| pHOENIX, ARIZONA
31 AUGUST 2008
Arizona Citizens/Action for the
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West Valley Arts Council
The barn is on fire. Inside, the pigs and cow spark into nothingness. He makes sure you can see, so you know what words will bring you. Trapped inside your highchair, you listen to the last sounds of breathing. The heavy bellow like giving birth. There is the scent of gutted flesh, of bonfired wood that aches in your lungs. You watch the firemen come, not black-suited men, but men in suspenders, men in white shirts, men with worn-out Carhartts, men with their shit-kickers soiled with their own cows’ manure. You watch him cry for Daisy left inside, hear him ask about the cats. You watch our grandmother lead him away so he will not see how the barn deflates. You watch until the last fireman leaves, long after he is done shaking his head.
Later, in the dark, he will cup his hand over your ear and whisper a reminder to you. Later, someone will bring a pair of bowling balls, leave them on the front porch like an offering. Later, our father will return the shoes and they won’t charge him for the half-finished game. Later, you will find pieces of bone, no bigger than your hand, polished like moonstones.
There are ways to protect yourself from the dead. When passing a cemetery, do not speak. You will breathe them in. Carry a ghost home with you inside your lungs. Tucked next to your soul. Underneath your skin they will become a part of you, sew their soul to yours until you are one seamless being. You will be the woman who died of childbed fever, the man who drowned in the lake. A knife thrown straight can hold an evil spirit still, but only if you catch it in time. Our grandmother saved herself one night, attached a ghost to a split-rail fence on her walk home in the dark. Listen to her words when she says she carried a knife in her sock, a small one is all it took. Listen to her when she says it was a near miss. Listen to her when she says you have to throw hard. Practice.
It begins in Georgia. In a tent. They say you were born in Valdosta. You haven’t been back since and I don’t want to go. I never want to. You are Georgia, the trail of tears. I see you there, in it all. Instead of sidewalks and motor oil, it is the tent, burnt orange, in a field. The trees hold tight to the ground. Perhaps they think the tent is a supernova. Perhaps they know too, these trees, what dangers are there. In spite of their care, the trees begin to singe, leaves curling like caterpillars dead before summer. Veins burst open, turn platinum.
No one notices the trees are dying. Everyone is hiding. Outside the tent is a veil of mosquitoes. All female, looking for body heat. Inside is a woman with bleached blonde trailer-trash hair, a fuck me attitude. Inside is a girl who just learned to walk, but already knows how to run. Inside is a man with the name Lee Harold, or maybe that is your name. His the inverse. You are a matched set, I think, but in truth I can never remember. I only think of Lee Harvey and a bullet. If a bullet leaves the barrel of a gun at 3,000 feet per second, how long does it take until it reaches me?
It begins before you in Colorado. He was born in Denver and I’ve been there. A lady tries to keep out the world with a chain link fence. It doesn’t work, they still take her money. She gives me a mechanical Rudolph with a nose that lights up and a song that plays as its moves its motorized legs. You break it, but it still makes a whir-whir-whir.
Unlike you, his parents have no names, no bodies.
This is what I remember of Colorado: Dinosaurs. Dramamine. Hotel pools. Claustrophobic sleep to the sound of tractor-trailer drivers up too late.
This is what I remember of him: nothing.
What was once home to doctors now only houses one single pharmacy that doesn’t sell any of the tiny white pills needed to rid the body of hurt. Instead, there are compact rows of bottles holding custard thick shampoo and a blood pressure machine in the corner which strapped to the arm cannot tell how much a heart can withstand. Outside, pocket-sized Italian nonnas are carrying thick brown paper grocery bags. They step out into the street and the cars curve around them, avoiding impact. The trick is to step boldly without looking. At the gelateria on the corner, near the tunnel reeking of spray paint and sex, young men stand with their hands in their too-tight jeans. They eat gelato with spoons the size of a finger and call to girls with their raspberry stained lips. At night there is only empty streets filled with crushed dog shit and wet autumn leaves that smell of car exhaust. A pair of high-heeled shoes are the only sound.
When the streetlights go out
AIMÉE BAKER grew up in rural New York before moving to the Phoenix metro. She has a BA from St. Lawrence University and a MFA in fiction from Arizona State University. Her fiction has been published by The Southeast Review and Gulf Coast. She is currently working on a novel and a series of poems about missing women. She blogs at http://refutationprocess.blogspot.com.