The Boat Next to the Boat

In memory of my grandfather, who battled in WWII, and then came home to battle hurricanes.

 

The Boat Next to the Boat

 

He had a fifteen-year-old’s dreams of socking Hitler in the jaw,

His fist the righteousness of America.

Instead, he cooked for the Navy,

On a battleship cresting the Pacific waves,

Mardi Gras in their green.

He peeled potatoes like a sailor,

all knives and knuckles and merciless skin.

He rocked on his heels, the motion memory lingering, the boat

(“It’s a ship, Amy,” he would say, with grandfatherly patience)

Never long from his lips.

“Did I ever tell you about the time?”

His mouth and stories stretched the truth like putty.

But every Christmas eve,

When the comfort became entirely too southern,

He would tell of the boat,

that is, the ship,

which was parked next to the ship

on which the Japanese signed the surrender.

This, the family legacy, a long reposed history of almost-beens

And just-gonnas and next-tos.

His uniform was marshmallows and chocolate coins.

His mates were rows of legs dangling over the Pacific.

He was young, impossibly handsome,

The age spots gone, the hair returned,

A boy inside the man.

I saw him before,

Before hurricane block parties and butchering meat and—

That baby!  With that woman!  The seagull shriek of gossip

From every female mouth on every neighborhood porch—

When drunk, he always told of the boat,

I mean, ship, gunmetal gray and displaced,

Next to history

But never history itself.

An anecdote away from a story.

It was just enough Southern Comfort to make him forget that he had told me,

Every year for ten years,

Of being on the boat, I mean, the ship next to the ship

Where an empire fell.

When he fell asleep on the couch halfway through Patton,

One hand trailed on the tile floor,

Skimming the surface of water.

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