Copyright ©2013 by Joel F. Johnson
I have always loved a good ham.
A gray-bearded man with eyes the color of a lemur’s,
flesh not so much exhibiting a farmer’s tan as defining it,
neck and forearms dry, cracked, brick-red and brown,
his chest whiter than a porcelain tub, my cousin,
a man who wears a tractor cap, cut-offs and hunting boots to the beach.
Raised on acorns, finished in a peanut field with table scraps.
His words invested with the slur of south-central Georgia, nothing like
the refined cadence of Savannah or the chain-store dialect I left behind,
no, an argot of its own, the catatonic articulation
of those without the will or strength to lift their upper lips,
the words a flow continuous, each
a backwash of the one before it, oozing into what will come.
Kill it at first frost. Smoke it with hardwood, hickory if you have it.
Evoking the smoke shed where his father also hung hams,
a structure tacked together with indifference to the principles
of form, stability and strength, now standing in its seventieth year,
a shed adjacent to the one where Richard and I,
ages six and five respectively, crawled beneath the corn cribs,
snatched the dangling tails of rats and yanked their butts
tight against the wooden slats above our heads.
Hang it for a year at least, more if you got time.
This same man, who, for sixty years, has lived
within a radius of ten miles, leaving it a day,
a week at a time, never a month, my mother’s sister’s son,
alien and familiar, his wife housecat friendly, houseboat big,
lumbering and funny, gracious to her guests from up north.
Invites us to her table where the lazy Susan is set:
corn my cousin grew, potato salad, beans, sweet tea and ham.
How she rests her fingers on his arm when she speaks to him.
How she says, “Who do we know?”
How they leave together, his hand at the small of her back,
the car ride to her apartment. What comes next I know I know.
I’ve seen her fingers at the buttons of her blouse,
how her hair falls forward until she lifts her chin,
the scent climbing from beneath her throat.
What I would give not to know, to be
a stranger scanning tickets at the terminal,
a bartender with worries of his own. To not know
how the blue sheet tangled around her leg. To live
in any flesh but flesh her flesh has known.
Are You Safe at Home?
We’re required by law to ask.
Some don’t understand, ask me to explain.
Some (the men) make a joke.
Once, a Laceration said
Yes, thanks to this! Pulled out a pistol
right there in the emergency room as if
anyone in an emergency room would see
anything funny about a drunk with a handgun.
When a Contusions comes in alone,
you see the sunglasses at night, the tissue
for the eye that won’t stop tearing,
how she walks like the floor is ice,
and you already know, so you try
the gentlest tone you can muster,
your kindest, nicest, sweetest voice, saying
Honey, are you safe at home?
You’re praying for a no,
down on your knees begging
for that one word no
so you can call social services,
get her, for once in her miserable life,
help, half a chance to get out, but
before you’ve even finished asking,
you know. Before you ask, you know.
So when she nods her head, those sunglasses
hiding her eyes, you’re already there,
desperate for her chance, pleading
Honey, you have to say it out loud and if
nodding your head means no, just say it,
just say no and we can get you some help, honey.
She turns away, blue tissue wet and wadded
in her fist, lips trembling, and you allow yourself to think
for once, just once, you may have done some good
but then she says yes and you say Are you sure?
and she says yes again and you remind yourself
you’re a nurse, just a nurse, so you say
Tell me about your accident.
To My Daughter Going Out
I cannot watch you leave this house tarted up like a teen harlot
without at least suggesting, my innocent,
that nothing’s to be gained from bringing fresh fish to old cats.
The most effective chaperone is a girl’s own ethics.
I will, therefore, activate the GPS on your cherry-colored phone,
monitor every mile, block and inch
that ill-mannered, unwashed, tattooed vulgarian drives you.
You will call me, my dear, letting me know
where you are, what you’re doing, with whom and why
every quarter hour if not more.
I need not remind you what happens when a girl is not particular.
Your half-sister Suzy does that all too well.
I expect you to offer these low-riding shag-haired sloths
nothing more than a stone-cold liking.
I’m watching you, Margaret. Have fun.
In the Glossary of Rights
You know what he says to me? He says
Can my daughter use your facilities?
Can you believe that?
His daughter. My facilities.
Like she is Eleanor Roosevelt
and my gas station is the Taj Mahal.
So I say, being polite, because I believe
you try to be polite no matter who it is,
No, I’m sorry. It’s whites only.
But he just stands there and I can see
he too is trying to be polite, and I
respect that in a person
no matter how dark the tan.
He says, But she has to go.
She’s about six or seven, cute as
a chocolate drop, her hair tied up in pink scraps,
one pigtail heading north, the other due west.
I say to him, You know what would happen
to my business if I started letting Negroes
use my rest room?
And he says (cool as a cucumber)
Probably it would pick up.
Swear to God. That’s all he said.
Probably it would pick up.
And that is the day I sold my soul to the devil,
Martin Luther King and the N double-A CP.
That dirty little toilet in back of my gas station
became the first integrated facility in Crisp County, Georgia.
And you know what? Business did pick up.
For every white customer I lost, five coloreds
came in to buy peanuts, Co-colas and Juicy Fruit.
My facilities. Don’t you just love it?
Where you reckon he learned that word?
Never got remarried after her husband,
Little Bobby Ross, got burned up by the Japanese.
He was sent home from Guadalcanal
in a government-issue steel casket
with a sign on it that said Do Not Open.
She did, of course. Say-Say was a stubborn somebody.
Her mama (Sarah Mobley Senior—we called her Lu-Lu,
same as we call Say-Say Say-Say, not Little Sarah)
said Child, don’t you open that box.
Begged her not to, got down on her knees and pleaded with her,
but Say-Say was one to do what Say-Say wanted.
She pulled that lid up, and what-do-you-think—
there was nothing in there but a dog tag,
a piece of helmet about the size of a butter plate,
two hands and a pile of ash.
Lu-Lu must have sat up every night for the next six months
with a cold compress packed on top of Say-Say’s head,
every light in that house turned up just as high as it would go.
Paul and Bennett
And Paul. Taking the quiet oars, the quiet
thump of the oars, glides, with a single
stroke that interrupts the water’s sleep,
already piercing the fog, dissolving
into its soft canvas, a shape subsumed
into its own shadow. And Bennett
waving in comic slow motion,
half turned in the back of the boat,
knees toward Paul, his face toward their mother,
calling goodbye as if a mile away,
though but a single stroke, now two,
fading deeper into the vague canvas,
shades subsumed, merging. And she
standing on the damp cold wood of the dock,
feeling the rotted ribs of its grain beneath
her bare feet, wants to laugh but cannot,
would wave but does not do that either,
watching the pierced fog heal, the interrupted
water return to its waiting dream, finds
regret out of all proportion to their leaving. Sees
Bennett’s face turn away, a pale dial,
turning toward Paul and the smooth
deliberate roll of his shoulders, pulling
back on the oars, another stroke,
and beyond, the indefinite cloud
that is gathering them in, concealing them,
Paul and Bennett, shades merging,
more shape than substance now, fading. Hears
Bennett’s quiet voice, the sound of it only,
the words indistinct behind the vague canvas,
and in reply, a low laugh, Paul’s,
coming before and after the rhythm of the oars,
words that, lacking form, carry all meaning
in their tone, in the way they cross the water,
leaving definition and syntax behind,
returning to stillness. Their sound
dissolving on the canvas before her,
subsumed, Paul and Bennett,
falling into a gathering cloud,
a dream as it slips the conscious mind
more real for being half forgot,
all that she would keep but cannot.
Visiting Saint Anselm’s
Will you get in bed with me?
Not what one expects. Not since five or six
have I been that close to his lung-rise.
Then, his chest was tight as a football,
ribbing sturdy as a boat’s. Now
the flesh is milk blue, his lungs close to closing.
Where the shoulder knots, a bedsore.
Of course, it is necessary to do this thing, this right thing,
a tender story to tell the wife.
But what if a nurse walks in?
Shoes off, ridiculous in sock feet, I lift the sheet,
check for body leaks. Climb in.
His johnny is tangled, coming undone,
his cheeks bristled and collapsed. Once bright as pins,
his eyes drown in a viscous jell.
I can smell his breath, the pillow, his bedsore.
He is a withered elf. The bones
of his hands touch the ripening flesh
of mine. I remember my boy at five or six
snuggled against my ribs, a creature of my own making,
mysterious and loving. It was a lark to have him there.
This is no lark. My father’s eyes are open horrors.
Eggs of spit at the corners of his mouth.
I should have been his daughter.
A woman would know how to do this thing.
Comfort the flesh. Deal with the eyes.
What if a doctor walks in?
His bones and my bones. An uncertain breathing
climbs up my nose. He clings to my hand.
The creature of his making, I try to let him look.
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