“At Lock and Dam No. 10” by Kathleen Kelly
Twenty-two minutes without Coppertone, the first warning sign, a pinking around the eyes, the ears. The skin shimmers, opal-white. I stay afloat, my face lifting toward Iowa skies. A beginner. I was once afraid of the water, the skimming dragonflies, territorial mallards. A quick kick of my ankle jetties me farther. Away from shore. Farther away from her. Earlier, her sleepover friend, the postmaster, laughed at me. Called me little man, a boy. Forgetting herself, she laughed too. At Lock and Dam No. 10, his clove cigarette dilutes her signature scent. Decanted musk, a faint rose accent. My mother attends to him, fluffs his curls. His pick crimped in her hand. A prince with a bad permanent. A careful trim. So different than her earlier handiwork: scissors like pinking shears razing, zigzagging my once-straight bangs: a sheared-ewe girl, a stern Dutch boy. My aunties never tire of family lore: she carried youse so low, we was right sure youse gonna be a boy. Blue crocheted booties, an airplane mobile. My biological slight: a dual X chromosome. Baby oil licks her sun-brown skin, drips between her pin-up breasts, under her pert chin. Miss Allamakee County 1961. Her beauty shop hair: pin-curled, backcombed, perfectly-set. How I imagine Pallas Athena’s helmet. Peace before the war. The third-degree burns set in: blistering welts swell. Like smelt on my left cheek. My slightly bent nose. My only likeness to her.
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Kathleen Kelly Artist Statement: A prose poem that paints a family portrait. Narrated through the interior thoughts of a daughter, a daughter well aware of her mother’s desire for a son.
Kathleen A. Kelly, a poet, essayist, and book editor, has received residency fellowships from The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico (Taos) and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in North American Review, CALYX, PoemMemoirStory, Nimrod, Rain Taxi, This Land, among others. She splits her time between Norman, Oklahoma and Santa Monica, California.