about the author

Jennifer Popa recently relocated from the interior of Alaska to the South Plains of West Texas where she is in her second year as a PhD student of English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. She’s currently polishing a collection of short stories. Some of her most recent writing can be found in Colorado Review, Grist, Watershed Review, The Boiler, Monkeybicycle, and Fiction Southeast. She can be found at jenniferpopa.com.

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American Gothic 

Jennifer Popa

I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain.
—Mary Shelley

Father, one time I found you in a medical textbook in the face of Phineas Gage, the daguerreotype of a drooping eyelid, his skin a sepia valance. In 1848’s most notable spark along a Vermont railroad a tamping iron drives into the cheek’s bloom, shoots behind the eye socket and finds air. Shucking the shell from the inside out. Photographed alongside his thirteen-pound impaler—the instrument which snuffed out gentle Phineas and procured the monster, locating personhood in a lobe.

I find you after I drive six hours to Lubbock, Texas. Through frayed curls of tire rubber, saw mills, taxidermy shops, a bus spray-painted [NOT FOR SALE] and oil pump jacks bowing at each other ad nauseum. A ritual started without realizing it was a ritual. Suspended on the plains between two homes that are not home, I find you in the crags of ennui, places called Rising Star, Sweetwater, Zephyr, Fluvanna, Early.

From a billboard God says: “I AM BIGGER THAN THE STORM.”

In another he says: “IT’S HARD TO STUMBLE WHEN YOU’RE ON YOUR KNEES.” My saying this would possibly embarrass you.

You, dear Phineas, dear father, dear stranger split by iron, punctured medical marvel that you are, I look for you in the hollow but find an erasure. The humane Phineas we knew fled and in his wake we find your ugly chain-smoking mouth. You mistake my mother for iron and my face for hers.

I stop counting Highway 183’s abandoned dogs, shoelaces of saliva slinking from their jowls.

I am soft. I know this.

In the heady waft of animal shit huddled among the buzzards, blooded beaks jerking at fatty ligaments, road kill, in the rot of toothless barns, I find you. I am sure no father is aborted at full-term without a reason, without medical necessity. Here among lone sneakers and spiked paddles of cacti I remember fashioning your shirts into nightgowns, folding myself into your lap—offering affections before I knew better. Before I sought a father in Tony from Who’s the Boss, Charles Ingalls, Mr. Brady. A Full House with three fathers—one for each daughter.

In the north you stitch seeds in your garden’s loam, care for your parents in the absence of your children. Two images I cannot procure. You invent the slut to tell strangers how your ex-wife turned them against you. So women are irons, best left alone.

Apologies do not fit in your mouth and bulge along the gums. I was never curious about the boy you were. I knew your name was another word for goad, for kindle, so instead I imagine I sprung fully formed from the splitting scalp of my mother you nowhere to be found.

Hot rubber. Hot buzzard. Hot worm fizzling on asphalt. It’s the worm and the not-dead-yet fathers who inherit the earth.

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