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It didn’t weep the way a willow should.
Planted all alone in the middle of the field by the bachelor who sold our house to us,
shoulder height when our daughter was born,
it grew eight feet a year until it blocked the view through the first-, then the second-
story windows, its straggly canopy obstructing our sunrise and moonrise over Max Gray Road.
I gave it the evil eye, hoping lightning would strike it, the way a bolt had split the butternut by the barn. And if leaf blight or crown gall or cankers didn’t kill it, then
I’d gladly pay someone to chop it down.
My daughter said no, she loved that tree,
and my husband agreed. One wet Sunday—
husband napping, daughter at a matinee in town—a wind shear barreled up the hill so loud I glanced up from my mystery the moment the willow leaned, bowed,
and fell over flat on its back, roots and all,
splayed on the ground like Gulliver.
The house shook, just once.
Later, when the sun came out, neighbors came to gawk; they chain-sawed thicker branches, wrapped chains around the trunk,
their backhoe ripped out pieces of stump and root as if extracting a rotten tooth.
I’m not sorry that tree is gone. No one ever sat under it for shade or contemplation.
Yet spring after spring it reliably leafed out.
It was always the last to lose its leaves in fall. It should have died a decade ago for all the grief I gave it, my dirty looks apparently the fuel on which it thrived.
It must have done its weeping in private.
But now I can see the slope of the hill.
Did my wishful thinking cast a spell?
I was the only one on earth who saw it fall.
Sleeping alone in my Madison Avenue
Upper East Side seventeen-by-seventeen fourth-floor walkup one night thirty years ago, I heard people arguing through the plaster and brick wall dividing my brownstone from the one next door.
I’d hardly given my neighbors a second thought except those I’d occasionally see in the hall retrieving mail, struggling up narrow stairs with grocery bags, or leashing their dogs.
I used to amuse myself by matching up faces with the names above the intercom buttons in the vestibule downstairs, but I never stopped for anything more than chitchat,
never thought about the people living in the adjacent building until the night I hear a woman crying loud enough to rouse me,
and a deeper voice, a man’s, whose words
I can’t make out but whose angry bellowing bullies me awake. Perhaps they’re actors
rehearsing a play, or he’s her drama coach and she’s practicing her lines from the scene where the man and the woman fight.
I’m thinking I should dial 911 when—
through the white noise of my hissing radiator—
he shouts, “You’ve got to order your priorities!”
like a therapist on an emergency house call,
which works. She’s whimpering like a dog.
There follows a clearing of the moment’s throat, a sponging of tears, a charged silence,
as if now they’re making love and all before was foreplay. And I’m in bed with them.
How many times have I had to listen—
half attracted, half repelled—to strangers’ thumps and moans in the hotel room next to mine?
Their dramas? And next morning share the same elevator (too bright, too small) to the lobby.
I have nothing to be ashamed of. But I’m feeling that same tongue-tied strangeness I used to feel with a one-night stand the morning after.
My old boyfriend’s fortune cookie read,
Your love life is of interest only to yourself.
Not news to me. A famous writer once showed me the fortune in his wallet—
You must curb your lust for revenge—
slapped over his dead mother’s face.
After finishing our Chinese meal at that godforsaken mall,
eight of us crowded around the table,
the white tablecloth sopping up islands of spilled soy sauce and beer,
the waiter brought tea and oranges sliced into eighths and a plate of fortune cookies.
We played our after-dinner game—
each of us saying our line out loud,
the chorus adding its coda:
“You will meet hundreds of people...” “In bed.”
“Every man is a volume if you know how to read him...” “In bed.”
“You have unusual equipment for success...” “In bed.”
And those with more delicate sensibilities,
new to the group, blushed and checked their wristwatches.
We divided up the bill, and split.
A few left their fortunes behind.
The rest slipped those scraps of hope or doom into pockets and pocketbooks to digest later.
Maybe one or two of us got lucky that night and had a long and happy life in bed.
On the ride home, I absent-mindedly rolled my fortune into a tight coil,
the way you roll a joint, and dropped it into my coat pocket,
and found it yesterday—
oh, how many years later—
caught between the stitches of the seam,
like one of those notes wedged into a niche of the Wailing Wall that someday God might read in bed and change a life.
The first time I got my hands on her,
I took off all her clothes—to see exactly where her voice came from.
I pulled the white plastic O-ring knotted to the pull string in her back,
pulled it, gently, as far as it would go,
and Chatty Cathy threw her voice—
not from her closed pretty pink lips but from the open speaker-grille in her chest.
Chatty Cathy was her own ventriloquist!
She said eighteen phrases at random,
chatting up anyone who’d pull her string.
Tell me a story. Will you play with me?
What can we do now? Do you love me?
Did I love her? I loved her so much
I had to be careful not to wear her out.
Even though she always “talked back,”
behavior my parents would have spanked me for,
there wasn’t a naughty bone in her hard little body! When she’d say,
Carry me. Change my dress. Take me with you.
Brush my hair—she always said Please.
When she’d say, Let’s play school.
Let’s have a party. Let’s play house—
she’d flash me her charming potbelly.
May I have a cookie? she’d sweetly ask,
in that high fake goody-goody voice.
She wasn’t allowed to eat or drink—
it would gunk up the mini record player inside her chest. May I have a cookie?
She’d pester me while I combed her hair and buttoned her dress for a tea party.
I’m hungry—she’d point her index finger at me until
I held a pretend cookie against her lips and poured her another empty cup of tea.
May I have a cookie? May I have a cookie?
Finally, one afternoon I gave her one,
squishing it into the holes of her grille.
After that, sometimes she’d start talking all by herself, a loud deep gargling
that shook her body—limbs akimbo,
skirt inching up—showing her panties with the MADE IN HONG KONG tag still attached. I HURT myself! she cried.
Please carry me. I’m hungry. I’m sleepy.
She awoke with two black marks on her leg and a crack on her back along the seam.
A rash of Chatty Pox dotted her cheeks.
Give me a kiss, she ordered, and I did.
I’d do anything to shut her up.
Where are we going? bratty Chatty Cathy warbled for the last time.
She stopped wanting to play. Stopped saying I love you. Next, laryngitis.
Then a growling sound.
Her O-ring cracked off, the frayed string a strangled loop spooling inside her damaged voice box.
Then she was mute, stiffly propped against my bed pillow like a fancy boudoir doll made only for show.
Fortune Cookies 7
Chatty Cathy 9
Danny Kaye at the Palace 12
My Father’s Shoe Trees 14
Last Words 16
A Reminder 22
American Girls 24
Staging Your House 32
Where to Find Us 34
Rainbow Weather 36
Eye Level (1977)
The Advent Calendar 42
A Letter Sent to Summer 46
Home Movies: 1949 49
Fortunes Pantoum 50
The Lifeguard 52
Sounding the Lake 53
Eye Level 56
The Minute Hand (1987)
A Clock 73
Young Woman on the Flying Trapeze 78
The Russian Doll 81
High Holy Days 89
The Game of Jackstraws 92
Tender Acre 95
Persian Miniature 99
the Glass Slipper 101
A Luna Moth 107
The Island 110
Music Minus One (1996)
Washing the Streets of Holland 115
Learning to Read 120
Best Friend 124
The Sunroom 126
The Holiday Season 129
The Slap 135
The House of Silver Blondes 138
Music Minus One 141
The Wrong End of the Telescope 150
Postpartum, Honolulu 157
The Bad Mother 159
The Sound of Sense 162
Holocaust Museum 164
The Lazy Susan 167
The Combination 171
Happy Family (1999)
Happy Family 177
Crazy Joey 180
Mrs. Hitler 182
The Uncanny 185
The Best-Dressed Girl in School 188
My Mother’s Space Shoes 192
Evil Eye 196
Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium 198
Shit Soup 206
My Mother’s Mirror 208
A Yes-or-No Answer (2008)
A Yes-or-No Answer 217
The Streak 219
My Mother’s Chair 221
The Closet 224
Trouble Dolls 228
The Blue Address Book 230
Shopping Urban 236
My Mother’s Foot 238
Trick Candles 242
My Father’s Visits 244
Dream City 250
Body and Soul 253
God’s Breath 256
On the Way Back from Goodwill 258
Scrabble in Heaven 262