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Archive for September, 2009

Stink What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word Detroit?  Like many Americans, the first thing I think of lately is the troubled auto industry.  I think of high unemployment numbers.  Then I think of the history of Detroit, Michigan.  As someone who used to live close enough to be a day tripping tourist, I also remember friends from Detroit who gave ominous warnings about which neighborhoods outsiders like me should avoid.

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Now Mark Durfee takes me down those inner city streets with his new book, Stink: Poetry and Prose of Detroit.  He shows me his world in the way that only a native can.  It is a powerful book that portrays the humanity behind the headlines—the unemployed, the never employed, the forgotten kids, the senseless murders.  Stink is the fallout and frustration of the decline of what was once one of our greatest American cities.

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Stink is not supposed to be enjoyable reading.  Don’t look for vignettes about swans or pretty yellow butterflies in this one.  Stink intends to educate the adult reader.  And it does.

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One of the things about Mark Durfee’s writing that strikes me is his honesty.  The poems and prose in Stink do not dance around the edges of issues.  They slosh through the middle of the big, oily puddle.  Subjects like racism, drugs, and murder are portrayed with unblinking eyes.

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But Stink is not “Hollywood” blood and guts splashed across walls.  It is real.  I find it to be much more powerful, because the descriptions are not overdone.  It is told in a matter-of-fact voice, which for me, makes the impact even stronger.

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The beginning section of the book deals with the “attitude” of the city.  The first piece, 911 Is For Emergencies Only, begins in full force.  With a nonchalant voice, the narrator describes a dead body he found while walking his dog.  After seeing the body had been dead for a while, the narrator “finished walking the dog because she hadn’t shit yet.”  In this world, a dead body is not an emergency anymore.

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Another piece in this section of the book haunts me.  Better To Have Your Shit With You Than Have To Go Home And Get It begins on a warm summer day.  The narrator is relaxing on his porch and can see inside his neighbor’s house.  Once again, a young boy is being beaten by his father.  The narrator describes the scene:

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“It became near impossible when, as has happened many times before, I saw

the back of the ten year old hit the storm door of the house across from me.  I

could see the new dent and just the hand and lower arm of his old man

reaching to drag him back into the darkness of the house.  I knew the old

man, unemployed for about six months, was full of cheap whiskey and piss.”

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The narrator can’t stand watching the scene anymore, so he walks into the neighbor’s house with a gun and opens fire.  He “looks at the kid, saw he’d most likely live.”  Then he leaves with the feeling that at least he got to “see one end right.”  Perhaps the act is literal.  Perhaps it is only in the narrator’s head.  Regardless, it is chilling.

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I had nightmares about this scene, but it made me think deeply.  Yes, I have felt that same anger when I see children who have been abused.  No, I’m not condoning murder.  The narrator’s act was pure evil and wrong.  But who among us hasn’t raged at the perpetrators of abuse and a system that does nothing to help the victims?

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I also think about about our responsibility as human beings.  The narrator didn’t want to watch the beating or hear the boys’ cries anymore.  It was ruining his pleasant afternoon.  He had seen the system fail the boy many times before.  If we turn our heads away from the beating, aren’t we just as guilty as the man who beats the child?  Maybe not literally.  But we are guilty nonetheless.

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In It Doesn’t Always Take A Blood Trail, the “first rooster crowing” is the sound of gunshots at 3:54 in the morning.  The narrator waits for the sound of police sirens.  The police never come.  The narrator concludes:

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“The body will be wherever it fell,

it’s not in any hurry anymore to get

a little drug money

it will never be able to spend.

It doesn’t matter anymore

if the dead meat’s not found early,

the mystery of where life ended

will be solved soon enough

by following the smell.”

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Stink also tackles racism head on.  The poem, 2905 Garland: Ossian Sweet Bought More Than A House, tells the true story of a black doctor who moved his family to a white Detroit neighborhood in 1925.  A white mob, angry that a black family was living in “their” neighborhood, gathered at the Sweet house.  In an attempt to protect his home and family from mob violence, Ossian Sweet and some of his friends armed themselves.  In the mob violence that follows, a white man is shot and dies.  Two of the most striking stanzas in the poem read like a call and response:

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“Police man true,

police man blue,

where in hell are you?”

The mob heard Ossian cry.

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Right here, Dr. Ossian Sweet,

protecting the other houses on

Garland Street.”

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The Sweets and their friends were tried for murder.  Sweet was acquitted, but the horror of the event was far from over.

There is much more to the story, and it is one that everyone should know.   If you’ve never heard of Ossian Sweet, please look it up.  Slavery eventually turned into the Jim Crow South.  Unjust laws were eventually changed.  Attitudes are much harder to change.  And the attitudes are not confined to only one region or country.

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Racial tension remains in modern day Detroit, as it does in many places.  In I Never Knew I Was White, the narrator speaks of walking the streets of Harlem or Watts without incident.  But in his own neighborhood in Detroit, he is told that a white man doesn’t belong.  He questions the fact that racism is often portrayed as a white only problem:

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“What of the white who lives with a majority minority?

Is he judged on the color of his skin,

rather than the soul within?”

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A young black man in the same neighborhood might tell a different story.  But if we’re honest, many people have heard that question before.  The narrator makes a good point.  People of all colors are often judged by skin color or history, instead of as individuals.

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The questions posed by the poet are respectful.  In my opinion, the honesty of Stink is civil discourse through which change can occur.  If we try to “pretty up” or hide problems, the problems will not go away.

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In the middle of all the questions, the reader will find much lyrical writing in Stink.  The language is often beautiful, even though the subject is tough.  One example can be found in the poem, Brother:

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The chariot of flame

burned the castle stones,

leaving all within

naked,

unprotected

with only the illusion of walls left to save us.

Walls that could never have kept

the flame vultures of want out anyway.

There never was enough water

to quench a flame of desire,

nor stop a wing made of fly ash.”

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There is hope in Stink, though it sparkles in bits of broken glass.  In the final section of the book, the poem, I Hope I live Long Enough, speaks of the desire to see that better day:

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“I was told by a young black woman a week ago

it will not be my generation to bridge the chasm

our grandfathers had dug but hers would do the job;

and make it right, make this living together flow

man I hope I get to live long enough

to throw at least a little fill into that hole.”

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Stink is a book that needs to be read several times, not because it’s hard to understand, but because the subject matter should be absorbed.  It should be discussed.  Everyone should care, because these are our fellow human beings.  One sentence that kept going through my mind as I read was It doesn’t have to be like this.  I think that is one of the author’s intentions.

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Yes, I recommend this book to all adult readers, even to people who want to put their heads in the sand and not hear the truth.  Maybe those are the people who really need Stink the most.

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You can order Stink by emailing Mark Durfee at detstink@gmail.com.  The price including the postage to anywhere is $9 (US).  No checks please, but money orders are OK.  Mark handles all the book shipping himself and does not do pay pal to keep the cost reasonable in the times we all live in.

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You can find more of Mark Durfee’s poetry and prose at his site, The Walking Man.  And be sure to check out Motor City Burning Press.   It is obvious that Mark Durfee deeply loves his city and its people.  Now when I think of Detroit, I also think of him.

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Fire on the Mountain

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Photo by Amber Yoder

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Please take a moment to check out Art Coelho’s amazing art work at his site

by clicking HERE. The art work is breathtaking.  Art Coelho is multi-

talented.  He is also a master poet and writer of fiction.  You can also read his

bio and see some of his books from Seven Buffaloes Press by clicking the link

above.

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Without The Wild Side of Creation,

The Fire Goes Flat

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For Art Coelho

Mentor, Friend

The Title, His Words

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You taught me how

to poke it, stoke it,

pour whiskey on it,

keep it roaring hot.

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It ain’t pretty, slick

or academic; it learns

lessons from crickets

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coyotes howling

by bedrolls, hoboes,

coal trains in the night.

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Pork and beans

around a ring

sticks ticking

hissing bark–

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nails shooting

popping hot blue

stories after dark.

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A good student,

I will never let

the wild eyed girl

burn out.

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I won’t let the bastards

take the flame;  I won’t

let them piss it down

to embers.

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Pistols in my lines,

thunder in my stomach,

thick brown gravy

on an old tin plate.

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Sparks flying

from my lips,

I tip my hat

to the master,

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then pass the flask

to the next

one in line.

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We’ll go down

flinging fire

through the grate.

Julie Buffaloe-Yoder

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This poem was originally posted at Rusty Truck.   Hop over and take a look

at all the fine poetry over there.  Thanks for reading!

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One of these days, I won’t feel the need to add disclaimers.  For now, I’m trying to stay out of trouble.  This is not my mother or father.  It is fiction.  But “Cully Jean” is a very real woman.  I love her dearly.

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Red and White

Julie Buffaloe-Yoder

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My sister is graduating today.  I sit on a sweaty, metal folding chair at

the community center and wait to hear them call her name.  Cully Jean sits

on a folding chair across the room beside ten other GED graduates.  Nobody

wears a cap and gown.  The air conditioner’s not working well, and the small

room smells strongly of felt tipped pens and hot bodies that are too close

together.  Babies cry and little kids squirm on the floor.  An administrator in

a cheap green suit stands up and looks at his watch.  He wipes his forehead

with a handkerchief and reads a speech called It’s A Brand New Day.

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Cully rolls her eyes and looks like she really wants a cigarette.  She is

dark and beautiful like her Cherokee mama.  Cully is thirty four, but she

already has stripes of white in her long black hair and dark half moons

under her eyes.  Her breasts are large.  She has one good arm and one

stubby arm.  Her stubby arm ends where her elbow should be and has three

small, working fingers on it.

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My legs are sticking to the metal chair, and I wish I had worn pants

instead of a skirt.  Cully is wearing black jeans and the cute new top we

picked out at Wal-Mart today.  It is dark red with short puffy sleeves and is

covered with tiny white dots.  Cully points to her top and mouths the word

RED.  Then she flips me off with her good hand and grins.

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The women at social services nicknamed us Red and White.  We were

born on the same day, but we’re not twins.  We have the same white father.

He was almost fifty and already had a bunch of abused and abandoned kids

by the time he got our mothers pregnant.

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My mother was white.  She turned fourteen on the day I was born.

Cully’s mother was full-blooded Cherokee and a little older, maybe sixteen

or seventeen.  Our father wanted to look noble for once in his life, so he

allowed both of his pregnant girlfriends to move in with him.  He lived in a

dumpy little house on the outskirts of town.  That’s where Cully and I were

born.

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Social Services took us away when we were eight.  I was small for my

age.  Once my blond, curly hair was deloused and combed, I became a hot

commodity.  I was placed with an older couple who live in a large Victorian

house on the good side of town.  Eventually, they adopted me.  Cully got

bounced around to different foster homes on the bad side of town.

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When we were kids, our town was relatively small, and Cully could ride

her bike to my house.  She showed up once or twice a week after midnight

and threw rocks at my window until I climbed down the trellis from my

second story room.  The last time I snuck out with Cully Jean, we were

eleven.  I didn’t really want to go anywhere.  I was in a comfortable bed.  I

liked my life and didn’t want to mess it up.  But she kept throwing rocks, and

I was afraid she’d break the window.  So, down I went.

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Once my feet hit the ground, I turned around and saw Cully leaning

against a maple tree, smoking a cigarette. The rows of lights that framed the

lawn cast weird shadows on Cully’s face, and it made her look like she

had no eyes. What the frig took you so long? she asked.  Little puffs of

smoke came out with her words.

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We rode our bikes down Oak Street with its respectable rows of ivy

covered houses.  We passed the Episcopal church and the new Elmwood

Elementary building where I went to school.  After a while, we came to a

twin set of railroad tracks.  We rode over the tracks and through the housing

projects and trailer courts.  We passed the shabby little Ridgerock

Elementary school, where Cully may or may not be the next morning.  We

passed the non-denominational church with Good News! spray painted in

neon yellow across its gray, windowless building.

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We finally came to an abandoned gas station that was next to a row of

empty buildings.  This was Cully’s favorite spot to hang, especially when her

foster father was in town.  The street lights were still intact.  We saw bullets

and needles on the ground.  Sometimes, there were stray cats who would

let us pet them.  When we got tired of sitting out front, we could slip inside

the gas station through a broken door in the back.  There was an old, dust

covered cash register still on the counter.  One time, we found a box full

of comic books.

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Instead of going inside the gas station, we decided to sit down on a

rickety bench in front of the building.  Cully pulled a joint out of her pocket

and lit it.  We took little puffs and coughed until we gagged.  The weed made

our heads feel big and put us in a silly mood.  Broken glass sparkled on the

asphalt.  We started doing hand clap games and laughing at how hard it was

to keep a rhythm, because we were stoned.

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All of a sudden, a car pulled up.  I didn’t hear it coming.  I was laughing

too hard.  Cully’s eyes got real big, and I laughed some more.  Oh, shit, she

said.  The car was a banged up piece of junk, and it squeaked and rattled to a

stop.  A big man with a pot belly got out of the car.  You little bitch! he

screamed.  The state don’t pay us enough to put up with your crap!

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Cully jumped up and started to run, but the man caught her by the hair

and flung her on the ground.  He pulled off his belt and swung it high in the

air behind his head.  Cully sat up and tried to get away.  The belt came down

across her face with a snap.  Cully screamed and fell back on the ground,

holding her face with her good hand.  I jumped up and ran behind a pile of

wooden pallets while the man continued to beat Cully Jean.

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I peeped around the pallets.  I was so afraid the man would kill her.  He

grabbed Cully by the hair and dragged her behind the gas station.  I could

hear the sickening sound of his belt on Cully Jean’s skin.  She screamed a

few more times.  Then I heard nothing, except for the sound of my own

loud heart.

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I waited for what seemed like forever.  When I couldn’t stand waiting

any longer, I snuck to the side of the building and looked around back.  The

man was sitting down on something.  Cully Jean was on her knees in front of

the man.  He was holding Cully’s head between his legs.  Her shirt was off.

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I was too terrified to run.  I walked backward until I couldn’t see the

man or Cully anymore.  I found a huge cardboard box on the side of the

building.  I hid under the box.  My pulse was beating loudly in my ears.

Something skittered by my arm, and I clapped my hand over my mouth so

I wouldn’t scream.

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Eventually, I heard his heavy footsteps go past.  The car door creaked

open.  Then the car gurgled to a start and sped away.  A few minutes later, I

crept out, and Cully’s bike was still there.  I found her behind the gas station

on her hands and knees.  She was crying and throwing up.  Cully struggled to

her feet, still crying, and I helped her put on her shirt.  Cully’s cheek was

bleeding.  One of her eyes was closed shut.  I didn’t know what to do, so I

reached out and tried to brush her hair away from her eyes.  Cully Jean

spat in my face.  Get away from me, bitch.  I hate you, she hissed.  Then she

got on her bike and slowly rode away.

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I didn’t see Cully Jean for a long time after that.  The next time we met,

we were thirteen.  I was standing in front of the 7-11 store, and Cully came

whizzing up on a brand new skateboard and slammed into me.  She told me

her mother had bought it for her.  It still had the price tag on it.  I doubted

what she said, but I tried to act impressed for her sake.

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Then high school came along.  People said I was a hottie.  I got invited

to dances and had a lot of friends.  Cully dropped out of her school midway

through freshman year.  She was already addicted to crack.  Once I saw her

when some friends and I went to a bar where underage kids could drink

without question.  The place was a pit, and it reeked of underarms and

hot beer.  Cully was working as a bar maid.  She wore a short skirt and fish

net stockings.  Old men slapped her on the ass and made mean remarks

about her stumpy arm.  We pretended not to know each other.

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I joined the debate team and the chess club.  I graduated with honors.

Then I went to college and started drinking for real.  Somehow, I managed

to get a degree in business.  I put on a fairy tale wedding gown and married

a good looking bastard named Jim.  He and I partied and fought our way

through our twenties.  We cashed in my trust fund and bought a

condominium in Fort Lauderdale.

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I moved back home when I was twenty nine and went into my adopted

father’s business.  Now my ex is suing me for alimony.  I make a lot of money

in real estate.  My teeth are capped and bright white, and my face is on

billboards all over town, smiling like a fool.  Cully won’t take a dime of my

money.  If I mail her a check, she mails it back to me with cram it up your

ass written in big red letters across the front of the check.

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Cully and I reconnected four years ago.  She had just finished her last

session of rehab.  Our reunion wasn’t a tearful one.  We just saw each other

at the mall and started hanging out.  Now we’re together most of the time.

If I don’t come around for a day, Cully calls and demands to know where the

hell I am.

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But we don’t have long, meaningful conversations.  We reveal ourselves

to each other cautiously and quickly, bit by bit.  I told Cully about my

nervous breakdown while we were watching a sit com on television.  When

we were waiting in line at the frozen yogurt stand, Cully told me she had

spent two years in jail.

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Now Cully lives in public housing with her three youngest kids–two

girls and a boy.  The apartment walls are thin, and we can hear people

arguing or having sex next door.  Teenagers sell crack in front of the

apartments, and Cully yells at them until they leave.

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Cully’s three kids are all under the age of five and have different fathers

they have never met.  Cully has never gotten any child support.  Two of the

fathers are dead, and she doesn’t know where the other one is.  The kids are

sweet, but they’re a handful.  They scream a lot and run around the

apartment, banging into walls.  They leap on the kitchen counters like cats

and pour cereal all over the floor.

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Five mornings a week, the kids take a little purple bus to daycare.  Then

Cully takes the city bus to Wal-Mart, where she works all day.  She goes to

school after work.  At night, they all come home and run around the

apartment like crazy.  Cully sings while she stirs spaghetti in a big, black

pot.  She taught the kids how to write their names.  She frames all of their

work and hangs it on the apartment wall.

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In just a few minutes, Cully will have a high school diploma to hang on

her wall.  The man in the green suit has finished reading his speech.  The

folding chair hurts my ass.  It feels like the air conditioner is completely

broken now.  Cully is standing up with the other graduates, and I lean

forward to take her picture.  The man in green has visible beads of sweat

running down the side of his face.  He calls out the names quickly.  Cully is

the last name on the list–Culletta Jean Whittaker.

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Cully walks the few steps with her head held up.  The man reaches out

and holds Cully’s good hand to shake it.  There is an awkward moment when

he looks at her arm and is not sure where to put her diploma.  Cully takes

the diploma with the three fingers on her stumpy arm and holds it up as

high as she can.  Somebody behind me snickers.

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I clap loudly for my dark sister.  Tonight, we will go to Chuckie Cheese

to celebrate.  She will show her kids how to spit wads of paper through their

straws.  She will talk loudly and call me a dork.  She won’t let me pay the bill.

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We will go back to her apartment, and the kids will be high on

Mountain Dew.  They will run and jump and break things until Cully

screams.  Then they will put on their footie pajamas and settle down on her

bed, sucking their thumbs.

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Cully will read a pile of books to them.  The kids will fall asleep, but

Cully won’t stop reading until she finishes the last page of Good Night

Moon.   When I wake up in the morning, I will be on the couch, covered with

Cully’s soft blanket.  She will already be up, dressed in her Wal-Mart

uniform, ready for a brand new day.

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clams

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Mr. Orrie’s Clamming License

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Julie Buffaloe-Yoder

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A man with a badge

pulls up in a boat

next to Mr. Orrie’s

bent back shack:

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Have you got

a license

to clam here?

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Mr. Orrie’s got

a Cherokee mama

and a great grandpa

buried three knots

beyond the beacon.

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He’s got a brogue

thick as marsh mud

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curly white eyebrows

and a blue birthmark

shaped like a crab claw

on his brown-red jaw.

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He’s got his daddy’s rake,

boots, nets, hip waders

and a criss-cross of scars

on his long, thick arms.

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Mr. Orrie’s got a sweet

round woman with a gun

and a kettle of home brew

on his saggy back porch.

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He’s got salt in his marrow

and a leg that still aches

ever since that time in ’58

when a stingray got him.

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He’s got a faded gray

pickup truck that runs

and a yellow lab dog

with an ear chewed off

by a fat black bear.

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He’s got a rope

for every squall.

A hurricane lantern

that’s seen them all.

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He’s got a hand carved boat

that’s fifty years older

than the man with the badge.

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He does not have

a politician’s piece

of pretty legalese.

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But son, you’d bloody well

better hurry up and believe

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Mr. Orrie’s got a license

to clam anywhere

he damn well pleases.

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