Another pas suel

They were always dancers,
the women you loved.
You imitated their moves, their steps,
but when their choreography got old
you’d dance away, using what you’d learned,
convincing yourself that artistry hid cruelty.

You’d spot another dancer
and start over to learn
a bolero
a soft shoe
a quadrille.
Then you’d leave,
waltzing away again.

I am not a dancer
and so saw a coward’s retreat
instead of a smooth glissade.

Backstage, Luckenbach

The wine buffet is just left
of the table with cocoa-rubbed wild boar
and mesquite-grilled axis deer.

The women in line ahead of me
could be twins: long, flat-ironed hair,
giant sunglasses,
skinny jeans and tall boots,
and the rest of The Look.

The wine guy tells these two
(who are younger and thinner than me):
That’s our plan! Free wine
to all the pretty women.

Amid much girlish laughter
he pours them generous glassfuls.
The women
drift toward the boar.

Which puts me first in line.

The wine guy gazes at something
far away and just over my head,
not acknowledging my existence.
After an awkward pause,
I say
“I’d like some wine, please. Red.”
He slowly refocuses
splashes a bit into my glass
while he tries to conjure up the other two.


The Final Elm

Maybe it was the house north of Steele Hill
or the one southwest of East Afton
but it was the one on a road so insignificant that even
the big atlas didn’t have a number for it

Maybe it was built in the 1930s, as the Depression wound down
or maybe it was built to house a returning soldier,
a once-young man ready for the simple life
of a high plains farmer

Maybe there were elm trees all around, once,
or maybe the trees were only lined up on the west side,
shielding the place from the unending wind

Maybe it was abandoned when the wife died
and the husband did, too, the next winter
or maybe the farmer went broke or sold out to a larger place

but the paint fell away
and the window glass did, too,
and the porch fell down
and the roof caved in

And then the final elm
delivered the coupe de grace
crashing through what was left of the structure
giving it a boost toward oblivion


The color of being old enough

Sixty-four Crayolas –
the box that tinted my childhood.
Midnight Blue was the best, the hue of juvenile dreams:
the color of Sunday stained glass,
of strapless taffeta ball gowns
with tulle underskirts, of glittering
gold-sheathed jewels, of being old
enough to stay up until midnight.

Rose window sentries guard the sanctuary.
Dust floats on cerulean shafts of light,
settling on pews, prayerbooks, penitents –
a bride’s benediction.

In a tumbleweed town, my blue-green dress
balances, for a moment, the raw
sienna sadness
oozing through adobe cracks of life.

A narrow band set with sapphires
rests uncomfortably on my finger,
the stones’ blue coolness unable to
calm hot magenta madness.

The pacific blue midnight sky watches
over my sleepless nights –
a bittersweet reminder of false Crayola promises.

Dancing at the Salvation Army

Cast off televisions,
two dented washing machines, a partly-unraveled
wicker chair, a sun-weathered
beach umbrella, and a rack of donated clothes
crowd the thrift store’s driveway.

An eggplant-colored gown
dusted with rhinestones
hangs at the end of the rack. The wind
catches the thin fabric, throwing shards of light
into the air. Invisible hands
lift the hem in a curtsey
as the dress begins its solitary dance,
backed up by the stag line
of brown and tan shirts
squashed together on wire hangers.


When I Had That Choice

The winter of el niño
snowed stayed on the ground for weeks
receding from bright drifts
to desiccated lengths in ditches,
reddish brown stains leeching from the soil:
giant bloody bandages
stretched out and drying before the next wound appeared.

Those mornings
I wanted to drive on,
until the falling snow became
fat liquid drops squishing on the windshield,
until the icy fog turned warm,
until I could smell the salt in the air,
air that stayed warm
even in the winter of el niño.

But in that winter of el niño
when I had that choice
between cold or hot
between snow or warm humid air,
between the known and what I wanted to learn,
I chose what I knew,
understanding that eventually
those bandages would be for me.


Wonderbra Soldiers

Almost simultaneously
a score of SUVs arrive,
adorned with bumper stickers for recently-victorious Republican candidates.
Society girl drivers check their look in lit visor mirrors –
when mascaraed lashes, Lancômed lips, carefully careless hair
are perfect, they emerge
in the uniform of the season:
slouchy shoulder bags
white shirts tight across Wonderbra breasts
capri pants showing fake-tan legs
casually expensive shoes.
As though choreographed
they open passenger doors
and help small daughters climb down.
Juggling children, beach towels, birthday gifts
the entourage parades to the party room.
they discard gifts, towels, daughters
and stand in a clump, blocking the door.
Little girls,
all blonde and dressed to echo their mothers.
strip down to their pink swimsuits
and march away, like a team of tiny synchronized swimmers.
Society girl perfume draped on the air
overpowers even the pool chemicals.
I start to leave, picking my way
past pink girls, gossipy moms.
Lacking their protective coloring
I am the one who becomes invisible.
Neither groups moves aside:
they do not budge for one who is not
a soldier in their identical army.

(Previously published in Crazy Woman Creek: Women Rewrite the American West, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004)

The old man at the cafe

The old man at the café

He saw everything through those big glasses frames,
the ones his daughter picked out for him,
before she got too busy to come visit.

He saw the woman see that he was eating alone,
saw her glance at, and away from, his face,
knew she’d try to position herself at her own table
to avoid having to look directly at him.  Which was fine
because then he’d not have to see the pity in her eyes.

He could have made his own breakfast at home.

Since his wife died he’d taught himself how to fill up the days
and a café breakfast was one of his tools.  A ten minute drive,
maneuvering his old Mercury through familiar streets,
letting a kind waitress escort him right by the PLEASE SEAT YOURSELF sign
to a back table, then five minutes reading the menu, in case today
he’d order something other than black coffee,
wheat toast, and oatmeal with skim milk.

While he waited for his food, he pulled a small plastic bag
from the pocket of his sportscoat  – apple butter for his toast, apple butter
from the remaining jar that his wife had put up.

And so the wait for food took another eight minutes; he’d learned
when the busy times were, not to avoid them
but to use the lag between ordering and eating
to further fill the day.  He slurped his coffee,
and once saw the woman at the other table looking at him.
With pity, of course.

His eyes filled with tears of loneliness
so he concentrated on troweling apple butter
onto the just-delivered toast.

He took a bite, chewed slowly, then wiped his mouth with the paper napkin.
A crumb fell from his chin into the oatmeal.  He hadn’t felt the crumb,
but that woman saw the whole thing.
And her eyes – Christ, that crumb made her cry.

Eating slowly was harder than you’d think – too slow and the oatmeal
would get cold and congeal in the bowl – but he’d had a couple of
years to practice and had gotten the pacing down.
And he was able to make the meal last ten minutes.

Seven minutes to pay out.

He stood, his black and white houndstooth jacket hanging unevenly
on his convex frame.  He checked the fly of his pants with his right hand,
used his left to steady himself against the back of the chair,
and shuffle-stepped toward the door.

He saw the woman trying not to notice him, and wanted
to stop and talk to her.
But tell her what?  That it was only
breakfast, a way to eat up an hour?
That he was lonely?
That she should check on her own father, and invite
him to breakfast?

Or that he’d never, ever
get used to his empty house?