My mother is a robot. She has years
of programming. She repeats the words:
Boys only want one thing.
When kids become teenagers
the iron in their blood turns to lead in their butt.
Don’t spit on your own floor.
Brazil nuts are called nigger toes
and flip-flops are thongs.
As a young girl she was a flower
child with long flat hair parted down the middle.
Then she believed in playing
by the rules, spanking her children, and paying taxes.
She gasps when I say Damn it, cringes
at violence on TV, refuses to talk
about sex, and looks away when someone flips the bird.
She is a faded red poppy smashed
into a bible with a man pressing down. She hides her vibrator
in her sewing bag. She occasionally drinks
cheap wine for medicinal purposes,
but she makes someone else buy it. An ostrich with eyes
closed beneath the ground.
She means nothing
and everything. A soft blanket
put away on a shelf until her children are cold.
I Remind Myself, It's Temporary
This life fitting into a ten by twelve space
and a small tin storage shed that floods.
We live in my mother’s
house, the corner room where the sun beats
for hours every afternoon and does not cool off
ever. There is exactly eleven inches
between the corner of my bed and a hand-me-down
bookshelf. Meyers, Oates, and ‘How to get Your Picky Eater
to Love Broccoli’ has slid back between splintered plywood
and the baby-blue wall.
My son watches ‘Myth Busters’
for the explosions
while I slam my brain into college algebra
as if the faster I calculate the faster we’ll get out of here and start
living a bigger life than this. But, I know
my sum will come from him
and the life he’ll live
outside of my own.
I fear he will hate me
for this, the swamp backyard,
the splintering tile floor, his toys kept
in a closet. But, I hope
he will fondly remember
eating dinner on this bedroom rug, laughing
while the dog licks banana pudding
off his elbow.
I remember exactly the polite timber of her voice when the lady behind me in the checkout line said You are so brave to wear such bright colors at your size. (I put that turquoise shirt in the back of my closet for weeks.) I had smiled my thanks, and thought about complimenting the bulbous shape of her nose, and the sagging skin beneath her jaw, but then I imagined her face inflating, like a wrinkly flesh balloon, her small eyes disappearing into her taught forehead, and I felt momentarily better.
I didn’t talk to anyone
except my sister
until I was five. I just tugged
on her bony hand and when she bent over,
her blonde hair brushing my face I whispered:
tell them that the cat is hiding under Michael’s bed.
And she did,
and the cat was found,
and I watched a strand
of his silver-white fur float into his water dish,
resting gently on the surface
like a small crease on glassy skin.
I was standing behind my baby brother, and, as usual, he had lost his clothes, all except his sagging diaper, and had planted his feet in a strip of mud that ran the length of earth beside our driveway. The back of his elbows were dimpled, his skin like rising bread dough. My oldest sister blew brown bangs out of her eyes and repeatedly told him You’re really mad, David until the vein at the side of his neck pulsed blue, and his earlobes turned red on both sides of his head. He screamed at the top of his lungs I am not! while making small dough fists. I happen to know he’s still angry.
When I finally started talking
I tried to tell my mother
about the important things,
like the dangerous red flower,
with an orange center, growing
out of a jagged crack in the sidewalk.
She interrupted and repeated the phrase
that she only ever said to me
Less is best, Missy
and yelled at my brothers to stop throwing spaghetti.
She still doesn’t know
the blade-like petals were velvet soft.
My big brother once told me
the same thing.
My mother escaped her six children,
found refuge in the shower, but then
Leanne, went tearing in
John killed Jenny!
I remember the feel
of those flinging water droplets, the sight
of my mother, naked, pink, and round,
beating my brother over
his towhead, with a flopping paper towel roll
while my scrunched-faced sister
sobbed in the corner, holding the body
of her look-alike ‘Jenny’ doll,
the plastic head at her feet.
We lived in a wide, red-brick house
a grove of apples trees grew beside it
in straight lines, the ground underneath soft
with layers of fallen fruit. Surrounding the grove
were acres of grass, sometimes it grew long
reaching the top of my head,
yellow at its tips. My father mowed the lawn
pushing a rusty, growling machine, his arm muscles bulging
beneath sweaty skin. I liked to walk behind him, disappearing
between the walls of grass.
I followed the narrow path he carved.
If he got too far ahead he would stop,
and wait for me.
We never said a word.
Melissa Qualls: "I am currently attending Mesa Community College studying psychology and writing. I am first, a mother, then a chauffeur, cook, maid, family counselor, expert drama de-escalator, and lover of all things edible. But mostly, I am a lifelong student and observer."