“Elegy” by Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith


Splayed, blood-dazzled, lost in an Oriental rug’s wry repetition
of roses, you were hours gone. When you were lifted, your light
sifted from shattered seams and the jagged portal in your side
where the bullets nosed for your heat and found it. Your hands,
calloused and shit-hued with nicotine, must have risen to break
the blast. Their tiny bones were everywhere. You etched a mark
on the rug like a riotous running, as if you were hightailing away
even after the thud and crooking groan, one arm straining hard
for a promise north of you. You figured on a bluesman’s end—
a scorned, earth-hipped gal screeching Fool, I told you if I ever
you’d smirk, a thin spry blade easing into you like a sliver of ice
into a dirty jelly glass of JB. But oh, not this. When your time
came, it came with you squared in a fool’s shuddering gunline,
you with your incessant Doublemint smack, red-threaded eyes,
rolled wads of ones. Your killer bolted, bragging to the block
that he’d just shot a man and stolen everything he could hold.
Spooked, he tossed the keys to your Lincoln on the car’s hood,
caught a bus, couldn’t sit for bellowing I just took a man down.

Like a soldier whose chest craves a star: Just took a man down,
took him all the way out. Lowering their eyes, riders shunned
him and his untied sneaks, blotched a browning scarlet. Hood
rat, they hissed, ignoring his tale of you, siphoned of last light,
all the way out, your right arm stunned just short of threshold.
As the bus smoked past taverns, sheds of idle worship and side
streets weighted with white men’s names, a ragged roadblock
waited to snag your chatty killer. He froze, raised both hands,
the glee of a man down, took a man suddenly dead in eyes
he turned toward his fellow passengers with the old heartbreak
of betrayal. And during the swift rolling of credits, that line
dividing the two of you wasn’t there. You both bore the mark
of murder. You were just two of the disappeared, out of time
at the exact same time, edges misting, then vanishing the way
B-sides go unwailed in the crevices of a jukebox, the way ice
gets gone when it’s doused with hooch. Dead is such a hard
lesson across the shoulders. I remember you said not to ever
mean goodbye, that A story stops breathing when it ends.

My mama, your wife, loved God so hard that she put an end
to Saturday nights, wearing pants, liquor that went down
the scarring way. She was a blank for the Lord. She had never
dared that part of downtown, where her slow, twisted diction,
fraying A-line skirt, Sears cinnamon-tinged hose, and hard-
pressed curl labeled her westside, native of the neighborhood
no one saw. But that day she rode the Washington bus, in service
to her faith and her child, with news that would slap my light
shut. Somebody shot your daddy, he dead, that was the way
she said it, out in a scramble like it truly pained her to hold
that graceless weight, like she just couldn’t wait for the time
to shift the morning from her burden to mine. Planted beside
me, wide-eyed, she looked like she’d just made a checkmark
on her sad to-do list: 1. Tell that chile ’bout her daddy. I blocked
out the blur of her, her hair sparkling with sweat, the skyline
regular as death and death behind us. If she’d held her hand
out to me at all, succumbing to some unannounced outbreak
of mother, I might have been able to look into her eyes.

Even after my mother, buoyed by churchfolk, glamorized
baptism to coax me into a chilly ritual dunking, in the end
she had to admit that you were my only god. Unable to break
us, she sighed and conceded, wrangled skillets, settled down
to her role as bad cop, enforcer, crackerjack of the backhand.
My whole childhood, I dodged her justice—Girl, don’t ever
sass me, hear? Grabbing ironing cord, branch, clothesline,
she’d crisscross my legs with lashes, snorting an explanation—
Better to get beat in here than kilt out there. I tried to block
the over and over raw engine of her hands, struggling hard
to loose myself, which only made things worse. Chile, mark
my words, you leavin’ here with a lesson. The neighborhood
pooled beneath our window for the squalling—but the upside
came the next day, after remedies of rubbing alcohol and ice,
when I dared the daylight to show off my welts, taking time
to limp the boulevard, working my wounds ’til the streetlights
came on. Then she’d call me in, reach out like she might hold
me, say instead You got to mind me. I don’t know no other way.

How did you two stutter into love? I just can’t see any way
one of you saw a chance in the other, nothing that justifies
your tie to Annie Pearl, gangly ’bama gal, who broke the hold
the clammy Delta had on her once she hit Chicago—the end
of the line for those hooked by the north star’s conjured light.
You, an orphan raised by pitying Arkansas kin, plotted a break
of your own—stuffing your hard valise at dawn, biding time
as the bus poked toward your craving. Two fools from down
south, comin’ up after prayin’ on it, gluing together a paradise
that just had to be bigger than your hard string of third-hand
days, all filled with white folk sidling up to you with the side-
eye. How long did it take you to know that all you were ever
gonna be was what you already were? Southern childhoods
led to other ways to be born, one-way treks on the pipeline
to the city’s swallow. Steered to tenements already marked
with the chalk outlines of your bodies, your fresh addictions
prepped and waiting, you travelers didn’t know just how hard
every dawn would become, how hard it would be to block

the old dogged hiss of home in your bones—whole city blocks
kept on pointing south. Chicago’s dirty sun hissed that way
too, searing your necks. Up-north alone and lonely, gals hard-
ironed greased hair into sizzling strings, plumped their eyes
with overloads of Maybelline. They forgot their vows to shun
the bad boys—and daddy, you were scoundrel. Grabbing hold
of saddidy city ways like you’d been born to them, you marked
turf with an Old Spice-scented, dip-hipped stroll from one end
of Madison Street to the other, then down Washington, past lines
of tsk-tsk-tsking church ladies and country girls bathed in light
leaking from crooked storefronts. Where in all that womanhood
was my mother? Did she lift those sleepy eyes and cue a break
in your stride, knock you flat with a new language whenever
she giggled behind her hand? Did that smile conjure the time
when she barreled barefoot through the red dust of countryside
to her mama’s squeaking screen door? Somewhere on down
the line, you spied her, sugar-countryfied in Alabama hand-
me-downs, grinning with enough gold to make you notice.

In the Murphy bed, maybe your woman was sallow and ice,
a moan, pretending steel, not knowing whether she should block
your man ways. You’d been in the city so long—your hands
had learned everything. And Annie Pearl needed to find a way
to love you past the new beings you were, so weighed down
in store layaway and stilted grammar, miles from the hard
twang of your backdrop. In the end, you were both blindsided,
still wanting what you thought you’d left behind, your eyes
shocked by the familiar body’s gospel. Daddy, not much time
passed before you gave in to ritual, shelving your addiction
to the sugar drone of the street. You take this woman for ever?
and you did, entering a church just that once to vow your hold
on a woman set to be cook and comfort. But each daybreak
changed her in the way of omen. She was vexed by the mark
of tenement, factory and blistering snow. The neighborhood
that opened its arms to her now blocked her breath. In the end,
you heard honor, you heard obey—locking onto the gilt light
in the eyes of God’s best girl, you smiled, signed the dotted line.

Laughing, you told me how she hated being pregnant. Her line:
It’ll be a blessing to drop this chile. You fed her chipped ice
to cool her core, warmed stews, tended to her from first light
’til last. She ate pigs’ feet, salt pork, shaded her eyes to block
the sun wilting the blinds—It’s just too much day. Pretending
not to be monster, ashamed of her hollering and swollen hands,
she ate, slept deep and snored razors through what motherhood
does. You rehearsed the word “husband” and looked for a way
to tune out your boys, hooting outside, calling out the mark
of bitch in you. Your woman rampaged while working down
a list of everything God said you shoulda been, her heartbreak
wide enough for just the whole world to hear. It was that hard
to be both her sky and root. Everybody knew you couldn’t hold
on too long while jukeboxes blared and fine gals strode side
streets, asking, asking—You seen Otis? If your wife was ever
blessed to drop that chile, you could dream of laying your eyes
on that rumble ’neath her skirt again—but the assumption
of her rollicking belly meant you were running out of time

to start starting over. And the days were June steam by the time
I came, ripping a way toward air, insisting on your bloodline.
You’d never seen such violence. I clamored, wailed, stunned
you by not being you or her, but something other, my raw voice
chronic, not thrilled with the rules of my arrival. Your eyes,
threaded with old spirit, were my first damns given, their light
so wholly tangled with mine. Hours old, I already had our fever.
As soon as I sensed you wanting to flee the birth room, I blocked
out the carping of my mother, drained and bled low on the side-
lines, and focused on winning you over. You couldn’t even pretend
that the beginning of my story was the end of yours—my death-hold
on your finger was a vow. Your wife wailed. I filled your hands.
While she crafted my new, functional name—one we’d find it hard
to live down to—you numbly nodded, succumbing to a parenthood
that was nothing like the one you’d pictured. My lock on you broke
every rule—fast co-conspirators, we were already hatching a way
out of where my birthday found us. My mother was one down,
none to go while you and I began a sloppy, blatant love, marked

by my wet gaze and your sweet inability to put me down, marked
by your whisper of the name you wanted to give me—each time
a new christening, the name you heard when you looked down
at me, slick and gasping in her arms. But mama went hardline
with the citified Patricia Ann—your whispers became a way
for us to communicate under the radar of her roaring, a fiction
that rooted us in our real. As soon as I was, she vowed to break
our tie so that she could master and suppress us singly—a device
she picked up from the Do Right By God manual of parenthood.
She would never stop trying. Even before the moment our eyes
met, daddy, our woe-be-them script was already written—hard
road ahead, the odds stacked to teeter, our meager guiding lights
flickering dim, born under a bad sign. You wrapped your hands
around my wild squirm and we changed the ending. You’d never
forget the feeling of my new, my barely a day, the feel of holding
the whole promise of north in your grasp. You strutted the block
trumpeting news of baby, but not wife, as if your marriage ended
when I began. Without a history, I was so simple to love. Side-

stepped and mad about it, my mama grew fat and functional. Inside
our tiny three-room, she wiped and scoured, scrubbing every mark
with bleach or Lysol, pressed bedsheets, decided it best to depend
on Jesus for all and everything. She trained an evil eye on the time
whenever you left home, reckoning you were headed for the block
of JB, gutbucket music, red-lipped women who pulled you down
to their open mouths. You ran to spades and brown liquor, holding
onto a thin wad that probably wouldn’t last the night. Your timeline
for being right-minded and getting home at a Christian hour never
worked. Instead, you and toddler me devised a plan, a sneaky way
to get you in after curfew once your pissed wife threw up her hands
and chain-locked the only way in. Fighting sleep, I was stationed
in my bed in the front room, drooped eyes trained on the line of light
beneath the door. After a Morse code of coughs and taps at daybreak,
I’d tip to the door, flip open locks, let you in. She came down hard
on us once she woke up to find you inside, popping me once or twice
with the business end of a belt, weeping wide, searching your eyes
for clues to your night. Your answering gaze, measured and hooded,

fueled the flames. I loved our wicked alliance, my falsehoods—
You must have left the latch off, mama—the hastily plotted inside
job, the you and me always against the her. I loved how her eyes
bulged with our betrayal, her pleas to Jesus gone wide of the mark
while you and I schemed and cheered, proud of our dual sacrifice.
We were an inspired pairing, Patricia Ann and Otis D, the end
and opening curtain of so many dramas. It must have been hard
for her, plopped in front of Bonanza’s drone, afraid more time
would only make us stronger. Maybe she considered heartbreak—
but that was a frailty. God say no. It was time for Lucy. Blocking
out our whispers, she concentrated on the gray flickering light
of the TV, mesmerized by crisp hilarious white people in downy
garb living the life she was promised. She just wanted a fraction
of it—a real husband home in time for dinner, a husband holding
flowers, toting a briefcase, spewing city words. But your hands
stank of smoke and sugar from where you both worked the line,
and her chile was—well, devilish. I know she prayed for a way
past the two of us, daddy, because I heard her. Kneeling, never

behind a closed door, she wondered aloud if the Lord would ever
enter our souls, click the righteous switch, gingerly lift the hood
that cloaked us in sin. While she spent every day in church, away
from our godless chaos, we played race music, mingled outside
with the pimps and double-dutchers. Or we’d get in the long line
snaking into the corner butcher shop. I couldn’t take my eyes
off the real pig’s head in the window or the flying pink hands
of the butcher. We dragged our feet in bloody sawdust, marked
our nicknames on the shop’s wood beams. You loved to hold
up fistfuls of bargain entrails until I squealed, then dig into ice
for bulge-eyed perch so we could stage mock battles, a tradition
distressing those who eyed our soldiers for supper. We’d offend
everyone, defiantly being us, only vaguely fearing the meltdown
she was sure to have when the grapevine buzzed tales of our hard-
headedness. We were her kin, edging the Buick through stoplights
with the horn blaring, pairing up like street gangers for fun times
with all the shifty anyones and anythings that made our block
hum. Soon she was the stranger in the room. So when the break

finally came, I was left all alone. It was a slow-motion break,
with our Annie Pearl’s raw preachy screech as backdrop, never
ceasing: Y’all are headed for so much hell. We couldn’t block
out all the ways she grew melancholy, faced with the likelihood
she needed God more than we needed her. Our lives were time
passing, faster than she could fix us. She couldn’t scream away
our trespasses. When you realized it was finally over, the light
I’d given you streamed from your bodies. I watched. Blindsided
by the end, Annie didn’t see that her take on love was a hard
slow kill you put up with just long enough to meet your deadline
as father. You hugged my grieving breath thin, then put me down
whispering Baby girl, it’s not you I’m leaving. I romanticized
the moment, heard violins swelling over the words THE END
as you and I skipped giddily into a cowboy sunset, our hands
clasped. We would grieve her, of course. Eventual celebrations
would be muted and tasteful. But instead of joining me to mark
the end of your marriage as the real beginning of us, your advice
to me was Stay here with your momma. I’ll be back. My hold

on you, the clutch that merely defined me, just couldn’t hold
on past the wrath of the woman who long ago vowed to break
us away from each other. And toward some God. I paid the price
for your walking away—a gangly ten-year-old who had never
given real weight to the word alone, I suddenly decided to mark
my days by disappearing. Words went first. Teachers blocked
out time for meetings with my harried mother once I shunned
speech and slammed silent. Ms. Pearl referred all parenthood
matters to her God the Father, who I’m sure threw up His hands
once my hair began to fall out in clumps and my nighttimes
were spent snot-weeping, praying to my daddy, my god. Depend
on THIS Father she’d say, pointing to a plastic crucifix, her way
of making me see you as Him, as both gone and there. Her eyes
were wild all the time. Every morning, when a damnable light
fell upon my face—a face just like yours—she’d break down
and whip me in your name, conjuring sins, turning my backside
to flame. I’d phone you in secret, pouring broken into the line,
begging for you back. Until you decided that no matter how hard

it was to stand tall between her and a deity, no matter how hard
it was to say to her You can’t make me not be her father, I could hold
you to the wounding pledge It’s not you I’m leaving, that numb line
I wished on while holding my own hair in my hand. You broke
down, came back through our door, and every night you sat beside
me and we traded tales, whispering beneath her wrath. Your voice
was all the yes in the room while a mute Annie Pearl, nailed down
with rage, stayed glued to the Philco and her Lucy Ball. You never
left until I was asleep. You were left alone with her. Then the light
of the boulevard bellowed, and you’d set out to make your mark
on the moon. With a harrump and a deadly edition of the side-eye,
my mother would accuse you of seeing other women on our block
(of course you were—how long ago had she picked her wary way
around your body’s eager landscape?). She gamely auditioned
for a role as the wounded, righteous God-fearing ex, a sly blend
of monster and martyr, and you were undisputed hero of the ’hood,
the romancer, card sharp, devoted daddy. I remember the time
she boldly called you on your rep after I’d been caught red-handed

lifting earrings from Woolworth’s: So YOU spank her. Your hands
rose and fell with pained hesitation, just twice, your crying hard-
mingling with my pained theatrics. Daddy, how did you make time
for that kind of love? How did you become the someone who holds
on when a southern gal says let go, someone who blesses childhood
with the sharp magic of made-up songs and giddy minutes in line
to gape at the circus of a dead pig’s head? So many had to fend
for themselves, alone with bone-lonely mothers. Love let me break
you, daddy, it brought you back, back to me while the loud fiction
of fathers crushed everything around us. Love welled up inside
you like a city, replaced your dreams with what you had, a way
for you to write your name aloud. You were my bad daddy, vice
winkling right up front like that gold tooth. You ran every block
with the bittiest rep, five feet of swagger and spice gettin’ down
with a sweet hip swerve to anything blue from the juke, your eyes
absolutely glinting with just enough bad juice. Daddy, whatever
possessed you to teach me to drink, vowing no man would mark
me as victim? You spoon-fed me shots of JB ’til my warning light

blasted, dimmed again. I was 16. There you were arced in the light
above me, rapid-firing: What time is it? Now can you see the hands
on your watch? Tell me what song just played on the jukebox. Mark
or Marvin, who’s that serving them drinks? OK now, think hard now
how do you get home from here? I didn’t know a damn thing, never
having been wasted before, but I got better. Now there’s not a time
I can’t drink a hopeful man under the table with my midnight eyes
wide open. Schooling me in slow dance, you were careful to hold
me at a daddy distance while my whitewashed PF Flyer came down
on your toes again and again. We were the talk of the neighborhood,
crazy Charles knocking at his door like a stranger every day, blocking
out a stream of spiteful screams from his still-wife, making a beeline
to that baby gal so she could have some kinda daddy. Your sacrifice
was born of love that breaks and breaks and rearranges. In the end
it taught me just what a man looks like when he never goes away.
Somebody shot your daddy, he dead were just words alongside
other words, a way for some stranger to finally get my attention.

* * *

Your funky apparition sidles up, riding its blue rail, and blasts a light
that makes me laugh out loud. Eerily still at your side, your hands
hold something I can’t see. It’s daybreak when you make your mark
on my waking dream, a way for us to be together before the hard
business of pretending a life begins. This is something I’d never
practiced, this halfways ghosting, like a sweaty runner making time
with the silliness of a single leg. You’re a chalk outline, your eyes
reaching. I quick-slap your hand, unblock the view of what you hold.
You lay down the gift that you whispered and whispered. My real name.

from Rattle #50, Winter 2015
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Patricia Smith: “My father’s breath is threaded through every poem—no, everything—I write. His legacy in me is what I’ve come to think of as ‘the tradition of the back porch’—that innate, bone-deep need to connect through story. Otis Douglas Smith taught me how to look at the world in terms of the stories it can tell, and I knew that this elegy—his story—had to be as layered and exhaustive as I could make it. It had to be enough to make me weep and sweat and want during the writing. I needed to resurrect the man I love most in this world, to have him stand among my family and friends, to have them hear his unleashed laughter, quirky wisdoms and growled blues. Above all, I wanted to show the man who lived to tell stories what his daughter learned.” (web)

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