I am an assistant professor at Chadron State College where I teach writing and American literature. "Helen's Barroom" is one of those poems that I simply could not finish. In fact, even after I thought it was finished, I kept revising the final line. The poem was probably two years old before I finally came up with the current ending. I thought of writing "The El Camino" after listening to an episode of Car Talk. Both poems appear in my first book of poetry, Another City, which recently was published by (and is available at) FutureCycle Press.
My father explains how the woman whose mouth
slacks open in a coma, whose hospital bed rests
in the middle of our living room, was different
in 1967 while dancing at Helen’s Barroom.
An old man, he forks the final remnants
of day-old crab rangoon and comments
upon a car driving too fast outside.
And this everyday observation is okay
because more than anything I need to drift
with that speeding car which fifty years ago
would have been driving intently
toward the town’s only bar. The quiet woman
in the passenger’s seat, so this first date
story goes, wore a green dress,
and the driver, hair buzzed into a flattop,
delighted in Patsy Cline on the radio.
The night must have promised a lifetime
of such nights: a hundred years
of that gravel barroom parking lot crunching
under the excited steps of brown shoes,
white heels. A beer-soaked wooden floor,
the world was Eddy Arnold
on the juke; her fingers promised
to flutter forever on her beer bottle
between songs. That young couple,
for those few hours, the envy
of each drunk shadow on a barstool—
and me now.
But my father, grown weary
of conversation, finishes his paper plate
of microwaved food and retreats
to the silence of his bedroom.
And my mother, with a machine pumping air
into her lungs, keeps drifting
further from us along with those nights
she still rode through town, windows down,
brown hair blowing, the darkness ahead of them
lost in neon glow.
The El Camino
For my father polishing her each Sunday morning—
an Old Milwaukee in one hand, a yellow sponge
in the other. For him singing along with Sam Cooke
crooning from the tape deck. For Christina’s pink
and white miniskirt and the way her skin looked
smoother than any Larry Bird jump shot.
For that Saturday night in September when my father
dangled the El Camino’s keys before me
demanding I repeat each of his instructions—
how the resentment I felt for my father
who bestowed on that brown behemoth the affection
he denied my mother disappeared.
For each Circuit City stockholder whose investments
resulted in the construction of an unlit parking lot.
For the El Camino’s six-foot bed
where my inexperienced fingers tore off Christina’s
black bra buckle. How we delighted
in the El Camino’s absorbent springs,
Christina calling my name as if each letter
had great significance. For Sam Cooke
filling the awkward silence of our ride home—
Christina not kissing me goodnight that night
or any night after. For my father, the next morning,
discovering Christina’s torn bra buckle.
I watched from the kitchen window
as he ceased his duet with Sam Cooke and considered
the small black clasp. For my father,
who I had learned to ignore whenever he was home,
tossing the evidence to the wind and sidewalk.
For my father dipping his yellow sponge
in a cracked bucket, rivulets of grime dripping
down its sides. For my father, nursing his last
Old Milwaukee, working into that Sunday afternoon,
re-cleaning each inch of the El Camino.
"Helen's Barroom" was originally published in Pleiades and "The El Camino" first appeared in Tar River Poetry.
©2015 Steve Coughlin