Learning the Neighborhood
Old South Baton Rouge
Here the rent is cheap
because of the bars on our windows.
This means at some point the landlord
learned from experience. You learn
eventually to not look up
for the gunshots downstreet.
When a woman screams
you turn the key quietly
in the iron gate before your door
and sip your coffee quieter than before.
All the city’s rain eventually finds a way here.
James, grad student, lost his car
in last year’s flood. He lives upstairs.
All my stuff was fine, he says,
but that car is a replacement. I don’t tell him
about my barely-there insurance, or
how weather doesn’t wait for paychecks.
But he smiles as if he knows my mind.
Neighborly advice: this block
is the one pocket of safety in this city.
If you ever go past Roosevelt, walk there only
in the daytime. At night no one will come
to help you. But don’t think about it too hard.
Everything will be just fine.
We first see her after the big tree breaks
its arms in the neighbor’s yard.
Greta, with her lustrous skin
and bright eyes quick to pick up
our whole neighborhood.
Two huge limbs sit on the power line
above us. My wife gets a big stick,
passes to me, says get them off that wire,
and behind me Greta tells her damn,
I wish I had his hair. I’m goin
for kind of red, see? Greta’s hair
is curled, fire orange, tight to scalp.
She tells us call her Gigi,
the whole block does: the kids
who crowd her yard to hear the news,
the customers who come to see her.
Gigi dresses hair. She says,
y’all need anything, let me know,
just don’t trust those meth heads
behind your place. In the
apartment behind ours, she tells us,
there’s a woman who asked her
for groceries right after moving in.
The branches swing a little on the line.
She can go to goddamn Walmart, Gigi says.
On the first day in Baton Rouge
I see her wheel the chair out front,
glass tarped, tied to seat. Gwen lives
around back, needs help lifting
this tarp to the trash. Broke a table,
she says. Missing a leg, fell over.
I tell her, lucky they’re made to shatter.
Lucky you’re not cut. She says: Like windshields,
except then you’re lucky and not at once.
She pushes the wheelchair back, huge
tires stumping over busted bricks.
Next day she’s at the door with shoes
to sell: high heels. They’re fifty
dollar shoes, she says. Maybe they’ll
fit your wife. We beg off, and I shut our door.
Next door soon there’s knocking.
Gwen wheels those high heels all around.
I meet this new neighbor
by the mailboxes out front, with
his dreadlocks and gold grin,
wheelchair man with wire-strong arms.
We drink coffee together. He says
he used to run the streets,
used to do bad things.
He says he used to be
He asks me if I’ve ever
been shot. I’ve been shot
three times, he says, and
the first one was right here.
Tyrone points behind himself,
right beside his spine: I couldn’t
feel my legs for days, he says.
Then came pain.
He gestures to where those legs
had been. Waist up only, there’s
Tyrone. …….It was bone
disease that took these,
he says, the sort of thing
nobody ever gets but me.
Not those gunshots.Those
bullets couldn’t touch him
that deep, he says, from inside.
Worst, I gave away my shoes,
he says. Brand new sneaks,
with that cool pump, and they
would’ve stayed new in this chair.
Those bullets put me there,
he says. But part of me stayed out.
Old South Baton Rouge
Greta, the neighbor, tells us she wants to go dumpster diving.
It’s almost dark out, and by this points she’s taken us
through the mountains and valleys of her house: antique oak
headboards, an old neon “Open” sign—this she’s put
in her front window, not the advice I’d give to my neighbors
—and a giant plasma TV that takes so long to warm up
you could make a sandwich, so she says. And other dubious
treasures. All of it, yes all of it, found out by the street.
People give away their lives, Greta says, and I’m here to help.
She takes us down the block and points at these two gigantic
red industrial dumpsters. We hoist her in to one and
follow her over the side. Greta holds her nose, flings clothes,
wrappers, old food, finds a hulking metal clothes rack,
grabs it. My wife spies a giant wooden box. Trunk, I think,
and see its load of old clothes, castoffs from others
who’ve grown past them. These we dig out of the way,
……………………..and we haul the old trunk out, down to the sidewalk.
……………………..We carry it back down the block: massive, swinging and full
……………………..of dust, furniture readymade, exactly what we need.
Tyler Robert Sheldon is the author most recently of Driving Together (Meadowlark Books, 2018) and Traumas (Yellow Flag Press, 2017). His poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Quiddity International Literary Journal, Coal City Review, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and other venues. He’s a Pushcart Prize nominee, holds an MA in English from Emporia State University, and is an MFA candidate at McNeese State University.