the road ran east and then north until the autumn mountains were party tents. and then
just hacksaw teeth. at a big bend S in the two-way I turned north again. there was a
mammoth out here. a white barn the breadth of a steamship. sharp angles above the
second story, galvanized cupolas like bishops on the ridge. the air was dimming into
gray. there was a farmhouse too, just off the drive, beige and empty. I was in uniform
and my truck still carried the shield beneath the window on the door. so my key fit. the
gate swung open over empty gravel.
I pulled in and stepped out to close the gate and then I drove very slowly around the
barn. I opened my window just enough to catch the static of tires through the gravel and
nothing else. the lawn had been kept in order simply to pay a few pensions and through
various piles of pavestone and fencing and rough-cut lumber or cattle grates the grass
grew up as if to mark the location of graves. my truck circled around the barn and no
one came out of the farmhouse. no curtains rustled. no clothing on the line out back. an
empty porch. not even cat prints for the back door.
I was here to steal a sign so forgotten and unused from a place where anyone driving in
from the plains would be growing too excited to see the plains finally end that this
boneyard wouldn’t register. anyone going east wouldn’t see the house as they whipped
around the bend and headed toward the shooting range where I would drive to next as a
favor for the guy who couldn’t be here.
opposite the farmhouse the white barn wore a set of sliding doors like teeth the size of
tractors. my key fit a simple door to the north. a basic passage just around the jawbones.
it was an empty passage apart from the detritus of dead grasshoppers and moths,
yellowjacket husks and mouse shit in the dust. light from the lowering day cut my
shadow against thin wood panels. it wouldn’t be hard to tell someone was through here.
but I knew where to go. I knew every little thing lying dead would still be here.
it was ten steps and then a right into the storeroom with open timbers, a cloistered
smell of sawdust and steel. the simple thud of my boots on heavy wooden floors. at the
far wall little boxes of clouded windows maneuvered light over a workbench with tools
holstered to its hips. a rime of metal filings and wood curls and the dust from custom
hand tools coated the otherwise empty bench. it was seemingly untouched from when
I’d been here last, ten years passed.
(we’d come here—my old boss and I and the others I would replace
as another way to waste the time for a job by the hour. we’d come to grab
tools for hacking grass like we’d gone back in time. found thirty-inch
wood handles on hunks of metal with dull cleats and we touched up the
tools right here and then moved on a few miles to work an RV park in a
dried-out gulch named aer people but advertised as birds. there was a
nature trail there. meandering and unimportant. we spent the afternoon
reaping field mice from the weeds and we saw absolutely no one emerge
from their camping cocoons.)
in the barn now, above the workbench in the timbers hung signs on penny nails,
half-rusted. these were little signs for hanging in the woods. dull and reflective. little
squares or diamonds or also shapes contoured of wood almost like the shape of
wisconsin in a mirror. I was here for a small square sign the color of syrup. in white
reflective decals and centered on the sign was a stick figure with one typical stick figure
arm and another arm which stretched around the figure in concentric circles until the
sign was like some pictograph for a figure in a vortex.
I took it off the nail and there were plenty more behind it. enough for no one to care.
and maybe it would never matter. even if something were to go
horribly sideways—if my truck broke down or if I crashed, even if I lost it
in the weather and radioed for rescue and had to walk through all the
interviews and red tape of what had happened while a piece of stolen
federal property rested in between old work shirts like nothing more than
oil cloths inside my backpack—even then it would have all been worth it. I
wasn’t certain this would be my last day on the job. but I was planting
evidence for myself to leave.
I found a nail punch and dribbled it aimlessly across the dust atop the bench. the
workspace opened without so much as a doorway to the larger storage and the smell of
oil dripping into straw. no tractors. no heavy machinery. no attachments. only some
metal pipes and maybe something like the skeleton of on old kitchen substructure
tucked into the parking space of something that didn’t live here anymore. the last of the
daylight went dancing through the cupolas high above as the wind grew and sighed. this
was, all told, an empty cathedral for the effects of ghosts.
back on the highway and driving for the gun range I regretted not taking any pictures of
the barn or its lighted los and as I drew closer to the range I caught a phantom scent of
gun smoke. I imagined what might have been found of my grandfather coagulating in
the straw. if I hadn’t known it then, back in the barn, he was there now. from an ether of
black and whites and through the stories imagined in the pictures we are at any point
made suddenly again. returned, a deposition.
Perhaps living with ourselves over
too many centuries can be too much to bear and so we have these little families
of ourselves instead. we need each other.
we live in different times yet expect our children to know what we have all been
through. take more pictures.
I detoured for the pawnee buttes to see a line become invisible. I knew there would be
oil rigs beyond the eastern butte a mile out from the trailhead and I walked the mile because I had built it once with my hands to show where I had been. at the end of the
trail I could sit and shoot the clouds as they spread the fields further east from green to wheat and then just metal.
and by the time I made it back to my truck the storm had settled over the rake of mountains a hundred miles off. clouds like blankets overhead at dusk. dots of snow
hung like specs of styrofoam in outer space. just floating above the plains and where the mountains grew these last two fangs. the air was chilled. it would be cold. I could smell
the ozone. snow with lightning wasn’t impossible this late in autumn. I hopped into the truck and hit the gas and tore through washboard veins between the buttes and where
the main road threw gravel against the wheel wells. and for a while more there was
simply just the sounds of breathing on the radio. the windows rattling lightly in their jambs. and then the wind inhaling again while the snow began.
at the gun range the few trucks there stowed rifles as the dust and flurries tore paper bullseyes from their marks and sent them twirling through the air. I swept the latrine by holding open the door against the wind. loose squares and dead moths and weeds tornadoed into the gravel lot and then became lost to the plains. then everyone at the
range was gone. odd thing about the plains is there is always somewhere else to hide. I
only had to make it home.
in that part of the upper county line and near the state border property lines are checkerboard while the roads run roughshod like rivers that burst once and immediately went dry. whole centuries pass unnoticed through the serge and sage and little places where the antelope kneel under barbed wire. out here the prairies are a term for people
at a church who need any reason to grieve.
the prairies are where dead ghosts go to settle.
this is a landscape for the ways we’ve missed.
a place where people hid themselves in plain sight. eventually
the land is paper turning yellow in the wind
the weather just another hand
keota was a ghost town aptly named for when I arrived. the storm had been pushing
south, wrapping the world in gauze and by the time I stopped the truck the sun was
nearly out of juice. it lit the storm clouds the shades of indigo and anchor. it disclosed a pallid yellow egg of space between keota and where the storm was just another virga specter evaporating overhead. as it swept past the black, crown-point water tower and lower shanties, the decomposing storefronts fell apart.
I lingered just because I didn’t know the storm was coating my way home along the highway west with ice. like everyone else, I didn’t expect to stop here. I took a thousand pictures of the place so I could make a landscape of it later with pastels — for when I
might have another job and I could decorate my office with something someone might
ask about its origins. a reason to tell ghost stories about myself.
I conspired to stay when I knew I would never need to come back. this detritus littered throughout the abandoned buildings was our same stuff without us. shredded paper,
empty cans, metal shelving, wire conduits and plastic shards, wood chips, stones, dead spiders in the shadows of my grandfather’s garage. his weather vane with a rooster head above the cardinals, spinning. woodworking clamps and glues, sanding paper on a desk beside thick windows with the baubles of old bottles. november light like cornhusks without water through windows painted shut. a thin molding with framing nails crossed between the panes.
we are not here alone.
we are dreaming of a vortex capable of imagining itself.
so I drove a forest service truck
without traction through three inches of snow
in the dark that night and didn’t slide into another car
at the bottom of a drop where the snow had
lied into ice and a four-way stop where a truck
in front had swerved to miss another car
that couldn’t stop but slipped like another
ghost between us, perpendicular. a juxtaposition
for how my life could have been another’s
back in the city the snow was a heavy field
for slogging traffic through stoplights.
no one was at the office. I parked the truck. I
grabbed my stuff. it took ten minutes more to brush
the snow off of my car. and then I went home again.
it felt like christmas in the quiet glitter.
Christopher Klingbeil lives in northern Colorado and teaches in Wyoming. He is the author of the chapbook evaporatus (ELJ 2014), and his writing has most recently appeared in mutiny!, Psaltery & Lyre, Salt Hill, and Radar.