Cathy Smith Bowers: The Poet Laureate of North Carolina: Six Poems
A Book A Day
One summer my brother built a tree house
in old man Sneed’s backyard across the street.
Just loaded up a wagon and rousted
me to help him carry nails and a sheet
of ragged plywood he’d pried from the door
of an old abandoned shed. In a week
my brother would be thirteen, willing no more,
he swore, to bow to our father’s stupid
rules. How every single day that summer
we would all have to read a book. Fuck it!
he shouted out every time his hammer
missed or bent a nail. I carried a bucket
back and forth beneath the tree to gather
up the mess that fell into the yard, old Sneed’s
one demand he yelled from his porch over
the racket of my brother’s frenzied need.
He hauled, he sawed, he nailed as the shavings
rained into my hair. No way would he read
his summer days away. He was packing
up his stuff and moving here. Finally
he wiped his brow and crawled in, me backing
up in case the thing came crashing down. I
could hear him through the floorboards, scrambling
around in there, trying to make his body
fit between the too–close walls and ceiling.
When he tried to sit, his knees scraped
his chin, driving him mad and cussing
out again. I watched as he walked away
and then climbed up and in. It was there I
spent the summer–ah!–reading a book a day.
My brother begged to ride the running board.
Our neighbor across the street had invited us.
We were on our way to church to see the Lord.
A car was something we could not afford.
So we packed in as Daddy stifled a curse
and brother hopped up on the running board.
Mama didn’t go, but watched as her horde
disappeared from sight. She wrung her hands, trust-
ing she was doing right. Surely the Lord
would bring us safely back. The engine roared.
My brother held on tight. I watched his face
drain white as he clung to the running board.
Inside, our neighbor at the wheel was floored
each time Daddy took a nip from the flask
Mama warned would be the end of us. And, Lord,
was she ever right! Our neighbor turned his Ford
around and dumped us out again in all disgust.
That day not one of us so much as glimpsed the Lord.
Though brother had come close on the running board.
The Chosen One
One year my brother played the wind.
Paper streamers billowed from his hands.
The whole school watched
as he came running down the aisle.
Paper streamers billowed from his hands,
that older one who always seemed in trouble.
He ran like a crazy boy down the aisle.
Our parents snapped a picture and even smiled.
Oh, why could he not stay out of trouble!
The other five of us were always good.
We worked hard to make our parents’ smile.
They rarely did, though—it was all his fault.
The other five of us were always good.
Tried to stopper mother’s tears and father’s drink.
It didn’t work, though—it was all his fault.
If only our brother would just go away.
Mother’s tears and father’s drink grew worse.
The threats, the beatings, so loud the neighbors heard.
Finally our brother just went away.
We waited for the quiet to settle in
but the threats, the beatings did not stop.
Now Mother bore the brunt
as we pretended quiet had settled in.
At least brother was now safe in Viet Nam.
We never knew which bore most the brunt,
our mother or our father, of missing him.
Sometimes, after a rare letter from Viet
Nam, one of them would bring that picture out.
The one they took the day he played the wind
as paper streamers billowed from his hands.
Death of the Estranged Brother
This death will change nothing, I glibly said.
Let someone else mourn him, buy a white wreath.
I hung up the phone and went back to bed.
He threw a sharp pencil once at my head.
Its cold stinging point pierced my young cheek.
This death will change nothing, I coldly said.
Mama, get over it, you saw he was fed.
It’s not like you put him out on the street.
Please hang up the phone and go back to bed.
That time Daddy left us and things got real bad,
you gave him to Grandma. How old was he? Three?
This death will change nothing. Why should it, I said.
He should’ve just listened, and quietly tread,
followed, as I did, our daddy’s harsh creed.
I hung up the phone and crawled into bed.
Already a revenant before he was dead,
a fading blue dot on my aging cheek.
His death will change nothing, I’ve said and I’ve said.
I hang up the phone and take to my bed.
When the red finally blossomed in the white
crotch of my cotton panties, Mama
decided it was time. Time for the talk
all respectable mamas have with their girls
when Granny comes to visit. Problem was,
with six children and a sorry-ass man
on her hands, she just couldn’t manage
to find the time. That night a sliver of white
broke through the crack in the curtains. I was
in bed with my older sister who said Mama
had assigned the chore to her, just a girl
herself whose job it was now to talk
me through the sordid mess. She started talking,
beating around the bush. “You see, the man…
well…the man is…okay, you know how girls
have….” We were both staring up at the white
ceiling. “You’ve got what it takes to be a mama
now,” she finally said. But what in the world was
it, I kept wondering. Kept wondering was
she ever going to spit it out. She talked
and talked, but how I could become a mama
kept lurking around in there somewhere. Man,
was I sweating! Outside, the moon throbbed white.
Finally she said, “Just start guessing, girl,
and when you get it right, I’ll let you know.” Girl.
When Mama used that word I knew I was
in deep. Then my sister just pulled the white
sheet over her head and began to snore. Talk
about deep! I kept lying there as the man
in the moon hung dumb in the big mama
sky outside. But that was okay. Mama
didn’t know I’d heard it all already. The girl
next door had told me everything. How a man
just peed inside you and there it was…
a girl, maybe, you’d one day have this talk
with. But you, you would do it right. In the white
respectable light of your white mama
words, walking the talk. Saying, “You see, the man…
well…the man is…okay, you know how girls…”
is how my sister Rosi
answers the phone when I call,
in that deep, gravelly
fun-girl voice she picked up
from her favorite frazzled episode
of The Andy Griffith Show.
Hello Doll, she will say,
her greeting grown course
from the years of unfiltereds
those fun-girls, too, must
have loved. Who out
of the 1950’s blue
careened into Mayberry
one bright day
only to land
under lock and key
of Barney’s bumbling vigilance.
Fifteen months between us–
Irish twins, almost, an uncle once remarked–
she grew up like those fun-girls,
not at Barney’s mercy but my own.
The way, as legend has it, I would reach
through the bars of her crib
to steal the nourishment meant for her
until she, herself, must have seemed a doll
next to my healthier, hulking frame.
Yet there it is each time I call,
in that forgiving, gravelly voice.
Then I to her
as if those words might
rectify it all…