BUYING A STAR
An ad on the radio says that you can buy a star.
Call the toll-free number, charge it
to your credit card, and they'll send you
a parchment certificate of authenticity
and constellation chart with your actual star circled,
mapping your province of gaseous darkness, fire and ice,
over which you can rule, like the Creator.
The summer we got married, remember the night
we wrapped ourselves in blankets
and lay on our backs on the hood of our Toyota,
watching the meteor shower?
For an hour, we lay so still--
a husband and wife side by side
atop the stone lid of a medieval sarcophagus.
Beneath us, the damp grass
shivered with crickets and, above,
quick as eye blinks,
meteors streaked across the sky.
Every few seconds we'd see one die.
There! there! in the upper-right-hand-corner--
no martgage, no upkeep, no perpetual care--
there we are! buried in darkness, flashing,
"Name the eight states that begin with the letter M,"
Mohammed, my driving teacher, says.
I'm forty-one. Am I in school?
I glance at the rear-view mirror, glad I can't see
my embarrassing STUDENT DRIVER bumper sticker.
I spread a ghost-map across the windshield,
scroll down the east coast, top to bottom.
"Maine. Massachusetts. Maryland."
Sweaty left hand gripping the turn signal,
I step on the gas, edging out
into congested Nassaue Street in Princeton.
Twenty years since I last drove a car,
twenty years since I was a passenger in the red VW Bug
my boyfriend Jeremy totaled on a Vermont back road,
twenty years since plastic surgery
fixed my broken cheekbone and eye socket,
my double-vision, but not my fear.
"Are you hurt?" the priest has asked,
standing over me as I lay dazed
on bloody gravel, waiting for the ambulance.
Last rites? He'd just happened to be driving by.
Where am I? It's as if I just woke up
and found myself in the driver's seat, steering
the company car onto suburban country roads
past ugly half-built multi-million-dollar mansions,
muddy sub-divisions, my right foot
on the gas, my cold hands at the wheel
nailed at ten and two o-clock.
"Minnesota," I say, "and Michigan,"
stopping inches from the crosswalk.
An orange hand flashes DON'T DON'T DON'T.
I check the speedometer, fuel guage--
dash board lit up like a cockpit.
"Mississippi, Missouri. Mobile, and in mobile,
as in automobile," I say. "Get it?"
Bearded Mohammed frowns, not in a joking mood.
Strip malls and luxury town-house condos streak by
as his sneakers tap-dance around his safety-breake.
We lurch. Stall. Cars behind us honk.
"Montana. Have I named them all?"
"Next lesson, I'll teach you how to park,"
Mohammed grins, adjusting his turban.
"Now, name four states that begin with the letter A."
I rev my engine. "Alabama, Arkansas."
At sea, I'm seasick in the Bible Belt.
"Arizona. Oh God, I almost forgot Alaska!"
"Relax," Mohammed says. "It's like I told you.
While you drive, you can keep your mind on
more than one thing at a time."
1997, 10" x 7", oil and alkyd on wood panel
see more of Kathy Keler's work
These children's faces printed on a milk carton--
a boy and a girl
smiling for their school photographs;
each head stuck atop a column
of vital statistics:
date of birth, height and weight, color
of eyes and hair.
On a carton of milk.
Half gallon, a quart.
Of what use is the body's
container, the mother weeping milk or tears.
No amount of crying will hold it back
once it has begun its journey
as you bend all night over the toilet,
over a fresh bowl of water.
Coins of blood splattering the tile floor
as though a murder had been committed.
Something wasn't right, they say,
you are lucky.
Too soon to glimpse the evidence
of gender, or to hear a heartbeat.
Put away the baby book, the list of names.
There are four thousand, at least, to choose from.
No need now to now their derivations,
Faces pass you in the supermarket
as you push the wire cart down the aisles.
The police artist flips through pages
of eyes and noses, assembling a face,
sliding the clear cellophane panels into place.
You take a quart of milk.
Face after face,
smiling obediant soldiers,
march in even rows
in the cold glass case.
When my daughter was two,
watching The Wizard of Oz on television,
the moment the Wicked Witch appeared in a scene,
Emma would walk, as if hypnotized,
to the glowing screen and kiss
the witch's luminous green face
in the same placating way
my mother used to kiss the little silver hand,
the charm she wore on a chain around her neck.
The day Emma was born, my mother
bought a yard of narrow red satin ribbon.
She tied a bow, several bows,
and basted the loops together in the middle
until they formed a big red flower
she Scotch-taped to the head of Emma's crib
to protect her while she slept.
My mother made a dulpicate,
in case I lost the first one,
to pin onto the carriage hood.
"You can never be too safe," she said.
My mother used to coo in Yiddish over the crib,
my granddaughter's so beautiful."
And then suddenly as if remembering something,
something very bad, she'd go "pui pui pui,"
pretneding to spit three times on the baby's head.
My mother wasn't some fat bubbe from the shtetl.
She owned a business, drove a car.
I'd never seen her act this way before.
Sitting at her kitchen table, she lit another Kent.
"You should have given Emma an ugly name
to ward off the evil eye.
Harvey Lebow, the brilliant young concert pianist?
The evil eye was jealous, so it killed him.
Mrs. Cohen, who won the lottery
and went on a spending spree?
A week later, she had a miscarriage.
Remember Bonnie, the doctor's daughter,
you friend who died of leukemia
when you were growing up?
Her mother wore a floor-length mink;
they had a pinball machine
in their basement rec room.
That's like an open invitation."
My mother stubbed out her cigarette.
My hand fanned the smoke away.
"Ma, You don't really believe
in that hocus-pocus, do you?"
"Maybe not," she said, "but it doesn't hurt."
In 1959, at Horace Mann Elementary
in North Bergen, New Jersey,
wearing white on Wednesday meant you were a virgin,
wearing red on Thursday meant you were a lesbian,
wearing green on Friday meant you were a tramp.
The gymnasium, with its locker room and showers
and drains, moldered in the basement.
Sanitary napkin dispensers were always empty,
and the changing room with stalls for privacy
had white flapping curtains that didn't quite close.
I undressed, and put on my gray cotton symnsuit
out in the open with all the other girls.
The gym teacher, Miss Piano, wore a Dutch-boy haircut.
Her legs were as solid as a baby grand's.
She called us by our last names, like privates in the army,
and clapped, as each girl climbed the ropes
and disappeared into girders and beams
and caged light fixtures on the ceiling.
When my turn came,
I gripped the lowest knot and dangled down;
my legs drawn up, I looked like a dying spider.
On wooden bleachers, chummy as sorority sisters
the lucky girls who had their periods
gossiped and did their homework
after handing Miss Piano a note from the nurse.
Where was my excuse?
After gym class, I'd undress in my own stall,
stuffing my gym suit back into its mildewed bag.
But first, I'd examine my underpants
for the red smear of "the curse."
The last of my friends, the last of the last.
No luck. I'd swathe myself again
in my neutral clothing.
When one morning, I woke up,
two black ink blots staining my pajamas,
I dragged my mother out of bed to tell her.
We squeezed into the bathroom
as if into our clubhouse,
as if she were about to show me the secret handshake.
Blushing, leaking, I sat on the tub's rim,
as if poised over the mikveh, the ritual bath.
Stuffed inside my underpants,
the bulky Kotex, safety pins, and elastic sanitary belt
I had stored in my closet for over a year.
My mother took a seat on the toilet lid.
"Ma," I shyly said, "I got my period,"
then leaned over to receive her kiss,
She looked as though she were going to cry.
In her blue nylon nightgown, her hairnet
a cobweb stretched over her bristling curlers,
my mother laughed, tears in her eyes,
and yelled, "Mazel Tov! Now you are a woman!
Welcome to the club!"
and slapped me across the face--
for the first and last time ever--
"This should be the worst pain you ever know."
Jane Shore teaches at George Washington University and lives in Washington, DC and Vermont with her husband, the novelist Howard Norman, and their daughter, Emma. Her first book of poems, Eye Level, won the 1977 Juniper Prize; her second book, The Minute Hand, won the 1986 Lamont Poetry Prize, awarded by The Academy of American Poets; and her third book, Music Minus One, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest book is Happy Family, published by Picador USA in 1999.
Published in Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 2001.