Marlena Chertock

MARLENA CHERTOCK


Find us

When they find us
we’ll be long dead.
When they find us,
the chosen or rich frozen,
faces intact,
they’ll wonder why
we’re a people that don’t move.

They’ll find us,
the rest, deposits of calcium,
puzzles left for them
to try for a week.
When they find us
they’ll think maybe,
once, they saw one of us
out there in the dark,
dressed in a puffier
exoskeleton.

When they find rows
of gravestones
carved with strange language,
they’ll try forming the sounds
on their native tongues,
trace the hieroglyph t and star
and moon with their fingers.

When they enter a home
of bound language,
they’ll find it impossible to understand.
Wander the steps,
our voices silently surrounding them.
Wonder if they’ll ever find
live ones. Or will they
always be late.


Exhibit exploration

He caught me watching myself

in the golden astronaut helmet.

I stared back,
my pulse ice
of Neptune.

I revolved to face him
and his eyes

widened

like I was eight

G forces shoving him
to the ground.

I took his hand,
walked swiftly behind Jupiter
and Venus to scale.
Acted like I’d done this,
like I’d practiced spacewalks
thousands of times before

swim-shimmying

out

a real

airlock.

I let gravity force my lips on his,

pool his pants
around his ankles.

I guided him
around my orbit, sucked him in
so he wouldn’t crash

to the floor.

Our sweat threatened
to record our orbital

decay,

but bodyprints evaporate.

When we reentered
the exhibit was quiet,
as if we’d done an EVA together
and turned Houston off
on our headsets,
so we could have
one moment
to ourselves
in the expanse

of

space.


Desert city

I

Planes pepper the sky
like a child playing with remote controls their stable paths
all day and night. The burnt wind blows
enough sometimes to make them wobble. Or maybe
that’s the haze of 115-degree days.
Wind feathers the palm leaves.

II

Sand-stained mountains rise outside my window each morning.
Taller than I’ll ever be. Standing longer than the entire city has been alive.
Borders. But some in the city crack their eyes before sunrise,
will their legs to climb. As if rocks jutting from earth can be tamed.
Sun hot as filament at the summit,
hotter in the valley, a microwave of dust. Brown everywhere —
it bleeds into the ground, the empty dirt lots, the desert, and sky when dust devils fly.
The same dust devils that race across Mars, clean specks off the robot rover.
Our planet is martian too. We fool ourselves that it’s not everyday.


Glass grit

He reached into his right socket and pulled his eye out,
waved it around. “I told you I’d take it out
if you didn’t stop calling me short,”
he said as he stood on his desk.

They squealed at the red hole
where his eye should have been,
like a knish without the potato filling
or an empty ice cream cone.

When he was three doctors took his eye out
so the cancer wouldn’t spread.
Squinting through glasses, dipping tiny brush fibers
into green then white then green,
one doctor tried to match the exact color of his iris.


Armpit arsonist

The lighter was a second degree burn
even inside his pocket, he felt it bruising his thigh.
He turned the music up, rolled his window down.
But he wanted a smoke.

Halfway through the cigarette
he looked at her. She was laughing,
pressing the gas pedal harder.

He didn’t think a dollar-store lighter
could make that much spark,
turn hair soap-scented to month-old trash.

He joked about the tufts tucked between her arms.
Why didn’t she just shave?
The short fibers her one rebellious trait.

The smell filled the car. She let go of the wheel
to swat the flames spreading from her underarm.
He didn’t think a dollar-store lighter
would make them turn over and over,
like he danced when he was drunk.

How could a dollar-store lighter
drive a 4,000-pound car into a ditch
on the side of I-84,
propel his friends in the back out of windows,
like rockets leaving the earth.
He didn’t think a dollar-store lighter
had that much fuel. His thumb that much strike.


Internal combustion

Inside the hood
constant explosions,
hundreds per minute.
The rotor whirls in oil

like the earth spins
once on its axis
for a day,
366 times for a year.

My dad told me this
before he had a son.
Wrenches and fluids
for fixing and tweaking.

He hasn’t spoken engine
since. He pours blue
washer fluid,
checks my hissing tires.

I can’t feel the tiny blasts
in the engine
that keep my car running.
Like when I stand still

outside at night,
I don’t notice the earth
turning 1,040 miles per hour
in its trip around the sun.


Test SI-27

They loaded me into a dome-like structure, shut the door and locked it. I wasn’t given a key.
There wouldn’t be an exit. My little dome was thrown off the planet at 25,000 miles per hour. G-
forces shoved my cheeks to my ears, my eyes felt like two cherries atop pudding cups, bulging
and trembling. I wasn’t told where I was going. Just that I’d know when I got there. The
temperature readout climbed to 10,000 degrees. I don’t know how many degrees melts human
flesh. Who designed this isolation test, decided a dome was the best shape to draw out
loneliness? “Structural integrity forty percent … thirty percent.” 3.5 million degrees.
I was above the sun. I made history. The first time a human neared her lifeblood, curled up on
the bottom of a dome like a cat napping on a summer morning. There wasn’t a window, so I
couldn’t see what the sun looked like that close. I sweated through my spacesuit, my sweat filled
my helmet. I was warm and tired and it was 27 million degrees. They were waiting
back home with fingers poised over keyboards, ready to record the exact temperature readout in
my dome when the bomb exploded, the exact moment I pressed the button when it became too
much.

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