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Chelsea Rathburn

BPR 50 | 2023

Every July when I sat for an hour or so
in my grandparents’ dismal single-wide, squeezed
on the couch between my mother and father,
my grandparents shouting questions at us,
not waiting for our answers, I wondered if life
was just a series of torments and obligations

my grandfather going to war then working
as a plumber all those years only to land
in central Florida with nothing but the trailer, an RV
on busted tires, and little crystal animals
watching it all disintegrate from the shelves.
My grandmother’s cousin Forrest, meanwhile,

was robbing banks in his sixties across the Southwest
with a crew cops called the Over-the-Hill Gang—
now that would have given us something to talk about
instead of whether I wanted to be a teacher
or a stewardess, the only options Grandma
could see for me before she went back to screaming

at her husband or my father, and I slipped off the couch
to study the family portraits in the hall.
There were my father’s sisters, their boys, then me.
My grandmother’s cousin excelled at finding opportunities,
marrying women under fictitious names,
devising more elaborate escapes—

eighteen in all—from each new jail, rowing
out of San Quentin in a kayak he’d built
in the prison shop. As for my grandparents,
they seemed to be on the lam from something too,
way out there in the woods where we got lost
each year, my parents arguing over

my father’s hand-drawn map. Those summers I thought
I suffered alone, my parents having pledged
not to utter an unkind word about the trailer
or the people inside it, until I was twelve or so,
old enough to hear the truth, or some of it.
My parents left out the foster home, the worst

of the beatings, the floor of the garage
where my father slept beside the dogs, the rent
they charged him to sleep there. And still we went,
my father unable to loosen their hold,
the way his mother’s cousin kept robbing banks
after he’d taken millions, as though he needed

prison for life to make sense. You may
have seen the movie about cousin Forrest,
Robert Redford playing him sexier and kinder
than could have been possible. In a year or two,
the Feds would close in on him back in Florida.
He’d be arrested again, then released,

then rob more banks, and die in prison, so maybe
the lesson is life is a series of disappointments
and then you die, or maybe sometimes you die
and an aging heartthrob buys the rights
to your story. I think it’s almost funny now,
the way we huddled on that couch, counting the minutes

until we could escape, yet here I am
again, probing the fights, the figurines,
the awful smells, and the way my face smiled down
from the cells of picture frames as though I were loved,
as though I were happy there—or maybe waiting
for the guards to turn their backs so I could run.