For the memory of Henry Montague
Steam locomotives, flatcars, gondolas,
slung open doors of boxcars where bodies huddle
in corners, inhaling a country's wave of pollen
and suffocating dust motes. The caboose
with its hundreds of sizes and designs, altered
for each generation of rail line crossing
the vast deepening fields. Second class passenger cars,
their vestibules crowded with faces scanning vine
and canopy for iguana to be hunted during stops.
After five decades of hoboing, Monty still rides Amtrak
to those distant cities of Denver, Seattle and Phoenix.
The rails draw at his blood. Listen, and he's telling a story
of riding a freight train's roof in the 40's, looking up
at an approaching tunnel, planks hanging
with a six-inch clearance, how he scampered down
between the cars, just missed being swept off,
a roar of darkness as the tunnel enveloped everything.
The two of us in the dry summer of 1978,
our one day excursion up the Feather River Canyon,
climbing out of the Sacramento Valley
from Oroville, sixty tunnels stretching the Southern Pacific,
heading north to the high country where pine
thin out, dwarfed saplings laced between meadow
and creek bed. Dusk mountain air
tightens our chests when we inhale, clinging
to the edge of an open boxcar, the ridge
converging with the evening sky. And then
we realize the train is not going to stop,
that we'll have to sleep on cardboard with nothing
but our coats under the sliding rush of night. As I pull up
in a ball, cold twisting its way inside, Monty floats,
his silhouette fanning out as he does repetitions
of jumping jacks, floor boards creaking
over the eight by eights, his voice chanting
sixteen, seventeen, eighteen...
Late in May. Over for lunch on Montgomery Street.
Figs. Coffee. Cheese sandwiches sliced in sections.
I reach for the biscuits. Monty has sherry
and I inhale his scent of garlic. Sunlight pouring
from the garden coats the kitchen with heat.
He recalls South American parrots migrating
each spring to his garden, flocking to the tree outside
the window, feeding on its blossoms and seed
in a flat hung from a branch. He says
they are so small you can cup one in the palm
of your hand, blow into it and they'll vanish into blue
and yellow traces of light. I look for their fluttering
among the leaves, but they have not returned
for two years. He leads me out into the light,
picks up a water wheel from a pile along the fence.
Says he made one like it for a man from Wyoming
in 1936. He spins the buckets in their metal casing,
describes how water creates the turning, how the wheel
generates electricity, powering a ranch for days.
He hooks it to the spigot, white foam splashes
the glass. He says all you need is creek water.
I walk in the hospital room thinking about his hands.
Put mine out first. He lifts his right, the stronger one.
Will he utter my name in that low arcing rumble?
Squeeze my fingers until the blood will not flow?
I'm here to ignite what I can in his brain. Looking at his face,
his eyes staring across the room, I feel air temperature drop
as light drifts across the wall. He takes my hand in his,
pulls it close, whispers something I can't make out. Maybe
he's trying to remind me of the diner in Caribou,
where we spent the morning waiting for a train back
to Oroville, talking about the breakdown he survived
in his twenties, before he became a drifter. We are a long
way from where we started. I can't remember what day it is,
how the story ends. For a moment, just the far gaze in his eyes,
his hand slack in mine, a drone of traffic moving through the city.
Poems by Richard Callin:
TIMES TEN: An Anthology of Northern California Poets