Rodney Jones

To Kill a Mockingbird

At the beginning of sixth grade
when I learned that a man,
Mr. Key, was to be my teacher,
I was dismayed. Mrs. Anders,
the other sixth grade teacher,
with whom I was in love,
was pretty and efficient
and had taught my sister
who had never made a B.
And, also, I possibly assumed,
teaching, like giving birth,
was a thing men did not do.
Plus, Mr. Key was old. He slept
a lot. He spat tobacco juice
into a tin beneath his desk.
While we, his students, conjugated
to lie and to lay, or endured
unending division, he read
The Wall Street Journal. He left
often, for he was also Principal,
and each time he left, my friend,
Pete Petty, would kneel, chuckle,
and start to gnaw on my shoulder—
I do not know why he did that—
he was not a rat, but would not
stop when asked; he persisted,
chewing deeper, leaving tooth marks
until, one day, resolved to end it,
I took the football I always carried,
and just as I brought it down
on Pete’s head, hello Mr. Key!
But no expression on his face, no
sign that soon each morning Pete
would be cranking the flag
up the pole, and in the afternoon
lowering it, walking it inside, folding
into a perfect triangle and laying
it in a cabinet; my punishment
was reading, alone in his office
an hour and a half after lunch,
reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
And he never explained why
this book, its plots and themes.
I thought of the death penalty—
I thought of it again and again—
and then Mr. Key would return
with bucket, soap, water, and rag
and make me kneel in the bathroom
and scrub graffiti from the wall
above the toilet, saying I would
need to learn these words, too,
coming from a Christian home,
a country boy, but college material.

Happiness Will Not Be Foregone

If not the large happiness,
the small gift;
if not the grand piano,
the banjo or mandolin;
if not A Night in Tangiers,
twilight 1966 with
my beautiful sweetheart.

But why is she slumped
in the den, running
her hair through her teeth
while her mother and aunts hold forth
on the screen porch,
praying to the God
who will kill them?

What dread mis-
fortune am I not in on?
What heart wound?
And is it too soon
to phone her awkward,
solipsistic friend?

As I languish there
in the kitchen,
occasionally tiptoeing
over to the stove
to crack open the door
and be uplifted
by a waft of peach and cinnamon.

Heroism at the End of Middle Age

It is when I look at myself
in the mirror above the vanity
that I am transformed to Uncle Larkin

as he jaunts from the shower
after twenty four holes of golf,
smelling beautifully of talcum;

as he engages the cruise
and glides through rolling lawns,
resplendent in yellow

blazer and lime green slacks,
in matching Cadillac and socks,
I ride beside him, smiling

as if posing for a stamp,
and know beauty is a lie—
I do not have to become John Keats

to see the light brown curls
of my hair in the mirror
have been white for years in photographs.

Rodney Jones

The author of ten books of poetry, Rodney Jones has been awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Harper Lee Award, the Jean Stein Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Kingsley Tufts Award. He lives in New Orleans. These poems are from a new book, Difficult Subjects.