This conversation is with old red wine that brings you, brother, out of surging daylight to fill the doorway like a mailman with a bad letter or telegram. Specters leap out of this old mixture, the blood of grape, the fine chalk it paints teeth with, a whole day of sunlight collared in a tumbler, a red sunset too far away to tell where. You went off to that sunset once, around the corner of the barn tipping toward its knees and Sam Parker’s garden paving the ripe earth all way to the Lovett house sitting white as a pepper-mint down the lane.
When you waved at me you did it with both hands and only later, when it had gone down the mortal chute, was significance found as I remembered the leaning barn’s shade swallow you up, taking one bite of the car. And you were gone with a two-hand wave like signaling Saturday’s lone touchdown.
So I have an old wine or two, a buzzed-vine beauty of taste sometimes more like apple cores or flesh from a peach nearer the pit, and hum the old sad songs, scribble crazy designs and whorls on a once blank paper waiting a poem or thought up to its knees in mud in my mind, and think about your waving at sunset because I never see it the same way twice. Often it is pieces I see; your eyebrows thick and dark and sure as cordage; or gray-green eyes wide as dial faces on test equipment measuring tasks I was at and how you appraised with a nod so slight I shivered before recognition; the little off-center tilt of your head in question the way a dog takes a first look at the new neighbor’s cat or fingers snapped behind the back; perhaps, deep in the sunset of the second glass, down past the red and purple and fiery collars, past all the striae a shining breaks out in wine, a shadow of you walking across Pacific waters, sea bag shouldered, stride long and unhurried, smiling, waving to us, coming home, gigantic fire fading behind you, awful nightmare blasts, bombs, aerial explosions, fracture of a ship, swimming alone, fading too.
I find you in the glass, tall, lean, crowbar true, warm as rubbed pine, immovable as bottom rock, close, reaching, bending, lifting up, still building all our dreams you drafted in darkness in the bedroom the night before the end began.
A sweater too long hung on an iron spike near leather goods of an old horse, tells tales.
One glove, fractured at wrist and thumb, three gardens old, capped on a spade handle, clues.
Scythe handle, spine scattered to every degree, two blades dead, holds a hundred years of sweat waiting raccoon’s discovery the slow night of a full moon and wheat fields curling wet.
Your size eleven khaki waders, hung to dry years ago, exhibit river remembrance in deep-scarred veins the way lake bottoms dry and whisper of accidents.
A red and black lumber jacket, buoyant exclamation mark beside the cellar door, rigid as winter pond yet soft behind my eyes, holds the last day my brother knew.
If I were to gather all these moderate artifacts, the yield would be tender.
An infantry of stars swarms the slow sky wide as a Vicksburg field between shots. The guidon ripples the slow torment of deep passage just beyond Polaris. Near giant Orion’s eastward shoulder, a torchbearer pops an impetuous gleam. Small encampments, sometimes sevenfold, tighten their ranks in bright bivouacs. Others, loners and post guards, march wide circles like the dog star Procyon hunting the heavens. This vast array does not appall me, though I diminish before its deployment. I have been told, in good faith, that many of these stars are dead, but we know their shining, like old soldiers, long gone, cement themselves into statues, dim ribbons and old medals whose scriptures fade at sun and slowly, gram by gram, inch toward minerals and memory. Beneath my feet this veteran Earth slips into the far side of another’s telescope. How far doesn’t count, or time to negotiate; gage the map of stars, so long dead, still shining.
I remember Lake Hwachon. There was nothing to do on this side, that’s for sure. We boated over. There was nothing to do on the other side either, but die, or stand in line, or check out your gear. No rentals. No two-piece bathing suits catching up the glorious sun. No hot dogs in short buns. No sand-oil grit spread. Dale Morgan lost a calf muscle to a Bouncing Betty. Oh, there were lots of them, locally-flavored, territorial. They made stupid noises that said, “It’s too late, pal.” Those were the only smoky umbrellas at Lake Hwachon, you can bet.
Tony M. was unluckier at calves, losing both, and everything you can name in between. Waco used to be his hometown. He didn’t like lakes, this one. When we crossed on pontoons and rafts and dories with out-board motors, I watched him undo his booted laces, then unstring his weapon, set his small pack under his butt. He smiled at me, telling me about water, rivers he must have grown up worrying about. How to hold your breath floating on deep water. We knew about the impacts of mortars. Water does them up, oh full of phantoms.
I talked to old Ski in Chicago a few years back. He’d buried his Japanese wife in Arlington, his daughter was dying, he was sad. He had so much shit then, and now, it piles up again. Back at Hwachon he said he didn’t like lakes, not that one, or the one that’s been shifting its swim of cancer around Chi-Town. Breda’s near Mattoon and he once said the Old Polack’s just not the same, got this old-time look in his eyes, like when we beached at Hwachon and he asked what date it was and counted there, right in the open, his dam rotation points, as careful as a teacher noting attendance.
He’d been through Frozen Chosen, Hungnam and all the stops between. Oh, he had a before and an after: Los Negros, Luzon, Leyte, the Philippines, not necessarily in that First Cav order, HQ in the occupation of Japan, and then Chi-ROTC for years, and death still hanging all around him like a turd on the bottoms of his boots. And tears on the phone he couldn’t hide, tough old bastard he was, two-wars dying at that. He didn’t like the lake shore either. I can see him, even all these years later, stepping ashore, rifle down-range, ears picked up, more a cougar than a deer, intent, a Polack with a piece of Apache in him trying to find its way out of his eyes. Maybe a New World Comanche in tow. Perhaps, I often thought, an old Prussian bloodline, left over from ancient and short guard duty, had made the first impression.
But lakes have a way of undermining you, make you sit too easy on the fat duff, make dreams and nightmares quick-wedded, stick it to you where you least expect it, make it happen. Ski happened. He exploded! I shut that mastery out of mind. You fail, too often, in measurement, contrast.
But still he was sad and hated lakeside, shore, waters of the giving and taking lake, time. Old Man MacArthur was right; Ski’s just floated away on the invisible waters, drifted off, leaving me, finally, way down the line here, like the others promise, numbers mounting, this strange way of saying goodbye, comrade I met in a hole, the 76-er mm weapons in alien hands, their shells screaming over our heads all that so ungodly night in the previous century, and still here.
In strange moments there it stretched all the way home here: Eddie Smiledge was the houseman at The Rathole, racked the balls, collected coin, was a judge with a hundred-dollar bill in the side pocket. He smoked cigars thick as cue sticks, ate Baby Ruths until his teeth stuck, sent us home abruptly when our eyes became hazy or midnight slipped like a footpad over the green felt on table No. 4. He did not lend us money, but let the clock work in our favor; at a nickel a game he didn’t see the eight ball eight times in the side pocket, and forgot to lock away all the nickel bags of potato chips.
One night we played One-Ball-in-the-Side- Pocket past closing and Eddie sat in a corner waving off the game costs. We walked off under a September moon all the way to Korea. The night I came back, chevrons up and down, deep new wrinkles struck across my face, measureless but valid, reaching for my yesteryear, a skinny bald-headed man was racking the balls. He didn’t know my name, who was home from Korea, who wasn’t home, who wasn’t coming home, and why Eddie Smiledge had drifted off someplace the day after we left.
Such destinies clash, find lost souls, like sending a letter to Londo 50 years later, after Korea, after finding each other, a testament, a true memorial of one hungered night we spent on a foreign mountain marked by stars: “There boomed a silence at midnight. Cold appeared in pieces like slate falling. Feathers coming loose. We hunted for burned bread tossed three days earlier, and tossed jam in C-ration cans. We looked in sump holes to find the raspberry, the sour strawberry, to find cast-off bread harsh as leather. No milk there. No mother’s milk. No sour cream on a bet. No cow’s cud. No cow. Just cold. Cold smooth as those falling slates. Cold as gray as slate. Cold in thin sheaves, long knives in the wind, or worn out sleeves or emptiness. We remembered the rain we’d had just days earlier. How warm it came, cleansed us down to our toes, inside out, newness, our spirits upright again. I remember that rain. In puddles it shone on your face. Showed you, me, in pieces. But warm, mild, grass and brush in mountain grips shone. Now on odd dawns shaking about me, it flares cold with light, draws attention to itself, freezes. Tells us it freezes. Says don’t hold on this way. The mountain talks back. If you listen, Londo, you hear me again, you hear it, us, and the cold leaning inward.”
“I think of you in Las Vegas now, the wind across a desert raw as lonely can be, both of us wondering where Jack Slack had been hanging his hat all the time, then finding him at last, as though a resolution had been broken, at Fort Bliss National Cemetery, Section PG, retired as Master Sgt. John. R. Slack, fifteen years hidden from our grasp, but still in the ranks. What a searching run that has been … knowing he once lived at 17 Van Schoick St. in Albany, NY and whose father had been a police captain or chief. I’ve found Jack Slacks in Gloversville, Medina, Long Beach, Wood Haven, Vestal, and Webster, and had to check them out, to no avail. My wife and I on a trip knocked on all the doors on that Albany street, gained little knowledge about Jack’s whereabouts, and then spent half a day at the city’s stunning Korean War Memorial, me remembering, her wondering about a lost soul. I had told her about his taking over my spot in the regiment so I could get rotated home from Korea, his writing ability, his humor staying behind after we left, his saying at my departure, “If you ever want to get together if I make it out of here, you’ll find my name scratched into the walls of half the men’s rooms in Albany. Start there. I’ll be easy to find.”
It’s apparent he had seen some of the future.
“Then, Londo, share with me the first week of October, 2006, after our son was married, my wife and I spent a day with old comrade Chuck Rumfola in Avon, NY, not having seen him since February of 1952. He’s the guy who ran ammunition and supplies up one mountainside on a cable he ran on a tireless rear wheel of a jacked-up six-by truck; his on-the-spot invention. I said hello for all of you, to this other brother of ours, and he said it back to all of you not forgotten here, not forgotten there, never forgotten.”
“I’ll not let go,” I told Londo, “not casually.”