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.
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.
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
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
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
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
big-knuckled fists on the nicked and rusted rim. The one-
who owned it all reached around my back and tapped the tub
with a hammer. Chaos swarmed, enormous worms twelve
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
I imagined the fish these would catch, the sharks or alligator gar
it would take to swallow them, the meat hooks we’d have
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
we caught that week, what bait we used. I remember my uncle
suddenly weeping against the wall, sunlight odd on his
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
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
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.
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.
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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.