Alma’s House

I keep seeing this muddy, sometimes sun-baked road
from Alma’s crooked porch on the Negro side
of Beaumont, Texas circa 1955.
It’s where I stayed when my parents were away,
a world of tumble down shacks and angry
young men that Alma kept at bay
whenever I was out there. Except for Nick,
Alma’s husband who sometimes mowed our lawn,
I knew only the women, who took me to church
in their big white dresses and enormous hats
and sang hymns as if they meant them.
Nick called me Honey and stroked my hair.
He was the color of dried tobacco leaves
and seemed older and more tired
than any man I’d ever known, but also kinder.
Maybe he’d once been a great hell-raiser,
a razor in his pocket and a bottle in a bag
like men I later met on trains, trading swigs
and stories and a sense of death
hurtling at us out of the night sky.
But there was no Devil in Nick in my day,
only a kind of fatherly Job.
They fed me mustard greens and collard greens
and okra, dark aromas that made their house
exotic with its tilting floors and peeling linoleum,
and let me sleep in their bed and play
with Alma’s nearly blind little black retriever
and Nick’s skinny flea-bitten hound, chained
to his house out back. They taught me
to stay out of the way of the gargantuan geese,
the real watch dogs, and to feed the chickens,
and visit Ida, the coffee-colored hairdresser
next door, who’d do all the neighborhood
ladies in her big, hardwood living room
while everybody laughed and Alma smoked
cigarettes, which I’d never seen before.
But I never went down that rutted dirt road
beyond Alma’s house that seemed to go nowhere
but into weeds and more collapsing shacks
and maybe some swampland nobody wanted.
When she died I was a freshman in college
and Nick wrote asking for money.
I sent him $10, half my week’s allowance.
Sorry, I wrote. Sorry.