With this selection of three poems by Lisa Braxton, we continue our new series of original fiction or poetry by writers who either published their first book at 40 or after, or who have yet to publish a book. Writers interested in submitting work should see our guidelines.
The Basement Family Room
You skipped down the basement stairs, two at a time Like a performer in the grand finale of a musical Stopping only when you’d landed in the family room On the checkerboard tile floor that you'd installed Where we watched movies and played Atari tennis, flipping the knob with just the right wrist action Back and forth Back and forth You and Mama invited your friends from your factory jobs Played 45s on the hi-fi–Aretha, Marvin, Wilson, Gladys Shimmying down the Soul Train line before there was a Soul Train Arms flapping the Funky Chicken, hips shifting and swaying the Pony Where you and Mom operated your real-estate firm We listened from afar when you played your cerebral jazz albums on Sunday afternoons after church, hard bop rollicking saxophone riffs that only appealed to you. Pristine wood-paneled walls gradually populated with markers of your success. Gold-plated plaques and framed “grip and grin” photos NAACP President! Black-owned business owner! City alderman! Sponsor of causes in your community! Now the plaques are packed away. Warped jazz albums in a haphazard pile, a layer of dust obscuring the covers like scratches on a worn 45 rendering the sound muffled The real estate firm folded long ago Hi-fi no longer spinning tunes Friends passed on or moved back down South A distant memory, the skip down the stairs. Now you wrestle with them Shakily and slowly taking them one at a time Gripping your cane with one hand and pulling yourself along on the railing, like a grade-school choir soloist searching for the right key. Running up and down the scales, flailing until the right key presents itself. Sometimes the stairs win, and you tumble in your frailty. Legs buckling beneath you. I want to pick you up, take you back to the grand finale of the musical Back to the freshly polished checkerboard dance floor.
On car rides down I-95 When my feet barely crested the edge of the back seat I asked you why we didn’t live Down South Instead of Up North We wouldn’t be in the car eight hours getting there To see our kin. The ones who talked real slow And said “y’all” and “fixin’” and “flustrated” And “tarred” when they wanted to get some sleep. The ones who sat in house dresses on the front porch Rocking on metal-framed floral-cushioned lawn couches As they held onto fly swatters they’d forgotten to leave in the kitchen. Turning their heads until they almost broke At the sight of an ambulance going by. Then talking about it all evening Until the lightning bugs came out. You held loose onto the steering wheel Looked at me through the rear-view mirror Your eyes twinkling and simply told me “Your mother and I wanted a better life.” When my feet almost touched the footwell you told me what a better life was— A place where a white playmate wasn’t your best buddy after school Then got on his school bus the next morning, threw rocks at you and called you a N______ As you waited for your bus to your own school The one with worn books and grades merged in one classroom. A place where you didn’t have to go to the back door of the restaurant to order a meal. Where you didn’t have to step off the sidewalk for “Miss Ann” and “Miss Kate” coming in your direction And keep your eyes lowered as they passed you. A place I could not fathom. Years after my feet reached the brake and gas pedals easily I took my own car ride Not venturing Down South But staying Up North In my own neighborhood Got chased by a driver I accidentally cut off. Got called a N_______, Practically got run off the road.
I roll back time in my mind. It's the day of our father-daughter race. We start at the far corner of the backyard, and end at the street out front. I should beat you easily, I'm a six-year-old after all. It's the day of our father-daughter race. You've given me a big head start. I should beat you easily, I'm a six-year-old after all. I'm halfway through the yard and you haven't even started yet. You've given me a big head start. I run at my fastest to take full advantage. I'm halfway through the yard and you haven't even started yet. Now I hear you passing me. I run at my fastest to take full advantage. We start at the far corner of the backyard, and end at the street out front. Now I hear you passing me. I roll back time in my mind.
Lisa Braxton is an Emmy-nominated former television journalist, an essayist, short story writer, and novelist. Her debut novel, The Talking Drum, has been selected by Shelf Bound book review magazine as the overall winner of its 2020 Independently Published Book Award. Her stories and essays have appeared in Vermont Literary Review, Black Lives Have Always Mattered, Chicken Soup for the Soul and The Book of Hope. Lisa lives in Weymouth.