Alvin Goins

Alvin Goins was a day laborer living in Rhea County, Tennessee, during the early and mid-years of the twentieth century. He was a Melungeon, a descendant of Portuguese ancestry. He was also illiterate. Yet, he had an extraordinary gift for numbers, able to calculate sums mentally in seconds, qualifying him, in the parlance of the day, as an “idiot savant.” His special trick was telling a person how old he or she was in months, weeks, days, and hours given the person’s birthday. I met him once, but the experience left an indelible impression on the boy I was.
In the years following, I came to understand that Alvin was a priest of the woods and orchards. Here is my tribute to him.
          Alvin Goins
          An old man, hatless, cups a crow’s call
          to his ear, culls patiently the false peeps
          of night. Tomorrow he would pray
          for strong feet to carry him
          beyond the gored ridge where
          blackberries tangle and run.

          There he salts his day
          under the sun, picks shade
          with care, begs no one’s
          understanding. In second, silent
          consideration he whittles away
          the landscape.

          cars roll up in dust, windows flash
          in a mirror of unrecognizable
          faces. Perhaps a voice comes
          to scatter his remains.
          Instinctively he crouches, bends
          like a shadow, his back
          a question mark against
          all that light.

          Safety lies in a name calling
          his own, to which
          he now draws closer.
          A man, quick to identify
          himself as a boy
          Alvin once knew points
          to a face
          behind freckles:

          “Alvin, this is my son.”

          With a candor from which he
          will soon grow aloof, the boy
          swallows the apple in his throat,
          gapes at the enormous head
          framed in white.

          “Alvin, I told him how you
          could cipher, how you could count
          a man down from the day
          he was born.”

          By such a trick
          the old man has countless
          times bought a piece
          of his life, sweated and grinned
          that those grown dangerous
          wanted little more
          of him.

          Now the boy will learn
          that a man has so many
          digits, like days, to subtract
          from the rest of
          his life.

          “Now, let’s see, when
          Were you born?”

          “February 17th, 1943.”

          But already the old man knows
          the answer, has it
          lodged in his head. It is up
          to the boy to find
          how short are the ways
          of his passing here, or failing that,
          how there is no
          such thing as a chance

          The boy listens, watches
          beyond years as the old
          man, counted a fool
          for the duration of everyone’s
          memory, supplies the remainder
          of all a ten-year-old
          has yet to lose.

          “Now, let’s see. You’ve been on
          this earth 3740 days. That’s
          99763 hours.”

          Lost in dateless thought
          the boy disremembers himself
          as he was, discovers to
          uncertain advantage the perishable
          appetite of words.

          “How did you do that!”

          Quickly he tucks himself
          under his father’s arm, peers
          up at the shadowed face
          glistening like a demon’s. His
          father, inclined to the old man’s
          purposes, grins as one never seen
          before. Horizons shift, and a
          boy’s certain footing becomes
          a blear and blinding blackness,
          his only direction. Blinking
          he awakens to laughter
          of himself grown suddenly

          “Why, honey, there’s nothing
          to it. You come live
          with me for six months
          and I’ll teach you to count
          like that.”

          Stray hand scuffs knee
          as the boy shrinks from
          shadow-threatening day. In
          mock debate his fate is
          decided, sealed from once
          familiar view by one
          whose face escapes focus
          in heartdance anticipation.

          “No, Alvin, I guess I’d better
          keep him with me. I might
          get lonely without him.”

          The old man grins flawlessly,
          tips invisible hat, uproots feet
          once more. With the blood juice
          of berries staining hands
          overgrown and contagious for
          weeds, the old man
          departs, his harvest wages gathered
          in the first fruits of a day
          dreamed in dust.

          Now the boy sits a man,
          panting after memory of one
          whose shallow remains untroubled
          the crumbling earth. His dogtrot
          paths, grown up now, lay buried
          like a secret at his feet.
          All that are left are his tale
          and its telling – given to a boy
          by degrees grown accustomed
          to remote places and misdirected

          Carefully he uncovers the decaying years, seeks to trace
          some traceless loss taken
          root in the pulse of his fingers.
          A child blooms unencumbered,
          pillowed in the shadow-lace of
          clouds escaped from lingering
          notice. To an old man’s lip
          music he awakens caressed
          by a coverlid dance of beams.

          Hipped in berries they recall
          forsaken paths, crouch in the
          ragged shadow of a crow
          overhead. Tomorrow they would pray
          for tireless feet to carry them
          beyond the far-flung fields
          where overcast and trodden seeds
          of time remain unnumbered.
**Featured Image Source: Bust van een kale man – Rembrandt van Rijn, 1628-1631/ Rijks Museum, Amsterdam


  1. Eddie, both sides of my family were from Graysville. As a youngster we were up there pretty much every Sunday. I can’t tell you how many times my Dad would stop the car and talk to Alvin. He had known Alvin since he was a kid. Alvin was almost always sitting by the side of the road whittling. Always a smile.Dad would always throw math problems at him. He never hesitated on a one. Your poem took me back as if I were there yesterday. Thank you so much.

  2. My sons especially would have loved that man. I wonder if anyone ever taught Mr. Alvin to play chess?

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