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Best of Irish Poetry 2010
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Songs of Earth and Light
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by Jennifer Minniti-Shippey
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Richesses: Francophone Songwriter Poets
Edited and translated by Aidan Hayes
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Amanda Yskamp’s work has appeared in such magazines as Threepenny Review, Hayden Review, caketrain, Redivider, and The Georgia Review. She lives on the 10-year flood plain of the Russian River, where she teaches writing from her online schoolhouse.
We’d been breaking down every hundred miles since before Albuquerque. The way his Mustang was leaking oil and kicking out parts was making Jay crankier than hell. He was being a total drag, to tell you the truth, always talking mileage, bitching about money, always squealing, “listen to that, what the hell is that?” never driving over 60, gripping the wheel until you’d think his knuckles would pop, forget about ever letting me drive. True, there was that one DUI, but I learned my lesson, really, 3 drinks was absolutely my limit now. But no go. He said he’d just as soon pick up a homicidal hitchhiker and let him drive us off the highway to the scene of our final destruction.
“You used to be fun,” I told him.
“You used to be thin,” He shot back and that was that for another 25 miles.
Sun was low behind us, zapping Jay’s eyes in the rearview, squinched so the lines at the corners looked like cracks in rock, when the smell began to seep in through the vent and then smoke leered out the corners of the hood.
“Ah hell! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! What next?” Jay shouted, pulling onto the shoulder. We’d gotten so good at this; it was like a routine. He put on his hazards. I stepped out, pacing around the weeds. Up with the hood, and in leaned Jay, scowling. His T-shirt hiked up some and I could see three of the little turtle shells of his spine between the waist of his Levis and the beginning of his ribs.
“This time it’s something bad. I knew it. I just knew it.” Wiping his hands on an old beach towel, throwing it through the open window into the back seat, he stomped back around to the driver’s side. He said the same thing every time.
“Can we make it to a gas station?”
“It will be a minor miracle, but I’ll try. Get in.” And we both held our breaths, driving slow, until on the next rise we saw a small town: just a few stores, a gas station with a house attached, a little rundown motel. We let the ‘Stang coast into the driveway of the gas station, clouds of smoke signaling our arrival.
“What can I do you for?” said an old man, stepping out of the small office attached to the garage. His white hair and faded blue eyes made him look sun-bleached.
Jay gestured towards the smoke, his wrists bent at odd angles, like it was all too much for him.
“Right. All right. Can you bring it into the bay?”
I got out, leaving the two men to their car talk. God knows, it could take hours. I went and got myself a pop from one of those old-timey machines with bottles stacked in little slots, then wandered to the side of the building. Nothing there but piles of old tires, some crushed coke cans waiting to be recycled, a beach chair beside a coffee can filled with sand for butts. Around the other side there was one bathroom, used mostly by men, I could tell from the stink. In the rusted mirror, I checked my face. Yep, still there, but my hair was a mess from the wind and my cheeks puffy from all the beer as of late. I did what I could with a brush and some makeup, but let’s face it, Rome wasn’t built in a day and no amount of Rubicund red lipstick could disguise that fact. I leaned in over the iron stained sink and kissed the mirror, nevertheless. Red lip-prints framed the split silver backing under the glass.
Jay and I were on our way to Auxvasse, Missouri where Jay’s mother was dying of emphysema and might or might not be planning to leave him her 50’s split-level where we could live for a time. To save money, we mostly were sleeping in the back of the car, except for the one time Jay coughed up enough for a Motel 6. He sure knew how to treat a gal, but I told him, it was either we stopped to sleep and shower or he’d have to smell my skunky pits for however long it took us to pull into Auxvasse, and he came right around.
I stepped out of the bathroom. I could still hear Jay and the mechanic going at it, so I just strolled down the side alley. Towards the back there was a door that led to a room I couldn’t really figure out what it was for, but that didn’t stop me from trying the knob: unlocked. Well, you wouldn’t believe it. In a room a little bigger than a pantry was some kind of exhibit of full-on grossness. The walls and around the windows were covered, floor to ceiling, with photographs and newspaper clippings of the weirdest damn stories you could imagine and pictures galore. It snuck up on me at first: stories about freaks of nature, three-legged cows, two-headed snakes, Siamese twins joined at the hip, all kinds of disasters, natural and otherwise, amputees who’d lost parts to machines or god knows, a tumor the size of a basketball with teeth and fingernails and bits of hair growing all in a clump. It was almost enough to make you hurl. What a collection. The clippings, well, I realized, someone must’ve cut them from those magazines you see at checkout stands, the ones that show babies born weighing more than their mothers and sightings of Elvis eating a corndog in downtown Berlin or whatever. The photos, I don’t know, who could say? Floor to ceiling, I swear to god.
I turned around and around, all those yellowed pictures and bold print words blurring, until I felt even dizzier. Whose world was this, you know, whose world? Then, I don’t know why, time to kill or something, I got down on my knees and began to read them, starting with the ones taped along the dusty baseboards: about a buried dog that wagged itself back to life out of the dirt, a hermaphrodite’s prom night, a collector of stolen lawn trolls who was killed by an avalanche of those suckers during an earthquake, talk about payback. I couldn’t stop myself. With each new story, I found myself, I don’t know, more and more out of breath. The room was close and too warm. Smelled of dead flies.
One of the stories got me most, though, about some lady jilted at the altar by her guy. She’d met him late in life, after she’d begun to lose all hope for happiness of that together variety. She said he’d come out of nowhere and just about swept her right off her feet. Come the day, though, he was likely halfway to the border, with her credit cards and anything else she had of value. She wouldn’t leave the church, not until everyone else had gone. It wasn’t clear if it was because she was still waiting, blind hope springing eternal – the sap – or because she couldn’t face the humiliation. But every last family member and friend on both sides had to leave before she’d dragged her lace veil and train out of there.
When she got back to her house, she ended up bricking herself into her bedroom. Really. Actual bricks and mortar. And she never came out again until she died some 40 years later. She got her food shoved through a slot in her door by her nephew. Where she did her business they didn’t say, but you had to wonder. Imagine. Like she lived in a tomb, walled up into a broken heart.
Off this room was a hallway which, it turned out, led to another room, half cloaked by a heavy burgundy velveteen curtain. A wall of heat coming from there, mixed with cigarette smoke and Lysol. I couldn’t help taking a peek. Inside there was a T.V. on, Oprah show going, sound down low, and a fat lady with powdered balloony arms wearing a blue muumuu sitting in a Barcalounger with her feet up. Every once in a while she let out a “Ha!” or a “Yeah, right!” Beside her on a pink heart-shaped rug, a teacup poodle with bows tied in its fur and tiny toenails painted red. At the other end of the room, by the window, a skinny man in workpants belted high around his waist and an undershirt stood beside a boy, maybe 6 and fair-headed.
“C’mon, Daddy, show me your muscle again. C’mon!” The boy jumped up and down, his hands flapping like little wings.
“Oh all right, Leon.” And the man bent his arm so that a pale bulge showed, lowering his arm for his son to latch on. When he raised it, the boy dangled, legs loose and kicking, staring up at his old man with utter admiration. And the expression on the man’s face, what can I say? You see it pretty near the same on every proud father’s.
“What are you doing here?” Her voice came from behind me so sudden I literally jumped. It wasn’t that she spoke loudly or anything. She didn’t. It was just I’d begun to feel like I was some kind of lone, invisible spectator. I whipped around to see a girl of about fourteen standing there, her hands on her hips. Her black hair was cut close to her head and she was wearing what looked like a man’s white dress shirt, with the sleeves cut off, and as far as I could tell, nothing else. The thing fit her like a dress, almost down to her knees, and all I could see were her brown legs sticking out underneath, her bare feet. Her toenails were painted the exact color of the poodle’s.
“Oh, um, I was just …” I shifted my weight in my high heel sandals.
“Just spying on us?” She snapped. She had a small scar that ran through her top lip, a thin stripe of bright pink.
“Oh, no, it’s just that, well, our car broke down and we …”
“Felt the immense draw of the electromagnetic source that lies buried under the station? You’re not the only one. Almost everyone has to stop.” I noticed too that she was just slightly walleyed, the effect being she seemed to be looking behind my back even as she stared straight at me. I turned, but saw only the curtain, heard the rumble of applause from the T.V. show.
“Part of the phenomenon,” she said, nodding vigorously.
“What is?” I asked. I couldn’t help myself.
“We attract everything we need towards us. You’re here, aren’t you, and it’s because you’re a wounded soul too. I was once myself. And you’ve got something to tell us, something crucial to the web. You know, it’s not just people, it’s everything. Ground beef. Lightbulbs. Envelopes. We are never without. Our dreams and prayers are answered within 6 to 8 weeks.”
And the weirdest thing is that even with all that crazy talk, she didn’t seem crazy. Not really. She stood there, on second glance, she didn’t look like a child, only someone very small, like some kind of, I don’t know, telegraph angel in her flowing white shirt and skinny legs. Her big eyes angled to include me and the walls of the hallway and all it might lead to.
“So, where is it?”
“Where is what?” I asked, but I already knew. A brass key appeared in my mind, toothed deeply in steps. It had fallen behind the refrigerator. It lay there in the dust that collects, beside a blue rubber band and a penny.
“It’s fallen behind the refrigerator,” I said and the girl nodded.
“Thanks. We’ve been looking for it for years,” she said. “And now, here’s one for you. He’s the wreck, and you’re the road. At the third crossroads, is it left, right, or straight?”
“Straight,” I said, because what else could I say? I could see the crossroads too. I could see that the road wouldn’t take us much more than 18 months, some of them in Missouri, but that I had to pass that way to get where I was going.
“I knew you would say that. Right you are,” she said, and floated around me to head down the hallway.
“Hey Annie!” From outside, “It was the fan belt. Didn’t I say it was the freakin’ fanbelt?” So I stepped outside. What else was I going to do? Ask this roadside family to adopt me? I couldn’t see it as clearly, it was temporary, I could see that, but I knew Jay had some key piece too. Jay had wheeled the car up to the front. He had a new pair of mirror glasses on, another pair spinning on his finger for me.
“Get in,” he said, adjusting the rearview, “get in.”
So I got in, the nature of love being what it is.
©2016 Amanda Yskamp
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