A Proper Elegy for My Father
He is the black Marlboro man, the oldest son of a one-legged, gold tooth rounder. Abandoned homes down the road have fallen into ruin. Everything dies hard here, collapses into the kudzu pulling it down. This is the low-ground, the land of the maroons from the Great Dismal Swamp. Nothing lasts forever. The honeysuckle from the ditch bank and from the woods behind the house is in the air tonight, with the croaking of frogs and the waxing moon. A soft touch of Southern intoxication and I almost don't want to light my cigarette, but I do. This is North Carolina, the tobacco state, even though most farmers nowadays are paid to not grow it. Here, traditions die hard. Out of the fog, plantation ghosts and Jim Crow walk tall, persistent as the oppressive kudzu, as old as the Dixie lost cause. We are born into this, and if we are lucky our fathers prepare us to live in it. Show us how to stand and throw down. Food for the table: they teach us to fish and hunt, to enjoy setting the hook, the recoil of the shotgun, the striking of the target. The rural cycle of life, everything dies hard here. Except my father: a scowl and a growl, a piney woods drawl, a drinkero f dirty water, a two-fisted church deacon, a logwood man, a long-haul truck driving Korean War veteran whose face was set so serene in his coffin that it was evident he'd died in his sleep. Unafraid as death approached, he'd said he was going to take a nap. His thick-fingered friends: a gathering of old crows weeping into their handkerchiefs at the wake. I say to myself, look at him, old black-man-cool in the blue suit that he will wear forever. Who doesn't want to die like that, nothing coming down the road but eternal rest.
I am fourteen, two years into my social isolation
after we moved from the grime and blacktop
basketball courts of my New York neighborhood
back to the piney woods and struggling farms of the North Carolina coastal plains.
I was the funny talking city boy that every local boy
wanted to fight, until they accepted the fact
that I would fight dirty. I would pick up anything,
and my favorite was a smooth fist-size rock. Nobody
wants to get cracked side the head with that.
I spent summer mornings bare-chested, shirt tied
round my waist, running through the woods
with my dog, and if they were ripe, eating wild grapes
golden in the daps of sun, the vines hanging
from some low branch of a tree; running through
the deer beds, scaring up rabbits, and avoiding
the occasional snake or bear. Every day
my voice changing, back and forth, from a soft lilt
to the scratch inhabiting any song I try to sing.
Mr. Luther Grant
was coming through
the field between
our houses doing
his old pirate step.
His youngest brother
had chopped three toes
off his right foot
when he'd put it
on the block and dared
him to swing
the double-bladed axe.
I was peeling
potatoes on the porch
and when he saw
me he spit
the plug of tobacco
from his mouth
and the way
he set his jaw
indicated he had
something bad to say.
Queenie killed five of Mr. Luther Grant's chickens,
they say a dog that does that never stops.
She then laid herself among the dead birds,
surprised that they had stopped squawking, a game
of chase and catch where each chicken stopped
trying to fly away into the early afternoon heat.
She'd killed five in the treeless yard before she grew tired
of them and came back across the field, dropping
the last one halfway between the two houses.
I know Mr. Luther Grant had a right reason to be
upset; they say a dog that kills chickens never stops.
She was a city dog, my Uncle Willie's dog,
which he'd placed in my care after he was drafted
and knew he was going to Vietnam. His one-
bedroom apartment had been Queenie's home.
She slept at the foot of his bed and they went
on daily runs in the park. When Willie gave his dog to me
I'd begged my father not to put her on the chain.
One of the few times I've seen him agree to anything
that wasn't his idea. And now, my dog Queenie
killed five of Luther Grant's egg-laying chickens,
and they say a dog that does that won't ever stop.
My father was drinking in the kitchen while
reading his Bible. He comes out, and greets
Luther Grant in the yard. They purposely
keep their eyes off me but are talking loud
enough to ensure that I can hear them. They are
formally polite. My mother washing dishes, watches
everything through the kitchen window and
looks her sorrow down on me and begins
a hymnal song, We' ll Understand It Better
By and By. Queenie, on the porch panting
in the late afternoon corner of shade, is not allowed
in the house. My mother says all animals belong
outside. She dries her hands with the dish towel,
drapes the soft cloth on the kitchen sink.
My mother steps out on the tilting porch,
Let me help you peel those taters.
We sit together on the glide and work silently.
A crow lights on the willow near the porch and calls.
Queenie perks her ears, waiting to see if it would
come to ground. I am glad that it does not.
Luther Grant stops talking, pulls out his chaw, and turns
to leave. My father promises to take care of it.
We are in the woods and the sun
is shining on the loblolly pines,
twilight, a hint in the near distance.
Not a cloud in the Carolina sky.
We pass a tree of wild golden grapes,
the vines hanging heavy off the low branches.
Flirting birds chatter at the abundance.
My father walks a quick-step ahead
while my dog trots beside me; he has
ordered me to come along, but I refuse
to carry the shovel or the loaded gun.