What the Living Do

for Marie Howard

I sit on the leather couch, trying to write
a short story about traveling through portals
disguised as doors, from life to afterlife.
A ray of sunshine like a spotlight hits a photo of you on the ledge
near the stained-glass window, next to your toy trucks
my mom has kept for fifteen years.

My cousin sits in the lounge chair, light streaming
behind her from the first nice day we’ve had all week.
Her hand rests on her face, concavity in her cheek
created by her finger as if she were perpetually thinking,
wrapped up in a book about the intermingling of class and race.
Your mom is reading it for book club next month.

We spent all of yesterday raking wood chips,
spreading mulch over the old ground,
through which new plants will grow.
We’ll spend all today flipping through pages of my parents’ favorite cookbook,
scrawling lists of ingredients and carefully adding those items to our metal cart.
With quarantine changing the definitions and the simple now precious,
this is normal.
This is what the living do.

My family gathers at the kitchen island after dinner,
shuffling and dealing out the fifty-two-card deck.
My brother and I argue less when our team wins.
I wonder if you would have bickered with your little sister,
having to give up the title of only child.

Before bed, we crave sweets, creaming sugar and butter together in a bowl,
counting the cups of flour to make sure we have enough for a double batch.
I smell the deep flavor of chocolate mixed with the sweetness
of a sugar cube set on my tongue.
Lack of smell and taste have been added to the list of symptoms and now
the smell brings me calm.
I want to package them up, to cover them in the sheer cling of plastic wrap,
delivering my edible notes of optimism
to our family friends.

I hear the oven beep, breathe in the lingering scent of butter mixed with flour.
As I break the cookie, feeling it crumble in my palms,
I bite, tasting the gooey thickness of the chocolate,
watching the calmness of the kitchen.
I hear, smell, touch, taste, and see.
I am living, I remember you.

Photo by Charisse Kenion.

Sam Smiley

Sam Smiley is a Chicago writer who is originally from Racine, Wisconsin. They grew up a block from Lake Michigan, and they continue to visit Lake Michigan in Chicago to bike or run almost every day. Sam writes poetry and short fiction inspired by their experiences in the Midwest and abroad. They are passionate about explaining the world, whether that be through fiction, poetry, visual art, or science. They received their bachelor's degree in physics and currently teach middle school science in Chicago Public Schools. Sam has been previously published in magazines such as Fleas on the Dog, Dream Noir, They Call Us, Voice of Eve, and Brilliant Flash Fiction. They are non-binary, use they/them pronouns, and can be found at samsmileycreates.weebly.com and on Instagram at @wordsflowlikewater.