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93| The System

Jessica Server


Whate'er thy thoughts, or thy heart's workings be,
Thy looks should nothing thence, but sweetness tell.

— Sonnet 93


We know in the first bite.
I am only allowed one juicy
snap of flesh before Dad
pulls the apple
from my small hand.

Rate it, he says.
I swirl the chunk
of Braeburn or Gala
over my tongue’s geography.
There is a system.

It’s Dad and I
a lot now — just Dad
and I — and we drive
the Southern California
sun-parched hills. It’s the ‘80s,
and only the succulents
and their snails
and my plump thighs
have escaped the drought’s

6 for flavor. I look pensive.
Texture, 7. I’d give it a 7
Numbers don’t lie.
That seems high, Tess,
Dad corrects me,
given its waxy skin.


Numbers lie.
A lover pleads, Let’s drive
2,576 miles.
Or says,
I’ll see you in six weeks.
But week six becomes
seven and seven becomes
September and September
becomes staring wild-eyed
at the idle collection of
dish towel, fruit bowl,
cheese grater, thermos.

If only I’d used the system —
Humor, 4. Grooming, 6.
Gets along well with mother, 2.
If only our parts could equal our wholes
and our attributes be bred in
by careful husbandry.
I believed in the system.
And then, I didn’t.


Numbers mean something
so when Dad and I
find a mealy apple, we give it a 1.
Toss it, he insists, but I don’t
so much mind the soft
ones. Toss it, Tess. Texture is
He chucks it
out the window. Enjoy,
my high voice follows
the grainy flesh,
painting the asphalt.


Texture is everything.
Our love is an 8.
The soft down of your beard, 7.
Smooth, spicy curry, 6.
The edges of the elbow hole
of your worn brown sweater, also a 6.
Soft cotton t-shirt I sleep in, 9.
The skin of your hands after washing
the dishes, 8. Your meticulously-
cubed butternut squash, nearly perfect.


Here is what we don’t rate:
Peaches, plums, fried rice, bananas, popsicles, turkey cutlets, popcorn, scalloped potatoes, oranges, eggs over easy, scrambled eggs, soda, carrots, bacon, French fries, grapes, iced tea.

Why Dad pulls apples
out of the fridge,
why he teaches me
to discern their worth,
I don’t know. We like them
sweet and crisp and ice-cold.
We like them all to ourselves.

We don’t bake them into pies
or slice them into salads. Food
is simple for this dad and
his daughter.

But I learn to pause
after the first bite. I learn
the thing I can’t yet put into


We pack a bag of apples
for the road and take off
towards California. I don’t teach you
The System, but trust me,
the apples are only a 5
and my dad would agree.
Mark Twain National Forest teases
a perfect 10. The feed corn we steal,
mistaking it for sweet corn,
a stupid, lousy 0.

The miles tick up
the odometer and
the heat index rises. I’ll see you
in six weeks.
Dawn haunts
the Kansas City airport
just as Huck Finn twangs
his final words from the tinny
Stratus speakers: I reckon
I got to light out for the Territory
ahead of the rest.

We skirt the departure
curb. Hold on the perfect
amount of time. I walk away,
letting you keep the good


We take off from California
and stop at a roadside stand
where Dad buys a bag of lopsided,
green-gold apples. The first bite
explodes sweet-tart perfection.
I take off one point
for its mottled skin.

Dad corrects me
No, Tess, this one’s
perfect. You just can’t tell
by looking at it.
We don’t feed
the birds today, rather, we drive
past stands of purple flowers
and more parched hills.
My freckles are fierce
in the passenger side mirror.
Dad turns up the radio and takes
another bite. Sometimes,
you just can’t tell.

Jessica Server earned her MFA in poetry and travel writing from Chatham University. She works as a teaching artist and writer in Pittsburgh, where she contributes a weekly food column for Pittsburgh City Paper. Her first chapbook, Sever the Braid, is currently available from Finishing Line Press.

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