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Kerry James Evans
Lilacs and Razor Wire
Bent over in a folding chair, my arm a rag of oil,
I scrape the carbon from my M16
with a pipe cleaner here in the armory
named after a young colonel
who hanged himself.
No one sitting here really knows
whether or not the colonel
was a homosexual.
I bring up my mother-in-law,
Outside the window the local convicts
have decided to mow down the lilacs
blossoming along the roadside.
We go back to talking about homosexuals
and homosexuality, and I say:
We are all a little gay, which lands me
on the floor in a wrestling position.
Seventeen, April: the month
of five flats, skittering
down freshly graded
limestone gravel roads
in my ’92 Buick LeSabre,
picking up a nail, stopping,
pulling out a four-pronged tire iron
and hydraulic jack
from the first four flats),
and changing the driver’s side
front tire amid a downpour.
I was learning a common necessity:
how to change a tire and be on time
to roll dough at Little Caesar’s.
Trigger on the stock, chamber
and barrel, those convicts
mowing lilacs, my own hands
greased on the weapon.
I think of my mother-in-law,
who called New Year’s
with a message for my wife:
I will always love you, hon.
Cape Cod. Winter. People
leave the Cape this time
of year. I don’t know
if it was loneliness, but
my wife’s mother turned up
a bottle of pills and swallowed.
I would say more, but I wasn’t there.
I can’t give the image.
But perhaps those pills began in the pistils of flowers,
and perhaps those flowers are these lilacs.
There was nothing we could do, but we drove
the fifteen hundred miles to Cape Cod anyway.
We took the old U.S. highways, a full moon
blueing the mountains around us.
We slept in the hospital until she recovered,
until she divorced her wife
and said that if she could do it all over again,
she would have stayed married to my wife’s father.
But on the trip out there,
my wife called the mountains gods.
I let her and I drove,
the lilacs dead,
having yet to blossom,
in my hands
buried beneath the moonlight,
stashed in the freezer
with my youth,
and when we
popped a tire
and my wife asked
about the dark,
the North Carolina
tucked behind razor wire,
Do we have a flashlight in the trunk?
I told her no,
but I have done this before.
I pulled out a jack and tire iron, and I lifted our car from the road,
the words I offered of no use, so I asked her: Kneel with me,
our hands numbing on the lug nuts, the two of us, changing a tire.
The winter I abandoned Guin, Alabama,
I left its projects—a conglomeration
of 1960s governmental housing
passed by Congress to maintain
the needy and ignorant. Barbed wire
ended a potholed asphalt road,
and on the left: our apartment, mud
running up the side, staining the brick,
and in the yard, the rusted springs
of trampolines stretched limp
between the few needless patches
of switchgrass, where my brother
and sister piled into a red wagon.
I’d pull them up the hill. No sooner
than we’d reach the top, I’d hop in
and steer the three of us down the road.
One day our hollering interested
an old couple sharing a cup of coffee
on their porch. Baby oil. You need
baby oil on them wheels. You’ll see.
Of course we needed baby oil.
We greased the wheels on that wagon
and flew like hell, until we had mangled
ourselves in that barbed wire,
throwing a wheel into a snake bed.
Walking here, now, fifteen years
later, I think of Sisyphus
and what he might have said:
Get up and climb that hill,
before you lose track of your lives.
And he would have been a wise man
to say such a thing. That night,
my father drove down from Hamilton
to ask about our collision.
My soon-to-be stepfather spat tobacco
into a Mountain Dew bottle,
my mother standing in the doorway.
Halfway through the interrogation,
my father buckled. My father
spat in my mother’s eye.
I’d like to say the two men
courting my mother in their own ways
fought in the living room,
but these were southern men:
egalitarian—men of the backhoe
and the tiller, gardeners of a common
Alabama childhood. From the couch,
Glenn told my father: That is enough—
what I hear echoing off the asphalt.
My mother moves into the kitchen,
wiping spit from her eye. This is a family,
I tell the wagon rolling down the hill,
my brother and sister filtering
into their rooms, my stepfather
shutting the front door. I ask for violence.
Instead, these men cry, my arm
broken—the right arm of my father,
stitches in every room of the house,
and in the yard, the wagon’s shattered
wheel, my knowing that I have nothing
but this cast holding it together.
My father: nothing but his spit to offer
my mother. And today, I leave a house
crying at the bottom of Alabama,
and in the yard where I left my brother
and sister, the whites still hang
from the clothesline, and beneath the wire
from where we’d swing, a child
digs at a root with a spade. He stabs
the ground, then waves, pointing me
away from that home, and there I am,
drifting up the hill with my father.
I am pulling an empty red wagon.
You start up Ole Maude and we take gravel to all your hangouts: the coffee shop,
the iron bridge,
and your favorite, the county dump, where you found the stove Grandmother
cooks supper on today.
Except for that back left eye, the thing works fine. I helped you clean it.
We meet Cecil
at the coffee shop, where he pulls mints from his pocket—he thinks
with everything, and you let me know quick that coffee is good with nothing else
yet behind your back, I’ve been stirring in cream and sugar for years.
I don’t drive a pickup
like you did, but I’ll take the gravel roads to the bridge where you
from the top as a boy, and when I’d ask if I could jump, you’d say no.
I understand now,
but since you died, I’ve leapt several times into that snake-infested water.
took hold of me one time and sent me nearly a mile from the bridge.
But I’m dry now,
and Ole Maude’s waiting. Nothing beats a couple of Swisher Sweets
to give you cancer
and a Chevy Luv to send you to the dump. Plundering’s harder than it looks.
Just because I’ve grown
two feet since the last time we’ve come out here doesn’t mean I can see it any better.
The smell is worse
and the caffeine doesn’t hold as long. So I pop a mint in my mouth and breathe
in the stench anyway,
but I don’t find a stove or anything like it, just junk, piled up and buried,
from someone else’s memory.
BIO: Kerry James Evans earned a PhD in English from Florida State University and an MFA in creative writing from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. His poems have been published in Agni, Beloit Poetry Journal, Narrative, New England Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and many other journals. He is the author of Bangalore (Copper Canyon Press, 2013).