In the fall of 1996, my father Philip Adams, after sixty-some years in the practice of law, took his last case to court. And as he had done so often before, he took us with him, my sister and me. At ninety, he was going blind: this time we drove him. Otherwise, it was very like the trips of our childhood, when, in his continuing quest to ﬁle a case in every county of California, he’d delighted in showing us small towns with dusty courthouses, sitting on benches waiting for the couple to come, the judge to come, and after, the fun part, waiting for the milkshake to come. Courthouses almost (I see now) coeval with him: born in 1905, he had witnessed more than half the history of his beloved native state.
The day was perfect, the ﬁne fall weather of the last weeks before the rains come, warm but not hot, already cool in the shade. I remember he took his jacket off, his white shirt resplendent beneath one of his signature bowties. We reached the Placer County Courthouse, and, for one last time, waited for the woman who’d brought him here—his excuse, his affair—the nineties version of a drama begun at birth, when his mother had had him, a late child she didn’t want.
Oh how he turned that one around, ﬁnding mothers for thousands of children, children for thousands of women like the one we met that day. She’d cared for the baby since birth—no waiting rooms for him—this was merely the ﬁnal formality. The judge on his dais looking down, the courtroom dark and cool, empty except for us. Adams, party of six, your adoption’s ready. Adams, party of thousands…
For forty-some years, I went along for the ride, taking for granted, as daughters do, that gravel voice, those deepening eyes, the stack of papers his hands caressed, one more baby placed. He was a man from the age of baseball (one of his clients was Willie Mays), always in search of home. That he found it so many times astounded him, too. Mister Adoption, some liked do call him. What a lucky bastard, he’d say of himself. Unwanted to start with, blind at the end—what a lucky bastard.
After he died, after the voice, the eyes, the hands were gone, I almost understood. I’d taken for granted, as daughters do, those golden afternoons, those women, those babies, him in his bowties, starched shirts. After he died, I could see it at last, how perfectly he’d placed me.
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
A year or two before he died, my father—on one of those too-rare evenings in his apartment that remain magical in my memory—my father stood at his mantel and told me a story, a story from that long-ago time, the thirties, when my parents were married but childless, before I was even imagined, much less conceived. How he and my mother were traveling the state by car—then a fairly novel thing to do—investigating insurance claims. How following one such sojourn, they returned to ﬁnd a friend mysteriously vanished—nowhere to be found, no forwarding address.
Over the next few months, putting the skills of his insurance work to use, my father ﬁnally found her. In that long-ago time, the thirties, a woman pregnant without beneﬁt of husband was a woman to be shunned and shamed. In obedience to this ancient ethos, his friend Phoebe had take refuge four hundred miles away without a word to friends or family: he found her in that ambivalent institution, a home of unwed mothers. As he stood at the mantel I saw that even sixty years hadn’t erased his astonishment at this.
Let me say my father worshipped women, certain women, women, I suspect, on the model of his mother, towards whom he felt, I see now, an abiding love—and an abiding guilt. A woman ahead of her time, she attended college in his long-ago time, the eighties—the other eighties. She had become a teacher, and when my father was conceived (and he was deﬁnitely not imagined, only conceived), dear me, the pregnant teacher had to go. On her deathbed, she pointedly informed him she wished she’d never had him. In that long-ago time, the oughts—the other oughts—his pregnant mother ﬂed with her preacher husband from the Deep South to the still sleepy town of Los Angeles—ironically, the city Phoebe led to three decades later.
And when they fought, my dad and his mom, she’d threaten to take him to the orphanage, drop him off. He’d pick up the phone. Give me the number, I’ll call right now! Ah yes, the orphanage.
So—how much of his mother, and of himself, did my dad see in Phoebe as he crossed the room to look her in the eyes, to say, in his gravel voice, Why the hell didn’t you say something? You know we would’ve helped . . .
As he struggled to hide the astonishment so evident still as he talked to me some sixty years later. An epiphany for him, I think now: so this is what happened to women who didn’t go to college—even to those who did.
My dad was a very private man. What I say here of him and his mom is my version of a story he never in fact told me, one I only intuit from fragments, bits and pieces glimpsed and guessed at over the years. Only after his death did I learn his parents had eventually divorced; only when I was ten or twelve did I learn, entirely by accident, I had an uncle, the older brother he’d never talked about.
And yet—is this perhaps why I write about him, as him even: the blank page I can spread dreams out on, making up a life where none was given me, inventing new pieces to the puzzle that easily ﬁt the few he left lying on the table.
Out of that incident—out of that epiphany in Phoebe’s eyes (and is it pure coincidence that phoebe means moon and is a name of the goddess of love?)—came law school, private practice, and, ultimately, a lifetime’s work in adoption, including the invention of what’s now called “open adoption”—what was long called baby-selling, baby-mongering. And out of the magic of that night, that telling, came a collection of poems, an attempt to render some of the sharp ambivalences he spent his life on the edge of—knife-thrower he was. Life-thrower he learned to become.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
four prose poems excerpted from
THE WHOLE OF HARRY
Sits on the broad bench outside the courtroom, sunlight on marble assumes an angle he recognizes by hour, by day of the year. His client’s shoes click down the hall. Well, at least she’s satisﬁed.
He’s happy to help them, he’s only a hired hand. The judge a woman, too. He saw them take each other in, saw it leap from one to the other, that spark, that understanding that meant his case was won. All he’d done was show up. All he’d done was pull the right name out of a hat.
Got to get up, get down to the county clerk, ﬁle the papers, proof of the prize he’s won. Or if not won, then—accepted, yes, as this marble accepts—as the months accept him, November, December, another new year.
Half the judges women now, more of his clients win the case for him, he had forgotten how hard it used to be. How the judges chose to keep the baby, cut the mother in half.
None of his business who wins, who loses, he’s only a hired hand. Have briefcase, will travel, have babies, will bargain, have cock, will come . . .
Harry, you’re too old for this. Shakes his head, pushes against the bench, slowly stands. Damn, his leg’s gone to sleep on him. He can get himself down here at dawn, can’t seem to keep all the parts assembled, ready to run. The only body he could take to court, his own. Grips his briefcase by the handle, pushes off from the bench. Rubber shoes make no sound. Or something so faint he strains to hear . . .
Pulls in a broadcast, his ﬁrst wife’s sister, far off, faint but clear. Harry, she’s saying, don’t let me lose this one. Don’t let them take him away!
Stops, shakes his leg to get the blood going again. Hasn’t heard from her in, God, forty-ﬁve years, back before—before women kept babies, before the babies grew up, pulled over their dresses the robes of a judge. Came back to demand their mother’s name. He hobbles on down the corridor quiet as Sunday morning, Olivia’s sister recedes. How had that case come out? Feels the blood fall to his foot. Oh yes, she died.
Stops, studies the shafting light. Olivia’s sister, Deborah? No, Dotty, Dorothy Anne. Took the kid with her, too. A case everyone lost. A case where he’d taken sides.
Tried to get her to give him up.
If Olivia ever knew—
If Madeleine knew—
That’s the trouble with wives. And still he volunteered for number two.
Hell, what could Olivia do to him now, she divorced him centuries back, that sister took his secret with her, baby found dead with no father to speak of, no father at all. Yes, yes, the judges in those days cut the woman in half, kept the baby, kept the baby— The blood falls into the ﬂoor, he ﬁnds himself sitting on the briefcase, breathing hard. She’s stuck in his head now, can’t get out, Harry, don’t let me lose, don’t let me lose!
The blood falls all the way down, he sees the dead boy hobbling towards him, naked, bloody, the cord uncut, hanging down like a tail. Like a ﬁnger pointing, reaching to touch him, let the spark leap.
Demanding his father’s name—
Hears down a tunnel the briefcase slipping, sharp shoes clicking, the voices of the congregation of this stony church. Amen, they say, amen, lift him up on the altar, white sheets, white lights. God comes by, has his mother’s eyes.
God, he says, please, I don’t want to lose this one.
In those days you just couldn’t get an abortion, hard as he tried. You had to ﬁnd other ways. You had to hire the baby out, make him a hired hand.
He gets a broadcast, Dorothy’s—Olivia’s—no, Madeleine’s face, the umbilical cut from her eyes.
No tale left to tell—
That was before, before—
No feeling, just pictures and sound. No feeling ever, at all, just seeing the places the blood has failed him, moved on. His body asleep for forty-ﬁve years.
Cut him self in half.
God, he says, please, I don’t want to lose—
No case left to win.
WAITING FOR A WOMAN
Turning the paperweight in his hands, he walks to the window, looks out at his piece, his patch of the city, his quarter section of sky. Venetian glass, as he remembers, the paperweight one daughter gave him, or was it his second wife?
Leaning back on the edge of his desk, he remembers the days when moments like this were rare. White reef—most of it dead or dying, only the tip alive—the rest of the city has grown up around him, ﬁlled his windows higher and higher, cut off the sky. The paperweight catches the light, turns it liquid in his hand, everything wanting to pour except what holds everything in. The city grows, proliferates, while the ones he waits for, sets his bait for, recede, endangered species once so plentiful, stone winning out against sky. He turns, goes back to the chair his second wife bought him, or was it Lorraine when she retired after—Jesus, thirty-some years? He pushes the button just to see that somebody’s there, but the voice is never the one he wanted, hers. Now they come and go once, twice, three times a year: Yes, Mister Bishop, I’m here, right here waiting for you. What is it you want me to do?
He doesn’t know anymore, only sees he can’t do it alone. Baited the hook so long ago he’s almost forgotten how. Then the judges had to go and make it legal, imagined their bellies full under their robes, growing huge, breaking, releasing the ﬁsh to wiggle and squirm on the bloodied table, have its brains, Jesus, its brains beaten out.
No, no. The women he waits for come in clear as glass, he sees the goldﬁsh caught in the bowl, they want to release it alive. He provides an empty vessel, bowl no ﬁsh can come to swim in, empties the one out, pours her into the other, steps aside. Weighted himself, he keeps the bodies from blowing away.
Pokes at the books on his desk, the ones he’s had too much time to read. It tugs at his eyes, the irony of it, nine men in black tipping the bowl back, letting the goldﬁsh go free. Now he practices that skill he hates, waiting for a woman to open the door, walk in with that weight down deep in her belly, that patch of sky in her gaze. He feels himself rising, she sets the hook . . .
Hauls him at last into air . . .
He glimpses weightless sky . . .
Born for a moment, alive.
Catches the bus home, ﬁrst time in years. Even at this stop, almost the start of the line, it’s already full, he’s lucky to get a grip on a pole. As the bus pulls back out into the trafﬁc, he feels it in his knees.
Needs no maps any more. He could close his eyes and announce each stop like the black bus driver, tell this crowd which cross-street’s home.
Of course, they’d want it in Chinese . . .
Already crossing Grant. Bad enough his car’s in the shop, bad enough clinging to a greasy pole, at least he’ll be home before dark. Grant, Grant, wasn’t there something—oh yes, they still call it Dupont. Dupont, Dupont Gai. Yes, the white folks changed it after the Civil War, the Chinese chose to leave it the same. Grant Street, Dupont Gai. His one word in Chinese. Didn’t it have another meaning, gai? He grips the pole trying to think back thirty years. Egg, yes, that’s it, egg.
One town, two tongues, one street, two different names, two different meanings for his one Chinese word. Of course, he only remembers even now because it was Dorothy’s married name. He’d called her Dupont gal as a joke.
The bus begins to climb, he feels in his ﬁngers, his knees, gravity shifting, that plumb line arthritis makes him acknowl-edge more and more and more. When did he last take this bus? Back in Dorothy’s day? Now it’s electric, takes these arrogant hills Dupont laid out as a salmon takes the falls. He remembers when they had diesels on the route, how the driver would chase the passengers off, climb the steepest part empty, stop at the top where the passengers, puffing, got back on. Seems so primitive now. He remembers—
Someone touches his shoulder, he turns, a young man offers his seat. Even as his voice says no, his knees accept. He doesn’t choose much anymore, more and more he accepts.
Remembers when the Chinese stopped right here, bailed out of the bus en masse, a changing of the guard. Now the singsong continues all the way down the other side of the hill.
Suddenly he feels old. The young man’s staring out the windows, he wants to tell him, Listen, I was like you not so terribly long ago, not so terribly long— Little bastard, someday you’ll be like me. Believe it or not. The boy turns, their eyes meet, he’s reaching forward, the boy’s face ﬁlls with surprise. He’s standing, he has him by his hair.
The boy cries out, bats at his head like chasing an insect, the bus begins to fall. They both lurch forward, Chinese split like water before them—the men short as women, the women dressed like men—he ﬁnds himself on the ﬂoor, the young man’s knees against his. The young man’s groin—
Hey man, you’re fuckin’ crazy! He’s up, he’s kicking him in the belly, Chinese voices rise. Suddenly he feels dead, newspaper headlines ﬂood his head, Old Man Beaten On Bus, Young Man Charged With Crime. Witnesses Do Nothing To Stop A Shocking Death.
All right, break it up, that enough. I said, that enough! He opens his eyes. Hey, ol man, I think the next stop yours. Ain’t gonna have this on my bus, okay? A big black hand descends, he accepts it, suddenly feeling white. Jesus. It’s enough to give a guy the bends. Dupont guy, Dupont gal . . .
The bends, I said, he says to the big black face, sees he’s forgotten to make the connection, it’s the nuthouse now, for sure. My street? he says thinking at last. I want Scott, this is—
This here cab street, man. I done call you a cab, okay? Sees the young man over his shoulder, sees he’s the criminal here. A cab? But—feels his knees accept. I got a schedule, man. The black hand shows him the door.
He swims towards it, water ﬁlling his eyes. Suddenly feels alive. Sorry, he says, as he passes the boy, catches his gaze once more. The young man shakes his head. Suddenly he feels thin as an eggshell, Atlanta waiting for Sherman to show up, take her down. Dorothy ﬁlling the tub, preparing the baby—God damn it, the baby—
Hey, man! I got a route!
COWLICK BABIES NEED THEIR COWLICK GOD
Hasn’t combed his hair all day. Look at that cowlick. What did his clients think? That cabbie must have laughed at him all the way home.
So what, he got a good tip.
Some things more important than how he looks, like—well, how far he can see. That case last week, the husband ﬁghting to take the damn kids from the wife. How many months listening to him, over and over, the story sharper and sharper, case like a—like a fattened fetus preparing to be born. How he’d coached him to push. Only to see, as they stood in the hallway waiting to go to trial, something in his clients’ eyes that told him this fetus was stillborn, he didn’t want the damn kids at all, he only wanted his wife.
His life back whole, not cut in pieces, Solomon’s choice. He wouldn’t have seen that before. No, he would have kept pushing, that lost look in his client’s eyes would have meant only he’d lost.
As it was, he told the poor bastard to stop. Right there in the hallway, going to trial at last. Or no. Saw his client had already ﬁnished before the trial’d begun. Saw he saw himself letting go, two men in the hall of that echoing courthouse, one weeping hard.
One with his cowlick untamed . . .
Funny word, what did it come from? He’ll have to look it up. Arranges his shirt on the hanger, his tie on the rack another client gave him in thanks. Some guy—oh yes, some guy he’d helped adopt just after he’d lost his job. Back in the forties, no, maybe the ﬁfties, when you weren’t allowed to be unemployed. Had him dress up when the social worker came to inspect, loaned him his briefcase—oh, that had been fun! As she came up the walk all prim and proper, his spiffed-up client would stroll out the door, calling See you honey! I’m off to work! Or he’d just be coming home.
What does it matter his cowlick defeats him, those workers beat it down with their eyes. Like his mother, the one he was lucky to keep. Not be put up for sale to the highest bidder, the man with a briefcase, a job, a wife.
Well, he’s had a moment or two. All these years telling his clients what to do—what to wear, how to speak—accepting their gifts as though—as though— Every year for a dozen years, one guy sent him a tree. A Christmas tree, twelve, thirteen, fourteen feet tall. Jesus. Shipped it down on a truck, a damn thousand miles, fresh cut.
In the mirror, his cowlick stands straight up. The one boyish part of him left. Every inch of him gnarled and wrinkled, every joint stiff, still his cowlick bounces, dances on his head. Lie down, he says to it, like a dog, the one he couldn’t have. His brother allergic, his mom only too happy to have a chance to resist.
No pets, no adoptions for him. The irony of it. So he spends his life helping lost others take lost puppies in.
Lost lives . . .
Cowlick babies they try to beat back with a comb, ﬁt to a different head.
He’d played his part, cut them off at the roots, shipped them a thousand lives away. The parents sent tie racks, trees. He hasn’t heard from the kids. Maybe some day, one’ll walk into his ofﬁce, curse him or thank him, more likely ignore him. All she’ll want’s her mother’s name. He’ll play God once more.
He might retire as father, as lover, he can’t retire as God.
Cowlick babies need their cowlick God . . .
That name ﬂaming out of his mouth as the hair ﬂames out of his head. Leans into the mirror, sighs. Some priests have a tonsure, he has this.
Oh Mama, I’ve done a few things worth pushing for. I’ve helped people be born. Puts his pants aside. What could be better than that? Fixes his eyes where the cowlick leaps from his head. It’ll lie ﬂat when I’m dead. Takes in the face she gave him so long ago, gift he denied once, tried to send back, learned at last to take. Yes, Mama, yes. It’ll lie ﬂat when I’m dead.
Yes, yes indeed, here we are—and here’s the menu at last. Richard, last Tuesday night you were here in a minute. Now you know I pride this place for its service. It’s one reason we’re—I came here tonight. So I certainly hope you’ll—
Listen, their ﬁsh is ﬁne, but I’d order the lamb chops if I were you. In fact, I guess I’ll get them myself. And maybe a—marguerita? Or no—that’s a little too, well, unorthodox, really, even for me. Did they tell you I run the branch—well, of course, you know that. You know—everything, don’t you, you and your snoops!
They were, let’s be honest. Snoopin’ around, snifﬁn’ my life out, like pigs after—
Okay, okay, you’ve come a long way—what did you say, Oregon? Washington State? I mean, San Diego’s a world away from that. I should know. Made the same trip myself. Well, at the branch—at the branch, they wouldn’t go for that— margueritas and lamb chops! Oh, I’ve got a—reputation, you know, a repu—
You think you’ve come a distance to see me here, I want you to know I’ve come a lot further even with my bank just two blocks over, even with—
Yes, Richard, thank you, I’m getting the lamb chops, please. You know how I like them. No potato, the salad, yes. And oh, a Scotch. No, make that a double tonight. You know, tell Joe what I get when I’m hunting big game.
That salad you ordered isn’t the best. Their cook’s kind of—spotty. Sometimes I think he’s back in the kitchen making, you know, hanky-panky with— Really, he’s best with meat. Now. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way . . .
Listen. The job at the bank? Running the whole damn branch? They gave it to me on my ﬁrst application. I mean—
Oh yes, thank you Richard, this’ll be ﬁne. You even remem¬bered my favorite—condiment, yes. I have this weakness for ketchup, he lets me indulge it, brings it in this so no one need know. He’s sweet, for a fag, don’t you think?
Oh, I can tell. Look, you can see it in his— You have to keep your eyes open, have to be—
Anyway, they wanted somebody sharp. They wanted some¬one hard-headed, hard-hitting, I want you to know I’m doing quite well by myself. I’ve got—I’ve got my girls—every year they get younger, more—outrageous, but I make them toe the line or they don’t last long—you better believe it—they don’t last long with me. I got the job on the ﬁrst application. Course I’d been there twenty years.
Don’t you know all about it? Don’t you have dates of birth and death, dates when I moved, dates when the bank moved me? Didn’t they give you all my secrets, all the way back to—
To you, I said. To you.
Birth and death, yes, death. Why not? You know everything else. Who takes the garbage out, who brings it back in, who— You think you know more about me than me, you think— Listen, the day you were born was the day I died for you. Why don’t you let me rest in—
I said—oh nevermind. Even the lamb chops are off tonight. The cook and the counter girl must be having a gay old time. Yes, yes, a gay— Just tell her to watch out she doesn’t get—
Listen. In my time, that’s how it was. You played around, you paid. You gave someone up, they didn’t come knocking, they didn’t—
No, let’s not bury it. I buried myself by myself. Who gave you the right to dig so deep, rob me right out of my tomb?
Yes, buried. You think you were abandoned? Well, I died. Died. Moved to another state, another climate, took another name.
None of your business why! And if you think it was you, let me tell you it wasn’t. The name I use is none of your business, none of your—yours or your spies. You know, in banking, they make it illegal, this kind of thing. We’re more careful with credit than the courts are with people’s lives.
Well if the courts didn’t help they sure didn’t stop you, did they, darling, you or your spies. But I don’t—quite frankly, I don’t have to put up with this. I only wanted to let you know—let you see for yourself I’m not old and decrepit, in fact, I’m ﬁne. I eat in this place once a week by myself, bring clients to lunch here—you see how they know me, respect me, know I take care of myself. What’s it matter what name—
Oh, nothing, nothing. Now where can Richard have gone. I want him to bring us the check. That double was—weak. I’ll have to speak to Joe.
Joe, I said, Joe, the bartender here. You’re kind of jumpy, sure you had sufﬁcient to eat? Like I said, their salads are—spotty, you can’t be sure what you’ll get. Sometimes they’re skimpy—just lettuce and peppers, maybe a carrot or two. Then sometimes—
How would I know who you look like or don’t? Who do you think I am? Or maybe, go on, ask Joe, Joe’ll tell you, Joe knows everyone, your father, your mother, your—
You know what? You kind of remind me of the girls at the bank. The young ones. The tellers, the proof operator punching her buttons like you seem to want to punch me. You want a history, a past? You’re barking up the wrong—
Listen, I’ll only say this, you got from me what I got from my mother. Listen. I left home for good at fourteen.
What do you mean, I know, I know? Who do you think you are? Snooping. Spying, that’s what I call it. A woman’s not safe anymore. What makes you think you look like me? Listen, this whole thing’s one long lie. One long—
Do you have a brother? What kind of a question— Didn’t your spies, don’t they have all the answers? Just like—Joe over there. See his answers lined up behind him, ready to pour? Oh, that reminds me. Richard, excuse me, can I have another? This one’s really driving a bargain, this one’s a wildebeest. Thanks. Didn’t your spies, your—fairies tell you everything you wanted to ask but were afraid to—afraid to—
If they want to tell you you have a brother, who am I to gainsay them, I’m the last one to know. When did you say you were born?
That kills it, then. One long lie. I was in—I was in—
Well, all right, in Washington State. I was there once, it’s true. Got out fast as I could. Soon as I found out there was anyplace else to be. But that has nothing to do with you. I built my own life, don’t you go snooping, snifﬁng around, like I was gar¬bage dumped on the road. That’s one thing I want clear from the start, clear. But I will show you—look, where are they, God, everything cuddled up in this purse, it’s the one place I can’t keep organized. They’d have a ﬁeld day, my girls at the branch, if they ever got a peek inside. Here they are, here now, look at this. This is my foyer—picked that paper myself. I’ve got a reputa¬tion to uphold after all, a repu— That? Oh that’s Peter, my cockatiel, my—pet. Had him for fourteen years. This is the kitchen, that’s Tiffany, that lamp, picked that one up oh, ages ago, for a song. Now you’ve got to pay when you ﬁnd them at all. You’ve got to search them out. I’ve become kind of an expert at it, if I do say so—
How can you say that? Objects—even art objects aren’t people, they don’t care if you come snooping—
You did, you did! Calling up the power people, telling them you had to know where I lived because—because, don’t deny it—because I was old and decrepit, old and decrepit— Yes, yes, I’ve got my own spies, since you started calling, pestering me. I mean, it’s been a lesson in self-preservation, or should I say, self-defense. How did I know—no, listen—how did I know you wouldn’t show up just—two blocks over, walk up to one of my girls, tell her your my—your my—daughter, for God’s sake, when everyone there knows I’ve never been married, thinks I’ve never— For God’s sake, you want me to tell you I was thrilled when you called, I’m thrilled to be sitting here waiting for Rich¬ard, or Joe, for one of my girls to walk in and see you, ask who you are? I wanted to give you—I gave you life, okay? I admit it. Now you can leave me with mine. Now you can leave me—
Yes, thank you, Richard. And please bring the check. No, this doesn’t go on my bill. I’m paying for it right now. Oh yes, I’m—
Look at these credit cards, just take one look, I’m a woman with a reputation, got a whole damn branch on my ﬁrst application, I’ve made a name for myself, one I don’t have to share with you or anyone else, not my father or yours, my mother or—
So she’s dead, so what? I left as soon as I—forty-ﬁve years ago, since the day I—since the day you—
You want a brother? You want to know if you have a sister? Can’t you see you’re trying to get them free? Can’t you see you’ve got to—pay—
Listen. You feel you’re the scratching post, I’m the cat, you’ve got it backwards. You’ve been sinking your claws in for months. Ever since that letter, out of the blue, ever since your spies poked around in the garbage, found me out. A woman’s got a right—God, if a woman hasn’t got a right to her past, she’s got no rights at all.
Your past, your past! All right, I’ll give—no, it’s your future you want, don’t you see? Now, I’ve had a heart problem since—oh, eighty-two, nothing major, a murmur I take these ridiculous pills for, then—oh, a broken leg back in—sometime in the sixties, that doesn’t affect you anyway. At least, they never said it was a congenital weakness, but who knows? No allergies I know of—though I can’t stand dogs. They make me kind of itchy inside. That’s about all. And if you don’t mind my asking—it seems you’re bound on telling me anyway, so I might as well ask and get it over—what did my mother—what killed her off in the end?
Oh really. Cancer of—
Well, I’ll be. Damned if that isn’t how I’d always thought I’d go.
Listen, you feel sick, please, not on my lamb chops. If I’m making you feel like that, please, do it on your side, I’ve got a—reputation, they know me here. You, you’re a stranger, they’ll never see you again. Nor care. If I’m lucky, I won’t either, agreed like a fool to see you at all. You know why I did it? I was afraid. Afraid you’d—who knows? Waltz into the branch like you waltzed into my life, step on a few more toes.
If you don’t feel I’m responding right, then I must have been right to let you go. Maybe—you made a mistake, you and your spies. Maybe you won the battle, ended up losing the war. Ha! What do you say to that? You thought you were calling the shots! You thought you’d left me weak and wounded long ago, but no, no, you got it wrong, you left me stronger! After I got through with you, I made a life for me. It turned out you were an aberration, a detour, a debt paid off. Paid off! You know what that means?
A lot of people don’t. After you I owned my life, I don’t owe it to you or anyone. In the bank they call it redeemed. After you, my life was—redeemed. I don’t have to show you my cockatiel, don’t have to talk to you next time you call.
Cockatiel, honey, not cockatoo. They’re really quite different. Though you probably think he’s a cockatrice! Born on a dung¬hill, hatched by a snake. You probably think I’m—
Yes, Richard, thank you. Yes, it was lovely, but I’ll just have a chat with Joe. Please bring me my coat at the bar.
Yes, the young lady’s related—distantly. She hoped I could give her some news of her mother. It seems she—vanished some time ago, nobody’s seen her in years. Her mother and I were—friends. But I haven’t seen her myself, so—
Oh I don’t know. Some things turn out to be for the better, when at the time you’d never think they would. Maybe she trav¬eled to Borneo, or became a nun, or, who knows, joined the Army and practiced saluting till some big gun shot her down. That’s it, some big shot—gunned her—
Listen, you’ve got your own car, right? Well, I certainly hope you’ve also got your own life to drive back into, because I can’t say I want you in mine. It’s enough trouble keep¬ing a cockatiel, enough trouble keeping me. Nothing personal, you understand. It’s just the way it is. All right? Just the way it is. That’s what they told me way back then, here I am parroting it back to you. If I had chosen differently then— If I’d had a choice at all—
Well, I guess this is good bye at last. Listen, I kept my promise, I met you here, now I hope you’ll keep yours. No more midnight phone calls, no more snooping around in the trash. Okay? Okay? Good bye!
But here we are, yes, here we are, you growing small and—smaller in Joe’s old mirror, clinking the car keys in your hand, heading back out to the life I gave you, me with—me with Joe’s answers keeping me going until my mother gets her revenge, oh yes, her— Really, you don’t see it, you’re still an infant, a—newborn baby, you can’t see the choices I have to live with, the faces I have to face. With you I’m a girl with a—reputation, without you I’m not, it’s as simple as that. With you I’m stuck with a mother who should have given me up, a father she trapped into staying by having—by having me. You can’t see it, think you need snoops and spies, you’re still a kitten can’t open its eyes, can’t see what it is to see. I’d stay and lick you if I still had a tongue, if my dad hadn’t come by with his tongs, his—tongs, torn it out by the roots. Jesus, Joe’s answers got me in trouble, got you into me, what am I do¬ing here still? Why can’t I give him up as I gave you up—or tried to. Like giving up mirrors. Like giving up breathing. Redeemed. Re¬deemed. Like giving up—like giving up—like—giving up.
It’s you, I say slowly, turning away, letting the host seat us back in one corner where no one can see us, hear what she wants me to say. How have you found me again?
She doesn’t stop, doesn’t blink for a moment, moves in. Mama, Mama, froths on her lips, white water, need—
I pull my lifejacket tighter around me, reach for the rudder, that old water breaks and breaks, the cliffs of her gaze match mine. No, no, I murmur, coming into the calm of a pool. That’s the one word you mustn’t say. No one calls me that—
She thinks I’ve stopped bleeding, hates these words, this tourniquet over the wound. I hate her thinking she knows which way the river runs when she’s never been on it before. I want to tell her river is stone’s rejection of water as these mirrors reject the light. Why did I come here tonight? Why did I meet you at all, mama, mama wet on your lips, that—hunger down deep in your eyes—
I am not one to feed or comfort, I stand at the tiller where the sky keeps falling, I can’t abandon my post for a minute, for you. You can’t seem to see. That—hunger ﬁlls you, brims over like wine—
As his white water brimmed into me—
We drift. She picks up a fork, takes a stab at her salad, my meat grows cold on the plate. Why did I come here, give in, let her drag me kicking and—
The waiter brings wine, I ask for the check, can I give you a ride home, she says. Doesn’t she see how there’s no sky between us, no way out now but through the rapids, old water broken long ago, only now bringing its cold baptism, its—bringing her body up to the surface, up to—
I ﬂash my cards so she’ll know I don’t need her, I’ve put her behind me, shut the door. Why is she knocking now—
Forty years later, spilling red wine on the life I fought for, raised up without her, hard enough raising myself. Now she in¬sists, rattles the knocker I never oiled, puts her old key to the lock. Why does it still have to ﬁt?
Outside the restaurant, air, the cool spaciousness of night. We walk to her car, my heels clicking like hammers, like—why can’t I let her in? She climbs into her cockpit, I ride shotgun, I’ll shoot down her Daddy when he comes, or—give it all away. Please, isn’t there someway to give it all—
She asks to meet Peter, my cocatiel, the one thing left me mine. Now the heat rises, the stink of sulphur, the egg she was, the woman she somehow became. No, No, I sputter, the words hard as hammers, I’m drawing the line, I’m drawing—
Open the door where river and shore meet, where I can abandon ship. Listen, I hiss, sinking fast, don’t call me, don’t try to take over my life. Yours was an accident I refuse to let ruin mine. I see you drifting, rudderless, riverless, sucked up by a sun I provide no shade from, high on the mountain with that one beak stabbing, stabbing, releasing a river, an infant, a newborn river of blood.
Brushes her hair back, looks at me.
Why would you want to search for your
mother? Your mother had two kids,
gave them both up.
Yes, I think, but you had
Stands at the stove where the burners
hiss, pouring her coffee, his cocoa, my milk,
laughs a little, turns. Look at the three of us,
every one different, opposed. You want to haul in
a fourth? What makes you think she’ll ﬁt?
Sits in the front seat, Dad drives. Arranges her hair
in the rearview mirror, catches my gaze
from the seat behind her, the old wound rises,
baby unborn, unconceived.
In my dreams,
I see there’s another,
dark body matching
mine, a shadow across her
keeping her from me.
I can’t reach
Why do you want to hurt me,
she says, unspeaking,
pouring cold soup
in mismatching bowls.
You were supposed
to be the solution,
not part of the problem
yourself. I grow colder,
study her elbows, her
knees, that place in the middle
I couldn’t come from
if I’d tried, where I failed to be
human, fully tamed,
where the blood, thinning out,
cut off, raises its shadow, its
You open the door just a crack,
unwilling to let me in. Why
do I stand here, ready to cry,
wishing you’d shut it again?
I have gone from door to door,
seeking that one live gaze
which abandoned mine—
Cold lights, the cold severities
of ﬁsh, we luminesce, caught
in the hall, the mahogany cave.
Icicle, moon, we move net
by net, raise hair, scaled
You are the one I’ve come so far
to see, bony body peeling to ash.
Yours is the cell, split at the root,
whose dark bars bound me
to air. Now you unwind me name
by name, I confess the crime—
It is mine, this salt, this
boneless voice ballooning
by night. You raise one hand
to your face, your knuckles grow pale
on the door. I am the crack that cut you
in two, the live half that you left
for dead, the dead half that grew.
Notes to Poems:
The Whole of Harry is a book about the poet's father.
The monologues were derived from stories heard at various conferences on topics including searching for birth parents.
ABOUT THE POET:
Born and reared in San Francisco in a Victorian mansion her father liked to call Mad Manor, Kate Adams has been writing since the age of twelve, when her ﬁrst short story came to her, ﬁlling page after page of a very surprised notebook. On this she bases her claim that her writing syndrome was juvenile onset. She titled it portentously: “Chained To Eternity.” On this she bases her continuing sense that she writes for eternity. A year later, in the haven boarding school became for her, she wrote a poem, “Brief Candle,” which she has described as “not bad for a ﬁrst try.” That ﬁrst try was written in blank verse, pointing to a proclivity for formal structures still dominant in her work. Some two decades later, on January 25, 1979, she awoke from a dream to scrawl a poem on the back of the proverbial envelope (now framed and hung on her study wall). She began a daily writing practice now continued for some thirty years.