Oregon Trail

For my great aunt & Jonathan Hicks

my first venture west was in Windows 98
or Independence, Missouri. class in the computer lab
& we were supposed to be playing some typing game
or another. the one i remember had a haunted theme.
ghosts instructing us on the finer points of where
to put our fingers. these were the last days
before keyboards as appendage, when typing
was not nature. i should’ve been letting an apparition
coach me through QWERTY but rather
i was at the general store deciding between ammo & axles,
considering the merits of being a banker or carpenter.

too young to know what profession
would get me to the Willamette Valley
in the space of a 40-minute period.
i aimed my rifle with the arrow keys, tapped the space
bar with a prayer for meat to haul back to the wagon.

this game came difficult as breathing underwater after
trying to ford a river.

                                        i was no good at survival.
somebody always fell ill or out into the river.
each new day scurvy or a raid was the fate of a character
named for my crush or my baby sister.
this loss i know, how to measure what it means
to die premature before a school period ends.

i can’t understand the game coming to a late end.
an elderly daughter grieving her elderly mother.
reading the expansive obit in a suburban
Detroit church is a confusing newness.

when the old do the thing the world expects
i retreat into my former self. focus on beating
video games I’ve always sucked at, brush up
on Chicago Bulls history, re-memorize
the Backstreet Boys catalog, push
away whatever woman is foolhardy enough
to be on any road with me. i pioneer my way away
from all the known world. i look at homicide rates
& wish we all expired the way i know best. i pray
for a senseless, poetic departure. i pray for my family
to not be around to miss me while i’m still here.
i want a short obituary, a life brief & unfulfilled,
the introductory melody before a beat’s crescendo into song,
the game over somewhere in the Great Plains.

i want to spare my descendants the confusion
of watching a flame flicker slow. keep them from being
at a funeral thumbing the faded family pictures like worn keys,
observing the journey done, the game won, the west
conquered.

More Poems by Nate Marshall