by Cathy Ulrich
It is the spring of spontaneous human combustion, the spring of burning things. Mothers pace, worriedly, before bay windows in soft-pink nightgowns, dangling bathrobes. Their hands are birdlike things, fluttering, fluttering. Fathers sit at kitchen tables with glasses of Black Velvet, neat, say, In my day. Daughters are sent off to school with dripping bags of ice in their hands.
Think of glaciers, their mothers say. Think of the North Pole.
Girls in our classes sucking on ice cubes while we work quadratic equations. Girls lingering at water fountains, girls wetting towels at bathroom sinks and pressing them to their foreheads.
Girls at night stealing beers from basement refrigerators, garage shelves, popping the tabs and grimacing at the taste. Girls howling with mopey-faced dogs moon-baying in fenced backyards, girls tipsy on their stolen beers, turning over onto their backs on new spring grass, girls looking up at the smile of the moon, girls waiting, waiting for the burn.
Girls with billowing smoke mouths, dragon-flare eyes. Girls with ice melting in their dewy mouths. Girls saying to us as we pass in the hallways at school, Oh, spring is finally here!
Fall had been crisping leaves raked into fat orange bags with jack-o’-lantern smiles, barbecue grills covered by tarps, full moons and hoarfrost winds. Winter had been freeze and frost and the bump-bump-bump of our cars caught in snow ruts. Spring is grass greening and flowers sprouting and the smell of smoke and skin-char and girls we have known bursting into flame, girls we have known, for a flaring moment, shining like the stars.
Spring is grieving brothers dragging on ember-ended cigarettes for the taste of a different kind of smoke, stubbing them out on cold concrete blocks. Fathers in stiff black suits with ties they’ll never wear again and mothers watching the nightly news (Warning: Graphic Content), holding their unanswered phones in their hands, wondering if that small, burning thing on the screen had once been their daughter.
Cathy Ulrich bought a pack of cigarettes the day she turned eighteen, and never again. Her work has been published in various journals, including Meadowlark Review, Adroit, and Vast Chasm.