Elegy with Handkerchief Mask (B. Tyler Lee)

An addict I know has died. Coughing, sputtering, flushed face directed skyward, and no one can say in which column to tally her body. They don’t swab your sinus cavity in America if you’ve more than once lay awake in an icebox bedroom with your light bill long past due, won’t intubate you if anyone has ever plunged a syringe of Narcan in your veins.

A mother I know has died, but those here from the most recent version of her life can tell you nothing about her children. We can’t say if they’re fostered or grandparented. We can’t set a scene with the relevant numbers: the volume of them, their ages, the ratio of girls to boys. We only know they are young, and they are plural. Their father crumbles in a jail cell, the threats he issued against her carried out by particles in the air, by iron poppies blooming in her arms.

A kiss on the shoulder and slap on the lips can look a lot like hope. She cruised on it, fabricated herself an engine that ran on absurd dreams. She owned two slabs of concrete in Racine, Wisconsin, onto which she’d construct a half dozen new delusions every afternoon: motorcycle lots and rib joints, bourbon bars and flower shops. They could be anything, those slabs, and she’d offer up whatever she built on their cracked asphalt to her boyfriend and the uncountable pack of children.

She means so little here: her body splayed on a block in the background, a quick zoom in for an establishing shot in the cold open of 2020’s second season.

Will they divvy up pieces of the concrete now? A shard of slab per child, maybe a little something for the boyfriend on parole? Here; this piece is light enough for a toddler. Even the smallest girl can carry this load alone.

A woman I know has died—except I didn’t, not really. I knew her the way you know characters in a radio melodrama, an elaborate game of telephone not mine. I know of her, the skitters in her synapses and the episodes that ferried her to police stations and courthouses: the protection orders she took out and the spoons she lit from below.

But I wish her so much more. A memorial attended by someone beyond the hazmat-suited coroner. A long, raucous wake in a city not on lockdown. She predicated her whole life on sheltering in place; her death was no exception. So I wish her fade-out memories of the fine line of hairs on a clean newborn’s shoulder, of lavender inhaled easy in the lungs. I wish her every mirage that played on those asphalt slabs shimmering in the distance as the closing credits roll. 

That’s my director’s cut, though. Maybe it’s got fuck all to do with her. Perhaps she’d want a speedball fat as a snow globe, a reverse harem, one last night of her own veins glowing in the black. Or a montage of her children blue-mouthed and screeching, hopped up on laser tag and Pixy Stix, headless Barbies floating in the wake of glittered bath bombs.

Perhaps she’d want nothing more than some motherfucking silence, the kind of dead air you make when the bodies filling the room are too cowed to breathe a goddamned syllable, everyone’s questions finally shot like rabid dogs, their carcasses splayed on two slabs of concrete in Racine, Wisconsin.


B. Tyler Lee is the author of one poetry collection, With Our Lungs in Our Hands (Redbird Chapbooks, 2016), and her essay “●A large volume of small nonsenses” won the 2020 Talking Writing Contest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, SWWIM Every DayJet Fuel Review, HAD (Hobart After Dark), Acting Up: Queer in the New Century (Jacar Press), and elsewhere. She teaches in the Midwest.


image: Stephanie Jacobs