SUNDAY NIGHTS THE WIDOWS CAME TO DINNER
After my father left for milking, the women
lit cigarettes while I cleared the table.
Smoke curled from my mother’s mouth.
Don’t tell your father, she said.
What did they talk about while I worried
that my homework wasn’t done?
I longed to sit with them, these women
finished with part of their lives and as mesmerizing
as the sparks from the welding torch
my father used to repair a hitch. Don’t look,
he would caution. This will blind you.
When the women left, I went outside
to clean the ashtrays, my mother beside me
to watch the cars pull away. This is when
I feel the worst for them, she’d say.
It is always winter, cold ahead, and dark,
and darker still once my mother
went inside to the television. Stay, I would say,
if I could talk to her now.
But then I only spread my notebooks
on the gleaming tabletop to do important work.
On my fingertips, ashes.
DEAR COUSIN WHO DECLARES ME MATRIARCH
After my mother died, you messaged me.
You must be the big mama now, you said.
Matriarch, that’s my word. Like elephants and famiglia,
like the Madonna in our nonnie’s peony bed.
Remember when you were relieved I wasn’t a lesbian?
We sat on a wall watching your son ride a Big Wheel.
(This was when your ex-wife still let you see him.)
Someone had told you about my boyfriend.
You said: We were worried about you. We thought,
you know, you might be a little funny. Someone. We.
These were the kind of pronouns that kept me up
at night wondering who, wondering which one.
Our aunts sat in the shade beside Nonnie’s house
in the kind of lawn chairs that required rewebbing,
our uncles tossed horseshoes, cocked eyebrows midthrow
whenever someone asked if I was seeing anyone.
Now, you need help making peace with your brother.
How can I help when, after the funeral, my own brother
left the country with our mother’s colander
and an especially sharp knife she used to slice tomatoes?
My mother loved knives. I do regret, she had recently
admitted, stabbing Sam and slashing Herbie’s tires.
I guess I shouldn’t have done those things. But
she should have. She should have done those things.
We can’t undo. That’s not rocket science. It isn’t
necessary for things to come back together, at least
not seamlessly. Sam touched my mother
when she told him not to. Herbie was having an affair.
I’m no matriarch, cousin. You slice something open,
you live with it. Live with it or mend it and accept
its imperfection. Those women who might have saved us?
They never needed men. But in this you are correct:
MOURNING MY MOTHER, I ALMOST FORGOT
our last phone call, when my father told me he was excited for dinner.
Stuffed shrimp. God, he loved butter.
They feed you pretty good there, I said. How’s the fever?
The fever persisted and no one all those hours away
seemed concerned. He was looking forward to a hospital meal.
A man who never had an appetite.
He would have waited, hands folded atop the bedsheet,
at the end of a life with so little stillness,
for the tray that might arrive any moment.
Instead, the tumor burst through the wall of his colon.
He should have been in enormous pain, the doctors said.
The doctors who had missed a tumor the size of a football
in a man who weighed one hundred thirty five pounds.
The human body is full of organs, someone said.
Some useless sage. Things aren’t as easy to find as you might think.
As I might think, no. A high school teacher. A poet. You could swallow
a tube of lipstick, a Jetta, and I might not be able to distinguish them
from gall bladder or lung. But a doctor?
Aren’t those the people who hid their lab notes from me
in chemistry class so, god forbid, I wouldn’t cheat?
Is this what they prevented? My pursuit of their blessed science?
It isn’t fair either how much my mother’s death has made him
less. It isn’t his fault he went first,
that it has been months since I’ve pictured him
in his bed alone, waiting for his shrimp. Imagined me
in my terrible apartment standing one second longer
over the telephone, I, who had always feared his death.
Those last years, he called me Wednesday nights. My mother
out playing cards. The barns empty. The fields overgrown.
How I had loved imagining him out of the cold.
WHAT THEY MIGHT HAVE MISSED ABOUT HIM, JULY 1942-SEPTEMBER 1944
The way he stirred his coffee too long.
The way he mulled things — what might fix
a busted augur, cure a calf of scours.
The way rote tasks — harrowing
the last field, sharpening plow blades — quieted his head.
A blackened thumbnail.
There are times I forget that he loved laurel,
ladyslippers, Bob Whites.
Times when I lay in bed listening for his spoon.
Some things he would not rush:
Milkings. Mornings. Prying splinters
from my palm with a jackknife blade.
They say he caught pneumonia
hauling seaweed one December.
They say his asthma came from that.
So, there was also his coughing.
How it started sometimes
when he tried to answer a question.
His webby windpipe. The terrible lungs.
Also the membranous skin patched onto his legs.
How easily it bled.
Though that would have been later. After the war.
It was all the sugar he used, that stirring.
They say he used to pray. They say
the cows gave less milk when he was gone.
Carla Panciera’s collection of short stories, Bewildered, received AWP’s 2013 Grace Paley Short Fiction Award. She has also published two collections of poetry: One of the Cimalores (Cider Press) and No Day, No Dusk, No Love (Bordighera). Her work has appeared in several journals including Poetry, The New England Review, Nimrod, The Chattahoochee Review, Painted Bride, and Carolina Quarterly.