Origin Blues: An Elegy
after Eliot Khalil Wilson
I come from the mixing truck and the calloused hand,
the idling engines and the rear view dreams;
I come from the gravel-paved court, the charcoal cookouts
and bare chests swimming in cinder block pools.
I come from a long line of bartered time,
flights of stairs hammered one into the next.
I come from the borrowing stock, the shaded workshop
of ant farms, the oil cans, the rusted bike rims.
I come from the coffee and pipe-tobacco porch,
I come from the wrought-iron handrails and the cawing crows;
afraid of debts, afraid of broken-down automobiles,
skies bleeding pink, stacks of wood cut for the stove at night.
And I believe what they say about my skin:
sun-etched, stitched with scars, 100 proof,
tiny hairs burned behind the welder’s mask;
the howling dog, the wolf scratching at the moonlight,
though every night the moon gathers its stars and leaves.
So, old man, father dead twenty two years,
I know too well what clings to our screen-door souls.
Not in the ground ever, your flannel-clad arms;
not in the ground now the gnarled curve of your fist.
I come from salt-water beaches
and the stinging nettle’s grip. I come from dogwood.
I come from newspapered tables and watermelon rinds.
My safe distance and your not leaving—almost the same.
I come from iron and smoke
though you couldn’t anchor down your anvil,
though the metal-latched doors snaked shut.
And I will tell you some more of my memory of you
now that you live in the lapping waves of the bay:
fourth of July fireworks at twilight
children clamoring around your knee caps
trying to touch the hard line of your jaw—
whiskey laughter booms and they cry more, more.
We were kids. It was the summer after dad died. Mom had a AAA “trip tic” and a pop-up camper hooked to the Ford Explorer. That thing had so many flat tires and mishaps that we named it SB, short for shit box. I learned to drive on long stretches of highway in the pitch-black night during a lightning storm somewhere in the Midwest. Mom slept in the backseat and my younger brother and sister hovered, wide eyed and excited. I drove down one mountain in Colorado and burned out the brakes. That smell stayed with us for hours. We saw 4 Corners and got lost trying to find Canyon De Shelley. There were rock formations everywhere, big swaths of pink and beige, pushpinned by gas stations, low-rent diners, makeshift shops on the side of the road selling blankets and beads. At the top of Pike’s Peak we got locked out of our own car. We stood shivering up there in the snow in the middle of summer, our shorts and sneakers so misplaced, pretending to smile for a family photo. She wanted to give us a vacation, a real one, for the first time ever, moving across the burning lines of states we might not see again.
San Diego to Virginia in three days. I flew to California to help drive my younger sister home. I-40 east littered with bits of her regret for leaving the best coast. Her Civic packed so tight there was nothing to see but what lay ahead, hazy stretches of myopic interstate and a bland homecoming. Arizona and New Mexico and Texas felt like one gigantic state, built on pure heat and no green, no water. Our hair whipped our faces as we leaned out of open windows, avoiding air conditioning to conserve gas, maybe. We ate Subway sandwiches every day, scrounged around at gas stations for the lesser evil of snacks. I slapped down my credit card for a little cheap luxury at Holiday Inn Express after driving in a straight line for hours. Pulling discs from a huge black bible underneath the front seat, we spent one day in Dylan chronology until we got to the religious stuff, the late 70s and early 80s when he was weird. If you gotta go, go now, or else you got to stay all night. My sister’s constant disappointment her only map, a red line zigzagging over and down the unwieldy country she couldn’t ever leave.
You and I will go. Twice I’ve done it in summer, but you and I will go when it’s mild. If there is a range of hurt or happiness I want to climb over it, take pictures, get lost, and say we were there. When we went into the West Virginia wilderness together for three days we called it a test. This time we can take three weeks, maybe four. I don’t know how but we will be able to. What is there to test now? You’ve seen ruins and mountains across the world but I just want to drive this with you. See the corners I have not seen. The Florida Keys, Maine, Portland,
the Great Lakes. I want to wipe my finger across the dusty surface of each tiny town. I want to know they still exist in their romantic way. I need them to be there. We will camp. We will stay in the worst hotels. We will turn off the music most of the time. I can quit navigating because you will know the way. You and I will go across.