For My Grandfather, Charles Marion Reed, 1896-1987
“Charlie boy, the world is a painted woman.” CM Reed
His voice was birdsong.
His voice was verses torn from the Bible in a wind storm.
A quiet man living among women, keeping excess of joy
always cheerful like a cool glass of sweet tea.
Simple as a breeze out of McLennan County where Waco, Texas squats by the Brazos
like a hound dog contemplating a headless squirrel.
Born out of ground plowed wide for cotton, out of hay fields
cut and stacked
where lonesome hawks hunkering on fence posts watch for mice
creeping in the stubble.
Land where prairie fever makes the people sweat with love for the Word of God
but not for the man himself.
Land famous for radio preachers, auctioneers
and cowboy yodelers.
Wanderers of the wasteland who sang like coon dogs with chicken bones
caught in their throats.
Five foot two, shoulders wide as a church house door,
high waisted, narrow prairie lips,
work hands that could tear thorn trees out by the root!
Little smiling eyes like a chickadee’s, alert as campfires
in the night.
Round head, dainty feet, nose you could stable a mule in.
His ears were large, wide opened as hand held fans,
the kind the mortuary gave to women of the church
depicting Jesus rising from the dead.
He could wiggle them like an elephant’s to please his grandsons
anytime we asked.
Owned the King James Version of the Bible recorded unabridged
by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr
but believed his own voice, pitched high as a wind in a chinaberry tree
and quivering like a red bird’s,
was sufficient to sing God’s name in the privacy of his bedroom
converted from a one car garage.
“Charles, a nigra should be listened to, same as you would a white man.” CM Reed
Unkind words were never intentional.
Seldom did they fall from his mouth without his notice,
warm and happy, like a little boy pissing on a hot rock.
After the First World War he taught in a one room school house
built upon a slight rise of ground outside Waco.
When he wouldn’t give passing marks to a white but undeserving share cropper’s son,
the boy and his father laid for him with twenty-two rifles,
firing up hill from a run off.
In a voice somewhere between a bluejay’s and a mockingbird’s,
he explained to me
how they could have lowered their sights a little and killed him
if they’d known that even in Waco, the world is round.
Favored by Jesus and cognizant of the curve of earth,
Charlie Reed lived
while their bullets flew high and fell exhausted and ashamed
into cotton fields.
During World War Two he moved to Huntsville with Nana
and Aunt B
where they all attended Sam Houston State Teachers College
while living in a quonset hut.
After class he chatted with German POWs held nearby,
telling them how God choose Texas as a fortress for His people,
quoting scripture to them through a bob wire fence.
1949 in Spring Branch, Texas, he taught high school science for a year
before they fired him.
He refused to teach the theory of evolution
and fought once in the class room with a disrespectful rough neck boy,
lapping blood from his face burned dark as sludge
on off shore derricks.
A boy whose hair was combed into simulated flames,
held high with butch wax in currents of oil!
It was easy for me to love a man so fond of himself,
so old and self content in his garden, hair the color of a halo.
When he was 80 and cut his thumb off in a wood chipper,
he and I buried it in a row of turnips.
Charlie Reed was a lantern swinging in the dark between the hay barn
and the Brazos,
always a light and a satisfaction to himself.
Never tiring of his own stories,
he spoke of himself as if he were a wealthy friend,
someone always ready to loan him money.
“I always got along well with Taurian women.” CM Reed
I remember his Mother, well under five feet tall,
voice like a locust scratching in a match box.
Lying in bed in her nineties smelling of talc,
she complained of leg pain,
the leg my Grandfather broke, running over her in a Model T Ford,
the first one in the county.
Her father had been scalped by Comanche Indians!
As long as she lived she saw them lurking in pin oak groves
and in the graveyard near Prairie Hill where an old Comanche man
converted to a Methodist
was buried outside the graveyard gate under a flowering oak.
A heavy rain came when they dug the hole to put him in.
When the ground dried,
it opened like a grandmother grinning at the sky with her teeth out.
Five feet down you could see his skull
long gray hair braided into a river of dust.
“Sixty-eight years of marriage and I never found a fault in her.” CM Reed
My Grandmother had skin more dusky than the average white woman.
Her nose was wide and turned up, with her nostrils flared.
“She could drown in a rain storm.” is what they said.
Seeing her picking cotton in the fields with a scarf around her head,
her neighbors would remark,
“She’s bound to have some Mexican in her.”
but they were thinking darker thoughts.
Nana’s hair was long as a sermon until she finally cut it.
Let down from braids at night and brushed out,
her hair was like the Brazos River curving round a hip bank.
After 1960 she kept it short and silver blue
as the barrels of a shotgun sawed eight inches from its stock.
Lying on her back in summer when she was a girl,
she was waiting for a breeze to part the curtains
and come inside her room to cool the sweat between her breasts.
Nana dreamed herself on a sandbar in the river.
Dreamed her whiteness slightly muddied by the water,
while the moon came upon her, looking in her eyes.
Nana came from rich farmers out of Lubbock.
Her father was famous for saying, “I smile like a jackass eating cactus.”
He foresaw the drying of the land and sold out after the war.
One sister married a banker from Lubbock with a John Deer dealership.
The man was as short and swelled up as the pecker of a boy,
who eats his fill of water melon just before he goes to bed
and wakes engorged, delighted with the world and with himself.
He smoked cigars big around as a newborn baby’s thigh.
Made his fortune at the bank, taking back the farms
of men with faces burned and rutted as the soil.
Families knocked to their knees with hands knotted in prayer
blown bankrupt out of Lubbock.
Lifted up as human dust and driven North of Texas by the wind,
they flew over mountains named for Jesus’ blood
where a remnant chosen by the Lord fell gracefully into irrigated rows,
come to rest in sugar beet fields of Southern Colorado,
where some of them prospered again and were saved.
“It wasn’t my fault your Grandma could never have a son.” CM Reed
Charlie Reed was not popular in Coldspring before the war.
He was farm agent for the county
and made enemies of white men, forcing them to pay in seed
what they owed black share croppers for the corn they grew.
Born in Central Texas he was considered almost a yankee!
Neighbors laughed when he broke his leg kicking a billy goat
in the head.
Bitten by a rabid squirrel, he had to go to Austin for the serum
that was shot into his liver
through a needle long as a seed bull’s pecker.
First time he entered the Coldspring courthouse
of San Jacinto County,
hogs were roaming in the foyer free as citizens!
Sows and their piglets tapping down the hallway
leading to his office!
As he told me this, his face was wide open as a sky
in which the half moon can be clearly seen in light of day.
His eyes were fierce as a child’s pretending to be angry.
Lying back in his easy chair with duct tape on the arms,
he told how he drove those hogs out like Jesus did the money changers,
past the pillars of the Court House into the muddy road!
Forty years after those days,
his voice pitched high as an oriole’s leaving the safety of a sycamore
to light upon the ground,
he told me about a gangster’s son he and Nana wanted to adopt.
But the gangster wrote a letter from Huntsville Prison
threatening to kill them if they did.
It was the same year Bonnie and Clyde traveled through Coldspring
leaving a note under a coffee cup that said,
“Next time we come, we’ll paint this town in blood.”
But Clyde was driving north and east that day
toward Bienville Parish, Louisiana
where the gang was shot so full of holes, the sky could be seen
streaming through them!
“Treat your Mother well and read a chapter of your Bible every day.” CM Reed
After Nana died of stroke, he held on for a year,
before a coiling breath of air found him sleeping in his easy chair.
He was watching re-runs on a buggy summer night
when a breeze came from the south through rusted window screens
and touched him gently on his forehead, as a wife would do.
Cicadas in mimosa trees were praying loudly and in tongues
about the fatted calf, the sacrificial lamb, the bride
and the bridegroom waiting at the altar.
But only Charlie Reed sleeping in his easy chair could interpret
Nana and his Mother and a still born son without a name
were calling, “Charlie, Charlie Reed…”
And he was lifted up as tumbling ash above a prairie fire.
As husk after the harvest he was carried circling into air,
all his work finished, all his grain stored in silo towers.
Charlie Reed was lifted up, inhaled as dust and chaff into a breathing wind!
All that was left of him, every scrap of his being came together
in a spiral lifted high!
And taking on an angel’s shape composed of singing dust,
he left this place, he traveled and was gone.