He announces he’s a step closer to entering the Agent Orange Program and do I know what Agent Orange is? “I do, Dad. I know what Agent Orange is.” “You say you do,” he says, “but do you really?” “Really, Dad. I do.” “But do you really?” “Why would I say I do if I don’t?” “You know the herbicide Agent Orange,” he says. “That’s what you know.” “I assure you, Dad, I know it as the thing you’re thinking of, in the context you’re thinking of it.” “How can you?” “I just can.” “But how?” “I guess I read my history.” “What the history books won’t tell you,” he says, “is that it’s more than an herbicide. It will shock you how much more.” But I won’t be shocked. I won’t allow him to shock me, or even tell me. All my life he’s pushed his definitions on me. Definitions for things everyone knows. Things I could never be so condescending as to define for others. The things I know by heart I must block him from explaining: equinox, stock market, ball bearings, cold front, Chinatowns, spark plugs, asphalt shingles, fish hooks, failure, plaster of paris, place settings, noctilucence, Windsor knot, Rough Riders, acid reflux, grace, Cassiopeia, Whitman, defacto segregation, growing tomatoes, running starts, grounding lenses, catheters, desalinization, comparative advantage, barbecue cooking, yellow journalism, hormones, tumbleweeds, rock formations, layering effects, opportunity costs, detente, prime meridian, hostage negotiations, Appalachian English, a blue whale’s aorta, sororal twins, prophylactics, how not to lose your watch, your wallet, God, defogging headlights, vanishing point, cross country driving, cross country skiing, moon landing, rocket science, inflating a tire, mixing colors, sharpening a knife, polishing your shoes, loving a woman, loved by a woman, holding back, stepping up, eating crow, waltzing, making a lasting impression, making a cappuccino, brain surgery, patience, no grandstanding, grinning, bearing, best foot forward, planning a wedding…. I can never let him tell me what these things are. I can’t even pretend and say, ‘I’ve never heard of Agent Orange, Father. Please tell me.’ I can’t say, ‘I already know what it is, but I would appreciate hearing your perspective.’ Instead I let him go away feeling unheard, with this thing he means to say bottled up inside of him. He is indignant. I feel it, too. We share this same bottledupness. He thinks to himself as I think to myself that one day after he’s dead and gone, I’ll stumble across the golden nugget of information that convinces me beyond a shadow of a doubt that Agent Orange, before its day was done, was far more than an herbicide.
A secret airbase operated by the Central Intelligence Agency sometime between 1959 and 1975 doubled as a town in Laos.
when the first Hmong
arrived in Minnesota
one among them asked
why are there no leaves on trees
only years later did he say
he thought his host was lying
when he responded, winter
instead of admitting
the trees had been sprayed
by low-flying airplanes whizzing over