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ISSUE:  Spring 2013

Christ, sonny, it’s the what, not the who!
—Goody Matsen

I’m nearly eighteen, between ships, moping
on the mess deck of Coast Guard Base
Seattle. It’s Saturday night & I’m broke
& alone, except for the retired gunny
from the Corps who came in hoping
to sell insurance, but found only a half-full urn
of coffee, & me polishing my liberty
shoes. He poured a cup & sat
to give advice. Said I had a nice
technique, but the water in my polishing lid
should be colder, said the best was ice-cold piss
from a red-headed virgin.
Said diaper squares
worked better than balls of cotton or scraps
from an old pair of skivvies. Said it was all
about layering the wax. Said I should keep
a light touch: Imagine you’re making slow circles
around a woman’s belly button.
When at last
I set the shoes on the table, the toe caps
gleamed. He said they were about right,
that I should be able to stand beside
the captain’s wife, look at my toes,
& say what color panties she’d picked
for the day. I started to put away my gear.
He put a hand on my wrist. What about the backs?
No one, I said, did those, because the pants hung low
enough to cover. He said, Listen, kid. A man
who doesn’t shine the backs of his shoes is a man
who doesn’t wipe his ass.
I did the backs,
said thanks, said how squared away
I’d look. He scraped his chair back,
gave me his card, said some day
I might need insurance more than cash. Said
I might have made a marine. Said, Two things.
You don’t brag just because you wiped your ass.
And you don’t shine your shoes so you’ll look good,
you do it so somebody else will wanna look good.

The miracle was I understood.


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