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dandelion skeletons

Don’t pretend you didn’t know what these were.  The stems were too wilted and short to braid into a weeded crown to place atop your head.  And your too-chubby, five-year-old fingers fumbled with the stems until you gave up, flipped your thumb and said, “Momma had a baby, and its head popped off!”  The yellow pom-pom flew through the air.  Instead of pretending you didn’t understand the magic of dandelions, pretend it isn’t disturbing that you repeated this gleefully, day after summer day.  One day, the hue of your child’s blond hair will echo the buttery mop of the dandelion, but you didn’t know that then.

Now, you’re older.  Think more.  It’s not okay for your child’s head to pop off–or for you to even imagine it.  The days of prodding at potato bugs with sticks to watch them curl into a ball are over.  You don’t play hockey with the little charcoal bugs, tapping them back and forth between popsicle sticks in your left and right hand.  I dare you to remember the days of worms wriggling between your index finger and thumb.  Don’t shudder when you remember how they sometimes bulged in one place.

Rarely, flowers bloomed in your parents’ backyard.  Your mother was too busy to plant blossoms every year: taking care of your knee-scrapes from afternoon bike rides, slapping peanut butter sandwiches together when the daily noon siren sounded from the fire department.  The neighbor had wild gardens that gave image to the word “bountiful,” and you spent days playing with her daughter in their backyard, but now, when you look out your mother’s kitchen window, they have built privacy fences like castle walls between the yards.  Your mother has said, “What? Do they think they own both yards?”

Your son runs through their backyard now, and your metal swing set with the rainbow stripes is long gone.  He can’t flip over the bars, or hang upside down with the metal bar in the crevice of his knees like you did, your hair scraping the dirt beneath you.  Show him the dandelions in the heat of the summer months.  Tell him, say, “Look, dandelions are everywhere.”  He says, “Grandma says it means Papa needs to mow the lawn.”  The time has come for you to agree, but you won’t.

Finally, after a day or two, the dandelions ripen, and then turn into skeletons of what they’d been.

Remember your small fist, how you gathered them into bouquets, puffed your lips, blew the feathery strands away, wishing for the ice cream man to bring you your Pink Panther Pop after lunch, or for your mother to make macaroni and butter for dinner.  When all the strands floated into the humid air, they left behind a congregation of belly buttons, little outies reminiscent of the circle on your Cabbage Patch Kid’s belly.  The seeds landed amidst the itches of grass.  You didn’t worry.  If you resisted popping the pom-poms off the new crop, there would be more wishes in a few days.

You began to see the terror in that phrase you repeated without thought, didn’t you?  “Momma had a baby, and its head popped off.”

Soon enough, your son finds his way to the dandelions, leaving behind his bubble mower.  He plucks dandelions by their stems, and you borrow one from him, drawing a yellow streak from his wrist to his elbow.  “I’ll make yellow on you,” he says.

And you let him, on both arms.  He’ll wish, too, before long.  Before he plants weeds.

Dear Penny Candy,

The Pink Panther cartoon character
Image via Wikipedia

You are worth the eight minutes I have before I walk to my next class, so I will write you a love post.  More so, you deserve your own post, bag of penny candy— especially you, Tart ‘n Tinys.

I was less than ten, so all I had in my pockets was sticky lollypop twigs or lint.   Your price was within my reach, but you were not cheap, not easy, just accessible.  Especially after Dad slapped his pocket change on the table.  The Pink Panther Popsicles in the Skippy ice cream truck were 65 cents, and came with black gumball eyes (who made black gumballs?), but, Penny Candy, you were so much better.  You didn’t melt, for one.

It wasn’t just rummaging through your paper bag after I paid the teenage cashier that made me smile, it was the whole process: the dusky walk holding my older siblings hands, and the way they let go after my Mother was out of sight, to signal that yes, I was becoming a big girl.  “Hello,” the bell on the Unger’s Mart door tinked to me.

You, in those clear bins labeled with cents, beckoned me forth.  When I approached you, sweet love, imagining the bits of sugar on my tongue, my brother or sister would have to call, “Wait for me.”  I spent full minutes deciding which of you would bring me the most joy.   My fingers danced gracelessly, plucked and prodded through your clear bins, and placed each piece of you on the counter before the cashier, who never gave me a discount.  You were worth every cent.

Close Acquaintances

My son turned three the next day.

“The ‘Shake Shake Bridge,” my mother said.  “That’s what he needs to have.  Can you go get that for me?  I’ll watch the boys.”

And like that, I was in my car, alone, trekking to Wal-Mart, where I bought the Thomas the Train Bridge as yet another one of Johnny’s birthday presents.  On my way, I passed the make-shift markers, a wooden cross, a bundle of flowers, on the intersection where my friend’s mother died four months ago, her car trampled over by a construction vehicle.  I made the sign of the cross with my hand hovering over my forehead, heart or shoulders, as though it could bring her peace.

Wal-Mart’s parking lot was next to the scene of the accident, where my friend’s mother gained peace despite the revving engines, soaring plastic bags, rolling carts.  In my rearview, I saw a panoramic view of my boys’ empty car seats, the line of blazing autumn trees, and the disappearing road.

At the discount store that sprawled its aisles far past its boundaries, it was the treacherous beginning to lay-away season, the clearance of Halloween paraphernalia, and the early welcome of Christmas trees.  It was more chaotic than being at home with my son, and less enjoyable.  To survive in such commotion, I zoomed in on singular objects directly in front of me, keeping a precise target.  The stockings on the girl in front of me were cute black netting in a herringbone pattern, and I had the same pair.  The girl was my former student.

In a college town, those things happen.  I felt I knew most people, but couldn’t place them all.  Often, I would walk by a mother pushing a cart, and my son would point to the child inside, and say, “Look, there’s Maddox,” or another kid from his old daycare. Us mothers would smile at each other, and rarely spoke, though we might become Facebook friends some day.  I think of random people I haven’t seen in years, and wonder how they are rounding up at night, in the routine of baths, of birthdays, of storytelling.

At the self-checkout line, I scanned my son’s toy, and also a bag of gummy bears on impulse.  He would press them between his tongue and roof of his mouth where they would release their taste in shocks of color.  “The dirt,” he said one time, “smells like green.”   I rang myself up, and though anyone could do it, I prided myself on being especially efficient, having sold textbooks to students when I was in college.  I stood behind those registers and rang student after student, parents, and instructors, those people who piled one behind another in lines for hours.

That night we were celebrating Johnny’s birthday at my mother’s with cake and presents.  It was 2:30, the first day of Daylight Savings Time.  My car clock still read 3:30 pm.  We were supposed to eat before my brothers and sisters arrived for cake.  I traveled down the back road, wondering if my mother had started the prime rib yet, hoping I hadn’t taken too long at the store.

I slowed, as I can only imagine I would have, and checked an empty State Street in front of me, decelerating the way my father taught me more than ten years before.  The November sun was surprisingly warm, and maybe glared through my windshield, I didn’t know.  I pushed on my blinker to signal left.

There was a smack, a loud crunch that released aggression, bludgeoned front end to front end.  The man I saw out my passenger’s side window was one of those people I rarely thought about, but had remembered sometime the week before.  A college student in the eighties, immobilized in a drunk-driving crash, he returned when I was in college, around 2001.  In a jam-packed auditorium on campus, in broken sentences that struggled for coherence, he pleaded for college students not to drink and drive.  I wondered about him the week before the accident— where he had been, if he had graduated, if he absorbed all that knowledge from the textbooks I sold him.

I saw him then, through two window panes, wide-eyed, grimacing, and I shook to my bones.  Where had he been?

College students gathered on their porches, and I hoped none were my students.  Neighbors watched from their battered wooden porches as we both, that man and I, struggled in our own ways to say we were okay, that the metal around us had done its job.

The Wal-Mart bags had fallen down on the floor of my car.  Thomas the Train was tucked safely in his box, and Johnny’s car seat flopped diagonally against the upholstery.