"Familiar Strangers" | Poetry Contest | Indy Week

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"Familiar Strangers"

Second place


She's a careful stranger in this house.
I am the face she can't name that is partly her own. She tells me
You look like a real bastard and she's right. I let it go,
just as I imagine she is letting go of the miniscule details of her life
that dissolve and fall around her like small dust clouds
stirring in the afternoon sun, untouchable fragments that belong
to no one. She is through with the chore of remembering.
On good days, she will fall in and out of conversations, in and out
of worlds like foreign voices I try to understand that bleed
through the airwaves over continents and oceans, burrowing
into our storm cellar, crackling in my late father's old shortwave.
Bad days are like watching the vacant sullen eyes of a boarded up factory,
the ancient machinery seized and shut down like a head without a thought.
On weekends, Rita, my girlfriend makes the drive.
She goes straight for the barn, undresses and paints
the same horse birthing a colt. Her nudity is supposed to relax the mare.
It never does. I have tried to explain to my mother
that she's very special, an artist, but she looks past my eyes,
and through the infinite layers of white house paint
that I touch up every year, past the walnut grove and the dead tractor
and the sycamore with the tire swing still hanging like a monocle in the wind,
past the noise of the mill and local traffic and barking dogs
and graying mountains and finally beyond all reason.
Near dark, storm clouds well up around the sun like a bloody bruise
that closes a boxer's eye. One by one, streetlamps flower in the false dark.
I welcome this rain and this lightning giving heavy doses
of shock therapy to the dull West Virginia hills.
The sudden flash of light still scares me with its urgent clarity,
like a terrible moment of truth between two people.
Rita calls me when she's made it back home safe.
She tells me everything she is doing all week in one long sigh.
I'm waiting for my mother to die. After that who knows?
There's a leak in the attic that makes tiny footsteps.
I could putter for another year, maybe contract out the electrical.
Late last weekend I was in the kitchen with Mom putting labels on jars.
There was a moment when I was lost. Lightning hit twice in the same acre.
One strand blew a transformer by the highway like a cannon
backfiring. We lost power and the lights flickered and were gone
like so many vanished people I really wanted to get to know.
Rita stood in the downpour, naked, smiling. Her white skin burned
with a ghostly light against the dark and ancient wood of the barn
like a bright passage from one strange world to another.
The second strike lit just beyond the first. I feared the lightning
meant to tear the sky in halves. Mom reached out
through that quiet moment before thunder, touching me
the way familiar strangers do in passing, perhaps in an airport
or under soft ballroom lights at a reunion, gently on their forearm,
a light touch that says, I know you. I know I know you.
Then we were left in total darkness.

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