The radio’s off so the kids can sleep.
They’re in the back, faces smushed
into my mother-in-law, Joan’s, shoulders,
their breath slow and muffled.
The tires dathump dathump on the road.
Our headlight beams split the night
and pull us home. Joan’s probably nodding
repeating her prayers for Harmony
as if she’d willed this happy, tired
Thanksgiving night drive.
Anne’s chatter about the cousins quiets.
Our breath synchronizes to sighs
when Zak shatters the silence with Holy Shitballs!
Joan gasps. Anne sticks a sharp fingernail in my thigh
in case I’d forgotten I had insisted Ace Ventura
was fine for a five-year-old, her insistence
I listen to the ratings. The ratings!
I picture my twelve-year-old self, red faced,
hands gesturing wildly and my father shrugging
and stuttering, “You’re just not ready.”
And now Anne’s found a website
that counts the shits and fucks
and breasts and butts. I know. I get it.
I’m an idiot. He’s five. I know that sharp pain
of parenthood without her fingernail reminder.
I’m supposed to save him from moments like this
when the joy of Holy Shitballs! wears off
and in the silent aftermath he begins
to realize what he’s done, imagines
his grandmother reciting prayers for him.
But that Holy Shitballs! was such joy! Some sounds
light up the brain’s pleasure zones,
want to be felt in the mouth, heard in open air
echoing in your own little voice—like the Shit Howdy!
I’d heard exclaimed in happy surprise by the pseudo-cowboys
I knew in Colorado or my friend Guy’s Fuckin’ A shouts
of frustration. How can you count and measure that?
In the dark silence of that car, I feel relief.
At least, I didn’t take Erin, who sighs now peacefully,
still innocent of the joy of swearing
as Joan prays for the souls of us all or perhaps
suppresses her laughter and Zak wonders how
the echo of Holy Shitballs! could turn so quickly
to the I-never-should-have regret
that often follows great joy—the realization
that you can’t go backwards. No one speaks.
The tires kept their beat in the cold night.
We each nurse our own thoughts in the warm car. Until
in the darkness Erin whispers, Ho-ly Shit-balls,
slow and careful as if memorizing a prayer,
then seems to fall back to sleep.
—from Rattle #46, Winter 2014
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist
Jack Powers: “I remember reading David Wagoner’s ‘My Physic Teacher,’ who ends up ‘stuck/ one foot forever in the wastebasket’ and thinking, ‘Poems can be funny? I can do that.’ I love poems that are funny and true. I continue to read poems like Kim Dower’s ‘Boob Job’ or Courtney Kampa’s ‘Avant-Garde’ or Denise Duhamel’s ‘How It Will End’ and say, ‘Wow! Poems can do that?’” (web)