Someone Else’s Car

My mother’s legs are filthy.
She is sun browned and dirt browned,
the sweat gluing dust and clippings
in rivulet patterns on her face, neck, arms.
She has cut the grass, then
quietly weeded the back flower garden,
stretched on her side, like a cat
daydreaming things you wouldn’t dare to know.
Beside her, she’s arranged a colander, filled,
roots and all, with curly docks.
A single line of turned earth and Carlton butts
points back to where she’s been.
To listen to me, she has stabbed her putty knife
at parade rest into the ground before
a deliberate row of soldier-straight polyanthus.
Seeing her, I see now how no one ever loved
the solace of the dirt like my mother.
And I, newly licensed, have stopped her
with my blather about a classic sputnik car
at a used lot on Route 20. I say the words
beautiful, spotless, tiny and like new. Though
I suspect I’m speaking at the empty air,
to answer me she smartly thumps the ground. Says,
Goddamn. We’ve got to drive it.
Scrubbed, censored by Lifebuoy and Arpège,
we present ourselves at closing time.
The shaggy salesman wants to go,
wants to say so without words, tilts his head,
scratches, like a flea bit dog, at his neck,
while my mom describes perfectly a car she’s never seen.
Metropolitan, he says, A later one.
Sold it today. Guy’ll pick her up tomorrow.
He’s too relieved he can head for home.
There’s a moment of no talking, but
my mother can say something,
standing slender, tall and silent in a summer dress.
He backs it out the bay, a two-tone compact
for the Eisenhower age. Creaks open the door.
We cannot drive someone else’s car. But see it? Sure.
He leaves us alone, on the fabric bench with vinyl trim.
My mother, unlike me, does not look fearful at the clutch.
She takes the wheel with grace. Hers now, this old car
that rolled off the line when she was twenty-eight
and married near a dozen years with a kid as old as that,
others close behind and more to come. Then, she could not imagine
this, styled for a family that could think of second vehicles,
or for a college girl, the one she never got to be,
packing light for Florida to discover where the boys are.
The Metropolitan sits, like a frost berry white
and Berkshire green stanza wrenched upon a page.
Mom’s hand brushes slowly along the three on the tree.
We have no keys. But we have ignition.
Her lips move soundlessly,
forming perhaps meanings for words like
beautiful, spotless, tiny and new. I see mother
seem other than either of us has ever known,
see her, in that last instant unencumbered,
driving all the unmapped routes there ever were,
on pavement where we both agree
it’s OK I don’t exist.

Rodd Whelpley is the secret poet in residence at the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, where he also runs an electric efficiency program for 33 cities in the state. Recently his work has been published in such magazines as The Bitchin' Kitsch, One Sentence Poems, Aethlon, Allegro, Antiphon, The Chagrin River Review and Long Dumb Voices.