What She Was Like

In October, he was home to stay.
Last night, as chill November ripped
the last red remnants from the maples,
and Orion stalked the horizon
he told her, “Mother,
I have to leave. I am returning
to Florida. I can’t explain.”

It was all he could do to get the words out.
In a month he had not said a thing
of what he had to tell her.
He had called no one, content
to be driven to malls and dinners,
polite teas with her old friends
who had never been permitted
to forget his existence, though he
saw them all as a blur of old shoes
primped hair in unnatural hues,
coats too many times out and back
to cold storage. Tanned and plump
he felt like an exotic parrot
in a town full of mummies.

They made a striking pair.
She was a beauty once, her line
     of noble cheek and chin
as proud as his own; nature
kept all her hair and artifice
kept it black as ever, while his
had long receded, speckled with white.
Still, she carried herself well,
as if afloat above her shoes,
as if afflicted still
     with fatal allure
(once his own curse, and power).
She is Lady Madeline Usher
to his Dorian Gray.

“The cab is on its way,” he tells her
as they make morning motions
upstairs, downstairs.
She does not protest. One sigh,
head droop and hand-drop
says everything: out of her sight
is out of existence. His butterfly
would fade to moth memory.
Once more he'd be reduced
to an object of converstion:
Art School — No, never married,
poor boy — lives far away.
I've never met his friends.

Perhaps, from there, from the safe
distance of a letter, he could tell her.

As he packs the last suitcase,
reverse motion from a month ago,
things won’t fit easily.
“You have scarcely time for breakfast,”
she admonished from the doorway.
“I’d rather shower,” he said.
“You have so many things now,”
     she said, alluding
     to all her recent gifts,
“impossible to pack them all.
This is so sudden.”

Most of the clothes are in the closet.
They are dead weight, ballast
to keep his ship from sailing.
Only one new suit, an exquisite black,
was folded beneath the old jeans,
the khaki trousers and well-worn shirts.
It would have its use.

She mumbles something, it sounds
like “Oh, very well.” She’s gone.
He takes a towel and razor and soap
for his hurried shower – and then –
as though in dream’s slow motion
he passes her bedroom where

two disembodied arms stretch out,
     two alabaster cylinders
     arms odalisque, surreal,
against a paisley bedspread —
no, it is a mirror laid flat on the bed,
     reflecting two arms to the elbow bared,
the door ajar, as she intended it;

he peers round to see her thrashing there,
     half-crouched, a butcher knife
before her transfixed eyes, first
     in one hand, then tightly in two,
the one-hand gesture a throat-cut sweep,
     two-handed, it turns upon herself,
     blade pointed at base of bosom,
     a disemboweling thrust if only
she would — but she doesn’t.
     She looks up, sees him seeing her.
The door goes shut.

He tiptoes past, decides
     he will forego the shower.
With a great motion
     he did not think within him,
he rose, bags in both hands —
neither embrace nor handshake
a possibility as he backs
down the stairway
to the door; it opens somehow
behind his fumbling fingers
twisted as they are with bag-holds,
and he is out.

The full light of cloudless day,
out there, the oxygen
which seemed so lacking amid
the wallpaper and tapestries —
was the cab even in sight? —
no matter — he would turn the corner,
away and out of her sight at last.

Gone was the death-urge that brought him here
to a rust-belt town that even rust
had abandoned, as if old broth
were a cure for his tumors, as if
the thing that gnawed him
would stop gnawing if she forgave him
the sin of their decades’ severance.

He breathes hard breaths, short,
     then longer. No, it is still there,
odds not good if they cut him open.
He will go back to the sand and the coral,
     the indifferent tide,
the long, slow sunsets.

He pauses once, before the turn
to the safe side street, feels eyes
like spider tendrils on neck-nape.
She is there;
she has ascended to the attic,
          mouth mouthing incantations
of arachnid web-pull.

He will not turn; he will not look.
Thank God, he thinks, the mad
do not go forth. They stay at home,
tethered to memory and failure,
eyes fixed at last on blankness,
a pale face in a rhomboid window.

This poem was a dream I had after learning of the death of a friend. Later I learned that he had briefly and secretly returned home to Pennsylvania, and had just as abruptly returned to Florida where he died. I have never met his mother, so this poem comes entirely from dream and imagination. As a young college student he had often spoken of his mother as a figure of some dread, so this doubtless influenced the content of my dream. Having to deal with my own "terrible Mother" in life and in poetry, I guess it would be surprising if I had seen a benevolent mother figure.


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