UNCLE CONLEY RAY (1950)
As we move through rows of tobacco, sap
sticks to my hands. Tar from the broad-leafed plant
stains my palms, layers building, one upon
the other like some serpentine kane
moved by the sun. Fifty rows by noon,
fifty rows, and soon a hundred . . .
Father says the tops must be broken,
let the sweet fruit ripen and grow stronger
without the seed, a better yield for auction.
Fifty rows and the noon bell rings, shimmering
sound in sullen heat as we leave the rows
to wash. We use tomatoes to cut
the tarbending over the galvanized
tub, the red, seedy pulp pressed onto hands
and arms, the water turning crimson-brown
as the veined-meated, soft-skinned fruit cuts
through ridges and splatters to the bottom.
And then I feel the stick, heart of oak, thick
across my back. It’s Mamma slashing
at her seed, from some rage unknown. My blood,
her blood, running over my shoulders
and down my arms. I don’t blame her, wife
of a sharecropper with thirteen kids to rear
and feed. So I bare it, squeeze the red fruit
between my palms, watch the liquid burst,
drip and spread to brilliant umber, piercing
and hot, like each stroke of her love.
I was ten when we moved from the red clay banks of Georgia to the coast of California. Left behind was the ranch-style brick house, with raised deck, miles of pine, oak and elm I used to run through, breasting wind that rushed over my face, deep into lungs, and filled every vein and vessel to fingertips and toesat night, the humid warmth pressing down on the darkness as I lay listening to frogs, crickets, and cicadas through the screen. We traveled a blacktop trail, the traces and paths of the Natchez, Creeks, Apaches and Spaniards Hernando de Soto, Ponce de Leon, Coronado--like my father, seeking some far-off destiny to the West. As we roll through valleys and mountains, change blows in through the windows of the car: Alabama’s sprinkled fields of cotton, Mississippi’s dark waters, wide and slow to change, Louisiana’s moss shrouded cypress standing like cathedrals over swamps covered with a thin rainbow film of algae. Then Texas, so big it takes two days to cross, where giant statues of cows block the moon, on through New Mexico, where the sun hangs in the desert sky like a purple, bruised orange breaking through hard angles of cactus and sagebrushthen, coming through Death Valley and across the Sierra Nevada, we crest the last wave of mountains which overlook the California basin, where streetlights outshine the stars. They say this is the City of Angels, yet I’m scaredimagine their wings beating above my head and shiver as their dark, dusty feathers coat the car with smog. We sleep that night in a Motel Six, sirens and helicopters screaming in my ears. I dream of our dog, alone in the warm Georgia night, and wake to the sound of voices. Rising from bed, I go to the window and watch a man, in polyester, gold rings on fat fingers, slap, then push a girl wearing purple hot-pants against the rail, bodies hemmed together, zippered and plastic, groping, thick tongue snaking up her neck, while on the street, a black and white slides by, slow, like the dark river we crossed a thousand miles ago, and one by one, the lights blink out.
* * *
Tony Morris is is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Gardner-Webb University where he teaches writing and English. His most recent awards include a nomination for the 2003 Pushcart Prize, third place in the 2003 Tennessee Writers Alliance Poetry Contest, and finalist status in Sarabande’s 2002 Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize. His poetry has appeared, in The Spoon River Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, Puerto del Sol, Nimrod, South Carolina Review, Chattahoochee Review, South Dakota Review, Cold Mountain Review, and others.