Morning Coffee

Leather pyrography portrait by Jas Mardis

     There is a place in my throat
for when the coffee has turned cold
    for when the beans are reclaiming their shape
     and, like freed men,   begin to search out their broken kin
   like fools think it will be in Heaven
    and that somehow there will be a mist of Grandma
      holding a pan of warm bread or a bowl of second slain beast stew

   And my swallowing  is stopped at the tongue
       and I make a bowl to cradle the lacking brew
    and I can see my Grandfather’s thin lips blowing over his saucer
          of poured out   percolated   early morning   liquor
   that still wafts and wakes  the most loved place of my entire known life
   until it calms into a mellow potion  for my brother and I to fight over

       I beg my tongue to river that swallow into my throat
    like I begged my Grandfather  not to leave
            and go over the hill  where he broke open the earth
       where other men died  and were swallowed by the dirt
where one man watched a Birmingham Steel girder slice his head apart
       where White men claimed  splendor they did not put hands to

      Begged him to stay at that morning table
          where we fell asleep scrapping at his leftover grits   dry toast and runny eggs
    begged him to pick me to wear his scuffed and scraped hard hat
             that swallowed our tiny, boy heads
       and gave us echoes of his foot falls across wood floors
           and reverberations of the swooshing air thru the opening door
      and washed our blindedness with a screech of the screens hinges
            before being taken off and tossed into the station wagon

       And I tilt back my head
   like I did as a boy    and wait for the whiskered kiss
      of my Grandfather’s cooled breath
   to push the last of this morning’s brew into my remembered
                unaged soul

Jas Mardis is a 2014 inductee to The Texas Literary Hall of Fame and a leather and fabric artist

My DaddyUncleCousinWifeNem

Negroes eating ice cream in front of hardware store  Farm Security Administration Archive Lee Russell
Negroes eating ice cream in front of hardware store Farm Security Administration Archive Lee Russell

On the phone my Uncle EJ is recovering from a coughing fit and I am confused when it morphs into a rasping laugh and his signature, “Ooooh, boy“, then, “Jr. you’d be surprised at how little distance there was back in those times between a man being your Daddy or your Uncle!” Again, he laughs so heartily that he has to fight off another fit of coughing, but eventually settles himself down. Another, “Oooooh, boy” follows and I wait patiently for him to explain.

On this call we have been talking about my failure to find the marriage license for my parents in the Union Parish Records Archive. I’ve been at this task for years and am calling him from a Motel room in Bueno Vista, Arkansas. “James Jr, you are not going to find that record anywhere in Arkansas because your Father had run out of Arkansas marriages. He come and got my ‘57 Chevy and ran Route 63 to that big Bridge right into Mississippi and Greenwood to get hitched.” I look down at the cell phone and imagine a hot rod chase with multiple grandpappy’s wielding shotguns and tossing empty moonshine bottles out of car windows. They’re probably yelling, “Git back here!”…Again, my Uncle’s, “Ooooh, boy!” coughing and laughing fit brings me back to the present. I interject, “WHAT?!” “Unc, how do you run out of Arkansas Marriages?

Those days, with my Uncle EJ leaning hard into his 89th year of life and no longer able to travel back home for the yearly grave cleaning and family events, my calls to his San Francisco, California home meant everything to us both. I have been recording these talks because of their tendency to go off the hinges. “James Jr, the Clerk of Courts wouldn’t write a new Marriage Bond to my Brother because he was officially still under his previous one!” …and there is a burst of energetic guffaw so strong that I don’t need the phone to hear it. The speaker distorts and crackles with the waves of exploding cackling and I wonder if I should offer to call him back later. There are a series of exclamations that include, “Oh Lord”, “Jesus” and various versions of “Son of a GUN”, along with the surprised calling of my Father’s first wife’s name, “Stella Mae”.

The pen that I have been scribbling notes with is now snapped and pouring a river of blue ink onto the notebook and surface of the Motel table. “Your Father and Stella Mae had run off from one another and that marriage about a year after getting hitched. Her Mother had signed off on it.” He ignores my question and continues, “That’s about the same time I met your Aunt Mary up at that lil club shack and was running back and forth trying to catch her again.” Again, he ignores my question and I start to wonder if I am talking or just thinking inside my head about what to ask. I catch the phrase, “Ooooh, boy, she was some kinda gal...” and this time I stop him with my actual voice, “WAIT! Who was “some kinda gal”? and he stops the memory, saying, “Who?“. Now, we both are confused.

Jr. I’m talking about Rosel, now. We had come up to Camden and was running around on a Saturday night. I come up on a little ol’ thang who told me she was Mary’s older Sister, then she asked why was  I out here calling her Sister’s name in the street like a dog?” “Ohhh, boy. I was standing about three feet over that lil gal and she had her fist cocked back when she come up to me”. In the Motel, I check the cassette tape for time remaining and hold on for the ride. I just went from not finding a marriage license to an unresolved separation, court clerks, an unpaid bond, my Aunt and Mother “in dem streets” and my 6’4″ Uncle about to get punched out by someone three feet shorter,  but ready.

He picks up again, “Pay attention, James Chris. Yo Mother, well, she was still just a girl then, run me back up the road about asking  around for her sister.”, He coughs, then continues, “An’ just before she lets loose on me…up comes J.C.!” I ask, feeling lost in the night’s events some forty years later, “From Where?!”We both laugh thru the speaker phone.

J.C. had rode with me up to Camden and was having a pretty good time.” Uncle EJ calms down but there is a lifting in his voice. I ask, “So, they met because he had to save you in a juke joint from an angry midget?” and the phone again erupts from our guffaws. I follow up with, “Wait, where was Stella Mae?” and he snorts, “Most likely with her new fella back up the road in ElDorado!” When I remember to check the cassette recorder it was stopped, so I turned it over and tried to continue. My Uncle is a laughing mess on the phone and there is somebody knocking at his apartment door. Listening to digitized recording now I hear a woman’s voice say that she wants in “on this laugh party you are having“. On the phone my Uncle quickly wraps up the story by saying, “Well, James Jr, you can probably figure out the rest.” I ask, “So, did you and Aunt Mary ever get back around to each other?” and Uncle EJ responds, “Ohhh, boy. The next time I saw ol’ Mary was when Granny LaFears delivered my first niece about a year later. I gotta run, James Jr. See ya in the funny papers.

The next day at the Archives I easily found the Marriage License for my Father and Stella Mae Coldure. On the license is permission granted by her Mother for the 16 year old to marry my 19 year old father. In the digitized archive is another surprise marriage record. I call my Uncle EJ early in the afternoon and when he answers I say, “So, who exactly is, Miss Tandy Oscar?” He holds the line for a few seconds then retorts, “Ooooh, boy, James Jr…seems like I’ve lost some memories since last we spoke...”

Copyright to

The Happy Elephants of Three Creeks

“You’ll never forget the sound of a happy elephant, Junior” is the way that Uncle Heavy started telling me about one of the craziest ways that segregation benefitted the Negroes of Three Creeks, Arkansas in the 1930’s. “Blacks couldn’t attend the festivities when the Fall Harvest brought people and the people who liked people’s money, to town”. In those years Uncle E.J. earned the nickname, “Heavy” because he was a thick boy and “stretched 6 feet and four inches above the ground”, as Grandpa Herman would say. He was the eldest of the Mardis 8, but had an older brother, Levi, who taught him nearly everything he knew about farming and following. One of those lessons was “Seeing what they don’t want you to see: Yourself getting out of here!”

“Seeing what they don’t want you to see: Yourself getting out of here!”

Hollem, Howard R., photographer

“Junior”, Uncle Heavy pitched his resonant baritone voice across the front seat of my red Cadillac and made a patting motion. His huge palm was stuck on the end of a ham shaped forearm sticking out of  the shirt’s cuff folded up to his elbow. I was twenty-six that year and drove my Uncle around his old town listening to these remembrances. The patting palm meant to slow down and anticipate a sudden turn off the main dirt road. Nearly every time that road led  into a small lane that would open up into a clearing with shack-like houses or barns. I slowed and watched for the rare truck that might be coming along behind.

His way of giving direction was to make a “humpf” sound just  ahead of a turning in spot. Uncle Heavy…humpfed and stabbed his meaty finger toward an indentation to the right of the road.  “Careful now! Ol’ Henry Leland didn’t know about dipping into Jimmy Jolly’s Crossing when he built this Caddy”, and he laughed a sonorous bellow that always reminded me of a donkey’s bray. I turned.

Sixty bumping feet after that turn and thru a whip of small tree switches there was an opening. A few feet further and a lake, rimmed by huge white boulders, appeared. A ragged line of about twelve fishermen with cane poles leaned against a cooler were cast into the lake. In Arkansas, you wave and give a holler. In unison the men threw their hands into the air and welcomed the bouncing red Cadillac into Three Creeks-Union Arc-Junction City, Arkansas. Uncle Heavy pointed to a spot of grass and I parked in the shade of half-dead oak tree. One of the older men squinted and yelled out, “Eurman?, Well, I’ll jus’ be damned!” We climbed out as all of the men approached with big grins.

I was introduced to my great-great-cousin, “Tumor” or Mr. Reverend Percy. According to Uncle E.J., in his formative years learning the Gospel Mr. Percy was practiced his preaching on mules in the field. He looked at me for a few seconds and declared, “Hell, son…wit dem shoe-sized ears you ain’t nobody’s boy if yo Daddy ain’t J.C.!” “Whatchusay?” another man witnessed and a few others asked, “Son, I knowed yo Mama, Miss Rose, all thru school. How’s yo Aunt Malveis doing up in Dallas? You got Mr. Herman’s taste for cars and Miss Adla’s bug eyes!” And just like that my whole genealogy spilled out on the ground.

Even at twenty-six, once a group of thirteen old men start up you might as well be a four-year old. They laughed at half told stories and recalled entire lives within minutes of coming together. One pole whipped into a half moon with a fish on the line and we moved the crowd to watch the catch. It was a large channel catfish, about eleven pounds once the “cousin” called Ben-Roy brought it on to the bank. Staring at that incredible catch caused Uncle Heavy to ask Tumor if he remembered “the elephants from the Circus?” That question caused all of the men to grin broadly as they each had a remembrance or family folklore to repeat about seeing exotic animals right outside their homes every day for almost two weeks.

Turning to me, Tumor’s face was sullen but quickly turning into a mischief. “The Whites wouldn’t let us in the Circus, J.C. Jr.” He assumed correctly that I was called after my Father. “I mean they had a man standing at the Circus field with a two-barrel scat gun ‘cross his ches’”, and Tumor stood erect with a stern look on his face. Another man chimed in, “Us kids had a fit about dat and a few folks got the switch took ‘em to shut up about it”. Tumor picked up the story, “But GOD had different plans about it all!” The group of men laughed and slapped one another on the shoulder. “On about the third day after the start up of thangs we was up and in the field”, Tumor turned to his right and wiped his hand in the air toward the vast fields. “…an’ son, let me tell you this. I figured Gabriel had commenced to blowing the final horn of glory when dem elephants run into this creek and blowed their noses that very mornin’!” Uncle Heavy picked up the story with a big laugh, “Yo Granny come up from way over yonder”, his big paw stabbed the area where a line of trees now stood, “Her hoe was up and she was a runnin’! Most of the kids was in the field, but yo Daddy was still a lil’ boy and was in the house with Miss Verta Mae watching over him.“  He wiped his eyes at the memory and the spectacle of her running and seeing the growing crowd of animals.

Tumor laughed too at the remembrance and the reactions of the boys, girls and mostly women to the Circus animals being brought to their creek. He recalled, “Not much got done for a while with errbody stealing away to see what they had been refused jus’ days ago”. The men agreed  that after thinking about it there were just a few elephants and two giraffes brought down to the creek, but for them it might as well have been tigers, bears and the bearded fat lady, too. Most of the men were off to other jobs in the area and missed the excitement. “Had it not been for the stacks of poop dropped along the road my Daddy woulda called me a liar!”, Tumor laughed and added, “Heavy,do you remembers how ol’ man, W.C. sent his boys down here to the creek tryna keep us from stealin’ one of dem elephants?” and the men bent over in laughter.

Copyright JasMardis 2023 All Rights Reserved

Woman in Red

Poem for an Unseen Woman

    I thought of you

   wearing red and looking at your face

        in the lake water that covered 

     your bare feet

       that lapped at your ankles

     that reached for your calves

 and wished for the waving hem of your

           yellow flowered sun dress

        I was standing behind you

   where the sand agreed with the pavement 

       where the flowers were real

     where the water does not reach

    until the wind wants chaos and 

        time for sun dresses   has passed 

except for in photographs.

      You left your sandals 

     just ahead of where I am settled in

   my back was turned 

         my interest was caught up in 

     things that I can’t recall just now

     I heard the tumbling of them fall

    I caught a shadow leaving you walking 

          it stretched and circled over asphalt 

      then grass   then sand  and rejoined you

  at the water’s edge

          then it was swallowed in a rippling wave of white bubbles and dark water 

      that ran against the caramel skin 

    of your legs


    now I’m waiting for you to turn

     not fully around

    just   waiting for a shift of your head

       out of the afternoon sun

     just a tilt    a taste of skin toward dry land

       I’m holding my breath 

     I’m counting the flowers of your dress

    I’m turning that same shade of red

         in your windbreaker 

     I’m telling myself 

           to pick up your sandals 

       I’m hoping to exchange them 

     for a smile

once I finally see your face

Jas Mardis

MARDIS The Human Book

Literally— Come Check ME Out — Saturday, September 10, 2022
My “Human-Book” is titled: “Grasshopper Pie”.
How it works: Learn More about this program: click the graphic

The Dallas Public Library invites you to check out a person instead of a book!

Welcome to the library of people! Instead of borrowing a book, indulge in the experience of checking out a person. Challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue.

The Human Library allows people to come together in an informal, one on one setting, to have comfortable dialogue about often uncomfortable topics. Our human books are drawn from fascinating members of our communities who have fascinating stories that you MUST hear.

How it works: Come in during the hours of 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and spend 20 minutes reading the following “books” (to be announced). Have a conversation, ask questions, stay open and learn.

The goal is to publish people as open books and to challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue.

Learn more and register via the Dallas Public Library’s website here. This program is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Friends of the Dallas Public Library.

Jas Mardis: Hand and Laser Exhibition

May 2021 I return to the display case of the Main Lewisville Library. I’m displaying laser enhanced designs and hand pyrography items with small quilts and the new wood hangers and candleholders. The laser engraving machine is part of the Library’s HIVE MAKERS SPACE. I was introduced to the progressive creative space during my 2019 Library case exhibition and enjoy the knowledge and skills of the HIVE staffers.

Jas Mardis: Hand & Laser Pyrography and Portraits runs May 1-29, 2021. Mask up and see the work, then tour THE HIVE. #LPLthehive Tell them I sent you!

What He Say, Daddy?, What He Say?!

When we were boys, my brother and I had the run of Cypress Street in North Little Rock, Arkansas on oursl porchia Summer visits down home. We ate like kings and fished almost daily between stints of wrestling and throwing rocks at wasps nests and some, mean-as-hell, blue jays.

Early mornings broke thru a small window above the kitchen sink. It was always lined with the hard-skinned, green tomatoes from Madear’s garden below. Every morning, sipping cooled black coffee from Daddy S.L.’s saucer and crunching bites of beautifully browned toast, coated with runny egg and grits, there was little else to satisfy our boyhood needs.

I am certain that the early morning dew of Arkansas is medicinal. We never remembered our shoes and wore threadbare pajamas when walking Daddy S.L. to his blue and silver station wagon, but we were sorely protected from the 5:45a.m. chill. I think now that his smooth, baritone chuckle was our warmth as we skittered back into the kitchen to argue over the last sip of cold coffee and bites of breakfast left on his plate.  We would be curled asleep beneath the small, press board and vinyl table within minutes of his leaving…every morning.

He returned home at 3:30pm and walked in giant steps thru the curled up grandkids watching the black and white half hour of Lone Ranger and a local BOZO The Clown Show. We made it a good luck charm to touch the dirt dusted leg of his work pants as he swiped by. In the kitchen MaDear hard fried them palm-sized perch and boiled hot dogs and beans for the kid’s dinner. We heard them kiss.

Other afternoons he stuck his head thru the door and called for us to “come run with me”.  On those afternoons we headed down to the ballpark at Whitmore Circle to watch men play baseball. The best part of those “runs” were the Mexican tamale cart vendors who surely over delivered on those one dollar, corn husk wrapped bundles. But, the best thing  ever about those “runs” was a singing ball player, they called, “Big Cole”.

From the dugout Big Cole ran thru, what I imagined were, old songs; rifts of blues and names of women and men who had done him wrong. He was older than the players and rarely made it to the plate. I recall him swatting a slow lobbed ball over the Pitcher’s outstretched glove just once. He couldn’t “run slow”, the men teased Big Cole, and he slung the bat and settled back into the dugout. After awhile he began to hum, then riff on the idea of  finding a woman who could “wait til the bottle run dry”. “What He say, Daddy?” my bug-eyed query brought chuckles from the grown ups.

Again, Big Cole riffed on about Birmingham not being a ham at all! We oughta see the one up dat gals draws! And me, “What He say, Daddy? What HE SAY?” Soon, recounting stories of thunderous home runs were overshadowed by the salty tongue of Big Cole and a few others trying to jump into the rowdy workman’s calling.

Driving home, Daddy S.L. said that Big Cole was a “Caller” for the Gandy men who worked to straighten the tracks. The heavy loads of trees being harvested  from deep in the woods would damage the rail lines and could warp the creosoled drenched ties. He said the “Gandy Dancers” and work crews from the Penitentiary “throwed” them back in line. Big Cole sang to the men and got everybody on the same rhythm to make the job easier.

Daddy S.L. said that Big Cole hung around places and picked up stories to use in his songs. Later, in July, he drove me to the Little Rock Stock Yards and we parked near the junction where myriad train tracks snaked and fingered alongside the warehouses for delivery. We left the car windows down and a warm breeze had me nodding.

I awoke to a shadowy clanking of iron rods and deep laughter. A White man suddenly shouted, “Gwine up to de quarter head”, and men moved in unison toward a curved section of tracks. I sat up and leaned out the station wagon’s window just as the White man made a jerking arm motion and yelled out to the men.

On the hot breeze a long moan built quickly to a wailing, then nasally passage in Big Cole’s, familiar cadence.

Aahhh! Aaa-Ooohhh-Oh-Ohh-Oh

Aahh—Two lil’ gals was court’n Me

One was blind & One caint see

My Grandma put a switch to me

When I come home wit a kiss on me

Ol boys pull t’gether

Ol boys pull t’hether—HUH!

At “HUH!” the men shuttered, stomped, whipped their iron rods in a hard, short burst and I saw the track jut to the left.

He did it twice more before the White man gestured with his hand and the men halted. On the wind, that carried dry and hot back to the station wagon window, was laughter. Behind the guffaws came a question. “You couldn’t hide dem gal’s kisses, Cole?!”

Daddy S.L. shook his head, chuckled and started up the family car.

This story first appeared in the blog, Three Days In The City. All copyrights reserved.

Jas. Mardis is an awarded Poet, Radio Commentator, Editor and Fabric Artist. He is a 2014 Inductee to The Texas Literary Hall of Fame.