At the Champion Avenue Low-Income Senior & Child Care Services Center

When I told them it must be like dropping your kid            
off at school their first day, all my parent friends
nodded and smiled uncomfortably, meaning              
what would I know. I won’t be taking solace                 
in the many firsts ahead. Here among the gray,
spotted and brown heads of the seniors,
their soft flesh and angles, their obedience as they
sit as uprightly as they are able at white, parallel
tables, nobody cries, and very few speak.                 
When I seat dad beside her, one senior tells me
she’s ninety-four, presenting one hand, four
fingers in the air, just as she might have ninety
years ago with a stranger like me, now long gone.

                       Dad never liked me to talk:
Lower your voice, he’d say. If I was louder:
Put on your boxing gloves. Or: You’ll catch
more flies with honey than vinegar, as if some day
I’d need the flies. I stopped talking, started writing
instead. I work full-time and dad wants to die,
so I dropped him at the Champion Avenue
Low-income Senior & Child Care Services Center,
a newish building, municipal and nondescript,
in a neighborhood that’s been razed and rebuilt so often
it’s got no discernible character left. There was bingo,
men playing poker in a corner. Red sauce and cheese
on white bread pizza for lunch. Dad, a big talker,
was an instant hit, but refused to return. What
is the name of that animal, someone asked me.
Where is Philip, asked someone else, over and over.
As if firsts and lasts were one and the same.

More by Kathy Fagan

Snow Globe

after Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog


With booms & chirrs seals
speak under the ice of an ocean
frozen over.
Stationary ocean. Electrified song.
Color: snow day with autumn
leaves inside it, 
glassene sheers of cantaloupe & kiwi on
lavender, gunmetal, jetwing—
				   When you rode the elephant through
the puncture, the first syllable of my name
parted the deep with your beautiful hand.
Sparrow shuddered in her dustbath, swath of pleasure
raked up
	    & out.
		    This is where I sat
in the avalanche.
	                 In winter,
where I was born,
you pulled a cord of silk in your beautiful hand.
I heard nothing
under the ice. Bye bye now, our people would say.
Bye bye later.
First, song,
	       a detonation—
then white everywhere.

Animal Prudence

Mice drink the rainwater before dying by
the poison we set in the cupboard for them.
They come for the birdseed, and winter
is so grey here the sight of a single cardinal
can keep us warm for days. We’ll justify
anything—and by we, I mean I, and by
I, I mean we, with our man-is-the-only-
animal-who and our manifest destiny, killers
each of us by greater or lesser degrees.
Instead of a gun or knife in my pocket
there are two notes. Unwhich the//
dandelion, reads one. I don’t know what
it means but cannot throw it away;
it is soft as cashmere. The other says:
coffee, chocolate, birdseed. I should be
extinct by now, except I can’t make it
on to that list either. Like toothpicks
made of plain wood, some things are
increasingly hard to find. Even when he was
a young drunk going deaf from target practice,
my father preferred picking his teeth
to brushing them. My mother preferred
crying. They bought or rented places
on streets named Castle, Ring, Greystone—
as if we were heroes in a Celtic epic.
Our romanticism was earned, and leaned
toward the gothic, but lichen aimed
for names on gravestones far
lovelier than our own. It seemed to last
a long time, that long time ago, finches
pixelating the hurricane fences,
cars idling exhaust, dandelions bolting
from flower to weed to delicacy,
like me. Egyptians prepared their dead
for a difficult journey; living is more
—I was going to say, more difficult,
but more alone will do, imprudent—
unlike art—always falling below or rising
above the Aristotelian mean. In France,
a common rural road sign reads:
Animal Prudence. Purely cautionary,
it has nothing to do with Aristotle,
but offers sound advice nonetheless.
These days, I caution my father more
than he ever cautioned me. He hears
his aural hallucinations better and shows
greater interest: sportscasters at ballgames,
revelers at the parties he insists on.
He’s got all his own teeth, so toothpicks
must do the job. His pockets fill with them.
There are always half a dozen rattling
like desert bones in my dryer. I think
of the mason who chiseled his face
in the cathedral wall; he couldn’t write
his name. The yellow bouquets I’d offer
my mother by the fistful also got their name
in France: dent de lion, meaning teeth of the lion.  

Omphalos

How many times the blood rush of truck, bus & subway
     has passed below my window.
How often this body, meant to bend & breed—squat like
     my mother’s, her mother’s & hers—has
paced instead, inside its head, gazing skyward for a noun or phrase to
     shatter the glass of our locked cars & save us,
original cloud
     that might break over all:

raccoon washing its hands like a surgeon in the birdbath,
girl at the drive-through deciding only 42 percent of humanity
     sucks, the rest of them hungry or high,
their wheels aglow like daisies, their wounds debrided, unbridled . . .

Jesus, Mary & Joseph, I have blamed you for everything—
     the decades broken like your rosaries, our few family belongings
missing, glued or taped . . .

     Back home, the air
is scented with Japanese lilac & catalpa’s orchid blooms—
     all of us colonized, colonizing:
your body made to carry mine
     dismantled, finally,
     in flame, to this,
of which I am but remnant, a speck
fished from a tear duct with your tongue.

Whose easy laugh is that I’m hearing now?
Whose loneliness, unbroken, goes rolling in the blood?

Related Poems

How to Lift Him

Don’t pick him up by the pits,
which seems easiest. You risk

broken bones, bruised skin.
Instead, once he’s eased up, sits,

shoulders hunched, feet slung
over the edge, lean down for the hug,

your arms under his and around,
hands flat against his back, his arms around

you. This is what you do. Then lift him,
his feet between yours, this timid

dance around, this turn. Tell him
to bend his knees as you ease him

down to the chair, its wheels locked,
set him in slow. Kneel in front

as if to receive his blessing.

Lift each foot to its rest. Wrap
a blanket around him—you’re going out.

Stop at the old flat-front desk,
last hiding place for his cigarettes—

why he wanted up, after all. Stop
at the edge of the porch and lock

the wheels. Make sure he’s in the sun.
Stand silent by, he won’t talk much,

though the lonely cat will,
rubbing its back against the wheels.

Fractured

My grandmother is only one day
into her infirmity and doped up
on Morphine. Her shoulder is immobile

beneath layers of plaster.
Her eighty-five-year-old frame droops
from the weight of it.

My mother confesses:
she cannot take care of her mother.
I am not she says a nursemaid.

My mother is angry. Angry
at my sister who didn’t give enough
support, angry at my grandmother

for shuffling her feet, angry even
at the dog that was tucked beneath
my grandmother’s arm

as they all three tried to squeeze
into the door of the vet’s office.
She calls me from the emergency room

to say that grandmother fractured her shoulder
in three places. She’s become an invalid
overnight, she says. My sister calls her cruel

for refusing to run the bathwater, refusing
to wash my grandmother’s naked body, for
not even considering renting

a wheelchair for her to move from place
to place. When grandmother whispers
that she is afraid to walk, my mother

tells her that there’s nothing wrong with
her legs, tells her she’ll have to go to a
nursing home if she won’t walk

to the bathroom: one piss in the bed is
understandable, two is teetering too
close to in-home care.

My sister does not understand that there
is too much to overcome between them—
always the memory of the black dress

grandmother refused to wear
on the day of her husband’s funeral—
the way she turned to my mother and said,

I am not in mourning.

Relapsing / Remitting

The lord doctor sits on the other side 
of health from me. It’s a wall come between
flat & white & 
spackled in places—   
		
I was a student of ELOQUENCE.
I’d shape my mouth into a fountain 
& out the names cascaded in June—
		
My brain is described in slow sentences 
in similes like: grapefruit, telephones,
the medieval district of a city.   
		
In ELOQUENCE though I couldn't fit
the madness in—no icy jackhammer 
pneumatics, no I-can’t-hear-myself-think
		
Progress: the loss of neuron & synapse 
Progress: tall lights of a stadium shut 
one by one until the ballpark is left 
in darkness. Then degeneration of 
the temporal. Then furrows will close
the furrows the cheering voices carved
in the air will close. This is what happens— 

cerebellum, the beautifulest sound 
		              in the room
		
I rested my length in its green meadows.