by Doug Ramspeck
It must be the stillness of a morning sky, the repose of grass in a field beyond a fence, or maybe the kitchen floor where my father is forever dying of a heart attack when I am five, fat doves singing outside the windows of our rental house in rural Ohio. It seems possible to remember the half-life of light on a leaf outside my childhood bedroom window in dead summer, to construct an impression from the mud of the river or the black clothes of the mourners, to dream an open maw of earth. My memories of my father are as imprecise as footprints filling with snow, though I do recall, a few months later, a bulldog coming toward me—after we were evicted from the rental home—on the porch of my grandfather’s house, the creature lunging, then hovering above me. In my vision the beast snares me with his great teeth pressed against my neck, though years later my mother claims the dog was simply exuberant with friendliness and knocked me down. But if I close my eyes, I feel the animal heat of breath against my skin, the sharpness of teeth. Or maybe, it sometimes seems, memories transform to living organisms, evolving or devolving, breathing and letting go, asserting whatever volition they can. I am eleven when my mother’s live-in boyfriend begins locking our German shepherd in the basement, which is a sign, we know, that he plans to beat one of us, or maybe both. The basement, as I remember it, is small and low-slung, with bare cement and a naked light bulb, cobwebs having their conversations with the hot or cold air breathing through the vents. I remember blood oozing from my mother’s nose, the swollen baptism of an eye, the dustiness of memory growing more opaque yet powerful with decades, as though the past becomes a dust devil swirling its magic in August, rising from the dry earth to make itself into a living being. We are homeless, then, residing in my mother’s car, the cold winter air a judgment. Once my mother is given a frozen turkey at a food pantry, and we bring it back to the Ford, uncertain how to cook it. I remember how heavy the turkey feels when I hold it in my lap, and I recall—digging deep into memory—building a fire from sticks and discarded newspapers and whatever dry wood we can find at the roadside. And then a skinny man with a white beard and a voice like a rabid dog is stopping his motorcycle by the bar ditch and stealing the turkey from us before we have even found a way to place it above the flames. Blood trails its offering down my mother’s forearm after the man lunges at her with a box cutter. And now, rising in my vision, is the man racing off on his motorcycle with our turkey clutched like a sleeping infant in one arm.
Doug Ramspeck is the author of five poetry collections. His most recent book, Original Bodies (2014), was selected for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and is published by Southern Indiana Review Press. Individual poems have appeared in journals that include The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and The Georgia Review. Stories have appeared in Iowa Review, Green Mountains Review, Gargoyle, and others.