The women huddled outside One Eyed Jacks, taking nips
of cheap whiskey secreted inside their trunks, a savings
when it takes a pint to get you there, though at five or six
I wasn’t sure where they were trying to go, but leaving
that, I knew I wanted to go with them. I cherried my lips
red with Lifesavers and smoked crayons, watched them giving
themselves to ugly men against the alleyway wall, the bricks
I ran my hands over the next day, listening, even believing
they might tell me how to hold a woman, how to kiss
her like an ugly man, but better, so she felt I was saving
her from a lifetime of ugly men with their spitting dip
and rotting teeth, their hands filthy with a kind of living
I didn’t want to understand, but wanted to imitate well
enough to touch a woman in a way that might send me to Hell.
The first time I touch a woman (in a way that might send me to Hell
the way some see) I wash her feet. A ceremony at church, it’s
reminiscent of Christ at the Last Supper. Desire swells
like fear inside my chest. While I kneel before her, she sits,
looking down at me from perfect righteousness. I know how Adam fell
from Grace: he tasted what a woman gave him. Her foot fits
perfectly inside my teenage hand. I vibrate for her like a rung bell.
A song fills the space between us: Just As I Am. The candles, lit
beside Communion bread. Just As I Am, dear God, I want to tell
You how I feel for You is how I feel for her, love or snake-bit
or something else terrifying. I repent. Her soft skin smells
like cherry blossoms. What if? dear God, what if I don’t repent?
More than anything, I long to feel safe. To know You. To understand.
Want, more than anything, peace. But her skin. My trembling hand.
I want, more than anything, peace. Her skin beneath my trembling hand
is rougher than my skin. I first saw her chain smoking outside work.
All day I watched her run from station to station. Watched and planned,
along with half the men. She wasn’t beautiful, but she had a look.
Something shone from within her like a light. She swept the sand
from the factory floor like a woman waiting for deliverance. Perks
of physical labor, I guess. Sometimes she would tuck a wild strand
of hair behind her ear, and I’d know: I wanted her, whatever it took,
whatever I had to be, or give, or do. If I had to pretend
to admire the well-muscled men. If I had to drink, or sing, or fuck
like I never worried a day. I forgot to worry if I sinned.
She’d chain smoke in bed. I’d read aloud from a good book.
We made love the way she worked: frenzied and alone inside
ourselves. When she left in the morning, I bowed my head and cried.
There is another town beneath this town,
where secret drinkers sneak to buy their pints
and secret lovers sneak to make their love
while sleepers sleep. I wake again to you.
There is another want beneath this want,
that doesn’t fear to touch, or to lie down
beside you, skin to skin. Oh, town that haunts
the town you see, like fog hanging above
a quiet street. (A lie cannot be true.)
The truth I know: your body is a taunt
I struggle to ignore. Your silk nightgown
wants my hands (the truth wants what it wants).
The hands beneath my hands are shadowed gloves.
The town beneath the town is moonlit blue.
The lie we speak covers the truth we can’t.
Lines Written Between Shifts
Smoke hangs like questions in the break shack’s air:
Do you want to die early? Don’t you feel that fear
pressing you like a machine? Aren’t you wasting
your life with work? The skinny girl says I’m fasting
again. What did you bring for lunch today?
You wish you could tell her the secret to joy.
(Is loving what you are more than what you do?)
(Is knowing when you leave here, you’re still you?)
In the parked cars, line workers hit their pipes.
One will die from the pills he takes to sleep.
Nobody will remember his given name.
The line will keep running. The press will slam
over and over all day. You’ll breathe the dirt.
Break is for questions that can’t be asked at work.
A woman kneels in the dark barn.
In the ditch before the church, hard rain washes
dye from a handful of hair.
In the basement of the church, eyes
require a girl’s surrender.
What are you sorry for? asks the preacher
of the silence, and from the silence
her silence returns.
My name is Rachel, and I’m
addicted to mercy (hi, Rachel)
looking for a deal worth kneeling for.
A woman kneels before
what makes her sorry: silence
where a girl wants sobs. Hard rain
washes the bullshit from her boots.
The preacher polishes empty pews.
Eyes polish a woman’s shame:
twenty bucks will get you
all the heat you can handle.
Tell us, girl: what are you sorry for?
Rachel Custer is an NEA Fellow (2019) and the author of The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, The American Journal of Poetry, The Antigonish Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters (OJAL), among others.
One thought on “Four Poems by Rachel Custer”
Worlds of hurt and sadness but somehow hopeful.