You Never Told Me
You never told me why buttons were
worth more than pennies, why every
time I asked for steak you said
hamburger was healthier, why
multiple zeros behind an odd
number could mean a lotto winner.
You never told me where you kept
the good dishes, why sunshine
burned if you got too much, who
was behind the hacking down of our
daffodils in the front yard. Why
Vaseline was just as pretty as lipstick.
You never told me to use butter
instead of margarine. You never
told me I would be taller than you
and luckier. You never told me why
homemade curtains let the light in
better. Or how to avoid dying too young.
Down the long dark hallway of my parents’ ancient
apartment I carry the weight of a single longneck
bottle of Hamm’s beer on a tray. For my father (curtsy;
kidding!). He’s waiting for it. Somewhere over there
but back then, in my hands, that glitter green tray meant for poolside
parties & umbrella drinks? Not in frozen Minnesota. We go beer. We
go cheap. We go hard. Or we go hardly. It’s heavy. But we’ll go with
whatever you give us on a tray. It’s true! We’re nice! But back then
the tray’s cold in my hot little hands. The beer’s sweating in pools darker
than the afternoon snow it precedes. It’s for my father, this beer (“here Dad!”)
who’s chameleoned himself from wet drunk to dry to wet again. His face pie
dough pale; the rosy rosacea flush of booze faded into an old hangover scar like
a walleye caught too soon: twisting in thin air. Trying to--
“Don’t let that bottle spill!” my mother calls from the steamy sauerkraut
kitchen. She’s a cleaning woman by trade. Her kneecaps pop-rocked with
pain from decades of floor scrubbing. Hasn’t she cleaned up enough
spills? She’s the guardian angel of his failures; wait, is she? She almost
left. So many fruit flies fizzing inside beer bottle dregs. But with me,
then: I’m so little—
ponytailed & plump-eyed in tiny corduroy overalls the color of
creamed corn. My turtleneck danced with red elephants & purple
stars. It was the style then. All those little pandas & teapots &
snowflakes held me up. Still: I could never forgive myself that
beer on the tray. I delivered it to my father, his voice dead at the
end of the hallway, the most dangerous shadow in town. But what
could I say? I slipped. I fell on my tail. That beer spilled everywhere.
Everywhere! All over me. The hardwood floors. That town of ours
with one hill, one grocery store, one cup of coffee. And one single
stinking belief: Be quiet. Can you just be quiet? Please?
Anne Panning published a memoir, Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss (2018). She has also published a novel, Butter, as well as a short story collection, The Price of Eggs, and Super America, which won The Flannery O’Connor Award and was a New York Times Editor's Choice. Her short publications include Bellingham Review, River Styx, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, The Florida Review, Passages North, Black Warrior Review, The Greensboro Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Quarterly West, The Kenyon Review, Five Points, River Teeth, and Brevity (4x). She is currently working on a memoir about her late father—a barber and addict. She teaches creative writing at SUNY-Brockport.
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