The Odd Last Thing She Did

By Brad Leithauser b. 1953 Brad Leithauser
A car is idling on the cliff.
Its top is down. Its headlights throw
A faint, bright ghost-shadow glow
On the pale air. On the shore, so far
Below that the waves' push and drag
Is dwindled to a hush—a kind
Of oceanic idle—the sea
Among the boulders plays a blind-
Fold game of hide and seek,
Or capture the flag. The flag
Swells and sways. The car
Is empty. A Friday, the first week
Of June. Nineteen fifty-three.

A car's idling on the cliff,
But surely it won't be long before
Somebody stops to investigate
And things begin to happen fast:
Men, troops of men will come,
Arrive with blazing lights, a blast
Of sirens, followed by still more
Men. Though not a soul's in sight,
The peace of the end of the late
Afternoon—the sun down, but enough light
Even so to bathe the heavens from
Horizon to shore in a deep
And delicate blue—will not keep.

Confronted with such an overload
Of questions (most beginning, Why would she...
So gifted, bright, and only twenty-three),
Attention will come to fix upon
This odd last thing she did: leaving
The car running, the headlights on.
She stopped—it will transpire—to fill
The tank a mere two miles down the road.
(Just sixteen, the kid at the station will
Quote her as saying, "What a pity
You have to work today! It's not right...
What weather! Goodness, what a night
It'll be!" He'll add: "She sure was pretty.")

Was there a change of plan?
Why the stop for gas? Possibly
She'd not yet made up her mind? Or
Had made it up but not yet settled
On a place? Or could it be she knew
Where she was headed, what she would do—
And wanted to make sure the car ran
For hours afterward? Might the car not be,
Then, a sort of beacon, a lighthouse-
In-reverse, meant to direct one not
Away from but toward the shore
And its broken boulders, there to spot
The bobbing white flag of a blouse?

Her brief note, which will appear
In the local Leader, contains a phrase
("She chanted snatches of old lands")
That will muddle the town for three days,
Until a Professor E. H. Wade
Pins it to Ophelia—and reprimands
The police, who, this but goes to show,
Have not the barest knowledge of Shakespeare,
Else would never have misread "lauds"
As "lands." A Detective Gregg Messing
Will answer, tersely, "Afraid
It's not our bailiwick. Missing
Persons, yes; missing poems, no."

(What's truly tragic's never allowed
To stand alone for long, of course.
At each moment there's a crowd
Of clowns pressing in: the booming ass
At every wake who, angling a loud
Necktie in the chip dip,
Airs his problems with intestinal gas,
Or the blow-dried bonehead out to sell
Siding to the grieving mother . . . . Well,
Wade sent the Leader another briefword:
"Decades of service to the Bard now force
Me to amend the girl's little slip.
'Chaunted' not 'chanted' is the preferred . . .")

Yet none of her unshakeable entourage
—Pedants, pundits, cops without a clue,
And a yearning young grease-monkey—are
Alerted yet. Still the empty car
Idles, idles on the cliff, and night
Isn't falling so much as day
Is floating out to sea . . . . Soon, whether
She's found or not, her lights will draw
Moths and tiny dark-winged things that might
Be dirt-clumps, ashes. Come what may,
The night will be lovely, as she foresaw,
The first stars easing through the blue,
Engine and ocean breathing together.

Source: Poetry (May 1998).


This poem originally appeared in the May 1998 issue of Poetry magazine

May 1998


A native of Detroit, Brad Leithauser graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as a research fellow at the Kyoto Comparative Law Center in Japan before turning to writing and teaching. For 21 years, he shared the position of Emily Dickinson Senior Lecturer in the Humanities at Mount Holyoke College with his wife, the poet Mary Jo Salter. In 2008, he joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins University. A poet, novelist, critic, and . . .

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Poems by Brad Leithauser

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, Arts & Sciences, Living, Death, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Poetry & Poets

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Elegy

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