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Fever of Unknown Origin
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     A Little Tenderness
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A Little Tenderness


I didn't know this would be about you,
you prowling
the back hills of these pages,
an insomniac
in your soft pink mules, long white
terrycloth robe.
In one hand, a red brown drink
slides over ice cubes in a fat glass.
Your other hand pinches a Salem
between two yellowed fingers.
The cigarette's filter sports
red petals of your
Frankly Scarlet
lipstick, cast-off "Os"
in the bathroom basket.

Every morning
those same fingers hold
a nylon bristle brush to pull
my straight hair
into a pony tail so tight
my head hurts.
"I have to put on my face," you say,
drawing a fresh red smile. By the
end of the day, it cracks
like the unsettled earth
beneath our house.

In the narrow kitchen
you paint red roosters
on a wilderness of maple
cupboard doors.
They call to one another
from red stretched
throats, harsh
voices stark against the
trembling silence.
I crouch against the white
refrigerator, listening.

You bake for us on Thursdays
singing with Frank over
luminous batter
Doesn't like crap games
with barons
and earls. Won't
dish the dirt with
the rest of the girls

A 40's voice,
smoky warm, and loose
look

at me, I'm as helpless
as a kitten up a tree


The surf of dark conversation in a
piano bar, hanging
from a cloud I can't
understand

a wet and redolent opening
a tear in the fabric
where everything
pours out,
Look at me, singing,
as you do laundry on Monday,
I wander
plastic baskets
mouth filled with wooden
clothespins, orange box
of Tide, blue bottle of
Clorox, Downey Fabric
Softener, through this wonderland
alone
, singing

over the ironing on Tuesdays
your voice humid, fogged-in. She
may be weary, women do
get weary

smell of hot steel
on white cotton. the same
shabby dress
. Hair tied back
in a red bandana, a tempest
held by a garden gate You know
she's waiting, just anticipating

as if it didn't cost you.

Singing, you clean on
Fridays. Playtex gloves,
yellow mop, steel
bucket, Spic and Span,
Johnson's Wax, large
bottle of Mr. Clean,
blue Tidy Bowl, wearing
the same
. Thursday
is grocery day
Wonder Bread, Skippy
Peanut Butter, Miracle
Whip, Oreos, Welch's
Grape Jelly, Golden Guernsey
homogenized
milk, things she may never
possess
, I know,
Mom, I know, I hear

Try
you sing, in the car
heading to the store.
to the doctor,
to me, to church,
to the D.A.R.,
bridge club.
to lunch
with Helen or Sib.
Try
a little tenderness


As if it didn't cost you.

Part II

Then one Manhattan
too many cracks
open the bars
of your rib cage, sets loose
a roaring monsoon
to pillage living room,
kitchen, and stairs.

Books fall from shelves, rugs huddle
against walls, the bare bones
of the hardwood floor beaten by
cocktail glasses, napkin shreds
with pictures of bubbles and
elephants who dance.
I can still see the lean fragments
of ancestral Haviland china,
one patent leather Mary Jane shoe, mine,
bent double beneath the weight
of how you couldn't, would never have and
no one appreciated, no one
knew and you couldn't do it all,
another minute, do you hear me,
not one more minute, and her care
And a word that's soft and gentle
Try

Those nights,
I lay in my bed,
curled like a pill bug.
I remembered stories I'd heard
about Hiroshima
nuclear shadows on white pavement, Mom,

a little tenderness.