Aug. 30, 2010

Breakfast at the Road Runner Cafe

by William Notter

CAFE still burning in neon after sunup,
and a bird's gangly silhouette stretched out
with speed—the sign draws me in.
The walls inside are hung with Spanish prayers,
kachina dolls, chili pepper bundles,
and a three-foot Christ sanctifies relief
from the bluster of New Mexico spring.

The waitress brings coffee and cream.
The gaunt, mustachioed cook
whets his spatula against the grill
scrambling huevos Mexicanos
with chopped green chilies, tomatoes, onion,
tortillas and beans on the side.
A whiskered man at the counter brags
to the waitress about the money he can make
selling copper wire for scrap,
and how he drank thirteen beers
the night before, and wasn't even drunk.
Highway patrolmen talk knockdown power
and calibers, a courthouse blown apart
by a fertilizer bomb in the back of a truck.
A skittish Navajo woman, Drug Free and Proud
printed on her shirt, opens a letter
and swirls ice cubes with her butter knife.

The letter might be from a son locked up
for stealing cars in Albuquerque,
a power disconnect notice, or news
her sister died of exposure out in the hills.
Maybe she's just back to the world
from a stay in detox, chewing ice
to keep from thinking she could walk downtown
and be served a bottle of gin
or eighth-ounce bag of weed
as easily as eggs and toast.

A stranger can only say so much
in the open noise of sputtering grease,
small talk, spoons clacking in coffee mugs.
If she can just hold tight to something,
those cravings will disappear the way wind
blows mountains of cloud across the sky.
She could find comfort in a place like this,
the silvery riffle of cottonwood leaves outside,
a novena candle flickering by the door
to keep Jesus lit at night, find pleasure
in good food and desert light across the tables.

The woman lays a few bills down
by her plate of half-eaten eggs,
and walks outside to the payphone.
She holds her black hair with one hand
against the lashing wind. What can a stranger say?
The Santa Fe's red and yellow engines
come thrumming west beside the highway
as I go out the door. Hang on. She turns
and I shout again, Just hang on.
Past the train is sandstone sunbleached yellow,
knobby juniper clutching at the hills.

"Breakfast at the Road Runner Cafe" by William Notter, from Holding Everything Down. © Crab Orchard Review, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the journalist Molly Ivins, (books by this author) born in Monterey, California (1944), who said, "Satire is the weapon of the powerless against the powerful."

It's the birthday of the cartoonist Robert Crumb, born in Philadelphia (1943). He said, "Art is a means of venting our craziness, our meanness, our towering disgust."

It was on this day in 1962 that 88-year-old, four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Frost (books by this author) plunged into his goodwill tour of the Soviet Union. He really wanted to be able to meet with Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. Frost said that he could envision "the Russian and the American democracies drawing together," their distinctly separate ideologies eventually meeting in the middle.

The goodwill tour was arranged, and in late August the crew set off. Frost spent his days in the USSR giving poetry readings and interviews and lectures and otherwise being a very public persona. His readings were immensely popular, with enthusiastic audiences filling venues. Frost would burst out into spontaneous recitations of his famous works wherever he went.

For most of the trip, it was uncertain whether he was going to get a chance to meet with Khrushchev, which he wanted so badly. Then, toward the final days, he got word that such a meeting had been arranged, and he would get his big wish. He flew to Crimea, and he was so incredibly excited that he felt to sick to his stomach — he reported having terrible stomach cramps. He was going on 90, and there was talk of canceling the meeting, but Frost insisted that it take place. Khrushchev sent his own personal doctor ahead to attend to Frost. He was diagnosed with a case of nervous indigestion.

Khrushchev ended up coming into the bedroom at the guesthouse where Frost was resting, and it was there that, at the height of the Cold War, the leader of the Communist world and the aging American poet had their famous meeting. Each man praised the other man's work. They talked of the future of capitalism and the future of socialism. Frost told Khrushchev: "A great nation makes great poetry, and great poetry makes a nation." And then Frost daringly took a stab at discussing one of the Cold War's central issues: He urged Khrushchev to reunite East and West Berlin. Khrushchev declined, and explained to Frost why it was important for the Soviet Union to keep it how it was. The two men talked for an hour and a half.

Frost died just about five months after his trip to the USSR. At the dedication of the Frost library in October of 1963, John F. Kennedy delivered a moving eulogy, where he said: "Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation."

Research note: Quotes from Robert Frost in this entry, and a more extensive account of his trip to Russia, can be found in Jay Parini's biography Robert Frost: A Life (1999). The excerpt from Pravda, originally in Russian, was translated by poet F.D. Reeve, who went along on the trip with Frost and wrote about it in his book Robert Frost in Russia (1964).

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