for Greg Greger
Where were the neighbors? Out of town?
In my pajamas, I sat at my father’s feet
in front of their squat, myopic television,
the first in our neighborhood.
On a screen the size of a salad plate,
toy airplanes droned over quilted fields.
Bouquets of jellyfish fell: parachutes abloom,
gray toy soldiers drifting together, drifting apart—
the way families do, but I didn’t know that yet.
I was six or seven. The tv was an aquarium:
steely fish fell from the belly of a plane,
then burst into flame when they hit bottom.
A dollhouse surrendered a wall, the way such houses do.
Furniture hung onto wallpaper for dear life.
Down in the crumble of what had been a street,
women tore brick from brick, filling a baby carriage.
What was my young father,
just a few years back from that war,
looking for? The farm boy from Nebraska
he’d been before he’d seen Dachau?
Next door, my brother and sister fought
the Battle of Bedtime, bath by bath.
Next door, in the living room,
a two-tone cowboy lay where he fell,
too bowlegged to stand. Where was his horse?
And the Indian who’d come apart at the waist—
where were his legs to be found?
A fireman, licorice-red from helmet to boot,
a coil of white rope slung over his arm
like a mint Lifesaver, tried to help.
A few inches of ladder crawled under a cushion,
looking for crumbs. Between the sag of couch
and the slump of rocker, past a pickle-green soldier,
a plastic foxhole, cocoa brown, dug itself
into the rug of no man’s land
and waited to trip my mother.
Am I the oldest one here? In the theater,
the air of expectation soured by mouse and mold—
in the dark, a constellation of postage stamps:
the screens of cell phones glow.
And then we were in Algiers, we were in Marseille.
On foot, we fell in behind a ragged file
of North African infantry. Farther north
than they’d ever been, we trudged
straight into the arms of the enemy:
winter, 1944. Why did the French want to live in France,
the youngest wondered while they hid,
waiting capture by the cold.
They relieved a dead German soldier
of greatcoat and boots. Village by muddy village,
they stole, shadow to shadow, trying to last
until the Americans arrived—
as if, just out of range of the lens,
the open trucks of my father’s unit
would rumble over the rutted horizon.
Good with a rifle, a farsighted farm boy
made company clerk because he’d learned to type
in high school—how young he would look,
not half my age, and no one to tell him
he’ll survive those months in Europe,
he’ll be spared the Pacific by Hiroshima.
Fifty years from then, one evening,
from the drawer where he kept
the tv remote, next to his flint-knapping tools,
he’d take out a small gray notebook
and show his eldest daughter
how, in pencil, in tiny hurried script,
he kept the names of those who died around him.