restricted access An Ode to Raccoon
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16 An Ode to Raccoon In early May 1981, I returned to Bogalusa, Louisiana, embarrassed by my lack of “meaningful employment,” living on next to nothing, and again depending on the love and kindness of my maternal grandmother, Mama Mary. I had served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, attended colleges in Colorado and California , spent seven months as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and also had written a handful of poems I couldn’t yet discard. But here I was back in my hometown, the place I’d declared was a good place to be at least one thousand country miles away from. I wanted to earn my keep. So I decided that I would prepare Mama Mary’s meals. That was the least I could do. Plus, it was a sly way to assure she’d eat healthier, to take a few steps back from that traditional Southern cooking, which was often both a curse and a blessing. Immediately, I realized I’d taken on a very difficult job. Whenever I declined to put salt and ham hocks into the butter beans and collard greens, or skipped putting globs of butter into the grits and gravy, Mama Mary would say, “Boy, I do believe the Devil sent you home to starve me to death.” Sometimes I’d stand my ground. Sometimes I’d acquiesce. I’d sit there, remembering when I was eight or nine years old, how my grandmother would dig into her apron pocket, pull out a white handkerchief that contained three or four dollar bills, unknot it, and then give me a greenback. Half lost in reverie and the ruckus of crows, I wondered if this was the price of inspiration , and if I’d ever live up to her rituals of sacrifice. Time slowed down for me. I was writing poems that would later work their way into Copacetic and Magic City. Summer eased From Oxford American 49 (Spring 2005). 17 away. Fall stumbled through the pines. So many mornings with a nip of dew in the air. So many afternoons with the metallic weight of the sky reflecting down. So many birds still singing at dusk. So many half-­ drunken midnights in the middle of nowhere . One morning, I took another of my many four-­ mile walks to an off-­ lying area of Bogalusa called Mitch, which was slightly more rural, to visit Mama Elsie, my paternal grandmother. I walked straight down the railroad tracks as I’d done as a boy. Mitch was clustered with pear trees; the place seemed like the edge of a plantation. While we drank oversweetened coffee and munched on molasses teacakes, Mama Elsie said, “I wish my father had sent me to school, ’cause I was smart as a whip.” Then she began her roll call of the dead, the demise of dreams and dreamers. My body and mind remembered the taste of the teacakes, back when my own dreams were simple and the idea of the futures was manageable . The thick aroma of pines seasoned the afternoon air. After I strolled those four miles back to Mama Mary’s, recalling faces I hadn’t summoned for years, dragging up images from the past, I was yanked out of my daydream when I saw a white hunter climb back into his green Ford truck, and Mama Mary standing on the back porch holding a raccoon that had been skinned and dressed. She was smiling at me. The truck pulled off. “I bet you don’t know how to cook this.” “I bet I do,” I countered. “He’s still got his head on. I wouldn’t buy a coon from a white man if it didn’t have its head,” she said. “I see.” “I believe the musk glands have already been cut out. That should save you a little trouble.” She handed the raccoon to me, and I walked into the kitchen, washed my hands, and went to work. When I was young, I would watch both my grandmothers closely; I still remembered their moves. Both are part of me. Their words and inflections had everything to do with me falling in love with language. Also, I’d watched them cook teacakes, 18 pound cakes, lemon pies, sweet-­ potato pies, chicken and dumplings , gumbo, coon, and dozens of other dishes. Mama Mary sat at the kitchen table, watching my moves. I washed the raccoon. I gazed at it, as if...


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