“Burritos in Wisconsin” by Alison Townsend

Alison Townsend


After my brother divorced, he came every summer
to my house in Wisconsin with his kids, making
the long journey from San Francisco to Madison
as if he were coming home, the week with us respite 
in his fractured world. I’d meet them at the foot 

of the escalator for Arrivals—tall blond man 
and his two little kids, Gabe with his tight curls 
and green eyes, Fiona in ringlets and a pink polka 
dot dress, a stuffed toy called “Picture Pig” clutched 
beneath her arm, the family photo encased in plastic 

on its plush flank a perfect quartet of loss. 
The kids ran into my arms before I hugged 
my brother, his blue Oxford-cloth shirt perfectly 
pressed, as if he’d bought it just for the trip. I’d looked 
for signs his kidney disease was worse—his face 

drawn, hairline receding, the skin on his hands 
and arms onion paper thin after decades on steroids. 
When we hugged, a little shy at first, I felt Peter 
relax, his gruff guard coming down. All week 
we did summer things—swimming for hours, 

catching fireflies at dusk, visiting caves and steam
trains and farms where the kids fed baby goats bottle 
after bottle of milk as if there were no end to plenty. 
All week, my brother, who’d caught Epstein-Barr 
from a patient and couldn’t recover, slept until noon. 

And all week, I cooked, especially my burritos, 
with their creamy spinach filling, yellow rice, 
and a crisp salad his favorite. “This is so good,” 
he’d say. “This is the best food I’ve ever had.” 
I thought of his words after he died, as I searched 

his house, looking for papers I needed to manage 
his affairs. A stray page from his disability claim 
application documented fears he’d be unable to care 
for his children—true at the end, though they 
were older by then—he barely able to rise 

from the living room bed, the house stinking 
of garbage and piss, loneliness thick as dust, 
despair I can’t forget, no matter how hard I try 
to shake it off. I want to remember us the way 
we were those summers, late sunlight warming

our faces, the picnic table covered with the red 
and white checked cloth, vases of cone flowers 
and Queen Anne’s lace picked by the kids, first 
stars just coming out, the yard filled with fireflies. 
And my brother, eating one burrito after another, 

filled for a moment with everything he needed.

from Rattle #73, Fall 2021


Alison Townsend: “‘Burritos in Wisconsin, is part of a series of poems I’m writing about my late brother, who died of kidney failure at age sixty-four in 2019. A doctor himself, he was a model of grace and courage, and had one of the longest lasting kidney transplants in the world. The poem arose from various memories (especially about cooking) of the times he visited me in Wisconsin. Siblings can, I think, become homes for one another in adulthood. The poem articulates my hope that I was that for him, while bearing witness to the difficulty and loneliness of his passing. Grief crystallizes things. This is one of the few poems I’ve ever written that came nearly whole, as if dictated.”

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