April 2, 2014

Jenifer Browne Lawrence

DOOR GUNNER

Last night, I wore my former husband’s Army fatigues to a costume party, his name—now mine—stitched above the breast pocket. Although I was not awarded his shirt in the divorce, it ended up in my closet, so now and then I slip it on and look in the mirror, twisting my mouth a little to the left the way he used to do when he was secretly pleased.

He carried a snapshot in that shirt pocket on his way back stateside: young men relaxing after a long day patrolling for Viet Cong, my husband on the floor of the tent, pinching a half-smoked, hand-rolled cigarette. I replay a scene from a story he shared, the film he made in his head, now in mine: women diving into irrigation ditches with their children while scattershot from the semi-automatic my husband held across his lap in the open door of the chopper woke the water in which the rice plants stood unarmed.

Assigned as a mechanic, he was supposed to be on hand in case something broke in the air, but his eye and his aim, said the sergeant major, should not be wasted, though the sergeant major was wasted, and he was wasted, on smack-laced hashish as they sat cross-legged leaning against their cots in a haze, their rifles oiled and ready at their feet, the night silent, as though listening to the plan. It was 1971. The news reports assured us: No more missions like My Lai, no more misguided generals, no more mistakes. We were almost finished, just a few thousand men wrapping up a few loose ends.

They did not report the death by drowning of a boy whose mother lay on top of him in a ditch until the sound of the helicopters retreated. Or if they did, I was not listening. I was thirteen, I had breasts to think about, and a brother (patrolling the coast in a dull gray boat) who sent me sailor pants for Christmas and taught me the chords to American Pie on his beat-up guitar. Who was My Lai, I might have asked my father, years before, and he might have shrugged before answering: Not who. A village. In Vietnam. Don’t worry; it’s far, far from here.

And so my husband, who was not my husband, who was seventeen and tired of the extension cord his father used to teach him lessons, changed seats with the door gunner. He counted to ninety every time they lifted off, the life expectancy of a man in his position, he told me, but after not so many days ninety seemed to be pushing it so he stopped at sixty, then thirty, and then stopped counting.

Even now, though he remembers aiming as high as he could get away with and not be pushed out by the sergeant to join the spread bodies of the farmers, his eyes hold smoke and the reflection of thin brown legs kicking out beneath the body of a woman.

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets

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Jenifer Browne Lawrence: “I was raised in a family of engineers and have worked in civil engineering for more than 30 years. One of the reasons I write is to escape the left half of my brain, which is in charge of my behavior more frequently than I’d like. As a single parent, I often had to choose between parenting and writing—now that my children are grown, the writing comes first. I’m currently working on a series of poems about the effects of war on intimate relationships; the poem appearing here is part of that body of work.” (thepoetryloft.net/jlawrence/)