A Day at the Beach
In the hot summers of childhood
all we wanted was to swim at the beach,
so we took ourselves, my kid brother and me,
on the “T” to South Boston. In a few months,
my twelfth birthday, my brother just eight.
Was the beach crowded? The water dirty?
Did we care?
We knew nothing about sewage outfall pipes
just joy as the two of us joined the crowd of adults
and kids paddling in the swell and crash of waves.
It was time to shriek, to jump, to paddle
through soft, round turds floating
because they’d exited the pipe
along with shreds of tissue.
We were nothing if not naïve
which saved the day at Carson Beach.
Easy enough to flick the turds away. Away!
What’s the use of complaining the water’s dirty,
our day wrecked? Better this, I thought,
than popping tar bubbles on the street.
Now I live along the same ocean
where a dog slithers into the water
to fetch a yellow tennis ball his mistress has thrown.
He will return to her whatever she throws.
It’s a matter of devotion.
At Waterside Cemetery, I yank crabgrass
spreading onto my husband’s grave and fling it away,
then tuck in some alyssum from the garden at home,
a fragrance he loved.
One Full Bath
In a family where ten of us shared one full bath,
I learned that cleanliness is not next to godliness.
That the sight of my brother in his boxers
emerging from his bedroom was enriching
as was his distress at seeing me capture the bathroom.
That nobody savors scouring the bathtub.
That sisters with long hair can be a real bitch.
That the water heater held finite hot water
and that a tepid bath just doesn’t do it.
That you can ignore your mother’s wrath:
what are you doing in there? —only so long.
That one full bath was a big deal for my mother.
That she grew up in a house with no bath:
a childhood better left unspoken.
Better yet, she had so much class
she never told us how good we had it.
My brother offers us tea when we visit,
orange pekoe, our mother’s favorite brew,
and I’m surprised he’s held onto the old ways
for wasn’t he a dare-devil jumping from planes
loaded with his heavy gear, his night-vision goggles
and guns, a warrior and not one to set out the tea things:
a pitcher of milk, a sugar bowl, teaspoons.
And wasn’t he the soldier home from the war
who dared bring beer into the house
where our father forbade alcohol,
our two uncles, two drunks, stewed in degradation.
So I’m amused when he serves us tea,
proudly relating how he saves his squinched teabag
to make a second cup.
Here: a poem I’ve written about you.
A confused squinch
and he says,
I didn’t think you thought about me.
Not a lot, I fail to say, but after this,
he likes me so much he sends me a sturdy fruit cake
each Christmas because I said I liked it,
I can’t remember anything my mother said except don’t tell the priest
that Saturday after the abduction, the stripping and prodding.
I am headed to Confession to be forgiven my sin. Hadn’t I allowed the man
to take me down behind the garage. Don’t tell anyone, he said.
Soon I would confess my impurity and be absolved, but
my mother’s words follow me down the street and up the hill
to the church, soft and persistent as the pure steps of the Blessed Virgin.
My mother could hardly say: keep quiet to protect our family from gossip.
Don’t tell the priest is what she said, and I understood: Keep yourself
to yourself. I’m entering 8th grade, on the verge. I know nothing about sex.
Nothing about where babies came from. Yet in the playground
we would chant and poke each other’s belly buttons
and say Bore a hole/Bore a hole/ right through the Sugar Bowl
Out comes Y—–O—–U.
We didn’t know what we were saying.
Yet somehow we did.
To be my mother-in-law in the nursing home
picking at her fingers until they bleed.
To find my bleeding fingers more fascinating
than my son and his wife come to visit.
To give him the satisfaction of laughing
at his dumb story. Nope.
To grin is the most I will grant him and her
standing next to him as if her claim is greater.
His pants fit like a glove, my son says
to me. To me? He says something
about a man with five penises,
pants and gloves fitting.
To watch his lips move.
To see him shape words with his tongue and his teeth.
To demand that my son tell me something
amusing while I sit here.
To be dressed nicely. My feet in pumps.
My white gloves in my purse.
To expect to go out to lunch with my son
and he brings some woman I don’t know.
To sit in the corridor of a nursing home waiting.
To believe I’ve been pushed here then left
to gather dust. To gather dust.
CLAIRE KEYES is the author of two books of poetry, The Question of Rapture and What Diamonds Can Do. Her poems and reviews have appeared recently in Redheaded Stepchild, Mom Egg Review, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Persimmon Tree, among others. Her chapbook, Rising and Falling, won the Foothills Poetry Competition. Professor Emerita at Salem State University, she lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts where she conducts a monthly poetry salon.