Cleveland—home of Republic Steel and Case
Western Reserve—divided by a stretch of
Rapid Transit tracks through flat lands littered
with abandoned buildings, beer bottles and
appliances, the Cuyahoga—
decaying boundary between East and West.
On Saturdays, our pockets heavy with change,
we boarded the train and rode West, Pam and I,
tempted but never daring to cross water
or pass downtown, the Terminal Tower—
a buoy sticking up in an ocean of smog.
Our parents, professionals preferring
the integrated suburbs East of the city—
proof of educated, open-minds—settled
on tree-lined streets and pointed to the naked yards
of our western neighbors, to Nativity scenes
still standing in Spring and said “See?”
Later, smoking pot under the watchful eyes
of Shawn Cassidy and Peter Frampton—posters
pasted on the walls of her attic suite—
Pam made prank calls to Josh, a Jewish boy,
and I confessed a fascination with
steel workers, welders and boys with primed cars.
Jamie was one, his father sole proprietor of
a junkyard just west of the tracks. Jamie—
scrappy and thin but with fingers magic
when caressing the keys of our Steinway
and a smile like a prize lure underwater, shivering.
I married a black man and Pam married Mike,
a blue-collar boy. Weekends, we pack babies in cars
and cross bridges. The river wreathes round the Terminal
and between us, tagging the change—a distance
admitted by fewer visits and manifest in
the loose-fingered way Mike shakes my husband’s hand.
Wi de ina de same boat—“Toys-R-Us,”
ah so de sign seh . . .
Nuh haffi have no pretty-pretty degree
fi figure hit out, or fi wuk ya, needa.
All mi wan is fi dem fi stop suck een
fi dem mauga belly an squeeze dem selves
ina sum cookie cutta shape
“De Maan” press down pon dem soft, doughy flesh.
Een jus’ wind wi up an’ set wi loose,
forcing three thirty-five an’ lunch-time
cut short an’ minute past closing fi talk bout
company policy an’ use of de phone.
Mi seh ‘im nuh have nuh right to treat dem so.
Hell, dem a ‘im very best customah—
spend dem money pon ‘im cheap, plastic shit—
baby doll and formula dem cyan even afford.
Still, de bwoy dem play de number Friday evening
and de women—Likkle Miss Makeup—beg fi service
from relaxers, fade cream an’ hot comb pon Sattaday,
den waste wha’ lef’ pon 1-800-PSYCHIC.
Dem mek mi look bad, mon.
All mi want is fi dem fi pull up dem pant,
trade dem Air-Jordon-state-of-de-art shoe
fi some razor-sharp seam and combat boot—
military starch, like deh G. I. Joe dem—
but when de position open up begging
fi experience, dem jus’ a dig in dem tick, rubba heel
an’ like de animal wha’ dem compared to,
refuse fi move—stupid fool dem.
Dem stand back an’ let some high color,
pretty-pretty college bwoy—straight nose, stiff spine—
come an’ tek way de job dem can do fi dem self—
dis go ya so an’ dat go deh so.
A wi walk roun’ an’ show dem how fi play de game—
bicycle and stroller, big ticket item;
action figure, aisle nine; Sega, aisle two . . .
Mi seh, “Gi mi de money, an’ de tikle too.”
De day done but ‘im hug wi paycheck,
try an’ squeeze ten extra minute out of wi—
point ‘pon de long, sticky stretch of chewing gum
stuck pon de floor an say, “Do me a favor . . . “
Mi tell ‘im, “Wi nuh paid fi clean floor,” but dem hop-to—
puppet on a string—looking fi few cent more,
dem line up like domino an’ skin a dem teet.
Dem noh understan’—if one go down, dem all go down.
If dem jus’ shut dem big, tick lip,
an’ keep de system fi dem self, but no, dem jus’ play
dat push-button recording, over an’ over—
“Yes suh, no suh” an’ “Mi do it right away, suh.”
We’re all in the same boat—“Toys-R-Us”—
that’s what the sign says.
Don’t need no fancy degree to figure it out
or to work here, either.
All I want is for them to stop sucking in
their meager bellies and squeezing themselves
into some cookie cutter shape
“The Man” presses down into their soft, doughy flesh.
He just winds us up and sets us loose,
forcing three thirty-five and lunch-time
cut short and minutes past closing to talk about
company policy and use of the phone.
I say he has no right to treat them that way.
Hell, they’re his very best customers—
spend their hard-earned money on his cheap, plastic shit—
baby dolls and formula they can’t even afford!
Still, the boys play the numbers Friday evening
and the women—Little Miss Make-ups—beg
the services of relaxers, fade creams and hot combs
on Saturday, then waste what’s left on 1-800-PSYCHIC.
They make me look bad, man.
All I want is for them to pull up their pants
and trade those Air-Jordon-state-of-the-art shoes
for razor-sharp seams and combat boots—
military starch, like the G. I. Joes—
But, when the position opens up begging
for experience, they dig in their thick, rubber heels,
and like the animals they’ve been likened to,
refuse to move—stupid fools.
They stand back and let some high color,
pretty-pretty college boy—straight nose, stiff spine—
come and take the job they’re perfectly able
to do themselves—this goes here and that goes there . . .
Hell, he needs us—we teach them boy how to play the game—
bicycle and stroller, big ticket items;
action figures, aisle nine; Sega, aisle two . . .
I say, “Give me the money, and the title, too.”
We’ve done our time but he hugs our paychecks,
tries to squeeze ten extra minutes out of us,
points to the long, sticky stretch of chewing gum
stuck on the floor and says, “Do me a favor . . .”
I tell him, “We’re not paid to clean floors,” but they
puppets on a string—looking for a few cents more,
they line up like dominos, flashing their teeth.
They don’t understand—if one goes down, they all go down.
If they would just shut their big, thick lips
and keep the system to themselves, but no, they just play
that push-button recording, over and over—
“Yes Sir, no Sir” and “I’ll do it right away, Sir.”
At night, struggling with the memory of how he came
hanging from his father’s hand like a duffel bag,
he creeps through the house searching
the cupboards for something that isn’t there,
as if what he craves will reveal itself
in the corners behind cereal boxes and bags
of rice, but food will not satisfy this
hunger—deep, angry growl locked in a knot of
teenage sinew, a pot of simmering broth—
the longing for his mother—spicy,
like acid he cannot digest.
Sure that our drawers hold secrets, he sifts through
collections of pens, paper, a dollar’s worth of
change, but what he wants doesn’t reside in our house.
Sadness comes in envelopes addressed to others
in a stranger’s empty handwriting—bills, business,
a birthday wish from a grandfather that isn’t his.
No trace of the lazy loops and letters arching left
he vaguely remembers. This woman, veiled
in folds of distance, possesses the sacred
spaces of our home, haunts his waking moments, plants
me in my place—the target of his rage—his
mother, halfway across the world, silent.
Words written on scraps of notebook paper—crumpled
sheets covered in black—give shape to this thing
that floats, undefined—a cloud of brackish water—
the humidity of held back tears, silent years
gathering in a mass of shame he claims as his own.
Like the necklace he borrows, lifted
from the satin-lined spaces of my jewelry box—
a gift from his father—fine gold chain
too feminine to fit his muscular neck.
A mother’s intuition—I know where to look,
finding it wrapped around the chewed end of a pencil,
tucked in the canvas corner of his backpack
among crumbs—remnants that collect
in the lonely recesses of pocket—
a candy wrapper, letters from his girlfriend,
the ragged remains of an apple.