Drayfer’s Last Number
Let the Midnight Special
shine the ever-lovin’ light on me.
-- Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly)
At the camp Christmas party in 76,
the whole population crowded into the chow-hall.
Local congregations, the Charlotte Council
on Alcoholism, the Council on Aging,
and Planned Parenthood chipped in.
The Church Women United fixed popcorn balls
and candy apples, punch
with ice cream floating in it.
The kitchen crew baked star cookies sparkled
scarlet and green. In the middle of each table,
bright oranges piled in tin chaingang bowls
haloed with plastic holly, red berries,
and a white candle. Chaplain Sinclair
from Poplar Tent delivered the invocation:
a few tremulous words about freedom and transgression.
It was in their power, those convicts, to do right.
Amnesty twinkled in the sky above the concertina.
The Christ child was birthed in a shack
no bigger than the hole.
There was a Jewish boy – he looked black –
from Ahoskie up in Hertford County:
Ira Dreyfuss – went by Drayfer.
He’d been struck blind while down
and wore a yarmulke.
Two cooks hoisted him up on the steam table,
handed him his guitar, a big silver nickel-
plated brass National Steel from the 20s,
palm trees, hummingbirds, and volcanoes
scored into the glory of its torso.
Silent Night, White Christmas, Jingle Bell Rock,
I’ll Be Home for Christmas.
Drayfer could have been a free, seeing John on the lam.
His axe keened like a prowling wolf.
He played with a slide on his finger rigged
of a shin bone. His last number
was The Midnight Special,
a Leadbelly tune named after the train
that highballed by Sugarland Penitentiary
in Texas where Leadbelly had done time.
The legend went: if the Midnight Special
shined its light on a man, he’d be spirited
back to the free world –
about all a convict needed from Jesus,
the Midnight Special Himself.
The Bible was rife with unexpected fire.
As Drayfer neared the end, the men rose,
haltingly, one by one and sang along,
clean to the shimmering lick
of that last dwindling chord.
Drayfer was no boy at all.
Underside his forearm tracked blue numbers.
They all wore numbers.