Photo: Magrethe Mather, 1927.
Catherine Bowman’s poem “The Bed” first appeared in our Winter 1988 issue. Her latest collection is Can I Finish, Please?
I was five that summer, in our new house, with the lightaproning over the desert just before dark. That year I touched the bluepink skin of my cousin’s baby rabbits in the smoky evening smellof El Paso lawns. And there’s Hulia watching me, her head positioned,great and toothless, through the broken window; the first big boney fishstar of the wrinkled sky. And there’s my mother and father’s bed.
It was one of those standard, posture-correct, kingsize bedspreferred by newly married couples in the 60s along with avocado lightfixtures. Tiki Torches and furniture store paintings of Picassoesque fishthat glared over the matching carpet where I’d dance the lovesick blueswith my Uncle Mitch. He’d play Hank Williams in the den and then positionme on his boots, my face pressed against his jeans that smelled
like Coors and grease. Afterwards I’d rub my face clean in the smellof their vast sheets and pillows. Even now it’s still the biggest bedI’ve ever seen. Like some kind of cloudy mountain it was positionedup against the wall, I think to hold the house up and maybe even lightthe block, bigger than all Christmas trees. Here’s Johnny! and the bluesky. I’d peek over its ocean top of silver-threaded fish.
climb up and then fall into the deep end where I knew they’d never fishme out. There I’d tumble down and drown, alone in smellsof hair spray, linens, tobacco and love on Sunday afternoons in the bluishswollen glow of their room. It was the first of eight bedsthey would own together, always pointing north for the light,Mother’s side on the right, always near the bathroom in the same position.
One day playing in their bathroom I found some pictures of positions.I asked my father and he laughed. Nothing, just fish.Then he lifted the book of people-fish out of my hands into the lightbrown dresser drawer that held the silver dollars, metal box and smellystuff. Later, lying in the farthest spot under the massive wingspan of the bedI imagined myself a fish-woman with seaweed hair and fins that glittered blue.
If I had never seen those glossy magazines, how-to-books, or bluemovies I think I’d still slide into the positionsdiscovered in the caverns of our river bed.First one stroke and then another, until we’re swimming hyphenated, two fishmoving together in the dark, following a scent, a smellthat unfolds into our blood when we flip out the light.
And in the rippling blue afternoon when the sunlightposits over us like a smell or a herd of masked fishwe rest and play in bed and learn to face night.
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