Road Trip 2018

I take the western route, which is longer
but more beautiful. I speed along


the crack that violence cut through the mountains
like a bead of sweat sliding down


a spine, trying to make sense of a sign:
“Judgment Day Coming Wicked Will Call,”


picturing the wicked working through their list
of numbers like my friends and I


when we were kids, prank calling boys
and hotlines just to die


laughing. I can’t decide
if the rocks stacked up on either side


of the road will protect or crush me.
When I pass a van plastered with portraits


of the president and American flags, I speed
to overtake it, wondering if it’s wise


to rely on a 2009 Subaru to get me through
the war that’s threatening my peace of mind.


A billboard promises Endless Caverns,
exit 257. I see pitch black enveloping me


like velvet and wonder who would pull
off the highway for that. In South Carolina,


a restaurant advertises itself as “World Famous.”
I laugh—I’m in a town I’ve never heard of


and doubt anything here could be known
across the globe. Perhaps some lost European traveler


came in once and they’ve remained
embarrassingly proud. I think of all of them,


America, those people who must live
somewhere in the places I pass through


with my windows up, never committing names

to memory: people who look forward to dinners


at Red Lobster, who trade recipes
for casseroles with crumbled Ritz crackers


and Velveeta, who still care about things
like high school football games, who pray


on Sundays for their dropout kids, their sick parents,
their late mortgage payments. Who decorate


their houses unironically
with welcome mats and Bless This Home


embroideries. Whose kids do just okay
in school, find jobs nearby or enroll


at the local college, get pregnant or knock
their girlfriends up by accident and keep it anyway,


who get dressed up in drugstore makeup
and Walmart button-downs for birthday


celebrations at the hibachi place where they sit
around the hot grill marveling at the chef’s skill


with knives and laugh every time
he tosses a slab of meat onto their plates.


And I want to reach out
from the highway to touch them, tell them


I don’t hate them like they think I do,
like they hate me. I want to say, America,


I love you but please drop me off
around the block from school


so my friends won’t see. America,
I love you but you’re killing me.

Emily Banks is the author of Mother Water (Lynx House Press, 2020). Her poems and essays have appeared in North Carolina Literary Review, The Cortland Review, The Southampton Review, Glass (Poets Resist), Superstition Review, New South, and other journals. She received her MFA from the University of Maryland, and currently lives in Atlanta, where she is a doctoral candidate at Emory University.

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