All night we listened to trains in the dark.
Heard them arranging their mile-long loads
on the field roads leading away. We knew
by the whistle if one was a coal train, or one
was a mail train headed down south. We knew
by the rhythm and clack of the joiners, the speed
they were taking the turns. We knew there was
something important inside the sound. Buckets
of raw weight, limestone, scrap-iron, hoppers
and grainers and oil trains hauling their huge
black bodies of crude. We crawled to the window
to look at the crossing guards flashing their
red-blinking light on the road. The low drone
beneath it, factory smoke stacks leaching off
pillars of heat. We spoke to each other in whispers,
the snore of our father asleep down the hall.
We felt the walls tremble, the weight of a thing
that could sever a man’s hand, cover the distance
from New York to Portland, from ocean to free
range. Cut through the Rockies and prairieland
west of us. Flatten the president’s face off
the pennies and nickels we placed on the tracks.
The guy had this ten-gallon hat made of fox-skin.
A jacket with eagles imprinted on the sides,
and those thin leather strands hanging down.
He had a grizzly appearance, a radical shine in his eyes,
but something was wrong with this hands.
His fingers were gone. Chopped off. Whittled to little pink nubs.
He scratched at his face with the ends of them,
carefully touching his nose. Like cats do.
Like somebody polishing wood. I think we were somewhere
in northern Alaska. A little like Fairbanks.
Peaks in the distance, fisheries letting off steam.
It was one of those dreams where you’re somebody different—
a figment, a possible shade of the past.
I was homeless or something, wasting my time at the library
looking for jobs. Craigslist and whatnot, stuff
on the docks. He noticed me watching him.
Fidgeting. Nervous. All of a sudden, he stood up and blew me
a kiss. Like this, from the palm of his hand.
I thought it was some kind of Morse Code signal. A secret
between us. I followed him out through the sliding-glass doors
where he stood with his bootsole pressed to the wall.
The way you see cowboys in old-fashioned westerns,
shaded by awnings, waiting around to die.
He lifted a cigarette box from his pocket, shaped like a toy gun,
and seamlessly—using the sides of his pink nubs—
carried one up to his lips. Do you have a lighter? he asked me,
holding his arms out as if to explain. I tried to be cool,
act natural, as if I had seen this a million times before,
as if it was one of the easiest things I knew. Holding
the lighter up, cupping my hands to the dark pink nubs
for the wind. His arms pressed in. I could feel
the muscles inside. The nubs were perfectly clean.
The flame-light trembled. And there in the bright cherry,
the tiny enclosure we made—I could see how it came
to a single decision—the lawnmower spinning, the jack-iron
cracking, the miter-blade kicking his blood on the wall.
It was there in the palm-skin, the air of his fingers,
the smoke where there should have been hands.
Kai Carlson-Wee has rollerbladed professionally, surfed north of the Arctic Circle, and traveled across the country by freight train. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Best New Poets, TriQuarterly, Crazyhorse, and The Missouri Review, which selected his poems for the 2013 Editor’s Prize. With his brother Anders, he co-wrote the chapbooks Mercy Songs (Diode Editions) and Two-Headed Boy, winner of the 2015 Blair Prize from Organic Weapon Arts. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco and is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University.