Brewers Mills 1974

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This is the place where the story becomes unbearable if left untold, he said. This is where the tale-teller sacrifices everything that bears the weight of all that noise.

I listened to him rant, again. It was always about the providence of the tale-teller, never about the other participant, the sacrificial listener. He could have preserved this blather in plastic and strung it from the rear-view mirror, or his neck. That was his rosary, his familiar.

Do you trust me, he asked, and he drove the Volvo into the big elm at the corner of Chatham and Colborne Streets, June 17, 1974. Neither of us survived.

He was right, though. You never know what the face of any given story will be until it can complete itself.

She wakes to the sound of a street sweeper every Monday morning, every other Thursday.  A small town delight, he calls it, but that insistent deep hum, that whir of machinery, has become an irritant. She sets the radio alarm to wake her before its scheduled arrival, but that hum always buries the squalid tin noise.

 Your anger with it, he says, makes it louder, you know. Go to the door, stand outside, wave at the man. You’ll come to enjoy it. It’ll become just another sound in your routine.

Routine. Like the one where he leaves every morning, 6:38. He’s never heard the sweeper, the angry, hypnotic thump it makes as it bumps against the curb. He’s never heard Sugar Sugar squawk on the radio, or Hey Jude flattened by machinery. Routine. How bourgeoisie. Let them eat Twinkies, indeed.

We were not yet dry though

the gin bottle was, an age ago 

when 

we were an age 

that never impressed us much.

Where was the boy who wrote that, she thinks. Whatever happened to him?

The street sweeper shakes her from another deep sleep.

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Madeleine is the name she has taken this time

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She does not begin her song at its beginning anymore. 

We are still in love / with our presumed pedigree / of certain ghosts….

She sifts through each proceeding verse, the grain of her voice ascends. She sings of the construct of his skin, the obtrusiveness of bone, the scratch of thorns that precedes the blood. 

She is still considered a young woman, has changed little since I was small enough for her to cradle. Her eyes, perhaps, stare more deeply. Her hands tremble noticeably when she brushes the sand from my arms. The other women in the village seem older, but they are not. They stare, they shade their eyes with small flat hands, their lips tighten with frowns. 

I cannot contain him in my grief / in a temple of duplicitous priests…. 

“Are you her boy?” a woman asked of me. “The singer? The whore? She thinks you are his only favor. You are her bastard, did you know? Go, hide yourself and your shame.”

“I am not him,” I said, and the woman walked away. 

It is like this in every village. I never tell her what they say to me.

We do not stay in any one place for long. There are so many towns and villages along our path that we are not always noticed right away. There is something in her face, I think, that draws their attention. Although she cloaks herself in a widow’s robe, we are always revealed, and it is always with scorn.

The singer. The whore. 

I am unashamed, I tell her.

 I am not him, I said to the woman.

I fall into my mother’s voice when she sings. We do not need to go back to the beginning. In her song, we are both free and we are both our true selves. Of certain ghosts, she used to sing, and I still believe that is who we are.

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sub.stance

I remember when dust was more beautiful than substance, something uncatchable, something whisked into cat corners. This was home. This was being a child. 

There is a box of in-season lettuce on the sidewalk beside the glass doors of Karl’s Barber Shop. Ladybugs — many — are sitting on the cardboard folds. Do they sit or stand? I’ve always wondered. The box is set crooked against the chipped brick wall, and it has been filled many times before: for lettuce, now, perhaps for apples, once, or old dishes, frail, muffled by newspapers and crimped grandmother-pillows. 

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This, being a child:

My father stands at the door, and he exhales hues of cigarette smoke, blue and gray and an ivory plume in the shape of a Saturday morning. The smoke smells important and impatient, the scent of everything I know of him: his roughness, his capriciousness. He is still a young man, and he has created everything.

It is numbness more than ecstasy that will lift you, I would tell my five-year-old self.

“Morning, Johnny. Brought your boy with you today, huh?”

“He’s getting a little long behind the ears. Say hi, bubs.”

I say, “Hi.”

“Well, hey, little man. You turning into a hippy? That hair is looking wild.”

“No, sir. Daddy say I jus’ need a trim.”

“Just a trim, yessir. Hop on over here, son, let’s see what I can see. Look at you, grown two inches since last time. What you feeding him, John? Magic beans?”

“Spinach!” I shout.

“That right? Never could stand the stuff, but it must work for you. Same as usual, John?”

“Yeah,” says my father, who is already seated. “No. Cut it a little shorter. There’s talk of layoffs at the plant this fall. Might not see another haircut ‘til Christmastime. Go ahead and bean him.”

“Damn, Johnny. Hope things turn out okay.”

“Probably not. Goddamn Nixon. Just do the boy today, Karl. I’m driving cab tonight, and I don’t care how I look.”

“That so?”

“Part-time, cigarette and gas money, mostly.” He picks up a copy of Field and Stream. There is a picture of a trout on the cover. He showed it to me last time we were here. “This is a trout,” he said. “About half as long as you are, Joseph. Those colors above his belly tell me he is of the rainbow variety.”

“Really, Daddy?”

“You calling me a liar, son?”

“No, sir. Never saw a fish that big before, that’s all.”

“They get bigger,” he says, and shrugs. That was my father’s primary form of communication: the sharp grunt of the shrug, the shut-up-if-you-think-you-have-more-to-say shorthand that is so easily misunderstood. It can be difficult to translate when you’re five years old. When you’re fifty-five, even.

“Wasn’t expecting you ‘til next Saturday,” says Mister Karl. “Wasn’t this your old lady’s turn to look after him?”

“Bitch changed her plans,” Daddy says. “She knew I had things to do this weekend. Goddamn car payment, goddamn kid payment. She won’t be happy ‘til she sees me go bust.”

“Uh, John?”

“Now I’m stuck with you-know-who all weekend. Might be able to land a babysitter, I dunno, I doubt it. It’s already too late to call my usual sitter.”

“Johnny? Big ears here, son.”

Daddy looks over and sees Karl pointing at me. I can see him in the big mirror. I pretend not to notice, but my face feels red.

“Aw, hell,” Daddy finally says. “Joseph gets to ride in the front of the cab with me tonight, ain’t that right, bubs?”

I try to be cheerful. “Yes, sir. And we’re gonna have hotdogs for supper, Mister Karl. And watermelon!”

“And watermelon? Holy smoke, kid, you got a good Saturday planned, dontcha? Wish I were going with you, instead of cutting hair all day. And you get to spend time with your old man. You’re one lucky kid, you know that?”

“Yes, sir. And Mister Karl?”

“Yeah, Joe?”

“Why is there a box of lettuce out in front of your shop? You know there’s a bunch of ladybugs all over the box? Won’t they eat the lettuce?”

Mister Karl smiles. “Yeah, kid, I hope so.” And then to my father: “You know old Pierce over at the hardware store? His wife put up a garden again this summer — the whole backyard this time — and he can’t give stuff away fast enough. Some mornings, it’ll be green beans, next day it’s onions. Today, it’s lettuce. A whole box of it, as you can see. What do I want with that much lettuce? A few pounds of potatoes, sure, but lettuce? Do I look like a rabbit? If you want a head or five, grab some on your way home. Otherwise, let the bugs have it. At least it don’t stink, like those turnips did. Hey, you remember that, Johnny? A goddamn milk crate full of ‘em. I told Pierce, son, next time bring me some of your old lady’s brisket, not her turnips. Does he ever get tired of ignoring me? Not yet, he don’t.”

I listen to the cadence of Mister Karl’s voice, but not to most of his words. I  think he is a nice man, but he seems to be honestly confused by someone who has done a nice thing for him. Free vegetables? Free lettuce? Daddy calls lettuce a ruination of a good sandwich. I guess so. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem important enough to worry about it, or become angry over. Let the bugs have it, I guess. 

Mister Karl trims me very short. There is a big pile of hair beside the barber chair. I didn’t know there was so much of me to take. Daddy did not look at me the whole time, or at anything else, not even the old magazines. He nodded during Mister Karl’s speech about vegetables, but I don’t think he was even listening. Mister Karl dusts off my neck and shoulders with his little barber brush, and then helps me down. Daddy does not notice my haircut is finished.

“See you next week, Johnny? You’re getting a little long behind the ears, too, fella.”

“Yeah, maybe. We’ll see. Take it easy, Karl. Hell of a night tonight, I guess. Wish me luck.”

Mr. Karl hands me a penny for the gumball machine. “Good luck, son,” he says, and then he winks. This time, I get an orange gumball, one of the big ones.

Daddy takes one last look at the box of wilting lettuce outside and nudges it with the toe of his boot so that it’s flush to the wall. He lights up a cigarette and walks on ahead of me. I try to keep up, but fall further and further behind. 

This is being a child. This was being dust. This is being dust.

 

Detected in a moment of profound silence

It might as well be written in paraffin, she said,
the way this will all burn between us

Uncle Nathan would not regret choosing the white athletic socks
as an accoutrement to his burial suit,
nor his choice of “Love in Vain”
at his memorial service

and there he is, with a lavish depiction of goldfish
scales on his bow tie,
Yves Saint Laurent tidal-gray shirt and a fleur-de-lis
stitched
on the breast pocket of his forty-year-old wedding jacket

the nieces will be outraged and
the nephews, not so much
did he have any money
who was he, anyway?

might as well be buried
between two Valencia orange crates
as between these two half-grieving ex-wives
who study the pink in each other’s blouse:

Dee, the round, idiosyncratic blonde, fifteen years
younger than he / a subscriber to three
plant-based leggings franchises

and

Dorian, the angular other blonde, twenty-seven, smarter
than everyone else in the room, who still cannot measure
the time it took for him to dissolve their
prenup

he kept folded photocopies of his parents’
obituaries in his wallet and they have turned brown
and unimportantly crisp — like well-preserved October
leaves, or Ore-Ida tater tots

and

he kept his necessary papers — driver’s license,
blood donor card, theater
tickets — in his left shoe / told his grandchildren
he was wounded in some war / hence the perpetual
limp

and now

a flourish of ghosts gather
at the dais

today we say goodbye to
a fine man…

Aunt Marlene, a flask of high-octane bourbon
in the confounding folds of her dress / takes
a petite swallow / she’ll be damned
if she shares it with the impotent man pretending
to be her husband two seats down
from that shaggy empirical redhead
he tries to impress with the cut of his
motorcycle boots

in the sixty-seventh and final mortal year of our dear
Uncle Nathan

and then

there is that sacred moment between

‘can you give me’

and the conspicuous dirty silence,
when all the introspective heartbeats and
the slightly humid exclamations
stop

and

the sweat dangles from the lip
the tear struggles to define itself and fall
in a meaningful display of public mourning

and

the voice becomes
a bellicose yowl of unashamed grief

and

eternity is, all at once, undressed / then clothed
between the dry heaves of bored deprivation /pity,

and then

the sky pulls back its pretty laced veil
to reveal its demanding blistered face

‘an amen for brother Nathan?’

and amen

and

the nieces / nephews
stare at each other on their cellphones confused
and then make their plans
for when this
boring shit is over

Caius

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we sleep above the roots
our legs knotted
our hands folded
beneath us
listening for the weeds to rinse
from our ears all
the twitches of the road

we have seen all there is,
you say,
and we will eat
what first must be blessed —
old hamburger meat
and flour tortillas from torn plastic bags
behind Trader Joe’s,
a feast for boys who first learned how to crawl
on a dirt kitchen floor

these things we must see
these things we must know:
these fallow graveyards the shape of oceans
these gravel pits filled with factory-defective coffins
with cracked lids and split silk liners —
deep discounts
for the dead on a budget

i see you run towards me in your sock feet your
leathered arms pumping
as if you were still a
child
as if I had the strength
to catch you in my arms

do you remember the
summery brine of sweat and rain
that dribbled down our faces
when we were boys
and did not think to be men
until much later

she has her chores, you said,
and I am one of them

brother Caius
you have become my chore now,
and I have become yours

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Ruby, my dear

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(Inspired by Ruby, My Dear by Thelonious Monk)

She has forgotten the beats
of her lightness
the circadian rhythm of rest
of motion
of rest

each passing morning presses into her belly
and each passing day cinches around her hips
and each passing night brails across her breasts
and each passing year reaches a suffocating end

the years, Ruby, my dear, the years,
you’ll know that cry
when it finds the lowest
part of your heart,
sets its roots there
and
that cry is a lot like a cigarette ember
that sparks through your bra and bites
into your skin
or maybe it’s like that Alabama belt buckle
that cracked its weight
against your bare thigh
and dropped you to the kitchen floor

and made you notice the crumbs
you missed
in your rush for a quick smoke
outside

Ruby, my dear
you’ll recognize that cry when it holds you down
and you’ll carry it with you whenever you fall into
another broken moment,
forced to hide your grace
in a rush to be any place else but here

She forgets the name of the man
who pours her husband’s afternoon pints
in an unmarked barroom
somewhere downtown.

She can’t stand to hear the push of her name
leave his mouth

— Roooooby — he says and

she feels reduced to that sound he blows through his lips
every time he
comes around.

He is a peculiar fellow: tall,
narrow of bone, dressed in a way
that seems so elaborate
for a man who carries that kind of grin.

If we had stayed in Georgia, she thinks.
if we just left those few heartbreaks behind us
we might still be fine.

But here, in these shallow rooms
of petulant conversations
there’s just this constant rhythm
of widening fault lines
thrumming through the air
and not-so-hidden resentments
behind every rushed goodbye kiss

The avocado-colored bed sheets
she bought them for their 30th
two years ago
are already unthreading, bleach-stained,
or bourbon-stained,
depending on who you ask
and how drunk he is

the plumes of disinfectant
settle on the cupboards and
matching countertop appliances,
on the cuffs of the olive-green work shirts
he drags across the kitchen table
every morning when he drinks his morning coffee

the residue leaves a stain you hope he won’t notice
but he always notices
and he will always tell you
about him noticing, and when and why

but he won’t take a sick day
just because of a goddamn cold
so you end up counting the cough syrup spoons
and goopy yellowed tissues he tosses
on y’all’s TV trays
over the long weekend
when you were planning on sitting outside
and smelling the air,
maybe planting a small box of herbs
inside the dandelion courtyard
that he never mows

and she sits on the edge of the bed,
broken down to her essential parts,
box spring and mattress both removed,
both ruined.
The frame is not a comfortable sit,
but when the man tells you to wait,
you wait because
she has been trained to defer,
and has come to dislike that about herself.

She forgets the name of the man
who will deliver her new bed
and she does not wish to re-learn it
every time he
comes around
whistling her name in a single sour breath

— Roooooby — he says.

Ruby, my dear
Years, baby, years, all those beaten-down years
and those beats of neglected lightness are done.
Do you know it’s okay for you to leave now
Do you know you don’t have to rush now?

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Appomattox

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Sarah, the sky that overlooks you and me, it opened up again today. The light that fills up the dogwoods is the same that curdles the cemetery gardenias. This has become summer once more, so you probably remember how things are colored, and then erased, without me telling you.

We have taken to planting crops again after last year’s calamitous conditions. Mostly it is cabbages, but also some acres of hay for the last two horses. You should see their shaggy stances, the hollowness of lean shoulders, the awful grief in their countenance. They will be confiscated by the army soon, Pa says, if we can keep them out of rifle range.

Lord, a soul can grow tired of salt pork and dooryard plantain, and sometimes you need to take a meal with neighbors (the Sowers, do you remember them and their dour Baptist leaflets?) to affirm you’re not being poor alone. The men will likely share homespun tobacco, the women will exchange recipes, the boys (and Alice) will tear up the yard grass with their raw feet, because that is the nature of this life.

We are each blessed in our own way, according to Pastor Paul, who joined up the fight last summer. Have you seen him? He promised he would write, but so far he has not, not yet. 

“Maybe he was killed,” said Cousin Ivy.

Do you remember sassy Cousin Ivy, from the Elridge side of the family?

 “Maybe they ain’t found his body yet, so he ain’t on any list of the dead,” she said. 

“Maybe you don’t know nothin’,” I told her. 

“Maybe he’s too busy fighting to be writing. He got any kin around here?” 

“No, don’t think so. I think he’s from Miss’ippi someplace. Seems like he was a solitary sort of preacher.”

“Maybe he found himself a woman, and she’s more interesting than writing back a letter.”

“Maybe you don’t know nothin’,” I said again.

“You ain’t very romantic, are you?”

“I never said either way,” I said. “And what if I ain’t, what’s it to you?”

“Then you are a bother to me,” she said. “Hand me another nightcrawler, these muds ain’t biting today.”

“That’s because you tore up the top of the river with your poor casting,” I said. “You, being a girl, don’t know how to properly fish for muds.”

“And you, being a boy, don’t know how to properly shut your big ole mouth,” she said, and she thumped me hard upon my ear.

I pretended it didn’t hurt, and that raised a smile from her, so we settled back companionably, and we cast out and didn’t say much for a little while. 

“Your pa mention the war to you?” she asked. 

“Little bit,” I said. “Not much. He wanted to join up, but his leg….” 

“You almost sixteen, ain’t you?” 

“Yeah. Couple more weeks.” 

“Gonna join up?” 

“Yeah. If they’ll take me.” 

“You don’t look too weak,” she said. 

“Stronger than you.” 

“Probably not. But they ain’t taking girls. Not yet.” 

“Maybe not ever,” I said. “That just don’t sit right with me.” 

“And why not?” she asked.

“I’m not trying to be smart, Ivy,” I told her. “I just think it’s… it’s too mean a thing for a girl, that’s all. War is just plain mean.”

“I can be mean,” she said.

“No, you can’t be. Not that mean. I’d rather go instead of you.” 

She looked at me, curious to my serious. “You ain’t mean enough, either, Cousin Jim.” 

Something grabbed hold of her line, and she tugged hard enough to hook it. She was laughing the whole time, and I didn’t want to think about the war anymore. It was a big ole mud– at least six pounds, I’d say — and it would feed her folks well. Then I hooked one, and, after a while, she pulled in another two. I could smell the sweat on her neck, and I swear it was perfume, the smell of gardenias.

And now the hounds watch me and Pa settle in for the night. I slouch next to him as he smokes, and he watches me scrape the fishbones from his supper plate into the weeds. The dogs whine. They have already fed. 

“You been spending time with your Cousin Ivy?” he asks. He is hitching up his trousers and he tucks in his undershirt after they are hitched. 

“Been with her today by the river,” I tell him. “She caught three and I brung in two.” 

“You know what I mean, Jim.”

“Daddy, she is my cousin.” I ain’t called him Daddy in three or five years. “She is also a dependable friend.” 

“She is your cousin twice removed, a cousin to a side-cousin. You are allowed to be with her, if she is your preference.” 

Charlotte-Bee, our eldest hound, howled at something near the barn, but that dog is half-blind, so we often ignore her.

“Weren’t planning,” I says. “To be with her, I mean.”

“That side of the family is slow,” he says. “They ain’t deep thinkers, is my best way of saying it. The girl herself may not be slow, but she has inherited their dispositions. Probably she will turn mean. Her daddy has that meanness, you know that. And you ain’t exactly a boxful of cleverness yourself, boy. She would have you eating out of a flower pot and drinking out of your shoe if you was so inebriated by her femininity. You understand?” 

“Daddy, she’s my cousin,” I say again, for emphasis. “And she don’t look at me that way.” 

“But you look at her that way, yessir, and if your Mama was still here, she’d already be ironing the wedding napkins and sprucin’ up her hair for such an event.” 

“Ain’t no such event to participate in,” I say, and he spat into the weeds, hitched up his drooping britches, and no more was said about that.

Sarah, the rain fell again today, exhausted, and its silver collected in our big pond.

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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.