The Quotable

I Know Nothing

My brother drives an hour and a half to work every day before dawn.
I wake up some mornings far across the state, wonder if he’s heard
his alarm, if he’s lacing up his steel-toed tan work boots in time
to walk his beagle, kiss his young girlfriend goodbye, tiptoe past
the living room couch where our mother sleeps, and drive the winding,
mountain road, careful and caffeinated enough to hit rush hour

without traffic or sleepy swerve.  He’s twenty-three, an apprentice
for an electrical union in Washington DC.  A country boy.  A heavy-
metal drummer who was once the only white boy in an all-black
drumline for an inner-city university marching band.  We grew up
on that mountain, and he came back—unable to handle college, desire,
or race.  He came back because college is shit, and he’d rather work hard

than think hard.  Don’t misunderstand me.  I wake up with envy
before dawn, or maybe it’s inferiority, or the smell of distance
that awakens me to say: You with your words are no better.  Your body
knows no more than sleep at sunrise. When I come home for Thanksgiving,
Christmas, or an occasional summer bluegrass festival, my brother and I
drink cheap beer and laugh hard and loud with our supportive girlfriends.

We avoid talk that cuts too deep, but still find ourselves in the muck
between love and disagreement, the bloody swamp of family,
DNA.  Our mother yells from the couch she rarely leaves: “What
are you two laughing or fighting about in there?” but never gets up
to come find out.  I look at him and want something I cannot
name.  Like an unopened encyclopedia on my chest, the weight

is all I feel on my heart, a language I hear but cannot learn.  I know
what you’re thinking: There’s not enough in this story, not enough
information on this page to care.  What is our mother like?  Where
is our father?  What do they do?  What did they do?  Why do we stare
so hard while we speak and see nothing?  There is something
about his hands now, after a few years climbing the skeletons

of tall city buildings.  Something in the way he grips his shoelaces
that knows how to make electricity flow from circuit, through wire,
to overhead fluorescent light, and it reminds me that I know nothing
of the way things are.  Something in the way he talks about his friends,
about the men he works with, the El Salvadorians, Hondurans, Mexicans,
Virginians, that tells me I should stop climbing in and out of books,

stop filling my life with clever phrases, because he knows the trick
to getting through the day:  look around when you’re
on top of a tall building, breathe deep the pollution
you’ll never avoid, and watch the way the sunlight
hits the nearby mirrored skyscrapers, before kneeling
down and getting on with the day’s real work.


Tara Shea Burke will complete her MFA at Old Dominion University in May 2012.  She is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies, which has taken her to South Africa for service learning and will take her to Senegal after graduation.  She is a poetry editor for Barely South Review, teaches freshman literature and composition, and has an essay in the forthcoming book, Loving the L Word: The Complete Series in Focus. She lives with her girlfriend and their three dogs in Chesapeake, Virginia.

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The Quotable - Issue 5 "Place"