Dogtown, 1957


In the piney, pink stria of summer morning skies, we awoke
to the muted, moan-like howling of the hungry redbones
locked in their chain-link compounds. They lived their lives
like that: locked in wire cages until released to hunt, fragmented
images of earlier expeditions flickering in and out of whatever
consciousness they possessed, exciting them to live. Maybe
somewhere in their genetic memories there existed remnant
images of the fleeing slaves their ancestors had pursued north
through the boggy bottoms of the Dismal Swamp to Dogtown,
where freed slaves and poor whites had subsisted for a century,
economically bonded in perpetuity to the gentrified bastards
living north of the river, who valued nothing more than saving
the fabled cobblestones of Monument Avenue from urban renewal.
There, on that broad swath of grassy boulevard, the horsebacked
Confederate generals, deceased in war, cantered statically
through eternity, unaware their dream was dead.

And here in Dogtown, across the river from that genteel boulevard
with its antique mansions and art museums, with its tennis courts
and flower gardens, we didn't seem to be going anywhere either.
We arose each day and heard the members of our family
clambering past each other for access to the solitary bath
that lacked a tub, our unkempt toenails clicking on the scarred wood floors.
No one spoke, but we could hear the thwonging hiss of my father's
early morning piss throughout that house, and the foamy scratch
of my uncle's razor on his chin as he shaved around his cigarette.
Already, the day's allotment of acrid smoke and malodorous saucers
of stubbed-out butts had begun to mount. The smell stuck in our hair,
in our clothes, turning them rancid. Someone switched on an AM radio.
Someone stirred brown-black granules of instant coffee in a cup of boiling water.
Then, among the ashtrays and the matchbooks on the table top,
we poured out bowls of cold cereal from paper boxes, and fell into them,
lapping the milk like famished creatures. Outside, the other
creatures shook the fencing of their pens, hurling themselves
full-length on the chain link walls while we screamed at them
to hush. But they were dogs, and knew no better. Undeterred
by our demand for silence, they went on howling, mindlessly, inside their cages.