Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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The girl kneels in the parking lot,
her face uplifted, mouth so twisted
she appears to be hysterical.
She has turned her outstretched hands
palm up, her arms extended down
as if to lift the body at her feet
out of the photo into a place
where none of this would be happening,
where May would still be springtime
flowers, Frisbees, marijuana, love,
not soldiers, not these loaded rifles,
not the nightmare war that's finally come
to fill her unbelieving eyes with this
boy who will not rise again.
His blood coagulates on dusty asphalt.
She thinks some great injustice done.
She thinks the pain too great to bear.
She doesn't understand
the gray-haired men who've done this
or the millions more who think
the dead boy at her feet has gotten
just what he has asked for and deserves.
Like a large cat rising out of a sleep
after a good kill is fully digested,
its stomach beginning to ask for more,
the general grins in the woman's face,
pulls the top of her dress aside,
cups a breast in his hand and pinches
the nipple hard, like a bullet.
She winces. American, twenty-six,
she's come to bring the joy of Jesus
to the children of the city dump.
Thousands of families, thousands
of children, living on trash. She runs
a kitchen and school, begs for what
she gets and thanks the Lord,
but wants to know why the general
feeds steak to the family dogs while
families starve. He rubs her breast.
He rubs his groin against her hip.
"There will always be poor," he says.
"The ones in the dump would find you.
Your embassy would send me a letter.
Nothing more would be done."
The strange American steps out of the night
into the flickering light of candles and small
fires and open stoves cooking evening meals,
families and neighbors clustered together,
moving like birds on the wings of words.
Discreetly their eyes follow the man,
bowls and chopsticks rising, pausing,
gracefully rising, so subtle a gesture
he wonders if he has imagined it.
In silence he passes among them
nodding agreeably, nodding in wonder,
nodding at what he remembers was here,
wanting to gather the heart of this place
into himself, to make it forgive him.
He is sure the older faces remember:
"Why are you here? Who are you?"
Questions alive in thick summer air,
a suggestion of posture.
But he has no answers to give them.
His explanation lies on his tongue
like a bird with a broken wing.
Only the fact of the lives around him.
Only the need to be near.
Two girls too young to remember
are playing badminton without a net.
They turn to look, then giggle and stop.
One offers a racquet and shuttlecock.
In the dim street, he begins to play.
He marvels at his ineptitude,
their simple delight with his laughter,
how they have taken him into their game
as if he were not a stranger.
From out of the shadows a stool appears,
a cool drink. The girls' mother gestures
for him to sit. Unsure of himself,
he takes from his wallet a photograph.
"My daughter," he says, "Li-La."
He touches his heart with his open hand.
He writes the name in Vietnamese.
She touches the picture. The father appears,
another daughter, a nephew and son.
The father is reticent. Finally the stranger
touches the scars on his neck and says, "VC."
He points to the opposite bank of the river.
"Over there," he says, "Tet Mau Than."
The father lifts his shirt to reveal
a scar on his chest. "VC," he says, then
drops his shirt and lights a cigarette,
offers one to the stranger. Together
they smoke the quiet smoke of memory.
Seven years the father spent in a camp
for prisoners of war. The wife
lightly touches her husband's knee.
Lightly his hand goes to hers.
The stranger considers the years he has spent
wearing the weight of what he has done,
thinking his tiny part important.
The father points to the gap-toothed bridge
the VC dropped in the river, long-repaired.
The children are playing badminton again.
The shuttlecock lands in the stranger's lap.
"Li-La," the father softly says, touching
the stranger's heart with his open hand.
The door was opened just enough
to let the wind inside the house
and curl itself from room to room
like mist, or like a bony finger calling:
Here. Come here. I've come for you.
I didn't even know the door was open
till I felt those quiet words, a tingling
in my spine, like flakes of ice on bare skin.
I shivered once, twice, turned, saw nothing
but a fleeting shadow and the door ajar.
So, I thought, and listened hard.
The old house groaned, as old houses do.
No other sound disturbed the night.
And yet I'd seen a shadow, and a chill
settled on my heart and softly shook it.
Afraid, I tiptoed to my daughter's room,
but she slept soundly, and the cat beside her
didn't stir. Down the hall, my wife slept too.
I checked each room, each closet, the attic
and the basement. Nothing was amiss.
Sleep, I thought, but I couldn't sleep.
I hadn't left the door ajar. I know
I saw a shadow, just a passing breath
but real as cold or love or sorrow
or the loss of dreams we hold too dear.
Ruth and I were sitting in the kitchen
ten years after Vietnam. She was six-feet-two
and carried every inch of it with style,
didn't care a fig that I was seven
inches shorter. "You've got seven inches
where it counts," she'd laugh, then lift her chin
and smile as if the sun had just come out.
But she didn't want to hear about the war.
I heard the sound of breaking glass
coming from my bedroom, went to look:
VC rats were jumping through the window.
They looked like rats, but they were Viet Cong.
Don't ask me how I knew. You don't forget
what tried to kill you.
I tried to tell her, but she wouldn't listen.
"Now look, Ruth," I said so loud the woman
sleeping next to me woke up and did
what Ruthie in my dream refused to do:
she listened to me call the name
of someone she had never heard of,
anger in my voice, my body hard.
The woman I was sleeping with
would be my wife, but wasn't yet. I was
still a stranger with a stranger's secrets
and a tattoo on my arm. She'd never known a man
who'd fought in Vietnam, put naked women
on the wall, smoked marijuana, drank gin straight.
And here I was in bed with her,
calling someone else's name in anger.
She wanted to run, she told me later,
but she didn't. She married me instead.
Don't ask me why. I only know
you never know what's going to save you
and I've never dreamed again about the war.
All of these poems are included in The Distance We Travel, 1993, Adastra Press, 101 Strong St., Easthampton, MA 01027; 25 handsewn cloth, $10 paper (both editions handset letter-press, prices include shipping).