At the hair salon, the absent mothers
do not speak to one another,
only about one another
and about whose missing children
are the saddest, the most alone.
They do not mention the places
they abandoned their offspring—
names they tore from the map
so they’d never find their way back.
They glare at their own reflections,
tell the hairdresser what to cut.
The saloon is full of fathers drinking
silence. They love the smoky taste
of forgetting, how it numbs
the tongue, drains it of speech.
At closing time, they pull their wallets
from their pants, leaving crumpled
bills for the man who wipes away
their fingerprints with a damp rag.
They all face the mirror behind the bar,
but not the absence of their faces in it.
The children are down by the train tracks,
hunting for needles like easter eggs.
The children are in the alley
behind the liquor store,
poking a lame dog with a stick.
The children are in the backseat
of a stranger’s car, their fingers
sticky with candy.
My mother was an empty chair
and a ribbon of smoke rising
from a cigarette resting
on the edge of an ashtray.
How quickly she could vanish,
leaving only a haze
and a burning in the throat.
She was always trying
to leave us through the mouth
of some kind of bottle.
She’d slip out of the room,
taking the light with her
like tucking silverware in her purse.
She’d take every shiny thing
and you wouldn’t notice her doing it,
only that they were gone and she was too.
It was a grim hide and seek,
this game she played with us,
the only game she ever played—
come find me before I count
down from the number
of pills in this bottle
in come free
My Father Forgets his Wife’s Name
My mother’s name is a meteor.
It arcs from my father’s lips
and pocks the surface
of my stepmother’s face.
She blinks twice and swallows
her tongue. She does not look
at me, to avoid my mother’s eyes.
I can hear her unpronouncing
his name, hear the words
of their vows uncoupling
like train cars. Their marriage,
a loose thread, so easily unravelled.
Outside the kitchen window,
the sweet pea blossoms wilt
on the trellis and the trout
all go belly up in the brook.
When he realizes his mistake
his face goes blank and pale
as the moon’s. The doe grazing
at the edge of the yard drops,
a bullet hole opening in her side.
I once locked my voice in an ivory box.
The key was a ring finger gnawed to bone
with a one-word spell carved into it.
This one word has one letter. It is both
the part of my spine I can’t reach
and another name with loneliness.
I told my tongue I’d bite off its tip
if it so much as grazed the lip of a man
who might otherwise want to kiss me.
I once kissed a man who kept a basket
of other women’s tongues on the nightstand,
fistfuls of their teeth under his pillow.
When I lay in his bed I did not ask
whose mouth was now barren—
whose gums, a row of empty pockets.
But the grinding kept me from sleeping—
swarms of stolen voices termited into my skull
and chewed my silence to pulp.
When their rage blistered my mouth,
his lips twisted into a coil of rope
reaching for my neck.
I awoke to clumps of another woman’s hair
stuffed in my mouth, a gag of snarled
promises he’d never intended to keep.
A mouth pressed to a mouth can be a gift
or a theft. I learned this choking on the stump
of my tongue, guzzling my own blood.
I once traded my bite for a bit. But now,
when a man tries to arrange a bouquet
of silence in my throat, I bare my teeth and hiss.
A collector of tongues must make
his cut before the mouth learns to pronounce
the spell shaped like a fingerbone:
I—the key that unlocks the throat
so the heart can fill the mouth and spill
into the air the love it has for itself.