Papa Joe

 

Papa Joe

He came once a month on Saturday afternoons,
riding into town on a wall-eyed mule called Cyclops,
bare heels scuffing the dust – man, he was tall;
tall and wiry, his hair all straggles, smelling of linseed
and paw-paw, his skin the colour of syrup.

We called him Papa Joe on account of his coat,
like the boy in the Bible, but stitched from many rags –
taffeta, chiffon, seersucker – whatever the ladies
of the parish could spare; we recognised curtains, tablecloths,
the Sunday dresses our sisters had grown out of.

In the shade of the flame tree us kids squatted down.
He charged a dollar for a story, fifty cents a song,
and man, he knew them all – Sinbad and Bluebeard,
the Lost City of Atlantis, How the Whale got his Throat.
The words were like food to him, or sunlight, or air.

Our mouths gaped like groupers as he worked the words
into a charm, his voice dark and sweet as molasses. Then
he’d spend an hour in the parlour with my maiden aunt,
the blinds down, sipping rum punches in the cool of her room.

She would wave him off at sunset, a sprig of bougainvillea
tucked behind her ear.
On those nights she made Bentleys,
bought us roti and hops from the store; on those nights
she lit candles and swung her hips slow in the gloom.

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