Leaned against the tailgate
of a truck-shaped thing that smoked
and clanked, he offered his smoothly
powdered palm to passers-by.
Call him Colonel—that’s what he was,
at least by his account—
Tall and gray-haired trav’ling-man
could sell anything on wheels, on skids, on time.
Faded patchwork—drawn tick-tight
across the truck bed—what could there be
beneath that quilt to make him smile so,
as if his jaw was double-hinged?
Didn’t have two plugged cents to rub
together, save that coin that opens many doors.
(Grin, all white-toothy, and ways
of touching women’s hands.)
Made his easy way south-by-south,
through little towns hanging ripe;
just stopping to pass the time,
but not much of the truth.
“Call me Colonel,” he urged,
place to place as he was hailed to stop
and pass a minute with the folks
from here to yonder.
There was a woman, always—every town—
her tired, slack face alight
in wonder at this man, so grand and
slick, and green-eyed handsome.
He must come with her, “to stay
in our spare room, as if you was t’home…”
Her man never liked it none, but feared
to cross her unraveling eyes.
Full plates of chicken, fried
in iron skillets, offered up
with thanks and watermelon chunks,
picked clean of seeds.
Time come for him to work
his wonders (word had spread that
somethin’ grand was come to town).
Peel back the truck-bed quilt; see
bottles, jars, tucked safe in beds of straw.
Step up, step up, don’t push, don’t crowd—
every dime’s the same to him.
He thundered to the folks, sweating
through his clean white shirt,
to where his undershirt clung,
all yellow-gray, like wet paper.
Didn’t matter what he sold
beneath the fancy gold-print labels;
there was always those who’d buy his
draught of oily dreams.
He slipped away as things wound down,
when dark gave way to reason.
Swept his tracks and went his way—
Probably my father?