Village Prodigies

By  |  March 20, 2017
The cover of Village Prodigies, out today from Mariner Books. The cover of Village Prodigies, out today from Mariner Books.

 fromThe Secret Order of the Eagle”


 I

The club had to be big. Why else start a club?
And Bobby James Chalmers was the linchpin.
Portis had been contacted by the NST, he told Bobby,
regarding a matter of importance to the leader—
Certain objects—coat hangers, belts—had gone
missing from the cloakroom. The NST
had linked this to more serious criminal activity—
unsolved murders, counterfeiting, espionage—
Portis told Bobby only what he needed to know.
In coordination with the KNC, NST had requested
they form a special investigative unit:
codename eagle; attachment priority, 3C—
For security reasons, they must use last names.
“NST has asked me to ask you to serve as chief.”
“Why me and not you?” asked Bobby. “Classified”
Portis said. “Not everything they said is clear.
“But I do know the NST considers I.Q. tests;
also, personal hygiene, and handwriting analysis.
Leadership is a gift, they said, it can’t be taught,
but Communications Officer is important, too.
Knowing too much is always a danger to the chief.”
Bobby took this well. He hit Portis on the shoulder.
And proposed a race. They ran from the oak tree
to the backstop behind home plate and back again.
“Okay, I’m chief,” said Bobby. “It sounds like fun.
And since I’ve been saved, I’ve been thinking
about more than myself, about bearing witness.”

II (Potential Recruits: Mrs. Grimmer’s 4th Grade Abecedarian and Roll Call without Names)

A. Petite smells like lard biscuits, basset hound, and wood smoke.
B. Red headed with freckles, will bite.
C. Take off the hat, cowboy.
D. Supernumerary nipples.
E. Head too small for body.
F. Go to the bathroom and wash off the mascara, raccoon.
G. Nine years old, one hundred thirty seven pounds.
H. Round face, leg brace, orthopedic shoes.
I. Pledge of Allegiance early onset priapism.
J. Holds hands with first cousin on bus.
K. May I please go be excused? Number Two.
L. Are you a boy or girl?
M. Beaten last night with bicycle pump.
N. Final warning. Don’t bring your pet squirrel to school.
O. Stinky cotton-head with black molars.
P. White bible white shoes.
Q. Dead sorrel mare on conscience.
R. Shockboy the electric fence whizzer.
S. Will not use toilet at school.
T. One blue eye, one brown.
U. Thirteen, five-eight, thirty-nine minutes older than brother.
V. Stone Age they call him.
W. Cross-eyed desk-carver.
X. Pinch and skedaddle.
Y. Truck stop whore’s daughter.
Z. One step, twelve words.



III (How the Club Color Became Clear)

Early organizational meetings presented challenges,
and time sneaked and gathered. A pair of galoshes
vanished from the cloakroom. The deputy sheriff
announced new leads in the Suggs murder case.
Intercontinental ballistic missiles pointed at the country.
They divided the class into quadrants. From Group A,
they chose three citizen leaders. “Jawaharal Mills,” said Portis,
“is the best boy in our class,” but Chalmers wanted George Brown.
“Excellent,” Portis said. “And Mack Mack comes to mind.”
“A patriot,” said Chalmers. “What about Mills?” Portis asked.
“You can’t trust Mills,” Chalmers said. “He tried
to drown Amelia at camp.” “That’s just not true,”
Portis said. “Where’s the evidence?” “He talks funny,”
Chalmers said. “Listen to the s’s. He’s black Russian.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Portis said. “He had a cleft palate,”
but Chalmers wouldn’t listen. They decided on Candy Dobbs,
Not a bad choice. And it helped to have the inner council
at meetings. But there were other problems.
Chalmers wanted turquoise to be the official club color.
“Turquoise is too loud,” Portis argued. “What about gray?”
“I’ve got it. Red,” said Chalmers. “Red’s in the flag.”
“Red draws attention to itself,” Dobbs said. “It sticks out.”
“Let’s don’t fight. Let’s settle it with a race,” Chalmers said.
“According to the NST manual for secret organizations,”
Portis said, “it should be something we can use in code.”
It went like that a while, and then a fortuitous suggestion:
“Let’s pray,” said Chalmers, “Jesus Christ will make it clear.”


IV

1. Titles are important. Chief leaves no doubt.
Communications Officer, Secretary and Treasurer,
Operations Director, Docent, First Major—
Chalmers swears these in on his mother’s bible.
2. It is essential to communicate privately.
3. In the ideal top secret organization,
everyone should feel second in the order.
“If the chief is killed, be ready to take charge.”
Mack and Mann, because they are large,
become Rovers. Luck the Scribe begins to write
the names of Inspectors and Special Agents—
Each receives certificate affixed with the NST seal,
surveillance report forms, and evidence kits.
That leaves the big dumb: knife-throwers,
smokers and chewers: Deputies, Detectives.
4. Keep potential enemies close: award them
certificates stamped Extraordinary Honor.
After jujitsu training, deputies patrol playground.
Special Agents begin surveillance of cloakroom.
5. Procedures are paramount, procedures and protocol.
Chalmers commands the Inspectors and Special Agents
who give orders to Detectives and Deputies.
Above it all, Mann and Mack move
from group to group and report to Luck.
And one day Chalmers asks, “Where do you stand in the chain?”
“The Communication Officer has no rank,” says Portis.
“He decodes NST orders and passes them on to the Chief.”
Portis shows him one. “Tiger ransacketh mulberry stack”
and starts to explain, but Chalmers wants to race again.
Then, as suggested in the NST directive on protocols
for top secret operations, Luck draws out on paper
the chain of command, memorizes, and swallows it.


V (Culls)

The uninvited, the ones with first names:
Billy and Mildred, retarded twins, once
held back, twice demoted; Dorothy—she
was always damp—they called her “the sweater.”
Dougie with holster, pistol, and cowboy suit—
He didn’t run; he galloped; he didn’t talk; he
neighed; Paul, the undertaker’s son
clunking with steel brace and orthopedic shoes;
Carl, who did impressions of Daffy Duck;
Warren, the ringleader of the big dumb;
Denise who smelled of butt and camphor.
Not suspects. No reason to interrogate.

VI

Wednesday, September 14 commenced with announcements.
“The bake sale was a big success. The student of the week
is Amelia Fortenberry. Please do not write on your desks.
For morning recess, the line leader will be Eugene Balthrop;
for lunch, Geraldine Wiggers; for afternoon, Jawaharal Mills.
Congratulations, sparrows! for winning third place
at the history fair for your model pioneer log cabin.
Welcome back, Candace! We hope you are feeling better.
The lunch menu today is sloppy joes, french fries, and green beans.”
And here Mrs. Grimmer stops and removes her reading glasses.
“Children, someone in this class is not being a good citizen.
Ann Guilford left her new pink mittens in the cloakroom
on Wednesday morning. On Thursday they were not there.”
Silence then that bristles with passed notes and secret looks.

Later, a question: “What is the county seat of Walker County?”
“It could not be more clear,” said Chalmers, “that the county seat
of Walker County is Jasper. It is very clear.” And at recess
the inner council convenes under the oak by the tennis court.

VII (Suspects)

1. Winona, because she doodled horses,
snowflakes, butterflies;
because her hair gleamed like a crow’s feathers,
because of the shade of her skin
because her lips did not move when she read
silently, because everyone knew
Japs were worse than communists,
Japs would kill themselves to win,
because she would not look
you in the eye, because her penmanship was perfect,
because she was from Hawaii.

2. Stanley, because he wore corduroy trousers
instead of dungarees, because
he had the ugliest ears in class
and carried buckeye balls to ward off colds,
because his nose bled, because he talked
through his nose with a northun brogue
when he read his report on Abraham Lincoln
Our Greatest President, because he was seen
coming out of the cloakroom he might
have stolen the coathangers, because he smelled
like kerosene and Vicks Vapor-rub, because
he was cross-eyed, had impetigo, because
he was a Jehovah’s Witness, because no one
had ever heard of him before he came from Ohio,
and in all the fourth grade the only boy
with a brown flap hat and an orange plaid coat.

VIII (Recess)

Will it be the same forever, summoned by the bell,
joy in the morning, terror of the afternoons
graven in the scour of bald patches that stretch
from the facing lines of the patty-cakers
to the black market ditch where Warren sells cigarettes?

Under the oak, Chalmers calls the meeting to order
The citizen leaders give brief reports
and then vote in the last recruits.
Portis begins the NST directive. “Consider all…”
as a ball rolls through and they pitch it back.

And perhaps because Portis has a fever, sees
for an instant in the deep scoop shoes
have rutted out beneath the swings an eye.
The eye floats inside the sole of a foot.
But gone, the foot and eye, the day whirls black.

And lost among the kicked balls, the inmate
who cannot read, released from the tyranny
of books and lessons, twists a skinny arm,
and beside the one who races her own shadow,
the stalker and the stalked come to terms.

And the tiny brilliant boys who see the future
and swear when they are big they will remember
the injustices, and the girls who prize fairness
forsake in the amnesia of games their Jesus
and drive hard to knock the air out of the ball.

IX (The Coup)

Count backwards from ten
to where memory stops.
The numbness of ether leaves
at the center of the brain
a sneezing demon
Portis feels when the nurses
repeatedly call his name
to draw it burning out of him.

Portis lives. The doctor holds
up like plum preserves
the valedictory tonsils in a jar.
Ice cream, ginger ale,
five days of visits:
it is an open room, the pride
that follows suffering.

But something like a changed lock
when he comes back:
Mack and Mann nod,
shrug and walk away.
Mills won’t meet his eye.
After lunch, Chalmers
approaches and bows.

“Congratulations, Portis.
In your absence, the NST
contacted me. Mills helped
decode the message:
Lamb bath mulberry stack—
“I am now communications
officer. You are chief.”

X

The new era starts like this: the class
studies clouds. “Thelonious, describe
the day for us,” says Mrs. Grimmer.
“A little wispy,” he answers, “a few
examples of cirrus and stratocumulus,
but mainly clear, I would say clear.”
Under the oak, Portis calls the meeting to order,
citizen leaders give brief reports,
and Chalmers recites directives:
1. Do not believe the claims of suspects:
when they claim they do not know:
they know or we would not be interrogating them.
2. Citizen Leaders must be Christians.
3. Disagreements may be settled by a race.
Dobbs worried, she said, things moved so slowly.
But in their last communiqué, the NST,
Chalmers told her, had expressed pleasure
with the performance of the new chief
and upgraded their attachment priority to 2B.
“Consider all the evidence,” said Brown.
“No fact is too small. Strands of hair,
leaf prints caught in boots.
Don’t jump to conclusions. Warren
is fat, but not because of cakes and pies.
His father ate like that and never gained
a pound. There is a thyroid
problem on his mother’s side.”


XI

The big dumb run in taunting circles.
Each day they circle closer.
Winona swings, high
and higher, legs up at the peak—
Warren runs under her—a scream.
And this is not nothing, Portis:
this bump that sways the balance
so the rope twists and snaps
until there’s no place left to grip.
Mostly, when damage happens, no one
has to give the order. You do not
have to want a person hurt
to see her prone in the mud,
blue dress puckered in a bunch
around her waist, arm scrunched
at such an odd angle before
her eyes open and she sees
the faces gather around her
as the men lift her on the gurney
and tote her to the ambulance.
No crime here, these are children,
little children who did this thing
which they thought would please someone.

XII

“What is this business with last names?”
the principal asks when he calls
the children to his office
in groups of three and four and starts
each time by clearing his throat and showing them
his green strap canvas belt.

“A girl is in the hospital.”
He whacks it on his hand, withdraws
from the fob pocket of his trousers
a stopwatch, looks each in the eye and says,
“When I push the button you will have one minute:
tell me how this started and who all is involved.”

“That girl wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
He waits. He whacks his belt. All morning
watching them and taking notes.
And sees the ones with least to say who say the most,
and the almost guilty stifling their sobs
into yawns—he presses

silence on denials, arrives by dribs and drabs at facts
(the NST directives, chain of command),
then asks, “What is the meaning of this club?”
Like drying paint, this moment and
“Mr. Mills, Mr. Luck, you may leave.”
“Master Seth Portis, what were you thinking?”

XIII (Punishment)

A talking to, a whipping with the belt—
To be a little boy again, Seth
—a whittling down to be a Seth—
His essay will be removed from the contest.
And he must resign as class president.
Write in your notebook one thousand times
“I will respect and love my classmates
and listen to what they have to say.”
But fourth grade crucifixion takes many forms:
less the talkings to than the silent looks,
less the chase across the playground,
than being caught, the big dumb laughing,
fists pecking at his balls like beaks,
and, later, Bobby James praying for him
the day before Halloween—
already he has carved fangs for his new mask.
Last year he was Pirate Jack.


Rodney Jones reads excerpts from “The Secret Order of the Eagle”

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Rodney Jones' books include Village ProdigiesImaginary Logic; Salvation Blues: 100 Poems, 1985-2005, which won the Kingsley Tufts Prize and was shortlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize; Elegy for the Southern Drawl, a Pulitzer finalist; Things That Happen Once, a Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist; and Transparent Gestures, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Jean Stein Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A professor and distinguished scholar emeritus at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, he teaches in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.