Thursday, January 16, 2020

In jail with Grandma

All hungover and woozy, I drove dizzy
through the woods
to Grandmother’s house.

After hugging and kissing her at the door,
getting down some of what she called her
“chipped-chocolate cookies,” a snootful of
her full-body perfume (Evening in Paris, via Kmart) treatment,
I ran for her bathroom, the walls in there

all jagged fragments of bargain table wallpaper
a weird combination of palm trees and stagecoaches
and Jesus in a frame over the toilet tank, and I threw it all up

half a case of Schlitz and homemade Betty Crocker cookies,
creating a sort of Cirque de Soleil effect on the bowl, wall,
and all over the floor.

I could hear Grandma Mabel’s jewelry clinking, she was
sneakily, discretely hovering outside the bathroom door.
“You ok in there, honey? You been honky-tonkin’ again?”

I wiped up my mess with a wet, pink washcloth and flung it
out the bathroom window to wash later, somewhere else,
if I remembered, and came out through the bathroom door.

“I’m a little drunk,” I said.
“Oh honey love, not again. Why?” she asked, pushing more cookies at me.

I told her why.

“I had a hot date with the head cheerleader two Friday nights ago but I didn’t
kiss her because I was too shy and awkward so she spread it all over school
that I'm gay, which is ok because some of my best friends are gay but not really true
because I wanted so much to kiss her, had been dreaming of it, even practicing, but I didn’t,
and she called off our date for Homecoming to go with the quarterback instead
(bigger muscles, better car, less alcoholic—the cheerleader had a point*), so
the night of the dance I drove to the 7-11 to buy a whole lot of beer and Annie Green Springs
and when the clerk asked for ID, I told him to fuck off, then the policeman behind me
kindly tapped my shoulder to calm down and I flipped him off, so I went to the
Prairie Village jail all night and the morning after Homecoming.”

Then I sat down in Grandma’s dining room and exhaled.

“Bless your heart,” Grandma Mabel said from the kitchen,
making me some Folgers coffee. She brought out the cups, sat down
and went into prayer posture. I went along with it. Why not?
First jail, now throwing up and praying.

But I felt hopeless, praying like that, and dull, drunk like that.
Nothing and no one on the Kansas horizon.
I saw my reflection in a glass cabinet full of Kennedy commemorative plates,
I saw myself looking as old as Mabel.

Or so I thought.

Because, the praying over, Grandma said something else, something very

“I see you looking at yourself,” she said, her full-to-the-brim
cup of coffee, on her finger
dangerously dangling
delinquently dripping
on her lap.

“What do you see, honey? A handsome young man, maybe?”

I looked back into the reflection of the Kennedy cabinet.
I was expecting to see a guy all messed up, lost, confused, wrong,
even bad. But I saw somebody else. So did Grandma.
Who didn't look old anymore. Whatever old is supposed to look like.

“Honey,” she said, “you’d look good in jail!

That was the beginning of Act 2, for me.

Grandma went back into the kitchen. She started laughing, laughter
a little bit raunchy for a grandmother, but she never was a woman into
labels or limitations. She said, from in there, sort of off stage—

“And you can bring that washcloth back in here, honey. We may be in the midwest,
but you don’t have to hide those kind of things from me.”

* This poem, written 45 years later, has a note to bring it up to date,
maybe irrelevant to the poetry, but here it is. The quarterback
is now a rich, pudgy Republican, in jail for sexual abuse and rape.
I'm not in jail, but Grandma was right. I looked good when I was.

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