Julie Allyn Johnson, "Black Picket Fence"

Wet laundry — on makeshift clotheslines —
crisscrossed my kitchen, the dining room too;
a pile of dirty jeans, filthy sheets,
moldy socks and children’s sneakers
awaited soapy redemption.

Mom, seeking shelter from angry fists, seemed off.
A large, stocky woman, nearly six feet tall —
fortyish, wild-eyed, black curls snarled and unkempt —
her frenetic movements disquieted me.

She spoke in fragments.
Go too.  Wheelbarrow.  Red barn.
Nothing she said made sense.
Conversation, a useless endeavor.

With her, three young children:
a teenage girl, small, wooden, somber
the boy, an awkward eight-year-old
a shrieking newborn in gag-inducing diapers.

Their lives, a wayward locomotive 
barreling down the wrong set of tracks.

Not quite what I’d expected.
The veneer
of my noble intentions
began to splinter.

A disturbance after midnight
pierced my uneasy sleep.
I slipped downstairs — wary—
silent, unnoticed.

The woman, on the sofa, slept soundly
while her daughter’s own angry fists
collided with tender flesh.

Misguided attempts
to still the whimpering infant
lying there on the cool wood floor.

Abject lessons in parenting having already taken hold.

My inadequacies, lucid to me now.
How was I to provide sanctuary
for a family so brutally requiring
fixes, solutions, bright and shiny new pathways?

God never gives us
more than we can handle,
my ass.

I turned.  I climbed the stairs.
I wanted only to drown myself in cool, crisp bed sheets,
my rose-colored night light,
Orion through rain-streaked windows,
the mystery novel I thought I might finish given another hour or two.