~ after Kathleen Graber

America, you were the cousin who joined
a beauty contest the year before her visa
application cleared so she could be a nurse
somewhere in Rochester, NJ; she didn't think
a roll of sheepskin inked with her name
and St. Louis University would be enough.
Soon after, she sent pictures of the doctor
she would marry. America, we like to think
there might have been love and not just 
the green card; we hear they're still 
together in their dotage. America, you were 
another cousin slowly dying from cancer, 
alone in an apartment in Maryland. 
I knew her only by name and the photographs 
she sent: her stylish bob, her cigarettes 
and drugstore-bought dark glasses. The patent 
leather Mary Janes she sent one Christmas, 
the walking doll with flaxen hair, white 
lace bib and pinafore, the vacant 
eyes that opened and closed (and give me
nightmares even now). And you were 
a certain smell before we even began 
to understand what you really were—synthetic 
and abnormally clean, like Chlorox or Windex
with a bottom note of soda left open in the sun. 
It wafted up from a box that took two months
to ship from your flank or your hip 
or armpit: wherever it was people like us 
found neighborhoods where they could rent
walkups whose stairwells overflowed 
with steam from rice pots. America,
we can shine and scrub your floors
without a Hoover or a Roomba, then punch
holes in the bottoms of fruit 
cocktail cans so we can grow bird 
chillies and tomatoes on the veranda. 
We let a dentist in our old hometown pull
out all our teeth so you wouldn't get
the chance to do it and charge us
triple. There is a fish we like to eat
whose belly is soft and sweet and full
of fat; but every bone in its body 
is a tree that bristles with more than
a dozen spears. Like you, America— 
if we're not careful, we could choke 
on even the smallest mouthful.


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