The last time I saw my mother
she was sitting on the back patio
in her nightgown, a robe
thrown over her shoulders, the elbows
gone sheer from wear.
It was three months before her death.
She was hunched above one of the last
crossword puzzles she would ever
solve, her brow furrowed
over a seven letter word for tooth.
I was staying at a cheap hotel, the kind
where everyone stands outside
their front door to smoke, a cup
of hotel coffee balanced
on the butt end of the air conditioner,
blasting its cold fumes over
the unmade bed. The outdoor
speakers played Take It Easy
on a loop, and By The Time
I Get to Phoenix and Get Back.
It wasn’t the best visit. My sister’s house
was filled with dogs, half-grown kids
and piles of dirty clothes. No food
in the fridge so we went out
and got tacos, enchiladas and burritos
from the Filibertos a few blocks away,
a squat tub of guacamole and chips,
tumblers of horchata, orange Fanta
and Mr. Pibbs, a thousand napkins.
Everyone was happy while they chewed.
The state of Arizona is a box of heat
wedged between Las Vegas and Albuquerque.
Not a good place to be poor or get sick or die.
My mother rode on a train from Maine in 1953
—she was just a girl, me bundled in her arms—
all the way to California. I’ve tried to imagine it.
If you continue west on Route 66
it will branch upward and dump you
into the spangle of Santa Monica
where I used to live, and then you can
drive Highway One almost all the way up
the Redwood Coast to Mendocino.
I used to do that. I probably spent more time
in my car than in any house I lived in.
My mother never knew where I was.
She’d call and leave a message,
“This is your mother, (as if I might not
recognize her voice), “and I’m just wondering
where you are in these United States.”
She used to make me laugh. The whole family
was funny as hell, once. Dinnertime was like
a green room full of stand-up comics.
That day, sitting with them over spilled salsa,
I saw the damage booze and meth can do
to a row of faces. The jokes were tired
and the windows behind them filled
with hot white sky, plain as day.
When I got back to the hotel it was getting dark,
but it had cooled off so I took a walk around
the parking lot. Strangers leaned out over
their second floor balconies and shouted down
at their friends traipsing away in thin
hotel towels toward the tepid blue pool.
The moon was up, struggling to unsnag itself
from the thorny crowns of the honey locusts,
the stunted curbside pines.
I left my tall mother on the couch where
she was sleeping, flat on her back, her robe
now a blanket, her rainbow-striped socks
sticking out like the bad witch beneath
the house in the Wizard of Oz. But she
was not a bad witch, nor was she Glinda,
that was my mother’s brother’s wife’s name.
We called her the bad witch behind her back.
My mother still wore her wedding ring,
even after she remarried. Why spend good money
on a new one when she liked this one perfectly well.
She always touched it like a talisman,
fretted it around her bony finger.
Three kinds of braided gold: white, rose and yellow.
By the end, the only thing keeping it
from slipping off was her arthritic knuckle.
I don’t know what my sister did with it
after she died. I wonder if all that gold
was melted down in a crucible, the colors
mixing, a muddy nugget.
I do know that Route 66, in addition
to being called the Will Rogers Highway
and The Main Street of America,
was also known as the Mother Road,
from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
My mother looked like a woman Walker Evans
might have photographed, with her dark
wavy hair, wide forehead and high cheekbones,
one veined hand clutching her sweater at the collar,
her face a map of every place she’d been,
every floor she scrubbed, every book she’d read,
every ungrateful child she birthed that lived or died,
every hungry upturned mouth she fed,
every beer she drank, every unslept night,
every cigarette, every song gone out of her,
every failure. Severe, you might say.
She always looked slightly haughty,
glamorous and famished.
I saw all the cars parked in that lot and wanted
to hotwire one with a good radio, drive away,
keep driving until the ocean stopped me,
then hairpin up the coast and arrive
like an orphan at Canada’s front door.
If I’d known I’d never see my mother again,
I wouldn’t have done much different.
I might have woken her up, taken her tarnished
shoulders in my arms, rocked her like a child.
As it was, I bent over her and kissed her
on the temple, a curl of her hair caught
for a moment in the corner of my lips.
This is my mother I thought, her brain
sleeping beneath her skull, her heart
sluggish but still beating, her body
my first house, the dark horse I rode in on.