After my mother calls to tell me
about her brother
I do my makeup, standing in front
of the full-length mirror
with my back to the window. I trace
the edges of my eyelids with
chestnut-brown pencil, smudge it over
and over until the corners are even.
My shift starts in an hour. I have time
to linger, to drag
the mascara brush along my lashes again
and again, watch them stretch, separate,
darken. I try to imagine the hospital.
His broken ankles. His brain, a silent desert.
My mother’s voice, a door
straining against hurricane winds—
We don’t know
what happened. Maybe
I keep staring into the mirror, watching
the reflection of the sky, the grey
half-light of morning,
the wordless, faceless clouds.
The funeral procession winds along
Kansas City’s back roads, a dark snake
in the sunshine. Such clear skies. A
beautiful day. At the cemetery
we gather before a small altar: flowers,
a photograph, the urn. Sharp wind
carries the priest’s voice up and away
from us. Then it’s over.
My grandmother stumbles forward,
lays her forehead on the urn,
grips the mahogany with both hands.
There is no swelling orchestra.
Not a single clock stops.
The wind picks up again
and blows my hair across my eyes.
My cousin lives alone now in her father’s house.
I’ve taken more photographs of her than
of anyone I know. Look. Here she is
at twelve, at fifteen, at eighteen. Here she is
at the lake, in the snow, at the beach.
Here she is now, 22 years old. Here she is
in an empty house. Here she is
calling me from the grocery store
to ask what vegetables she should buy. Here she is
laughing over the phone.
Here she is 2000 miles away. Here she is
alone in a dark house. Here she is
in the hospital, here she is in the funeral home,
here she is holding my hand in the church.
Here she is in a quiet house, alone. Here she is
at a wedding, at work, buying
avocados, buying paper towels. Here she is
driving on the highway. Here she is
coming home to an empty house.
We used to fly through the living room
on our way to some big plan, he’d turn
from the baseball game to ask how I was, I’d say
Good, halfway out the door, How about you,
the heavy door shutting, the summer day opening
wide in front of us, the air a wet new skin.
May passes in a series of downpours.
The yellow roses burst open then
quickly wither in the front yard. I eat mostly
carrots and ice cream and flinch
at the mirror like a frightened dog.
There is another funeral, in Atlanta this time, but
I can’t make it. My father’s voice comes
through the phone worn and reedy and forgiving.
The dishes stack up in my
bedroom, the oven needs cleaning.
I buy new books. I shave my legs
in the sink. Whole
days pass—sometimes two or
three days in a row—where I don’t cry
at all. Four stray kittens are born
under my grandmother’s porch,
and she calls my mother to say how they are
curled up together, sleeping on a lawnchair.
The rain comes down hard enough
to break every tulip’s neck.