150. To Bed

Darktime: all
The children dreaded it.
Stretching shadows
On the fenceposts arched,
Crooked wooden
Fingers casting shade.
Sharp red skyline
Sliced the spreading sun.
Side by side, all
Playmates held their place.
Out in fields they’d
Cleared out dirt arenas–
Marbles, mumbletypeg–
For, as evening
Fell, just one more
Game. Pick and
Blow a dandelion:
It stay white?
That meant Mama
Had not called you
Home.
Those weeds they plucked
Hour after hour,
Hoping, gently
Blowing against
Time.

Hungry for their
Supper to be on, though,
In the end they
Picked up and trudged back.
They split off on
Paths, a scrub-brush maze,
Tracks of trodden grass claimed
By one “club” or other,
Really owned by
All–shared ant-ways
Hid from alien eyes. By
Twos and threes, they
Wended toward their
Doors. Gangs of
Girls dust-spattered
Slammed inside,
Deaf to scoldings,
Panting from wild tag,
Ready now to
Wash up and
Atone. Brothers
Lingered, swinging
At front gates,
Making trades and
Hanging back from
Porches, calling: “See you
In the morning!”
“Sure!” Parents’
Faces at the door:
Chores.

At night, in bed,
Anything might
Happen. Must be
Listened for.
Grownups could not
Sleep in summer
Heat–and stayed up
So late, anyway. Sons and
Daughters lay,
Alert for tense
Voices, or for
Tears. Where’s Dad? Where’s
Mom? Is there
Weeping from
The parlor….
Stray words drifted,
Hovered in their
Bedrooms over
Quilts:
Payment. Mortgage.
Doctor’s bill. Grocery
Order from Relief: Roosevelt.
Food.
And the worst word–
Move.

Night after
Tossing night, Matt tried,
Half-asleep in
Bed, untangling
Days: what made Dad
Yell? Matt’s tricks
Were the same, time
And again–
Bring a good grade
Home, or tell how
He had bested
Some boys, or how
Dumb they’d been,
How he’d won some
Race–more rarely,
Spelling bee.
Matt told jokes, and
On one day, Bud
Smiled. But some real
Funny joke, next day–
Dad screamed, shook him,
Ordered him away.

James,
Sleeping limply.
His frail bones chafed
Rough folds of his sheet.
His form left no
Dent, he lay so
Light. And each night,
Dreams:
Of his arms and
Legs so weightless, airy,
That they crumbled
Cleanly as dry bread,
Ashes sifting,
Floating overhead.

Barker cursed.
In a weary
Tumble on the floor,
Sisters, brothers,
Rumbled with coughs, snores.
Barker heard, saw,
Nothing, dozing,
Waking. He squeezed
His eyes shut.
Close by, their old
Hound dog gave a sigh.
The young ones had
Pressed against her teats.
But his mother
Only slept more deep.
He could not be
Sure he saw her breathing.
Damn this damn dark
Shed! Barker
Spent his scrambling
Days escaping her.
But at night he
Strained: in
Darkness, did her chest
Rise, fall?
If your mother
Died, then that was
All.

Barker
Closed his eyes.
Nibbled at his thumb.
Closed his eyes, and
Prayed the sun
Would come.

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