Tina Kelley’s “The Kids Play at the Shelter, Two Friday Nights After Little G Shot Himself Under the Boardwalk”


The Kids Play at the Shelter, Two Friday Nights
After Little G Shot Himself Under the Boardwalk


Simon says play.
The kids say how.
No one ever said.

Simon says do the robot.
Simon says do the robot while whistling Happy Birthday.
The robot dancers giggle.
OK stop.
Simon didn’t say stop.

Simon says keep up with your plan. Tanika laughs.
Little G had said he got expended from school but
Lamarr said last month Little G finally wasn’t cursing the birds for chirping.

Gary said you ain’t never gonna amount to nothing.
Gary said come here girl and turn out that light.
Gary said do what I say.
Gary said put your hands on my hips.
Gary said shut up. And then mmmmmm.
Gary said if you tell I’m gonna do that to Rafa too.
Gary never said Simon says.
Tanika never said nothing.

Simon says get your photo ID.
Simon says take off your doo-rag.
Simon says get your birth certificate and social.

Little G came back to Lamarr, sat on his bed
glowing all weird, and says do what I did.
Little G says I’m in your head now.
Little G says it doesn’t hurt.
Lamarr says shut up, Little G.
Little G says it’s easier this way.
Little G says but you’ll never know coz you’re too chicken.
Little G says you know you feel as tired as I did.
Little G says quit faking that smile, it’s not all right.
Lamarr says, loud, don’t play with me yo.
Simon didn’t hear.


Lamarr says when I wake up I feel like I have no purpose.
Lamarr says when I was five I saw my mother kill herself.
Lamarr says I had 34 foster placements.
Lamarr says I’m gay and celibate. Celibate, as if it’s not hard enough
being black and Cherokee and a mutt and orphaned and beaten up
and Southern and gay.
Celibate. Jesus.

Lamarr says you should give that baby girl up for adoption, Tanika.
Tanika says give your own damn self up for adoption, Lamarr.
Simon says you’re too old.

Simon says did you go to your meeting?
Simon says do you need an interview suit?
Simon says you’re going to be great.
Simon didn’t say. Simon did.

Little G said I’m going to the Underwood Hotel.
Lamarr said that’s just the sand under the boardwalk, yo.
Little G said I don’t care, it’s home.
Simon says come back as soon as you can.
Little G said yeah whatevs.

Lamarr says Little G’s dad said you cost too much to feed, sound familiar?
Lamarr says I am never going to do shit like that to a child and excuse my language.

Simon didn’t say it would be easy.
Simon says believe in yourself.
Simon says I do.

Little G said I’m out of here.
Simon couldn’t say.


From Abloom & Awry. Copyright 2017 by Tina Kelley. Reprinted with permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of CavanKerry Press, www.cavankerrypress.org.


Tina Kelley’s third poetry collection, Abloom and Awry, came out in April from CavanKerry Press, joining Precise (Word Press) and The Gospel of Galore, winner of a 2003 Washington State Book Award. Ardor, her first chapbook, won the Jacar Press chapbook competition and will appear this fall. She coauthored Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, and reported for The New York Times for ten years, sharing in a staff Pulitzer Prize for 9/11 coverage, including 121 “Portraits of Grief”—121 short descriptions of the victims. Her writing has appeared in Poetry East, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, The Best American Poetry 2009, and on the buses of Seattle, Washington. She lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, with her husband and two children. More poems can be found here; Abloom & Awry can be purchased here.


Poet’s Note

When I was learning about homeless young people while writing Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, I spent time in a number of shelters, and once watched teenagers play a game of “Simon Says.” Frequently, homeless kids miss out on having real childhoods because of abuse or neglect or broken relationships at home. I’ve seen some in their twenties enjoy pumpkin carving and holiday parties with real gusto; some said they had never received a birthday cake of their own before coming to the shelter. This poem grew out of several years of conversations with young people fending for themselves, because adults, and the systems designed to serve kids, had let them down.

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