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  • An American Tale
  • Kevin Prufer (bio)

Those men heaved garbage bags onto the pyresuntil the air grew thick with melting plasticand burned meat.                                            Months earlier, they'd gassedthe addled raccoonswhere they crouched in the sewers                                                                                 until yellow hazeseeped from the manhole coversinto the street.                                 Later, door to door with pistols,they found each listless catand put it down,                                               and trucked them all to the pyres,where they scorched the pestilencefrom their fur.                             So tonight they were burning dogs—*

A biological parasite                                            might move among a population,surviving in one host only long enoughto pass itself on to other hosts.                                                               Increasingly,scholars in the vanished Republic                                                                       saw cultural ideasas a kind of virus. Violence, terror, fascismincubate inside a host mind                                                                that passes them on to othersusceptible minds.                                           Sometimes, the host dies,but his idea spreads among us.* [End Page 87]

Each black garbage bag                                                       sizzled on the flames,then contracted suddenly                                                       so I could approximate the number,of dead dogs it contained                                                       before the fire burned them away.*

That the dogs were infected                                                       was an idea we gotfrom a report about a young girl who,bitten in an alley,                                             behaved queerly that evening,eventually growing listless, feverish,and, we heard,                             soon died.The idea spread among us—*

In the old days of the Republic,I had a friend I called Charlesbecause I couldn't pronounce the namehis parents gave him.

Charles was a quiet boy,fond of a neighborhood dog                                                                            he'd taught to sit,roll over, play dead.                                           When his family vanished,I'd watch that dog from my bedroom windowas it picked scraps from the neighbor's garbage.Eventually, it, too,                                           disappeared.*

The idea was to keep some people from pollutingour country.                              The idea was they had a criminalmentality,                              an incurable affinity for violence—thievery, rape—that we could not toleratein our communities.                                           (Charles' motheron the front porch, sorting the day's mailas sunlight speckled the gravel driveway; [End Page 88] Charles' father carrying groceries from the carup the rain-flecked front steps.)*

Of course,                              we could not keep a virusfrom entering the Republic,                                                                 but we could slow itwhere we saw it, in our collective                                                                           awareness of dangerous ideas—and so, when Charles vanished,I sometimes fed his dog,                                                                 until the scrapsgrew so few                            no one could afford to feed any dogs.*

Charles standing in his drivewayone snow-addled evening                                                                 holding out a crackeruntil the dog finally lowered himself to the groundand rolled quickly,                                                obediently,                                                                 onto his back.*

The removal of some                                                who lived among usfacilitated the well-being                                                                 of those who deserved to stay,or so I've been told. It has been decades,and still I miss my friend,                                                                 whose absenceensured the survival of the idea                                                                                   of what it meant to be a citizenof the vanished Republic—*

Their shapes stood out                                                in the tightening plasticbefore the clarifying flames                                                                 made ash of them. [End Page 89]

Kevin Prufer

Kevin Prufer is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently How He Loved Them (2018), Churches (2014), and In a Beautiful Country (2011). The recipient of grants from the Lannan Foundation and the NEA, he is a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Houston.



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