Mr. Hutchins

I never knew a middle class black family until I went to college. Instead, this was my reality growing up in rural Virginia.

Mr. Hutchins

I sat at the kitchen table drawing with my fat pencil
as my grandmother hummed
and patted out dough for fried apple pies.

This far out in the country you had to
either take your garbage to the dump
or burn it.

Mr. Hutchins was the colored man we paid
to pick it up for us. He had been at it long enough
to have his own honest-to-god garbage truck.

I watched it creep down our long gravel drive,
and stop. Mr. Hutchins swung down,
dragging the floppy rubber can by one arm,
his other gloved hand extended for balance,
until he disappeared behind our house.

The opening maw and final crush
were the highlights I waited for,
but today there came a knock at the door
and his blackened hat held to his chest.

Ms. Yancey, please, if’n you don’t mind,
if I could trouble you just for a glass of water,
it’s mighty hot and I’m powerful thirsty.

My grandmother smiled, took down
a white porcelain mug, and drew him
a cold cup of water. He downed it
on the porch, thanked her genuinely,
put the cup on the rail, and was gone.

I watched the truck lumber back up the drive,
and my grandmother retrieve the cup from the rail
and drop it gently into the trash
before spooning butter on the apples,

leaving me wondering
what to believe:
the water,
or the cup.


– from the collection Dancing the Haw

Why Men Fish

Fishing is the great metaphor. It is about being small and insignificant. About being lifted and lowered in your little boat by the mysterious depths. I used to fish on sunny days after school. I would shrug off my books filled with histories and sciences and maths, and grab my pole and box of lures, headed to one of the many local ponds. I didn’t always know what I was after, or even care. I just knew that there was something below the surface. Something big.


Why Men Fish

It is to escape their wives, of course,
with their endless suggestions,
and the day after day trudge of work.
To shove off, pull in the foot
and kneel in the wobbly craft.
To ease an oar into the water
with the softest splash.
To float without time
until the falling sun turns
the sky into fields of purple and orange
and casts man and boat
as a tiny silhouetted bobber,
their thin line almost invisible,
save the twitching circles
where it enters the water.
The hope, or faith really,
that surely, in all this,
there must be something
to catch.


from the collection Dancing the Haw

The Idea of a Garden

My beans are up, raising their sleepy genius heads out of the cracked soil. Before it was a garden this little plot was my driveway. I take pride in coming up with the idea to make better use of it. It wasn’t until the conversion from driveway to garden was complete that it started to dawn on me that I wasn’t the sole creator here. That it was a shared idea. Inevitable, even.


The Idea of a Garden

It was the weeds, of course, that had never given up
on the top of my driveway, never yielding
to the sun baking those pea-sized gray coals all summer.
Why not, I thought. It’s the only sunny spot.

So I rented a tractor to scrape off the gravel and clay,
laid out a winding path and built dry stacked walls of stone.
I spied a lizard between them, already basking.

The first plants I brought home were a surprise:
the worms had already risen in the new topsoil.
One day I found a baby snake
creeping through the stepping stones.

The morning glory has sprawled across the whole back fence.
I am at war with the most excited mole I have ever known.
All day the wren snatches, gathers, flits,
and the catbird chides me from above.

It is as if we all
had the same idea.


from the collection Dancing the Haw

The Chimney

My father built the log cabin in which I grew up. It was built beside a Civil War–era farmhouse in the Virginia piedmont. That old farmhouse was in such disrepair that it had to be torn down, but the chimney remained along with portions of the foundation. We re-used many of the building materials and artifacts in our home and work shed.

The presence of the chimney caused me often to wonder about the lives that had gone on before us. It stood there in the evenings, stolidly manning its station as if its owners might return, or were in fact just then going about their lives. I wondered if their lives and dreams somehow became intermingled with our own. Perhaps it is so.


The Chimney

What’s in a chimney
long after the house is gone?
There is a length of rusted stove pipe
fallen into what must have been a kitchen
around which children
might have been dressed
after their bath
in the washtub.

One raises walls here in the forest
for a warm place to sleep, a future.
To sit with Mary after sunset,
the lantern setting off her straight jaw
and the lace against her neck
on the blue calico dress she made.
Maybe children.
Maybe tonight.


from the collection Dancing the Haw