Poke Salad

By  |  November 10, 2016
Untitled #12 (Heterotopia), by Karine Laval Untitled #12 (Heterotopia), by Karine Laval

Yesterday your old daddy was nearly a goner.

Let me tell you.

There’s an old song on one of these long-plays you sent last year for Christmas. “Poke Salad Annie, gators got your granny,” something like that. Well, old Poke Salad Annie and her no ’count daddy don’t have a thing to eat, so Annie goes out and picks her daddy a mess of greens in what they call a poke sack, which is I believe how the plant got its name—

Now, that song sounds pretty good coming out of those speakers I put together last year. Good sounds! Since your old daddy got retired, he has a lot of time to just sit and think. I put on the long-plays and watch the boats just easing down the river, and I start to feel sort of romantic. Like old Ishmael. How did old Ishmael put it? “I rejoice in my spine.” Whoa. 

Whoa! I get thoroughly philosophical with some good sounds, babydoll.

(I know I’m talking your ear off, and I can tell I woke you up, but I forget the time difference, and to tell you the truth, I’m making some pretty good progress on my Heinekens, here. You can’t fault your old daddy for that.)

But getting back to poke salad: it grows down here and people do eat it. You can probably find it growing wild out in California, too. Look it up: P-O-K-E salad. 

Right, like salad.

Well, the water went down in that back lot of mine enough so I could get out there in my regular shoes to cut the weeds, and I found this plant that I know is what they’re calling poke salad in that song. Seeing it was Thanksgiving, I thought, I’m going to treat myself. (I’m telling you, I eat just fine down here, baby. You don’t have to worry about that.) I tossed the leaves in a bowl, sprinkled some vinegar. Man. Talk about delicious. It might have been the best mess of greens I’ve ever consumed. I mean that was an excellent salad.

Then old Charlie knocked on the door to bring me a plate of turkey. Now, you must think your old daddy is alone out here on the river, but Charlie, he’ll deign to come over sometimes and shoot the shit with the likes of me. He’s the one built that “camp” next door with the two-story wharf that thoroughly obstructs my peripheral view of the river. Charlie was a regional something-or-other for British Petroleum, so he did all right.

Anyhow, I was neighborly and offered him some of my poke salad. Charlie took one look and said, “Nason, you can’t eat that!”

Charlie can be kind of an arrogant outfit. Take for example the time he tried to tell me division by zero did not result in infinity, when you and I and Stephen Hawking all know it sure as shit does. Whenever I get contrary, Charlie gives me that look, like I’m just the local color around here.

So I said, “Buddy, I can and will.”

He said, “Man, that stuff is poison!”

I said, “The hell you say,” and proceeded to eat my poke salad.

After Charlie left, I sat down at the computer—

(Did I tell you I got the Internet? The next time you come down, it’ll be there for you. I have it in mind that one of these days you’ll use this place as a base of operations. You don’t have to always stay at your granddad’s. You’re welcome any time.

Uh hunh.

Uh hunh.

You’re saying Okay, but I know how your mind works: Man, I ain’t never going to do that. Let me tell you something: one day I saw a house leaning sideways, and I thought to myself, I’ll never live in a house like that. Five years later, I was living in that very house. You don’t know what you’ll do.)

Anyway, come to find out Charlie was right. I’ve got one word for you, baby: phytolaccatoxin. You get enough of that and you’re in trouble. “Expect convulsions, prostration.” Expect prostration! I only had about eight leaves, but before long the undersides of my feeps was tingling. The undersides of my feeps! I was sweating through my clothes, I had shortness of breath. I like to not made it to the bathroom, if you know what I’m saying.

When I came to, I was prostrate, in the dark, on the bathroom floor. I managed to sort of cock myself to the side on my knee and flip over, but, man, that’s all I had in me. I thought, hell, Nason, what have you done to yourself now? I looked in the direction of the Lord to say my last prayers, and I’ll tell you what I saw, baby. Just listen. 

I saw a shaft of moonlight coming in through the window over the commode, and spinning in that moonlight, I saw a galaxy. I’m telling you, a galaxy. Then one of those palmetto bugs shot across the light like a goddamned comet. I heard its wings whir and that slap when it hit the wall. 


And I thought: well, okay.

And that’s what I’m calling to tell you.

You can come down here whenever you want, and I’ll be happy to have you, even though I know you don’t want to be down here when you’re down here. And I don’t want you down here out of a sense of duty. You got no duty to me. Let me ask you something. Who were those old boys that walked through the flames? 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that’s right. Those old boys walked through fire and they survived.

And that’s what I’m calling to tell you. 

I walked through flames, babydoll, and I survived.

Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American

Stephanie Soileau has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Ecotone, Tin House, New Stories from the South, and elsewhere, and has been supported by fellowships from the Wallace Stegner Fellowship Program at Stanford University, the Camargo Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and now lives in Portland, Maine.