"Tell me," the queen resumed, "are you of royal blood?"
"Better than that, ma'am," said Dorothy, "I came from Kansas."
Retreads rip open, long steel trailers groan, air suspensions hiss as trucks crawl across prairie overloaded with night. At border weigh stations bleary-eyed drivers step down, their cabs drowning in all night radio talk shows that cry the Lord and welfare. Scales slip into sleep, the eclipsing loads pass unnoticed.
Dawn, a smear of gray light. Fugitive cottonwoods crowd the eroded gullies paralleling the road near Oakley and Quinter, names wedged between uninterrupted walls of horizon. At Fort Hays sheets of wheat cover backyards. In Gorham a young boy steps off the bus and the diesel whine trails off with a coyote's high-pitched scriptures.
In Russell the irrigation pipes spill ancient rains on parched ground–the Oglalla aquifer a diminishing prayer. Outside town arthritic derricks pound their arms against plowed earth and empty sky begging for oily prophecies. By the dumpster behind the used car lot, a rusty flathead engine rests, remnant of lonely rides across plains to Junction City and Jericho.
In downtown Topeka, the buildings are the splintered brick stalks of a deranged cornfield. Bridges stand half repaired. Midday the sidewalks are abandoned to the heat. Nothing moves except the bus as it leaves the station. Wind scorches a billboard. Outside Manhattan a broken-windowed church, its steeple fallen from rot is stuck in the ground.
It's the old story, wrapping heathens in pox blankets. Each evening ghost ponies race from the hills to attack the white clapboard houses. Inside rooms, in front of televisions, the watchers call the moan wind and circle into themselves. At the park entrance empty beer cans, fired too quickly, surround two tired howitzers.
The long and winding road and they’re only lost in northern Arkansas. A Beatles CD blasts in the cab at two in the morning. Under flashlight and a waning moon, the map says they’re headed west when they needed to head east to get to the Mississippi floodplain. Thirty miles back is the missed turn. Should they keep going, leave the trailer, overloaded with battered concrete forms for walling up dust and space, abandon them on the shoulder of the road?
The road goes on forever. Mary’s heard that before. At least, once with each marriage vow, and now each time the Allman Brothers is cranked higher on the CD player. The wailing nearly sends them careening off the curve, as she played lead guitar on the steering wheel. Forever, what a crock, she thinks, a warning preceded by an expletive, seeing who’s sitting next to her: good, bad, and ugly all in one body. Following a falling star, always a midnight wrong turn.
Yeah, one for the road, and one more for my baby, and another, and another, but who could have guessed the road was twisted as Highway 1 following the coast along Big Sur. In San Francisco, the Sinatra choir sings and swerves, swerves and sings. Mary wonders if any of the barracks in the Presidio are child proof.
Walter Bargen has published 19 books of poetry, most recently Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems (2009) and Quixotic (2014). Too Quick for the Living is scheduled for publication in November 2017. His awards include the Chester H. Jones Foundation prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the William Rockhill Nelson Award. From 2008 to 2009, he served as the poet laureate of Missouri.