Sharon Waller Knutson
Bio Note: I am a retired journalist who lives in Arizona with my husband. Poems this month are from my book, Leading Ladies, about my female relatives, friends and foes, forthcoming this summer. My latest book is The Vultures are Circling (Cyberwit 2023.) Recent poems appeared in Lothlorien Poetry Journal, Rye-Whiskey Review and The Beatnik Cowboy.
Burping Babies With Linda and Sue
I am surprised to see my cousins when I show up on Saturday at my grandmother’s house to play Go Fish with Aunt Betty since Linda and Sue are both married ladies with babies born a month apart. Just like Sue and me. Linda is sixteen and Sue and I just turned fifteen and they are smoking Lucky Strikes as they play poker with Cousin Larry, complaining because they had to give up Schlitz and Scotch while nursing their babies. They invite me to play with them but I’m a beginner since I am busy writing fiction and doing homework. I feel like a fifth wheel since I’ve never even tasted the lips of a boy, alcohol or nicotine. Just like I feel when my cheerleader Homecoming Queen cousins play pool and smoke cigarettes with football players in their basement while I read movie magazines. and swing in the hammock. To escape the swirling smoke, Betty and I go in her bedroom but she can’t remember how to Go Fish and I wonder why the family fell apart after Grandpa died choking on a chicken bone. If he was still fixing our lives like he repaired his junk cars, maybe Grandma and Aunt Geraldine and Uncle Emil would be sitting here burping their granddaughters instead of boozing it up in Broadway Bar. I would have played poker with my cousins, held and burped their babies and called them on Sundays if I knew Linda would die in her forties of asthma and Sue of emphysema shortly after we reunite after forty years and celebrate our 60th birthdays drinking iced tea and playing scrabble at Lake Tahoe.
Smoking Cigarettes With Copaline
Polio burst my dreams of being a ballerina as a child, my Aunt Copaline says as she lights a Lucky Strike and takes a drag when I am twenty and living with her in Billings until I get an apartment. I started smoking when I was fifteen, right after you were born, says my mother’s baby sister. Her limbs aren’t twisted but they are as thin and fragile as a twig on a tree as she fries bacon and French Toast for her three sons, blonde, blue eyed and fresh faced like their mother and the fourth son with dark eyes and hair and a pointed chin like his father. When she is forty- two, she puffs on a Newport and sips a Scotch in the San Francisco disco where she jitterbugs with Uncle Frank. She swears she’s going to stop smoking when they start a new life at the fishing lodge on the Bitterroot River. But after he dies at fifty-nine of a heart attack, she smokes two packs a day of Camels as she manages the lodge to support her teenage sons. Back in San Francisco with her second born son and granddaughter, she smokes Winstons and then Virginia Slims until a policeman knocks on the door at 3 am to say her youngest son has been shot in the back of the head as he counts the money at Thrifty Drug. That’s when she switches to Marlboros. A cigarette dangles from her mouth even as she drags an oxygen tank but she finally quits on the ventilator. Emphysema, the doctor writes on her death certificate but I know she died of a broken heart.
Going Crazy With Betty
Dummy, moron, idiot, retard, the bullies chant as my Aunt Betty pulls the mufflers tighter over her ears to shut out the insults and the freezing Montana temperatures. I can’t remember, she tells the teachers in the 1930s who try and give up and she drops out in the second grade. I read her Betty & Veronica comic books. That’s me and you, she says laughing. When the kids call me skinny stick and a creep because of my body type, I go to my grandparents’ house and teach Betty her ABCS and to play Go Fish. I don’t care if she forgets and I have to repeat it over and over because Betty eighteen years older than me doesn’t care if I am fat or skinny. As long as we are in the safety of her bedroom, Betty smiles and sings silly songs but outside she fidgets and frets and accuses me of plotting behind her back if I talk to anyone. Leave me alone, she shrieks at strangers who she says shout and scream. Speechless, they stop and stare. When Grandpa drives her to the doctor in his truck, we put Betty in the middle and I sit by the door to keep her from grabbing the handle and jumping out on the mountain road and into the valley below. See all those people, she says. All I see is rocks and a river. After Grandpa dies and we move across the state, Grandma calls and says Betty is in the Montana State Home for the Insane. She tried to strangle me after seeing Satan. Later, we learn my beautiful sexy aunt with a habit of seducing men was spayed like her calico. I’m getting married and having a baby, Betty says on the phone when the nurses call with an update. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans invited me to dinner, she insists even after Roy and Dale are dead as well as her parents and siblings. One day, a nurse calls and says Betty died at eighty-three, proving the doctors wrong. People like her die young.
©2023 Sharon Waller Knutson
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