david plumb | highwayman


In the dream, he imagines the will
of some ancient god sent him
out at night to find the lost space
the empty room down the hall
the song trickling in the window;
the one he can’t make out the name of.

In the distance he sees lights
specks, pinpoints in the darkness.
He stops to stare at the dim reflection
of the broken yellow line chasing before and after.
On either side of the highway the dark
trees form a great hallway to the sky
where that many stars are so hard to imagine,
where he tries to pick out what he remembers
when he was a kid, the North Star, the Big Dipper
Arcturus, the eyes of Taurus the Bull.

Tonight Jupiter and Venus hang one over the other.
Mercury and Spica close in; they’ll
almost meet on tomorrow’s Harvest Moon.
Tonight he misses her musk, her breathing
at 4. a.m., her shoes scattered on the bedroom
rug, her underwear on every chair.

Tonight he pictures her next to the fat
Vice President of Sales he doesn’t
want to know the name of. This
guy she met on a houseboat off
the Sacramento banks in steamy August.

He banged her against the wall,
dumped her pocketbook on the floor
and tore up her money.
He cried, he begged her to stay.
“Not now!” he pleaded.
“This is our time to build,
our time to make it really WORK.”
How pissed she was, she said.
Because all this time she thought
it was his suitcase behind the bed.

She just stopped, wouldn’t try.
and he knows he didn’t try hard enough.
He knows deep in the shadows of the highway
he’s safe from home, from her
from the lies, from himself.

He imagines she’s almost to Nevada
the blinking plane swings north just
south of Tahoe, west to Oakland and down.
He sees her newly curled hair
her lips thin with fatigue as the headlights
bear down and a satellite crosses the zenith
and careens into nothing. Is it last
night or tomorrow night in a dream?

Headlights, he hears an engine.
The truck so close it could hit him.
Suddenly he remembers mad sweaty faces,
endless sparkling gin, damp breasts, hot musk
teeth flashing, dark, then ever-swelling dawn.
And a safe childhood lawn before this, before
he couldn’t stand the sick of being sick and quit.

Caught between the awesome stars
and the anonymous truck,
the man fades from the road.
The pickup passes, its red lights shimmer
like a UFO in some childhood dream.
The smell of pennies and blood fill the air
and he thinks his lungs might burst.
Night swallows him, trees bore in
The highway at his feet seems to disappear.

He remembers three years ago, no four
driving past a man walking the highway
two hundred miles from nowhere.
For a second he swears he saw the whites of his eyes
flash in recognition as he passed.
That night he saw a car a few miles back.
Maybe it’s was his car, maybe he broke down.
For an instant he thinks maybe it was his father
but his father died years ago in the Albany VA
of sinus cancer, cigars, and drink.

Nine miles later he thinks, God
he looked so damn lonely, maybe
I should have stopped, maybe I should
go back and drive him into town. He’s only a man,
just a tired man looking to get home. But he
doesn’t go back. Three days later
on his honeymoon in Olgonquit, Maine
he awakens at 3.22 a.m. to the most beautiful
perfume he ever imagined. He rolls
over and looks at her. How lovely
she has become since they met. How she’s
grown on him like a great mossy heat.

Just yesterday she seemed so young.
Look how smooth her skin is, her flat belly rises
and falls next to him, until the sound of her
soft breath breathing makes him shudder.
Suddenly he thinks he hears music.
He springs out of bed and moves silently
to the French windows, like air, like stardust.

He pushes both windows open and peers
into the endless night. “I should have,”
he says. And his bride wakes with a start..
“What is it?” she asks. “Tell me.”
“Nothing,” he says. “I just should have.
Go to sleep. It’s really nothing at all.”

In his dream the man walks the shoulder of
the highway all night and when the sun rises
he is amazed at how free he feels, how hungry
he has become. Hundreds of cars pass.
Sometimes a semi almost blows him over.
Once he hears a fragment of an old hymn
so close, he almost turns back.
Occasionally he raises his right hand
to wave someone down, but thinks better of it.

At noon he walks through a small village
where a gas station attendant shoots him the fish eye.
He’s forgotten to eat and no longer aches.
It seems it all happened somewhere else
the endless love, the dark, the tin
thumping of his heart, the job he can’t
remember the name of, the names of stars
a wish for clean socks, headaches,
tender hands, telephones, all of it
lost in the long stretch ahead.

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