mission statement, or the Saturday after Sinatra died
by Quan Barry
You’re sitting on a wooden bench outside the laundromat waiting for five weeks worth of clothes to dry. Yesterday a well-groomed man came into the UNICEF store and asked you to massage his knees. After diplomatically directing him to try the Sharper Image three streets over, you spent the rest of the afternoon studying your hands. Now, waiting for your clothes, your long dulcet fingers smell like Bounce and are consequently 100% static free.
Like a federal holiday the Virginian spring has fallen precisely on the stroke of March, the dogwoods plush as cotton candy. Though it’s the afternoon, a crescent moon hangs like a paring in the thick cerulean sky. You wonder if you could learn to make a living rubbing your hands expertly over other people’s bodies until the heat builds and the pain goes away. Once, on public television, you watched two British brothers travel to Jakarta, where they found a man who could conduct electricity with his hands. The man said like eels we all have the capacity to generate but that it took him thirty years to master the art. As a demonstration of his prowess, he set a newspaper on fire just by touching it with his palms, and later on in the program, he healed an infected sty one of the brothers had come down with during their travels.
The bench is beginning to grow hard. If I die today, you think, it would be all right. For the next twenty minutes you sit and observe your hands, the moon, the sky, the dogwoods with their blossoms pale as whipped sugar. A family with two small children walks out of the novelty shop next door. Both children are holding balloons and singing. Chim chim cheree, chim chim cheree, chim chim cheroo. Blow me a kiss, and that’s lucky too. With that, the smaller child lets go of her balloon, watches aghast as it floats up and gets tangled in the telephone wires. She looks around miserably, first at her sister, then at her parents, then at you. Helpfully you tell her, “Now it’s like a bird on a leash,” but she begins to cry anyway and is briskly bundled off to the car.
Quan Barry’s first book of poetry, Asylum, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2001. Her second, Controvertibles, will be published in fall 2004. Her work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (2003)