LAURA AND THE EMPTY TRAY
Sitting on the bench,
Waiting for the bus,
Laura looked like a person
Trying to look like the people
Who know where they’re going.
Laura had been booted out of the house
By her husband,
Whose last words to her had been,
“I don’t want to see you until five o’clock,
And don’t you dare come home a minute sooner.”
And then, almost pleadingly,
“Have a good time.”
She had begged Stephen not to make her go,
Not to make her spend a whole
Eight hours out there
Doing anything she wanted to do.
She was already doing what she
Wanted to do, and she didn’t have
Time for anything else.
“But honey,” he had said,
“If there were more time,
If another whole day were magically
Tossed into the week–
A day just for you-
What would you want to do?”
Laura’s answer came as quickly
As the computer prints item and price
In the grocery store:
“The downstairs bathroom,” she said.
There had been two cans of paint
Beside the tub for months,
White eyes staring accusingly
At the walls that were slowly peeling
And at Laura, who was running in and out
Trying not to think
About the paint and the tube of calking
For the sink.
It was easy.
What would she do with another day?
The downstairs bathroom.
Stephen had taken her by the shoulders
And looked deep into her eyes
As if his own held a flashlight.
“Laura, where are you? Where are you?
I can’t find the woman I love anymore.
She’s lost. Help me find her.”
Laura lowered her eyes and thought.
“Aren’t we supposed to lose ourselves?
Isn’t that what service is all about,
Forget yourself and serve others?”
“No,” he said. “It’s not.
You’re supposed to serve everyone,
But you’ve been forgetting someone.
What can you serve from an empty tray?
How can you water plants from an empty pot?”
Laura started to cry.
When frustration began to well,
Like the hot springs at her uncle’s ranch,
She always cried.
He was right. She had been going on empty
For a long time.
She had been reaching into herself
As into an apron to throw feed
To a yard full of chickens,
And coming up with empty hands.
And the chickens cried louder
And sometimes she felt like wringing their necks
And sometimes like jumping over the fence
And running, running, running.
Stephen put his arms around her
And drew her close.
He hated to have her cry.
He would rather she yell or even hit.
But she always cried,
And hid in some dark corner inside
That no flashlight could find,
Making him stumble around in his search,
Palms out for blind man’s bluff.
So he took her in his arms
and Stephen cried too,
Because he loved her.
“Look,” he finally said,
Pulling her down beside him on the couch.
“Next Wednesday will be your day.
Go out–do anything you want to.
I’ll hire a babysitter and get off early–“
“Pay?” she interrupted,
Looking at him like she looked at her children
When they suggested moving to Disneyland.
“A babysitter,” he said quietly,
“Is cheaper than a psychiatrist.”
Laura began to cry again.
He was talking about Donna,
A friend from where they used to live
Who they’d just learned had spent two months
In a psychiatric hospital.
How had it happened to her?
She had been the one who had done
Everything perfectly all the time
And done it with a smile–
Until she began kicking her children
And taking twice as much valium
As her doctor prescribed.
On Wednesday Laura was out of the house
By ten, telling the children
Something that was not quite a lie,
And giving the babysitter the
Longest possible list of things to do.
And now, sitting on the bench,
Waiting for the bus,
Laura looked at her watch.
Where in the world could she go
For a whole day?
If she had the children with her
They could go to the zoo–she’d been
Promising to take them to the zoo for months.
She looked at her watch again.
What if she went back to the house,
Climbed in the window downstairs
And did the bathroom?
No. Stephen would ask for a full report
And she couldn’t lie.
Laura sighed, and the same feeling
Arose from the pit of her stomach
That comes with sitting in a traffic jam
When the dinner in the oven will be ruined
If it doesn’t come out in fifteen minutes.
With everything she had to do–
Why–why did he make her–?
“I’ll clean out my purse,” she thought.
“I’ve been needing to clean out my purse.”
Quick, efficient fingers emptied her bag,
Putting the good things in one pile
And the junk in another–
Sugarless gun wrappers, old grocery lists,
A petrified apple core,
The arm of a Barbie doll,
A program from last week’s church service,
And a handful of cracker crumbs.
She threw the rubbish
In a garbage can by the bench and shook
Out the empty purse.
There, that felt better.
At least she’d have something
To show for her day.
Why hadn’t she brought the bills?
Stephen would never have noticed
If she’d stuffed the bills and envelopes
And stamps into her purse–she could have
Paid all the bills.
The bus arrived and Laura boarded.
Maybe downtown something would come to her.
Looking out the window, Laura filed her nails.
Good thing she always carried
Her nail file around in her purse.
Then she did the eye exercises that
Once in a while she got around to doing.
Let’s see. She didn’t need a haircut.
Darn–if she’d brought her lists she could have
Gone to a phone booth and made her calls
For church and for the bake sale at school.
She looked at her watch again
And figured out what the babysitter had earned.
That feeling came again from her stomach
And she watched the babysitter’s fee climb
Like you watch the meter at the gas station–
Fifteen cents–twenty cents–twenty-five cents.
The hot springs began to well again.
Why is he making me do this?
The bus passed the department store.
She could go in and get underwear
For Crissy, who had only two decent pair.
But Stephen had made her promise
If she bought anything it would be for her.
The bus stopped and Laura got off
And looked around
Like someone in a strange airport.
Maybe she should have saved the arm
Of the Barbie doll. Oh, well.
Let’s see. She could buy some pantyhose.
That would be for her.
But if she saved the money
She wouldn’t feel quite so bad about
The meter at home soaring higher and higher.
Two blocks away was the library.
Darn–why didn’t she bring the book
She had found under the couch–
Bedtime for Frances.
She had paid for it already,
But maybe if she brought it back anyway
They would reimburse her–do they do that?
It wouldn’t hurt to ask,
She had nothing else to do.
The walk to the library felt good.
It always felt good to walk with a purpose.
She opened the heavy door and was overcome,
As she always was, with the smell of the library–
That wonderful gluey smell that instantly catapulted
Her back in to the excitement of adolescence
And school and learning
And looking at who else was there.
She’d always had to back in and out
Of library doors, for her arms were always loaded.
As Laura headed toward the desk
A display of paperbacks caught her eye.
To Kill a Mockingbird.
The title jumped out at her.
Just the other night she had driven
A group of high school girls home
From a volleyball game at the church
And they had been complaining about
Having to read To Kill a Mockingbird,
Thirty pages a day.
Laura had laughed.
“Oh, boy–I wish your English teacher
Would assign me to read
To Kill a Mockingbird.
Wouldn’t I love to have to read
Thirty pages a day?”
Slowly Laura reached out and picked up the book.
A smile crept over her face and she looked around
Like you do when you find money on the ground.
Could she? Would it be okay?
Stephen made her come.
It wouldn’t be her fault.
Laura chose a chair with cushions
And opened the book as guiltily
As if it had just come in the mail
In a plain brown wrapper.
At twelve o’clock she had not
Shifted once in her chair.
At one o’clock she shifted in her chair
But forgot the peanut butter sandwich
And banana in her purse.
At two o’clock she did not know that
She was in a chair–or a library–
Or a mortal body.
At 5:08 she closed the book
And stared at the wall for minutes,
Stared without seeing.
Suddenly she focused on the clock and jumped.
She was supposed to be home by five!
Quickly she put the book back on display
And then ran to the pay telephone by the door.
Her fingers easily found a coin
(Good thing she had cleaned her purse)
And she dialed her number.
“Oh, Stephen, I’m so sorry.
I’ll be home as soon as I can.
I came to the library to see
If they would reimburse me
For Bedtime for Frances.
But I forgot to ask them and I–
I read a book–I read a whole book, Stephen.
Stephen–are you there?”
His voice was the voice you use
With your doctor after he has studied
All the tests.
“Laura? Did you have a good time?”
“Oh, yes. Oh, Stephen, it was wonderful!
I can’t wait to tell you.
Oh, Stephen, thank you!”
Laura began to cry.
And Stephen cried too,
Because he loved her.
Laura had to back out of the library door,
For her arms were loaded.
Some of the books were for the children,
But some were for her!
She ran the two blocks to the bus,
Heavy–but not with books.
Full–like a tray, like a pot,
Full like a farmer’s apron,
And she couldn’t wait to throw it all
To the little chickens
And anybody else in the yard.
She had tomorrow all figured out.
A bathroom wall, then a book for the children,
Then a chapter for her, then a bathroom wall,
Then a book for the children,
Then a chapter for her.
And then, if she really felt like it–the sink.
Poem 2 by Carol Lynn Pearson, from her book A Widening View, Bookcraft, 1983.
URGENT TO MARILYN
Marilyn had a job–
Working out her salvation.
It wasn’t nine to five.
It was nine to nine
In twenty-four-hour shifts.
And there was no vacation,
And in case she should get fired
Nobody else was hiring,
So Marilyn worked hard
And she worked fast
And she worked in fear.
The boss was away a lot
And Marilyn Wondered
If he liked her work,
And not knowing, she worked harder.
She did everything on every list
Twice over to make sure.
She didn’t have much fun
On the job.
It was more the retirement
Benefits she was there for,
The mansion, the glory.
On a typical day
She ran frantically
From the visual aid department
To the wheat-grinding
And quilting department
Too the grow your own
And the sew your own
Children’s clothing department
And the physical fitness
She even stopped running
Past the genealogy department
And locked herself in
Until she got something done.
And then she ran
To the food storage department,
Rand with scriptures
On cassette in hand,
Ran because there were
Twenty-two minutes left to fill,
Ran past the boss’s memo
On the bulletin board:
“Urgent to Marilyn:
Peace, be still.”