James Lineberger



They lived way out in the country
in a cement block house with a flat roof
and their union
had produced
so many children that the next time
they were up for review
the public health nurse went with me
to discuss getting the wife sterilized
                    As we arrived
the red-haired children
were it seemed everywhere staring at us
from behind things or caught
frozen in the open like frightened rabbits
thinking if they didnt move
                                      they couldnt be seen
The nurse marched right up to the woman
and said Arlene heres some papers I need you to sign
The woman nodded warily and ushered us
into the stifling heat of the house
              The furniture
was mostly crates and boxes one door
no windows a single block removed up near the roof so the air
what there was of it could circulate
                            The children flowed through the door
pressing around us
Yall go on outside the woman said
                                      but no one paid her any mind
A little girl climbed up on my lap and lay her face against my chest
Now Arlene the nurse said I have told you before
this has got to stop the county wont keep on paying you
to have any more kids
              I know Arlene said I know
and I promise you
this one Im carrying now its my very last one
He aint getting his thing in me no more are you she said
                        glaring at her husband
No mam no mam
he said I dont need a wife anyhow
all she does is fuss and argue I tell you it is almost more
than a person can bear
                                          Sign here the nurse said
The woman frowned at the paper
I lost my glasses she said
            Goddamit Arlene the nurse said
just hold the pen Ill guide it for you.
Dont do it the man said
                              this is some kind of flimflam I can smell it
Damn fool the nurse said shut your yap
Yes mam thank you mam said the man
                                        The nurse turned to me
Do something she said
you tell them
if this shit dont stop somebody
is going to jail and all these chilren are gonna end up
at the Baptist Orphanage
                Arlene went silent
her eyes welled up with tears
Yall want some fresh creasy greens she asked
Ansell go out there
and get these folks some greens to take home.
Ansell got up slowly groaning from an ache deep within
            Arlene stared at the paper
I aint responsible she said I pray and I pray
but yall act like you the only ones can hear what God wants
in this world do it just cut me to pieces see if I care
The little girl whimpered and snuggled closer
                                      clenching and unclenching
                  her fingers in my shirt
Outside in the field Ansell was singing some old gospel song
his voice high and keening as he moved through the greens
The nurse stood behind Arlene
                              reaching around her to guide the pen
in a loopy scrawl at the end of the closely-typed page
The child arched her dirt-streaked body erect her face upturned to breathe
her juicyfruit breath on my lips
Leaning Ansell sang


JAMES LINEBERGER is a playwright and screenwriter. He wrote the libretto and book for the first American rock opera, The Survival of St. Joan, and the screen adaptation for the Timothy Hutton film Taps.


Read more by James Lineberger:

Poem in the March 2019 issue of B O D Y
Two poems in ucity review
Poem in Misfit Magazine
Two poems in Sheila-Na-Gig