by Laurie King-Billman
Mark and I shared the morning shift at the New Beginnings group home. The day he asked me to help him write a poem, we were alone; all the boys had actually gone to school. This was a rare event because, at any given time, one of the boys was suspended for a wide array of misdeeds. In those cases, we would have to supervise them on chores and writing assignments devised to keep their ill deeds, such as smoking pot, skipping class, or using foul language, from being reinforced.
That day, we had a peaceful morning to catch up on paperwork and share views from our different sides of the age and color line. He sometimes asked me strange questions, like, “Do white people only think about money?” I would try to answer to the best of my capability. We talked politics and enjoyed the fact that he, a single black man in his twenties, was so much more conservative than I, a married white woman with kids. Mark was attending the local college for a degree in English and usually spent his spare time writing papers. It surprised me when he said, “I want to ask this lady from my church out with a poem.”
“Okay,” I said. “What kind of poem do you want?”
“Maybe sort of a mix between Shakespeare and Langston Hughes.”
“Do a draft,” I said. “I will help you finish it.”
We sat at the big oak table where the boys ate. They had broken all of the matching chairs after countless spontaneous fights where anger over all the adults who had let them down would redirect itself toward each other, more than often at mealtime. One of the boys, named Ben, had carved pictures of buildings burning on the top of the table with a knife we had somehow missed on our daily room search. Ben had created this masterpiece when our backs were turned, while we dealt with another boy’s regression into barking like a dog and biting. We did not paint over the scene because he was a good artist, and at that point he had managed to fail at everything else, so at least his talent was something we could praise him for. Ben was often a topic of conversation, as the whole staff had the feeling that so many wonderful things were lurking beneath his dark anger. At thirteen the child had lost everyone who meant anything to him through drugs, prison, and bad luck. We were to be a bridge to a more permanent placement than foster care.
When we finished all the morning entries in the kids’ charts, things like “child took all his meds” or “woke with difficulty and had authority issues, i.e. cussed us out,” we put up the charts in a locked room and got ready to write the poem before it was time to pick up the boys.
I was known for being a bit of a poet, as I often wrote on my all-night shifts. The boys who had insomnia would see me busy with my paper and pen and were curious about what I was doing. Ben, who held the record for consecutive nights without sleep, would give me advice I couldn’t use; trying to aid me in sounding more like a rap artist. In his opinion, they were the true poets of our age. I had published some of my efforts in literary presses no one I knew had heard of, but I enjoyed the process and felt flattered that Mark had asked my help.
Mark brought out a pack of note cards and said, “I want this to be good. I’ve been watching this woman Sundays in church.”
He then went to work on the note cards. His face began to twist in fits of poetic stuttering as he discarded one after another into the trash can beside him. Finally, he read what he had written, a sentence about how the hymn-soaked light hit the side of her face. He could not choose between the words glisten and shine when describing that holy radiance that so entranced him. He pleaded with me to choose for him, as if the right verb could win love.
“I have been going to the lady church for a while; haven’t been saved yet,” he said.
“I didn’t know you went to church,” I said.
“I go to the Ebenezer (feel the Joy) Church of Christ the Savior. It is important to my mom. I deal with the boredom by watching this fine lady.”
“Is she even single?”
“Well, she comes alone to church.”
“That doesn’t mean a thing.”
“Well,” he said with confidence, “she acts single.”
He finally read, “Lovely lady sitting by the stained glass window you / take red away from the roses, call it up from the devil / baptize it in Sunday morning light…you glisten in radiance. Come out with me on Friday.”
It wasn’t Shakespeare or Langston Hughes, but it’d do. When I nodded him, A-OK, Mark shouted out a satisfied, “Hallelujah, the poem is ready.” He then asked me what flowers I would suggest to send with the poem. He was thinking lilies and yellow daisies. I did not picture delicate petals when he spoke of her sturdy, brown legs moving to the gospel beat. I saw full blossoms in deep, dark colors. He spent his lunch break ordering roses.
When we got a call to go get Ben early from school, Mark contemplated hiding the bouquet from him to avoid any teasing and embarrassment, but at the last minute left it out. The minute Ben walked into the kitchen, saw the flowers, and read the card beside them, his face lit up and he began to suggest verses about the lady’s body and ways Mark could enhance his sex appeal to said woman. When the three other boys got home, they joined in with their advanced love advice. Pretty soon, we were all smiling as Mark walked out the door headed to the address he had found in the church registry.
Could this poem become the love story of his life? I imagined him telling the resulting children of the power of poetry. Would he mention my part? I imagined the story becoming a family legend to be told on Sunday chicken suppers long after Mark and I were dead. Maybe the whole clan would have joined Ebenezer by then.
Just as likely, I thought, the lady would think him strange, pick a man who could show her a more rational world, and decide to stick to men who are not so slow to believe. I ran after him, stopping to tuck a few verbs into the poem before he drove off; the boys, who had no reason to believe in love, cheering him on.
Category: Fiction, Short Story