PICKING

Beer foam collected on the bristle tips of Poppy’s mustache, fiber optic cables jutting out at odd angles and leaking, spilling their essential fluids down onto tongue that was searching and seeking and only occasionally finding. Eyes bulged out of skeleton sockets, the skin paper and threatening to tear in the spots where veins were busy pumping and convulsing to keep Poppy alive as he licked for beer and collected his covert McDonald’s cup, the other hand on the wheel and calibrating, adjusting and correcting with a deftness that could only come with practice. And Cal was in the passenger seat with his eyes hardly seeing above the dash, his child’s eyes so unlike the bulging skeleton ones of Poppy as he sat and prayed the prayers that Momma recited on windy nights when Poppy was Out and About and just not quite able to come home that night.

Sunlight glinted off the hood in metallic flames that danced in Cal’s eyes as Poppy reached down for the cup and kept eyes cupbound with the horns and the muted yells to bring hands back to 10 and 2 and he’d give such a Chuckle then and look over at tiny little Cal, miniature Cal who wasn’t buckled in and that bassy laugh would worm its way into Cal’s babychest and tickle his lungs till he couldn’t breathe and could only laugh to relieve it, only laugh to stop Poppy from looking at him with those skeleton’s eyes and put them back roadbound so they wouldn’t Get Hurt, only ever a possibility of Getting Hurt and never anything worse in Cal’s tiny childbrain but that was enough for him and so he made sure to give Poppy a good Chuckle.

They were Picking, or at least ostensibly so, and it was late enough in the season where even errant garbage cans were to be searched and dumped and sifted through, as long as the hood was apt to be deserted and not the type to call the poe leece, because you don’t want to have the poe leece come for Poppy, Cal, so tell me if you see em. Red and blue and we’re through, okay Cally? Red and blue and we’re through.

I say ostensibly cause Momma hadn’t come home from her third shift the night before. She was always so tired as Cal’s childeyes could see, always chuff and sigh and sort of buckle on creaky chair they’d found in Picking, her eyes lighting on the scratches in kitchen table, the spots where the graffiti’d been washed clean but the knife scars would always remain, and she’d say I’m tard just like that with no high “I” or lilting “R,” just tard and she’d look at Cal with the soft eyes she gave him and wouldn’t ever look for too long before she got up and out to do it all over again. But she did none of that the night before. The night before, according to Poppy, she’d been Out and About.

Slouched figures sat stooped on stoops with the brown bags hiding bottles between legs as they watched Poppy swerve his way down car-lined street and scrape firelight on errant mirrors, the tiny things going pop and snap off of hinges as they launched forward and danced their light in Cal’s eyes only briefly before crashing down on pothole-ridden street, the glass sometimes collecting in the holes and scattering out into glittering flatlands and jagged skyscrapers, tiny cities waiting for the dirty rain to come holebound and fill and level out till the mirror city was nothing more than a mirror Atlantis and Poppy was long gone and could never see his work.

Cal saw Momma before Poppy did, and she was none too tard as she sat stoopbound with her soft, Cal-given eyes closed and lips touched lightly on cheek, then neck, then lips of another man, her hands searching and seeking and very often finding. And Poppy saw in time, and there weren’t no Chuckle, no not at all as the wheel turned with 10 and 2 sent spinning as hand went over hand and repeated, as tiny Cal went scrunched against car door and very nearly out window, the tires screaming injustice and wafting out their burning just before the hit.

Stoop bricks flew through air still whistling with car and human screams and made purchase with wall, window, wire on the rebound that knocked out telephone service for the rest of the day as McDonald’s cloud followed Poppy out with his voice up and ready for a big Tell like he’d always give Momma, like I Tell you what or I ain’t gonna Tell you twice and all the rest, but the stoop man weren’t Momma and he weren’t pleased none as he gave Poppy a pop on the mouth where the beer-tipped bristles were, cleaned them right off as Poppy staggered back and fell stoopbrickbound with eyes up and whites showing for the briefest of moments like glinting mirrors waiting to shatter in pockmarked street, waiting to make another Atlantis down here in the hood with its maker nowhere in sight.

And the car stopped screaming but Momma didn’t, with the wail carrying and wavering on the breeze as Cal sat quietly in smoking car, as the poe leece sirens wailed and cried too and the lights started flashing from way back down the street. Red and blue. We’re through.

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