Derby day and she’s back with her daughters in the town she hates.
My mother was the first child to leave home—
so many ways grief could come back through Louisville.
A party bus carrying the prince of Monoco and the Campbells Soup boys’
left Miss Kentucky stranded in the traffic along the corner of Brook Street.
There wasn’t much to notice beneath slim pods and dripping leaves
in that shotgun section along the rails. Trash spattered the streets.
Plastic bags churned in the curbs like whitewashed sails.
We sat in the yard all afternoon watching the trains work their way past the back of the house.
Churchill Downs wasn’t a mile’s walk past girlie signs and pawnshops.
But in Bud’s house threaded flowers stitched the small couches in swirls.
Thick yellow curtains twisted the light dry. A claustrophobic nest. The old smell of fuel.
Bud pulled on his sleeves, rolled and unrolled the newspaper,
underlined horse names, and circled jockey stripes.
My sister breathed hard, braided my hair tight. I didn’t tell her how it hurt.
Everyone placed their bets in the family pot, a dollar each to wager. Trifectas. Win-place-shows.
Bud held tight to the paper, tucked it back under his arm and refused to move from his chair
until My Old Kentucky Home started up and everyone held hands in the living room.
I took Bud’s hand and we sang oh the sun shines bright until he cried and his children cried
as though something was taken from them.
When the song was over, they made fun of mama’s straw hat. How it made her head big.
But she refused to listen to their taunts. It was post-time, and she was singing along.
That gnat-fizzing evening we all lost our bets, except for Bud.
When Miss Kentucky strolled in, she sat between Bud and me at the supper table.
She came through with her big hat and her high heels and looked that house up and down.
I held his hand again and tried to explain just who she was and what she was doing at his table—
how a pageant girl could only get so far in town, but he didn’t understand.
I could barely hear the TV in the next room.
By the fifth race, all the windows were wide open.
Buds Will was taped to the refrigerator, held double-down by magnets of Pope Francis.
There weren’t enough chairs, so my mother moved to the rocker. Aunt Janet apologized
everybody ate the hot-pie but offered cold pork chops and Miller Light.
Miss Kentucky never took off her hat.
That whole night, she never took off that hat.
I don’t know if I ever saw who she was
or if she saw us for who we really were either—wild and ravenous things.
When Miss Kentucky ate everyone sat up straighter. Bud cried again.
That’s a good song, he said except there was no song, only the push of plates across lace.
Funny how grief comes back unknown.
It was the last derby of Bud’s life, before the year of Crowns and Chrome.
One more year and everything he had in that house would be in boxes.
I loved my mother then
for bringing us back, for sitting in the corner beneath a straw hat
watching them watching the beauty queen come in and out of their lives
as frequently as the L&N that rattled the glass of that dark house for years.
And the possums in the catalpas chewed their leaves in the ditches
and watched us say hello and goodbye every year since.
The way mama sees it: everyone here is all talk. Cruel gossip.
Until they are set loose, she says, then they are the most beautiful things.