Our mother thinks the woman’s nose is wide enough to dam the Red River. Our mother thinks you could drain a swamp through the gap in Angel’s teeth. She’s too bottom-heavy for her clothes. Even in a housedress, she looks like a whore fit for music videos. Our mother wants to know why all music videos are at pools and beaches.
Mama doesn’t care that Angel has two kids or that she dropped out of school before meeting my brother—and while I want someone to say what a shame it is that the girl out-drinks my dad at Thanksgiving, Angel’s looks are all our mother will criticize, turning from my brother to me with water in her eyes, Pray my other boy won’t bring anybody as ugly home. So I never do.
I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned
Difference between their mowed lawns
And their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs. I called those women old
Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair
Without my help or walk without a hand
At the base of their backs. I called them
Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead
Now, dead and in the earth I once tended.
The loneliest people have the earth to love
And not one friend their own age—only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please
And pray for the chance to say please to.
I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job
Is to look at the childhood I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands.
He’s a dummy for a tall woman, and Angel’s taller than him in the wrong pair of shoes. He sees her the way children see the trees they climb.
After his car quits, I pick him up for work. He lights his morning cigarette and fidgets with my stereo for something repetitive, explicit—the kind of music born when we were, the one sound we have in common.
Before he saw Eve, the serpent walked upright
And climbed and crawled like a man with limbs.
He tangled himself in reaches for green, prized
The curves of his quick and endlessly slim
Body. Days were years then. The woman spent
Most days in giggles or gorged on something
Significant placed in her palms. The serpent
Admired her wandering, her ease at being
Described, entered. No one wanted, but even that garden
Grew against the ground’s will, and this,
Child, I tell you since soon you’ll grow and harden—
No matter how much he hiccupped or hissed,
The damned snake couldn’t stop staring, and she couldn’t
Understand—though he inched close enough
To whisper, Beauty. He needed to confront
Her with what he knew, needed her stuffed
On a sweet that made her see herself, see him
And every beast in the young world watching.
As we veered onto Line Avenue, he cut off the song saying, Sometimes, I call Angel those names. She throws forks and plates when I do it.
He got out of my car laughing, but with his head in the window like it was his last chance at giving advice, as if he understood that much, It feels good to have a woman fine as she is so mad at you.
I shouldn’t be, but I’m thinking
About the woman who got shot
Fighting over that sweat-soaked
Headscarf Teddy Pendergrass threw
Into the crowd at one of those
Shows he put on for “Ladies
Only” the year I was born. How
Many women reached
Before the tallest two forgot
Their new fingernails matched
Purses and shoes? I’m no good.
I thought I’d be bored with men
And music by now, voices tender
As the wound Pendergrass could feel
When he heard what caused gunfire
Was a trick he rehearsed. Love
Is quick and murderous, bleeding
Proof of talent. He wanted to be
What we pay to see—Of course,
That’s not special. I imagine
Someone who desires any
Worn piece of man must be
Willing to shoot and be shot.
That wasn’t the day she killed him. They were together fighting and calling the police on each other for years. Nobody paid any mind.
But let me turn too quick on Line with the worst music, and I can hear him again, telling me the satisfaction of hurting a woman who’s still there the next morning. I think that’s why he loved Angel, ugly or fine. What man wouldn’t? And why can’t I? Which man wouldn’t love a try at bending beauty?
Jericho Brown worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans and is a recent recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals and anthologies including The American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, The New Yorker, and The New Republic. Brown is an assistant professor of poetry at Emory University. His first book, PLEASE, won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament, will be published by Copper Canyon.