Skip to main content

Memories of Susquehanna: B. F. Skinner

ISSUE:  Summer 1996
When I was four, I stole a quarter
from my grandmother’s purse, and my father
took me to a lecture about Sing Sing. The slides

showed prisoners in black and white stripes
splitting rocks with sledgehammers. In those days,
I was still afraid of the grocery store

where tarantulas might be hiding in the bananas,
and I thought that the cat sleeping in my bed
would put its face over my face

and inhale the life out of me. I’d rollerskate
with a key tied around my neck, my skates
clamped to my shoes, and I’d call my brother “Honey”

as we rode our bikes up Grand Street.
We’d circle the pond, afraid that dragonflies
would sew our lips shut. Or we’d look for quicksand:

like Captain Marion, the Swamp Fox, we wanted to escape
from the British. In The Trial of Mary Page, a movie we saw
at the Hogan Opera House, the retina of a murdered man

was developed like a photographic plate
to show the person he was looking at when he died.
My brother died, staring at no one.

On the way to the funeral, I noticed that hoboes
in the glen west of Susquehanna were heating their beans in tin
just like the pictures in the funny papers.

And everyone had gathered, as usual, by the dam
to watch huge sheets of ice fall over the edge into the roiling
    water below—
as if my brother’s death meant nothing,

as if we were being paid back
for catching eels with our bamboo poles, for cutting them up
into little pieces after hitting them with our baseball bats.

I can still picture my brother and me sledding on our Flexible
or jamming toothpicks into the neighbor’s doorbell.
I wake up thinking he’s still alive.

One day, in my office, a pigeon flew through the open window
and landed on my desk as I talked on the telephone.
I slipped my fingers over its feet, pinning them down, its wings

For weeks, I taught it to play a single tune on a toy piano because
on the day my brother died, we saw trained pigeons at the state
Smoke billowed out of a miniature cardboard building. A pigeon

poked its head out of a second-story window. Wearing red hats,
others pulled a tiny fire engine. With their beaks they propped
a ladder against the building. And the pigeon in the window was


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading