TO TELL THE TRUTH: BULGARI SONNETS
I lied to an old man drinking coffee
in a cafe one spring on Park Avenue.
The sugared pastries in the window sang
to me, and I was seated with a silver
pot of coffee before I knew poached eggs
and avocado toast would set me back
forty bucks. A crowded shop with white cloths
and tables so near to the next I could’ve
stolen the spoons from my neighbors’ setting
unseen. He was eating with a woman
I presumed to be his wife, and had spent
the whole meal expertly ignoring me,
though I could hear them chew and every word
about their friends’ houses in the Hamptons.
When she left, he turned to me as if to carry
on where we’d left off — So who made your watch?
Startled, I weirdly answered as in a movie,
This old thing? but it was true. My only watch,
decades old, a gift from my husband I always wear,
so expensive back when there wasn’t any room
for extravagance in our lives, bought at Macy’s
in the Rockaway Mall. To tell the truth,
I’ve never known the brand but could describe
its details to any lost-and-found clerk:
plain and simple with a black square face, tiny
diamond chips on the hours, gold-plated
steel wristband and a tight clasp that locks with
a satisfying click. It holds time well.
He dabbed a napkin at his lips, waited.
I stared at my wrist as if my watch had just
been born. I couldn’t read the maker’s name
on the face, but saw the letter B. And knowing
it not to be true, and thinking he might
like a rich story, I looked straight into
his watery eyes and said, Bulgari,
as if I owned the world and with it
a $20,000 gold watch.
I’ve been in antiques, he said. Few people
know what Bulgari is. I’m a writer,
I thought, what a fine story. But how much
was I playing? How much was I posing?
I don’t know. To this day, it makes me squirm.
We chatted about his wife, his friends in the trade
whom he loved, even that bastard from Dallas,
and his pal who sold pants in the sixties
to Ralph Lauren. And when he was leaving,
I could tell he wanted something else, so I stood
and let him touch my face. That’s the truth.
Look. We all want full moments worth sharing,
maybe with strangers sipping coffee. Is it
truthful or lying to want to flatten time,
serve up our lives, past, present, future
on one plate, to reach across tables? I’ll tell
about this watch. Or the charred griddle bread I ate
in the desert. Or netting heavy seines full of shad.
I’d start: You have some time? Let’s talk.
GRACIE CLARA ANGIE ROSE
Often as a kid I stayed at my grandma’s
rent controlled apartment in Hoboken near the hospital
where she in time would die. To help with chores?
To ease my mother’s burden home with six other kids?
I always went gladly. Time alone was a gift.
My bachelor uncle came in surly after work
from the refrigeration warehouse. Silent and tall,
unaccustomed to children. Or movement, it seemed.
Or language. I didn’t budge from the velvet sofa
until he took a dinner tray to his room and shut the door.
I was a challenging kid. Like Uncle was a bachelor.
Enduring adjectives back then colored all our stories.
Those sleepovers, no other kids near, Grandma’s klatch
scootched a chair for me in the kitchen for their double-deck,
hours-long Continental Rummy games.
Gracie, Clara, Angie, Rose. They gossiped above my head,
fed me cards to make my melds. Their modifiers alive:
white-haired, thick-skinned, loud, St. Francis church women,
squeezed shoulder-tight at the speckled formica table,
sipping brown liquor from porcelain cups.
Those days. Shuffled stories. Tricks of time replayed.
I ache always at the sight of cobblestone streets
and brownstone stoops, run dreaming from the rusted
mouth of the terrifying garbage chute, crave
rectory leftovers wrapped in brown, stained paper.
And peering through these windows, there’s the bus stop
on the corner, haunted, forbidden, where my mythical
grandfather sits eternally on the bus, taken
by an aneurysm; his cousin the driver, calling
Johnny, hey Johnny, are you sleeping or drunk?
Long gone, those ladies playing cards. That bachelor
uncle, dead now decades, forever grabbing
his hat from the rack, the heavy door slamming
behind him. Gracie, Clara, Angie, Rose,
in a warm room, always sniffing in their laughs.
WE LIVED THERE (THE FIRST KITCHEN)
That acrid basement kitchen on rainy days smelled
like a wet stable, doubling as our landlady’s laundry
and litter box room, the odorous damp thick
with musty spores and dander. We didn’t care.
Hasbrouck Place. Our first apartment. You built
our meager furniture. That glorious bed, a bookcase,
a table. Each measured, cut, pieced together
then stained walnut brown. None of it second
nature to you, and me, so full of doubt.
You studied woodworking tips and plans
for a week — dovetail joints, mortise and tenon,
routers and jigsaws —from an oversized, hardcover
Readers’s Digest guide we had to shelve sideways
in the bookcase designed for thin volumes of poetry.
And in that damp kitchen, I placed a yellow enamel
colander on the counter and hung a matching gravy
dipper from a hook.The color a deliberate plea for sunshine.
The gravy dipper never used, finally demoted to the junk drawer.
We’ve carried them to Cemetery Lane, The Renaissance,
Myrtle Street, Mohican, Leeuweriklaan, Roppongi,
River Road. Decades later, what remains? What will be
remembered? Our daughters will one day empty the house,
the enamelware will go to the thrift shops with all my books.
The bed is long gone, but that loose legged table
and bookshelf leaning out of square should become
(can this be my testament?) the fuel in a fire pit, smoke
rising to the gods who cradled us. Oblations. A boy
taught himself to build things, a girl never to let go.
I watch my grandson
navigate his morning clothes,
these undies, those shorts,
this shirt, who cares what color,
challenging what his three-year-old
brain knows of spatial geometry
and how he fits into the world
he chooses a long-sleeve dinosaur tee
this 90 degree day,
lays it on the floor, studies it,
naked, toddler pot-bellied, head bent,
arms snaking through the air practicing
the moves he needs,
arms go there,
somehow head through there.
kid tai chi and focus.
then it’s all cat and mouse with this shirt
push and pull, trial and error error error
until he gets it
and flattens a toothy T Rex over his torso.
He walks out bare butt and skinny legs
pleased and proud and present,
airplane arms, and without words shows me:
Look look what I can do now.
MONSTER SONNETS: ONE AND TWO
All the monsters are hungry at two in the morning.
Critters skitter in the attic. The bare, crooked
fingers of shrubs scratch at the siding. Outside
something wounded or alone screams in the trees.
Cold air hisses through the dry sashes
like phantom vapors — everything is losing heat,
shivering in the dark. The night doesn’t know
winter is over. Just yesterday, fooled by the empty
sunshine, we turned the thermostat all the way down.
Still it’s too soon for the tar streets to hold
any warmth. The brute sounds of cold night echo
in the thin air. My husband is asleep.
I’ve shut the glowing screens and pace barefoot
as time ticks sharp, starved, slow. A police car rolls up.
Next door lives a quiet, pained neighbor kid,
hair like straw, always smoking on the stoop
or walking someone else’s dogs, every day
reading his phone, head down. Tonight his mom
in her nightgown, shaking her head to the cops,
arms wide. No, they can’t go in. Cherry lights strobe
through our windows, the drapes I hold askew
afire, then, not. Some small kindness
from the police not to screech the sirens.
Monsters are everywhere, and mine checks the locks.
For years, I’ve seen that boy, his mom home late;
tonight her nightgown has ruffles at the knee.
I never meet his eye when he takes out the trash.
I never say hey when we pass on the street.
Mary Jo LoBello Jerome is the 2019 Poet Laureate of Bucks County (PA). A recent poem, “I Dream What My Mother Means to Say,” won an Honorable Mention in the 2020 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards and is forthcoming in The Paterson Literary Review. New poems are also forthcoming in Schuykill Valley Journal and Ovunque Siamo. Some of Mary Jo’s other work has been published in The Stillwater Review, River Heron Review, US1 Worksheets, Little Patuxent Review, Short Story, and Center magazines. In addition, she won first place in the Main St. Voices (PA) poetry competition, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has written for The New York Times, Scholastic Publications, and many other magazines. A former high school English teacher and associate professor of writing at regional colleges, she and with her husband and two daughters have lived in Rotterdam, Tokyo, and Blairstown, NJ. Mary Jo is currently working on a collection of poems.