Bill Jones

Learning to Walk, Baltimore, 1973

A few months after I’ve moved into the city,
I’m driving the Datsun west
through the no man’s land of Franklin
when I turn left across
what I think is a parking lane
and am smacked by a Yellow Cab.
By the time the crunching’s done,
I’m leaning right at a forty-five
degree angle, hanging by my seatbelt.
The cabby, a black man,
maybe twenty-two,
is fine.
His heavy Dodge, a bloated shark,
is barely scratched.

As we’re sitting at curbside, waiting
for what I hope will be a cop,
a white deVille pulls up,
lit coach lanterns on its sides,
a diamond-shaped window in its landau roof.
I know this car is one of four, all white,
that cruise downtown,
heart, spade, and club cars
patrolling other regions.

When a tinted window glides down,
I’m face to face with another black man
in his twenties,
slick, white-suited,
with two smooth women in satin red,
who smile at me, not speaking.
You OK? the diamond man calls
to the shook-up cabby, who says he is
before the Cadillac drives off,
and all at once, the sidewalk’s filled
with dancing, laughing project kids,
elementary boys and girls,
who sing with glee,
Honky’s gonna get it now!

Six weeks later in District Court,
I luck out
with Probation Before Judgement,
then borrow court costs and bus fare
because my car’s in the shop
and all I’ve got’s a check.
On the way home, at Charles and 25th,
my bus sideswipes some tan sedan
and is filled with victims screaming,
My neck! My back! My ankle!
I hit the emergency door
and walk those last blocks home
Three Times Seeing Quentin

The first time I saw Quentin, 1977,
his greeting was simple, self-assured:
I’m going to break your jaw.
This from a student who’d come to me for help,
a black kid in a trench coat,
fifteen years old,
six-four, two-twenty,
placed in this school by the courts
and scheduled with me
three times a week for tutoring.
Each time he’d come into the room,
he’d say the line about my jaw.
Have a seat, Quentin, I’d answer,
we’ve got work to do.
He finished the semester
and was gone.

November 16, 1984, 11 p.m.,
the lower parking lot of Sinai Hospital.
Eighteen minutes before the birth
of my daughter, Sara, I’m on my way
to the Labor and Delivery entrance,
up three substantial hills and sets of steps
with my wife, Jane, a woman so stubborn
that she’s refused to be dropped off.
I want to walk, she says, No wheelchair routine
this time; it’ll keep the labor going.
So we walk, her arm around my shoulder,
the two of us stopping every few seconds
for her to breathe, breathe, breathe, then blow.
You get the picture. Well, so did Quentin.
As we reached the second level,
he emerged from the pines along the stairway,
staggering a little.
Hey Quentin, how you doing?
This from me, sizing up the chances.
His eyes cold and cloudy as a winter night,
Quentin passed us by.

The last time I saw Quentin, 1992.
I’m in the basement with Nate,
my third child, two years old.
Quentin’s on TV, downtown in a park,
a microphone in his face,
traffic streaming in the background,
little boys clowning to get on camera.
As always, there’s the trench coat.
The reporter, all blonde and business suit,
riddles him with questions.
As poised as a college professor,
Quentin answers her.
Quentin, Homeless, Mentally Ill─
This from the caption beneath his face.

© Bill Jones

Bill Jones lives in Baltimore. His work has been published in The Connecticut River Review, The Texas Poetry Review, California Quarterly, Little Patuxent Review, Passager, and numerous small press publications. He is a former winner of a Baltimore Artscape Literary Arts Award for Poetry.

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