Erin Murphy ~ Four Poems

The Strip Mall of Second Chances

My daughter’s pedi­a­tri­cian has been arrested
for writ­ing Oxycodone prescriptions
for her 24-year-old lover. She’s married
with two teenage kids, but that, of course,
isn’t the issue—the issue is the drugs
and young man who sold them
to sup­port his own habit, the young man
who no doubt told her everything
she need­ed to hear to erase two decades
of assem­bly line strep throat swabs
and ear infec­tions, after-hours calls
about con­junc­tivi­tis and croup,
the rab­bit war­ren of windowless,
flo­res­cent-lit exam rooms where,
after a ten-hour shift, she didn’t know
if it had rained or snowed. A dull job,

real­ly, but with such high stakes.
We all know at least one story
of a brain tumor misdiagnosed
as a migraine or a stom­ach bug
that was actu­al­ly sep­sis. A suspicious
phar­ma­cist report­ed her, and now,
the papers say, she’s lost her med­ical license.
There’s a mis­de­meanor plea deal
in the works. No news on her marriage.
She’s work­ing as a cashier at a strip mall
dis­count depart­ment store, scan­ning items
and ask­ing cus­tomers if they want to save
an extra 20% by open­ing a cred­it card.

I think back to those appointments.
She wasn’t one for chitchat and barely
seemed to know my daughter’s name.
I won­der if what I took for social awkwardness
was actu­al­ly dis­trac­tion, if she was
rush­ing to check a text from her lover.
Or maybe she was preoccupied
with the fear of get­ting caught.
I say the word opi­oid out loud
and try to think of oth­er words
with three con­sec­u­tive vowels.
Only luau and paeon come to mind.
Later: pious. How easy it is to judge

some­one who blows up her life
in such spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion, a hat trick
of crime, fam­i­ly, and career. Most of us
ruin our­selves in small­er increments,
the way a fresh bar of soap slow­ly becomes
a sliv­er that slips down the drain.
We drink a lit­tle too much wine
at din­ner or lash out at loved ones
with cru­el pre­ci­sion as if we’ve spent
decades in school learn­ing how to dole out—
and endure—micro-doses of pain.


Tanya the Phlebotomist

For the week of my daughter’s life,
she had to have her blood drawn twice a day.
High hemo­glo­bin, the doc­tors said. Our hearts

rose and fell with each result, with worry
for what might come next. Every morning
and late after­noon, my hus­band drove us

to the lab at our local hos­pi­tal, Molly bundled
in her infant car seat and me next to her cradling
my sta­pled c‑section wound. The first day

mul­ti­ple phle­botomists tried to tap into her tiny
veins with­out suc­cess, leav­ing her arms and feet
butchered and bruised. And then Tanya arrived,

a young Black woman work­ing in a part of Maryland
where the KKK still held ral­lies, where just a few
years ear­li­er, a Black man was dragged from a car

and beat­en for rid­ing with a white woman.
Tanya cupped our daughter’s heel in her hand and spoke
her name—Molly, hi sweet Molly—and in one

swift motion, thread­ed the nee­dle and summoned
a vial full of blood. Molly didn’t cry, didn’t even stir.
Twice a day we saw her. Sometimes our daughter

nev­er even woke up. Other times Tanya let her
stay latched to my breast. We sensed tension
when we told the oth­er techs—all white—

that we want­ed to wait for Tanya. After a while,
they wouldn’t even greet us—they’d see us
walk in and snap Tanya, you got a patient.

One day we showed up and Tanya was gone—
work­ing in anoth­er lab in the hos­pi­tal that day,
the tech on duty report­ed. Fine, my hus­band said,

we’ll go there. This wasn’t an option, we were told,
because that lab didn’t take our insurance.
My husband—who hates confrontations—

said I don’t care. I’ll pay cash. No one
but Tanya is touch­ing my child. That’s when
a super­vi­sor was called, and Tanya was dispatched

to work her mag­ic on Molly. This continued
twice a day each day until her condition
resolved on its own. Flash for­ward twen­ty years.

We have moved to anoth­er state. My husband
needs rou­tine blood work, so we follow
the GPS direc­tions to a lab in a busi­ness park

where we take a num­ber and sit in the wait­ing room.
You know where this is going, don’t you?
The phle­botomist who takes his blood is Tanya.

I rec­og­nize her all these years lat­er, and she confirms
that yes, she worked at that rur­al hos­pi­tal back then,
and yes, she was rou­tine­ly called for babies

and oth­er chal­leng­ing patients. She doesn’t remember
us, but who can blame her? She’s had a million
patients since then while we’ve had only

a hand­ful of peo­ple draw our blood. She tells us
she’s worked in Georgia and spent five years
trav­el­ing the coun­try as a lab trainer.

Her daugh­ter who was in ele­men­tary school
when we first met is a third grade teacher now.
And our daugh­ter is pre-med, with flash cards

for anato­my & phys­i­ol­o­gy and a white coat
and gog­gles for chem­istry lab. Tanya hasn’t lost
her touch. She taps his inner arm—

the ante­cu­bital fos­sa, our daugh­ter will tell me later—
and glides the nee­dle into his vein. She comments
on his mus­cles, asks about his work­out routine.

She’s run­ning a half marathon this weekend,
she tells us. She hopes it doesn’t rain. And with that,
her work is done. He didn’t feel a thing.



On the 75th day of quar­an­tine, my true love
gives to me one hand­gun hol­ster. Or at least

I think he does. The pack­age, which arrives
with anoth­er con­tain­ing a book, is meant

for a man on Edgar Street, a few blocks over
in this rur­al Pennsylvania borough.

The hol­low black leather hold­er rests
on our ottoman with an item we did order:

a book by Slovenian philoso­pher Slavoj Žižek.
For the pur­pose of this poem, I want to change

the book to the book on my bed­side table:
The Tradition by Jericho Brown. On the cover

are del­i­cate flowers—inside, poems
about white hands on Black bodies.

Earlier this morn­ing, I yelled at my husband.
I yelled at my hus­band about a cof­fee fil­ter. Not

just any cof­fee fil­ter, the large cylin­dri­cal filter
for the cold brew cof­fee pitch­er I bought online

when stores began shut­ting down. You can’t make
iced cof­fee by brew­ing a reg­u­lar pot and pouring

it over ice. It will taste acidic and metallic,
like a lemo­ny pen­ny. But the fil­ter, which is always

in the top draw­er next to the refrigerator,
is gone. Where did you put it? I asked my husband.

Why do you think I moved it? he asks. Who else
would have moved it? I ask, my voice rising.

Maybe it slipped behind the draw­er. No, it’s too big.
Maybe it’s in a cab­i­net. No, no, no, no. And then

he reach­es up under the draw­er, beyond the spatulas
and pota­to mash­er and there it is, a mesh cage

wedged behind the drawer’s wood­en lip. I am saying
draw­er too many times, and the truth is,

I can’t say the word at all. I grew up pro­nounc­ing it
the way my Rhode Island native moth­er said it:

draw – the dress­er draw, the top draw. Like draw
a bath. Draw a gun. This week I com­plet­ed an online

coro­n­avirus con­tact trac­er train­ing. It cer­ti­fies me
to fol­low up with patients and those they may have exposed.

What does coro­na mean? the instruc­tor asked,
but we couldn’t answer because it was recorded.

I may not know about RNA and R noughts,
but I know coro­na is a crown. We learn there are

four types of ques­tions: closed and leading,
which are bad, and open and prob­ing, which are good.

Have you been cough­ing? (closed)
You’ve been cough­ing, haven’t you? (lead­ing)

What symp­toms have you been expe­ri­enc­ing? (open)
How would you describe your cough? (prob­ing)

The gun hol­ster came with a card that says
Comfort starts here! and boasts of its concealment

fea­tures. The guy who ordered it is, I imagine,
one of the white men who refus­es to wear a mask

because this is America, damnit.
Because Constitution. Because rights.

Are you privileged?
You’re priv­i­leged, aren’t you?

What does priv­i­lege mean to you?
How does your gun relate to privilege?

[How does your phi­los­o­phy book relate to privilege?]
[How does your iced cof­fee mak­er relate to privilege?]

In the the­atre they say if there’s a pistol,
it must be fired in the last hour. I slip the package

in a blue mail­box in front of the post office,
mark it mis­de­liv­ered. I have nev­er held

a hand­gun, but I know that a bullet
in the body blos­soms like a flower.


Women’s Work

125 men and 25 women
con­vened in the Senate Chamber
to vote on whether
to remove the President.

Chamber: an assem­bly hall, a bed­room, the rear bar­rel of a gun, four parts of your heart

We knew how it would go.
Sham is too soft a word.

Sham: a false rep­re­sen­ta­tion, a cov­er for a dec­o­ra­tive pillow

My great-grand­moth­er crocheted
the ends of pil­low cases,
gifts for birth­days and bridal
show­ers. After she died,
we found a linen closet
full of them, neat­ly pressed
and fold­ed like love letters.
She had five hus­bands and red hair,
they said, like her fiery temper.
I could not imag­ine her sitting
still long enough to coax
such intri­cate scallops
and tas­sels from each edge.

Edge: the out­er side of an area, an advan­tage, the sharp­ened part of a blade

2,872. That’s how many
words I wrote to my
Senators. I received 42
form let­ter responses—
craft­ed by female aides,
no doubt, their heels
kicked off under cubicles.

My own moth­er is a quilter.
In my favorite wall hanging,
she stitched off-white thread
into unbleached muslin fabric
like cur­sive in invis­i­ble ink.
I just mistyped thread as threat.

Fretwork, they would say,
if her mate­ri­als were
the province of men:
met­al or wood.

Fret: to wor­ry, yes, but also to rub away

Fretwork, I will call
my words. Even if
they smear like soot.


Erin Murphy’s lat­est book of poems, Human Resources, is forth­com­ing from Salmon Poetry. Her work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in such jour­nals as Rattle, Diode, River Teeth, Southern Poetry Review, American Journal of Poetry, The Georgia Review, North American Review, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Her awards include The Normal School Poetry Prize, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and a Best of the Net award. She is Professor of English at Penn State Altoona and serves as Poetry Editor of The Summerset Review. Website: