Alleys of Cinders, East End

Our parents knew a serial killer
paced the railroad tracks in East End,
1960 Superior, and they threatened us
with death should we go search for him,
but our bikes had forgotten fear,
single-geared and rusted hand-me-downs
with chains that spent as much time off
as on a spoke. Every day we looked.

Washington Park reeked of oil
leaked from locomotives
and broken planks strewn
at the side of the creek
that trailed down into the lake
and more than once had been set on fire.
We thought we saw the killer once
in the park, ducking behind some willows
and a shack that served as a get-out,
a way to escape the Lake Superior cold.

People lived hard in the East End
and soot soaked like afternoon rain
might in a tropical forest,
soot from the railroad, from ships
belching from and to port,
leaky furnaces and streets not swept.
A blonde Swedish couple
who spoke little English
looked like every bleak,
dark Pole and Croat
who’d had life bleached out of them.
Days ended quickly there,
the streetlamps came dim and early
and remained dim and seldom.
The men came home shuffling their feet
as if chains had been attached.
The women bundled up their children,
dragged buggies up
the sidewalks of the shabby, drab,
colorless neighborhood, everything
in need of paint except their lips
stacked with red, the miracle
of glossy scarlet and Kleenex
filled with smooches inside
their soot-black purses
where coal-tar cosmetics
hid among cigarettes and rouge,
tar-soaked telephone poles
sagged with the weight of the lines
empty of anything important to say,
except for talk of the serial killer,
which brought a bearing of weightlessness,
almost a hope to mothers and fathers,
a serial killer they never caught,
the only one who got away clean.


Jeff Burt lives in California with his wife amid the redwoods and two-lane roads wide enough for one car. He works in mental health. He has work in The Watershed Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Spry, Atticus Review, and The Monarch Review. He was the featured 2015 summer issue poet of Clerestory, and won the 2017 Cold Mountain Review narrative poetry prize.