Scott Withiam

Shifts and Song for Sally
July 23, 2022 Withiam Scott



Middle school cafeteria duty monitoring ungainly, dour
teens resigned to eating lunch, starch, grease and fat,
if you could even call them that, forced down within seventeen-minute
shifts. Cafeteria duty, the trade I accepted for release
from teaching one more algebra class I wasn’t qualified to teach,
to kids who needed algebra most, starved as they were, for equations they could solve
in their lives, at least balance. Cafeteria, which I hoped would swallow my own failure
increasing my students’ failure, where always those two wiry, red-haired twins tormented,
the twins who colleagues claimed they couldn’t tell apart, because they didn’t want to
face what troubled them too: failing students, therefore ourselves. The worst twin
had a reddened scar, as if constantly irritated, a squashed X over his right eye
thanks to a chipped bowl smashed upon the home dining table by his mother on a jag.
The cracked dished. The twin who, one afternoon in cafeteria — while I felt dejected
for not reaching students all morning in classes— I singled out as agitator,
told him, “Just sit down right now and shut up,” more for myself,
but he sat, till I turned and walked, like his father,
far enough away to give him room to stand, be a man, gather steam enough to land
his job at a flying Bruce Lee kick to my troubled backside, in front of the whole cafeteria.
Lesson? Solve and be sent away— both twins. Or lessons?
I didn’t retaliate, because I was a bad twin, too, though not his equal.
I too had scars and layers. There were times in my past— and in that school—
when I shouldn’t have let things slide. He acted. For the remainder of that year,
I got assigned cafeteria with Artie, an imposing new hire no one wanted
to challenge or set off, a vet recently returned from a very secret conflict,
who liked to do watch, as he called it, not duty, by standing back-to-back,
whereupon Artie nervously talked golf, the wicked slice he couldn’t shake,
often mimicking the grip that caused it, so while unable to see his demonstrated swing,
there was non-stop jerking at my back, so back and forth I felt that bad twin banished,
his jittery dance, and then Artie’s on the Friday night dance floor,
the B-52’s song, “Love Shack”, playing, and most of all,
that moment in the song the music stopped, and so did the dancing,
so he could scream, alongside everyone on the floor, “Tin roof rusted.” It helped,
till Artie had a leak in his house. It possessed him. Every time it rained,
he couldn’t locate where water got in, because he couldn’t follow water back,
because he couldn’t see how it traveled beams, rafters, pipes,
and wires behind ceilings, behind walls. Every time it rained,
a new stain somewhere else in the house. Pretty soon, the whole house.


Song for Sally


My song began Sally down the road
living alone in her yellow house
badly needing paint. Sally under
an old family name. My song wouldn’t


Sally under, wouldn’t go Sally drunk
spouse gone or Sally going,
“My son, a Maine fisherman,
OD’d, washed up on Green Island.


“But which one? So many islands
with that same name!”—Sally’s undoing.
Did go Sally flying above it,
landing just fine


because in this round Sally only
had to put up with putting up
two signs saying Keep
those dogs off my lawn


fertile enough! in shaky script,
in indelible Sharpie, on the blank
backs of acetate For Rent signs
sure to outlast any weather


or human. Sally that, for sure,
and so there, Sally duck taping
her make-do keep-offs to unmatched downhill
ski poles tossed out the basement,


staking the tall one with the quip,
“Never did ski,” and the short one
with a “Never will,” but right
in time, Sally venturing the sport


of negotiating an affordable price
on an old but in perfect shape blue
Ford Focus, and Sally saying tickled—
above all— about the heart


of that little American deal,
the CD player, “though nobody
uses ’em anymore.” Had
Sally confessing she’d never had one,


but now drove for no reason but
“to listen to it and to who
she just loved, loved, loved,”
Glen Campbell. And after that,


Sally often sitting buckled up
in her clam shell drive, belting,
“Wichita Lineman”: “I know
I need a small vacation,


but it don’t look like rain,”
till it poured, giving Sally
the rest of her life off beautifully.
But never once hearing this


tune, Sally not given a chance
to say, “That sounds very nice,
but that’s not me,” exactly
how I or you might need her to be.

Scott Withiam’s second book of poetry, Door Out of the Underworld, was published by MadHat Press in October 2019. His poems are forthcoming in Barrow Street, Tampa Review, and I-70 Review.