S h e r r y O ' K e e f e
People who start fires aren’t the ones to put them out. Our father taught us burning trash was illegal, but a gully-load of tires had been lit. When no one cares to stop it, heat can flame for years in the chambers underground. Through the smoke of burning rubber, we rode a school bus along the Missouri River shore, past the county dump to our squatty white house in the down-spray of the falls. Two bedrooms for eight of us, with the baby’s crib in the hall. The older boys had a bedroom town kids called a porch. These kids in town were lucky, we thought, to ride bikes to corner candy stores. Quarters in their pockets. Smooth pavement for the games they played while the five of us spent hours on the country bus with thirty-three Hill 57 Indians. We stood out with our Irish freckles and front porch house against their darker skin and homes built from scraps mined from the coulees around the dump. We learned who could be friends, who would never be. Mary Little Cross lived in a shack with a two inch gap around the front door. Dark winter mornings kerosene light leaked out. She stayed warm by wearing her three dresses while she slept. She told me she switched them so it seemed as though she changed her clothes. We’d smooth our skirts and huddle in the fourth row of our bus. Knees pressed together, the paper keyboard we had made spread across our laps. I showed her how to read music from a book I brought from home. Mary taught me how to chant for rain.
You Are Here
Rhoda—he calls her Rhoda
because he doesn’t know her
name—begs for money between
where he sleeps and where
he buys his beer. She’s on
the corner of Fifth and Friday
every day but he doesn’t usually
see her. When he gave her
a five dollar bill her hand
That was yesterday.
Caught in his own trauma,
he’s still feeling the magnitude of her
when he calls to tell me about the touch. I listen
while I scramble eggs. What does it mean
and did you notice—he asks
and I don't answer— everyone is caught up
in finding their own Einstein.
My mouth is full. We don’t learn
from what is here.I am eating breakfast.
She told me how she’d been born to live
fifty-three Octobers—not one November more. She scattered
her way through our town like a Great Dane pup
chasing crinkled leaves, unaffected
by the scent of baring trees. Wanting her ease,
some would mimic her, mirror the prisms
in her laugh. Once, by chance, she shared with me
her bench in Terry Park, moving aside
her cardboard bundle. She counted
maple shadows, offered to reveal how
she kept the possibility of fifty-four years
deep in her poker pocket, an ace hidden in her
greened satchel. I thought to see the usual
when she undid its clasp: twigs and twine,
Aunt Jemima syrup bottles, tins of mustard seed.
She parted the forest of brown velvet
lining the tin bottom. I leaned forward to peer in—
it opened on blue water.
Sherry O’Keefe is the author of several books and her poetry can be read in many places. Too Much August is a good place to find her whenever she’s out of town.