Break Up

There are two lies waiting after this poem. I am a prism,
each day’s light bends inside me, inverting
the things I see, like the man punching wads
of bulbous dough in the pizzeria next door.

The best pizza I’ve ever had was in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
My college friends forgot that the booths filled up
early on Thursday nights. I stood at the end and danced
with men who were just trying to get to the restroom.

Two sets of those friends will marry each other and later
one of the women, Jeannette, will sit at that same booth,
trying to wave away seventeen years with Lee. “Maybe
you should travel,” I will say. Strings of cheese stretching

From the sizzling pan between us to the slice on my plate.
“People used to travel out of state to divorce all the time.”
The day’s light will bend inside me like Jeannette’s sigh.
“Still the proper way to do it.” She will chew with her mouth open.

Inspired by Philip Levine’s poem “Truth.”

Early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

Hanging From the Ceiling

“I know it’s cold in here, Libby, but don’t you think what you’re wearing is a little much?”

She would say that. My mother. I scanned her pristinely white sneakers and the store-bought worn jeans she was wearing before I shrugged.

“Can we just get this over with?” My winter coat tightened over my shoulders.

“We should take a before-and-after shot. Wouldn’t that be fun? Let me get my phone.”

Bright yellow and orange flowers grinned at me from all four walls of the dinky bathroom. I could not imagine entering this room of forced happiness every morning to get ready for school. Thank God we were here to make this place more livable.

An avocado-colored bathtub squatted in the corner. I opened the cupboard under the sink and found a mostly-empty canister of Comet. There were two old shelves stacked on top of the toilet, one painted yellow, the other just plain wood. They were both broken. Another shelf, white, hung above the sink right where a mirror should be. What kind of people lived here before who didn’t need to check that they didn’t have any food in their teeth or snot hanging in their nose?

“Ready?” Mom held her phone up.

I shrugged again.

“Your hat matches the wallpaper. Did you plan that?” She winked one of those Mom winks at me.

“Are you going to take the picture or not?”

She faked a pout and then raised her rhinestone-covered phone to eye-level. “Aren’t you going to smile? This is a big day. The Winton girls out on their own for the first time. Let’s show ‘em no fear, huh?”

The left side of my mouth raised slightly before the click.

“Okay, you get anything that isn’t nailed down out of here and I’ll go get the stuff from the car. Be right back.” And she was gone.

I grabbed the shelf off the wall, walked the five steps into the kitchen, and slammed it as hard as I can into a large metal garbage can. Something inside me loosened when I heard the hollow sound it made. I did the same with the other two shelves, and then I yanked the pale orange shower curtain down from its hangers. The pops of the plastic reminded me of cracking knuckles, of squeezing bubble wrap.

Mom walked in with a small steamer, drop cloths, and a putty knife. She placed them on the floor and left me a third time. I heard water filling something and then she returned carrying a heavy bucket.

“Open it for me, will you?” She kicked the steamer with her foot.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to dunk the canister into it?”

“Oh. I guess you’re right.” She placed the bucket on the floor and opened the top of the machine. “Look at you being all handy. Have you done this before?”

“Why are we doing this again?”

“Because this bathroom is ‘70s fugly.”

“No. Why are we moving here?”

“It’s the cheapest I could find.”

“It sucks. It’s mildewy and grandma-ish and jenky. Why aren’t we staying home? It’s not fair. Randy’s the one that fucked up. He should be the one to move.”

She stared at me for a moment. With a sigh, she handed me the canister. “Fill this. You’re going to be the steam queen and I’m going to work behind you peeling off the wallpaper. Okay?”

I don’t know why I didn’t take the canister from her. “Why are you letting him win, Mom? Why aren’t you fighting back?”

She grabbed my shoulders and jerked me toward the empty bathtub. “See that? Hideous as it is it doesn’t know a thing about us. And here, this toilet? This toilet won’t whisper behind our backs when we leave the room. The sink, the walls, the towel rack, the countertop, we can do whatever we want to them. We could rip them out; we could sand them down; we could paint them fucking purple.” She takes a breath, looks up at the ceiling, smiles. “We could hang them up there and no one will know. Do you understand?”

She was so exasperated I didn’t want to make it worse by saying something wrong so I just shook my head.

“Great. Then let’s start with the walls. Take that coat off, you’re going to get hot fast working the steamer.”

We spent a few minutes figuring out how to work the thing, and then we fell into a silence. With every scrap of paper falling onto the tiled floor, the room opened up. About 2 hours in, my mom started humming. About 2 hours and five minutes in, I started humming with her.

An early draft; constructive criticism welcome. To read more fiction and poetry, click the badge above.

Red Dot

“What did your father say?” my mother whispers.

I watch her gaze flit from my eyes to the painting of a peacock on the wall and back to a spot just left of my nose. Her drink is crooked in the hand that isn’t clutching me. I look past her cashmere shoulder to my sister’s television in the corner. Brian Williams is confidently addressing the almost empty room completely unaware that he is muted. The acrylic nails pressing into my wrist are elegantly curled warnings.

In my head: I steer her toward the mirror hanging not two feet away. I use the laser pointer in my pocket to circle the flames of gin in her eyes, the too-young barrette in her hair, and, somehow, the jealousy in her voice. She shakes her head in disbelief. In my head.

“It can wait, Mom.” I whisper back, and then I point toward the dining room. “They’re waiting for us.”

As if on cue my young nephew asks if he can play Red Dot with the cat again before Thanksgiving dinner is served. My sister tells him that he can’t because I have the laser. Where did he go? my nephew whines. To wash up, my sister says even though she knows I am just on the other side of the wall.

“Alex…my Lexy-man, just tell me.” My mother juts her bottom lip out. I know she wants me to take pity on her, but I can’t help thinking of the orangutan I watched on TV late last night who spent the entire episode hunting for grubs in an old banyan tree. 

I shave both words to a point before I speak. “You’re drunk.” 

“I’m not. This is my first. Promise.”

In my head: disbelief. “Ok, then. What the hell.”

My mom brings her hands together to cheer her small victory, forgetting her drink. An olive lanced by a toothpick plops onto my sister’s pristine white carpet. Brian Williams ignores it and continues mouthing words.

“Dad told me that you would try to manipulate me.” I watch her jaw fall slack. “He told me not to be afraid to cut all ties with you until after the hearing.”

She puts her martini glass down on a book shelf and I return to the dining room alone.


Last week, I told a story about how a little circled X in the 1940 Iowa Census led me to a big discovery about my grandfather, Ralph James‘s life. I found out that in January of that year he’d resigned his position as Council Bluffs Assistant County Engineer during a meeting where the board was approving raises for him and his coworkers.

Wait. During the meeting? Who would resign from their job while their salary was being negotiated? Personally, I like to hear the cha-ching before I decide to quit a job. It didn’t make sense, so I dug a little more.

My first find told me my grandfather was competent at his job. In September 1937, Ralph and his crew were loading sand when the mound collapsed on them like some backwards quicksand pit. Two men were hospitalized and later released; thirteen others were unharmed because my grandfather, the foreman, gave warning.

The next article I found was Ralph's replacementpublished in March of the same year. It introduced my grandfather’s replacement and explained that he was actually fired. I know from discussions with my dad that Ralph blamed for his job loss the Work Progress/Projects Administration (WPA)—a government program during and after the Great Depression that hired unemployed men to improve the nation’s infrastructure. But his dismissal and the relatively fast replacement make me think there must have been other factors involved.

Oh, Ralph, what did you do?

That 1940 census I mentioned before was taken in April. It listed him with his wife Gladys (my step-grandmother), and his children Barbara, 12, and Geraldine, 8.

In October 1940, the Council Bluffs newspaper published the fourth installment of draft numbers. The list of local men started with No. 1,861; Ralph was No. 1,951. I know he never fought in WWII, but having that number loom over him must have added more pressure to an already shaky situation. Drafts are fascinating and mind-boggling to me, knowing that the government could trump any plans I have for my own future. I suppose that makes me naive. . . and lucky to never have experienced it.
Petition for divorce
The next article I found confirmed that my grandfather’s life continued to fall apart. It was an announcement that Gladys petitioned for a divorce in August 1941. It gave the date and location of their marriage, new information to me. But I noticed that it introduced a story problem you’d hopefully never find in a junior high math book:

If Gladys and Ralph married in 1931 and, according to the 1940 census, their first born daughter was born in 1928, then was Barbara born out of wedlock or was she some other man’s baby girl?

I had another mystery to solve. But I have answers. Read the next installment.

Sources for the documents mentioned in this post can be found here.

Ralph James is the second man on the left in the featured photo. His sister Eva is behind him. His brother, Bill, is the other man in the picture. The women in between are Bill’s wife and daughter.


Waiting for the bus, Osage slipped her hands into her pockets and found something. Cellophane crinkled as she pulled out four bright orange and yellow Jolly Ranchers. That was the third time this month.

Osage spotted her friend Jessica’s shock of purple hair in the fourth seat from the back of the bus, their usual. She heard bubble gum snapping as she walked between the seats. “I found more candy just now,” she said when she reached Jessica. Jessica looked up from her phone. Osage recognized the deep-voiced narrator of Candy Crush saying ‘Sweet.’

“You don’t think it’s me, do you?”

“Yeah. I think you totally woke up early, carried a ladder five blocks, and snuck into my bedroom window just to put some stupid candy in my pocket.”

“Ever hear of doors, smart ass?” Jessica’s phone cheered and whistled before she continued. “Have you checked your other jeans? Maybe whoever did it hid the candy before and you’re just finding it now.”

“I checked. Nothing. It gotta be Mom because she’s not letting Jimmy, my step-dad, sleep in the house anymore. No way it’s Camden. That would require him to acknowledge my presence.”

“Why don’t you just ask her?”

“I don’t know. Why doesn’t she just give me the candy?”

“True. She’s being pretty stalkery. Like how does she even know which jeans to put them in?”

“I lay my clothes out on my dresser at night.”

“You’re such a freak, Ozzie. No one sane does that.” Jessica’s attention shifted back to her phone. Osage watched a few purple locks of her friend’s hair come loose from behind an ear. They reminded her of the tentacles of a cartoon octopus.

“Shut up. My mom does it, too.”

“That just proves my point…is she any better?”

“Sort of.” Osage traced the seam on the edge of the vinyl seat with her finger. We’ll get through this, her mom had said between sips of beer, we’ve done this before.

A few summers ago, her mom and dad packed her and Camden up for a surprise trip. They acted weird on the drive down, being super nice to each other, like Mom asked permission before she changed the radio station, and Dad didn’t check his phone once while he was driving. Camden and Osage spent the car trip tossing looks across the back seat of the Blazer.

They stayed the night at a La Quinta outside Jeff City. Boys on the floor, girls in the bed. In the morning, her dad told them to put their swimming suits on before they got in the car. After another hour of driving, her dad pulled into a parking lot near a river. They walked down a pier that ended with a tin shed, brightly colored canoes nodding at them as they passed. A man with a long beard handed them four lime green life jackets and two oars, then pointed to a canoe the color of a pencil eraser. Her mom got in first, and Osage followed, then Camden and her dad. For some reason, the morning didn’t feel fun to Osage, it felt like doing chores.

After about ten minutes of half-steamed paddling, their father pivoted to face his family. “Do you kids know where you are?”

Camden shrugged his shoulders; Osage scanned the buildings. Her dad pointed to the shed they’d just walked past. “That’s the boat rental place I worked at in college.”

“This is the Osage River?” Osage dipped her fingers into her namesake; the cool water pushed against her fingers.

“Yeah, and that’s Camdenton,”  her mother finally said. “We wanted you guys to see how gorgeous it is here, how special.”

“This is where we started,” her dad said, using his oar to turn the canoe. “And this is where we want it to end. There’s no good way to put this: your mother and I have decided to break up.” Twelve gongs of a church bell announced the arrival of the afternoon.

“It’s going to be weird for a while.” The boat reeled as her father shifted his weight. “But we still care for each other. We just think we’ll be a stronger team apart. Right, Traci?”

Back in the bus, Osage thought of the last time she’d seen Jimmy at the house. He had offered to pack their lunches. He’d never done that before.

Osage pulled her own phone out of her backpack, clicked on Jimmy’s text thread, and typed, “Thx 4 the candy!”


It starts
bright as lemons
fresh cream churned to butter
love’s weight in our hands     promising

We stitch
our lives slowly
and dye the joined fabrics
our saffron     turmeric     mustard

and so fragile
we pack our love away
like a yolk in its shell     waiting
to break

The whites
of your eyes turn
beige in our photographs
head down     arms at your side     looking

No     love
we are cowards
standing in fallow fields
we’re sunflowers in November

It starts
our lives slowly
we stow our love away
head down     arms at your side     looking

This is a garland cinquain for yeah write’s poetry slam. Click the badge to read other awesome cinquains and other poetry forms, and short fiction.

*Things are good in my relationship. It’s fiction. Promise.