Philip Levine

Getting There

Early August, hours west of Omaha,
I’d pulled to the side of the road to see
why the car was wobbling and sadly found
a front wheel had sheared off four bolts.
We were out of luck again. Early afternoon,
my youngest son and I hundreds of miles 
from the house we’d left and the house
we aimed to find. The big rigs booming
by one after another, shaking the car
loaded with all we had, and the pale sky
riding above, cloudless and distant.
My heart pounded out of some need
to be heard, to address the land
without end, to strike a single chord
that would go on and on the way light
goes on and on seeking the last darkness
or that day went on in western Nebraska
forever in blinding sunlight or until
an old man in a Pontiac four-door stopped
to ask, Was we in trouble? and took us home
where he served buttermilk and crackers
while he phoned up the Ford people
they should see to it fast.
                                           You know how
a six year old blond, small for his age,
with a solemn, pensive air can almost
make your breath catch, your eyes fill
with tears, especially at those times
he will not explain the hidden sources
of his understanding. Such boys ask
for nothing. They simply stand in the center
of so large a place, quiet, accepting.
The old man took his hand as he walked
us around the borders of his farm, claiming
his ancient rights that sooner or later
the bank would claim. Acres of wheat,
a small garden where the onions were done,
gone to white seeds, the sweet corn
above our heads and rising. Three kinds
of tomatoes, sweet and chili peppers,
kept him busy. Handed up, my boy sat
grimly on the tractor seat holding fast
to the steering wheel as though the world
in its turning might buck him off,
his face fixed and serious. The old man
returned from the barn leading a goat
on a rope, a white goat named Ahab
as though he’d gotten the story wrong.
Teddy stared out over the acres of wheat
stretching all the way to those mountains
we had yet to cross, stared, and would not
begin to smile or come down to earth,
while the great day went on. 
                                              To be lost
in the center of America, to be taken in
by a stranger whose needs go unannounced,
to sleep beside your father, what can
it mean at six? He would grow to manhood,
leave home, risk the continent again
in far worse cars. Perhaps the lesson
never took or was no lesson but something else
about the open, wide gaze of a day
under the August sun, the gift of light
bronzing the wheat, the vast chord of sky
rolling across the fields, which answer
with their pips and squeaks. A second day
wakened downstairs with our host
stumbling into chairs, pipes groaning,
the one shrill note of coffee boiling
into bitterness. Perhaps the son saw
his father laugh this day, heard him
clink cups with the old man, and each
pour from the little screw-top bottle
to make it royal. After that old Aaron
drove us back to the highway, and we
stood beside the Ford miraculously
repaired and exchanged money and addresses
—for a small miracle has a price.
Now Aaron leans down to the window
to point the way ahead. He calls it west,
he mentions Colorado, the high mountains
snow-capped even now, and says nothing
about music, though the notes are rising
all around us, bird calls, exhaust roars,
the slap-slap of tires, the unheard cries
forming a new song, unheard, that wants
to be sung and won’t. Holding up the map
for us, my boy points out the roads
inked across the cracked and folded paper,
“Navigator,” Aaron says, and Teddy smiles
at last, and now the three of us are laughing
at once, without harmony or reason.