William Brewer

My nail cuts through the peel, sends a burst

of oily mist through the sun splayed over

my aisle seat. The droplets move

in tandem, refracting the light,

and with the mist come bright citrus notes

that rapidly disperse into the olfactory systems

of surrounding passengers, interrupting their thoughts,

stirring awake the man in front of me

who hours ago told his seatmate I’m taking

a little Valium. If you need to pee, climb over me.

He shivers, rubs his eyes. We speed into a knot

of clouds and before we’re through he’s asleep again.

Chipped ice sweating onto napkins mapped

with the country. An already-completed

crossword in the seatback. A game

I play with myself is to see how long

I can keep the peel as a single coil, its carpeted

underside, its surface pocked like a teenage face.

Each tear releases more droplets I admire

for how they seem to assemble and swell,

a plume that breaks apart with a kind

of intention, a mission, how I imagine chemicals

to operate in a medical context, dispatched into systems

of cells, trained to obliterate, defend, convert.

Depending on the light, some reach an almost

amber tone while others bleach to yellow

as if administered different dyes

like the slides of deformed cells

I studied three nights ago

while googling the specifics of my father’s

leukemia, a browser window opened

onto paragraphs describing how

it’s most common among California migrant workers

and those exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

And yet my father stayed out of the war.

Another page showed photos of drum barrels

stacked in rows, each one painted with

a stripe of orange from which the Agent

gets its name. There’s also an Agent

Pink, Purple, Green, Blue, White, called

Rainbow Herbicides. Because nothing

is too benign to be excluded from tactical use.

I see maps of dioxin production

include a plant in Newark, New Jersey

where a few miles inland my father as a boy

stood at his front door and watched

his father waking up hungover in the front seat

of his Ford where he passed out again

after a night at the VFW, a memory

inherited so long ago I can’t remember

when he told me, or if he even did,

and yet it matures in shapes and textures,

the color of the car, the dewed grass shining,

high broken ceiling and easterly winds

blowing over from Newark.

I remember watching the war in black and white

in someone’s living room, then in color,

my father said once. I searched for images

of scorched bone marrow and my wife

demanded I come to bed. I eat the orange

wedge by wedge, the pods exploding

between my teeth; wipe my fingers

on the seat cushion. I look up and see

on a seatback TV a few rows down

an aged Marlon Brando

as an even older Vito Corleone—

squirrel-cheeked, sitting among the tomatoes—

slide an orange peel over his teeth

and smile at his grandson who screams

and cries. He removes the peel,

laughs, the boy laughs, chases Vito through

the stakes, trying to spray him with a canister

of chemicals that mist over the family’s

San Marzanos, then Vito coughs, staggers

through a pirouette, and collapses.

The boy thinks this, too, is a joke, stands

over the corpse, soaking its shirt with chemicals.

The cabin jerks. The seatbelt sign dings on.

A child behind me coughs. I hold my breath,

flash through panic fantasies of carrying my father’s

death to him. In my head I hear the sentences

that describe how possible side effects

and genetic mutations can be passed down

to the exposed’s offspring.

I read them once, then again, then couldn’t stop,

wondering if I had just been introduced

to my death through reading, that it’s already

in me, a blip on the end of an x-axis

just waiting for the data to catch up to it,
something I can google, read its Wikipedia page,

my death as a searchable item, my death inherited,

manufactured by the war, my death

the result of my country, already fraying

the edges of my cells, a future blankness

detected by scans, the war passed down,

the war inside of me. I stare down at the bare

wintered woods of the Alleghenies blurring past

and wonder if all the acres decimated

by the rainbow look like that, but all the time.

Rolling hills of brown trees give way to sprawl.

Pre-fabricated homes. Cul-de-sacs.

The oils moved like angelic flame,

the scent with incredible speed. I imagine

the phantom waves of messages I can’t yet read

rising to my phone that say

we’ve been discharged and are heading home.

call us when you land. My father

shivering in the passenger seat.

Extreme nausea and aches, fatigue and low

spirits. I hand the peel to the flight attendant.

Gray flaps of wing metal rise and adjust,

a slight shift of the plane’s axis.

My tray table is in the locked and upright

position. My seatbelt is low and tight

across my lap. I look down once more

at the mountainous dirt I call home,

then return to my book about the assassination.




Found In Volume 48, No. 01
Read Issue
  • Brewer
William Brewer
About the Author

William Brewer is the author of I Know Your Kind (Milkweed Editions, 2017), a winner of the National Poetry Series, and Oxyana, selected for the Poetry Society of America's 30 and Under Chapbook Fellowship. Formerly a Stegner Fellow, he is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.