Louis Grigsby, naval officer
Early in the war when we were losing–
Pearl Harbor, tankers,
Death March in Bataan,
I used to wait at the corner of
Congress Avenue and Garrett Road
across the street from the trolley stop–
not a station, just two paved strips
beside the tracks below the big St. Vincent’s Orphanage
like a fort on the hill. Nights then
I was reading The Raft or Last Man Off Wake Island
and it was good there, out in the open,
dark trees behind me while I waited
in the long blue oceanic light that filled the sky
and gleamed now and then from passing cars.
Often, by the time he came, it was almost dark,
the polished rails silver under the streetlight
at the station, the trolley lit from inside
like a Jules Verne ship flashing its windows
as it glided to a stop and
its doors on the far side opened.
I’d look for him as it slowed and stopped,
the white, black-visored hat with glinting
gold anchor turning my way, and find him,
when the long trolley pulled away, tall
in the small group that’s gotten off,
midnight blue uniform flecked with gold.
At first, a few words with somebody, he doesn’t see me,
then smiles and waves. We wait for the light
to change and crossing to the corner he
hands me a folded morning paper and says,
“Thanks for waiting. What’d you do today?”
“Nothing. Track. Reading.” He looks
a little tired but still smells faintly fresh
with the morning’s witch hazel. When
he puts an arm around my shoulders as we start
home, it’s like being embraced by the night sky.
How I loved him then, and knew nothing–
almost until his death a long life later–
about his mother’s endless years
in a D.C. asylum or his father’s disappearance
when he was 14 into Canada or somewhere.
From raft, island, reading, Guadalcanal,
the Navy uniform beside me under the twilight
of trees, I’ve always had heroes. But
we were lucky—he wasn’t killed
and I breathed the music of Harry James
and the air of distant death together.
My father’s teeth smile up at me
from under water.
Briefly scary when he takes them out
and comes back in the room
with the face of a famished wolf.
They’re lonely in Sun City’s
white ranch houses like fronts
held up from behind by wooden struts,
its empty streets, camera and cast
all gone home. They want to be back
in the dark autumns of Philadelphia, they
want to give him back his wife and children.
In hard bathroom light
a tiny sun gleams from each perfect tooth.
They seem to have no secrets. And
how secretive he was. Just a year ago
he finally told me
he’d never gone past 8th grade. When he said
for jobs, he’d been to the university,
he meant he’d taken a streetcar there
and walked around the campus. Father gone
to Canada, mother always at doctors,
no brothers, no sisters, he’d had to create
himself. And did, though after the war
when trouble came, it may have been
because they’d found him out.
Something caught up with him,
but the whole truth never. He’s called here
“Commander,” though was never more
than Lieutenant Commander. Last night, late,
when we were alone, he said
when he was ten, to spite his father,
gone to the stage door in Louisville,
he’d painted all the piano keys black.
The father walks away, the mother goes crazy, the son
out of all this hidden grief and deception,
somehow a good man is born.
My luck—All this? all this other people’s pain?–
a father I could love and be free.
In the morning, teeth in, he’s my father again,
smiling, warm, gaunt. Parting, we kiss
on the mouth, as always
since childhood, though his rough warm lips
still startle me. With his reading
glasses and brushy grey hair, it’s
like kissing Samuel Beckett. In a few days
I’ll call backward through time
from night to sunset and hear
his voice in my head, strong, joking,
and never see him again, laughing or dead.
He just disappears. By the time I fly in
to help arrange the details,
the cremation’s over, the house, cleaned
of the brief agony in the bathroom at 3 a.m.
and of all signs of loss, looks normal.
A sudden mercy—no lingering, no long dementia,
no saw through the chest (they’d gone out
to dinner that night)—but I’d wanted
to talk to him one last time, one
hospital moment, a few worn words,
just to be there, and then in the silent room
to see for myself, like a child having to know
he wouldn’t come to the door some night
and say, “Just let me sit down and rest for a week.”
They give me a package the size of a dictionary,
heavy, brown-wrapped, like something
to be mailed. (How could I know
what was inside was him? How does anyone know?
You’ve got to trust them, even if
you’re there.) I put it with papers and photos
in an old business valise of his from the 30’s,
reddish leather flaking and cracked,
and brought it home on the plane between my feet.
For three weeks, till I could get free
for the trip, the package lay behind the glass doors
of a bookcase I passed all the time,
beside a small carved box that held his old Navy ring,
a wristwatch, a ruptured duck discharge pin,
things you think might speak to you
from the life that handled them
so long, but they didn’t.
On a rainy March weekend, Burial Transit
Permit in a pocket of his old raincoat,
I drove east to Philadelphia, the package
in the passenger seat, delivered it
to the office at the cemetery where it would wait
until the place beside her was ready, then
went slowly through the old neighborhoods,
hovering around schools, houses we’d lived in,
there and not there, but shy to be seen,
the only kind of ghost that’s real. At sunset
the day cleared. Under a bright sky,
back at the cemetery,
I found the gravesite pretty easily
after a few wrong turns in the labyrinth of tree-lined circles and loops
and the repetition of stone-studded lawns.
Several loose flowers from flower blankets
on raw mounds blew across the grass
nearby. I pulled up the vase
and put in some red carnations I’d bought
at the cemetery greenhouse. I took a step back,
still looking down, but occupied by other things.
It was then, or a moment later, as I turned back to the car,
that they both turned into photographs.