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Carrie Fountain

03-21-2011

Starting Small

At sunset on the Fourth of July,
just as the Shriners began shooting
fireworks over the football stadium,

the first McDonald's in Las Cruces
switched on its lights and unlocked its doors
and shone there harshly

against the nothing, like a shrine
to itself, a prize we could claim.
And that same evening,

while my brother and I were waiting in line
to place our orders,
by some act of grace

the vacant lot across the street
caught fire, starting small,
then gaining, tossing everything-every tumbleweed
and paper cup-into its sack of flames.

We were children.

We'd walked three miles to get there.

We'd walked across the interstate
just like we said we wouldn't.

What a pleasure-
I'm tempted to say what a relief-
it was to see it : fire

dancing around in front of us
like a trained animal.

We ate our burgers on the sidewalk.

They were all right.

Behind us, in the sky,
the city of Las Cruces
was explaining its independence

the best way it knew how.

We knew very little, almost nothing,

though at some point that evening,
when the fire was at a peak
and the heat coming off it

made us squint from across the street,

my brother leaned in to me
and said, with the satisfaction of someone
who has won a long, ongoing argument,

"This is a miracle."

His mouth was an O
of grease and ketchup,

his cheeks red
with heat and admiration.

He looked-I'm tempted to say-
like an angel.

He looked like
he'd never recover.

The fire lifted its big,
meaty tongue as if to speak, then fell over
and kept burning.

It got late. We had to go.
We walked home along the ditch ,
kicking each other, grown tired once again
of each other's company.

We grew up.

Something big was built
on that vacant lot, something
indestructible

that wasn't big enough
and was torn down
so something bigger

that would go immediately out of business
could take its place.

Now I see what he meant.

The miracle
wasn't the fire.

The miracle was no one
called the fire department,
no one thought to,

and the miracle was that, allowed
to continue, the fire grew,

caught up with itself
every few yards

and grew. And the miracle was

no one stopped it, and the miracle was

no one wanted to stop it.

If Your Mother Was to Tell Your Life Story

It would start with her.
It could learn to tie a knot; you would be bound to it.
It would stink and she'd win.
It'd be nice to know.
Once and for all.
The mellow swings behind the house.
The many lives of the cactus garden.
It wouldn't know where to start.
It wouldn't even know the half of it.
It wouldn't know that she was a country, that you'd pledged your allegiance to her.
It wouldn't know there'd been a war.
It would forget everything.
It would get things so wrong it wouldn't even be funny.
It would be funny.
It would be shrewd.
It would delight her, wouldn't it?
Oh, those little armies. How they'd perished.
Her thirties, her forties, her fifties.
Her heart, her heart: lick of flame, little fish.
It could leave you behind.
It could take you away.
It would be hers. And it would be yours.
And then it would be hers again.

Getting Better

When his acne began to clear up,
my brother put on new cleats
and played one last year
of varsity football, his face
deeply scarred, running the field
with a rage people watching
could ease back in their seats
and fall in love with.
Resting, he'd bend at the waist,
hands on his knees, and suck
at the air like it was the enemy.
And in this way the days
of not knowing if things
were getting better or worse-
those days of waiting
for the storm of hormones
to pass-grew short and cold
until they were gone entirely
and he could begin forgetting them,
one by unforgettable one.
Of course, I could tell you everything
my brother has forgotten
about those bad years: the metallic smell
of his breath, how he became
meticulous about his clothing,
waking early to iron starch
into his T-shirts, how he'd plan
and execute small acts of violence,
once killing all my mother's
houseplants by pulling them up,
snipping their roots with a pair
of kitchen scissors, and then
sticking them back in the soil.
All he had then was tidiness
and cruelty, and he favored cruelty.
It was his last, dulled weapon-a hatchet
whose blade couldn't kill with one
blow, but could abuse, nonetheless,
to death, and I watched him use it
with great fear and interest.
I was his witness. Let me tell you
how the field mouse looked
when I pried open the can
of house paint to find it writhing there,
dying, eyes coated, face coated, mouth
opening and closing, and how
my brother had suddenly seemed
so lovely, so calm, as if he'd just
landed, handing the can to me,
saying, "Open it. Just open it."

                 -from Burn Lake