Henrietta

She ran away with a man when she was seventeen,

a farmer’s son who knew about curing tobacco

but not much else. Grab the stalks, strip the leaves,

then twist those leaves into ropes…that was the extent of it.

 

Didn’t earn no money at it not with the drop in prices

that year. And besides, he was a drinker, always at

the worst kind of rotgut: home-made corn-liquor

that could strip the paint off a car.

 

But it was her decision to run away with him,

first one she’d ever made in her lifetime.

And choices in a small town are as thin on the ground

as the soil once the tobacco’s been through with it.

 

He figured he’d get a job on one of the big plantations

down south but what with his overall laziness and

drinking and her always tagging behind him, they ended

up in hovel somewhere in mid-Georgia, begging for change

 

or food where they could, and a baby on the way,

And one day he just left and she had to hitch a ride

back home with her hair straggly, clothes torn and dirty

and a belly like a half moon.

 

So there you have it, the whole truth, why she’s like she is,

at the family get-togethers, fat and red-faced, squeezed

into a lawn chair, hair white, voice loud and complaining

about relatives, religion, politics, more relatives, anybody and everybody.

 

But there’s other stories I’ve heard: the old man who beat

her once so fierce he broke three bones and the son who

was killed in a chopper crash in Vietnam. Take any one

of those and it could have brought her to this:

 

the one that folks feel obliged to invite to these do’s,

not because they want her there. It might even be her

heart-condition, or the cancer she reckons she could beat

if she wanted to. Half past three on a hot afternoon,

 

grill sizzling, kids playing, drinks flowing, and she

suddenly blurts out in that frog-croak voice of hers:

“And now there’s that fuckin’ nigga in the White House.”

Some blush. Some look the other way. Someone says,

 

“She has her reasons.” But, then again, that’s all she’s got.

 

 

By John Grey