Did you mean it, when you said you felt a new resolve to reach out? To listen to the voices of people who are hurting and bewildered, no matter how shrill, how bitter, how coarse? Were you serious about trying to understand how it can be that the hands of a middle-aged, middle-class white woman in Oklahoma tremble with fear? To understand why you see no kindness at all, but only pain, in the eyes of the beefy man lumbering out of the convenience store? Do you have the sinking feeling, as I do, that the only path forward runs straight through the wreckage of other people’s lives? If so, listen to David Bottoms’ narrator in “In a U-Haul North of Damascus,” as he tells you how hard it can be to hope.
In a U-Haul North of Damascus
BY DAVID BOTTOMS
Lord, what are the sins
I have tried to leave behind me? The bad checks,
the workless days, the scotch bottles thrown across the fence
and into the woods, the cruelty of silence,
the cruelty of lies, the jealousy,
What are these on the scale of sin
that they should follow me through the streets of Columbus,
the moon-streaked fields between Benevolence
and Cuthbert where dwarfed cotton sparkles like pearls
on the shoulders of the road. What are these
that they should find me half-lost,
sick and sleepless
behind the wheel of this U-Haul truck parked in a field
on Georgia 45
a few miles north of Damascus,
some makeshift rest stop for eighteen wheelers
where the long white arms of oaks slap across trailers
and headlights glare all night through a wall of pines?
What was I thinking, Lord?
That for once I’d be in the driver’s seat, a firm grip
So the jon boat muscled up the ramp,
the Johnson outboard, the bent frame of the wrecked Harley
chained for so long to the back fence,
the scarred desk, the bookcases and books,
the mattress and box springs,
a broken turntable, a Pioneer amp, a pair
of three-way speakers, everything mine
I intended to keep. Everything else abandon.
But on the road from one state
to another, what is left behind nags back through the distance,
a last word rising to a scream, a salad bowl
shattering against a kitchen cabinet, china barbs
spiking my heel, blood trailed across the cream linoleum
like the bedsheet that morning long ago
just before I watched the future miscarried.
Jesus, could the irony be
that suffering forms a stronger bond than love?
Now the sun
streaks the windshield with yellow and orange, heavy beads
of light drawing highways in the dew-cover.
I roll down the window and breathe the pine-air,
the after-scent of rain, and the far-off smell
of asphalt and diesel fumes.
But mostly pine and rain
as though the world really could be clean again.
Somewhere behind me,
miles behind me on a two-lane that streaks across
west Georgia, light is falling
through the windows of my half-empty house.
Lord, why am I thinking about this? And why should I care
so long after everything has fallen
to pain that the woman sleeping there should be sleeping alone?
Could I be just another sinner who needs to be blinded
before he can see? Lord, is it possible to fall
toward grace? Could I be moved
to believe in new beginnings? Could I be moved?
(photographs © Bruce Gilden, all rights reserved)