Oh, we’d talked of going elsewhere;
But it was rural Pennsylvania in the thirties,
And being well-off in that place and time
Meant you ate three times a day
And could afford meat every other Sunday.
Besides, just where would we have gone, anyway?
It’s not like we’d ever heard of Bilitis or Gertrude Stein,
(And more’s the pity, for, on that day when her family
Was at Bendigo Park up in Johnsonburg at a church picnic,
Which she’d begged out of, claming a fever,
And we had made our first, fumbling attempts at lovemaking
In her old twin bed—our inexperience, combined with embarrassment
Didn’t exactly result in fireworks or the strains
Of the Hallelujah Chorus ringing out in our minds or between our legs)
So we carried on in anguish and guilt
As old-maids-in-waiting—there were dinners to cook,
Stalls to clean, fireplaces to stoke, and any number
Of chores to do while our mothers and fathers waited patiently
For the day (inevitable, in their minds) when they could
Shake the mothballs from the linens purchased at Larsons’
And the quilt that Aunt Jenny had spent a full nine months
Stitching and fussing with for her favorite niece.
As it turns out, we were forever indebted to Tojo,
For, once the young able-bodied men of Elk County went off to serve,
Someone needed to man the punch presses and production lines,
So we were able to find work at The Elliott, making propellers
In a factory which didn’t have women’s rooms until we’d been there
For three months (one or two viper-tongued bitches cattily noted
That it probably didn’t affect us much anyway), which enabled us
To set up house—we told our parents it would allow us
To save up toward our weddings, and still let us
Send them money each couple of weeks.
Eventually, Johnny came marching home again
(Our kiss on VJ Day was somewhat less celebratory than some,
And certainly not photographed) and back into his old job,
Which left us somewhat at sixes and sevens,
But, like Blanche DuBois, we came to depend on the kindness of strangers
(Although the similarities pretty much ended there), in our case
A county clerk who believed in the primacy of civil service test scores
Above all else, a high school principal who stubbornly insisted
On doing what he thought was right, and hang the consequences
(As there is no place for such thinking in the public schools.
He was gone within a couple of years), and so with our steady
But unspectacular incomes, we were able to carry on
Keeping house, as it was said, and so we were able to maintain
An uneasy truce with the good people of the town;
Indeed, we were all about “don’t ask, don’t tell” long before
It became somewhat fashionable.
When it became apparent that she would not carry on much longer,
Or, as she put it, now I’ve got an expiration date,
Just like a can of soup, it was as if the populace had decided
That, after some sixty years, it was time to take their revenge
Upon our perversion of the natural order, as if they were wolves,
Having identified the lame and the sick among a herd of whitetail,
Moving in for the kill. In truth, I shouldn’t have been surprised,
As this hardscrabble corner of the state was hardly enlightened;
Still, the pettiness and small-minded smirks
Of the bank trust officers and the claims representatives
Were no less painful in spite of that.
And what was your relationship to the deceased?
They would say with their half-knowing, half-offended smiles.
I’d wanted to shout at the top of my lungs that for fully six decades
She had been the love of my life, without question
And without deviation, not like the banker
Who dallied with his fat secretary, or the claims rep who,
Taking a personal day when the pipes froze up,
Screwed the plumber right on the kitchen floor,
But years of secrecy and compromise exact a toll,
So I simply, quietly, matter-of-factly would reply
I am the executrix, thank you.
We had talked of perhaps heading west to make honest women
Of each other, and, later still, of burying her in Paris or San Francisco,
But tight times and walkers and wheelchairs made such plans unworkable;
It’s only parchment and granite, she said, what do they mean
At the end of the day, anyhow, and so when the time came
She asked me to take her ashes up to the top
Of Bootjack Hill and scatter her to the wind
Make sure to go all the way to the top, she insisted,
I want to get good and clear of this place.