A Stolen Memory A Mirthful Chorus By Sy Roth
We surrounded him
Asked to let go.
She stared at the misshapen face,
Unshaven sandpapery skin
Eyelids a tabula rasa
Fluttery sere skin
And we could see the humor blossoming in his ending.
He would enjoy her singing.
Bent over him, her breath a morning gust of air
Drifted across his face.
She sang him Old Man River
As he lay dying,
At least the first verse,
Loud enough, she hoped, to wake the dead.
They stood transfixed
She invoking the spirit of Robeson
Hoping to steal his baritone dirge
Suck it into her whole—
White-haired matron singing:
“That ole man ribber
He mus’ know sumpin’”
She began “But don’t say nuthin’, He jes’ keeps rollin’ He keeps on rollin’ along.”
A moment’s pause as they gathered their thoughts.
While the second verse escaped her,
She hummed it instead
Expecting him to waken and fill in the missing verses.
Lips inches away from his eyes
Her breath only an Oreo-memory away.
They were prompted to join her
Her arm a swirling carousel
Pointer finger aloft circling, their signal–
“You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain, Body all achin’ an’ racket wid pain, Tote dat barge! Lif’ dat bale!” They mouthed in unison
A chorus of kindred words for her and him
And smiled their best Caucasoid Porgy and Bess.
Only, he met them with his silence.
Ashen ghost of the man
Head set against the white, sodden pillow
Hissed his last.
But they sang him their dirge
And filled his room with their laughter–
“Ah gits weary An’ sick of tryin’ Ah’m tired of livin’ An’ skeered of dyin’, But ol’ man river, He jes’keeps rolling’ along.”
No tears immersed them in the absurd.
They just kept rolling along
Cheerful for their last serenade.
©2018 Sy Roth
“Old Man River” Excerpts Jerome Kern, 1927