V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





Jess Bates was a news butch in the 40s and 50s
on a passenger train that followed the Big Sandy
west along the C & O Railroad.  He walked up
and down the aisles, sold magazines and candy
and chewing gum to people arriving or leaving
these mountains.  Now he keeps dogs, breeds
German Shepherds over a high hogback ridge
in a deep lonely valley just outside of Jenkins.

He now believes the barking of hungry dogs
belongs here with other sounds—the whistle
of wind in hickories and oaks, the distant
crush of water falling from many hollows,
catbirds that cry like babies every spring.

It only takes five men to run a train: up front
the engineer and fireman in smudgy overalls
and thick rawhide gloves.  The conductor
and baggage man wore blue hats and vests
with little polished-gold buttons, checked
their 21-jewel watches like  important men.
The brakeman was always way too young
because so many had been caught between
the cars and lost their legs or lost their lives,
or their nerve—like Freddy Chaffin, or Gene
Rutherford, or Davey Hills: all boys, every one.

Jess Bates is in his 80s now.  He makes a ritual
of feeding and watering the dogs.  He goes weeks
without words, like a monk, he says, and it takes
hours to move beyond small talk of the weather
and the war.  Soon, Jess says, he’ll set the dogs
free to run again in packs, some day when he
knows he won’t be able to feed them anymore.
But for now there are laws about such things,
and he can still manage okay, and he’s got
customers in Richmond who want their pups.

Once, when his train stopped over in Pikeville,
a dog they were shipping to Missouri escaped
from its car into the hills.  Jess found a tongue-
lolling stray sniffing at the maples lining Cove
Avenue and coaxed him with bacon into a crate.
He regrets taking the dog now, as he remembers
with far-off eyes, imagines the mutt confused
in Joplin or St. Louis, sees him paddle across
the Mississippi and skulk through Yellowstone,
the Rockies, lapping at the Great Salt Lake until
he goes finally wild as a wolf into the Redwoods,
a Kentucky stray on the rocky beaches of Oregon.

© by J.D. Schraffenberger


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