Ellen Bass – Black Coffee


I didn’t know that when my mother died, her grave
would be dug in my body. And when I weaken,
she is here, dressing behind the closet door,
hooking up her long-line cotton bra,
then sliding the cups around to the front,
leaning over and harnessing each heavy breast,
setting the straps in the grooves on her shoulders,
reins for the journey. She’s slicking her lips with
Fire & Ice. She’s shoveling the car out of the snow.
How many pints of Four Roses did she slide
into exactly sized brown bags? How many cases
of Pabst Blue Ribbon did she sling onto the counter?
All the crumpled bills, steeped in the smells
of the lives who’d handled them—their sweat,
onions and grease, lumber and bleach—she opened
her palm and smoothed each one. Then
stacked them precisely, restoring order.
And at ten, after the change fund was counted,
the doors locked, she uncinched the girth, unbuckled
the bridle. She cooked Cream of Wheat for my father,
mixed a milkshake with Hershey’s syrup for me,
and poured herself a single highball,
placed on a yellow paper napkin.
Years later, when I needed the nightly
highball too, she gave me this story.
She’d left my father in the hospital—
this time they didn’t know if he’d live,
but she had to get back to the store. Halfway,
she stopped at a diner and ordered coffee.
She sat in the booth with her coat still on,
crying, silently, just the tears rolling down,
and the waitress never said a word,
just kept refilling her cup.

From Indigo, Copper Canyon Press, 2020

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Ellen Bass
Ellen Bass has published several award-winning books of poetry, including “Like a Beggar, The Human Line”, and “Mules of Love”. Her poems have frequently appeared in “The New Yorker”, “The American Poetry Review”, and many other journals. She coedited the groundbreaking anthology of women’s poetry “No More Masks!”, and her nonfiction includes the best-selling “The Courage to Heal”. Among her awards are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, three Pushcart prizes, and the Lambda Literary Award. A chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University.