Before I Knew What Mania Was

by Jen Sage-Robison


A baker’s dozen Boston cream donuts disappeared
into Auntie Carol’s gabbing maw from a tissue paper nest
inside a pink and white Bess Eaton box
at the kitchen table on Charles Street.

Between squinty pulls on her cigarettes,
she nearly ingested them whole as she spilled
the contents of her stuffed mind. Alternating
belts of black coffee and Diet Coke helped it go down.

“I was almost a nurse,” she wanted me to know, a wand
of ash bobbing out the side of her mouth. “St. Francis
School of Nursing. Practically, I was. I left to live
in my car. In Elizabeth Park. With blooms.”

Yellow custard oozed from each pastry’s sphincter, threatened
to glop onto the laminate. But she rescued the cream each time,
sucking it up at the last possible second then, remembering
her upbringing, dabbed each corner of her mouth with a taut
pinky, the one with nerves left in it.

She’d founded a charity in town before I was born, for people
whose luck had run out, though others ran it now. She’d famously
talked a man out of a knife at an all-night coffee shop.
“He only needed to talk,” she shrugged.

On her good days, we ran errands in her dented station wagon,
writing bad checks at the gas station where her Newports were cheapest,
swinging by the post office, sending letters to distant allies.
Torrington’s toughest cases—parolees, vets, priests—cracked
grins when they saw garrulous Carol rolling in, cigarette in one hand,
Diet Coke in the other. On bad days, she had no friends.

Grammy said Auntie Carol had been a beauty once, had married
an Air Force man briefly, a mistake. Sapphic love
was verboten in 1950’s Irish Catholic homes,
along with a few other nourishing things.

“You gotta listen,” she told me, abruptly angry as she chewed
the last sweet pillow of fat. I nodded in silence, trying to see
the actual shape of my aunt through the screen
of sugar and smoke, suddenly pinched by hunger myself.



Jen Sage-Robison was born in the former mill town of Torrington, Connecticut, where generations of her family worked the brass mills, taught school, and guarded the sewers. She leads Amherst Writers & Artists workshops at Westport Writers’ Workshop and seeks to amplify vulnerable voices. Her poetry has recently appeared in the The Tishman Review, Panoply, Gyroscope Review, and The Paragon Journal. She was a finalist for the 2018 Edna St. Vincent Millay Poetry Prize.

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