That Chocolate Cake
I enter through a hole in the metal
fence, after or instead of school –
go sideways, hold thin to skim the rippers.
Beyond the woods, the cake lady invites me
to play house. I am sweet daughter,
she kind mother. She finds me first
at the golf course where I rescue stray balls
from the driving range – I pocket the ones with busted
skin to slice open
with a knife at home, hours of prying
off white armor to unspool miles
of rubber guts. Strings pop from the wound,
unspin from tight coil to limp pile. She bakes
me cakes every day for months. Tawny waves
of cream crest off the surface, curls
of beckoning palm, sugared tongue.
In muddy shoes and jacket bulged with balls,
I eat my slice. She asks about my family,
why I’m not in school. I make stuff up,
eat another piece. In the woods going home,
a shock of yellow-jackets sting my neck.
Welts cut off my breath.
He knocks me into the dirt,
pushes hard, my back
grinds into the roots. Something breaks
at the top of my inside as golf balls fall
from pockets, endless threads of rubber
spool out around us, hands of rubber, legs
of rubber, blood-dirt-slime there.
After the first time it will never hurt
again, he says. Stretched elastic scar
rubs against the branches overhead,
the fixed world snaps, no more
give. Months after the last slice,
after the woods wrenched out my yearning
for cake, my yearning for the lady,
she calls to me in the grocery, calls
my name. I make a stranger’s
face, turn away, turn towards my mother
in the checkout line. That chocolate cake
frosted and layered on a
glass plate. Dirt.
June nights my mother works the yard,
pruning American Beauties, dead-heading
petunias, the gummy velvet of spent petals
on her fingers. Tom Seaver
blows her a kiss from the t.v.
on the patio. She watches
his twist and muscle, prays
for extra innings, the floodlight
to come on, the kids
to stay in bed. I try
to remember what I know,
what I saw from behind the curtain:
edge the beds, cheer the Mets, wait
for morning to sleep –- never
happier than when she moved
in her own time. I force the trowel
down, four inches for hyacinth bulbs,
tulips deeper for more dark, work-in
fatted narcissus: Sir Winston Churchill,
Pheasant’s Eye. How much icy
grip is needed for bloom?
I rub my knuckles, fret over
the spring to come.
These short days refuse
to budge. All I can do
is dig, grip this trowel
as if it is my hand that opens
the ground – as if I am
that trowel held by her.
That summer in the bungalow, Grandma grips
the things in her domain: cast-iron skillet, metal spatula, a carton
of double-yolked eggs. My nose at her elbow,
I watch shells split on the rim, conjoined suns
whisk to a single promise. The pan
pops with grease, bacon flecks in the scramble.
(Black walnuts fall around us,
still in their shell’s shell. The creek rushes with
thaw as we come closer on the path. Chubby
with grin, Grandpa kitzels me to catch a minnow
with my hands. I’m up to calves in cold flow,
an Iroquois hunter snatching trout).
Chessboard between us, I learn my moves: slanted bishop,
aggressive castle, sly knight, sacrificial pawn.
Trust no one, he warns, not even the girl across the field.
(I sneak to the abandoned tennis court
to meet her. We throw rocks at the ripped net, dig up
arrowheads, find a wallet with two twenties.
We each take a bill. Grandpa marches to her house
like a captain in the Cossack’s army – thief! –
on a mission to take back what’s mine).
Rain jabs the tin roof. A real soaker
overflows the water barrel, banks days
of good flushes, even a hairwash. I find
my father’s books and tsotchkes: three monkeys
frozen in jade – hear no evil, see no evil, speak
no evil. I roll those chimps in dirty underwear to smuggle home.
(On the ride back I chew gum,
watch it all go – her palm on my cheek
before sleep – go. Miles ahead a red fruit turns
on a pole, the Big Apple cafeteria the stop
for pie and Grandma’s annual lesson
in papering the toilet seat).
Sergeant Ron’s Reveille
At 7:30 a.m.
every day he mows,
rides around and around
and around his yard— the revved beast
our daily dread. Neighbors
grumble under Sunday quilts
but nothing stops him.
Crew-cut grass salutes
the fuming machine,
the cropped green hisses
too short! His hair,
white and tangled, unshorn
since the war. That purpled face
peers between fence slats,
desperate to provoke
a complaint. Fenced-in
with heaps of metal, once-humming
motors: a 4-door sedan,
boat on blocks, a glider stilled
in vines and rust. He circles
the unfaithful, cuts right
up to those obsolete engines, livid
at the mounds of silent, stubborn junk.