THE WRONG POEM

by Elena Murphy

ISSUE TEN | SPRING 2018

Afraid to write the wrong poem, you collect objects. You stalk beaches and junk shops, pocketing anything that catches your eye. Your shelves fill with tiny pebbles and old, coverless books. The more decrepit the better. Sometimes you buy pieces of fruit at the market and place them along your windowsill, watching them wither and mold.

You arrange and rearrange, removing dried seaweed from the rafters and replacing it with the string of broken Christmas lights you found in the free pile in front of the house with the tire swing. You’ve never seen anyone on the swing or children around the house. Once, while pushing an office chair, you saw a middle-aged man standing on the porch smoking a pipe. He wore house slippers and cut-off jeans and looked off somewhere, though you couldn’t tell where. You wanted to tell him you’d never seen anyone smoke a pipe before, except in movies, and to ask him if he wouldn’t mind lending it to you for a few days so you could keep it next to the Blackberry charger you bought at a yard sale, but he never made eye contact with you no matter how intensely you stared at him.

Now sometimes you visit the house at night in the hopes of finding the man on the swing. You picture his feet flexed to keep his slippers from falling and the smoke from his pipe twisting up toward the moon. He’s never there, so you swing on the swing instead. You kick the tree with the heels of your shoes and let the rope wind and unwind. While spinning you wonder if the man would look at you while you were both wrapped in night. Maybe he would smile and offer to give you a push. But what would you say to a man with a pipe on a tire swing under the stars? On your way home, you wonder if you’re glad that he’s never there. Then you return to arranging things.

Sometimes while you move your objects you come across a page or two of something you’d written years ago. You cringe as you read, but admire the careful loops of your handwriting. Nothing you wrote was ever quite right. You scoured dictionaries and thesauruses trying to make your language more precise, but each poem remained unbalanced. Still, you wore your plight like a badge and told everyone you were a poet. When you were invited to open mics you always said yes, for wasn’t the most important task of poetry vulnerability?

Upon the stage, you’d look at your sheet and realize the first line should have been the last, the last line the first, and the middle shouldn’t have been there at all. As you spoke, you crossed out and revised. You recited a stanza, but then told the audience to forget it. Your poems never ended, but you eventually left the stage, usually with the help of an escort, always surprised by how long you had been there.

Some audiences loved you, said you were brilliant and made you feel like a genius. Others called you a joke, said you needed work. You never knew who was right because neither said a thing about the colors behind the words, if they were there at all.

Normally when you stumble upon a piece of your old writing, you push it aside and find something new to think about, but when you come across the poem about your grandmother it reminds you of the woman with the red kerchief tied cockeyed around her head and she’s not so easy to forget. She’d approached you after you’d recited the poem. It was long, with mistakes and changes presenting themselves like peacock plumage. You spoke for two hours and thirteen minutes before looking up to see that only the woman remained. When you walked off stage she was there waiting, inked arms wrapped tightly around each other. When she said “thank you” you saw the fine lines around her eyes deepen, though her face still looked young—not too much older than yours. Then she held out the oblong locket fastened to her neck by a long chain. It was her mother’s, she told you.

 

It was then, for the first time, you realized you had never expected your poems to reach anyone. As you stood on the stage reading, all you were aware of was how many words there were in the world and how imperfect and delicate each one was, fluttering in and out of your poems. When you spoke of being curled up at the edge of your grandmother’s bed, pretending to be asleep, you were sure that no word was soft enough to describe the yellow lamplight against her hair as she brushed it from scalp to waist. And no matter how many dictionaries you flipped through, there couldn’t possibly be enough words to recreate the music of rain against the window as you waited for the bowl of your grandmother’s sopa to cool, the steam gently brushing against your face.

Now this woman insisted your words were right, that they had color, and that their color had meaning for her. Now you were exposed, ripped open. You had finally written the right poem for the right person and you had no idea how you did it. You felt the softness of her stare—her joy and gratitude. She thought she saw something in you. She thought she liked it. She wanted more. But, if you didn’t know how you had touched her the first time, you might never be able to do it again.

The woman showed up at every open mic after that, eagerly waiting to be moved. This woman had lost something and looked to you to get it back. Or get something back. But her faith in you was so loud you couldn’t remember all that came before, that might come after. You had nothing to give her because your new words captured nothing—your lips only forming hollow noises, pretty sounds.

You stopped going to open mics, but the woman tracked down your email address and sent you a message asking if you had more poems to share. You couldn’t bring yourself to tell her “no” and didn’t have it in you to say “yes,” so you said nothing and stopped checking your messages. Only, it wasn’t just the woman who asked about your poems. They all knew you were a poet—your friends, colleagues—and they asked when you’d next share your work. You replied by walking away from them and retreating into your little cottage that you began to fill with your objects.

You see the red in the kerchief and the locket’s sparkling chain, the ink against thin arms. You turn away, but the images keep finding you. In an attempt to forget, you grab the geode your mother gave you after she took your brother to New Mexico and not you, and move it from the bathroom windowsill to the top of the refrigerator to the closet. As you move it, you think of light and how the bathroom window faces east, so morning sun brushes against the angles of the stone in a way that’s like a song. But then you wonder if your poem might be stronger if the geode was hidden from the sun’s kisses, since memories sometimes weigh more than what’s tangible. You keep it in your closet until you forget it’s there.

Your spaces are forever in motion, impermanent. The impermanence keeps your mind occupied until you go to bed.

Whenever your grandmother did the rosary next to the old cathedral radio, she gave you crayons and a coloring book to keep you occupied. Only, instead of coloring you watched the veins in her hands as she moved the rosary beads and the movement of the alarm clock over her left shoulder, whose mechanical chickens pecked to the beat of the second hand.

Now you have your own alarm clock with pecking chickens and as you turn in your bed you think about how it’s too obvious for it to be on the kitchen counter next to the flour tin because that’s where your grandmother kept her clock.

Your poem had spoken of the ticking chicken-clock and the gentle tapping of rosary beads against the kitchen table. Now when you think of it, all you can hear are the words “thank you.” You toss and turn, trying to forget the woman’s crooked smile and how you’d backed away from her. You force yourself to consider putting your clock on top of the broken radiator and, while you’re at it, moving the flour tin to the bookshelf.

When you wake up, you momentarily forget about the clock, notice the dead plant hanging from the curtain rod, and decide it would be better suited for the shower rod. Of course, to get from the curtain to the shower rod you must walk through the kitchen, where the chickens peck. Just as inked serpents and withered roses slink into your mind’s eye, there’s a knock at your door.

Ms. Arish is your landlord. She comes to your door once or twice a week to point out the trail of garbage (her words) leading from the sidewalk to your cottage, which is tucked away behind her house, under the magnolia tree. You’ve only been inside Ms. Arish’s house once and it was because your toilet’s septic tank had broken, leaving her no choice but to let you use hers’ while the plumber lumbered in and out of your bathroom, knocking over the line of empty toilet paper rolls you had so carefully arranged around the perimeter of the room. Ms. Arish escorted you through the house to the bathroom and waited outside the door for you to finish. The glass bowl on her toilet tank held little pink rocks, like the ones in the fish tank your brother kept in his room and charged you a penny to look at. You slipped four of them into your pocket before opening the door and pointing to the framed photo on the wall of a man in uniform. You asked Ms. Arish if it was her son and, without responding, she motioned you out of the hall, to the front door.

Now, as she stands in your doorway, she uses one hand to keep closed her pilled, grey sweater—a different shade than her grey sweatpants—and gestures with the other. When she speaks you watch her lips curl and pinch, but forget to listen to her words. You wonder how long she’s owned her sweater and whether it was a gift or if she bought it herself, then grow sad at the thought of Ms. Arish in a store by herself, picking out sweaters.

When she turns to indicate the length of the trail, you see the pink scrunchy that clings to the wild frizz of her silver hair. Though you long to ask her for it, you know it’s not a good time and instead nod in understanding as she looks to you for a response. You assure her half-heartedly that it won’t be too much longer until you clear your possessions from the yard. You promise she’ll forget all about them shortly. She reminds you that that’s what you said the week before, to which you shrug sympathetically. Before she turns to wind her way back through the rose bushes to her green house, she tells you to have it cleared by the following week, otherwise she’ll have no choice but to evict you. You say “okay” without meaning it because you both know she couldn’t be bothered to find another tenant who’d stay quiet about a broken radiator, a leaky refrigerator and stained linoleum. As she leaves, you notice the sun flash against a silver chain on her neck.

Your mother calls on Sundays. Normally, you let the phone ring six times before answering, always considering letting it go to voicemail. But, this time you pick up on the first ring. She asks how you are, but doesn’t believe you when you say “fine.” Before she can say another word, you clear your throat and ask about the silver crucifix your grandmother wore before she died. Your mother repeats the question then asks why in the world you’re interested in a crucifix. You say something about going to church, which makes her laugh, then you offer to have dinner with her and her husband, Stuart, in exchange for the necklace. Your mother is always asking you to come to dinner with her and Stuart, so she agrees.

Your mother and Stuart don’t live in the house you grew up in and instead live in a condo with two parking spots and a porch where Stuart grows begonias. Their condo is clean with wall-to-wall carpet and dark, lacquered furniture. Every surface is unblemished and decorated with fake flower arrangements, while the walls are covered with Stuart’s landscapes. They make you think of motel lobbies, which, you figure, means they could be worse.

As you saw at your chicken breast with your knife, you let your mother tell you about her book group, her Meals On Wheels route, and the camping trips she takes with Stuart. She tells you your brother is well and that he’s been promoted to manager at the Lucky’s up the street from the house where you grew up. When she asks, you promise you’re looking for a job. She points and raises her voice as she talks about being a responsible adult and about her blood pressure and how she won’t be around forever. You pretend to listen, but really clench and unclench your stomach and look at the painting of the ocean behind your mother, which would work perfectly as a tray for the glass figurines you bought at a yard sale for 75 cents. Finally, when she asks, you say yes, you do need money and then stare at your plate while she sighs loudly and gives Stuart a look, which he pretends not to notice.

While your mother is in the bedroom writing you a check, Stuart leans close to you and asks about your poem. You stopped telling your mother about your poems ever since she reprimanded you for stealing (her words) someone’s kitten and keeping it in the bathtub, which you had lined with small cacti. Though you insisted it had only been borrowed, she scolded still and refused to speak to you until you returned it and apologized to its owner, which eventually you did. Stuart, though, still likes to know. You tell him it’s coming along nicely and he nods, pleased.

Your mother returns with the check and the crucifix. “I still can’t fathom what you want with this,” she says, “but maybe church will do you good.” She leaves it next to your empty plate, along with the check.

The necklace is cold against your cheek. Whenever you were sick as a child your mother left you at your grandmother’s house on her way to work. Your grandmother rocked you in the rocking chair with your face pressed to her chest. When you finally pulled away there was an imprint of her necklace upon your cheek. You weave the chain through your fingers then place it between your teeth. It tastes metallic. You put it in your back pocket and check that it’s still there every three minutes as you walk, until you’ve reached home.

When the woman with the kerchief emailed you she said she worked at the grocery store around the corner from the café where you recited the poem about your grandmother. She told you other things about herself, but you didn’t read enough of the email to know what she said. You don’t like thinking about the woman with the kerchief. You don’t like knowing that she might think about you. But, also, you’re afraid she might forget you. If she remembers you maybe, eventually, she’ll decide your poem never meant anything at all—that it was all a mistake or misunderstanding. If it did mean something and she forgets, it will be like it never existed in the first place.

As you walk to the grocery store, you smell the tortillas from your grandmother’s kitchen. Hers were always thin and round and even though yours were lumpy, she always ate them first. In the afternoon you played in her garden among ceramic deer and rabbits while she fed tuna fish to the stray cats. Sometimes she snuck you spoons of peanut butter and said not to tell your mother. When your mother got angry and reprimanded her for letting you decorate her kitchen in paper chains when you were supposed to be doing your times tables, she always stayed quiet. Then she let you do it again the next week and taught you how to cut the paper so it looked like children holding hands in a line. Each time your mother picked you up, you waved goodbye from the backseat, wishing you could pinch your grandmother between your fingers, pluck her from the porch, and carry her around with you always. Instead, you watched her disappear and turn into a memory until you saw her again. Then you didn’t see her again and she turned into a memory for good. You wonder if the kerchief-woman’s mother is a memory and if so, if her memory smells like tortillas and grass, or something else.

Outside the grocery store, you find a receipt sticking out of the trash. With the pen you carry in your jacket pocket you write, “Clock. Radio. Rosary. Veins. Tortillas. Deer. Tuna fish. Peanut butter. Paper chains. Porch. Crucifix.” You could write a million more words and they would never be enough. These will have to do.

You wrap the necklace in the receipt and approach the bag boy, who’s gathering stray carts near the door. You describe the woman with the kerchief and when he nods you hand him the items. Before he can say anything, you walk away. It’s not until you reach the edge of the parking lot that you hear someone call your name and see the woman, though she doesn’t have a kerchief around her head this time.

You run. You run out of the lot and down the street. You run around the corner and even though you know she’s probably not running after you—she is at work, after all—you continue to run. There’s a blender base on someone’s curb that you know would fit perfectly on your bookcase, but you don’t stop to pick it up. The man is on his porch with his pipe when you pass his house, but you don’t say anything to him even though you think he may have looked your way this time. When you reach Ms. Arish’s house you ignore her trying to get your attention from the window and run through the side gate into your cottage.

When you lock your door behind you, you look around at your things and breathe deeply. You sit, then you stand, then you pace. Finally, you find the clock with the chickens and all your poems and scraps of paper and you put them in a bag by your front door, just in case.

Then you return to your collecting. You continue filling your shelves and watching the fruit mold on your windowsill. As you arrange and rearrange you stay close to the door, rushing to the peephole at any sound that may be a knock. Sometimes, you check your email. And though you say you prefer your cottage, with its coverless books and withered fruit, you can always change your mind. And if you do, you know how to get to the grocery store.

Elena Murphy is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She was a finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017 anthology and was nominated for Best of the Net 2017. Her work can be found in Inklette Magazine, Calamus Journal, Writer Advice, and elsewhere.

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