The Once and Future Beauty Queens
At the A&P in my first part-time job
it was the full-time cashiers I studied most.
They seemed savvy and
at 16 I was looking for ways to be.
I watched them on breaks from my corner perch
in the crowded airless lunchroom, upstairs in the back,
all smoking roll-your-owns, laughing nervously at the men’s crude jokes,
carefully picking stray flakes of tobacco off their crimsoned lips,
in this small northern town looks their only currency.
The older women like Evelyn were quiet, would light one off the other,
eyes on the clock, sullen,
counting down their moments of freedom
and how many they could power through before time was up.
Laughing the loudest was Shirley, the head cashier, smarter than the rest.
Her lipstick bled all day on a slightly trembling mouth,
her deep well of sadness pouring forth even as she laughed,
this one-time looker, this prom queen gone wrong.
The story went her husband beat her,
but never where the marks would show.
I can still smell the place,
the filthy overcrowded fridge packed with
meatloaf sandwiches and last night’s chili,
Dutch the butcher’s apron soaked in blood,
his cuticles caked red.
The sounds come back clearly too,
breaking apart our folded white cotton uniforms stiff with starch,
the click of the pricing guns resounding up and down the aisles,
the funereal clunk of time cards being punched at the top of the stairs,
the defeat in Evelyn’s voice over the crackling p.a. system,
calling wearily “All parcelers to the front.”
And how there was a pecking order to everything, even this:
How the prettiest girls were the first to get help at their tills,
young boys rushing into their stalls behind them,
as horses into gates,
eager to package groceries every Friday night
for the current beauty queens.
My gums are bleeding again.
There’s a stack of papers that need attention
But I can’t find my glasses.
My truck is making that funny noise.
I sleep too late
Because no one wakes me.
I don’t write
I feel it’s all been said.
I find I’m repeating myself.
No one takes me seriously
Your point’s been made:
I am selfish and fickle,
Say whatever you like.
By Any Name.
Dick Cavett described it best.
He said at its worst,
if there was a cure for it
on your bedside table
and you simply had to reach out and take it,
it would require a strength you did not have.
Others afflicted have weighted in.
To Sylvia Plath it felt like a bell jar.
Black dogs is popular but not mean enough.
The dogs would have to be rabid, loose,
Slough of despond from a Welsh pundit sounds almost like
a poetic interlude.
The mean reds was Billie Holiday’s.
But sorry, Lady Day,
Country singers tell us time and again about
their plain old blues.
From William Styron came
And he should know.
It’s a thief, the sorriest kind.
It’s wilier than me, and
It steals my wit, my smile,
my every trace of ease, my very heart.
And turns out my lights
before it leaves.
November Came to Me.
November came to me
The primrose newly budding in their sun warmed beds
always a welcome harbinger
now meaningless to me
from the deep, dark quiet of my bedroom above.
The stars when they appeared seemed meant for others
capable of such things as joy,
even simple recognition,
My November revealing them as distortions,
pinpoints of lights in the torn fabric of a distant
November came for the best of me
to extinguish my light,
my laughter, my peace,
leaving behind flats of nothingness,
hours, days never to be regained,
as I groped blindly across them.
Or slept. Or stared.
The world became a place
where people spoke in another language,
not my own,
when November came to me
For the Poet.
Not a lament
not this one
there will be no thoughts here
of callous lovers
or sterile tears over someone’s parting.
No mention here
of empty promises
Rather I choose
that these lines celebrate my sense of self
despite these things
my eagerness to give again
and to hell with the odds.
Let this one
revel in my resilience
as I enter the breach once more
with expectations undiminished
fully expecting that love will one day
be all it can
and should be.
How will we be remembered? By our grand strokes? Perhaps. But what will surely commemorate us are the little unexpected kindnesses we bestow on others.
I remember as a child of eight going camping with the White family. Mr. and Mrs. White were friends of my parents and I had come to know their two children. I had never experienced the outdoor life before: this was truly an adventure. We sat around a bonfire that first night, and I was bewitched. I lived in an apartment above a hardware store: The only fires I’d seen were in incinerators. After a singsong and marshmallow roast we headed inside the cavernous tent, crawled into our sleeping bags and drifted off.
I awoke in the early hours to discover the worst had happened, the singular thing I lived in abject fear of throughout my childhood. I had, quite simply, wet my sleeping bag. Not only wet it: soaked it through and through. Think garden hose. Think Victoria Falls.
There are few things more desolate to a little girl than lying fully awake in the dark, in the tent of relative strangers, her sleeping bag sodden, scared to move a muscle in case someone might suspect.
An inveterate bed-wetter as a child, I can still remember how torn I was when asked by friends for sleepovers. Should I, shouldn’t I? Would this be the night the floodgates let loose on a friend’s unsuspecting 900-count bed linens? How could I face them afterwards? And what if they talked?
Come to think of it I don’t quite know why I ended up on this camping trip, except that I decided to laugh at danger and simply let the chips fall.
It’s a trifle easier for bed wetters now: Kids today can rely on trusty “pull-ups,” with saturation levels akin to the Hoover Dam. This is a product I would have gladly sold my next of kin down the river for. TV commercials for these thirsty little catcher’s mitts show children falling asleep with huge vacant grins, and no wonder. They’re free of the enormous burden of shame and fear that I and so many other kids had to live with.
As I waited for dawn to arrive, I listened to the forest sounds about me, trying to figure a way out of my dilemma with some shred of dignity intact. Everyone would know, I thought. And I had worked so hard at seeming grown up around the two older children. When my tent-mates finally began to stir I feigned sleep, feeling foolish and overwhelmingly homesick, wishing I could be transported to a parallel universe. I considered several options, a couple even within the realm of possibility. I thought about rolling the bag up and running with it headlong into the forest behind the campsite, shrieking, claiming that a large unidentifiable rodent had crawled inside the bag overnight. I considered disposing of the evidence in the nearby incinerator and setting it alight. Alas, these were problematic solutions at best. Resigned, I wearily awaited my doom.
It seemed like forever as I waited for the family to fire up the frying pans and eat their breakfast. At this point the temperature inside my sodden enclosure had dropped to sub-zero temperatures, and along with it the appeal of camping forever more.
Mrs. White’s daughter poked her head in the tent suddenly and asked if I wanted to go for a bike ride with her, her brother and her dad. From the confines of my cocoon I begged off, claiming a tummy upset. “Maybe I’ll be okay later,” I said, trying to sound buoyant.
Once they’d left I unzipped myself from the crime scene, got dressed, stashed the bedding, and went out to meet my fate. Mrs. White was clearing the breakfast table. I approached her cautiously: I had no idea what to expect. She turned toward me, obviously happy to see that I had finally surfaced.
“Good morning dear,” she chirped, warmly. “How are you feeling?”
“I’ve had an accident,” I blurted out, trying not to cry.
“What is it?” she said, gathering me in her arms. “What’s wrong?”
“My sleeping bag: I’m sure I’ve ruined it,” I squeaked, finally unable to hold back my tears.
“Not to worry” she said, without missing a beat, and squeezed me tighter. “It’s past time they all had a good cleaning anyway. Let’s bring them all out and give them a good scrub.”
I was only too happy to help. I broke a land speed record in the next few minutes, gathering up all the bedding, including my own slightly weightier bag, and piling them out of doors. By the time the others had returned from their outing all five of our sleeping bags were blowing in a stiff breeze on a wash line behind the tent. Mine looked no different than the others: I was exultant. That night when I crawled into the now-pristine sleeping bag I discovered that inside was a thick plastic sheet atop a cotton one. The next morning and for the three following it I was dry as a bone upon waking. Mrs. White never mentioned the incident again.
As I write this I can’t recall exactly what Mrs. White looked like or whether I ever saw her again, but I will never forget her compassion that sun-drenched summer morning.
By one small exquisite act of kindness she made it possible for me to go on.
Disney Princesses don’t want to get married nowadays.
They know their way around a bow and arrow,
Eat out a lot.
They’re sceptical about stepsisters.
Prefer princes that consult
Rather than control.
Ones that climb the stairs
And not their hair.
Uber over horse-drawn,
Waking to a smartphone
Over a strangers’ kiss.
Hedge funds over credit unions,
Loose comfortable clothing.
They don’t always
Feel like singing in public,
Take no for an answer,
Whistle while they work,
Put up, sweep up, shut up,
Swoon and expect to be caught,
Falter and expect to be saved.
They want equal billing,
A credible back story.
They want last names.
My memory has been good to you since you left.
It's taken you and buffed your sharp edges,
polished up your one-liners,
and edited your conversations for wit and sensitivity.
It's rationalized your selfishness and rather quick temper,
forgotten how you hated sharing a single bed,
inconvenience in general.
It even injects feeling into your empty phrases.
You'd love my memory of you.
So I wouldn't advise you to come back.
You could never compete with this memory of mine.
Even your eyes aren't that blue.
It's not fair.
Cruel, truth be told.
You've ruined me
For everything that comes after
I'd go back
to that first night
when I though you were too good to be true
and you thought the same about me.
to when I would spend an hour getting ready
and you would show up
an hour early.
to when I would tell
anyone who would listen
all about you
and you would live up
to the advance press.
to that first night
when we both felt
we had found it all.