John Rickmon : Three Poems from North Florida : Poetry: February 2020

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised south of Interstate 10 to a mother named Juanita, who was born and raised in the Appalachians, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

I am distantly related to Addison Caldwell, the first cadet at Virginia Tech in the 1860s. My uncles Harlan and Clarence had a bluegrass band that toured the nation in the 1950’s called The Montgomery Boys.

After two divorces, my mother married her step-brother when I was seven. For a brief time, I lived with my mother and Uncle Jimmy, until he went to court and adopted me and my brother, officially becoming dad, dropping the Uncle part from his title of Uncle Dad Lieutenant Colonel James Edward Rickmon, USMC.

Being a descendant of John Caldwell Calhoun, the confederate general and congressman, did nothing to enhance my opportunities in life. I live in the poorest county in Florida, in a house with a modest assortment of handguns, with a Harper’s Dairy milk can on the front porch.

Some of my favorite activities are assigning too much value to mobile home hookups on vacant land and perusing outdated classified ads for old hot rods I could potentially park in my yard for an indefinite period of time.

I went through twelve years of public school, and never went to college. In Pensacola, academia is perceived on a different scale than in the big cities y’all live in. If you are in New York, and someone asks where you went to school, they are talking about college. Here, if you ask someone where they went to school, they will likely answer with their high school. That’s what I do.

Only 30% of people who live in Florida are native, and I am in that number, having been born in West Palm Beach in 1967. While the official Cracker stamp should be sufficient cause for me to be forever be indemnified as Southern, perhaps you need more to persuade you. Bless your heart!

In 1993, while working at a gun distributor in Jay, Florida, I set a record for the most snake gaiters sold in the United States for any retail establishment in the dealer’s system. I achieved this milestone by hiding a huge, coiled, hissing, taxidermied rattlesnake under the rack holding the gaiters. Nothing sells like fear, and by scaring the shit out of every old boy that walked up with that stuffed snake, dreams would come true and destinies would be fulfilled.

The south didn’t win the war again or anything like that, but when some dude screamed like a little girl at the harmless specimen, I’d say, “if you didn’t see that snake in here, under bright fluorescent lights, with no brush, you’ll never see one in the woods, man!” It was important to assign a little notoriety to Jay, Florida, other than the story of the hateful billboard they ran in the 1970’s advising anyone black to be out of town by dark. That’s why the sales contest was so important. They needed something else to talk about.

If you are unsure as to exactly what a snake gaiter is, perhaps it is you that needs to be submitting your southern legitimacy statement to me. I’m just sayin.

Three Poems from North Florida

Somnambulant Blues

Because Steven told me one drunken night
how to make my tornadoes go away
off a two lane road outside Palatka
tires squishing into the green black shoulder

I scooped it from the resting place of Myra
who passed in 1897 after sixty years
it was a great souvenir for a Wiccan
a plastic tumbler of slave cemetery dirt

When he told me I didn’t believe him
that night upon night of twisters and waterspouts
overpowering my dreams—a broken sleeping
repetitive recurring reality—could be cured

I just had to believe and they would leave
buzzing along past the smears of Spanish Moss
the cup of dirt resting in the spare tire well
through the town center of Palatka

relics of shops and stores in historic rows
of high water lines and mansard roofs
and yellow flies and choking vacancy
heading west—always west towards home

Because he said he could handle the job
of exterminating the tornadoes from my soul
I handed over the tumbler and
a gin-ringed cocktail napkin sketch

In blood and alcohol and gauze and gloves
with my sleeve rolled up he buzzed along
mining my flesh below an orange neon hum
trading a scoop of dirt for a tornado tattoo

In seven hours I’d sleep in my bed
fluttering eyes and mind blank under icy AC
the first of a thousand sleeps without
the threat of tornado touching down again

 

Water Head Baby

In a foreclosure bathroom
mold and paint smell lingering
with my carpenter
making decisions about
this and that and this
he asked me
about the old iron bathtub
dry brushed with rust stains
remodeling blight

“Out with that old tub,
in with the shower,” I said.
“Okay, boss,” Judd said.
I didn’t know him
well enough to explain the
really bad time I had once
as a four year old
in a West Palm Beach bathtub
at 3:00 am sleepwalking

Drifting down the hall
of the tiny apartment
I slid sound asleep
down into the cold
iron tub and set the plug
turned the water on
onesie turned wetsuit
slowly drenched and now useless
water at my nose

My mother’s sharp ears
and heavenly light sleeping
snatched me from the tomb
certain death stymied
put off for another time
never on schedule
I couldn’t quite tell
Judd the reason why
I still hate bathtubs today

Speech Peppermint

In fifth grade I departed a childhood

of frolicking barefoot in paradise on Oahu

to the dank, damp inner city of New Orleans

a Rosenwald School lined with chain link

 

A mystical component of life I took for granted

the silky soundings of the English word flowing

like lava and magma oozing from the brain

sometimes scorching, at others petrified igneous black

 

English I built from Hawaiian Local Pidgin scraps

now fully incompatible with Cajun Creole slang

like a 386 with a Trojan Horse I seized up

unable to speak without a stammer or stutter

 

In the time it takes for you to say

Mahalo hey y’all aloha where yat Shaka bruddah

my cadence morphed into a skipping CD

a culture clash of opposing lands now gridlocked

 

A new white kid with a stutter in a black school

might as well wear boxing headgear and gloves

most times I skulked off avoiding all interaction

yet trouble always finds the stammering fools

 

I fought hard and lost often, shaking and bloody

in the first row of the long yellow bus too angry

to even curse them out or stand my ground

the verbal penitentiary now on full lockdown

 

Hers was the voice of the angel of mercy one day

in a boiling and moist September on the bus

her hair braided short with white plastic balls

just as Howard Trice began reigning blows

 

“Y’all stop messing with that boy!”

She commanded, almost with a squawk

and Howard and the rest stopped forever

“He ain’t slow! He got a speech peppermint.”