O’Connell Street on St. Patrick’s Day. Sooty pork pie hats,
skinned knees over a father’s shoulders, black shoes
blocking the Krishnas’ dance in the morning parade,
their mouths pursed on flutes. Tumblers spin ribbons
before a man on stilts, his lumbering painted face
smiling down on girls eating bright sticks of corn.
And Caroline Casey leans her bony shoulder into my chest
to light a cigarette against the wind. Caroline, I’ve lost her now,
her old New York landline long gone, and it is years since then,
but that day she struck a wooden match and, like a gentleman,
lit her cigarette first, then mine, a quick warmth between cupped fingers.
Next, a sudden bump and two boys shuffling past. One looking back,
the bland face and crudely shaved head. He pretends not to see us,
pushing low into the crowd ahead. All at once
Caroline reaches out, grabbing the back of his denim jacket
in her left fist, the cigarette still in her mouth.
His chest pulls back to show a white undershirt and pale neck
and the contents of her pocket in cuticles caked in dirt:
a blister pack of allergy medication, a Zippo lighter out of fluid,
and a ten-pound note. The baby fat on his fingers still.
I had barely felt them nudge us, but she was an expert in her skin.
So when he turned to size her up, she grabbed for her money,
and with his hand jerking back, never dropping her eyes,
anger changed his face.
And as people shifted to make space for their hollering,
I saw it—the last of the morning light reflecting off the end of his blade.
A weapon our fathers would have carried fifty years before,
small and tight with a black handle. He meant to use it on her.
Caroline watched as he swung it, holding it like a dinner knife
if you hadn’t been taught manners. She arched her chest,
her long weasel waist, and he missed,
finishing his clumsy swing, the crowd shrieking protest.
Then expertly, her top lip pulled back, like a prize fighter
or a finally fed up mother, she slapped his dirty face hard,
open handed, turning his head to the side with the force of it.
For a second, he turned back into a child,
maybe a hungry one.
Just an Irish kid from Finglas, postcode 11
with a father who drank too much.
Just a kid again, stuck forever with bad teeth
and done with this toe-to-toe with this girl
he hadn’t known had ridden the Lexington Avenue line at midnight,
the girl not much taller than him
whose boots had steel in the toe,
who’d slap him like his mother couldn’t ever.
And dropping his treasure onto O’Connell Street,
he disappeared forward into the crowd.
Allison Cundiff is the author of three books of poetry, Just to See How It Feels (Word Press, 2018), Otherings (Golden Antelope Press, 2016), and In Short, A Memory of the Other on a Good Day, co-authored with Steven Schreiner (Golden Antelope Press, 2014). Her non-fiction is featured in The Pragmatic Buddhist, The St. Louis Post Dispatch, Feminist Teacher, HoboCamp, and In Layman’s Terms Literary Journal; her fiction in Hot Flash Fiction; and her poetry in The Chariton Review and OxMag. She lives in St. Louis.