by Ashley Mallick
His lungs aren’t healthy. Mama says he has to go slow,
to mind him as she digs out a lighter and takes her drink to the porch.
Grandpa follows, shuts the door, but we can hear him laughing
through the wood. The rasp of tobacco igniting, voices rising over the wind
whipping the Jack pines and rocking the ice on the porch rails.
Uncle sits down, tells me to play War with him. Men go first
he says. His hands set the cards, each precisely over the next,
but then he loses a king, an ace and they come faster – slapping down –
his pile dwindling on the white table runner
burned yellow in the kitchen light.
I pull a five to meet his three and I am ungrateful –
cheating at a children’s game – pathetic.
He toys with a fishhook in Grandpa’s ashtray.
Asks me if I know what happens when a fish swallows
the sliver head. He bends his finger around the edge
and lays it out in his hand for me to see.
I put down another king and the faint thump of Mama’s boots
outside echoes under the hum of the fridge. I don’t answer.
It gets wedged, twists ‘round in that fish body
‘til it’s nice and stuck and if you pull it real slow
the guts follow it like a snail’s trail onto the dock.
He ignores my king, lays his deck on the table,
and stretches out his legs, the toes of his boots nudging my bare feet.
I know a guy that caught his girl cheating.
His eyes are intent on the hook, fingers fondling
the sharp edge. He made her swallow a treble and tied a long lead to it.
Looped it round his trunk pull and made her run behind it while he drove into town.
Right before he hit the city limit she fell.
Cord went taunt and out popped all her organs,
spilled along the road like a circus train. Fat stomach heaved out first,
then a thin string of intestines tailed after it.
He said she watched them all drag out in front of her
‘til you could see her insides laid out long as her outsides.
Uncle leans into me, wetting his thin upper lip
with the pink tip of his tongue, the ragged bristles of beard
shifting as he opens his mouth to speak,
but then the front door rocks back on its hinges.
Mama and Grandpa knock their boots off and pad down the hall,
the cold bite of smoke and pine misting off their shoulders.
Uncle leans back in his chair, tucks the hook in his shirt pocket,
as Mama hands me the deck, asks to deal her in.