Smoke Between His Teeth

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Through a torn curtain of pine branches,
my cousin’s boyfriend and I watch
the girl next door sunbathing,
her painted toes curling in the July heat
like the freckled blooms of tiger lilies.

Joe turns away to light a cigarette
so she doesn’t see the flick of fire
behind the trees. Six years older

and ninety pounds of muscle heavier,
he shrouds me with his shadow
like a hawk’s wing. I’m silent,

but not because I’m worried we’ll be caught.
It’s the racing thrill that this man
has noticed me, thirteen and pudgy,

that he beckoned me here,
to this shady corner of the yard
for what I know will be our secret.

In the one-story behind us, my family
plays penny poker, sipping screwdrivers.
Five months pregnant with Joe’s son,

my cousin, who scolds Joe when he smokes
around me, slices strawberries into medallions
she dips into sugar before eating.

Across the street, the girl spills a Coke on herself.
Joe chuckles, wags the cigarette with his tongue,
I could get her a lot wetter than that.

This is three years before he smashes
my cousin’s plastic table in half with one punch,

three years before he drives a boning knife
two inches into her side, blood sliding
down her leg to pool in her Vans.

In the light wincing through the blinds,
she clenches her jaw and lies to save her life.
I got cash hidden, just let me get it.

This is the moment I can’t imagine,
no matter how hard I try.

What are the words she uses,
soft as eyelashes, to this man she loved,

how does she gesture with her hands
so that he relents, lets her track blood

out to her car where, with the knife
still wedged between her ribs,
she drives around town while his friend,
meth dealer armed with a pistol, follows.

As soon as she’s free of the driveway,
she calls her mother, sends her racing to the daycare
to pick up their son before Joe can.
Only then does she drive to the hospital.

For now, there’s only me, flushed with pride
and darting sideways glances at Joe,
envious of his thick beard and broad shoulders.

Wind flutters, and pine needles drop to the ground,
sticky with resin. The neighbor girl raises her head
toward us, and we crouch down quick.

Laughing, Joe reaches into his pocket.
Smoke pours from between his teeth
as he holds out the box of Slims.
Go on, take one.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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Kirk Schlueter is a MFA candidate in poetry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His poetry has been a semifinalist for the James Wright Award, and has appeared in the minnesota review, The Lindenwood Review, and Tahoma Literary Review among others. He has been awarded a full scholarship to the NYS Summer Writers Institute, and has been part of the Hungry Young Poets Reading Series.

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