by Joe Clifford
A CIRCUS STORY
For Charlie Starkweather
Buried between the lanes and the miles, where love gets abandoned in roadside motels just beyond King’s Cross, Ohio, a late night call-in show clings to its last taste of frequency. It is a stretch of road remembered only by the yellowed newspaper clippings and rebroadcast Christian theatrics about fathers with gambling problems and penchant for hitting the sauce a little too hard, a teenage killing spree victim, circa 1957.
Now, decades later, the sewage from draining fuselage and deserted Buicks in cornfields festers beneath the diesel weeds and magpie bones. Kept cool by a light rain, this prairie yields no secrets. It is a circus story, this nomad’s land of gutted factories and splayed-open houses, wilted prom date corsages cropping up with the late season harvest, where adrift in the high wheat plains, restless young men still cruise for kicks.
The driver caps his Mad Dog 20/20, pulls on his menthol cigarette, savors the soft pack carton bargain he pilfered off the pimply Injun kid back at that reservation with the fake tan tepees. The balled up, lace top sits in his lap. He twines fingers around thin straps, breathes her scent in hard. Perfume trapped in the upholstery; religion found in a moving car. He adds up the odometer, does the math in his head. He’s rolling in the direction
of Wyoming, or at least he was last time he checked in Arkansas. It’s hard to tell apart one of these backwater towns from the next anymore.
He’s a good boy, the fishmongers used to say, still keeps the last letter he received from his mother, the tenth anniversary of the first time he went away. But when that black ink bleeds into the parched wood fiber, it makes it very hard to read under the dim dashboard lights of a 10th grade education.
The girl hasn’t made a sound since placed in the back seat eight hours ago and covered with the wool blanket. Last time he checked, she seemed asleep. There is no mud on the tires; any trace of wrongdoing has long been wiped clean, washed away by the steady fall of rainwater and gasoline that breaks down time
into hushed rose and gray droplets, casting them back to where they are wanted.
SOMEWHERE IN A TRAILER PARK IN TULSA, OKLAHOMA, 9:04 AM
When he struck the infant’s head
its twisted little body
across the counter
to the half a pot
of bitter coffee
they were doing a favor making for him every morning.
stopped crying stopped moving stopped breathing.
Oh, people would offer excuses:
“If only he’d been afforded the luxuries others had been.”
“If only his own father had paid more attention to him.”
“If only he’d won some sort of prize in the third grade science fair.”
But there could be no excuse;
this was his life.
He grabbed his can
of now warm
He flipped through the stations.
He had no cable television.
And syndication can be such a bitch.