I listened to their girlish sounds---mall voices---satisfied with shopping.
But I was there too, so no judgment implied about the spending of time
One said the name of a product out loud: Hue
hurling me into the past. Hue, a kind of sock
that women buy---brightly colored cotton, stylish, versatile.
And all these years I'd read it wrong:
pronouncing it Hway
like the city ancient embattled destroyed.
Every time I bought the socks I'd imagined men on bicycles
women scurrying with burdens
swinging from the ends of bamboo cross bars,
weighty on their shoulders. Each hoping
there would be something left of home when she returned.
Now, I think of girls, prosperous, deprived of memory.
He would be 55 now, ready for retirement.
And maybe somewhere he is.
We all exchanged letters with desperate soldiers, young and Black.
They met girls in church, at dances, in parks on days they escaped
the Forts and Camps lining the east coast, searching for familiarity
to remind them of home---before they are afraid.
We ripped open envelopes, red, white and blue repetitive letters
that needed only to be mailed, not read.
Careful omission of names and places.
They sent us photographs: boy smiles, straining to look experienced.
Descriptions of weather. Condemnations of Victor Charlie,
the heat, dank boots. No reference to blood or dying.
His showed him painting at an easel as if it were junior year abroad.
Gangly, dark arms and big hands guiding a paint brush in front of a canvas
splashed with the hard yellows and greens of the jungle. I mailed back
one of me standing on the doorstep of my tenement
where we'd kissed good -bye
It was taken by the girl who was also my lover,
I didn't mention her.
When the tour is up we sometimes receive thank you notes, or
hearts-shaped boxes of candy, souvenirs-military patches are the favorite. Often the
letters just stop coming. They survive the carnage and
go home to forget. Or they do not.
He would be 55 years old now, ready to retire and take up painting again.
Maybe he is. Somewhere.
She wanted to go again. Two tours.
Even though I begged her: They don't want us.
That's why I have to, she said. Shoe polish, shiny buttons,
cropped hair and a talent for healing.
Arms around each other, tanned and still wet from the ocean---
I watched her tuck that photo of us into her duffel. She'd say
I was her sister if anyone asked. A reason not to go I tell her,
aching for her body more than they could.
Television news was only black and white at my house, never
the red and gray of dying or its colorful stench.
I watched each night but they never showed the nurses
only boys, faces painted with ferocity
or boxes draped in flags.
When she returned, deep brown from the sun,
I made her tell me every nightmare she'd seen
so she wouldn't be alone. It took many hours and tears
yet she gave them to me: ragged limbs, children halved by bullets,
snakes, shit, empty eyes, and the fear of trust.
For years she had to work the night shift or she'd never sleep.
They finally divorced because of the shoes.
She'd polished each one every week of his tour--
her duty. Thinking of his hands sliding
over her skin tender and anxious with desire
she with the brush, the waxen paste, the cloth
buffing Floresheims, wing tips and loafers
to gleam at the bottom of their closet.
Proud, she'd even sent a picture of them once
reassurance that he'd return.
But he wouldn't wear them. The combat boots
became his home. Small rooms of the dead where he lived,
knife at his side, sweat always on his forehead even in winter
"Before the war" became an empty space where she shined shoes
and thought about his hands. For him there was no "after"
He moved out to live under the bridge.
The telegram came as a surprise, some one else
had already called. Soon after, her son started crawling
into bed with us and calling me 'Auntie'
as if that made up for the loss. Our smell and heat
were familiar. He knew me more than his father---
no replacement but an extra dessert.
Still the news tore a wound
not as big as a bullet, but thin and neat
like a cut from the shining end of a souvenir knife.
Years later he stops by the house
where he still calls me Auntie
his eyes are red although he would never cry
if we could see. He pulls the worn picture
of his dad from the wallet, he asks me, not his mother,
if there had been a purpose. I have to say no.
None that anyone real could accept.
Black, shining wall singing with names, dotted with notes and flowers.
I'm an earth sign and feel safe nestled where the angles meet
beneath the weight of dark soil and manicured grass, ever green.
Women, some men, trace the letters onto paper,
others take pictures, willing light and shadow
to recreate a missing face. I lean into the marble,
eyes closed, absorbing cool reflections, touching the
chiseled surface, afraid to recognize a name.
Saigon, Hanoi, Danang, My Lai,
Quang Tri, Haiphong, Pleiku, Mekong, Khe Sanh, Hue.
Mellifluous, ancient names that men practiced saying smoothly
in front of mirrors before turning to the camera.
I learned them at home knowing I would need
to speak the language to our children.
Now the men talk of going back as if the news film can be rewound.
Bombing, burning, rape, torture, massacres
all reeled back into a can leaving
fragrant pink blossoms, women's laughter
under yellow sun and fields of rice not poisoned.