Bernie holds the chopping knife, tip up, glares at Billie. She’s come to the kitchen to ask him to leave the cheese off a burger. It’s not her fault. She put the order in right, but the customer changed his mind. Billie’s waited on tables at the Little Bear since her family stopped ranching, her face and hands like smoked snakeskin after years of cigarettes and wiping counters. By shift’s end, peanut shells crushed to dust coat her ankles. Bernie holds out a package of Tareytons, follows it with a light, but in a flash he smashes the dishwasher door when he finds a greasy plate in the stack. That’d be my fault. I’m in charge of dishes. I clear tables, haul the clanking mess to the back, a quick rinse before loading the aluminum box. Unloading is divine — lifting the door at cycle’s end, a rush of wet heat, the smell of ammonia and boil. In that thick steam, Bernie’s snapped shirt, oily beard, and bottom lip, bulged with chew, diffuse. Always the sound of burgers on the grill, the hard slicing of onions. Billie keeps an eye on me so I don’t sneak into the bar. I eat nuts, piles of pepperoni, wait for Bernie to offer a cigarette. I’d rather fight than switch, we say, as I slide one out of the carton. The people in the ads wear a black eye — they reveal a bruise as proof that a puff is worth a slug. The year before, a boy choked me, ripped my heart necklace off, threw it across the junior high lawn. Mom said, see? You can’t be trusted with anything good. He was older, jealous of the crush I had on the altar boy who sat in front of me in home- room. I’d stare at his shiny black hair, imagine kissing his neck where the hair stopped even, kneeled in a pew to see him in white robe, swing incense. Lots of things I wanted were worth getting slugged for. I almost got punched at Sena’s Family Inn, the other place I did dishes. It wasn’t run by a real family, but folks liked to believe an Italian lady labored over the ziti while her daughter baked semolina. The register came up short one day. No one called me thief, but they acted like I was to blame. I may have taken those twenties. It’s hard to remember what I did and what people thought I did. Stealing was easy: a paisley dress, white bikini worn under my clothes, an Almond Joy. I got caught for the dress but that’s another story. The day I lost my job at Sena’s my mom and her boyfriend came to the side door, said they were driving back to New York. Did I know she was leaving, or was I surprised? But here I was at work. The car, packed with her clothes, idled. She stood on the steps, not entering the lunch-rush kitchen. Take care of the boys, she said. I’ll write soon. She needed to go save her life. I turned, picked up a tray of hot glasses fresh from the washer. The whole rack slipped, shattered. I can still feel the heat on my palms, the weight slide from my fingers. You’re fired. I was wearing my favorite shirt, the one that made me look free — Indian cotton embroidered on the front, tassels at the neck. On the street I looked for her blue Skylark. By then, they must’ve made it to the freeway.
(for Ilya Kaminsky)
Caved and constipated, a bear lies on muck, hair fused with mud; trees are iced in sleep, relieved of urgent sap. Everything needs rest. When this world ends, need will evaporate in a blink — gone the cycles of knowing, going on and not going on, fucking and no more, gone even the moment when we can smell the obsolescence of breath. The delight of apocalypse is that it comes to all in the same second; daughters will not be orphans, mothers not childless, the fur of life will merge with frozen ground, the blossom with its droop. About the end: we’ll go as one, spared of that gap in mid-air when we know our plane is going down.
Janlori Goldman received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poems have appeared in The Cortland Review, The Mom Egg, For the Crowns of Your Heads: Poems for Haiti, and are forthcoming in The Sow’s Ear and Calyx, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. She teaches at Columbia University’s School of Publc Health and lives in New York City with her daughter and sweetheart.