May 1999

Kelly Cherry

Kelly Cherry Kelly Cherry's recent books include Augusta Played (LSU, 1998),  Death and Transfiguration (LSU, 1997), and Writing the World, (University of Missouri, 1995).   She is Eudora Welty Professor of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  
Saturday's Child    Click to hear this poem in RealAudio

On a morning in May, in 1953, my mother stands at the formica counter in the kitchen of our house in Charleston, South Carolina, drinking cocoa and smoking a Chesterfield. She wears red lipstick, the only cosmetic she ever bothers with, the shiny tube a staple in her sleek white patent-leather handbag. If it were a weekday she would be getting ready to leave for work in the old Dodge, my father at the wheel, but it is Saturday, and Saturday means laundry, grocery shopping, changing the sheets on the beds. This early in the summer, this early in the morning, and it's already so hot a person could faint. She's wearing a straight linen skirt, dark brown with back kick-pleat, white blouse with a V-neck and batwing sleeves, and brown and white spectator heels, and despite the heat, despite its being Saturday, she wears stockings and a garter belt. She drags on her cigarette, douses it under the faucet. She drops the butt into the ashtray on the kitchen table on her way out. Though the screen door is latched, the back door to the kitchen is left open to let in a breeze, should there be, at some point, a breeze. In the side yard, a parasol of a maple tree spreads a circle of shade. The children use the maple tree as the starting point for games of Hide-and-seek and May I? All day the children chase each other, laugh or cry, climb the monkey bars and swing in the swings. Or they go inside where they read books in their rooms while washing machines make a monotonous chugging sound downstairs. All day the children eat butter-and-sugar sandwiches made with sliced white bread that builds better bodies eight ways. They drink bottle Cokes, the wasp-waist of the bottle fitting neatly in their hands though they do not stop to think about this. They race out again—letting the screen door slam and bounce, unlatched—and fling themselves down on the grass, blow milkweed puffs, braiding the ropy stems into bracelets. They practice screaming-in-terror so they can be in the movies. Screaming—the children have observed that this is what women do most in the movies. Actresses are supposed to be terrorized and scream, then fall backwards onto the bedspread. Playing cowboys and Indians, the children slip Indian-style, as they call it, through the yard, and the maple becomes their tepee. But after a few hours of make-believe they find themselves longing for their own lives, which, after all, are still new to them, unexplored and exciting. And so, though it is Saturday, they play school. They pretend it is a school day and that they are sitting at their small desks, working in workbooks. By mid-afternoon, the neighborhood is as silent as sleep except for the pencils being pushed across the workbooks. These kids know more than they would dream, as yet, of writing. They know that, everywhere they know of, there are expectations and practices with the force of rules. That there's not much difference between the pledge of allegiance and school prayer. People here hold revivals and save themselves. My mother thinks this is pretty idiotic. Pretty, but not completely. Since, she tells herself, the truth is you never know what the score is. But she doesn't tell anyone else that. As far as everyone else is concerned, she's got no use for wishful thinking. This is important to her: she wants everyone to know she has no use for wishful thinking. What she has is a boss who keeps trying to put the make on her. She has a new mortgage—this is the first house she and my father have owned—and she can't afford to lose her job. It's a long day. Saturdays are always long. She chain-smokes. By day's end, the bedrooms have been cleaned, the laundry and groceries put away, the trellis roses pruned and the dogwood trees trimmed, supper served and the dishes washed in the sink and dried by hand. She and my father sit for a while on the back stoop, cicadas and whippoorwills contributing background chatter, as if they were guests at a cocktail party, but my parents don't throw parties. Live oaks scrawl shadows on the darkening sky. Magnolia blossoms rustle like silk, brushed by a stirring bird. My mother holds a Coke bottle in one hand, a cigarette in the other. She and my father talk. I don't know what they talk about; their voices are soft, and I am inside, on the other side of the screen door, deeply involved with a biography of Lou Gehrig. The stars come out one by one, like lights turned on in dark houses. Blue deepens into night, and at last there's a breeze. On my face, the air feels like chiffon, billowing like cloth with the sighing breaths of honeysuckle, clover, scented by the dew gathering in droplets on the closed petals of the trellis roses, a perfume that should surely be called Evening in Charleston. My parents' voices are as soft as face powder, as if the South had rubbed all the r's and ending g's down to fine, dissolving outlines. My mother and father come inside and shut the back door. My mother hands the empty Coke bottle to my father and he rinses it out in the sink to keep the ants from being drawn to a sweet residue. There are speck-sized ants that find their way into the cabinets. We keep the lids on jars tightly screwed, the flaps on boxes closed, flour in the refrigerator. My mother crushes her cigarette in the ashtray. All those cigarette butts with red lipstick kissed onto them look like they're bleeding; like tampons. It's like a hemorrhage, that ashtray, like something bursting and flooding.

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Kelly Cherry: Fiction
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SevenThe Cortland Review