The Bus of History (Montgomery, Alabama, 1963)
Our blue Air Force busses pulled up at one end of the school,
their yellow busses at the other. Every day, sneers in hallways,
staredowns in class. Rosa Parks, the boycott—barely over.
They were rednecks, racists. We were racists, too, but knew better.
Rumor had it that last year, or the year before, after gym we wiped
the smirk off George Wallace, Jr’s. face. When the President was shot
during 4th period, they cheered. My friend Cecil slapped his head
and cried, “I just sent him a letter.” We single-filed to our busses
hearing their laughter and Rebel yells. The Base was still. Our fathers
didn’t come home until long after dinner. Our mothers stared at tv,
clenching tissue. Mine sobbed, “Jackie is holding up better than me.”
I took my 7-iron outside to practice my swing, each follow-through
an explosion of dirt and grass. I wasn’t angry, or sad, wasn’t aware
that the bus of history had caught up with me. I just liked tearing up
the yard, and nobody told me to stop. Before the playoff game
against Jeff Davis, the pep club covered the school with posters:
No Mercy for Rebels! Rebs to the Sword!! Destroy the Rebels.
On game day, a new one appeared—Peaceful Coexistence
With The Rebels--soon on the floor, shredded, covered in shoe prints.
On the bus home, Cecil elbowed me, pulled a scrap of the poster
from his book bag and stared at me until I understood that he
had made it. He started laughing his loud, annoying laugh, laughed
so hard he started coughing, then gasping, until he found
his inhaler, jammed it in his mouth, sucked hard, and held his breath.
Based on Actual Events
Not long into the movie my wife says,
We’ve seen this before, and I say, No,
but I can tell by the way she leans toward
the television that she doesn’t believe me.
Maybe you saw it one night when I was out,
I say as the head of the former Nazi
doctor disappears between the Mossad agent’s
spread legs, his examination just starting
when she slams her legs shut and stabs
a syringe into his neck, then clamps tighter
while he tries to wrest his head from her
crotch, until the drug kicks in and his limp
body slips to the floor.
I would have remembered this, I say, a little
more smugly than I intend. She shrugs
and calls the dog over for a grooming session.
It’s night in a derelict East Berlin flat
where the Nazi is tied to a radiator and hard rain
falls outside. Falls inside, too, from multiple
ceiling cracks. Not that it matters since the Nazi
will be smuggled out of the country within hours.
Even so, the hardened, trained-to-kill agent
rummages in the kitchen just like an ordinary person
and emerges with pots, carefully placing one
beneath each leak. The plinks create a syncopated tune
that’s almost sweet, but we know the Nazi has cut
his ropes with a shard of crockery and is just waiting.
As the agent moves around placing the pots, I get
a wave of déjà vu, and during the drip ditty
I know for sure I have seen this movie before,
though I remember nothing but this moment
of domestic problem-solving and the plinking rain.
I turn to Stephanie, but she is absorbed in the dog,
checking his ears for mites. The Nazi sees his chance
and slashes a long, deep wound across the agent’s face,
kicks her viciously, repeatedly, and vanishes out the door.
And I think yes, we’ve seen this show, many times—
good and evil in their eternal war, so familiar
I don’t remember it, not the titillating sexual headlock,
not the gruesome violence, not the ending in which—
spoiler alert—good prevails this time.
I only remember the nerves-of-ice agent suddenly
becoming as real and flawed as anyone, doing what anyone
would do—catch the dripping rain, and enjoy a little
unexpected music. I know I should tell Stephanie
she was right, but I don’t want to admit I was wrong
any more than the Mossad agent will admit that she
let the Nazi escape. Instead, she concocts a lie that never stops
torturing her. I slip my arm around Stephanie, and when
she asks do you remember any of this yet? I smile and pull her
closer to me, knowing she knows.
Eric Nelson’s newest book, Horse Not Zebra, was published in April (2022) by Terrapin Books. His six previous poetry collections include Terrestrials, chosen by Maxine Kumin for the X.J. Kennedy Award; The Interpretation of Waking Life, winner of the University of Arkansas Poetry Award, and Some Wonder, which won the 2015 Gival Press Poetry Award. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he writes, gardens, and teaches in the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina Asheville.