Labor Day 2018
When I Went to Work as a Snow-Globe Designer,
I didn’t do it for the usual reasons.
I did it to get some practice in
before building my house at the bottom of the ocean.
Less traffic noise, for one thing,
and I’ve traded crows for manta rays . . .
a million fish like clouds
of colorful rain.
And my yard is a coral reef,
and I never shovel the sidewalk
since the snow just floats suspended in my dome.
You ought to come visit me. We could open some wine
and watch the sharks cruise over . . .
then sit together by the fireplace,
The bulb pickers kneel on earth richer
than anyone they know. They kneel
like points of an unbalanced star,
around the hub of a ginkgo tree. Again
and again they plunge their fists into the bosom
of the soil to pluck the small lavender hearts
of some flower. They kneel, their heads bent
as in prayer. But the arrows of their hands
do not aim toward heaven. Flintlike,
they find ground. Creased with good, clean dirt,
their hands exhume little resurrections
to lie among the ginkgo’s fallen fans of gold.
Once, my hands were lined with black,
the oil from stacking wheel after bicycle wheel
the summer I worked in that concrete box
we called a factory, the staining so much
a part of who I was that year it stayed with me
for weeks after. That three months, I lived
my grandfather’s life, lived each day with metal,
heat, and grease and the baritone of a chorus
of machines—me, the one he called Egghead,
his pride in my bookishness evident in the tenderness
he imbued each of its two hard syllables with,
clearly not minding my having used his back as a ladder.
The bulb pickers in their kneepads and ballcaps,
their sweatshirts hooding them like monks,
pulling the sleepers, the little Lazaruses,
from their dark bed—tonight, the bulb pickers
will go home, wash away what they can,
anoint their bruised knees with liniment,
and pay no notice to the dirt that still rings
their fingernails like broken halos.
What Color is Your Rainbow?
The threads were endless,
and each bundle of rust, blood
red, stormy gray, burnt orange,
and almost cotton candy had to be
sorted, scanned, and boxed.
Inventory at the mill was seven
days a week with eight hours strung
out in front of me for June, July,
and August. The colors I longed for
were sun tan, ocean blue, and
margarita green. But my student
bank account devoid of greenbacks,
silver, and gold coins required a stint
in the windowless threads of cotton,
polyester, and wool desperation.
Youth and ignorance kept me from
seeing John Deere green, baby blue,
harvest gold, and lamb’s milk white
like the eyes of those who spooled
and sorted for a lifetime by the work
Dear Gas Station Girl,
At six, I wanted to be like you.
The only girl at Dave’s Service Station
on South Main, you wore stained shirts
and jeans, sometimes baggy gray overalls.
Hair tucked under a Yankees cap or tied
in a long, loose ponytail, you never bothered
to wipe the smudge from your chin or clean
grease from under your fingernails. No one,
I was sure, lectured you about neatness.
You flitted from pump to pump, popping lids
from gas tanks and fishing for change in the wad
of fingerprint-stained bills you kept deep
in your pockets. You checked the oil
and wiped front windshields clean
somehow clearing tree sap and bodies
of night insects in a single, graceful swipe.
Every time we pulled away, my father would
shake his head, my mother would frown,
pull my own ponytail tight and
wipe a near-invisible spot from my cheek
with a tissue or the side of her thumb.
Other girls wanted to be teachers, or nurses,
or Avon ladies. I wanted to be you.
Even now, with few gas stations who employ
attendants, I look for you, although
I’m certain you moved on, to another job
that offered you the same type of freedom
you once had. But every gas attendant I see
takes only credit cards and doesn’t do anything
except pump gas. They don’t dance on the
islands. They don’t sing with the overhead radio.
And they are still, almost always, still male.
A million chores, a million days of labor.
“Do you help mommy do the wash like this?”
grandfather asked me, showing me a scene
of 1950s servitude. A wife,
a housewife, mother—no, these aspirations
didn’t excite the child I was, but dreaming
of future plans was altogether foreign.
A million nights of sleeplessness and worry.
They put me in a special sixth-grade class
for trouble-makers, broken souls, the small
unfortunates still walking. There I learn
that I can learn to be a secretary,
but how to live for beauty isn’t taught.
A million filthy dishes in the sink.
“I see you tried to look nice for my show,”
the daughter of the art collector tells me.
Somehow I wind up giving her Thanksgiving,
and giving her a ride into the city,
when I should just be giving her the finger.
A million roaches in the kitchen crawling.
Working in jobs to serve the city public,
I stumble to the counter for a sandwich,
the kindnesses of waitresses in diners.
A million pennies never saved or spent.
“I’ll take a bit of this and some of that,”
I do not say because she isn’t me.
The world of choice and purchase isn’t mine,
I buy no goods, I only write goodbye.
“For Your Essay, Define Greatness”
“If you grandstand,
you might still lose, funny man,”
was never a saying, but Paul’s grandfather
said it all the time.
Like a holy scripture.
Like the measure of our size against the sun.
Another was “Time keeps running,
so better hug folks while you can.
Start with your grandfather,
leg it,” by which he meant now.
Forty years as a mason.
will stand for 200 more.
I’m not smart enough to rocket off
to Jupiter, but I’m not dumb;
I know how to listen.
It’s a lot like watching with your ears,
while getting things done.