Thousands of days turning the engine, striking a match, backing
the old Mercury out of the driveway. Thousands of errands
to the grocery store, the post office, with the window cracked open,
heater rattling, winter’s chill rushing in. My mother cradles a cigarette
between her fingers, taps ash into the street with her thumb. She tastes
menthol on her lips and tongue—inhales a smoke-filled breath
deep into her lungs. A few minutes to escape
the half-frozen chicken thawing on the counter, the rotary telephone
that never rings enough. Through the two-inch slit she hears brakes squeal
from melted snow, watches exhaust drift into the dull sky.
And maybe, Mom, I’m just home from school, twelve years old, removing my boots
on the porch as you drive past the discount liquor store, the half-filled
Kmart parking lot, or maybe I’m in high school walking from the bus stop
too concerned with the girl beside me to notice your taillights.
A few minutes from kids slamming the kitchen door, tossing backpacks
on the floor; from The Brady Bunch on the living room television,
music blasting and feet thumping upstairs. She craves the subtle burn
at the back of her throat, ignores her right hand red and numb
as she grips the wheel. A few minutes to imagine the warmth
of a different car—brand new, roof down—she could drive far from here.
She passes the empty storefronts on Main Street, the abandoned shoe factory
on Jefferson. She lights a second cigarette after turning onto Market
though our house is only a mile away. A few minutes to desire
release from this wind, from these arctic gusts of snow. A few minutes
to be with this man she imagines beside her—this man who is so perfectly
not my father, who is no particular man at all but the kindness of a hand
on her leg as she cruises what must be the California seaside, the lights
of a boardwalk Ferris wheel in the distance, or somewhere
in the desert under an oasis of sky, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
before her, as the radio finally plays a summer tune
and your cigarette, Mom, the one between your fingers,
is only a small part of so much more.