Tara A. Elliott, three poems
Division This afternoon I taught JaQuan how to divide fractions, the numerator perched atop the denominator, a line of black between them: Mary is eating a meatball submarine and wants to share it with John. The sandwich is 12 and ½ inches long. How much should each person get? JaQuan is hungry, I can tell. His stomach whines, and late afternoon light burns through slatted blinds, forming patterns across his desk. He asks me what the formula is for such a thing. This is during “In School Suspension.” I ask him why he is there. That kid wouldn’t stop talking about my mom—his finger, a dagger pointing to another boy across the room who is both seething and breathing over a pale pile of worksheets of his own. How is it that I automatically know but can’t figure out how to teach how to find the answer using what the math teacher wants? I thumb through the math book, the rifling of heavy pages echoing in the almost empty classroom, an English teacher searching for words as I mutter to myself…Who writes these questions? Who calls a sub a submarine anymore? If I was Mary, I’d tell her to tear that sandwich into two somewhat even parts, and hand it to John who damn well better appreciate my sharing. Quan blinks at my comment, then shatters the quiet with a laugh. I hand him his textbook and tell him I will share what I tell my own son: there are times when you feel you should stick-up for what you believe, but those times must have consequences. He nods to this white woman who doesn’t understand, turns his No. 2 pencil upside down, erases what he’s already written, and returns to the book that has the rules, the explanation I failed to give.
Stuck in a back-up on the drive home, I notice a Silver Maple split around electric wires. The tree techs, re-latching bucket to truck, have halved it perfectly as they lopped-off limbs, bright green leaves strewn to litter the street. The remains are piled just off the cusp, ringed circles stacked pyramid-style, and left to bleed sap. The tree, now in two equal sections continues its growth through thick black lines.
At Waterman’s Crab House After they’d failed to catch their own, leaving butcher’s twine knotted with soggy fowl to rot from the pilings of marinas, the tourists wanted melted butter in which to dip the sweet meat, bowls of vinegar-water in which to rinse, wooden mallets. The decaying smell would crawl into my clothing, a summer of leftovers no amount of Ivory could ever wash away.
They didn’t even know how to pry the apron from the jimmies. And I’d show them again and again, how easily the backfin slides out with the simple tugging of the swimmers, how the solid claw snaps with the bang of the sharp knife, how to lift the top shell away, crack the hull in half, and burrow with spice-coated fingers into the chambers to pull the special out—how we locals eat the mustard without washing it all away.
The bilge water and brackish wake of Skipjacks would smack against pilings, bottles of beer sweating in the hot sun, the decking always unsteady under my feet. I had just turned eighteen, learning how to write FF for French fries, how to note on each check the difference between a well and a call drink, and how a wink with a hand on my cocked hip could sway customers into ordering appetizers or Crab Imperial.
Better the watermen, with the constant bite of their slaps against my ass, grown men with nicknames like Billy or Bunky, who named their boats after their mothers or their wives, and sat solely at the bar. They’d call me Sugar and Lil Lady, taking turns throwing arms heavy with the scent of dead eel around my shoulder, Southern Comfort and Budweiser thick on their breath. By the end of summer, I’d learn to slip beneath their pinching biceps. Kitchen to deck, deck to kitchen, I’d scuttle away from all of them, dive deep into the dark of the backroom where I’d grab a drag off my Camel light, a quick swig of Mrs. Boot’s sweet tea, then tuck yet another roll of Bounty under my elbow, grab the next waiting tray, the next pile of cheap paper shells— Maryland Blue Crabs so light, they were almost hollow. In town only for a weekend— the Chicken-Neckers never learned the difference.
Risk My family moved nine times by the time I was fourteen-years-old. As children, my sister and I became so used to packing and unpacking, the smell of corrugated cardboard had glued itself to our stuffed animals. It got to the point that we’d never fully unpack. If we needed something, we’d just dig through boxes labeled in my mother’s ever steady hand: Kitchen, Grandmother’s China, Guest Room. My father was in sales. On vacation in the Caribbean, he tried to teach me how to haggle: Offer a price, and if they don’t agree, just leave. They’ll either come around, or you don’t need it. But I either wanted whatever it was too much, or felt too badly for the seller whose three-year-old played peek-a-boo from beneath her colorful skirts. I couldn’t do it.
His favorite board game was Risk.
No one in our family would play it with him, because to challenge my father was to lose, incredibly slowly, as he plotted his winning strategy until the sun’s slanted rays peaked through the windows. He wouldn’t let anyone sleep until he’d won. We’d keep the game buried in a swath of wrappings from packing, sometimes under beds, sometimes in the basement. He always found it. At a cocktail party my parents hosted, I overheard father’s boss, president of the company, offer his top salespeople a key so golden, that it burned in their hands like Tolkien’s Ring—he told them it opened a private door just off his office, a room with a fully-stocked bar, a king-sized bed, and a mirrored ceiling. The woman on his arm in the tight skirt giggled. His wife sipped a dirty martini across the room. My father’s eyes caught mine, and fell to the hardwood floor.
When IBM wanted my father to transfer, my father bargained. He asked a price so incredibly large there was no way they could ever match it— and then he walked away.
Tara A. Elliott grew up along the Eastern Shore of Maryland where she lives with her husband and son, and teaches English and Language Arts. She is the founder and director of Salisbury Poetry Week, and is honored to serve as a Light of Literacy Educator, a facilitator for Salisbury University's Lighthouse Literary Guild, and a board member of Eastern Shore Writer's Association. Her recent poems have been published in The Ekphrastic Review, The TAOS Journal of International Poetry & Art, and wildness, among others, and are forthcoming in Triggerfish Critical Review, MER, and The Summerset Review.