Ways of Reckoning

Claire McQuerry
It’s hysteria in the markets

this week, goes the one

commentator. The market

falling in on itself:

a face without bones.

The kitchen radio’s dusted with flour

or dust. It belonged

to my grandfather — a functional

radio, it doubles as clock.

Was existence always such a flimsy thing?

I ask my mother later, on the phone.

My grandfather

slept on newspapers

under the bridge sometimes.

My grandfather feared

influenza, insects, losing face.

When I can’t sleep, I think of him

in the past, in the cold.

Window where a radiator seethes.

TVs stream into our boredom

at the airport. I’m watching and the anchor

calls it dismal pie: the jobless lined up —

their dark jackets, pumps, crisp

shirts so correct and out-of-place —

beyond the community gymnasium. A man

sobs into his cell phone.

Arc of the sprinkler

wetting a long lawn.

Three sparrows perch on the TV screen’s rim

here in the terminal. Those birds. How did they get in?

Did they enter through a disconnected

air bridge, flock fountaining outward?

Open, bright, air-

conditioned. Glass ceiling. The scissoring wings.

My grandfather wanted smooth paving

where the oleanders once thrived.

Now that’s a clean yard, he’d say.

I was a child, and newscasts

left no impression but the timbre of voices

beneath Mother’s knife, chopping onions.

I finger the satin

print where, years ago,

doctors cut a cyst away. It’s only

a small lump, I’d thought

at the time, but nurses came for weeks

to fill the closing hole with gauze:

I never once looked, afraid of that

cavity’s depth, the pocket

my own body had concealed.

My grandfather squeezed

the snapdragon’s fluted throat

to make it speak.

If I don’t shop here,

someone else will, I reason.

It eases my conscience. Not unlike

the developer on yesterday’s news:

Why build new subdivisions now?

The abandoned ones,

he said, are outdated. Otherwise,

we lose buyers. Hedging out

competition is what we have to do.

In the desert, a grid of empty,

identical homes, lawns gone to scrub.

A moon appears

over the strict line of streetlamps, almost

transparent, useless as a pressed coin.

A foreclosed home stays boarded up

for years sometimes, but first,

says the assessor, I take an inventory: wrecked

sofa, lace curtains, refrigerator, shoes.

My grandfather lost his retirement

at the races one afternoon. Those sums

galloping off in a cloud of dust. He had immense

faith in his own luck, the next big winner

he’d put his money on, while every bet

ran through his fingers like cupped sugar.

We have ways of reckoning

finitude. I spent my vacation. He saved

himself time. The cost of civilian lives rises

daily. The price we pay.

When I moved to Phoenix

the city was spacious and burning

with light. My loneliness would

interpose itself after dinner

between the wall

and dimming window.

I’d drive anywhere and be

idling in a strip mall’s nimbus.

Other shoppers and I — we were in this

together. It was good. I was always

approved, with a swipe.

My grandfather loved the bright

peony in my grandmother’s black hat

the day they met. If it weren’t for that peony

I might not be here.

In my family, the past was found out,

never recounted: her first husband’s insanity,

the things my grandfather did to her —

My grandmother’s mind

closed in, eventually, a draw-string bag

whose dark, satin lining held

a panoply of stories we’d never heard. Brittle

photographs surface in my mother’s house,

illustrations of a stranger’s life.

My door’s always open, except

when it’s closed.

I stood in the shadow of rising

condos when that old friend proposed.

Tower that might climb forever,

cranes, scaffolds. Two years later

he’s gone. The tower remains,

interrupted, bankrupt. Half of the rooms

are glassed in. Half gape into air.

The man who bankrolled the tower

had thought to make a killing. Instead,

he dove from the upper floor

late one night — or shot himself? (Rumors

are all we know).

The roads unroll like receipts — connecting

shopping cluster to subdivision,

the valley floor thickening with concrete

and plots of unnatural green—and run on,

unconcluded, in lines that buckle with heat.

My grandfather and his cousin

tussled with an axe once

on the front steps. Grandmother found them

swiping and lunging, both too drunk —

what luck — to strike their mark.

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