I stand here ironing
--after Tillie Olsen
I stand here ironing. I pick up the empty toothpaste tube, scissor it, dig deep, the silver glinting inside. The brush handle breaks and I cradle the shards in my hand. I stand here ironing. I weep and eat soup and get skinnier and skinnier. I’m hired for jobs and all renege because there’s no money, there’s Covid, there’s death. I become mentally ill. I used to shoot up with candy to sleep. I stand here ironing and pop meds. I’m a joke. I’m a fool. I loom large to myself and dumb. I scrape white paint from the floor with my nails. The blades are all gone from my youth. I gather the clothes. I stand here ironing. I clean the bath and crawl across the floor with a rag. I stand here ironing. I mend. I’m a kept woman. I fold the laundry and place it in drawers. The towels are threadbare, but I refuse. My hair grows down my back. The migraines come and go and make holes. I sit in the bathroom, the hot turned up high, for when my baby can barely breathe. I stand here ironing. No one irons anymore. I stand here ironing. I’m dragged down the street, a ziptie cutting my wrists. I’m seconds from peeing all over the sidewalk, my bladder is so full. Tear gas, I’m told, likes milk. I nursed them each until they were two. I wrote Poison Control’s number in permanent marker on my arm. I’m a fool, I’m a joke. I’m in jail. I stand here ironing. Memoirs are squares, youth was a knife, youth was a savior, youth was a horrible song.
My sister says that on a lark she went through the Burger King drive-thru, probably to get a diet Coke. She says there was a sign that appeared to be hurriedly written and taped up in the window where you pick up your food. The message was that there are limited hours because they couldn’t find enough staff to work. I’m not sure why I’m stunned. I guess because I thought there weren’t enough jobs to go around. “Maybe I should work at Burger King,” I think. I worked at McDonald’s when I was in high school. I was pretty good at it. I was made a Crew Chief. I never understood what that meant. I didn’t ask. Despite not knowing my role, it was fun. You could slide around in your slick-bottom topsiders, from one end to the other behind the counter, because of the grease. We were a group before and after closing, 11 p.m.; we’d go out for scrambled eggs at the local Perkins. It was also fun to shout, “BUS!” when one would pull in the parking lot at 5 minutes till 11 p.m. The sheer thrill of chaos. We also went places together in the daytime. Like Smith Lake. I made a really good friend. We’d take my car, go by our McDonald’s and fill our cooler with ice. No one seemed to care. One of the managers went to high school with Prince. We’d rock out to Prince at a bar across state lines where we were old enough to drink. One of the McDonald managers had extreme hay fever. He was miserable most of the year. My boyfriend, whom I hated with every cell of my body, worked there too. I ignored him, and he’d get beyond pissed. Why not break up? I didn’t want the drama and it was easier to blow him off. He was a complete imbecile. He followed me around like a mean puppy. I hated when he worked the same shift I did. Soon I got the courage to kick him to the curb. And there was drama. I despised him more. We always had to be alone. We could never be with my friends. There was more that I don’t want to talk about.
My life was school and his wasn’t. My science teacher called him an id when he walked on the sidewalk outside the classroom window once. I agreed in my heart of hearts. There’s nothing funny about this. I want to find something funny, but I can’t. I imagine kicking him in the balls and smashing his face. I’m told he looks for me when he goes to reunions, despite having a wife whom he ditches. Every year he attends. I don’t know why she married him. She was from a family that raised beautiful horses. Maybe she got pregnant and felt an obligation. I’m sure he didn’t. Beats me. Last time my best friend said he wore overalls with no shirt because that was the thing. I guess to show your muscles or something. He always wanted everyone to call him Chaz. No one would. Apparently, he named his son Chaz. In the one picture I’ve seen, his son and his son’s girlfriend lean over a big stag they’ve brought down. The stag’s eyes are still open. The kids look clean cut and like they’d be popular. The girl is pretty. No mullets. I thought he’d produce losers. Maybe his wife kept a close eye on the boy while no-one-would-call-Chaz cleaned up after the horses. I know I’m being mean, but he was really a jerk. I’d like to go back and kick him in the balls. Or did I already say that.
My students say they learn just as much about life as they do about writing in my class. Poetry. Creative Nonfiction. Nonfiction. I love my students, and I can imagine this. Not like how to be mean when you’ve been used, a body, and your insecurity follows grief.
A guy I really liked nominated me for homecoming queen. I won. The loser followed me around at the dance held afterward, and insisted we leave early to be alone, so he could use my body and I could hate him more. He kissed so loudly. It was disgusting.
I’m sorry this isn’t happy like my other new writing. My psychiatrist says jokingly, when I tell her my brain goes from good thought to bad thought, that maybe I’m psychotic. She prescribes another kind of medication to add to the stack. I’m sure you can make a poem out of that. Like kicking some guy that you hate in the balls. Then stomping on his head. I forgot to mention that part. “Chaz,” his son, squatted behind a stag that he killed. In my dream I slide down the lids of the stag’s eyes. He’s really a girl. But what else could I do? Truly remember? The girl is dead. But, as they say, she has come to earth to live this life of sacrifice.
Dear Unemployment Office,
I am buying a tent and a large rusted steel trash can.
I’ve been officially kicked out of my apartment.
Really, I’m going to live in my car
with my dog, Copper.
You won’t believe it.
It’s better than banging my head against your wall.
The emergency room is tired of my made-up illnesses for a bed.
Copper is with the vet for unexplained ailments.
They like Copper and cut me some slack.
I will become a drug addict, so I have a reason.
Once I was sued for breaking my leg.
I am used to the other side of the tracks.
I will hang out on the library steps during the day
unless I’m afraid someone will loot my paltry stuff.
The homeless shelter is closed.
My steel trash can’s too hot.
There are only three things I love.
My dog, my future cat, and my car.
I’m not sure about my steel trash can.
It got me in trouble.
The homeless are arming ourselves with sticks
and pitchforks to overtake Frankenstein
and the woman who said, “Let them eat cake.”
Sometimes people have to make concessions.
I have no idea why the blowing-leaf-guy has to blow leaves with his thinga-ma-jig, from 6 a.m. to 5p.m. I imagine him in his bed vibrating, the moon trying to settle him down. His arms especially hurting. The leaf blower will probably lose his job and the guy slinging huge metal tanks into a truck and onto metal shelves because their arms will fly away. There will be seminars on how to be a bridge and the sun will wander even though nobody knows this. They think there are different suns. But that’s impossible. There are flashlights and crucial moons.
I’m locked out of the unemployment site because I tried to get in to my personal account too many times. I don’t know how many that is, but I should start counting because this keeps happening. As usual, Captcha throws me for a loop. But it’s worse. This time you have to identify numbers and letters with over-cooked spaghetti-like pasta on top of it. I keep failing and then I learn I’m locked out and then I learn my doing it over a hundred times is because I’m locked out permanently, I mean, I’m not a genius or anything but how about the words “You are permanently locked out” instead. Oh, by the way, don’t shoot them a little email about how you are in a fetal position in the corner of your apartment because of this convoluted fucked-up process because thirty seconds later you’ll hear a knock at your door and find two police officers standing in your doorway with their thumbs locked in their belts as if they road up on horses for a drink and a gunfight. A well-check. But the deal is how come you can try and contact unemployment all ways possible to no avail; you must conclude they aren’t reading your emails and when you call no one answers but a recording that prompts you to choose “one,” the only option, and you do and it either hangs up on you or starts speaking in Spanish and get nowhere. Back to the police. Either Unemployment People are reading your emails for grins (or sobbing—true story) or there is a logarithm, code, program that looks for words like “fetal” and “position” close together thereby an alarm goes off at the nearest precinct or white van where cops are doing a stakeout close by flashing your address and in 30 seconds they crowd your doorway looking all tough with their thumbs locked in their belts, feet planted a foot apart, now half in your door, ready to take you down if they have to. Funny thing is, you knew you were writing all kinds of inappropriate stuff in your emails, like shoot myself but since you didn’t think they were reading your emails it was kind of affirming to fling inappropriate words at an institution that kind of operates like the witch’s castle in Wizard of Oz except the witch doesn’t dissolve via water, although she does look like she’s extremely underhydradted and parched but that’s part of the deal of being a witch so water messes with her system. Water would be waaayyyy too easy in this situation. Anyway, the police, after eyeing you, shrug their shoulders and determine your craziness hasn’t totally crossed the line which is way not as fun as a shootout. Door locked behind them, in 30 seconds I’m in the fetal position in the corner by the potted plant. Drive there? Signs hurriedly written on poster board stuck on the inside of the locked front doors that they are closed for the unforeseeable future. Believe me, I packed a lunch and tried, the unemployment people possibly inside, lights off, hiding out in the back room like it’s Code Orange because it is, although their recordings claim these are just “unprecedented times.” Where are the UFOs when you need them? 30 seconds, your abducted. Out of this world
Today, the unemployment office had elephants. What I mean is that when I was a kid and being advised about a parent who had alcoholism, the kid would come home from school, walk in the door, and it would be like there was an elephant in the room and everyone acted like it wasn’t there. The alcoholism so giant yet so unwillingly observed. I picture a gray one, not Pooh’s pink ones he dreams about drunk on honey. So, the UO people scramble to the walls hoping not to get stepped on. The elephant was not having it. He roared, he was painted intricately, and slowly everyone picked up brushes and dipped them in a myriad of colors. I took an Ativan and then took another, sucking on them like they were cherry Lifesavers. The room grew dim like I imagined the living room of the alcoholic family. The kids nonchalantly scattered if that’s possible, stepping over passed-out parent. They did their homework. Dinner was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that they retrieved by stepping back over passed-out parent. The other parent comes home, steps around the painted elephant and goes to bed. The kids do too, homework expertly completed. All heroes. Check out the names of roles kids play in an alcoholic family. The next day is usually the same yet now the elephant is getting frisky, so the kids let him out. He goes back to the desert planes or jungles. It’s easy, much easier. The unemployment office is rather calm. The painted elephant comes back to soothe the unemployed. The staff are oblivious. They have their own problems and have no idea how to answer the unemployeds’ questions. They pass around a cheese tray instead. Covid. Nobody takes any. An alarm goes off. No one reacts. They just silently file out. The next day is the same until people start going crazy. There’s nothing to be but crazy. The elephant is gone, the peanut butter and jelly are gone. Covid terror ensues, potential homelessness ensues. There is nothing else to believe but the earth is caving in from heavy elephants. Grids have been hacked. Money isn’t currency anymore. Just painted elephants that are the most beautiful things in the world.
I’m sleeping for a month. What I mean is I sleep, get up, do the thing I have to do, go back to sleep, get up, do the thing I have to do. I’ve researched what this is: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Lyme Disease, depression. The list goes on. In fact, I think doctors can take years and years looking for the culprit. I think my dog is most appreciative that I get up, stagger toward his leash, wash out his bowls and replenish them. But the rest of the world? Not so much. And I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I write in obscurity. But I don’t mind it so much anymore. It’s taken me years to get here. Quite frankly, I think the longing to be heard began when I was eight and wrote my first poem and my aunt, a writer, sent it to the Kansas City Star. I think the guy turned it down. But he wrote me a long letter in red pen. That was supposed to be something. I was curious. I really didn’t know what it meant, yet it was the train I was rocking on, slipping in the seat from a life that makes me wary, slipping away from a life I don’t care about anymore.
I remember when I was playing at a friend’s house. These were family friends so my friend’s sister and my sister, our parents, their parents. We stayed upstairs, they stayed down. My friend’s mother came up and told my friend that her classmate had (finally) died. Apparently, she’d been headed downhill in the hospital for a long time. And was in a coma, I’m sure now. Why did she die? one of us piped up. She slept too much, my friend’s mother said. I wasn’t dumbfounded or confused or fearful. I just saw her in some hospital bed, the rails white, curved the way they were curved and iron in old movies. She’s lying there gently breathing.
It begins with the heart. Burning. You had thought it was Covid since your hands don’t twist and your breathing is labored. The teleported doctor says it’s a panic attack and not Covid. You woke from sleep. You don’t feel panicked. It’s only your body that tells you so. Once while reading before a crowd, your entire body shook so that the group saw. Now when reading before an audience, you always visibly tremble. But you don’t feel panicked or even nervous. During the reading and after, you explain this. One woman suggests Ativan, so it’s clear they don’t believe you. No, you insist, I don’t feel frightened, it’s only my body taking over, as if I were a different person. You ask your partner if he could see. He nods. The people seem to be talking about somebody else, and maybe they are.
There are voices. I suppose QAnon has one. I don’t fault them for it. Well, maybe I do. It’s hard to say crazies have a voice. I mean, I feel crazy sometimes, but I don’t get a youtube channel to celebrate it. And I don’t hurt people, intentionally, as a result of it. It’s too tiring. I’d rather trust most of the time. Lick my wounds by the fire, while you lick yours, kind of thing. I mean, I’ll watch documentaries about QAnon, my mouth open, kind of a guffaw, like holy shit, now I’m scared. We need guns. We need bunkers with years’ supplies. We need to homeschool our kids in case there’s a QAnon agenda we aren’t privy too. We need spies.
I’ve reached one of many all-time lows. I forgot the dog bags while walking Copper, so I faked throwing up when I bent over to get the waste. I figured those around me would forgive me for not getting it. As I walked away and to the front door, I would lean over and gag. It worked. People ran. 2. I forgot the bags again and had to use a mask. As you can imagine, it was like swinging a half-open diaper to the doggie disposal bag container. Later, hands clean and stomach refurbished, I squeezed and twisted my (extra) lime slivers at the top of the extra-large, Sonic cup brimming with diet Coke and then swished it with my finger, shook my hands, and pulled out a Christmas napkin from my purse, then hand sanitizer. Only the top third tastes good, considering the limes, but if I don’t get an extra-large there won’t be that kind of top third, if you know what I mean. There will be a top half and that means there’s some confusion on my part. Plus, I have all these coupons for extra-large. I don’t know if I should order extra limes or not. It’s a wash.
Tee hee, there isn’t a real gun. I was just checking your sense of humor. It’s how I cope: not being able to sleep, switching from bed to bed, turning ceiling fans on and off, getting confused by their switches and hanging cords, eating masses amounts of sugar, drinking, freezing because I’ve turned the air conditioner on triple high, and trying to write my blog that begins as scribbles of heavy black marker that I’m sure is genius.
The day brings clarity and my purple underwear. I have found them, along with the pretend gun I’m sure I’ve bought and the bandolier to go with it because pawn shops are open all night and people who go to them are usually desperate, like me. The dealer, I imagine, thinks I’m drunk because I’m stumbling and muttering, “Purple underwear, purple underwear, purple underwear.”
Upon awakening, I’d searched frantically for the gun, bandolier and purple underwear, while I blared the show of women who didn’t know they were pregnant and push the handsome baby out near a marina or inside a fast food bathroom so as to calm myself down figuring that’s worse. Don’t get me wrong, I love my girls, but that “season,” as they say on those very fundamentalist Christian shows, is over.
The main unemployment office is a mire but also my friend; I’m chaos too. There are satellites and the one I hang out in is clean and almost empty. There are cubicles where you can learn about how to be a candidate. I figure I’ve got a shot already. My desperation is unique. I do politically incorrect powwow dances, like those they made us do in Kindergarten. I smoke pretend candy cigarettes. Then I check my phone to normalize. An email about a stray sock found at my husband’s family’s shore house has come in. Next, an aunt adds a butterfly ear-ring and a loofah. I lie to the group and say they aren’t mine, just because it seems like too much trouble. The aunts always make up new places for lost and found, like an out-of-the-way drawer I can never find, so the pile gets bigger. I should claim the charger but that makes me exhausted. It’s mine but I don’t know what it charges. The best is the purple underpants. If I claim that, every male in the family will identify me by my underwear. Ding. They found a weapon. They call the police and I quake. Calm down, I tell myself, it isn’t loaded. The bullets are in my bandolier. I bought a loofah to shine the gun until google gets pissed: “No way, that’ll leave scratches." The gun’s legal but how long before they trace it to me and I get blackballed. No beach. No ions.