Inner City Saint Paul


Memory tells me my parents rose like early morning mists

in split-second stillness, then gone, and that the sun never dropped lower

than the rooftop of our townhouse. It turned me the deep color of worn

pennies and brought the blaze of souped up muscle cars in the streets,

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” teeming on teenage windowsills.


Rhubarbs grew in idle dirt along the sides of two-story

brick buildings. I pulled them from the ground, snapped off

the poisonous leaves, and stripped the stalks to chew,

letting the tartness go down slow like the pace of summer days.


The gentle finger of an ancestral spirit must have pushed my family here. At first,

the black kids stared and we Hmongs stared back. This had been their place,

but it was ours too, now that we had unexpectedly dropped in.

Both we and they stood mute in clothes too big or too small.


The old witch in #435 liked to shake her keys at my sister and me,

chanting strangeness into the wind. We ran in fear, jelly shoes

kicking up dust on the gravel, until my sister fell, ripping open her forehead

on the see-saw. The witch stood above her, keys jingling from the folds

of her apron. Somehow her chants dried the blood and stopped the flow.


Beyond rows of townhouses was a vast, green hill. From the top, I could see

everyone, even the Mexican ice cream man with stubby beard and sullied

clothes, slowly carting his way up the hill’s asphalt path, shouting,

“Ice cream for sale! Very cold, very nice!” On lucky days, he gave my sister and me

a twin popsicle to share. Banana-flavored—because nobody ever bought those.


In return, we searched our pockets and gave him all we had: a penny

or a nickel found in sidewalk cracks. On lucky days, I sat atop

the hill, savoring the popsicle, while below, everyone looked

the same—tiny beetles thrown to the ground on their backs.


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