It’s a touted local attraction—Hobo Hot Springs—peeling paint, faded sign, the steps leading into the pool slimed in green. In the changing room, a woman from eight miles down the road strips off her XXL stretch pants and faded cotton panties without shame, as she tells me about the rabbits she bought that afternoon.
In the hot springs, local men row up along one side: the guy in the middle with full-sleeve tattoos flanked by mountain man beards in blond and red. They lounge on a submerged bench out of sun’s glare. The men say they come here as often as they can, have been coming here for more than 30 years. On this cold October Sunday they have no place better to be than this liquid square of walled-in heat. The men float slightly above the bench, their arms slung out behind them so that they hang from the lip of the pool, poised and waiting for a signal, like an aerialist at the top of her arc.
A circus passed through my small Texas town when I was ten and we had front row seats, so close that when the trapeze artist swung above me, I could see makeup caked in acne scars, the loose sequins on her leotard, a quarter-sized rip in her fishnet tights. She swung to her partner’s waiting arms and back, a tight path circumscribed by a length of rope and her dreamless sleep, like the tiger pacing back and forth in every zoo in the world, stripes echoing the shadowed bars of sunlight on a caged floor.
Zoos and circuses urge me to flay the tender skin of my wrists and feet on razor wire, the wire that edges the border wall between sad and saddest. And soldiers, too—that freckled Marine I watched some time back sitting by himself in a coffee shop. I wanted to buy him a cup, wanted to keep him company, but that’s not done. He wakes me now sometimes in the night and I see him sitting there still, waiting. For what I don’t know, but I imagine the tight confines of a body bag.
My attention turns back to the pool, where everyone is waiting for one of the regulars, a scrawny guy with a long reddish beard and decaying teeth, to perform a feat he’s known for. He nimbly climbs atop the rock wall behind us that encloses the hot springs, tells us to stay put. “You won’t even get wet,” he grins. We worry over the shallowness of the pool, but all at once he launches up and over us, soaring with arms outstretched like Christ on the cross. He slaps the water face down, his whole body planing the pool in a perfect belly flop, then sinks beneath the surface. When he breaks free of the water, as if reborn, droplets on his beard glisten in the late afternoon sun, one moment of spangled glory. We almost applaud.
Janice Northerns is the author of Some Electric Hum (Lamar University Literary Press, 2020), winner of the Byron Caldwell Smith Book Award from the University of Kansas and a 2021 WILLA Literary Award Finalist in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in many journals, including Ploughshares, The Laurel Review, and Southwestern American Literature. The author grew up on a farm in rural West Texas and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas Tech University, where she received the Robert S. Newton Creative Writing Award. Other honors include a Brush Creek Foundation writing residency, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and numerous awards for individual poems. She and her husband live in southwest Kansas.