Undertaker
By Patricia Smith


For Floyd Williams

When a bullet enters the brain, the head explodes.
I can think of no softer warning for the mothers
who sit doubled before my desk,
knotting their smooth brown hands,
and begging, fix my boy, fix my boy.
Here's his high school picture.
And the smirking, mildly mustachioed player
in the crinkled snapshot
looks nothing like the plastic bag of boy
stored and dated in the cold room downstairs.
In the picture, he is cocky and chiseled,
clutching the world by the balls. I know the look.
Now he is flaps of cheek,
slivers of jawbone, a surprised eye,
assorted teeth, bloody tufts of napped hair.
The building blocks of my business.

So I swallow hard, turn the photo face down
and talk numbers instead. The high price
of miracles startles the still-young woman,
but she is prepared. I know that she has sold
everything she owns, that cousins and uncles
have emptied their empty bank accounts,
that she dreams of her baby
in tuxedoed satin, flawless in an open casket,
a cross or blood red rose tacked to his fingers,
his halo set at a cocky angle.
I write a figure on a piece of paper
and push it across to her
while her chest heaves with hoping.
she stares at the number, pulls in
a slow weepy breath: "
Jesus."

But Jesus isn't on this payroll. I work alone
until the dim insistence of morning,
bent over my grisly puzzle pieces, gluing,
sticking, creating a chin with a brushstroke.
I plop glass eyes into rigid sockets,
then carve eyelids from a forearm, an inner thigh.
I plump shattered skulls, and paint the skin
to suggest warmth, an impending breath.
I reach into collapsed cavities to rescue
a tongue, an ear. Lips are never easy to recreate.

And I try not to remember the stories,
the tales of the mothers must bring me
to east their own hearts.
Oh, they cry,
my Ronnie, my Willie, my Michael, my Chico.
It was self-defense. He was on his way home,
a dark car slowed down, they must have thought
he was someone else. He stepped between
two warring gang members at a paty.
Really, he was trying to get off the streets,
trying to pull away from the crowd.
He was just trying to help a friend.
He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Fix my boy; he was a good boy. Make him the way he was.

But I have explored the jagged gaps
in the boy's body, smoothed the angry edges
of bulletholes. I have touched him in places
no mother knows, and I have birthed
his new face. I know he believed himself
invincible, that he most likely hissed
"Fuck you, man" before the bullets lifted him
off his feet. I try not to imagine
his swagger, his lizard-lidded gaze,
his young mother screaming into the phone.

She says she will find the money, and I know
this is the truth that fuels her, forces her
to place one foot in front of the other.
Suddenly, I want to take her down
to the chilly room, open the bag
and shake its terrible bounty onto the
gleaming steel table. I want her to see him,
to touch  him, to press her lips to the flap of cheek.
The woman needs to wither, finally, and move on.

We both jump as the phone rattles in its hook.
I pray it's my wife, a bill collector, a wrong number.
But the wide, questioning silence on the other end
is too familiar. Another mother needing a miracle.
Another homeboy coming home.
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shoulda coulda woulda
take me there
   jenny says   you don't say   snapshot
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