Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Special Ed

The principal announced Nathan Gorelick’s death
on the PA system. Someone whispered The Worm.

The Worm, The Worm, The Worm, we had chanted
on the bus to middle school, a sound that swelled
our chests and bellies, pounded our hearts
and made the tall, skinny boy from Special Ed
shine with sweat and squirm.

At home, we overheard our mothers’ weepy voices
on the phone. She found him hanging
from the elm in their backyard.

Six days a week Mrs. Gorelick knits
in her shop window, her darkly penciled brows
coming together with each click of the thick needles.
Her puce-painted lips count the purls.
The wool of her tipped, brimmed hat
is knit blood red, chartreuse, and shocking pink.

Twenty years later, the wheezing bus pulls up
to my bed. I get on. Nathan’s on board.

This time, I say, Hi, Nathan,
and Nathan, he waves
to me and smiles.

After a Month of Sheltering-In

(May 2020)

Step on the crack / break your mother’s back.
But your mother is long dead and now
it’s your osteoporosis bones
that can fracture when tripping
on sidewalks upended by maples
with cracks that sprout thistles.
Leaf shadow trembles on asphalt.
From an open window, someone
plays stuttering blues on a sax.
A train rattles into the station.
The doors wheeze open. No one gets in;
no one gets off. With a low whistle,
the train without passengers continues on
toward Penn Station to the empty streets
of the city. A Rottweiler tethered
to a railing lunges at you, teeth bared.
With each lurch, he’s yanked back,
but still, you startle, grab a chain-link fence
for balance. Your hand is bleeding.
A young mother hurries her toddler
past the playground that’s yellow-taped
like a crime scene.
The vapor in your mask
makes your eyes weep.

Isaac at Three

I see my father at his age, crouched behind pines,
shivering in the Black Forest,
his mother’s hand clapped over his mouth,
listening for Cossacks hunting Jews,
their snarling dogs. I think of all the refugee children
forced from their countries, their stillness stolen,
my father, scavenging for roots, for berries,
his shoulder blades jutting. Once, when my father was a boy,
he had the same chestnut curls, round forehead,
and broad shoulders as Isaac.
That was long before my father startled at small noises
and shouted his nightmares into our trembling rooms.
Back then, my father’s tears were from sneezing in lilac fields,
fire meant hearth and candlelight, not Cossacks
with torches. Fish swam in the swirling sky,
and a milch cow sported a parasol.


Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in many literary magazines such as La Presa, Mudfish, Mudlark, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Westview, The Iowa Review, Evening Street Review, Euphony Journal, and Willow Review. Her poetry has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and she won the Branden Memorial Literary Award from Negative Capability.

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