Riding a hand-painted blue bike, tires fat
as a king snake, he wore high-top
tennis shoes and khaki pants rolled up
at the cuff high enough to fool the chain.
Turning pedals to the backbeat lines
of a delta rhythm, he played harmonica
one-handed, floating the street with blues.
Working on the back porch of Baton
Rouge, he turned each edge sharp
with gloss no machine could ever match,
testing blades on the tip of a thumb
to get the pitch right. Taking his pay
in cash, he kept count in his pockets.
Honed to a resting point thirty years later,
the count high enough now, he rode off
for the last time on his big blue bike,
harp in hand and hours of light still to go.
The sun gave him the name, summer heat
burning his neck clan red each year,
the fields no longer fallow, buds in flower.
Hoe filed to a thin edge, he cut weeds back,
turning the soil thick and black, just deep
enough to find roots. Chopping cotton
for a few dollars a day, solemn as a reaper,
he cut two rows in one the full acre,
till picking time in fall, its cooler weather
and better pay, staying alive in the winter
on store credit, Bible verse, and the beaten
ebony seed he sharecropped with gentry.
No longer working for pay, a pride of old men
fish canals under shade along Lafitte Highway
or trawl without nets the duckweed waters
of Bayou Coquille green with the lure of trout
big enough to keep. Casting their lines
from canvas chairs, they load hooks with bait
from soil feeding a forest of gum trees
and palmettos, the random cypress spared
the cutter’s tool, the knees a plaintive sign
from the past. Keeping watch in rows, tall
blue herons stand regal as royalty on a bank
of shadows, whistling the dark to sleep.
With a full catch and clear weather to come,
the brokers of the canebrake will share
their bounty on fires of kindling wood, bark
and stump gathered again for currency deep
inside a delta of marsh and ridge, the only
place they’ve ever known how to call home.