When my father was angry
he could not eat, and when he didn’t
we didn’t. I’d push a pork chop
from one side of my plate
to the other, the greasy
line of fat coagulating
on the white china
that wasn’t from China
but Japan where he was stationed
when the Korean War broke out.
Sometimes in the middle
of a conversation (but never
during one of his monologues)
without our knowing
what had made him angry,
he broke into silence.
What had made him
made us. I’m speaking
of my brother and me.
My mother, on the other hand,
would continue to eat and go on
talking or what could have been
mistaken for talking:
Don’t play with your food.
Don’t line up the peas.
Use your napkin, not
the back of your hand.
My father used the back of his hand
the one time he almost hit me.
I had talked back, angry
at him, but also disgusted
with my mother for letting him
use silence as a weapon again,
his lips clamped shut
while she pleaded with him
to speak to her. My father’s face
was white, its door slammed
against all three of us.
He pushed back from the table,
his chair thundering across the linoleum—
and I pushed my own chair back
answering his thunder
with thunder of my own.
Answer her! I shouted,
believing the words
of a twelve-year-old girl
could force open the locked door
of a grown man, as if
telling you this now,
all these years later—
in a poem, of all places
and both of them dead—
could change anything.
In the changing room a woman tells us
she held her cat on her lap all morning
while it struggled out of its life. After that
she couldn’t bear to stay home,
needed anyhow to work the kinks
out of her flabby body. Another woman
brings us up-to-date about her dying father.
“At our age,” she says, indicating the rest of us,
“all we talk about is sickness and death.”
Out on the floor, Madonna blares.
A few women lift weights. Others jog
or kept pace on treadmills, pedal
stationary bikes. Some don earphones,
stare at television screens lined up
like security monitors. Alone, I lower myself
into the exercise pool and swim in place
against furiously moving water.
On the floor tangled with strands
of my hair in the corners
and along the baseboards—
I am always dusting.
On the window sills, coffee table,
bookshelf after bookshelf, and the tops
of the books themselves.
Every day, everywhere—
in the water bowl, the pile of papers
I should have filed, on the cloth
that covers my father’s Olivetti,
its last black ribbon marked
by his key strokes—all those words
he typed and sent to someone
and someone else.
For Christmas my grown son gave me
a vacuum cleaner to save me
time, save me effort. No more
mopping the dust, he tells me,
or sweeping away the needles
already dropping from the tree.
It’s late March and still
I haven’t opened the box.
I would miss the broom.
I would miss the dustpan,
the dust mop. And the silence
that settles on me as I clean.
Andrea Hollander moved to Portland, OR, in 2011, after many years in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, where she ran a bed & breakfast for 15 years and served as the Writer-in-Residence at Lyon College for 22. Her 4th full-length poetry collection was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award; her 1st won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. Among her other honors are two Pushcart Prizes and two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts.