Gregory Fraser

A Gathering to Spark the Season

There was talk, of course, of the golden age of Flemish art,
and quibbles over the novel, English or French, praise
for the great composers, who also wrote, someone noted,
beautiful, scandalous letters in the most graceful of hands,
which induced another guest to smile broadly and begin
to gush about a warbler at the feeder earlier that day,
how its silver trill was a music whose grace could run
even the hardest heart through, and slowly, without ordeal,
as if to an unseen script, the more distinguished of the group
took to the sofas, while the bubbly younger ones, eager
to be noticed and to please, made themselves of use
refilling glasses, replenishing bowls of fruit, plates
of cheese, and someone asked about favorite foreign films,
about actors in and out of the big production houses,
then came chatter of summers abroad—the elevations
of Umbria versus Tuscany’s vine-studded fields. Yetit wasn’t until our conversation turned to the best recipe
for Bloody Marys that things really got off the ground.
The wallflowers peeled themselves from the shadows,
with a long overdue pluck that bordered on defiance,

which stirred the men trapped in speculations about stocks
and weekend sport, and all at once the whole place
whirred with adoration for pickled okra, asparagus stalks
as garnish, for the well-strained juice of lemon and lime,

pepper, coarse and black. There were homilies to Poland
and Mother Russia, panegyrics to the duchess of Tabasco,
and a jeremiad, of all things, condemning Misters Lea
and Perrins—mere pharmacists by trade, it turns out.

Suddenly arose the clink of ice, the pop of cans pried open,
bottles knocked shoulders in the liquor cabinet. A bright
hooray went up, and a silver pitcher made the rounds,
with everyone taking sips, smacking lips, extolling this virtue,

raising this fuss, and only one refrained—she was pregnant—​​
which sent up cries for a virgin, a Virgin Mary!, and a glass
appeared directly in the woman’s hand. The pitcher refilled
miraculously, additives changed to suit this palate, that allergy,

this whim, and the crowd grew giddy when the third batch
was pronounced The Best Bloody Mary on Earth. Truly,
it was all so lovely, and it appeared the glee would never
dwindle or die. When, at last, it did, an hour or so later,

there stood alone at the window the woman who wasn’t
drinking, the one with child, staring steadily out of the glass.
To no one in particular, almost as a casual aside, she recalled
her girlhood on the dry plains strafed by wind, and late

November skies the gray of weathered barns. The hostess
waltzed to her side, placed an arm around her waist,
and that was that. People began to grab their coats, wrap
scarves, sing goodbyes. It was frigid when I stepped out,

drunk, onto the stoop. I pulled up my collar, looked out
over the hills, and was struck, oddly, by the thought of home—​​
how similar the dusk appeared after the first few chills set in,
how the factories and mills and light changed shifts precisely

at five p.m. at the end of autumn, once the clocks fell back.
I thought about colored bulbs strung along the rooflines,
and how the lawns would sprout those manger scenes
my mother loved nearly as much as she did the word

crèche (she said it every time we passed one in the car).
I wondered if the woman still inside felt scared, and whether
she expected a boy or girl. Something told me it would be a girl.
On the walk home, I thought I heard a clatter of shoes behind me,

but when I turned, the block was clear. Parked cars huddled
in rows against the curbs, as if for warmth, as if sensing
it would snow. The streetlamps arched overhead like a phalanx
of long-necked birds, menacing and prehistoric and voiceless.

The Hollow

A few weeks after the twins arrived, my wife broke
down and told me, over breakfast she wouldn’t touch,
about the hollow eating her from the inside out,
about the emptiness she had become. She said
she felt as if the kids had loved her like a mother
country, but suddenly been forced into exile
and chosen to wander freely in another land.
As she spoke, I thought of a husk split open
and left behind, the constrictive shell a hermit
crab must molt, skin sloughed off by a snake.
For once, I kept my fat mouth shut, just sipped
coffee and leant an ear. In the window, the sky
seemed intensely clear, translucent, like vellum
stretched, prepared for holy inscriptions. My wife
wiped her eyes, and stared out into the yard,
and I started to wonder how it must feel to be
so groundless, not so much lost as adrift, without
the tether of an origin or cause. Like an afterthought
with no prior idea, a wake without a boat—water
simply parting and parting—or like a searchlight
with no tower, turning with nothing to spot or save.
My wife had delivered two bodies and now felt
disembodied—floating, neither here nor there,
between spirit and flesh. A house finch tested
the birdbath and fluttered off. Apples in a bowl
of teak. Matryoshka dolls on the mantel
in mantles of dust. Then one of the kids began
to cry, the other joined in, and the two of us
snapped into action. Had there been time,
knowing my wife, she would have turned
the conversation around, composing herself
and asking, How do you feel? And I would have
cracked a smile and lied, Fine, dear, just fine.
Something In the Way of the Light
You didn’t know me when I would breakfast
from a highball glass, when I was just a skeleton
trying to swim a quarry lake, just a mirror,
a shallow trickster, pretending to the greatest
of depths. My first mistake was searching for,
instead of following, my destiny. I have yet<