he stands at the stove in the center
of the kitchen in the center of a valley on the
left-hand side of the Mississippi yellow mixing
in the crook of his right arm whisking flour until
it dissolves then siphons small ponds of batter
onto the cast iron which was too heavy to make
off with in my backpack when he died
I was eight when we met
my mom already enthralled
drove us to his bright house
in the dark country a deer
head hung on the wall he made
me a steak brought me a heaping
bowl of ice cream swimming in
chocolate sauce in the morning
we hiked the hillsides for tall
mushrooms, once home the ants
crawled out of the mushrooms and
across the countertops we fried them
humbly in butter and garlic my mom
has always been starving we have
always been broke so when she refused
to come the two of us two plates deep
at the Old Country breakfast buffet would
collapse into grins over piles of donuts and
soft scrambled eggs a year later he’d walk
outside into the dew to a campfire and make
me pancakes on cast iron just because
a year later we spent every acre of
summer elbowdeep in blackberry bushes
standing in the dirt field shoeless two berries
in the mouth for each
I stand at the top of his stairs without calling first; a week ago he called to admit the dying populous of his gut, its inexorable diffuse. Excuse me, large words blunt the wound of death. Dying. He is dying. I stand in the dark hallway until he says hello?;
nothing but his voice could have made me enter the room, the large space where his new body would be. Yesterday I sat on my bed in Brooklyn. Now I sit in the green wingback. The one that once sat in his father’s office. Are you eating? I ask. No, he says, does not have to explain the last month of catatonia. We watch Dexter, both appreciate watching death ruin only bad men. From out of the winter’s quickening dark he says you know what sounds good? That pie place in Lansing. Fifteen minutes later we are in the Toyota on 35; he almost looks unsick in the waning sunlight that has swerved across the river to slant graciously across his face.
The lymphoma has bloomed the nodes below his ears to gourds. We are both obliged to the no small mercy of pill bloat filling out his shirt. His shoulders once pulled birch trees from the woods, in an hour he will ask me to carry the gallon of milk to the car / I am working on not staring; I am working on not looking away—
Up over the bridge, it could be 1999, he could be well, the radio could be playing Back at One by Brian McKnight, he could be winking at my mom / she could be squeezing his hand / I am in the backseat eyerollling, not knowing how lucky we are to be mundane and going to Horsfal’s Variety Store where each item costs under three dollars, this holy ordinary moment / Soon, I will get an attitude because it is too hot and I am too tired, we will eat burgers at a hole in the wall over the taught line of my silence, he will drive us back to the valley to watch dusk descend around our bright home / but I am 27, I am still selfish, and there is something in him no one can unmarry from the end. On my left is the apartment building my friends and I broke into when I was twelve, after my mom left him, where my friends rushed into unfurnished rooms with unfurnished boys and on the apartment’s new carpet I fell asleep in a warm beer stupor and dreamt of him pulling me out of the house angry with love.
The bowl is not there when he arrives in my apartment early August boxes stacked high in Corners things I am certain I will want in New York City
He is here to take apart the bed he built me.
He is standing in my doorway
Under his left arm a jar of lemons. He puts a jar of gin in the fridge later he says for gimlets hands me a package of venison wrapped in butcher paper, and
we park in front of a small bakery, a smaller sign in the windows says
He / the wind through his now too-large jacket billows, this pie it is the ultimate who would be closed on a Saturday. He means he has not left the house / kept anything down / walked toward a promise that didn’t hurt in weeks. We walk across the street to a grocery. The sun is in the sky / in the tree branches / on his face, I forget why I am here, on this ground in Iowa, and not walking down 57th toward the train. I am walking too fast, for Iowa, for him—he, who taught me to throw a spiral tightly in a perfect arch, who beat me in every bicycle race for two decades, who spent bug bit evenings teaching me to sink a ball from any point in the paint, who taught me the difference between an eagle / buzzard / hawk by considering wingspan, is shuffling hurriedly toward me, I am sorry I say I am sorry we are both trying
to pretend this is a normal trip so he says grab a peanut butter hon I stand in the aisle staring blankly what size peanut butter do you buy when the doctor says he will not make it to Christmas? There are only three weeks until Christmas. are you ready hon? On the way to the cashier we pass a freezer of pies oooh let’s get a pecan! His eyes small fires struggling through rain; I open the door and grab a pecan; And a pumpkin; Oh! Cherry! My arms stack with boxes, I ask if he wants an apple pie. Absolutely. Later, we stand at the stove, four pies open on the cold range. Our forks busied, our eyes bigged.
Surrounded by the daisy wallpaper he and my mom began ripping down a decade ago and never finished; acres of absence threatening to consume the whole field.
There were the afternoons on the front porch watching hummingbirds sugared drunk and the morning we drove to Amish country for pies because the sun was bright enough to last—we rode easy in the old blue Toyota, eating sun chips, NPR humming under the whir of wheat fields barreling up and down the hills next to us, rain rot colla
The Toyota rusted out.
We ate all the pie.
In a picture above my desk he is smiling out of the driver’s seat of a blue van—the one he stuffed with a twin mattress and a wood burning stove bought off an old caboose. The road is snow covered and long in front of him. In the past, he will eventually make it back to Wisconsin and put down a small payment on a small piece of land. He will sell an acre of potatoes, bell peppers, and strawflowers bunched and tied with twine at a farmers market in the city. That garden will pay the first year’s farm payment. He has always wanted me to do something sensible with my life. But I only write; I can only remember.
He tamps apples into sugared butter
bread slices into egg and milk
bluegill fillets fresh from the river, from his hands
after scaling all eight fish, shaking, as Vicodin
thins in his blood, he asks me to roll them in the
Shore Lunch panko crumbs, asks me to place
them in the cast iron half oil half butter,
the kitchen lightswum from twin windows above
the dining room table. It is winter and the house
is silenced by a half foot of snow on the roof. In
summer, dried red husks of dead beetles collect
in windowsills. In autumn, a doe split open will hang
from the support beam beneath the deck. Now,
though, my feet in socks still cold while the furnace
in the basement spits away full of wood he split and split and split
When the dog got sick and her organs failed and she stopped eating he walked her into the woods and came back, after sundown, alone. He was quiet for days. I would find him sitting at the table staring into his hands. My mom never forgave him, I am not sure he forgave himself, but I think when we meet death it is a miracle if we handle it with any grace.
After a year and a half of his body readying itself for what comes next it finally stopped accepting food. He went three weeks on only water and periodic gulps of clear soda. On the twenty-first day he told me to call 911. I spoke into the pale yellow phone as if ordering a complicated sandwich yes, sixty-five, no, nothing to eat, three weeks, cancer, a year and a half, right away, please. Thank you.
I didn’t know they’d drown him in morphine in the ambulance, that the moments in his bedroom while we waited for them to park on the grass and file up the stairs were the last moments we would look at each other and both be in our bodies. I put the phone down and sat again in the green wingback. He put his hand over my hand, squeezed. I looked at him, my eyes far away, through much rain. He winked.
I did not know when someone is dying of cancer, when it is at the very end, they kill your loved one via overdose. They slowly, steadily, fill the body with morphine until your loved one is very far away and then gone, all at once.
At the hospital, when his breath stopped after 1am, I stood up, expertly, walked to the nurse’s station and said he’s gone. I went back to the room, folded the blankets, pushed the chair back to its place, kissed his forehead, grabbed my backpack, which held a change of clothes, his mixing bowl, a soda I’d packed, dumbly, thinking he might want it on our way home.
career? horse barn
Tenure? wool sweater with holes
salary? cottonwood, cedar, birch
boutique? rhubarb, elderberry, doe on the hillside
iPhone? wood ax hand callus, ginseng on the hillside
new car? salmon loaf, humble fry
401k? morels, live bait, toyota, us on the hillside, look, waving
Tell me dinner’s ready, hon. Tell me clear the euchre deck so we can eat. Tell me there’s more dead oak where these mushrooms come from. Tell me storm. Tell me it’s a real thunderboomer. Tell me the whole house a mud room. Tell me the dog’s underneath the burs. Tell me the corn is planted. Tell me the fish are biting down at Blackhawk. Tell me you’ll be home later. Tell me there’s ice cream in the freezer. Tell me you’re hankering. Tell me you’ll have another bowl. Tell me there’s a doe on the hillside as I come down the stairs. Tell me there’s pancakes. Tell me to journal. Every day. Tell me sudoku. Tell me punching bag. Tell me bottle rockets because Texas. Tell me bon fire. Tell me to go throw some wood in, hon. Tell me to be careful. I throw the wood in, you split it. I am warm because you woke first, I woke because you built the house, right here, where mom could find it.
The mixing bowl has always been in the cupboard beneath the stovetop, sunflower yellow with broken handle. This house has always been at the end of this road, at the end of a two-and-a-half-hour drive. There has always been a hole in the bridge. And one in the middle of my bedroom where from time to time a mouse would pop up its whispering head. There has always been a gallon of gas station ice cream in the freezer. He wore the same clearance rack t-shirts the day I met him until the day he died. The Christmas cloth has been on the table since my mother left. The mice still eat the bread. The top four stairs creak. The hummingbirds will come back awaiting sugar drink he will not be here to mix. It has always been in this cupboard, needing a palm or good rinse to loose the dust, so when he said from his hospital bed God. Pie sounds good
I moved in the dark to its place.
Misian Taylor is a writer and bookseller. They are living in Madison, Wisconsin.