American Origins

Jeannine Hall Gailey

I grew up in the sort of American town

where the women wore floral print dresses

to church and it was assumed we would stay home

and make babies and seven-layer-dip while

the men watched football. The basements

all had black mold. Occasionally tornadoes

tore the rooftops off our homes and schools.

Power lines crackled overhead.

One of my teachers was fired

for bringing a gun to school.

I filled the hours with biking down

long empty stretches of road,

the unbeautiful lawns and concrete,

dead trees, occasionally dodging cicadas.

Later it was dates in pizza parlors, babysitting,

homecoming with hairspray and shiny dresses.

When our parents were around they mostly

yelled at each other, sometimes about money,

sometimes about the troubles their boys

got into that week. No one there was innocent.

We didn’t drink the water and the air burned

in our lungs and throats. Once the river caught

on fire, a blazing miracle of poison. In elevators people

spoke about local teams, how well they were doing.

The well water gave some people cancer,

but the government suppressed all the studies.

I saw them by accident.

Just like working at the children’s hospital,

I saw that they used to experiment on children

with cancer, giving them x-rays and doses of radiation

to see if it killed them. That was years before

I got there, but I didn’t forget. It seemed every building

had its secrets, rats or roaches, children underground,

fire alarms that misfired, emergency exits

that never lead anywhere. I outran my origin story,

I learned poetry instead. I huddle close to the rocks

and mountains, stay close to the whispers

of the sea, that say, forget, forget, forget.


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