Kate Gleason, of Keene, New Hampshire, won Austin Peay State University’s Zone 3 First Book Award for her poetry collection Measuring the Dark. She is the author of two chapbooks of poetry, The Brighter The Deeper and Making As If To Sing. A recipient of writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (in conjunction with the Ragdale Foundation), the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center, she has also won the Outstanding Emerging Writer Award from the New Hampshire Writers’ Project.
Cold Wave Permanent
While JFK had so much riding on the line
with the build-up of Soviet missiles in Cuba,
I was sitting inside a clear, protective cape
as my mother gave me a Toni cold wave permanent,
combing the ammonia solution through my hair
and wrapping the strands in spongy end papers
before winding them tightly on metal curlers
that slimmed in the middle and flared at each tip
as if two horns of Gabriel had been joined
at their mouthpieces. October 22, 1962, it was almost time
for the speech by Kennedy the anchorman
had promised on the nightly news. From the kitchen,
I could see my father in the den, angling our solid state
black and white TV so my mother and I could also see.
The supper dishes were done, the table almost bare,
just my empty cake plate with its rim
of hardened icing and angel food crumbs,
a few felled candles where my birthday wish blew out
into the future, the only country where it could live.
I was too young to understand the tensions
mounting in the world, except as they were translated
into my parents’ body language — the sudden edge
in my mother’s voice, the nervous tick in my father’s jaw —
but, as always, I was trying to get lost
in the book I had open in my lap, following Hans Brinker
as he laced up his skates and glided through his Netherlands
where dikes kept the sea from flooding in.
When I looked up again, Kennedy’s face filled the screen,
only he wasn’t his Cary Grant-handsome self but a man
with dark hemispheres of exhaustion below his eyes
as he told us the Russians had offensive missiles
now within striking distance. I knew
what that meant, my mind flashing to the furnace room
that was the bomb shelter at my school,
to the shrill beacon’s bleat drilling against the day
the air might burst and splay into flame
everything we knew and loved. My mother’s hands
had stopped in the air, the harsh setting lotion
dripping from the comb. I saw my father’s eyes
slide to his desk, to a bomb shelter brochure
a salesman had left and my father had tossed aside,
calling the guy a fearmonger,
my father who’d promised me the goings-on
at school were only a test of the emergency
broadcast system, only a precaution, nothing
that would ever actually happen. Not here. Not to us.
I tried to go back to my book where the Brinker boy
was racing over the narrow, icy places
because his father had lost his mind
and could no longer pass on to his children
the treasure that would assure them
a comfortable future. But I couldn’t concentrate,
couldn’t ignore the president reminding us, in closing,
of the high cost of freedom, which was everything.
Outside, the sky had deepened to pitch,
the window becoming reflective,
a black lake where I could see my dark twin.
Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe and wanted out
of that room. I tore for the door
and ran outside, racing across the yard
and down past the barn, past the shadows of silos
and out into the fields
that lay waiting for next summer’s plantings,
the pulse crops of peas and beans.
I ran until I reached my favorite spot, a huge rock
on the edge of a windbreak of trees, a glacial erratic
that had come to rest when the ice receded.
I scrambled to its top and pulled my legs up under my cape.
I sat under the sieve of stars
where the red fleck of Sputnik routinely passed over,
locked on its course. The horrible solution
of the cold wave permanent grew colder in my hair.
My scalp prickled in the night air. In the distance,
a dog began to bark, setting off another.
Copyright (c) 2009 by Kate Gleason. All rights reserved.