I. He Wore a Badge
The Quaker friends sat in a circle that had a free chair and no questions for me, and the circle said, Let’s just be quiet here for forty minutes and see how that feels, see if some of what flows might enter us and make our circle spin.
I’d cried my way there. My sister was dead. I was suddenly in charge of the Post-Death Proceedings. With no info, with nary a tip. I came for the circle and sat in it. Nothing entered. I cried my way home.
Her boy was ten, and what was there to do but lie to him about how the end had come to her? For her. Me saying she’s “with the Lord now” and seeing his response rise as if in all caps across the clear slate of his face: YOU ARE AN IDIOT.
Post-Death, I was in charge of nothing. I drove him to the airport, and as a bolt of thunder signaled a rain, an attendant put a badge on the boy and sent him up the metal stairs and into the sky and to a far-off father he barely knew.
The more I try not to be one, the more I am. And the more I am, the more I’m happily here for an hour in a new hairdo and Jackie’s special mascara so my eyes feel big enough to consume the entire cutthroat trout my husband has brought home and unwrapped in the bloodbath sundown.
The bright scales of one. The soft kiss of the other. A hand in my new hair, and no need to watch the knife slit open the belly. My glitzy lashes flutter. No need to be who I was an hour ago in THEIR-story-become-MY-story, its sorrow and ire leeching, dripping. No need. No need to scrape the guts. This next hour melts the butter; this sizzle can’t stop kissing the fish.
She buttons me into a silky blue cape, and I smile when she tells me her name. “America.” “Good name,” I say. But she’s already busy scrutinizing my skull, turning it like a doll’s. Then she suggests “the hairdo the head needs.”
“Okay, let’s do ‘er,” I say. She nods and begins the painstaking snip-snip-snip. Bits of my hair rise in her fingers, and fall. I close my eyes and let America do her work. America is a genius, I think. I love how between snips her hand fluffs the bits of hair back together with the others.
Slowly, under her touch, her rhythm of lift and drop, chop and fluff, I fall into a trance.
Suddenly: “Hey, how’s she look?” America asks me.
We both stare into the mirror as my head tips slightly, considering itself. Then it nods, and so does she.
I pay and go and drive into sleet. Through jarring potholes. Thinking of America with a stranger’s head in her hands, an unknown anyone, taking in a good hour’s dream to ward off a suddenly unfamiliar road, cold and black as the barrel of a gun.
IV. In Charge of Nothing
From hour to hour I’d long first for more of Me-In-Charge, then for less, then please, none. This lasted weeks. I’d stand in the purply dark—that swirling admixture of all colors—until the stars of bulbs in other houses flickered on.
Swirling too: the soft mutterings of child selves—mine, hers, his—and whose was whose? The all-voices circled as one indecipherable whisper.
Can a person suddenly know nothing? And be GLAD of it? Happily have NO answers? And knowing zero, staring into zero, can one pass through zero’s hole as the other houses’ stars flick off?
Late becomes too late. The child selves fuse. Whose father, which father, used to call out, “NO! Steer into it! Steer INTO the skid”?
Nance Van Winckel is the author of nine poetry collections, the newest of which is The Many Beds of Martha Washington (Lynx House Press, forthcoming 2021), and five books of fiction, including Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014), and Boneland: Linked Stories (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). She teaches in Vermont College’s MFA in Writing Program and is visual poetry editor of Poetry Northwest. Her writing has appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology, The Southern Review, AGNI, Poetry Northwest, The Kenyon Review, FIELD, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. The recipient of two NEA poetry fellowships, the Washington State Book Award, the Paterson Fiction Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Gordon Barber Poetry Award, a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, she lives in Spokane, Washington. (updated 04/2021)