It never took much to start the prowl—
a few quarters in my pocketed fist,
scanning for blue-haloed strangers
gathered under the overhangs.
Such awkward transactions!
Some resisted the money, Oh no,
said that awfully cheerful woman
outside her AA meeting, pay it forward.
Which I'd think about as her Camel
hit my bloodstream and I'd stagger a little,
past the Korean BBQ, the tattoo
parlor, walking to work in flames.
Sometimes, I tried to push money
on the generous, insisted they'd
need it for a parking meter, or—
did I really say this?—a payphone.
Once, outside Humanities, a student
from Beijing waved my coins aside,
proudly offered his Chinese cigarettes.
I took one from his golden pack
with the Great Wall on it and thanked
him for his kindness, crossed the verdant
campus, inhaling until the cement bunker
of the Harney Science Building became
The Imperial Hall of the Late Qin Dynasty,
and I was walking to work with all
the other terracotta soldiers, no two alike,
clouds curling from our immortal mouths.
Darling, asks the elderly lady with bright
red hair, where have you hidden Used Cooking?
It's November, the time of afternoon when people
often come in to get out of the wind.
B-2, points the pierced clerk, below
Drinks and Smokes. You're a dear, she says,
and shuffles in that general direction,
confiding in whoever is listening:
My sister's in assisted living. Thursdays,
they bake soda crackers with butter and sugar,
add chocolate chips and bake a bit longer.
My sister says you'd never guess
they were Saltines. I want that exact
recipe—perhaps a book on candy.
A thin man with purple skin lesions,
leaning hard against Used Film, looks up
from his book. Maybe you should visit
your sister on a Thursday, he suggests.
Behind the register, the clerk checks
his watch against the store clock's time.
Sweetie, she says, my sister's in Delaware.
They are moving past Used Poetry, closing in
on Travel Lit: Honey, says the frail man, we can
leave right now. Darlin', let's drive all night.
My father stands inside the front door,
waiting for my mother, who's changing
in the bedroom with her door shut because
she can't stand the feel of him waiting.
His hot breath, she calls it, that airport look.
It is winter dusk, the hour when solid things
grow indistinct, a confusion of dog and wolf.
My father is grey with impatience.
Where they're going isn't clear—probably
a party—nor whether they're actually late.
My mother had appeared ready to go,
but now her clothes struggle on the bed.
She roots through the closet for something
to make her more beautiful.
My father won't notice her transformation
—what the hell is taking so long?
She knows this, but wants him to wait
exactly where he's standing
—Aww, for chrissake, can we go?—
where he's stood for over forty years.
Perhaps she is dressing for a man at the party,
perhaps she is dressing for her own pleasure.
She is getting dressed and will not
be rushed. She discounts a second garment,
is now inside the closet, admiring
the finish on a third.
Any minute, my father will storm from the house,
start the car and sit with the motor running.
exhaust from the tailpipe staining the snow.
In twenty years, he will leave my mother
for someone who's already waiting for him.
My mother will enjoy tonight more than he does,
take longer to leave the party than he'd like.
At the door, he'll joke with the host
and hostess—Wasps leave without saying goodbye.
Jews say goodbye without leaving.
My father will march ahead to the car, while
my mother takes her own sweet time on the icy walk,
holding the hem of her long red coat.
Unless she's still curled in her pantyhose
and bra, hugging her knees in the closet.
The carpet is rough against her skin.
She used to be in retail, loves well-made
clothes, loves the idea of well-made clothes.
She buries her face in a blue silk robe,
tears taking her by surprise—God
dammit!—He has shut off the car, stomped
back inside, rattling the house, aftershocks.
From the open front door, a smell of exhaust.
The waning light finds my father in the hall,
melted snow pooled around his overshoes.
Deep in my mother's closet, a small bulb
snaps on, casts a warm circle
where her neck meets the shoulder.
When he's left her, her days will mimic
these nights before parties. Details will
derail her, destinations overwhelm. But tonight,
she's his problem, and he has stained her snow.
And there's still enough light to see by.
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