Not that he minded coming in out of the rain,
shaking water from his boots in the mud room,
placing them side by side with the other pairs
of slick rubbers, umbrellas left open,
set like enormous flower petals upon
an oriental rug dirty with its own versions
of flowers. Nor did he mind the schmoozing
before dinner, as garlic and meat smells
wafted from the kitchen and the women’s voices
rose and fell, a distant music punctuated
by the sound of pots and pans. Watery,
those eyes locked with his, and what were they saying?
The periodic table in his memory
(eidetic) moved through elements, as if
lit by a red pointer. From Hydrogen
to Helium to Neon. He stuttered why yes,
to the man at his side, who seemed nonplussed.
A non-sequitur he supposed, but, nonetheless
conversation. Answering these people—
Why did he have to answer to anyone?
Entitlement, Sodium, Radium.
In an hour the meal would be finished,
the pleasantries exchanged. These good byes
always lasted beyond what the French would require.
Might he return home to his screens? Machines?
Perhaps the children, grown but not gone, would be gone?
The wife knew enough not to bother. When
would the others learn their lessons? Strontium?
Potassium—two below Lithium. Placement
more important once the table assumed
proportions greater than twelve. At twelve
something sharp might happen, and that — well, in
the stories his mother told, would not be good.
Ah, yes, he uttered again, this time at table,
where the slain bird — greased, tinted with herbs —
emitted a stink both oily and ghastly.
Of course, he would pass the butter. Freshly churned
as the hostess mentioned over and over,
procured from one of those little countries
with the hundred-year wars. War—there’s a subject
not to bring up, he thought to himself, chuckling
out loud. What’s funny? the nephew of his host,
directly across, dressed as Cesium, an orange
shade that made his Krypton shirt more turquoise—
What’s funny? repeated. He mumbled Oh,
interrupted just in time by a woman
who’d seen dismay and knew humiliation—
This duck is monstrously delicious!—Why yes,
that’s it, he agreed modestly, not sure
whether the quip had been for his sake, trying
to hold all the elements at once in his head.
To pre-empt any chance for nepotism—
retaliation by the host—who seemed no longer
aloof so much angry. Yes, that’s knife-speak,
came a wispy thought. Overt hatred’s better.
Soon it will be over—this dinner (party).
So much wasted time. Why trust anyone?
Humankind—a worthless conglomeration
of parasites feeding off the suffering of…
And found himself back in the antechamber,
his galoshes still there. Wellingtons. Red tops
setting off tall black heavy bottoms.
*Originally published in Cimarron Review and coming soon in Came Home to Winter.
Judith Skillman’s new books are Premise of Light, Tebot Bach. She is the recipient of grants from Artist Trust and from the Academy of American Poets. Her work has appeared in Shenandoah, Poetry, Cimarron Review, The Southern Review, and other journals. You can visit her at www.judithskillman.com.
Photograph by Valentin Müller.