Why did I leave the front door unlocked? I ask myself, while pushing my cart
into the shortest line at the check-out stand. This trip to the store
was only supposed to take a minute, just grab salad greens, pay, and run.
I should be home right now, because, what if some Jehovah’s Witnesses
have arrived at my front porch, or magazine salesmen, trying to earn
their college tuition, only they really aren’t, that’s just their cover.
At the last community meeting, didn’t the police officer say, When someone
knocks at your door, you don’t have to open it. But let them know
you’re there, so they won’t think the house is empty. I thought I was a person
who always locked the door. These little lapses seem to happen more often now.
Yesterday, I couldn’t remember Patricia’s husband’s name. But I’m not that old.
Not like the woman in front of me, who might be the age my mother would
have been if she hadn’t died. Why did this woman get to go on living?
There’s something Eisenhower-era about her worn tweed coat and the scarf
tied under her chin. I want to tell her, Hey, look outside, the sun is shining.
It’s like she hasn’t changed her clothes since the middle of the last century.
As if, at my age, I still wore that turquoise poodle skirt my mother sewed
for me on her new machine in the basement. I remember the day she cut out
the black poodle. I hate being old, hate being stuck in this check-out line
as the woman pulls a cloth bag from her pocket. She says, Oh dear.
I forgot this. Do you mind? The bagger and the checker say, Of course not,
and start shifting the groceries. Now the woman opens a change purse
and counts out one coin at a time. I hate her thick knuckles, the ropey veins
that run over the backs of her hands, all the brown spots. I look at my hands,
wonder how much the robbers have loaded into their truck, because, once,
they emptied a whole house while a family was away on vacation,
and the neighbors weren’t even suspicious, because people move all the time.
By now, they’ve probably packed my round oak table. My rocking chair.
And they’re stuffing Grandma Carlotta’s china into a box, not that I ever
use it, because, what if someone dropped a plate, and the cups and bowls
have these bent-elbow handles that stick out like they’re daring, Break me.
Besides, none of it can go in the dishwasher. But when I look at all the pieces
stacked in the china cabinet, I remember those long-ago Christmases,
the little angels flying in their candle-lit circle, my grandmother pouring
what she called spirits over the pudding’s sugar cube crown. Then she’d
strike a match. After the flames died, my brothers and I would pick off
the sweet melted bits. What am I doing in this check-out line? My eyes
turn watery again. Which, a friend said recently, is just another symptom
of age. Then I feel a tap on my shoulder. A gray-haired guy in a t-shirt
and jeans. He smiles. His eyes are the same blue as my ex-husband’s.
Is he hitting on me? I wonder, one of those men who like women
their own age? He says, Every time I go to the grocery store, I tell myself,
any line I’m in will always be the slowest, so when the check-out
takes forever, it’s only what I expected, and everything’s fine.
I want to scream, Well, good for you, because I hate the compassion
in his eyes, that don’t look much like my ex-husband’s after all.
He begins emptying his basket. I put down a divider after my lettuce.
The checker rings up the carefully stacked coins. As the woman zips
the change purse closed, her hands shake. When she tries to slip it
into her pocket, it falls to the floor. I lean over, pick it up, and give it to her.
How could it still be so heavy? Her hand touches mine. She says, Thank you.
I hated waiting for my mother to die. The way her body stiffened, as if flesh
could turn into stone. She lay on her bed, eyes riveted. As if she was staring
at the ceiling. This was the last stage of a disease I’d never heard of
until the diagnosis. Incurable and untreatable, they said. I remember
her long, terrible moans. It was winter then. Freezing rain against glass.
In some leafless poplars, I saw three tattered nests. Probably, the robbers
have left the front door wide open. As the checker records each price,
I picture the living room, the sun through naked windows,
shining warm rectangles on the bare walls and floor. I think,
There might be a lightness, even a freedom, to living in an empty house.
—from Rattle #38, Winter 2012
2012 Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist