Cathryn Essinger is the author of three prize winning books of poetry: A Desk in the Elephant House, My Dog Does Not Read Plato, and What I Know About Innocence. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of journals, from Midwest Gothic to The Southern Review, The Antioch Review and Poetry. She is a retired Professor of English and a member of The Greenville Poets, a small but well published poetry group in Ohio that has been together for over 25 years.
It’s not hard to butter your bread on both sides,
it’s just hard to eat it that way,
so who thinks up these things anyway? Butter-
fingers, for instance,
who is foolish enough to butter his own fingers?
who thought of that one? I don’t want to spread
butter on anyone
and then talk about in public, and butterflies
and buttermilk, and butter cookies—things
with no butter in them.
When I was at boarding school, we didn’t get
margarine for a month
after we balanced pats on the tips of our knives
and launched them
toward the ceiling, where they stuck like mushy
They made us wash down the walls, so I carved
in the molding, because who knows when anyone
will be up there again.
And years from now it won’t seem silly—
it will be sentimental.
When I’m 80 and in my cups and I see a pat
of butter at Bob Evans,
I’ll remember washing the walls of the dining hall
and Jenny Lindsey
looking up at me, a little smile sliding into place
and her face all creamy
in the evening light, and I know right then
she’ll be butter in my hands.
My dentist is writing a vampire novel
that she is happy to tell me about
while she repairs a filling,
which she refers to as a “restoration.”
I’ve read a couple already, she says,
it’s going to be easy!
You need an outsider, a love interest,
a conflict between good and evil,
and of course, a threat…
She grins as she tugs at her gloves
and tips the light so it shines
right in my eyes.
“So, this is Young Adult?” I ask,
talking between her vinyl fingers.
No—no! I think it’s for women
my age… a professional, someone who
sees a lot of people every day, maybe
in an intimate sort of way?
She tilts her head to make eye contact.
And maybe she has an ethical dilemma,
or something that can’t be revealed—
professional etiquette, you understand.
“So…the vampire is a patient?” I ask,
Maybe, she says…well, yes, yes, he is.
But who is the love interest I wonder
to myself—the pretty hygienist, or
the blonde with the ivory neck?
I was thinking a relationship between
two patients with a dentist as their
confidant. Clever, huh?
She bites her lip as she polishes my teeth,
then hands me a mirror. Now smile, she says,
and tell me, honestly, what do you think?
The only coffee I ever had was my mother's
until I went to work at the mattress factory,
where John sat me down in the break room
with a brew so strong it was thick in the cup,
and made my teeth feel rough and dingy.
That’s when I discovered cream and sugar,
because I liked John, even if his coffee
did make my stomach churn. I could
feel the caffeine scrubbing at my fatigue,
and when I went back to my sewing
I could feel my whole body humming
along with the machines and the afternoon
seemed to feed itself smoothly into
the pleaters, while the bobbins spun
above me like they were self propelled.
And every night, John would meet me
at the door, walk me to the car, and
he always said, You gotta get out,
Girl…you gotta get out.
Eventually, I moved up to quilting,
then I went to a dress shop
and into fancy stitching. Later, I took
Elizabeth and moved away, went to
a pattern maker where I laid pieces out
for some of the best designers in town.
They said I had a knack for it, but nothing
ever seemed to lay out so neatly for me.
Never knew how to tell someone
he mattered in my life, never learned
to say no when I wanted yes.
Sometimes life turns you inside out,
and all of the seams and knots show
as if they were the reason for the sewing.
But I know how to put on my best face,
smile, and keep the secrets of the trade.
But late in the day, when the machines lurch
and even the best thread tangles in the cloth,
I’d give anything to be back in that break
room with a cup of John’s coffee, because
nowadays nobody makes it strong enough.