2015 Gulf Coast Prize Honorable Mention: Riding the Burlington Grain

Kai Carlson-Wee

for Z   1981 - 2007

Now seeing the badlands dissolving behind me—
the hoodoos and clay-colored islands of rust,
the weather-thin mattresses lining the fence—
I know how my friend must have privately felt
on the cusp of his final adventure, watching
the cars on the highways around downtown Dundas
get smaller, the skaters and freightliners lost
in the windbreak, the wheat field’s distance,
the slow, imperceptible curve of the earth where
his angel was waiting to meet him. And then
it was gone, deleted from, washed red in twilight,
watching the pulse of the red-blinking light
on the wing. I don’t fear the leaving. I fear what
is left. The garden abandoned. The weather-vane
jammed. The wheel-well sunk in the flotsam
remains of the ditch. The flickering lights of
the Archer House Inn. What stars he remembered then,
counting out milligrams, splitting the ten-dollar
pill with a razorblade, running it clear to the brain.
Leaving whatever sewn fields contained him—
ramblers and crumbling road-side attractions,
development projects of schist. The skyline
surrounding the space between field and Citgo,
swap-meet and single-room church. The distance
becoming the spirit. The reason for one thing to end
and the other to bleed from the chemical smog
in the grain. Not for the insignificant death.
Not to return to the same unimpressive town,
drowning in dust at the Chippewa edge of the prairie.
Not to exist as the silvery sheen of some field-
stone holding his name, but to see it dissolve
in the lost weather lifting. The clean line of white
where the sky reaches down and the earth
reaches back up to meet it. And watching that
distance—the train going west of it, field lines
breaking the shadows of cows, the highway escaping
the strip-farm arrangements, the trash-littered
gardens of eastern Montana, the telephone wires
and soy field sprinklers emerging in no lesser
clarity—bordered in turbines and rotating windmills,
the needle-thin peaks of the Lower Enchantments—
you can’t help believing the God you imagine
in every passing window, every lagging winter
lived through, rusted in car parts or carried away
on the wind, is sitting on its own train, looking out
at similar bean fields, hurtling at the same speed toward you.