Julie Price Pinkerton: “Traveling has always felt strange to me. When I was seven, my dad took our family on vacation to Washington, D.C., so we kids could learn more about the country he loved. He took us to meet our congressman, John Myers, and filled our week-long itinerary to the brim. Amid stunning monuments and museums, the thing I found most fascinating (aside from there being some new, otherworldly food in our hotel called honeydew) was that we encountered a taxi driver who smoked a cigar. I had never seen a cigar before. Five decades later, the small, unexpected parts of any trip are still like catnip to me. While at the beach last May with my husband, Scott, the shark scene in this poem unfolded in front of us. It’s a perfect example of what I’m drawn to most: numerous little chunks of strangeness pulling together like a pile of paper clips snapping onto a magnet. I could relate to every part of it. I was the crowd of nosy bystanders, the duo of fishermen, and the small creature minding its own business when it suddenly lands inside a snow globe of agony, looking for someone to rescue it.” (web)
During my annual physical, I tell my doctor that I’m starting to gross out
over how bulgy the veins on my hands are getting. Look at them, I say,
they’re like lounging blue sea worms.
It’s normal, she says. It just means you’re old.
(She and I are the same age.)
And it’s summer, so you’re warm. And old.
But this seems really sudden, I tell her. I just noticed them
last week while I met with a woman at a dementia care home
to try to get my husband’s stepdad a room there.
Well then, you were probably stressed.
Fight-or-flight and that whole deal.
That makes veins stand out more.
Also, warm weather last week, right?
OK, but last night I was watching “Tiny House Hunters”
in our nice cool living room. I was drinking root beer.
I was not stressed. And my veins were still gross.
Then you’re just old.
I hold up my most offensive hand.
Look, I say, some of the veins on this one form an “H.”
Do you want to hear my husband’s theory?
He says our dead cat Hankie is trying to reach me.
(My husband did not theorize this. I did. I sometimes put a degree of
separation between me and the things I throw into the mix.)
Though this is not my year for a pap smear,
my doctor needs to check my ovaries. She inserts
more than one but less than five
fingers way up into me.
Relax, she says. Go to your happy place.
I sit up on the table when she’s done with her hand-puppeting
and say, Damn, it’s like the morning after the prom.
For my weeks-long back spasm, she says
Here’s what you’re going to do:
You’re going to go home, find one of your husband’s long, long tube socks,
tie a knot in it—
—and bury it at the base of the oak tree at midnight? I say.
No, you’re going to lie down on it to work the muscles in your back.
Squirm around on it awhile. It’ll help.
My husband cannot remember the name of the memory care home.
The name is Brookdale but he keeps calling it Briarhatch.
That makes no sense, I tell him. Think about it. Dementia patients
walk down the hallway and suddenly a hatch opens in the floor
and drops them into a bush of briars.
Yeah, he says. Not great.
Before Brookdale can let my stepdad-in-law, Bob, move in,
he has to get over an awful infection
which calls for awful antibiotics.
Bob has what a lot of people call bad veins.
Nurses can’t ever draw blood from them or insert an IV without a big production.
Bob’s veins know an interloper when they hear one coming.
They hunker down in his arms hiding from those who summon them to come out
come out, wherever they are.
A regular, no-frills nurse tries to stick the IV needle in.
She digs and digs as though the needle is a pick-axe and Bob’s arm
is a steep mountainside hiding a shimmering vein of opal.
She is useless.
Sure enough, someone has to call in the Big Kahuna of veins
from a far corner of the hospital. This nurse knows things.
She is a snake charmer, coaxing Bob’s tired arm-vein to stick its head out
of the wicker basket long enough to be shish-ka-bobbed.
The antibiotics begin their work.
Bob gets better.
My back spasm won’t go away,
even after four massages I couldn’t afford
and some unholy-looking writhing
on the knotted-up tube sock.
I go see my orthopedic doctor
who writes up an order for physical therapy.
Before he can escape,
I ask him about my veins.
When you age, he says, everything you have
gets stiff, leaky, and starts to fall apart.
End of story.
I forgot to mention that Bob is the nicest man I’ve ever known.
When he was dating my husband’s mom, 35 years ago,
Bob was too good to be true. Too kind. Too decent.
People were skeptical. But he turned out to be the real deal.
So imagine this nice man
still going about his life,
still mowing the yard,
still drinking the cold water from the cup his wife brings him from the house,
still waving at her as she keeps a close eye on him,
still counting on her to fill in the gaps
of his memory, towing his cloudy brain along
like a barge that she
tugboats down the river.
Bob’s final month was a long menu of rottenness.
He was shuttled back and forth eleven times between the hospital
and the nursing home. If you want to make a dementia patient worse, move them around from place to place like a hunted-down witness for a murder trial.
Bob went off the rails in the evenings, his confusion cooking up to a frenzy.
The shadows in his room grew longer and more sinister.
Corners filled up with things only he could see.
It didn’t help when half a dozen nursing home people gathered around him
trying to talk him back into his bed. Please don’t arrest me! Bob cried.
The nicest man any of us ever knew got so scared that he punched
a pregnant CNA in the belly. Not hard, but still a punch.
As the ambulance pulled away with Bob inside, headed back to the E.R.,
the nursing home director said, Please, you can’t bring him back here.
When laboratory mice were used to test certain theories
about the human brain, they were dropped into tall, cylindrical
columns of water for what is known as a forced-swim test. The researchers measured how long the mice would swim before realizing that they could neither touch the bottom nor climb out. Once they became aware of their situation,
they would stop swimming and collapse into a forlorn float.
It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact day
that Bob stopped knowing us.
It was gradual, hidden somewhere
between his fever and his infection
and all the little moments of us trying
to make him feel loved.
We cleaned out all the Snickers
from the vending machine, breaking off
little chunks when he was able to eat.
The hardest thing was when Bob wept.
It was often during the last month.
Are those happy tears? Bob’s wife asked,
and he said yes. But you could see decades
of sadness, rivulets rolling off his chin.
I started to understand the difference
between crying and weeping.
If crying is the shattering of glass
or the doorbell ringing, weeping
is a dog lost in a forest.
Veins are good things, I tell myself.
Bob would’ve been happy to have these
simple, easy-access veins, “H” and all.
They keep me alive. They’re normal.
The weather is warm. I’m just old.
I ask my brain to be on my side.
Not to leave me until the very end.
I try not to look at my hands.
In the competition between Bob and the infection,
the infection won. It wasn’t even a good enough sport
to let Bob play for best-two-out-of-three.
The doctor said it was time to take out all the IVs.
Julie Price Pinkerton: “I became squeamish about veins after having blood drawn a few times as a little kid. That was exacerbated when my brothers used to pretend to make ‘pinchers’ out of their fingers and threaten to pull all the veins out of my arms. This poem started out as a short, silly piece about my hands. Then our family had a rough summer and the poem grew. My stepfather-in-law Bob couldn’t just sit around. He had to be fixing something. A plumber by trade, he branched out into the lives of every person he knew. He fixed toilets, boat motors, light sockets, sump pumps, birdhouses, even my clankity Honda Accord. He kept the 45-year-old furnace at his church functioning long after all its contemporaries were sleeping under blankets of rust in Ohio junkyards. When Bob was confined to a nursing home wheelchair (not because he couldn’t walk, but because he needed to be kept track of), he got bored and agitated. My husband, Scott, and I went to a hardware store and bought a few small segments of PVC pipe and a red metal shut-off valve for Bob to tinker with. At first he was unimpressed, but his hands eventually found their way to the motions that he recalled, the muscle memory of repair. I got to help Bob eat a couple of meals, and my own muscle memory returned. Lifting forkfuls of food up to the waiting mouth of a beloved, elderly, ill, confused man sent me back to five years earlier when it had been my own dad. Bob still talked and joked as he could; my dad had gone silent except for the occasional small question like “Where you been?” In the hospital, the same day we fed Bob the abundance of Snickers, he began to smile and weep. I was sitting near his bed and asked him if it was OK for me to wipe his tears with a Kleenex. He nodded. I didn’t want to do it without asking, because he’d already been invaded in so many ways. My mother-in-law is a private person and she hasn’t seen this poem yet. Since I’ve pulled some personal moments into the light of a public space, I’m hoping that she won’t see it as yet another invasion. At Bob’s funeral, almost every one of the hundreds of people passing through the receiving line told us how much they adored Bob, and then named something he had fixed for them.” (web)
“After I Got the Email from the Dean of Students” by Julie Price PinkertonPosted by Rattle
Julie Price Pinkerton
AFTER I GOT THE EMAIL FROM THE DEAN OF STUDENTS
You were in my poetry workshop for just ten weeks, but they were good weeks. I liked you. Everybody liked you. You were funny and bumbling and you wrote poems that people folded up and tucked into their backpacks.
Your dad was your hero. You never came out and said it, but I heard it in the way you talked about him. You showed me photos of his paintings on your phone, bright chaotic things with lots of yellow and splash. “He died with zero warning,” you said, “when we were on vacation. His heart.”
In class, you always sat next to me at our rectangle of tables, often wearing that wrinkled, orange plaid shirt you found at the Goodwill that stunk massively of cigarette smoke—yours and whoever owned it before you did—and I told you so. I’d quit years before but still craved the smell. “Man,” I said, “you stink, Ryan, but it’s a good stink.”
Remember when we read that Stafford poem about the deer alongside the road? (My millionth time, your first.) It got to everybody, even me. You said, “Would it cheer you up if I let you sniff my shirt?”
I was eating lunch in my office, dumping potato chips out of a Ziploc bag, when I got the email. It was sent to all of your instructors, telling us your body had been found in a forest preserve near your mother’s house.
One of your campus housemates, Stephen, called me about a gathering that night for anyone who wanted to show up. I’m still kind of surprised I went. I stepped onto the porch past random guitars, an ancient couch burst open like a cotton bloom, and into the wide-open door.
Inside, dozens of your friends, sweet-faced hippie kids, the girls in pretty, thrift store skirts and beads, sitting in quiet clumps on banged-up hardwoods.
I sat down, awkward in my middle age, my which-one-of-these-doesn’t-belong? But they welcomed me. We praised your poetry and your smarts and the way everybody wanted to be around you.
“Do you want to see his room?” Stephen asked. He led me in. “Stay as long as you want.”
God, Ryan, at the start of the semester, neither of us could have pictured this: me, alone in your room, sitting on your floor mattress, tilting my head to read the spines on your bookshelf. There was Bukowski’s Last Night of the Earth, your favorite. Bob Dylan looked just the right amount of confused and bitter in the poster over your pillow.
I want you to know that I felt obscene sitting there on your twisted-up sheets, invading the place where you slept. It felt wildly inappropriate, but I have to tell you, I wanted to stay much longer than I did, so long that even mellow hippie kids would’ve found it weird.
I got up and made myself leave, but not before seeing that tired orange plaid shirt on a hook in your closet. I don’t know why I felt relief that you hadn’t died in it. I wanted to sneak it out in my purse, would have, if I weren’t scared I’d be found out.
I’d never gone to the funeral of a student. Your mother looked the way mothers do at funerals, propped up and put together. She’d lost her only child six months to the day after arranging to have his hero’s body sent home from vacation.
Ryan, I gave her a folder of your poetry (breaking, I’m sure, some university regulation), including that last poem you turned in, about learning how to pray, “to who or what I am still unsure,” after a long dry spell: “I knelt there at the bottom of the lowest of my worst.”
I hugged the kids I recognized from your house, and then I met your dad’s mom, Olga, probably 80, in a cornflower blue dress with lace at the neck and wrists. “They don’t even know what happened! Why don’t they know what happened?”
No one was going to tell her, to try to explain to the grandmother in dementia, about the heroin, the forest, about the grandson whose loss had managed to consume him.
Julie Price Pinkerton: “I’ve been an adjunct professor of rhetoric and creative writing since 1998. I started my teaching career mid-horrible-divorce, when I was shattered and sad and there wasn’t much left of me. I didn’t even feel connected to my own name anymore. If the wacktastic jackassery in that marriage drained most of the humanity from my bones, this adjunct job is where I began to get it back. Starting out with basic composition classes was perfect for me; the scared, away-from-home freshmen and I were all trying to figure out our new lives. I’ve seen such astoundingly good writing from students over the years that I can’t even deal with it. I’ve also seen enough grammar, spelling, and usage debacles to knock down a Clydesdale. (My favorite: ‘I leaned forward and tenderly put my arm around her waste.’) My relationships with my students have run the gamut as well. I’ve gotten so close to some that I’ve cried when meeting their parents at graduation. Others have caused me to count the weeks in the semester until I can see them in the rearview mirror. I currently teach a creative nonfiction writing class called ‘Trauma Writing.’ The gutsiness I’ve seen from students in this class has elated me, regardless of the traumatic topics. Pushing them to really cut to the chase and pour themselves onto the page is the whole shebang for me. Or else, why bother? Now, the bad side of adjuncting: zero job security, hideous stress about being rehired, getting twice the workload and half the pay of tenure track professors, very little time for my own writing, and the odd phenomenon of becoming invisible. Not only does the university administration pretend that we don’t exist (the non-tenure faculty on my campus went on strike last spring), but some of us have walked the hallways of, say, the English department for decades alongside the ‘real’ professors and many of them still refuse to acknowledge us even as benign biomass passing by. A lowly adjunct can look them in the eyes, smile, say hello, and get nothing but the blankest of stares. This used to bother me, until I realized they were in the grips of that stale old cool kids’ table illusion. I’ve learned a boatload about people from this job, especially myself, and am happy to be a fully functioning human being again, except when I go completely batshit at the end of each semester. It’s another thing my students and I have in common.” (website)
Julie Price Pinkerton: “I am a poet of faith. I’ve never written that sentence before. I was raised in a Baptist church on a gravel road on the outskirts of Brazil, Indiana. All of Brazil, Indiana, is kind of an outskirt. The church of my childhood was weird and toxic. Long story. At the center of it: Our pastor’s son (who became a pastor himself) was a pedophile. Nobody knew this until many years later, but something was off there, and I could tell. I hated going there. I stuck with my faith, though. Went to a really small Methodist college, the University of Evansville. A battering ram hit my faith in God when I was a freshman and our school’s entire basketball team was killed in a plane crash. Among the lost was the boy I had just started dating. But faith was still there, flailing. Post-college adult stuff. Marriage, divorce, the switching of churches, the switching of denominations (within Christianity), jobs, cities, marriage again, and hobbling along with my belief in God, which never leaves, but baffles me repeatedly like a train I can hear blaring somewhere in the woods but I cannot find the tracks. I’m 54 now. And Christ is still the only thing that makes sense to me. My atheist friends find this quaint. That’s OK.”
Julie Price Pinkerton: “The first half of ‘Why I Opted for the More Expensive Oil at Jiffy Lube’ is verbatim the conversation I had with the guy working there. He went along with the silliness. The darker ending of the poem came later, in part because the fear of losing my parents became almost an obsession. It entered everyday things, like oil changes. Not that long after I wrote this poem, I did lose my dad. The anticipation of certain loss has always haunted me. A few years ago, before my father died, my husband Scott and I noticed that our beloved, fragile eighteen-year-old yellow tabby, Hankie, was having trouble bending down far enough to reach his food and water bowls. We set the bowls up on phonebooks to make it easier for him, but that didn’t seem terribly dignified. Scott began working on a secret project: from a long scrap of wood he crafted an old-fashioned ‘lunch counter’ for Hankie. He painted it white and curved it at the ends like the counters in the old Woolworth’s five-and-dimes. It was grander, by far, than the Yellow Pages. The metal legs made it tall enough for Hankie to eat comfortably and we took delight in watching him walk over to the lunch counter and take his usual spot, just like a regular. It helped us, knowing we were giving him the best old age possible. The poetry I like most is like that homemade lunch counter: original, surprising, and carefully crafted, with the driving force behind it some kind of love. Love of words, love for a parent, maybe love for an elderly cat. Hankie lived to be twenty, by the way, and we still have his lunch counter, though the restaurant is now closed.”