Runner Up: 2024 Philadelphia Stories Poetry Contest

In the boat of the Buick, lake of ice
glinting in front of us like a tarnished mirror—
there in the empty Acme parking lot, my father
tells me: Step on the gas. And there it is
that moment of this-can’t-be-right, but
he nods, winds the window down until a small crack
forms along the edge and slips
the remains of his lit cigarette to skate
orange down the pane. He exhales smoke
from both nostrils and says, Step. On. The. Gas.
As my boot levels pedal to floormat, the tires
begin an almost useless spin—as frictionless
as teenage excuses. A brief catch
as tire grips asphalt and the car guns
forward until he says, Now, stop. He has prepared
me for this, and yet every instinct
tells me no. I freeze then force myself to flick
foot to brake oh how we spin—our DNA stretching out into endlessness,
the double helix pulling so tightly
against itself that it ribbons. Turn against the slide
against it,
and I do—back treads gripping nothing, connecting
with nothing, and we sail in glorious squirreling circles
until gravity slows us
and we stop.
And again, his commandment
as he sparks lighter to fresh Carlton,
But this time turn into it—you’ll see, so again I punch foot to gas
then pound the brake, the back of the car flying out
from behind us—the tail turning the fish.
And twisting into that slide, four thousand pounds of Detroit steel
comes under my control, the steering restored, the tires aligned,
and as I pump the breaks softly, as he tells me to do,
as though there is an egg underfoot,
we glide to a stop.

There, in the rare silence that is the snow, cigarette now pinned
between his teeth, my father grins. He flicks ashes
sideways into the waiting mouth of the ashtray—
the yellowed tips of his fingers
stained with nicotine.

Tara A. Elliott’s poems appear or are forthcoming in Cimarron Review, 32 Poems, Ninth Letter, and The Normal School among others. An award-winning educator, she also serves as Executive Director of the Eastern Shore Writers Association (ESWA), and chair of the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference. A former student of Lucille Clifton, she’s been awarded numerous grants and honors for her writing and outreach, including the Christine D. Sarbanes Award from MD Humanities, The Light of Literacy Award from Wicomico County Public Libraries, and a Maryland Arts Council’s Independent Artist Award.