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.
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: http://www.erin-murphy.com