A Cloud the Shape of Kentucky by Ryan Kauffman

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Ace of spades up close


Five. In a black suit that made my elbows itch. My mom drove down Elmwood Road away from my uncle’s funeral. Leo, I knew him as Uncle Leo. He smelled like black licorice. His forehead shone under the mellow dining room lights. We wagered pennies when we played poker. Or more accurately, he played poker and I tried to understand why an Ace, a card with no face on it, was considered superior to the King. I didn’t understand at the funeral, either. Didn’t know why he was lying so still in the coffin, his forehead smooth where it should have been wrinkled. Why my Aunt Letta was wet with tears. A ladybug clung to a hydrangea petal in the flower arrangement closest to the coffin.

My mom drove the car down Elmwood Road, I was in the backseat. It was sunny, bright. I struggled to keep the seatbelt from digging into my neck, from restricting my ability to turn my head and watch what we passed. Outside were cracked-brick buildings and unlit neon signs, swinging traffic lights and blooming dogwoods. People, dressed in torn jeans and stained undershirts, who didn’t know or care where we had just been. I unbuckled the seatbelt and laid down in the backseat. If I pointed my toes, I could touch the door opposite my head. The cloth upholstery rubbed against my neck. I closed my eyes. Focused on the dissipated specks of white. Red. Burnt orange-red. I sucked in the humid air until my lungs felt as if they’d burst, and held it. I stared at the backs of my eyelids. In them, I saw melted Twizzlers, and Abraham Lincoln’s profile. I swear it. Even the bright glow of the sun beyond them started to dim. I listened.

At first, the hum of the engine. Half-bald tires on chipped pavement. Muffled music from the radio. My heartbeat. I focused on the darkness behind my eyelids. Imagined nothingness. A blob of blackness extending. Out of sight. Outside of everything. My mom. Aunt Letta. Uncle Leo with his jiggling tummy and cracked hands. I wondered if God was in this place. Wanted to know what it is like to be dead. Motionless. No arms on warm seats. No toes pushing against the inside of LA Gears. No me. I took a breath. The engine returned. A horn honked. Mom asked what I was doing. I opened my eyes and witnessed the largest dragonfly I’d ever seen atomize on the windshield. Only one wing stuck. Mom asked if I was okay. I saw a cloud the shape of Kentucky. Thought I wanted to touch death. See the other side of the unbalanced equation. But could only breathe in rhythm to the motor’s hum, and watch a squirrel scurry up a rusted lamppost.

ryan kauffman headshotRyan Kauffman is a teacher and writer in Cincinnati, Ohio. His previous work has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, BOAAT Journal, and Word Riot, among others.




STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Phil Crisologo

Share a Comment