers
for a good time. Offers we ignored, but still made us
wiggle our behinds and dance across the floor
using up quarters to play pinball, pool, and long,
slow love songs on the jukebox.
It was my idea to hide inside the walk-in,
its shiny steel door standing opposite the toilets.
Huddled inside, we examined the spoils of our raid
on the restroom vending machines. We tore apart
the foil wrappers, blew up the rubbery contents
and used spit to stick the fake tattoos under our shirt
sleeves. The smell of beer and meat pressed the chill
against us and I stuck my fingers in my ears to hear
my teeth chatter, then added throat tones to the jackhammer
repetition to give the cold a sound.
Her mom found us when she came for a box
of beer. The clear, brown bottles clinked together
when hefted, and backing out she called,
"What in the Sam Hell do you two think you're doing?"
The point of the game was we were waiting
to be rescued. Now we had been, but neither of us moved.
Instead, I asked Amy if she thought it was cold
in heaven. She said she didn't think so. I asked her what
it felt like to die. She said she hoped it didn't hurt.
I asked her how long it took to freeze to death.
She said she didn't know. I told her I hated my mom.
She said we could run away. I told her I wanted my dad
back. She said we could ride our bikes over
to the graveyard the next day.
On Christmas Eve we didn't have to try and look
white and middle class
in the clean, cramped living room of my stepdad's parents.
The cracked white walls swallowed up by big and small crucifixes,
strips of dried palm fronds, and holy statues of the Virgin Mother.
The fuzzy TV screen blared Spanish soap operas
we didn't understand as we watched the beautiful brown-skinned
children -- their voices falling in and out of Spanish.
They mostly ignored us as we sat close and silent
like a pair of misplaced shoes. From the kitchen,
sheets of laughter waved. Our mother's voice high,
her tipsy Spanish pouring over shuffled cards and quarter bets
as the refrigerator door slammed shut again and again,
followed by the crisp snap of pulled beer tabs.
The house reeked of spicy tamales and the singular scent
of menudo that tasted just how it smelled, hot and horrible.
Our arms folding, our mouths sealing each time a spoonful was offered,
we demanded burgers from Jack in the Box, just like last year,
so we wouldn't go hungry.
Staccato Spanish and toothy hugs greeted each new arrival,
everyone stepping back to see how many trips it took to unload the car
and stack brightly wrapped boxes wherever there was room.
Each time my brother and I scooted further and further over
on the couch until we disappeared behind the open door.
When it was time for the paper to fly and fall away
we unwrapped slowly, dreading the appearance of our stepdad's mom
with her handful of small white envelopes and huge eyes
magnified by her glasses. She moved from child to child saving us
for last, then grabbed our hands pulling herself close to get a good look.
The other kids clapped and held up tens and twenties
to compare to our five-dollar bills.
Wooden heads nodding, we responded softly to our mother's pinches,
her sharp whispers to say gracias for the cheap perfume
and compacts, the dark socks and handkerchiefs heaped in our laps.
TV's Bluish Light
Like a moth, I'm drawn
out of my bedroom, down
the hallway flickered in blue
shadows. She's there on the sofa,
as usual, on her side asleep.
Her glasses tilted where they rest
against the cushion are lit with
figures dancing in black and white.
My body breaks the light
when I lean to press the switch.
No, leave it on, she says, taking
off her glasses and holding
out her arms. Come, lie down
with me, and I do. Wrapped
in the warm husk of her embrace,
I gaze upon the shining stars.
P.J. Taylor lives on a noisy street in San Francisco, where she writes poetry by day and fiction by night. These poems are part of a childhood memoir collection, entitled There She Goes. This is her first time in print.
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