armrests of paisley chairs
threadbare with waiting
the lipsticks of women
swivel up from tubes
their worn shapes
as varied as nipples
my mother’s points heavenward
like the spire of a cathedral
like a pair of hands
pressed tightly in prayer
a hum of fluorescent bulbs
inside recessed canisters
of rubber-soled shoes,
of a cart’s one sticky wheel
in a hallway, gazes meet
then slide away in silence
two cars pass on a road
each beam for the moment
illuminating the other’s darkness
a watery shimmer near my temple
a subtle twinkle insisting
the light has shifted
chock and awl
bracing and pinning
the next season into place
vernal coffers of pollen
the fallen plumage of autumn
a spell of ice that drives one home
to fires that blaze overhead in summer
from a term full of blossoms’ feverish aching
to a month when bugs bug and hummers hover
who give way to mottled splotches on maples
to the swifts’ clicking chatter over the elders
to the night one gleans for the first time
a new silence in the empty fields
What stuns most is how nothing changes
except the one thing that’s changed.
The tedium of continuing to do the heretofore.
The bills, the traffic snarls, the meals warmed up.
The first year passing, the date looming,
then nothing. Nothing much. Just a card
to mark the time. A measuring stick.
But things stay mostly the same, a tarp
thrown over the pit that yawns in the yard.
Puddles gather in it, then dry. Its fill dirt
carted far away years ago, so that
nothing piled after in its place will ever
quite match the hollow’s former hue or heft.
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on my way upstairs to teach my morning writing classes in the Earth and Planetary Sciences building, I pass the lecture hall where I made my only B+ at the university. It still sticks in my craw, a single blight on the landscape of my transcript.
The course was Geology 202: Earth as an Ecosystem: Modern Problems and Solutions. How much worse because I loved the class. I still remember factoids from that course. It changed the way I saw endangered species, the way I understood urban development, the way I saw my own city, which in the late ‘90s was sprawling outward, paving bit by bit all its rural outskirts, even as it died out in the center. (It has since reversed at least the latter part of that trend, if not the former.)
That professor still teaches and publishes at my university. He used to ride his bike to campus. He didn’t own a car. I remember him joking – if he was joking? – that he’d give extra credit to anyone who chained themselves to a bulldozer to stop the Turkey Creek development, which was at that time about to break ground just west of town. I went to my first ever public hearing in order to protest that development. The wetlands surrounding Turkey Creek were a local anomaly. A 90-year-old man, who had lived and fished there in his little rowboat for his entire life, was the voice of the resistance. The new development would bring many jobs to East Tennessee, promised the developers. Of course the project went through.
Now, usually at Christmastime, I’ll drive over and buy things at the Turkey Creek Pier 1 and the Michael’s and the Target. At the entrance, which stretches six total lanes across, there’s a large sign with the gilded silhouette of a turkey, the feathers of its tail fan abstracted to look like the rays of a half sun. The sign is elegy to what it displaced. Once, early in the morning, zooming down Parkside Drive, crossing the bridge over what’s left of the creek – the rich wetland that surrounded it now dried up – I saw the pale blur of a white-tailed doe as it bounded into the sparse copse of saplings next to the road.
I think of that class now and then, and it occurs to me again – as it often does these days – that a college education was wasted on 20-year-old me. Only now am I even beginning to learn how to learn.
Let me just plant in your minds:
This room smells like doomed grad school
crushes and yellowed paper.
For no reason, year round
there are wasps in the eaves.
Enrollments are low. We think
of ways to spruce ourselves up.
We pass around a tome
penned and published by one of our own.
From our tower, we look down
on kinesiology and planetary science alike,
and on downtown, its spread of commerce,
its ad men ants below.
The grassy quads square up, manned
by landscapers in drab.
But listen: the way one woman happened
to say the word evening –
it brought a wafting of oaky dregs,
a wisp of candle just blown out.