Back to Issue Eight.

How to Take Your Medicine During a Recession


After benzonatate, a pearl-shaped drug that numbs
the muscles that create the desire to cough after a deep
breath. It must not be pierced by the teeth when taken.

I was instructed
not to bite
into the pearl.

Momma told me I could
have anything I wanted
if I swallowed it right.

It’ll numb your mouth, don’t
let it touch your teeth.

I dropped it
down my throat
without water.
No problem.

I gaped my mouth
to prove the pearl
disappeared, which was

the one time
my empty mouth
pleased my mother.

I floated from the blue bathroom
in her secretary heels.
I had done something
no other girl could do.

Step right up, folks! 
This little one here
swallows pearls.

So proud, Mother let me keep
the orange bottle of pearls
under my pillow like treasure,

No girl I knew had jewelry
more than hard sugar
on elastic bands

or seashells on dental floss
with knots that would have to
be cut from your neck.

And then one evening
the radio featured a love genius
who helped unmarried ladies.

She instructed them
to throw away their diamonds:
What can a man buy you
if you already have them?

I turned to my mother, who
had run out of lipstick
that Easter, who could not
fathom a trash can glowing hard
with carbon. It was funny

to imagine the rich girls
sneaking out
from their parents’ houses

for night burials, waving
to gals on the other side
of the street. Oh, the ballet

of nodding hello
while holding your hem
high enough to keep

diamond necklaces
from spilling out.

Were they embarrassed
by their white panties
blushing out at each other
or the soil in their front teeth?

I saw them clearly,
even in that dream picture.
They crept back into their houses

and under a ruffle of sweet covers,
crossing their fingers for husbands
with the blindest

hope—like how I turned
to my mother so she could
watch me take my medicine
without water.

It would be easy
to be my mother’s husband,
I thought as I slipped pearls
down my throat for seven nights—

which was a way
of throwing out something precious.
And because we felt rich
for the first time in our lives,

she let me
have that
one small talent.

As though she’d never
felt such wonder,
she threw her hands up
and she opened

her red mouth wide
with disbelief—which was
a kind of currency then.
The only cure she could offer.

Lauren Berry received a B.A. in creative writing from Florida State University and an MFA from the University of Houston, where she won the Inprint Verlaine Prize and served as poetry editor for Gulf Coast. From 2009 to 2010 she held the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute. Her first collection of poems, The Lifting Dress, was selected by Terrance Hayes to win the National Poetry Series and was released by Penguin in 2011.  She currently lives in Houston where she teaches AP English Language for YES Prep Public Schools, a charter school whose mission is to transform the low-income communities of Houston through college-preparatory education and community service.

More from Lauren Berry: 
Renovation in the St. Cecelia School Gymnasium,” Issue Eight, Poetry