Three years old in ’63,
I think the firemen blow the siren
to help us mark the time: mid-day,
mid-way through the week.
I’m eighteen when I learn
what it’s for, a defense so civil
I haven’t known its name.
The first time my mother cries,
she says, “The President’s been shot.”
She cries again at the funeral
on TV. The next morning,
she warms herself by the gas fire
in the living room. I look up
to see her nightgown flame.
Tennessee Ernie Ford
keeps talking to Minnie Pearl
as my mother wraps herself
in the brown braided rug.
Her nightgown is ruined,
but she’s unhurt. We agree
not to tell my father.
Noon on Wednesday:
lunch in the yellow kitchen,
red and white soup can,
blue and white box of crackers.
In Arkansas, we don’t expect
to be hit. No air raid drills.
All our shining silos fill with grain.
At home, we’re warm.
The Cold War’s chill
can’t touch us. We don’t worry.
Our parents make us safe.
On family trips, my sister and I
sign Peace from the back of the Chevy Impala,
count roadside hippies like white horses.
I am not prepared for the world
to split open, wrapped as I am
in my cocoon of unknowing.
Death is only the cat
who gulps down whole a goldfish
we carry from the dimestore
in a plastic bag of water.
The body bags begin their long
procession through the nightly news.
My friend and I argue How to End the War
as we walk from school.
We wrestle in my front yard
until she gives up. Regardless,
I believe I am a pacifist.
1968: danger calls at our house.
“Daddy works for the governor,
and they’ve made some people mad.”
A man on the phone
says he’s coming to shoot that bastard.
Another one—the same?—
takes Polaroid shots of the house.
His leisure suggests
he has plenty of time for violence,
and though this is only Arkansas,
only a minor government post,
it’s now a risky one
under our Rockefeller, cleaning up corruption
in his newly adopted state.
Nothing is funny now,
especially not our neighbor,
a jokester who sticks smoke bombs
under the hood of our car,
his laughter from across the street
a cackle, like the Maaaaad Butcher,
whose cut-rate ads give me nightmares.
One autumn afternoon, we arrive home
to find the front door standing open
like a gaping mouth, surprised.
Mom steps in first.
But that’s all. It’s only open.
The white house on the quiet street
holds only what we own.
Something is missing, though:
we all know what it is.
Safety has wandered out
and gotten lost, where we can’t find it.
Later, as we play outside,
a helicopter flies over, low,
and we don’t know whether we should hide or wave.