Under the Influence

Under the Influence


Martin drove me back to the university

after a weekend at home. Twenty five miles

to a different universe. That’s what I thought then.

He parked the Impala and walked me up

to my shared room at New Dorms. Want me to come in,

he said. I told him he could go home. Like a princess to a serf.

A princess with apprehension. He turned to the stairs;

I opened the door. My roommate Judy was there,

some friends, the smoky air thick and sweet with grass.

What if my father had come in? I said, my voice, usually too loud

muted by laughter, Dylan’s songs, and stoned exclamations.

Someone was lounging in my bed.

Next day, Martin called. What would I have seen, he said.

Oh, I said, improvising, some friends sprawled everywhere.

You know, college. He didn’t know but he wasn’t thick.

Be smart, he said. Don’t get carried away.

You want to talk to Mama?

I told him I’d call the next day.

I remembered but I didn’t pick up the phone.



Lab Report

Lab Report


After school I took the stairs up to the third floor,

the chemistry lab, to finish the project.

The hall was empty this late

and I was the only student in the classroom.

I mixed what I had to mix, wrote down results.

The teacher came out of his small office

and watched as I soaped and rinsed

and placed the tubes on the drying rack.

I picked up my books, held them across my chest

as girls did and turned to say goodbye.

Wiping his hands with a rag, he said,

You’re very sheltered, aren’t you.

I had no idea what he was getting at.

I was a gabby girl but I had no words to answer.

Yes, I had watchful parents, my mother once

about to call the police because I didn’t call

from my friend’s house after school.

Was that what he meant?

What exactly did he want me to affirm?

I said goodbye sir and remembered

how much easier it is to walk downstairs then up.

But it wasn’t only gravity that pulled me down.

School Girl

School Girl


I had my first crush in eighth grade. Maybe that’s late.

In sixth grade I had a boy friend, Lanny, and we played chess,

talked a bit on the playground. I only knew it was a stillbirth

crush when Susan Mermelstein made a play for him, doing

what girls did then, batting eyes, smiling into her shoulder

when she talked to him at school. I cared, but only in theory.

In seventh grade, a tireless crew set explosions

removing rocks and debris, building underground

scaffolding, channels, tunnels, bridges.

I didn’t hear any of it. Results burst through the next year,

a good-sized avalanche of emotions, urges, needs.

I fell in love with a classmate, Stuart, who played trumpet

in the band to my timpani. I called him, twisting the blue coiled

phone cord round and round my body.

I found nothing to say.

My little brother was singing and I said,

That’s what goes on around here.

Stuart was quiet, maybe said oh.

What propelled me to like a boy

I couldn’t talk to?

At the time, I didn’t know to ask that question.






My role: member of Conrad Birdie fan club

running across stage shouting He’s over there!

Freshman year, extra in Bye Bye Birdie. Brownie camera

strapped around my neck, I commanded the stage for one minute,

three words, some thirty yards, enough excitement to fuel a motorboat

plying Lake Michigan. Now the spotlight beaming on the star, senior year Maggie,

burnishing her chestnut hair, her petite frame, her heart shaped face.

She was lovely, I was ready for more lines, applause, blinding lights.

But that was it. Still, I mingled with the cast backstage, the words You’re On

sparkling like fairy lights. For me this was a one off. I couldn’t sing or dance.

I knew I could act, I knew it. But the force of the moment rumbled off

like fading thunder. I playacted backstage as if I belonged.


Life Lessons


Life Lessons


In high school I switched to Sue’s piano teacher, Miss Ward.

She took the El and a taxi to our houses, luckily

only two blocks from each other. Then she took a taxi

and the El back home. Even then I knew it was an unmerciful life.

Possibly our pieces, our Chopin and Bach and Debussy,

showed we were advanced students, but not

if you listened to us. And Miss Ward had to listen.

It was her job. My father had to mend and stitch clothes,

line seams up just so, add pockets and collars and pleats.

A tailor was steps up from a horse trader, his father’s work.

I didn’t bother with the niceities of music, eschewing

counting, rhythm, legatos, staccatos. To me

mere possibilities, whether to consider or not

at my discretion. My mother said, I don’ know

how she makes any money at all, with the taxis and the El.

I felt bad then, not for my indifferent playing–

I thought I passed the bar, but just by a hair–

but for a hardscrabble life, the endless rounds,

a tiny elderly woman wearing nylons and sensible stout shoes.



Trying Out

Trying Out


We stood on the front lawn, a thick mass of grass

spread before us like heaven unfurled.

It was that beautiful a day, late summer.

The day I wanted to be a cheerleader.

We started with simple moves, cartwheels, headstands.

Our backs arched, shoulders straight, pelvis tucked back.

The day I wanted to be a cheerleader.

I had obstacles to face: no flexibility (at age twelve)

couldn’t do a cartwheel, let alone a flip or a headstand.

I rode my bike home, lawns tidy squares, bushes clipped,

small trees carrying heavy bunches of orange berries.

The day I wanted to be a cheerleader.

I practiced doing headstands in the living room,

finally steading myself, my toes pointing at the ceiling

until I crashed, bumping head with knee. Hard.

Instantly tired, I fell asleep, unaware that even minor

concussions mean don’t go to sleep right away.

But I was so tired the afternoon I wanted to be a cheerleader.



The Beach

The Beach


Car trouble on the way to Union Pier Michigan.

Martin bent down to look under the hood,

came up with face and glasses covered with soot

or smoke, what a Chevy emitted under stress.

He was startled but fine, like a guy in a TV show,

maybe Abbott and Costello or the Riley dad

in The Life of Riley. We waited at the gas station

where the car got fixed. We were always waiting

for our apartment near the beach, from the day

we came back home to the day we went again.

We played at the mostly placid beach every day,

except when there was an undertow sign, adults

in knotted groups talking in undertones. We kids

got the gist of it, someone pulled under…

Like air we breathed in sadness and respect

for the lake, untamable, small choppy waves

belying its power. The day before we left,

needing to punish someone, my parents, myself,

I dumped a bucket of sand on my head.

Sure enough I upset Rose and for weeks

after that she rinsed sand out of my hair,

though grit like chopped cinnamon

roughed up my pillow each night.




The Alley

The Alley


My dad scraped carrots with an old thick knife,

the blade heavy, the shaft crackled and rough.

He loved carrots, being the son of a horse trader.

I see him, a boy of ten, sharing a carrot with a bay mare.

We didn’t have a peeler. Neither of my parents

needed one, my mom scraping carrots for chicken soup,

my father for a Sunday afternoon snack. He’d hand me

one with a soft, shy smile, just like my grandma’s

when she passed around a a jar of honey

filled with taglach, strips of dough rolled into small baked nuggets.

I chew my carrot, fuzzy from its scraping, and sit on our apartment’s

back porch where I watch the alley, the cars passing through

between rows of trash cans, cats sitting on closed lids.





I didn’t have a favorite toy, not like

Susie and her scruffy bunny,

all his cotton fur rubbed off, or Richard

with his Lincoln Logs that pushed out of the prairie

of the beige rug in his bedroom/family den.

I once picked up the receiver of the phone

in the toy box, but the curly cord and receiver had disappeared.

That was it for toys in the time before Monopoly and books.

I wanted them, of course, dolls especially,

thought couldn’t bring myself to play with them

once they were placed in my arms.

We were waiting for the bus, and my mom’s friend came by.

I stared into the toy store window behind us,

my one and only lifelong friend looking back,

her violet eyes shaded by bristly brown lashes.

I yanked my mother’s arm, begging, weeping

buy her, buy her, I need her forever.

Mistake one: not smiling and saying hello to the lady.

Mistake two: Going hysterical over a doll

I’d  never play with. My mother repeated

my mistakes on the never ending ride home.

Lesson one and only: You could beg and demand,

scream and yell for an item when you knew–

you did know– your mother was right.

The Stoop


The Stoop

We lived across the street from the school,

but I didn’t collect friends there. My collections

were caterpillars, comic books, special pebbles,

small crumbled shells from the unyielding shores

of Lake Michigan. I had one friend, Ferrah, whose

grandma lived with them in an apartment down the street.

She was a huddling yet fierce lady, wrapped in shawls

and scarves with thick black laced shoes. She taught us things

we didn’t learn in school. A new day starts in the evening, she said,

fierce with the truth, her eyes glinting with fire.

So in three, four hours it will no longer be Monday but Tuesday.

She told us about the devil and the gaping maw of hell.

Maybe she said the gawking mama of hell. Either way,

it was bad. The next year we drifted apart, like clouds

breaking up and reforming. I started going to the Field House

in the schoolyard, where Teach showed me how to weave potholders.

The kids didn’t like me there either. A bunch of girls

crowded up close like a small battalion and asked me

what I got on my report card. All Es I said, because that was true.

You’re lying they said, their battle cry.

If she said she got all Excellents, she got all Excellents,

Teach said. I loved her then. Later, when my mom and I

walked down the street, one of the mothers,

lounging and smoking on the stoop of her bungalow

called out, your daughter is full of baloney.

My mother (though not me) thought it was better

not to reply. I didn’t know what dignity was then.