Lois Roma-Deeley shows how our parents can surprise us in this poem, which is a “war story” in every sense of the term.
My Father Buys a Ballroom in Shanghai, China, 1944
Did you ever kill anyone?
I want to ask, but I am too afraid
this one question will hurt you, Father.
You don’t talk too much about the war–
But when you sleep, I touch the ragged scar,
that white “z”
threading across all three knuckles. Tonight
when the light hits the side of your face
I think of the man in the picture my teacher keeps on the wall:
an old man in a felt cap with full lips and hooded eyes.
I am your only daughter. Tonight, I am eight years old and
I want to memorize your secrets.
“Did you know your father had a pieced ear,” my mother says.
She smiles as I slide under the sheets,
listening for more. Father begins:
once, during a storm, you say,
hits the sides of the ship like a fist.
Ripping off your shoes you get ready to jump…
a buddy– maybe he was 25?–held your arms–
“Louie”…he whispers… “don’t do it
you’re gonna die.” When the Japanese planes come,
they surprise you with their silence. “It’s like being in a movie,” you say,
except, when they come,” you say, “there’s never any music.”
Just the small thap thapping,
of bullets running across the deck like lethal mice.
For six months , you never leave the ship, eat nothing but lamb,
win every crap game. Finally it’s Shanghai,
you’re 18 and all Navy now. You drink until you’re blind.
“Lost a whole day of my life,” you say. Then you buy The Grand Ballroom,
a tux and real American scotch. For two weeks,
you date a six-fingered white Russian. “She was bald…
it’s my mother again, breaking into your talk.
“She had a gold tooth, a hook nose,” she says, “your father
“stroked her long blond hair until the wig came off…”
Later, in the middle of the night, I sit on the floor,
pressing my ear to your bedroom door.
Read more of Lois Roma-Deeley’s poetry.
(first published in The Paterson Review , then northSight, Singularity Press, 2010)
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