Cider Apples (#38)

After my dad died, and life
Slowly resumed its seasons,
My sixty year old cousin George
Called, asking for apples.

This was no ordinary request.
My father and I had, for a decade,
Picked apples together each fall,
Which he subsequently delivered,

Driving four tortuous hours
To our tiny Appalachian homestead,
A fundraiser donation for the clapboard
Church, each year whitewashed

Postcard perfect. Here, amongst
Quilts and pies and jams and pumpkins,
Twenty four bushels of our orchard’s
Apples were auctioned each year,

Jonathans and Winesaps, Yorks,
Staymans, Grimes Golden,
And Northwest Greenings.
Some of each, something for all,

Always the finest we had,
Unsprayed, dimpled with dents,
Profoundly imperfect compared
To anything at the grocery store,

Those waxed, chemical cousins.
I cherished them above all fruits,
Crisply tart and sun-warmed,
Small, but golden-sweet,

And so, when George called,
I answered. I knew what to do.
I intuited. I fetched and cleaned
The crates, sweeping away

Cobwebs, caterpillar carapaces,
Forking a ladder between limbs
And picking, six, seven hours,
Stretching, tiptoed, for the farthest

Fruit, cupping each to hand,
Cradling it against bruising,
Bypassing nine of ten apples
As too small, too blemished,

Circumspect in curation,
Until slowly, slowly,
Two dozen boxes brimmed.
The next morning, I drove

My father’s backroads, meeting George
Halfway in Monterey, Virginia,
The last place to compromise
Before the mountains thickened.

His expression, upon seeing the fruit,
Was that of a child receiving a
Birthday card from a rich relative,
And discovering a dollar bill inside.

“What…” he began, trying hard
To stay composed, struggling
With language, taking
Three tries to form the words,

“What… What are these?”
And because it hadn’t fully
Sunk in yet, because at
Almost thirty years old I remained

Dutiful, obeisant, willing,
I assumed there must be
A misunderstanding, and
Fumbled for some fresh beginning.

“They’re your apples,”
I said, knowing at once
I spoke dumbly, plainly, and only
To the vacant air of the

Empty grocery parking lot
Where we had met,
Nonsense words echoing
Against the curvature of sky,

And at this he gathered himself
Tall, reining his disappointment,
Nodding at the diminutive, freckled fruit.
“Oh sure,” he said, clearing his throat.

“They’ll make good cider apples.”
And as though this wasn’t enough,
As though I hadn’t already withered
On the spot, he added,

“But no one would pay for them.”
And as we transferred them to
His truck, each of us silent,
Melancholy, I clearly understood that,

Not yet half his age, I was already
Warped by time, wobbled,
Living some false pretense
Where people ate imperfect apples,

A dimension where I was
A ghost casting cores,
Unnamed saplings springing
From stoney, moonlit orchards,

Dark fruit starring the heavens.
And it wasn’t until
Six months later that I learned,
For all those years, my father

Had been discarding our apples
For deer bait, and purchasing, instead,
Pristine bushels from Washington state,
Passing them off as our own,

The coveted annual entry
Of the local church fundraiser.
That was the first and last time
My cousin ever called me.

Such suffering,
Such knowledge!
Just watch. Willingly, willfully,
We die again, and again.

Lone Elm (#36)

I asked an old friend to
Help me identify a tree
I had never seen before,
And I think we were both

Surprised when she said
—Hesitatingly at first, then
With cautious wonder—
“I… I want to say it’s an elm,”

Both of us knowing it
Defied logic, odds,
Aware of how the disease
Had arrived long ago, killing

Ninety nine thousand
Nine hundred and ninety nine
Elms for every one remaining,
As here, rooted, solitary. Alive.

Who knows how?
How we stay friends,
I mean, knowing what
We think we know,

That life goes on,
So busy, so bothered, so
When the phone rings,
And the voice, carefully

Composed, bridging
Distance, decades,
Cracks—In a single syllable,
Our world falls, fathomless,

While the lucky elm, miraculous,
Feels the sun on its leaves,
The rain on its roots, and,
Missing no one, misses nothing.

Cloud Shapes (#35)

September, spaciously
Spidered, appled and
Gleaming, as though
We could see the air—

Eyes lifted, recalling
Third grade clouds drawn
Fluffy and puffy and never
Quite white, crayons melting

Through blue construction paper.
After school, laying on the
Lawn with my aunt, eighty four,
The one who knew a one-legged

Civil War drummer boy, September
Clouds taking any shape they
Pleased, she pointed:
“That one’s a tea kettle,” and

“There’s a bowler hat.”
Bless my aunt. She never said
“Look, a clock, spinning
Backwards. Wait, forwards!”

Or, “There! Pages
Torn from a calendar, tossed
Against the autumn sky!”
Those dull, daily aches

Everywhere, always. Anyway,
Enough of these shapes.
She saw, instead, bicycles,
Elephants, and birthday cakes.

Avocado (#34)

The first time I ever
Really noticed anything
—That is to say, that I
Noticed I was noticing—

Was on a commuter train
In California, age 25, traveling
To visit an aunt, when,
Katy-corner to me, at a

Table-seat that faced backwards,
A man opened a crumpled paper
Sack and produced, from within,
A plastic knife, a plastic spoon,

And one large avocado.
Don’t laugh—I had never seen
An avocado before,
Didn’t know what it was,

Having grown up on frozen
Pot pies, hot dogs, begging
My mother for nine piece
Amalgamated poultry from McDonalds;

And if California was exotic,
That avocado seemed otherworldly,
Ovoid, olivine, bumpy as
Dinosaur hide. I watched clandestinely

As the man sliced it lengthwise,
Orbiting his palm,
Cleaving the fruit like a geode
To reveal the most unexpected

Green I had ever seen,
Not mint, not lime, but
Bright like spring clover,
Creamy as fresh milk,

And within, as though
A world awaited, an enormous,
Perfectly round pit,
A globe, profound,

Which he neatly removed,
Scooping it loose and dropping it,
Nonchalantly, into the sack.
My eyes were wide!

See, how he sprinkled the salt!
See, how he ladled the green meat
To his mouth, sweetly eating!
When he was done, scraping the

Shells for the final, curling petals,
I could have gone on watching,
From California to West Virginia—
The width of the world, in a paper bag.