The Second Person


Afternoon burns everything off Franklin Street.
Even the birds, even the flies.

Or iced-tea sugar and chicken grease weigh everyone
into a doze, all indoors, in a cool

they said would never come eighty years ago
when this was still the center of business

and the civilized left these high hours to the dogs,
ice in a highball, and let each house

close its lids a while. They've kept their quiet,
so I'm alone before the windows,

the radiant panes, each with its scrim of clay,
the finish the river gives everything,

so nothing, not even glass, is clear.
It's almost painful, this saturation,

this street and its stores of rugs and signs and flags,
bright and strange as a magazine photo

you'd find in an attic or an antique store,
hard to believe the color was ever real.

The teacups, the painted china and jeweled eggs,
even the bottles, medicine vials

and flasks each with its ounce of dirt,
even the smell of the prolific earth,

the sedimentary atmosphere of empire chairs
and oak armoires and mantles that survive

their tall, white homes, like the plantation house
where, later, I'll witness again

the marriage of gray suit and hoop skirt
that still feels like a dream, where I'll walk

out of — or is it into? — myself,
the maitre'd's small, solicitous voice

proffering another julep — cotton-leaf hand,
silver cup — though even he must be

a reenactment or a revenant,
a hanger for the clothes of memory.

I will take it, I would, a handful of refuge
in unthinking weather, will take

the same lethargic joy in a breeze, any chill
in the throat, any kind of shade —

so I enter the dim of one old cotton house,
its air-conditioned maze of hand-tools

and quilts, corn cribs and cotton gins, and of course
the owner's smile, porcelain, bright, almost

blinding, blooming in welcome and how-you-do
and what-brings-you. We talk amid rows

of cook-stoves, stew-pots, and cast-iron skillets
about the wedding I've come to see

on the famed estate, the time the town exploded,
the Rhythm Club's inferno, and then

she ventures she knows the accent, knows
I'm from Alabama, and soon she's eloquent

on our lakes and rivers, where the mister takes her
every chance they get. She's seen it all,

so she asks where I'm from, and when I say
she starts to glow, gushing over mountains

all the way to Gatlinburg. She's walked each one,
even skied the state's one slope, which conjures

not the "Southern snow" that required almost everything
around us, but snow, cold snow, a thought

that cools me further, so my sweat is nearly dry
when the smile tightens across her teeth

and she leans in to say I just love it
you know — there are no darkies there.

Then afternoon is a conspiracy of color,
an echo the heat or the history

in our voices draws us into —
someone else's version of ourselves —

and the inevitable, painful quiet
in which an answer must arrive.

What can you say? And how long do you have to wait
before you can leave, before you can walk

out of yourself and down the cotton-trading streets
into the smother of trees

on some more recent lane? How long do you have to wait
before you can leave and not be followed,

and how long do you have to walk before the mockingbirds
drown in bass and drum and anger,

before you can cross back into the proper century?
The smell of the river stays with you,

maybe even grows as you move so you don't know
where you're going, and the key in your hand

could open a car door or a plantation room
or nothing at all, some door that's vanished

in the air, June's shimmer from the asphalt
and the roofs of every house, so you walk

toward that moment when the sun starts burning
and the magnolias' thick perfume washes

all around and you find yourself on a corner,
all linen and sweat, again the only one

who'd walk in a heat like this. You have no idea
where you are, so you cock your head

as if you might hear your way through the afternoon,
and when you raise your head, you see,

across the street, two men hunched in shadow
on a barbershop's stoop, ties

dangling like smoke in the solid air. They've seen you
and now their brows sharpen

as if they know, too, you're not from here,
and in the space between you anything

could pass, the ghosts of Farragut or Grant
or a hot white Caddy rattling New Orleans Bounce,

you're waiting to see, it seems like years or centuries,
then one rises, ties his tie, and steps back in,

leaving the other, who keeps your eye
a moment longer then looks into the distance

through that lace of smoke that seems etched in the air
for something far behind you, something

you don't even know how to look for,
something that may never arrive.