Rita Quillen

Maybe Tragedy Is Too Strong a Word

I hadn’t slept but a couple of hours.

Excitement charged the air.  At daylight all six of us piled in that Ford Fairlane
-our perpetual clown car.  Twenty dollars a payday stuffed in his sock drawer
Fueled my father’s plan; long days, longer nights in the factory were now
Funding the Redemption close at hand.  Once we hit South Carolina the road
Flattened out, the sky doubled.  Gulls flew honor escort.

Factory workers with 4 kids can’t afford beachfront.

But a street back we could smell the sea.  My sisters spilled their suitcases
Mother had spent hours packing and in minutes our father was leading
The parade snaking across the street and down the dune all white bellies and legs
Marching into the sea.  We hit the waves, surf so rough we could barely
Stand.  I saw the black cloud way out on the horizon, the dark look crowding
My father’s features.  After less than an hour, the pouring rain drove us in.
It rained and rained and rained.  We didn’t even want to go scour the junk shops
For those outhouse salt and pepper shakers, and turtles, and porpoises
All with Myrtle Beach, SC on the side.

Six crammed into small hotel room watching soap operas, the two little ones

Bickering.  It stopped raining on the third day, our last day, and we scurried
Back out into the salty froth.  The sea was almost solid white, still breaking
From the constant wind.  The little ones could only splash at the edge.  One
Big wave knocked me down, picked me up, sent me tumbling end over end,
Life blurred, I drowned for a minute, then the wave’s hard hand hammered
My head straight into the sand, filled my ears, nose, lungs with the
Stinging brine.  I crawled out with matted hair, spit out of the sea
A beached mermaid.  “Let’s go.”  My father seemed a few inches shorter.
The sadness sat on all of us, an anchor weight on our chests.

He didn’t speak all the way home unless he had to. I got to ride up front with him.

By dark, down to the last long curvy road toward home, the sudden fatigue
Of a year’s savings wasted, another year looming standing over that hot machine
In a room with no air, a life without a breeze, had reached his cellular level.
He aged 10 years.  He started taking the curves on the wrong side of the road
As home and factory and life got closer and closer.  Is he trying, I wondered,
To kill us all?  Maybe he thinks that’s best.  “It will take me a week,”
My mother said over my left shoulder, “There’s sand everywhere.  Everything
Is gritty.”

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Rita Quillen's most recent collection Her Secret Dream, new and selected poems, is from Wind Press in Kentucky. Previous works are poetry collections October Dusk and Counting the Sums, as well as a book of essays Looking for Native Ground: Contemporary Appalachian Poetry. She lives and farms on Early Autumn Farm in Scott County, Virginia, and teaches at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. She was a finalist for the Poet Laureate of Virginia 2012-14.