I Sleep So You Will Be Alive
I believed you were still
in that orange plaid upholstered rocker
in the sunroom.
We danced our mutually agreed upon waltz.
You pretended you knew who I was. And I pretended
you hadn’t forgotten me.
The staff passed out a lyric sheet.
You shoved it under the chair, told me
I don’t need that damn paper.
And Frederick, the boy determined
to earn his Eagle Scout status here at the Alzheimer’s Unit
pounded out the three chord songs on the piano.
And you were right. You didn’t need
the lyric sheet. You knew every verse.
Even the ones no one ever sings.
Blue skies, smiling at me, nothing but blue skies
do I see you belted out, most buoyant in the room,
as you squeezed my knee, gave me a wink.
Your fingers kept time on my knee.
You are my steadfast metronome
dressed in a cotton duster
of peonies and clematis vines.
I used to think separation was an easy
lackadaisical thing. Skipping town
on an errand that never ends.
A one-way ticket out and down the road.
I have to practice being without you,
you told me. As if I am a cello
concerto that you must return to
even in your sleep. Left hand pressing
blindly on an invisible fret board. Right
hand bowing the air with Beethoven notes.
I appear in your dream as a cadenza. No
manuscript notes. Just an Etta James
kind of scatting in the dark of a smoky dance
floor, at that Basque restaurant in Bakersfield.
Your old lover played cello. Vibrating strings
from her own little corner in the kitchen
next to the pantry stocked with canned beans,
rice, chimichurri sauce, and cellophane noodles.
Every morning you stood at the kitchen sink,
taking a straight razor to your cheeks. You liked
feeling the sandpaper of your beard vanish
as she lowered you into the basement of her range,
like a chromatic scale gone berserk.
But now I know separation is a vile thing.
The way you stroke your eighteen year old
cat in bed. Orange mat of clotted hair, saying good-bye
over and over. Practicing for the not-being-there.
The way you put your earring back in
on Friday nights. The way we knew all
the Happy Hour dives that served appetizers
and discount booze. I watched you devour
sheep’s cheese and black cherry jam smeared
on stale sesame crackers. As if it were your last
meal. Always practicing the leaving.
I remember the night we licked the same spoon
between saucers of gin. Juniper juice with a drop kick.
Our breath a collision of stainless steel and cherry jam,
of soft liquor and the clink of jagged ice.
After having taught middle and high school English for 32 years, Marianne Peel is now nurturing her own creative spirit. She has spent three summers in Guizhou Province, teaching best practices to teachers in China. She received Fulbright-Hays Awards to Nepal (2003) and Turkey (2009). Marianne participated in Marge Piercy’s Juried Intensive Poetry Workshop (2016). Marianne’s poetry appears in Muddy River Poetry Review, Belle Reve Literary Journal, Jelly Bucket Journal, among others. Marianne is also a veteran musician, playing flute/sax and singing in various orchestras, bands, choirs, and jazz bands her whole life. She has a collection of poetry forthcoming in 2020 from Shadelandhouse Modern Press.
Listen to a 1964 recording of Lorez Alexandria singing Gus Kahn, Joseph Livingston and Matty Malneck’s “I’m Through With Love,” with Wynton Kelly (piano), Ray Crawford (guitar), Paul Horn (flute), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums)