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"Huckleberries and Homebrewed Boilo"

by Marianne Peel

Her fingers always smelled of cabbage
when she made the Halupkis on Saturday night.
She’d plunge her hands into that boiling water
slivering out the core of the cabbage,
unafraid of the blade.

I used to think her fingertips
must be callused hard
scalded beyond
all sensation
the way she manhandled those cabbage leaves.

Her fingernails were stubbly squares and I wondered
how she managed to wrap them around that bottle of homebrewed Boilo,
that Boilo that burned my nose hairs when I took a whiff
that Boilo that she slugged down between folding the ground pork and sticky rice
into a cabbage bundle, raw pig in a blanket.

Long ago she was a young widow,
a dress shirt presser whose heavy steel iron
smoothed out the blood clots her husband hacked up.
The checks for the Black Lung came on the first of the month.
I used to find them, damp, in her apron pocket.

She told me it was damn hard to fall asleep once he passed.
She used to parcel her going to sleep
into measures of his wheezing.
She could count on that syncopation
to soothe her off to sleep.

She became an insomniac after he was dead and buried,
recycled his handkerchiefs into rags
to polish the toaster,
to spit shine her shoes,
to dab at her lipstick that oozed the corners of her mouth.

They found her
one fine summer morning
when the mountain laurel was in bloom.
She’d gone picking huckleberries up the side of the mountain,
collected them in a rusted tin coffee can.

She used to like the sound of the berries clanging in that can.
Counted them till the sun made her dizzy
and she climbed back down the mountain.
Her old sundress, all covered in closing-go-to-sleep flowers,
was hung on the bathroom door over her acetate powder blue nightgown.

They found her in the bathtub all sunk down and comfortable
with a cigarette still burning on the edge of the tub
and a glass of Boilo rippling through the bathwater,
her fingers still stained bluish purple,
the huckleberries still on her hands.

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