She made pillows from her father’s shirts,
and cried at the auction when they sold
his last twist of chewing tobacco,
in a ziplock bag with the pocket knife,
sharpened until the blade
was nothing but a curved sliver of steel.
She sharpened her lungs on the sandpaper
of cigarette smoke, eighteen years of
crack a window please, of smelling
like a dive bar, of love used as a lathe
on her children’s bones, filtered
through black coffee kisses.
Sixteen and pregnant, her mother read the Bible
by lamplight. She prayed
to be just like her. She hid her cigarettes
in the hollow of a tree. She said yes
to an avalanche of mistakes,
a revolving door of single motherhood.
Where the elephant walks
on tall spindly legs,
and tigers leap loud and violent
from the mouths of fish,
she sunbathes in the nude.
My mother worked hard at perfecting
my guilty conscience.
I’ve seen her shoot the moon⸺
she serves me Shirley Temples
in the bistro of my memory
where she waitresses to pay rent
with sticky dollar bills.
She turns her body into a chest of drawers,
sets fire to the silhouette
of a giraffe,
storing pumpkin seeds and bottle caps
that germinate into wasted lives
no one will regret in their hospital beds,
watching the saline drip,
cancer that morning coughing fit
that never stops
grinding the will into salt.
Is this all genetic?
Is the future a series of switches
flipped on and off
and catching like zippered teeth
into a winding road of predestination?
If so, I hope I don’t cry
when they’re auctioning off
her final carton of Marlboro Lights.