Memorial Day: A Poem

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Unanticipated clouds advance, shifting the weight

of the world—or at least the measured objectives of

so many compulsory affairs—nonplussed after all

this time by their capacity to inspire, interrupt, or else

frustrate the better angels of Nature’s encumbrance.

Fathers linger absentmindedly at inexhaustible grills.

Mothers indulge in a quick cry behind bathroom doors

(more from habit than necessity). Bored children fish

in depleted ponds, muscle memory improvising

rituals handed down unthinkingly, like faiths or families.

Soldiers, acknowledged at last in their fortified shrines,

die afresh each time a bouquet drops like a shell

atop consecrated soil, foretold fates secured again,

courtesy of grim yet unconflicted officials, whose

solemn directives ensure that history echoes itself.

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Memorial Day*

I. I’ll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive

Cyrus has never actually discussed his brief stint in the army that took him to Vietnam. On a couple of occasions he has commented that he went to Vietnam with nothing and came back with a disability. The permanent limp—and the cane—are unavoidable and obvious enough that he feels obliged to make mention of them, almost as a defense mechanism, to defuse any questions or concerns. What he is understandably much more reluctant to discuss is the incurable tic he developed during, or after, the war: the nervous twitch in his left hand that he may have been able to master if he had been able to stay away from the drink. Either way, years of abuse have made the impairment to his reflexes irreparable.

Cyrus has talked about many things. How he ended up washing dishes in a Mexican restaurant. How he is still bitter that he didn’t get severance pay, which he is convinced would have enabled the surgery that would have prevented his limp. The dozens of jobs he’s held over the years, and the seven states in which he has had legal residency. He rarely mentions the war, but his twitch, his cane and his tired eyes are a continuous reminder that for a person who has experienced the reality of unwanted combat, there is no convenient line dividing past from future, there is only an enduring, agonizing present: this is the condition that destroys lives, kills families and prevents perspective.

Few answers, many questions:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

When you find yourself being asked questions like these, it’s time to ask yourself some questions. Like these:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

II. Paint It Black

It is night, as usual. It is late, as always. Cyrus does not want to go home. Again.

This is his life: You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here!

Christ, he had actually heard these words, often. And more significantly, he felt them.

Cyrus sits in the silence, trying not to think about anything, unable to stop thinking about everything. He thinks, for instance, about the heat. The heat. It drained all your energy, especially at this point in the summer.

Cyrus sits in his truck, watching the monotonous orange flashes of the fireflies flickering beneath the canopy of dark branches that surround him like a shroud. The air hung languidly, holding its breath. It seemed to resignedly acknowledge that its seasonal reign would eventually expire.

Cyrus sits silently, trying not to think about anything. Inevitably, he thinks of the flowers. Of all the redundant tasks his job required him to complete, day after identical day, the most maddening was the maintenance of the flowerbeds that formed a colorful halo around the crumbling plaza. As always, they thrived in spring and had managed to make it through the early stages of summer not too much the worse for wear. But in the last several weeks they had finally begun to sway under the inexorable force of the unyielding heat. Despite their frailty they were admirably resilient, yet there was only so much they could be expected to endure. Rooted in their soil, they could not remain impervious to the extremities they were unable to escape. Eventually, all attention given was futile as they fell prey to the same warmth that initially sustained them.

They’re not so different from us, Cyrus had thought to himself, earlier that afternoon as he looked down on the shrinking stems, his sweat dripping compassionately amongst the petals. They did not ask to receive life, they just existed. The weather acted and they reacted, that was all.

And yet, it was his job to keep them alive, to do his part in cheating nature and interfere with the iron will of inevitability. It could not be done, and he could not say what was more unjust: the sufferings these flowers were subjected to or the expectation that any one person could alter their fragile destinies.

The sun had set almost six hours earlier, but the impenetrable humidity lingered heavily in the air.

Enough. Drive, just drive. Get away, go somewhere. Do something. Get out of here.

He drives.

It occurs to him, after a while, that music might help—music always helps—and he reaches gratefully for the radio. And immediately, the music is there for him, old friends making familiar sounds and singing familiar words.

I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes

I have to turn my head until my darkness goes…

Yes. Always he has listened to this song, and it has always spoken to him. And now it is speaking to him again, saying things he’s heard hundreds of times but never understood, in ways he’s never suddenly does not like, a new way that unnerves him:

I look inside myself and see my heart is black

No colors anymore I want them to turn black

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue

I could not foresee this thing happening to you

Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts

It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black…

The road swirls gray and white and he feels cold and realizes he should feel hot and sees that he is sweating and not paying attention then he is sliding and it’s okay because it’s not his fault how could they say it was his fault these things happen isn’t that what they say shit happens…

Cyrus is no longer on the road.

He watches the other cars move by, white and red lights as they arrive and depart from the scene. He can feel the drivers staring at him inquisitively, frowning as they pass him.

“What are you looking at?” he shouts. “You got a problem? I’ll solve it for you!”

He yells at a few more cars and then realizes where he is, and sees that he is shaking. He grabs the steering wheel with all his might and carefully negotiates his way back on the road, driving slowly the rest of the way, occasionally wiping the sweat from his steaming brow.

At last he pulls into his assigned space and turns the car off. He looks up in the mirror and examines the ragged hole he has bitten through his bottom lip. He touches it and the blood feels warm on his fingers. He grins and shakes his head.

I’m okay it’s okay it’s okay I’m okay

He looks back in the mirror and stops smiling. Closing his eyes tightly he reaches out and punches the windshield and it splinters under the force of his repeated blows.

He sits in silence for a while, gazing at the shattered glass, resolutely ignoring the pain in his hand.

It might cool off, he thinks. If only it would rain.

But it would not rain, and it would not cool off. It seemed resigned to its reality, content to exist indefinitely in its intractable state. And wishing it away would do no good. It never did.

Eventually he realizes he is getting blood on the seat and goes inside for a bandage.

III. This Ain’t Living

Miles was drunk, but he had more drinking to do. It was a holiday after all. Actually, it was well after midnight, so technically, the holiday was over. But Miles wasn’t much for holidays anyway. If you celebrated holidays, then it tended to trivialize the important other occasions for partying, which were pretty much every night.

He walked away from the bar, confused by the lack of cabs. Not only did he dislike the prospect of hoofing it home in his condition, he realized that by the time he arrived, he would most likely be too tired to keep drinking.

And then, as they so seldom do, the angels intervened: up ahead, idling angrily, was Cyrus’s truck, rusting greedily in front of God and everyone. Finally, someone he could hang with, someone who could keep up with him. He even had drinks! A well-serviced Styrofoam cooler brooded quietly in the front seat, sweating it out in the heavy evening air.

Drive, he said.

They drove. They drank. They communicated, commiserating silently, as they had done so often this summer. Eventually, there were no more beers and Miles was forced to pay attention to something other than his empty, anxious hands.

“So what do you say there Cane?”

“What do I say about what?”

And that was that. Clearly, Cyrus did not feel like talking, and Miles was in no shape to care. This was the way his best customer and more than occasional drinking partner could be at times. Usually, he was content to listen, which suited Miles, who was usually the one talking. It was just the way it was.

Miles might have been surprised, and possibly a little alarmed, if he understood the appreciable alteration that had occurred in only the last few years. Jackson noticed immediately, having been away for so long, and having known Cyrus since the café opened. Back then Cyrus was, in turn, equally morose and amusing, a mostly pleasant and ubiquitous presence at the bar. Miles did not know that two summers ago, most people still knew Cyrus by his real name. It was only over the past couple of years that everyone had begun calling him Cane, a designation he embraced and encouraged. For reasons that would have been obvious to anyone paying attention, Cyrus had begun to become increasingly invested in his short stint in Vietnam. While it was something he used to speak of curtly and even cryptically—when he spoke of it at all—the war had come to provide an outlet, and an otherwise unattainable identity.

Miles could not know—and by now, no one was certain either way—that Cyrus had not always carried his cane around, not until he started seeing, and wanting others to see, himself as a wounded veteran. Did the discussion of war compel the escalating complaints about the deteriorating condition of his foot? Or was it the pain of an oppressive injury that caused him to crave the compassion he had heretofore never found? No one knew for sure. The more Cyrus talked, the more he drank, and the more he seemed to retreat inside himself, closing off the feelings he could not communicate.

Miles could not help but notice the hair: Cyrus hadn’t cut his hair all summer and was now sporting a rather impressive Afro. What sort of statement was he making? Was he trying to grow it out to appear younger, to stave off the aging that his body was otherwise unable to ignore? Or did he just not care anymore? The fact that his hair could still grow so quickly, so abundantly, should have indicated a certain vigor, or resilience. Unfortunately, the longer the hair got, the more prominent the gray became, betraying what he hoped to conceal. The gray hairs in Cane’s ‘fro spoke about the things no one wanted to know. That you get older, inevitably, no matter who you are. And that some people get older quicker, and harder, than everyone else. That an aging body was a son of a bitch, a bastard that delighted in turning on you, turning attention to itself, which turned all eyes on the changes going on. And what changes were underway inside him that no one could see?

The silence did not suit Cyrus. He did not feel like talking, and Miles was too drunk to converse in any event. Finally he turned on the radio, surprised he had not thought of it sooner. Immediately the music was there, and Miles, who had passed out against the window, quickly came to life. Few sights could be as ridiculous as the passenger, clean-shaven kid’s face contorting with energy as he sang along in mock falsetto. Marvin Gaye he was not. And Cyrus had to laugh. He could still laugh.

Miles got out of the car. Marvin kept singing. Cyrus stopped laughing.

Panic is spreading

God knows where we’re heading

Oh make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

Yeah make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

This ain’t livin, no this ain’t livin…

Cyrus stopped listening.

He remembered when he used to love this song, when this cassette used to get all kinds of play in his car. He loved it. He remembered when he used to love all sorts of things.

He decided not to think about it. He drove off slowly to nowhere, certain he’d soon find the nothingness that waits for some of us out there.

(*excerpted from the novel The American Dream of Don Giovanni)

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