the last year and the gypsy moth
they sprayed for the gypsy moths that year in our neighborhood and for the v.c. in a place called vietnam, but the trees all died at last. it was the last year for so many things and the river burned for two days and we thought maybe the hard times were just starting. we lived in a brick house with white aluminum siding on a street of brick houses with white aluminum siding and different colored shutters to tell the difference and narrow driveways between them. we lived in the shadow of something we couldn’t put a finger on and chain link fences and the chevy assembly plant no.5.. we lived our little lives in little houses and big high school games and tried to forget it was all a requeum for our parent’s dreams. the new siding suburb, sears and roebucks, the promise of aluminum and the same old lies of wood and paint. and we would live there our whole lives no matter where we went.
me and my brother, we drank milk from the carton and ate peanut butter sandwiches standing in front of the open fridge until our aproned mother implored us to get a glass and to close the door and a jesus, mary and joseph, you boys and when your father gets home… somehow the milk always tasted better from the carton, something about the air and the effort of a glass and our first licks of the forbidden. he was older and we hung out on different corners in a neighborhood of corners, slumped the same on our rusty bikes dreaming of shiny new metallic purple schwinns and catching a joe namath pass. and the girl next door grew breast and suddenly secret to us, someone and something we didn’t know anymore and knew our entire tonka toy lives. we payed attention to her walk down the driveway now and to her brief pause and a glance back before she sank into her date’s green camaro. we grew up straight and true, tucked tight in our white converse sneakers and stiff jeans from the j.c. penney’s, not even levi’s, with stiff patches on the knees and a god fearing america. and we wrestled with our youths and the last years of a decade, something called the 60’s and a summer of love that didn’t seem like love at all. and all our close call tiny suicides were really just grasps at a life we’d never know, but were told. my mom and dad sitting in the flicker of the black and white watching the war and waiting for his letters and wondering how we let camelot die.
the old man was a marine once and always. he had a tattoo semper fi and a purple heart in a box and a scar and a story. i looked up at his picture on my mother’s dresser and one day i looked down. he was young and green like a tree limb then. he was bayonet blade sharp in a dress blue uniform, before he lost his fresh starched smile somewhere in the korean mud. his arms were thick with a man’s work. his eyes were hard from a hard life and liquor, “whata ya drinkin, whata ya got”. his hair was regulation, as was ours, my brother’s and mine, high and tight, and “sir, yes sir, thank you sir”. our mother cut it every saturday morning with well oiled clippers, no. 2 on the top, no. 1 on the sides, and “yes mam, thank you, mam”.
she was tough because he wanted her that way, but she was soft and “don’t tell your father”. he’d give us the belt and send us to our rooms without a supper and she’d sneak us a smile and a sandwich when he was asleep in his chair. she let us drink orange crush in the blue car on the way home from mr. fazio’s grocery store, warm pop fizzes smeered across our wide orange teeth. new smiles sweet in the backseat. and she prayed for us, our fathers and kingdom comes, holy mothers full of grace, candles lit, a safe warm space. she had red hair then, hairsprayed in place and smelled chanel every christmas and a freckled face. and she might throw a snowball when no one was looking and wink with our little secret and no one would ever know or knew.
he was eighteen and i was thirteen and he was my older brother no matter how old i got. they would hand him a diploma and a sweaty hand shake, a union card without a chance and a draft card with a slim one. they would send him off to a vietnam to defend a democracy he slept thru in 7th period. and if the v.c. didn’t kill him fast, the gm line would do him slow and you never know. but we all would and will, any southside kid, trade our hopes and fears for an everyday assembly line security and a second shift and a 105 dollars a week. and like our old man we’d drive an eight year old chevy we bled for, and dream of cadillacs and corvettes.
and one day, it was his last day and two years and he rode away in a helicopter, a 52nd airborne, with seven bodies and a chaplin in camoflage and a collar holding a coffee can full of dog tags and names and lives once, little suns and the worlds around them snuffed out like a smoke. he came home, but his smile was gone just like our old man’s. i wondered where it was and went to and if it would ever grow back. i thought about him dropping it in the jungle and rummaging thru the leaves to find it. he made it back from vietnam without a scar, nothing we could see, “luck of the irish”, what the old man always said. and his friends came home in chairs or boxes wrapped in flags or just in our memories at memorial day picnics and 4th of july parades and in the initials m.i.a.. i dreamt about them mixing in the dirt somewhere in a vietnam jungle where no one would ever find them, and all those young smiles growing into trees.
he never spoke a word of it, then or ever. and he grew his hair and listened to pink floyd record albums and put in his forty at the no. 5 and rattled in his nightmares thru the walls and across the hall everynight. he grew his hair and i begged to grow mine and my dad roared from his chair that he looked like a girl, and not in his house and god damn, “yes sir, thank you sir”, “no thanks man”. he grew his hair and smoked cigarettes in his room on his bed and drank beer at the corner bar on his stool and came home and did it again tomorrow. he stood toe to toe with the old man while she cried in the kitchen and searched his eyes for her little boy once and did the dinner dishes with her long yellow rubber gloves. the old man sat in his chair and drank whiskey or beer or both and cursed the t.v. and the fucking this and that and the world spun in a universe and the gypsy moths convulsed around the porch light’s fat yellow glow. my brother traded charlie’s line for chevrolet’s and the old man drew a line of his own. his hair growing like an idea, something the old man couldn’t understand. and he seemed to die a little each day, but then i guess we all do. it was the last year for so many things and the 70’s had just started and we wondered what it all meant and would ever mean.
i could hear them just below the t.v.’s treble tint and the din of the moths against the screen door. i could feel the hum of his anger banging inside the plastic of their whispers. a strained silence swollen with long ago high school sweetheart resentments and her with her hair up and her hands around a quiet kitchen despair. she cried like she cried most everyday since he came home, the old man at the table still, my mother dutifully at the sink. and i sat on our plaid plaid couch and i looked at his graduation picture on the t.v. consol and let their words and the night and the black and white light fall around me like dust. he was a marine and he was a marine and he was going to cut his god damn hair himself if he had to. tomorrow was his big day and no son of his was going to look like ….. and she cried and sniffed and muttered that he was a man now and he should wear his hair the way he wants and she cried and tattered and it seemed the last thing that i ever heard or that mattered.
an anguish had filled the air and the house like an old woman’s perfume until it choked the night into an uneasy still, a wry peace that falls after a summer thunder storm or a violent death. a moment you can never quite remember or forget no matter how hard you try. the old man went to bed and put his pain and his old scars to sleep under the blanket of a bottle, canadian club and an ice cube, beneath the crucifix on the wall and its disappointed jesus. and he would dream of my brother and me in the backyard playing catch on the first warm day of a spring and the thud of the ball in our fresh oiled mitts and the smell of charcol and lighter fluid.
she asked me to take out the trash on her weary down the hall, before i went to bed, she was going to bed now. and before i was out the back kitchen door she broke into the stove clock’s light in the blue terry cloth robe she wore, the hair clippers and a no. 1 and a no. 2 adapter in her soft dove soap hands. she placed them in the trash like a dream she didn’t dream anymore and for a brief moment she gathered the same smile she’d worn when she’d thrown a snowball or rode my brother’s bike over the jump we built. she raised her jaw with the string of my grandfather’s immigrant grit and she turned and went back thru the dark of the house to their room. i could hear her steps down the hall like a good irish dirge and the door and finally the nothing of a suburb. and i walked down the back porch steps and out of my childhood and across our short driveway to the street and to the dent of the galvanized garbage cans absently waiting.
his hair was long like some young jesus jesus and flowed out from his quiet head and over a wet rice shiny white satin pillow like a still river. she had made sure they combed his hair away from his face and that he was wearing his favorite shirt with the collar open. his dress blue hung in the closet in a plastic dry cleaning bag and would always. i could almost see his smile again when the old man knelt at his side and made his peace with him and whatever god marines pray to. and i thought maybe he hadn’t lost it after all or that maybe it had grown back. and in the end everyone searched and searches for a reason why, but it was the last year for so many things. the last year for why’s and reasons and the oak trees and the gypsy moth. he went to bed with a why not and a belly full of booze and the old man’s service revolver and a good idea of how to let all the pain out. and we would remember this year and my brother’s suicide and the end of the war and the gypsy moths and the trees turning brown in august that year, the last year.
someone told me once that your hair grows for months after your dead. its just one of those childhood things you somehow come across and hold onto like a chicken pock scar or a particular christmas ornament you made in second grade. i thought about his hair growing and growing and growing and mixing with the dirt like the roots of the trees until it filled the entire earth. and i found his smile smeered across my face looking in the mirror above his dresser and i ran my hands thru my hair and laughed.
(published Soundings East, 2004)