Native

T.K. Lee

Sylvia,

my birthday was Sunday.

 

42.

I needed—well,

           I wanted so I’d ordered—

a new jacket, nothing else.

I didn’t want another thing

not really. I didn’t want a

heavy coat, either,

lined like the trench

you preferred a long shoulder, a high collar. 

I’d do fine with a lighter

sleeve, a tender mercy of cloth,

a thick enough thread

against the little rain that lies

in wait for the small walks

I say I’ll take at least

to where the foothills start         

I told the UPS man

My asthma keeps me pebble-level.

No mountains for me

I told him.

  I say he listened

but I have also told a lie already.

 

Sylvia,

I wanted

a day at the zoo too. I wanted a new jacket

and a day at the zoo. So,

I went to the zoo

in my new jacket, Sylvia.

 

If you could’ve seen me!

At how

I walked to the car
waterproofed,

slick-creased,

wicked

against a coming sweat—

at how

I walked up to purchase a day pass

slick as water

 

creased proof

in a dusty gray, deep-threaded pattern.
I felt attractive in that

color despite

what you said

about me in that color.

(It’s not a color,

you said, You know what looks good

in that color? Nothing, you said,

which means, I suppose,

I’m nothing to look at— I know

that’s not what you meant).


I went

to the bathroom

with the good mirror
to take a picture of myself

on the iPhone.

I wasn’t alone

in the bathroom.

A fish was there

in the mirror, in the bathroom

mirror. It was

your fish, Sylvia:
Same side-silver streak, same
wide, stupid mouth, open, same
fat, stilled by bloat. Same dead

left eye, right eye missing.

 

 (You named him

Gilbert—you said to keep that

to myself, I know). I snapped

 

a picture of him too


on the iPhone. (I made the same face
as he did, standing there

staring—I

brushed my teeth, too hard as usual,

spittle on my nose—on the faucet—

                      this is how I tell the truth—

asked him how he’d been).

Then,

I snapped the picture.

Then,
I went to the zoo

in my birthday jacket.

 

I stood in line for a ticket 

on the train that circles

the zoo.

(It was a short line

dragged along

by 

that same horrible no-respecter-of-persons minute

as is every minute when

you wait

for what you think you want,

 

and then the train came

finally,

and I had doubts)

 

There is a young girl put

beside me, her mother the row in front—

the sun, even in December, Sylvia, was hot.

I didn’t even need a jacket—

The rain had even stopped.

This young girl. Her arms, her box

of a head, baked apples.

She didn’t speak to me. Children shouldn’t speak.

Her mother spoke to me. Mothers shouldn’t speak either.

 

We sat there, a zoo-family, among the
thousand-felt-like other children and mothers

who had guts of noise and

who, dirty fingers all, pointed as
round and round and round we go!,

yelling out animal names, as

we choo-chooed

beside each exhibit: Alligators!!, Flamingoes!, Monkeys!!,

Lion!

Lion? Yes.

Lion.

 

Just the one, Sylvia,

in a stated cage beneath

the wooden bridge—the train idled—

for people to get off,

for people picturing,
to give them room to air their mock-surprise

of finding just the one

lion, Sylvia.


His wife died last month, the conductor hollered

through the grinning static of his microphone.

 

Her name was Loo-Loo, the conductor hollered,

his fingers pinching the cord, 

 

my zoo-wife pretended at a tear,

squeezed our zoo-daughter — who was cooked

from the sun, remember? — she cried

at being squeezed after

being cooked by the sun.

 

And now he can’t roar…ever since the conductor hollered.

All the zoo-families ogling, rubbering their necks with

more genuine surprise of a lion

that stopped roaring.

Laid out, as he was,

on the top of a concrete slab, jaws open,

all-capital-letters-like.

 

The very idea of a lion who couldn’t roar, the conductor hollered,
Or wouldn’t.

 

Some child yelled, “Look, he’s about to roar!”

But he wasn’t. He was yawning.

 

He does that a lot, the conductor hollered.

 

Maybe that’s why

he won’t roar

anymore, Sylvia.

Maybe his jaws have grown
a permanent yawn.

 

Same child yelled, “What if

it’s a new kind of roar we can’t hear!?

The conductor hollered,

Well, he’d catch you for sure then!

 

Call it a fool’s instinct; since I found myself 

at the rail of the bridge,

but I showed him the photo

of Gilbert—

don’t worry, I didn’t tell him Gilbert’s name—

he wasn’t even

interested, he looked away from me.

 

So I yelled—you know I never yell—

 

“Oh, what?!, you too good

to look at a picture

of a dead fish,

you dumb lion!”

 

The conductor winked

at a nearby family, “All aboard!”

 

I went

to place the iPhone back into

a new gray jacket pocket of its own

when I realized it was the photo of myself
I’d shown

him

not the fish

which made the rain

we found— so quick! —ourselves

standing in     

 

              — plop plop! — somehow

more urgent, all front-page, if risible and

Sylvia,

if I’m being honest,

as rude

as you used to be,

the more necessary

you decided to become.

 

                   I got back on the train.

                   I wanted to

sit very still. I was upset—

wet when I shouldn’t be—

                   I didn’t even look up to see

the elephants, which you know

is my favorite animal.

                                                    Sylvia.

                                                     No,

I kept my hands in my pockets,

that’s a thing I like to do now,

kept my elbows at my side. I opened

and closed my mouth several times

to take hold of my best breath.

                 I held a few in,

pretended I was a fishing pole,

or a casserole dish, or a night light,

something quiet so I wouldn’t bite

the ears off everyone on that train

 

pretended even there were no such things

as elephants or new jackets or zoos

or baked apples or daughters or trains

or fish or Sundays

                   or widowed lions.

 

                                                         I’m sorry….lion.

 

There’s just the one, Sylvia.

There’s just the one

lion.

A poet and playwright, T.K. Lee is firmly planted in the southern tradition of gothic storytelling. His award-winning work has appeared in respected national and international publications. Among those areseveral prize-winning short plays (On How To Accommodate Marlo’s Frying Pan; Sindication: Off the Wall Plays, London; Loose Hog: Smith Scripts, UK) as well as full-length dramas (Paper Thin: Next Stage Press, CO) — which will receive a world premier in October 2021 in Florida and his play Bob and the Tree, about eccentric painter Walter Anderson, was awarded a highly coveted Literary Artist Fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission in August 2021. His first collection of poetry, To Square a Circle, debuted at the 2018 Eudora Welty Symposium and continues to garner critical praise for its “uncanny wit; impeccable sense of pacing and tone; [and for] bringing a dynamic new voice to southern poetry.” Lee currently serves as MFA faculty at the historic Mississippi University for Women, in both the Creative Writing and Theatre Education programs. For more information, visit: www.tkleewriting.com; on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tkleewriting; and on Twitter/Instagram: @@thecleverkris.

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