Over the Fence
call you today and ask about the war,
or the hand-woven map
stapled to a dowel rod
in Paw-Paw’s hallway, its name
crawling the top in Vietnamese.
When I was ten, while the kitchen
crackled with frying okra and family
skirmishes, I mumbled
tactical commands to GI Joes,
grunts sunk right up to their rifle barrels
in the damp soil of a houseplant.
You were in the chair behind me.
None of us knew what was sand and what
was skin. I think you saw it then,
in the backyard’s clearing,
or heard it in the orders to my men.
I can’t ask if trauma is another muscle memory,
if it maneuvers the broken tongue
like a minaret. Until that moment
I’d only known your occasional head pat,
a sudden tug through my hair the way a pitchfork
dissevers hay. I want to ask why you did that.
We ran together since we were knee high,
like the asylum of evergreens grown tall and
swaying to their centers above the vacant
housing on Ewell Ave, your words
spinning soft as ceiling fan blades,
bead of copper chain grinding
subtle against a globe until the mount
hummed an unsure cadence.
Everything on earth was trying
not to weaken.
You never looked in my direction.
Your buddy carried on about a girlfriend
back in the world,
a one-liner about Colonel Jakes and the prostitute,
then the heel-click,
the bouncing Betty.
I listened to you lift a pair of dog tags,
find an arm,
wash its wrist from a canteen,
then bury it beside the run.
Behind my house,
I knew what ground would give,
but nothing of boys blown apart mid-sentence,
only a smattering of automatic fire
from my toy machine gun
like knocks on a far away door.
You said, the hardest part was reloading.
I have played the game of dying
in my own backyard, declared war
on every vanishing evening of summer,
and always talked myself home before
a full sunset, marching my pretend platoon.
I can trace the colored threads
of that map, its indecipherable name—
yellow to the harbor,
red to some range of mountain,
blue to the river that goes crooked in streams.
A neighbor boy on Ewell Ave still takes
a metal baseball bat to corrugated tin
pieced from cheap gray roofing.
He wails away until the bang is sufficient
enough to shatter: teeth, our silver fillings
and our power, stray dogs bite-humping
in the vacants, and you,
the young man I cannot recover.