The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by Katherine E. Young
Driving the M8
There are bandits on this road, the kind
who years ago would’ve lurked on horseback here
at forest's eave where the highway narrows
obligingly at the edge of Vladimir oblast':
good spot for an ambush. I'm the one driving
in this dream, although in life you usually drive
the second-hand car with empty holes in the hood
and trunk where someone filched the BMW
emblems from right under the nose of the dvornik
who loiters all day in the parking lot, keeping
an eye on us foreigners (Whose eye? Why?).
Our car's muscular, smooth, but not like what
the bandits drive: tint-windowed Mercedes
purring along the road, stiff-arming Soviet
models that run on rubber bands and spit.
Every Russian fixes cars. Sometimes
the BMW breaks down: I pop the hood,
make a show of feminine helplessness
for ten, fifteen seconds, till the screech
of tires, sometimes two or three sets, as the drivers
of Ladas or Zhigulis or—once—a Chaika
spring from their seats, screwdrivers in hand, itching
to take a look beneath that foreign hood.
They always manage to get it going again.
Now bandits broker the trade in beach towels—
a thousand miles from any ocean, Mickey
waves his mitts from every clothesline an hour's
drive on either side of Sergeyev Posad –
we ask ourselves what the profit is in that
but can't come up with a satisfactory answer.
Oh, you're here—funny, I left alone.
Look! There's a bandit pulling off the road.
Cigarette dangling, Ray Bans cocked, he's young,
smooth-shaven, with something slightly vulpine about
his cheek and nascent jowl. The kind of man
who rarely looks at me, which is best
because one glance in those ferocious, needy
eyes and I'm a goner, I'm mom and whore
and Little Red Riding Hood all rolled into one.
The bandit bends to flick mud from his shoe
as he shakes down the owners of beat-up cars
parked by the roadside, impromptu market
in enamel pans, patterned curtains, crystal
chandeliers: opportunity knocking.
I take it back: you're not in this dream, after all.
You're never in my dreams anymore. Twenty-
five years of tuna melts, nylon sheers,
utility bills, and suddenly you've vanished,
poof! As if you'd never been. As if
you hadn't dragged the mattress across the room
on our wedding night, although it was one hundred
and ten in the dark and the tiny window a/c
might as well have been broken. As if
you hadn't cried next morning when you posed
among bouquets and empty champagne bottles
for the photograph still propped beside my bed:
proof that joy exists, in spite of all
our dreary evidence to the contrary.
No matter: I'm following the wolf pack now,
I'm on the scent of danger. I know full well
there's a dumpster in my future, only,
god, not today, oh, not today. Today
I'm driving on what passes for a highway
in Russia and, instead of you, maybe
my passenger's a modern highwayman:
yes. Maybe I'm driving him along his rounds.
You're beautiful, he says in his soulful Russian,
stroking my cheek and blowing smoke out the window.
Or maybe I'm the one who's saying it,
because it's true, he's beautiful as wild,
beautiful as feral, beautiful
as fear. Soon we're stopping at a hamlet
composed of a dozen knock-kneed cottages.
My bandit's all business counting out
his cut from jars of fresh pickles, pails
of potatoes, buckets of cut daisies clustered
at the feet of an empty stool that leans
against a half-hinged gate. I'm tasting one
of those pickles, feather-frond of dill
still clinging to its rind, swallowing
the brine and gall of being ornamental.
Serviceable. I've decided there's no
such thing as essential: we're—all of us—
intimate strangers who'll disappear some morning:
tomorrow, or next month, or maybe twenty-
five years along the line, joy becoming
theoretical as it vanishes, unbelief
chafing fingers where rings once held sway.
With bandits, at least, I know what I'm getting.
My passenger's eyes stray to the gate, where
a blonde, lipsticked siren accidentally
hooks her miniskirt as she hastens to meet us.
Underwear flashes pink: pattern of hearts.
This village lies at the end of the universe.
I know what's coming next: my tongue is
torn out. I change myself to a nightingale.
Now, too late, you come looking for me.
You recognize the place: storks nesting in chimneys,
scrollwork edging the windows, scent of onions
and mushrooms infusing the air. All
the cottages sag in unison toward a church
whose star-speckled dome has split in two.
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