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Corrinne Clegg Hales: California Poets Part 3, Three Poems

Corrinne Clegg Hales

June 25th, 2021

California Poets: Part III

Corrinne Clegg Hales

Three Poems

The Motel Clerk Ponders Cleanliness and Grace and the Ghosts of Joy It isn’t as weird as you’d think—cleaning up the afternoon rooms. Today there’s only one, and the housekeeping crew has gone, leaving you to decipher when the couple in room 38 has vacated, leaving you to ready this room for its evening reservation. You listen for the slamming of car doors, you watch until the faded blue station wagon exits the parking lot, returning to the consecutive world of traffic, brake-lights flashing bright for a second—as if the driver is considering turning around— then vanishing into the hover of fog across the wide river road. You tack a please-ring-the-bell sign onto the office door, drag a full cart outside and knock loudly on door 38. Housekeeping, you call, and turn the key. You prop the door open, even in winter, to clear the air— as the boss’s wife has instructed--and quickly pull sheets, toss towels into a soggy heap on the floor. She calls herself the boss lady and spends Sunday mornings monitoring the staff. Her hand-printed note above the supply shelves reads: Leave Nothing Wet! Leave No Hair! This is her bottom line regarding cleanliness, and you take it to heart. You shake bedspreads and blankets, swab finger smears and lipstick stains—pour red wine into the sink, replace plastic cups, sop up every puddle and spill. You remove a candy wrapper, a stray bobby pin, a gas station receipt; you empty ashtrays, you polish every flat surface with a dry towel; and you begin to imagine—you can’t help it. It’s as if the ghosts of joy won’t leave the room--their small humming sounds—their skin sticking, their wide open eyes, and their long fingers sifting through each other’s hair—and somehow your own deep loneliness begins to evaporate. You work fast to wipe away all traces of moisture, to replace the lingering scent of bodies with the coolness of Pine-Sol and Windex, to make it seem as if nothing has happened here—as if it might be possible, after all, to exile a moment of grace to the confines of a clock—possible to contain the blossom of human bliss between solid lines on a calendar. But when the room gleams back at itself in the mirror, the ghosts remain, an immutable gift, melding into an ecstatic pillar of clean, bright light above the bed, and you step softly outside, lock the door, push the cart full of ripe sheets and towels to the laundry. When the evening reservations arrive--a young couple with a fussing baby, tired and cranky from their long drive--you are happy to sign them in, happy to hand key 38 over to the wife. You hope it will unlock the portal to a world of joy and bliss. You know it will open the door to a room filled with light.

The Motel Clerk’s Lucky Day It’s your lucky day, Larry tells me as he offers me the job. My regular girl broke her hip last week, and he assigns me night shift on the desk. Luckily, nights are mostly quiet here, and Larry lives right upstairs--above the office— where I can call him at first sign of any trouble. He says there won’t be any trouble. His wife— who doesn’t live here—tells me to lock up the office by 10. She tells me the place has been robbed more than once--and Larry, she says, has more than a few enemies. But she tells me not to worry. She says Larry has a gun. I’ve seen him take a hammer to the skulls of dark bats dozing in the covered walkway, and heard him bang on doors, yelling at customers to shut down a loud party or a fight. But usually he goes to bed early—and I feel lucky to have the lobby to myself. After folding sheets and washing glasses, I make sure keys are tucked into their right slots, double check the cash drawer lock, then lean back in the rolling desk chair with coffee and a book. Tonight a friend calls just to chat—and luckily, the desk phone has a long cord. I roll back and forth, as if my chair were a porch swing, so immersed in conversation, I don’t even notice when my right knee bumps up against the small, silent alarm button—a converted doorbell—beneath the desk. My friend is still talking, and I’m still slurping hot coffee when Larry crashes through the back door in undershorts and old-man undershirt, shotgun pressed tight to his shoulder, aimed at my face above the desk--so close I can almost smell it. His thin hair is scattered and his face wide open--frantic. I drop phone and coffee cup and crouch close to the floor, and I stay down, not even breathing until he finally lowers the barrel, points it at the floor, and moves to the front door. He slides the dead bolt open with one hand, looks into the dark parking lot. After a minute, he pulls the door closed, taps the lock, and turns to me. You’re lucky, he says. You’re alive.

In Fresno —for Philip Levine Today the air stirs and draws too thin—like when you have no bones for the stock pot. Because one of us no longer hums or whispers or speaks into this valley’s massive river of exhales, the rest of us breathe a little rougher without the poet’s breath seeping out from under his front door like steam— or smoke—rising into the giant eucalyptus tree, ruffling the slick feathers of a self-righteous starling—responding to the blue, persistent yawp of a scrub jay— a long, essential conversation winding through extinct fig orchards, catching the slight breeze going south on Van Ness Avenue, trailing the hunched-over bicycle rider, the reluctant dog walker, swirling into the vigilant ear of a mother pushing a stroller past the old garden shop, and further— until that string of breathed-out words would scatter and sift— with all the other sighs and murmurs of this city— through our screened windows, into our kitchens, where some evenings, the dry Fresno air was so ripe with the poet’s voice, that we’d leave the dirty dishes and the unswept floor, and we’d move outside and breathe only poems, and we’d understand how the heft of those words fed the air, how they made it sweeter and more full— how they made the air sing.

Author Bio:

Corrinne Clegg Hales is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Underground, Separate Escapes, winner of the Richard Snyder Poetry Prize, and To Make it Right, winner of the Autumn House Poetry Prize. She has also published two chapbooks, and her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the River Styx Poetry Prize. She taught for 35 years in the Creative Writing program at Fresno State where she coordinated the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry.


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