Frances Ruhlen McConnel


Pug nose, round peasant face, a redhead’s papery skin,
invisible eyelashes, transparent brows,
green scarf pulling back hair gone pink with neglect. 
I’ve never seen her before without make-up,
and I want to go home and scrape off my eye-shadow.

One leg shorter than the other, she wears a boot
heavy as a step-stool and has to heave that side
over the humps in the lumpy cemetery ground.
I try not to reach out to her.  She says pain
has always held her by the arm. 

I remind myself we are not yet old women. 
It’s the wine, the sleeping pills, the anti-
depressants -- whatever they’ll hand out.
We’re carrying garden gloves and a trowel to plant
Easter bulbs, and she’s circling the raw mount
puzzling over what direction lies her daughter’s head.  

“Always to the East,” says the caretaker
where we find him in his Victorian cottage.  He hands us
a pamphlet on headstone design and tells us
a memorial tree at that end of the cemetery
must be pine or California rosebud.

We don’t dare ask about tulips. She crumples
the pamphlet into her purse and says
she hasn’t figured out what to carve on it:
words won’t come.  On the way back to my car
to fetch a knee pad, I pass an elderly Italian
with a watering can beside a new grave
covered in baskets of red and blue flowers.

“It should have been me,” he says. 
“I’m twelve years older -- seventy-nine.
And she had children, grandchildren.” 
As if he had nothing himself, as if his heart
would not open wide enough.

He says when they came home they found her
on the kitchen floor.  They’re still awaiting
the autopsy. He was telling it to the heavens
when we came up, now he’s telling it to me, a stranger. 

I want to say we’re visiting Shannon,
my poor friend’s child, twenty-six
and my daughter’s best friend since Fifth grade,
but maybe he’d think I was competing in grief.
There’s no making it better.

Afterwards, she stops over at my house for coffee
and tells me one thing -- every time I see her
she tells me one more sharp detail, as if
she’d read William Carlos Williams or found a line
of cuneiform on a clay tablet, like some
anthropologist piecing together a lost meaning.

She says how when she visited her daughter
in the radiation wing of the experimental hospital
there were trays of cold food stacked outside,
next to the masks and gloves and lead gowns,
and no one had dared take in her lunch or even
the curdled oatmeal with its raisin specks for breakfast. 

I make noises back, those grunts of horror
and pity.  I’m remembering Shannon’s phone call
one morning a few days before, how she kept coughing
and grew impatient at my concern, the way
it kept tripping her up. Was she saying goodbye? 

I thought it wasn’t a mother she was speaking to then,
not even her best friend’s mom, but to a friend,
that’s what I fancied.  But, still, I couldn’t help it,
the way the pain of motherhood swells like rage --

a fist around your heart and, worse, your brain,
squeezing out the meaning of the words
she was stringing together on a thread of saliva,
passing to me in explosive clusters, words
she would have wanted me to go back to.

I want to tell it to her mother or ask her, rather,
but ask her what?  So I say nothing, sitting
with her there, warming ourselves in the open door
of the oven, steam clouding the windows,
our hair coming free from the damp.

Location: Claremont, California
Publications: 2River View, Salt River Review, Mudlark, Crab Creek Review, the Wilshire Review, Soho,, etc.
Book: Wolf & Bear, forthcoming from Alpha-Zed Press
Awards: Gluck Fellowship of the Arts from University of California in Riverside

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