“Kane Ranch,” “LA” and “With Holly in the West Village”

Photo by Sean Xu at Shutterstock

Kane Ranch

migrants call, no formality of naming, their ox or mule pulled wagons
little more than buckboards with front plank bench
hand-pulled brake no suspension
wood wheels wood spokes rusting iron rims
sun shield metal-ribbed white canvas hoods
ceaseless wind shakes
billow the white sails an ocean gale
no one sleeps tossed on the cargo deck

yet not of the sea its salt its brine
waves of grass across the great prairie
disappear below horizon’s line

released from mesophytic landscapes of home
hemlocks and pines maple spruce and oaks
of wet soils
through tall grass Midwest
into Missouri basin prairies
cars move fast across grasslands
seem not to change
barely we note the gradient of hydration
climate’s neon signs
asters with purple daisies, goldenrod, sunflower orange
pink flowering muhly grass, little bluestems
we identify none
into Nebraska south to Kansas
Colorado’s front steppe plateau
the bunch grass
ignorance resistant to teach
memory denies to see
we are

always twenty miles forward
no estuaries for relief
slapping of wind torn froth upon the shore
of another new world yet
sail and skiffs not upon the land float
but reach down from wan blue skies
limitless high
brush the curve of planet earth
sweep past the skelter of ranches and farms
villages born unpainted and worn of sun-bleached lumber
of old faces creases gouged deep
for steam engine water every twenty railroad miles
elevated water towers flapping canvas downspouts
with windmill power
sweaty dust of generations wind hurls
splat against the Rockies’ granite walls

dream a road trip across America
three friends
sand in the grease
dirt in the carburetor
my 1954 Chevy coupe without a floor
license plates bolted loosely
pour gasoline directly into the carburetor
we can’t even start it
was I a kook?
my aunt suggests to my parents
a trip to Seattle for the Pacific Fair
two families caravan in two cars
toward her unstated destination
a Colorado cattle ranch and a friend

a mistaken date of my teenage inexperience
I invite a girl to a dance
intended for an older generation
we sit briefly in the decorated basketball gymnasium
before leaving
watch couples our parents’ age ballroom dance
dressed up in formal party wear we didn’t know they owned
to the small orchestra’s music
no jazz no swing no rock and roll
I recognize the waltz
without announcement
dancers vacate the center of the floor
make room for a couple to show off their moves
I am stunned
my aunt Ruthie and her husband Hamp
whirl spin tap complicated patterns of steps
he picks her up and flings her around
he in tux
she in ball gown

war tears leaves from the tree
of family genealogy
New Mexico catches up Ruthie twenty years old
a patch of clothes paused on barbed wire fence
in Sante Fe the tall man teaches ballroom dancing
servicemen mostly
who perhaps just once
laugh before drowning in the Pacific sea
he ferries freight in bombers India to China
over the “Hump”
in freezing bomber cockpits peers ahead into dark
snow covered Himalayas beneath
float by in moonlit silence
below the roar of four bomber engines
icebergs adrift in war’s eternal ocean
forty years later my wife and I visit them
living in a Bahai retirement village
he immobile from a stroke in a wheelchair

she meets Andy there
now we drive to the Kane cattle ranch
in the shadow of the Rockies massive uplift
beyond electrical and water utilities
generator electric pumps an ancient windmill
and horses in corrals and barns
friendship twenty years after the war

Wanden and Andy Kane’s sprawling cattle ranch
thousands head of cattle
May to November seasonal feeding
herds of pronghorn antelope flee
startled by our posse of horses at water holes
Andy six-foot ten in stirrups 12 inches from the ground
they make everyone comfortable
at dinner it is conversation and beef
Wanden directs stories to all asks about each
she mentions her son the singer Peter LaFarge
in a prairie style two-story ranch house
I sleep in a basement bedroom
a dormitory for their children and young guests
with a small clerestory light
I stare up at the unclouded Great Plains night
as through a telescope
they winter in Paris or Italy
hang original French paintings on their walls
a world opens
a world closes
for me at dawn

The ranch foreman laughs
we left car windows open overnight
a thousand thousand flies sought warmth
cling tiny bats to the cloth ceiling of roofs
for 30 minutes we sweep them out
my cousin stays to work on the ranch
my sister returns a year later
falls in love with the foreman
the herd is dispersed too far away
to hear their raw baritone mooing
the chill air is silent
off the horizon close as a cliff climbed
the sun rises clear without myth


Nik teaches me to tell time or tries to
a paste board with clock face with movable hands
set on an artist’s easel in our living room
I can’t understand anything
bits of words and images scatter randomly
my mind is heavily sedated
I don’t know this
phenobarbital controls my seizures.
She isn’t frustrated with me, but mother is
thinks I’m willful stubborn should know
my brain doesn’t work right
my cognitive neurology medically slow.
Nik is in training at the Teachers College,
lives with us helping mother
who must devote herself to my infant sister.
I can’t read a clock for several years, by then Nik is gone.
She and Bill, who works for my father logging,
hook up and move to Los Angeles after her graduation,
the booming post world war two city
make more money than they have time to spend
sell flowers at freeway off-ramp stops
he welds iron fences around swimming pools
a land office business
after the state requires homeowners to install them
to prevent infant drownings.
We are in our rebuilt ranch style house in north New Hampshire
after fire guts it when they visit
Nik carries a baby squirrel from their LA suburban back yard
in a sock feeding it milk with an eye-dropper.
Los Angeles must be a magical place.
They urge my parents to move to their city
Dad would work with Bill
but they won’t
a fateful mistake,
I never know why they make that decision
it must be pressure to stay with their parental families
generations in the village
despite obvious warnings that father’s occupation
is rapidly collapsing.
Father can’t tell the time either.

My first visit, by air flight, my first night,
I sleep in a second-story monastic style room
narrow with high ceilings cream-white walls
a small window opening without glass
high enough to be out of reach
awake at dawn to mourning doves cooing
this feels like a promised land
my anxiety diminishes with rest
I introduce myself at the administration desk
begin my research.
Late afternoon I quit for the day,
enjoy the famous sunny warm winter weather.
Confidence I timidly permit myself
rises as I walk through an aisle of overarching olive trees
ripe fruit fallen on the walkway, squashed,
to the Mission style building.
I can’t afford the dining room
but I sit in the Lounge
reading the day’s newspapers.
Club members line up for dinner.
One fellow leaves the line, walks to me,
leans over
reaches to his neck with his left hand
fondles his necktie knot,
when certain I am watching lightly clears his throat,
“At the Athenaeum, we dress with jacket and tie,”
returns to his place in the line.
Embarrassed, I neatly fold the newspaper
replace it among other national papers
and walk out to find a fast food restaurant.
Relating this incident to a professor I meet, he laughs,
“That’s why Dick Feynman eats at the student cafeteria.”
Morale lifts, but I catch the hint that I should too.

I let an apartment sight unseen on the outskirts of LA
a two-story quadrangle building surrounding a swimming pool.
The complex manager is a middle-aged woman self-professedly modest,
disapproves of Southern California’s beach-skin culture.
She bathes in her shower wearing a one-piece swim suit.
I infer that nude midnights in the pool are not permitted.
Orgies and drugs too would cost a tenant their apartment.
She drinks a glass of wine, confesses to me that during the war —
she means world war two —
she worked in a factory under military contract manufacturing condoms.
She believes sex outside of marriage is sinful, asserts
in marriage a couple would not need condoms.
She uses a sewing needle to prick holes in them.
I had not anticipated such brash Victorian morality in California.

I arrive with my pregnant wife on July 1 in 100-degree heat
at this spinning rim of the LA basin,
up against the edge of the mountains surrounding it
with wild animals, coyotes and lions, familiarity vanquishing their fear of humans.
The pool is heated. At night, lighted from below, the water glows blue.
In hot air, tepid water is surprisingly pleasant.
I float, at 11 pm, looking up at the night sky
at a few hundred smudged stars that I can see
through the urban haze of sodium vapor streetlamps and neon gas signs.
At the office of well-being, officialdom stamps “Approved”
on my application of aspiration.
Nothing holds me down, nothing holds me back.
The heat melts the welded contradictions of this island on the land
the first colony on the moon.
I will become the person I strive to be.
I know, this night vision, on an inflated plastic float,
this is my time.
I will never be poor, or hungry, or cold, again.

With Holly in the West Village

the snow storm post-Christmas 1990
closes New York City down
Friday the 28th 17 inches of white powder
not quickly corrupted by sand or salt or muddy slush
car and truck traffic shut out of Manhattan
buses stay parked in MTA yards diesel engines cold
stranded vehicles along streets obstruct plows
Central Park its dedicated paths and ways empty
indomitable joggers remain in little apartments
offices close
restaurants unable to get food deliveries don’t serve
incessant taxi horns silent
subway trains yet rumble and clatter in their caged tubes
bulldoze their blast of stale tunnel air into stations
decorated with derelict graffiti and unrepaired abuse
Mayor David Dinkins’ misbegotten era
carry few passengers
time slows
every sound muffled
a mood of unfamiliarity settles with the powder

silence opens the city
known for multitudes of clashing ethnic voices
for shouting and arguing
for irritation with difficulty of dense urban living
for warily keeping distance
not for intimacy
even in modern hotel lobbies and meeting rooms
of the conference host where I am staying
every surface metal and glass and Formica reflective
visitors and staff hush their voices
people stand closer to each other

Lily Kershaw sings of the myth of New York
when the world falls apart
I’ll meet you in Times Square
but you are gone now
who knows
the song grips me

Holly takes the commuter train
from a New Jersey 19th century close-in suburb
where she and her husband now live
rented mansions on cul de sacs
broken into apartments
a brief walk from the disheveled coal and steam era railroad station
its granite steps cracked     iron walkway rails grills gates and fences rusted
brickwork needing repointing     windows boarded     no attendant present
we meet at the Pennsy’s dirty underground terminal
designed in cramp-and-demean style by H G Wells for Morlocks
you lead me to the West Village to show me the row house
an apartment where once you live
Steve does civil engineering for airports and roads
in Africa and Dominica and Guyana
is often not home
you dance
take lessons and practice ballet and modern movement
politely applaud the master after he destroys you
run with a theatre crowd
rush to auditions and minor stage gigs
crush your toes ankles dancing en pointe
a dozen surgeries and you go back each time
until you are too crippled almost to walk

before lunch amid the gentrified row houses
we punch through virgin snow on sidewalks of large bluestone pavers
I tramp in buckled galoshes
you in leather boots
ours the only trail to the door
the Blue Mill Tavern on Commerce Street at Barrow
in the gray winter day     yellow lights glow     dark wood bar     small tables     booths
are warm
welcome us
where of the neighborhood you and Steve eat often
before you retreat to the huge 3-story Victorian

we laugh all the time
we always laughed together
as if our camaraderie is such a cosmic coincidence
it delights us as four-year-olds are by a jack-in-the-box
Plymouth     Lucknow     Los Angeles with Sammy     New York
sole patrons in the restaurant
a special fresh fish entrée
announced in white chalk on the small blackboard
deliciousness in defiance of the storm
the owner and chef happy to talk to us
and we drink and all our years as cousins sit around with us

That is a moment it’s gone now
before you hear the voices
each year more of them a crowd
which one is in the real world
one voice says you are married to Mick Jagger
you change your name divorce your husband
dissociative identity disorder

your body lays two days dead
collapsed in pajamas on the carpeted floor
your dancer’s small and lithe figure heavy and sagging
cripple feet twisted
did you have a stroke before falling
alone in the small studio apartment in Littleton
twenty-one conflicting voices
don’t keep you company
had one advised you to call 911
mobile phone not quite within reach
if an inner voice can’t tell us our story
isn’t our world gone
One last time I hear you say my name
in Facebook phonetics     “raw KNEE”
and offer goodbye
when the social worker visits
finds you lying there
she could not know
or I

About the Author

Ron Tobey

Ron Tobey grew up in north New Hampshire. He now lives in West Virginia.