waitress poems

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

TRURO, age 8

That summer I learned to like
buttered clams with tough necks
& sand in their bellies.
Sandbars were everywhere,
uninhabited towns rising out of the sea
where my breath was
the native language,
waves & wind its translators.
On the beach
my mother slept in a backless
bathing suit.
Each day her laughter
like her skin,
grew more golden.
Sometimes, drunk on rye whiskey,
my father would steal a lobster
from a fisherman's trap.
Angry & red, those lobsters still
surface in my memory,
floating in the safe confines
of the bathtub
where I first discovered them.

How soon it all was over &
we had to go back
to our factory town--the smoke
a curling lobster claw
over our huose.
I went to school;
my mother sliped back
into her white body,
& my father took a second job
at the egg auction.
It was his job to take the ax
to chickens with soft
white feathers & hard eyes.

Chickens, chickens!
I remember you headless,
never picking up your cue
to lie down & play dead--
but running, running
toward me--your life
a red geyser
melting down
th clear colors of summer.

first appeared in Thirteenth Moon

Friday, May 27, 2005


Only when it's too late
do you realize
you never loved your house enough--
never loved its cluttered corners, its
places for sleeping and for
dreaming wide awake; you
never properly examined its cupboards,
the old teacups and new paper
someone left for you
to comfort and explain yourself.

Only when you first glimpse
the outskirts of your exile
do you understand
you never loved your basement
the way you should have,
never appreciated
that underworld of moldy castoffs
you saved for decades
hoarding them for the life
you live in secret.

Only when you are reduced
to wearing slippers day and night
do you realize
you never paid proper homage
to your shoes--
the skinny dancing shoes
with straps around the ankles
and the ordinary working browns,
that tapped out the story of your life
as recklessly as a jazz drummer.

Only when it’s too late
do you realize
that you have failed
the silver maple outside your door;
on most days,
you walked past it,
seeing only surfaces
blind to the luminous network of veins
that underlies everything.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


Marlena, the bartender calls herself,
you know--like the actress,
though the regulars are quick to say
she’s really plain Marlene.
Unfazed, she slips the names
of the star’s old films
into the still blue air
while we sample her inebriants.
Poor bitch never got over it
when her knees began to sag,
Marlena says,
shaking her head in secret sorrow,
as she slyly sips vodka
from a Perrier bottle.
She thought those gammes
were hers to keep--
as white and solid as marble.
In her wallet, Marlena
carries her own snapshot
of impermanence--
herself at twenty-three.
Not a bad looking broad, was I?
she says, passing around her former self
like a gracious hostess,
before she tucks it back inside
its plastic sleeve.
With a little prodding, she’ll tell you
about the lovers she had,
names and stories as neatly cataloged
as Dietrich’s films,
and how she can tell in five minutes
of banal talk
how a man would be in bed.
Little things give it away, Marlena confides
pressing exhausted breasts
against the bar--
the way he holds a cigarette,
for instance, the range
and timbre of his laugh...
But at fifty-eight, Marlena’s given
up on men, forgotten all
those dazzling movies about flight.
What she likes now, she says,
is a cold beer and a game of Keno,
a chance to win
at something you can keep.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


A photograph taken from the air shows us
what remains.
It is a Jackson Pollock, a confusion of color
on a grey-brown background.
But somewhere in it,
is everything we know of the world:
houses, trucks, roads, people.
And there beneath the familiar--
the chaos
that finds us behind our locked doors,
that tracks us
to the rooms where we lie reading,
that pulls us
from lives we thought we were leading,
and flings us out like broken sticks
into this aerial view
of vast and random darkness.

first appeared in The Ontario Review

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


It always seems to be winter
when we come back here, miles
of trees glittering with ice,
cornfields flooded white--
and somewhere in the center,
a lonely figure in a snowmobile,
lost inside its mechanical hum.
Going back to the old mining town
that clusters at the top of the hill
is a process of rising, climbing,
ascending into a past as real
and unyielding as these mountains.
And just as unknowable.
Less than a century ago, my husband’s
grandparents came here from
Poland and Slovakia; they fitted themselves
to this sharp landscape.
Here they would go down into
the earth, and draw up an existence
we’ve grown too cossetted
to imagine. Here they would
spend the rest of their lives--
fifty or seventy-five
winters like this one, traveling
a road cut through mountain,
peering through black trees
into rough cut gorges, cold streams,
woods too deep
and impenetrable to fathom.

First appeared in The Ontario Review

Monday, May 23, 2005


You were no different
from anyone else
leaving home at eighteen;
your bag was small,
and there was much
you could not take.
The small statue
of the Virgin Mary
for instance, a gift
accepted carelessly on some
long forgotten feast day
would be left behind.
Too superstitious to
throw her away,
you relegated her to
a spot on the bureau
where she presided over
a closet full of dated clothes,
the bed you slept in
for a few restless summers
then abandoned for good.

Our Lady of Sorrows.
Our Lady of Stillness.
Our Lady of the Empty Room.

It is a lifetime before
you think of her again,
dream the weight
of that statue in your hand,
the calm that flowed
from her open stance.
By then your room
has been painted clean
a dozen times; the statue
has gone the way of all
we think we own.
But in your best moments,
you stop flailing
and open your arms
like she did.
In your best moments,
you dream you have become her:

You are the waiting.
You are the stillness.
You are the empty room.


Saturday, May 21, 2005


He works two jobs washing dishes,
scraping away the excess of
other people’s appetites. Like most of us,
he finds his hours are
not what he expected. If he were a younger man...
if his English were better...well, then, perhaps--
But like the ghostly revelers he knows only
from what they leave behind,
he does his best to sweeten what remains.
If you ask him how he traverses
the length and tedium of his days,
he points to a tape player
perched precariously above his head.
One touch of his finger and
the dish room spins with tropicalia,
Bahia percussion, strains of Samba.
For each day of the week, a new voice
transforms the clatter of spoons,
the rhythm of hands
into another form of fusion,
as a man moves with private effulgence
through a life of broken plates,
and dreams of home--
synchretist of silver, glass and drum,
of masked disappointment,
and the fierce, exultant song
minimum wage can never buy.

Friday, May 20, 2005


I wake up longing for the sleek brown boots
I had in my twenties,
their suede as soft as baby seals
their heels so high I listed forward
like an unstable tower.

Balancing on those narrow peaks,
I swayed through town in a pair of jeans
sure that I could take what I wanted,
sure that nothing
would be taken from me.

Okay, the truth is I only pulled out
those silly boots a few times.
But how I miss knowing they were there
in the back of the closet
ready to stomp, to dance--

huddling together in the dark,
mute and hungry as forever.

Thursday, May 19, 2005


From somewhere else, the child
invents herself, coiled inside
my son’s girlfriend. Though I do not
know her, still I plan.
I buy a crib, some fleecy clothes;
I hear her say my name.
Could I really be Nana now--
with black lace beneath my jeans?
I see my grandmother stalled
before the mirror,
touching her snowy perm.
Who is that? she asked.
And what’s become of my long braid?

But though the child
brings news of my extinction
etched on her furled palms,
I wash her clothes to soften them;
I hang them on the line
charging them with light and air.

Later, in secret, I keep watch
for the fairy tale crone
who hides in the mirror,
the one who follows
until it’s time to lead,
singing in the background
on the way to somewhere else.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Two women in their forties,
they frequented the same clubs
we did, eyed up
the hard jawed men
we dreamed we might love.
Ruthless with youth,
we joked about the possibility
of ending up like them: loveless,
overpainted, still cruising
when weariness had clawed its name
on our faces, driven us
to lurid hair tones.
Layla, with her snakelike body
weighty breasts,
lived on the dance floor,
not caring if she
danced alone or with
some boorish stranger
intent on a nameless piece.
But Bernadette slumped over her
drink and smoke like
a private fire
and waited for last call,
her dismal perm a dark halo
around her head.
We saw them as extras
in a film about us,
never guessing how soon
the shadows of their demise
would appear in our own glasses,
how soon we would be
forced to choose
between Bernadette’s bleary resignation
and Layla’s brazen spin
against the tumbling dark.

first appeared in The Ontario Review

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


We didn’t want fine service,
candle lit tables,
the murmur of literate talk
about politics or sex building
like steam against the windows.
No, after a shift,
the waitresses from the country club
yearned for dives--places like
Bud’s Country Lounge where
you waited half an hour for a beer
while the wall-eyed bartender
chatted up a girl with a flamboyant chest
straining against hers tube top--her heart,
red and mysterious as a pomegranate,
thumping brilliantly behind it.
We lived for nights like the one
when a drunken lead singer
wearing a jock strap on his head
sang “My Baby’s so Ugly”
with such irresistible heat
that sixty-five year old Lucy
climbed onto a table and peeled off
vest, tie, tuxedo shirt.
Then, gyrating so recklessly
we were sure the table would give way,
she flung them to the crowd
shedding both time and torpor
in one defiant rhumba.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Saint Colman's

A large church on a city street--
cavernous, impersonal.
But here my life began
in every way that matters.
Here I made up my first story
at age seven. With little Joeen
who had escaped
her grandmother’s stiff hand
for the third time in a week
crouching beneath the pew,
I told Father Cooney
the runaway was my sister.
and that a benevolent mother
would come for us soon.
I lied with such passion and ease
that when Joeen
reached up her sweaty hand
I felt the blood
that ran between us
trickling into my palm.
Here at age thirteen,
I fell in love with the back
of Brian Doyle’s head--
so close I could see the tracks
his comb left in shining red hair,
so near I got high
on his drug store Canoe.
When the church was empty,
I came alone and set a blaze of
candles, kneeling
before a woman swathed in sky
and wondering
what to do with my life.
This is the church I ran away from
at sixteen, smoking cigarettes
and gulping Cokes
in the cemetery across the street
when I was supposed to be at CCD,
kissing a boy for the first time
while the dead kept silent witness,
and Sister marked me absent.
A large church on a city street--
cavernous, half-empty now,
but I have spent my life
running away and coming back,
trapped between the lures of that night
among the headstones and
the unchanging gaze
of a woman in blue.

Thursday, May 12, 2005


It is not the smoke that
coils around your head
in the garage where you’ve
retreated with coffee and theTimes
for an early morning butt
that so startles me.
No, it is merely your expression--
the tacit admission
we seldom dare to make
That there is always
a life we hold in secret--
unknown, ungovernable,
fiercely unpossessed.

first appeared in The Sun

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


This is the one place
you can never go:
Back to the old addresses
you thought were your own,
the numbers, street names you
still recite by heart.
Glistening with detail,
they taunt you with false solidity.
But when you approach
the familiar doorways
the locks have been changed
to keep you out.
And when you steal inside,
the clothes in the closet, your clothes,
are fitted to another body,
the face in the mirror
is unrecognizable.
Then, deep in the night,
driven by an irresistible desire
to see the orange moon
that once flamed
outside your window
you rise and begin to dress.
But you stumble
by the foot of the bed,
forgetting that was where
you used to leave
the black sturdy boots
in which you once tramped heedlessly
through a world
that no longer exists.

Monday, May 09, 2005



All praise be yours, Sister Death, from whom no mortal can escape
--St. Francis of Assisi

In the great stillness that follows you,
we come and pick through what was left behind.
Artifacts from a civilization of one,
they are studied for meaning: the books
she used to explain the world,
kitchen utensils and honorary degrees
jammed in boxes--
all rendered useless by your touch.

Look at this! we cry, ablaze with memory.
The Magic Flute, her favorite opera!
We seize the record that has become
obsolete in a world of CDs. Still we listen
as we sift through the photographs that are
hopelessly out of order now--
time’s predictable sequences blurred.
Here college graduation is followed
by a three year old’s wary smile;
former colleagues are trapped
in endless celebrations no one remembers.
Do they know how valiant they are
lifting their yellow overexposed hands in a toast, time spilling from their glasses? Do we?

And always in some unseen corner:
You, the hidden note in the opera,
lingerer at every party,
silent and common as dust.
We search the photographs
for a glimpse of your grinning mug
buried among the crowd shots:
Are you the tyrannical sibling
who always gets her way,
the neighborhood bully who takes down
the strongest among us
without a contest? Or are you
what she believed you to be:
the faith she staked her last breath upon,
a longed for angel whose benevolent hand
has unleashed the stars from their rigid path
and made this empty room sing?

Friday, May 06, 2005


She was a neighbor who stayed
in the house most of the time,
her hair trained into innocuous waves,
a crest of blush on both cheeks.
The first big news we heard of her
was that she had a brain tumor. Inoperable.
Through the window, we watched
her husband mucking through the streets
in the rain and dark, head down, skidding on the slick November leaves
that had appeared overnight.

But by spring, there was hope: The patient, emerging on her husband’s
arm, blinked back the sunshine.
Buoyant in a turban, she announced she
should be dead, but was not!
We watched her with smiles that
ached across our teeth,
as she ambled bravely through
his carefully cultivated garden, craning
to take it all in: the blinding yellow forsythia
overwhelming scent of lilac. It was Christmas morning when they came for her the last time the red lights of the ambulance
winking in garish festivity, the hour
so raw we had to switch on lights
to find the tree. But already
the kids were ferreting beneath it, desperate for something wonderful.
Through the window,
I watched, as they lifted her
above the snow and dark while . in the background, the kids shrieked
at what they’d found.
He missed her like crazy,
the husband told anyone
who would listen. And from
the warmth and noise of our house,
we speculated on his loneliness often.
Vivaldi soaring in the background, the kids
yelping for dinner, we poured some Merlot
and asked each other:
What would it be like?
But more unexpected than death,
was the new woman
who appeared through the window
with unseemly haste,
moving in like our generation did it.
What about the wife who
stayed in the house all those years?
I asked my husband one day, a new anger seeping through our house
like dark wine on the carpet. What about the woman who pressed the shirts, who polished the furniture and
forced her hair into those tortuous curls?
What about her?

Drowning in shadows,
I drifted to the window again,
waiting for the answers to appear
etched in the clear,
readable print kids make when
they write their names on frost.
Was her life really obliterated as easily
as their frozen words? Banished like those long forgotten forsythia?
And if it was, where did that leave us,
the mute and hungry audience?
Who would we watch, pity, grieve for
now that she was gone? Who would bear our darkness
now that she had given us the slip-- Now that her faithless husband
had so blithely refused it?

first appeared in Tampa Review

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


Smokers leave the best tips--
so says my friend Mary
who’s spent ten years balancing trays
and studying the impulses of men.
And what’s more they never
complain about the food;
they don’t send back the escargot;
the red meat is never too bloody
for their taste.
While the prudent huddle
in the smoke free section
inhaling caution in gulps,
the smokers signal Mary for
another round of martinis
scattering ash
with every flick of the wrist.
Heedless of the mountain
of grey dust they have left
in their wake,
the darkness simmering in
their lungs,
they have given up trying to hoard
their days, attempting
to number their breaths.
And in the end,
they open their wallets freely
and wink at my friend Mary,
as they amble into the darkness
leaving behind a starkly empty table,
the ash
of their reckless generosity.

first appeared in Gulf Coast

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


Of all the places you never visited,
this is the one you miss most:
a third rate motel with salt-scraped paint
less than a mile from home.
Here you never stole a smoke in the bathroom
while the face of a passionate traitor
took shape in the mirror.
Here you never agreed to meet the man
who taught you longing
could become a form of madness.
This is the place where you
never peeled back the cotton spread,
and invited the ravenous world inside:
reckless sea, smear of purple sky,
those noisy gulls who linger in the parking lot,
their hunger never appeased.
Sure, you thought about it a few times,
but something--duty? fear?
the vestige of childhood’s cross
marking forehead, heart, lips--
always kept you back. Now when you
pedal past the Oceanview on your bike,
it is closed for the season.
And when you peer through the window,
hoping for a furtive glimpse
at the life you never lived,
the mirror is empty of everything
but this biting winter morning;
the encroaching sand
sharp as glass in your eye.
Far too many times, you said no.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


Only a few months since
they dressed these old teachers
for burial, two plain wrens
in ordinary brown;
first Marie, then Dorothy,
their opulent white hair
glowing on pink satin.
A few months
and already they have learned
the wily tricks of the dead.
Careful to keep their distance,
they lose themselves
in crowd scenes. Hiding
behind other people’s eyes, they
duck into luncheonettes, disappear
behind menus. And when
I search the booths
for the bright flame of their faces,
that moment of recognition,
I am greeted only with empty stares:
No one here knows who I am.
Then this afternoon
on the way home from work,
the ennui and fleeting despair that
sometimes hit around 4 P.M.,
trailing me like a cloud of exhaust,
I thought I spotted
their fifteen year old Buick. Sure,
the color was wrong--
it should have been grey, not blue.
But it was the same conspicuous ark
no one drives anymore.
Nobody but hard-up teenagers and
old women like Dorothy and Marie.
Eyes on the Buick, I’m thinking
they could have afforded more--
a van for Dorothy’s wheel chair,
a jeep in which adventurous Marie
might have cruised the beach.
But years before I was born,
they committed themselves
to simplicity, sacrifice,
ideals as remote and elusive
as the hulking eight cylinder
I’m following with my heart.

first appeared in Potomac Review

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