Love in Mississippi
is always a metaphor. Sheep
grazing on the shorn heath,
the grinding of vegetables
into a cool green soup.
Corridors of halogen
mark the straight
routes home, the turns
we miss or accidentally take.
Like the housewife pansies
or the woman who owns
a badger and leashes
it in the park. Rather no,
that was love in New York
where the rivers erected
themselves in the patchwork spring
and the windows were so small
even I could not slip through.
The Ambition of Oysters
here’s the thing.
here’s the thing i always want to say.
there are times in your life when everything comes unhinged like the glue in your mother’s dollhouse, the living room falling apart at the walls. coming home for christmas the flight attendant said “welcome to columbia. if this is your home, welcome home.” and i wanted to cry the way it emptied me. what is left? nothing i know. wendy selling art in atlanta. or rather working the cashwrap at the museum downtown. martha, third in our class, drinking her coffee by a copier somewhere in dc. doing what she loves, she thinks, like me, succeeding. i remember how one day after school in her car she came apart. told me how in ninth grade her boyfriend got her pregnant. fourteen and the drugs they knock you out with make you truthful she says. her mother holding her hand and she can’t stop herself from talking. from telling her everything. and now she reads magazines about pills that could have done it quicker. cleaner. but the horror stories. women bleeding the baby in the shower. the clumps. the hair. and i don’t know what to say. i think about telling her how my stepfather used to hit me. the way a belt can tattoo the skin. or the morning it snowed, and it never snows here, and i was making angels at my friend’s house down the street. and when he found me he took me by my arm that same way my mother broke it when i was two and drug me back to the house where he hit me till i cried. and it took awhile. i was six but i did nothing wrong and i’m sure of it. yet i don’t tell her this. i’m afraid to make it about me. but i don’t know what to say. i’m fifteen and i’ve never slept with a man – though i will soon and i will cry then, i will go to school the next day and think i’m a different person – it’s in that moment when i realize i don’t know how to take care of her and i want to. i want to suck the wound of its poison. want to mend the break. in that moment i would take it from her, if i could, the pain. i would make the choice – have the child or carry it forever.
and when alex tells me about his girlfriend, how they were pregnant their junior year. stupid, lazy, he says, i touch his hand and think i could be that girl, could make it better like a stitch like a salve. i have been writing him love letters for a year yet he doesn’t take the hand that touches his. he’s that kind of boy. but three months later after my boyfriend tells me how he slept with his daughter and i’m left alone in his house while he picks up his son from soccer, i write alex and he’s there a week later and i am blowing him in the backseat of my car. walking that day i put my hand in his pocket and he’s carrying a condom and i laugh and i don’t take it personally. we haven’t kissed, his girlfriend is in texas and she probably calls him that night and he laughs. he says he can’t be quite sure. i’m seventeen and i’ve only slept with one man ever and he’s carrying a condom and i feel obliged to use it. on the flight here i don’t think about him but feel like i should. six and a half years together after that day and i wonder if he has ever taken care of himself. if tonight the first night i’m gone he’ll make his own dinner, what it will be. how many times he will call. and i don’t know why i did it. i tell myself it’s for him. wendy has me convinced and i’m not sure she’s wrong because i haven’t really loved him the way i feel people are supposed to love people in a long time and i don’t remember the last time he carried condoms in his pocket let alone kissed me with his hands in my hair. and i don’t want to call him but he wants me to, to know i’m here safe. so i leave a message at home where i know he’s not. i leave a message saying “hi. i’m here. i’m safe,” and it’s not cathartic in the way it should be, being curt, being free. it’s like cleaning forks with a washcloth. it’s like shining brass.
and the airport back home is the same, though they’ve replaced the rocking chairs with couches and the restaurant has changed names. my grandma is there in her leather jacket, looking smaller somehow, looking kind of old and i feel embarrassed walking toward her, being watched as i am as i get closer. she is smiling yet i can’t look at her because it’s awkward from this distance, not being able to touch her or talk and i think about what i’m going to say. something about the beekeeper i met on the flight. how he told me after a year you don’t need the gloves or hood. it could be a segway, yes, into something else, something more important like my sister who’s disappeared and disappointed everyone by leaving her husband and her daughter. but she’s only eighteen. what do people expect? and i’ll listen and i’ll listen and i’ll bathe that night because airplanes make me sticky and i’ll write a letter to someone i just met and try to be clever. i’ll write something that sounds profound like how oysters have no ambition just hunger. how i wonder if that is enough, if that’s the thing that separates us from them. and that night i’ll sleep in the spare room, my mother’s old room, and my grandmother will ask twice if i’m warm enough. and then i’ll lay in the dark the snow on the ceiling circling. and i won’t cry.
i won’t cry.
i won’t cry.
Depression is boring, I think.
Happiness is boring, I think, an oasis
between sand and the close-fitting heat.
Between the shuffling din
of big city traffic and tail lights
that blink in a motionless draw.
I don’t trust the way the days canter up,
but I’m afraid not to want it. Afraid I’ll forget
where the mouth goes, where the muscle binds
tight to the bone. That I’ll build a house
only to set it aflame, the cat’s unearthly howl
in the quick-talking blaze.
Each day I wake in the same bed,
the ceiling white, the light in the window
like warm cream. The cat paws at my lover
who pulls me to his chest. I hold
his hand. I know the source
of my restlessness but do not
while dawn breaks with the same
fleshy flourish as a heart
opened wide with a knife, stuck forever
on the note it began.
for my sister
I think maybe it’s a tree. This hurt. Maybe that’s it. A pin oak or crabapple. A basket of virgin’s bower. It’s Spanish moss gnawing the limbs. It’s kudzu. Yes.
Or maybe something useful like vanilla or coffee trees. Something Scandinavian I can’t pronounce. Maybe it’s the way some keys fit in a lock but won’t turn. The VCR that blinks and blinks. It’s my sister bleaching her hair, painting her nails green. It’s how you’re so quick to touch me now, like we’re family, like you know the way I write about trees.
I start to think there’s something more. Something like the Easter egg I sniffed out in the toe of my stepfather’s shoe. How my boyfriend split me open in the Travelodge when I was fifteen. Or the way I flirt with the man from Cambridge at every party. Half a beer and I’d screw him if he asked.
And still every time I bury my nose in your neck I want to tell you I love you. And I think I might, at least in the way I was taught. I think I would make you salads, paint your walls. I think I would trim your boxwood, tell you about the azaleas in Columbia, the house where they grew nearly patriotic. The daffodils that bloomed for my sister’s birthday. The way my stepfather would call me an idiot, a chore. Teach you the algebra of his belt clasp. Or tell you the story about snow. The one snow that lasted.
It hurts. Yes. In the way I’d leave my desk job in Boston. How I’d sit in my car at lunch, how you could wear the heat, the sun like a sponge on the skin. It reminded me of the South, how my sister and I couldn’t swim till it was 80. How we’d drape our feet in the pool or sometimes doze on a raft, safe on technicality.
There I’m thirteen, my shoulders sucking the sun. My bathing suit blue, so blue. Where are you when I tell you how he chucked the bathroom sink onto the lawn? Or the day my mother left him, how he punched a hole through the living room wall, his fingers as bloody as if it’d been my face? Were you there? Were you watching through the late dogwood, through the mulberry with its purple fruit? Are you here when you touch me, when I tell you about your trees.
Maybe not trees. Maybe a fog horn after the wreck. A siren after the storm. Maybe the forgotten crab trap we pulled up as kids. (The shells don’t change when they die. They just don’t move. And don’t move.) Maybe it’s the bull gator that rises from the marsh, the way we told everyone we almost died the day we found a rattlesnake in our bushes. How we ran like it’d chase us. How I stopped when I lost my breath.
I’d never give you this – the bodies of the dogs he shot, the note from my mother’s lover left errantly on a desk, how my hands learned the story of my body from others.
No, it’s not trees. It’s other people’s children. It’s birds that don’t have names. It’s the strip of 20 through the Midlands – Columbia in the summertime. How it knows me. How it’s always known me.
It’s how I’m destined to be a woman alone at a hotel in the South, drinking Diet Coke, eating lo mien. Watching women’s basketball, though I hate it. Watching the ticker to see if the Braves are bad. And I look at myself in that room, and I look, and I’m sad you’re not there, but that my stepfather is. And my sister, pregnant and sixteen, she’s there, saying my name as if I touched her, I would know her. Understand the way her father killed us both. And I think, maybe, maybe we’re both buried in garbage bags in our neighbors’ backyard. And that their children will find us, rotted and green, one day. I think maybe their children will find us. And that they will scream. They will find us. And then we will scream.
Prayer to the Patron Saint of the Younger Woman
The first time you see her she is the woman
who works at the camera shop, who winks
at the photos of your ex-wife
topless in Monterrey.
The next she’s twenty-five,
sitting across from you at a bar.
She makes a mosaic
of fingerprints on her wine glass,
while she tells you this terrible thing
about her life. You are amazed
at how flatly she says it,
how then she waves it all away.
Then she’s next to you
in a line for tickets to a Cubs game.
She turns to you
and makes fun of your hat.
You realize you love her then
in that moment, all sno-cone and relish.
You see how she has suffered.
You see the light that touches her
and you want do the same.
Some days it can be so hard
to remember that she’s dead.
To remember that it is not you she saved
but rather some king,
some saint in another life.
Other days she comes to you
like a song in a dream.
It’s then you realize her relics —
a bony finger, a wilted thatch of hair —
could never do.
You need the whole of her,
need to open the tightness
of her lips to your name.
Some nights, you ask her
how she wants you
to pray. Like this.
Like this, she answers,
where your hands fit best.
Erin Elizabeth Smith grew up in a double-wide on a dirt road in the trailer park capital of the U.S., Lexington, SC. She is the author of the book The Fear of Being Found (Three Candles Press 2008) and the chapbook The Chainsaw Bears, which is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Her poetry and nonfiction have previously appeared in The Florida Review, Third Coast, Crab Orchard, Natural Bridge, West Branch, The Pinch, Rhino, and Willow Springs among others. Erin is also the managing editor of Stirring and the Best of the Net Anthology and will be joining the English Department at the University of Tennessee this fall.