“Road on the Great Plains,” photograph by Dorothea Lange, 1941.

by Kristene Brown

Hot summer and birds pillage garbage cans,
squabbling for scraps.
With ripped jeans and knotted hair, I follow
the unpaved road to town.
Today I’m eager to forget the hand-me-down
hem stitched and switch whipped home,
now ten blocks back, now small and blurred.
The smell of burnt meat pipes out
the smokestacks of a passing pork and beef
packing factory.
Like a blanket wrapped around
my own dumb pig-fate,
that smell clings to my skin and my clothes.
In my pocket I have two dollars.
In my pocket I have one
long stretched afternoon
alone. I smile at nothing. I smile at everything.
I want candy. I want smudge pots of lip gloss.
I want something new.  A car of boys,
with crisp button ups and clean faces, brakes
to look at me.

I’m young enough to believe
that the sheer white cotton clouds cupped
beneath the arched-back sky
and the humidity and sweat hummed
into the legs and hips of insects
is just for me.
Thirteen and my only sin is stupidity.
When I look up at the sun and then close
my eyes
that gold ring mirage shrinks to a single black
like a stain that knows its place.
That’s me. I want to be the un-washable dirt
on the knees,
the spike driven spigot in the mud,
the tongue learning to trace the grim grit
and scum rub
of a body scraping up against a different kind
of shame, a shame
separate from the shame already corkscrewed
deep in the bone-pulse of my blood.

Soon, I’ll stand in the weedy ditch
where mosquitos breed
and cattle fumes rise in a high noon heat,
a heat that leaves my skin feeling loose.
Soon, I will go back the way I came,
trailing that narrow road of smoke
in the slow moments after, but not yet.
This is the before. The before where—
I turn. I smile. I wave.

omega man

Kristene Brown is a psychiatric social worker for the State of Kansas. Her fiction and poetry has previously been published or is forthcoming in The Cortland Review, Midwest Quarterly, Linebreak, Permafrost, upstreet, and others. Kristene lives and works in Kansas City.