Taillights on curve at night

One Poem by Robert Hunter Jones

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Coasting in Neutral

for Mike


There were simple rules. No seat belts. Begin
from a dead stop, idling in neutral, then lift
my foot from the brake and let gravity’s
Catholic marriage to friction take us down
North Lake Road at its own pace, me behind
the wheel of my parents’ ‘69 Electra, Mike
beside me, Newton riding shotgun in absentia.

Leisurely is one word for the way these
midnight trips began, their precise starting points
negotiated empiricism varied for mass
and wheel base, the necessary darkness
slipping past the windows as we picked up
speed, Mike passing the joint to me, hissing,
“Hit this sultry bitch before it’s too late!”

And yet, it never was entirely too late.
The pinched burn in fingers and lungs—
me steering left-handed, sputtering,
“Take it! We’re about to go genuine!”
Mike’s Alfred E. Newman grin opening
on his face like a weirdly happy flower.
We exhaled as one against the windshield,
the smoke curling back into our faces
like all the unasked questions.

                                               “Sultry” was a word
Mike had learned at some indeterminate time
after Mrs. LeClaire kicked him out
of English class sophomore year for wearing
a wire coat hanger round his neck—an odd
last straw that sent him away from the world
of rowed desks into one of front
and back seats where “sultry” could be used
and used again like a pretty local girl
who might somehow take you over
the rumpled rise of train tracks at the edge
of town, around the corner past the grassy
airport landing strip, and right off into 
the purported world.

                                         But it never quite came
round that way, so there we were, coasting
into whatever waited underneath, hurtling
through the soundless dark, laughing—
because that was the viable option—
like the jack stowed in the enormous emptiness
of the trunk beside a bald spare tire.


Headlights and a bit of luck are all we need
to make the first corner, speedometer tipping
sixty now. We hurtle past the old growth fir
at the pullout above North Lake Bridge. Mike
shrieks, “Hug the ditch, bitch!”—my foot poised
in the dark above the brake, an apostate’s admission
that never quite touches down. Radials smoke
the double yellow and lateral drift takes us in
too deep. No oncoming lights make of luck
a virtue worth the bet in retrospect.

                                                                     Now the hill
has emptied us out the bottom of the easy bit
at sixty-five, but the yellow diamond ahead
points its black right-angled arrow left; the square
beneath reads 25. Make that, and it’s a long straight
roll towards the stop sign at North Lake and Main
900 hundred yards ahead.
                                                  Mike’s pounding the dash,
leaping on the seat, howling like some hybrid creature
at large in a feckless world, the corner unbanked and closing
fast—well understood but unfriendly, ditched
at the edge—and everything depends on getting out
the other side at speed.
                                             I cheat the center line, Mike’s face
pressed into that narrow angle where glass meets vinyl, straining
for the sheen of oncoming lights. Tires smoke left
to right, burning the fog line to the gravel shoulder—the ditch
a wet and toothless gash grinning up at the smear
of the Milky Way. And then
                                                    we’re through—
speedometer at 53, a number that could mean
seconds or years, the only question now
how far we would roll. Mike giggles, sits up, torches
another number, passes it my way. “Well steered
while ungeared,” he grins, cracks a window and sends
a stream of smoke into pre-dawn dark.


Now we roll the floodplain into town, Mike up
in the seat, affecting the prom queen wave, conducting
the cosmos to order by the rhythm of his embered wand
as we tick off the gridded streets—14th, Jerry Smith’s house,
a wild man, dead now decades; 13th, Gary Stevens, killed
a month later, drunk, head-on at the crest of Eel Lake hill;
10th, Gene Turner, three years later, tackles my brother Brad
in a no-pads pick-up game behind Lakeside Elementary, bruises
his brain, seeds the Parkinson’s still taking its time with him—

none of this known yet, but coming, surely closing
as we rolled on, aiming to violate the stop sign
at North Lake and Main—own the record unaware
of its consequent cost until the limit
we were coasting toward let us by to the other side—
the paved road giving way there to gravel, its quiet
diminishing applause beneath the tires
as we roll, slowly, to a stop.

                                                     Mike is subdued now—
looking out the window at Raylene’s house, the vague
swath of moonlight slanting over it. “A record,” he says,
looking at me with what might be sadness. Where were we
then? How had we gotten there? How much further
might we still need to go?




Robert Hunter JonesRobert Hunter Jones’s Winter Garden won the 2014 Gerald Cable Book Award, a first book prize selected by Dorianne Laux. His poetry has appeared recently in Rattle, Northwest Review, American Poetry Review, Poetry Daily, and Verse Daily. A native Oregonian, he lives in Vienna, Austria, with his wife and two children.

Header photo by Thomas Mühl, courtesy Pixabay.

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