Two Poems

Asleep at the Wheel 

I was old enough to know the difference
between passed out and asleep, but Mom
meandered somewhere in between.
She’d asked about my day at school—
typical save for kids’ questions
about our choice to move back to town.
She’d worked late on new accounts—
more store openings in the Midwest
meant more binders crammed with reports
of profits never to trickle down
to her. She picked me up at a friend’s
long after dark, and we were soon
heading home, our black sedan
met by the random working streetlight
and the night’s debris of moths, fireflies.

Twelve years old, I wanted to drive;
when she gave in to a week’s worth
of met deadlines with half-closed lids,
I thought that God had a cruel way
of granting me my wish. I leaned
over and poked my mother’s shoulder.
Her head thumped against the side glass,
and I scanned the windshield—predicting
the blood-stained fracture I would make.

The gear stick dug into my crotch
as I stretched across the center console,
pursuing the brake pedal, kicking
Mom’s foot off the gas. I jerked the wheel
to dodge mailboxes, ditches until
we slammed to a stop askew in the street.
She finally stirred when a truck horn chirped,
shielding her eyes from the high beams.
Mom shook off the week’s fatigue
and searched for her missing right heel—
crammed underneath the seat when I forced
my foot on the pedals. “I can drive,”
I said. Mumbling a no, she drove
the mile home half-awake, the day
blurred like ink on a wet receipt.

Once home, I helped her through the door
entrusting her to make it to bed,
whatever routines she might recall
before drowning in her waterbed.
After a microwave dinner,
reruns of Lucy, Andy Griffith,
I drifted off on the couch, knowing
Mom would find me at four or five,
help me to bed, and set my alarm
to wake in time for the bus—and she’d
relax on the hour’s ride back to work.

Handle with Care

“What would you say
if I moved to Nashville?” my mother asked,
sitting down beside me on our worn,
faded couch—a pillow between us.
I needed more than that to respond.
A dead-end career, a fresh start
I told her I understood.  I didn’t
have to ask where I’d be shacking up;
I already knew I’d live across
town with my grandparents again.
A truck sped down the street, its dual
exhaust and stirred acorns, gravel,
and leaves like a distorted applause.
Mom took a hit from her cigarette.
“I know I’d be better off,” she said;
“And so would you.”

Weeks later I packed
a few favorite photographs
in half-empty boxes filled
with books and home videos along
her bedroom walls while she was away
at work, clearing out her cubicle.
Through layers of mentholated smoke
in her new attic apartment she’d find
the one from Thanksgiving ’95—
Uncle Scotty in his two-piece suit,
Mom in her beige dress and smiling
like a new bride, and me on the couch.
She’d tape it to the wall above
a makeshift mantle of milk crates
and storage bins.

Boxes stacked
in rows across the living room floor,
and somewhere beyond the wall of cardboard
Mom rested on the couch—the setting
sun striping cushions with an orange
glow. The duplex keys lined in rows
along the coffee table next to
tax forms, assorted envelopes,
an application—a bookkeeping
job she’ll tire of within a year.
In my bedroom, I stopped packing for her,
collapsed onto the waterbed,
and cranked up my stereo to drown
my mother’s silence.
—Jeremy Byars, Murray, KY