Three Poems

by Priscilla Atkins

“The Captivating Life of My Ten-Years-Older First-Boyfriend’s Ex-Wife”

The author, photographed by the ex-boyfriend.

The author, photographed by the ex-boyfriend.

I am nineteen and want to be the one who snapped
the little 3×3’s of “our” newly-wed life in Ramstein,
Germany. The husband is enlisted and she’s a six-month

business school grad. (There’s a lot to be said for a
smart typist.) I want to have slept with him in the cute
honeymoon suite in Switzerland: “Our tiny bed.”

I want to be inside her script. A picnic table set for four:
“Steaks on the grill—our first entertaining!” I want
all of it. Especially the long dark hair and spray

of pale yellow flowers pinned above the ear. Even the angry
good-by note (that I “stumbled on” while he was off
at his bartending job): “You and your god DAM nude

beaches. Your drinking . . . always sneaking away
on your motorcycle. I wanted a husband and children
who love me. Not a man who’s never home.” I’m nineteen

and wish the rolled up parchment, the tube from the Vatican,
was addressed to me; to be on the verge of a brand-new, Pope-
approved life with the police officer who lives downstairs

(to have typed his academy papers). I want dark hair, and pale
orchids. To be Catholic. To be worshipped. To be the face
on a 3×3 tucked in someone’s wallet long after I’m gone.

“Is This What You Want?”

The brave, long-haired sister.

The brave, long-haired sister.

My brave, long-haired sister misplaced the hidden house
key—out in the dangerous world, or under a pile in her room—

gone. No one notices until late one night, I am dropped off from babysitting
and discover after the car is gone, I have no way in.

When our parents return from whichever party of scientists and their spouses
and, soon after, my sister, my father loses

it; bawls her out, dark-knifed swipes of furious. He’s scary and bald. Right there
on the living room carpet, she gets down on her knees, facing

him, voice shaking,
“Here, is this what you want?” (Me,

I want—always—to disappear.) The house prickles. Chaos surging underneath
dense cotton.

After that, given my own personal key that I keep in a soft round purse,
two figures embroidered on the face, some nights I creep out of bed,

tiptoe to the closet, riffle all of the pockets
until my small hand comes up against the zipper’s rough blue pulse.

The author and her sister.

The author and her sister.

“Imaginary Marylands”

Bent, watery. I passed through your harrowed hollow
with my first-ever boyfriend
on a twenty-four-hour Miami-to-Massachusetts “forced march”
in his big-deal Buick.
The butt-head liked non-stop, liked to prove he’s every-inch-
the-man his alcoholic father was.
Leaving Florida at noon, eventually
rolling into the ash-can gloom of the shroudiest edge
of pre-dawn Eastern Pennsylvania
I still know the sour-sorry taste of ghostly searchlights,
cars driven by blank, commuter-ghosts. From coal mines
to cubicles, we’re all robotic goats. Swallow anything. Cubed
days passing through us in a thousand ways.
I had never gone so long without sleep.
Swore I would never stray so far from center,
a life of 10-to-7 in-bed-quiet forever. But there I was, and here, I am,
thirty years hence, reading Celan’s biography. See how it’s done:
you walk straight out of innocence and don’t realize
the fractured universe includes you;
glass shatter, grinding, bearing up. Stop
and turn quickly so reflections don’t catch.
Then back on board, everyone’s midnight-blinded, together, hoofing it to France.

About the author

Raised surrounded by cornfields, Priscilla Atkins gravitated to Los Angeles, and then Hawaii. Eventually, she leapt back to the Midwest – Indiana, and now Michigan. Her poems have appeared in ShenandoahThe Los Angeles ReviewPoetry London and other journals and anthologies. She teaches women’s and gender studies and a first-year-seminar on comedy at a small college in Michigan. 



by Pete Fleming

dan photo 2

Thanks to the international date line, the day lasted something like 42 hours. I started in Australia and ended up at my mom’s death bed. The Australia part of it was a belated “I passed the bar exam” trip, because my post-law school “I passed the bar exam” was me putting my possessions in a U-Haul in Chicago and driving 24 hours straight to Orlando in the dead of summer to start a government job. When the two-year government job was over, I decided to go to the other side of the world for three weeks before I spent the rest of my life sitting in a Chicago office accounting for my time in six-minute increments.

The death bed part of it was a long time coming, although I certainly wasn’t equipped to realize it at the time. My mom got cancer when I was in law school, beat it, and then got it again when I was in Orlando. For the past year, I had been making trips up to Chicago to sit in wards where bald people shuffled by in hospital gowns and grim-faced doctors pointed at white clusters in X-rays, while we talked about “fighting it.”

My mom last spoke directly to me the morning I left for the other side of the world. I don’t remember what we said, because I assumed we’d have plenty more conversations when I got back. The night before, we’d gone to my cousin’s wedding and we’d danced a little bit. I don’t remember the name of the song, but she got tired and had to sit down before it ended. There’s a picture I just found in my trip diary. She’s very bald and even skinnier than usual. Her eyes are hollow. But she’s smiling.

I talked to her a few times from the other side of the world. No matter how many times I double-checked the time difference, the phone always ended up ringing in Chicago in the middle of the night. She seemed out of breath, but  excited to tell the nurse that her son was calling from New Zealand, Australia or wherever I was standing in a pay phone at the time. I was excited to tell her what a great time I was having, and that I would see her soon — when I got back in a week. I told her I was happy that I’d be closer to home now that I was working downtown, that I could help Dad take care of her.

I turned my cell phone on in Los Angeles for the first time in three weeks. I didn’t listen to the many voice messages, but I did call my old man. I guess I was jet lagged as I stood there in the security line: we’d left Sydney on Thursday afternoon and landed in Los Angeles on Thursday morning, I think. My body was screwed up, but I did register the odd note in my dad’s voice.

The ambulance was coming. Or was it already there? She was going to the hospital, and I should hurry. I looked at the security line, out the window, past the LA skyline, all the way to Chicago.

Would I like to speak to mom?

Hi, Mom. How are you? How about a bad joke, because that’s what sarcastic people do to keep from showing emotion.

Nothing but ragged breathing.

Oh shit. Shitshitshit. Don’t cry in the security line. Can I skip the security line? Please? It’s important.

I get on the plane, although I’m not sure how. I think I spoke to my brothers. There weren’t as many odd notes in their voices, but that’s because they weren’t equipped to realize what was going on at the time either.

I watched a Charlie’s Angels sequel on the plane. I tried not to cry because it didn’t seem polite to my seat mates.  But I had that bubbling feeling of anxiety welling up in me, like the one that happened when I figured out the first girl I loved was cheating on me. The kind that made my fingers and toes tingle in a dark way.

Upon arrival, I shoved my way up the aisle and hit the jet way running. Years of competitive racing meant I could run faster and longer than the people around me. I ran to the rental car bus, then I ran to the rental car. I drove the rental car quickly and broke many laws. My luggage circled endlessly at the airport.

As I drove, I listened to a song again and again. I remember this song. Eddie Vedder covering the Beatles. I didn’t have any seat mates to offend now.

In the last mile of my drive, some woman wouldn’t let me cut in front of her. I rolled down the window and asked her if I could please go to that turn lane over there. She asked me why, and I told her. I can’t believe I took the time to tell her. Why do you even care if I go first? Don’t you already know?

I ran through the hospital parking lot and asked the woman at the front desk where I should go. She took her time.  I asked that she hurry up and told her why. The woman hurried up.

I ran to the elevator bank, then down a hallway past my crying uncle.

The room was crowded, and everybody looked like I felt.  Especially her.

I made it.

About the author

Pete Fleming lives in Florida with his wife.  At work, he accounts for his time in six-minute increments.