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I get confused on the suburban roads
across the Hudson where everyone seems
smarter than I am but still I find my way
to the orphanage and my host’s warm car
in January cold.
Kids training dogs, kids walking slump-shouldered
quickly into buildings to get out of the chilled air,
kids rushing to meet the stranger
who wants to talk about their writing,
new pencils welcomed with blossoming eyes.
Four kids and I talk about their favorite books.
They read to me Langston Hughes.
The quiet one hesitates, then says the word “nigger,”
as he closes the book and wraps it
back up in a used dust cloth.
My brother and I towel off at the hotel pool,
our kids trying to remember each other,
trying to decide if it’s okay to dunk an unfamiliar cousin.
We sit on the wire mesh chairs
trying to remember each other too.
Talk about work and houses and politics
he starts in about New Orleans
how his friend went down there
was on the boat that found all those bodies
in the nursing home.
“Had to have armed escorts to cruise down the river, you look
on TV and every damn person trying to help them was white.”
I look to see the kids splashing each other
my young son hugging the walls on his way
to the middle of the pool.
My wife’s two sisters each married black men.
The American hates the Haitian
calls him “coconut,” and pushes pins
into my daughter’s soft, floppy doll.
The Haitian hates the American
calls him lazy, undisciplined, out of shape.
Catholic church, catholic wedding
We try to make small talk with the other family
at rehearsal dinner but I find it hard
to make sense of the patois.
My daughter walks down the aisle
in a lavender flower-girl dress
arm in arm with my new Haitian nephew.
At the frilly reception, our side of the family
is afraid to dance
sits and drinks the free beer.
The kids dance to funk and run around
falling into mock crushes.
Drizzle, melting snow, something between fog and mist.
Martin Luther King Day, a slow Monday
so soon after the holidays I resent it.
The kids watch TV for hours. My wife throws
laundry over the scratched banister
and I segregate the colors into slumped piles.
At the convenience store, the clerk
watches black and white footage
on the small TV of one of King’s famous speeches.
She turns, rings me up without speaking.
I can count the blacks in this town on one hand.
Evening. Home. The tenderloin ready.
My daughter stops us before eating
and wants to say grace.
I hold her hand across the table.
The day retreats into its fraying sleeves.
(Excerpted from The Log of Spiritual Misdemeanors)
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