The leaden circles dissolved in the air . . .
                                       --Virginia Woolf
 
He was standing in mid-day
On a dirt road, ruts cut deep
Really, in the Prairie State, parched
And scrubby, withered dark earth
Colored and arid sky; somewhere
Near Apache Wye and Stecker,
When the idea arrived unannounced
Like a wind across a wheat field,
Blown down from the clouds.
The train whistle followed close
As he walked down the dirt-
Path south, then east, intersecting
With the Union Pacific tracks.
The southern branch of the Missouri,
Kansas and Texas line, they called
The Katy, following the tracks out
Of the Texas Road in the Chickasaw Nation.
The railroad cross-roads could lead
A man north to Denver, west to Santa Fe
Or Albuquerque, to the Frisco,
The St. Louis and San Francisco line. 
If you stepped off the rails
In any small town, the Sheriff could
Arrest you for vagrancy, the penalty:
Four months on a chain-gang, hard-labor.
With this in mind and everything else,
He grabbed the rail and climbed
The metal ladder in between
With only the clothes he was wearing.
As he drifted away, Lake Elsworth
Became visible from atop a boxcar
On a train headed south. He thought
Of a place called Nowhere
On the banks of Fort Cobb Lake
Near Carnegie, the woman who lived
With her mother in the wood-framed
House and picket fence in Washita,
The night they met at Square Top
When he had been drinking and didn’t
Care what he said.  The train tracks
Merged near Peachtree Crossing,
The locomotive slowed down at Ft. Sill.
He waved at the soldiers dressed
In green and marching in formations,
Thinking about the draft board meeting.
 
It all began with a charitable act,
a generosity a grandmother could bestow
on the son of her daughter;
move into her house where it was warm,
during that dark of winter of 1937,
from the solitary shack in the cow pasture
out behind the back fence.
Two months of cold, a hard struggle
to keep warm next to an open fire,
sleeping alone in a moth-eaten blanket,
preparing dinner in the field,
a heated can of chili beans or beef stew.
She let him sleep in the back room,
in one of the beds. She woke before dawn,
drank coffee, smoked cigarettes,
and prepared breakfast, made him a lunch,
woke him to dress for work,
eat a plate of fried eggs and toast.
She washed his clothes, folded his underwear,
then put them away in a wooden box.
 
But the day came when it was time for him
to move on, find another place to live.
 
The same had been true years earlier
for several of her ex-husbands,
whose time had come arriving sooner
than later, her first husband died.
 
She was firm and silent, resolute;
there wasn’t a great deal of talking.
Ultimately, she prevailed, unlike the others;
her four husbands that followed, left
or died, grew tiresome or ineffective,
drank too much, smoked, disabled from working;
unlike her first husband and the father
of her children, who died of dust cough.
He left three girls and one boy.
 
In Anadarko, unbeknownst to him
The government committee of businessmen
Sent the letter from their Uncle Sam.
An hour later, he was in Lawton
At the railyard on South Railroad Street,
When he spied the bulls with blackjacks
Slapping their thighs and palms
In anticipation, where the Union Pacific
Meets the Santa Fe heading west
Where it crosses the Great Western
Cattle Trail, now a spur and cow pens.
He jumped from the side of the boxcar,
Hit the ground hard and ran
To a slow-moving freight train,
An open boxcar door with eight others,
Men like just like him, worn-out,
Hunched down, ready to jump, if need be.
Near Odetta, he took a swig
From a jar of hooch one of the men
Held up for him, it was dinner
And three other meals in one.
At nightfall, when the train switched
Tracks at Altus, crossing toward Texas
From tallgrass prairie to sandsage
Grasslands, moving southward
The rails turned southwest nearby
Olustee, then west toward a sun
Long since set.  He could not sleep
But slouched against a steel plate
Of the boxcar where the walls
And wooden floors met, the other men
In repose with dirty blankets
And torn coats for coverings.
The town of Eldorado was cut in two
By the train when it sped through
On the Tuesday night turned Wednesday. 
The train picked up speed in Sorghum County.
When they crossed the trestle
On the Red River into Texas, he stood
At the open door looking into night,
the stars and black landscape,
the highway nearby; with nomads, all.
Taken to the rails from town to town
To where the sun shines, dodging
The cops on the Rock Island Line,
The Burlington Northern Police,
In the other direction, where a man
Might get paid for a day’s work
And shake hardship so easily bestowed;
Two million nomads, itinerants,
A few professional drifters, men
Who couldn’t stand to see their own
Children dressed in rags or hungry.
 
Why so much suffering? Oil fields and farming,
Commodity prices broken, a nickel
A pound for cotton. Plant as much wheat
As the county agent from the Extension Service said,
A man who worked for the grain elevator operator
Who rewarded loyal growers.
 
Sold what little we could, got in trouble,
Borrowed against the land to buy a tractor.
 
Things slowed down near Talbert Crossing,
Coming into Quanah, the Texas 133 Spur;
West, doing forty miles an hour.
At Acme, at Georgia Pacific Road,
He lay down on the rough floor,
Slept for a few hours until Childress.
The train was moving too fast
To jump off in search of food. Food,
A luxury on the rail line. 
At Plains Junction, tracks
Straddled the highway going to California,
The day fully in bloom, turning north
To Memphis, Oklahoma; following Boykin
Drive out of town. It was noon
When the train stopped in Headley.
A few men climbed out of the caboose,
Shift ended, ignoring the bums
In the open car.  The wind and empty sky,
Crossing the uninhabited plain, wind-harried
Sod, the joy had gone out of the living.
Wind, a whispering-wheeze drifted away,
The next stop, the city of Amarillo.