2005. It had snowed. I’d tell people from out of town every year after that it snows here in October. They’d raise their eyebrows, not believing the orange leaves could give themselves up so easily. My grandma Ginny’s face— the face I’d grow into (an exchange)— was on every news channel. Former Denver Post reporter killed by falling tree limb. I spent most of my nights at her house then, my room looking out on the cottonwood tree that shaded the yard.
[In 1993, she covered the trial of Nathan Dunlap, who shot and killed four people in a Chuck E Cheese’s a few blocks from where I was the size of an avocado or an apple and my mom was sleeping. Ginny covered every death penalty case with disgust for a decade when she was assigned to the courts. She reported appeal after appeal by lawyers to remove the death penalty from Dunlap’s sentence. They failed.] She was crushed. We cremated her immediately.
In her office, my grandmother had reams of recycled paper. She’d printed an email exchange with a cousin who praised and tamed her short fiction— a description of the “avocado-green refrigerator that everybody had back then.” She had a thick wooden meditation seat, its rings sprawling at an angle; zinnia seeds and sobriety chips traded for bottles; clippings from the papers the morning after Columbine. She was the first reporter on the scene. Columns and columns for guns; a delicate purple and white wildflower that traded its name for a proxy.
Two weeks after the accident, our neighbor women cheered as the giant cottonwood came down. [A body for a body.] Ginny had hated them: Lisa who was afraid of the dogs and Jan who spent weeks staining the wooden planks she plastered over the siding of her house as a mask. After the city felled our tree and the ladies whooped, I stacked decades of Ginny’s spiral-bound notebooks and leather-bodied journals and burned them over the broken branches from the yard.
Afton Montgomery is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Idaho, where she is the associate managing editor for Fugue. She has work previously published in SUGAR, Stain’d, and elsewhere, and she was a finalist for the Pinch Literary Awards in nonfiction in 2018. She is the former frontlist buyer for Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver.
Not the milk or the electric birds,
not your pulse of Tylenol
and prayer, not the shaman
of your mother’s face,
not the peasant angels dragging
sulfur through your veins,
not the cage of sparrows in your radio,
not the roses that died each night
on your mother’s robe when she turned
the light off in your room,
not our love or our fear of death,
not the three of us on your bed
with popsicles, bright as rescue
flares, melting in our hands,
could keep you from screaming
when your fever broke. You, who
had risen from the swamps
of our coupling, who had climbed
alone through the zero of the world,
woke to find your nightmares
clinging to the sheets, an incision
in the pillow case, your animals
masked and menacing, so that
for two nights we slept with
the light on in your room,
and still you woke asking, what
is that thing, what is that is that thing,
your fear lit by fever or, worse,
nicked into the chromosomes
by a father who feels terror
burning, always, like a pilot light
inside of him, who stood for weeks
once in the hallucinating dark,
fear inside of him like a colony
of ants. What does it amount to,
my hypochondria, the anti-
psychotic bitter on my tongue,
my fear of losing you? Must this
be your inheritance, too, this ghost-
mottled room, that particle of death
in your finery of nerves?
I’d like to pick, from you, all my
little agonies, as once, when
you were better, we chiseled the bones
of dinosaurs from a block of clay,
the two of us working together,
I couldn’t help but think, like nurses
digging shrapnel from a soldier’s knee,
your fingers stained blood-bright, the meager
offering of bones piled before us,
like those bits of me marrowing in you,
not just my anxieties, but these words
like flakes of charcoal laid upon
your tongue: sleep, love. Take
your medicine. The only ghosts are
the ones we’ve always been. Truth is foul.
But it sucks the poisons from the blood.
The Two Stories
— for my wife
The writers colony, the loneliness, the storm we keep talking through because something about the bad reception on the cell phone reminds me of my father trying to see through the static, the television like a box of packing foam, as he pulled it closer, as he took one blue pill after another from the dusk-tinted bottle in his hand, my wife drawing the story out of me, like a piece of broken glass, so that I tell her how he seemed a little out of focus, blurred, his words slurring as he cursed my mother, as he called her the usual names, a dirty bitch, a whore, so that I knew, at thirteen, how to hate a woman, properly, when she will not come to you, my mother just three rooms away, refusing to move, lying in her bed, reading, saying, when I told her what he was doing, that he gets what he deserves. For an hour I walked back and forth between the two rooms, like a thought that gets carved into your mind, when you can’t think of something else, my mother saying divorce, my father saying suicide, the crushed blue pills like a sky he was falling through, my mother laying herself below him like a street. And when they finally came, when the gurney popped open like a child’s toy, when they brought him back to life, his stomach pumped into a bag, the transparent mask misting on his face, I stood in the room turning red in the ambulance light, while my father asked who had made the call, then turned towards and away from me, and said to the driver, “he’s a little prick, that’s all.” And don’t you have things like this, things that live in the convent of your family’s past? Haven’t you felt it all come back to you in the rain slashing against the window panes, in the voice of someone, no matter how distant, who demands that you leave nothing out, that you tell them everything, plainly, without artifice? Haven’t you felt the story they give you with their listening take the buried story’s place? Because she had disrobed me somehow, teased the story out of me, gently, taken it into her own mouth, like a mother softening her child’s food, and given it back to me, when the telling was over, I asked my wife, with a love deepened by our privacy, to go into that distant room, I asked her to go lie down and shut the door.
Steve Gehrke has published three books of poetry, including Michelangelo’s Seizure (U of Illinois Press), which was selected for the National Poetry Series. He teaches at University of Nevada-Reno.
You ask me –
what is it then,
this profound unrest
that makes me chew off my own tongue
in my sleep?
You want a description
so you can write words on a label,
so you can give a name to this distress.
But how to explain those Badlands?
How to illustrate that desert in my head,
the million miles of black sand and howling winds?
How to conjure the cavern inside my torso,
lined with ledges built expressly
for endless waiting?
Maybe if you lay me
under a sheet of blank paper,
and colour over it like a child,
you will see the shape of me emerge;
a negative imprint,
that you can call
Beth Black is a poet and a musician. She loves nature, and finds most of her inspiration while walking in the woods. Follow her on Twitter @Bethlovestrees.