The six bottles of unopened perfume I found last night
in my mother’s dresser and brought to the nursing home
were plucked up readily by her hovering aides.
Earned tips, I reasoned, and so did they, no doubt.
I’ll imagine them circling this new resident’s
wheelchair, a dark green flock in the Avon scent
my mother kept forgetting she’d bought when
the woman who came to her door for twenty years
showed up again, sweet-dealing free samples.
Mother’s sense of smell had driven her—
missionary of cleanliness, sergeant of fresh air
and light, she sniffed out the slightest mildew,
the earliest taint or sour or funk that to her alone
screamed spoiled. The odors of our house oscillated
from Clorox to gardenias, from Windex to casseroles.
At four she would bathe off the day. Emerging
from steam and powder into a cotton housedress,
she’d brush out pin-curls and lipstick a smile onto lips
she’d lift to kiss my father home. Doris Day cheery,
Betty Crocker smart, my mother relished her clean-wife role,
weighing compliments on her house and on her skin as equal.
Now I wheel her through scents that betray failing bodies
she does not, will not note, and when I kiss her stale forehead,
she looks up and smiles, hanging out the clean past in the sun.
When they ask—as they do
—why she decided to grow
her hair long again
at the brink of elderhood
(in that churning wake
of children and career
when the narrows rush the current),
she says things about the versatility
or ease, or she laughs about not wanting
to be a poodle-head any more,
or gathers up wisps at the nape
and demonstrates the efficiency
of the enduring updo.
But she never for a moment
tells them how she regards
her shadow on a late afternoon walk
when the breeze lifts her hair
slightly from her shoulders
and the girl-silhouette
that begins at her feet
strides confidently before her.
OUT OF FRAME
We sit in the radiology waiting room,
four women at 7:30 in the morning.
Our teeth are brushed, our clothing clean,
our hair subdued by clips and braids.
Two of us wear pale lipstick (make-up
always later), and someone’s warm skin
perfumes our common air with lavender.
But inside we know things aren’t so tidy—
in the breast or brain or lung—something’s
gone amok. An action adventure writes itself:
cells rebel, flesh falters, bones break their vows.
We imagine the galloping plot line;
we wait for the story on film at five.
If we’re lucky, we’ll rejoin the cast, stitched up
and smiling, fresh dialogue prickling the tongue.
We’ll play our roles by heart unless, of course,
the heart’s already broken, x-rays showing only
a smudge where the script should be written
on that lump of crumbled sweetness, yielding,
even as we wait, to the vilest understudy.
fiction poetry "fact" photography