my birthday was Sunday.
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.
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!
I walked to the car
against a coming sweat—
I walked up to purchase a day pass
slick as water
in a dusty gray, deep-threaded pattern.
I felt attractive in that
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).
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
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).
I snapped the picture.
I went to the zoo
in my birthday jacket.
I stood in line for a ticket
on the train that circles
(It was a short line
that same horrible no-respecter-of-persons minute
as is every minute when
for what you think you want,
and then the train came
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
beside each exhibit: Alligators!!, Flamingoes!, Monkeys!!,
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
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,
The very idea of a lion who couldn’t roar, the conductor hollered,
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
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
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!”
to place the iPhone back into
a new gray jacket pocket of its own
when I realized it was the photo of myself
not the fish
which made the rain
we found— so quick! —ourselves
— plop plop! — somehow
more urgent, all front-page, if risible and
if I’m being honest,
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.
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.
There’s just the one, Sylvia.
There’s just the one
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.