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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.

Kelly McQuain.jpg

Kelly McQuain

Pronouns: He/His

3 Poems

Ruby on Fire

Rock Sonnet

Trick: An Incantation to Stay


Rock Sonnet

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.  

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