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 as a cool glass of sweet tea.
Simple as a breeze out of McLennan County where Waco, Texas squats by the Brazos
like a pit bull 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, high as a wind in a chinaberry tree
and quivering as 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 intentioned.
Seldom did they fall from his mouth without his notice
warm and happy, like a boy pissing on a 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, Texas 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.
Refused to teach the theory of evolution
and he fought in the class room with a disrespectful rough neck boy
slapping blood from a 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 he 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 hat 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 that she kept it short and silver blue
like 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 its water
while the moon came upon her, looking in her eyes.
She 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 bone.
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
and came to rest in sugar beet fields
of Southern Colorado
where several of them prospered 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 serum
that was shot into his liver
through needles 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 talked to 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 the 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
the promise of their prayer.
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 grain stored in silo towers.
Charlie Reed was lifted up, inhaled as dust and chaff into the 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.