“Run the Red Lights”
When my mother sent me for cigarettes
I’d buy a candy bar too, sign her name
to the book, and walk out with the green-
and-white carton, Virginia Slims 100s,
under my arm, the chocolate already gone.
Sugar, my god! like newspaper cartoon
panels spread out on the kitchen table
where I’d pretend to smoke, imitating her.
After the corner store closed we made our groceries
at Dillon’s, joined the impersonal. A villain
snatched her purse there when I was away at college
and on the phone she told me, excitedly,
how Topeka police chased the culprit, and she named
each street, each intersection and landmark,
the whole adventure, just for her.
I’m grateful now to the sedentary house
though I’ve grown as large on candy as John Candy.
My older brothers left home and our meals stayed
the same, a skillet high with beef Stroganoff,
pot roast in broth, chili con carne,
cheese sandwiches with mayo, flocks of fried chicken.
Then the whole house went on a diet of cold
tofu cubes, a broken disk of lemon in a water glass,
cottage cheese measured onto lettuce,
and then back to London broil the next night,
no questions asked—lovely. We were emotions
without form, and I carry it with me,
not just in frame, arm and jowl and belly,
but here in the intergalactic space of written
thought, the infinite stage where we come
talk to each other. Sugar makes me curious.
After Katrina, I took the diet where you eat meat,
and lost almost a hundred pounds from a surfeit
of bacon, sautéed pork medallions, beef & lamb.
The weight fell away like a knight’s armor
after a joust. I bought shirts at a regular store.
I played softball and ran bases, bounded them,
as if on a new, more forgiving planet. And
I went crazy, evened out, broke down again,
inconsolable at the finale of Six Feet Under,
tears for my mother, postponed, and more
torrented for delay. Opening the book of grief
requires you read all the way to the end,
every time. Driving to work, I stopped
bewildered at a gas station, paid cash for two
Snickers providing more salvation
than I have ever known from religion’s acres.
I write about the West and the South and home,
their tenderness and trouble and the weird spirits
breaking the best days. Still I find myself down
by the river at twilight. On the bridge deliberate-
seeming people walk by like victorious aliens,
past the consequential palaces lit as before,
the faces turning in their rotisseries.
In profile, my mother looked like Alex Chilton,
lead singer of the Box Tops, and then Big Star.
I used to see Chilton around New Orleans,
in line at the grocery store, walking down Esplanade.
My mother also had a solo career, playing
solitaire and watching her own TV in the kitchen
and dying before everyone else. Dying, Chilton
urged his wife to run the red lights, his last words,
and when I had to leave my mother in the hospital
that was hard, and then again at the funeral
I set a marble under her folded hands,
don’t know why. It’s been ten years.
Ten fingers, the closed eye of each knuckle,
each nail its years’ fullest day moon.
Which shed the other? My scar from opening
a window, such force to move the wood frame,
so little to shatter glass it held. To be held so
again. Ten years, so forty seasons, eight endings
and beginnings, well, always a gust in them
which is the sigh of how she would note leaf and bird.
One hand to hold the coffee cup, one the cigarette.
The red ember she became at midnight. Red light. Eye.