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A Yes-or-No Answer

by Jane Shore

Hardcover, 62 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $22 |


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A Yes-or-No Answer
Jane Shore

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Book Summary

Continuing her series of autobiographical poetry collections, the author of the critically acclaimed Music Minus One evokes her experiences as a member of the baby-boom generation, recalling her Jewish childhood in New Jersey, her late parents' reunion with relatives over Scrabble in the afterlife, the influence of cherished items from the past, and more.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: A Yes-Or-No Answer


Have you read The Story of O?
Will Buffalo sink under all that snow?
Do you double-dip your Oreo?
Please answer the question yes or no.

The surgery — was it touch-and-go?
Does a corpse's hair continue to grow?
Remember when we were simpatico?
Answer my question: yes or no.

Do you want another cup of joe?
If I touch you, is it apropos?
Are you certain that you're hetero?
Is your answer yes or no?

Did you lie to me, like Pinocchio?
Was forbidden fruit the cause of woe?
Did you ever sleep with that so-and-so?
Just answer the question: yes or no.

Did you nail her under the mistletoe?
Won?Zt you spare me the details, blow by blow?
Did she sing sweeter than a vireo?
I need an answer. Yes or no?

Are we still a dog-and-pony show?
Shall we change partners and do-si-do?
Are you planning on the old heave-ho?
Check an answer: Yes No.

Did I wear something blue in my trousseau?
Do you take this man, this woman? Oh, but that was very long ago.

Did we say yes? Did we say no?
For better or for worse? Ergo, shall we play it over, in slow mo?
Do you love me? Do you know?
Maybe yes. Maybe no.

MY MOTHER’S CHAIR Coming home late, I’d let myself in with my key, tiptoe up the stairs, and there she was, in the family room, one lamp burning, reading her newspaper in her velvet-and-chrome swivel chair

as though it were perfectly natural to be wide awake at 2 a.m., feet propped on the matching ottoman, her orthopedic shoes underneath, two empty turtle shells.

Like a mummy equipped for the afterlife, she’d have her ashtray and Kents handy on the table beside her, her hand mirror and tweezers, eyeglass case, her crossword puzzle dictionary.

Glancing up and down, she never appeared to be frisking me, even when, just seconds before, coming home from a date, at the front door, I’d stuck my tongue into a boy’s mouth.

I’d sit on the sofa and bum her cigarettes, and as the room filled up with smoke, melding our opposite temperaments, we’d talk deep into the night, like diplomats agreeing to a kind of peace.

I’d feign indifference — so did she — about what I was doing out so late.
When I became a mother myself, my mother was still the sentry at the gate, waiting up, guarding the bedrooms.

After her funeral, her chair sat empty.
My father, sister, husband, and I couldn’t bring ourselves to occupy it.
Only my daughter climbed up its base and spun herself round and round.

In the two years my father lived alone in the apartment over their store, I wonder, did he ever once sit down on that throne, hub around which our family had revolved.

But after my father died, the night before I left the place for good, the building sold, the papers signed, before the moving vans drove away, dividing the cartons and the furniture

between my sister’s house and mine, a thousand miles apart, I sat on the sofa — my usual spot — and stared at the blank TV, the empty chair; then I rose, and walked across the room,

and sank into her ragged cushions, put my feet up on her ottoman, rested my elbows on the scuffed armrests, stroked the brown velvet like fur.
The headrest still smelled like her!

Swiveling the chair to face the sofa, I looked at things from her point of view: What do you need it for?
So I left it behind, along with the blinds, the meat grinder, the pressure cooker.

MY DAUGHTER READS MY OLD DIARY Like a needle stuck in the scratch of an old 45, she keeps skipping back to the boys I kissed and slow-danced with.
Reading the diary I kept when I was twelve, my twelve-year-old feels entitled to the girl I used to be, my past’s her private property.
Puzzled, pursing her lips, sucking air through the barbed filigree of her braces, her purple polished fingernail grazes a word scrawled in greasy blue ballpoint.
“Necking,” I say, and she grins.
A serpent ring snakes down her index finger stopping at “Spin the bottle.” At twelve, I kissed the boys, then kissed my dolls goodbye.
At twelve, she traded her bath toys for a razor. Her legs are silken ivory.
She reads how I lied to my mother about shaving mine, claiming those bloody nicks on my shins were mosquito bites.
“God, Mom, you were such a baby!” Shaking her head, she turns the page.

KEYS What do I do with the Post-it notes she stuck on the fridge?
Do I erase her voice mail asking was it okay if her little boy played with my daughter’s old keychains stored in the shoebox under her bed?

Yes, of course. Be my guest.
While you’re housesitting, Mi casa es su casa, I’d said.
Then I showed her how to lock the front door and haanded her the keys.

Such a nice little boy, said our neighbor.
Such an attentive mother.
Tony, the locksmith down the street, would reach inside a grimy jar, as if fishing for a candy, and hand the boy another key or two —

a bent key, a worn-down key, a key with broken teeth, old mailbox keys,,,,, luggage keys, and sometimes as a special treat he’d let the boy choose a shiny blank from the rotating display and cut him a brand-new key to add to his collection.

The morning she locked the doors and turned on the alarm, and stabbed her son and slit her wrists and lay down on my dining room floor to die, she left a message on my best friend’s voice mail: Let yourself in.
Bring your spare key . . .

Now, it’s as if my house keeps playing tricks on me.
I open my lingerie drawer and find a key.
Whose is it?
Which lock does it belong to?
I find a key under the coffee table.
A key wedged between sofa cushions.
A key with a tag to a ’71 Chevy.
Cleaning under my daughter’s bed, I find rings of keys, lots more keys, none of which fits any lock in my house.

GELATO When Caravaggio's Saint Thomas pokes his index finger past the first knuckle, into the living flesh of the conscious perfectly upright Jesus Christ, His bloodless wound like a mouth that has opened slightly to receive it, the vaginal folds of parting flesh close over the man's finger as if to suck,

that moment after Christ, flickering compassion, helps Thomas touch the wound, calmly guiding the right hand of His apostle with His own immortal left into the warm cavity, body that died and has now returned to the world, bloodless and clean, inured to the operation at hand and not in any apparent pain --

to accidentally brush against His arm would have been enough, but to enter the miraculous flesh, casually, as if fishing around in one's pocket for a coin --

because it's in our natures to doubt, I'd doubt what I was seeing, too.

Drawing closer, Thomas widens his eyes as if to better absorb the injury, his three companions also strain forward, I do, too, and so would you, all our gazes straining toward the exquisite right nipple so beautifully painted I ache to touch or to kiss it, press my lips to the hairless chest of a god.
His long hippie auburn hair falls in loose girlish corkscrew curls, the hairs of His sparse mustache straggle over His upper lip, face so close that Thomas must surely feel Christ's breath ruffling his brow.

The lecturer closes his notebook. We all exit the auditorium.
Conveyed smoothly on the moving sidewalk, as if on water, but not water, whooshed through the long, shimmery tunnel connecting the east and west wings of the National Gallery, my friend and I hurtle away from the past, that open wound, and toward the future --

the dark winter colors saturating my eyes suddenly blossom into breezy pastels of Italy's gelato, milk sherbet quick-frozen and swirled into narrow ribbon stripes of cold rainbow unbraided into separate chilled stainless steel tubs placed under glass in a cooler case:

tiramisú, zabaglione, zuppa inglese, milky breasts whipped, rippled peach and mango, pistachio, vanilla flecked with brown dizzying splinters of bean, coffee, caramel, hazelnut, stracciatella, raspberry, orange, chocolate, chocolate mint; silken peaked nipple risen from the middle of the just barely opened undisturbed tub of lemon so pale it's almost white, scraped with a plastic doll's spoon, scooped and deposited on the tongue, then melting its soothing cooling balm.