What You've Been Told
Best Small Fictions Anthology, 2020
Comb a straight line down the scalp. Sweep half to one side.
Wrap elastic ’til the tiny pigtail stays in place, then do the other side.
Say, There. Good? Now teeth.
Wet the toothbrush, tuck it into the small, open mouth.
The eyes—her father’s—are on you.
She says, Mama, too rough. Scrub each tiny tooth more gently.
Give the read end a pat. Say, Pick out your clothes. I’ll button you up.
Watch her go. Scrub your own face ’til it hurts.
Pour cereal, pour milk, set a spoon.
Unlatch the back door, light a cigarette, hear the highway.
See your dog paw at the gate. Feel even the smoke leave you.
Hear, Mama? Crush the cigarette, wave the smoke away, wave the dog inside.
Say, Yeah, baby? She wears a plaid sweater dress, open at the back, and knee socks.
She says, Buttons, please. Marry each small button with its tiny hole.
Then dress your self. Brush your own teeth. Marry your own fucking buttons.
At school, from the top of the yellow jungle gym, feel the gaze of cruel-eyed girls.
Remember what you have been told:
Never let a child watch you leave. Let the child leave you first.
Feel the small hand inside yours, a hand you are responsible for, squeeze.
She says, Will you stay? Say, Yeah, baby.
In the bright light of the yard, see the hair’s crooked part, the missed button, the spot of milk on the jumper.