What I Knew of Him (poem)
By Christine E. Black
I watch as my father, from where he sits on the burnt orange chair,
bends over a spread newspaper on the floor, his army boots, dress shoes,
war medals arrayed before him. The TV is on. Water fills one side of a
round metal tin, the other holds black polish. A red and white can of Brasso.
Wearing a boot on one hand, he wraps an old white T-shirt around the index
and middle fingers of the other, dips polish, then water, rubbing the boot's
side. He's taken the laces out. He rubs the crinkled leather quickly, buffs it
with the clean part. "Squared away," he used to say, "Get things squared away,"
he ordered my brothers. The dress shoes, he buffs to a sheen,
slapping white cotton against each.
He was to me this sharp metallic smell, polish and Brasso, and a silver
Zippo lighter with the Army Ranger insignia, fluid smell I liked, scarred
knuckle as he ignited the cotton wick in flame to light his Belair. Hair on
a tanned forearm, sinewy strength and fear, a pile of change and keys on his
dresser. Ceremonial dagger that had been attached to a plaque from
Viet Nam. He removed it to put in his bedside drawer.
From the couch, I watch him polish the shoes, sometimes also my
brother's small shoes, lined up like fists. Brasso on the medals for his
dress uniform. I don't know what he did or what they were for.
In a box in the attic, black and white pictures of slim soldiers squinting
in the heat and rubble, some shirtless, sunglasses, wrinkled fatigue pants.
In another, my father, in his 20s, beside a South Vietnamese soldier,
smiling. Leftover cans of C-rations, an olive drab flashlight, backpack,
and a Vietnamese flag, rumpled and stained. My mother helped us make
a tape to send him for Christmas when he was gone. To me, he had sent
a Geisha doll in a glass case and an abalone cameo pendant,
"To Captain Lowe's daughter," inscribed on the back.
My brothers and I watched, laughing, as he suddenly lunged forward
into a handstand, balancing in the family room next to the coffee table,
his legs arching towards the TV, over to the lamp, his hands dancing the
floor, righting himself while my mother winced.
—Christine E. Black