From my collection, A Radiance, available now from Cultured Llama Press
This is a story my grandfather tells me,
now I am telling you. He worked many years
in vocational rehabilitation, which was I imagine,
something like fishing. Fishing for men,
or their fragments, casting out a strong line, a net,
into the depths of mental illness, drawing something
up to breach the crest and bathe in the light,
or flounder in air, drowning. This story
is not about the drowned.
He worked many years among broken minds,
broken bodies, learning his own medicinal grace.
One morning he found a man in his net,
ready to clean, or release, ready for judgment.
He said, to me, ‘The man was an idiot.
Dribbling. Completely degenerate. I left him fiddling
his fat fingers on my desk. I asked my supervisor,
why bring him to me? He understands nothing.
What can I do for him? He’s too dumb to be trained.
I couldn’t even teach him how to lay down upholstery.’
When he gets to this part, my grandfather
leans across the table top, grinning at me
black gummed, over his black twine-bound Bible
which smells of his sweat, in-ground from decades
of long morning readings. He tells me more in Kentuckian basso,
‘Well, my boss finally talked me back into the office.
I gave in and went. Know what I found?’
I know well by now, he knows I know. I tell him, ‘No.’
He laughs at me, Nana laughs with him, scrambling
the grits in the never cleaned pan;
You never soap iron. It takes on the flavor
of the years of your cooking, passes it on
through butter and meat. A meal in endless
re-iteration. We never get tired
of this morning telling.
‘The idiot was drooling. It spilled down
All over his chin. He sucked it back up, liquid,
Hur, hur, hur! Like that. Snorting pig-like,
a sow that turned up something real
My grandfather takes a sip of paint-stripping coffee.
‘But damn it, Bethany.
He’d taken apart my radio and laid the parts out,
all across my desk. He was careful, but was I mad?
Was I ever.’
‘It took a minute, but I remembered my business enough
to hold it all in. I sat down in my chair
and started talking to him. The fella ignored me.
I might not have been there. But I was.
And I am telling you now the thing that I witnessed.’
‘The idiot put my radio back together in under
Five minutes. He fixed it better than it ever was.
Or ever had been.’
‘Eventually I got the story.
His mother didn’t want him, and she dropped him off
on the doorsteps of the Retardation Center.
The doctor’s brought him in and since he was there
and so young, no one ever bothered testing.
People depend a lot on instinct in this sort of thing.
Even doctors. More than they admit.’
‘He grew up in that wasteland, and since he was smart
he took to acting like the people around him.
He learned their behaviors, but he couldn’t stop thinking.
He was good at it. Thinking.
The white coats only figured him out
when a night nurse caught him
fixing the television. Said it played better once
he’d been at it than it ever had.
So they brought him to me.’
We break for grace, a ritual that is the best kind
of familiar. Nana serves herself last, takes
less than any of us. Is the last to sit down
the first to rise up. A real Southern lady.
We taste a bit, salty pork,
baked apples, I fiddle the grits round the plates,
‘He never did use words. I got him a job
as an electrician. Couldn’t ever get him to talk.
But you’d better believe he sung with his hands.’
A sigh over a plate this time, the Bible closed
on the sideboard. ‘Never forget, girl,
in your life,
the things that you can learn from an idiot.
Don’t call another man defective
till you’ve tried to reach him
from every side.’
This is how we start our morning,
In laughter, in light.
This is the story my grandfather tells me.
Now I’m telling you.
Some things get better with the telling,
like the flavor in an unsoaped pan.