Don’t make me send you outside to find a switch,
my grandmother used to say. It was years before
I had the nerve to ask her why switch was the word
her anger reached for when she needed me to act
a different way. Still, when I see some branches—
wispy ones, like willows, like lilacs, like the tan-yellow
forsythia before the brighter yellow buds— I think,
these would make perfect switches for a whipping.
America, there is not a place I can wander inside you
and not feel a little afraid. Did I ever tell you about that
time I was seven, buckled into the backseat of the Volvo,
before buckles were a thing America required.
My parents tried, despite everything, to keep us
safe. It’s funny. I remember the brown hills sloping
toward the valley. A soft brown welcome I looked for
other places but found only there and in my grandmother’s
skin. Yes, I have just compared my grandmother’s body
to my childhood’s hills, America. I loved them both,
and they taught me, each, things I needed to learn.
You have witnessed, America, how pleasant hillsides
can quickly catch fire. My grandmother could be like that.
But she protected me, too. There were strawberry fields,
wind guarded in that valley, tarped against the cold.
America, you are good at taking care of what you value.
Those silver-gray tarps made the fields look like a pond
I could skate on. As the policeman questioned my dad,
I concentrated on the view outside the back window.
America, have you ever noticed how well you stretch
the imagination? This was Southern California. I’d lived
there all my life and never even seen a frozen pond.
But there I was, in 70 degree weather, imagining
my skates carving figure eights on a strawberry field.
Of course my father fit the description. The imagination
can accommodate whoever might happen along.
America, if you’ve seen a hillside quickly catch fire
you have also seen a river freeze over, the surface
looking placid though you know the water deep down,
dark as my father, is pushing and pushing, still trying
to get ahead. We were driving home, my father said.
My wife and my daughters, we were just on our way
home. I know you want to know what happened next,
America. Did my dad make it safely home or not?
Outside this window, lilac blooms show up like a rash
decision the bush makes each spring. I haven’t lived
in Southern California for decades. A pond here
killed a child we all knew. For years after that accident,
as spring bloomed and ice thinned, my daughter
remembered the child from her preschool. And now,
it’s not so much that she’s forgotten. It’s more that
it seems she’s never known that child as anything other
than drowned. My grandmother didn’t have an answer.
A switch is what her mother called it and her grandmother
before her. She’d been gone from that part of America
for over half a century, but still that southern soil
sprang up along the contours of her tongue. America,
I’ll tell you this much, I cannot understand this mind,
where it reaches. Even when she was threatening
to beat me, I liked to imagine the swishing sound
a branch would make as it whipped toward my body
through the resisting air. She’d say, this is hurting me
more than it’s hurting you. I didn’t understand her then,
but now I think I do. America, go find me a switch.