LATE FOR READING, 1959
Skinny second-grade sharecropper boys:
straw-headed, lizard-eyed, sores scratched open.
Nehi for supper, Baby Ruth for lunch.
Cussing already. They run in packs.
They drink no milk. They eat no peas.
First week of first grade. I don’t know
the ropes. Past swings, coal pile,
whitewashed gym—I’ve gone too far.
Red apple half-eaten in my hand.
They brush no teeth.
Heavy-sweet hedge, honeysuckle
to pluck to touch to tongue-tip.
Yellow jackets swarm. First bell.
I drop the apple before it stings.
They kiss no mother.
Three—long-legged, too fast.
Cheek fisted down, mouth spitting grit.
Up my dress, ragged nails dig past elastic.
Last bell rings. I’m late for Reading.
They live in dust. Find home in fields.
Child with the lost name, it was your skin
that stood you with the others of your kind
at the barn working our tobacco,
when the tractor, through heavy morning fog,
towed in for curing a drag stacked
with cropped green leaves.
And it nudged the pole that held the roof.
And the pole felled you.
Skin whiskey brown as Catfish Creek.
Come afternoon my father’s jittery hands
gripped his Super-8. Preserved for posterity
the ringlets, crinoline, back-bowed sashes
of my birthday party. Off to one side
Mattie in her good uniform, face behind her hands.
No word uttered about what happened
down by the swamp. Ten candles sputter out.
Jesse leads in the horse I’d begged for.
It fills the frame.
Forty years later to the day, my father,
after too many stiff ones, spills the beans.
Those were the days before people knew
about suing folks for a fortune. He paid
for your funeral, for everything. Sent flowers.
Even visited your family, even sat in your house.
Name? Honey, that was a long time ago.
He believes you were ten, like me.
Happen nowadays—he knocks back the Jack—
he’d be sued in a snap.