Poetry | March 01, 2000

Winner of the 1999 Editor’s Prize in Poetry

 

Flashlight Stories

I.

 

The women in this family play pinochle,

smoke, toss back salted nuts with the dregs

of their drinks. Ethel, Gladys, Esther,

 

Vesta, Effie—names you can’t imagine

anyone being named again. One says

Richard, would you like more to eat?

 

The men are out back still taking turns

grinding the ice-cream maker, their biceps

swollen and warm from crushing the ice

 

to slush. One by one, even the laughter

of these ghosts becomes less audible.

You want to ask them in, to tell them stories

 

by flashlight to make them want to stay.

You could begin with anything, anything,

the smallest thing that ever made you want your life.

 

II.

 

The air after rain. The sounds of lovers

making love, tea, toast, and nevertheless

going about their days. It has something

 

to do with gravity. One moment you’re walking

at the edge of a street, when your brother

is taken from your hand. You go your whole life

 

thinking, Why him and not me? You wake

and are no longer young. Traffic is still insidious,

but now the hours come apart like soft-boiled eggs.

 

You spoon the round bellies out, pour on Tabasco,

grind fresh pepper, eating the moments so they

sizzle in your mouth, so they burn as they go down.

 

It takes a kind of courage, sometimes, just to say it.

Whole days spent otherwise have proven this to me.

Step forward, and the wind braces you on all sides.

 

III. Ghost Story

 

In the tent, we point the flashlights toward the roofs

of our mouths and flick the switch. Like wax heads

from Grauman’s Chinese Theater my best friends become

two terrifying African death masks. We shiver; the rain

falls harder through the maples and our friend tells us

how his father tore open his knees running home from school,

went swimming anyway, and heard eerie muffled voices

coming from the docks; how he moved toward them,

and they pulled him from the water, pointing at a spot

now teeming with shark fins. I pull the scratchy blanket

around my neck, and another says that his great-grandmother’s body

was kept uncovered in his mother’s childhood living room for days

before her funeral; and one night his mother watched through tears

as her bedroom door dissolved, her grandmother walked in

and kissed her, only, on the temple, the way she always did.

 

IV. Fender Strat with Wah-Wah, Fuzz Box, and Whammy Bar

 

A smeared note swells and scatters

like a voice inside a cave, tugging

the vibrato till the sound divides

 

like an egg yolk dropped in broth;

inside you now, swirling like a geyser

trapped in earth before the whole thing

 

blows apart. As if the spirit world will

talk back, the more you face the amp

and lean into yourself. You think,

 

there are so many ways to pray. This being,

of course, another lining up of hands,

the way to take the vagrant silence in yourself

 

and make it deafening. Now it is the whole house

breaking in the sound of surf, the echoes

rattling the bookshelves, even without the sound.

 

V. One Underworld

 

My seventeenth summer, sweating all day

long in the underbelly of a local Y, breathing in

 

a boiler room’s dry furnace heat.

The sun-scorched janitor tells me

 

how the whores in Vietnam

unclasped their necklaces and moved them

 

bead by bead

 

inside your ass; and when you came

pulled out that headless rattlesnake so fast

 

that your body would explode.

And something then would silver

 

in your mind, and napalm would spill

its orange acid from the trees. And everything,

 

for that one moment, would be still

and perfect and impossible to bear.

 

VI. My Mother’s Bed on Fire

 

First there were just a few zeros

singed perfectly like nihilist monograms

in her elegant nightclothes. Full moons

blackened at their edge. A nightstand;

the ashtray by her bed overflowing

 

with a pile of broken doll fingers

with lipstick at the ends where

the life-force had been sucked away.

When it finally happened, we were lucky:

She woke up.

 

And the insurance covered everything.

Now it’s the best room in the house.

We joke about it now; call it her Pleasure Dome.

When I talk about visiting, she says: Bring

your girlfriend, honey, and you can sleep in it!

 

VII. Taking a Shower with My Father

 

After I dislocated my shoulder the second time

I stood in the shower of a local Y with my father,

onion-bellied men lathering themselves,

lemon meringue froth running off their bodies,

inching across the tile and down the drain.

 

When he saw me unable to wash myself,

he spread a cloud of soap across my back.

He said, The guys are going to think

we’re queer, ha! Let them! And I’m the one

getting nervous, eyeing the doorway,

 

calming myself with thoughts of the house

he had in Michigan with his second wife.

When I had nightmares there, no matter what,

he’d open the coverlet like a storm-cellar door

in tornado season, still half asleep, to let me in.

 

VIII. The Temple

 

Before they even knew what

it could do to you, they pulled back

my mother’s lovely midnight hair,

a moon and its reflection rising

at each temple, two strong men

pinned her down, put electrodes there,

 

a pincher here—cold metal on teeth

on tongue—and fired up the furnace

 

to her brain: the shock, electricity,

 

shrugging through her body, oh, oh,

she told me she heard the woman in the bed

beside her moan, as if on fire, already bending

at the knees. She still hears the woman screaming

sometimes at night, the screaming wakes her

and she says to herself, My God, it’s me!

 

IX. Alarm

 

By your thirtieth year they say it

should manifest. If not, in most cases,

you have been spared.

 

But there are exceptions.

 

Even two years outside my third decade

the dormant, snaky coil of DNA

 

            might hiss itself

 

awake, snap its distorted spine

and strike. But my mother says: Honey


            as long as you can point to

 

a reason you feel a certain way

 

you don’t have what I have. And even now

I am afraid I feel the alarm about to go off in me,

 

            the harried beating in my neck's

 

carotid artery, the green branching veins

 

inside my wrists. See now, if you can’t feel it here,

 

the second hand ticking its true course,

 

a heart preset to detonate.

 

X.

 

Sometimes you have nothing left to say, and still

you keep on muttering like a set of wind-up teeth.

Other days, your eyes just glide across the words

like a catamaran. What is it that makes this

the moment you rise into yourself, a set of overalls

 

that ripple into being? You watch your love hug

what seems to be a beaten horse, just like Raskolnikov.

But when you look later, she wants to console a tree.

She can be so dramatic! Even the Russian men playing dominoes

in Golden Gate Park look on and’ scratch their heads.

 

It’s just another fish wrapped in aluminum, they seem to say.

Someone grown heavy with the world, not ready yet to speak.

When my mother woke up from her coma,

the first words to escape her were, I’m hungry!

What if each moment opened up for you like this?

 

XI.

 

After so much buildup, who should

arrive but the little Thai delivery man

with the white walrus moustache, the one

 

you always overtip because he is so old

and still delivering dumplings, chicken with lemon grass

on a rainy Friday night. The strangers

 

you’ve opened your doors to!

How many times have you held off sleep

just to think again of an idling car

 

where you could fall in love.

Or the jukebox in your favorite bar,

how it shoots sparkling pink and green

soda pop though its veins. You can never fill

yourself enough with your beloved, you think,

and it seems almost impossible to die.

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