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F. Douglas Brown
In the hallway, racing to catch the phone—The blaring football
Anecdotes—People are in my house eating cheese—I am racing
To catch the phone—The hallway holds my history—Faces radiating
And I am traveling back: their eyes, their ears, increasing
The rate of change—If the quantity for hallway, h, varies with
Time, t, then write: h(t) to represent the value my life
Has moved in a matter of seconds—Multiply mayhem and
Marvin’s music—Divide reception and recline
Subtract clenching and letting go—Covering and letting go—Subtract
Creasing then, letting go—Pick up the phone—All
Arithmetic, done—All variables equal baby—Zero is definitely a
Thing making itself known from the inside out
My body has moved from one distance to another
My big body has three thousand zeros at the end of it
So soon, another body, her body will thump—My palm rolling
Across her bare belly—After nine months, skin at its full potential
Your name forms
The moment your lungs grab
Air out of air—An open
Window, cold building
On the back wall of your throat.
Frances says, “Isaiah,” her southern
Rooted voice swallows
The weight of your birth—
“Isaiah, he sounds important.”
And when I nod, there is a flock
Of pigeons I am letting free.
Their flaps mark the meter
In your name. If there is a feather
Where I am standing, I know Frances
Will see it and know special—
The kind of special that appeared
To your mother long before
Your first breath. How the two
Of you talked through
Skin, fluid, placenta still baffles me.
A code of kicks and her speech.
“Isaiah.” It falls to floor
And bounces every time—
The way any good word should:
Memento for a Mississippian
Baby, your daddy is dead, reaches and grabs every part of you through the holes of the receiver until your girlfriend grabs your hand and rubs your back, pushing the air back into your lungs. The drive to his house, a hard oak or metal post, so when you get there, you can barely move, can’t even look at his body when the cops ask for an ID. There is a TV tray with a half-eaten meal covered by a dirty, wine-stained rag. All you can do is start to clean up. You throw away whole plates and full pots that make your cousins upset. Noise is everywhere even when the men from the funeral home come to talk to you. You grunt, gasp out partial answers for them. The man who comes to take away your father is named Robert. He speaks to you in perfect English while his colleagues cart your dad out on a gurney. You’ve had to ask Robert to repeat what he says two or three times. Robert, says your dad must have died days ago because his body is so stiff. Patience and calmness become Robert’s shiny shoes and his manicured hands.
Dead for ten hours or so. In the kitchen, maggots starting to feed on what’s left in an iron skillet. Your dad’s paper still folded in half at his door. There is a new card table and five chairs resting on his porch. JP must have left them. Surely someone else stopped by this day and knocked once or twice, made the effort to see him or hear his voice. Did you call him? A weekend without him is a weekend surrounded by heat and nothing to cool the air.
The day he dies. His weed-box in his left hand and a remote in the other. He settles down early to watch baseball or maybe just highlights of a game. Were there memories of his grandkids or his siblings? Maybe his mother’s cooking takes him in, cradles his tired body while his head nods to the pace of a ball being pitched. The leather mitt and his heartbeat, a synchronized thud.
Garbage day. On a normal Thursday he is up by 5:30 am, pulling the trash to the curb or walking to the store to pick up a beer and hot dogs for JP. But he had talked to JP who told him I ain’t gon be there until Saturday. Phone calls from bill collectors and your cousin don’t get through easily. Pimp calls three times and gets nowhere until the fourth. My ass is fine. Stop fuckin’ with me.
Everyone says hello and good morning when he goes to get his paper and mail. His hands in his pockets until a neighbor notices. Darlin’ I don’t feel so well today. But when Mike from Vegas calls shortly after, Mike makes him feel better. He calls Mike “Pimp” because he has a mansion from here to Figueroa. I’m not lying, Dougi. I’m not lying. Laughter empties several bottles of cheap wine and spills. Red on the carpet, red on a towel wiping the trail leading from the kitchen.
You go to see your dad and cook him lunch. A black skillet full of taco meat is already on the stove, so much for that. Cant beat this, baby, cant fuck with this weather. You nod and scoop rice onto his plate. I cant eat it all but it’s okay, I’ll eat it later. You two watch TV and joke. I can’t stand Lamont, you say. Dad, I promise I will never treat you like that. He makes fun of your cousin’s husband, Thomas. Take your broke ass back to Ridley Hill. My son got more sense than all y’all. Pride as hot as a LA summer.
Check in with him. Poppa Brown, you say and he is still reeling with what John Paul said to him the day before. Fuck JP, he says. The thought of just hanging out tomorrow reassures him. You can hear him open a beer, loud, right into the phone but his I love you is clean, a crisp first sip.
Today, you heard a little dog get hit in the alley behind your building. Screams flail up, seven stories high. You relay the story to your dad and John Paul who both agree that it was shame. They tell stories about Mississippi, get high on their memories of home. They get into it later, argue about being ready to die. My baby, gon take care of me. My son gon take care of me, and he rests his hand on your knee. Shakes it as if there were fruit falling from your leg, as if you had all that he needed.
-from Zero to Thirty
BIO: F. Douglas Brown of Los Angeles is the 2013 Cave Canem Poetry Prize recipient for Zero to Three (University of Georgia 2014). Mr. Brown, an educator for nearly 20 years, teaches English at Loyola High School of Los Angeles, an all-boys Jesuit school. He is both a Cave Canem and Kundiman fellow. His poems have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly (VQR), The Sugar House Review, Cura Magazine, Muzzle Magazine, Transfer Magazine and Santa Clara Review.