DETOUR AHEAD

Fall 2008: Issue 84

Sebastian Matthews

                      for Evie Shockley

 

One week alone on campus

spoiled us to everything real in the world

but a heightened camaraderie

quick to reach fever pitch: writers

at conference. We stopped only to eat

(on scheduled beat) and to sleep,

restless skiffs in the boathouse of dreams.

Huddling in clusters, we chatted

into the night about everything

process. (How could so much fun

be so exhausting?) I’ve left it now,

thank god: a few hours out of Raleigh,

mind unspooling the truth-serum

pontification a workshop tends to extract

from its leader. About to fall asleep

inside this numb corridor of I-95—

what the hell—I turn down

the potholed off-ramp

into the trough of Philadelphia.

Just my luck: the Phillies are at home

and I’m stalled, dead center,

inside this stadium parking crush,

bumping forward inch by maddening inch.

The radio announces that if they lose,

the Phils will have accrued 10,000 losses,

some fan’s punched gut of a stat.

I don’t care, wanting only the traffic

to open up—which, when Broad parts

its tributary mouth to kiss the wooden teeth

of this old city, it eventually does.

I’ve got Evans’ Explorations on the deck,

LaFaro’s groove pulse carrying me

through the afternoon: murals and store-

fronts and center-lane parked cars; one

homeless soul pushing the world’s shopping cart

brimming with crushed cans. Two blocks

and I’m in the land of Starbucks and sky-

scrapers. Men in suits, women in pairs

walking fast. There’s enough coffee

in my system to stun-gun an elephant.

There’s a square, a wrong turn and, for a few

lost minutes, one-way streets send me

around in circles. The route looked straight

enough on the map, a simple drive up

into pastoral green; I was hoping

Highway 611 would escort me

up its urban spine into the river-lined,

wheaty heart of rural America.

Rolling down my window to ask

an elderly couple, Am I still on Broad?

Will it take me out of the city?

the man throws me a look that says,

You know where you’re headed, white boy?

Then he nods: Just keep going straight.

I want to tell him that the same year

LaFaro recorded “Detour Ahead,”

with Evans and Motian on drums,

possibly the most synchronized trio ever,

he also played on Ornette’s Free Jazz,

that ultimate firework of an album,

before wrapping his young man’s Firebird

around a tree six months later

on New York State Route 20 outside Geneva,

which is like orchestrating

a game-ending double play

then preparing the five-star meal

that night at some hot new bistro,

sauce pans exploding into mini bonfires

of applause, then, tented by a box

of cardboard, marinated in piss and dirt,

sleeping on a grate passersby agree

to overlook. A friend’s first night in Philly,

he’s driving down Broad in a rental truck,

worried by the conspicuous absence of street-

lights, rundown buildings leaning in

like field oaks, when he comes upon a car

on fire. No one around, no police.

Windows rolled down, he takes in

the burning rubber, the crackling heat

off the pyre. Me, I’m the only white face

in a square mile, a white boy bubbled

by cool jazz, wide awake now, thank you,

absorbing as much as I can, open

to the heat, the city’s talk squabbling

with the music. Then, when the road bends,

I’m in the suburbs, just like that: the long

snake of sprawl, pod mall after pod mall.

First one township then another. Up

in the country now, a green chant

of trees, river dancing in and out of sight,

small bridges popping brief drum solos

under my tires. Pretty soon I’m in

the long, cool embrace of the Delaware Gap,

breeze washing my face, heading

northeast to 84, Evans’ “My Foolish Heart”

subsumed in light: rush of wind; tires whirring

inside a brushed snare; the day suddenly mine,

body resurrected inside moments

framed by the windshield, catching them like fish

in its porous net.