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)

La agua de México

On early morning sidewalks
beneath soiled skies,
residents and shop owners swab away
yesterday’s footsteps.

Gaunt men with yellow brushes
clean Benito Juárez’s bone-white marble feet.
Young boys wash two cars
from a single pail of sudsy water.

Near the corner stand
bicycle bells scratch through the morning
as vendors transfer a slab of ice from bike basket
to orange plastic crate
where it will take all day to melt,
cooling the jumble of Coca, Pepsi, Peñafiel.

In la catedral,
a mother holds her little daughter to the font
guiding her hand – forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder –
then helps the girl kiss her thumb
before they hurry down the aisle.
A fledgling priest begins Mass
with bursts of water from antique aspergillum.
Plumb-bob chandeliers
illustrate the tilt of the old church,
pulled down sideways into the ancient Aztec lake.

Delivery trucks honk their way
through complicated traffic,
their cargo of 20-litre containers of water
for tall office buildings on la Paseo de la Reforma.
On la calle de Niza
shelves at el super K crowded with water jugs
beckon like pale, valuable gems,
while around the corner, hotel maids
leave two new bottles on the cheap plastic tray
in the tiled, fluorescent bathroom.

Courtyard fountains
lure babies to sleep, an easy transition
from amniotic swoosh.
Statues of myth, of revolution,
bathe daily in splashing spray
in centers of palmy glorietas.

In the patio of Hotel del Cortés
elderly waiters deliver tall limonadas,
one careful ice cube each.
Beer ordered con lima receives four cubes,
a quarter-cup of lime juice,
a salted-rimmed tumbler.

Mid-afternoon cloudburst causes commuters
leaving the Metro at Copilco to stop,
fold barely-read newspapers into inadequate hats,
then splash up stairs,
now a waterfall from the rain.

Boutique clerks on avenida Presidente Masarik
put squares of brown cardboard over polished granite steps.
Thick drops splat against rolled-down plastic walls
of sidewalk cafes in la Zona Rosa.

After the storm
rain remains puddled in broken sidewalks.
An old woman brooms water away from her flower stand,
the hem of her pea green skirt drooping and damp.
The beggar who squats between the María Isabel Sheraton
and Starbucks
returns to her post,
left hand cupped and outstretched.

(c)Melinda Green Harvey

The apparition speaks

Are you his people?

I was at home that day, the day
it happened.
I was waiting
on my son to come by
to carry me up to St. Joe
for my sister’s funeral. I’d just
lost my husband,
you see,
and wasn’t up to the drive.

Those two cars hit
and there was a fire
and that boy and his little dog
You could hear the dog, too,
for a minute,
but it seemed longer.
An ambulance came, of course –
closest one is in Sedalia – but by then
it was just too late.

His people do come by
and put out new flowers.
I get my grandson
to mow around it.

No, it doesn’t bother me
to have this
outside my window.

But I can still remember
that little dog’s howl.

(Benton County, Missouri, 2006)

Farm Road

When I was a kid
I’d spend the drive to my grandpa’s house
in the backseat of our Fairlane
looking at fields
plowed across the land.
With no hills to interrupt the view,
I could see all the way down the rows
until the mounds of dirt
or lines of cotton merged
into a faraway vanishing point.

The scissoring of those rows
one after another after another after another
reminded me then,
and still does now,
of skinny legs striding,
nearly keeping up with our progress.

Center pivot systems,
which can irrigate a half-mile radius
have replaced the old method of draping hoses
into the rows, running well water in rivers
up long dirt appendages.
Now fields are plowed
to match the pivot’s path
as it turns in slow moist circles all summer long.

No more dirt legs pace me on my drive.

For a day or two after a rain
puddles fill roadside ditches.
If conditions are right –
clear sky, no wind, bright sun –
the water will mirror
dirt, telephone poles, crops.

And if you turn your head just right,
or narrow your eyes into a squint,
those reflections will become
a hole, a narrow gash into the center of the earth.

Once the wind picks up –
and the wind always picks up –
the illusion is erased by ripples on the water’s surface.

The dawn was the color that is exactly
between blue and pink while cloud fringes
were rimmed in gold,
like the setting of a gemstone ring.
Last night’s full moon hovered on the western sky,
an opal glowing.
As the sun grew brighter
the moon-opal began to evaporate,
craters disappearing first,
until it was like it had never even
been there to begin with.

The land seems flat enough
until three foggy mornings in a row
show how the mist settles into the county,
surveying the low spots.

The dip at the crossroads that mark the half-way point,
just before the road curves right-then-left
to skirt the water well on the south side,
holds fog,
keeping the well,
and the reason for the curves,

The place where the road
bisects the normally-dry playa lake
is low enough
and broad enough
to contain a foggy nebula
that lingers even when it’s burned off
everywhere else.

And just past the house
where I once saw a farmer,
pitchfork in hand,
walking toward a freshly-dead
German Shepherd in the east-bound lane,
the road dips,
and fog slides down
to hang at the bottom,
mingled, maybe,
with the specter of that dog.

Sun and age and wind plow wrinkles
into the contours of the farmer’s face.
His forehead,
shielded by a faded red cap
from the co-op gin,
stays smooth.

A stray stand of cotton next to the road,
white puffs bright on dry stalks,
looks like a patch
of missed whiskers
on a furrowed face.

The cotton harvest went for months,
well into the wettest winter ever.

The module trucks hauling
huge loaves of cotton to the gin
shed mud onto the road,
leaving clods that traffic mashes
into red-brown cobblestones
so hard that even more snow
doesn’t dissolve them.

Every trip made
by every truck
built up the cobbles
until the road by the gin
was paved over
and driving at highway speed
was unwise.

When dry weather eventually arrived
the weight of traffic
pulverized the cobblestones
turning them to dust
that the next strong wind

From the top of the rise,
the cows look like kiwi seeds
scattered in the bright green winter wheat.

In the east half of the county
unpaved north-south roads
carry bird’s names,
alphabetically – bobwhite, hawk,
nightingale, all the way through quail.

East-west roads
carry the names of animals –
bear, cat, elk, fox
and so forth.

Which brings to my mind –
for this is how I think –
the inevitable intersection:
horse and nightingale.

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?