GREAT EXPECTATIONS

. . . and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold and frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:11

At Christmas everyone
in our one room school would
give Mrs. Loechner a gift.
It wasn’t supposed to be expensive.
Every year she gave each of us
an orange and a little box
of candy. My mother thought
something practical would be
best and brought home a small
plastic bottle. What’s that I said.
It’s to dampen clothes with
she said. You put water inside and shake
it on whatever you’re ironing.
Like this. I bought myself one
while I was at it.
She put it inside an empty
cardboard box that once held Hershey
bars and wrapped it.

On the last day before Christmas
we all gathered up
front around the desk.
She opened the presents
— little bars of soap, hand-made Christmas
tree ornaments, handkerchiefs —
and said thank you, it’s very thoughtful.
When she unwrapped mine and saw
the box everyone cheered.
O my goodness she said.
She opened the box and it
got real quiet. What’s that
someone said. It’s to dampen
clothes with I said. You put
water in it and shake it
on the shirt or whatever.
Thank you, Kenneth, she said.
It will be very useful.

But I knew she was just being
nice.

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PRISON MUSIC

Visitors wait in mostly silent
expectation for the men to arrive.
They are greeted with smiles,
hugs, murmured how-are-yous.
That is until one of them steps
into the room and a squeal
blasts our ears and a tyke
wriggles off her mother’s lap
and dashes toward his outstretched arms
screaming her love song:
Daddy!
Daddy!
Daddy!

PING PONG

Strange — isn’t it? — how one thing leads to another. Like this morning when I was driving on the Carlisle Pike and spotted Target and I remembered my freshman year in college and trying to throw darts and how terrible I was at it and deciding to play ping pong instead and learning in lit class about metaphor and thinking that ping pong represented my feelings about Melanie Morrison who sat next to me in American History and hoping I could say something to make her laugh and when I did her laugh came out in an awful screech and how it turned me off and then feeling guilty about being so shallow and deciding that instead of trying to improve my ping pong game I would learn to play bridge.

RACONTEUR

If you ever volunteer to visit
people in assisted living
at Oakmont Retirement Village,
knock on the door of 235
and ask the woman who answers
to tell you about the food service.
Be prepared to spend
the next half-hour listening
to her recital of under-cooked
meat loaf, soggy salads,
inedible desserts (as well as
table companions
from cuckoo-land), all delivered
with the hilarious flair
of the best stand-up comedians
you’ve ever heard. You will find
yourself apologizing for your
laughter that you fear will
give the impression that
you do not sympathize
with those who must endure
gastronomic ineptitude.
But she will dismiss
your apology with a wave
of her hand and give you
a dead-pan invitation to
“stop by for lunch tomorrow.
You can sit at my table . . .
cost you only ten bucks.”

WHAT MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME

. . . was why twelve years elapsed
between my brother’s birth and mine.

She did tell me that another boy
had been “still-born”
and what that hyphenated,
two part word meant.
She did not use another word,
a word mothers do not explain
to four-year old children: “miscarriage.”

But I remember how she and I
would march around the breakfast
table to happy radio tunes before
I was old enough to go to school
and how we laughed as we were
doing it and how she seemed
to want me always in her sight.

I must have been the answer
to a dozen years of prayers.