The Next Door Neighbor / The Unfinished Work


by Joseph Mills

The Unfinished Work

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863…
– William Faulkner, Intruders in the Dust

I had been to Gettysburg before,
with my brother, and we had searched
for monuments to our native Indiana,
trying to imagine ourselves back then,
stationed in some rifle pit or trench,
pointing a weapon at the line of gray
doomed men stepping from the woods.
We understood we would have been
scared and homesick, but also resolute,
grimly determined, to make America
into America, the nation of history books,
victor of two world wars, the United States
of John Wayne and John Ford.

This time I am with my European wife
and our two children, who want to find
the monuments for their home state,
North Carolina, the ones on the other side
of the field, a place where I’ve never gone,
and as we look at maps and displays
of troop movements, my son asks,
“Daddy, Where would I have been?”
His older sister looks at me, then him.
She has long understood their skin
means a different place in these stories.
It wouldn’t have been as simple for them
as marching off to one side or the other.
But, although my son knows he’s brown,
he doesn’t yet understand he’s “black,”
and I wonder what to say. I know
stories of soldiers who looked like him,
and those of slaves. Which ones to tell
right now? Which do my children need?
Which will harm? Which will help?
Which will show not what their places
might have been, but what they can be?

What my son does already understand,
looking from the ridge to the woods,
is what it would mean to have to walk
all the way across this field when people
on the other side have cannons and guns.
That doesn’t make any sense,” he says,
“That would just be dumb,” and I think
Out of the mouths of babes. He doesn’t know
how this “charge” has been told as a tale
of honor, courage, some high water mark
of the noble lost South. Stripped of stories,
it’s a moment of death-drenched stupidity.

We begin to go past the markers
without reading them, content to be
walking in the country on a sunny day
as if we’re in an Impressionist painting
“Sunday in the (National) Park.”
Although the cemetery is nearby,
the hallowed ground, and we know
we should visit it, the kids have seen
a McDonalds at the edge of the field,
and, even though we’re vegetarians,
it’s triggered a determined offensive
to get some kind of treat before dinner.
We go back to the van, a Toyota,
a brand my mother calls “Jap junk”
and thinks is shameful we own
because she has “friends who fought
in Vietnam,” and as we leave the lot
we argue about whose turn it is
to pick music and how we should go
to wherever it is we’re going next.
Nothing is as clear as the maps
and the markers make it seem,
particularly the tangled desires
of family. Later, each of us might
make up stories about these days,
trying, in retrospect, to make sense
of what we did, and why, our lives
together, the unfinished work.


The Next Door Neighbor

As we unload the truck, she yells
from a metal chair on her porch
I’ve seen ‘em come and seen ‘em go
and it’s clear she expects to do both
with us. Later, at the housewarming,
she says she learned to smoke upstairs
in our bathroom sixty years ago,
that the neighborhood has changed,
that she used to be a dance teacher
but she retired at the right time
since her students had all started
to listen to that nigger music.
She says it’d be nice to have someone
clean her gutters, and she looks at me.
I agree, yes, it certainly would be nice.

When we adopt our daughter, she says
the woman down the street asked her
why we couldn’t get a white baby,
but she thinks we’ve done a good thing,
that the baby is lucky, and we’ll be blessed,
and I want to say, Fuck you,
you racist old bat. Aren’t you afraid
what you’ll hear from our house?
I want to say we’re not blessed
or “good people.” But what I say
is we’re the ones who are lucky.
I say I hope the late night crying
isn’t too loud. I say it looks like rain.

And one day we realize our daughter
is gone. She’s not in the house or yard.
We find her on the neighbor’s porch,
chatting away. She’s good company,
the woman says, and, from then on,
each time our child goes outside,
the woman yells from her chair,
Here comes Ms. America!
She starts buying gifts at Food Lion,
plastic toys and discounted candy.
She tells us, You need to get that girl
brothers and sisters. It’s a terrible thing
to grow old alone in this world.

After her cat dies, she finally agrees
to move into a home and it’s not long
after that the operations start.
Once, she gets someone to drive her
by the house but she’s too weak
to get out of the car. She tells us
they probably mean well enough
at the new place, but I miss my porch.
I miss seeing that beautiful girl of yours.
It’s not the same. Things aren’t the same.

Category: Poetry