After Oz

My body no longer rises into the air like a buoyant
balloon I cannot control. Over the past ten years
I have slowly folded into an pear-shaped old man,
my rusted fingers no longer nimble at card tricks.
The only green in this gray Nebraska town
comes from emerald mobs of corn alongside
highways the color and texture of crocodile backs.

One day the tin bell in my curio shop dingled.
Shadowed in the doorway stood Dorothy,
a grown woman now, tall, with her breasts filled out.
I could tell despite the heavy coat she wore.
Behind the curtain of my muddy flesh I hid.
She tugged at the black gloves on her hands,
not looking at my face. In the silence, each tick
of the clock screwed tighter the brass vise on my brain.

Do they know about you? Her words spun my stomach
like a dishwater cyclone. I said, “I haven’t—.”
Do you stay away from little girls? My tongue wriggled
thick as a thumb, useless as a charred broomstick.
She said, No one believed me. Just a fanciful tale.
My uncle whipped me for lying and sent me to bed
without supper.
The gloves came off, and I saw her hands,
porcelain white, the way I knew her body to be,
her shoulders, her thighs, her belly sleek as a cat.
The old monkey-whispers licked my skin
like flames on straw, the desert sun burned my face.
As she walked away each click of her red heels
battered my limbs like an axe-blade in the forest,
and grief fell on my body heavy as a house.

—C. W. Johnson