By Sharon Whitehill
Humors of Strangers
One smile begets another; one kind gesture invites another. –Kathleen Parker
In the grocery-store parking lot, road empty of traffic, a half-minute dash to the recycling bins with my car left to idle as a shiny Lincoln rolls up behind and waits rather than circling around. You’re blocking a traffic lane, snaps the driver, glaring at me with Rasputin eyes. A civil response to his blustering tone, apologizing for the annoyance, sparks an explosion: Get out of here! Repeated, screaming. Get out! Get out! Go away! Go away! Like Richard the Third shouting Off with his head from the Tower: the fury of an impotent king.
Everybody in Starbucks looks happy: the freckled barista taking my order, the line of workers pulling espresso and steaming the milk, even the handful who service the drive-through. A vortex of forest-green aprons: liquid chlorophyll swirled in water, everyone pleased to be part of the dance. I remark on the ambient mood to the woman calling out names on the orders. I have a good team, she agrees, smartly snapping the lid on my cup.
Sipping our tall cappuccinos, my sister speaks of the stressed woman who mistakenly bashed her Walmart cart into the bench where my sister sat. A startling BANG of metal on metal. My sister’s quick reassurance— I’m not hurt, it’s okay— kindled relief in the woman’s eyes as a stern husband hustled her off. How governed we are by the humors of strangers, where simple compassion can solace, and rancor can taint the whole day.
A translucent white web draped on the Christmas tree, clouds of it veiling the lights to give it a heavenly glow: its angelic name in perfect accord with its delicate shimmer. I yearn to array myself in the satiny strands of its lush silken swirl, clothe my skin with a cape of its candy-floss fluff, weave a mantilla to curtain my head. Until the lovely long hank I tweak from the tree itches and burns on my skin as if spiked with stinging nettles. No benediction in water and soap from the fine threads of glass that lodge in my flesh. No relief from the unholy locks of a tormenting hair shirt.
Another Trip to the Credit Union
Week after week, in the turbulent months since you died, I drive to the credit union alone for help from the women who knew you to manage the change from a joint-account “us” to a one-account “me.” And today here comes Ann, whom I haven’t yet met. I watch as she taps her computer, finds you still on the account. Oh! Mr. Meloy! Widened eyes, rueful tilt of the head, hard swallow under her pandemic mask. I always waited on him. He was always so friendly! Her words are like a sharp lightning strike. And in the flash you are there, your big personality filling the room: your warm smile and jocund inflections so winningly matched to your bearded good looks. Driving home in the Florida sun a mist covers my eyes, condenses to grief’s acid rain.
Breasts. I wanted to have them so much that I filched from a visitor’s suitcase a pair of foam-rubber falsies. Pinning them inside my blue Lycra swimsuit, my back to my mother to hide the sudden twin bulges under my shirt, I left for the beach with a friend, sat for a while on the sandbar, lapped by the summer-warm waves. Near the perch of the good-looking lifeguard, aware of his gaze as I got to my feet, I tugged down the back of my suit and pulled up the straps at my chest— which carried my pointy new breasts nearly up to my neck. Suddenly knowing myself as outlandish as a frilled lizard in courtship display, I plunged into in the lake, unpinned the falsies under cover of water, gave them up to the face-cooling waves that would carry me far down the shore.
I am a goddess. No law or religion has ever withstood me. As true on earth as it is on Olympus. Not my lovers—Adonis, gored by a boar, Anchises, crippled by Zeus. Not Helen, whose beauty inspired thousands of men to make war. Not my latter-day incarnation in your brilliant new icon with the breathy voice, beauty mark, blonde hair tousled over one eye. No way to conceal or confine it, her being my devotee. Sexuality radiates from her as light spectrums a star. One a.m. in New York, chaos of cameras and press corps, bystanders gathered to gawk, as this gleaming girl struggles to tamp down her billowing skirt when trains breeze beneath. They call her a goddess, make her their subway-grate Venus, but there’s no hubris in her. She is only too human and knows it. For all her shimmer and blaze she is tender of heart. Nor do I strike her down as I do those who scorn love, those who choose chastity over me. She is an acolyte at my temple, yields to me, the goddess of passion. Heed, mortal. Concede or resist, I will prevail either way. I am elemental.
Dark Ages Redux
Leaders mimic Apollo, guide arrows feathered with lies toward each vulnerable heel, pierce the tendon of critical thought. The tongue of science is severed. Fires chew forests to charcoal while hurricanes ball up their fists. Crops shrivel while islands drown. Disease shadows the land like a latter-day Grendel, as soldiers and thanes drink the king’s health in the mead-hall. A serpent that swallows its tail: the symbol of rebirth distorted to a body politic gorging on lies and eating itself to political death.
I am grieving again for my misguided girl in the desert waiting for rain parched for pleasure thirsting for green I grieve for her beautiful mind starved of savor fed by conspiracy theories she follows through badlands dropped breadcrumbs flimsy as wafers that mock holy bread If I could dip from the spring of ancestral joy that wells up unbidden in me but I failed to transmit I would pour it over her dryness to bless and refresh her
He’s not very deep, says my daughter of my ex-husband, her dad. She refers to how he handles disputes: dummies up and departs. An ostrich, I railed when we were married, convinced that only his stubbornness kept us from plumbing our depths. To which his standard line: You just have to put it behind you. As if psychic pain were no more than the tight-wound rubber bands in a golf ball sunk in a lake. As if wounds were a cask so brimful of blight that one flaw in the seal would unloose a plague. As if grief were monstrous as Grendel, stalking the mead hall in order to eat him alive Males and females alike look askance at a man who surrenders to tears, no less so than he, my ex-husband, himself. At those funerals—the SIDs-death nephew, the favorite brother, our mutual friend— he was publicly wracked by his gulping, audible, baritone sobs. Emotions too long denied rupture propulsive as aortic blood.
Grand Haven Beach, Michigan
spring’s a tigress of ice who stalks the coast gnaws on saber-toothed dune grass when the winds threaten warmth slinks back to her den summer’s a queen robed in Coppertone, hot dogs, wet sand who frequently orders an army of white-crested waves to advance on the shore autumn’s a woman alone honed to her quintessence who savors each brilliant gold day ignores the beachcombers and glories in pleasing herself winter’s a sculptor of ice-and-sand caverns hung with stalactites embossing her mark on a monochrome moonscape: one iconic red lighthouse against blaze-blue skies and stark whiteness of snow
whorls in a thumbprint the ripple of ribs under skin the furred ridges of corduroy wales furrows in a tilled field frilling the gills of a mushroom ribbing the rim of a dime leaving a V in the wake of a swan or quilting the creases in snow algae that buffers the windward side of a reef to screen the sensitive coral as hair shields a head as the skull shelters a brain itself folded and grooved around the hippocampus or seahorse, whose delicate carapace crinkles with fused bony plates
Sharon Whitehill is a retired English professor from West Michigan now living in Port Charlotte, Florida. In addition to poems published in various literary magazines, Whitehill’s publications include two scholarly biographies, two memoirs, two poetry chapbooks, and a full collection of poems.