Order a Coke in Baton RougeAnd when they ask what kind, name what you’re thirsty for.
Might be 7-Up, Dr Pepper, Orange Crush. Might be Coke.
If you want to sound local from the start, ask Y’all got a soft drink?
They serve plenty of hard drinks. One family Thanksgiving
we mingled, all 18 of us sipping bourbon & water, coke,
something. & that time we got pulled over at midnight, high
school girls at the Tastee Freeze, police 3 feet away,
hollering through a bullhorn Get out of the car, all because
of Seagram’s VO, & all my excuses flat as a half-drunk Coke.
I bought mine at the gas station flying the Esso sign from when
they still put lead in gasoline & Daddy worked at the plant.
Double time, triple time—extra shifts meant extra money.
By then we all had places to be besides home. We were finally
a 2-car family & a good thing too.
He spent hours digging pits & hauling barrels. The labor gang,
they called it. Black men, white men. Makes me think
of gang labor & chain gangs, plantations & prisons. Men
with nicknames like Peanut, Slow Joe, & Yankee made
tetraethyl lead & slowly poisoned themselves. Could’ve sucked
on paint chips instead. Daddy wore a badge that measured his
body for lead. Too high & he’d have to switch to other chemicals
& other dangers, like walking into tanks of chlorine gas with 15
minutes of oxygen hanging from his belt, stories he kept
inside for years after the EPA phased out lead & the plant closed.
Instead of working the dog shift, Daddy worked on the house.
Read paperback thrillers. Left details off job applications
to hide his age. Finally a nickname from the plant got him contract
work at Exxon fixing trains & tracks. Christmas Eve a coker blew,
splintered the shop, belched its own sun into the sky. Lucky
it was after ice shut down the rails & everyone had gone home.
They could see that fireball from 20 miles away. Lead, sodium,
chlorine, phosgene, coke. Black men, white men, chemicals don’t care.
They say Coke quenches thirst & water quenches coke.
Thirst doesn’t always answer in kind.
Lynne Jensen Lampe was born in Newfoundland but raised mostly in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her poems appear in many journals, including Figure 1, Olney Magazine, Yemassee, The American Journal of Poetry, and LIT Magazine. The poem “Stirring the Ashes” was a finalist for the 2020 Red Wheelbarrow Poetry Prize. Her first full-length collection, Talk Smack to a Hurricane, is forthcoming from Ice Floe Press, Sept. 2022. She lives with her husband and two dogs in mid-Missouri, where she edits academic books and journals. Twitter: @LJensenLampe.
Banner Art: Drowned Version #4, a visual poem by Robert Frede Kenter. Twitter: @frede_kenter.