In those days, the world
Was going to end. Our favorite playhouse
Was nothing but a big hole
Dug in an empty field, covered
With old boards, piled high with dirt.
On summer days, we'd crawl
Underground with candies and chocolate,
Pretend the bombs had come
And we were safe.
Sitting in near-dark, we played
Cards, talked, smoked stolen cigarettes
And giggled when above-ground footsteps--
Dirt sifting down into our hair.
II. War Stories
The truth is, I was ashamed
That my father hadn't fought
In the war. I made up stories
To account for the paralyzed left side
That had kept him safe. He'd been
A paratrooper, shot right out of the air
Over Germany, I said. The Germans
Dug their filthy shrapnel
Out of him with his own knife
While he was fully conscious,
And they kept him alive only because
It was so close to the end
Of the war. And there were other stories.
When a fifth grade teacher made us stand
And tell what our fathers did
For a living, I said I had no father.
I told them mine had been
A fighter pilot, killed
Like a schoolmate's father, in Korea.
I don't know how I said those things--
Except that my father couldn't keep a job.
He wouldn't go to church, and war
Was the only acceptable
Excuse for the way we were living.
III. In the Event of a National Emergency
Would you rather have your child
Sent home or remain at school? Every year
My mother agonized at the choice. We tried it
Both ways: If we were targeted
We'd have thirty minutes, someone figured,
Lead-time before the flash. They sent us
Running at the noon whistle, out of doors,
Down the streets, racing the clock, running
Home--safe-all the way
Into the innermost room of the house. I made it
With time to spare, but my father refused
To cooperate. He wouldn't let my mother
Fill in the form that recorded
My time. He said when the time came
None of this would matter.
At school along with spelling
And times tables, we were drilled
In emergency procedures: Pulling the blinds,
Ducking under our desks, or marching down
Into the school's damp, windowless cellar
Where we were shown the radio,
Black bottles of water, blankets,
Batteries, canned food. When we asked
What about the bathrooms, the answer was always
The same: Don't worry.
When the time comes, we'll get by.
When the time comes, the righteous
Have nothing to fear. Our mortal bodies
Will be restored to their most perfect
State in the resurrection. If only
I could convince my father
To come into the church, to give up
His bad habits, to pay
His tithing--to live
By the commandments of the Lord--
We would all be saved. I used to imagine
Him young, before the sickness
Crippled his body and left him
Used and bitter like some forsaken
Lover. I could never understand
His resistance. I imagined disappearing scars,
Perfect eyesight, lost teeth popping back
Into place. My mother said it wasn't meant
So literal. But hadn't I seen
Her own body raised up
By the power of the Lord? After the last
Childbirth, the elders came to her sickbed,
Anointed her with sacred oil, and laid
Their hands on her body
In prayer. "You are needed here, Sister,"
They said, and she got well.
They showed the same movie
Over and over. You could walk into the middle,
Sit through the end, the beginning,
To the middle again. It didn't matter
That the plot had been carefully
Structured. In spite of the posters
Urging us to See It
From the Beginning, no one ever bothered
To find out the schedules. If you wanted,
For the price of one ticket, you could see
A movie three, maybe four times
In a row, never leaving your seat, until
It was as dark outside as inside.
VI Too Much Light
One morning we were shown
Those famous photos of the negative
Imprints on Japanese
Walls--to make us aware
Of the dangers of the flash.
It was like flying too close
To the sun, they said. I remember
My father telling me: If you live
Through the lightening, kid,
You've nothing to fear
From the thunder. I remember burning
Ants by the hundreds on the playground,
Holding a magnifying lens
Over the entrance to the biggest
Anthill we could find. One by one
As they crawled out
Into the light, if we had focused
Just right, those red ants would smoke,
Shrivel and be still.
The photographer told us not to look
Directly into he flash. I'd forgotten
To wear the prescribed dark
Colored blouse and the teacher sighed,
Said my face would probably disappear
Anyway, I was so pale. She insisted
I wear my glasses, lined us up
According to size. On the front row,
Because I was so angry, I stared straight
Into the huge bulb until it flashed,
A quick knife in my head,
Leaving me sick and confused. In this
School picture, I am fading, very small,
Very white, and I have no eyes.
Because we lived near the tracks
We were used to trains
Shaking up our house, so the earthquake
Itself didn't frighten us much. We woke
To rattling dishes, windows, and a pot sliding
Off the stove, crashing to the floor.
Later that day the aftershock
Hit while some of us were outside playing
Baseball in the schoolyard.
When the hard ground suddenly shifted
Under my feet, I started running,
Floating on waves of earth, back
Toward the building, trying to get in.
But there were other children rushing out
The doors, coming toward me, and through
His red megaphone, the principal
Shouted for everyone to remain
Outside, a safe distance from the school.
It made no sense.
I wanted only to be surrounded
By floors and walls, and to get away
From that terrible, unstable ground.
The first thing was, the boy
Had to stay inside. His parents
Kept the drapes drawn, and the one time
I visited, his room was dim, air
Rose-colored, and everyone was praying
In whispers. When he got thinner
They took him away and the congregation
Was asked to fast one day
A week to make him well. Four Sundays
In a row we went without meals
And knelt, eyes closed, as elders pleaded
With the Lord to save this boy.
I'm still not sure when the prayers began
To change, but one Sunday evening,
Stomach growling, I looked up
During prayer meeting and heard
The bishop asking God to relieve this boy's
Pain and suffering. I understood
We were praying for him to die.
And when he died, we thanked the Lord
For his everlasting mercy.
IX. Annie's House
In the other room, I'd dance
To the radio with Annie's kids
While she carried on
Business in her bedroom. She paid me
Those afternoons by the hour
To keep her children
Happy and out of the way. I'd watch
Her getting beautiful, humming,
Brushing her black hair, changing
Her clothes. She'd pull the blinds
And remove the children's toys
From the bedroom. Sometimes I'd hear
Voices--they said yes, and please,
And they said it felt good. My mother said
If you were paid for it, you had to pretend
It felt good. Annie told me
Because she was on welfare, we had to
Be careful. It would be all over
If the caseworker came by. Whenever
There was a knock at the door, I'd grab
The kids quick, pull them down
Beneath the kitchen table
Where we'd crouch, quiet as death,
Until the knocking stopped
And we heard footsteps, a car door
Slam shut, and the driving away.
X. Night Vision
My sister and I lied to our parents
So we could spend the night
In our underground house. We said
We were sleeping outside
With someone else. After dark
We sneaked blankets and flashlights
Out to the field and crept down
Into our private place.
That night, because we were alone,
We took off our clothes and began
Learning to touch
Our own bodies and each other
For comfort. We swore, no matter what,
We'd stay until morning, but sometime
In the night a train roared by
And the walls began to crumble.
We closed our eyes and held on tight
To each other, knowing
Any second the roof might come crashing
Down on us. After it passed,
We crawled out one at a time, shivering
Into the cool moonlight, and all
We could see was ourselves
Standing there naked, and alive.