“Hand Washing,” by Gary Soto, appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of MQR.
I would wash my hands
After opening the refrigerator
And looking in at the lunchmeat and tomatoes,
The blimp-shaped pickles in cloudy water.
I would take out this food,
Then wash my hands before I laid a flap
Of baloney on whole wheat, and then wash them again
Before I pulled up a chair,
Using my knuckle only. I wrapped
My sandwich in a paper napkin and ate facing
The wall lit with sunlight against feathery shadows.
I nearly gave up going to mass–
Chalice that was a smudge of tubercular disease
And incense that fortified pneumonia.
I knew the priests were good people
But knew they shook hands with the dying.
I was worried about the moisture nestled on the hairs
Of their knuckles. I considered this matter
And then considered their robes as they swished
Across the altar. I knew they would cough
Into their hands, then say, “forgive us our sins…”
After mass, I used my shoulder
To get into the washroom, then scald my hands
With really hot water, then climb upstairs
To eat a donut. I didn’t shake
Anyone’s hand, just nodded and made my eyes
Kind of wide so that my pupils filled
With friendly light. And if I remember right,
I talked using only a little bit of my mouth–
If where you were standing a person
Had coughed and left disease floating in the air.
I know Catholics were coming around
To talk in tongues
And I knew that weeping men
Were coming out of really large closets–
Sex was that lily you wagged
Over the grave of innocent people.
I rattled my newspaper and read about them,
The new Catholics who held hands in prayer.
For a while, when my hair was black,
I attended the young adult group
And despised the air when we had to hold hands.
One week I noticed three out of sixteen were coughing.
And a week later seven of the sixteen.
I was never good at math but knew eight was next,
And was beginning to feel a rock-like scrape
Inside my throat. I stopped going
And instead read the Bible
By the window and considered the fly, dead on the sill,
And the plagues marching through Egypt
Toward hometown of Fresno.
I liked my wife to wash her hands
And asked her often not to touch her teeth
In public places. She went along
And started pushing open doors using only her shoulder.
I taught her how to pull a chair away
From the table and to seal and envelope without touching
The flap. She listened with her washed hand
Covering mine. She was nice to me,
And said nothing
When she saw me washing not only
My hands but wrists and elbows,
Knobby points that touched public places
And maybe one of our dinner plates,
An accident that could cause disease.
If she had asked, What are you doing?
I would have looked up from the basin,
Curl of steam like incense,
And answered, I’m saving myself, and you too, love.
Image: De Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri. Detail of “ELLES (Those Women).” 1896. Lithograph printed in two colors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.