Still lookin’ for’em, you joked
a year ago, the first time
my eyes locked on your fingers,
the little that’s left of them:
ring and index
clipped at the knuckle;
thumb missing part of its tip;
pinky severed altogether.
The middle untouched,
a gesture kept at the ready.
My face lit with shame.
You grinned, blew me a kiss,
extended your hand to shake mine,
but when I reached across the coffee counter,
you waved me off, shook your head,
and winked. You just couldn’t
do that to me, make me touch you.
Secretly, I was grateful then,
could feel those fingers tickle my spine.
They gave me that slightly sick feeling
I still get when I look at the portrait
of my grandfather sitting on the sofa.
The photographer peeled open
the claw the stroke made of his hand,
spread his fingers over his bent knee so it appeared
casual, my grandfather relaxed,
just sitting there, hand on his kneecap.
A hand that was there but not there,
always clenched and cool like a lure
at the end a dead arm. When we could not
make out his words, he would spit, curse
or cry, and that arm would tremble
as if a live wire snaked through it.
Fingers would burst open then snap shut,
an exotic plant feasting on insects.
But there, in that picture, it is the hand
that once wielded a trowel to close
weather-made breaks in concrete,
to reinforce a wall so the two sides
touch again. In that picture, it is the hand
that pressed a heads-up penny into the wet slab
of cement outside our backyard shed, a joke
hoping to trick visitors into bending over
to pick it up for luck. I know better
than to pluck at the edges of that penny
in this land, in times like these,
when a poor man can earn a buck by letting
a stranger make trunks of his fingers for fun,
but when you beam at me and say,
Still can’t remember where I put’em.
You been lookin’ for’em, Sweetie?
I am willing to play along, willing
to fall for that trick again:
I pat down my apron pockets,
my pant legs, I lift up a coffee mug
or two, pretend to peer underneath,
I unroll napkin-bundled silverware
to check between the fork and spoon.
Maybe they’re floating in the soup? I say.
Such hope, Marlon, in how you rise from the booth,
how you smile at me before you leave,
how you sling your denim coat
over your shoulders, swiftly and one-handed,
how you pinch the copper buttons through the holes
using your thumb and middle finger only.
Not a woman’s purse, but a little girl’s purse:
sequined and pink, the strap barely enough
for Kenneth to fit her arm through.
She wears a teenager’s tee-shirt,
baby-blue and too small to hide
the roll of belly, the fur that coils
down to the groin, or the bra straps.
I do not wonder if that hair bothers her,
if she feels about it the way I feel
about my thighs. I do not wonder
what’s beneath her jeans, if she throbs
seeing a naked woman or man; I do not wonder
about her breasts, if they’re real or if
they’re a balled pair of socks, why they’re lopsided
and uneven. I do not wonder if she must shave
her face twice a day, or if it’s Secret or Old Spice
behind her bathroom mirror. I am not curious
about the voice she is careful not to use.
But I do wonder what’s inside that purse.
Maybe she carries the cold hands she used to wear
in the days she spent digging for stones
along the coast in a forest of Douglas Fir.
Maybe a familiar voice calling her home for dinner,
or all the lima beans she never ate.
Maybe she’s kept the gutted deer she found dangling
from a neighbor’s tree, or the flies that bounced around
in the strips of shredded flesh. Maybe she carries
the raccoons that cackled in the backyard shed
and gave her nightmares all her life. Or the punch
her brother left in her stomach when she embarrassed
him before his friends. Maybe she carries a moonlit kiss,
or a Christmas ornament, the first word she ever spoke.
Maybe she keeps music in there: love songs, or songs
of dreams and journeys. And laughter. How I hope
there is some laughter. Maybe she carries all
the advice she never took about baseball, love,
or how to defend herself against the sideways glances
that began in seventh grade, the whispers, the lookers
who tried not to look, or the ones who looked
like they were trying not to look. Maybe she keeps
the word Faggot in that purse, or Queer, Freak, Pussy,
Homo. Maybe she keeps the written notes, the threats,
the eating alone at lunchtime, the long walk home
from school. Maybe she keeps the prayer she says
to herself, or the tampon she wishes she could use.
I don’t know what’s inside that purse, but today I saw
something to be added: the warmth left on the seat
across the table from her where a man sat down
and asked her to say her name, the name
she gave herself, the way a bird must name herself
the first time she bursts from trees to flight.