Coals and Smoke, Titanium and Clay, Boomers
Coals and Smoke
His hours are suckling pigs in his smoke-shack.
He shovels hickory into the pit,
manages its red eye, mixes vinegar with pepper,
chops slaw, simmers collards.
He likes vegetables—they have no faces—but meat
is his gift, and numbers don't lie:
three hundred diners a day, twice that on weekends.
A partner handles the till
and the teen ponytails who sing, "Ya'll want
hushpuppies with that?"
The kitchen's sweaty women are his, as they were
his daddy's before his gift
matured in pinewoods twenty years back
where a crow-feather
of smoke arose. He'd hiked out to investigate
and found men splayed
around a cauldron stinking with mash. Thieves
of corn and chickens,
he'd heard, men who'd siphon gas from cars at church.
They'd enfilade through town
in raggedy camouflage. They couldn't shake habits
acquired in another forest,
a jungle world they carried beneath their ponchos,
beneath their skin.
Beneath blankets he knew from neighbors' clotheslines
they slept, sides of meat
uncured in flattened grass, going to waste.
It was hog-killing weather.
Daddy was minding the BBQ house he'd opened downriver.
"I'm buildin your future
by the sea," he said. "Don't call less there's somethin
you cain't figger out on your own."
He was fifteen. He could lay a fire so the wind
knew where to send it.
At market and hardware store and church, the complaints
grew, but ended with a shrug,
Stay away from those woods like a helpless amen.
One Sunday Momma's car
disappeared; they found it a county away, totaled,
a bloody Army boot inside.
"Business down here ain't letting up," Daddy phoned:
"insurance'll cover that car.
Don't pester me till you're ready to quit school
and learn where the money is."
Heat lightning lit the kitchen: he cradled the phone.
In bed with a Bible
and wet handkerchief, Momma cried "I just want you
to be happy," but how could he
with those men so near? On the porch he studied
the lightning's approach.
When it grew close enough to light his path,
he entered the woods,
and when he lit the first pile of pinestraw, the wind
came round from the west
to fan it. To the north and south, lightning strikes assisted him:
behind the homeless camp,
he reckoned, the base of the fire's widening triangle
was the Cape Fear River,
black, deep, swollen with alligators and snakes.
Those men would huddle
under ponchos awaiting thunder like enemy artillery,
drunk on the raw mash
of whatever they couldn't kill enough to get a bath,
a job, make restitution
for the boyhood they were stealing from him. When he left
the woods, there was no rain,
only the breath of his decision grown into a red wind
tearing through the pines.
He imagined Pentecost enveloping them: they'd have tongues
of fire now, and bodies too,
they'd scream like volunteer fire sirens. Back on the porch
he sat in Daddy's rocker
beside Momma watching his red wall reach the river
where the storm finally broke
to douse it—a record rainfall, the Cape Fear overrunning
its banks. He told Momma
his schooling was done. He'd be joining Daddy
on his sixteenth birthday.
As for the dead, they earned their Purple Hearts.
Their charred bones were given
names and stories: one had won a Bronze Star rescuing
the wounded during Tet,
three had served time for petty theft. Flags were lowered
at Fort Bragg, he noticed,
driving to the coast in his new car, ready to commence
basic training in salting, smoking,
balancing accounts. Everyone knew about Daddy's bad heart;
when a few years later
it gave out, he wasn't surprised that Momma declined
to move to the coast with him:
she never liked the sea, or strangers. Nothing of her
pervades the smokehouse
where he stands eyeing coals, watching flesh cure.
He's in his prime, he could
father a son to teach how to lay a fire, stoke it, how
to make sure no one
who cheats you gets away with it. Some night
the right woman will walk in
and ask to meet the man responsible for her feast,
and his gladhand partner
will lead her past the ponytails and stout women bent
over stoves and dirty dishes.
She'll appreciate his stilted beach house, its glassy view
of Atlantic power, green
and steady as cash flow. If she gives him that son,
he might tell her his dream
of the blanket floating downstream on the Cape Fear,
a red remnant burnt at the edges.
It always wakes him, and when he sleeps again,
the red blanket lies far out
on the ocean. It never sinks. Like a bloodshot eye
it keeps staring up
while he drifts overhead, cloudy, tethered to it.
It's like the missing word
to a question he doesn't know how to ask or answer, unless
he is the question, or the word—
drifting down the sky, acrid, obscure, dispersing.
Titanium and Clay
What does the lame god look like now? His father
holds the first knife he forged
when a boy could aspire
without shame to be named an eagle.
In one photo he improvises armor for the passenger door
of his troop carrier, camouflaged
like a desert lizard. In another,
mounted on the family tractor, he tests the clutch
with a titanium leg. Some nights his hammering
kept us awake, the father says.
He beat coins into tiny shields
airmailed to buddies still whole in the war zone
with this admonition: Put a dead president over your heart.
His death was an accident, perhaps,
unforeseen outcome of testing
his own amulet. The derringer whose twin barrels,
hammer and trigger he fashioned from scrap metal
was clamped in a vise, operated
by lanyard. The slug they found
in his spine was coin silver, what remained of his heart muscle
sown with a shrapnel of Lincoln pennies. After burial,
the father imagined all
he might do with the titanium leg—
ship it to a desert hospital, present it to their senator
who wore an enameled flag in his lapel—but at last
he fired up the tractor and rode
down to the creek where his boy
had learned to stick his handmade blade in a cottonwood
at twenty paces. There he shut off the engine, shut his eyes
until he could discern no barrier
between himself and the warbling
of the coppery waters, the verdigris ripple of leaves.
He listened for but failed to hear a bird, any bird, give him
a signal. So he lifted the leg
from his lap, tossed it down
and drove over it until the wet clay was so deeply gouged
not a gleam protruded. Kudzu and creekwater
would heal this scar
by September. He aimed the tractor
back toward the barn where his wife would be shining
a flashlight into every crack in the workshop floor
for some beaten coin's face—
Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt,
one mislaid piece of numismatic craft—to shield her heart.
They're target-shooting, the old brothers, in a country dump,
like the days before Older
joined to the Army to gain access to bigger guns,
like 155 artillery, with which he cratered the Ho Chi Minh Trail
day and night. He's deaf enough
to be unbothered by a black powder musket beneath his ear.
See the lid of that washing machine? Boom. It rattles, drops.
They've killed appliances
since each was a boy with the same squirrel rifle handed down
three generations. Older is a stockbroker, Younger a poet,
God bless the Second Amendment
that legitimizes brothers in arms—without a rural dump strewn
with hard targets, what the hell would they talk about?
The fizz of Moscato d'Asti?
The test scores of their progeny? Younger packs a CAR-15
—no full automatic rock'n'roll, just squeeze squeeze pop pop,
2800 feet per second velocity.
Whatever it pierces is poignant through and through: it bores
a fleshy hole and pinballs against bone until spent. Hell of a metaphor,
concedes Older, aiming at
a nine inch TV. Take that, Captain Kangaroo. Younger targets a radio
whose last broadcast began Hiyo, Silver! Pop goes a glass tube,
a second—he can name them:
12ax7, 6v6—being a poet means naming each thing you kill.
If Zorro and Sergeant Garcia rode up, he says, I'd smoke their asses too.
Older booms a bigger TV.
We're fucked, he says, We're who we wanted to kill. Younger searches
the free-fire zone for a target to determine who buys barbecue.
Look, a Healthy Heart
refrigerator magnet! He fixes it to a 4x4 post twenty paces
past all they've shot so far. He wouldn't be surprised to turn
and find himself crosshaired
by Older's grin: boom, one less vote against taxing the rich.
But how wonderful black powder smells, Concord, Lexington,
rolling thunder of a brass band
playing The World Turned Upside Down at Yorktown.
Strayed a bit right, Older admits: the slug struck nowhere
he can see; his good ear rings.
Younger steps up. Out there, tacked to a post skinny as his spine
is his own death. Last man I killed with that gun, Older muses,
was running down a dirt road
near Bien Hoa. Why didn't he dive into the ditch, or zigzag?
He was running home, I think. The bullets kicked up dust
beyond him, so I figured
I'd missed until patrol located him—he'd bled out running.
The brothers survive in a vortex of cicadas, longleaf pines,
trailer trash, boom boom. By now
some Highway Patrol trooper napping behind a billboard
extolling Big John 3:16 For God So Loved the World
has radioed for backup,
and now South Carolina's black-and-grays smoke blacktop
toward what they imagine a domestic dispute gone terminal.
Younger has the heart in his sights—
it drifts left, rises, falls. Take a deep breath, hold it, squeeze.
Done. They walk together toward the surrogate of affection.
A boom-splat a bit right
as prophesied, a smaller hole piercing left and above.
Not so bad, Younger offers. Could have done better, Older rebuts.
While highway troopers clusterfuck
interstate to interdict their non-emergency, they load the Cadillac
with guns they'll never outgrow. Like pinot gris? Older asks.
We drink that, Younger says,
on what you call the Left Coast. Good, Older says, I bought
a case. But not for you, he says—thumbing the cruise control,
dialing in The Righteous Brothers
on the oldies station, waving at the black-and-grays screaming past—
Half that case, mofo, he says, is mine.