OLD BLACK MAN IN STEPHEN’S CREEK, TEXAS 1956
I see you in a straw Stetson, feather in the hat band from a chicken
dyed for Easter.
The top is knocked out. The sun is shining into corn stubble hair
burned to ashes.
Semi-precious stones set in eye teeth, twelve crowns of gold
that make your smile two bits of a quarter moon.
Saturday in July, just before the fourth
you driving your wagon up the road to Aunt Beau’s store
pulled by four white mules in black harness, little silver bells tinkling
on the reins.
Leaning on a wooden pillar where I later carved my name
working my blood into each letter
I watched you loading burlap sacks of sorghum and of chicken feed
saw you lay them in the wagon bed gently as the daughters you had already lain
in graves side by side.
A grown man before my Daddy was born, still you lifted your hat to me
in memory of my Grandpa
who bought striped candy for your daughters once in 1924.
Stepping back, you opened the screen door wide and let me walk ahead of you
into the wooden store saying, “Yah suh, Mistah Hopkins!
Sometimes there is no difference between shame and self respect
but I didn’t know that at the time.
There was nobody with a voice thick with chaw and phlegm
to teach me how masters and their servants are cut to size.
I was just a boy and I stepped wide of you through galaxies of dust motes
into Aunt Beau’s store
that was to all of us another room in paradise.
There were pearl handled folding knives much desired in cases!
A Bowie knife in leather scabbard!
Filigreed pocket watches with long silver chains!
There were stacked boxes of .22 rifle shells, both long and short
a little .410, re-blued and hung out of reach on an antler rack!
Pork sausages coiled and on display with blocks of cheese.
Gallon jars of pigs feet and of pickles big as a grown man’s pecker.
There were packs of candy cigarettes that cost a nickel.
Camels, Pall Malls, Chesterfields with powdered sugar inside of them
a boy could blow out to look like smoke!
Bull Of The Woods Chewing Tobacco pouches that showed a longhorn
As I entered ahead of you through the wide screen door and heard you say
“Yah suh, Mr. Hopkins.”
you became my teacher, your words a promise that all this would be
PAPER HANGER IN THE 1970’S
My Grandfather was a good white man. They called him Old Jule
though he was barely 60 when his heart was taken by the lard.
He was an orphan married to his first cousin, Mary, who was an orphan too.
When Mary’s mother died, her Daddy gave her to another white man
living in the thicket with no road to him.
She cooked and he kept her there and no more would anybody
Riding bareback deep in piney woods with my Uncle Prather
he pointed to a shack
broken down with a tree through the roof.
“That’s where Ma stayed.”
One day in Cold Spring, my Daddy pointed to an old man and spat on the ground.
“That’s the man Ma stayed with.”
Ninety years old, drunk, falling down the road with an arm
around a black man’s neck.
Then I felt a rage rise up in me, for reasons I did not know.
There was a sighing in all of us like a hundred square miles of pine trees
a hidden anger like the lye boiled with hog lard to make the soap
that kept us clean.
I became a paper hanger working in houses of the rich
saying, “Yes Sir, yes Mam.”
With my brushes and my knives, I entered into them as the blessing of a son in mourning.
I had faith that I could see the wealth they had and still believe
I did not want it.
There was a rich woman I worked for, my Mother’s age
ten years younger than I am now.
I watched her sink bleached teeth into the palms of her own hands
while I was on a ladder, hanging ducks and yellow roosters
across the kitchen wall.
That day she listened through static on the telephone while a Texas Ranger
said her husband drove his Cadillac south of Palestine
on the old Crockett highway
where he was born on a peanut farm before the oil was found.
That day he took a shotgun and walked alone with himself into a field
A neighbor found him there.
What words of comfort I had were like hail falling on her shoulders.
Though my words were soft as Irish linen, they were seamless
with her weeping, with her tears.
I believe now we are only memory.
We move like vapor from the surfaces of rivers into trees.
Either we’re awake and know we’re dreaming or we’re dead and dream
we are awake.
Some men walk together with their shotguns into fields
burned black before the planting of the corn
where quail ticking in furrows and doves on limbs of pin oak trees
are torn apart like thoughts by 20 gauge shot.
Some men walk alone through furrows of an empty field
while the sun comes setting fire to cattle tanks
bringing on the night.
Some of us are paper hangers
whose hands have taught us all we need to know
about surfaces and dividing walls, how thin and tearable are the images
we place upon them.