Higby Road at Night
It’s easy to get distracted on old roads like this,
that zigzag up and down wooded hillsides,
as if deer laid them out,
and hunters following stomped them into place.
Dangerous, clear nights—
in the valley below, the lights of Utica shine like sparks off a weld.
Above the hill, the full moon is rising.
In town, it looks no brighter than a doctor’s penlight,
shining down chimneys, but here, I understand
our impulse toward praise that transfixes us.
In time, I see the road swerve.
It drops in a syncope toward the river.
A girl I knew died at this curve. Nineteen years old.
It was 3 a.m., she was driving home from her boyfriend’s house
and somehow, because she was tired, almost asleep,
she missed the turn.
I remember her mother—pregnant with her.
She used to cut my hair when I was a boy.
In the mirror, I could watch her face, and saw her belly
bulging her smock forward as she circled my head,
running her fingers through my hair.
I didn’t understand what it meant, that girth—
or how the body worked.
Birth was as mysterious, and as unlikely, as death.
When her daughter died, I didn’t know what to do. I drove
over the route, looking at the trees,
following the yellow and white nerves of the road,
wondering how they failed her.
Old, battered rock, the moon
was there that night. Maybe
it was the moon’s fault.
It didn’t scream, or hold its breath.
It didn’t cry, or bother to warn her.
All it could do was smile,
as though that would be enough,
as though it thought
the phases of human life are like its own—
birth, growth, waning—
only a night or two would go by without her.
There is a dry well where water used to be,
where women came at daybreak
with bottles, and clay pots they brought
from Tennessee, gambling this land
would let them live.
A metal grate keeps children safe
from leaning too far over
the open shaft, and falling in.
Nearby, a sign says: This was San Filipe,
the first capitol of Texas.
Around the sign is a quiet field
of grass and wildflowers.
A map shows where the meeting hall stood,
where Austin ran a trading post.
The land swallowed whatever people dropped
without complaint, and if I started to dig,
I might find bits of fashioned iron, broken cutlery.
But digging is not allowed.
Looking down into the well, I fantasize
what is would be like to tie a rope
around one of the oaks
overshadowing the ground,
to climb down this stone periscope into the past.
To find out where the water went.
For a long time, I’ve been looking for my father in the taverns
of sleep, but the men here look into my face, and shake their heads
like dogs coming up out of the water of cold streams.
They have the blank, expectant stares of dogs, refreshed after a swim,
excited to see someone they think knows the way home.
I have nothing to say to these men. I don’t speak to them,
or invite them to sit with me as I lie down in one of the booths.
This is where my father slept yesterday,
wondering where I was. I’m a day late in my arrival.
It’s possible to tell he was here by certain marks in the wood grain.
Because the tree this bench was made from knew what would happen,
how my father would lie down here yesterday afternoon,
the grain of the tree grew just to fit the outline of his body.
It fits mine almost as well—a near match—the lack of a right arm,
the way my feet twine together when I recline…
Yes, he lay here in the dark room with its murmurs where the men
were sleeping, hoping I would join him at the table.
When I didn’t, he stood up and paid for his dreams,
as if he owed anyone a cent for them. He went out onto the street,
and walked to the next place where he intended to wait for me,
doubtful if I could keep up with him, doubtful—
but there is only one way to know for sure.
A Found Photo, Dated 1919, Holland Patent, NY
for Kim Domenico
A woman sits by a bridge and looks into her own eyes
reflected in the lenses of her glasses,
as if she were talking to her angel,
to her demon—trying to decide—which way
of seeing suits her best.
The river is being led one way,
going where gravity pulls it,
gutting a hillside, making guideways for geese.
The Angel, with her manipulative beauty,
Don’t you see the bridge?
You want to leave this town.
Follow the road.
But her demon, cross,
lit from the wrong angle,
shakes her head,
and says, stay,
or go where you want,
but make your own road.
William Welch lives in Utica, NY, where he writes poetry and works as a registered nurse in one of the city's hospitals. His poems have appeared most recently in Burningword, Rust+Moth, and Stone Canoe. Three poems are forthcoming in Nine Mile. He edits Doubly Mad for The Other Side of Utica (https://doublymad.org/).