Errol Hess – Three Poems

A Wake

It was the nicest thing in the room,
in the whole house, up on saw horses
living room center, filling the whole space
between an old couch, two overstuffed chairs,
a floor model console radio, lining the walls:
Grandad’s sleek coffin, his body on display, still as
death.  Friends, neighbors, relatives, coworkers
paraded by it, in passing saying insignificant words
before joining others in the dining room where
a large family sat to dinner every Sunday, tables now
laden with foods of neighborly kindness, foods
produced by death, which I refused, every few minutes
when Grandmother urged me to eat.
“I know you like apple pie; try this cake;
let me fix you a ham sandwich;
an egg; some pop?”

**

Wild Strawberries

Up the run past grandmother’s house, where it crossed her sister
Artie’s farm, between steep hillside pasture to the right and
creekside right-of-way fenced tight against creek, then farm road;
right above where creek was walled in concrete, fenced away
from town kids, and ran through the oil refinery–I used to eat the
sweetest wild strawberries from its banks.  Each tiny fruit packed
as much flavor as big farm grown ones do now, fresh out of my
food drier, shrunk to wild sized.

It was grandfather’s house too, uncle John Fox’s farm, too.  When his
boar hog got loose I, the handiest kid, had to chase it down dirt
streets till it found a mud puddle in some alley, had to tug its ear
till it got cool enough to come along back to the farm, where Artie let
it back in its pen, because Uncle John was cutting Democratic hair in
the alley behind the blacksmith shop, where Kramer Sellers built a
movie theater the year before tv came to town.

The run (it only flowed in rainy weather) was door to our playground,
open gate thru refinery fence, inside which we played guerrilla war
with grown-ups, hid under buildings, behind enormous storage tanks,
snuck up winding steel stairs to their tops and spied on our bellies the
enemy below.  We knew the insides of box cars, coal cars, the paper
room, the bush shelter beside the chemistry lab, truck loading docks,
canning plant, the long tunnel where our creek was boxed all around
and ran pitch black beneath cat cracking still, filter house, tool room
and out beside the marble factory next door, down to the river.

The river, where great Uncle George gardened an acre, ran a trout line
in his jon boat, often spent the night in an eight foot box on stilts
when he didn’t want to go home to Aunt Stella.  We feasted on
tomatoes, muskmelons, roast corn.  One day he took us down to the
water, showed us bear tracks in the soft mud.  Another, I saw a buck
deer crash in and out plate glass walls of the Ford showroom after he
shot it raiding his corn, chased it on my bike as it staggered across
three downtown blocks and then swam the river.

The river, where we paddled with old boards boats we “borrowed”
because they were unlocked, sailed them upriver with refrigerator
carton cardboard, then floated back down skinny dipping behind.
Where riverboats pushed half-mile chains of barges, so long they had
to let the current float them around bends, where a few side wheelers
still worked, and a couple of new prop boats, but stern wheelers were
queen. At night they were lit up like carnivals. We would creep out
behind them and ride one of the humps their paddles made, surfing
along so long as we caught the hump just right; sometimes the third
hump, the second hump if we were real daring, and, just once,
because we heard older kids had done it, the first hump.  If your boat
slid forward off it the paddle wheel got you.

Uncle John’s pasture was a woods the last time I looked, its trees big
around as my waist.  They’re tearing down the refinery my dad retired
from.  A four lane highway clefts  the town.  I went up the street
where a childhood friend’s home topped the hill and found a dead end,
the highway paving where his house once stood.  I saw that friend at
our fiftieth reunion.  He looked like his grandad.  I looked like mine,
only older.  He died eight years my junior.

Oh, yes, the river.  It’s still there, much broader with the new locks,
ponding up creek bottoms once fields I picked beans in for five bucks a
ten hour day.  The old bridge is cut off at the island, once farm, now
bird sanctuary.  The new bridge shines downriver, so high the
riverboats (all propped ones, now) look like bathtub toys looking
down. Across it, Dean’s fruit stand is replaced by a gas station, all
straight lines and clean concrete.  The woman at the IGA tells me
Dean is dead.

**

Dancing Lessons

They were here when we moved in,
lurking at the edge of the wood
and in high sage grass of fields
surrounding the house we bought.
I’d see them sneaking around
the yard, looking for scraps to eat,
easier for them, I guessed, than
catching grasshoppers, rabbits, moles
or birds. They did the rounds of our
neighborhood, cashing in on
their stump-tailed good looks.
I put out scraps, and one chose
this as home base, meowed
when I neglected to leave it food
or had no table scraps.  An innocent
beginning.  Then I bought cat
food and a dish to put it in, saved
them buttermilk from weekly churning,
gave them a cheap egg in their
evening meal—y then there were
“them:” Kee Kee and kittens half
grown before I saw them, all wild.
Tiger was next when Kee Kee left,
then Big Butt, Sneaky Pete,
the mottled cat, Taxi…  Now my
cats teach me how to dance, weaving
around my feet as I carry their food
to the barn—sits either kick them,
trip over them—or dance.

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