1. Norfolk. Oceanview Blvd., 1 a.m.

Sick as I was of all the east coast base – towns bleeding
together in my mind,
like one long strip of Oriental saunas, draft-beer
taverns, sputtering bulbs
that spelled out “E-Z FINANCING,” when Eva
and Carla showed up, nursing

a borrowed Olds – just as they promised – I got in.
The engine shuddered on
sheared motor-mounts through every slowdown, hesitation
there on the edge of the Norfolk
shipyards, but – before long – loped along at 70
over the jolt of bridge-joints,

ramps, the extinct state roads rocking us out and out
across the Dismal Swamp’s
black reek of sulfur, cypress spoked with moonlight...Both girls
curled abreast the front seat,
muttering in their sleep, a viscous crust of insects
plastering the windshield.

After three years below decks – breathing steam, forced air,
exhaust – I wasn’t sure

it mattered whether I turned back now or they caught me later.
What could they do? I wondered;
Why should I care? So six full hours of seaboard passed
(a little marsh fog in

the headlights, half a pack of menthols), till at first light –
somewhere in north Georgia –
Eva and Carla slipped out to stretch their limbs, in last night’s
hairdos and halter tops,
and I simply sat there and watched them, letting the truth sink in:
I’ll never go back. If there

was a conscious act that year – the road map spread out over
the hot hood – it was the moment
we piled back in, all lined up in the front again,
two perfectly beautiful cocktail
waitresses and one AWOL sailor: nineteen, twenty,
and twenty-one forever.

After that, what happened, happened effortlessly
under the white sun of

dry counties, tending a thin beer high between our thighs
all afternoon, till Carla –
driving – ploughed straight into the back of a seven-car pile-up
north of Birmingham;

and Eva – riding shotgun – crumpled forward, as
loose strings of blood flung forward
past my ear, out over the spiderwebbed glass...Still,
we walked away. In fact,
within a few hours, Carla was dancing naked in
a place called Spot’s – a small

crowd riveted to the relaxed, cursive grace of her pelvic
thrusts – and I woke up
to a clatter of trays in county jail the next day...But
let’s skip that. Skip ahead
a few days, into another state, where pine woods subside
gradually down and down

to canebrake and fencerows over black furrows of delta.
Then, we were barreling flat out
westward – specters of oil rigs rising in the distance –

stretches of power lines sagged
with blackbirds constantly beside us...Then, we were crossing
the Lake Charles bridge, where the Olds

shook loose its tailpipe, belched dense showers of sparks the rest
of the way to a sidewalk café
deep in the Quarter, where we never laid eyes on it
again. This was New Orleans,
city of human scale – the body sobbing
touch me,
touch
– the river of rivers

two blocks off.
We’re here, we thought, rum coke in our mouths.
The Quarter then was set-piece
Dixieland, with disco/drag bars mixed in – absinthe
cut with silicone –
and sucked us in completely. Both girls disappeared
into an underworld

I’d only see in glimpses – mis-takes – afterhours
clubs crammed with lounge-acts, various
stages of pre-op and post-op hustlers feeding off
each other...As for me,
I vanished differently – in plain sight – wearing a chaste
red blazer and bow-tie, packing

a roll of fives and ones (with a fifty wrapped around it )
pressed against the inside
of my thigh. I was the one you trusted – you
among the throngs on Bourbon –
I was the one who’d keep an eye out, serve your watery
cocktails, and take your money.

How I felt burned – clarified – by that city. Almost
as in the
Purgatorio:
in that moment Dante and Virgil cast themselves
through the scourge of flame – the earthly
paradise just beyond – the sentinel angel singing
“Beati Mundo Corde”

straight into their ears...And though, as it happens, I
was technically a felon,
somehow I didn’t think of it quite like that. That
was another world, I thought,
while in this one, I stood on the corner of Bourbon and Conti,
barking at the top

of my lungs:
no cover charge, to anyone – no one – over
the intricate balustrades
of evening. August, then September passed: the wreathing
depths of the river mists
slid into the Vieux Carré for good, as the tourists ebbed
more slowly toward some music

in their heads. And what I heard was, Carla was gone;
I never saw her again.
But Eva would come round – Eva still came round every few nights –
all leather-booted and laced-up,
hipbones narrow as a boy’s. As one feels weather
in a wound, or divines

water beneath stone, I’d sense her coming long
before I could actually see her:
parting the waves of tourists, tresses flung back on
the blood rush of her beauty.
Once, in a borrowed apartment – crucified in slats
of moonlight – we made love

as tenderly as children, all night, till the night’s
last chords of zydeco rasped
and died off somewhere beyond Canal. I couldn’t believe
how lucky I was. In time,
when we slept, we slept uncovered, dreaming a common dream
of sleeping outside, a heavy

snowfall sifting down upon us...Still, we kept warm –
pressing ourselves together
where we lay – and slept on into the storm. And once,
when I woke, I watched her sleep
for a long time, taking such shallow breaths; I studied the faint
white lines, distensions of

childbirth across her breasts and stomach. That’s when I noticed
the faded tracks and washed-out
veins of her wrists and forearms...And all I wanted then
was to trace each wound with my lips-–
but just as I knelt, she curled in her sleep, and by the time
I woke again, she was gone.

2. Detroit

Fastforward now to Warren, Michigan: industrial
lake winds lacerating

my wrong clothes and thinned-out blood where I stood on Coolidge or Packard,
Studebaker or

Konszai...
Just give me two weeks to kick it, she’d said. And now
here I was, my pockets filled

with tip change, greasy curls on my collar. Here I was stalking
the methadone clinics, Cyrillic

shopfronts and one-way glass of everywhere she’d been.
Her sister’s house, for instance:

a faded bungalow, all but invisible in the leafless,
workday emptiness...

I hovered close enough to hear the resonance –
the hum inside of it –

but never entered the yard. Instead, I followed my ear
to the end of Ten Mile Rd.,

where I crossed a great embankment, shimmied a gap between spans
of chainlink, straddled the guardrail –

easy as that – and stuck my thumb out into the howl
of I-75 southbound.

I remember standing stock-still on a gravel shoulder –
sights set on a little

town, a friend out West – and though I nearly froze
before the first car stopped,

soon one thing led to another, and to another...And so,
without much effort on

my part, an undercurrent carried me across
the Upper Midwest: Alton,

east St. Louis, the moonlit K.C. railyards...After
a while, I slept and felt

the flexures of the Flint Hills rolling like oceanic
crests beneath my wheels

until I opened my eyes in Denver. Have you ever
been in one of those big rigs

wailing through its gears – its upper registers
of being – before it finally

reaches speed and smoothes out? Almost immediately,
I’d nod and slip off into

abyssal dreams – and no one even seemed to care
if I rode for days in silence,

unaware of anything much except for the wipers
cycling back and forth

across the caul of sight. On I-25, one night,
a trucker handed me

a lit joint – then a thermos spiked with bourbon – feeling
starting to filter back into

my limbs again ...
Sweet Jesus, I said, giving in.
A thousand miles had passed –

another thousand yet of onramps, broken glass,
the rest stops of amnesia

turning to air behind me...West of Laramie
was desert winter – windblown,

ice-blind – and whatever buoyancy or grace
had carried me across

the continent so far was gone. The truth is, thousands
of us were working the freeways

that year – looking for a way out – burned-out scarecrows
you wouldn’t dare pick up.

Thank God for that last ride, with a Nez Perce mill-hand, about
my age, in a battered ranch truck,

tracing the dorsal curvature of Idaho
through the mid- December dusk.

We rattled along: rain turned to snow, then back again;
great banks of storm-scud backed up

over the blue, serrate spurs of the Sawtooth ridge,
then swept across the boulder-

broken slopes of pine – loose wisps of aspen – meadows
grazed to barrenness...

Good luck, he said, when he dropped me off. I spent the night
on my feet beneath a concrete

overpass – peering out through a whorl of snowfall – stamping
down hard to stir the blood,

each bone a blue ache gradually going numb. At first
I thought of Eva – curled

on the car seat next to me that night, as I let long drags
of cigarette smoke stream sidelong

into the rush of wind...And for a while, my mind
kept flipping through these random

images of the road: stray riffs of music – half-
remembered farm towns – water

towers and silos glimpsed from the interstate, like little
shipwrecks riding out

the rising and falling swells of Kansas dark...But mainly,
I was concentrating

all night: willing every last iota, spark
of energy into

a tiny point of blue flame – like a pilot light –
still needling on at the exact,

empty center of my ribcage. Suddenly,
a door in the sky slid open;

vast andromedas of fire bore down on me,
and the temperature bottomed out.

What could I do, when spasms of shuddering took hold – even
my peacoat frozen through –

and I didn’t think I would make it? What could I do but cleave tight –
shifting my weight from side

to side – my gaze a slit which took in the starry blaze
outside? ...What happened was

I simply hung on till dawn spread – by grain and iceglint –
over the floor of the gorge,

then floundered out the same way I’d come – through the waist-deep drifts
which covered the road – the firs

and lodgepoles all around me moaning beneath their loads
of snow. What happened was

I labored out through the canyon mouth – out into a brutal,
wind-shorn plain I couldn’t

remember seeing before. The road was already ploughed –
the valley perfectly treeless,

perfectly featureless, except for the towering, uniform,
vaguely angelic shapes

of electrical pylons filing across the emptiness –
a low vibrato of

high-tension wires drawn taut from here to there. A feeble
sun came up. By now

I was headed north through reservation country, gathering
strength the farther I went.

Sometimes, I wondered:
What is this dream I am walking out of?
Sometimes, I thought I could hear

something, and stopped, and turned...But it was nothing, it
was always no one. Thirty

or forty miles to the east, the abrupt spine of the Bitterroot
Range was rising in

a milky light; and above that, long contrails trailed
through an otherwise cloudless sky .

Photographs © Wm. Fridrich 2006

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About Michael White

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