Saturday, August 2, 2014

Jesús and Maria

Jesús stood on the back porch
as my dad and I went
to the side door of the church.
It was our Sunday ritual,
arrive early,
check all the windows and doors,
to make sure nobody’d come in uninvited.

The sanctuary was quiet.
It greeted my nostrils
with the smell of fresh wax
on the hardwoods.
Light scored the floor
with a multicolored cross.

I’m standing there
all of eleven years old
wondering if God had
anything to do with
what seemed like an inside joke.

Out the window I see Jesús
wiping the sweat from his forehead.
He’s waiting for the kitchen to open.
The church ladies will fix coffee
and biscuits with homemade jams.
When Jesús comes around
they share some with him.
He’ll take a paper plate
with buttered, hot bread
and a Dixie cup
with its percolated contents.
Then he’ll disappear
out the side yard
until the next time.

I wonder where he goes.
When I ask my dad
he tells me “they”
have places where they go
to stay out of the heat.
I’d ask Jesús what he does all day,
but we don’t speak the same language.
My dad says “they”
have their ways of doing things
and it’s their business.
He says we don’t meddle
with how they live
and they don’t bother us
like it’s a formal agreement.

Sometimes my dad
gives Jesús little jobs
around the church building.
“He’s a yardman
and lays stones”
my dad says.
I wonder how my dad knows this.
He doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish.
But he gets
what it is he wants done
across to Jesús.

Jesús mows and lifts rocks.
His face never changes.
No smile, frown,
or look of apprehension.

Maria sometimes comes by
to check on Jesús.
She has a frown to beat all.
The church ladies say
they’d rather she didn’t come around.
I hear them call the frown
something more on the order of a scowl.
It scares them a bit
like maybe Maria’d forget herself
and snap on them.
There’s the story of her
going off on some lady
at the grocery store.
The lady had wondered aloud
how her tax money was being spent
and a made general comment
regarding people who spoke no English,
and were probable illegals,
getting benefits off her ass and all.

Well, surprise.
Maria understood
every word the lady said.
The lady was undone
when Maria
shook her hard earned
dollar bill, US currency,
in the now stunned lady’s face
and let her know in at least
two different languages
that she didn’t need a green card
cause she had been born
right here in this stinkin little town.

When the police arrived
Maria knew what time it was.
The store owner
said the lady
had only made comments.
It was Maria that got ugly
about things.

Nope. The church ladies
didn’t want to rile Maria.
She brought sandwiches and tea
by for Jesús.
She would stand and talk
all animated like
and anyone within earshot
would strain for a clue
to the meaning of her babble.
Jesús’ face never changed.
She could’a been saying,
“Your pants are on fire.”
or “You got a check
for a million dollars
in the mail today.”
You wouldn’t a known
cause for some mysterious reason
learning to speak Spanish
flipped right off your radar
as a necessary part of getting by.

My dad says
Jesús probably lets
what she says
go in one ear and out
the other.

Jesús finishes up
the mowing
and walks over to the rose bush.
He prunes it back
and sets things straight
for it to bloom again.

Maria arrives mid afternoon
with more tea and sandwiches
and a smile.
Jesús hands her
a perfect rose.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Traveling Preacher Rag

Strutting, crouching, dipping, slouching.
Dragging the microphone,
he makes his way across the stage.
Brother Wade is hot tonight.

Bible held high, his message is dry.
The white hot hell he preaches
brings on a singed longing
from the funeral fan waving,
thigh spreading sisters.
Salvation is in the air.

On this red dirt hot Alabama night,
next to the cotton fields, stands
a brown canvas tent filled with sinners
just praying for a breeze.
The tent wilts with the people
as this man of God,
sweat beading off his forehead,
marks his territory.

Brother Wade’s brow is furrowed
with a dark eyed righteous stare
that beams out across the breathless crowd.

“What is Hell like?”
he shouts, bolting upright.
“I’ll tell you what it’s like.
Imagine the hottest spot on the sun.
It’s ten times hotter than that!
And for all eternity the damned
will sizzle and fry
and never once feel relief.
That’s what Hell’s like.
And what of your loved ones?
If they’re there you’ll never know.
Because God will change their form.
And they won’t be able to tell you
who they are
because of the eternal misery
set upon them.
And even if you could
make out their forms
this white hot Hell
will be so dark
you won’t be able to see
your hand
in front of your face.”

There is one in the crowd who is not
concerned with this Hell.
You see her there on the second row.
Lydia Slocum hasn’t broken a sweat.
She sits there oddly fresh.
The only beads on her
string down and disappear
in her abundant cleavage.
The very cleavage
where Brother Wade buried his face
while making a pastoral visit
earlier in the day.

Three states away
Sister Wade stares at the screen door
back of her kitchen.
She would be at Wednesday evening
prayer meeting
except for the desperate longing
that has crept into the pit of her stomach
and has her in a bind.
He never let
her go
with him on his travels.
Said there wouldn’t be anything for her to do.
It would be lonely and all
like where she sat now
was any kind of comfort.

Traveling preachers
take up salvation
and leave wives behind.
He told her when she married him
it would be
a difficult life.
She would have to share him and all.
That didn’t bother her.
God’s calling
was to be answered with eagerness.
Somehow she thought she would be
a part of it all.

Instead there were long
stretches of time
all throughout the year
where he would disappear.
His calls home became infrequent.
The Lord became all the more
demanding of his time.

Back in Alabama
the tent began to sway.
Flaps snapped.
Corners pulled at the rebar
holding them in place.
Colors and changes
filled the firmament.
The brothers and sisters
read the sky
and saw trouble was coming.
Some figured it arrived
days before
when Brother Wade
parked his Chevrolet
in front of
the Red Door Motel.
Every time this man
came to town
the sisters became
addled and restless.
The brethren lost sleep.
No one would call it
by its name.

God’s heaven spoke.
An angry sky
yellow and green.

The brothers began
pulling out the stops,
sending the women folk
running to the shelters
in nearby fields.
The cloud that came up,
funneled and furled,
extending its reach
to the vehicles
parked on the grass.

No one had time
to look behind.
The winds
had no mercy.
Folding chairs took wings.
The tent lifted
and made like a sail.
There was a mighty roar
and a darkness
came over the land.

The huddled mass
burned candles
in one shelter.
The rain began
fast and hard.
Brothers began to shout.
The door to the shelter
though tightly shut,
began to let water in.
It filled the hole to waist high,
the candlelight faded.

The storm was passing
above that dark hole
when came the voice
of Lydia Slocum,

“Master, the tempest is raging!
The billows are tossing high!
The sky is o’ershadowed with blackness,
No shelter or help is nigh;
Carest Thou not that we perish?
How canst Thou lie asleep,
When each moment so madly is threat’ning
A grave in the angry deep?”

The door opened and light shown.
Brothers and sisters
began to climb out
and look about.

Tatters of tent and chairs
clung to what was left of trees.
The fields were littered
with hymnals and funeral fans.

Brothers Wade’s Chevrolet
was tilted up,
trunk lodged in a drainage ditch,
the hood ornament looking skyward,
as though stalled by the rapture.
Inside the car
sat the man of God,
hands frozen on the wheel,
eyes opened in a
heavenward gaze,
his heart stilled.
On the seat lay his bible,
Inside, the outline
to a sermon yet preached.

Tom Slocum reached across
the body of the man whose soul
was the only part of him
with the common decency
to take its leave.
He took the sermon
from the pages
of the leather,
manhandled King James
and tucked it in his work shirt pocket.
Then he and Lydia walked home.
Tom’s truck was amongst the fatalities.

Two days later
a somber Lydia
opened the basket of laundry,
Tom’s work shirt on top.
From the pocket
she pulled the sermon outline
and read the scripture
over its title.
Numbers 32:23
“But if ye will not do so,
behold, ye have sinned
against the Lord:
and be sure
your sin will find you out.”

Thursday, May 2, 2013

If I Woke Up One Morning

“If I woke up one morning,
and God had changed me into a Negro child,
would you still love me all the same?”

I’m eight years old
and my daddy’s got me thinking.
All his preaching about God’s
unconditional love
and how it’s like the way
parents love their children…

I smell a fish.

My mother was in no mood
for my silliness.
“Come back when you’ve
got a question
about something that’s possible.”

“But God can do anything.
Doesn’t that make turning me
into a Negro child possible?’

My daddy says I shouldn’t mock God.
I never reckoned that’s what I was doing.
He turned on his preacher voice.
“Now if God turned you into a Negro child
it would be for a very good reason
and not something we would understand.”

But would you love me all the same?

Dicy comes to clean our house every Monday.
Her real name is Virginia Fuqua.
She needs the money,
but she dusts like she doesn’t care.
She’s moving things around
that my mother has set in place,
and later my mother will complain.

“Dicy keeps moving things from where I put them.
I wish she would just leave them alone.”

Dicy knows, but she does it anyway.
“Your mama got too many salt and pepper shakers.
She need to give some of them to Dicy.”

Some weekends when my mother is busy
I go to Dicy’s house out in the country.
Dicy’s girls and I jump double dutch
in the dirt side yard.
They know the best rhymes.
I share them at school
with the white girls.

Dicy’s house smells clean
and always like greens.
Her girls and I study color.

“Put your arm
up next to ours,” they say.

We stare.
Dicy irons and watches us.

Sixth grade.
Negro children come to my school.
Now it’s their school, too,
just not in their neighborhood.

The teachers act like it’s
always been this way.
They don’t want any trouble.
They talk like we’re all the same.
Nope, they don’t want any trouble.

I get my homework done
while Dicy makes supper
before my mother arrives.
I think about her girls
and the rhymes
and our arms
lined up like a flag.
Dark, light, dark.

I don’t mention
any of this
to my mother or dad.
Some things are best
kept to myself.

All over the south
people are marching and sitting
and preachers are preaching
a Godly confusion.

After church my mother and I go to lunch.
There are reserved signs on all the restaurant tables.
My heart sinks.

“Its’s OK. You can set anywhere you want;”
The waitress says to us.
At the door a Negro family is stopped.
No room in the inn.
Their faces appear determined.

I don’t want to eat at this place ever again, ever.

I tug at my mother.
She pays no attention to my questions.
The Negro family stands their ground at the door.
My mother tells me to stay still in case there’s trouble.
I saw trouble on the tables before the Negro family arrived.

Now we’re back home.
The house is still.
A dark sadness shadows everything
that never gets said.

I’m a child with a simple question.
It will be years before I know
I was not alone;
that lots of children wanted to know,
“If I woke up one morning,
and God had changed me into a Negro child,
would you still love me all the same?”

Lot's Wife

My four year old knuckles
are white against the edge of the pew.
Sodom and Gomorrah are burning.
The people cry out under the rain of fire and brimstone.

Lot’s wife is in a stew.
She hears familiar voices in distress
and weighs giving a backward glance.

Lot walks down the hill
from the small towns that are no longer
hidden from an angry deity.
Their worship of other gods
and the itches they dared to scratch
brought down a righteous wrath.

Lot’s wife can bear it no more
and so she turns.
In an instant, crystalline feet slow her to a halt;
her legs, her arms, her sodium chloride core
break her stride.

My mother appears quite calm, bored even.
The pulpit, mere feet away,
vibrates as my daddy’s voice crescendos
to emphasize how dire the matter has become.

The people of Sodom and Gomorrah
wilt under harsh, ancient rules
written in King James’ tongue.
A rule book the size of a Sears and Roebuck catalogue
condemns their lust.
Their carnal fire turns white hot
and vaporizes them all.
And at the edge of the towns
stands a lone, forever stilled figure;
a symbol of mankind’s collective disobedience.

In Sunday School
There is a table covered with wax paper
Shakers of salt in a line.

“Today our story is about Lot’s wife
and what becomes of people
who disobey our heavenly Father,”
my teachers say.

They want us to remember
the fate of the woman who looked back
out of curiosity, perhaps in longing,
over neighbors whose end came so quickly.
What on earth did they do, really?

The salt gets poured into vials
and a solution seals them so they harden quickly.
I carry Lot’s wife out of the classroom in my pocket.
I cannot help the feeling of utter terror that’s come over me.
How far am I from turning into a pillar of salt?

An Alabama rain begins to fall.
Big drops the size of marbles
splatter against everything.
My pocket soaks up the water.

By the time I reach my mother
Lot’s wife is a wet, crumbly mess.
Checking my pocket my mother’s forehead wrinkles.
“What is this in your pocket?”

“Lots’s wife,” and my tears fall
with the rain.

My mother takes no notice of my distress.
She pulls me to a wastebasket
where my pocket is turned inside out
and hand brushed.
I watch Lot’s wife disappear, sprinkled
over paper towels and chewing gum.

That night I have a recurring dream.
I’m in the very hell my daddy described
that is the place of eternal punishment
for people who will not follow God’s rules.
My daddy spoke of jots, tittles, and iotas.
My four year old self cannot grasp
the nature of those words.
But my sins have brought me here,
to this white hot hell,
where it is so dark
I can’t see my hand in front of my face.
Flames leap and people cry,
but there is no conversation.
The people can only cry out for all eternity.

I call out for my mother
She comes to my room, wringing her hands,
for the umpteenth night in a row.
My heart races and I am covered in hives.

Dr. Kates arrives in the middle of the night
His satchel brings relief.
An injection calms my anxious self
and the hives retreat one more time.

“She is a sensitive child,” I hear him tell my mother.

Dr. Kates packs his magic satchel.
He seems unbothered by the hour of the night;
his potions, pills, and soft ways
dressed in humility.

Meanwhile my mother rocks me to sleep
and an angry God marks time.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Linda Was A Tramp

Linda was a tramp.
Her family was churchachrist.
Purse lipped church ladies
tsk tsked.
Linda’s been seen walkin’ Meridian Street.
The men down there don’t look that appetizing,
but Linda laughs and they laugh
real, bonafide belly laughs.
I don’t get the idea
they’re laughing to keep from crying.
They line up in the afternoon shade
in front of old Lincoln School.

Sunday morning, Sunday night,
Wednesday prayer meeting, gospel meetings.
Linda’s mom, dad, brothers and sisters
come through the big glass church doors.
Her mama has a look of perpetual worry
that’s about worn out her brow.
Daddy looks the somber elder.
He keeps his head bowed
since he resigned.
A man can’t be an elder
when his daughter’s a tramp.
Brothers and sisters follow.
Everybody’s all balled up together.
They line up on the church pew.
The congregation tries to sneak a peek
at them sitting there.
Linda’s family all look
straight ahead at the baptistry.
We all wonder what it’s like
to have a tramp in the family.

Me, I’m six years old
and fascinated by Linda.
Sometimes I see her
when my mom and I
ride downtown in our blue Buick.
My mom lets a glance slide out
as we go past the old Lincoln School.
If Linda is out there
my mom will set her jaw.
No one seems to notice
my childish fascination.
What does one do
in order to “live in sin”?
How bad can it be to stand around
and everything’s funny?

The word ”tramp” excites me.
I stand near the tsk tsk-ers
hoping to suck up a single titillating morsel.
“You see Linda walkin up and down Meridian”
“Like she don’t care who sees her”
“Always actin out, cuttin up with those men”
My six year old mind spins.
Linda is a tramp and she laughs.
Her family is saved
and they don’t laugh at nothing.

The church sings and prays
one Wednesday night.
My daddy says a few words
in case anyone needs prayer
or saving.
Then one night it happens.
My daddy is talking
about how it’s so easy to go to hell
and there are a lot
of people going there
but none of us has to.
If there is any sin in our lives
we need to come forward
this very night,
and turn our lives around.
The church is singing the invitation song
and down the aisle comes Linda.
The whole church stops breathing.
Jaws drop.
Then church like composure
sets back in.

Linda sits on the front row,
my daddy beside her.
She whispers in his ear
and my daddy
writes something on a card.
He stands up to look out at us
and holds up his bible.
Linda starts shaking.
She shakes a little, then a lot.
Then she lets out a wooh, wooh, wooh.
The whole place is sitting real tight.
Linda’s family is dead still.
My daddy doesn’t say anything.
He just stares.

Linda is looking back at all of us now.
She has a big grin across her whole face.
She starts walking toward the back
and out the big glass doors.
I hear her wooh, wooh, wooh
until it is outside.
Linda’s voice fades,
but she’s still wooh, woohing.

The church collects itself.
My daddy tells the congregation
we’re going to sing
Just As I Am.
There’s fourteen verses in that song.

After a prayer we move out of the church.
No one says a word about Linda.
No one says a word to her family.

Back at home I sit in the dark,
listening to a radio station far away,
hearing songs by people I’ll never meet…
thinking about Linda.

Tonight I promise myself
as soon as I am big enough
I will never go to church again.
I will find Linda
and ask her about being a tramp
and what was so funny anyway.

Monday, April 29, 2013


It’s been more than a year
since I saw my uncle Otis.
Last I was with him
me and my cousins
were tugging at his arms
while the sheriff and his deputy
pushed back on us.
Aunt Evalene just stood,
hands on her hips, jaw set.
She’d had it
with this man who couldn’t
set the bottle down.

Sheriff drove him off
to the train station
headed for Tuscaloosa.
That’s how it was back then.

Thanksgiving came.
We sat around the table
in my aunt’s dining room
that took her
three days to clear out
of all the things
she had piled up.
Aunt Evalene and her daughter
had a gift for finding
items on sale.
My cousin would load up
all the new stuff
in the front bedroom.
They’d decide on an order
to open the boxes,
saving the plastic wrapping.
Pictures hung on the walls
behind stacks of newspapers
and magazines
and copies of every
Reader’s Digest in print.
The uncle that played
with his food,
making us laugh
and Aunt Evalene cross,
was in a place many
hours and miles away.
I hated Aunt Evalene – her and her
Bible toting, verse slinging self.

The cousins played
out in the yard after dinner.
The older ones started saying stuff
to scare the younger ones.
I was about mid ways in age
so I was left to fend for myself.
It was okay until Roy started up about
Tuscaloosa and what went on
at the insane asylum.
Us kids had been told
the subject was off limits,
but Roy did and talked about
whatever he pleased.
His picture of the place
got stuck in my head
and that night I had nightmares
so bad I couldn’t get out of bed
to go to the bathroom.
Next morning my sheets
were wet and cold.
Late summer I began asking my mom
about Tuscaloosa and the insane asylum
and why Uncle Otis had to go there
and never come back.

What’s it like there?
I’ll show you tomorrow she said.

Sometimes we’d get in the car
and she’d start driving.
My mom had a natural wanderlust
that needed no more excuse
than me asking about a place
to get things rolling in any direction
away from our house.

We drove for hours.
Two lane roads in Alabama
were subject to slowing traffic.
We got behind an uncommon number
of tractors and harvesters that day.
Each time we had to slow up
we’d roll the windows down
to catch an imaginary breeze
against our skin
to whisk away the droplets
brought on by the heat.

My mom looked off in the distance
at a cluster of buildings
and said it was
the University of Alabama.
Could we please drive closer I asked
in case Bear Bryant was
walking between any of the buildings.
My mom said it wasn’t likely we’d see him,
but driving through couldn’t hurt.
I craned my neck at every man
in a hounds-tooth hat.
Guess Bear was otherwise occupied that day.
It was exciting all the same.
He was bound to have been
right where we were
at some time or other.
The place wasn’t that big after all.

The asylum was down
a long gravel drive
that crackled and popped
underneath the wheels of our Buick.
A uniformed man in a building
no bigger than he was stepped out.

“Hep you ladies?”

My mom stared ahead
at a plantation style house
with its columns
and shuttered windows
Only this one had bars
across the window panes.

My daughter and I
drove down from Huntsville
to see Otis Hudson.
He’s a relative she said.

The man in uniform frowned.

Ma’am, I’m real sorry.
for all your trouble,
but we don’t ‘low for no visits
'ceptin they’re approved.

He leaned in a little
and with a whisper asked
You approved?

My mom’s eyes glazed over
the way they did
when she was lost for words.

There’s no way we can see him?
she asked.

The man shook his head slowly
and apologized again.

And that was that.

We had come all those miles and hours,
slowed up behind tractors and harvesters,
and we were leaving without
any sign of Bear Bryant or Uncle Otis.
My mom looked defeated.
And hot.
And tired.
I wanted to fix things
by saying something
of comfort to her
but there was no use.

We drove back down
the long gravel drive,
windows down,
the radio on
some local station.
Bessie Smith singing
Boweavil Blues.

My mom’s music intrigued me.
She would sing Ave Maria
in her high pitched, opera voice
then turn on the radio
to a sound that
made my heart bleed and cry.
I’m guessing that’s
how she felt about now.

It was at church
during the Wednesday
evening prayer service.
A note was passed
from my dad
to my mom.
Uncle Otis died today
at 78 years of age.

My mom’s eyes
turned red and moist.
I was mad.
And hurt.
And dazed
that I would never again see
or hear
my Uncle Otis.

Some years later when I had moved
away from all family
my dad called.

“Aunt Evalene passed. She was 102,” he said.

“That woman needed to die,” I said.

My dad cranked up his preacher voice.
“Now Evalene was a good woman.
She went to church and…”

I can’t say what came over me
or why I cared
what my dad thought
about Aunt Evalene
but I cut him off.

“She was wicked as Salome,” I shouted.
“Yes she was.
She might as well of cut
off Uncle Otis’ head.
Except she did worse.
She cut him all off
from everybody that loved him
and sent him to a place
where he knew nobody
and nobody loved him.
And he died with nobody
that loved him around.”

My dad said no more.

And that was that.
Uncle Otis and Aunt Evalene were gone.

New Jersey was cold that night.
Stars shown clear.
I tried to pick one out
and imagine
Uncle Otis was looking at it, too.