~This poem was previously published in Cutthroat (2010).
On that last afternoon in June,
when the road still cracked
a dusty gravel whip beneath our feet
and no one could afford the luxury
of electric air, we crossed
over into our neighbor’s yard,
small bits of stone poking each
bare heel, already rubbed thick
and coarse as sandpaper.
By the time we breathed
the perfumed thickets of dogwood
edging Bessie’s mailbox,
my mother’s toes glinted with mica,
ten shimmering minnows
wiggling in blades of sun-stroked grass.
Back then she was proud of her legs,
and wore nothing but tee-shirts and cutoffs,
denim sheared by a dull kitchen knife,
the threads floating like spider silk
around her thighs. My brother and I trailed
behind, arms spiraling, embroiled in a battle
of plastic sacks, heavy with squash
and zucchini plucked from our father’s garden,
too busy being boys to notice
anything wrong until the hiss
of coiled newspapers, a week’s worth,
skidded towards opposite corners
of the front porch. When mother vanished,
a blurred shape behind the rattle of a screen door,
we knew better than to move,
our shadows like drawn umbrellas, rigid
as we stood in currents of clover ankle-deep.
I was too young to understand
death then, but learned the ways it fooled
the world into living, how
it carried us back to where the day
began, hands gloved in soil, the sun
thirsty against our backs as we loosened
vines of tomatoes, bright bulbs dangling
like tangles of strung lights. That night,
no one slept. Thermometers simmered
above eighty while stars gathered
in clusters of condensation,
windows gaping like the hooded eyes
of insomniacs. In the kitchen,
mother busied herself until dawn,
slicing and canning. With every glass jar
she cradled onto a pantry shelf,
her dress flared, each leg
clinging to the dark fabric
then swinging in a slow arc,
like the dome of a bell tolling the hour.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEM
Although certain aspects of this poem are fictitious (my mother was never the one to discover our
neighbor’s body), many details ring true. Like most children growing up before the technology
age, some of the best times my brother and I spent together were those summers of skinned knees
and nails full of earth from our father’s garden. I wanted the nostalgia of that period to come
through, but I also wanted to convey how the fact of our neighbor’s death was such an oddity
during that time, particularly for me when I’d never had any experiences with a person’s passing.
One day all was normal, and the next, everything was altered. I’ve always been perplexed how
death does this: removes a certain ritual from our lives, yet continues to nudge us forward on this
treadmill of motions.
ABOUT MICHAEL BOCCARDO
Michael Boccardo’s poems have been published in various journals, including Kestrel, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, The Lindenwood Review, Border Crossing, Rose Red Review, Best New Poets, as well as the anthologies Spaces Between Us: Poetry, Prose, and Art on HIV/AIDS and Southern Poetry Anthology,
VII: North Carolina.
He is a multiple
Puschart nominee and a recipient of the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize. Also,
he serves as assistant editor for the poetry journal, Cave Wall, and resides in
High Point, NC, with his husband and three tuxedo cats.