By Gary Leising
Fork, fork, plate, knife, knife, the child says,
reviewing the settings like a general his troops.
Mother’s arranged the spoons on a towel
and will set them out when they dry. She gave
herself the cracked plate, her husband
the chipped wine glass. He’ll know to drink
from only the one side. Before the family
(the rest of it) arrives, someone will corral
the dog and coax it into one of the kid’s rooms.
An allergic in-law. A ham’s been roasting
all morning, vegetables added late. Pots
of near boiling water wait. Their wisps of steam
remind the mother of everyone coming over,
how close the conversation always comes
to some tipping point, some powder keg fuse
meeting a match, some archduke catching
a bomb tossed into his ceremonial car.
Something’s missing. The corkscrew,
her husband says, carrying two bottles
in one hand, a third under the other arm.
The rest aren’t here, but it’s not too early.
When they find it they sit at their places
and sip. His finger twitches, counting plates.
You forgot, he points at a chair, she’s… won’t…
Her eyes sting. She tries to hold that dull burn
inside her cheeks. I’ll take care of it, he whispers
then downs the whole glass. Noise in the kitchen
as he clatters the plate and flatware together.
The water and wine glasses clink in his hand.
She hears the noise again. A sizzle, again.
One of the pots, nothing but water in it, boils over.
When front-row-center-girl raised her hand,
her fingers long as tree branches, thin as twigs,
I watched my own finger, as if it were not me, pointing
at her, pointing because I couldn’t remember
her name. She talked and I nodded
above her hands, thinking of the piano
I could never play, pinky finger too weak
to arpeggiate a chord. As she spun some idea
about the essay her classmates didn’t read,
she gestured, palms down then up.
Her smooth skin stretched between the metacarpals,
almost web-like, so thin almost translucent.
Her hands glowed, their color an autumnal tan
fading toward peach, toward ivory, changing
as one canvas. I stuffed, in my pockets, my own
wrinkled hands, white with dryness, mottled
with age and pigment disease, injuries and time.
My own, brittle, cracking hands, as unaware
as the rest of me, distracted by my age, her youth,
from what she said. My deflection to the class,
“What did the rest of you think?” met no answers.
The class hid their ideas, if there were any,
the way I hid my hands, clenched as if squeezing
the wall clock’s numbers inside my fists.
Gary Leising is a professor of English at Utica College, and author of three chapbooks of poetry, as well as one book–The Alp at the End of My Street–from Brick Road Poetry Press in 2014.