From the sequel to A Radiance, currently under construction
My father wrote me every day, at first.
He bought a desktop Far Side tear-away calendar,
one joke and a date, which he glued onto notecards,
scribbled on the backs, stamped, addressed,
and slid into the post box where they began their slow
journey that led across several state borders.
I liked the humor, bitter and fine.
I loved the idea of a world filled
with brutal talking animals; cows
that knew and accepted their fate
as soon-to-be hamburgers, bulbous, pin-headed
men waking to an early-morning windowsill
visit from the Chicken of Despair (the Blue Bird
of Happiness being otherwise occupied).
I would come in from class
or my work in the fields- hours spent
shifting golden bales that weighed
as much as I did, the palms of my hands
torn across the lifeline by the friction of twine-
and the postcard would be waiting for me,
evidence of passing time. His, and mine.
I would rinse my palms in the sink,
bloodying my blue jeans, and slink
to my room like the dog that I was,
used to showing my belly, trying not
to be caught with something
unearned and good.
When Tallon found them she shredded
the paper, spat on them, unable to stand
any evidence of love, applied to a creature
she rated as low as myself. She hated
what she could not have.
In the end I did not have to room with Allison.
Libby Smart had warned the temporary housemother
to show me no trust. I roomed with Tallon instead
and, as was usual under their system of fagging,
found every moment I had, every motion
I made, answerable to her.
Since I was unwilling to shower,
she supervised my bathing,
and quite soon moved beyond
the usual comments. ‘Skinny
little no-breasts, what man gonna want you?
Your bald pussy stinks so much ain’t
no man gonna eat it.’
So, being larger than I was, though six months
the younger, and of less delicate appetite
than that she ascribed to her imaginary men,
she took what she wanted.
I had spent my life learning
the dubious art of provocation,
I knew how to raise a temper
to boiling, how to increase anxiety;
I hadn’t yet learned to fight.
My mother had given me a neon green folder
of Lisa Frank stationary, addressed
in her deliberate hand: ‘2118 12th Ave. West’,
pre-stamped and ready for sending.
She gave me five hot pink pens
that were scented with strawberries.
She wondered, always,
why I never wrote back.
The phone was bound to the kitchen wall
by a strangulating length of coiled cord.
It was the color of cream, dirtied by fingers.
My parents provided a pre-paid Sprint phone card
for use once a week at a predesigned time.
Tuesday night, at a quarter past seven,
After the brand new episode of Deep Space Nine.
We could speak for half an hour and I know
that they wondered why so often it was less.
The point of fagging is to force conformity
to an ideal, an ethos, a mode of life.
I was a bitch. I was to be her bitch.
Tallon made sure that I learned that.
I must never forget to whom I belonged.
I still dream about her horn-shaded hands
wrapped, undreaming, unlying, around
my starved neck, working the cords
of my voice-box as I struggled to speak.
The receiver glued to my ear,
vibrating in a sauce of her spit and my sweat.
The time, a week in, when I begged to come home,
my parents mistook desperation for homesickness
and thought that my fingers, in the childish rage
I was there to correct, had been
the ones to end the call.
I remember the ache in my ribs
when they connected with
the padlocked refrigerator.
Sometimes, even now,
I dream of her look.
When in those moments I wake up annihilated,
I cry out for my dog now a full decade dead,
and shake the broad shoulder
of my good husband who braces my shuddering,
crying out loud enough in his tenor
for the neighbors to hear,
‘You are real, you are real,
for God’s sake, you exist.’
A month after I first arrived, the parish minister
named, appropriately Hart (a doelike man
who knew my father from seminary)
invited me as a favor into his home,
to meet his new family.
I remember his face, thin, with large dark eyes,
but recall next to nothing about his wife
beyond that she was young
and, as the phrase goes, heavy with child.
I only met her once.
She knew about vipers.
She might have been blonde,
or I might tend to impose
my own mother’s face
in the space for all mothers.
Before dinner they showed me round
their manse, a delicate cottage surrounded
by maples in full burning leaf-blossom.
The nursery was ready, a soft white room,
which anticipated the birth by a good three months.
Already there were shelves,
lined full of books,
far too old for a baby.
Made more for my age.
They were a full run of children’s monster-stories,
by R.L. Stein. I had never been allowed
to read them at home, too close to Satanism,
but there they’d had little attraction
even when classmates in my various schools
passed them around, trading in playground currency,
the future’s market. Now I craved
lives more terrible than mine.
I could fit three slim volumes into the sleeves
of my patchwork neon jacket, a donated
windbreaker made for a young man.
The last book I chose bore a cover featuring
a young girl in purple coveralls holding
a demonic green mask, her dark pigtails
just visible enough to reveal her gender.
I excused myself with twelve-year-old logic;
reasoning that I had nothing else to read
since I had, as punishment for impudence,
lost access to the library (the fact that my need
for security made it difficult for me to return
anything borrowed did not at all help).
If I asked Reverend Hart for permission,
which he would probably have granted,
the word would get back to my father that my mind
was still warped, my attitude wrong, that I
was still in need of correction, still insufficient
(whatever that meant, I was never sure)
and my unbound sentence would spool out
that much longer. Bad logic, even for a teenager.
Halfway through the last book,
which I read while hiding under my bed
curled on lemony scented mid-century
linoleum, Tallon was sent to collect
what I owed. And I was punished,
by her, for stealing.
Later, I was punished again by the housemother
for my histrionic, overacted screaming
which interrupted the plot of her favorite soap opera.
People on the receiving end
of a few prescribed spankings
do not shriek like that.
The housemother was right.
Children receiving that punishment
will barely cry out at it.
Of course Liddy Smart was forced
to contact my father. Daddy spoke
to me once, a short while after, to tell me
that I’d shamed him. That I had lowered
his value in the eyes of a friend
and so I was reduced in his estimation.
I could not deny it,
though my weeping for home
quickly disgusted him.
Had he not lived, for a while,
in town with his grandmother?
That was hard on him, too.
I needed to grow up, quickly,
and take it like a man.
If I wanted to amount to anything,
beyond the prophesied madwoman,
I would remain where I was.
I needed some character.
Some suffering development.
A few days after that phone call
the postcards suddenly stopped.
It took some time for the mail
to catch up with people
who were shunting away from each other
at the speed of sound shot down a wire.