Noe Valley Voice September 2001


by Jennifer Kochanek Sweeney


When asked what she would want to know from God,

she said she'd like to know about light.

When asked what red was, some said apple, rose,

she said a painted design on the arm of a Miori Indian.

When asked to draw a mummy for homework,

she wrapped up beads in athletic gauze

and taped them under the construction paper.

Hiding the jewels, she said.

When her mother told her to go play,

she cut up the shower curtain and sewed clothes.

Who is this emerald girl with the wild mind,

who kicks up her legs and flies?

Potato Chips

My bagel makes me miss the train. Cream cheese spread by slow hands

as the J Church line jangles by like a janitor's pocket coming undone. I wait

there vacant as a stare, left fist in pocket, the right bringing pumpernickel

to my mouth chewing in time, bite by doughy bite. A boy approaches. I call him

a boy but he is at an age that has no name, no clear place of arrival. Not a boy,

yet so far away from what he will be as a man. But he's practicing for that, shaking up

his YooHoo aggressively like a small African instrument. He slumps down against the

trainstop glass, his whole body exhaling until he hits pavement, and pulls a red

and yellow cylinder out of his knapsack -- a small building from his hunched view.

Pringles. Food my mother wouldn't buy for me as a child and I won't buy for myself

as an adult. Food I only eat when it comes my way, into my watchful hands.

He crunches one in his teenage mouth and I like knowing what he tastes, knowing

exactly where you taste a Pringle on the tongue. A light wind blows and takes his tower

down emptying out Pringles on the sidewalk. He swears like he is trying it out and it

works. What amazes me is how they have fallen -- neatly in their tall dipped stack. This

is so lucky, I think. Only one of them can't be saved. But he's so angry, he won't

eat any of them now. I can't tell you I'm not mourning for the lost

clean dozen riding on the bottom chip like surfers. I can't tell you I'm not salivating

for my whole chipless childhood. The light wind spirals again, this time taking the

Pringles, one at a time, from the stack and sending them into the street, origami swans

floating down the river. They peel off like they have returned to the potato they came from

and are reslicing themselves, skimming the road like layers of conch shell or the rims

of cowboy hats riding the forgotten current. They dance their low light steps, one by one,

joining the dance, scatter of fall leaves. They are the most beautiful potato chips I have

ever seen and if I could trade my life for anything right now, I'd slip into the stack just

to let the wind fly me backwards and spin me across Church Street. A car approaches

noiselessly, like a heavy cloud that speaks in darkness, rolls its flat rubber legs, machine

body, over the chips. And all I hear is the shattering of life mattering for a moment


It is 3:05 and the little feet of my first-grade Science class

are percolating outside my room.

I open the door and the children bubble in.

Michaela attaches her shifting body to my right leg,

holds up a Ziploc bag of leaves, and yelps.

My palm rests on her braided head.

I see you there.

She is the only one who has brought in leaves

for our leaf observation box, and swirls

in the satisfaction of her memory.

She takes out the first: pale green, velvety.

We stroke it like a pet until

she screams, "There's a bug!"

After circling the room a few times, she clings

to my right leg.

Everyone takes a turn greeting our guest

who we call Snoopy.

Miss Lyons delivers him outside

to his new city habitat.

Michaela takes out the next leaf:

the long spade of a lily.

Ooohs and Aaahs from novice scientists flood the room.

Michaela has been taught to observe and her eyes

fixate on the curled stem.

Hands tremble and a moan shakes out of her.

"Th-th-there's something in there."

Dismissing her drama, I uncurl the green scroll,

revealing a 11/2-inch striped slug bathed in poop.

Remember, he's smaller than you. More afraid.

Anxious students welcome him,

observing cuteness and noting surprisingly large poop.

After dubbing him "Mr. Stripes,"

Miss Lyons frees him from our microscope eyes.

We are all a bit anxious as Michaela reaches for the third leaf.

Similar to the first, we stroke it again until

our fingers reach ... a friend of Snoopy.

Our eyes roll and Miss Lyons, harvester of displaced bugs,

takes "Flik" to his freedom.

"This is why we need to be 'obserbing,' isn't it?" Wesley comments.

We all laugh but Michaela sits with head in her hands

and delivers a desperate monologue,

mourning for the families and friends of saved bugs.

I want to reach into her sadness

and stroke it like the leaf.

At least we were looking carefully.

We can't help smaller creatures if we don't see them.

Jennifer Kochanek Sweeney teaches reading and creative writing to grades K-6 at the Adda Clevenger Junior Preparatory and Theater School on Fair Oaks Street.

She recently earned her MFA in writing/poetry from Vermont College and has been featured on San Francisco Channel 29's program Poetry in Motion.

The Noe Valley Voice invites you to submit fiction, literary nonfiction, or poetry for publication on The Last Page. Please mail manuscripts, which should be no more than 1,500 words, to the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez Street, San Francisco, CA 94114. Or e-mail Don't forget to include your name, address, and phone number, and an SASE if you want your manuscript returned. We look forward to hearing from you.