published in Volume 2, Issue 4 on July 27, 1995
Don Allen Poole is a pure-dee criminal. That was John Cole's first mistake, the worst thing he could have picked to say to me today. That was enough. But did he stop, does he ever stop after he gets started? You don't know him of course but the answer to that is no. Okay. But here's what did it, the very last nail in John Cole's casket: Does it run in the family?
I forgot to say Don Allen Poole is my boy cousin. He is being held in the state pen at Parchman. I think about it sometimes.
And of course I tried to explain how it was to them at the office, hoping I wouldn't get the electric paddling machine that is kept in there, which I'm wondering lately if it's a lie to keep kids like me from doing things like busting John Cole every once in a while, going upside his head when he needs it. A attitude adjustment, like I heard Don Allen say one time. He was talking about a different thing of course, but the principle is exactly the same. There are some people in this world who just simply do not know when to quit.
Which makes me tired lately, which wears me out, having to defend him from not just people like John Cole anymore who don't count but even my own mother who is his aunt and has been knowing him longer than I have been alive and so loves him more. At first though, before it got to me I wanted to testify it at the trial for him, that he could not have done what they said he did which is shoot a man in the stomach from Tutwiler so he had to have surgery for it and nearly died. And one of the reasons I was going to give them, a plain one they could see and understand is I have seen things about Don Allen that none of those jury ones have ever seen, like the time a couple years back when he hit his own brother Keith Poole for doing nothing but cutting off a piece of cheese to put in a mousetrap. Now tell me this, how can a man that could not even stand for a mouse to be hurting, which can not even talk to you like a man does, shoot a person in the stomach where everybody knows is the most painful and takes the longest to heal and then drive off to Clarksdale and shoot pool with a black man and a Choctaw. He couldn't, that's the answer. Which I could have told them if they had listened. I could have changed the whole thing, maybe.
But they stuck me for the day with Rosemary Spinks and her fat aunt at their rickety trailer, playing cutouts and Slapjack and hospital. On television they would say a man's life is at stake here, a man's life. But forget about trying to explain anything to Rosemary and Hilda Spinks.
And that mousetrap is not the only reason about Don Allen. All they had to do is talk to him for a while and they would have known. He has got a pet bird in there now I hear, that he caught and tamed and is keeping and all the rest are wanting from him.
So that is the way things are with Don Allen Poole, my cousin, and how he got in Parchman in the first place. I have been writing letters to him since December, saving them up for when I get to go up and visit him on a Sunday, which I have been promised for a while. I tell him things like this: Hang on Don Allen, People like John Cole don't count. This town is full of people who don't know when to quit, who would have stood in line waiting and hoping for a chance to put their very own nail in Jesus. Is your bird all right, what do you call it? Do the fields get longer and flatter and dryer the closer you get to Parchman, Is the air there still and heavy and bright when dusk hits and you are sure this entire world is ready to fall apart, burn up, explode, when you do not know where you stop and the rest of it starts. Does the whitest slice of pine ever miss the tree they stole it from, If a bomb is dropped on China what happens to the souls of them who never knew Jesus, who never had a chance, who never stood in line and paid a dollar a hit to pick up a hammer and take a swing. Do you get as tired as I do of trying to explain, Do you think much about Elizabeth Spears.
I don't need to ask the answer to the last one, I know he does. And some other things I don't need to ask the answers to either, like what is it you do from the time you wake up until the trustys call lights out at dark, because the real name for Parchman is not Mississippi State Penitentiary like they wrote on the sign but Parchman Farm. It has made a lot of money for the state of Mississippi from what I heard, which I'm thinking lately does not say a whole lot for the state of Mississippi. So I know what they have got him doing at Parchman, he is chopping cotton like the field hands that you drive by and see but never really have looked at, picking and chopping down the long rows with the heat dancing silvery and bright in the still air where they are chopping and picking. Why don't the warden and the trustys worry about letting them out of lock-up? They don't have to worry because they have got that one solved. Nobody can get loose because they have got tracking dogs watching, that were born and raised up for nothing in the earth but sniffing out convicts and running them down. They sit up chained all day just hoping and praying one of the convicts, and I know which one it is they have been watching close lately, will decide he has had as much as he can take and will try to make it to the woods and find a shack or a deep ditch to hide in, and then the tracking dogs understand finally why they are standing there chained, what it is they were born to do. A black convict named Bukka White wrote a song about it one time. Which maybe is the reason for the dream that has been worrying me that I had.
I was being driven by a man I could not see through Rome, Mississippi, down the blacktop that leads to the gravel road that leads to the Holiness Church where I asked him to stop. Where I was standing in the doorway but not inside looking at the women in that church and wondering who it was they were praying for, who are always fat and moley, speaking in tongues and flopping like chickens, popping their hairpins out and then falling slain in the spirit like they call it, and somebody finally reaching down and covering them up with one of the blankets they keep stacked on the front pew for people that are slain in the spirit. Standing there seeing how hard they were praying and wondering could it do any good and deciding I think that it was better than nothing and then back on the blacktop again with the heat bouncing up and the rows blurring past, like legs of a giant centipede starting to run together. Passing through the gate like we didn't need to stop and passing the women's part where the wire is not as high and stopping where I knew he was and being inside asking for Bukka White who was the only one that could take me to Don Allen and not finding Bukka White or Don Allen Poole or anybody else I could see and then in the lock-up myself, holding on and biting even the bars that were wide like poles, staring down the cells at all the rest of me's, looking at us looking back at me, held in Parchman Farm.
That dream made me wish almost that I was not the cousin of Don Allen Poole, that I had never been inside the Rome Holiness Church, that I was one of the others even, one of the ones not set apart like me and Don Allen and Bukka White who had to leave his wife and baby girls for Parchman. Which the only good thing about is you cannot chop cotton on a chain, it is not like television where they are keeping the lick with one of them singing about silver and gold and laying the track and crossties with the rest of them saying ump in time and swinging the big hammers high and then bringing them down. That is one thing he will never have to do I tell myself but if you have ever chopped cotton in the delta you know it is not much better even off the chain.
And it bothers me too lately that the rest of them, the ones like John Cole and the jury ones that voted him in there and the rest of them that love to tell me not to think about Don Allen never seem to get theirs. They sit in the cool while others are smelling the fertilize from the planes always flying over dusting, burning in your nose and stinking. They would not lift a hand, would not pick up a finger to help him out, to wipe the sweat off his face or hand him a cool drink of water. I have heard the Parchman Farm Blues by Bukka White, and he had the right idea.
Which makes me think all over again about the dream, about Don Allen, about how when a convict got loose we used to sit and wait after Mama and Daddy had left with knives from the kitchen, me always behind the couch wondering how hard do you have to stick a man to take him down. Is it between the ribs you need to get him, or do you go straight in for the stomach. That's how I looked at it. That's how I used to think. Which is all right, I don't blame me, how could I know? But if a convict was to break out tomorrow I would not be waiting behind the couch with a knife. I would do this, hang a red ribbon out the window just like a woman named Rahab did that was in the Bible. Jericho was a strong city too.
I hear them calling me to get dressed because today is Sunday and we are driving to Parchman which means I can take the letters. Which means we drive past the Holiness Church with all the women praying hard as they can for somebody that is trying to bust free somewhere. Which also means we pass the women's prison and the shiny wire and are inside and looking straight at Don Allen, right in his face. But the truth is I am not feeling so great. I am not feeling so hot today. I'll stay here instead and finish the letter I started to him last night because Don Allen understands anyway about things like people being sick. I'll tell him this: I could not make it due to sickness. Your suffering is not forgot. Rahab was not a good woman but did the right thing. Jericho was the strongest city ever built.