145. Practice

James sat on
The sock rug, practicing. Thumb
And finger, sliding
Down his thin jawbone:


He’d made Barker
Show him several signs, then
Write them down.
James, now spellbound,
Watching his own hands:

          I FARMER I.

He paused, thought
A while.

          I BIG I.

He glanced up: Tom
Reading in his chair.

          HE LITTLE HE.

James laughed, hugged
Himself. Idea:

          YOU HOE COTTON
          YOU. MORE FAST.

James heard
Riah’s kitchen clatter.


Drop “please.”

          NOT BEANS. MEAT I
          EAT. BEANS
          YOU EAT–YOU!

James had always
Liked the “give me” sign.

          MONEY YOU GIVE
          ME. MOVIE
          I SEE.

His best sign:
“Movie” flickered
Like a magic lantern.

          I HAVE. FATHER,
          GIVE ME–

What the heck’s he
Doing?” Tom slammed
Down his paper.
She came to
The door. Tom
Scowled: “He keeps
Pointing at me.”
She said, “He speaks
Signs. Like Barker does.”
To her, one more
Proof that James was smart.
“Show your father
Barker’s sign for
Farm.” James did. Tom:
“Well, that fits!
Looks like someone
Slitting his own throat. But–”
He asked, puzzled,
“He made it and
Pointed at himself.”
To James: “What’s that

James stared, stricken.
He was frozen
With one awful thought:
That they spoke his
Language after all–his
Secret, too good to be
True. Grownups: they’d really
Known each wise-mouth sign.
Fighting back his urge
To quick confess, James said,
“I said: ‘I’ll hoe
Cotton extra fast.'”

“What’s the sign for
Cotton?” Riah asked.
James’ fist squeezed, sprang
Open: “Barker
Says there’s lots.
This is one.”
Thomas shook his
Paper out, still surly.
“In this house,” he
Stated, “you speak

“Yes sir,”
James said, clever,
Safe now, grateful
To obey.

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