“The Fireside Poets,” by Kelsey Ronan

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fiction by KELSEY RONAN

 

In sixth hour American Literature, Miss McCorkle is passing out xeroxes of Song of Hiawatha to the eighth graders. She’s been talking all week about the Fireside Poets. Monae might usually be curious about this, listening while feigning an apathetic stare, but today she’s exhausted, and she doesn’t want to read poetry. Her mother woke her at four this morning, standing over her. “Sweetie,” she said. Monae’s eyes snapped open like window shades. Her mother was drawing ragged, shallow breaths. “You know you can’t throw coffee grounds down the drain? Did you know that?” she said. Neither of them drinks coffee; they never have it in the house. “I know,” Monae said. Her mother went in the next room and put on one of her jazz CDs, a deep voice chanting a love supreme, a love supreme over a plucked bass. The song looped over and over as Monae shifted, drawing the covers tighter. Around five she pressed a pillow over her head. The music almost disappeared, but the position was too uncomfortable to maintain. When Monae sat up and turned the light on at a little after six, her mother was still pressing repeat on the CD player. A love supreme, a love supreme. Now it’s nearly two o’clock, she’s exhausted, but she doesn’t want to go home, and she doesn’t want to be in this bullshit English class either.

Earlier in the week, before she started with the xeroxes, Miss McCorkle explained that all the middle schools in Flint were named after the Fireside Poets. She showed pictures on the projector of white men with wild thickets of facial hair: Lowell, Longfellow, Holmes, Whittier. It was one of Miss McCorkle’s pleading See? Isn’t this interesting? moments, but the eighth graders—not Monae, but the others—still call her Miss McCracker. Except for Longfellow, all those schools are closed anyway; the boards over the windows tagged in the hieroglyphics of gang symbols and expletives, moats of broken glass ringing the buildings. Since the city laid off half the fire department in the spring, arsons have been raging across the city—hundreds—and all those old schools are disappearing. In Monae’s East Side neighborhood, by the Coney Island, Homedale Elementary burned to the ground. Someone tried to ignite Whittier but the fire department arrived soon enough, and now one charred wall faces the overgrown baseball diamond.

Miss McCorkle tried to make use of the arsons, too. On Monday they had a creative writing day. Miss McCorkle wrote on the board. Think of the fires going on in our city. Why do you think a person would do this? Write a story in which your protagonist (main character) burns down a house. Pencils tapped on notebooks. Cell phones slid out of pockets and text messages were tapped out under desks.

Monae stares out the window, absently drums her fingers on the handout. The unraked maple leaves on the soccer field are glazed slick with rain. “Read the first five lines of the stanza, Javon,” Miss McCorkle says.

Javon in his Pistons sweatshirt shifts, stares at the page.

“The first five lines,” Miss McCorkle says. “Remember stanzas?” she asks the class. “They’re like the paragraphs of a poem.”

Never stoops the soar-ing vul-ture, Javon reads, and haltingly, Hiawatha moves around the room. Tianna smoothes her palm over her hair and smacks her Carmex-shiny lips when she reads. She says Hay-a-what-uh and when Miss McCorkle interjects with the pronunciation, slowly enunciated, Tianna waves her hand dismissively and keeps going. Aaron mumbles to himself so no one is sure where he stopped, and Kaylee and Jasmine titter between words, as though Longfellow encoded a joke just for them in the lines.

Monae watches the poem wend toward her. She’s embarrassed by how well she reads, how these textbooks seem to throw their voices into her. Last week in French class when she said “Je m’appelle Monae,” Jasmine said she sounded like the CD Madame Saeed plays of nasal Parisians who want bottles of mineral water and directions to the opera. “You sound smart,” Jasmine said, and Monae blushed. She hadn’t meant to sound like anything. Her grandfather used to tell her she got her brains from her mother. “Lord knows she’s suffered, but when your mother was your age, she was sharp as a tack, my God. Knew everything, I swear.” The thought of it makes her nervous. It was when she was in her twenties, when Monae was a baby, that her mind started giving way. Monae knows little about it. She got “funny,” her grandpa said, erratic and emotional, and Monae’s father left. “That man wasn’t worth nothin anyway,” her grandpa told her, and there was a tone in his voice that told her not to bother hating him or missing him, in case either had ever occurred to her. Her grandfather used to explain these things to her. When her mother was weepy and distracted or high-strung and anxious, he’d drive over and take Monae to his house in Beecher. “Your mama just needs a moment to think,” he’d say, and keep her until her mother was herself again, happy, funny. Since he died last year Monae’s had nowhere to go.

Monae gets so distracted, so anxious, she does not notice when it’s her turn to read, and Miss McCorkle repeats her name. “Monae. Monae. Would you please?” She reads, forgetting to make herself mumble a little, forgetting to halt at a word or two as if she didn’t know them.

 

So disasters come not singly; 
But as if they watched and waited,
Scanning one another’s motions,
When the first descends, the others
Follow, follow, gathering flock-wise
Round their victim, sick and wounded,
First a shadow, then a sorrow,
Till the air is dark with anguish. 

 

Behind her, Tianna laughs. “Listen to her,” she guffaws. She repeats “dark with anguishhh,” in her white girl voice, the words theatrically elongated. “Who you tryna be?” Tianna’s laughter ripples around the room. Monae turns quickly back and stares down at her desk. Her face burns. Miss McCorkle ineffectively repeats, “Students, students,” but all the eighth graders are so relieved to be pulled away from this impossible poem and given something familiar to ridicule that they laugh and laugh.

 

Like usual, Kesean is waiting for her on the number seven bus to the East Side, his backpack holding her place on the seat beside him. She slides in, dropping her bag to her feet. “Dang,” he says. “You look mad as hell.”

She shrugs, stares past him. Pulling out of Southwestern Academy, the bus moves down Twelfth Street, bumping over the railroad tracks and past the shabby Victorians skirting downtown.

Kesean starts talking in that easy way he does, as if he never worries at all if she actually wants to hear it. They have no classes together this semester so he has his whole day to recount to her: the fat girl who tripped in gym, the fight that broke out at lunch, the obscene joke Mike Bailey made when Mrs. Harris, the biology teacher with the huge ass, turned to write their homework assignment on the board. Monae nods along, trying to focus.

She knows Kesean likes her, but it makes her anxious. They’ve known each other since sixth grade, when they started to ride the bus together. He’s chunky and none of the girls have crushes on him, she’s pretty sure. Like her, he’s not cool or athletic; he doesn’t play in the band or win science fairs neither. Unlike her, he seems to have fallen through a trap door in the social hierarchy, freed from it, while she can feel herself being shoved into place. She’s starting to be harassed by girls who are louder than her, girls who have hyena laughs, girls who have breasts, girls who wear their jeans tight to their thighs. She seems to know less and less of their slang, feels her voice grow thick and uncertain when she speaks to them. She’s starting to be branded as a smart girl, uppity and unapproachable, and she does not want this.

Monae has figured out recently that she isn’t pretty. She’s skinny, a bubble of ass balanced on wishbone legs, a flat chest. Acne bumps range her cheeks. The other girls are starting to let boys kiss them, press them into the lockers until a security guard or a passing teacher separates them. Last week in gym she watched from the corner of her eye as Ashley Williamson peeled her top over an ill-fitting bra, the underwire biting into the new swell of her breasts. Nevaeh made a crack about her sucking dick and Ashley laughed, pleased with herself, never denying it.

Sometimes Monae feels a sense of obligation to Kesean. She should accept the attention, be grateful for it. She tries to imagine the sort of boy she might like, the sort of boy she might want to kiss, and she can’t.

“What you doing tonight?” Kesean asks.

“I don’t know,” Monae says. She doesn’t want to go home.

The last time her mother was sick it lasted a week. Her mind gives over to delusions since she stopped getting her pills. She’d gone a few years without an episode, and then the city closed the clinics. She had to take two buses and walk half a mile through parking lots to get to the new facility in the suburbs. “I’ll be fine without them,” she told her daughter when she announced she wasn’t getting them anymore.

She had the first episode three months ago. Monae was watching TV and her mother came in, heaving shopping bags to the floor.

“I was on the bus,” she said, “on Corunna Road. I saw a woman walking out of the Baptist church by the Korean store, holding a baby. She didn’t even look, she just start crossing the street and the bus driver lay on the horn and the woman just looks up, stops in the middle of the road. I thought, who is that woman? You know who it was, baby? Honey, that was Jesus and Mary, and no one knows it but me and you.”

Her eyes then were low-lidded and glazed, her movements spasmodic. She played her old jazz CDs and walked up and down the house. She bought things she didn’t know what to do with, her social security check depleted on mangoes and frozen swordfish fillets, jars of cashew butter and saffron threads. “I heard this is good for you,” she’d say, waving a box of silken tofu. “This man said it on TV.” She’d come in Monae’s room and demand she pray. “We don’t do it enough,” she’d say, bowing her head. “We gotta pray more. We gotta pray for each other, and we gotta pray for your grandpa.”

By eight o’clock she’d fall into a deep, gasping sleep, as though someone had a thumb pressed to her windpipe as she slept. She’d be back awake at two or three, and she’d be like this for days until she’d run herself to exhaustion, until her serotonin bottomed out. Then she’d spend a week in bed, sleeping with the TV on, crying intermittently. “I’m so sorry, sweetie, so sorry,” she’d cry into Monae’s hair until Monae wriggled nervously out of her arms.

The bus rolls over the expressway, past the Kingdom Hall, onto Court Street. The spires of the churches and the rusted fire escapes twist up from the buildings downtown. They pass the community college, ringed by houses with shuttered windows and heaps of leaves raked to the curb, and turn down Franklin. Crossing Robert T., the houses become smaller. Junk heaps on lawns and porches. A clutter of Mexican stores with homemade signs surround the Kroger and Angelo’s Coney Island. Here, on the city’s East Side, the fires have been their most brutal. Whole streets have disappeared, houses reduced to their scorched foundations, or left half standing.

“I’m going over to Lowell,” Kesean says. “My brother’s been going in there. There’s a loose board you can get in through.”

He doesn’t say it, but she knows he’s inviting her. Lowell is the junior high in their neighborhood, a few blocks from the park. It’s been closed as long as Monae remembers. In the summer the city mows the lawn and replaces the boards on the windows, and the buildings rots away on its strangely fresh patch of grass.

“What you going there for?”

He shrugs. “Don’t you wanna go in there? Ain’t you curious?”

“When you going?”

“When I get off this bus.” He grins at her.

She never accepts, but when the bus gets to her stop she stays on, and she rides with Kesean to Delaware Avenue, where they get off next to the homeless shelter, buy a bag of Fritos and a Faygo red pop from the corner store, and walk to Lowell, past the well-kept houses with jack o’lanterns on their stoops, past the burnt-up houses, past Saint Mary’s Church. They pass the bottle and the bag between them, licking Frito dust from their fingers.

They turn down Vernon to Lowell Junior High, a three-story hulk of brick. The windows are boarded, or were—on the second and third stories the boards have been shredded, hanging in loose, splintered strips of plywood. Graffiti crawls up the brick like vines, multicolored, perennial blooms of fuck you and LC luvs RS 4 Eva. They walk across the lawn and to the side of the building, where a power line sags over the parking lot.

“My brother said the best spot was by the cafeteria.”

She wonders how they’re supposed to know where that is, but she sees where Kesean is going, the dumpster, the service drive that probably allowed trucks to back up to the door and deliver hundreds of frozen government meals. Kesean leads her past that, and stops by a window. The board hangs loose at the corner, and he pries it back, testing it. The plywood is thin and peels away easily. “You first,” he grins.

She slides in, dropping down into a classroom, the chalk board blank, the desks dragged over to a pile at the side of the room. He climbs in after her, throwing his legs over the sill.

“Come on,” he says. The door of the classroom is open, and they step into the cavernous hallway. The murky light filters in from the windows that have been freed of their boards. The lockers have been gutted, leaving their rectangular outlines on the walls. The paint is peeling, flakes of it scattered over the floor with the broken glass of classroom doors. Ceiling tiles have fallen and cracked on the floor with dusty tufts of insulation. There’s a dead bird, trash. Scattered throughout there’s graffiti, expletives in bubble letters, symbols she doesn’t recognize. A drinking fountain has been ripped off the wall and sits in ceramic shards. Monae breathes a little harder.

Kesean nudges her. “You wanna hold my hand?” He isn’t smiling this time.

She shakes her head and matches his pace.

They ignore the classrooms, following the hall to the end, where it splits in two. Kesean turns right, and pushes through a set of heavy double doors. They are in the auditorium. Rows of wooden seats face an empty stage.

They sit in the back row, throwing their backpacks on the chairs in front of them. Kesean gets out a cigarette and lighter. Takes a puff and hands it to her. “Got it off my mom’s dresser,” he admits. She takes a drag and coughs.

Kesean’s mother works full time and takes night classes. She’s going to be a social worker, Kesean says. His dad works second shift managing a supermarket and his brothers are in high school, with fast food jobs and girlfriends. And so Kesean is free to do what he likes in the evenings, occasionally answering texts from his mom.

They sit passing the cigarette back and forth, tapping ash onto the floor. They stare at the empty stage.

“So where the show at?” Kesean swivels toward her. “We need some entertainment!”

She nods absently.

Over the summer she went with Kesean to Kearsley Park. They sat in the empty gazebo, swinging their legs over the concrete wall. Kesean had his brother’s iPod, and they shared the ear buds. Kesean put his hand on her lower back. Her jeans gaped at the back, and she felt his hand slide into the negative space, his hot palm moving down and settling at the band of her underwear. A finger pressed the crack of her ass, kneading into it. It surprised her too much to fight against. He didn’t venture any farther, but sat there pressing that one spot, breathing beside her, until she got up and walked away, not saying a word.

Back in elementary school her mother told her to be careful of these things. “Don’t let any boy touch you until you are good and ready,” she said. “If he tries, scream bloody murder. Don’t let him think it’s okay.”

But Monae hadn’t yelled, or even been angry. It was too bewildering. It made her feel sad and sorry for Kesean in a way she couldn’t figure out yet.

Monae wants to tell him about Tianna. Staring at the stage, she remembers Tianna’s white girl voice, mocking the way she’d read the stupid poem. The way the class had laughed at her. Kesean would agree with her completely; he’d offer some pithy insult to pledge his solidarity—that dumb bitch, who cares? Or, she’s a slut anyway—and she’d feel better. But she doesn’t really want to feel better. She wants to be angry. She wants to hear their voices and their footfalls echoing down the halls of Lowell, swelling louder and louder.

“Let’s walk around some more,” she says to Kesean, and they walk through the building, across the gym floor, under the netless basketball hoops, upstairs to the science labs where the glass cases have been broken and she notices the tin foil and syringes and spoons on the filthy floor. They walk until the light gets too dim, until they are feeling their way along the walls, and she knows she has to go home. They bump shoulders as they head back down the stairs, back through the loose board.

Kesean starts walking with her but she gets halfway across the parking lot and turns to face him. “You live the other way,” she says.

“Yeah, I know. I’m walking you home.”

“You don’t need to,” she says, and quickly walks away from him. She moves back through the neighborhood alone, the autumn dusk settling in with a chill. She braces herself for the house, for her mother, and instead she starts thinking of Tianna again. She thinks about her for ten blocks, back past the homeless shelter and the Coney Island, past Saint Mary’s church with the floodlit virgin in the grass. She thinks about her when the dogs bark behind fences and windows, and the boys at the bus stop call after her with leering laughs. The anger makes her move more quickly.

Monae goes in through the kitchen door. The house is quiet. “Mama?” she calls, but there’s no response. She’d worn herself down as Monae suspected, hearing her snores outside the bedroom door. Monae scrubs the grime off her hands and eats leftover spaghetti in front of the TV. But all the time her heart is beating a little too fast. She can’t slow it back down.

Alone in her room, Monae remembers that who you tryna be, and her silence in response. She hates herself for that silence. Tomorrow she’ll punch the bitch. She’ll fight her. She swings off the bed and paces, vibrating. She knows she’s too skinny—Tianna has twenty pounds on her, easy, and those long acrylic nails. She goes in the kitchen and rummages through the drawers. A steak knife, dull and cheap. Not to cut her but to scare her. But she decides against it. They’d kick her out of school. And she may not make it in, remembering the metal detectors by the pool doors, all the other entries locked first thing in the morning. She decides it doesn’t really matter how bad she hurts Tianna. She wants to bruise her and humiliate her, wants Tianna to walk around school with some mark that everyone will point out and snicker about. Monae Wallace beat the shit out of her, everyone will say. Shouldn’t been running her mouth. No one will make fun of the way she reads ever again.

Monae opens the cupboard doors and picks up a can of green beans, tests the weight of it in her hand. She takes it into her bedroom and slides it into the foot of a long thick sock. She bunches the loose ankle in her fist and swings the sock slowly, testing the arc, the control. Imagines it slamming into Tianna’s cheek, her stupid, wincing face. She swings it over her shoulder, knocking it into her mattress. She could knock her down and stand over her, swinging the can into her chest, bruises blooming beneath her clothes. Everyone—all the kids in sixth hour English—would be watching, and before anyone yelled for security, she’d leave Tianna whimpering and jump on the bus, taking her seat next to Kesean. Then in the auditorium at Lowell she’d eat cold green beans out of the can with Kesean, both of them digging their fingers into the can like hobos. “Eating the evidence. Perfect crime,” Kesean would say—something funny like that. Then she’d let him kiss her and his mouth would taste like menthols and green beans, slightly acrid, slightly briny and cold, and she just wouldn’t give a fuck about anything.

 

Monae wakes at 2:00 a.m. when she hears her mother going out the front door, slamming it behind her. Monae pulls a sweater over her nightgown and runs after her. Her mother’s only made it a few houses down the sidewalk. A fire truck rips around the corner, sirens blaring. Monae calls after her, panting.

“I’m going out to your grandpa’s grave today,” her mother says. “And I thought I’d get me some breakfast at Angelo’s first. I’ll bring you back some pancakes.” Her hair is brushed and oiled, pulled tightly back. She’s wearing make-up and one of her old church outfits, Monae notices—slacks and an embroidered top.

“We can make pancakes,” Monae bargains with her. “Come back and we’ll make pancakes.”

Her mother stops and looks at her. She draws in her shoulders as if admonished, trying to make herself smaller, and begins weeping. “You’re so good,” she says. “Oh honey, my baby, you’re so good.”

Monae can’t help herself—her throat tightens and tears press hot and insistent in her eyes. She starts to cry, too, and she grabs her mother’s arm, feeling the convulsion of sobs moving through her body, leading her back to the house. Just go to bed, she wants to plead with her. Please just go to bed. Please just let me sleep.

“Sit down, mama,” she tells her, guiding her through the kitchen door.

“You don’t know how hard that is,” her mother says, sniffling. “How hard it is to just sit there.”

Monae thinks she does, though.

“Let me put on some music,” she says. “That’ll help. That’ll help me relax.”

Her mother shuffles through CDs until she pulls out Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Monae knows this one well, the long elegiac trumpet notes. When her grandfather died last year, her mother listened to it endlessly. Staring contemplatively into a soapy sink of dishes, sometimes humming mournfully when the notes rose. Monae got so tired of it she stashed the CD under the sofa. When her mother found it in a fit of vacuuming, she didn’t tell her off, but called Monae out of her room, holding the CD in her hand. “This ain’t how you treat other people’s things,” she said in a voice that was meant to be stern and authoritative, but her eyes just looked sad and disappointed.

When the CD starts, she sits on the sofa, and Monae joins her.

“Sometimes I can see the music, have I told you that? I can see the colors of it, how it pulses in the air. This music,” she holds Monae’s gaze with her tired, ringed eyes, “looks like a pale blue torch.”

“He loved music, you remember that? Those old Nat King Cole records he used to play? He’s with God now, baby. That’s good. We forget that, don’t we? It’s good.”

Her mother falls asleep, and when the CD clicks off, Monae leaves it. She sits up until it’s time to go to school, and quietly leaves the house.

 

All day Monae waits for sixth hour, building the scene in her mind. She’ll follow Tianna out when the bell rings, hang inconspicuously by as she shoves her books in her locker, then she’ll shadow her out to the buses. Once she gets to the flagpole Monae will stop and call her name, reaching into her bag for the sock. She’ll turn, and what will Monae say? Something to make her mad, something she hears the girls hiss when they fight in the halls. You stupid bitch. Her body jitters with anticipation, but by fifth hour it starts to dissolve. She yawns into her hand. Her eyes water and her body aches with fatigue. Her palms are scraped from climbing through the broken windows at Lowell.

When the sixth hour bell rings she takes her seat and watches Tianna across the room, drawing on the back cover of her notebook. She waits for a swell of anger but there’s nothing. Miss McCorkle puts on a grainy video, some PBS special about the Fireside Poets.

She still follows Tianna to her locker, waits, follows her out the door. She reaches into her bag for the sock, and watches Tianna get on the number four. She stands there stupidly, the sock hanging heavily from her hand. She considers yelling her name, the titter of voices on the bus and Tianna stepping back down onto the sidewalk. But she doesn’t do that either. The buses start to move and she walks quickly to the number seven, where Kesean is in the same spot, holding a seat for her. She stuffs the sock into her bag before he sees it.

The bus starts and there it is, her anger, late and ineffective. She’s angry at herself.

“Let’s go back to Lowell,” she says. Kesean looks surprised.

“You for real?”

“Yeah, I’m for real,” she says impatiently.

They get off the bus at Franklin and Delaware and retrace their steps to Lowell. She doesn’t wait for Kesean to pull the board back for her, but pulls it herself, maneuvering her skinny frame into the building.

She wants to break something, but everything here is already broken. She runs through the halls, Kesean huffing after her. Every window is shattered. Everything has been ripped up and ruined by people who are bigger than her, angrier than her. Everything that can be broken already has been. There are no choices to make.

Kesean catches up to her. “Let’s go,” he says. “This is boring.”

“No it isn’t,” she protests and keeps walking. In the bathroom the tanks have been knocked off a row of toilets, the stall walls ripped down around them. She kicks a broken piece of toilet seat across the floor.

“Let’s go,” Kesean says. “This is stupid.”

She lets him lead the way back down the stairs and through the classroom, crawling back out of the building.

Once they’re out she turns and starts kicking the loose board. Kicks it until her foot hurts and the board falls in, slaps to the floor.

“Let me see your lighter,” she says. Kesean hands it over, and she digs in her backpack.

“Fuck is that?” he laughs as she pulls out the sock. She lets the can fall out, roll heavily between their feet. She ignores his question and holds the sock out, lighting the toe. She drops the burning sock through the window and it lands on the kicked in board. “Shit!” Kesean yells, and she’s not sure if he’s excited or scared. However he feels, he doesn’t try to stop her. She gathers up all the papers in her bag, scrunching them in her fist. Her A- science test, page after page of Song of Hiawatha. She lights them and throws them in. The small flame sputters on the board.

“Let’s go home,” Kesean says, nervous. “What are you doing?”

But she can’t move. She watches the tiny flame and wills it not to flicker out, wills it to spread across the board. She wants to see the fire slowly consuming the board and licking across the floor, taking over the broken desks and lapping up all the garbage—the pop bottles and tin foil and shit; the dead birds and cigarette butts and empty forties. She wants to see the fire engulf the second and third stories, sizzling the shredded boards over the windows, peeling open the school. She wants to watch Lowell collapse and disintegrate into ash, and then sit there alone on the concrete as the sun goes down, till the air is dark with anguish. She thinks with satisfaction how no one will miss this place, no one will miss it at all.

 

 

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This excerpt is featured content from the

Summer 2013 issue

For ordering information or to find out more about the contents of this issue, click here.

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