Father shows me how to shake salt on slugs
so that they’ll die. More than die–I kill them.
But they’re bad for the garden and sure don’t
belong on the back-porch steps. They’re icky.
Not too much salt, Father says. A bit
is all it takes. He’s right–Father’s always
right–but when he turns his back as he goes
into the house for another cold one
I pour it on until the slugs wear coats
of salt and drown in their own pain, if they
feel pain. I’ll bet they do. I heard one scream
in agony one time, or thought I did
–it was Father’s shoe on the linoleum
on the porch. He caught me. What I learned is that
it’s alright to kill, just don’t get cruel.
That means that killing isn’t bad if you
don’t rub it in or get carried away
or really enjoy it. Now, son, he said,
crushing his beer can in his strong right hand,
They don’t really need to suffer. Don’t hurt
them beyond justice, or retribution.
Then he belched. Ret-ri-bu-shun–oh, yes sir,
I said. I sure won’t do what you said there.
Good boy, he said, patting my head. I hate
when he does that but he’s always friendly
after a couple of brews. I can’t wait
until I can drink one: I’ve tasted it
and it’s pretty awful and Father laughed
and said, It’s an acquired taste, whatever
that means, and he should know, he saves the cans
and we recycle them and he gets cash
and buys some more and I get some candy
or a comic book. I’m only ten but
I don’t want to turn legal age and not
be able to drink a beer without making
faces. That wouldn’t be right. That would be
like sprinkling too much salt on a poor slug,
maybe–but they’re not so poor and deserve
to die. But not with too much suffering,
just the right amount. When I can explain
exactly what that is, I’ll be a man
and I’ll pass it on to my own son, or
daughter, if it comes to that, and they’ll know
what life’s about, and Church would be good, too.
I can’t write my name but I’m not stupid
–I can say it, to myself, and others,
and answer to it, and to only one
half of it, when someone calls it out. Who
really needs to learn to write to know what’s
what? I’ve just started first grade and I’m sick
of it already. I’m going to ask
Mother and Father if I have to go
back tomorrow. Today it was something
called letters. You put them together and
you have a word. You put words together
and they make a sentence. The ball is blue.
But it’s not–at least not mine. My ball is
brown. I have two balls–my basketball and
a baseball. It’s white. Show me a blue ball
that isn’t for jacks or isn’t some girl’s.
Let’s all write Gale Acuff’s name, Teacher says.
I guess that’s me she’s chalking on the board.
It’s my name–let the others write their own.
Mine. Why is everyone copying it?
I use four letters to spell my first name
and five for the second, though one comes twice,
at the end. Teacher finally came around
to me, showed me how to hold my pencil,
then pointed at the blackboard at my name.
It’s not polite to point, like Mother says.
Teacher didn’t like that and sent me out
into the hall. I was scared but happy
to be out of here. A minute later
she came out and closed the door and said, Gale,
you’re going to the Principal’s office
if you use that tone with me again.
Yes, ma’am, I said. What the hell does tone mean?
Now I’m sitting in the office, waiting
for Mr. Hill to come through that door and
kill me, maybe. Who knows? It’s my first time.
I hope it will be my last, so I won’t
be dead. And while I’m here my name’s still on
the board, missing me and I sure miss it.
The other kids are learning who they are
in letters and I’m falling behind them.
But I figure if I lag far enough
and hold my ground on learning anything
then somehow I’ll be smarter, or special,
or different, or happier, or both
–I mean, all. So who’s the ignoramus?
Not me. Mr. Hill comes out. He’s smiling.
That’s not good–I wonder what he’s selling.
All I’ve got is milk money. Lunch money,
too. In my right jeans pocket. I’ll keep my
hand in there so he can’t slip his in and
pick me. Hello, Son, he says. Hi, I say.
Are you having some trouble this morning?
No, sir, I say– I just made Teacher mad.
She pointed at my name up on the board
and we don’t do that where we come from. Oh,
he says. Where is that? Deepest darkest Hell,
I say. Boy, does he frown. Do you use such
language at home, he asks. Christ, no, I say
–do you? He gets up and makes a phone call.
This would be funny but I’m six years old.
Your father’s coming to get you, he says.
Good, I say. I’ve learned enough for one day
–we’ll see what you’ve got for me tomorrow.
Father spanks me in the car. What’s your name,
he asks. Gale Acuff, Junior, I say. Yes,
he says–you answer to more than yourself.
I don’t know what that means but I get it.
They were taking my name in vain, I say.
I’ll show you in vain, he says. The truth hurts.
A Comic Vision
On Friday evenings we go out to eat,
Father, Mother, and I, to the Red House
Cafeteria. I choose what I want
as we move through the line. What Father likes
I usually like–prime rib, if they
have it that evening, and boiled potatoes,
and a salad, but no dessert; slices
of pear on cottage cheese on lettuce tastes
better than it sounds. And I like iced tea
because it will keep me awake all night.
I have some serious reading to do:
comic books. After dinner, they give me
my allowance. It’s 1966,
so a quarter goes far, and Vietnam
and LBJ and Tricky Dick haven’t
destroyed the country yet. Two bits gets me
two comic books at twelve cents each, plus a
penny for Georgia state tax, just four cents
on the dollar. I ask to be excused
and they say yes. I’ll meet them in one hour
at the fountain in front of the Rich’s
department store. Father will be sitting
on the concrete bench there, smoking Camels
and surveying the parking lot as if
the cars are stars in the asphalt’s dark and
the people coming in are meteors
and the ones leaving are rocket ships. At
the Rex-All Drug Store next to the Red House
they arrange the comics like magazines,
and I mean on the wooden racks and not
in the kind you spin around. They respect
what they sell, or I like to think so. I
look forward to coming here–I love my
four-color heroes even more than I
love a visit from my cousins over
in Alabama twice a year, and now
that I’m ten and know there is no Santa
but what your parents make him to be and
what I will make him for my own children
I come to the comics like I’m in love
and I haven’t seen her for a whole week.
Tonight, Justice League of America
–I get several heroes for the money
–and The Flash. Boy, that guy can flat-out run
circles around any of his arch-foes
and they’re all good bad-guys–Mirror Master,
Captain Cold, Heat Wave, Captain Boomerang,
Pied Piper, Trickster, Reverse-Flash (also
known as Professor Zoom), and my favorite,
Super-Gorilla Grodd. Barry Allen
stows his uniform inside a ring on
his index finger. When he touches it
his uniform pops out and expands on
contact with the air. I never learned how
he stuffs it back in. I don’t really care.
But he’s the fastest man alive so there
must be a logical explanation.
I meet Father at the fountain. Mother
joins us and we sit in front of water
that leaps and leaps but never escapes. Where
does it all come from? Where does it all go?
The fountain never fills with water. It’s
like the cup that’s full but never empties.
Where did I read about that? The Bible?
The Brothers Grimm? An Aquaman comic?
We track down the car–it’s an almost new
’65 Chevy Nova, not the best
of the line but Father’s a principal
so he has to show the community
that he’s reasonably conservative.
He likes to drink beer. But only at home.
Whenever we go out he wears a tie.
People he knows never see him smoking.
He obeys all the rules of traffic and
never runs a Stop light and always yields
and never gets a speeding ticket. He’s
probably more super than Superman
but a lot less exciting, and Mother’s
no Lois Lane but she’s just as pretty
or used to be. I’ve seen the photographs.
By the time we get home it’s dark enough
to yawn. I go to my attic bedroom
–twelve steps to my Fortress of Solitude
–and start reading about the Justice League
and their battle against the Shaggy-Man.
He’s got long hair, like most teenagers now,
and he’s big and tough, like football players
or pro wrestlers or guys who build houses
or work on road-crews. And mean, like monsters
or Nazi prison guards in the movies.
Tomorrow’s Saturday, so I can sleep
late. I stop halfway through the story so
I’ll be sure to have something I can dream
about. I’ll finish it tomorrow–then
I’ll start The Flash and finish him Sunday,
maybe before church to keep me awake
while Reverend Brown tells us some more
about who God is, and what He wants, and
what He’s going to do if He
doesn’t get it. First He gave us Eden,
which we got thrown out of, at least Adam
and Eve did. Then He gave us Jesus but
we killed Him, or the Romans did and so
did we, somehow. But that’s okay because
if Jesus hadn’t died we’d all be darned.
I don’t know how what’s bad can be good, too
–that’s not how it works in the Justice League
–but when I’m older maybe I’ll get it.
I make good grades in school, and always do
my homework, and keep my shirttail tucked in.
I’m the principal’s son–I have to be
a role model, and make a good impression
and be a hero, come to think of it.
After all, the world is full of evil
and I hope to meet with my share one day
so I’ve got to get ready for it now.
I don’t want to die but I’ll give my life
if I have to. I have to anyway
but I mean not faster than I have to
but anything can happen so I hope
that if I die young I’ll live forever
and if I should live to be a hundred
I’ll never die at all. And that’s justice.
Gale Acuff has had hundreds of poems published in literary journals and has authored three books of poetry. He has taught university English in the US, China, and Palestine (where he currently teaches).