The Houston Place
by Fred Bassett
How different now the pasture, nurturing
scrub pines, sweet gums, blackjacks —
the livestock long gone. But Houston’s horse
is yet alive in my mind, racing up
to Mitchum’s Store, wild‑eyed, soaking wet,
blowing with the rider’s hysteric laughter.
Then looming beside the counter, Houston
gulped that sweet swallow in one caught breath
and rode off the horse caught again
between the steel bit of his reining hand
and the whip of that cruel right arm.
“Boy, you watch out for Houston,”
Loomis Mitchum said shaking his head.
Somebody’s gonna have to kill him
if the law don’t get him first.
I needed the name but not the warning.
Straight rows of loblolly pines claw deep
into the fields Houston’s boy last plowed.
Too soon, the mantle of manhood fell
upon his shoulders, calling him from play
in the roadside ditch — his father
doing hard time in Kilby Prison.
I watched the boy’s progress with the plow
and admired the way he managed the team,
as I passed by all that summer,
never stopping to hear his name
until the frantic arms of his mother flagged
me to the rubble of their barn.
There amid her squalling children,
we hoisted the tin and timber inch by inch.
Then crawling beneath the twisted beams,
I dragged Ernest Houston’s broken frame
from darkness into the light of day.
But alas, I was no latter-day Son of Man.
Silence has claimed the sagging tenant shack,
but I hear Essie Houston’s soulful voice.
Kneeling over her bone‑shattered son
stretched on the rear seat of my old Ford,
she pleaded with God, over and over,
as we sped toward the emergency room.
When the silent doctor shook his head,
summed up her life in one terse lamentation:
“Trouble! Trouble! Trouble!
That’s all I’ve ever known!”
We left the boy at the funeral home.
I left her back at the Houston Place.
Home from college that fall morning,
I thought I’d hunt again by the Tallapoosa,
but driving down that river road,
I stopped instead at the Houston Place,
stopped to hold a lifeless boy in my arms,
stopped to share a mother’s deepest sorrow.
And I would share her pain once more,
but I alone am here to mark the day.
A native of Roanoke, Alabama, now living in Greenwood, South Carolina, Fred Bassett’s poems have been published in more than 50 journals and anthologies. He also has four books of poetry and two novels, South Wind Rising and Honey From A Lion.” This poem is included in his poetry collection The Old Stoic Faces the Mirror and is a “then” and “now” poem based on places, like The Houston Place, that were special to Bassett growing up in Alabama. After writing the poem, he returned to Alabama to try and find Essie Houston. He eventually found her and discovered that her husband had gone to prison, she divorced him and went to work as a nurse and later retired and moved back to the country. He last talked to her by phone in 2010; she died in 2011 at age 96. Read Bassett’s previous poems published in Deep South here.