“What the Garden State Gave” by Laryssa Wirstiuk

Students playing shuffleboard 1960.jpg

Most recently: health insurance, a benefit of being
its employee. The State of New Jersey is my boss,
not to be confused with Bruce, born in the USA,
more specifically: Long Branch, beach that polished
pebbles I display in a jar. Yes, pebbles, not eyes.
Don’t get excited by the possibility that I’m a stripper
who preserved six human skulls, a severed hand,
and my ability to laugh at the news. Was I laughing
or crying three decades ago, when I landed
in a soft pile of freshly-mulched En-Jay, at the end
of a playground-slide ride to society? Of course,
I could have entered at any point, but the point
is that it offered me space, cleared early-spring air
that smelled like the bed of the nearby Passaic River.
If you’re thinking William Carlos Williams, you’re right
about the falls. I’ve always said, if we go to war,
I will fight, grateful for these gifts: a demented-peanut
shape to carve in a Jersey-fresh pumpkin, a job
that affords me time to write these love poems, refuge
from the longing of elsewhere, a population density
so high that loneliness floats, a license to drive
all questions of identity into its fertile ground, corn,
blueberries, a tomato I plucked from a plant
in my grandparents’ backyard and ate like a plum.

Laryssa Wirstiuk teaches writing and digital media at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Her collection of short stories, The Prescribed Burn, won Honorable Mention in the 21st Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. Her writing has been published in IthacaLit, Hamilton Stone Review, and The Stockholm Review of Literature, and is forthcoming in Barely South Review and Up the Staircase Quarterly. 

Image: “Students playing shuffleboard, 1960,” from Albany Public Library History Collection

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