The last angel of the Lord

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I thought I was kneeling before the last angel of the Lord, knees crimped in a puddle of Oklahoma dirt, feet swole in my least pair of shoes.

“I am done being exhausted by you,” I cried out. “I have lived my years as well as I knew. I have worn my face as honest as I could, and if you don’t like what you see, you should remember me as a boy. I was not pretty or handsomely carved, but my sinew was as strong in sleep as it was awake. I never ran from a fight I thought I mightn’t win, and I never cheated when I knew I would be bloodied. So you can pierce me with whatever sword you carry in your scabbard, and I’ll lay down as humbly as I can. And the next time you see Him, after you’re finished stripping me of my guts, you can tell Him I wasn’t a bit sorry about crying out a little when you cut into my heart.”

But it was only Ma, come to ask me if I could fetch her that bucket of elderberries she’d been bullying me about for the past fifty-some years. She stepped out from behind the dense honeyed sunshine and revealed to me her homely face. She has held onto that expression — half exasperation, half astonishment — for all her life, and I never did figure if it was exclusive to me, or if it was for the world at large.

“You came back early,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting you ’til Sat’day. You can lift yourself from your knees now, go bring me my berries. Bucket’s beside the hand pump. You know where.” She shook her head, unsure. “You came back early.”

“I wasn’t particularly busy, but am disinclined to pick elderberries today,” I said. “It has been a long while, Ma.”

“It has,” she said, and she poked at a cold sore below her swollen lip. She looked frailer in her graveclothes. “I wasn’t complaining. You know I don’t complain.” She smiled, and then she asked me: “Did I really look like your angel?”

“I was expressing a confession, Ma,” I said. “You frightened me.” 

I watched the morning fall from the branches of the old sweetgum tree. It clutched at the leaves and left its debris at Ma’s feet. The tree had grown tall in the years I was away, and it was untidy with pale green flowers. There was a litter of old seed pods along the muddy driveway and surrounding the rotted flowerbeds. Time had halted, sped up, and halted again. Ma had not moved, and neither had I. Was I ten years old now, or almost seventy? I wasn’t sure, because both ages felt the same.

“Ma?”

“You brung me my berries? It has been an age since you brung me anything I wanted. There’s still ice cream in the ‘frigerator, your daddy purchased the vanilla especially for me.”

Daddy made his escape when he was still in his thirties, but he would not go away in her mind. She always had a story about him regarding the purchase of ice cream, or how he once buried a dog the wrong way, or that he was fucking that divorced woman in Eufaula back when I was still diapered, and how her hands were too unsteady to clean me when she found out. The curse words sounded like gravel coughed from her throat, but they almost brought her back to life. These were the memories she purchased for her old age. She was of an age when the scars didn’t care much about the damage that caused them.

“The house has gone to ruin,” I said.

“It has always been a difficult house,” she said. “The hardware store never kept the same colors of paint, and your daddy would not change his mind about it. He liked a particular shade of white. Funny, isn’t it, that white can be sold in so many shades? Some day, it will probably be invisible, and sold in a can just as plain as they want. They’ll sell you an armful of air, likely.”

“Mama, you need to get on,” I said. “ You don’t need to be locked to this place. Everyone is gone.”

“That’s not so. You’re still here. Not all the time, but you visit.”

“Because I have to remind you it’s time to move on. This place is an anchor.”

“You think your daddy liked that woman?”

“Mama, I was a child, I can’t remember him much. It’s been so many years. So many.”

“You gonna bring me my bucket? I can’t remember where I put it.”

“Mama, the elderberry bushes are all gone. They’ve been gone as long as me, you just don’t remember.”

She kicked at the dust underneath her. “This place has become so lonely,” she said. “Nobody visits no more, and you scarcely remember me. But where else is there? I don’t know any other place. Where do you go when you’re not here?”

“I don’t know,” I said, as honest as I could. “For a time, I’m here, waiting on the last angel to take me somewhere, and for a time, I am nowhere. I suppose I still don’t know how to lay still in death, and I still don’t know how to move through it.”

“I am sorry I brought you here,” she said, and I saw a shape fall before me.

My knees were crimped in a puddle of Oklahoma dirt, feet swole in my least pair of shoes.

“I am done being exhausted by you,” I cried out. “I have lived my years as well as I knew,” and it was the very first time for everything I knew.

An orange beach bucket on her 12th story balcony

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i. Alleluya
She sang
Alleluya for my mother
Alleluya for her husband
Alleluya for my father
Alleluya for his wife

ii. Songs for an audience of one
She sits as close to the sun as she can pull herself
in her Vaillancourt patio chair
an orange beach bucket beside her feet
Allah opp, motherfuckers, she yells
and then she laughs
and then she sings
in a sterling voice:

I am a girl disguised as kindness
between the camera and the water
my heart beats greedy raindrop beats
you see me but cannot see me,
it ain’t that easy.
You never could, mama
You never could, papa
You gone now, to each other
All gone now, I suspect,
but you can’t see me at all just yet
you can’t see me at all just yet.

She sees me in my fold-up lawn chair
fourteen-ninety-five on sale from Sears
three summers ago
with a can of Fresca in my good hand
untethered headphones in the other,
my naked legs a cry for help
and she waves at me, and smiles anyway,
drops her hand into the orange beach bucket beside her feet

Allah opp, motherfucker, she yells
and then laughs
One more for my audience of one
and in a sterling voice, she sings:

I am the mother of the children
who never knew me
who dream of unfading skin, glowing
unpaved roads that lead me
here to where they will never see me,
we all bleed the same without knowing it

and she drops her hand into the orange beach bucket beside her feet
and she is silent for a while
alone on her 12th story balcony
and I wave to her, tentatively
from the 12th story balcony
from a separate building
but she does not wave back
and it all feels hollow
except for her.

iii. Nightjar
We see each other from our distant places
above the spaces of plague and dissidence
almost every day or every other day she is there
just there
whenever she chooses and she sits
in her expensive coiled chair

and I lean back into my sagging lawn chair
and she sings and she chants and sometimes there is no rhyme
but there is a steady beat in her voice, strong enough
to open other tenants’ windows.
I am her only real audience, I think.

I cannot clearly see her face
I can feel the smile she sends me sad and disquiet
and I listen, never speak, because that is how she prefers it.

She wears a colorful modest skirt and blouse each time
and now I wear my best slacks, freshly pressed and laundered
every night
for her,
and a button-up shirt
and I brush my hair
and wear proper shoes and I sit and wait for her to show
and sometimes she comes out
and sometimes she does not
she is like a rare nightjar
and sometimes we both sit in our respective chairs
and say nothing
and sometimes she leaves without singing
and I sit a while longer
until the cold air brings me back inside.

Photo by Todd Trapani from Pexels

A slow catena of ghosts

Oh, Maria, this road:
It has taken me to places
I never want to see again,
shown me a hundred fevered fields
bearing fruit through rough clay skin.
It is an untidy tapestry of blunted hearts
bound by the same heavy weave,
a slow catena of ghosts
singing what they can remember
in the words of their fathers
with the voices of their mothers
for the sake of their own unblessed flesh.

And here
the women write their children’s obituaries
with leaking ballpoint pens
across the back of old soup labels
and flattened cigarette packs.
They cry fierce tears
to keep their hearts clean,
and the weight of their courage
is immeasurable.

There is love here, you know,
that would break me and you,
and a faith that would exhaust us both.
But I am already broken and exhausted,
and, oh, Maria,
I just arrived here.

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