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Tom Goes To War

He talks rapidly on the phone –
I wanted to stay out of this.
Desert Storm and Bosnia were enough.
We’re told Iraqi planes gassed
the Kurds in the north
after the war with Iran – killed 5,000.
We’ve been issued chem suits,
and promised sensors that can detect
hazards more than 5 klicks away,
but I don’t like it.
They’ll throw everything at us.
This is going to be dirty.

I close my eyes and listen to his voice
filling my head; I remember
an 8 year old Tom standing on a stool
with a ruler in his hand, directing
Jesus Christ Superstar, blaring
from the stereo, over and over –
wondering, even then,
how he could consume himself.

I have never felt the raw dread
I hear in Tom. I protested Vietnam,
and mapped my route to Canada.
Tom says there is no reason for this war,
but he is an officer in the armored battalion
out of Bluefield, West Virginia, a scout.
He will fight; it’s his job. He may die.

For the first time, he tells me
he loves me. He talks from his own
closet of fear, and opens the door
to mine.

He says we are men with a family history
of combat, but the edges wear dull
by the restless talk, and the ticking
of the clock, by the close-eyed prospect
of dying. We feel alive to be desperate,
to be pushed toward some truth.
We seem not to care. We talk like doctors
over an open abdomen – words to shock,
words to exhaust, to release –
with no attempt to understand the life
beneath our hands. We do not admit
to the odd pleasure of crisis –
we are alert and excited to field
our separate kinds of danger. We do not admit
to the fascination with bravado and blood –
one much easier than the other to do.
We are two fists, his drawing back,
mine held tightly in the lap.

Tom wants a family gathering before he leaves.
My older sister is his power of attorney;
my younger will care for his house.
He has written and filed a will.

When he walks through the door,
Tom is already changing –
his hands are larger, muscled and hard;
his eyes tunnel through and around me,
and the right brow has begun to arch.
He paces and works his jaw, eats
quickly, and talks less.
The boy with the baton is carefully tucked
inside the helmet of the man with the gun.

And then he is gone.
The family disperses; the workweek begins.

In the car I listen to the news; evenings
study maps and computer images.
The more I think, the more intense I become.
Friends notice I don’t stop talking.
They begin to wonder
at the growing of my hands,
the arching of my brow.
The bullets aimed at Tom
will pass through his body,
and into mine.

Michael Hughes


Hampshire County Arts Council, P.O. Box 624, Romney, WV 26757    webmaster e-mail address

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