It’s 1959—I’m eleven.
Dad’s just closed
The furniture store for good.
He says we're going to have
A family meeting.
My brother Fred and I
Enter the dining room, puzzled—
Our family’s never met this way before.
“Boys, we’ve got a little
Money from the store's sale, '
Says our dad. 'Your mom and I both feel
That now, before I start to look for work,
Is the best time for us to drive
Down to Miami Beach.”
And that's the family meeting.
We're leaving in three weeks.
Dazed, I stagger out into the yard.
Religious rays of sunlight seep
Through branches of a maple tree,
Falling on my face and at my feet.
What had been just for others
Is now also for me.
Dad likes to leave early.
It’s still dark that morning
When we pile our bags and selves
Into our new Dodge Coronet,
Fred across from me in back.
The night turns pink and purple
As we cross the Mississippi,
Passing tiny East Side towns
I’ve never heard of, like one
Whose sign says 'Entering St. Clair”.
9 AM and we’re in Cairo.
The Ohio meets the Mississippi
Right outside the window
Of the Wagon Wheel Café
Where we have breakfast.
Following the red line on our triptych,
I daydream of the unknown South,
Shaggy with Spanish moss.
We stop in Corinth, Mississippi,
As hordes of crickets chirr
Crescendos through the humid night.
Bright morning comes, the two-lane road
Unrolled beside the Holiday Inn,
Every inch of it about to bring
New visions to my hungry eyes.
Thick kudzu lines the way
Through deep pine forests.
In some tiny, grey-board place
We stop for breakfast. Thick,
White goo adjoins our eggs.
“That stuff's called grits.”
Dad's been around.
When I find a hair in mother’s,
Though, we quietly file out.
Later, at a derelict filling station,
We stop to use the bathroom.
Our protector father goes in first
And comes back, grim-faced soon.
“We’ll come back later! ”
He tells the mystified attendant
As we pull away.
That afternoon in Dothan,
A town In southern Alabama,
I spy my first palmetto trees,
Growing in a front yard, in the ground.
By evening it's Ocala, Florida,
Far across the Suwanee.
A giant date palm rises
from the little traffic circle
Outside of our motel,
Its lush and massive fountain-fronds
A Temple for the screeching birds,
With hundreds roosting in its branches,
Feasting on the succulent, orange fruit.
Next day we dive
Straight south some more.
Mid-afternoon, we finally reach
The causeway to Miami Beach.
Our goal in sight, some tensions
Smoldering between our parents
Burst into raging flame.
Dad’s booked us at the Raleigh,
A modest, old hotel
Where his parents often stay.
But now mom spies
Across the Indian River,
Set there like an emerald,
The green and gleaming
Exploding in self-pity,
She turns her rage on dad:
“I won’t stay at that dump of yours! '
She looks at me and points
Across the water:
'You and I are going there! ”
She grabs my hand
And pulls me from the car,
Then slams the door behind us.
I follow, trailing from her hand,
Devoured by her cloud of bile.
Sun blasts us without pity.
My brother stays behind with dad.
I look back, trying to unite
Our split-up family with my glance.
Why must it be like this?
Why must the 'other family' come out now?
Right before our mecca's gates,
My world and heart lie shattered
To see them cause each other pain.
But what can a young boy do?
Later, we’re all in our room
At the Raleigh. The storm,
Like many storms before, has passed.
Our “wholesome family” has returned.
I make acquaintance of the ocean,
Seduced by green and dancing
Palms heavy with coconuts.
We walk down Collins Avenue,
Papaya juice in hand.
We’ve finally entered heaven.