Tell Your Mother

I grew up in a flash by your mother’s side.


Tell her I loved her deeply, like bells sounding in the distance, like the secret I had to rush to tell her. I loved your mother at the Lutheran summer camp where we got real with our Bibles, where we rehearsed on the Palace Theater stage in the wings while we murmured our parts and pantomimed our choreography before the curtain parted. As best friends, we made space for anything to happen to us, as long as it happened to us side by side, or was documented through letters that we posted in the mail that arrived steadily like ants creating a trail.


Tell your mother to tell you how we cut images of what you must be going to look like from magazine pages in the 1990s, how we clipped around your round face and big eyes from baby-food advertisements, certain it was  going to be you.


The first I saw of you was a roiling under her skin, kicking while she filmed her belly, feet stretched far before her.


Tell your mother to tell you the time, in the charged balm of adolescence, when we lay in a hammock on the fourth of July, watched neighbors tilt back in lawn chairs and for some reason, while we rocked  in the weave of the hammock, while sparklers crackled, and dry as a bone but intoxicated surely by the elation at simply being alive side by side, we laughed so hard at something that rocked us nearly over and to the ground, we peed our pants and tumbled down while fireworks shot up as the floodlight clicked on as the adults chatted, and I consider that place in the grass on the Clintonville lawn that exists with our imprint on it still, the sound of the dresser drawer opening for her to replace my clothes in the room she shared with her sister. We stayed up as late as the night would have us then paraded into the morning hours, just as we paraded from the hammock, our lack of shame like capes behind us.


Ask your mother if she remembers learning how to solve the problem of a house fire. The firemen brought a trailer filled with theatrical smoke to the library parking lot where we filed before the door like books to be shelved. There is a way out, we learned, if you crawl under the smoke, if you test the metal doorknob with the back of your hand. We crawled through the hallway, snickering always, toward the trailer exit where, successful, we’d hop out into the clear air having passed the test, and it was this way that we jumped from our tenth birthdays to our twelfth, and now years later we are here, the fire behind us, and you due in her arms in a matter of weeks.


When you arrive, she will feel your warm cheek with the back of her hand. Tell your mother that when you arrive, I will step back as she lights the firework fuse of your little life, that I will do my best to be a bellows to your flames.



Molly’s friend Ronaldo orders a second old fashioned, and she has to tamp down the voice in her head that itches to inform him (to lecture, she corrects herself) of what the ethanol (rotted plant waste is the phrase she really wants to use) is doing to his brain. Sobriety has turned her into her mother-in-law, Didi, who flinches every time Molly inadvertently uses “god” as an interjection. Didi assumes that the “god” of Molly’s interjections is Didi’s God, that by saying, “God, I’m exhausted,” Molly is likening Didi’s God to a “wow” or a “whoa” or a “yikes.” This perceived degradation offends Didi, yes, but the flinch is also Didi suppressing the urge to warn Molly that she’s booking herself a ticket on a high-speed train to hell. Molly has long found religious people intriguing in this respect—how earnestly they believe that they’re more enlightened than you and how this conviction convinces them it is their responsibility to instruct you on how to live. It’s infuriating behavior for sure, but she empathizes with their plight. To believe so certainly that the mother of your grandchildren is going to hell if she doesn’t change her ways, that’s a tough predicament.


Alcohol is now for Molly like God is for Didi, in the sense that Molly has spent so much time reading and thinking and talking about alcohol these past few weeks that she believes she knows it far better than Ronaldo and all these other restaurant patrons drinking their fancy cocktails and their blood-hued wine. Because Ronaldo is her good friend and she loves him, she feels an urge to warn him (to proselytize, Molly corrects).


It’s like one of those cartoons where the two characters are stranded on a lifeboat, starving, and one looks at his best friend, the chicken, and sees not his fluffy, feathery body but a golden-brown roast, his legs plump drumsticks. Super-imposed on Ronaldo’s warm brown eyes, Molly sees a cirrhotic liver, barnacled instead of smooth. Then that image disappears like a slide she’s clicked, replaced with—Oh god: not some crappy, too-sweet old fashioned, but Molly’s own former go-to drink: Maker’s Mark, with one cube of ice slowly melting. The trick was to pace herself, so she could finish the drink just as the ice finally dissolved. That was the perfect last sip, the signal that she could order another.


Molly shakes her head to dislodge the Maker’s, and Ronaldo’s face returns to normal, except he’s giving her a quizzical look. And Molly has to resist (the endless resistance! She understands why people use the expression “white-knuckling”; dinner at a restaurant is like gripping the side of a bouncy river raft) the urge to say, What the hell, dude? Why are you ordering a second cocktail in front of your good friend who has yet to make it past the one-month mark? Is that not a sign in and of itself of a drinking problem, of being in the thrall of alcohol, that you would make such a weak, selfish, and inconsiderate error in judgement? Does not such behavior warrant a lecture on ethanol and cirrhotic livers, since clearly Ronaldo needs saving from himself?


Then again, did she not tell him barely forty minutes ago that he shouldn’t censor his desire to drink? Did she not say confidently, “I’ve got this!”


These questions rattle in Molly’s head like cubes of ice in a glass.


As though he can read her mind, Ronaldo says, “You said you don’t even miss alcohol.” The look in his eyes makes Molly think of how she feels playing arcade games—braced the entire time for her avatar’s impending pixel-dismantling death.


He says, “Fuck, Molly.” He sticks up his hand to flag down their waitress.


The waitress quickly appears, and Ronaldo tries to cancel the drink, but Molly says, “No, don’t cancel it. He wants the drink.”


The waitress has a head of silvery white hair that is almost violet. Rather than make her look old or worn, her hair makes her vibrant and hip. She eyes Molly’s pink prickly-pear lemonade, and Molly suspects that the woman has read this situation clearly. This embarrasses her. Alcohol is such a pervasive and deeply ingrained part of the culture that giving it up is akin to giving up gas-guzzling transportation. Forgoing it makes her seem snooty and judgmental. Her abstaining inconveniences people. Molly’s friend Una commutes by bicycle only, which means no plans that include Una on the guest list can venture outside an approximately six-mile radius. And now Ronaldo feels like he can’t have a second drink.


Ronaldo says, “Please cancel it. Thank you.”


Molly says nothing, but she is already considering what she will write about this experience tonight in her online community of other people giving up alcohol without AA. The problem with AA, the group ethos goes, is that it is all about willpower, and so all about fighting your cravings. Instead Molly is learning to deconstruct her cravings so that eventually they aren’t cravings anymore. Supposedly this makes not drinking about gain rather than about loss. Supposedly it will make her more present and more joyful.


But here she is sitting across the table from her longtime friend, yet she’s thinking about the conversation she will later have about him with other people, strangers she doesn’t know anything about other than that they too have quit drinking. Well, that, and that they share her resistance to AA: a resistance which is not merely about AA glamorizing alcohol (as a permanent “craving” that needs to be resisted “one day at a time”), but also about its emphasis on submitting to a higher power. Molly isn’t “present,” she’s far away, imagining herself back in her bedroom, a space that’s felt cavernous ever since Connor moved out last year, and now, without her nightly, companionable Maker’s Mark, that much emptier.


Clearly Connor is not going to come to his senses, recognize how hard Molly is trying, how much she deserves to get him back. “Good for you,” he’d said when she told him she’d quit drinking. It was hard to explain what was so chilly, so measured about the phrase. On paper, it sounded supportive. But Connor’s delivery turned it into something else. It was that subtle way Connor emphasized “you.” He communicated that Molly’s quitting drinking was something that now benefitted her alone.


What do cravings become once they are no longer cravings? Molly has never posed the question to her group. She thinks of arcade games again. They were Connor’s thing. She’d always kind of hated them—even Pac-Man, her game of choice—because they made her so damn tense. Curious how those blocky ghosts’ pursuit of the little yellow corn kernel of a figure her hand was controlling could raise her heart rate so much. But she had always chosen to play rather than sit on the red sofa and wait for Connor to be done. She had chosen to play despite how much the experience frazzled her. Because there were brief moments of pleasure in playing Pac-Man, such as when she managed to maneuver her Pac-Man toward a piece of fruit, or better yet, toward a ghost-turned-blue. Then her Pac-Man could destroy the thing that had been taunting him, but only temporarily, until the ghosts resumed their normal coloring and consequently their normally lethal nature. Is that what a craving became when it was no longer a craving? A ghost-turned-blue that could turn on her at any moment? Because as much as she wanted to, she could not believe cravings could remain always and forever ghosts-turned-blue.


Or maybe the problem is she’s using the wrong metaphor? Maybe cravings dissolve into nothingness, like when Pac-Man dies three times and no jiggling of the joystick or the coin slot will bring him back to life unless you put in another quarter?


The problem is she can always get her hands on another quarter. So how do you make the cravings stop for good? You take a baseball bat to the machine and, after that, every other Pac-Man machine in existence?


And can the same alchemy be applied to Connor? Can she take a baseball bat to the memory of him? Make her longing for Connor disappear? Molly imagines asking this to a bunch of strangers who will reassure her (grandmotherly Pat134 and sarcastic but steadfast trickynick): You’ve got this, girl.


Monads and the Cosmic Jigsaw Factory

My scientist friend—his name’s Adam but he spells it “Atom”— calls me about the latest breakthrough. He says physicists have discovered a new subatomic particle. His voice is urgent, almost cracking.


I say, “I’m tired of spheres. Tell me this new particle is noodle-shaped.”


He says, “Monads, they’re called monads. They don’t have a shape, but they might have a soul.”


I’m no conspiracy theorist. Still, sometimes I get the suspicion that the scientific community is really a secret society of comedians who get a kick—a 2,500 year-old kick—out of human credulity.


Atom is out of breath. He says he has to go, but he’ll keep me updated. He makes it sound like he’s right there, in the midst of the action, his hands touching the lever of a particle accelerator, his eyes obscured by fancy goggles. I use the word “scientist” somewhat liberally. Atom teaches AP Physics at a charter school.


When my wife and I were still doing marriage counseling (a year before our divorce), Atom was full of suggestions. He kept championing the need for proximity. He’d call me up and say, “Are you close? I mean, you know, close?” He’d suggest that my wife and I take a sample of each other’s blood and put the samples under a compound microscope, and then—as husband and wife—spend time marveling at the shifting landscape within, how each drop of our blood was a unique eruption of lentil-shaped lava.


On some level, I think he was right. My wife and I were failing because we had run out of topography.


The next day, Atom calls up again. This time, I stop him mid-sentence and say, “Soul? I think I misheard you yesterday—did you say monads have souls?”


He says, “It’s complicated. At the very least, monads have perception. Not to mention appetite


“Jesus, they get hungry?”


“More like inclination. Or desire. They long.”


There’s a lull on the phone. On Atom’s end of the receiver, I can hear clinking glasses and a droning electronic voice, as if Atom’s at happy hour with Stephen Hawking.


I say, “Look, it just doesn’t sound very, uh, scientific—”




“All these metaphors.”


“Actually, at the subatomic level, nonidentity is the norm. Nothing is what it seems, and thus metaphors are the most accurate form of language we physicists have at our disposal—”


Atom’s voice is drowned out by cheering, even wild abandon. Wherever he is, it sounds like a team has just scored.


I say, “So, uh, what do they want?”


Atom says, “Who?”






To be fair, it’s not just Atom who’s monad-struck. All the media outlets—NPR, CNN, FOX, even ESPN—can’t get enough. Monads this, monads that. Despite being infinitesimal, monads are bigger than sliced bread. The title of one article reads, “Sentient Particle Added to Our Subatomic Zoo!” Oddly, it’s not the first time I’ve heard the whole zoo analogy. After my wife and I split, Atom wouldn’t shut up about quarks and leptons and gluons and all those other subatomic “animals” that escaped from the primordial zoo.


Atom said, “The Big Bang was the first prison break.”


I said, “You’re mixing your metaphors.”


He said, “Imagine how many inmates we’ve yet to tag.”


It dawned on me later that Atom was talking about women. Other women. Soul-bonding with particles that were not my wife.


Atom keeps calling. Sometimes I wonder if I’m Atom’s only friend. He strikes me as the kind of person who believes friendship is monogamous.


He says, “The perception of monads is directed inward, not outward.”


I say, “Omniscience—I don’t understand—how does a particle seek omniscience?”


“Monads are navel-gazers. Each monad is like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle: its own existence belies the contours of its neighbors. Thus in studying its own being, each monad is in fact intuiting its cosmic neighborhood.”


Atom goes on to describe how monads understand the world concentrically. Monads reason from self to neighborhood to neighborhood’s neighborhood, etcetera.


It all sounds a bit alarming. Like an invasion. Minus the green humanoids with laser beams.


I rub my eyes into the wee hours of the night. Everything is out of focus except negative space. A hat suggests a head. An outlet, a plug. Contours become clues. I imagine my body as one gangly, oversized monad: it too is a jigsaw piece with a shape that suggests a connection. What connection? I only know the answers that are incorrect. All the hands I thought my hands fit into.


You get this sinking feeling when you turn forty—alone forty, divorced forty, table-for-one forty—you get this sinking feeling that the cosmic jigsaw factory made a mistake. A manufacturing error. Honestly, I think Atom knows this feeling all too well. I think it’s why he won’t stop calling. The cosmic jigsaw factory expresses its deepest apologies. No one’s perfect, it says. But the truth is, well, how to put it? Your piece was shrink-wrapped in the wrong box.


Reunion Ode

Do I know you, old friend? You were taken

off our asphalt ballgame expanse

where Sorrento and Parma roads met

before we were ten, to the North,

Edmonton, off my map of the world,

before Oswald shot Kennedy. Then,


you’ve told me, it was 40 below

when you landed without a coat, and found

that town’s kids could be heartless

as Philly’s where I stayed with Robert’s

and Elliott’s fists in my face. No escape

for either of us. Maybe you had more


boredom up in that numbing cold,

a near-paralytic stillness of frozen

lakes, cruel monotony of conifers

far as the mind could wander, a father

who knew only to quietly toughen you,

thicken your hide, and couldn’t. Maybe


I wound up more anaesthetized

by barrage, the din of the Market

Street pinball arcades, the ringing

thunder of bowling balls smashing

the pins under 54th Street, under

the roar of the one massive hungry kvetch


in the delicatessen above the lanes,

the howl of the great complaint

that was the real American anthem,

deafening song of never enough

belonging. I’d drift to its screech

refrains on the El down to 69th. How


was it for you? And do you know me,

after all these seasons, your silences

lonely as endless tundra, my screaming

riots of rights marches and acid rock

horror shows? Can we be the friends

we are? You’ve welcomed me


into your house, I see the boy

in the lift of your brow, that considerate

set of your mouth you learned

from your mother, and how you wait

for the kid’s heart to come out and color

the keys when you’re about to play


something for us on piano. You must

pick up on my frightened original

innocence in the blurt-and-pause

of my city-punk talk. And yesterday

when we ambled along the shore toward the old

observatory you showed me, I heard you


wonder as purely as who you were

when we sat on the swings in my yard

and joked, both of us already lost

forever, bedazzled alike under sky

wider than thought, secretly jazzed

to be recognized by one another.



Melissa’s mother was the first to spot Sonya in the ICU. She looked at Sonya like everyone back in Largo did, bouncing around her forehead and cheeks, connecting constellations instead of meeting her eyes. The older woman was more lined, fatter—a grandmother, for now—but still recognizable, standing guard outside the room. A whole room reserved for a baby the size of two cupped palms. Sonya remembered reading somewhere that they couldn’t rush new mothers out of the hospital, were legally required to let them stay, even for the stillborn.


Sonya’s skirt set stood out against the scrubs and denim-clad VA dwellers in the way she had always wanted to, but she felt garish amongst the multitude of reflective surfaces magnifying her face’s blistering peaks and craters. She tucked her pink nails into her palms.


“Sonya. I don’t know if you should have come,” Melissa’s mother said. “This is for family.”

Sonya privately agreed. She averted her eyes. There was a man in the hallway repeatedly ramming his wheelchair into the wall, humming to the tune of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”


“I’m sorry.” Sonya shoved the terrible stuffed dog she had picked up for the baby into Melissa’s mother’s arms, wincing at its pinkness. “I’ll go.”


“Don’t be sorry,” a voice—sounding like sixteen, picking at garden salad in the lunchroom—said behind her as she turned to go, and boom, Sonya was back in high school. “You’re her Aunt Sonya. You should be here.”



Sonya heard the bad news about Melissa’s baby from her old high school’s secretary over a bin of Japanese sweet potatoes. The Whole Foods was new and out of place in Largo, both in budget and stature. Its skeleton loomed, folding over the Chicken Shack and DQ like some sort of brutalist God. She thought it would be safe to stop in, that no one she could have known from her childhood would be interested in green juices. She was wrong.


“Oh, honey, you’re home!”


The local high-school secretary, a bird-like woman with hair cut severely by the chin, dropped a pack of spiralized zucchini and pulled Sonya into an embrace. In the fluorescence of the vegetable section, her skin was cling wrap.


“I should have known,” she sniffed into Sonya’s collarbones. “You were always such a good friend to Melissa.”


Melissa was one of the neighborhood kids. Sonya had gone to school with her, grown up crawling under their desks during lockdown drills and pinning yellow ribbons to their spirit shirts. Melissa used to have two dogs and a brother in Iraq. Sonya was not in town to see Melissa. She hadn’t seen or spoken to Melissa for years.


Sonya was in town because her editor had sent her to do a piece on the opioid epidemic. Readers love a good tragedy, The Cincinnati Inquirer was rumored for a Pulitzer for its heroin article, and rural Florida provided a double whammy.


“Have you visited yet?” The secretary’s eyes were now leaking, and she attempted to wipe her dripping nose with her sleeve.


“No,” Sonya said, honestly. “I actually haven’t seen Melissa in . . .”


These encounters were always awful. She hated seeing people from home, hated the three-hour JetBlue flight, the drive to Largo in a rental car. Hated each cluster of mobile homes she passed, the lurch of pity upon seeing their dreadful names. Paradise Cove and Palm Valley and Dolphin’s Wave. The backs of the signs adorned with crude depictions of genitals and pentagrams and the number 666. The kids she grew up with: now strung-out cashiers and mothers and dealers-   how she would have to fix her face so as to not to wear her pity.


She rubbed at her eyes. The secretary seemed to take this as an expression of grief, and reached out to touch her, managing to snag her silk blouse.


“I know, honey. It’s just so terrible. For it to happen to your best friend.”


Sonya had no idea what the woman was referring to, but she agreed. She called her mother while waiting in line with a pack of organic blueberries.


“Ma,” she asked, in place of a greeting. “What’s wrong with Melissa?”



Motherhood had softened Melissa’s already round figure, made her ruddier. She was wearing an XXL Tampa Bay Buccaneers shirt from their 2002 Superbowl win. Somewhere, Sonya had a matching shirt. It went down to Melissa’s knees, swallowing her baby weight.


“You’re her Aunt Sonya,” Melissa repeated, her voice very full. “We want you here.”


Sonya had no brothers or sisters. She knew she wasn’t an aunt now, would never be one—she was just a girl who had no one else to sit with in high school— so instead of speaking, she stepped into Melissa’s arms.


Over her shoulder, Sonya saw it, and tried not to scream.


Under an assortment of tubes and blankets, partially shielded by a monitor and surrounded by well-wishers who looked carefully at the floor, was a red and purple smear. A tube, running under the slits where nostrils go, was the only indication that it was breathing.


A man quickly blocked it from her view. She knew without looking at her hand that she had drawn blood.


“This her?” he asked.


Melissa released her.


“Sonya, Craig. My husband.”


Sonya once did a story on self-flagellation, reporting on a radical church that encouraged sanctioned beatings in preparation for adult baptisms. She had thought the practice to be barbaric—perverted even—the shivery way the pastor talked of pain, the way it overtook his face.


Craig, quite simply, looked mad. He looked like the radical Christians, had the jumpy sort of depravity in his eyes that made cops slow down at traffic stops.


“I’ve heard a lot about you. Glad you could come by to see Jay.”


Jay, Sonya realized, was the swaddled lump.


Sonya had no doubt that Craig didn’t want her there, or any of them. Craig wanted to be taking pictures of a pink lump of blankets for his terrible Facebook page. Craig wanted to take his weapon from base and execute them all into an open ditch. Craig wanted to be in a two-bedroom, reheating a Lean Cuisine he had let go cold while enraptured by the sight of his poor, scarred baby inhaling into his wife’s breasts.



Melissa wasn’t Sonya’s best friend. Melissa was pale, with a quick smile and cowhide hair that she got cut, short and boyish, at Fantastic Sam’s. She sat with her doughy legs spread and was always eager to show her overlapping teeth. In high school this outweighed her fantastic empathy, so no one spoke to her much.


No one spoke to Sonya either, because of her acne: rippling under her dark skin, cystic and mean. A teacher told her once in Geometry class, Have you tried putting toothpaste on it? in front of everyone, and only Melissa hadn’t laughed.


“That was wrong of her,” she had told Sonya seriously, after class.


“She’s a bitch. I can’t wait to get out of this shithole state.”


“She did something wrong.” The repetition sounded solemn, like a prayer.


Melissa had a strict sense of justice ingrained in her. She wouldn’t let Sonya copy her math homework and couldn’t wait to join the Navy. That’s what her family did.


“I want to be a Marine,” Melissa would smartly tell any adult who enquired.


“Better than selling Mitsubishis,” Sonya said, unsupportive. “Or meth.” These were the career prospects of many of their companions.


“Bad market for foreign cars,” Melissa mused, missing the point in her round-faced, agreeable way.


Melissa was soft while Sonya was angled, forgiving while Sonya taped a slice of deli ham in the locker of a boy who called her pizza face. The only thing they had in common was a love for rap. Melissa, sweet, pasty Melissa could drop bars. She had a collection of CDs living in the cab of her truck. Eminem and Dr. Dre and Wu Tang Clan and Jay-Z.  They were a strict Pac family, didn’t own any Biggie. She knew every word on the Blueprint, could rap until the CD ejected. Sonya remembered that was the first time she admired Melissa for anything. Melissa kept them all in her truck’s glove box, along with her dad’s army knife, a birthday gift. For protection against perverts and coyotes, Melissa said seriously.


Their geometry teacher suffered from eight slashed tires that year, sixteen perfect puncture marks.


Melissa enlisted shortly after high school, and Sonya applied to Mizzou. There wasn’t really a need for each other, because Melissa had a new family and Sonya had an advice column, but every so often there would be a text or Facebook message, left to stagnate. A few years later, Sonya got a wedding announcement and a pregnancy announcement in the same stack of forwarded mail. That was just what you did in Largo.


Sonya couldn’t remember Melissa’s husband’s face, but knew he was also military. He had added Sonya on Facebook, where he inundated her timeline with racially-tinged articles from websites like “Truth for America,” all with headlines insisting that she should watch the liberal congressman get roasted by a ten-year-old boy-scout.


After the election, she blocked him, which was why she missed the Go Fund Me for their baby, and the message asking for her prayers.



“You should go pay your respects,” her mother had said, when Sonya returned with blueberries and unfounded guilt. “You’d be a comfort.”


Sonya’s mother belonged to the Advice Stitched on Pillows School of Thought. She wore her hair natural and made a big show of disapproving of Sonya’s silk press, reminded her how her oily hair would antagonize her skin. Wore her Walmart Greeter vest, McFlurry in one hand, always eager to spout the contents of a greeting card. She had loved earnest, ugly Melissa.


“I don’t know her anymore, Ma.”


“But she knows you, honey.”


“That doesn’t even make sense!”


Sonya scratched a scab. When she wasn’t writing or smoking, she was usually picking, collecting skin under her fingernails. Her mother would stare at the spots while she spoke to Sonya, would dart straight to her hands. Once, long ago, she had rubbed cayenne powder on them, in an attempt to stop Sonya from picking. It had sent her to the emergency room.


Her old bedroom was the front room of the trailer. It was originally a screened-in porch, but they had put up Plexiglas to mimic windows. You could hear coyotes at night.


She found her old cigar box, her hidey-hole, and smoked two ancient joints. Blew the smoke in the face of her mother’s terrier. Sonya refused to call it, to take it out, so that she wouldn’t have to say the name. She watched as the dog keeled over, tongue lolling, uncomfortably high.


The dog was called John, after Sonya’s father, who had left for another woman when Sonya was ten. Sonya’s mother, unfazed, went to the shelter, picked up the runt, named it after her ex-husband. Spent most of her days writing rambling letters to local judges and other semi-elected officials, demanding her husband pay his alimony.


Largo’s streets were laid out like an outstretched hand, mid-grasp. Sonya’s house rested on the tip of the pointer. The VA hospital sat on the thumb; to reach the drugstore you had to head toward the palm. She drove there, still baked, and found herself in the Hallmark aisle staring at the row of stuffed animals beseechingly, as if asking one to volunteer. She settled on the one with an unbearable face: a pink dog with cross eyes, one sewn lopsided, and drove to the hospital with it in her passenger seat, looking like a pitiful co-pilot.



Melissa spent the afternoon pointedly not looking at the mess of tubes, ignoring the padding of family members and stuffed animals, preferring to stare curiously at Sonya, as if she were the spectacle.


“How are you?” Melissa prodded, leading Sonya to a chair. Serene, like the pictures of Mary under the cross. Sonya stared at her, trying to detect fissures in her blankness. She found none.


“I’m so sorry, Melissa.”




Sonya wanted to hit her. Your baby, she wanted to scream. There’s something so wrong with your baby.


“Yeah. Can I get you a coffee or something?” Sonya asked wildly. “Let me bring you guys something. Craig?”


The baby mewled, and Craig recoiled as if she were a grease fire. There was a hitch in the beeping of the monitors, a collective wince.


“Can you get her something?” Melissa asked everyone and no one. “Something to make her sleep?”


Now, Sonya was beginning to understand better, beginning to crave a willow switch, the scarred backside. The self-flagellators had told her during the interview: The devil is inside you. He touched you, and they pointed at the scabs on her face. You need to beat him out.

“Little blue Jay,” Melissa’s mother said. Melissa jerked in response.


“Don’t call her that. That’s not her name. It’s Jay. Just Jay.”


Sonya raised her eyes from the tile, skipping over Jay-Just-Jay, and scanned the room.


No one knew but her that Melissa hadn’t named her baby after the bird. This made Sonya too guilty to breathe, too guilty to be inside herself. She went out into the hallway and everyone left her be: the nurses, the doctors, the men in wheelchairs with skin like candle wax.



It had happened before Sonya went to Mizzou. They had been hanging off Melissa’s bed. Melissa was longer, less round, the faintest hint of a tan on her chapped skin. Her hair just brushed the carpet. She hadn’t had to cut it yet. It must have been around the time she started Basic Training. Her last visit home. She turned to Sonya, grinned.


“I missed you,” she said. “I don’t get to hang out with any girls anymore.”


Sonya was struck by how eye contact was the same upside down as it was right-side up.


“Would you do me a favor?” Sonya said, remembering the tires. Melissa nodded.


“Punch me in the stomach.”


They were both quiet, then did that exchange girls can do with their eyes—Are you sure? How far? You weren’t safe?— all at once. Sonya dug her long, piano fingers into her hand, palms cut with thick fault lines.


“Please,” she said.


Melissa stood up, dismounted. Gravity had done this thing to her eyes that nighttime did to the neighbors’ lawns. She grabbed her car keys.


“Come on,” she said. Sonya followed.


Melissa handled the whole transaction. Filled in the papers. Swatted away Sonya’s hand when she offered to pay. Got her a diet Dr. Pepper, too.


In the aisle of the drugstore, Sonya washed it down. She wasn’t sure if this sort of thing allowed grieving, but Melissa put on Tupac on the way home, mouthing along— I was raised to be strong— and pretended Sonya was only hiccupping from the soda.

Sonya sat on the floor smelling her knees, thinking of the raw pink thing in the incubator, like a peeled crawfish. Somewhere in the wing, a self-playing piano started a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”




The nurse had deep-set smile lines down her face, making canals to her chin. Her scrubs strained around her thighs as she squatted next to Sonya. They didn’t get many sick babies at the VA; the nurse must be used to men who demanded final cigarettes and asked for a peek of her panties.


“Honey, you’re gonna want to go back in.”


“No,” Sonya said. “I’m not even supposed to be here.”


She wiped herself with the hem of her shirt, all too aware of the bacteria she was spreading around her face, of the deep-rooted cysts stirring, hungry, in her cheeks.


The nurse stared at her, looked straight into her acne.


“The family is going to say goodbye.”


Sonya just shook her head, like a child. She had to leave. There was a chrome strip across from her that magnified the crustacean on her forehead, just above her eyebrow, that had been throbbing earlier in the day. While in the room, it must have erupted. She touched it, prepared for pus, and came away dry.


The nurse left, her sneakers chirping down the hallway. Someone else slid down next to her in the hallway. The Buccaneers jersey.


“Why are you here?” Melissa said.


I’m sorry I never stayed in touch. I’m sorry I wasn’t nicer growing up. I’m sorry my face looks like this. I’m sorry your baby looks like that. I’m mostly sorry because your baby looks like that.


“You took me to the clinic,” she said instead. “Summer after high school.”


She slumped a little, against Sonya. It was the first time she saw Melissa’s posture waver all day, saw her at sixteen again, pictured her fat and smiling.


“She was premature.”


Sonya knew a little about premature babies, assumed that the skin hadn’t developed for Melissa’s. That it was born raw. Without waiting for a response, Melissa rolled up her sleeve to the crook of her elbow.


“Look,” Melissa said. Sonya started.


“Fucking look.”


Under the baby weight and the buttermilk complexion, she hadn’t caught it. But in cloying hallway light she saw it: skin clinging to little bruises in the crease of her arm, veins thick and sagging, like telephone wires.


“Jesus,” Sonya breathed. “Melissa.”


Sonya raised her nails to her face on impulse.


“Don’t pick,” Melissa said absently. “It’ll scar.”


It wasn’t Craig that looked like the Evangelicals; no, that must have been a reflection. A strip of chrome. It was Melissa who was mad; Melissa who was rabid. Pupils tight and shiny, like the exoskeleton of a palmetto bug.


“Are you . . . now? In the hospital?”


“We’re going to do it,” Melissa said, as if that were an explanation. “Say goodbye.”


How could she have missed it? The eyes, the skin, all wrong. Not a pregnancy glow—a curtain of sweat. Withdrawal, sickly sweet. And guilt, guilt, guilt—whole body shaking like Plexiglas in a storm.


“Will you come?”


Did she have a choice?



Melissa’s mother took photos of it that would surely be posted on Facebook, all pink and shiny. It made Sonya want to hurl. Once, one of her mother’s dog had dragged in a squirrel, a plump thing, split at the seams, spilling maggots. It reminded her of that.


The nurse was posed in the corner, pressed up against the wall. You could only focus either slightly right or left of the carnage, most choosing to keep their brimming eyes on their sneakers.


Sonya stared at Melissa, noticed a tremor, a hand shaking like a screen door. An unfocus in her yellowed eyes. Craig clutched at his wife, and she became the space between his fingers. The nurse asked her a question, soft, and she bowed like a young birch. Sonya could have sworn the baby cracked what would have been an eye, stared at Sonya through the equipment, through the tubes: picking her out.


Sonya had collided her bike with a taxicab. She had passed kidney stones, watched her mother pass kidney stones. She had been slapped during sex. She remembered the big pad they had given her in the clinic for residual bleeding, like a diaper, the way she cramped for days after. Had seen pictures of children with legs blown off and women, branded, for their last names. But nothing like Melissa’s mother, thumb on the record button, as the parents each kissed the bundle on what would have been its forehead.


The nurse hummed. The beeping ceased. Craig drew away. Melissa didn’t remove her lips, stood hunched for a long time, over the gore, over the tubes, over what would have been the nose.


Sonya once saw a man jump in front of a train, saw him blast into pink mist—had to sit in the shower afterward for hours. She wondered all day, Had it hurt?— yes. This was worse.


Sister/Brother Poems

My Sister Sings Reba at Forty-Three

for Shawna


To worship the earth, we barefoot down

to the water because we have never been

clean, and for this dirty mercy, my sister


kneels in her wet suit to the smell of surf

wax at 7 AM, kneels to the car key stashed

in the wheel well and the first open eye


full of ocean, and yes, Lord, no way around it,

my sister, today, will accept a broken nose full

of the granite reef handed down to her


by the gods of the southwest swell. By blood,

by green, by mud, by tide, my sister will be

held under by the world, but because she swans


back to the surface punched out of breath

but having survived, my sister kneels

to pray in the key of steel guitar and sunshine


to the ripped-down posters of old rodeos,

to the wet way of hay on a boot heel, to the tush-

push and the electric slide and the wide


mouthful of wild she finds while surfing

the hot highway home in the back of a golden

Ford F-150. My sister survives, and you could call


my sister the breeze these many July mornings,

but my sister does not soar like a sky on nights

when beneath the weight of the pistol


in her waist she serves with a police badge of shine

across San Francisco, for my sister must know

how a kid’s face caves in on the Fourth of July


after a firework has flown half-way through it,

and my sister must kneel to find a dead father

in the street on the double-yellow line,


to find a runaway daughter, to survive

a man standing in a creek at midnight, firing

a rifle at God. My sister knows the trauma


as water, the song as rugged, the body as sinking,

so, Lord, thank you for saving my sister who sings

with what it means to be the bull and the rider


and the war paint melting down the face of a rodeo

clown, what it means to chase a smile around

a filthy ring, yes, Lord, to chase the next wave,


or the next dance of tight asses in Wrangler pants,

or a next of kin, or the last long finishing note

of the evening before loading up the truck


with loneliness and heading home because, finally,

Lord, in the filthy bar, here we are, and, finally,

Lord, here before us rises my sister like an ocean


beside the microphone while muddy lights crumble

down dirty upon the black cowboy hats of the country

band, and by brown bottles of California mud, here, the filthy


chords are about to start, and my sister saunters up

in the armor of a leather jacket, of purple lipstick, of steel teeth,

of burgundy boots, and you who are listening should hold


your breath because my sister’s got a tattoo

of a bull on the wave of her back, and she’s going

to buck you off, and she’s going to elbow you down


deep because my sister knows how long to hold you under,

and how to save you, and how to kill you, and how to tell you

someone you love is dead, someone you love is still alive.



My Heart Is a Time Machine


Another brother’s funeral has ended,

and I must take my body back

to May of 1999

to stop the sunshine,

must begin again in our hotel room

with the girl

too drunk on Wild Turkey

to stand, the girl

hoisting a full keg

of Keystone Light

up onto her shoulder,

the girl grenading the keg

through the coffee table,

the girl leaping up onto the bed,

the girl taking three fan blades

to the face

that send her somersaulting all the way

through our hotel window

and onto the sidewalk outside.

I’ll forgive you for laughing

as my friend, Devon,

and I

and the whole room are now

because my friend, Devon, and I

are twenty-five

and high

on the same pills

which will in seven months

in a different hotel room

in a different town

whisper him into a permanent sleep.

Now that we are here,

I promise to tell you the truth—

on this night

in May of 1999,

you cannot tell anyone in this room

in these bands

with these ukuleles in their arms

and these floating festival feelings they have

put into their mouths

to stop. You can never tell anyone

to stop

anything, friends, so you must forgive us,

forgive them, forgive the drunk girl

who stumbles back into the room

and waterfalls down

another slug of Wild Turkey,

the drunk girl who only wants the drummer

to love her, and you must forgive

the drummer who never will,

forgive Devon and me

so deep into a conversation about Roger Waters

we don’t notice the anger

the drunk girl gathers in her elbow

which becomes the shining purple mountain

over the drummer’s eye,

forgive us for not noticing

when their story ghosts like a landscape painting

silently into the background

of darkness

inching toward light.

Forgive us for not laughing anymore

because is this hello or goodbye,

because it is almost morning, and I’m still

uncertain, because what do Devon and I look like,

now, leaving the broken window behind?

Dawn seems to have eased out of us

something as tender

as a full head of long hair,

and I believe we are whispering

about the opening guitar solo

of the Wish You Were Here album, now,

or the album is playing

somewhere, now, and we are

sneaking so quietly

through the courtyard, Devon

and I, as the soundmen

breaking down the festival stage

wind up their cables

like kind fathers

tying their daughters’ shoes,

as the drunk girl snores

on the drummer’s lap in a pool chair,

and Devon walks in front of me

with the almost finished bottle

of Wild Turkey in one hand

we are passing between us.

There is a joint for the both of us I am licking,

and when we round the corner and stare straight

into the Pink Floyd sunrise,

forgive me, friends,

there is always an instant

every time I am telling this story

when I get here

that I want to be the one disappeared

by light who never was

because no one wants to be what’s left over,

and what’s left of this morning?

Hello or goodbye?

I seem to be saying both,

we are almost finished, and forgive me

again for going back so often, my friends,

but I need you to squeeze inside

my blood and help me remember this

final sunrise in which Devon

is taking off his shirt

and letting down the blonde rainforest

of his hair and dancing

to the music that is only in his head,

and one-by-one the waking people

are coming into the field to join him,

a flock of musician women and men

dancing barefoot circles in the dirt

to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”

playing only in my friend’s head,

and my friend Devon is spinning around

silently in the center of all of us,

playing the bottle of Wild Turkey

like a saxophone,

like a last photograph,

like a parting metaphor,

like a sentimental machine

which is in very few moments

of monumental pressure

strong enough

to stop time.



Please also see our review of Sommers’ first book, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire. Continue reading “Sister/Brother Poems”