My rapist explained even the water company gets a bill

By Destiny O. Birdsong

and I don’t know whether it’s true, but I’d like to believe it,
that, somewhere, he’s lying under a new woman,
and a memory is unhooking from his brain
and traveling loose in his body, like a clot;
like the small, white knot of debris we watched
spinning in a clarifier while touring the plant.
Probably something nasty, he said. Like a tampon.
Had to be small enough to clear the first filter.
We get a lot of those. Water comes from the river,
the sewer goes into the river. And there
are homeless people camping near the river.
He had an answer for everything he didn’t want to touch
and better answers for the things he did.
I hope that woman is straddling him like
an overpass in winter, and he’s learning
concrete can’t keep you warm. Or, maybe her body
is the nightstick she jabs into his belly
while she’s dumpstering his shit, making room for the gentry.
He’s busier now, with all these new condominiums
and their waterfalls chlorinating the lobbies;
the new fire hydrants and drunk drivers—new disasters.
I know he likes this concept of himself:
essential and brave for being the ghost
in the machine of a city that, in a different century,
bought men who looked like him to build sewer lines
and protect forts without blankets or latrines.
For every narrative, there’s a series of underground pipes
and someone willing to pay to have them cleaned.
I know what it costs to lay a crime at a black man’s feet.
But whenever I turn on the faucet, I’m reminded
whose hands first touched the water before it traveled
into my macaroni noodles or into my hair.
Every night I turn onto my stomach in the bath,
I think of it as a ritual of refusal.
Years after what happened, something lassoed my breath
and dragged it back into me, like a runaway bride
kicking her way over the threshold.
But her return meant I felt everything intensely,
the way water surges through the tap after a freeze
or a disconnection. Like how, one morning,
at my new address, boxes still bruising the cheap
carpet, the walls went silent for no reason.
When I flushed, the room was as quiet
as an absconded hive. I never realized
how the low hum of a phantom current
penetrates everything until someone plunges a key
below street-level, twists a valve into submission.
Minutes later, when the tank started filling again,
I thought, wrong house? Maybe someone close by
forgot to mail the check. Or, perhaps,
so many months behind, was letting it be
what it was. I wondered about each neighbor,
then my rapist, then thought, maybe I should just take
care of myself, stop filling in the finer details
for the collection agents, who are always trying to calculate
how much he’ll pay, and on whose schedule,
almost as if they’re the ones he really owes.

Destiny O. Birdsong (photo by Hunter Armistead)