David J CC
Lake-slicked kids were we, driving Jeeps
and Caddies down 620 to the alley, where
the lanes shone glossy, the pizza was cheap
and we bowled like kings and queens.
After my first strike, Jacob folded
his hands into mine. I saw his crinkled
eyes, our matching flannel. Our first
closeness since those mornings
at our pizza parlor, hips nudging behind
the makeline, elbows colliding like
Newton’s cradle. I not yet nineteen, Jacob
spooning Elvis and George Strait through
my parted lips, onto my artichoke tongue.
Back then, Jacob crooned Elvis over the crank
of the dough machine, the ring of the door, hit
the highest notes in “Take on Me” as we layered
pepperoni in circles like bullseyes. When I played
Better Than Ezra – it felt like a lifetime – he asked,
“What’s this?” and switched back to Elvis. This
the music my father hummed as it thrummed
in his sweltering Lincoln the summer I turned
fourteen, ash blonde hair sticky with grease
and whipping in the breeze. Florida highways
gave way to Alabama, to plain lawns and my
father gone before first light.
I wanted to go home without pointing
to a home. Not to the skeletons of houses
off Origins Lane, the sepia townhouse
where my brother waited up, where I turned
twenty-one, echoes of Five Finger Death
Punch echoing through hollow walls,
matchbox of a house that our mother left
again and again, that I fled for winding
sidewalks snaking away from the lake
to call my father, who didn’t answer,
after my brother flung fruit and salt and
blame, stood sentry at my bedroom door
and then followed me, calling my name.
Not to the strip mall parking lot where Gavin
and I talked after work, his gaze lifted
toward the indigo sky that the fireworks
barely touched that starless July.
Not to the strips of metal shack shops
near Perpetuation Drive, the shadows
of the Krav Maga, gates chained shut.
Here Gavin uncapped glass bottles
of grassy beer against the fence post.
I’d told him we couldn’t go home
and he didn’t ask why.
Gavin carried me across rocky streams,
watched me stare off the cliffside, shaking
too hard to climb down. From there, I couldn’t
point to the hills where my car almost slid
down ice, down to the apartment where hands
threw golf clubs and bar stools and a slice
of time I thought mine, where police circled
and my brother called to say Don’t come home.
Gavin went off to war, bearing his tilted
front teeth, shoulder-length locks newly shorn.
He left his brothers the rock climbers, his sister
the pianist folding clothes at Old Navy. Jacob still
wants to make it big, still drives his green pickup,
stubble fresh on his long jaw, humming his short
songs for the girls he never loved, his ode about
coming home, verses for the children he never
had or held. When his truck got stuck behind
snowbanks and ice walls, he played Elvis.
Jacob writes to me for my birthday, but I don’t
write back. I watch my brother’s name light
up my phone, watch my father’s birthday
pass hour by hour and don’t write back,
swipe left on the music-loving Marine
from my beach town and wonder if Gavin
is still alive, if he still listens to Disturbed
like we did tearing down hill country roads.
I still play their version of “The Sound of Silence”
as I stack clean flannel and summer blouses
on the crooked bureau, stack books in boxes
until they break. I sing in my car when no
one’s around, in the August heat without my
windows down, and all summer, my phone rings
and rings and when I answer, it’s my brother
saying Don’t come home.
Song for the house
where cedar shimmered / from the overgrown yard / floors sticky
with watermelon / newly shattered / like a broken egg / cormorants
and cardinals / emerging from the shards / or like tender teeth / splitting
gums / like stalagmites festering / in puddles of ochre and amber /
clean it up / he told me / big hands slick / with ruby juice / towering /
over the beige tiles / the rickety chairs / that could cave / under too much
weight / so I got / on my knees / scrubbed / my sternum / a fist of crows /
while he watched / YouTube videos / of foxes / in his acrid blue room /
once I saw / two men wrap / rubber bands / around / and around /
and / ar ou nd / a watermelon / until / it burst / sometimes / I felt /
like that watermelon / sunburnt and careening / down the asphalt /
saying yes / no / yesyesyes / burning hours like incense / until I left
the house / where my bed disappeared / in a sweep / of lilacs / taken as fast /
as a warbler / in the maw / of a wolf / wanting wings / I keep resurrecting
the dream/ where I flew / above the corner of Perpetuation and 620 / no
turn light / I don’t drive / 620 anymore but / I like driving / alone /
when I talk / about origins / I choke / on the bone / of this house
until it crinkles / s o f t l y / in my throat / filling it / with harrow /
no it’s marrow / I build a house / of my vanilla paperbacks / I conjure
coffee / at my rickety table / monstera more holy / than the church
I drove to / that incandescent July / when I knew the house /
was only bones / gnawed until marrow lined teeth / like ashes on
stone / on the street where wine / pooled in canvas shoes / and pink
plastic heels / when the fires danced / at every house / except ours /
I will only oversee / my own singeing / will stitch a wound /
with votive candles / the colors of the lake / in winter
and drought / evergreen and rusty blue / I bury clockwork
bones / conjure lanterns / like the one I burned / before
the carpeted staircase / the dying bamboo plant / the stuck
back door / no boys ever snuck through / that only trapped
bees/ from a hive we never found / the busted garage light /
before I knew home / as something I could carve / from myself
In pockets of silence, I soften like
a petal, burst burgundy at hands
brushing through mine: the hands
of builders, burn-gridded and singed,
streaking the foundations of houses
with sultry scrapes. Their limbs praise
my jewel-dripping crown but tame
the ground from which I grew it, spurn
the churning roots beneath me, the arbors
sprouting in my wake.
Hands of musicians unearth words from
the ivory keys of my ribs. My touch is
mostly memory. I know how to make
a piano sing, but how do you take it apart?
Build from the keys a staircase, a doorstep,
a shelter? A walled autumn garden, stalks
standing sentry in salty air? But I don’t
need rosewood to build a home,
to construct the altar at which I pray.
I don’t want roses or carnations flung
at my water-swollen doorstep or wilting
on the wasp-infected porch. I don’t want
love letters littering my carpet like old
receipts for coffee or fruit.
Sometimes I am the girl digging a ruby
from sienna soil. Sometimes I am
the ruby: sleek and split, fractured into
a dozen hard planes—the girl I was,
the girl I am, all the girls I’ve wished
I could be. Some sheer glint, all light and
testament, some red drained like a quatrain
cascading down faded keys. Some scattered
like glitter stuck in curls of carpet, always
visible but forgotten under the stamp of leather
soles straight from the rain. Some scraped
away with fingernails. Some scuffed by
old boots, leather cracking like a hesitant mouth.
I don’t want questions, half-inquiry,
all excavation, that tear from me something
that glints. A flash of mothering like
unclasped petals, a father salted and
buried, earthbound. My hard, red words burst
beneath my sternum like poppies, always
stretching to the tightened bud of my throat.
I have been a burgundy girl in all
seasons—fall with its crinkling sky, summer
of the turning earth and my birth, spring
squinting at soil still damp with snowmelt,
winter when my hands blister, blood pooling
like tiny rubies in my finger webbing.
It spiders silently across the folds of me,
the creases of my calloused fingers.
Even without a crimson man to root
me, even without the scrape of diamond
or glass against my surface, without
the creak of teakwood under my weight
or the refraction of beams against my frame,
I still feel ruby opening inside of me
like a yearning mouth.
Courtney Justus is a Texan-Argentinian writer living in Chicago. She is a 2022 Tin House YA Workshop alumna, a Best of the Net nominee, and a recipient of residencies from SAFTA and the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her work appears in The Acentos Review, Barnstorm Journal, Defunkt Magazine and elsewhere. You can visit her at courtneyjustuswriter.wordpress.com.
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