When Joe Drew Russia As a Class Assignment

The rules were simple enough: draw the name
of a country from the box, get a book,
look up the facts, write them down. Joe mistook
a simple paper for a path to fame;
he'd learn the works: what makes the Russians tick,
what Russians think of this and that, how they
approach their lives and jobs, and how they play.
His stabs at research ran into one brick
wall after another: Russia was Red,
he was told at the library; the word
seemed to strike fear, as if the color burned
the throats and lips of those poor souls who said
the term out loud. But Joe was undeterred:
the more they told him no, the more he yearned

to learn; so he typed a letter and stuck
it in a business envelope addressed
to the Russian Ambassador. The rest
was easy: lick the stamp and trust to luck.
Next on his list, he went downtown and bought
a current copy of Soviet Life
at Rich's Cigar Store; with his jackknife,
he cut out the subscription form and shot
it off. Then he penned a personal note
to Joseph Stalin, asking him to ship
a loaf of Russian bread, and enough cheese
to share with his class, and perhaps a quote
he could use in his paper: a wry quip.
As an afterthought, he wrote: "P.S. Please!"

The magazine arrived, his first return!
Next, the Soviet Ambassador's third
secretary wrote to say he'd assured
Joe a stack of brochures, so he could learn
how great their system is, vis-à-vis ours,
which he characterized as decadent
and imperialistic. "Excellent!"
said Joe, who read the way a bear devours
a pot of honey, not missing a lick.
With Russians nibbling at his line, he fished
as one familiar with a hook...but caught
more than he bargained for. It made me sick
to see the black sedans again; I wished
myself aloft, but my pinions were shot.

Down Pilkington Road they crept, at a pace
designed to plant seeds of doubt in a strong-
willed mind. I wondered: What have I done wrong
this time? Did Old Man Janik plead his case
before a judge, since he thinks he controls
the swamp, Southern Pacific right-of-way
and all, where Stubby and I like to play,
and chases us on his frequent patrols,
armed with a shotgun full of rock salt? That
fantasy was dashed when the Buicks braked
in front of our white board fence, and a head
poked from a rolled-down window, snap-brimmed hat
and all, and called: "This here Joe's house?" I faked
nonchalance, though I saw Joe lying dead,

riddled with bullets from their tommy guns,
while they stood around and joked, cigarettes
dangling from their loose lower lips, placing bets
on who pumped in the most lead slugs, like Huns
at a barbarian turkey shoot. "Yes,"
I said, not wanting to suffer a fate
worse than death at their hands. "If you'll just wait...."
They sprang from their cars like jackals; my guess
was, they viewed me as the lookout, and Joe
would take it on the lam if I tipped him
off. Joe wandered out and a G-man moaned:
"It's him again," he bawled, "the radio
whiz kid." The situation went from grim
to comical, the way six grown men groaned

and shuffled their feet. I wanted to ask
what Joe had done this time to pull them from
their more important chores, and why so glum...
but my vocal chords weren't up to the task,
having swallowed a laugh. The spokesman spoke
with a Southern drawl: "Yo' daddy at home?"
"Nyet," said Joe. The men swayed like metronome
wands, set to grab their gats. "If that's a joke...."
said the G-man. But before they could haul
Joe off to prison, shackled hand and foot,
the folks drove up, and with a reprimand,
the G-men left, muttering about all
the Commie pinkos they had hoped to put
away that day, and all the contraband.

[First published in Poet Lore; reprinted in the 1998 chapbook Brother Joe.]