My God, what is a heart?
This far east it was a different town
when they’d ride out for milkshakes in the 50s.
Charmingly rundown now, the businesses
(not a few, brunch spots) snaking down the hill
were ripe for developing. A City Hall
famed for squat square footage was already
a designer mall in someone’s mind.
Freedom Parkway’s redbuds had just gone off,
with the Pears lining Ponce de Leon,
which Mom still called Poncey, close behind.
We were beginning in that new millennium
to ease into a friendship as fragile
as my early-twenties hangover
(what is it to be southern, anyway,
but to trust in the salve, the grace of grease?).
Out here, for an afternoon and a few
others like it, she ate what she wanted.
We hadn’t been so free with each other
since I was very young, like old friends
reuniting. She was open about smoking—
a little—again. About her attraction
to the owner, a man with meat on him
and gold chains in his chest hair, whose son
had OD’d. I let go and told her
how though the girl I loved had moved
I saw her everywhere. The pain of thinking
that we didn’t have a chance resolved
in the mutual call of appetite,
abandoning our bodies to the breaking
of the pancakes’ lacey edge together.
We were only down the road
but were as far as we could get
from her apartment,
its unassuming brick
a postwar affair
made when she was,
and which we shared
miserably that year,
her last. I was just starting
to move out. She liked that the ceilings,
at least, were high,
high enough, anyway,
not to embarrass her
of heavy furniture,
wingbacks and dressers,
a dining room table and chairs
and sideboard missing a leg
she called with High-Church flair
a credenza—broken cupboard
of her mother’s faith,
her father’s credit:
wood she hated but wanted,
like her body, a certain way.
Every old stick of which
I’d moved returned us
to a past we never intended
to revisit—or to revisit
on each other, a rehearsal
of ruin worked out in food:
her mother’s prowess,
my father’s about-face
in 1980 or so, when grease
proved a culprit
in heart disease.
Still, she persisted
fixing me the quick,
filling suppers of my youth,
balanced on the tooth
of my ingratitude. Late,
alone, she ate
her pile of roasted cabbage
and blackened brussels
doused in soy sauce
and read and did not want
to be disturbed.
That she had trouble
swallowing, as much
as she’d admit.
Old or new, white money
was back—or wanted to be
taken back, abusive husband,
having fled in the 60s (when Mom
went off to college), like her dad
coming back from Florida to remarry
her mom on her deathbed. Waltzing in
like it owned the place, it would be made
Out here, we could get out
from under each other:
almost New Orleans
in its mild air
of age and license,
little seam of Ponce,
in French, of thought
she could have quipped,
a going all along,
a little room,
a little Rome.
On a Post-It over the sink
was once written “Think
@ 10 am” in her immaculate
hand. It meant
to remember each other,
like a ring’s reminder
to a single mother
and her three disbanded teens.
This was in the house
her first. A mindless,
into some shit job,
the printer, the pizza parlor,
a moment saved,
a little ceremony,
like a midmorning smoke
or a sip of water
The spring teased
and nudged us out,
like being introduced
to her 90-year-old neighbor—
Milton, was it? His was the first
unit off the slightly musty,
(hers was at the end
on the right). He came to the door
like he’d been waiting
and took my hand,
living with his mother after college.
His eyes shone
at the gates of bone,
so lucid I couldn’t look away,
so even I could see
he liked what he saw:
that he could espouse
how she must be so proud,
how handsome I was.
Everything was agreeable:
the weather, the bacon, our waiter.
Almost pretty in all black,
there was something a touch—
about his east Atlanta mystique
that you’d call hipster now,
where emo met rockabilly’s
ragged edge. He reminded Mom,
of all things, of Michael Jackson
Remnant of Little Richard, blur
of James Brown’s loafers,
spark from her disco days.
Glitter, and curl, and wind—
she loved to watch him dance,
his facelift taunting her
that she was outta time
while he was outside of it:
50s Michael we needn’t be told
isn’t like other guys,
80s Michael in that amazing vented red
patent leather jacket with the ribbed
shoulders and black tunic V
a new kid showed up in in Kindergarten,
his name a shape no one could guess
(not Circle or Heart or Square)
before he made his entrance.
Time the creature creeping up behind,
like a father or a brother or an uncle
reprised in a son. Green Michael,
grave Michael, death’s head Michael
calling from within, or crawling out
of Oakland Cemetery’s jumbled vaults
after the tornado desegregated them.
It made no sense, he was white.
But why not?
Like a holidaying parent (when in Rome),
I let her have it, I let it slide
down our throats.
Maybe the cheekbones, I told myself,
maybe the frame.
Conquistador or revolutionary
from the pages of history,
with fabric crayons
and brought home for Mom
to sew onto this cushion, his hair coiffed
into a helmet, his brown skin
and nose showing signs of revision,
his epaulets like cupcakes on his shoulders,
no telling who he was
supposed to be.
But she would always see
the King of Pop—or Pomp—
in his sequined Grammys
marching band getup.
What is an icon
but a likeness?
Behind us, a cook was starting shit,
or finishing it,
laying into our little Thriller
Backed against the wall,
he flinched and wilted to the tall
Did she see it?
In my mind I hide it from her,
but in truth I can’t remember.
The padded kitchen door
swung shut. I could see him
crying through the diamond.
In an old nightmare, burnt black
in a crash, it was Mom’s thumb
on a cushion our maid’s Black hands
was only wearing black.
His was a kind
of misfit performance
she delighted in,
even while condemning it
in my friends,
as if she were trying
to keep me off the scent
of what she felt
she really was.
To have done
what was done.
She’d have sympathized
with Michael’s twisted proclivities,
twisted up in a childhood, which,
like hers, never existed.
So she insisted
on playing the witch
in that same classroom.
Under the cover of darkness serving up
fruit punch to the little goblins
and princesses and superheroes,
her cauldron steaming
with dry ice we had to drive
to a factory on the Black
northside of Birmingham to buy.
And if, like Michael’s gleaming suit
on the cover, in some sense,
she saw all servers as Black,
She served me my whole life.
Michael’s hair, larded and flammable,
his blood-red jacket threatening
to turn into a sports car at any moment,
his child voice incommensurate
with his sadistic glee,
cup after cup of thin coffee
and the rarity of really eating with her,
a fortune made by starving
a large one, Love’s conquistadors
and victims, his rejects and stars:
sup with us, forgive us, we ate,
we ate our hearts out, as Love wept.
About This Unit: Poems on Family and Finding Other Lines of Symmetry
AUSTIN SEGREST is the author of Door to Remain, winner of the 2021 Vassar Miller Prize.