Elopes. Pregnant the first week.
Turns eighteen. Glows.
At commencement, her mama’s face
burns, but she is proud to show
the bulge beneath her skirt—
her life-till-now’s work.
The world is her bouquet—
dogwood with ten-penny wounds,
lacy fringe tree, meadowsweet,
morning glory in the hay.
In idle August, she hauls her belly
to the store for a Co-Cola.
The streets under her soles are
soft and hot as pudding.
The heat puddling the blacktop
looks so wet she could mop it up
and wring it into a cup,
but she sees it rise and shimmy
like her one silk blouse on the line.
She faints on Goolsby Street.
Night. He sleeps. Aroused
by heat and thunder, she
fingers the gouge in his cheek
from a knife fight over dice.
She runs her hand over his thighs,
caressing the old wound puckered
by a nail in a loose board.
To him, she’s already Mama.
He’s Daddy to her. She sighs,
My man, all mine.
He turns on his side. His arm rises
like a flag. The hand above her
hovers for hours as he sleeps.
The first week she hardly slept,
afraid of sudden collapse.
Always done it, he swears. But now,
she fears no blow or punch
from his hand that’s clenched
as if it holds dice and cocked
as if about to roll craps.
Moving Away in Wet Weather
Muddy footprints crisscross the hardwood
past lint and dust kicked up in drifts,
past scuffed up baseboards, over a flattened
box lid, a doll’s felt shoe, a roll of caps.
In the tall blank window we see ourselves
standing in the rain. Daddy’s the biggest—
Daddy’s bigger than God, for God lives
in one place all the time, but Daddy
shakes off houses like a wet dog.
So here we are, moving, but little sister
won’t get in the car till Daddy says maybe
we’ll see the fawn again, the white one
with three pink spots on its chest.
Then we go over the mountains, past
the hollow where we first saw the fawn,
and sister looks through the trees blurring by,
wherever she looks catching glimmers
of white through the dark limbs—maybe
the dogwood in flower for Easter.
On we go, through rain and snow that fall
while the sun is shining, and Mama sings,
I’ll be leaving on the midnight train.
Daddy’s staring through the windshield,
but when Mama says to join in, he lifts
his voice, All our sins are taken away.
We’ll never see it again, sister is sobbing
for all she has lost and all she’s going to lose.
Hand me down my bottle of corn, sings Daddy,
and Mama’s alto echoes bottle of corn.
We’ll never see it. Our sins are taken away.
What I Knew and When
As I’m writing this down, my uncle Frank
is in my head singing a tune. He stamps
his feet and bellows out the chorus, Don’t
she rock, die-dee-o? Don’t she rock?
I remember when I was almost sixteen, sitting
in the locked shed behind Dancy’s store
cornered between my uncle and John Stutts.
Don’t she rock, Uncle sang under his breath,
sail away, ladies. We were playing no limit
five-card stud. I had one eye on Stutts,
easy to pull a knife, the other on Rufe Baldwin
and the gun in his belt. When Stutts went broke,
he looked around the table for a loan.
Hell, no, said the men, but I passed him
a twenty. He won a hundred quick, but wouldn’t
pay me back. He was half blind with hooch,
so from his stack I lifted forty dollars.
When he lost a hand, he missed the two twenties
(sail away, hummed Uncle Frank), and came out
with his knife, lunging at Baldwin. Baldwin dodged
and drew his thirty-eight (you’ll be an angel
by and by), but I grabbed his shooting hand.
The shot went wide. God says nothing
happens that is not planned. I held the gun
when Daddy pushed in, snatched the thirty-eight,
and knocked me flat. I sat in the dirt stuttering
I, I, I…. Another hand? asked Uncle Frank.
Children, don’t you grieve and cry.
So I took the bus to Biloxi. In the depot
I met a girl on the run, at her request
bought tickets to go all the way to Billings—
said she’d make it worth my dime, sail
away, through Memphis and St. Louis, Des Moines
and Sioux City, Sioux Falls and Pierre.
I saw how the world looks through the haze
of wind-blown hair and a bus’s dirty window
when cornfields vanish in diesel smoke.
Who are you? she asked. I’m the sure-fired
double-action engine, so come along, girl,
and go with me, let’s go live in Tennessee.
She said she wanted a girl and two boys,
a car that runs, a garden with a bed
of marigolds, a clothesline bright with sheets.
Her daddy found us in the rooming house.
Get out, son, he said, cocking his forty-four.
The girl turned red. I cried and ran. I love
my Nancy, but it ain’t no use. From Billings,
I rode my thumb to Colorado, where peaks
of white cold teeth were grinning all around.
Everything’s always been about something else,
and damned if I could ever figure it out.
I drank for days, then hopped a freight for home.
South of Cincinnati, the honeysuckle
made me think about the girl I’d lost.
So who are you? She’d asked me on the bus.
I don’t know, I should have said. I never knew.
Two Things Don’t Matter
In spring Mama makes a radish bed, sitting
cross-legged on the ground, working clumps
into fine particles like sifted flour.
It’s making biscuits in reverse, she says.
The soil’s as silky as her yellow scarf.
Summer evenings, Daddy prunes and stakes
the Big Boy tomatoes, tying up the vines
with strips torn from Mama’s threadbare sheets.
If you let them run like kudzu, he says, to the sound
of tearing cloth, the flesh will taste of dirt.
Mama dreams where the bantam hen is laying,
by the garden fence in a clump of grass
just beyond the summer squash. She collects
each day’s egg, takes it home in a cupped palm
between her breasts, sets it with the others
on the pantry shelf, then turns them daily to keep
them alive. She counts the brood hens she’ll get,
the number of eggs to a cake. In two weeks she sets
the clutch in the nest. Every chick turns out to be
a rooster. Shit, she says under her breath, shit.
I’m going on thirteen, when life’s as mysterious
as the chalky pearls secreted in crawdad heads.
Daddy gets Mama to lie topless in the back yard.
In the pine woods I step on mushrooms
and pump out their spores in dense brown clouds.
Sister finds spots in her panties, steals
pennies for candy, sits in Daddy’s lap,
and sets fires in the pantry. Mama conceives
her fifth child. One wintry morning,
she throws up in a pasteboard box. She sets it
on the snow by the back steps, where it smokes
as if afire. The roosters peck it clean.
She weeps for the first dead Kennedy
and craves bologna. She cans and dries beans,
worries about crow’s-feet, pats her belly.
As she makes cottage cheese, leaning into
the great pot with the clabber up
to her shoulders, she tells me her dreams,
says she’ll never die in the ordinary
way, but will see Jesus come in glory.
Next spring we replant the garden,
but in June move to town where the boys
wear dickies and obsess about rubbers,
and the girls disappear into hose,
hairspray, and bras. I’m lost in this
new world. I mow the grass and go
to Sunday School. When my brother
is born in August, pneumonia almost
takes him, and Mama and Daddy spend
weeks by the hospital bed, their hearts
ripe for tearing. On the day the baby’s
out of danger, Daddy and I walk the garden
at the old place. Tomato vines sprawl
unkempt across the hard ground. We pick
two plump ones, wipe off the dirt. The pulp
rushes down our chins, and he says,
Two things don’t matter—where you are
and what the time is. That night, as we
lie awake in the yard, the falling stars
furrow the sky with streaks of silent light.