“Behind the Wheel” by Kathleen McClung

Kathleen McClung


Our monthly ritual: he’d ask about my cat,
uncork a bottle, pour us each some wine,
merlot. I’d curse the traffic on the drive—
I-80 East. My father wasn’t bored.
He’d nod, say: Never tailgate. Stay safe.
Rotate your tires and change your oil. He’d ask

about my 401, my landlord, ask
what did the vet advise about old cats’
hairballs? He’d show me articles he’d saved,
websites and blogs he liked. He poured more wine
and reminisced: two terms on the school board,
his office, business trips. Sometimes we’d drive

to Jackson, play poker machines, then drive
back from the hills, still talking poker as
the sun sank, blue lights bloomed on his dashboard,
and twilight blurred the road. He swerved for cats
and, once, some wild turkeys, their feathers wine-
colored, their strutting slow. He kept them safe.

A cop arrested him one night: unsafe,
erratic weaving in a lane while driv-
ing home from chess at Duffy’s bar, more wine
than usual, more checkmates too. I never asked
how many games he lost—too delicate
a point to probe. My father liked the board

at Duffy’s in the back below the old dartboard
that no one used. A quiet tavern, safe—
no brawls, just chess and fondness for a cat
named Stub who slept between the kegs. The drive
from Duffy’s—eight quick blocks. He didn’t ask
to call a cab. He dozed in jail and paid the fines,

apologized in court. The judge liked wine
and chess as well perhaps: she wasn’t bored
or cruel, just firm, assigning Dad the task
of office help, SPCA. They saved
a few, he told me, their spring Kitten Drive
a big success. He typed cage cards for cats

and dogs newly arrived. His fingers swift
on sleek keyboard, he saved to the hard drive:
Old cats are like fine wines. Ask any volunteer.

from A Juror Must Fold in on Herself
2020 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner


Kathleen McClung: “My father taught me how to play chess when I was about nine, which may partly account for why I love the challenge of writing sestinas. Such a pleasure moving pieces and words strategically around a board or a page. My dad, who died in 2009, always supported my writing, my efforts at artful truth-telling on a variety of subjects, including our family. I miss him and wish he were here now to celebrate my winning the Rattle Chapbook Prize. I’m grateful, though, he missed both Trump and Covid.” (web)

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