Boy, Uprooted

The summer air is hot against my face and there is no breeze; just sweat and sun sitting on my cheeks and forehead. I’m blinking slower than usual as I lay on the deck. The boards are scratchy and worn; I can feel them through my thin shirt. I’ve already got a splinter so I sit up and squint at the unrelenting sun.

The wind-chimes sing and I close my eyes and wait for a gust to hit my cheeks. It’s only a tickle against my heated face—disappointing.

“Are you gonna lay there all day?”

It’s Jerry; I can tell by the off-putting nasal quality that seems to be stapled to his voice.

“It’s too hot.” I answer with a tone that says I don’t want him here but he ignores it with practiced ease.

He moves to sit beside me but there’s not enough room between the bannister and where I’m sitting on the top step. I can tell he wants me to scooch, but I don’t move. We stare at each other until he scrunches his nose to push his glasses up and his watery blue gaze breaks from mine.

“Did your dad want you to pull the weeds?” He’s staring at the small pile of dirt and crab grass on the sidewalk like it’s a novelty. His face is too red and he’s sweating too much. Jerry is a heavy boy. He wasn’t built for standing in the sun.

“It’s too hot.” I repeat myself and Jerry stares at the weeds for another moment before looking back at me.

“Do you want me to do them for you?”

I don’t know how long I just looked at him blankly before my gaze travels around his spongy, overweight body and lands firmly back on his soft face.

I can tell by the way his face molds into a ball that he knows what I didn’t say.

“You don’t think I can do it?” His voice isn’t exactly sharp, but it is defensive and I blink at him slowly to make him uncomfortable. I don’t want him to know I pity him, but I’m sure he does. It’s nasty when people pity you. You always think it would be nice for people to know how bad you got it too, up until the point where they look at you like that and then you feel like a beetle some kid tipped on its back. All angry and nothing to do about it.

So I say, “How’s about we do it together?” and I knew it was the right thing. His face widens up and he immediately squats down and starts pulling dandelions like a menace.

“Sure thing Ms. Claire!” He warbles from the ground and I sigh and get back to scraping my fingernails through the soil in search of roots. The sun puddles on our lower backs as we work with our knees in the dirt. It must’ve been hours under that repulsive heat until I finally wobbled to my feet and offered Jerry some cheap lemonade.

“That sounds real nice Claire.” I look over at him and he’s filthy and unattractive in the late afternoon sunlight. I see next to him that he’s pulled a large pile together. Too large.

“Jerry, you pulled my mom’s daisies up.” I say carefully and watch as his face becomes unnaturally pale and blotchy red.

“Oh no.” He whispers, “Oh no.” I’m not sure if he’s talking about the daisies or not. His eyes are showing too much white and I kneel down next to him, my damp jeans pulling uncomfortably against my dirty knees. I put my hand gently on his round shoulder.

“It’s alright Jerry, my mom won’t be mad. You know her.” She will be mad. She’ll say that this wouldn’t have happened if I had just done my chores on my own. But she doesn’t know Jerry and she doesn’t know this pity snaked around my stomach.

“Do you think we can put them back?” He mumbles in a tone that says he already knows the answer. I look at the mangled pile of daisies he’s ripped up and press my lips together.

“I’m sorry.” He says.

My heart shreds up a little as I look at him. He’s sorry for everything, I know. He’s sorry he’s unattractive and overweight, sorry he’s liked me since we were in second grade, and sorry about the damn daisies. He’s a sight too, plump and slumped over his pile of dead plants, soaked through and useless. I don’t want to feel bad for him. That’s not what he wants but I can already feel my throat clogging up and my hands, slick and twisting with one another.

“I can buy your mom new ones. And plant them too.” His hand grasps the stem of a broken daisy and he stares at it for a long time.

“You don’t have to do that.” My voice is scratchy and ugly. I’m still sweating. The sun is beginning to dip beyond the tree line.

“I should do that at least.” I know he’s right, but I don’t want him to have to deal with this. I want him to put this in the back of his head and never think about it again.

We gather up the plants without talking and roll the wheelbarrow to the woods for dumping. Jerry doesn’t try to take the substantial weight from me like I know he wants to and instead watches me push it in heavy silence.

“I’ll buy the daisies when I get my next paycheck.” I didn’t even know Jerry had a job.

We sit on the porch and drink lemonade while the sun sets in a flutter of scarlet and gold. The bullfrogs start up their chorus and Jerry starts breathing a little heavier. I don’t look over, just in case he’s crying.

“You know, I really like you Claire.” His voice is strung so tight that I want to go inside the house and never hear it again.

“I know.”

We finish the lemonade off and Jerry sits on my porch like the loneliest person alive. It’s dark now and I noticed that he’s shaking, just a little, just barely.

“I’ll have those daisies Sunday.” He says, “G’bye Claire.”

“Bye.”

I watch his big back retreat across the street to a little white and burgundy house before I go inside and lean heavily against the wall.  How sad, I think to myself in the darkness of the entryway.

How sad.

The Ceiling Sometimes Falls

I kick my feet off—no, that’s wrong—I kick my shoes off and make my way to the living room. The lights are dim in the hallway and there’s wallpaper—wallpaper—bubbling up and casting chubby shadows on a surface that should be smooth. I scrape my fingernails along it as I slump along the laminate floor.
I forgot to turn the air conditioning off before I left—more money down the drain—and the air is cool as I flop down on the lumpy, lumpy couch. My mom passed it to me when I “wore a hole” in the old one. I didn’t ask for it.
I turn on the T.V. so I can pretend to watch it. Someone told me once that it was weird to just sit in the quiet, so I let it buzz along behind my brain as I tilt my head to the popcorn ceiling. I flicked on the fan, but I guess it’s broke—again—and it’s turning too slow and stopping every now and again, mid-turn. Like it’s tired. I’m tired, but I can’t stop like that. “No rest for the wicked” and all that. Preach it Mom.
My cell phone’s buzzing, and it’s my mother calling to make sure my apartment didn’t collapse on me or something as equally tedious. If I don’t answer I’m sure she’ll make the two hour drive and scream at the door until I don’t answer for long enough. She’s been the same since Dad died—all tight expressions and ‘your sister never gave us this much trouble!
I don’t want to answer.
I want a new apartment with a working fan and a job with weekends off. I want a boyfriend and a cat and a nice yard so that the kids-I-might-have-one-day can run around and scream and piss off the neighbors. I want my mom to stop yelling at me and the popcorn ceiling to stop falling on my face in the middle of the night.
And I really do want to kick my feet off—I really do.

People Make Do

And maybe this is

All there is to it.

(waking up and

waking up again)

Maybe all there is

Is another day—

One sunrise after the next.

(doesn’t it ever

change?)

Maybe there’s more to it

But it’s out there

Beyond your reach

(because there’re bills to pay

and mouths to feed and a

safe, warm bed)

And maybe this is all you’ll ever

Amount to.

(nine to five p.m. and pork chops for dinner

second time this month–

maybe this week)

You’ll just have to make do.

Paper Queen

My father was a giant who lived in the clouds. He had a full beard, thick and rugged, that would rasp against me when he’d kiss my cheek and a long, crooked nose.  His dark eyes were sharp and his grin broad. My mother was a wisp next to him, a paper cut-out of a woman, neatly colored in. Dad would pick me up and swing me in the air, higher and higher and higher above his brawny arms and my mother’s chiding voice. I could touch the sky.

In the spring of my seventh year, I told my parents I wanted a bike for the summer, just like all the older kids who would spark by my house, faster than anything I’d ever seen before. I wanted to be like that; hair flying, wind burning my skin, and the sun on my back. Mother thought it was a bad idea—I could tell by the way her lips pinched and her purple nails clipped against the glass table when I asked. But my dad convinced her it was completely normal for a girl my age and I gave him the biggest hug I could manage at the time, where my arms wouldn’t even reach around his waist.

Voice booming about how he’d had a bike when he was my age, he marched us into the nearest sports store and positioned me and my mother in front of rack after rack of sparkling bicycles. It was like looking into a gumball machine. Eyes gleaming, my father seemed to be more excited about my bike than I was as he nudged me toward a stunning red wonder. I gasped in awe and immediately attached myself to it. The paint glittered cherry and the chrome winked at me in the artificial light of the store.

Absolutely not.

I turned to see my mother, positioned in front of something pink and flowery, eyes narrowed and purple fingernails digging into her hip.

That’s a boy’s bike.

I felt a protest clutter around my throat and stutter to a stop in my mouth. A boy’s bike?

Now, Carmen.

My father to the rescue. If I squinted, I could see a sword clasped in his hand as he slew the dreaded beast, fire spitting from it’s teeth. My mother’s eyes were narrowed into slits and her mouth was a needle. Her dress was crinkled in her hands and I remember the way her chest rose and fell. She had hot coals in her lungs; she could’ve breathed sparks in her irritation.

Lance, you know how I feel about these things. I’m not budging on this.

I knew in that moment that my dad was going to cave. I could feel his hand loosen in mind as he folded up, sheathed his sword, saving this battle for another day. It wasn’t worth it, to him, to war over bikes. Inside, I knew it shouldn’t have been a big deal—but the idea of riding that glittery pink steed on the streets made my insides tighten and shift. I’d be the laughing stock of the boys. My cooties would have cooties.

So I squeezed my dad’s hand and gave him the biggest, saddest eyes I could muster. His brow crinkled.

It’s her bike, she wants the red one. It’s my money, and I’m not paying for any other.

My heart burst into confetti.

That day, I saw my mom’s face crumple with a sharp hurt I’d never seen before on her pale, proportioned face. She wouldn’t cry—I knew that. She would fold her hands, stiffen her back and perch, ladylike, on her paper throne. As my dad and I wheeled the red wonder to the counter, my mom’s hand rested on the princess bike delicately and her eyes were closed. Her breath was slow and measured and I wondered what dreams were playing out behind her eyelids. Even as my dad’s booming laughter echoed around the building and the cashier rung up the purchase, my eyes were glued to my mother’s thin form, her white skin, and her clean hair done so neatly in a bun—not a hair out of place. She’d always been so very small next to my dad.

For My Mom Who Thinks I Curse Her Under My Breath

There was one day in the car

On that way back from who-knows-where

With my iPod plugged in playing

Only the oldies (Because

You’re so freaking picky, gosh mom)

Where the sun was setting and the

Music was turned up, all the way up

Almost as loud as it could go

And we were singing at the top of

Our lungs, as loud as they could go

Mama, just killed a man

Together, because we both knew all the lyrics

And this was one of ‘our’ songs, you know

Put a gun against his head

Pulled the trigger now he’s dead

And when it got to the guitar part you

Started head-banging and I really, honestly

Thought we were going to die because

You’re driving mom!

(We had to shout, because the music was so loud)

And you just cackled madly

You can’t not head-bang to this part!

And I thought you were so beautiful there, then

You always would be to me, no matter how many times

You doubted it, in the heat of a bad day

I will always go back to that car ride

On that way back from who knows where

With the music and the dying sun

Where we’re both smiling, together, at once

Nothing really matters,

Anyone can see,

Nothing really matters,

Nothing really matters

To me.


Happy Birthday Mom!

Upstanding Citizens

Ticket please.

The train car was stuffy and dimly lit, with the fading light of day peeking in through the windows. The conductor moved, achingly slow through the narrow walkway, stopping to turn at each pair of seats. He was a thin, stiff man with dead, fish eyes that rolled towards the passengers with barely concealed malice. He was dusty and dry, extending his skeletal hands to each person in turn, aluminum hole puncher in hand.

Ticket please.

A plump woman with a fox fur hat sniffed and handed him her ticket delicately, making sure none of her pudgy fingers came in contact with his hands. Her body was stuffed full and seemed constrained by the armrests. Her wide, red mouth was stretched in disapproval. The conductor restrained his sneer and turned to the next row.

It was a young couple, each of them clutching the other’s hand tightly and gazing into the other’s eyes.

Ticket please.

They didn’t seem to hear him. The conductor pinched his narrow nose and tried again. One of the archaic lights above buzzed and flickered on as the sun retreated beyond the horizon.

Ticket please.

The couple looked startled at the bite in his tone and the man shakily tried to hand him both tickets, but his grip faltered and they lightly fluttered to the floor. The young man flinched as the conductor’s poisonous glare landed on him. His lean form slowly stooped to retrieve the tickets, punch them, and shove them back toward the couple. Next row.

Ticket please.

And a double take. It was a little girl, pale, blonde, blue eyed, and very much alone.

The conductor blinked slowly as the girl stared up at him, craning her neck to make eye contact with him.

“You have a long nose.” She proclaimed. Someone in the front snickered and the conductor sent a pointed glare toward everyone in the general vicinity.

“It would seem so.” He sneered. The girl didn’t seem phased.

“Mama has my ticket.” The girl swung her legs, her little black shoes hanging off the toes of her stocking clad feet, “She’s in the dining car.”

The conductor sighed lengthily and looked toward one of the female attendants who stood at the back of the car. She hurried over, her brown hair in disarray around her flushed face and short heels clicking on the floor.

“Retrieve the girl’s mother.” The conductor glanced down toward the blonde hair, “…your name?”

“Marianne!” She chirped, grinning and exposing a missing front tooth. His black eyes focused on the attendant once more and she squeaked an affirmative, practically running out the back car door.

The conductor leaned stiffly against the side of the row and pinched his nose once more, massaging it gently, trying to alleviate the perpetual headache he’d had ever since he’d taken the job fifteen years ago.

“What’s your name, sir?” The conductor’s eyes moved toward the girl, Marianne, and he felt his thin mouth pull into a grimace.

“Gray.” He responded tightly. More titters from the rows in front caused his scowl to deepen.

“Mr. Gray,” Marianne traced the pattern on the fabric of her seat, “Why don’t you smile?”

“Because.” He intoned, “I am not particularly happy to be here.”

Marianne’s eyes locked onto the conductor’s and he shifted uncomfortably. She looked back towards the floor and continued.

“Mama doesn’t smile ‘cause Georgie’s gone away.” The conductor didn’t ask who Georgie was. He stared at the slumped form of the girl for a moment before turning his attention to the other rows.

The large woman with the fox hat was turned fully around in her seat, her beady eyes narrowed on the girl, purple dress hiked up so she could sit on her knees and peer over the headrest.

“Ma’am.” Mr. Gray strode over to the woman and loomed over her. Her eyes nearly rolled back in her head. “Please sit properly in your seat. You’re disturbing the other passengers.” The portly business man beside her looked ruffled and was leaning as close to the window as possible.

“Someone,” She squawked, “should be tending to that child! Where is her mother? The dining car, the dining car I say!” Her pudgy hands flapped indignantly.

“It is none of your concern.” Mr. Gray responded, dark eyes glowing murderously, “The situation is being handled.” The plump woman cowered in her seat, but kept grumbling under her breath. The conductor cast his eyes around the car. No one met them.

The back door to the car slammed open and the harried attendant ducked through, pulling a stumbling woman behind her. She was of average height and build, clutching her bag close to her and swaying on her feet as if the train was already in motion.

“I found her.” The female attendant bowed shortly and escaped into another car while the girl’s mother wobbled over to her daughter.

“Marianne, baby, Marianne!” She cooed, “Mama’s here!” Gray watched her fall into the seat beside her daughter and giggle to herself. Marianne patted her mother’s hand she smiled loosely in response.

Gray knew it would end up like this. He could smell the tension rising, the shoulders stiffening up like boards in the front rows and harsh whispers being passed from one disapproving frown to the next. His gaze zeroed in on the pudgy one with the fox fur. She was puffed up and indignant, and he could see her thoughts buzzing around in her head like hornets.

“She’s drunk!The woman shrieked suddenly, her voice tinny and metallic. The car became very silent, full of bodies that dared not breathe. “I’ll not have it, I’ll not have it!” She continued, “This is supposed to be a respectable line and I’ll not have this-th-this—” she couldn’t find a word and so her lips sputtered helplessly, her red mouth left to soldier on alone without her mind to help it along. Gray stared at her and watched her fidget.

“Well, are you going to do anything about her?”A weasely woman with a great deal of makeup layered on her face piped up from Row Four, the window seat. “It’s completely inappropriate for the mother of a young child to become-” She cut off, looking for a more elegant term for ‘become very drunk’. The man next to her nodded in agreement and the began to buzz with angry voices. He heard a hissy male voice behind him ‘Damn alcoholic.’ Marianne curled into her seat and squeezed her mother’s hand.

Gray turned sharply to the slumped form of Marianne’s mother, the expectant eyes of the passengers on his narrow back, and in a firm voice—

Ticket please.

The woman looked up dazedly and nodded, murmuring and digging around her large bag for a tense few minutes before presenting two tickets. The conductor punched them and handed them back.

“Was that it?” Came a shocked voice.

“I would suggest,” The conductor drawled, “You take your seats. The train will be departing shortly.” There was rustling as the passengers faced forward with hardly concealed frustration.

A tug on the leg of his ironed trousers caused him to look back down at the distressed Marianne.

“Thank you.” She whispered. Gray crouched down until his eyes were level his.

“Take good care of her,” He said, “She’s going to miss Georgie for a long while yet.”

“I miss him too.” Marianne mumbled, “He was so small. I liked to play with his little hands. But then he got sick.” A snore emanated from the girl’s mother.

Gray gave her a pat on the head before heading to the front car feeling the scratchy eyes of disapproving passengers on his narrow figure as he walked. He entered the employee car, sitting stiffly down next to the female attendant who had found Marianne’s mother.

“You were very impressive.” She said tentatively, twisting her navy blue cap in her hands, “I thought for sure there would be a riot.” Gray’s dark eyes slid over to the young woman and she looked straight ahead, back ramrod straight.

“You were peeping.” He stated. She nodded without looking at him.

Gray focused his eyes on the planks of wood lining the opposite wall of the employee car.

“I have worked this train for fifteen years.” He said slowly, “Everyone is the same. They assume an entire life in a split second.” The attendant gave him a lost look and there was a long semi-silence, where they only breathed and listened to the wind claw against the walls of the train.

“That woman― she was going on and on about her ‘baby Georgie’…” she said weakly, “Is he-?”

“There would be no point to the expense of a funeral car for such a small coffin. He’s in the back. With the luggage.”

“I see.”

The conductor got up and strode over to the window and watched the blackness of the night, only interrupted by the flickering of the station lamps.

“With the luggage.” Gray repeated and he heard the choke of a sob from behind him. He watched as one of the rusty red lamps flickered off and did not come back on.

Click Softly

Click softly does the tongue

To fill the thickened quiet which

Is hardly disturbed by the strokes of

Color or the wisp of bristles or the arch

Of the shadows leaping from the white plains

Forward into creation, true creation,

The God of a world that exists

Only as pigment on a canvas stretched

Tight and whining to be free

Shatter apart and release that of which

Only the eyes of the God see

The curtains dance around the windows;

Even the light wishes to be near.


Click softly does the tongue

As the ghost’s arms swish

Conduct color and bend light

Concentration as a whole being

Orbiting around a moment that

Will not move past its static point

Where the hands lilt, the brush

Shall follow dutifully and sweep

Downward to where the edge of the

World sits so peacefully, leaking love,

Go and sit by the edge, dear,

I have made a world for you and

I wish for you to share.

Tie the Young Necks

When I was young, about 12 or 13, I had a band instructor named Mr. Reavis.  He was a greasy, walrus man, with brown whiskers he kept neat under his chin and small eyes set into his face. Mr. Reavis was never seen without a collared shirt, soft loafers, and oval glasses perched on his bulbous nose. I remember specifically the tightness of his belt and how his stomach tipped over the edge of it, unafraid of gravity’s pull.

Reavis spent more time bellowing and cackling than actually teaching the class, and while I appreciated the chance to laugh and joke around with an adult… he was known for being unpredictable. He was known for being mean.

During class, he joked around until he wore his victim thin. He was a king amongst his subjects; a crooked finger, a lethal barb…

Sic ‘em.

Like a pack of hyenas they would descend, cackling madly, gnashing their teeth, rehashing a joke over, and over, and over again.

Why aren’t you laughing? We’re just kidding.

It was Russian roulette, we all knew it, and we all perched on the edge of our seats in anticipation, waiting to find out who was the target this time.

The man had no filter between that sharp tongue of his and the sensitive children who looked to him for attention. I knew what he was even thenI could see it in the way he moved and talked. I knew he wasn’t a good man underneath that broad smile and those flushed cheeks. Sometimes he would say things that made the child he was talking to cringe back with their whole body. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen children shrink so violently under an adult’s words, and it wouldn’t be the last.

One day sticks out to me particularly well. Reavis was being loud again, laughing hard, as if he was drunk. I could easily picture a beer in his hand instead of his conductor’s stick, sloshing as he waved it around and screamed. I was the class’s subject that day, forced to smile over a joke about myself I no longer remember. I don’t think I was overtly hurt by it, only embarrassed to have all the attention on me, and I remember being hot in my sweatshirt as a blush burned on my cheeks. I sent some sort of snarky retort back to defend myself somewhat under the friendly onslaught.

But Reavis always knew how to take a joke too far.

I don’t remember how, I don’t remember why, but in a second he wasn’t on his podium anymore but behind me, the hood of my gray school sweatshirt clenched in his meaty grip. He was pulling up, up, up, the caws and screeches of my classmates driving him to make the joke funnier; make the girl’s face redder. I know at first I laughed, but then my face heated from lack of oxygen and not just embarrassment and the world began to blur and blacken under my tears. I remember my fingers scrabbling at my sweatshirt as the beginnings of desperation set in and feeble noises escaped me. One of my friends, a flute girl who sat in front of me, told him I was crying and he let go.

I’m sorry! Could you really not breathe?

I coughed and grabbed my throat, feeling my own pulse beat frantically against my fingers as the world came back into focus. A trombone girl next to me nudged me and asked if I was okay, but the majority of the band was still stirring in their giggles and Reavis’s apology washed in and out of my ears. He went back to teaching, uncomfortable and shifty. He  wouldn’t look at me.

The tuba player on my left side, Josh, poked me.

C’mon—stop being dramatic. You’re fine.

I glared at him with wet, bloodshot eyes and he turned away. I coughed occasionally and blinked too much, a hurtful knot settling in my throat for the rest of class from holding back tears too long.

After band, I went to the bathroom and touched the red line on my throat, rubbing gently at the inflamed skin. My face was still red and puffy and my breath sounded raspy and long.

It was ugly.

The Good One Lies

One day, you take her into your arms

And find her eyes upon the mirror,

So that she might see you,

Perched behind her,

And hear the plink of blood

Leaping heroically to the tiled floor.

And hear the sob of a lover–

The anguish of a mother.

Maybe she will finally understand

What winds you up and keeps you

Ticking for another day–

Is not the promise of a good one.

Tic Tacs

Orange bottles litter your counter and

You feel full as if you’ve eaten

But you have not, you’ve

Eaten something, yes, but not food

And it’s left you bloated and curdled,

Curling into the cushions of your sofa

Clutching your swollen soul.

You want to be free, you could be

But your throat is already

So sore– you don’t know

Where to go and only down, down

Do you flow; hands grasping

At what you know will make

You right again– if only, if only

What you knew was right.