At a Café in the Sea of Grass

Across the street from a café in the Texas panhandle
Where I drink black coffee,
The Llano Estacado spreads flat to the horizon.
A rumpled man in a brown suit keeps dropping coins
In the payphone. Long distance, I suppose.
He holds a memo pad.
The car he drives belongs to another decade.
He belongs to another decade.
Still, someone listens on the other end.
It’s sad when the past drives in fierce
And headstrong with pocket change.
A waitress fills my ceramic mug.
Her boys work the oil patch.
All the boys here work the oil patch.
They wear blue jumpsuits, smell of gasoline.
Beyond the café, the payphone, and the parking lot,
The short-grass prairie shimmers, heat-parched and brown.
A sea of grass is what Coronado called this land
When he traveled through in 1541 searching for gold.
Some things have changed, but the sea of grass remains.
My grandfather got this far in 1987.
He’d wanted to chuck it all and keep driving
To Vegas and the Sands Resort
Where he had a friend who’d hire him as a croupier.
I’ve half a mind to imagine that man outside
Still pumping quarters in the silver slot
Is my grandfather, somehow torn from decades back.
Only this time, Fortune has poised the hood
Of his ancient Cadillac toward the west.
I leave a few bills behind for coffee and a tip.
Outside, morning sun hammers at the dark anvil of earth.
There must be countless shapes that death takes.
One is a Las Vegas casino floor with its carpet pattern,
A braid of fuschia, lapis, and gold. One day I’ll wander to his table,
And lift a drink from the barmaid’s tray.
From above the ringing of slot machines
And the roulette crowd shouting bets, I’ll hear his voice –
New shooter coming out – as he slides the dice across a field of numbers.

Paul Pickering grew up in Selma, Alabama. He earned an M.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an M.F.A in Poetry from the University of Oregon. He currently lives in Tunbridge, Vermont.