from Saying Grace Poem by Kevin Young

from Saying Grace

The living

After Independence Day
all our toys began to tear
up, school growing sweet

on our tongues. We had
already cut & hoed
the cotton into rows, weeds

piled useless as Confederate
bills. September meant picking
& half-days at Springfield, us colored

grades let off at noon to pick
the valuable white till
nightfall. My hands, civil

& slow, didn't even deserve
my behind on the picking truck,
but Unc Chock ran the thing

& Mama would've killed him dead
if he'd dreamt of trying
to get salty. The money was bad

like all money then, not near
as green or wide. Three dollars
for a hundred pounds, better part

of a day. I barely kept up, hands swole up
like unpicked fruit. No matter when
she started, Frankie plucked fifteen pounds

more, food for two, a new
Easter dress. Summers I turned
so black & bent, all because I'd rather

pick with friends than sling weeds
alone, than stuff my mattress green.

Winters, when the white king
had gone, we slept like fish, still
moving. We walked back home
for lunch & retraced after school, changing
into our other pair of drawers
before we chored the stove's ash. No one

got gas till after the War. Each November
brought a boxcar from the Atchison
Topeka & Santa Fe; for a share,
Lopez balanced it home on his flatbed,
a whale from the hunt. Once full
of hobos, that bell we burnt kept us

from freezing all season long. Before
tossing each board in, I would run
my hands across the wood speech
of burns, carvings warning
Unfriendly Conductor, Town of No
Sleep. Leftover wood turned

to toys; three boards & somebody's
old rollerskate became a summer
scooter. Bored, what was that?
We were too busy being poor
in that house air-conditioned all winter,
too busy sharing everything, even

bathwater evenings by the pipe stove.
No plumbing, no rats, only mice thick
enough to believe we had more
than they did.

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