Thomas Alan Holmes
On 31, the old one headed north
through Cullman County, almost to West Point,
my father’s parents lived, cement block house
within a short ten yards of faded stripe
just barely yellow two-lane road, a ditch
this side, the other side a pasture fenced
with barbed wire nailed to wooden posts.
Behind the house, a meager stream, a rise
up to the fields close bordered by the hives
he kept for years, white painted hives of bees
whose hum would fill the afternoon in spring
as I would go between the house and rise
to feel the shade from high white oaks and play
in slow stream water, count the fish
that darted rock to rock, surprise a frog
or maybe rouse a turtle brown as stone.
I pushed his old reel mower, handle grey
as wood can get exposed to elements
yet smooth from handling over years of use,
the blades whirr whispering and lopping heads
from standing clover, scarcely loud enough
to mask the trickling water wash nearby
where moss was soft beneath bare feet new wet
from wading, toeing stone aside to press
brown sediment and watch it wash away
between my toes as light as smoke that rose
that far in spring from burning off the stalks
from last year’s corn. I was a boy back then.
My father built the carport cover low
enough where I could reach its frame. He’d dug
four postholes, plumbed the posts, and mixed Quikrete.
He tamped the earth himself. He hung its frame,
its latching pans of corrugated white
aluminum, a heavy gauge held fast
in place with large self-tapping screws. He pulled
his father’s Galaxie beneath, its red
taillights like booster rockets braked to burn.
I must have eaten there when I was small,
but I cannot recall; we visited
midafternoons and left before the time
to cook. He sent commodities with us,
great blocks of yellow cheese, big cans of meat
in round and oily chunks, and sacks of beans.
Their cabinets were simple, white, and cool.
A corrugated metal draining board
beside the sink let drops of water bead,
connect, and drip into the suds. The chairs
were metal tubing, vinyl cushions, cold
just like Formica on the table, cold.
She had a plastic radio. I changed
the station once but never did again.
The northeast corner off the kitchen, cool
and shadowy in summer, lined with shelves
and cabinets, their larder lured me days
when thirsty gulps of sulfurous water weren’t
enough to soothe me from humidity
and heat. I loved the dark and dry, the sound
of nothing cushioned, barefoot sticky slaps
on painted concrete floor, the jars of fruit,
of beans, of peeled tomatoes, lined on shelves
as regular as prayer, combs of gold-
spun honey catching what spare light would fall
down, filter through thick white oak foliage,
its single table, single chair a place
a boy could sit and trace with fingertips
the woodgrain varnished brown as new-tilled earth.
They huddled on a sofa side by side,
a shoebox full of photos in her lap,
and she, her voice long lost to stroke,
would take a photo, hand it over, elbow him
until he guessed the gossip she would share
if she could speak, her scowl as permanent
as tissue wads in her left hand that caught
the drool from her turned lip. He petted her
and called her “Sally,” patient and in love.
This tiny room, a butane heater hulked
so close to them they seemed to shrink, held six
of us until we boys would wander off—
the bedrooms were forbidden to us both—
outside to get away was best, but, stuck,
I’d browse through months-old papers full of ads,
Progressive Farmer magazines, and, once,
somebody’s schoolbook left behind that had
a poem in it where a father has
his ailing child on horseback, and the child
can see a threat the worried man cannot.
A closed-off winter room where I would go
to leave the roasting den, the living room
in summer was the route to their front porch.
Thick curtains closed the musty furniture
so showroom stiff I didn’t want to sit
and watch faint tv signals lulled between
the nearest markets drawn by rabbit ears
to coalescing static, tv snow.
To stay until my knuckles ached, my breath
a trace above me, there I rocked and watched
the changing image hung by the front door,
the Christ lenticular, whose brow,
untroubled, glowed in golden rays, to shift
and see Him stand beside a door to knock
in hopes of welcome when in winter they
expected folks to go around the back.
Thomas Alan Holmes, a member of the East Tennessee State University English faculty, lives and writes in Johnson City, Tenn. Some of his work has appeared in Louisiana Literature, Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Connecticut Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology Volume VI: Tennessee. He is co-editor with Roxanne Harde of the recently published Walking the Line: Country Music Lyricists and American Culture.