by Rob Greene
We woke early
and then peddled our Huffys off the pier
and into the Back Bay’s sour.
We bathed with the gators
and cottonmouths in the golf course pond, and
came out smelling like rosemary and rotten eggs.
Before mom’s noontime smack,
we’d eat free in the Dennys
near Jefferson Davis’s house,
free concerts, festivals
and Mardi Gras Parades.
Mom, flashing her flesh
in between gulps of Gulf gumbo with
bitter Old Bay broiled shrimp dividing most evenings.
She’d give me and Chris weed and we’d laugh.
She’d get us drunk on white zinfandel, we’d cry
and pass out, she’d then slip into something tight
and go to Oscar’s to work the men and use.
Did my best that year to keep order,
couldn’t control mom’s wild sandy blond-haired mess though.
Couldn’t protect myself and my brother
after we lost access to the house on the air base.
An eighth grader is no match for the bands of bored
fifteen-year-olds who routinely kicked us
into the bay with our clothes on
and jacked our Huffys for days.
We couldn’t let them get away,
they were all we had,
we’d stalk them down, take our bikes back
when the brats hid them outside their parents’
white ranch fences.
Mom tripping off for months,
us sleeping under the tin-roofed piers,
breaking into the abandoned hospital,
we’d never steal
much and I’d entertain
my kid brother with hoops
plus we had my shrimp net.
All it took was a little corn meal
so I’d sprinkle it sparingly,
catch a few shrimp then bait the hooks
and cast them out for fish.
We’d spot the big moving vans
and befriend the new kids,
spend the night with them,
eat dinner with parents I’d dream
were our own,
then another night and another
until they’d begin to ask questions.
My wife now wonders
where I learned to cuss and count cards,
why I had to repeat the eighth grade,
why my brother stole cars, why I don’t trust
cops and why on earth
I had to wear a ward-coat in my twenties.
She wonders why I keep my eyes open during grace,
why I take my Luckies under the sweet gums,
why I’d even go through a poets-are-interesting-phase,
and why I ride my motorcycle during rains.
She wonders why I like my beer hot,
where I learned to handle snakes,
why I’d rather nap in the grass,
why I lock eyes with under-the-freeway-men
and how I can say it’s because they appreciate it.
So, “what of your mother?”
those who ask me are usually strangers
or PhD’s who want to repair my schizophrenic mind.
“What if she reads this?”
unconscious behind their pedigree names,
their narrow eyes, their librarian frames,
both questions divide the evening
from the rest of my workday
as I contemplate kicking the one
who last asked in his ass.
Let me tell you something,
let me tell you somethan,
lemme just tell youse one goddamn thing:
the dead skin on my fingertips and palms,
a dead brother who was more like my son,
a left hook, a devilish look, an omnific desire to write
one good book, craftsman’s hands, gullible blood,
the ability to memorize poems
and a prawn-shelling knack is my inheritance.
With all this going for and against me,
I still don’t have the ability to lie
to self-congratulatory chumps,
no—never killed anyone, I still carry a knife
though it’s never been brandished,
I just grew up as the man of the house on the streets of Biloxi
where I learned to fish, cook, to light a kerosene lamp
and keep the fire going, to take a punch, to get up,
to rig a full sail, to pray, and I still thank the Gods
for that Back Bay.
Rob Greene edits Raleigh Review, and he teaches at Louisburg College in North Carolina.