by Liz Rosenberg

My mother in a black two piece bathing suit, chic.  My father splashes water, takes a photo—we see her writhe like a cat, a terrible face, the tiger, in agony, a comedy.  I never saw this—only in photographs.

Suburban barbecue backyard, juniper shrubs with rabbits hidden deep inside as in the magician's dark sleeve.  My father's magic tricks in his top drawer, along with his white handkerchiefs, underwear, and once—mysterious!—a packet of condoms.

My mother in agony in a series of three snapshots.  Asleep on the lawn chair.  Splattered with water.  Then upright, contorted, screaming.  Why is this funny?

My father was not a villain.  Never.  Not even in his fits like the mad Queen of Hearts, dragging my sister by her hair around the dining room; throwing a pot of baked beans above our head, so we watched them slowly slide down the kitchen wall.  A maniac, yes—but then, so was she. Hysterical, driving down the street in search of us for dinner, opening our mail, our bedroom doors, reading our minds with uncanny regularity.

Your mother's a witch.  She was.

Hours on her bed in the darkened bedroom—blinds pulled, sleeping off her pills, amphetamines by day, barbiturates at night, and drunk lunches with friends, my mother enfolding me in soft embraces, her perfume, fantastic cleanliness, the glitter of her red hair—elegant in black dress orange sequinned party dress and white silk pumps.

My mama pockmarked from childhood acne, scarred for life.  Looking like the losing fighter in the ring, home from the nose job, eyes red, nose swollen, terrifying.  I scrunched down deeper into the bathtub and wept. Do I look so bad?  Her face mournful and amused behind the disfigurement.  Don't worry, Lizzy, someday we'll get you a nose job, too.

My mother whom I called Mommy.  Goddess.  Fever dream of childhood—leaning over the bed to gently wake me, doubling over when the cold water splashed her.  Mommy!


The retarded people at the next table have no small talk.  It takes all their concentration to answer the many quizzes the waitress puts to them, and when they answer—rarely—it's in a group guffaw, and then an affable, awkward silence reigns.  Still, they look apologetic simply to be here, to order with many mistakes and to need everything explained. "Duck"—is that like turkey? "Mozzarella," is that a kind of sauce?

They glance at the other diners shyly, coyly, their slow glances moving from face to face.

When one woman stirs her non-alcoholic daiquiri with a spoon, the others stir theirs, together, with a gentle clinking sound like the percussive section of a school band.  It takes them a long time to eat each course, and now and again they yawn and get tired or silly, half falling asleep over their spoons.  Very nicely dressed in this expensive restaurant and many fine choices, but they're told they can't have lobster. This is charity.

One man begins talking in unintelligible hoarse blurts, and when he gets raucous all the others laugh—frightened—and say, Shh!  They know their job is to eat so no one will look up, so no one will notice they are here.


Time for the tulips to push through on elegant green stems beside the litter of Christmas tree needles and months-old tinsel. Snow collapsing in soft bundles.

Not a harsh face anywhere—only the soft heavenly voice and hard legs of a young man pumping uphill toward me, blue heavenly sky over his shoulder, smiling, sweating. He issues a breathy "Hi."

Then you hear something from one of the houses—a kid screaming, ragged—he's begging for something—already you know it's a boy, he's pleading for something to stop, he's screaming he's sorry! he's sorry! he's

First there's a plunge in your groin from years of lusting after violence, you stand there rooted, but the crying goes on pouring out into the street and it isn't tv.  Some kid's being beaten. The man isn't doing much talking—then he muffles the boy.  You can hear the cloth pulled over his mouth and now you start yelling, wave down a car with two women in front, two little girls in back.  They roll down the windows.  The rhythmic beating is like someone bouncing a basketball, every few seconds it flies up, but the muffled screaming goes on over it; now you've all heard it, it's been confirmed, and the woman behind the wheel says, "I'd call the police."

So you open the back door and very gently ask one little girl to please move over, honey, but before you get in, while she's still fumbling with her seatbelt, you scream, "We're calling the police, you sonofabitch, we're calling the cops!" then in shocked silence they drive you to your house through the warm suburban streets where boys in sweatpants are washing their father's cars like holy feet.  You say turn left here, or right please, and thank you.

Hours later when the cops call back they tell you it was nothing—just a family squabble, on a day of no heaven.


LIZ ROSENBERG's most recent book, a volume of prose poems, is due out
          in 1998 from Mammoth Books. She has also written and edited
          several books for young readers, including The Invisible Ladder, winner
          of the 1997 Bank Street Claudia Lewis Poetry Award. She teaches
          English and creative writing at the State University of New York at

Email Liz Rosenberg

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