It was probably an ordinary day for us
walking through empty parking lots
ringed with horsetail plants and blackberry thorns
to my grandparents’ house
as late afternoon slipped into evening
the lawn sprinkler-wet
and the cement birdbath dark
against the gold rectangle of the kitchen window
but I see whole summers inside those hours
feet dandelion-sticky on warm linoleum
a spoon from each stripe of Neapolitan ice cream
while water fills the bathtub
unread letters on the diningroom table
the hinge of a screen door
Home School by Samantha Malay published in The Sea Letter, Summer 2018 Home School
It was dark when we left the cabin that morning, cool enough against the seat of the truck to make us wish we hadn’t worn cut-offs.
We read old paperbacks in the Colville laundromat and stared at the bottles of orange and grape soda sweating inside the coin machine. Abandoned socks, religious pamphlets and handwritten notes selling firewood and hay and horse feed were thumbtacked to a bulletin board. Sunbleached Ladies Home Journal magazines showed recipes for making two weeks of dinners from one night of cooking, colorful photos of cakes and pies.
Marigolds wilted against the brick walls of the bank, the hot sidewalk white and glittering.
We ate soft-serve ice cream in wafer cones at the back of the dime store, fragrant with coffee, linoleum floor wax and doll parts. Model train scenery made of foam and wood mingled with colored pipe cleaners, embroidery thread, plastic flowers and birdcages.
Counting food stamps under Safeway’s fluorescent lights, we filled our cart with ingredients: powdered milk, flour, sugar, oatmeal, Crisco, margarine, peanut butter, sorghum syrup, canned mackerel, sardines, peas and green beans. Free puppies squirmed in a cardboard box at the edge of the parking lot.
Hours at the city swimming pool left us sunburned, hair soaked with chlorine.
Windows rolled down, we smelled alfalfa fields. The sun set over the fairgrounds, and the lavender sky flattened against darkening mountains. Mailboxes and fence lines were visible only by headlight. Paved road met gravel road, then dirt.
My father’s college biology books explained the mysteries of sweet pea pollination, dominant and recessive traits, mutation. One page featured a two-headed calf.
We picked up free seeds at the Extension Service office. Instructions with line drawings showed how to plant, mulch, water, harvest, and avoid crop theft.
The summer Mom left we drove to Northport for Popsicles.
Separating two, we had four symmetrical pieces.
We kept moving, and moving apart.
We swam in the river behind the field,
towels flattened on summer-warm sand.
The water was the color of oysters,
and there was a ribbon of light at the base of the mountain
as blue dusk crept along the tree line.
She pulled cigarettes from her purse, wet hair against dry T-shirt.
I thought her words held secrets.
Guessing our way in the dark, a porch light flickered on.
It was the night before the first day of school.
She shaved her legs in the bathtub while I sat on the floor,
listening to her boyfriend plans.
She dried her hair with a round brush, applied frosty pink eye shadow.
I had moved from a bigger town but she was deliberate where I was unsure.
My brother and sister and I lived across the road that led the logging trucks
and school buses into Deming, under the power lines.
One parent was gone and the other disappeared in the dim corners of our rented house.
We washed our clothes in a utility sink and hung them to dry in the barn,
frozen shards when winter approached.
A gallon of milk spoiled in the refrigerator,
and the icy air smelled like cardboard and coffee
and an accumulation of common sorrows.
In smoke-scented, threadbare coats
they’d walked through frozen fields and empty streets
toward whispers of work and pickles, fresh bread and fish,
an address in a port city, yellow flowers at the base of a mountain.
See the curve of her cheek as she turns from the pier,
seagulls loud in the charcoal sky.
They’d dreamt of fruit trees and a food grinder for the new baby.
Between tanks of tropical fish, he eats a sandwich at his workbench
in the hazy pungent air.
Short sleeves show Navy tattoos, the arms of a tinkerer, an appliance repairman.
Branches heavy with plums obscure the potholed alley.
Doorbell. Cars on Orchard Street. A neighbor’s sprinkler.
In summer we walked through the woods,
picking wild strawberries and naming the trails as our own.
The remains of a homestead lay half-buried, roof joists rotting around rusty cans,
books frail and dusty as moth wings. Grass seeds clung to our clothes.
Can you stop time so we can stay together?
In town, he drove with his arm across the front seat
to keep us from hitting the dashboard at intersections.
Leave your coat on when we get there.
He knew these people before he was married. Sad to see us, they asked us to stay.
But by then we’d seen dead animals and fires at the edge of the garbage dump,
smoke lingering in the orange peels and eggshells, cigarette butts and toys.
We’d heard arguments through the floorboards, moved into houses with dirty sinks
and medicine abandoned behind the bathroom mirror.
We’d departed together, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the school year,
to sleep in campgrounds and fields.
We’d listened to the snow muffle our voices as it lit the night sky,
tree boughs soft and heavy and quiet.
We felt the inward pull of family,
like underwater branches against our legs in the lake.
Will you leave us some clues before you go?
We need to know fool’s gold from the real thing,
the names of the people who broke your nose,
and should you kiss the girl on your right when you see a car with one light?