The Listening

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.


Eric 'Bubba' Alder said...

Nice piece... it seems like a true story. (So did "Canning Lessons 1961" which I hope you bring back)

By the way, you misspelled my last name on your sidebar - but I'm glad you added me just the same!

The Lettershaper said...

I fixed it...sorry! And thank you! I'm editing 'canning'....

Eric 'Bubba' Alder said...

No worries - the link worked, and that's what mattered.

I look forward to re-reading "Canning Lessons 1961" - I was in the middle of commenting when it disappeared (which I didn't know at the time) and thought I was having Internet issues. (LOL!)

I'm sure your traffic will continue to increase here - your stuff is good!