Neighbors noticed the band teacher’s yard sprout unconventional planters over the first month of her retirement: chrysanthemums ejecting from half-buried tubas, sunflowers booming from kettle drum frames tarnished green. It was Mr. Johnson who suggested putting her talent to good use. Soon, every yard played a flower song.
Tectonics shift in the cupboard next to my head.
A new variable in the algebra of the room:
the NPR announcer’s voice, the gush of water
from the faucet, a crackle and a crash.
from al-jabr meaning “a reunion
of broken pieces”
My sister is a nurse. She tells me
hospitals are edifices of algebra.
Each bed contains
an equation to be solved.
All of my drinking glasses: why did they enter
my life only to unleash their algebra
one night in February? They are sketches
of tigers mid-leap. Still able to scratch.
The fragilest of problems to solve.
Funny to think through all of history,
Pandora’s box winds up being an old cupboard
secretive as algebra, on my kitchen wall.
My husband is a custodian. He grabs a broom and dustpan
and begins to sweep. “You are fine,” he repeats.
I imagine gluing all those pieces back together,
tasting wine sipped from algebra.
Outside, algebra is the bulb of the traffic light
and the ventilator in the ambulance whizzing past.
It is the oak tree
smiling at the world it created.
My heart is a mathematician. It quickens,
nourished by the algebra
it drowns in. A-positive, B-negative. No,
I do not know my type.
The letters in algebra
are unknown variables.
The brackets under shelves
are unknown variables.
I prefer the washrag and plate in my hands
to any algebra underfoot:
the solidity of x
to the inferred question of y.
My brother is a welder,
soldering the algebra in metal
with a white-hot torch.
from variabilis meaning “likely to bend”
In algebra, “having no fixed value”
When the kitchen floor is clear of variables,
the internet supplies more drinking glasses.
My kitchen will contain an algebra equation
I finally understand.
My friend Ron walks into his kitchen, hooks the tip of his sneaker under the bottom drawer next to the fridge, and flicks it open.
“Dude, have some,” Ron says.
Inside the drawer, I see Chips Ahoy cookies, moon pies, and those Little Debbie wafer bars that I used to beg for in the grocery store but my health-nut parents would never buy. The sugary smell of Halloween hits my nose. I swallow my spit.
Guilt floods my brain. My mother’s voice echoes in my head. “It’s all crap corporations want you to become addicted to.” But I stoop anyway and tear into a wafer bar like a lion into beefsteak. It crackles when I bite into it, and the creaminess of the peanut butter coats my tongue. It is the most delicious thing I have ever eaten.
Still chewing, we go out to the garage to work on our bikes. After a while, Ron’s mom pulls up in her Suburu.
“Hey,” I ask Ron. “Will we get busted for eating the candy?”
He stares at me, then his eyebrows round. “Man, your parents are Nazis… No, she won’t care.”
The car engine turns off and the car door slams. “Hi, Jason.”
“Hi, Mrs. Langley,” I say.
“Do your parents need a refill?” Mrs. Langley sells Shaklee products, a healthy food company that runs like Mary Kay. Once a month or so, my parents have me pick up protein powder, carob bars, and vitamin supplements.
“Nah. We’re good, I think.” My smile feels too big on my face.
I remind myself that I didn’t do anything wrong—people eat sweets every day—but a scene plays out in my mind of Mrs. Langley snitching on me to my parents. Mom would go the “disappointed” route; Dad would encourage me to double my miles on my jog.
I continue smiling, searching Mrs. Langley’s face for my secret. She eventually breaks eye contact to look at her son, then she walks into the house.
Ron pounds my arm. “What was that, weirdo?” he says.
“Dude, if my parents find out, I’ll be hosed.”
“I told you she won’t care. She thinks your parents are too strict, anyway.”
“Okay, okay” I say, but break out into a sweat anyway. We talk about BMX tricks as we ride down the street, but my thoughts stick to that drawer.
A couple weeks later, Dad slips some money in my pocket. “More power packs, some of those quinoa bars, and anything you want, kid.”
When I get to the Langley’s, I knock a few times, but the front door to the bi-level is wide open. “Hello?” I walk in. The house is eerily silent.
I wait in their front room, which is adjacent to their kitchen, whistling and tapping the glass cases filled with trim, white packages of granola and fish oil pills. The drawer in the kitchen calls to me. Before I know it, I am stooped over the open drawer.
When I pick up a box, I tell myself I am only looking. I smell it, then set it aside to pick up the next treat, a box of oatmeal creme pies. My brain flashes back to a day at school when I was eating lunch with Ron. He had opened his lunch bag and grimaced. He chucked an individually-wrapped crème pie on the floor and kicked it across the cafeteria. “Those things are nasty,” he said.
In the Langley’s kitchen, I pull out the creme pies and close the drawer. No one will notice, I tell myself.
“Jason?” Mrs. Langley stands at the bottom of the stairs. She is wearing a pink track suit and her hair is wrapped in a towel. “What are you doing?”
The pursing of her lips tells me she already knows.
“I….” I see myself on her kitchen floor, smelling her kids’ lunch desserts. “I don’t know. I’m so sorry.”
“I think you should leave.”
Without another word, I walk out.
The next morning, our landline rings while I am eating breakfast. My dad answers it. After a series of uh-huhs, he says: “Thanks for telling me, Nancy. I’ll handle it. Bye, now.” He walks over to the refrigerator, stretches, and pulls a box of Girl Scout cookies from a cabinet. He places the box on the kitchen table squarely in front of me.
“We’re not monsters,” he whispers. “Maybe we can compromise on a weekly dessert… you know, to keep you out of jail.”
Inside the small spaceship, the commander barks at his army. “Cover the perimeter. We wait until first encounter to attack.”
Morning in Wichita continues. Light from the basketball-sized hole in the Atkinsons’ dining room wall drifts across the broad pine table, where diagonal burns mark the path of the crash.
When thunder woke
finally, my living room
windows perfectly framed
its burlap anger, evangelical
The corduroy couch beneath
me, that lonely pilgrim,
knelt amidst the wildling
morning, fragile as
matins On a pathway in a park
called Adulthood, a woolly storm
dangles acorns above the ground
in which they will take root,
huffs to tamp the sound of azaleas
pining for one another,
tears magnificent holes
into the damp fabric of
an august morning In my empty living
room, I wake somehow facing
the window and wait for tendrils
of gold lamé to again point me
toward a fog-laden city My hands
will rebuild each patchwork block, only
stopping when the inevitable silken
evening blots the buildings from view
Early draft of an elegy. Constructive criticism welcomed.
Mrs. Albert surprised Mags by taking her elbow. Mags tossed her clutch on the nearest surface, an alabaster chaise longue. She allowed her lover’s mother to steer her in a circle around the wide and crowded patio of Swannanoa Palace, introducing her as Nadine’s “friend,” her voice dinging the last word like a spoon dings a champagne glass. Mags’s face flushed every time she said it. When she finally arrived home that night, she would wonder if Mrs. Albert’s acceptance was genuine or tolerated as a whim of her daughter’s youth.
An even bigger surprise of the night occurred when Mrs. Albert released her into the party with a glass of Chardonnay. Mags lingered on the outer edges of the party for a while, observing interactions, identifying the famous faces surrounding her. Actors, dancers, musicians; if she’d hadn’t entered the event with one goal, she’d be overwhelmed to the point of inaction. She scanned the crowd until she spotted the conservatively dressed woman with the sparkling necklace. It occurred to Mags in that moment that Mrs. Albert took her around to seemingly everyone but their hostess. Lao Russell—the thought of her name made Mags’s feet float above the ornate brickwork—had written the definitive book on every humans’ capacity for love that opened doors to Mags’s shyness, her inability to acknowledge her own needs. If only she could pull each page out of Lao’s book, stitch them end to end, and wear them as a scarf always.
Well, Lao seemed suspicious when Mags put her hand out and introduced herself. Mags was expecting curiosity; she was the youngest person at the party—no, memorial—by 25 years. She was also the only person wearing thigh-high boots. The bite of her idol’s distrust shook Mags’s confidence. In response, Mags blurted out something she’d read about Lao in the gossip columns. Magnets? Really? Who in their right mind would magnetize a memorial sculpture to their beloved husband? It was no wonder Lao walked away from her so quickly. But then at the sculpture unveiling, someone handed her a little magnet and everyone, six martinis in by now, rubbed them along the hundreds of rungs of the beautiful bird cage memorial. Men with their ties in their pants pockets pulled free women whose jewelry had levitated above their wrists and necks and ached for Lao’s mourning-made-artwork. It was a beautiful night. So much so that Mags had completely forgotten Mr. and Mrs. Albert. There were only a few people left talking in clusters on the lawn. Mags walked barefoot across the cold patio.
Sometime during the night, she had lost her boots, and her purse was no longer on the chaise longue where she’d left it.
She got down on her hands and knees to look under the furniture and then scan the patio. No sign of her things. She went around to the people left on the lawn and asked if they’d seen her things. The women put their noses up at her; the men followed the lines of her legs up to the hem of her miniskirt.
Tears forming in her eyes, Mags searched the patio again for her shoes. No money, no identification, and there were three mountains between her and the nearest town. Why would the Alberts abandon her? Was this their way of punishing her for tainting their daughter? This is what she gets for trying to be something she’s not: bold. She was just not ready to live the teachings of the inimitable Lao Russell. She needed to accept that she may never be.
Mags found her boots slithering underneath a withering azalea bush. She plopped on the lawn and pulled them on, hiccuping and cursing. She did not notice the ethereal woman gliding across the lawn toward her.
“What, my dear,” Lao announced so everyone could hear, “could be so awry on such a beautiful evening?”
Mags wiped both cheeks with her blouse. “Mrs. Russell! I…can’t find my purse.”
“Well, that’s because my butler has it. He found it and thought it should be kept safe.”
“Thank you.” A hiccup escaped her. “Do you know where the Alberts are? They were my way home.”
“Eddie and Alana left an hour ago. We all thought you might enjoy staying here tonight. Were we wrong?”
Mags stared at Lao.
“Because I can have Mayes drive you home if you’d rather not stay.”
“No, no. I’d like to stay. Thank you.”
Mags took a deep breath and followed her idol inside.
Mags couldn’t stop pulling clothes out of hiding places in her room and laying them out. A cerulean dress she last wore to church on Easter Sunday, a houndstooth jacket, and a pair of emerald green Capri pants hung from her bedroom doorknob. She covered her bed with three different front-pleated floral dresses, her favorite low-waisted wool number with the bow instead of a collar, and her only pair of white gloves.
She just needed to see it all out. Take inventory. Then she’d be able to decide on what to wear. She was absolutely sure of it.
She stacked her record player on a step stool and stood atop them to reach two hat boxes perched at the top of her icebox-sized closet. Inside, Mags knew, were a brand new pillbox hat and a white turban-like chapeau with a single feather reaching up like a dandelion growing in a sidewalk crack. She didn’t think either of them were appropriate for a memorial service, but what was? The famous man had died over a year ago. This wasn’t a funeral; it was his famous wife’s call for attention after an appropriate time of mourning. Her second coming-out cotillion, so to speak, but Lao Russell would never think of it that way. But this whole thing was a delicate situation.
Not only would Mags be meeting the woman who had changed her life tonight, she would also be meeting Lao Russell as a guest of her new lover’s parents. Even the term lover wasn’t quite right. Was it?
It all happened so fast. They were in Nadine Albert’s bedroom. Nadine was playing with Mags’s long red hair as they talked about Elvis, then she was curling her finger around Mags’s ear. Mags had finally asked for what she wanted instead of waiting for what was given. Well, sort of. She hadn’t used words, but her intention was clear. Mags had leaned in and closed her eyes. She had never considered kissing a woman, but the breeze was coming through the window and there was the smell of spearmint gum and that minute or two of being the center of someone else’s attention. It was the loudest thing she’d ever heard. No. The opposite.
It was the quietest symphony.
“That was far out,” Nadine had cooed after the kiss. “I didn’t think you liked me.”
“Of course, I like you. Why would I be here listening to records with you if I didn’t?”
“I meant, in that way.” Nadine blushed, sending chills up Mags’s spine. She could feel the dynamics shifting between them like blobs in a lava lamp.
“I think I just knew you’d be cool with it, and I’ve been feeling pretty sick of waiting around for something…anything to happen.”
Nadine put her hand on Mags’s knee. “What else would you like to happen?”
A billion thoughts rushed through Mags’s head. A cigarette, a Coke, listening to Don’t Be Cruel again, dancing, kissing her friend again. But through all of those thoughts, a yearning budded.
“Your parents are still going to the Russell memorial, right?”
“I want to be there. I want to meet Lao, get her to sign my book. I would never have thought to kiss you if I hadn’t read her book.”
Nadine looked at her a moment too long.
“What?” Mags huffed. She should have left it where it was. She’d gotten one thing she wanted; she shouldn’t have asked for another so fast.
“If I talk my parents into taking Lao Russell’s biggest fan to her house, will you invite me over to your place to listen to records?”
Mags had leaned in for another kiss.
Back in Mags’s bedroom, all of the surfaces in her bedroom were covered with clothes and accessories. She wanted to be respectful, someone had died after all, but she wanted to look interesting. Interesting enough to catch Lao’s attention, but not in a bad way.
No. None of the clothes would do. If being bold had gotten her here, then she had to keep being bold because it was obviously working.
She dug around in her bureau for the mini-skirt she’d only worn once before. Then she pulled the longest pair of white go-go boots from under her bed. The Alberts were picking her up in an hour. She needed to reread a few passages from Lao Russell’s book before then.
This draft is fresh off the presses. Constructive criticism welcome.
The field lies like a still lake, an opaque film
of silver or green—water or soil, apathy or
memory—obscuring the mayhem underneath
A tenebrous home once floated here. Inside:
chrysalis, pupa, larvae, whatever
I left those costumes in closets to mold over years ago.
But, then again, my home was never on the ground. Shh.
The trees drowse; their boughs rake the ground now,
remembering the press of sneakers in their moldy
crooks. Do I hear Father’s stale breath, the wheeze
of counted gates opening, the inhale of the afghan
mother comforted me with. Do I hear the things hidden
in the soil? They, unlike I, achieved their wishful plan
to stand still. The truth is I would never forget them;
I brought them more memories packed in boxes
from a different land. Kneeling, I dig in the soil, disturbing
the swimming creatures underneath, sprinkle the gypsum seeds.
My calloused hands cover them, then play the guessing game
Perhaps something will take root now— baseboards, an oaken
table, a window shutter gripping the numbers of an address.
I am a season wandering away, knowing
the exact date of my return.
Early draft. Constructive criticism welcome. What, if any, message did you get from it? What were you confused by? Did you listen to the song? How did it relate back for you?