Here on my lap, in a small plastic bag,
my share of your ashes. Let me not squander 
them. Your family blindsided me with this gift. 
We want to honor your bond they said at the end 
of your service, which took place, as you'd 
arranged, in a restaurant at the harbor, 
an old two-story boathouse made of dark 
wood. Some of us sat on the balcony, on black 
leather bar stools, staring at rows of docked boats. 
Both your husbands showed up and got along. 
And of course your impossibly handsome son. 
After lunch, a slideshow and testimonials, 
your family left to toss their share of you 
onto the ocean, along with some flowers. 

You were the girlfriend I practiced kissing 
with in sixth grade during zero-sleep 
sleepovers. You were the pretty one. 
In middle school I lived on diet Coke and 
your sexual reconnaissance reports. In this 
telling of our story your father never hits 
you or calls you a whore. Always gentle 
with me, he taught me to ride a bike after 
everyone said I was too klutzy to learn. 
In this version we're not afraid of our bodies. 
In this fiction, birth control is easy to obtain, 
and never fails. You still dive under a stall 
divider in a restroom at the beach to free me 
after I get too drunk to unlock the door. You still 
reveal the esoteric mysteries of tampons. You 
still learn Farsi and French from boyfriends 
as your life ignites. In high school I still guide you 
safely out of the stadium when you start yelling 
that the football looks amazing as it shatters
into a million shimmering pieces, as you 
loudly admit that you just dropped acid. 

We lived to be sixty. Then poof, you vanished. 
I can't snort you, or dump you out over my head, 
coating myself in your dust like some hapless cartoon 
character who's just blown herself up, yet remains 
unscathed, as is the way in cartoons. In this version, 
I remain in place for a while. Did you have a good 
journey? I'm still lagging behind, barking up all 
the wrong trees, whipping out my scimitar far 
in advance of what the occasion demands. As I 
drive home from your memorial, you fizz in 
my head like a distant radio station. What 
can I do to bridge this chasm between us? 
In this fiction, I roll down the window, drive 
uncharacteristically fast. I tear your baggie 
open with my teeth and release you at 85 
miles an hour, music cranked up full blast.

More by Amy Gerstler

Hymn to the Neck

Tamed by starched collars or looped by the noose,
all hail the stem that holds up the frail cranial buttercup.
The neck throbs with dread of the guillotine's kiss, while
the silly, bracelet-craving wrists chafe in their handcuffs.
Your one and only neck, home to glottis, tonsils,
and many other highly specialized pieces of meat, 
is covered with stubble. Three mornings ago, undeserving
sinner though she is, yours truly got to watch you shave
in the bath. Soap matted your chest hair. A clouded 
hand mirror reflected a piece of your cheek. Vapor
rose all around like spirit-infested mist in some fabled
rainforest. The throat is the road. Speech is its pilgrim. 
Something pulses visibly in your neck as the words
hand me a towel flower from your mouth.

Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup

Rocket-shaped popsicles that dyed your lips blue
were popular when I was a kid. That era got labeled
“the space age” in honor of some longed-for,
supersonic, utopian future. Another food of my
youth was candy corn, mostly seen on Halloween.
With its striped triangular “kernels” made
of sugar, wax and corn syrup, candy corn
was a nostalgic treat, harkening back to days
when humans grew, rather than manufactured,
food. But what was fruit cocktail’s secret
meaning? It glistened as though varnished.
Faint of taste and watery, it contained anemic
grapes, wrinkled and pale. Also deflated
maraschino cherries. Fan-shaped pineapple
chunks, and squares of bleached peach
and pear completed the scene. Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit. No more nourishing than a child’s
finger painting, masquerading as happy
appetizer, fruit cocktail insisted on pretending
everything was ok. Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.
Eating fruit cocktail meant you might deny
that ghosts whirled throughout the house
and got sucked up the chimney on nights
Dad wadded old newspapers, warned you
away from the hearth, and finally lit a fire.

Dear Reader,

Through what precinct of life’s forest are you hiking at this                 moment?
Are you kicking up leaf litter or stabbed by brambles?
Of what stuff are you made? Gossamer or chain mail?
Are you, as reputed, marvelously empty? Or invisibly ever-                   present,
even as this missive is typed? Have you been to Easter Island?             Yes?
Then I’m jealous. Do you use a tongue depressor as bookmark?
Are you reading this at an indecent hour by flashlight?
Plenty of scholarly ink has been spilt praising readers like                     yourself,
who risk radical dismantling, or being unmasked, by rappelling
deep into sentences. Your trigger warnings could be triggered             every
second, yet you forge on, mystic syllables detonating in your               head,
the metal-edged smell of monsoon-downpour on hot asphalt
raising steam in your imagination. You hold out for the phrase
with which the soul resonates, am I right? Reading, you’re                   seized
by tingly feelings, a rustling in the brain, winds that tickle your           scalp,
bubbles erupting from a blow hole at the back of your neck.
You forget the breathy woman talking softly on TV across the           lobby
(via TiVo you’ve saved her for later.) Birds outside are cracking           jokes
and cackling. Reader, smile to yourself, rock the cradle, kiss
everyone you wish to kiss, and please keep reading. It beats
fielding threatening phone calls for $15 an hour which is what
yours truly is meant to be doing right now, instead of                            speculating
on the strange and happy manifestations of, you, dear reader,            you.

Related Poems

Profit/Loss Statement

In beautiful, spacious September,
When pears in their boxes were golden and full,
We laid her ashes in the Minnesota earth.

Two years on, September still tastes a little like ashes.

Though pears, I have noticed, have decidedly sweetened,
And a number of trademark routines in this ambivalent month—
Say, walking the woods shifting to the red end of the spectrum
Or hearing the home crowd cheer at the homecoming game—
Have flared into a new expository grace.

Despite, or because of, her death?
It seems too cruel to say.