903 Readings


No More Joy for Teen, New Orleans Times Picayune headline

You put the key in the slot and you turn, igniting the night air with fumes, 

the Buick oiled black with twenty years of misuse on back roads 

and bayous. No see-ums spin and jerk in the columns of headlight, which 

point straight to the interstate. You are fourteen, everything a possibility, 

nothing for sure. For now it is midnight, the lunar eclipse, your fight-wearied 

parents are fast asleep. Who knows how you know how to do it, how to 

ease into drive, push on the gas, and go. But you do it, and black grace 

hurtles you out: you’re gone. The Buick rocks along, a humid room of 

Juicy Fruit breath, brittle leather chirping like bed springs, slick green 

dash light filming every surface of metal and glass and skin. The night 

is cool, gulf breeze edging off tops of salt pine savannas, edging in to 

velvety magnolia buds closed tight, waiting to bloom. You cross the 

bridge at Lake Pontchartrain, the stone and white steel pulled taut across 

flat water, see ghost fisherman along the pier, gathered around a fire 

with all the people they loved once on this earth. You drive and know 

the world can be made over in your mind, in an instant, made over slick 

like sunset postcards sent from seedy motel lobbies. Over the glass dark

the Buick almost flies, ticking a song that sounds like liberty. The moon 

backs into darkness, waning. You notice for the first time how much light 

there is in darkness, everything shining – glint of quartz in the asphalt, 

a sheerness in the canopy of trees, even the skin of passing motorists, 

their faces grim or tired or singing, their teeth white, dazzling as wet 

shells. Pale light of moss and mold, swamp water and alligator and every 

slow-growing thing. You see light in the sunken ribs of a dead dog on 

the sandy shoulder, a still black husk in impeccable repose, facing 

away from the road wind, slick casement of fur, smear of blood luminous 

underneath. Everything you care for is awake. Your brother tosses, yeasty 

warm in his trim cot, glow-in-the-dark stars stuck like wishes on the roof 

tiles. You drive. Cut south, pass boiled peanut stands in the shadow of slick 

new hospitals, slip under the false neon blue of floating Biloxi casino 

barges, crossing yet another bridge to Ocean Springs. You do not, as the 

paper will report, stop to pick up friends. You slip through the austere jade 

shimmer of Gautier strip malls. You do not, as the paper will report, smoke or 

drink or turn 360s on the lawn of First Baptist Church of Vancleave. All 

you do is drive, pass the sandhill cranes of Pascagoula, shy in the marshes, 

prettier than swans. For just one moment it is dark:  pure black night. You 

drive. And even though you see in the horizon’s coming dawn a faint splatter 

of blood, you turn around. Even though you see your father at 

the table, shirtless, smoking Camels, you turn around. You hear the

echoing ring of the metal princess phone as it strikes your skull. Your 

body, like a gift, soars through the night, toward his rage. Your brother, 

dreaming, limbs perfect as new branches, sleeps, and so you turn around. 

Head west now, toward home, all of it so fast, the oaks and the light and 

the bridges and trees, until finally, you pull into the yard, kill the engine, 

dust settling behind you in tufts like a ball of gauze thrown, unfurling in 

the air, filthy and picturesque. The slider is lit up blue-white from the set, 

the glass opaque and filmy in great swipes of dog nose and handprints in 

the shape of waiting. You see your father: he’s waiting at the table when 

you slip in, set down the keys he picks up and slashes into your face. You 

take in sharp breath and think: nightair. The sun turns from pink to white, 

seeping into  every corner of the paneled room, you taste salt in your mouth 

and think: rough water on the gulf. And when the bone of your 

arm splinters like old kindling stomped on in the yard, the sound is like 

a word whispered: luck. When the phone cracks your skull you think: 

freedom. You close your eyes and see darkness emerging before you 

like a bridge. You’re a breeze now, a shore line, an engine ticking 

gently, night star, black dog, a bird they can’t see. 

You’re a story in the paper: No More Joy For Teen.

You’re fourteen, everything a possibility, nothing for sure.

Posted 12/09/14
This poem originally appeared in the 10th anniversary edition of The Saranac Review, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
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