Photography © Linda Matthews-Denham

 

Doris

You sit in a shiny, laminated chair
With plastic cushions
That fart, pffff, at your arrival.
They sit next to you.
Their chair is just the same.
Pffff, you look at them.
(Was that the chair?)
Glossy eyes stare ahead
At the peeling floral wallpaper?
At the daytime talk show?
At the lacquered armoire?
“Look,” you say, voice chipper
“I went to the zoo.
I took a picture of the Jerboa.
They look like little kangaroo mice.”
(Mice are your favorite)
Their chest rises and falls.
A flick of the eyes
Hands clenched under a crusty blanket
“There are no mice here,” they say.
“They are cute with their whiskers
And little feet.”
(You saved every mouse you could.
Even at the expense of your cabinets.)
“Look,” you hold out your phone. “Mice.”
“Oh, how cute,” they say.
They watch the same video
Again, again, again.
The mouse sprints round,
Leaping, all four limbs outstretched,
Digits clasping the suet.
(Do you remember showing me
How to feed the goats?
Palm flat.
Food out.
Hold still.
Tickling scooping tongues
Pull seed and wafer from my fingertips.
Do you remember smiling?
Telling me about the goats
You had on the farm?
Their eyes didn’t scare you.
But I took a step back).
“They kill mice here,” they say.
“Oh,” is all you mutter.
Death is preferable to infestation,
But does it make you sad?

You lean forward, back twisting,
Pfffff. You know what to do.
“They do their best,” you say,
“But your hair is awful. Let me fix it.”
You comb and curl
White hair obedient, fine.
(Gentle, gentle, around the ears
Don’t hook them with the comb.)
“That’s better,” you say,
“Let’s fix the rest of you up now.”
You do the ugly bathroom work–
Trimming eyebrows, plucking chin hairs
(Why are they always so coarse and ragged?)
You shave the mustache.
You circle lotion around,
Moving in and out of wrinkles
And along a nostril
Then two
And through a forehead crease.
You run ChapStick along
Flaking, cracked lips.
You cut and buff their nails
(Toenails too).
But the skin, thin with bulbous veins,
Is cracking too.
Along the nails, blood leaks
Swelling
Until the drip dives down the digit
Soaking into their favorite trousers
(The olive-green ones with the crease down the front).
Palms are brittle
Forearms flake
Toes, balls, heels, and ankles
Are white with death.
You rub lotion–lavender
With faint hints of chamomile–
Into their desert,
Fingers, palms, forearms
Toes, balls, heels, ankles.
“There,” you say.
“That must feel better.”
(Do you remember
Brushing out my hair?
Your gentle brushstrokes
Never tugged skull,
Never loose a tear.)

You repeat, louder, almost a scream,
“Doesn’t that feel better?”
Their head turns,
Eyes, black and blue, jiggle
When the balls stop.
They stare, mouth slightly open
Breath like Ritz Crackers.
“Isn’t that better?” You smile.
“Where is my mother?” They ask.
A note of desperation sings.
She is dead and buried
Off highway eight, in the
Cheapest plot
Next to the guardrail,
Sleeping forever next to the
Whiz and vroom of cars.
“She’ll be here later,” you say.
“I want to go home,” they say.
Home has been pulled apart, packed,
Disposed, scattered.
Home has been sold.
“In a while,” you say.
You hold their hand in yours,
Icy fingers limp in your palm.
“Who are you?” they ask.
Your answer doesn’t matter.
I’m your mother
Your child
Your grandchild
Queen Elizabeth
Elvis Presley
The Janitor
A stranger
You.
But of course you answer.
“I’m your granddaughter.”
You stare, eyes intent,
Pleading silently, desperately,
Please, please, please, remember me.
“Oh,” glossy eyes stare ahead.
What’s over there?
A labeled family photo collage?
Neon plastic flowers?
A stack of hospital socks?
Pfff, you settle back against
The rigid chair.
It bites your back.
Squeeze their cold, fragile hand,
Pull their malleable arm
So it links with yours.
You remember cuddling on the couch
Watching Indiana Jones
(You always loved terrible movies).
So you take their arm,
Breathe in the sterile oatmeal
Of their sweater
And put on reruns of
Lucy Lawless’ Xena: Warrior Princess.
(You loved Gabby)
You hope the vampire episode
Doesn’t come on.
That always frightened you.
(Do you remember the way you laughed
When I hid under the blanket?
Tucked into your side?
Pulling tissues from your pockets?
Asking if the scary parts were over?
Do you remember patting my head?
Calling me Sweet Pea?
And saying “Not yet,
They’ll be over soon?”)
“I want to be with my mother,”
they say, voice a jailed whisper.
Like they’ve been begging,
Pleading, trapped, imprisoned.
Like they are only five years,
A tiny peanut with giant curls
And a break-your-arm attitude,
Angry that the boys won’t
Let them play baseball
And that their mother took away their dessert
(He deserved that punch after all)
But desperate for their mother’s affections,
Doled out to motherless cousins
Instead of mothering them.
You squeeze their hand.
There’s nothing else you can do.
“I promise,” you say. “You’ll see her soon.”
“Can we go now?” they beg. “I’ll be good.”
“In a bit,”
You
Lie.
They know you’re lying.
Glossy eyes stare at
Rounded wall trim?
Yellowing wall switches?
Flaking baseboard heaters?
Pfff, you lean over
Sandpaper tissues scrape
Your cheeks as
Wet salt drips down,
Pools at your chin, then falls,
Splat, onto your jeans.

 

A.L. Gamache is a New England native, born and raised in Connecticut. She is an aspiring novelist, book lover, houseplant enthusiast, wannabe beach rat, and scarf hoarder. Her work is primarily fiction–absurdist, fantasy, and realism–but she occasionally takes a step over to poetry (the dark side) when it is the only genre that ignites her heart. A.L. Gamache currently teaches Composition and 200-level literature to college students (they’re all using ellipses wrong) while navigating motherhood (baby shark, doo, doo, doo, doo) and doing basic “adulting.” She is ready for a vacation.

Linda Matthews-Denham lives in the countryside along the Thames River in Berkshire, England. Her passion is photography, photo restoration and art history of Paris. She also works very closely with many British authors restoring images for publication.