A Burden


Jerry Williams

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.

They lounge around an above-ground swimming pool
behind a trailer in East Tennessee,
my mother, my sister, my mother's sister.
They range from plump to morbidly obese,
an emotionally exhausted tableau,
their various ailments accurate as mean time
in the heavy August heat.
Short-horned grasshoppers and cicadas
provide the incidental music
but there's no breeze to take the edge off, no radio.
These women have fashioned a living
out of multiple marriages, social security disability,
and the odd class action suit.
Not bad for people who started with nothing.

Durable as a canvas punching bag,
my mother survived breast cancer, colon cancer,
and today she has inoperable carcinoma of the lungs.
Her every statement, her every gesture,
upstages Prometheus bestowing fire.
Can she soak in the pool wearing her morphine patch?
How long can she stay in the sun
with skin the color and texture of mashed potatoes?
Her mood is vulnerable, confessional.
So near the end, she needs to clear her name.
She needs to convince her children
that they could have been raised worse.
Nobody fired us out of a cannon or turned us into stew.
The commissar never sold us off to NASCAR.

As the Q & A becomes more A than Q,
and disclaimers smuggle in a meddle of claims,
my mother says, "When I was a kid I caught
my brother Turner having sex with a chicken."
Cue the foreboding twisted rope sound
of a catapult cranked and loaded.
My sister bursts into tears.
My aunt wishes she could drown everyone in the pool.
My mother pleads dementia and picks at a scab.

Turner's an undiagnosed manic-depressive,
golf-playing, retired gym teacher now,
a low level charmer who hatched a dozen
get-rich-quick schemes that never panned out.
He's a respectable guy and doesn't deserve
the infamy a family exhumes when death
begins to blow up the party balloons.

If he fucked a chicken, he fucked it in Kentucky,
where he and my mother came of age,
raised by dirt farmers in a shack with a dirt floor.
Out front, the mailbox had rusted shut.
Back by the creek slumped a windowless chicken coop.
Maybe Turner stood among the perches
and nesting boxes candling eggs,
a juvenile dungeoned in Appalachia.
One thing led to another.
Christ, all the girls in the valley were kin.
His innocent libidinousness forced him to make
a choice that philosophers and screenwriters dream about.
There's no cause for elaboration,
no cause for imagery or epithet—
because draining, plucking, and evisceration
required haste to keep the meat from spoiling on the bone.
Any truth to this story lasted less than five minutes.

As the women of my clan descend into rosy resentment,
a callus of secrecy hardens around the telling.
The sun melts across the surrounding hills,
another summer afternoon spent buried alive.
Soon, my mother will head north
for Ohio to be closer to her brother,
and the cancer will spread to her brain.
He visits her every day at the nursing home.
They have so many tests and pills in common.
Perhaps she had to degrade him with her memory
before she would let him sit quietly beside her,
hold her hand, sometimes finish her applesauce
or roll the portable toilet up to the bed.
And when she falls asleep he never forgets
to turn the TV off as he leaves.