Handless Charlie


Out back of Pittsville, down by the lumber tracks
Trains have stopped coming since top-hats and beards
Swore to give us all the three wishes we wanted and

Even keep good on them. The chronic shanty towns
Live for less and less each day. Dying out and drying up
Have become the twin dogma for living between

The cracks. The hobo jungle fires lick up the face
Of night, hungry for a story. “I’ll tell you,” says
A black man, his face abloom with flame. “But afore I do,

You gotta go and pass that bottle thisser way.”
An amber genie squirms down through the bottleneck,
Pushing desperate against his mouth, wanting in.

The man sucks his teeth, grimaces, and holds deep fire.
“Ah, that’s a poison for you! Keeps the passions
Right in front of you so you gets to check ‘em square!

“So, yeah, I seen paradise at hand in a dimity brassiere.
All fancy edged in silk and lacey daisies swelling tight, see?
And all holding back some holy mountains of revelation!

“But she was foregone, see? Her dark forest of hair –
Her fine china skin, see? Some women like that are like
Tabernacles ain’t no black man ever goin’ to get to touch –

“Let alone enter. But mercy! Those nipples! Whoo!
So hard at pressing me – so soft in that cotton finery.
She’s never telling, she say. A favor’s all, she say. Well…

“Won’t no favor no how, but like I says, hard and soft,
I thought they wanted some touching – wanted being free
Is all.” Again he grabs the bottle with nimble stumps.

“Nope, I’d say no nigger ever found paradise in cotton.”


  1. Matthew Lickona says


  2. Good stuff. True story?

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      I was thinking earlier today, ‘It’s horrifying if JOB just imagined this, and even more horrifying if he didn’t.’

      Charlie reminds me of Tarwater from The Violent Bear It Away: Each of them gave in to a temptation, and this choice to sin set events in motion that eventually put them at the mercy of crueler sinners than themselves. The violence these worse men inflicted on them turned them into prophets — even despite themselves — of the emptiness of the Devil’s promises.

      So there’s that — the moral and eschatological dimensions. There’s also the emotional roller-coaster and final gut-punch of Charlie’s story, which loops through lust and amusement on the way to terror and pity. And then there’s the historical setting — economically sketched and highly evocative, with Jim Crow prowling alongside the Devil himself just outside the light of the campfire.

      I do think the replacement of th with d serves more to distract from the sense of the dialogue than to clarify its sound; Handless Charlie’s dialect is clear enough to me without that altered spelling. But even with that distraction, this short-story poem is strong stuff.

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