Poems by Lauren Schmidt
Her Name is Sarah
When Randy drifted in for dinner with her baby
tangled in the rosary scars of her arms,
pressed against the dust of her breast,
everyone wanted to see. They softened
their eyes, their smiles, the way people do
when they look on a baby sleeping,
a baby who has not cried in two days,
a baby whose eyes ooze a thick glue,
whose lips are latched in a palsied twist.
Her name is Sarah, she whispers, hushing her lips
shut with a finger because her baby is sleeping.
The onlookers looked at her, at each other,
at the baby, away altogether. They cupped
their noses and mouths as the wet stench lifted,
red sirens ringing in the backs of their throats.
The bad-news angel-coat slung the stethoscope
over his shoulder, pulled rubber from his hands,
scrubbed to his elbows, left with a black bag.
Today, Randy drifts in for dinner with her baby:
plastic-happy and blue-eyed, perfect smile,
a baby that never cries. Her name is Sarah,
she says, and no one calls the authorities.
The Coffee Station
Behind the counter, I rag away rings of brew, dab
drips of cream, stick teaspoons in a tin cylinder.
I replenish the sugar, replace the mugs as they go
missing, refill pitchers before they drain. The sounds
of mealtime fall in the room like frosty light, rest
on shoulders, cheeks and noses. Chatter hums inside
the colors of the mural, the size of the entire wall
behind me. It’s as if I stand inside the painting as I stand
inside this room. Bodies bustle inside the painting as they
bustle inside this room, this room that is the painting.
You tiptoe to the bar. The palm of your hand is chapped
and red, raw like a split fish as you reach for a mug.
You pull from the center of the tray, always from the center
of the tray. Today, World’s Greatest Grandpa hugs the cup,
phrase scrawled in a crayoned font, a backwards N
as if your granddaughter were the one who wrote it.
I greet you. You grin, nod and say nothing. Though charmed
by the various silences we are capable of, the moment
clanks away: forks scrape dishes, plastic cups clunk
when dropped into the busser’s bin. The clamor would drown
your quiet voice, assuming that you had one. Once
our fingers touched, both of us reaching for the mugs.
You snatched your arm away as if the brush of my skin
had burned you. I said I was sorry, racked the mugs
with my hands, replaced the rows from behind.
Today will be the last day I ever see you. I know this
because you said so, though not at first. First, you poured
your coffee, brimmed with something akin to shame. The pause
between us was an abandoned stairwell where pigeons swoop
and coo. You shuffled away, eyes quivering in your cup.
Warm from the river of brew bubbling deeply in your gut,
you returned to speak your only words to me—
something of the way I look at you—and a new silence bloomed.
You gave yourself a name, John, you told me where you’ll go.
but tomorrow I will stand here, this same mural at my back,
and I will listen for your voice. I will listen for your voice.
On break from his shift, the Volunteer hunches behind the dumpster.
Matchstick catches and rasps. His skin sizzles gold as he drags
the alley through the V of his fingers. The lanterns tilt
their grim faces; their dim bulbs are the cheekbones of the dead.
Ten minutes are pinched at their tip and flung in the last
mantle of snow, black but still clinging. He treads through
the threshold like tar. His gait grouts the visitors to their places
in the room. If, perhaps his attitude was not Whatever gets them
off the streets––because he is sure the homeless, in their camouflage
of grime and wandering, the homeless in their namelessness
can bend themselves into park benches or roam like dogs,
the homeless can flurry into inexistence like a cloud of ash—
then maybe this morning, only a block away, a man’s eyes
would not have been pounded into jelly for feral cats to lick.
This is the last day the Volunteer will be forced to face
the chain-link of faces, men with hands grimed
by the only land they know as home. They inch to the right,
as their plates collect grapes, chicken and potatoes, then fall off
the line to the tables to eat. At five o’ clock, the Volunteer balls his apron
and pitches it at the crate, misses. He scrubs his hands, lobs
a wadded towel over his shoulder. It lands on the lip of the garbage bin
then tips off its edge. The Volunteer thinks this is his last day
at the kitchen, but he will end up here again. He got off too easily
this time: twenty hours of service for a dime-bag in his backpack.
He doesn’t know that one day he will torch a man with matches, blaze three quarters
of a thrashing body. He will study how skin drips from bone
like caramel. Then a guilt so heavy he will lift his back against it
just to take his morning piss. He will stare at another man’s slash-marks
knifed on the wall, grouped in fives like twigs, like unlit matchsticks.
Today, he does not know how quickly youth will slip off
his cheekbones, how soon his shoulders will fold. It’s in the way
he measures these men in mashed potatoes, the way he snaps them
from spoon to plate. It’s in the clack the spoon makes,
the way their plates give a little under the weight.
It’s in the eyes these men barely lift to greet him.
Lauren Schmidt’s work may be found or is forthcoming in The Progressive, Alaska Quarterly Review, New York Quarterly, Rattle, Nimrod, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Ekphrasis Journal, Wicked Alice and others. Her poems have been selected as finalists for the 2008 and 2009 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, the 2010 Dancing Girl Press Chapbook Contest, and she was awarded first place in the So to Speak Poetry Prize. Her chapbook, The Voodoo Doll Parade, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag in 2011. Last November, Lauren was forced to resign from her high school teaching position for the publication of her poetry. She now teaches writing at Brookdale Community College in her native New Jersey.