I grew up with the corn stalks
settled into the soil of haunted farm houses,
curled around the jagged circles
of potholes left by my great
grand daddy’s six-cylinder Fiat 527.
They tell me his ghost still roams these fields
and when I look into Great Grammy’s milky eyes
which do not know mine
I swear, he’s in there
My next door neighbor was a pump jack,
its giant metal arm rising up and down,
extracting oil, facing south west toward
the forest behind the elementary school, where Jessica
found the skeleton of a deer during recess.
We crowded around the carcass of this small deity
praying to its spirit in séances.
We could imagine the deer as a little god
protecting a world inside his skull
now buried above his ancestors,
the fuel that propels our lives’ forward.
And how could we not believe in ghosts?
Amanda hears her granddad’s cough
in her mother’s lungs,
a golden camel perched on a cardboard box,
the same way she feels her father’s rage
stomping through her veins, even as her mother
puts her whole hand to her mouth
and asks who taught Amanda to say such
foul language in polite company.
We grew into the words we didn’t know.
Into the crooked noses of our parents.
Hunter, into his older brother’s American Spirit cigarettes
then, into Red Man’s chewing tobacco.
But when Hunter’s dad caught him
with the piece nuzzled, so comfortably,
between his lower lip and gum
the old man made him drink
the water bottle of dip and spit until he threw up
along the road. And on the bus
the next day we all pointed to the spot
on the sidewalk where his vomit
had seeped between the cracks, had lingered,
we said; there, that’s where it happened
This whole town was a lesson
on lingering, shrinking
on being swallowed whole.
Jake watched his mother’s lips
grow thinner in the church’s wooden pews
and in the passenger seat of his daddy’s
eight-cylinder F-150, and at the dinner table
until one night her tongue fell, like a piece of veal
into the mashed potatoes. Everyone said
she cried and cried and boxed up
her Grammy’s framed picture,
her best pair of work boots
and poof – just like that –
Jake’s mom disappeared.
This was not our first taste of illusion.
We’d seen magic in the way Alyssa
smacked a home run on the exact moment
a bolt of lightning cracked onto the field.
The way our grandfathers’ skin
changed to leather right before our eyes,
added splotches of moles, irregular edges –
the callouses never faded, only the flush of red under the skin.
They held American Spirits between their teeth
passing down the recycled clouds of tobacco
that clung to the fabric of our little league t-shirts.
We've spent our whole lives trying to blow it out of our bodies,
but we can't seem to shake the smoke from our veins
any better than the feel of two hooked fingers
inside the eye sockets of our deer's skull,
and the weight of carrying it home with us.
By the time we figured out that quarters could be spent
on better things than soda from the vending machine
outside of the Kountry Korner Minimart,
that a bus pass could take you further than the edges
of our town map, we had already memorized
the lines around our mother’s eyes, our faces in mirrors
that have started to look the same. The back roads,
the veins of this place. Memorizing the look of dirt caked
into our knuckles. We could never scrape
this town from under our fingernails.
Even in the years after we evacuated
there was always Nimishillen County
nestled into our fingerprints, our callouses,
making ghosts out of all of us.