Tasha Graff's poetry has appeared in such journals as English Journal,
THRUSH Poetry Journal, Rust + Moth, and From the Fishouse. She holds
an MA in English literature and a PhD in public policy. She writes and
teaches high school English on the coast of Maine (USA).
Dan spent a summer painting houses, so when he walks
in a room he always looks up to the corners. While others glance
around, he scans the seams to see how the job was done. We are all
experts in our own worlds. I've spent two hours staring at the walls
of my grandmother's apartment as she naps, attempting to decide
if I could make this my home, if we could find a way to live together.
I see a cobweb in the far corner of the room. Her ceiling is the same
color as the clouds hanging gray above the brick buildings blocking
the view of the Hudson. Her friend Marie calls, asking to join us
for dinner at Nikko. My grandmother and I can plot the foot patterns
of wait staff in any restaurant. We know what it is to serve. She raised
children with her tips, I bought books with mine. She escaped one war
only to survive others. She has watched my battles. Her brother Heinz
called her a hash-slinger, a word I always thought was German, until
I looked it up just to spell it in this poem. Today, I fixed her printer
and computer, made coffee, watered the plants, fed the cat. I searched
for the words to tell her I am scared of being alone. She ate half
the sandwich I made. I pointed to a dirty spot on her wall, mentioned
the idea of paint. "Okay," she said, "now you can go home."
People Like You
"Ms. Graff, in my country, we have a word for people like you,"
he says and I can't move quickly enough to catch my stomach
as it drops on the newly tiled floor of my classroom, guts, words
and blood slowly inching their way to my desk, where my boss sits
observing the class. It's a war zone, the wall covered in black
and white pictures of Vietnam, their papers messily cluttered
with quotations from The Things They Carried and then Mitya
sitting peacefully in the corner, the first words he has uttered yet
and of course today is the day he finds his voice. The class pauses.
I have just finished lecturing them on their embarrassing lack
of self-reflection, finishing just in time for my guest to witness
a silent stare down. We wait. He says a word in Russian. It whispers
across his tongue. He smiles. I don't know his smiles. I wait.
More. Weapons ready. He leans forward, "You are the person who
loves but we do not tempt your rage. In war, we never test
your allegiance." Dear Mitya, sitting in the corner, peacefully
equating school to war, grandson of a fallen soldier. You wrote
he was shot in the left arm. You wrote he dyed the snow red.
She tells me about Mrs. Chan, the real old lady on the fourth floor. Every morning
and every evening, she would walk up and down her hallway, twice, for exercise.
She told my grandmother it was the secret to her good health for 84 years. I ask her
if she is going to follow this advice. "Ach, no, Mrs. Chan, she tells me this on Friday.
On Tuesday, they find her dead." I try not to laugh but then I see the folded skin
of her cheeks slowly changing position, crevices stretch and transform and her loud
laugh rises from her swollen toes and the sixty-four years between us fizz and dissolve
with the ice in her glass of Diet Coke. When we regain composure she says, "You shouldn't
smirk. I could be next, and then you'd have no one to visit in New York." I remind her
about my friends in Brooklyn. "Brooklyn?" she says, "I haven't been there in 60 years."
From Maine to New York
I once read in a poem that the heart rests
My suitcase holds three books, a nightgown
and clothes for six days.
It takes five and a half hours to drive to Harlem.
My grandmother sleeps until 11. I leave
Portland at 9.
We have dinner at our favorite restaurant
on LaSalle Street. The waitress is new.
She can't recognize us.
I re-explain the specials to my grandmother who loudly
complains about the noise.
We share a fig salad. I begin to tell her about Eric,
but she doesn't look up.
I hand her a piece of bread. Zer gut. Our
pasta arrives. We eat and pay.
I carry her walker up the five steps to the street, we make
our way home.
The corner deli on 123rd is under new ownership: Welcome
to the Bahamas.
Praise the Lord Dental has closed.
We watch Jeopardy and play Scrabble.
It isn't until she goes to bed that I remember that my heart is
that I cannot feel it rest.
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