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.
My husband can’t stop watching
the woman who can’t stop gardening
across the street. She’s fortyish,
like me, but blonde, which is better,
and newly divorced.
“I’ve never seen her up close.”
No masking his frustrated lust.
She is distant,
but once, crossing the street,
she handed me a bunch of limp four o’clocks.
They’d take over a bed, she warned,
if I didn’t watch out.
She’s blonde. Did I mention that?
Loose-limbed as a teenager and lovely,
if you can forgive her eyes, focused
on a face more rare than yours—
lavender moonflower or bearded iris.
And she’s passionate, judging from her spells
of ravenous pruning.
Hers is a jumble of a garden—
shasta, daylily, gardenia, rose, canna.
It flatters her house, its gables
and pitched roof,
arched windows that reveal
a huge rack of antlers and a caged cockatiel.
How could I not prefer it
to this solid Georgian,
its staid azaleas and family portraits
shot at three-year intervals?
There I could grow wild
and—who knows?—even beautiful.
The black dog settles his chin
on the edge of the bed,
works it onto my pillow.
He inches his nose-tip to mine
and breathes humid day
into my night-breath.
Canned sardines and damp Saltines.
Fumed out of dreaming,
I squint into his grave brown stare.
He needs to know that I will rise.
My hand finds his wide head,
a long soft ear. Satisfied,
he curls onto the floor,
begins at once to snore.
In this dim half-waking,
my spirit remembers fear
and cannot keep from returning
to the one child I was not unable
to bring into the world.
My face lowers, until—there—
her milkish breath, the rise and fall
of thin cotton, her rare small chest.
Holidays, she returns. As if a ghost,
I crack open her bedroom door.
Dark hair frames a woman’s face,
but her mouth is her newborn mouth.
If she opens her eyes, she will laugh,
then she will leave.
DEMENTIA: AMERICAN PICKERS
2 a.m. He’s awake.
Don’t need the walker hell no.
My brother catches him mid-fall.
For Dad, it’s sunup. No matter we show him
the pitch dark outside, the clocks, our phones,
the four watches he’s placed in a perfect row
on the kitchen table. Finally, he has enough
of us and our so-called truth.
You believe what you believe. I believe
what I believe. That shuts us up all right.
We make coffee. Camp out in the den,
let the always-day of TV take over.
One episode after another of American Pickers.
Mike and Frank, who take road trips and
bargain for “rusty gold” in the wilds of rural America
and sometimes cities, too. Lord, the stuff they find!
The crazy-as-a-fox backwoods folk they meet!
There’s Lester the Taxidermist
with his stuffed miniature horse. Big Bear
and his World War Two samurai sword.
There’s Goat Man and Mole Man and Hobo Jack.
Backyard shacks where Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots
lurk. Planet of the Apes lunchbox, pristine.
An honest-to-God dinosaur bone. Not to mention
a 10-foot fiberglass cowboy boot.
Sunup for real, my brother helps our father
to bed. The teepee with red handprints holds me,
this stage prop belonging to Iron Eyes Cody,
the “Crying Indian” from those early ’70s
anti-littering commercials. Truth be told,
he was a Louisiana boy with Italian roots.
His tear was glycerin. I googled him.
I walk between downpours this overwet,
overwarm September, the swamp risen
into the farm road. Trees lean
as though they have spines that won’t straighten.
Gnats by the hundreds drown on my skin,
My father’s latest stray, half-grown
half-Husky racing through puddles,
won’t last long. They’ve taken stock—
the far buzzards circling.
They know the highway out front, its many scents,
its barreling log trucks and bored kids speeding.
Ahead not scat but a spill of grapes.
Limb overhanging, entwined—globe-heavy vine
(stray seed rooted, climbed)—purple muscadine.
I follow my footprints back, my cupped hands filled.
Smell them. My father hears with his eyes. Eat.
I mouth again: eat.
Wild juice baptizes our chins,
and we are born again.
My father’s back straightens.
The highway refuses the stray.
Fingers grow sticky in bee-giddy arbors
of girlhood. Left with what’s left, we spit out
sour pulp, bitter seed, crushed skin.