The Darmstadt Year
I read out the sign at our new base:
Freedom Through …
Vigilance, said Dad. We’re here
to keep an eye on the rascals.
At the curved edge of the mountain road, Dad cussed
the thick white slush that stopped our tires. Snow clouds stuck
on the windows, snow chunks caught in the wipers.
Dad cussed the other cars for not stopping. Mom cussed Dad
for not bringing chains. Dad cussed Mom for always
cussing at him. Mom cussed Dad for cussing at her
in front of me. Then Dad set out on foot.
Mom slithered over the front seat, curled up
close to me. Locked in the back of the Falcon for hours –
no blanket, no food, no place to pee – just me and Mom
in the freezing silence, each of us
waiting for rescue.
ii. The clock
Peas fleeing my plate.
No, not like that. Skewering me
with his look. Hold it like a pencil.
And use your knife.
Jesus, is that how you hold a pencil? Is it?
Show me. Show me how you hold a pencil.
Grabbing my right wrist, lifting me
like a Raggedy Ann, tossing me
from my seat. I hit the wall,
right beside the grandfather’s clock
our landlady in Edinburgh
had given her perfect tenant
because he always paid the rent on time, early even.
Jesus, Jesus! Leaping up to check
no damage had been done
to the big brass weights, the precious chimes.
Her first night home from the hospital:
a can of minestrone, a duet
of muffled yells.
Library books in a stack by my bed.
Turning pages, turning pages. Steeled
against sleep, my body stiff with listening.
Next day’s news: stitches broken open.
More sitting in pale green rooms
watching soft white padded shoes.
In the burnt-orange glow
the hotel lady dripping chiffon
shimmied her chest,
arms open like Jesus.
With a sneaky smile
she unhooked her golden
bra, waved it like a flag
above our heads.
from the mouths of the crowd –
Army and Air Force,
some in their civvies.
No kids but me.
I studied the lampshade
on the table, counted the ice cubes
in my parents’ drinks. Later,
in our room upstairs, Mom untying
a fancy old tassel –
ruby red with mustard gold –
from the key
on the wardrobe door.
Pressing it to her naked
nipple, twirling his shirt
with a husky laugh, making jokes
with her eyebrows.
No escape. Nowhere to go
but the pull-out cot.
v. In the middle
My mother was leaning
in their bedroom doorway
in her bright blue two-piece
with the tiny flashes of lightning.
Her belly soft as jello,
the curvy tops of her breasts
just showing. My two-piece
dangling in her bedroom hands.
Put on your suit, she said.
Don’t be shy, she said.
Cindy, put this on, she yelled
from the doorway.
Standing by their mahogany bed, lifting
my t-shirt over my head, laying it
on their off-white bedspread.
Steered to the living room.
The music a warm slow breeze.
My mother swinging her hips and swaying
her arms, spreading the jazz all around.
Lightning was loose in the air.
I was there. With the middle of my body
in the middle of my father’s view.
He leaned back on the couch, folded his arms.
My turn to dance.
The clean white rectangle on my desk,
the sticks of colour I scooped from the tin,
the room bright with noise. My hands on my lap.
Don’t you want to draw yourself, said Mrs McClard,
spreading kindness over me like honey on bread.
But I knew how to make it so nobody mattered.
I could wait and wait for a thing to end.
Mrs McClard led me up to her desk.
Whatever she was about to do,
I surely deserved it. She sat me down and drew
my face, long brown hair, rosy cheeks.
All the pictures were taped up high. Only mine
was perfect. But that crayon smile was a lie.
I was the blank it was meant to hide.
Previously published in its entirety in The Wombat Vedas: Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology 2011.