Poetry Drawer: Shake: Penance by Dr. Gale Acuff


I throw up my breakfast in Sunday School
–Cheerios and Tang–but Miss Hooker’s there
to take me to the bathroom and help me
hunch over and hack what’s left out of me.
Not much. I spit a few times and I’m done.
All finished?, she asks. Yes ma’am, I say. She’s
our teacher. We love her but I love her
best because one day we’ll get married

–I saw it in a dream the night after we
listened to her talk about Joseph and
Pharaoh. Pharaoh came to Joseph and asked
Do you know what my dream means? and Joseph
said, You bet, it means this and that, and he
got promoted from slave to good-as-king
so that night I dreamt about Miss Hooker
but it was no puzzle–I dreamed exact:

we were sitting on the sofa in our
house and watching cartoons and wrestling
and then more cartoons and eating popcorn
and sucking a chocolate milkshake, one
chocolate milkshake but two straws. My arm
was around her shoulder. My left arm. Her
right shoulder. Chocolate milkshakes made with
chocolate ice cream, and chocolate milk, so
they were as chocolaty as you can get.
Thorough, that is. Maybe it’s a good sign
that Miss Hooker and I go together
through and through. 100% chocolate,
that’s what we are. Maybe I’m like Joseph
after all. I mean as smart, or almost,
at least when it comes to my own dreams. Then

it was time for us to go to bed so
I kissed her and she kissed me–we kissed at
the same time, I mean, right flush on the lips.
Then we shook hands and went to bed. We kissed
again in the dark and said Goodnight. Then
I said, We forgot to take off our clothes.
Then we did but I couldn’t see too much
–I had one eye looking and one not so
if I sinned it was just 50%.
Then we woke and kissed and shook hands again
and made breakfast–Pop Tarts and bacon and
Kool-Aid–and went outside to play baseball
–well, we only just tossed the ball around.
We took a break for lunch–macaroni
–and at the table I suddenly said
I forgot to go to work today. She
laughed and laughed. Don’t be silly, she said–we’re
rich, remember
. Oh, yeah, I said. We kissed
again and I ate her macaroni
because she couldn’t finish it. Girls. Then
we watched TV. Then we took a nap. Then

we woke and went for a drive. I don’t know
how to drive, I said. That’s why this is
a dream
, she said. Oh, yeah, I said. I drove
us to the hospital so we could buy
a baby. They were having a sale so
we bought two and put them in the back seat
and by the time we got home they were grown.
Please allow us to introduce ourselves,
I said–we’re your parents. That’s nice, they said.
Can we have some money? Ask your father,
Miss Hooker said. Can we have some money,
they asked. No, I said–money doesn’t grow
on trees. Then I woke up. I was alone.

Miss Hooker even cleaned up my vomit
and shushed the other kids, who were laughing.
I hope they all go to Hell. I take that
back–they’re just jealous but I forgive them.
I sit down again and Miss Hooker
asks me how I’m feeling. Good enough to
make a woman out of you, I say. But

I’m not sure what that means. It just came.


I’ve been naughty so I’m in the closet
again, this time for hitting my sister.
I warned you not to hit girls, Father said.
In fact, I warned you not to fight at all.
Not only did you fight, but you fought girls.
A girl. And the girl was your sister. Good
God Almighty
. I have my head bowed and
my thumbs clasped behind my back. Behind my
butt, really. I think and try not to smile.
My butt. But my head’s down so he can’t see.
And he’s a lot taller and that helps, too.
What do you call those holes in your shoes, where
the laces go in and out like worms? I
don’t know. Look at me, Boy, he says. I look

up. I’m not going to spank you, he says.
No. I’m going to put you in a quiet
place, where you can think about what you’ve done
I don’t want to think about it, but I
don’t say so. Father’s plenty hot. If his
face was a fire and I had a hose, I’d
put it out and so much steam would rise that
he’d be all clouds above his neck and then
I could get away. March, he says. Go in
the hall closet and close the door behind
you. I’ll come get you when you’ve had enough
He means when he’s had enough, and I hope
he won’t forget me. Last time I almost
peed in my pants, I was in for so long.
When he opened the door I felt like that
guy in the Bible, that fellow who died
and came back to life, thanks to Jesus. So

much light and all at the same time. Even
all the darkness that was trapped inside and
came out with me couldn’t water it down.
If he’d said Cover your eyes I would have.
Now shame is what I have to cover up
and it’s no match for the brightness, either.
But of course my eyes adjusted. You’ve learned
your lesson now, I’ll wager
, Father says.
Go outside and play. I do but my heart
isn’t in it and, besides, I might see
my sister out here. That would be awkward.
The last time I saw her she was crying
and I caused her tears. She likes the Beatles
and I like the Dave Clark 5. She made fun
of the Dave Clark 5. So I pushed her down
even though she’s older and somewhat bigger
and I punched her on the shoulder. Now she
hates me but good, I’m sure. Apologise,

Father yells out the window. I’d rather
forgive and forget. There she is now, on
the swing set, going back and forth as if
she’s a pendulum on a clumsy clock.
I approach from one side so she can’t knock
me down. She’s swinging so hard the swingset
is jerking from the ground. Any faster
and she’ll have it walking across the yard.
I’m sorry I hit you, I yell, my words
like scattershot at her moving target.
Never mind, she says. How was the closet
this time?
Not bad, I say. I’m beginning
to like it. She laughs, but sounds like a bird
and stops swinging. You’re a brave little boy,
she says, and kisses me, then goes inside.
I take her place. I’m rising higher and

I’m not even swinging. Father calls me
from the kitchen window. Get in here, Boy,
he yells. His mouth is like a closet and
his words escape but they’re not innocent.
I go to the window. I said Come in,
he says. There are no closets outside so
I say, Make me. By Ned, I will, he swears.
He runs out with his belt in his hand and
his trousers sagging. You’re not a nice man,
I say to him. I stand with my arms out
to the sides and my eyes closed. Crucify
me, I say. I goddamned dare ya. He knocks
me down and wraps his belt around my throat.
This must be child abuse–I’ve heard about
this. When I open my eyes it’s dark–back

in the closet. A few minutes later
I’m freed–by my sister. We’ll run away,
she says. To England. To Liverpool or
London or Tottenham or Manchester
No, I say. I like it here. It’s our home.
Let him run away. Let’s kill him, she says.
No, I say. No future in that. Come in
here where it’s safe. She does. I close the door.
You’re right, she says. It’s like not being born.

Dr Gale Acuff taught English university courses in the US, China, and Palestine. He has been published in Ascent, McNeese Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Poem, Adirondack Review, Maryland Poetry Review, Florida Review, Slant, Poem, Carolina Quarterly, Arkansas Review, South Dakota Review, Orbis, and has authored three books of poetry, all from BrickHouse Press: Buffalo Nickel, The Weight of the World, and The Story of My Lives.

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