The drive in this poem is a real one; I made it often in graduate school, going between Illinois and Louisiana on breaks. I usually drove overnight, because my cat would sleep all the way instead of sitting at a window and howling, as she did during the day.
The events are also real. The only thing that isn’t real is the exit number; the gas station isn’t there. I stopped at that station and saw that tree rain down, but I never found it again. I saw all kinds of things on those trips, some of which may still see poems: Listening on the radio as exits were being closed a mile behind me when it snowed in Mississippi; a man who crawled under my car at a gas station in Tennessee to see what was leaking, ruining his head to toe white suit in the process; a family coming into a gas station and making soup out of ketchup and hot water and then being handed sandwiches by the clerk who said they were expired…but that I’d seen him unseal a carton and take out when they came in. A lot of what lives in my mind as the South is from those drives.
This poem gets a hilarious number of Google hits from people who are no doubt very surprised to not see driving directions. Hello there!
Driving Through Mississippi
It’s four hours if you speed,
291 exits broken into almost perfect landmarks:
100 miles to the Grenada off-ramp,
A hundred to Jackson,
Another hundred to the border,
Two stops for gas and BC powders
When the road makes my teeth ache.
My first car invariably broke down just south of Memphis,
Check Engine blurring orange in front of my panicky eyes.
Once I pulled over at a rest stop,
And remembering everything I’d heard
About Knights of the Road, coasted into Trucks Only.
I threw the hood up and stared, looking for something big,
Like the transmission missing, or a fire.
A trucker got down from his cab and bent over the too-hot block.
For an hour, he unhooked and reconnected
Everything he could with pliers, hammer and screwdriver,
Then looked up and said The light’s broken,
And covered it with a tab of duct tape.
It’s always well past midnight
When I get to the Grenada off-ramp.
There’s a cop in every gas station from dark to day,
Usually sitting beside a clerk with big hair.
I always drive off wondering what they do in customer gaps,
Imagining secret romances.
The Deep South starts at that exit:
Stations offer po-boys, and free coffee with any purchase.
I stop just before two at a self-service station.
By the time I get the tank open, the attendant is standing next to me,
Taking the hose from my hand, shooing me inside.
I ask the cashier, measuring full-service against the $20 in my pocket.
Nah, he says. We pump gas for women after dark.
Want some coffee?
I’m 75 miles from Jackson.
If I slow down a mile per hour every mile,
I’ll never get there.
At three a.m., I turn up the tape player and sing louder,
Sip my cold coffee.
Maybe it’s the change in humidity:
I always put on Skynyrd now, my soundtrack for going south,
Even though Alabama is a long way in the wrong direction.
After Jackson, at Exit 20A, there’s a town
That’s still the way only small Southern towns are early in the morning.
I pull off for the last time, at a station across from an antebellum home.
A blowsy magnolia tree is dropping petals in waves.
Gusts send them across Main Street to stick to my car
Like delicate white parking permits.
I stop to watch the tree rain down,
For the first time not thinking of lost miles-per-minute.
I turn back to the pumps;
The cop and attendant smile out the window,
Watching me in the glow of false dawn.