The evening charge nurse won’t even order you a milkshake. Clear liquids only, she tells you. In that case, make it a Beefeater martini with a cigarette on the side, you say, and we laugh so hard our eyes tear,
the way we did at tales my sister Liz told us thirty years ago. The patient who died on her shift so she hid, a tenderfoot aide, afraid to bag the body and tag the stiffening toes. Vouvray and Nicorette? you ask, dying to get home.
I stroke the white half moons, tap the fine bone plates, and smooth the folding skin. Your fingernails are a late afternoon cream tea, courtesy of a colon resection and alimentary IV; their nourished strength shrouds this slender, fragile hand.
Two nights later I sneak you apple crisp; you dart the sweetness with your tongue and whir the beating wing song of the hummingbird. Liz puts one drop each in your cataract-cauled eyes once you’ve sipped your breakfast tea, hot and strong. A memory: you dip the teaspoon’s shallow bowl into the sugar, raise the handle to the rim, and tap, clink, tap, clink to sift the sweetness level, smooth. You’ve measured your life like vermouth and cut the portions with a butter knife, incisions of cured meat carved into perfect arcs then squared along the edges of whole wheat. Dad, your slapstick foil, teased you about your precision;
when you turned your back, he hid your sandwich in the cluttered utensil drawer. You’ve got a month, maybe less. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes, two or three tiny bites, and your affair with solid food is over, kaput, done. Soon you’ll rendezvous with a feeding tube.
Your hair’s as soft as eider down; your skin glows. The afternoon shadows become as long as the rounded tips of your fingernails. Laid out on your bed, you raise a pinky finger when I cup your hand.
Miss Fall River, Massachusetts, 1921
Baba was Irish, but she drank Scotch whiskey. She sipped by the hour this mighty liquor, which rolled down her throat in waterfalls of sadness that could make a priest squirm at the confessional door.
I remember Baba, her silky blonde hair turned to mulch, soft face hardened like an untilled garden, a chin spiked with scattered weeds.
Her hands folded, not in prayer, but around a highball glass. A mother at seventeen, excommunicate at twenty-three, her daughter exiled to a convent. Baba, the unrepentant beauty queen who couldn’t be a parent.
In the gym by the bleachers, I would flutter through the season, limbs waving and whirling in lines and circles for the near-men targeting their aerial nets.
I applauded their dewy muscles, sprawling angles, splashy uniforms like tropical flowers on display. I could have drowned in the embalming nectar of those athletes posed as flowers, been pinned, splayed, displayed in their prized collection like a trophy in a locked glass case.
But like a viceroy, I eluded their tangled nets. I spread my viceroy wings, mistaken for a monarch’s, and hovered above the court, leaving only the dust of my scales as delicate as hothouse blossoms.
-- Jennifer Litt teaches writing at Saint John Fisher and Monroe Community Colleges and is the sole proprietor of Jennifer Litt Writing Services (www.jenniferlitt.com). Her poetry has appeared in HazMat Review, Lake Affect magazine, Mixed Fruit and will be included in Accent Publishing’s short poem anthology. She lives in Rochester, New York.