My Other Self
for Greg and Trish Orr
He could have smacked you
for running out of gas, at midnight,
in December, at a middle-of-nowhere place,
coasting a few sorry yards toward home on the shoulder
as a passing eighteen-wheeler's Hawaiian-sized wave of air
whomped the side of the car like a two-story pillow.
As we sat there immobile--the four of us (including him),
as if waiting for the show to begin at a surreal drive-in--
he wanted to reach into the front seat
and bonk your heads together
the way the leader of the Three Stooges did
when the other two did something stupid.
What had been road was now a cold place
without a house light in sight in the rural South.
What had been a passionate highway talk
about the culture's indifference to the artist's work
would have been silence except for him
giggling at us, at how danger dissolves discontent
and flashes before us a life lost to pettiness,
which we soon start to lose again.
"Who said there are no neurotics in wartime?"
he planned to mock us with my voice, but when I got out
to see where we were, he didn't. He brooded in the car.
He didn't feel the pleasure of a skyful of stars
so cold and clear when you look up
its light illuminates your breath.
Nor was he worried about anyone but himself,
being the only one with nothing to worry about,
not made of flesh. He was crying
I wanna go home inside the car
like a child trapped in a junked refrigerator.
This was one time I felt exactly like him,
as we three stood pondering our dilemma calmly, maturely.
And I did again when he yelled I'm scared
as the clunker with wide headlights and bad muffler
("Hell Wagon" or "Devil's Dream" no doubt inscribed on the fender--
voted Car Of The Year by escaped convicts and serial killers)
glided like a crocodile toward our throbbing, imported taillights
and idled there. But when I approached the monster
alone--my other self was having none of this action--
what I found when the window inched down
was reality: a couple with a baby
asleep between them: country people
who still stop for anyone in trouble,
although they were wary. So was I,
squinting into the warm darkness in which they stirred
as if to the bottom of a moonlit pool,
as if what should surface nonetheless was a gun in my face.
They got back with a can of gas so fast
the whole event took about the time of a Howard Johnson hamburger,
and probably less time than a Howard Johnson hamburger off a life
in which it's almost impossible
not to feel blessed. How lucky we are,
we said on the smooth way home again,
trying to etch it into our brains.
At least I was, since we had ditched him back there
thumb out and grinning into the high beams of every approaching car
because this one's got to be the starlet in the Jaguar
wrapped in a mink with nothing underneath.
Michael Ryan is the director of the MFA program in poetry at the University of California Irvine. His new book of poems is This Morning.