Colleen McElroy was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a military family that moved often. She earned a PhD in ethnolinguistic patterns of dialect differences and oral traditions from the University of Washington. McElroy has written short stories, plays, television scripts, and nonfiction; her collections of poetry include Winters without Snow (1979); Queen of the Ebony Isles (1984), winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation; What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968–1988 (1990); Travelling Music (1998); and Sleeping with the Moon (2007), winner of the 2008 PEN Oakland National Literary Award.
By Colleen J. McElroy
The sidewalks were long where I grew up.
They were as veined as the backs
Of my Grandma’s hands.
We knew every inch of pavement;
We jumped the cracks
Chanting rhymes that broke evil spirits,
Played tag at sunset
Among the fireflies and sweet maple trees
Or sang wishful sonnets about boyfriends
To the tune of whipping jump ropes.
The sidewalks wrapped around corners
Like dirty ribbons lacing the old houses
Together in tight knots;
Maple trees bordered
The all-white cemetery.
Sometimes we’d watch Priscilla’s uncle
Sway down the dirt alley towards home.
We called her Pussy, called him
He was feebleminded and took to fits,
Barely making it from alley to pavement,
Loping down the street like a drunk.
We paced his jagged walk
Against tumbling tunes,
Taunting each pigeon-toed footstep
The boys bolder, louder
The girls tagging along
Braids flopping like twisted hemp,
Ending in brightly colored ribbons.
We turned our black faces into silence
When he finally made it home;
Watched him grope up the broken concrete stairs,
Clutch the wooden railing,
Lunge for the broken screen door
And his medicine.
His tongue flopped wildly,
Parrot noises drowning his sister’s cries
As she rushed from the black pit
Of their house.
One day, he leaned away from the safe umbrella
Of his sister’s voice;
Leaned into the sky,
Hanging on the porch rail like a rag doll,
Then fell into the cracks of the sidewalk.
We rarely chanted after that,
Always passed Pussy’s house in silence.
Sometimes I’d sit in the sweet stillness
Of Grandma’s moldy basement
And draw his outline on the wet fuzzy walls.
The grey concrete backdropped my stick figure
As it fell into nothingness.
Bumpsy played the Dirty Dozens
As we jackknifed the length of the block,
Forcing grown-ups off the street.
We linked arms like soldiers,
Our black legs scissoring in precision.
One’s a company, two’s a crowd
Three on the sidewalk is not allowed—
Last night, the night before
Twenty-four robbers at my door—
Po-lice, po-lice, do your duty
Make this boy stop feeling my booty—
Mary, Mary, tell me true
Who is the one you love?
Tin soldiers, wooden guns, and sharp tongues.
We got comic books for the price of one
In blitz attacks at Old Man Farrow’s dirty store.
Garages were secret places for dirty jokes,
Our folks couldn’t afford cars.
When we got older, we played house for real
Until we found Terry’s baby sister’s body
Behind a stack of tires;
The melodies we’d sung still seemed to bounce
Off the dirty walls and stacks of comic books.
Our houses ended at the sidewalk,
Whitewashed steps gleaming like teeth
Against the blocks of grey pavement.
We walked three blocks just to find
A vacant lot to feed Mildred’s thirst
For green grass.
Fat Vaughn could eat a whole sheet
Of newspaper in less than three minutes.
Once, I licked the damp cellar wall,
But the taste didn’t match the sweet smell.
Ten years later, I searched through Grandma’s
Things before they were sold for auction.
I found her picture, three comics and the wind-up
Victrola we had used to put on our version
Of Cotton Club musicals.
We traded days so we could all be stars;
The rest sang chorus until the Victrola
Ran out of steam, the record moaning
Like a sick calf.
I found the stack of old pillows
We collapsed on, giggling and tumbling
Against each other like puppies,
While the needle stuck in one groove
Cutting circles in the records.