Young lady, we are disappointed in you, disgusted with your behavior. God would never approve of this music. Neither do we. I’m glad we know now, glad that God put us in charge of raising you. Lie down. I said to lie down. Don’t make me make you. Reach your arms forward. Come on, you’ve done this before. You will thank us someday, smack, thank us for looking out for your spiritual formation, smack, that we kept you from hell. Smack, smack. We only do this because we love you. You know we love you, right? A stinging in my thighs, my legs, sharp, piercing. Don’t you dare reach back to protect yourself. Do you hear me? Dad’s palm on my backside, open, firm. His arm raises high above his head, pauses, comes flying down. It’s too late to change the consequences now. Keep your hands where I can see them. Hand on my back. Fist. I flinch. Will not cry. This hurts us more than you. You’re going to get left behind in the rapture if you don’t get your act together. Smack. Smack. Smack. There are five rings around the knot in the wood floor in front of me. Blood pours into my face where I drape from my dad’s lap, limp. Five. Have you learned your lesson yet? I sure hope so. Are you ready to repent? Smack. I bite my tongue, the inside of my cheek. Oh, Lord, we pray for our daughter whom we know we must discipline to remain within your will. I bite harder. Taste blood. She has fallen, Lord, fallen from your grace and mercy and love, and we are here to bring her back to you. I blink with each smack. Hit me, hit me, hit me. Thank you for your strength—I picture myself flying—and wisdom in dealing—the sun is warm on my back, the backs of my legs—with this child. Thank you—the clouds are soft—for teaching us your ways. I am free. Thank you for the privilege of teaching her.
I Can Say Church If You Ask Me
I can say church if you ask me. I can say baptize, fast, feel the emptiness in my stomach, the burning heat of starvation, feel water glide down my throat into my stomach. I can say fundamental, heaven, hell, go to hell. I can’t say gospel, redeem, save, can’t think hope or believe. I can say sword drill, verse, remember the feel of thin pages flecked with gold flying past my thumbs, the scent of worn leather. I can say hymnal with a sneer, imagine it burning, the flames melting the cover embossed with a gold cross, curling the pages into nothing but ash. I can say hallelujah in place of hooray or huzzah. I can say holy shit and holy fuck. I can say litany and lost, remember forgotten, hungry, alone. I can’t say sermon, can’t say sanctuary, can’t sit in a pew. I can’t say God unless it’s followed by damn it. I can’t say sacrament, prayer. When I say pulpit, I taste an orange Life Saver, feel its edges sharp against the roof of my mouth, remember itchy tights, hand-me-down dresses baggy on my malnourished frame, watching my dad’s suit stretch on his shoulders as he preached. I can say hypocrite, liar, abuser. Sin fizzes in my mouth like popping candy. I snap it with my teeth, ask for more. I can’t say witness or testimony, can’t say serve or submit. I can say love when I think of my children, their small bodies hot on my lap. I can say truth. I can say incest, abandoned. I can say exiled and shunned. I can’t say forgive. I won’t.
after Frank O’Hara
It’s 8 am and Alexa sings that it’s time
to leave for school. “Your water bottles
are on your backpacks. Do you need
your library book? Do you have homework
or a folder to turn in? Do you know
what special you have, what shoes you need?”
The dog runs to the front door; it
is time, it is time, it is time!
“To the car,” I say. The kids
are teasing each other, like other days, something that began
at breakfast, an argument over who
ate more sausage. My daughter feigns casual
indifference. My son rages. My daughter smirks.
There is snow on the grass on this November day. It sits
atop green blades like a hat. The dog
sniffs, stands by the street, protective, until the kids
have closed their car doors, then gallops to the front seat,
hops in, her tongue hanging out, golden
fur glistening in the morning light.
8:15 am, we park in our standard
spot, two houses from the school. We leave
the car at 8:17 am, eight minutes before
the bell will ring, a chime really. I nod
to James’s mom as she passes. “Good morning!” “It’s cold!”
“Yeah, it is.” “At least it’s light when we get up now.” Nod. Repeat
with Anna’s dad, Lily’s mom, a teacher. Cross
the street east, then south, hold my kids’ hands. “Quick feet! A car.”
At the edge of the curb is a pile of mud and leaves. “I’m not
stepping in that,” my daughter says.
I lift her over. She glows.
Yellow buses hiss
along the curb. The scent of diesel. Boys and girls rush
down the stairs, their feet catching their energy
before they fall, race each other behind
the bushes along the wall, brick
the color of salmon, their voices high. “Hey, Aliyah,
look what I brought today.” “Hey, Santiago!
Come play with us.” Another boy runs
toward a puddle, splashes brown slush
on a teacher’s beige pants, a girl’s cheeks. He
doesn’t know, keeps running. The girl whimpers.
The teacher calls, “Stay on the sidewalk!” It’s too late.
Backpacks with Ninja Turtles, superheroes,
pink glitter, princesses shuffle by like
the sun creeping over the horizon. I rub
my son’s head, his black hair wiry and thick,
hug my daughter against my hip. The bell
calls us apart, each of us to our day.