“The Voice,” c. 1970, by George Tooker
we used to pile into my dad’s van, drive
all the way from Nebraska to Texas
silence, because complaining about the unbearable
heat would just make my dad turn the car back
around, and home
was even worse than three hundred miles of
flat black asphalt, lines of heat
reflecting off the horizon
in wavy cartoon lines. once we had reached the ocean, nothing
could keep us quiet; we screamed
from sunup to sundown, splashed in the cool
ocean surf, trying to erase
of hot tar and dead cornfields.
I see so many group photos
people hanging on one another
temporary companions but
still friends and I wish I could
be so casual
not take it all so
so completely destroyed every
time I meet someone
I am touched
a woman that falls in with a troll
is dragged to its cave by her hair
and forced into slavery, trapped forever
in its small, dark den
forced to cook the bones of children down into paste
for the troll to spread over toast
and eat with coffee
worse, the troll might make her his wife
after months of abuse, of pinching and tugging,
full-body force-massages of stinging ointments
and strange potions, she begins to lose
her human features. her skin grows coarse and dull,
her hair mats into greasy clumps, her voice shrinks
into an unintelligible grunt.
she will never again feel sunlight
or know what it’s like to be loved by another human being.
eventually, she will forget
what it was like to be human
and dismiss all memories of her previous life as nothing but dreams
full of too much color.
Not As Stupid as She Thinks
across the street lives
a woman with snakes in
her hair. she watches me
from between the rotting drapes
that keep the sun from
melting her living room furniture
I sit at the breakfast table and wonder
if she has to feed each snake head
individually, or if they’re just like hair,
and just need a shampooing,
now and then
I imagine her dipping her entire head
into a cage full of frightened
rats, the snakes in her hair darting
this way and that, tangling around each other
in their haste to catch the fat ones, the ones
with the least demented testicles. tiny bones
crunch in my head
as I close my own teeth on a spoonful
of toasted oak flakes
She is still staring at me
from across the street.
I have flung my own drapes
wide open, wide, wide open,
moved the breakfast table into the front room
so she can see everything I do,
so that she won’t have to guess about me
the way I have to about her.
I force myself to wait
For the flowers to come up on their own
Not claw through ice and frozen leaves
Expose thin green shoots to the sunlight
That has been growing stronger each day.
I long to dig beneath the soil
To warm the round, white bulbs with my bare hands
Blow hot breath onto the little plants
That will someday fill this yard.
I was running as fast as I could
and started the slide into third
when he caught up with me and slammed his fist
into my chest. I felt the air explode
from my lungs and tasted blood.
We had been friends all through elementary school
walked to class together in junior high
now, we never spoke. He transferred to a different school
moved across town
I think he was trying to kill me.
Look, I know you hate it when I talk
about baseball, but you’re just not going to get me
if you don’t pay attention.
The coach pulled me out of the game
benched me for the final two innings. I could breathe fine
and the blood had stopped leaking out of the end
of my tongue, but I could tell
something was wrong. I told my mom when she came to get me
that I didn’t feel well
she told me to suck it up. My stepfather told me
to suck it up.
I fell asleep on the couch
and when I woke up, I felt worse. My brother
slapped my head when he walked by
and I punched him so hard he
fell against the wall and hit his head.
Suck it up, I said.
At dinner, I couldn’t eat anything. I could barely
walk from the couch to the table. My mother
looked at me and almost said something, then
looked down at her plate and started eating.
When she was done, she walked around the table
reached out with one hand
felt my forehead as she passed by.
He has a fever, she announced, glaring at my stepfather.
This is the good part.
It turned out that I had been
walking around all day with a ruptured spleen
that I could have died from the infection
that I needed surgery, and a morphine drip
and a bedpan. These fucks, my parents
they never believed me before when I
said I was sick, even though
my mother was a nurse and worked at a hospital.
They could have killed me. I could be dead, right now.
This is why I need you to believe
the things I tell you. I can’t stand
to have people second-guess me.
If you don’t agree with something I say
keep your mouth shut.