by Leah Vahjen
– For the family I love, all of whom still buzz around in my mind as we did around 353 Columbus Avenue: Lindsay, Timmy, Tracy, Ian, Graham, Tara, Sean, Thomas, Luke, Jesse, Shane, & Kyle
I. Uncle Timmy
Queen Pauline’s vibrato buzzes about long, glass honeycombs
filled with ginger snaps and marshmallows.
The screened door slaps shut at my back.
Wedged beside the Radarange,
last to be smothered in the long greeting line,
I am tight-eyed and trying to hide
when my Uncle Timmy flips me
round asking, How’d you get so pretty?
I wonder what he would ask me,
what all those expectant eyes would hope to see
if they were still looking at me.
II. Uncle Tommy
Aunt Kris is not to be found;
she’s in their big white split-level
in Caramel, with another man.
UT wears a black turtle neck.
His eyelids flutter while he says hello.
One of his teeth looks whiter
than the rest, and his crowded smile
overwhelms me as we lean
in for a hug. He bends back, hands
clasped as if he hopes
he is not in the way.
I don’t mind if he takes up space.
III. Aunt Barbara
sits at the circular Hitchcock dining table placed
square beneath the pendant light’s stained-glass canopy.
The same, red, woven sweater.
She gives me a bump-cheek kiss,
and I wonder how her face
is so flushed but not warm. She picks
from plates of fruit, Clubs and Cabarets,
muenster wedges. Her voice rings
around the hanging copper molds—
a lobster; a fish; a bushel of grapes
in which I now see my own face,
as I strain to recall the sound of my family.
IV. Aunt Colleen
I wonder if the tremors
began to build in her body
while she sat among the lace throws
of the living room; quiet, kind-eyed.
Dark pixie hair and a long, gentle witch’s nose.
The same laugh lines as my mother’s
made me want to hug her,
and I should have always taken the chance.
V. Uncle Peter
In a congested family room that was once a foyer,
clocks dance and many mirrors reflect his long dimples,
hugging roseate cheeks—an unmistakable Santa Claus;
it is truly Christmas when he smiles. He stands,
always a beverage in his hands,
watches a Mets game with Al
on a brown-paneled TV
that nearly blocks the long-unused front door.
I do not know how much time he spent
among all those antiques and patterned wallpapers,
or whether he even liked 353,
but I know I felt at home there, each time he spoke to me.
VI. Aunt Jeri Lee
Somewhere in her house down the double-drive,
Jeri Lee is laughing. Ice tinkles around her glass
of Dewar’s and ginger ale.
Her feet, like matchboxes in thin black socks
and plush black clogs, raise from the floor
while her mauve La-Z-Boy rocks back
beneath her weight, and her eyes crest closed
behind petri dish glasses.
I almost wish I did not see her that one last time,
sitting pallid and out of her mind in a wheelchair
just weeks from dying—just days after our Queen died.
VII. Aunts Donna and Carol, Uncles Ken and Bob, Cousins Chris and Lisa
Their faces are familiar, but they are largely names to me.
A woman whose eyes never meet mine
in the same way they must meet those of her beloved horses.
An Asian man I assume to be the reason they’ve moved from New York.
Their gentle son, Chris, many years my senior,
and the only person I know to have taken paternity leave.
Carol, a pair of short-heeled white pumps,
a red wrap-dress, and a face cream-caked like fashionable icing.
Bob the bus driver, with his exquisitely smooth olive head
and a dark, thick bend of moustache.
Lisa: body-builder, West Point grad, FBI employee.
Sometimes, child-like, I imagine her repelling into a criminal’s house,
busting in the windows, clad in combat boots and an official jacket,
and I see no relation to me –
but somehow it is enough to know they all are family.
VIII. Uncle Jim
The sliding door suckers open
to a sunporch whose floor of Peter Pan green
synthetic grass is never-ending, crunching
like grains of sand from a broken hourglass
beneath our feet.
Jim stands among my sitting uncles
with a long cigarette burning down to his knuckles.
Phlegm catches in his throat
at the punchline of his joke—the same suffocating smoke
that choked King Robert to death.
I inhale deep and exhale slow.
The cuckoo clock mocks its unyielding reminder:
another whole hour, gone. Too late,
I scramble inside the hive, stockings sliding on soft,
slick linoleum. “I didn’t see the bird,”
I coo. Someone I love simply spins back the hand
and makes it happen again.