149. Barker’s

          YOU
          COME IN YOU.
But there was no
Door: tarpaper
Flap that they ducked through.
Down the road when Barker’d
Pointed here, James had
Thought this place
An old tool shack.
To live in this
Shed, he couldn’t feature. But
James was glad that
Riah let him wander.
He’d told both his
Folks, “I’ll be at
Barker’s.” They’d said,
Fine. James’ friends’
Folks said no.

This room leaned, its
Plank walls warping
Out. Uneasy,
James glanced up.
Sun fell through thin
Slats and striped
The ground. There, some
Squat contraption–
Stove? One quilt
On the floor.
Some small black thing
Lay inside
A crate. And James had
Seen no outhouse.
Where’d they go? Signed,
TOILET.
          Barker shrugged back:
          HOLE BY POND.
James’ nose
Wrinkled.
          BOIL WATER
          WE. CAN DRINK.

Barker’s
Ma walked in.
Four or five young
Trailed her. Most half
Naked, but the tallest girl.
James frowned: Barker’s
Outfits, much
Despised at school,
Here at home
Appeared a prize–his
Frayed shirt looked
Official, whole.
His ma linked
Forefingers:
          FRIEND?

Barker
Fingerspelled James’
Name. She said, “Hi, James.”
“Good day, ma’am.”
“I’m just fixing
Supper. Sit down.
Got cornmeal.”
She knelt, set one
Dish, and poured
Molasses.
Children hunched down,
Dipping with their hands.
James too tasted,
So not too be
Rude. The mother
Ate none,
Though her head and
Arms seemed only
Bone. Children
Bumped and pressed her.
She would pet them,
Press them toward
The bowl.

James looked over.
The big girl sat
With a catalog.
James approached her
Sidelong. Asked her:
“What grade?”
Barker’s mother
Answered: “She’s our
Smart one. Could read
When she’s two.
And good worker–
Fills her sack with
Cotton. Don’t need
School.”
“High school reader,
I can read in
That,” the girl said
Evenly–though
James thought, how’s she
Know?–“And I do
Long division.
Fractions.” James
Detested those.
Her ma: “Tansy,
About figuring, have you
Heard this?
‘Jot’s a jot,
Figger’s a figger,
All for the white man and
None for the nigger.'”
The girl smiled
Remotely, like she’d
Barely heard.

          LET’S GO.
Barker, at James’
Side. But at that
Moment, his ma
Passed the crate.
“Shit!”
Her hand shooed
Above the small black
Thing. Cloud of
Flies rose: baby’s
Still white face.
“Sorghum water’s
Spilled on Desiree! How’d that
Bottle spill?” she hollered.
“Theodore, that water’s
Got to do. Doc says
Pills don’t come
Free. Stay here today. You
Watch your sister.”

          SURE.
Barker lifted
Baby up
Expertly. Waved to James:
          I STAY IN HOUSE.
James–feeling vaguely
Barker put the signs in
Easy order, different order,
Just for him–in
The ruckus, unseen,
Ducked on out.

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