"What was your last name, where did you live?"
Old court. Old chain net hanging in frayed links from the rim,
the metal backboard dented, darker where the ball
for over thirty years has kissed it, the blacktop buckling,
the white lines nearly worn away. Old common ground
where none of the black men warming up before the basket
will answer or even look in my direction when I ask
if I can run too, the chill a mutual understanding,
one of the last we share, letting me join them here,
if nowhere else, by not letting me forget I don’t belong.
Old court. Old courtesy, handshake, exchange of names,
in the early days of bussing, between assassinations,
before our quaint welcoming of them had come to seem,
even to ourselves, the haughty overflow of wealth
so thoroughly our own we didn’t need to see it.
Old beautiful delusion in those courtly gestures
that everything now beyond our wanting just to play
was out of bounds, and we were free between the white lines
of whatever we assumed we each of us assumed.
Old court, old dream dreamed by the weave, the trap,
the backdoor pass. Old fluid legacy, among the others,
that conjures even now within our bodies and between them
such a useless, such an intimate forgetting, as in the moment
when you get a step on your defender and can tell
exactly by how another man comes at you
where your own man is and, without looking, lob the ball
up in the air so perfectly as he arrives that
in a single motion he can catch and finger roll it in.
Old court. Old dwindling cease fire, with no hope of peace,
that we silently turn away from when the game is over,
hurrying back (as if believing contact meant contagion)
to our separate tribes, to the cleansing fires of what,
despite ourselves, we momentarily forgot:
old lore, old news, old burning certitudes we can’t
stoke high or hot enough, yet won’t stop ever stoking
until whatever it is we think we are anneals
and toughens into an impenetrable shield.
While I’d be wandering through the house you’d just cleaned,
loving the bracing tang of cleanser in the dustless air,
the carpet’s thicker shag, the vacuum’s streaks and curves
still visible within it, you might have been by then on the bus
to Dudley station, another bus or streetcar taking you
from there to Dorchester, Mattapan, Columbus Street,
or Blue Hill Ave., where you’d have walked the last few blocks
to the once elegant brownstone or triple decker my family
moved away from twenty years before when yours arrived.
Of course I never thought about this then. In my imagination
you were always just Melba, my mother’s “girl”; you existed
all through my childhood only once a week, and only here.
All through my childhood, yet how little of you I recall:
the image more a child’s drawing of a woman than a woman,
arms and legs too thin for the oval belly, the gray frizzled
pulled-tight bun of hair, the tennis shoes and ankle stockings,
and the image has no voice, and it moves stiffly like a toy,—
no gesture that is yours alone, no word at all between us.
It is as in an underworld I try to make you out,
to recognize you as you might have been, and you,
offended that I’d even want to, or ever think I could
(or for some other reason that I cannot conceive),
shrink back into the indistinguishable shadows.
And what I didn’t know to ask is only answered now
by the blank gloss of the scrubbed linoleum,
the polished figurines, the made beds smooth as marble:
What was your last name, where did you live?