When I joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I was only planning on staying a few years. That was over fifteen years ago. In fact, the sentiment “that wasn’t what I expected to happen” is probably at the core of most of my work. I’ve published five collections of poetry with Press 53, most recently This Miraculous Turning. My sixth collection, "Exit, Pursued By a Bear," will be released in April, 2016. Every New Year’s Eve I resolve to improve my guitar playing and learn how to cook more interesting dishes; the fact that each year I genuinely believe this will happen reveals a fundamentally optimistic nature. My website: www.josephrobertmills.com
At the Veterans Hospital
She says she wonders what has happened to The Book of Life and The Book of The Dead now that everything’s gone digital. It’s hard to imagine God swiping a Kindle, or St. Peter, that maître-d’ at the Gates, looking up arrivals on his iPad. But why, he asks, do these seem any stranger than vellum, or parchment, or paper? We have always been told this world is virtual, a simulation of another. At this she starts to cry, and when he places a hand on her new leg, she pushes it off, saying, This is not real. Her tone is hard to read, and he doesn’t know if she means the limb, the crying, the empathy, the room, the world. Maybe not, he says, but it’s what we have.
Wednesday is chicken night at the Legion. An all-you-can-eat buffet and fifty cent drafts. My father hates to miss it, and, when I’m in town, I go because there are so few things I can give him anymore. While we wait for a table, he talks with the other regulars and I drift around the lobby, looking at the familiar plaques and photographs. I always end up at the Last Man Rosters, the lists of names with gold stars indicating who has died. It’s a lottery in reverse with fate pulling out tickets until only one remains. In the last few years, the World War II roster has become a constellation of loss. A thousand a day are dying someone says one night. I heard it was two, another says. A third notes, Arlington is so full they’ll have to close it soon. The lobby quiets as everyone mentally reviews their arrangements. Then, I hear my father mock whisper, I’ll probably be put in a can and left on the curb. He served in Korea, and there’s a monument in Washington now, but they don’t have a Last Man List. It annoys him— another way they’ve been uncounted—but I’m glad not to see his name waiting for its star. Finally, we’re seated. I order a salad instead of the special, and my father looks away as if embarrassed others will overhear. I clearly don’t belong. Or maybe he’s upset that he can’t brag about getting me in when I’m not there to eat. We sit, surrounded by hungry veterans who served in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf. This is their reward for living when they did, going where they were told, and still being around. Cheap beer, piles of legs and breasts and wings, and family sitting across a table as wide as a battlefield.
“At the Veterans Hospital” comes from Sending Christmas Cards to Huck and Hamlet, and “Service” comes from Somewhere During the Spin Cycle.
©2015 Joseph Mills