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GRILLONS par Cynthia Atkins

It looked like a gun from far away but that was a baguette tattooed on the forearm of the greasy-mop ragtop who baked bread in prison for a year when he was twenty and stupider than he was now, or the same amount of stupid cuz he couldn’t of gotten stupider or he wouldn’t be so mean. It looked like a gold tooth from far away but it was just yellow, the tooth in the mouth of that cut-off jeans soda machine carbonated-cum motherfucker Josephine loved from afar and then with his fist in her mouth. Loved him bad enough he bought her a jawbreaker and she chewed it right down to the heart so she could kiss him sooner at the drive-in in February when nothing was playing, dry snow in the air and white noise on the radio.


Tracy loved her bad, one ass cheek half out each side of that cheetah print miniskirt, damn, he said, saw those big thighs out the window of his two-seater and twenty minutes later he knew how they smelled. Cross on his wall, he kissed it after, every time. Jo wore her acne scars like she knew things you’d never learn, T bought her a jawbreaker she musta swallowed whole to finish his beer after she finished hers at the movie theater where they were watching something, couldn’t remember what or when, but sure he had the who right. Loved her from afar and then with his fist in her mouth. The shape of his love, the missing window of the F-150 he put his fist through instead of her even though she deserved it. Loved her enough to aim away, and that made him love her more, the pedagogy of the fist, goddamn he was a God.


Goddamn he’s a God, ain’t nobody punched out a window for jealousy of her sweet ass in a miniskirt, T knew her like Santa Claus knew her, mama’s old tights full of chocolate, like God did, in her heart. Knew her and still loved her enough to aim away, goddamn. He aimed away until he didn’t and, goddamn, love so strong it knocked a tooth out, swelling with love at the bottom of the staircase. Love of this girl and her big thighs. You’re crushing me. Sitting on his face never knocked no teeth out.


Big thighs that drew eyes like compass points in the deli parking lot, True North under a cheetah print miniskirt and T saw him looking. Caved-in cheekbone love. Her cheekbone, not his. Too much love. Try that shit again, love. Beg me to stay, love. Her love, not his.


Siren love. Flashlight love. Have you been drinking, love?  Yeah, and other stuff, too.


T’s ugly in the suit his free lawyer bought him. All cuz of some limp-dick with a badge and a conscience who wouldn’t take a bribe—what’s happening to freedom in America? Jo wears a pencil skirt, navy blue.


Alone at home, she thinks of headbanging the shower tiles, self-love. Show the neighbors T loves her. His signature on her forehead. Mine.


Jo doesn’t wanna be whole, she wants to be hollowed out and nested in, a rain-filled ashtray mistaken for a bird bath. The neighbor boy flutters and chirps and one day dips a wing, a beak. You’ll never get clean in dead flames. Silly bird, she calls him, and feels herself beginning to fill in.


In a gas station bathroom, Jo leans to blow nervous smoke into the twin caverns of the toilet paper dispenser while she waits for that little line to show up plus or minus. The smoke leaks out but it doesn’t matter, the detector’s split in two and the wires sold for scrap, the attendant’s asleep at the counter and the lines on the test cross themselves, so does Jo.


T’s considering his body, too, surveying for skin without ink. Orange hems strangle his thighs, he remembers when this flesh was clean and he could still wonder what whiskered sailor would harbor there, what eagle take wing. Now the more he fills it in the more he surrenders his anythings for somethings. T licks the needle and hands it to his cellmate.


On the back of his calf, fresh flowers curl themselves around the hips of a fading jar. On his cheek, a dagger’s blade is blunted to spare a blueing pike’s tender fin. On a kneecap, in the center of a sunflower, T discovers fresh canvas and fills it with Jo’s initials. It’s not the first time he’s appealed in blood. You can see the same letters in a clockface, there. That was the first one, she sobbed snot onto the tablecloth when she saw it. On his ribs, there it is again, etched into the bricks of a burning castle. That one got infected, he remembers how Jo’s hands looked trying to shake the Band-Aid off her long pink acrylics, how she used her smiling-sadly mouth as a third hand.


Here, again. Now every time she softens she sets harder than before, and T’s burning up his canvas for tokens so small, he sees the scar on his wrist where those same acrylics furrowed him and he’s boiling over with this bloodletting love. His love, not hers.


Jo’s pulling tank tops out of the wash now with dimples still in the spot where her belly button stretched the fabric. She’s taken out the silver ring with its dangling dolphin, her convexity enchants her, it needs no adornment. She thinks of the baby’s little fingers pushing there til it popped out, and when she touches it she understands the impossible thinness of the membrane that separates them. You’re getting fat, love. Fat love. When the neighbor boy sees her he flies away, the wind off his wings so feeble she doesn’t feel it.


The front seat of the F-150 goes moldy with the rain coming in through the punched-out window she won’t get fixed, and one day T comes home in the same ugly suit, rolled up past the kneecap. He was handed eleven months. She’s only served seven.


Jo’s standing on the steps. She’s smiling sweetly but her acrylics are filed to blades. No need. He takes one look and drives away. Gale-force wind off his wings. Ouchie, she tells the dimple.


He stays away a long time. She calls his mama, calls his sister in Indiana. She kisses the Christ on his wall, tells God to bring him home. His God, not hers.


Thank you, she tells T’s God when she hears his tires, knows like a dog knows the way gravel sounds when her man comes home. He’s got the window fixed in the F-150, ouchie, but he’s sexier than ever, so skinny she starts water boiling for spaghetti before he even gets to the door. God brought him home.


She opens up and there he is. It was God, she says, and he says, I know.


T’s got a motel fairy-tale to tell. If I hadn’t ‘a gone I’d ‘a killed ya, he says, and I didn’t wanna. Gideon’s bible in every bedside table and I couldn’t find the part bout Thou Shalt Not Kill.


Thank the greasy gospel, he says, says he pulled up to a drive-thru in Tallahassee, hungry for a burger, starving for salvation, and the voice through the speaker was God’s own, Hey man, it said, Take it easy, it’s all part of the plan. Jo knows just how to take this, her man speaks in parables, fried chicken can be The Truth, T touches God on the bathroom floor, his pantheon of Quaaludes and delusions, says everyone’s dumb but he’s smart enough to know it, he’s capable of taking anything seriously unless it’s reasonable.


IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, he bellows. Spaghetti slaps the plasticated placemat. Jo twines her tines. She holds her tongue, already lovin’ this baby. Lovin’ this baby like guardin’ the belly, step lightly love.


This baby is an act of God, he says, Your womb is a manger, his hand between her legs, it’s true she hasn’t shaved in a while.


T cuts a hole in the wall of the tool shed, makes sure the North Star shines through it, comes home with stolen sheep hobbled in the back of the F-150, Sorry babe, I tried to find you a camel. The nativity scene baaaaa’s all night, Jo can’t catch a wink.


He gets the baguette on his arm turned into a cross, but it just looks more like a gun, one side of the beam the trigger, the other the sight.


Beautiful baby Isa, glimpse of God, after His own image, really. Jo coulda almost believed.


Thank the Lord, thank the North Star in the barn window. Grow up big and strong like your papa. Which papa? Grow up with a lightning bolt in your hand.


Isa grew up mean like Papa T, grew up blazing like Papa God, grew up with a sky-punching underbite like Papa-Next-Door. Broke his first heart in kindergarten, his first tooth a year later.


His body is an encyclopedia of bruises, Jo doesn’t know how they get there, thinks maybe it’s a heart full of bubbling tar that sometimes bursts from the inside, out. Kid doesn’t know many letters but he knows twenty-six ways to de-leg an insect, he recites them as a lullaby, they stain his fingers like blackberries. Jo’s glad he’s chosen victims that don’t scream, she buys him a magnifying glass, gets a paperback education on a plastic lawn chair making sure he doesn’t catch the dead grass on fire, watches out of the corner of her eye as he burns and burns and burns and burns and burns his skin dark like Papa-Next-Door, who gets his mug in the paper one day cuz he got himself killed like an idiot back home in South Dakota, land of Mama, land of pink wallpaper with flowers, sweet tea that doesn’t belong to hard hills and bitter grass and trains that don’t stop for drunks stargazing on the tracks.


Jo’s never come so close to knowing what it’s like to lose a child, not even when Isa chased a rabbit up a cliff and fell trying to get back down. She can’t believe how alike they look, she’s looking at a picture of her son’s face next to a caption that says he’s dead and she says a prayer for the mama of Daddy-Next-Door. Because she knows one day the photo will be Isa’s, hers is not the kind of son who outlives his mother. And there will be no resurrection.


Jo leaves the newspaper on the back of the toilet when she’s done. Stupid. She’s not the only one who sees the photo, recognizes a face.


A dream-dusked figure says a prayer of his own with a match in his hand, he’s high on the promise of sulfur and this train’s not stopping either.


Jo doesn’t know she’s been waiting for the smoke til she sees it. Of course, her men are twin flames, simmering, gasoline-irrigated in heat and wind. She drops six eggs in the grass where she stands, a carton of milk, a cabbage. She runs.


Her neighbors stand in doorways and watch cross-eyed and terry-clothed, cupping black coffee, Irish coffee, Berlin nightclub coffee. She runs.


It’s small smoke, humble smoke, smoke the size of a double-wide, the size of a double-wide and a man, a double-wide and a man and a—.


She runs.


The skeleton of her home glows, red crayon on black paper, the way Isa once drew it, and there is her little architect, shoulder-high in the tree whose rotten hollows hold his tools—stolen bubble gum, switchblade keychain, a water balloon he’s been trying to fill up with spit. She whoops to him her ferocious joy, for the first time she believes that she is an animal. Her nostrils sift through smoke for flesh. She still runs.


She hits the lawn in time to see a wall cave out and T come pouring from the trailer drenched in fire, and she watches with pride as he fights off his indifferent attacker, punching at nothing, yelling at angels. As he is baptized in flames and comes to the surface screaming, for a moment she thinks he is screaming for more, but he is only screaming for water, and here is her neighbor with a garden hose while a water balloon half full of spit hits Tracy in the shin and fails to detonate.


And that’s how Tracy’s reborn.


He’s reborn into a life of ointments and syringes and boy are you lucky. Opens his eyes for the first time and fluorescents poke him laughing in the pupil. He’s in the hospital for weeks and everything’s lit with fluorescence, all his life he rubs his eyes but he can never get the fucking fluorescence out of em.


Jo’s got a chair in his room with the shape of her ass embossed on the seat like a wet bikini on a wooden dock through sensible trousers she owns in six shades of beige. She’s gnawed off her acrylics and swallowed them with her bubble gum. They were getting in the way of channel flipping.


Isa loves having a papa all wrapped in gauze, calls him Daddy Mummy and makes spooky noises fucking with the settings on the adjustable bed til it shorts out in an L shape and Tracy screams. Isa snaps the light off and on and shouts, The curse of the Nile! The curse of the Nile!


Jo’s getting a pay-per-view education trying to keep her son from pulling the tubes out of Tracy’s body, hypodermic love, reckons the day there’s no true crime on cable is the day the world returns to dust. Friday is Roy Rogers night on GRIT. She sneaks in flat beer in a coffee cup and wipes rice pudding off her man’s chin with a damp napkin.


The doctors all say he could talk just fine if he wanted to but he doesn't, he’s learned there’s a lot you can pack into the cadence of a groan and anything you can’t he’s not interested in talking about. The day he gets the bandages off his left leg, Joe touches his knee, there used to be a sunflower there with her initials inside. Now she’s seeing it like an insect struggling under a fat skin of boiled milk, like when Isa picks up newsprint in his Silly Putty and hammers it into a pulp where only the alien echoes of odd figures are preserved.


When everybody’s gone, Tracy disengages the safeties and guides the bed in front of the mirror. He surveys his dermis smiling. To put it medically, he’s fucked. But he’s got his anythings back and he didn't think it worked like that, thought once a panther crept under your skin you could never get it out. He’s dreaming for the first time ever, dreams he’s painting the window of a French cafe, an apprentice gilding in gold, and wakes smiling stupidly to the smell of burnt coffee and Jo adjusting his sheets with one hand, touching her cheekbone with the other.


He’s got a taste for the canned lychees the nurses carry to him on trays wedged under nameplated breasts, no longer a foreign fruit he suspects is making fun of him but a bluegrass birthright. He swallows them like he used to swallow pills and when they bring him pills he buries them under his tongue. The nurses stroke his cheek, they don’t know a thing he’s done, they talk to him like he’s a baby and he believes them. Like he could harbor here. Like he could still take wing.


Jo doesn’t have much. The cabbage that lay where she dropped it, though the eggs and milk were gone. Plastic lawn chairs and rain-bloated paperbacks. Isa. She moves what she has into an identical trailer two streets away. Their new neighbor puts up a fence. That’ll only help the fire spread, she tells him over the top, You bridged the moat. He keeps watering his weeds but she can tell he wants to turn the hose on her.


There’s fresh sunflowers on the table when she wheels Tracy through the door. If he gets it, he doesn’t mention it. He’s dormant like old lava, sometimes she wishes for eruptions. She feeds him apologies in spoonfuls of applesauce, peels his claws from his palm and fills the cavity with a stress ball shaped like a tomato. The pedagogy of the fist. It’s good for his metacarpal mobility. Goddamn.


She wakes mornings to the music of Tracy pissing into an old paint can off the side of the couch, he laughs at the cartoons Isa plays for him all day while she’s at work.


Her boys. A wordless current joins their faulty-wired hearts. Don’t burn the house down, she tells them, and when her tires fade, her living room erupts into fantasia and fugue. With echolocation they jointly perceive the shapes of things she can’t see, they stumble dreaming along the same road, leaving bloody fingerprints on fence posts. They lie on their backs and find angels in the Sistine Chapel of ceiling mold. They host cockroach empires in coffee grounds. Jo knows cuz she vacuums them up.


Isa won’t go to school but he knows twenty-six ways to open a can of soup. When Jo gets home she boils skinless chicken and shucks peas. Tracy smiles at her. He touches her cheek softly. She let’s Isa tear the pages out of the textbook once they’ve read them. His shearing hands remind her of a sticking t-shirt peeling away burnt skin.


Which doesn’t happen anymore almost ever. But still she’s gentle pulling it up over his head. Bath time. She turns Tracy onto his front. Her dripping sponge wets the couch as she stares. His fresh canvas has been vandalized. Topography of thick ink that pools in the flame-furrowed canyons of his flesh, skirts its shining ridges. She touches his skin in wonder as she hasn’t done since they departed from that February, dry snow in the air and white noise on the radio.


Isa’s been replacing his tattoos. She breathes the licorice scent of her boy’s black Magic Marker and marvels at his stick-figure prophecies. She won’t say her son’s not an artist, he’s inspired enough when it comes to dogging their neighbors, he puts walkie talkies in their bird houses and whispers through them in the middle of the night, he paints their dreams in red.


But he’s clumsy with a pen, holds it like a hammer. He’s split Tracy’s back into a grid like he’s seen in his comic books, her little Nostradamus, in one frame two figures watch as a third one, smaller, taps amber from the trunk of a tree under snowflakes that look like maces. The tree’s more pine than maple but the log it drives through her gut is just as splintery. In another, fat dolphins drift tide ward, their human faces smiling. Jo touches the face of the medium-sized Jo-dolphin, he’s given her long eyelashes and hoop earrings. In this grid, they’re gladiators, in another they’re stealing a diamond, in that one they’re smashing watermelons with their feet.


Tracy lays still with his face smooshed against the cushion while she bathes him. Ink sticks in his valleys and she presses hard but the only groans he’s got for her are pleased mewlings.


Usually Jo dumps the paint can out in the toilet but this morning she slings it humming over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. They eat cereal for breakfast but it tastes like smiley-face pancakes. She’s light all day in her sensible shoes, watch her tap-dance through the meadow of dope needles outside her office.


For dinner it’s stove-top Spaghetti-O's, there’s no time for shucking, no time for making Isa read the words til he gets them right, tonight she feeds him slimy and slapdash, feeds him his lines and puts him to bed early before he can rally his Furinkazan. She flips T on his stomach, forgets to move his face to the side, he snorts like an inbred pug into the upholstery, she rips his shirt off and some skin hitches a ride. There’s her fresh petroglyphs, there’s her hieroglyphs, there’s her God-given Isa-glyphs.


She doesn’t have a pendulum but she’s got a big piece of plastic cut like a crystal that hangs from the kitchen window and throws handfuls of rainbow into the spider webs above the fridge. She holds it on its string above T’s back and let’s it rip the way she’s seen turbaned women with fistfuls of turquoise rings do on the soaps. It circles the grid, its flight favors certain squares. It hovers thoughtfully above a bicycle built for three, a little kitsch if you ask Jo but no matter, she gets ready to rub her hands together when it pauses on high-rises, palm trees, grape vines.


She closes her eyes to sweeten the scene and when she opens them again, she’s looking at the three of them riding a tractor through a field of gumball machines. She doesn’t know what that means, but it strikes her as just what she needs. Sugar and color, sore jaws and her boys. Somewhere far away where the ground is ripe and they can sow bright orbs of promise and harvest something better than whatever the fuck this is. Tracy’s giggling, too, but it’s a minute before she’s hit with the evidence of the depth charges shooting out of his ass. Jo gets the sponge.

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Cynthia Atkins est l'auteur deLes temps de Psyché, en cas de divulgation complète(CW Livres),Nature morte avec Dieu(Saint Julian Press 2020).  Son travail a été publié dans de nombreuses revues, dont Alaska Quarterly Review, BOMB, Cleaver Magazine, Diode, Florida Review, Green Mountains Review, Rust + Moth, North American Review, Seneca Review, Thrush, Tinderbox, et Verse Quotidien. Elle était auparavant directrice adjointe de la Poetry Society of America et a enseigné l'anglais et l'écriture créative, plus récemment au Blue Ridge Community College, où elle a organisé une série de lecture trimestrielle, Lit-Salon. Elle est rédactrice en chef des interviews pour American Microreviews and Interviews.  Atkins a obtenu son MFA de l'Université de Columbia et a obtenu des bourses et des prix de la Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Writer's Voice , et Writers@Work. Atkins vit sur la rivière Maury du comté de Rockbridge, en Virginie, avec l'artiste Phillip Welch et leur famille. 

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