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The Best Years of Our Lives

What in Hollywood is called a throw-away line,
the line Virginia Mayo delivers into the mirror
as she's turning from fixing her hair to tell
the now-civilian, out-of-work Dana Andrews,
in case he hasn't already received the message,
that she wants a divorce, that she's given him
the best years of her life, which in truth
amount to no more than six months, since the war
has used up most of the time of their marriage.
All the while the next man, Steve Cochran,
another veteran, is waiting in the lobby
of the two rooms, small kitchen, and a bath.
Andrews, anyway, loves someone else, Fredric
March's and Myrna Loy's daughter, the woman
every woman in the audience admires, even if
she's second in the order of virtue to the girl
the boy who's lost his hands in battle loves,
the girl next door, who's waited at the window
as Cathy O'Donnell playing to perfection love.
Everyone in the picture is a veteran of some kind.
What's amazing is that it's less than a year
after the war that the picture's been made,
a story of homecoming, of surviving change,
of what a generation, not so different from
the Lost, has come through, which may be why
my mother, sitting in the bandbox of Piqua's
Little Theater, in nineteen forty-eight, two
years later than the film's first release,
because nothing seems to arrive on time in Ohio,
is crying—she's on my left in a torn seat
in tears and has been from the opening credits.
I'm nine, and we're a pair, movies once a week
our one night out, my father at the front doors
taking tickets to earn what he can't cutting
lumber. The wisdom of being nine is knowing
feelings, and I can feel something on the screen
pouring out inside the cone of light above our
heads and falling on all of us and through us,
scattered in the space here and there, as if
what we're seeing is more than what we're seeing.
It's hours before the picture ends, hopeful,
with a wedding, the kind of hope, I realize
in my wisdom, adults can't live without, though
my favorite part has less to do with love
than with the cockpit of the B-17 lined up
for junk with hundreds, row on row, like the one
Andrews used to fly in and is inspired to climb
inside again to reminisce the nightmare. He's
come here to these fields that will be suburbs
looking, like my father, for a job, yet finds
himself sitting in the bubble of a bomber,
its glass a net of scars, with the sky-borne
camera and the Friedhofer score bearing down
on him, until the full-on shot shifts like
an assassin coming from behind to show how
vulnerable and like a child he is, but blessed,
at last, by sunlight and the future. It's
a scene to break your heart, so many are.
The lumber my father cut that year almost built
our house, half in the country, half in town.
And he won a car, a Chevy, that he and my mother
drove into another car, and walked away from whole.

Stanley Plumly

American Poetry Review

November / December 2011

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