Driving a girl whose father loathed me,
son of an Italian who labored on the open hearth,
I crossed in a borrowed green Comet
the PA line into Wheeling.
Eighteen was legal in West Virginia:
Marlboros and three-two beer at the Hilltop
on a street with whorehouses and a Jesuit college.
She was sixteen, a minor –
the true miners secreted in black sulphurous pockets
whispering beneath the tavern floor we sat upon.
The jukebox was loud and country;
it was easy to ignore the charge being laced under us.
My girl was drunk and singing along – Loretta Lynn,
Tammy Wynette – though she didn’t know the words,
the way folks mouth like speaking in tongues
when the spirit lays hold of them.
A smudge on her cheek,
second-hand coat, her blonde hair shone white –
in that light,
aged into a coal miner’s wife
or a steel worker’s
like my mother.
When the 4 to12 shift from Wheeling Pittsburgh
dragged in, I smelled asbestos
and baked ore, the vaporous green sizzle
of my father’s work fatigues.
I wanted to tell her all about her father;
I’d rip him to pieces, that bastard.
My dad was a brave man.
He climbed boom cranes with nothing
but a span of leather fastening him
above the smokestacks streaming
twelve stories of fire into the firmament.
But I had no vocabulary to render his mythic toil.
I knew more about her dad:
his suits and office in downtown Pittsburgh,
his perfect diction and college education.
We hung around till Last Call,
then kissed against the fender
until the lot emptied
and the Hilltop’s neon shingle sputtered out.
The Comet wouldn’t start.
I turned it over and over
until I killed the battery,
till I couldn’t get a peep out of the horn
or the lights to flicker.
The mighty Ohio beat by.
Whelped in Pittsburgh,
it loops north, in defiance of gravity,
abruptly slices west, southering
into the fang of northern West Virginia
that impales the border
of Ohio and Pennsylvania –
like the long jagged neck of a busted bottle.
That’s where we stood clinging to each other,
stranded along the omniscient river –
where I still like to think of us –
before those miners,
like escaped Purgatorians,
burst black and smoldering
through the bottom of our lives,
and she started to cry,
anticipating her father’s patrician wrath.
I thought of who I could call –
knowing there was only one man on earth
who would rise out of his exhausted sleep
at the sound of my voice,
like Lazarus, and come running.