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Allison Joseph


The World's Worst Jukebox


plays every song you've ever hated—

maudlin country ballads and stupid novelty hits,

syrupy pop ditties from the Seventies--

tunes so chipper and insistent

you still know them after twenty years,

can remember how these songs sounded

coming out of your hand-held radio,

hiss slithering from the cheap transistor,

static marking spaces between stations.

It's hard to fathom why

someone would put tunes this bad together,

deliberate cruelty, you think,

as you lean over the shimmering machine

in search of one good song

for your shiny quarter.

You can't deal with hearing

the Captain and Tennille gush

that love will keep them together,

but your other choices are no better--

the Swedish schmaltz of Abba's “Dancing Queen,”

the disco version of the theme from Star Wars,

Chuck Berry's number one embarrassment,

“My Ding-A-Ling.” There's no Beatles or Stones

on this Wurlitzer, just bland British Invasion wimps

Chad and Jeremy, that foolish chronicle

of the c.b. craze, Convoy, the simpering corn

of David Gates and Bread. No Sly Stone or Prince

and the Revolution either, but “Kung Fu Fighting”

instead, a song whose phony martial arts shouts

thrilled us all when were eight.

Groups no one's heard of since

their one chart hit live on in infamy

here: the breathy vocals of Andrea True,

former porn star, the disembodied female chants

of Silver Convention, another Eurodisco product

of interchangeable singers. There are

two different versions of “Muskrat Love,”

every smarmy hit by Air Supply,

and singles from bands whose very names

are bad omens: Vanilla Fudge, the Chipmunks,

Pink Lady. You want to grab someone, anyone,

to collar the bar's manager

for an explanation, demanding the name

of who did this, threatening to storm his house

to ask how anyone could give us a jukebox

with no Supremes or Vandellas, but

with the Crystals singing

“He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss,”

a dirge with lyrics so vile

few stations ever played it,

a song no one will punch,

not even on this jukebox.


The Black Santa


I remember sitting on his bony lap,

fake beard slumping off his face,

his breath reeking sweetly of alcohol,

a scent I didn't yet know at five.

And I didn't know that Santa

was supposed to be fat, white, merry—

not shaky and thin like this

department store Santa who listened

as I reeled off that year's list:

a child's oven I'd burn my fingers on,

a mini record player of gaudy plastic

I'd drag from room to room

by its precarious orange handle,

an Etch-a-Sketch I'd ruin by twisting

its dials too hard—my requests

as solemn as prayer, fervid, fueled

by too many hours of television,

too many commercials filled

with noisy children elated

by the latest game or toy.

I bet none of them

ever sat on the lap of a Santa

who didn't ho-ho-ho in jolly mirth,

whose sunken red eyes peered

out from under his oversized wig

and red velveteen cap, his teeth yellow,

long fingers tinged with yellow.

I did not find it strange

to call this man Santa,

to whisper my childish whispers

into his ear, to pull on his sleeve

to let him know I really deserved

all that I'd asked for. I posed

for an instant photo with him,

a woolen cap over my crooked braids,

mittens sewn to my coat sleeves.

No one could have convinced me

this Santa couldn't slide down

any chimney, though his belly

didn't fill his suit, and his hands

trembled, just a bit, as he lifted

me from his lap. No one could

have told me that a pink-cheeked

pale-skinned Santa was the only Santa

to worship, to beg for toys and candy.

I wouldn't have believed them,

wouldn't have believed anyone

who'd tell me Santa couldn't look

like me: brown eyes, face, skin.




My father taught me to measure

the worth of any good thing

by the number of black people

involved. Without sufficient numbers,


he wouldn't root for a team,

wouldn't eat in a restaurant,

wouldn't turn on his television

to watch a local newscast


that didn't have a black anchor.

He wanted black people

to appear on Masterpiece Theatre

—he'd lived in England so he knew


black people lived there—

wanted us on Evening at Pops

and Live from Wolf Trap,

the orchestra's black musicians


conveniently placed up front

for his recognition, wanted

every diva who performed at the Met

to be brown, proud, beautiful—


an endless string of Jessye Normans

and Leonytne Prices. He'd rage

at commercials, at The Brady Bunch,

at soap operas, Broadway musicals,


at any bit of American culture

tossed before us as entertainment

that dared not have a black cast member.

So I grew up rooting against the then


all-white Mets, the Boston Red Sox,

(Jim Rice their only saving grace),

the Celtics, hell, the whole city of Boston,

the obscene snowy landscape of New England.


So he probably thought he'd failed

to instill his wisest lesson

when we drove to that college

in middle-of-nowhere Ohio


with its green clapboard shutters

on its white colonial cottages,

its manicured hedges

and windowboxes of tulips.


Resolute, he helped me hoist boxes

to my narrow, undecorated room,

watched glumly as Mom unpacked

suitcases, as my sister folded clothes.


Suspicious, he finally asked,

where are all the black people,

but I could show him only three faces

in the freshman picture book,


including my own photo booth snapshot.

He thought I was crazy to live

so close to them, the white people

who'd conspired so long against him,


the numbers on that campus

far too low for him, my scholarship

bleaching me, making me

less black, less daughter. 

-from Imitation of Life, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2003, selected by Guest Editor T.R. Hummer

PROMPT: As in Allison Joseph's "Numbers," explore an unresolved conflict you have had with a parent, parental figure, mentor, etc... (or vice versa) that strikes your core. Write in narrative form, include at least one reference to pop culture, and keep it to two pages or less. Be honest. Do NOT resolve the conflict or EXPLAIN the conflict. PRESENT the conflict; let the reader do the rest.

BIO: Professor Allison Joseph is the author of What Keeps Us Here (Ampersand, 1992), Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon, 1997), In Every Seam (Pittsburgh, 1997), Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon, 2003) and Worldly Pleasures (Word Press, 2004). Her honors include the John C. Zacharis First Book Prize, fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers Conferences, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry. She is editor and poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review and director of the Young Writers Workshop, an annual summer residential creative writing workshop for high school writers. She holds the Judge Williams Holmes Cook Endowed Professorship. As Director of the SIUC MFA Program in Creative Writing, Professor Joseph maintains a blog about the graduate creative writing program at

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