Emmalee Hagarman Ode to Pepper Spray in My Pocket


The woman on the sidewalk is, despite

it all, trying to help

me. She directs her wild white

hair, skin-tight neon

leggings and handfuls of grocery bags

my way because I was at the bus

stop staring and she wants to teach

me a lesson, like in a good

way. As she walks closer, she points

at me. How can we live

in this world, she shouts, when

she looks so perfect?


My body is the same size

it was the day my dad

pushed me at Kroger.

When you’re thirteen

it’s less terrifying that your dad

isn’t taking meds,

that he’s drunk-stumbling down aisles

on bad knees than the fact that people

are staring. I blushed chest

to cheeks. He shouted, What’s

wrong with you? and pushed

me out of his way. If I

was another girl on the bus

today and my dad got on,

would I be afraid?


Mom says, I don’t like the color pink

on you. The lipstick I borrow

leaves kiss marks dark as dried

blood on my beer. At the party,

everyone laughs when the big dog puts

the little one’s whole head inside

its mouth, to show dominance. A guy,

laughing, pins me to the couch

with one arm. Mom uses the word

crazy to describe Dad any chance

she can get. I know the man

across the street is talking

to me without looking at him: Slim,

I see you, Slim, he yells. Mom says

these things keep happening because

of the time of night. They

happen in the middle of the day.

She says, You need to find better

bars. A middle-aged man hits on me

as I buy a drink: It must be hard

for you, he says, you’re as beautiful

as my daughter. Another one shouts,

Bitch, I don’t even like you, when I

won’t shake his hand. Be polite

and invisible, Mom says. Don’t

find out the hard way. I never

learn my fucking lesson. No one

on the street blinks when a man

approaches me with one hand

down his pants. Everyone on

the bus ride home grows quiet

when a woman missing

teeth gets on, loudly telling

herself: Thank you Jesus,

thank you Jesus, it feels good

on here. She smiles at me.


Dad’s arms are lined deep and red

from plastic bags he carries from the gas station—

arms weighed down with junk

food as if to prove he still can carry it—

he limps down the alley to his apartment.

A mother and daughter stare

as he approaches. He whistles badly

and loudly, drops his keys, is barely able

to pick them up. Tells me for the second

time what little food he has eaten today,

carefully, as if reciting a prayer.

Of course the woman at the bus stop

is not my father. She doesn’t

read sympathy on my face when she

catches me staring. Fucking

go to hell, she tells me.

People at the stop watch her pass me

with bated breath. I say, Okay. She

keeps walking. Everyone’s eyes

stay on me, like she wanted.

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