Cousin Roy's Gold Star and Marker
Poems by Walt McDonald
He hauled off tons of dung a month, my Uncle Earl
in World War Two. When the breeze was in the east,
feedlots rolled their methane over us, a town of thousands
holding our noses and hurrying back inside,
most with lucky jobs in offices or the one munitions plant.
In school, we pooted and blamed the stink on windows,
breeze almost always dry and from the east. Girls fanned
with their hands and their lips turned down.
We thought they secretly admired us, often in trouble
with the substitute. Often, the rattle of Uncle Earl's
iron wagon wheels clattered by, windows raised
except for those few days it snowed, and sometimes then,
a blizzard better than stink of boys and sometimes girls.
How they found me out I never heard, but Billy Ray up front
or Carl would crane above the window sill and whisper loud,
It's him, Walt's uncle, and later in the year, It's him
and the whole room knew. All of them, even fat Martha,
called me Wagon man, Mr. Fertility,
a mistaken nickname that stuck, switching the word
for fertilizer, a tag turned lucky in junior high
when we learned to swagger like studs. Uncle Earl never heard,
or ignored us, scratching me roughly on the head
at family gatherings, fried chicken, corn bread
and beans, the whole family old or only kids like me,
all cousins out of high school overseas in foxholes
or battleships, even Uncle Earl and Aunt Martha's oldest,
blown up on Guadalcanal, an artillery shell,
my sister said, splattered on the island,
not even a corpse, just bits of bloody flesh
and intestines some soldiers had to pick up.
Uncle Earl's gold star was always in the window
with the shade up and a light on every night.
There wasn't a coffin, not even a marker
in the cemetery until after the war when Aunt Martha
and Uncle Earl bought the finest marble
and had it hauled from Dallas on the midnight train.
previously published in Brooklyn Review 15 (1998). 1891