I grew up in a house of smokers. Nightstands and dining tables were marred with short black burns from smoldering cigarettes. Smoke drove me outdoors, where I absorbed fresh air and the texture of old fences, gnarled trees, gravel drives, and mimosa blossoms. I carried those physical traits with me for years before knowing what to do with them.
When I stayed indoors, I lay beneath the smoke clouds that gathered above the kitchen table, and if quiet long enough the conversation turned to drunken neighbors, my one-armed uncle, my grandmother’s youngest brother who got shot in the butt after robbing a bank. I would listen to their whispered cadence, the soft ways they spoke of sin and love, and though I burned to ask them questions, to do so would close that open tap. I noticed how all of these odd details stacked together like spoons.
My father getting hided for washing his hair in a horse trough. Kicking up a decapitated head while walking home from work along the highway. My mother running off the road into a flooded field, her back bruised and battered, a farmer skimming across the water in a jon boat, the eerie way the headlights shimmered beneath the water.
I act as a docent of my families past. When I was a boy, I collected half a dozen bird nests from my neighborhood—a mud construct in the crook of a downspout, a small thatch of rye grass in a willow tree, a loose gathering of interwoven twigs I cut from a privet. The one I loved the most was a mess of hair and fabric, tinsel and yarn, the bright and brown feathers of random birds. This is how my life comes together: twig and penny, Bible verse and crayfish, a black eye and a bruise on the arm. I put them in the order my mind tells me to while listening to the strange radio of the heart. Cub game. Perry Como and the Andrews Sisters. My grandmother with her teeth out. My father stirring sugar into bitter coffee. White Jesus on the wall.
The smoke of the past can still sting the eyes. I stay below it, bide time. If I’m quiet long enough, I listen to what’s said, add them to the things I’ve witnessed, parse the silence that comes between stories, the arc of a spark jumping between two live wires. This is what I’ve always been good at it. This is the thing I know how to do.
Brent Fisk is a writer from Bowling Green, Kentucky, with over 300 poems, essays, and short stories published so far, including work in Rattle, Prairie Schooner, Cincinnati Review, and Southeast Review. He has a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Creative Writing from WKU.