Note to listener: I usually start my poetry readings saying, "It may sound like I'm afraid of you, but I'm not. I have this slight voice disability." It is, in fact, Spasmodic Dysphonia, a pretty common problem among older women.
Chicago, Illinois, 1955
I’m eight. My mother drives me down West Addison
to a faith-healing dentist, Dr. Otnes.
My mother takes a hard left turn
when we pass his office, or starts to
when a Chicago squad car flashes her. She pulls over,
sticky with summer. The officer, with a button-gapping tummy,
pulls out his ticket book. I stare at the glove box.
He’s writing a ticket for a U-turn.
She weeps. He exhales, lips loud.
My husband is on our school board.
We’re going to her dentist. I got turned around.
I’m a church lady. He gives her a warning.
This is the first time I see her cry,
a time I recall when I’m 14 and every drilling that Dr. Otnes filled
has to be re-excavated by a new dentist with neon tetras in a tank.
I hate the after-taste of dentists.
New Haven, Connecticut, 1970
May. Orange Street, just blocks
from the Green. Riot police spray tear gas
outside the trial of the New Haven Nine
and Bobby Seale. Gas billows. I jog home
and shut my windows. The night is long with yelling
and people running. The President of Yale says he doubts
black revolutionaries can get a fair trial
anywhere in America. Two thousand miles away,
my mother knows nothing, believes I’m safe.
Rural Clatsop County, Oregon 1989
I drive now. My mother is my passenger.
My daughter snuggles in her carseat
looking at sunbeams poking through Douglas firs.
A squad car flashes me
for out-of-date license tags. I spout,
You pulled me over for tags?
I’m from Portland, where police worry about real crime.
This is all you do, pull people over for license tags?
My mother slaps my wrist resting on the gear shift.
She’s hushing me, no, no, don’t, no, with a tremor.
Does she expect me to cry?
I take the ticket. We’re 80 miles from home.
She starts in about the garment union men,
their bed bugs in glass bottles. She worked in the office
when her father managed a garment factory.
employing mostly ex-cons from the days
when garment factories were inside prison walls
and paid prisoners next to nothing.
The union men came around to organize
and meant to smash resistance
and their bottles inside the factory. My grandfather
blew a whistle. His ex-cons came out swinging
baseball bats. Then she tells me about prohibition,
speeding bootleggers, gunfire,
and the blind pigs. Once she saw Eliot Ness.
I take this as a lesson more about men
than law enforcement.
North Charleston, Carolina, April 17, 2015
My mother is long dead. Today Walter Scott
is pulled over for expired license plate tags.
He winds up shot. Shot dead.
My mother knew more
than I thought she did.
She, the warden’s daughter.
Tricia Knoll is a Portland, Oregon poet. Her work has appeared in dozens of journals including HEArt Online. Her chapbook Urban Wild (Finishing Line Press) came out in 2014. Tricia is working on a new book-length manuscript about her history with racial justice. It is not a simple story.