Ruby on Fire
All glitter-bomb the girl with the knobby Adam's apple
she was saving her pennies up to shave down. All eyelash
her eyes, painted big as butterflies when she sized you up
—I met her bar-backing at Buddies one summer
when I needed extra cash and a kind word thrown my way.
I think she saw a sorrow of birds inside me. I think she thought
I had a broken wing. Ruby performed Fridays, got dressed
in back. My job was stocking beer, washing empties,
hauling the occasional keg, putting up with customers
who squeezed my arms and my ass—even Ruby did it
sometimes as I passed, but I liked how she laughed
with the guardrails off, taught me things I couldn’t quite
get my head around, like how to tuck my cock that Halloween
when the whole staff dressed in drag, or the way she
advised me which tricks might be generous, which ones
were creeps to steer clear of.
Nights at the bar when she sang as Cher or Brittany
she seemed to be made of nothing but sequins and cherry lipstick,
a big wig and an even bigger voice. A dirty hitch to her hips,
and legs to die for slipping through the slit of her flashing gown,
a thick coat of makeup concealing acne scars visible by day,
but man, how she shone in the midnight spotlight
singing on the bar’s humble black stage, while all around
human driftwood gathered, Ruby flaming so hot
she sucked up all the oxygen and left us smoldering like embers
when she was done, a superstar for her set
but all nerves and tequila after.
She showed me her breasts
once her top surgery had healed, her nipples a pair of pink invitations
—I had to stop myself from kissing each one.
I wasn't there
for her walk home one night, the broken bottle hurled, the teenage
wolves in the car eager for chaos and blood. Eight stitches it took
to sew Ruby's head back together. Half an inch below her wig line
a crescent moon. Life at Buddy’s went on until it didn’t. I moved on,
thought I fell in love. When I ran into Ruby last, she had changed
her pronouns from she/her to they/them to make clear that if anyone
came at her again she’d be an army of more than just one.
Burn on, Ruby. Burn on.
*"Ruby On Fire" was selected by Dorianne Laux as Limp Wrist's recipient of the 2021 Glitter Bomb Award.
Rock solid he stands, his spine a column
unflinching despite the weight he bears.
Ore-veined, gold-flecked, stolid and solemn,
his heart as stony as Medusa’s stare.
His touch is sharp, his fingers steel-scissored;
his eyes cut the sky like a flock of dark birds.
I’ve lost a part of me, a tailless lizard—
his tone is brusque as he clips my words.
Why? His skin is as smooth as vellum.
I tear apart when he unfolds a kind look.
I’m made of paper I want to tell him—
bound and collected, inscribed like a book.
Eternal, we are, caught in this forever lock—
the way rock beats scissors beats paper beats rock.
Trick: An Incantation to Stay
I lick your skin. It tastes like sea salt
or a kind of memory. What if we flinch a minute
in this great unrolling called reality?
Let ourselves sink into a limber nimbus
of sunlight on blond stomach hair,
both our soft underbellies exposed all throughout
this unexpected guard-down afternoon.
We are not trilobites fossilized, but imperfect beauty
unbounded, straddling minutes
in hopes they become hours—ours are the hours,
a kindled beauty the soul craves
and devours. Lust is imagination let loose—let it take us;
a little ferocity can foment
in a good way. Come—the waves inside our bodies
brine us bleachy. Let’s not yet
name this thing nor release it. This tinderbox of tenderness
is sweet torment, and it’s far too early
to hurt for real again, to let the hard light of the hard world
beyond the curtain in. Pleasure veils us.
Let this moment remake us, renew our luster in another’s eyes.
Does it matter if the stars are strewn or sewn
when it comes to the evening sky? So shake off masks,
stiff clothes, the disguise of skin—
all the constructs we put ourselves in. I know it’s too soon to tell
if we are keepers or just pretty glass
glittering jagged among trash, worthless as new pennies—
wish too hard, the wish never lasts.
Tonight when we’re spent and dreaming, I’ll be the sleep in your eyes.
You can growl out my snore.
Both of us content in belonging. Rules of safety ignored.
But right now
there are bruises to unbruise, cuts to kiss. This world
is nothing if not longing.
I am yours; you are mine—for now. Lick away.
Find my heart. Do not miss.
Kelly McQuain's (he/his) poetry has appeared in Best New Poets 2020, The Pinch, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Rogue Agent, Spunk, Assaracus and Cleaver, as well as such anthologies as The Queer South and Rabbit Ears: TV Poems. He is the author of Velvet Rodeo, which won the Bloom chapbook poetry prize, and he has been a Sewanee Tennessee Williams Scholar and a Lambda Literary Fellow. He teaches English and creative writing at the Community College of Philadelphia.