Fait le ménage

Fait le ménage

Will there be time before
you go for us to go out and get a drink?
Claudette whispered
to Marcus.
We’re drinking right now, right?
Marcus sipped something red.

You really asking, baby?

Don’t smile at me like that, she said
You don’t fool me with that.

Alright. Maybe there’ll be time.
But you know what family can be like, eh?
How’m I going to sneak off
from them when they know they won’t
be seeing me likely for a year.

You don’t think the war will be over
before that?

Marcus lit another cigarette.
The pack was feeling lighter and lighter.
Seriously?
I want another one of those, Claudette pointed
then put it to her mouth.
You don’t know which ones these are.
Ooh. Then I really do want one.
He shrugged. Okay, but I don’t share these with the non-smokers
like my own brother over there.
He gestured with his thumb past the phonograph
to the couch, to a place where Lou
was trying to talk to Emmie who lay very still on the couch
her eyes now closed.

I’m serious, yes.
I wonder, can this war go on another full year.
You haven’t met Charlie he said.
Have you? she shot back.
Nope. Not yet.

Americans, I know them. They have this stubborn
optimism but it isn’t about surviving.
It’s not what conquered peoples know where every birth
is the act of war.
She tasted the tainted tobacco.
My father was the oldest of fifteen children.
So was my mother, Marcus nodded.
She gave him a funny look.
Okay, thirteen. Honest.

My dad, he got off easy
because his parents made it to the city.
His father worked the rails as a high class porter.
You been on a Pullman car?
His father wore suits and kept his hair close cropped.
When he was in town,
now and then, here and there he saw maw-maw
read the paper and taught the kids elocution
and how to set the table.

I never met him. Dad said he was a dandy.
Taught his sons how to speak like white folks do
you no doubt noticed.
I had to learn English, Claudette said.
And my father he only had two children and he wanted us
to get out when we were eighteen.
Fortunately he came to the city so it didn’t mean
fait le ménage. We had maman for that.

Charlie has his god and we’ve got ours.
His god doesn’t seem too interested in what our God
is selling. I think Charlie’s got gods like we’ve
got ‘em. People say ‘God and Country’
but all I see is Gods and countries.

We’re both in a foreign country, aren’t we?
Two negroes,
Claudette said and Marcus laughed.

-Jeremy Nathan Marks

The mice

The mice

When Claudette said I’ll fix you a drink
she meant water.

Laura’s face was flushed.
When she touched her cheek with her finger tips
it burned slightly.
She felt an urge to go back outside.

How much snow do you think
has fallen, Claudette asked with her back turned
filling a glass at the tap. I don’t know,
I wasn’t really paying attention.
Strange season, this year; Claudette handed her the glass.
It’s odd to be talking about the weather
Laura took it and drank.

As she tipped her head back
she noticed in one upper corner of the room
a tiny red animal, no larger than a mouse
twirling slowly, circling in on itself like a dog bedding down
or a snake electing to sleep. But the speed
of the thing was increasing.
She put the glass down. Claudette said
Do you need some more-

Laura shook her head and watched the mouse on
the sly, making eye contact with
her mother.
Claudette didn’t wait for her answer and
went back to the sink.
Now there were two mice: one red and one green
both doing the same thing.
Laura stood up to see if the rodents would
notice her. They did not.

Drink this. You’re flushed.
And you probably should sit down too.
Claudette left the room.
Laura downed the water quickly then felt
the urge to spit it up in the sink.
She swallowed but it tasted bitter.
The mice now numbered
three. A blue one had joined the group.

They all kept spinning and did not seem to notice
each other. Not one had chosen
a different direction.

In the dining room Laura discovered
that her mother had bought a plant and placed it
by the sliding glass door.
There’s a lot of light there,
she heard her mother saying to someone,
anyone in the next room.
Even in winter there’s a lot of light there.

It was a giant Venus Fly Trap
that seemed to have caught something
because Laura noticed how it was
chewing.
Isn’t that a dangerous plant
she said to no one in particular.

The four mice decided to spread out,
each one to a corner.
The purple one –was he new?
made a chattering sound but wasn’t waiting
for a response.
Mice of many colors, coat of different dreams;
I want to go outside again
Laura whispered to the ceiling.

The mice kept spinning,
all five of them.
The fifth one had replaced the lamp
and occupied the center of the room. He was slightly
larger than the others
so the light did not diminish.

Captain of the mice she whispered.
‘When some Ishmaelites,
a hairy crew, came riding by . . . .’

-Jeremy Nathan Marks

Chinook

Chinook

Madame, Lucky touched her arm gently
Madame, do you have any country records in
your collection?

Claudette didn’t feel the need to be called Madame,
it reminded her of too many matrons
she knew. But she liked being touched on the arm.

Country? She walked over to the cabinet
below the phonograph and rifled
through the records. Country, country, she said softly
to herself. Country records. . .
Anything that don’t have a black man on the cover?
Marcus laughed. Lucky turned and looked
at him, raising one eyebrow as a jest
Lordy! Lordy! Marcus cackled and said Alright.

Claudette found an Ian and Sylvia album
and showed it to Lucky.
Is this good enough? She handed it to him and tapped
her finger on the title. Nashville.
Do you know it, monsieur? She smirked,
returning his formality.
Lucky shook his head while Claudette
put it on. Marcus put out his cigarette, lit another
and walked over swaying.
I dig it. I dig this. I know this song,
it’s Dylan. He started lip synching then started singing
“If your memory serves you well . . . You’ll remember you’re the one
who called on me to call on them to get your favors done.”

He handed Claudette a straight cigarette
and lit it for her. She blew smoke into the air and said
have you seen my daughter?
Emmie was lying on the couch feeling the breeze
and looking up at the ceiling.
I think she’s outside, Madame. . . Smoking.
Claudette said My daughter, who does not smoke?
People change, Emmie said softly
not taking her eyes off of the stationary fan.

She was waiting for the wind she felt whipping
at the small of her back
to nudge the blades slightly.
She had posed herself a challenge; she was testing her meddle:
she was going to move those blades with her mind.

Laura walked in the front door
between songs. She kept the door from slamming
as the wind sucked and pushed at it
and the astringent smell of deep frost battled
the musk that had filled the house.
She hoped by entering quietly no one would notice
that she had gone but was coming back.

Claudette met her in the hallway
and said Emmie says you have been smoking.
Laura felt cornered but the corners of her mother’s mouth
suggested a deep amusement rather than surprise.
I see that if I offer you something you don’t take it.
Which is fine. That is what children do
to their parents and who can blame them?
But the important thing is
did you enjoy it?

Laura didn’t take off her coat.
It’s taking a lot out of me not to go back outside
right now.
And why is that, fille?
Laura rolled her eyes and tried to walk past
but Claudette whispered
I haven’t done anything you would call over the top.
I haven’t stared quoting Latin which I know
you hate. And I am not showing off for anyone. We’re
not competing, chère.
Everyone here is lovely and I’m happy
they are here. I thought that you would be as well.

Laura turned to walk back outside
but Claudette took her arm gently. Come into the kitchen
with me and let me fix you something.
Laura stood still. Claudette waited for her arm
to go slack.

The drug had been coursing
her blood surprisingly slow; the relief
she had been looking for had not been forthcoming
which made Laura angry. But then
something entered: a chinook burst of breath.
The hard grip of bone and knuckle,
the grating rub of the fabric on skin turned
to sudden plush.

Her mother’s touch was arousing.

She would take that drink.

-Jeremy Nathan Marks

The wrong drug

The wrong drug

It was snowing fiercely
but the fuchsia scarf worked as well
as any balaclava.

Laura lit one of the joints,
cupping it carefully, almost tenderly.
It was the one with the tiny
writing on it.

She wondered what that circled 1 meant.
A code. Maybe even a joke.
Her mother’s friends liked codes,
especially the linguist who had majored in math
and recently discovered Hebrew numerology.
She sometimes called up late at night
flushed and giddy with thoughts
about the Aleph.

Claudette often had no idea what she was talking about.

As Laura filled her lungs
the hot fumes bloomed in her chest
while the arctic air burnished her cheeks.
She closed her eyes
and dug her hands deep inside her pockets
then stamped her feet repeating
One, one, one, one softly to herself.

The wind picked up
whipping back her hair.
Laura closed her eyes
and started breathing through her nose.
The smoke was pungent but the deep cold
held off her customary nausea.

She noticed that someone
(most likely her mother) had opened
the front window to let out the choking smoke of
the living room.
Soon there would be a loud and persistent
whine behind the tree and ornaments
would fall to the floor.

Once, on the Montreal subway,
she heard a noise like wind in the front window;
it was a humming reminiscent of a church
choir. Claudette had just
introduced her to Holst’s Neptune
and the sound seemed oddly the same.

Minutes passed but her darkness was still
uniformly dark.
Laura had turned away from the window so she
wouldn’t face where the tree
was turning the deepening snow the color
of fruitcake. She glanced at that display furtively
peering through practically closed eyes
with a growing impatience.
When will the colors come inside
she wondered before realizing that she expected great things
from the wrong drug.

-Jeremy Nathan Marks

Quo vadis

Quo vadis

Laura had not worn her mother’s
clothes since she was twelve.

Their bodies were nothing alike:
Laura was shorter, wider,
rounder than her mother. She was
her father’s daughter. A stocky man,
Claudette once divulged that he wore lifts
to try and stand even with his wife
who was only 5’5.

Claudette was a farmer’s son’s daughter
who’d grown up on her own
measures of snow. She looked like a cottonwood
and trembled with the breeze.
She had her mother’s bite and her father’s
wit and though she had grown up on Côte-des-Neiges
she still swore that the barnyard smell of manure
filled the house each morning when her father,
who liked to sleep by an open window
was up at dawn making coffee (and drinking bitters) before
going down to the Old Port.

Robert grew up tasting la merde fraiche de Joliet.
Once while the clan was visiting grand mère
over Pâques his daughter turned
to her father and quoting Spenser:
“Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;”

asked Papa, was it like that-
as she pointed out at the greening pasture
intoning “This joyous day”

No. He slapped on his tattered cap.
It was not.
And slipping mud boots over wool socks walked out
the back door to the privy.

Claudette stopped reading Spenser after that.

Laura first heard this story when she was eleven
and took an interest in her mother’s poetry collection
which Claudette kept in
her bedroom. Her daughter, wanting to
know the secrets of womanhood (her mother’s past, the source of her wiles,
her mysterious early life)
had pulled down a gilded binding and
flipped it open In medius res
to “Easter” then lay on the bed trying to pronounce
odd words with odder spellings like clene
lyke and entertayne.

Claudette, whose intuition had alerted her
to something had tiptoed to
the bedroom door and watched her daughter
as she read aloud.
Laura had always liked to do this even past the cusp
of school age.
Her father noticed her penchant for performance early
confiding in his wife that they likely had produced
a budding actress, an elocutionist
like his own mother. Claudette preferred Laura’s lilting
voice to the nasal northeastern dialects she’d grown up with in English
and in French.

Maman, I am reading Spenser!
she’d shouted with enthusiasm when she heard
her mother accidentally molest the creaking doorframe.
Oui, chérie. That I can see.
Because the poem was “Easter” she had told her giggling fille
“the privy story” which was so funny because
it was about papa cheveux blanc
and a toilet.

Laura quietly opened the hall closet
and pulled down the fuchsia scarf from her mother’s
brown pea coat.
A tiny plastic bag fell to the floor
making a flat plack as it touched the linoleum.
She stooped down to pick it up
and saw three meticulously rolled joints.
One had a tiny number 1 surrounded by a circle
printed on the side.

She put on the scarf
to the rhythm of skipping static from the stereo.
The scarf was made of wool;
she felt it tingling her neck, tripping all of those tiny
nape hairs as she slid its fringed ends
evenly in front of her.
Her mother smoked –was smoking now-
and it wouldn’t be long before she would start quoting Catallus
which she liked to do when she was high.

The one advantage I gained from that dreadful school
was being forced to learn cette langue maudite!
And in a voice Laura did not recognize as being her mother’s own,
Claudette would intone:
Siqua recordanti benefacta priora voluptas est homini
cum se cogitat esse pium

then wink and blow smoke and look up
mumbling Quo vadis?

Quo vadis autem esse?

-Jeremy Nathan Marks

Note:
Quo vadis means “Where goest thou?” And Quo vadis autem esse means “Where wilt thou be?”

The lengthier quote in Latin is a fragment which comes from Catallus’s poem “To Cornelius,” Part LXXVI: “If there is any pleasure for a man in remembering past good deeds, when he thinks himself to be dutiful . . .”

Wall of sound

Wall of sound

Marcus noticed that Lucky was watching
him closely. Emmie kept leaning her lips in
toward his hand and each time
she did he dutifully produced the zippo.
Emmie would look up at him
and giggle then shrug her shoulders.
Vanilla, he’d whisper and chuckle.

As she then walked over to the stereo
and began leafing through the records Marcus
turned toward Lucky and raised
a joint. Lucky shook his head slightly but walked over
drinking a beer he’d found in the back
of the fridge.
Where’d you get that?
I think it’s the last, Lucky said. The only one.
Marcus shook his head. I can only drink so much wine
in one evening. Besides, man, it’s getting
really hot in here. Lucky took a sip but didn’t offer
any to Marcus though he knew he’d
accept it if he did.

I don’t think all this smoke is helping much
and he glanced up at what was then swirling
around the stilled ceiling fan.
Marcus took a puff and blew smoke out his nostrils.
This is a cigarette bro. He held it out
for inspection. I take my time. I don’t overdo it.
Lucky raised an eyebrow.
Marcus pulled the pack of Chesterfields out of his pocket
and with the flick of his wrist brought one out
of its open corner offering it up.

These are just smokes-
Lucky said taking it tentatively.
I’m not lying, man. Swear it.
Marcus produced his zippo again but Lucky
whipped a matchbook
out of his own pocket. I didn’t know athletes were allowed that
and he nodded as Lucky drew a long drag.

You’ve been listening to your brother,
Lucky inhaled. The rule follower.

Marcus laughed. Yeah, that’s my brother.
Hey bro! Come over here
he shouted at Lou who was looking at an album
carefully on the couch. Put that Miles record down
and get your ass over here!
Lou gently laid the record down on top of the phonograph
avoiding close contact with Emmie
as he did so. She had placed her ear next to the speaker
and was mumbling something about
waiting for a wall of sound to come crashing down.

Have a smoke, brother. Have a smoke.
It’s not going to do you any harm. This isn’t one of those
and he flicked his wrist again
to reveal one fresh and clean. Lou looked at it
a moment but then took it. Marcus lit it for him and said
You know what they call these over in England?
Fags. He shook his head.
I never did understand those English cats. My father used
to have them over to dinner when they’d be
visiting his department. The younger ones
they liked mama’s “soul food” and always asked Dad
if he had any Muddy Waters or some
Chicago blues. You remember that one cat,
Willoughby or Barnaby.
Shit, Lou. What was his name?

Lou chuckled and said Carnaby.
His name was David Carnaby and you and I laughed
about that tweed name every time we went to church.
I’d put on my suit jacket and you’d call me
Carnaby and act snooty.
Yeah, Marcus laughed. But that cat was alright.
He knew Dad had Muddy Waters
and Big Momma Thornton and Howlin’ Wolf
and Lord knows what else. Then Mama asked him if he ever went to church
back home and he said all deadpan: “I’m sorry, ma’am (which sounded like “mum”).
I’m an Anglican.”

Lou smiled. I don’t know if mama got
that joke but dad seemed to.
He took a drag.
Dad always brought interesting people home and-
Marcus cut in -He even pretended
to find British culture interesting! I couldn’t do that,
not for money! But they do like our music.
Isn’t that what the dude said: It’s your music, guvnor.

Lucky finished his cigarette.
If you want to hear about yours and mine
you should come and drink with my father. He’ll tell you
where to get yours.
But not you, eh? Marcus smirked. Not you?
Lou shot him a glance.
Lucky shrugged. I’m a cracker. And I know it.
But my father’s the one who’s proud
of it. He only wanted me playing football.

Lucky eyed up the Chesterfields again
and Marcus flicked him one.
They were silent for a moment then Lucky said
What the hell are we listening to, anyway?
The three of them turned and watched
Emmie gyrating by the speaker
but it was another moment before Marcus said
It sounds like the record’s skipping, man.
He looked at both of them.
Am I crazy?
No, Lou laughed. It is skipping-

-Jeremy Nathan Marks

Loose

Loose

Laura stood at the sink and filled
her glass with water.
Her eyes felt quite dry and she knew each time
she closed them that they
were red from the smoke thickening in the next
room. She could hear her mother
laughing at practically everything Marcus said but she
did not hear Lou enter the kitchen.

Don’t hate him, he told her
His charm, that’s for real.
Laura turned and looked hard at his face
It is. Lou held her gaze.
She took a drink of water then stood over the sink
watching the heavy snow flashing past in the backyard light.
Lou started to speak but without turning
around she held her hand up
to silence him.

The room suddenly felt like the inside of Claudette’s
oven where she was broiling Baked Alaska.
Lou felt something tighten in his chest
and his tongue tasted sour
and dry. He could feel his
temples dampening.

In school there was a math teacher
who often stopped Lou from fully answering
questions in class by wordlessly holding up his hand.
Often this man,
a Mr. Smathers, was facing
the blackboard and he didn’t feel the need to turn around.
If the teacher ever did this
to any other student Lou had not seen it. But when he saw
the man in the hallway he was always friendly.
And since Lou was a stellar student, the teacher seemed to go out
of his way to be friendly.

Except at those moments.
The word “gamesmanship” meant something
to a young man with an older brother
like Marcus.
Whenever that hand went up it was like Lou
had entered a ring.

Laura was holding her hand up
in practically the same manner. Lou saw something
in her just then he had also seen in Emmie
that night for the first time.
She was peering –or was she leering-
out from the corner where she had corralled Lucky.
Whenever Marcus flashed his grin
or talked some jive to make Laura’s mother laugh
Emmie lifted her head and looked out
into the room with this acid blooming in her face.
Either she was leering or the word
had no meaning.

Lou began to walk away
as Laura said Don’t you think he should know
when not to show what he can do.
Lou looked at her and thought That’s rich,
you telling me that.
But that isn’t what he said.

In less than a month my brother is going
to Vietnam. Lou picked up a glass of water
and left the kitchen.
She could hear Marcus laughing again but
Emmie was laughing too.
Claudette wasn’t the only one loose now.

-Jeremy Nathan Marks