In my car, driving through Black Mountain,
North Carolina, I listen to what
sounds like Doris Day shooting
heroin inside Sly Stone’s throat.
One would think that she fights
to get out, but she wants to stay
free in this skin. Fresh,
The Family Stone’s album,
came out in ’73, but I didn’t make sense
of it till ’76, sixth grade for me,
the Bicentennial, I got my first kiss that year,
I beat up the class bully; I was the man.
But for now, in my head, it’s only ’73
and I’m a little boy again, listening
to Sly and his Family covering Doris’s hit,
driving down I-40;
a cop pulls me over to ask why
I’m here, in his town, with my Yankee tags.
I let him ask a series of questions
about what kind of work I do,
what brings me to town—you know
the kind of questions that tell you
this has nothing to do with driving a car.
My hands want to ball into fists.
But, instead, I tell myself to write a letter
to the Chief of Police, to give him something
to laugh at over his morning paper,
as I try to recall the light in Doris Day’s version
of “Que Sera Sera”—without the wail
troubling the notes in the duet
of Sly and Cynthia’s voices.
Hemingway meant to define
courage by the nonchalance you exude
while taking cover within your flesh,
even at the risk of losing
what some would call a melody;
I call it the sound of home.
Like when a song gets so far out
on a solo you almost don’t recognize it,
but then you get back to the hook, you suddenly
recognize the tune and before you know it,
you’re putting your hands together; you’re on your feet—
because you recognize a sound, like a light,
leading you back home to a color:
rust. You must remember
rust—not too red, not too orange—not fire or overnight
change, but a simmering-summer
change in which children play till they tire
and grown folks sit till they grow edgy
or neighborhood dogs bite those not from your neigborhood
and someone with some sense says Down, Boy,
or you hope someone has some sense
who’s outside or who owns the dog and then the sky
turns rust and the streetlights buzz on
and someone’s mother, must be yours, says
You see those streetlights on don’t you,
and then everybody else’s mother comes out and says
the same thing and the sky is rust so you know
you got about ten minutes before she comes back out
and embarrasses you in front of your friends;
ten minutes to get home before you eat and watch
the Flip Wilson Show or Sanford and Son and it’s time for bed.
And it’s rust you need to remember
when the cop asks, What kind of work you do?
It’s rust you need to remember: the smell
of summer rain on the sidewalk
and the patina on wrought-iron railings on your front porch
with rust patches on them, and the smell
of fresh mowed grass and gasoline and sweat
of your childhood as he takes a step back
when you tell him you’re a poet teaching
English down the road at the college,
when he takes a step back—
to assure you, know, that this has nothing to do with race,
but the rust of a community he believes
he keeps safe, and he says Have a Good One,
meaning day as he swaggers back to his car,
and the color of the day and the face behind sunglasses
and the hands on his hips you’ll always remember
come back gunmetal gray
for the rest of this rusty afternoon.
So you roll up the window
and turn the music back on,
and try to remember the rust caught in Sly’s throat—
when the song came out in ’73,
although I didn’t get it till ’76,
sixth grade for me, the Bicentennial;
I got my first kiss that year.
I beat up the class bully.
I was the man.