Sunday, August 17, 2003 12:00AM EDT


Dividing Waters

PAUL JONES did the first part of his growing up in Charlotte. A graduate of N.C. State and of Warren Wilson College -- where he studied computer science and literature, respectively -- Jones is the director of (The Public's Library) and a member of the faculties of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Information and Library Science at UNC. Jones is a contributing editor to the Health Anthology of American Literature and the author of the chapbook "What the Welsh and Chinese Have In Common." Jones is blessed to live with the lovely and talented Sally Greene and Tucker Jones, a future cell biologist and Lego master.


Memory, which may not hold so tightly to history, is often still true in the larger sense. The Park Road Shopping Center, the remembered location of this poem, was the first modern mall -- although we would now call it a strip mall -- in Charlotte in 1956. Brown vs. Board of Education was decided on May 17, 1954. To my young, and now older mind, the opening of the shopping center and the Supreme Court decision were concurrent.

This poem is based on the number 7. Seven syllables per line, seven lines per stanza and seven stanzas for the poem.

Signs divided the waters
when all the creeks were rerouted
around the evangelist's
father's field and crops withered
as the shopping center sprouted
and red hills of clay mounted
in red dust and oily mists.

Even their hair was crimson:
men at break -- the setting sun --
their hard work clinging to them
made them all seem one red race
but too soon they were replaced
-- as if by some magic whim --
by clean careful concrete men.

What was to come next was grand:
a new J.C. Penney's store
with tiles that set departments
apart like pools of rain
that captured only one tint:
the boy's section was lime green,
the toys brown, sports blue and more.

My grandmother took me in
-- I think I was about four --
and the grand old man himself
held the door as in we poured
to gawk at the full shelves,
wonderfully uniform bins,
and the tall tight-lipped women.

Thirsty in all this outpour,
I looked for water fountains
and found two flanking a door
one shiny metal marked "White"
and a white one called "Colored"
new but with a dripping drain
still the colored one seemed right.

I stepped up for a cool sip;
one hand bravely on the knob
thinking I had made the slip.
With a rough yank, I was robbed
of my try for those colors
and shoved over to the other
by my silent grandmother.

But there the water ran red.
My lips looked like they had bled
a blood common to all kids;
the drips draining on the tiles
ran into the Young New Styles
section like Biblical curses.
I drank deep and almost burst.