STILL LIFE WITH FIRE ESCAPE
There isn’t enough blanket for the two of us.
Grandma’s snores take up more than half the a brandina
and the lion-faced ceiling lamp spits dark lightbulbs at my dreams.
I try to sleep between snores and nudge Grandma
with my weary fidgets when she gargles air and night-dust
like disaster is pocking the singing part of her throat.
Outside has fizzing streetlights bothering a sorrowful moon
whose pale disapproval mutes the crashed-bottle voices
of the teenagers who shiver behind green sedans in the parking lot.
The cobbles are rough grey rumbles under the late-night feet
and tires going places in the secret dark. Mr. Izzo from the bakery
shouts at Anthony to come home from the parking lot.
If Anthony doesn’t shut up and come home now, Mr. Izzo
will break his fat head. If Grandma’s ear was on she’d say Izzo
should shut his own fat mouth, he’s more pazzo than the pazzo kids.
The cats in the alley are like lost children.
I pretend-play with them when it’s daytime by sneaking
with the doll piano to the sill in Grandma’s room.
Tonight I hear them making metal songs from garbage cans
and fire escapes while Daily News and Mirrors
catch in the throats of the shifty winds.
The cats sometimes make strangled-ghost screeches
that could be mothers when they find their little cat girls
named Grace or Sue Anne getting strangled or poisoned
by Tony Candy Store who doesn’t like germy animali
nosing into his bins or clawing into baby Scolly’s carriage
which I don’t think they ever really would.
You told the story as proof of
Vincenza’s stupidity and goodness,
the second wife of the don, drudged in
to slop a mop around the other woman’s kitchen,
to wipe smiles off the other woman’s children’s faces,
to cook the pasta fagiole with too much onion
and sauce too thin to dip the bread.
She was kind, you said.
Or she did her best to be.
And you, the last of the lot
of Angelina’s eight bambinos,
were two when your mama succumbed
to the need to eradicate the ninth,
and you saw her on the upper landing
shimmering and penitent, but defiant.
Then Vincenza took over and packed
you off to school when it was time,
never a mother, but never a brute.
He, the don, had Madame X the whole
time – maybe even when Angelina was
around. Who knows? you’d say, the meaning
all but gone – passions made pallid and benign
through generations of restraint and secrecy.
She’d braid your little hair,
tight tight tight, you’d say,
the memory pinching as you coiled the air,
so tight she’d leave sores at the base of your skull.
What did she know? You forgave her
through the unforgiving years,
your need to have a mother stronger than your defiant hundred summers
of muddled penitence and tears.
204th STREET: CATS IN THE ALLEY
If it was macaroni day, grandma would spread the bed
with bleached white cloth and layer on the noodles
cut into tagliatelle or pappardelle, depending on the weather,
or tortellini, depending on her mood.
I couldn’t move too near to anywhere —
not the tall bed with the yellow strips of dough,
not the tall window that framed the country of the cats,
not the washed-bright stove rocking the tall tin drum of a sauce pot.
There was a doll piano, sink, a sofa, a table and chair,
chunky wood with the paint peeled away, specks of green
and red trim hinting at colorful long-ago other-country playtimes
when there were dolls and a house for them to be together in.
The cats slunk between the red brick buildings,
strangers’ wash drifting and snapping spookily from lines overhead,
as if the cats and ghosty clothes were in cahoots
and keeping secret company.
I joined them when I could, sneaking my doll piano to the ledge
and inviting them to play. Paws struck a tinkly growly language
on the painted wooden keys, a wild ghost-talk that we alone
– and other-country ghosts — could speak.
Kate Falvey’s work has been published in an eclectic array of journals and anthologies; in a full-length collection, The Language of Little Girls (David Robert Books); and in two chapbooks. She edits the 2 Bridges Review, published through City Tech/CUNY, where she teaches, and is an associate editor for the Bellevue Literary Review.