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Published in Trajectory journal, Fall 2011

I am at the liquor store.
Its façade has been remodeled –
the shopping center is more upscale now –
but inside it’s the same:
cans of soup,
cheap sunglasses,
Southern Comfort in both 70 and 100 proof,
skin mags.You thought I didn’t know
you kept those tattered
girlie magazines beneath your sofa,
but what did I care?
I always knew you were mine
the way the wild sparrow is mine
when it visits my feeder each day.On my own now, I wind my way
through the narrow aisles
to the coolers in the back,
tug open the tall glass door,
watch it fog over as I stand,
undecided, then select a six-pack
of whatever is dark and on sale.

I remember how we bought beer here
one surreal autumn weekday afternoon –
I paid for it, of course,
two cold brown 22 ounce bottles.

We guzzled them, still in brown paper bags,
as we sat at the top of the slide
at North Park, leaves glinting gold
in the thin autumn sunlight.
There were no children there,
only us two delinquents,
a honey-colored afternoon buzz
washing over us,
enveloping us
like a favorite blanket.

© 2011 by Jennifer Phelps


Cigarettes in the Volkswagen

As published in the 2013 Santa Fe Literary Review
Reprinted with permission

She found them between the front seats
of her mother’s old VW bug:
two dry husks of cigarettes, long forgotten,

discovered as she dutifully detailed the car –
a teenager’s task – cramming the vacuum
crevice tool into that awkward abyss,

sucking up tarnished pennies and old French fries,
the Volkswagen an accidental time capsule,
the Viceroys evidence of the free spirit

her mother was once, before she became wife,
Mom, perfectionist, tyrant –
maybe even before she became unhappy.

Back then she was just a kid selling records
at the music store on Fourth Street,
listening to Janis Joplin wail and sob on LP,

staying up late, talking and smoking,
making plans as if her ideals could never
be bruised with the blunt force of disappointment,

as if she would never assume
the heavy veil of responsibility,
as if the day would never come when she could love

her unborn daughter enough
to quit for good the carefree nicotine habit,
as if that daughter would never grow up to write

reminiscent poetry labeling her mother tyrannical, unhappy;
the same daughter who took a moment’s pause
from her cleaning chore to pick up those cigarettes –

those tattered testimonials to a long-forgotten innocence –
touching them briefly to her lips in a kiss
before reluctantly letting them go.

© 2013 by Jennifer Phelps


by Jennifer Phelps
Originally published in Hot Air Quarterly, Fall 2011

What I remember
a cap of tight dyed curls
an impossible strawberry blonde
at your unconfessed age

pink-framed bifocals
and basement pipes hung heavy with thousands
of bright blouses

your small body made hard
by sadness and
vigorous walking on the steep
streets of San Francisco

tall glass cylinder filled with miniature chocolate bars
and that painstakingly stitched petit point Seurat
proudly frozen in maddeningly
meticulous detail
on your living-room wall

I remember trinkets of ornately carved cinnabar
foggy mornings and
too many stray cats fed faithful

What I cannot forget

late nights
that stretched long and promising with
giddy giggles and shared stories
giving way to a strained and unutterable silence
as I inevitably began to acquire the
trappings of adulthood

and then you were lost to me
stubbornly behaving as if
it was I who was lost to you

I wish I could ask you things

ask you if you were always given
to self-destructive urges
like the strawberry allergy
that spawned in you
an irrepressible craving for the
illicit fruit

you reportedly went on binges
eating one heaping basketful after another
until you were red-mouthed and
miserable with hives

I want to ask you if you
thought I could not see
past your garrisons of levity
and shunned idleness
to the lonely void inside
where could have dwelt
contentment, if not joy

After all, beauty surrounded you

you who were so skilled at creating
intricate, beautiful things
with your doorknob knuckles
and your wooden looms
humming with life like a beehive
birthing placemats, runners

all rashly sold at your shocking moving sale
when you forcibly shed the exoskeleton
of your full but empty existence for pennies on the dollar
sold the house at 19 Hazelwood Avenue and everything in it
to start anew in the
sticky paradise of Honolulu

you cast off all your beloved possessions then
the parquet-topped breakfast table
those tiny silver spoons from
faraway places
the bedroom set you
saved for a year to buy
as a young woman

Did those things cling to you
like an oil slick to matted feathers,
weighing you down,
rendering you flightless?

or did you consider yourself unworthy
the sale another
byproduct of your self-condemnation?

I wonder…

What is it
you would say to me now
if I could ask you who you are?

So many questions

answers now lost to me
like the sensation of your
glittering brooches crushed
into my breastbone
as you hugged me too tightly
with your ferocious, awkward affection

and of course you loved
and lived
but so painfully and with bitter reproach

so that when your body
let you down in the end –
Lou Gehrig’s disease stealing
first your speech, then legs, lungs –
you catalogued
that disappointment
with the spiteful satisfaction of true
leaving me an awful parting gift
of slurred dagger words
on your lonesome hospital deathbed:

“Don’t waste your time on me.”

I was of course too young to tell you
even in the face of that cruel dismissal

how much I loved you

how they are your small, graceless feet
that slip into my size six shoes

how, as the great chasm of
loneliness threatens to
engulf me, as it did you,

I, too, aspire to create things of beauty
with these diminutive hands, so like yours
though not with busy looms
and brightly colored threads
but with a pen and paper,
paint and brush,

the heart of a weaver beating
always beating
within my chest.

© 2011 by Jennifer Phelps

Jennifer Phelps


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