Reveille and Taps
All beards, this crew, lank hair that hasn't been
barber-shopped since the last war
or two. This shady three-way intersection
off the milltown bridge, their outpost now.
Their drill—to rotate cardboard signs
each rainless day: Why Lie? We Need Bucks for Beer.
Sign display, that's a wheelchair-sergeant job.
The K9 job, heads on paws, is to make motorists
sorry for their masters. When a dollar flutters
from a car window, Youngest Beard has legs
to fetch it before the light changes.
We May Be Wasted, But Beer's to Be Tasted.
Their mottoes echo boot-camp cadences:
The Hounds Need Chow, We're a Quart Low.
What's their strength? three wheelchair sergeants,
four bike-mounted convenience-store specialists,
five drowsy dogs, a carton of cigarettes,
a mound of brown bottles the world calls
dead soldiers. Daily they're probed by a mobile
enemy whose pennant is a mortgage payment.
By the river's cottonwood banks, their siege camp—
blue tarps, Army surplus mummy bags. They face
three roads going nowhere better than this
tollbooth-post for whoever might salute their stand
with a dollar's neutrality. If you stop the car
to ask the beards, Where? they wax exotic:
Ia Drang, Addis Ababa, Persian Gulf.
Ask, What happened? and you might glimpse
a best buddy delegged by RPG, a headless child
necklaced with sandflies. But your unasked question,
Why, the Why that might explain the smokes,
the cardboard jokes, the diabetes and phantom limbs,
night-sweat shouts the river swallows—Why war
left them refugees from peace—that why is not
for you to know. They'd like a ten. For a ten,
they can get oiled on a case of Colt .45
and sing you a reveille—We Can't Get It Up,
Can't Get It Up, Can't Get It Up in the Morning—
and punch each other's tattooed knuckles
while you tap cadence on your car-horn.
So honk farewell to your cheap green flag
flapping like a truce in their hands, shift
their beards into your rearview mirror.
They know the vets hospital waits
a hundred miles south, its phone number gouged
in the barroom wall in their skulls
beside the troop carrier that keeps burning
to the refrain I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.
The hospital's beds stay full, stories like theirs
occupy each waiting room and hall.
They play Taps nightly, the cemetery
is mowed smooth as a billiard table's baize.
They'll engrave a man, name and dates entire—
the best black lettering on a white stone.
What can't be written there the river will ferry
in eddy and swirl, in the commingling of silt
and salmon scale, gravel and snag, carry it out,
part of a deepening undersong gone west
in waters fallen and gathered, pushing toward
utterance at its Pacific mouth, where wars
dissolve in depths black and cold as heaven.