The Future

(Detroit, 1950)

Because the jobs were there
and a man could get rich
working on the line, the South
retreated North to Michigan,
whole families eating crackers and baloney
by the side of the road,
changing drivers to keep
moving through corn fields
and foreign towns,
sundown and darkness,
the moon a prophecy of chrome,
the stars 10 million headlights
of the cars they would build.

Ahead lay a city bright with steel;
behind, the dark fields folded
over everything they knew;
and when they dozed
on cramped back seats, they dreamed
such dreams as the road can make,
of drifting on a lake or stream
or lying down in hay to dream of traveling,
so that when they woke to a bump,
a couch, a voice saying, “It’s your turn,”
they were lost to themselves
and took a few moments
to remember their names.

Mostly behind their backs,
the locals called them
rednecks, crackers, goddamned rebs.
Strange to be strange,
in their new neighborhoods,
to be ethnic with a thick accent
and a taste for food the grocers didn’t stock—
hog jowl and blackeyes, turnip greens,
roasting ears, souse-meat—
the butcher shrugging,
the produce man shaking his head.
Sometimes their own voices
took them by surprise,
sounding odd and out of place
in the din of a city bus, ringing
lost in the evening air when
they called their children in for supper.

At work they touched
parts of tomorrow,
next year’s models always
taking shape and vanishing,
the present obsolete, the past
merely a rumor,
all hours blurring
into one continuous moment
of finishing a fragment,
each piece the same piece,
movements identical,
endless, like a punishment in hell.

No way out but back
to their old lives, a future
they already knew by heart,
a few on the road each month
in cars they may have helped assemble,
tokens of their failed success,
legacies for boys to find
years later rusting on some lot,
banged up but still a dream
and fast enough when overhauled
to make them feel they could blast
straight into tomorrow,
as they raced their engines at each stoplight
and cruised their towns in circles.

Neal Bowers, "The Future" from Out of the South, published by Louisiana State University Press. Copyright © 2002 by Neal Bowers.  Reprinted by permission of Neal Bowers.
Source: Out of the South (Louisiana State University Press, 2002)
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