Poems by Jeanne Althouse

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by Jeanne Althouse

From Canary December 2008

One mile high, five thousand two hundred eighty feet above sea level, at the edge of the Rocky Mountains—which rose like giant skirts above her knobby knees—the Queen City of the Plains snuggled in, sleeping. At dawn points of light spiked up from below the horizon and slowly Pike's Peak—seventy-five miles south of Denver, ten miles west of Colorado Springs—with its granite summit carved thousands of years ago by rivers of ice, turned pink in the reflected sunrise. On fair days at 22 South Albion, a small house perched on the side of a Denver hill in a newly developed neighborhood one block from Colorado Boulevard, the peak was visible from the side dining room window which framed it like a painting. On Albion Street dusts of dry snow decorated trees and the desert air breathed thin and fresh. No birds sang in the hush. A trickle of traffic began the song of day, a slow beat, on and off, waking.

Downtown on the main drag Dads carpooled a used ?54 Chevy to work—past the Denver Dry Goods Company, its display windows stuffed with mannequins dressed in satin evening gowns, pre-maturely ready for the holiday parties, past the old Brown Palace Hotel where grandmas took little girls in gloves to high tea in the restaurant with the black and white marbled bathroom where someone had to tip the attendant a quarter or they weren't allowed to tinkle, past the Denver Post with its glassy-eyed, investigating windows and the May D&F building's grand daddy of clocks, set in the tower modeled after the Campanile in Italy, which chimed on the hour. Leslie Settle, an engineer, drove on to his office at Stearns-Rogers where he corrected building blueprints using a soft lead number two pencil which he stored behind his ear, computed with a slide rule kept in a leather case dangling from his belt, and smoked all day standing at his drawing table, unaware of any risk to his poor heart.

At home, the kitchen hummed, spewing forth Crisco-fried chicken, deviled eggs with cream and baked beans made with maple syrup for Saturday's family ice skating picnic at the Washington Park lake. At lunch time, with one hand mothers served left-over macaroni and cheese to the toddlers, who smeared them in orange noodle designs on high chair trays, and with the other hand the mothers conducted a symphony of ironing including a triumphant fourth movement of sheets and pillow cases. One young mother's face was wrinkle free. While her baby napped, Lois Settle took off her rose print house dress and, wearing a white slip over her full-body girdle, which she had worn since gaining weight when her third was born last year, mopped the floor on her hands and knees—the only way to be certain it was clean. When she was done, she took a clear glass cola bottle to the dining room table where she sat looking out the window, watching far-away Pike's Peak—the one time during the entire day that she stopped to rest. The elementary school children all walked back and forth to school without an adult present because no one was afraid.

In the evening, dusk dropping, the melody of traffic would fall off, fading slowly, like a song without an ending. Families sat at the dining room table eating sloppy Joes and carrot and raisin salad, unless it was Tuesday and then it was stuffed green peppers lathered in ketchup and Jell-O with canned mixed fruit. The oldest daughter was already in bed because once a month she got migraine headaches from the high altitude. Later Lizzie Settle would move away to live at sea level, her headaches would go away, and while she was gone the Denver Dry Goods building, once called the largest department store west of Chicago, would convert to apartments, the Post would be in decline because classified ads were moving to the Internet, and the May D&F building would be demolished during an urban-renewal project, leaving only the clock tower, with its 16-foot-high, four-faced analog clock, standing alone, like a left-over. The mothers would all go to work for pay and drive their own cars, main drags would morph into freeways, and commute traffic would be one person to a car.

Forty years later, at 22 South Albion the dining room window still observed the hill to the South, but Pike's Peak, with its granite summit carved thousands of years ago by rivers of ice, had disappeared. Smog, said Leslie Settle—whose doctor finally convinced him to stop driving after his by-pass surgery—smog had swallowed his mountain.


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