Midge Goldberg

The Fire Tender

With seven sitting rooms, the restaurant,
the lounge and lobby, it's a full-time job.
Though they don't think it is—I'm always sent
outside to park the cars or shovel snow.

They don't see the art of building fires,
of feeding them to keep the flames just right,
finding a careful balance—a crackling fire
with heat that doesn't overwhelm the room.
There's tinkering with the flues—on windy days
or very still, it takes a delicate touch.
And brushing ashes off the wooden floors
and rugs—have they forgotten 1980?

Then there's the trick of how to be a shadow,
tending the fires while not disturbing guests
or drawing the attention of the children,
who want to help me, but they're not allowed.

The hearth pile, that's an art all to itself.
I always use "log-cabin" style—I like
the airy space inside the sturdy frame.
The first square on the floor's the most important,
with each log flat and dry and uniform—
any wobble will bring the whole thing down
eventually. The pile's the signature.
I can tell who's worked by how the wood
is stacked. Roberto uses "tic-tac-toe,"
where wood is laid in threes, first one way then
the other. Then there's Jason, who would throw
the logs into a pile if they weren't watching—
he just makes rows. That's fine if he made "bookends"—
towers—he doesn't, though. The danger comes
in moving one end piece—the logs roll down,
a clatter and a mess, and take a guess
who fixes it. I just want it done right.

Of course it's hard work too—who do you think
hauls all that wood? They keep a shed out back
stocked from the woodlot (I've worked out there too).
Early mornings we can use the cart
and elevator, bringing logs to stock
the piles in every room. But during the day,
one armload at a time—more picturesque,
I think they think—then sweeping up debris.
I don't mind carrying but do mind skulking,
the faint embarrassment when cleaning up,
as if it's from a misbehaving dog.

Usually I try ignoring guests;
sometimes they look right through me, or, what's worse,
talk in that hearty tone, which lets me know
they've never built a fire in their lives,
or split and stacked a woodpile.
                              But other times
I see a couple gazing at the flames,
a child with a toy down on the rug,
or someone reading, curled up on the couch
alone, but warm.

The Florist

"Mom, where are my snowpants?" came the yell
from up the stairs. "I have to bring them in
today or else I lose a classroom point."
     "Me, too, me too, I lose a classroom point!"
"You do not, stupid, you don't go to school."
     "Do too, do too, Mom, tell her that I do!"
She took a breath and counted out again—
six hyacinths, six daffodils, two tulips—
"Mom!"—louder this time, definitely a scream—
"she PUSHED me!"
               "Damn it. Tom, can you go see…"
"The truck won't start, I'm out here getting cables."
               "I have to get the flowers to the inn
before the guests wake up." She went upstairs,
found snowpants, brushed two heads, poured cereal,
and counted in her head, "six hyacinths…."

When Tom and the kids had set off in the truck,
off to his folks' till she got them for school,
she ran back to the greenhouse, counting out
the rooms and then the pots, imagining
each grouping—scent and height and color scheme.
She moved them to the van in trays of twenty
but brought the lily of the valley last—
white, delicate, and trembling, but the smell
could kill you with its happy, cloying sweetness—
she didn't want that filling up the van.
She took the icy driveway down the hill
to the inn slowly, and prayed the brakes held out.
When she arrived, Jed opened up the bay.
"You don't have to help," she smiled, as he
moved to the sliding door.
               "Oh, that's okay,
I know you have to get the kids to school."
They carried trays inside, she taking care
not to brush the sleeve of his flannel jacket.
Then with the trays all loaded on, she wheeled
the silent cart along the carpeted hallway.
She placed one hyacinth on a spindly table,
a group of three—two lilies and one tulip—
on the sideboard in the upstairs sitting room.
A daffodil in the stairway to the lobby,
where Mrs. Armitage, who did the books
and knitted hats and mittens for the kids,
could see them—"nothing like a spot of yellow
to brighten up a January morning,"
Sue always said. Bringing the lounge's flowers,
she sniffed the air—no coffee brewing yet—
then headed into the solarium,
glass—walled and facing south, the place she saved
for last. Quiet. Still dark. Her favorite time.
The flowers' faint breaths in the air—she knew
them all, cupping each bloom within her palm,
brushing her fingertips along their soil.
The amaryllis needed watering.

The Bartender


"An Aviation? Sure, I can make that.
Yep, Bombay gin. Yep, crème de violette.
Yep, Pete will bring it over when it's ready."
His smiled never wavered as he talked.
After the man went to his table, Jed
took down two cocktail glasses from the rack,
placing them on the polished bar. He turned
to the array of gleaming liquor bottles
along the mirrored wall, selected three.
The clink of ice against the metal shaker,
the quick sharp pours into the measured glass,
the crackle of the ice. The shake, the strain.
Two sweating cocktails glimmered in the light.
A nod to Pete, who took them on a tray.
A slight tug on his vest, then he turned to
a couple at the bar. "Another beer?"
he asked the man.
                    "No thanks, not yet."
                              His hands
went to the towel tucked into his waistband,
and he returned to polishing the glasses.


Five minutes later, he checked in again.
"How did you like the cocktail? Sweet enough?"
he asked the woman.
                         "I thought you would.
Manhattans are too bitter. These are sweeter."

The man nodded and gestured at his beer.
As Jed filled a new pint glass from the tap
he chatted with them, "Where are you folks from?"
     "New Hampshire," she said. "And you live here? You ski?"
"I like to ski, but mostly I'm at work—
I run the restaurant right on the slope,
the one that's at the top of Devil's Run."
     "Then you come here at night? That's a long day."

The Aviation gestured, sharp, impatient,
and Jed pulled glasses down and made the refill.
     "That ever bug you?" asked the man. "Would me."
Jed shrugged. "They're not so bad, and they tip well.
Sometimes they can't see who's in front of them.
I'm saving for my own place, restaurant
and bar. Make money, doing what I love.
I've lived here all my life. It's time."
His fingers brushed the flower in his lapel.

The Baker

The alarm is set for 4.
               It was our dream.
We'd move up here when we retired—a farmhouse,
small, where she and I could garden, write.
The kids would come to visit, send the grandkids.
A porch where we could sit and watch the mountains.
All fine, then 9 months in, she found the lump.
So yeah.
          I wandered through the house for weeks,
just touching things. The kids came up. They tried
to help. I sent them home, with promises.

I figured I could start with something easy—
her cookbooks. Not my thing, I could get rid
of those. I pulled the first one off the shelf.
Sat down—there on the cover was the challah
she'd bake (not weekly, it was too much work),
for holidays, occasions, or the kids.
The book fell open to the page, flour-splotched,
wrinkled. She always did make such a mess.
I never baked stuff. I was on the grill—
steaks, burgers—or lasagna for the kids.
But as I read the steps, I thought perhaps
I'd try. Took me a few to find the yeast
(the fridge…okay), the rest was pretty easy,
flour, sugar, eggs. It was the kneading
that I liked—the working, working, then
the feel of—something—don't know what to call it.
The dough felt warm, alive, like if I'd keep
on going it would turn into—something.
I left it rising in a bowl, was thrilled
(yes, me, the big attorney, actually thrilled)
to come back later, see how it had grown.
The gust of breath when I just punched it down.
The rising up again against that punch
and then the baking, and it turned to bread
(I know, what else, and yet, actual bread!).
I tore a hunk (she'd never let me do that)
and ate it, leaning up against the counter.

I figured, why not, branched out, made her pinwheels,
some rolls, and then a sachertorte I'd tasted
down at the inn. I heard her voice sometimes
(I missed her but I didn't miss her nagging!)
telling me to watch my weight, clean up,
give some to the neighbors, they had kids.

So when I saw the sign for bakers needed,
I took some bread and cake down to the inn.
They wanted some experience but I
convinced them to give me a chance (at least
those legal skills were good for something here).

Now I get up at 4, head to the inn,
make myself a coffee and get started.
I like the moment every morning when
the dough begins to live beneath my hands.
The smell of fresh-baked cookies, big and warm,
the kids whose eyes are round like chocolate chips,
waiting for me to wrap it in wax paper
(ignoring their fingerprints on the glass case),
hand it straight to them and make their day.
Jeez, who's talking here, is this still me?

I like it. It's not fascinating but
at least it gets me out of bed. It's good.
Maybe not forever but for now.

The Piano Player

The drive up here tonight was really rough.
My class was done on time, but a few students
wanted to talk to me about their grades.
Same conversation every year, for years.
It's tough—I'm not supposed to grade on talent,
but how can I do that? That's why they're here,
to study music, improve. They have to know
that's what it's all about. Well, that, and luck.

So, anyway, I left there late, the roads
were bad over the notch, the snow had started.
I have to do this drive three times a week,
and usually it's fine with four-wheel drive.
Tonight, gripping the wheel made my hands hurt.

It's getting tiring, these three long days,
but I still love that first glimpse of the inn,
when I come over the mountain to the valley,
all lit up, warm and cozy, like a home.
I know there'll be a fire in the fireplace,
and someone leaves a rosebud on my piano.
Sometimes I sweep in, pretend I'm Katharine Hepburn
in my white gown, those "house in a snowstorm" scenes
in the old movies.
               I jump right in with "My Way."
I've got a rhythm here (no pun intended)—
pre-dinner cocktails are a certain crowd,
the kind of folks that like their Frank and Dean,
even though they're mostly boomer age.
That lasts about an hour, they leave for dinner,
and there's a little lull. I take a break—
Jed will usually have a plate and drink
ready for me, so I eat at the bar.
I'd like to have a drink at the piano,
but management thinks it gives the wrong impression,
(the slightly long-in-the-tooth dame at the keyboard
can easily appear a boozy lush).

The next wave is the parents of the babies,
lucky enough to have someone upstairs
who'll watch the kids while they cram in romance
before they fall asleep themselves, exhausted.
They're younger so I have to play Buble,
Grobin, the songs I pick up from my students.
After that the crowd's my age again,
so I can have some fun. Occasionally
the night will veer off, sometimes into show tunes,
or jazz, or classic rock, or maybe country,
depending on the crowd. I like to sing
(the more they drink the better, I'm not that good).
It's better with a singer in the crowd—
I can spot them, I'll wave them to come up.
A few words back and forth—the song, the key—
and for a little while it's a movie,
a stage, whatever we want it to be.
The crowd can feel it too, and it feels good.
I usually go before it's closing time—
I leave the piano open for the guests.
As I walk toward the lobby, I sometimes hear
a few notes following me down the hall.


Midge Goldberg is the recipient of the 2016 Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, and her book Snowman's Code, winner of the 2015 Richard Wilbur Poetry Award, was recently chosen as the 2016 New Hampshire Literary Awards Reader's Choice Award for Outstanding Book of Poetry. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Measure, Light, Appalachia, Poetry Speaks: Who I Am, Hot Sonnets, and on Garrison Keillor's A Writer's Almanac. Her other books include Flume Ride (2006) and the children's book My Best Ever Grandpa (2015). She is a longtime member of the Powow River Poets and has an M.F.A. from the University of New Hampshire. She lives in Chester, New Hampshire, with her family, two cats, and an ever-changing number of chickens.


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