After the Lynching of Cleo Wright in Sikeston, MO, 1942.
We were drinking peppermint schnapps, the poor man’s julep,
when Miles, an old man I mowed lawns with, told me he was there
the day the city of Sikeston drug Cleo Wright down Main Street
and lit him on fire, naked, in the Sunset Addition on the other side of the tracks.
Miles said Cleo’s head swelled up and was all open
after they’d drug him down the street behind an old Buick.
Said it was split like a watermelon that some opossums had gotten into,
that he would have thrown-up if he weren’t too old to act that way.
This was only weeks after Pearl Harbor, and FDR on the radio
was as far away from Missouri as the sixties. Cleo had stabbed a white woman,
Grace. Her husband, called up, was off learning bayonets and choke-holds.
This is too easy to have made up. When the Marshall came, Cleo pulled a knife
out of his boot, stabbed the lawman in the mouth until it ended in gunfire.
How many times was he shot? Three? Four? Repeatedly is the word
the papers used. And Cleo bleeding to death in a jail cell while a mob
of four-hundred, five-hundred men amassed together outside,
as mad as hell about getting surprised in Hawaii and not gonna take it anymore.
Miles said he saw it all, hiding behind his father’s car with a crowbar,
wanting to do something, saying, A man has to do something.
He took a long drink off the bottle after that.
I told him he needn’t go on, but he said he had to finish,
that finishing was the least goddamned thing he owed.
A dump truck picked up Cleo’s remains hours after his body went out.
But before that, when the crowd could smell the gasoline dripping
off his fingers, someone threw a match, and Cleo cried out once,
then shook, the mob dispersing at the site of flames and stillness.