By Roy Bentley
It’s on the radio out of Champaign-Urbana again, that song
where a cabbie picks up a sweetheart who left him years before
and they take inventory—but then he drops her at her destination,
and she calls him Harry, he calls her Sue, and that give-and-take
says what it says about Time being a conveyance we wave over
and ride because we can afford to involve others in our travels.
I always picture Harry Chapin with a halo of hair, confessing
to getting stoned on cannabis after a brush with Failed Love.
Then there’s Butch Thompson in the passenger-side seat
of my ’71 Firebird, who is tough and from Detroit but wipes
a tear and says, “I like that song.” So I grip the steering wheel,
fire off a shot into his shoulder, a straight right hand, to rebuild
our male bond after so much saccharine, Caucasian sentiment.
The joke is, of course, that White People erect monuments
to how blessed they are and Blacks accept the daily reversals,
their lives having—he has to brag—“the better soundtrack.”
We drift through a Sunday in summer in 1973, Butch and me.
And I can be patient about wisecracks regarding race: my friend
has been in a shambolic love affair with his life—we each are—
and any outrageous fare he quotes the world is his business.
Butch’s goal is to marry his high school paramour Robby
and raise the set of twins she is carrying back in Motor City;
though the path is inexplicit, especially as a blue enlistee
stationed at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois.
I’m the one with the valid license and a vehicle, so I drive.
He rolls one as Harry Chapin is unrolling a chronicle of woe.
We get thrashed—his favorite word—as we pass a drive-in
where I took a ward nurse from the hospital, Jody Barker,
and her son, and the three of us saw High Plains Drifter
with Clint Eastwood, though the 4-year-old was asleep
before the first key-rack! of bullwhip, first gunfire. I make
a six-gun hand as we pass the black italics of a marquee.
Roy and Nettie, Kettering, Ohio, 1962
My father drops his cigarette, grinds it out—
with the toe of a work shoe, the ash and filter
rivering into an artery of run-off by the pumps.
I’m 8 and questioning if working for wages
will ever be like that. That tranquil, I mean.
That slow-motion pleasant. That satisfying.
In our den the night before, the snake-hiss
of anticipation as a tonearm and stylus fell
and the black vinyl spun hallelujahs linking
Buck Owens, a metaphoric Bengal tiger,
and lovers whose hot-blood unions burn
so immoderately no tiger dares eat them.
No misery moderated at the record’s end.
Nettie, my mother, threatened to leave him.
His kid’s-toy life of gas stations. My father
theatrically handed her his wallet. Said, Go.
Now, though, at Roy’s Shell after hard rain,
the give-and-take is this remarkable hour.
All the hope there is, all the hope we get.
Mother pulling in. Smiling. Calling out,
Fill it, turd. Father’s answering laugh.
The city was established by the Elkhorn Coal Corporation. The train that hauled
the coal out of Fleming would make stops in Neon and it is an accepted legend
by locals that a man on the train would yell instructions to people climbing
on board the train saying “Knee On” .
Part of us strives to create ourselves like so many coordinates
on Google maps and then have others locate us and travel there.
We were together at his house in Ohio. He was coughing hard.
He wouldn’t live to see the sun, though neither of us knew that.
I said, Names like the town in Kentucky where you were born—
Neon—are poetry. He looked at me like I was an alien life form.
I held forth how he lived in my poems. Always would, whether
there’s a resurrection or we’re bodies knocking around a while.
He didn’t say much then asked if I remembered the real Neon,
traveling with him when I was a kid and he was a young man.
A sort of tour guide for a Disneyland of heartbreak, poverty.
He said, You’d ask me when there’d be flying cars, hotels
on the moon. I said, Sure. He coughed. I thought of what
was coming. Which had nothing to do with flying cars,
hotels on the moon. The better story is the one he told
of my mother standing as he entered a room, a habit
of salutation signaling she was about to give him hell.
“I miss her toughness. I don’t miss Neon,” he said.
He laughed like Neon, Kentucky was funny. A hoot.
Poetry is the laugh before the coughing kicks in, too.
Roy Bentley is the recipient of six Ohio Arts Council fellowship awards, as well as fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Guernica, Shenandoah, North American Review, Pleiades and Prairie Schooner among other journals. He has published four collections of poetry: Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama), Any One Man (Bottom Dog Books), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine Press), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House Press) which won the 2012 Blue Lynx Poetry Prize. He lives in Pataskala, Ohio.