The elusive poem


I-80 was a graveyard. Or it was me that died. Not until I reached Nevada did I pull free of my descent into nothingness to realize I hadn’t turned on the radio all day. The intent was to drive all the way into Reno but I was exhausted, I felt lost. I decided to take the Elko exit and rest for the night.


I set my bag on the floor of the room and washed my face, studying my reflection in the glass. I looked like someone else. Harvey came in to sniff around. The bed seemed clean and I sat on the edge of it, listening. I got up and looked in the bathroom and underneath the bed. I looked in the closet. I closed the shades on the window and played with the air conditioning. I was certain I was being watched, there was a camera hidden somewhere in the walls, the dusty bureau, the digital clock on the nightstand showing the wrong time in garish red.


I left the room and walked toward the nearest casino’s faded neon through the parking lot and down a shadowed back street, feeling pairs of eyes crawling all over me. I shouldn’t have come this way, I whispered, and I could smell the desert out there in the dark, endless and spectral. There was no moon. An older model sedan pulled slowly out of the motel lot behind me with its lights off and crawled up the road like a wounded animal. Shit, I said, quickening my pace. No one will ever find me out here in the desert. No one will know where to look.

The sedan crept closer until it was right beside me. I took one step away from the road and stopped, turning to see the face of my executioner through the windshield, but all the windows were tinted black and the sedan crept past me toward the frontage road where it turned right and sped out of sight with its lights on.


At the casino I ordered the buffet special and everything tasted like wood. I went to the bar and ordered a soda and watched a soccer game when a stranger walked up and sat at the stool next to me and said, You’re staying at the Ruby Inn, right?

He had a faded Red Sox cap on and he was dressed in all denim—a blue denim jacket faded and worn, matching blue jeans, white denim Converse shoes, and I said: What was that?

The motel down the street, he said. You’re staying there tonight, aren’t you?

I wanted to say, Leave me alone, please, I’m not in the mood, I don’t want to talk to you or anyone else, I don’t want to hear about your travels, your life, your troubles, I don’t want any unexpected gifts, not tonight, but instead I just said: Yeah, that’s right.

Name’s Dan, he said, and gave me his hand to shake. I looked at it and thought about it before shaking it. It was warm and moist.

Look, man, I said. I don’t mean any disrespect or anything. But I kind of just want to be left alone.

It’s cool, he said. It’s cool. I’m sorry to have bothered you. He stood to leave and then said, I just wanted to tell you that little lady over there wants to buy you a drink.

He pointed to a tall blonde standing between two rows of electric slot machines. Dan walked away and I looked at the woman and half smiled. She walked up and sat next to me at the bar, wearing jeans and heels and a silky looking black tank.

Hi, she said. Sorry about that. I’m Jade.

The bartender came over to us, as if on cue.

The lighting was good on her. She may have been a bit older, but you had to try and find it. She smelled like baby powder and perfumed lotion and I wanted to rub my head all over her. She reminded me of Gloria, only this woman was far less appealing. For some reason a pang of sadness slid through me like a blade.

I’ll take a red beer, and whatever she’s having, I said to the bartender.

My mother used to drink those, Jade said. She had one with her toast every morning.

Sounds like a decent lady, I said. I was suddenly very tired.

The bartender poured our drinks and returned to his corner, eyeing me. Jade looked up at the TV and so did I and both of us tapped a finger on the bar and sipped our drinks and then looked at each other, smiling awkwardly.

Hot night, she said.

Yeah, I said. Electronic gambling machines beeped and buzzed everywhere and from a speaker somewhere in the room a Johnny Cash song played quietly, listless, as if he had written and performed it in his sleep.

Listen, she said, leaning toward my face, her lips at my ear. You want some pussy tonight or what?

I coughed. I spilled a bit of my drink and tried to wipe it up. I’m sorry, I said.

Jade smiled.

I’m sorry.

Okay, she said. It’s okay.

The bartender stayed in his corner, watching.

You know, you’re a very attractive woman and everything, I said. But I just want to be alone tonight. I’m sorry.

It’s okay, she said, smiling. Suit yourself, cowboy. But I was gonna give you the pretty boy discount. She got up from her stool and walked away, and it wasn’t until I saw her in motion from behind that I began to regret my decision. Again I thought of Gloria. I ordered a cheeseburger to go for Harvey and finished my beer, walking the long way back to my room and thinking that Elko, Nevada, was the type of place where nothing good ever happens, where beasts feed upon other beasts, gristle flapping in their gums. It’s the type of place where a man could lose his mind and his money and then find himself in a shallow grave outside of town.


The television casts a pale blue glow about the dark room. A young black man sits in front of a window, an image of sun and clouds. The video camera holds him from the middle of his chest upward.

I always saw myself dying at a young age, says the man on camera. I dreamed about it. I knew I’d die violently one day.

He has green eyes and black hair, cut very short. He could be anyone, your neighbor, your pastor, your assistant professor, your cousin in Michigan. Everyone has a cousin in Michigan.

Let me ask you something everyone wants to know, a woman’s voice says from off camera. The producer cuts to her. She’s facing the man. Even though the picture doesn’t show it, you can tell she’s a reporter, sitting cross-legged, a lap full of notes, a ballpoint nestled in her hand. She’s Asian-American, young, pretty. She wears a serious expression. This is her moment.

Do you feel remorse? she says.

The camera cuts back to the man. He casts his eyes downward in contemplation. The lens zooms slowly toward his face. There are scars, wrinkles. His skin is dark, in contrast with the white wall behind.

Twenty-one people, the reporter says, off camera. That’s twenty-one families without a loved one. Twenty-one communities forever changed.

The man looks up to the reporter seated across from him, his eyes distant, as if he’s trying to remember something. He clenches his jaw.

I feel nothing, he says, and looks into the camera. I turn the TV off.


I didn’t sleep well and walked outside at dawn to sit on the sidewalk with Harvey. A carful of kids sped into the lot and parked in front of a room a few doors down. A young woman drove and she got out of the car, a tiny dog trembling in her arms. The other doors of the car opened and three young men stumbled out, howling drunk. They laughed and pushed each other onto the ground rolled around while the girl smiled at them, shaking her head. She smoked a thin cigarette and looked like a stripper recently off stage, now wearing sandals and shorts and a pink tank. She was dead sober. One of the young men saw me and said, Hey man.

I waved.

Nice dog, he said, looking at Harvey. The tallest of the men finally got the key in the lock and held open the door for his buddies and then the girl. This is it, the tall young man said to her, and she walked in. He walked in right behind her, thrusting his hips and smiling at me.


Soon I was back in the desert driving through that barren land of god with my mind striding varied paths without restraint. I thought about those young guys back at the motel in Elko and how they were probably going to wake up with the worst headaches of their lives and their wallets missing. I couldn’t pick up anything on the radio, so I put in a Chet Baker disc and let it play for a minute and then I took it out and slid in Coltrane’s Interstellar Space and turned it up to maximum volume, the speakers barely able to contain the sound, and what a metaphor for life, I thought, not just my own life but everyone’s, from the people trapped in the ghettoes of Chicago to the wife-killing bourgeoisie in Connecticut, and perhaps it was due to my unexpected close contact with Jade or my fogged and bittersweet memories of Gloria, perhaps it was the fact that it had been such a terribly long time since I’d been with a woman, for my mind retreated again to my wife, just as it had the previous night while lying in bed with my eyes open and cast upward with a crushing and sustained longing bracing me and breaking me down into molecules. The Jeep sped through reinforced gales and winding rock canyons, and with the sun and clouds high in the pale blue I felt like an insect between two worlds, on my back, legs kicking and flailing. I tried to remember a poem I read once about time travel, I think it was Neruda, and how the poem made me feel sick because it was so visceral, reading it was like traveling through time (or the bowels of a demon, which is the same thing). I think it was Neruda but it could have been someone else, maybe Rimbaud. If only I could remember the poet who wrote it, I thought, and forget all those other things. If only I could lose myself in a poem right now, lose myself in this rocky desert with its small towns the size of city blocks, their names a sick communion of native reverence and white investment, and if only I could remember the name of that poem or what year it was published, maybe it was William Carlos Williams, though that seems improbable, If only I could remember the period in which it was written I’d feel better, this aimless sauntering through our desolate homeland, and the next time I have an instinct about a town like Elko I’m going to heed the advice of my instinct, it’s not done me wrong in the past, and then suddenly the image of my father’s naked body ramming my wife from behind surfaces in my mind and I grit my teeth, I push the accelerator into the floor, forcing the new machine to pull even harder, coursing its limits out here in the desert where not even ghosts loiter to see what happens next. I’ve forgotten what it’s like, how anger can propel a person’s spirit into something like ecstasy, guide them magnetically back toward their most primal impulses and reactions. I look into the rearview and Harvey’s back there panting, panting. What he must feel like out here on these open roads, all these unfamiliar fragrances. It must be something like heaven, I thought. The CD finishes and I restart it and turn it up louder, totally distort the sound, slashing through graveyard cone zones at ninety miles an hour. I dreamed of this place once, I say aloud, and it’s true. This road, the way it dogs left onto a low bridge over the thin vein of black water, I’ve been here and seen this, under this very light. And where does this feeling come from, what is the nature of déjà vu? We have to figure this out, as a culture, this should be one of our top scientific priorities because the speculation and conjecture are killing me. If only I could be certain the poem was written by Lowell and not, say, Kerouac, or maybe Creeley or Richard Hugo, and goddammit I should read more books: I must be American.

Down into immense sun bleached valleys like the landscape of other planet I wish I could remember just one line from that poem, just to resurrect the dead feeling, and then I think of feelings and with a sudden clarity I understand that all feelings are dead once we cease to feel them and begin to contemplate their effect upon us, fucking poets, and I turn down the speakers to hear the Jeep’s engine tug at the concrete, tug at the past, and where are all the cops? I’ve been driving over a hundred miles an hour for at least twenty miles and nothing, no cops on the shoulder with their miscalibrated radar guns and questionable ethics, and I can see no reason to decelerate until I arrive in Sparks. I have a sudden urge for ice cream and poetry and I want to know what was the purpose my wife could have had to tear down everything we’d built together. I was out of water to drink and I scolded myself for not sleeping with that prostitute back there, I should have done it, I should have slept with her, I should have undressed her quickly and fucked her without delay, I should have done it ruthlessly, cathartically, repeatedly through the night, paying whatever I needed to pay, money or spirit, spirit or money. I should have made her in every way possible and left her sweating and trembling, unable to speak or move, and I should have walked out of that motel room straight into the bare desert but I never do the things I should do. If only I could remember one word from that mysterious poem, just one word.

I reach back to the camera case behind my seat and after a few clumsy moments I’m able to extract the hardware and I start filming as I drive. I film the endless desert on my right with the wind roaring in my ears and I film the desert to the left rimmed in the distance by low dark hills. I film the road as it unfolds before me at ninety, at eighty, at seventy miles an hour, I film Harvey asleep in the back with the wind congealing patches of his fur, I film myself, smiling, consternate, aloof, and I feel rejuvenated, as if closing in on a city in the desert is like departing the desert altogether. The air is charged with anticipation as I approach Reno, a metaphysical preoccupation, it smells sweeter and somehow used. An increased volume of vehicles on the road forces me to slow the Jeep down. I’ve never been so happy to see a billboard: EAT WITH YOUR HANDS (AND MOUTH) AT EARL’S, EXIT 224. The desert recedes gradually, or it appears so, replaced by shacks and nondescript two-story buildings, frontage roads and traffic lights blinking yellow, railroad tracks with strings of railcars on them, silent, immobile. SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL CHAPTER OF KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS. There’s cloud cover over the city, as if humans have dictated the troposphere and created our own weather systems. REST YOUR HEAD ON OUR EGYPTIAN COTTON PILLOWS, EXIT 227. The gas tank is nearly empty and I consider stopping to refill but decide to push on to Reno, TREE GIRL LIVES, it’s only a few more miles down this long and winding road, and I tell myself the first thing I’m going to do after I park and refill and let Harvey out to piss, the first thing I’m going to do after I stretch and drain a bottle of ice water, ENSANADA CASINO—BEST LITTLE JOYRIDE IN AMERICA, EXIT 227, the first thing I’m going to do after I prove to myself that I’m alive and the past four hours on this road haven’t been some drawn-out nightmare journey down a dehydrated road to spiritual entropy, the first thing I’m going to do is pretend that none of it ever happened.

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