by Barbara Juster Esbensen

[For Marilyn Pfister Bultman, 1925-1976]

"Cancer costs dearly in anguish and treasure but allows for the long goodbye...." - Philip Nobile, HARPER'S, June 1976


In this lake town, Marilyn,
there is always a boat somewhere
for us -
an old tub tied up -
old wooden rowboat
dried bait scribbled on its ribs.
Oars missing.

I am uneasy, drifting
out to the end
of black rope over the oily

We can always get back
you tell me
and you haul us, hand
over hand,
the old rope coiling at our feet
writhing over our bare

Don't be a baby. We can always get back.

Every April
the earth turns     beckons
blows rain and pipes me
on board with my arms
billowing lilacs
and we all come to my
in our pink socks     our yellow
socks     our Mary Jane shoes
shined with spit.

Mary summons the cake
with egg whites and miracles shaped
like roses.
For the occasion
a movie projector focuses
its dusty rented light
on a sheet

we make rabbit noses out of
shadows and thumbs
and shadow-crabs out of our spread
fingers. After FELIX THE CAT
we eat creamed eggs on toast
and feel superior
to anyone     under ten.

This morning
a man fries
an egg
on the manhole cover
in front of our house.

Wind blows into Wisconsin
from the Nile Valley or
from Oklahoma
where the farms scatter
and wheels of tinlizzie trucks
grind west
to the promised land.

This Monday morning
their dust is in our mouths.
It turns to mud on our wet sheets
flapping on the lines.
(Across one sheet
the shadow of a dead
like a thin arm

In our geography class
we can all spell
We jump to it.
Marilyn and Genevieve take
the ends.

M - E - S, we shout
O - P - O - T,     I duck under
flailing rope.
My brown oxfords
are untied: A - M - I - A !

Miss Kaeding loves Egypt.
She sends the class pellmell
over the jigsaw map
of Europe. Colors,
boundaries blur.
We are out of
stumbling across
England-France-Germany, the Low
But Miss Kaeding takes us slowly
s l o w l y     down the
Tigris, the Euphrates.
The Valley of the Nile is home
to us. The river soothes us,
pulls us past hippos - blue faience, flowered -
snuffling among the stiff reeds.
We memorize the staring kings,
the principal products.

After school
Ackerman's drugstore
smells faintly of medicine
and vanilla and dubblebubble gum.
You buy rootbeer barrels
but I stuff my
jacksbag with long black licorice
twisted like the
snake Cleopatra put against
her skin.
We are spending five cents.

On the shaded afternoon steps
of the Lowell School library
we play jacks
and wait for Martin Neilson
to shine past on his Elgin

The metal jacks say "chink!"
on the smooth cement.
We throw them
and scoop them in. We do
and lefts, and eggs-in-the-basket.
When Martin Neilson
rides by with his newspapers
we stare hard at each other.
We let his spell freeze us
forever, spilling out stars
on the library steps.

On a dare, you raise your hand
to him, but Martin Neilson
(better looking, even, than Dick Powell!)
doesn't see,
grows smaller and smaller
on his bicycle,
riding out to the end of Maple
Avenue, to the beach, to his dry
death on the beach
at Anzio....

Under the streetlights
we play kick-the-can.
We scatter and the can
hits the sailing moon.
Shadows lunge
and pull us into bushes
where Bruno Richard Hauptman
a dead baby.

It is a drought year.

All summer we sleep
on the bedroom floors. Fans
blow on us over chunks
of ice.
Gardens crack. Lakes shrink back
from shore.
The waters reek of dead fish
and my father says
it's just like Ethiopia
on the Pathe newsreel: Haile
Selassie and his big
sad eyes filled up with
sand kicked up
by Italian boots: The Lion
of Judah.

We can see him
a small black smudge
on the desert.

We remember how the egg fried
in the sun.

Rodney Miller
looks like a spindly rodent
and he throws a rock
like a girl.
He runs after me     teeth first
You killed Jesus! My father
says you did!

Don't listen to him,
you tell me     running
I won't     I say. I don't even
KNOW Jesus!

is maid's day off. Our Mary
is rushing out the door
and we sit on the stoop     blocking
her way. Smoke
from a distant stack
faintly stains the clear air.

Hey Mary! We grin up at her
Do you love Hitler?

Ach! She shouts at us
Chust you kidss shut up!

Nobody looks at the smoke

We let her pass     she glares
at us     takes off
in the heat. Room
and board     her uniforms
and seven dollars every week
she gets. Banks some
spends some at the Emporium,
at the movies, St. Bernard's

She buys Kodak film
for her accordian-pleated
camera     and later
takes our picture. We are
making faces and     laughing
our socks wrinkle down     Marilyn
lifts her arm
just as the shutter     clicks.

The top of her head
is cut off     a little
her face
is out of focus...

His voice rides
the cold air above the sea
a cellophane crackle
shatters the words
but we hear him say
"fowah the woman I love..."

We call each other up
You can have Dick Powell
AND Martin Neilson
I'LL take Davy Windsor!

We wish we were English

Tonight     in the roar
from the Philco radio
Joe Louis
knocks out James J. Braddock
cold. My grandmother
tells our rabbi

It's not right a     nigger
should beat up a good-looking
white man     like that

(Her second cousin     the little
limps into our lives
from Germany

You can't imagine what they are doing
to us
    he weeps
We can't. We can't     imagine...)

We all rollerskated
in those days
After supper
our wheels racketted down
and sang out wild flight
to us     the pulse-beat song
of cement:

The Fireside Chat came
dimly     to our ears
from porch radios.

We heard that voice
mixed with skate-growl
from old, tipped walks
hollow     grey.

In those days
we caught fireflies in jars
and we skated...

Always     we have lived
inside each other's heads: you
me Gen Kathleen Donnie.
On those walls
we screen our lives
they flicker in technicolor
at the touch of a word:

SWIMMING     and in five brains
a windy lake-breeze blows
five doors open. We dive
off THAT pier. Into THAT
water     waving
grinning     spitting Lake Monona
into the sunlight.
Inside your skull
we four have had our lodgings -
at home there     lounging
in your brain's old
furniture     yanking up
our socks
opening and closing our

Today my mother called
pouring your terrible sentence
into my phone.

Inside your head
we are running     Marilyn
we flee the shadow of
that spreading crab.

Rooms we laughed in     darken
we fold in
like scissored dolls
hands joined     faces
gone blank.


The crab moves up
Oakridge Avenue
a page
from our old geography book
in its claw.

the crab in your brain
turns left
at Maple Avenue and worries
the scrap of paper
with the Tigris
and Euphrates on it     the Delta
of the Nile. Principal

See it, Marilyn
the map. Run!

(The crab scuttles sideways...)

There is a boat there     rocking
unseen at the Delta
of the Nile     in the lefthand
corner of the page.

It has been moored

forty years     waiting.

Wind is on the water
dark now     Marilyn. Fireflies
sprinkle their lights
on the Tigris     the Euphrates.

Find the waiting boat
and raise your hand
to us. Black rope trails
in the water

We can always get back. Don't be
a baby     We can always
get back...

Written Memories

Barbara Juster Esbensen Memorial

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