UNDERGROUND VOICES: POETRY


ROBERT LAUGHLIN

Off The Interstate

While driving north to Oregon,
I took a road through youthful mountains where erosion hadn’t done
its job of softening the curves.
Three miles before I joined the interstate,
I had to pass a fold
that jutted like a plate protruding from a book laid flat.
The turn around the fold
was tight as any I had ever seen.
A ridge of mountains, snowy and majestic, stood
about six miles away.
This could have been a vista point,
but there was nowhere that you could turn out;
the road bed fell away beyond the rail.
There wasn’t any fog,
so no obstruction of the sheer descent below the rail,
a mile at least.
The sight produced more dread than awe in me,
and I was driving at a crawl
and in an agile coupe.
For someone else—
a tourist in a lumbering RV,
who wasn’t used to mountain roads—
it might have brought on roller-coaster screams.
What was the reason that the engineer contrived
to make so frightening what should have been a scenic road?
I think I know.
Before ecology was in the lexicon,
he loved the wild
and worried over droves of people loving it to death.
He showed more craft than present-day New Yorkers do
who welcome visitors, then tell them to go home.

2


A face I knew from forty years ago
looked out at me.
Blue eyes and bulging boyish cheeks—
he proudly held a loaf of steaming bread,
enticing you to buy.
I hadn’t seen that bread in stores for many years.
No doubt the bakery was out of business, or at least,
they had no distribution where I’d gone to live.
Now, driving through a borax mining town
whose occupants had gone away,
I found the smiling boy again,
and he was painted on an iron works
with broken windows and a rotting wooden porch.
All enterprise had given up this place
and so the baker boy,
so often on TV when I was just a kid,
was never painted out.
How long will desert air
preserve him and his brick-and-mortar wall
before they join the town’s depleted hoard?

3


The glistening mirage patch moved
beyond the stick that lay across the dotted line
...a twisting stick?
No car in back of me, I saw,
and none in front.
I slammed the brakes,
and just in time—
the rattler slithered off the weathered blacktop, safe,
while I was almost near enough to guess its age
by tallying the rattles on its tail.
It was the time of year, I’d heard,
when snakes migrated to the Basin’s cooler northern end.
I looked around and saw one other on my left,
in lacy shadow from a clump of sage;
I guess that it was stopping for a rest
before continuing its trek across the desert floor.
I hurried to the town ahead of me,
forgetting that the posted limits on the signs were ever there.
I feared a ticket less than vivid fantasies
of blowing out a tire
or boiling over from a radiator leak
or anything to hold me there, where routes of man and reptile intersect.

4


A fulsome oak tree’s crown
began to peer above the curving of the earth.
This county road was new to me.
The farmland all around
was level as a table top
and cleared of any trees but scrubs
too small to call attention to themselves.
In days of sail,
men on the dock could judge the distance of a ship
from how much mast the blue horizon let them see.
I’d driven up and down this valley long enough
and meant to test myself.
The road would pass abreast the oak ahead:
four miles to go.
And so it was—
the meter flipped the instant that I passed the tree
and nearby farmhouse placed so that it wouldn’t profit from the shade
at any time of day.
How much I wish I’d had a witness for that test.

5


I’d made this night drive many times
and all I thought I’d see was vines
for Cabernet and Riesling grapes,
in silhouette upon the hills.
I drove around the tallest hill,
and there, atop the hill in front of me,
was it:
a mammoth sheet cake, white and gold from outside lights on every side.
A mega-church, erected since I came here last?
No, not a church.
They built it large, not lofted, not to honor sentiments
that rose above the earthly plane.
An Indian casino—that was it.
And just completed, too.
Construction would have taken place around the clock,
and yet the parking lot that slanted down the hill
was bare of workers’ cars.
I drove on past;
the apparition slid into my mirror, shrunk,
a white, recumbent deck of cards.
A day or two from now, I thought,
the opening will be announced,
inviting everyone of age
to travel to the wine-producing hills
and sample an intoxicant that travels not at all.

6


Before I passed them, I could see
they’d been there long enough
to make the flower garlands wilt,
and passing cars had kicked up road dust to discolor both
the crosses, made their Styrofoam no longer white.
We’ve all seen such memorials,
erected by the grieving, but
I couldn’t figure how a fatal accident
had happened there.
A two-lane highway, newly surfaced, straight as anything,
too little traffic for someone to crash, head-on,
while passing by a slower car in front.
Both rain and snow were curiosities:
there wasn’t any chance of spinning out;
there weren’t any rows of trees
to hypnotize the driver with his beams
and make him veer into oncoming cars.
The crosses might have been pedestrians struck down,
except this highway wasn’t on a bus route, and
the border was too far away for cars to claim
the human traffic heading north by night.
Of course I’d know if I were living in the state
and took the local news,
but I was passing through.
I’ll leave the why
to anyone who feels the need to know such things.
The answer that I want is how.









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