My father stirs in the kitchen boiling coffee,
crisping fried potatoes, night sleep a seldom
companion. The sun a pale light through
the windows. He’s headed east on a train,
bib overalls, heavy black shoes. He readies
a lunch pail for a white bread sandwich
and a steel thermos for coffee.
The train presses forward through Brookings
and farther east; rail men stuffed
into a caboose. Big Henry can’t shut
up, piling lie upon lie about Chicago
nights and all the women he had.
Eddy leans his elbows on his thighs,
covers his broad face with splayed hands,
queasy from tremors and shakes.
Most of the men have shaved heads
and bent fingers from slamming boxcar
doors. Many flash to nightmare train rides
in WW II, their frigid hands cupped, sweat
burning the air. Sol’s cousin shredded
by a mortar; my father’s brother shot
in the chest. He survived.
They head to a derailed train, ready to dig,
pull rail bars from debris—frozen mud
everywhere. Rail cars burn around them,
black plumes blot the sun. And the men mine
rails, digging them out from under overturned
boxcars, flinch from the wail of metal
on metal. The danger of smashed hands,
severed legs in the front of their minds.
But you get paid time-and-a-half, some extra
money for Xmas or a round of booze
at that rot gut bar near the roundhouse.
The men pray, mostly, or swear,
the danger an intoxication, a release.
When done, they return west, slog
home covered in mud.
My father, that night, sits in a wooden
kitchen chair, shoulders stooped,
trying to remember something good—
not the whistles of mortars, not shards
of ashes falling from burning boxcars.
Outside, the western sky a starless void.
He studies his hands, grimed ashen,
and eats his bread, carefully, one slice
at a time, sopping the excess gravy
until a blank plate remains.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 18, Issue 1.
See all items about Leroy N. Sorenson