on the right of the turquoise green sign
that welcomes you to columbia,
there are two gas stations and a church.
on the left side, there’s a morgue.
when i was five years old, my father pulled over
and stopped on the side of the road while black car
after black car passed us, going the other way.
“did we know them?” i asked.
“no,” he said, putting the car in drive. “but someone did.”
at seven, mr. jimmy down at the ice cream shop
let me have free samples of all the new flavors he made
before he put them out to the public.
a favor, he called it, for his little henry.
(years later i would realize that my mother
brought henry into the world.
i would realize my mother brought most everyone
in that town under the age of twenty
into the world, and she never regretted it
even if some of them became gang members, murderers, victims, and
little henry’s leg was crippled in a four-wheeler accident)
i would stand in line during church communion
and accept their offering of holy blood and body,
thinking to myself that blood tasted kind of like grape juice
and that i would make a great cannibal.
i learned to drive in an empty church parking lot,
my hand on the lever, putting it from park into drive
to reverse to park again, feeling like i had finally found
my way out of the town.
“hello grace, are you coming to church tomorrow?”
“um, no ma’am, ‘fraid not—too much homework to do.”
“too much homework for church? you’re never too busy for our lord and savior.”
“tell that to my science teacher, ma’am, he’s loaded us down with projects and labs.”
“yes, well. that’s no excuse. the church is having an excursion soon—
reading to little kids and feeding the poor. won’t you like to help?”
“oh, uh, maybe. i’ll talk to my father.”
“you do that. and come by more, hun, the children miss you.
you’re a good girl, and i don’t want you to be led astray.”
“of course not, ma’am. i’ll visit next week.”
“make sure you do, hun. now god bless.”
“yes ma’am, god bless.”
columbia has two grocery stores
and no bookshops. there’s seven pizza places
and too many empty buildings in the town square.
the churches taste like stale cardboard and expired grape juice.
some neighborhoods you don’t want to go to
past six o’clock at night, and the funeral home
burnt down six months ago, in a fire we all could see—
our eyes hungry to watch the consuming flame,
our hands already baking the sympathy pies.
i’ve told myself that columbia is a pit-stop—
a temporary place to rest before i fly.
so, no. i’m not scared i’ll never get out of columbia.
i don’t know where i’m going, but i know it’s away.
i’m scared that when i come back,
i’ll pass that turquoise sign saying ‘welcome’,
pass those two gas stations, miss nancy’s house, the liquor store
and the customary church on every block,
and people will smile at me again,
ready to take me back like i never left.
smiling, welcoming me back Home.