performed by Thom Richards, WOKO radio
THE THINGS I CARRY
by Michael Marks
The old train lumbered up the track amid a hoofbeat clatter,
its cloudy windows streaked by rain that fell in gentle patter.
With duffle heavy on my back I trudged along the aisle
until I saw an empty seat next to a welcome smile.
A stifled groan curled in my chest beneath the weight I bore;
I shrugged the duffle off my back, it thudded on the floor.
“That pack looks awfully heavy friend” he said with narrowed stare,
“You got a load of cinderblocks or something tucked in there?”
My gaze fell to the weathered bag; its corners taped and patched;
the olive drab a faded grey, one canvas strap mismatched.
I forced a smile that in my heart was anything but merry
and through my gritted teeth replied, “It’s just the things I carry.”
Perhaps it was the lonely night, the thunder and the rain,
a sense of kindred friendship that I couldn’t quite explain,
but with a snap of rusted clip the duffle opened wide
and reaching in I showed him all the things I had inside.
A heavy armored vest was first, its kevlar torn and frayed,
the gaping hole stained dark with blood was caused by a grenade.
“My best friend’s life” I whispered, fearing that my voice would crack;
“He gave it up to save me in the desert of Iraq.”
“We grew up just like brothers ever since the age of nine,
fishing up on Grady’s Pond or flying kites on twine,
our first car was a Mustang, man we made that baby slide.
He always calls me ‘slick,’ I mean… he did until he died.”
A brick of granite followed, dark and grey as stormy sky,
engraved upon its polished face, a date in mid-July.
“I wasn’t home the day I lost my dad,” I muttered low,
remembering that awful day so many years ago.
“Our unit drew a line that month in deep Afghanistan
protecting little schoolgirls from a bloody Taliban.”
My somber gaze fell to the floor and fixed on muddy shoes.
“Dad was gone two weeks before I even got the news.”
The silence hung a moment broken only by the rain,
the beating of my heart over the rumble of the train,
before I heard him ask about the thing I left inside,
a mason jar that wads of dirty laundry failed to hide.
“Don’t open that,” I said too fast, my voice now tinged with fear.
“There’s things in there that, trust me, you don’t ever wanna hear.”
I thought about the demons bottled up inside that jar;
some things are better left alone… left just the way they are.
“I’ve seen a lot of people die, and let me tell you friend,
the sounds, the smells…” I bowed my head, “sometimes they never end.”
I don’t know why the lid slips off, it mostly does at night;
and it can take me hours just to get it back on tight.”
The man then spoke in earnest tones that tugged my memory,
“It seems a lot of weight to haul, but why I cannot see.
What makes a fellah like yourself lug such a load of pain?”
A furrow crossed my tired brow, I struggled to explain.
I spoke to him of duty, of the things a man just did,
of old regrets that in the darkness of the heart lay hid;
the ghosts of fallen friends you just can’t bring yourself to bury,
the bridges crossed and moments lost are just the things I carry.
Instead of being saddened now he seemed a bit amused,
“I admire your resolve bub, but you’ve got it all confused;
The memories you’re s’posed to keep aren’t those that weigh a ton,”
and handing me three items said “I’ll trade you one for one.”
The photo showed two lanky guys in t-shirts and blue jeans,
both leaning on a Mustang like a pair of Steve McQueens.
The memories came flooding back of racing ‘round our home
in an overpowered yellow wedge of spoilers and chrome.
The letter was a short one folded carefully in thirds,
my dad had never been a man of very many words;
In careful print it said his greatest pride since life began
was watching me grow up to be a soldier and a man.
Through misty eyes I looked the last upon the ocean shell,
if it had a hidden meaning I’d be damned if I could tell.
“You know the trick,” he softly said, “just hold it to your ear,
and listen to the things in life you’ve earned the right to hear.”
I heard the sounds of my home town where screams were shouts of cheer,
as kids ran up and down the field without the need to fear;
the ring of freedom’s many voices blended in the air,
the sound of open singing and the sound of open prayer.
I turned to find an empty seat, just air and little more
than dust that slowly settled down upon the wooden floor.
Yet on that evanescence hung a voice I knew at last
a whisper from my memory, an echo from my past:
“Remember slick, the way to honor those of us now gone;
is searching for the best ahead in each and every dawn.
Hold on to the good times, not the moments dark and scary,
I’m telling you to let ‘em go… they aren’t yours to carry.”