Felt Flowers

The play room’s alphabet pattern padding could be pulled apart, then
repositioned; after snack, the older, all-day boys—who tore off,
one by one, the turtles’ shells, a hippo’s quiet heft, and fed
the bashful ones their heads—huddled around their stockpile of
letters and laid out a dirty word that made the other kids
giggle or gasp and Miss Margaret tap the backs of their hands with
the yellow wooden yardstick. I couldn’t read yet.
I wouldn’t talk, either;
                              my language was the felt
flowers in the clear plastic tub, at the back table by the window, which
looked out at the slide, glistening like a tongue in
the brash noon light. An older boy stole
my poppy, so I assembled a pansy, pre-cut
by Miss Margaret at her house after school. I imagined her
pouring over a private abundance 
of patterned scissors for the jaggedness of a lily’s leaf, then the sturdy
kitchen shears for a pile of rose petals. Years later, she’d return beneath
the tangled top sheet of dreams, and before I could smooth
the intrusion in me, a muscle-drenched arm—veins like a textbook’s
anatomical orchid, dense hair
like my father had—guided her two fingers farther
into the scissor’s doubled gape—
                                                  Blistering then in the fully-bloomed heat,
the swings seemed to rock, but within themselves, the way
a lightbulb, untouched for years, holds a spasm
in its tungsten, a self-possessed momentum, awaiting fingers
on the switch. A group of girls, that day, trudged over, 
at Miss Margaret’s insistence, barrettes wincing above their ears, 
the button I’d cut from my best Sunday dress a makeshift bud 
atop a glue glob smear. They asked me if I wanted
to play house. I set my pink felt down.
                                              I didn’t know I could be the father, so
I said I’d be the dog. They named me Princess. One girl put on
an apron, white plastic pearls. Two others, fabric dolls in hand,
the daughters. One adhered
                                    a costume mustache and a voice
absurdly low. We arranged the mats by color for the rooms in our
make-believe home. I played my part; I laid in the yard, 
on the green pieces, the letters, an F, an A. My job, I’d decided, was not
to bound into the room, pretend-panting at my family’s feet,
with the whimper
                         dogs give when they want to be loved, but—
watching Miss Margaret tend to the bullies, our tiny table set, 
the family complete, curled up in
my own constant obstinate heat—to guard my made-up post,
on the bladeless lawn, alone, even if anyone called my name.

Copyright © 2021 by Noah Baldino. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 24, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.