Iris

(i)

One winter evening
San Diego at dusk
after pacing the cold
linoleum floor for hours
My mother weirdly
stuffs me and my sister
into woolen coats
itchy hats and mittens
Drags us into the raw wind
to the nearest bus stop
When safely perched
behind the driver
I get up on my knees
and put my mouth against
her perfumed silky scarf
I breathe into her ear
“Where are we going?”
She puts her soft
tobacco scented finger
to my mouth
“Shhh…” she whispers
and mutters something goofy
I get scared
My stomach hurts

…This reminds me of the time
we walked circles in
a little grocery store
but couldn’t buy stuff
We stayed until dark
way past closing
The owner had to put us out
He asked if there was
anyone he could call
Mom was so afraid
to walk past the church
on the way home
A monstrous cathedral
Thought the devil was going to
jump out and grab her
An excommunicated Catholic
since being divorced…

Two hours later
it’s completely dark
and we’re still riding
the same bus
Susie and me jump across
to the opposite seat
As the bus empties
every few stops
we hop back and forth
not even annoying Mom
She looks very far away
Mostly we stare at
passing cars
neon bar signs
and closing shops
Entranced by
red tail lights in the
lucky cars ahead of us
My little sister whines
“I gotta potty!”
Mom blurts out even louder
“Let’s go to Auntie Bev’s!”
Her sister is newly wed
to Uncle Carlo
They live in the old
Little Italy
Grandpa calls him a
“wop lawyer”

(ii)

Carlo welcomes us into suffocating
warmth and aromas
Marinara and Italian sausage
simmering on his mother’s stove
She lives upstairs
“Beverly isn’t here. She and
Joanne are out bar hopping
and trying all the Big Boys
for the perfect strawberry pie.
It’s the new craze.”
He has a high nasal voice
I stare at black curly hair
smiling dark brown eyes
and heavy five o’clock shadow
Carlo’s rolling up his sleeves
a now wrinkled white dress shirt
Mom was clearly agitated
Entered then quickly emerged
from the hall closet
with her coat still on and buttoned
“Hitler’s in there with Stalin.
They told me to kill
the Negro Communists upstairs.”
I watch her for a long time
Search Carlo’s face
wondering how he’ll help her
But he’s waiting for my aunties
to provide a distraction

So in they burst all smiles
and tipsy laughter
From one hand
Bev drops jangling car keys
into her new jacket pocket
In the other
she balances her treasure
for Carlo
A perfect slice of pretty pie
Giant sliced strawberries in a
red gelatin glaze topped with
a dollop of whipped cream
still neatly peaked on top
“Jo, why don’t you take the kids
to watch television.”

Soon there’s a commotion
So I peek out the living room door
Two men in white coats
wrestling with my
betrayed mother
struggling to put her
into a straitjacket
Then without looking back
she leaves us again
I already know
we’re headed for
the children’s home
or some new foster parents
“The girls can stay here tonight.”
Carlo insists but Bev counters
“Just tonight.
We haven’t the room.”
I wanted to grow up fast right then
and take Mom to my own house

(iii)

Carlo’s father was first generation
Sicilian-American with a
shiny new taxicab
and paper bags of numbers
to send his son to law school
Carlo worked for free
or took fresh produce
brake jobs or new tires as payment
He defended Mom in court when
she slapped a kid tormenting Susie
Whenever he saw Mom
smiling and sane or
sick and mumbling
walking downtown
He’d yell, “Hey Iris!
How about a cup of coffee?”
We never could keep track of her
Always picking up and packing off
to only God knew where
We wondered why He
didn’t change her
She needed to take care
of Susie and me

At night Carlo drove downtown
to pick up racing forms
After I graduated we went
to Del Mar track
to play the horses
He also played poker
One cigar reeking night
lost the deed to their
new house in the suburbs
Later won it back
That house with the big bathroom
Smelled like gold Dial soap
And the summer I lived there
each morning over the sink
I very quietly stirred
baking soda in a glass
Trying not to clink
the metal spoon
Drank it quickly
to stop my morning sickness
before I told my boyfriend
I was pregnant

(iv)

Carlo got involved in politics
and Auntie Bev divorced him
But it was his own friends
who set him up and
took him down
Legally of course
Then diabetes, heart attack
and coma
But at the very end
before he slipped into
final dreams
I sent him a Thank You card
“For all your many kindnesses”
A few months later
Iris bolted and barred the door
to her room in the boarding house
She set out her
uncashed welfare checks
Pointed the new rifle she bought
and blew up her own heart
Next morning when
she didn’t show
the young caretaker couple
noticed her missing and worried
Because Iris was always
the first one to wake up
and make coffee
for everyone

strawberry-pie-slice-whipped-cream-picture

Both photos in the public domain

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22 thoughts on “Iris

  1. Mary Jo – you have a storyteller’s voice. I was with you through every line, several times through. Your give honour to Iris – her journey was not for the faint of heart. Hugs!!

    • Remember the line from the Goo Goo Dolls’ song Iris, “I just want you to know who I am.” My Iris was a gentle soul who never hurt anyone, and she had the most wonderful laugh. This story reflects the bad times affecting her loved ones. Thank you, Marina xoxoxo

  2. Courtnay Malo says:

    Goo Goo Dolls. Mom, you are THE coolest. I love you. xoxo This one really got me. You are definitely a gifted storyteller.

    • Thank you so very much!! I don’t know about your trouble posting, but if it’s any consolation it’s happened to me too while trying to post to your blog in the past 🙂

    • Thank you for your kind words. I recently suffered the loss of my dear sister. Little did I know when it was written, her passing was just around the corner. Your blog is filled with nostalgia, and this is a large part of what we need these days. Fond remembrances and strong faith in the future.

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