Up the road a piece from here,
a mile, maybe two-
an old black man lives
in a ramshackle house made of clapboard
gripped together by kudzu that's older still.
Sometimes, I pass it on walks,
most days I pass by on drives to town and back-
ten trips out of twelve finds it as a dead thing,
bereft of life except for the kudzu and a slat-sided tom
always stretched along the crumbling concrete stoop.
But tonight on the drive home,
my beams pick him out of the dusk-
a bent figure seated in a shadow of oak, hands busy
at some task I can't discern in the low shaft of light.
I pull into the dirt-pack yard and step out,
hand him a beer from my pack with only a nod
because that is our way- I squat on my haunches,
sip my beer as the skinny tom watches from its step
while I wait for him to speak; if he does, I'll listen.
I can now see that he's shelling corn-
his thumbs run the cobs in quick rows, the kernels
fall into a tin tub between his bare feet.
I know that when they dry, he'll crack them;
and by the first frost his potent mash will be sealed
neatly in Ball masons tucked beneath the cellar stairs.
Every Christmas, one finds its way to my porch-
its wide mouth tied with red yarn, the glass jar wiped clean.
After a time, he talks in tight whispers
so low that I dip my head to hear-
he spins cobs in his palms as he remembers a sister,
a young girl with plaits in her hair and scars across her back;
she runs through his memory and he laughs as she laughs,
a sound that is at once weightless and heavy as stone.
Years fall backward in his voice-
they catch in his throat, become slender brown limbs
sprawled beside a long gone road, become scars broken open
and left to seep dry beneath a moonless drape;
residue on soil prepared for those born into the grave.
With kernel and cob between his hands,
he grinds his words; they spill from his fingers-
a cadence that stops when he can't go back
anymore to that place where ghosts rattle their bones.
What he can't say sits piled in his tub.
After a while, I help him gather the naked cobs;
we throw them in a rusted barrel, it's sides vented with punch holes.
He sets them to fire with a match culled from nowhere-
and when the flames grow high enough to lick the rim,
we lean into its heat like people who end up in someplace familiar.