we kneeled in pitch-stained jeans on pine needles tiny bones and porcupine quills to measure the distance by the sound of our voices between burn barrel sparks and when we would leave in numbers reduced by the shape of the mountain broken bootlaces and songs we forgot to an address written on a bus station paperback and a road that led away from the trees
Loose ends, my brother and sister and I emerged from tree-canopy and Oregon rain to stay in a noisy house in Kettle Falls. We’d lived without faucets or refrigerators but knew the names of many plants and how to detect thunder on the horizon.
The three of us ate grocery store chicken and bean salad on a TV tray and watched shows we’d never seen before, tight polyester pants and laugh tracks and deodorant ads. The livingroom was separated from the murky kitchen by a grey metal tool shelf cluttered with jars of root-water spider plants and dust. Pans sat abandoned in the sink, a greasy dishtowel shoved through the oven handle. Stacks of mail crowded car keys and a pair of nail clippers on the counter. Joke books floundered on the toilet tank. The sprinkler ran until the lawn was a swamp. At first it felt like a dangerous vacation.
Across the street from a cemetery, 665 Kalmia Street was full of belongings and furniture in uncomfortable relationships, as if people had moved in and weren’t finished unpacking, or were just about to move out. Mom lived there with her boyfriend Jerry and his two sons, Tom and Bruce, high school seniors, a grade skipped or failed by one or the other, who couldn’t have resembled each other less if they’d been unrelated. Bruce had frizzy hair like his girlfriend. Barely six years older, they looked at me from the land of adults, where candlewax covered nightstands and albums were stacked against walls. Ashtrays were filled, bottles were emptied, then slowly filled again with discarded coins.
Sheila slept on a window seat near the wall phone under paper curtains printed with blue and purple hydrangeas. I had the floor of the broom closet off the kitchen. Maybe Ben got the couch. We kept our clothes in a cardboard box.
My new classmates incubated chicken eggs. We broke the shell of the unhatched one, saw a fully-formed creature, wet feathers, closed eyes, feet and legs curled.
On the last day of school, water balloons soaked our shirts and jeans. I sat on a log with my friends at the edge of the playground, where the field met the parking lot. I wrote letters to them that summer, when we returned to the cabin. I tried to feather my hair in the reflection on the porch window, but it had grown too long, so I went back to barrettes.
Our family unraveled, in time measured in maps and missing report cards and not enough money for stamps.
by Samantha Malay
published in Shark Reef – A Literary Magazine, issue 36, summer 2020
to smell the end of summer
in the sundown trees
and lunchbox rust
an uneven history
of bee-stings and scorch
branches broken to fit in the stove
dirt from other towns still on our shoes