Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Charlotte



January 12, 1928
a tornado
lit down on Alabama.
Swaddled in a blanket
and held tight,
she could not
be stilled.
Her mother had
no idea
the range of emotion
she held
in her arms.

Charlotte blew in
at a wind velocity
that could’a blown a tunnel
clean through the mountain
that rested above Huntsville.
Monte Sano would see her passage
many times over.

She was a child
intended for love,
but there was a
cold torrent waiting to pass
that got frozen in place.

The mother
was not one
for cozying up
to this child.
Charlotte’s face shown lovely
in too many frames.
A mother’s love
turned to envy.

Her hometown had one Main Street
and one main photographer
whose focus was beauty.
Charlotte sat pretty for him
and her smile
beguiled the population
of that little town.

Her family mistook
the invitations to homes
of church families
as the favoring of this girl
over her sisters
when really it was
the lecherous men
who preyed over children
and counted on her
coming to play
with their daughters.
What a fitting ploy.
They would stroke her hair,
handily forcing their affections.

Charlotte grew tired
of the attention.
She began to twist
and unfurl,
looking for a place
to let her wings glide.

Her mother’s eyes
fell upon
wing cutters
and she snipped away
at anything
that wouldn’t lay still.
Before her mother
would finish
there would be pock marks
all over dear Charlotte
whose only dream
was to sing
like the ladies
she heard on her radio
late at night.
The green eyed mother stood
outside Charlotte’s door
waiting for the sound
and the moment she could
call out
and shut it down.
Charotte’s voice would not be heard;
her song and the grief
she carried to her grave.
There was no one to listen.

Before her eyes would close
she would say to her daughter,
“I only wanted
to sing my song.
Nothing more.”

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Original Document



“Original” was stamped
on the document
giving my grandfather
permission to work in the mill.

On this 5th day of June, 1912
Toy Hudson,
of his own volition,
desires to be employed
by the Dallas Manufacturing Company
at fifteen years old.
His father signs the papers
wherein my grandfather
becomes the property
of King Cotton.

Fibers float in the sweltering,
crowded warehouse air
where machines clatter, whir, and stir
their deafening noise.
The man-child takes hold of the shuttle
working the clouds
picked by colored hands.
Those bitten and calloused by seeds
bring the swollen
and filthy matted mess
to be cleaned up
so to appear proper
in public places.

My grandfather waits for the long,
full throated factory whistle
to signal the day’s end.
He walks with other workers,
his empty paper lunch bag
swinging loosely in his hand,
toward the village.
He will sleep awhile and return.

He passes the colored men
unloading bales
that will be worked tomorrow;
his future guaranteed.

Edwin Ray Dockery



In 1959
Edwin Ray Dockery died
a most unnatural death.

My grandmother led us
to our neighbors’ door
for the viewing.
His casket stood open
where his young face,
under a sheet of glass,
could’ve turned up and smiled
were it not for the heart
that beat no more.

His belly had its own story.
The Daily Courier reported
his last meal:
A dozen oysters,
a dozen shrimp,
two veal cutlets,
salad,
six buttered rolls,
half a banana pie,
and banana ice cream.
He then smoked an expensive cigar.

No Ricky Ray Rector, this guy.

Peer into the future:
1992. Ricky Ray Rector.
Billy Clinton’s radar
is all over Ricky Ray.
To get elected
he can’t be a softie
so the man whose frontal lobe
was sheered away years ago,
must die of legal, lethal poison
on a gurney.
The officers come to take him
for his last walk
but there’s a question
begging his consumption of pecan pie.
“I’ll eat it when I get back,” he says.

Edwin Ray sizzled
at his appointment with death.
Ricky Ray complied.

No one asked Edwin Ray
how it felt to choke the life out of a person
or why he reacted so strongly
to the advances of another man.
His retort to justice levelled,
“I am not guilty of first degree murder.”
His grave is marked simply
with no hint as to his cause of death.

Yellow Mama,
that most uncomfortable seat
in Alabama’s death chamber,
took him
into her arms and
with a tug to her throttle
sent a shock wracking him to his core.

Standing before the pine box,
my cousin is the one who figures it out.
She grabs my hand
and pulls me, running out the door.
“We have to get out of here!”
“Why?” I ask.
“Why is there a sheet of glass
over his body?
What is that smell?”

My cousin squeezes my hand
as we run back to
our grandparent’s house.
She tugs frantically,
“They electrocuted him!
They electrocuted him!”

The village is quiet that evening.
The usual gathering of mill workers
on my grandparents’ porch
doesn’t materialize.
There’s a slant toward the house
with its casket tucked
inside the front door.

All night I bury my nose
into my pillow.
That smell.
The odor of burnt flesh,
settled in my nostrils,
makes its way into my dreams.

God, Mother of Mercy,
hold Edwin Ray in your arms forever.
God, Giver of Solace,
find his mother’s tears
and make a river.
God, Holder of Hearts,
shore up a father’s dreams for his son.

The act of a rogue state
is kindled by a forbidding spark,
unable to see the face
I spy with my childlike eye,
sleeping under glass.

We all collapse
under the weight of that box.

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
turned
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.