Saturday, May 3, 2008

Inside the Midget, by Mary Jo Salter

In town again some ten years later,
led by new companions to
a flashy restaurant—Chinese—
I know it like I know my face.
Whatever it was . . . why can't I think?
Sitting before a blank

placemat, as at an exam—or worse,
the dreams of exams one had back then,
of never having taken the course—
I hear my ears pound when a friend
whispers the impossible answer:
"This used to be the Midget Deli."

The Midget! It was half this size.
I thought everything was supposed to shrink
when one came back. They must have torn
down the wall between the rooms; then
refurnished, refinished, refined until
there's nothing left we'd recognize—

Darling, you should be here. How many
Sunday mornings did we stumble in,
hung over, egging the other on
to order feasts we'd barely touch?
("Some toast, at least. Soaks up the wine.")
Where's our exhausted, pickle-faced waitress

who'd extract a pad and pencil from
the marsupial pouch in her uniform?
Thick-rimmed as a bathtub, white
but ringed with a tannin stain, the mug
of tea she'd bring had the bag already
soaking in lukewarm, shallow water,

limp tag like a dangling arm.
One can grown nostalgic over anything,
it seems. Tonight, the tea pours hot
from a metal pot into porcelain.
Much better—which is hard to admit
to that happy pessimist, still dressed

in jeans and college black, whose heart
(she tells me) beats beneath my pearls.
Ten years ago? No—twelve, thirteen.
And think of it: grown-up even then,
as, over some table her (no X
to mark the spot) your eyes would meet

mine in one thrilling thought—Last night
and nothing need be said.
Look: I'm shaking. I can hardly find
the ladies' room without a guide,
and then the lady in the mirror
isn't the one I was seeking out—

she looks more like my mother. I know
that tender, disappointed frown;
she gave it to some midget
version of myself (two front teeth
missing) who'd just ripped a skirt.
But now what have I done

to feel so guilty for? Was I
the one who chose to gut the place?
Or to gild the walls, as if space fills
equally well with true or false?
The door swings open: in the dining room
I can see at once the counter where,

above a pastry-case of strudel,
a plastic dome like a crystal ball
housed yesterday's last bagel.
They're opening fortune cookies there,
chuckling at strips of paper far
too small, from here, to read.

-from A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems

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