I rake the ground raw. The prongs cake with dirt and dahlias, and I try to breathe—but the earth is heady and hard. “Annie,” I say. She has to hear me. She’s somewhere in the house. She’s getting harder to find, though: she’s stopped wearing perfume. “You used to put these in the guns of soldiers,” I say a little louder and laugh. A pretty thought. “You remember that, Annie? Remember how you tried to make peace? Annie?”
She’s got to come out sometime. When she does, she’ll find a jagged flowerbed like a shock to the chest, like one of them defibrillators. “Annie! You better come quick. Your Candy Cupids are next!” I wait for her to come running, to save her bed of prize-winners. I count to ten, then I dig. I jump with both boots, and the shovel splits the soil. The Cupids come up easier than I thought they would.
My hands are shitty with my handiwork as I go hike up to the bedroom and take out her diary. Annie writes to me in verse, and that gets my goat. I smear earth and salty sweat into the words: into “You are the beauty to my beast,” into “You even me out, James”—Her voice whispers from the page—“You are my rock, never leaving me on shifting sand.” I litter the bedroom, the stairs and the kitchen with pages and scraps of pages, dismembered poems—like scattered petals. She’s got to see the havoc she’s created. She has to feel the sadness. But she doesn’t.
“What the hell’s that mean, Annie? I even you out? I’m your rock?” I swing open the door to the pantry and say Boo, but she’s not in there. “Annie!” I rip another page out, but this time I read real loud so she’ll know what I’m tearing up. “‘Your meaty and manly arms / I taste your salty soul.’ What the . . . Annie!” I climb down the steep stairs to the basement and let my voice swim around. “Come on. I’m not gonna hurt you,” I say. I look behind the boiler, under the saw table. I check the little bathroom, sit on the john and read: “‘The ammonia sweet sweat of purple fug.’ Oh me, Annie. I ain’t even gonna ask what that meant.” I try to laugh and breathe. I rip out the page and flush it down the john.
The last of her pages fall like stepping stones on the kitchen floor—a path to the rest of her. I gather up her knives and her bowls and her canister of caster sugar. I take them all to the flowerbed. I dig great big holes for the bowls and plant the knives like flowers, “like the pointy potential of dahlias, Annie! Lord, that sounds like one of your poems, don’t it? They’ll be prize winners!” I scream. Then I fertilize my new garden with the sugar. “Ha. Look, Annie! I made snow.” I wait and I breathe, and I will never eat sugar again.
published 21 September 2011
If I could, I would. Answer you, or flog you with that sugar sack you’ll never lift again to fill the chipped canister trapped under your dead-weighted shin. It will keep empty, expended by you, touched last by you, the sweetness inside turned to dirt.
I never wrote a poem about a dahlia and I’m not about to start here.
“Which is—?” you’d say.
Hell if I know. But I am standing here—here—to tell you: that verse was never for you. Verse was what you heard—a melody, poised on a fingertip of your filthy glove that bends to me and says Come here—but you couldn’t bear the thought of me spewing ripped-up words, bullets and bullets of them, burning past the inside of my bitten cheek. “Awe, Annie. Oh, my Annie!” I don’t want to hear it.
She has to feel the sadness—
And what makes you think I don’t? Listen! Good God, James, with that dirt flying in your ears and your sweat caking it up, good and hot: it’s no wonder. Pay attention to yourself. Stop telling me to Come here and peel the glove off your hand, dig a finger in, give it a twist. Wipe that wall of mud and wax on your jeans and shake the rest off. Now the other side, and goddamn if you can’t hear me after that. But—
“Ah, look, Annie! I made snow!”
—I never have to feel your prick of ignorance again. It’s the dahlias. The dahlias will take you over with their sugar-bulbs, the shriveled white petals blowing over you in September, October, then next fall too, because no one cares about you, James. No one cares. All the leaves of me, my paginated voice, the worn corners where my thumb crushed red mites and smeared their ink—that is the best thing here and even you were smart enough to know.
You are invisible. You are a fly in a swarm of flies. You can be crushed without thought. I am loud on a page.
Sugar? Your mouth is not capable. When have you ever—
—never, that’s when. Wasn’t it the saltpeter you wanted? Gunpowder grain to keep you from wanting me, then: stinging the mosquito bites in your arms, preserving you like sausage, crushed bitter bones. Bitter you.
You made that joke. Made it me. Friends at the diner, all your bellies shaking against the table, roaring laughter over the smell of griddle eggs. When I didn’t know you but when I saw you I wanted to singe the hair off your knuckles with turnip greens and force apple pie down your throat until you choked. I opened my tablet in front of all of you, twelve eyes in the middle of my dress. It hurt to speak. You barely heard when I asked how you took your coffee. You said:
I held a breath and your words burned my throat. I cocked my neck, wrinkled my forehead, parted my lips, but before I could ask—
“Blonde and bitter!”
And your laughter shook the booth, shook me, shook the peach tree outside and canned ham on the counter. Cream, I wrote. No sugar.
I did not look up from the page. My fingers, they kept moving; they hovered over papers and pinched the nibs of pens until I couldn’t look up at the sun without scalding my eyes. You stood over me, in my light, but I kept going. And you knew then—didn’t you—that you would take me home, your belly full of coffee and cream, something in your gut not quite happy, your body twitching, jerking, hungry, willing to bring me more paper and more, and inkpots too, and flowers and roast beef and tomatoes and lemon balm, as long—how long?
—as long as it lasted. As long as my teeth coped well enough with my swelling tongue, still poised to ask, What do you mean—“like me”?
My ears still hoping to hear you say, Sweet.
published 21 September 2011