The oldest sister, her two hands on the table,
about to push herself up, stares with grim
determination at the affronting dishes,
waiting, it seems, until the middle sister
finishes her story, so she can clear them away.
Her gaze so tense with purpose she can almost
see germs spawning in the mess of white fish
flaking from the spines, the smear of egg yolk
and the torn rolls disfiguring the china;
as if the meal, the moment it is over,
the meal she made a point of telling them
she shopped for, got up early to prepare,
were now inedible, because uneaten.
It’s no great comfort either that her brother
sitting opposite holds up a flared match
over the pipe from which smoke rolls away
across the table like a phantom mold
in and around the open tub of butter,
the gouged block of cream cheese and the coffee cups;
so in a moment when she finally does stand

she’ll say again, as always, For love or money
in my mouth I’d never put such filth,
and he’ll say, winking at the middle sister,
That’s what she said on her honeymoon.

The youngest sister is sitting on the couch
behind the table; her face—sheer disengagement,
toneless and still—appears to hang suspended
beyond the oldest sister’s shoulder, far
enough away for no one yet to notice
as her legs cross that the ashtray in her lap
spills ash over the sunflowers of her housedress.
Or that the cigarette between her fingers
sags loosely and is dangling while the hand
lifts like a puppet’s on a string of smoke.

Her death is just three months away.

Even though it’s summer (otherwise
the brother and middle sister would be home,
in Florida), summer and late morning—
with sunlight only just now catching on
a corner of the window shut behind them,
shut against the smog, the steady traffic
and the panicked blare and drawn-out whining fade
of sirens—the apartment is still quiet,
still cool enough, right now, to keep the body
in the wavering frail zone of what it needs
to be forgotten, so they can sit like this
together, with the oldest sister’s sharp eye
on the wrecked meal, the brother and sister talking:

Listen, she would be saying, listen, Charlie,
her elbows on the table, both hands open,
the body fashioned to the voice’s weary
What can you do? What are ya gonna do?
in answer to some story of a cousin’s
sudden illness (And he was my age, just
like that one day he’s shaving with the toothpaste),
or a friend’s death (That one, she didn’t care
how sick she got, she always had her hair done),
his back pain, her arthritis, or the daughter
who won’t diet (And she’d be such a beauty!);
after his joke about the nurse, and hers
about the bedpan, Listen, they each say,
Listen, what are ya gonna do?

                                              “The Schmo,
he never should’ve married her, for Christ sake,
until he told her that he had a problem,
that was his first mistake, then he goes
throwing away his pills, because he’s happy
he doesn’t need them anymore, the schmo,
so of course what happens is she wakes up
and finds him weeping at the kitchen table,
just weeping, he doesn’t know why, he won’t eat,
won’t get dressed, says he’s quittin’ his job,
you know, nuts, nuts, so naturally she leaves him,
the poor schmo, and he’s such a good boy . . . ”

All of the harm that’s imperceptibly
but surely coming for them (the way the sun
burns brick by brick all morning toward the window
like a slow fuse)—all of the bad news now
is in the body only enough to hold
the middle sister’s two hands open, shrug
her shoulders in a way they recognize
as hers, the way their mother did; as if
all trouble were, for now, no heavier
than the familiar voice repeating, Listen,
Listen it could be worse; So who’s to say?;
What was, was; When your number’s up—like old charms
woven around each story till they’ve made
what happens what was only meant to happen,
coherent with fate, fated as family.

After the funeral three months from now,
they’ll have to listen to the oldest sister
tell them they had no business moving away
to Florida, and Irene sick as she was.
And selfish. She was selfish, that one. After
all those years of living with that bum,
her husband, may his cheap soul rest in peace,
didn’t she deserve a little pleasure?
And anyway, what could be done for her?
Didn’t the stroke just make it easier
for her to sit all day, and smoke, and not care
ashes were falling on the couch, the carpet;
her bathrobe filthy, filthy? Oh it was terrible—
and now they will hear the old unfairnesses,
old feuds and resentments come to her voice
like consolation, like a mother helping
her recite the story of that last bad day—
all that smoke, and running in with nothing
but the dishtowel to beat down the flames,
and Irene, just Irene, just sitting there,
the queen of Sheba—What difference did it make
since she was there, she was always there,
her big sister, to clean up the mess?

Only three months, and yet it could be years,
or decades, for the sun has only just now
caught in the window, and its bright plaque warms
the air so gradually that none of them
can know it’s warming, or that soon someone,
distracted by a faint sheen prickling the skin,
will break the story, look up toward the window
and, startled by the full glare, check the time.
Right now, though, the future is a luxury
of instances in which the cigarette,
raised halfway to the lips, will go on rising.
Nothing bad, right now, can happen here
except as news, bad news the brother and sister
mull and rehearse, puzzle and fret until
it seems the very telling of it is
what keeps them safe. And safe, too, the oldest sister,
dreaming of all the perishables sealed,
wrapped up and hurried back into the fridge’s
uncontaminated airlessness,
dreaming of how the soapsuds curdle and slide
over the dishes in a soothing fury,
not minding that it scalds her hands to hold
each plate and cup and bowl under the hot,
hard jet of water, if it gets them clean.

Alan Shapiro, “Covenant” from Covenant (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991). Copyright © 1991 by Alan Shapiro. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: Covenant (The University of Chicago Press, 1991)
More Poems by Alan R. Shapiro