The mother of my childhood
is propped up by the vacuum handle.
Her arms disappear at the ends
into filmy sink water.
She scrubs the kitchen floor the hard way,
sponge instead of mop. She’s tired.
She won’t stop
my father’s cancer from sweeping
through our tidy lives,
but she is armed
with spray bottles and paper towels.
My father’s smoking
transformed the bathroom vent
from flute smooth to caked fireplace ash.
I pictured his lungs changing texture,
his heart no longer a red flame
but the doused black matchstick.
I tried hiding his cigarettes.
He always found them. Eventually,
I learned the joy my mother took in controlling
what could be. I polished the vent
with a pretty white cloth,
tenderly as she did her collection of tea spoons.
~ Melissa Fite Johnson
Melissa Fite Johnson teaches English at Pittsburg High School in Kansas. She’s had poetry published in magazines such as Sotto Voce, The Little Balkans Review, and Inscape Magazine, and in a Kansas Notable Book poetry collection To the Stars Through Difficulties. The Little Balkans Press will publish her first book of poetry, While the Kettle’s On, this year. Melissa and her husband, Marc, live in Pittsburg with their dog and several chickens.
Al Ortolani’s poetry and reviews have appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, New Letters, Word Riot, and the New York Quarterly. His fifth collection of poems, Waving Mustard in Surrender, was released in 2014 from New York Quarterly Books. Currently, he is teaching English in the Blue Valley School District and serves on the Board of Directors of the Kansas City Writers Place.