The backyard oak, branches that ladder to the clouds. A cereal aisle’s bright colors, your mother—for a moment—lost, and you forget how to breathe. The blind man across the alley who knows your name. A red-haired boy who mocks your words. The hours you stand in front of the mirror, practicing the placement of your tongue, hating your voice, your face. The nights you dream of your house and the doors that lead to forgotten rooms. A blizzard’s drifts, your struggles to match your father’s footsteps. The three-legged dog you stop to pet on your way home from school. The night your father twists your mother’s arm. The night she smashes a plate and he bandages her hand. The night he packs his suitcase, his goodbye your North Star. The mirror. Your voice. Your face. Your mother’s tears. A tornado blows in your bedroom window, glass on your pillow. The crucifix Jesus in your grandmother’s guest room. The TV news, murder, backyard graves—“This world,” your mother says, changing the channel. The day you see an ambulance outside the blind man’s house. The bank where your mother works, the manager who promises to take her to the Poconos, Atlantic City. The rock you throw at a boy because he has red hair. Your mother asleep on the couch, and you cover her with the afghan, slide off her shoes. The nights you have cereal for dinner. The nights you have cereal for dinner. The nights you have nothing. The train tracks where you sip your first beer. The girl who sits beside you in geometry, the curve of her left breast in a winter’s worth of sweaters. The fight where your friend wrestles you away, the punches you can’t stop throwing, a circuit blown, his breath in your ear, “Cool it, man. Shit!” The girl you kiss and wonder if you’re doing it right. The girl who unzips your jeans and turns you to water. The girl you love who doesn’t love you back. The girl you say you love only to fuck her. The morning you wake in jail, the night before lost. The bench you sit on at the community college campus when you should be in class. Your mother’s back to you as she washes the dishes, “I don’t know who you are anymore.” The car you stumble out of, the driver a friend who’ll ten minutes later plow into a streetlight. The weight of his coffin as you slide it into a hearse. The bed you share with his sister, the grief and guilt and ecstasy, and perhaps this is what religion feels like. The night she convinces you to take a hit, the smoke curling off the foil, the rush that turns the world soft and slow, and perhaps this is what religion feels like. The nights you stare at each other upon a shared pillow. The nights you talk about helping her kick and the discomfort of imagining your own happiness. The night she karaokes “More Than a Woman.” The morning you wake to find her blue and cold. The black eye her father gives you, and if he wanted to do worse, you wouldn’t have lifted your hands. The feeling that you’re both empty and full to bursting and not understanding which makes you feel like a liar. The warehouse’s chill and fumes, and your body moves but not your spirit. The nights you return to your old neighborhood just to walk, thinking of a blind man, a three-legged dog. The papers you sign at the recruiter’s office and your smile as you tell him it’s either this or a bullet through your head. The goodbye prayers your mother offers, your hand in hers, and you’re taken back, her bandaged hand, the hurt you’ve brought, and you’re sorry, so sorry. The bus ride to the base, and no one talks, and outside your window, the flatlands and pine trees, the green and blue and white that erase all you know. The base’s painted lines, a barber’s two-minute shearing, and every spittle-flying time your drill sergeant calls you a fuck-up, you lose yourself a little more. The day your feet bleed. The day you crawl through the muck as live rounds zing overhead. The letters your mother sends—there’s always been a light around you. The scream that burns your throat as you charge across a smoky field and thrust a bayonet into a stack of tires, and here, finally, is your religion. This shedding. This rebirth. This rising.
Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have appeared in over one hundred literary journals and have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Small Fictions, The Best Microfictions, and the Norton anthology, New Micro. He’s published thirteen books with independent presses–five story collections, five novels, two essay collections, and one book of cnf. His latest novel, The Magpie’s Return, was named an indie pick of 2020 by Kirkus. His next novel, The Lost and the Blind, will be released in 2023.