The snapshot shows three white-toothed grins,
sunburned cheeks and noses. My brothers
and I pose in front of a giant Reese’s Peanut
Butter Cup at Hershey Park. The picture doesn’t
show the banter that turns wicked until scales
cover our skin, sharpen our teeth, and then
transform our teases into the powerful burn
of dragons’ breath. We spit fire at each other
until we return to the dirty motel room to sit
in silence. There’s no photo of that part.
That’s not the shot my father set up. Fights
continue at home and flames shoot to the ceiling
from French fry oil that boiled too hot. My mother
throws a pot of water, but the inferno only spreads
to the rest of the kitchen. We breathe noxious
remnants for months and wipe grease, soot,
and goop that clings to the walls, ceiling, and wood.
In fourth grade, my mother signs me up
for swim lessons at the YMCA. Though
I imagine myself a mermaid or torpedo,
master of watery depths, I swim like a Guppy,
or so the teacher thought when she
consigns me to that group. I manage to cross
the entire pool once, secure
a promotion to Minnow,
but dream of Flying
Fish, Sharks and Porpoises, the expert groups.
On dry land, the doctor would say swimmer’s ear
after his frequent visits to our house. He’d tell
me to lay the hurt ear on my pillow.
I swallow pills with water from the tap.
This is before water
filters, before the postman delivers the required
water chemistry analysis,
a list of contaminants so long
arsenic, bromide, chloride, chromium,
cylindrospermopsin, endrin, fluoride, formaldehyde,
lead, mercury, potassium, selenium,
and dozens more multi-syllabic names
that slide down the hatch slippery as fish.
My father builds a square frame
from wood scraps and nails
a sheet of metal mesh to it.
We dig up the backyard, sift rocks
from dirt to prepare vegetable beds.
Hands in soil we can’t see the future
graves or know which of our names
will be called back early: Mom, 60,
Jeff, 19, David, 17. The photos from those
summers show us dwarfed
beside the plants and later reveal
plants dwarfed by us. The tomatoes
come out gigantic juicy and too perfect.
This was before the word organic
came to common use, before
we knew animals were fed antibiotics
and growth hormones, before
we knew chickens ate the same
tainted produce we did. We water
and weed. My father sprays
repellants and dusts with insecticides.
You’ll be sorry one day when I’m gone.
I launch this dagger through the air
at my mother while I, alone in my room,
silence my sassy mouth and try my best
to break into her nightmares to paint
a picture of her future without me. I draw
her doubled over in grief, my two brothers
and dad beside her. Between whimpers
and sobs, their gazes latch onto the most
recent sixth grade portrait of me that they’ve placed
on top of a hand-made doily in the center
of the new coffee table. I devise death scenes.
One: A plane smashes into our house
but pulverizes only my room with me in it.
Two: One of Agatha Christie’s scoundrels
leaps out of my book and chokes me.
Three: I’m home alone and smoke seeps
under my door; I’m trapped as a wall of fire
closes around me. I’m too young and it’s
too soon to imagine other credible threats:
crop dust, radon, electromagnetic fields, anthrax.