Poetry: Karen J. Weyant
The Boy Who Ate Cigarettes: A Blue Collar Fairy Tale
Some say he lived under the Mill Street Bridge,
burning cancelled checks and lotto tickets
to keep warm. Others said he stayed
behind the town’s tattoo parlor, pushing
old syringes up the banisters, just to hear
the noise they made when they rolled back down.
When we were kids, we only saw his reflection,
a corner of his smile in the deli’s dirty windows,
a chin in the potholes that cradled spring thaw.
With every glimpse of black teeth, singed lips
flipped cigarettes, he spit white ashes and soot.
The grownups blamed him for those mornings
when the fog never lifted, when the yellow haze
made us cough, hid the sharp edges of street corners
and stop signs. I saw him, finally, when I was 13.
Crouched on the pipe fence near the pool hall,
he blew smoke rings my way, reached out
to touch my hair. He caught a strand, tugged.
Donora, he whispered, as if murmuring
a lover’s name, as if I was someone he knew.
My Brother’s Middle Finger
is still scarred, where a line of white skin
crinkles above a rough knuckle.
I was five when the machine at work
took a bite of him, didn’t like the taste,
spit his finger back out, the story used
to relieve my baby sister worries.
Scared by the stitches, swollen
and jagged like the cuts made
by my mother’s pinking shears, I knew
that the bone had been severed, his finger
dangling by a thin band of skin.
I feared work the same way most kids
feared the monster in the closet.
The year before, a classmate’s sister
had died, when a machine’s gear grabbed
her by the hair, dragged her into an abyss
of clamps and chains, wouldn’t let go.
I had learned early that work left bite marks
in the form of dirt and dark bruises,
that machines could turn flesh inside out
so that it puckered and disappeared.
Lament for the Last Summer of Prayer
Not yet seven, I still believed I could talk to God
the way my mother spoke on the phone,
head bent to the side, her whole body curved,
when she cradled the receiver. For weeks,
she dodged my father’s out-of-work pacing,
her fingers twirled the telephone cord, strangling
the hot kitchen air tight. I never knew
who she was talking to, just heard words,
money, makeup, loud muffler, every m
a low murmur, lost between her lips.
I avoided her smile that failed to curve
at the corners and hid underneath
the back porch to watch summer break
through the toothed leaves of dandelions.
My sister flicked cigarette sparks and specks
of red nail polish from the tips of her toes.
My brother worked construction, peeled his boots
off his tired feet. Hard bits of tar worked loose
from the heels, rained down a summer hailstorm.
Flat on my back I watched the back of the stairs sag,
the wooden knots squeeze tight with each step.
I’m sorry, I whispered. I wasn’t sure what for.
I dug my hands into the ground, hoping the palms
of my hands would form a prayer, surprised
when I found blood seeping through my nails.