Home from town
the two of them sit
looking over what they have bought
spread out on the kitchen table
like gifts to themselves.
She holds a card of buttons
against the new dress material
and asks if they match.
The hay is dry enough to rake,
but he watches her
empty the grocery bag.
He reads the label
on a grape jelly glass
and tries on
the new straw hat again.
In the early afternoon my mother
was doing the dishes. I climbed
onto the kitchen table, I suppose
to play, and fell asleep there.
I was drowsy and awake, though,
as she lifted me up, carried me
on her arms into the living room,
and placed me on the davenport,
but I pretended to be asleep
the whole time, enjoying the luxury—
I was too big for such a privilege
and just old enough to form
my only memory of her carrying me.
She’s still moving me to a softer place.
I opened the Sears catalog.
It was hard to decide-dress shirts
were all white the last time
I bought one, for Emma’s funeral.
I picked out a color called plum,
but when the shirt arrived,
it seemed more the color of lilacs.
Still, it was beautiful.
No one I knew had a shirt like this.
After chores on Sunday, I dressed
for church. Suddenly the shirt
seemed to be a sissy color,
and I held it up near the window.
In the sun the lilac looked more lilac,
more lovely, but could a man
wear a shirt that color? Someone
might say, “That’s quite the shirt.”
I wore the old shirt to church.
And every Saturday night I thought,
Tomorrow I’ll wear the shirt.
Such a sad terrible waste-to spend
good money on a shirt, a shirt
I even liked, and then not wear it.
I wore the shirt once, on a cold day,
and kept my coat buttoned.
In spring I began wearing the shirt
for everyday, when I was sure
no one would stop by. I wore the shirt
when I milked the cows and in the field
when I planted oats-it fit perfectly.
As I steered the John Deere,
I looked over my shoulder and saw
lilac against a blue sky
filled with white seagulls
following the tractor, and not once
did I wipe my nose on my sleeve.
We bring Aunt Martha to the nursing home.
They weigh her, barely a hundred pounds,
and we help her lie down for a nap.
She closes her eyes, and the lines
of her frail body almost vanish
in her loose-fitting black dress.
I remember how this woman,
after her husband died,
ran the farm herself,
operating tractors and combines,
digging post holes and stretching barbed wire,
dehorning cattle and castrating pigs.
She cooked, too, and baked bread,
and fixed her daughters’ hair.
Everyone knew Martha could do anything.
Now the nurse adjusts the Venetian blinds
and, speaking softly, tells us
we’ll have to talk it over with Martha
when she wakes up and decide which box
to check on her chart—“No CPR” means
that if she ever stops breathing,
they won’t try to bring her back.
Standing near her bed, we talk in whispers,
wondering how we’ll raise this subject,
when, without opening her eyes, she speaks
in the voice she once used to direct
a crew of men shelling corn or filling silo,
“I’ll kill anyone who brings me back.”
The store went up last year outside of town.
There was a cornfield where I’m standing now,
smiling, saying hello, and handing out ads
for plastic purses, towels, and microwaves.
The job doesn’t pay much, but neither did farming.
Pete, my old neighbor, wearing clean overalls,
comes in. I say, “Hey, you lazy fart, I see
you’re taking a day off to loaf in town.”
And Pete says, “You should talk, getting paid
for standing around in an air-conditioned store.”
While we talk about the rain last night,
the possibility of early frost, the price of hogs,
a dozen customers pass by ungreeted,
and I feel uneasy about not doing my job.
In one way, it’s like farming – spending hours
on the tractor, with lots of time to daydream.
Now, I invent secrets I’d like to tell customers.
“Every third mineral water bottle is filled
with Russian vodka. Snakes have been found
in the cups of the imported brassieres.”
But I only say, “Hello, how are you,”
and send them on their way down the aisles,
which are nothing like rows of corn.
On Halloween night
the new teacher gave a party
for the parents.
She lined up the women
on one side of the schoolroom,
the men on the other,
and they had a race,
passing an orange
under their chins along each line.
The women giggled like girls
and dropped their orange
before it got halfway,
but it was the men’s line
that we watched.
Who would have thought
that anyone could get them
to do such a thing?
Farmers in flannel shirts,
in blue overalls and striped overalls.
Stout men embracing one another.
Our fathers passing the orange,
passing the embrace – the kiss
of peace – complaining
about each other’s whiskers,
becoming a team, winning the race.
“That’s the last of the coffee,” she said,
pouring a few drops into his cup.
“It’s time you went out to work anyway.”
“I don’t know if I’ll plow today,” he said.
“Look, the sky is clouding up.
It might start to rain.”
“The sun is shining,” she said.
“I need to wash the dishes so I can go
to the beauty shop in town.”
“The tractor engine,” he said,
“made strange noises yesterday
and might explode if I try to start it.”
“If I don’t get to town early,” she said,
“I’ll never have time to get a perm
and do all the grocery shopping.”
“Giant, man-eating lizards,” he said,
“have crawled up out of the slough
and are roaming around in the north forty.’
“We both have work to do,” she said.
“You’ve taken twice your usual time
eating breakfast today.”
“I see white on the horizon,” he said.
“Maybe a glacier is moving over the field.
There’s no sense in taking chances.”
“Oh, all right,” she said.
“You can come along.
I suppose we can eat in town.”