Part One


We learned to stand straight as the posts

of empty mail boxes. We sang,

"The Eyes of Texas are Upon You,"

never, "The Star Spangled Banner."

My best friend, Charlie, had been held back

two years, with this same teacher.

When my whispers rose above my breaths,

Mrs. Cooper put the newspaper dunce cap

on my head. I slouched in a corner

looking like Merlin without his magic.

In December, the janitor wired

a speaker into a corner of the classroom.

Mrs. Cooper said Cheryl Anne couldn't walk

to school because of polio, but we would hear

her voice. The teacher explained how sound travels

the air in waves.

Once, during recess, I threw a rubber ball

at Susan's head. While the others played,

I sat in the corner wondering why

my arm did these things without me

telling it to,

when, "Are you alone?"

squeaked from the speaker box.

Cheryl Anne's voice startled me

like the voice of the priest

during a first confessional. I asked,

What do you look like?"

She said, "My head sticks out

of an iron lung. My hair is dark

brown. Below the neck,

my arms and legs don't hear

anything I tell them."

Cheryl Anne lived two houses away

from me. After school, I sat near a wheel

of her iron lung, listening, as I had

begun to do in class, to the noise of waves,

the tide of air being breathed,

sucked in and out of lungs.

I described the voices she heard

through the intercom on her bedroom wall.

I wondered how long she would live

without electricity. Her mother said

the portable lung had its own battery.

It looked like the shell of the snapping

turtle that returned to the azalea bush

each spring. He didn't snap at me,

unless I cornered him.

During Easter vacation, Cheryl Anne's parents

laid her in the back of the station

wagon, the portable breathing

the stretch to San Antonio

for her, not far from the Alamo.

In the hospital, specialists broke her legs.

Her mother explained how nerves are shocked

into feeling, when they heal a break.

With Cheryl Anne gone,

I did chores Saturday morning, dragging

the vacuum into Saturday afternoon.

My mother couldn't understand what took me

so long. I dragged the Hoover,

shaped like a small iron lung,

over half the house, breathing

with each sweep of the vacuum brush.