After the Fires We Once Called Vietnam

 

Here on these flat fields I remember napalm,

that lavish charcoal lighter of a fat man’s barbecue.

I’m like a pitcher with eyes in the back of his head

who wore his ball cap backward, ignoring the signs

his catcher gave, the finger between his thighs.

Often, he saw the runner leading too far off and whirled

and picked him off. Amazing, how hindsight made him hard

to steal on. He scrolled mistakes in his mind

 

like a three-inch roll of tape, adding them up,

the total always the same, like calling for a fly ball

in the infield, my fault, mine. Saigon was lost

before I got there, fortunes stashed in Swiss banks,

French plantation rubber and raw silk. I flew off to war

and came back home alone. These are the facts.

I have a fence to mend, cattle to keep, or give up all

we’ve worked for. My wife depends on my saddle, ten miles

 

from any mesa, from any town, ten thousand miles

from jungles that once burned. Those villages were theirs,

and these flat pastures mine, a flat field not on fire

but shimmering in the sun, my herd of Angus burned

as black as toast in the sun that heats the wind,

that turns the windmill, that pumps cold water to the troughs

and faucet I bow to, splashing my face to cool my neck

until I’m sober. I know this patient appaloosa is my horse,

 

those barbed wires sagging a mile away are mine,

and only I can twist and tighten them to save these steers

needing alfalfa and water from a well, not a lake

less tangible than guilt, a shimmer, a trick my eyes ignore

while I ride there on a trotting horse. The sun will blaze

tomorrow like most days on the plains, a mirage

fat Angus wade before the slaughterhouse. But now,

dismounting at the wires, when I glance back, it’s gone.

Where Native Grass Grows Loud If We Listen

 

Out here, cactus is the skyline, a hundred miles of flat.

Turn in a circle and never know you’re back,

except for the neighbor’s ranch, barns like specks of mica

in the dust, his windmill a semaphore of warning, Go away.

 

East Texas is a myth, black loam and heritage and trees.

The one road into town has highway signs boys use

as targets. The asphalt’s cracked, dandelions thriving

as if crews planted them. Rattlesnakes nap

 

on the shoulders, no trucks along for months.

Jackrabbits limp along like dogs, nibbling grass

and careless weeds, no need to hurry from nothing

that can hide. Slumped on an aging appaloosa,

 

I roll a smoke that may take half a day to lick,

to get it right. I dig in deep shirt pockets for a match,

and bite it like a toothpick. I stick the unlit

cigarette like a feather in my hat. I kicked the habit

 

four years ago after the last grass fire

some trucker started. The butt’s for practice,

in case I’m ever bored. My wife saves rattles

for the grandkids, flint arrowheads she finds,

 

digging strawberry gardens, prying out rocks

for the fish pond, scooping iron and umber

for sand paintings on the patio. Rocking at dusk

that starts at dinnertime and lasts past Halloween,

 

we talk softly about a coyote a mile away,

one drop of water bulging at sundown from the pipe

over the brimming-full horse trough, the stretch

and shimmer of the drop before it falls.

The Solitary Twin

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One Saturday morning when my brother and I were ten, our family television set spontaneously combusted.

Cataracts

 

Clouds over Long’s Peak, the sky blue everywhere but there,

and when I glance away and back, they’re gone. Imagine:

I make the highest mountain disappear by tipping my head,

even by shifting my eyes. Watch that herd of mule deer

 

on the slope, floppy ears like semaphore: gone, a blur

like TV reception in the fifties. When I blink left

or right, they’re back, magic. In night flight,

they taught that staring at a light too long

 

would saturate the rods or cones, a blind spot

we could find by sweeping left to right like radar.

A few more years, the specialist will pluck them out

like pearls, presto, bringing my vision back

 

like a picture tube, the world once more in focus.

If it works, that is, no procedure perfect.

Here from the cabin deck, I watch the river

cascade left to right, flowing to nothing but a roar,

 

then a shimmer twisting away downhill. For years,

we watched our son come rafting with his friends,

a bucking, rubber float jolting them into shrieks, so close

we could snap them as they passed, mouths open, holding on

 

in white-water rapids flinging them hard downriver

past the trees. I’ve turned old photo albums right to left,

a blur of portraits and snapshots. I’ve helped my wife

tidy his room, storing trophies, giving away good clothes.

 

I watched the car towed back, glass and metal

mangled out of focus, a scarred blur almost a car

that didn’t burn. I’ve been to the scene, walked down

the ledge and lowered myself by roots and boulders

 

where his car careened. I’ve stood there where it crashed.

I’ve turned my eyes to focus far as I could see downstream,

even twisted in my chair, thinking I could hear

his voice behind me, not merely the river’s roar.

Fishing With Uncle Walter In World War Two

 

I remember the first tub of red racers I saw in a walled shed

in Arkansas, down by the Ouachita. My uncle led us there

when I was nine, my father, and another man with some

4-F condition

or too old. We drove five hundred miles in World War Two

over bumpy roads at night to see my aunt and uncle

 

who lost their only son at Pearl Harbor, to grieve again

about what happened two years ago, to fish the river

my father trawled and trapped when he was a boy in

poverty Arkansas,

Granddaddy dead, his scattered brothers fretting for their boys

flung out across the world like dice and black bones,

 

a mystery of fate. My older brother was in jungles of Saipan

or Guam, pinheads on a map my mother kept back home.

But here was rot,

real darkness in some back-swamp bait shop, a dozen washtubs

of rotting crawdads, eels, and fish heads, the hot shed

squishing under my Keds as I ducked in mud under cobwebs

 

long as nets. My uncle punched me in the ribs and kidded

what my girl friends would think of this. I mumbled something

and my uncle laughed. What all this rot and splash of slime

in barrels had to do with fish I didn’t know, the perch and bass

we caught back on the Brazos suckers for worms and grubs

 

the size of snot. I wondered if this was one of those places

we whispered about at night behind the barn, where men

went to women, where boys were lucky if they came back alive,

bleeding, part of their things chopped off, circumcised

or sick for weeks. I shuddered, that odd, familiar swelling

 

in my pants and taste of alum. My father walked behind me

like a guard, and I followed my distant uncle and a

one-armed man

who hobbled to a row of tubs and buckets. My God,

my Uncle Walter said, stepping back and clapping

as if he’d found the manger, always one to make the best

 

of everything. I stopped nose level with the tub, nothing

but fifty pounds of straw and dirt. My father bowed down

to smell,

big-knuckled fists on the nicked and rusted rim. The one-

armed man

who owned it all reached around my back and tapped the tub

with a hammer. Chaos swarmed, enormous worms twelve

inches long,

 

swirling out of black dirt and squirming over each other,

gone in the blink of my eyes, the fastest motion I’d ever seen.

His nub still around me, the unshaved owner banged again,

and out they wound and slithered, red racers fat and slimy

naked.

I imagined the fish these would catch, the sharks or alligator gar

 

it would take to swallow them, the meat hooks we’d have

to squish

and impale them on, if any of us could hold them writhing

like fire hoses. I don’t know how many gar and big-mouthed

bass

we caught that week, what bait we used. I remember my uncle

suddenly weeping against the wall, sunlight odd on his

balding head

 

in the bait shop. I remember my father clearing his throat

and staring at worms with unusual interest, big knuckles white

on the tub. Now that I’ve been to war, now that I’ve

watched TV

around the clock and worried about one son under Iraqi rockets,

I can hear my Uncle Walter beating his fist against the wall

 

of that bait shop, there to fish with only his brother

and a distant nephew. I can’t remember much about that day,

but my father’s face sunburned. Out on the lake, I drank

my first half-bottle of beer. I got to pee from the boat,

standing up, a long-arched splash and ripple my uncle

promised

 

would draw fish. I know we carried two canoes over a crust

of mud that shuddered like dough, and fished the river

past midnight. I remember Uncle Walter cursing, clubbing

alligator gars with his oar, trash fish he hated, head down,

shaking, smashing them in the moonlight with his fists.

The Search After Happiness

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Not many years ago there lived in a certain city a person of the name of Henry O Donell. In figure he was tall, of a dark complexion and searching black eye. His mind was strong and unbending, his disposition unsociable, and though respected by many, he was loved by few.

Surfaces, Central Valley, 109

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Her New Last Name

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Nell sleeps with her hand on her mother’s breast until Mrs. Pope comes in, carrying chickens to pluck.  Nell is put outside.  She hears the door close behind her, and feels the wind warm on her back.

Where Once It Stood

 

I was looking for a horse, but there was

no horse, only the feed barn and above it

the purple meat of sky: the smell

of birch smoke and burlap and grain.

Yes, yes, now I remember. It was fall,

the same fall my mother bought a gun, the fall

we studied architectural perspectives in Art.

In the barn a bridle shimmered cold on its hook.

Light chinking in from the cracks,

mouse prints etched in sawdust on the floor.

And then—or was it another day?—

a horse did appear, a palomino in the pasture,

alone near a rock. Flanks prickly with hoarfrost,

mane the color of car fumes and snow.

Clearly he must have been there from the start.

Yes, the horse must have been an emissary

long unseen. When I reached to touch him,

he bolted away, leaving the child—who was me—

framed by the half-wide door of the barn.

Wait! I wanted to say, hold on!

But the horse—who was also me—

already had jumped the fence,

softening into the dark strand of trees.

Near the tractor a red candy wrapper

floated shipwrecked in the ditch.

Somewhere an ancient door hinge swung.

Hours passed, or days and years, and I grew hungry.

As for the horse, even my sharpest

finger whistle could not call him back.

Flame

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A letter was lying on Nimei’s desk.  She was puzzled because the envelope did not give a return address.  The postmark showed the letter from Harbin, but she knew nobody in that city.