by Gailmarie Pahmeier
(winner of the 2009 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Prize)
for Carson, Luke, and Dylan
If you do all your growing up in the same small place, you don’t shed identities. You accumulate them.
When a female jury can’t be counted on,
The end is near. Sweet sanity is gone.
Everyone has a story to tell
that’s set inside a bar. I remember
the long year I loved a boy from school,
how every day at five o’clock we met
at George’s Lounge, how we became familiar,
the aging lady bartender calling
out in her clear voice—Miller, Miller Lite—
before that big door eased shut behind us.
I also recall being conscious
of the clock, how in the world of the tavern
you are always alive in the future,
even if it’s only ten or fifteen
minutes, long enough to know the baseball
game you’re watching is behind you, that if
you hope hard enough your team can still score,
there’s time and plenty of it. Imagine,
too, one chilled summer night when I was young
and fleeing my first divorce, found myself
at the End of the Trail in Dayton, Nevada.
I met a man who bought me drinks, who fed
the jukebox till I thought it would burst,
held me close enough to hear his heart.
I don’t remember when we decided
to pretend—this is a bar story,
after all—but we told the other patrons,
four tired cowboys and a black-eyed woman,
that we’d just been married, this was our
honeymoon and we were happy.
One of the cowboys wandered outside,
broke a rose from a battered bush, placed it
in a beer bottle, a gift for the bride.
I still have it. And now every year or so,
when I return to my truck in the dark
after work, I find a single rose anchored
under the wiper. My friends think I should
be afraid of this, as if this flower
were a dead chicken or a stalker’s signature.
But it’s just a rose and all it means
is that I’m forever joined to a man
who’ll never know my real name, a man
I couldn’t possibly pick out in a crowd.
Now, your turn. Tell me one of your stories.
What I’m about to tell you is true.
It was in the paper some few years back,
but I’d forgotten until you asked
about my sister, asked if I thought
she was a pretty baby, asked if I’d
taken good care of her. The answers are yes.
She’s the one with the rich red hair, my father’s
clear grey eyes that can be blue, can be
startled into green. But that’s not the story
I wanted to tell you. Here’s what happened:
Somewhere in Florida a young woman worked
the counter at Bubba’s Bodacious Bar-B-Q,
worked hard because she had a pretty
baby, a daughter she hoped would one day
ease into beautiful. People said, that sure
is a pretty baby, and she believed
them, too much a mother to own that that’s
just what polite people say. She heard
talk about a children’s beauty pageant
coming to town, and this could be her child’s
ticket, but entry was fifty bucks
and how’s she to get that when all she did
was wrangle ribs apart for customers
who never heard of ten percent. Now Bubba’s
doing good, she figured, kept an extra
cash box. So late one night after all were gone,
she carried the big knife, the one Bubba
sharpened while he chewed and spit,
she carried this knife into the back dark
and jimmied open that box for fifty bucks.
I’ll bet all that money shined with promise,
with the pure beauty of opportunity.
She can’t remember hearing Bubba’s footsteps,
how he came up behind her, how she turned,
and the knife, the big knife, sunk right into him.
What she’ll always remember is how she
stood there in his blood and clutched twenty
dollar bills into nests, how she knew then
her daughter would never be beautiful,
would always hunger for the wrong things:
a boy to bring her a bag of blueberries,
his long, hard kiss, her heart wrapped in his hand.
Does this answer your questions? Yes, my
sister is both lovely and dangerous,
and yes, yes, we did the best we could.
Hometown Girl at 30
Someone more romantic might say
it has to do with the rhythm of spoons,
the toy piano sound of silverware
tossed onto a table. Someone else might
say it has to do with the way I move
across the floor, my thick-hosed legs aching
to be quick. All I can say is I like
waiting tables where truckers gulp my strong
coffee, tell lies they hope will loosen
my grip, lure me into their cabs come dark.
Sometimes I’m sorely tempted, and I’ve gone
to a few who were young and good-looking
and on their way to somewhere I might get
a card from. I like the big button
I wear pinned to my chest—Try Our Famous
Cherry Cheesecake—I like the way I make
things shine (napkin dispensers, the easy
necks of catsup bottles, the long counter
I rest my body against). I like the noise
of Alvie in the kitchen singing
“Delta Dawn,” the sweet smell of onions
Roberta chops for chili, I love knowing
I’m at home here, another small town girl
with big dreams. I love knowing that someday
I will walk out of here on the arm
of someone with promise, that everyone
will miss me, will say, Whatever happened
to that local gal who told those stories?
Walking Away from Home
Nobody knows where the boxes came from,
only that they were always there, under
the sink, stacked high in a corner
of the closet—shoe boxes, shoe boxes
everywhere. My mother wrapped her gifts
in these—candies, hair ribbons, small sweaters…
All I remember her giving me came
in an old Stride Rite or Hush Puppy,
the label blacked out with thick marker,
her own handwriting scrawled across the lid—
NOT SHOES. NOT SHOES. NOT SHOES.
My sister says the memory makes her
smile, helps her sort through our mother’s things.
My sister asks again: What do you want?
I tell her all I want are those rhinestone
pumps our mother wore in her pageant days.
My sister finds this strange, and sad.
She doesn’t understand that this time
all I want is a pair of shoes, I want
something beautiful but predictable,
I need to know exactly what I’m getting.
From this House to Home
Has he called in the cats now, made certain
all are accounted for, that their bellies
are full, that they have not become food
for coyotes come down into porch light
for water? Is he reading a book
under the cool warmth of our down
comforter, clearing his throat between
chapters as if he’d actually
uttered the words, lived in their world?
What is he doing right now? I am
feigning sleep in an iron bed in my hometown,
listening to the hum of air conditioner
and my parents’ deep breathing. Today
we had our reunion in weather
so thick I could barely breathe. My clothes
were all wrong—the blue jeans and boots,
sweat streaming from under my cowboy hat—
brought sympathetic smiles from those in shorts
and cropped tees, their over browned bodies
glistening in games of horseshoes
and washers. The women chased children,
sought shade, stretched on blankets, shared
photographs. My sister brought potato
salad for fifty, cored onions
all afternoon, slipped fat slices of butter
and beef bouillon inside them, wrapped them
in foil for the grill, the smell of bratwurst
and beer a reminder of why we were there.
It was a good day, slow and full. But now
I am ready to return, to truly
come home, to him, to our house in the high
desert, our often angry way of life.
I don’t belong here among women
wearing sundresses and sandals, clothes
the colors of Easter eggs. I’m coming
home, sooner than we’d planned. This is not
a place where women wear hats, and my family
is older now than I will ever know them.
Our Saturday Drive Toward Home
I eat powdered donuts from the box,
the sugar dusting my denim shirt.
He drives, sips coffee, fiddles with the radio.
Anyone who sees us at a stop sign
will think we’re comfortable, two middle-aged
people out early. No one will know how
unsettled we feel, how eager we are
to fill our life with things. We’re going to
garage sales, we’re going antiquing.
I’m here this morning as his new lover,
and we’re out to make a home together,
to furnish ourselves with a history
we have no time to create. There’s an urgency
to our years, to our sense of common dream.
We’ll load his truck all morning with our finds—
a hand-cranked ice crusher, a 1950’s
highchair, a chaise lounge that’ll cost a fortune
to reupholster. What we avoid
are the sad boxes of family photos
everyone seems willing to sell (that one
could be my German grandmother, prim
in her high collar, and that one could be
his great-uncle come down to town
from the Tennessee hills). We’re honest enough
to know we need each other, know that we’re
desperate for completion, but there’s a boundary
to how far we’ll go, how much of a bargain
to bargain for. So on this Saturday
we’ll shop around, knowing at every stop
that this is surely that moment between
history and desire, that moment
which can only be filled with the feel
and smell of the familiar, and even
if it’s earned in this dishonest way,
there’s no turning back.
The man I love calls me doll, calls me baby.
He phones me everyday, his sweet, sweet girl.
Sometimes we talk about his mother,
how she lost thousands on worthless coins
she’d read about in the back of a magazine,
how it makes him sad to think of her alone,
wrapping the coins in doilies, trying
to save something as legacy.
I tell him about my grandmother,
her farm sold, her move to town, how she ate
cat food for months, how the clerks allowed
her to buy the cans, knowing she had
no barn, nothing left to feed. I tell him
that this made my father cry. He says he’ll
never let anyone hurt me, that when I’m old
I’ll still be his sweet baby, his
little doll. I try to imagine
an old man betrayed by circumstance,
by loneliness, but I can’t. It’s almost
always the women left behind to live.
Oh, Sweetie. My poor little baby doll.
Coming Home for the Cat
I know what she’s going through. I know how
anyone who’s loved a cat, allowed one
to sleep against her face, allowed one
to lay its full body along her outstretched
legs until they go numb, can grieve for months.
I once met a woman so attached
to her cat she couldn’t imagine her
house without it, left the cat’s body
on the coffee table, an honest wake,
until her grown son had had enough.
I know another who keeps her cat’s ashes
on the mantle in a little cedar
box, In Loving Memory burned into
the lid, the cat dead some several years.
I even understand how hard it is
to get them to the vet. Cats, unlike dogs,
cannot be tricked into your truck.
And I understand because I used
to love a man who hurt me with his heart.
We had a cat. Sometimes I think if I
had not stopped loving him, if I had not
left for the arms of a boy who held me
as if I could break, that cat would be alive.
I would’ve been there to see the sores,
the open-mouthed breathing, I would’ve been
there to save her. That man saw nothing,
did little but bury her when she finally
gave in. At least that’s something. I live
in another city now, too far away
to visit, but I’m sure she’s an angel.
Yes, love for an animal can make you whole,
especially if it’s all you’ve got for now.
Sometimes my father’s hand shakes, sends fat drops
of paint to splatter my patio.
He’s fond of this work, and I like the way
this man feels in the sun, healthy and honest
and responsible. I work next to him
on the shorter ladder, my hair sticky
against my neck. He says, This heat’s a bitch.
I say, Wears my ass out. I’d like more talk,
but it’s too hot, too hot to wrap our mouths
around vowels, urge consonants into
the air. We’ll finish my house by Saturday,
my father will go home, live through another
familiar summer in his own backyard.
We both know he’ll never be back, that this
job is his last large gift, that he will tell
my mother about the heat, tell her
this paint will last seven years at most,
that he worries about who will help me
next time, who will work beside me in the sun,
who will love me in ways simple as sweat.
Letter Sent Home: Please Hand Cancel
You know what I’m talking about, you’ve seen
the headlines too—how So and So Collapses
in an airport, a doctor diagnoses
exhaustion—how So and So goes away
to rest, to reclaim some sense of self. I always
imagined this luxury of tiredness
affordable only to the rich, movie stars
and rock ‘n’ roll celebrities, people
whose daily lives played out as documentary.
But now I know that’s a lie, because
here I am on a spring morning so tired
I can taste a dream on my tongue. I’ve gone
away, left you to yard work, home maintenance,
the late afternoon walk to gather our mail.
I said I needed rest, a place to refuel.
I lied. I need much more than sleep, much more
than careless dreaming. Sometimes I lie so
much the truth’s hard to tell and has a false
ring to it. Last night I dreamt we were making
love in an old hotel off Union Square, San Francisco.
We thrashed and clawed each other against
the rumble of delivery trucks below
our window, the sounds of a city
very much alive. Only after
we’d made our slow journey back into this
world did I look out the window, saw
the billboard—Ken Griffey, Jr., large as sky.
I knew then the dream was a lie, that I was
in the wrong city, with the wrong man, perhaps
even a bit player in someone else’s
small blue dream. This is what some people call
a moment of truth, that tiny second
of clarity we liars hope to own but
only lease—no matter how earnestly,
no matter how often we pray. The truth,
in its raw, pure power truly’s a gift
to be cradled. So there you have it .
I’ll write again, I promise you that much.
Before You Leave Home, Remember This
I know you’ve come from some other woman.
The New Orleans night is all over your clothes.
You’ve watched me come out of mine
with the calculation you give things
earned and now owned.
See these thick breasts once
a high and proud prize in Georgia.
See these blue laced legs known early
as the smooth refuge of an eager heart.
See everything—see this band
embedded in the fullness of my finger,
bought those days we laughed at the lack of things:
Rent money, good meat, movies.
Remember that was in Florida
where every day came on white and clean.
And remember that I was a blonde.
A Home Full of Color
“Y’all have no idea how much
it costs to look this cheap.”
I, too, believe in makeup, believe in
the luxurious artifice of color
that couldn’t possibly come from within.
I want my eyelashes as long as spiders’ legs,
my cheeks the startled tones of too much—
sun, drink, fevered loving—and my mouth
a darker, more defined wound. I love
most the men who aren’t afraid, who’ll kiss
my red lips straight on, take the color
onto their own, leave it there until
some other woman touches a tissue
to her tongue, rubs out my being there.
It is, indeed, expensive to be cheap.
Think of Jezebel, alone at her dressing
table, her meticulously rendered
applications—hands, hair, face, feet. She knows
they are coming to kill her, that her blood
will bracelet the hooves of horses,
perhaps even imagines her hands and feet
gnawed from their limbs but still lovely,
lovingly tendered, an offering of sorts.
I’ve lived long enough to know what can happen
to a face, to the body earned and deserved.
Applying makeup is a way of saying,
here’s who I am, enhanced and ready for
anything. Come on now, come on and kiss me.
The author gratefully acknowledges the following publications in which some of these poems originally appeared, some in earlier versions: Pinyon Poetry, neon, Mudfish, Rio Grande Review, and Weber Studies.
Gailmarie Pahmeier’s chapbook Shake It and It Snows. To purchase the chapbook please visit the Coal Hill Review chapbook catalog.