Labor Day 2020



Art by Lars Henkel

Two by Brian Rihlmann

Opening the Cage
 

he finally retired at 65 after
a quarter century on the job
25 years cleaning toilets
25 years waxing and polishing floors
25 years scraping kids’ chewing gum
from the undersides of desks
scrubbing their “Fuck You’s”
swastikas and anarchy symbols
from the bathroom walls
 
he had a good union pension
a paid mortgage
some new racing pigeons to fly
 
he’d drive them upstate to Lake George
open the door of their cage
and watch them soar
 
a dozen silhouettes
wings a blur against the sky
heading home to Jersey
 
it was a beautiful thing
 
you know what happened—
less than six months
his heart
 
and after the funeral
his former coworkers
sat in the break room one morning
silently sipping coffee
until one said—
“Shoulda never retired…”
and they all nodded

3 O’Clock Sigh
 
she’s the boss’s niece
young…maybe 19, 20…
taking a little break from school
so she came to work with us
 
she sits at the desk
next to mine
and around 3 o’clock
she sighs—
a long, deep sigh
she stretches and yawns
 
I look over
and give her my best
sympathetic smile….my best
“only a couple of hours to go” smile
 
she’s young
she’s not used to this
I want to tell her it’ll be ok
that she’ll make it
“don’t worry…it gets easier…”
the words appear in my head
but I don’t say them
 
and then
a little while later
I sigh, too
and it’s the same sigh
the same bad sounding note
it’s like playing an instrument
practicing for thirty years
and never getting any better

Matthew Murrey

Like That

A glove like that is not
for dressing wounds,
slicing bread or helping
the dying bathe before bed.
It’s not what you wear
to caress hair, touch
yourself, or make love.
Tough is what it is, for work
among planks and hammers,
blades and screws. 
Despite stiff leather
and patches of worn shine,
there is something tender
in a glove like that. The hand
that labors inside it
may be cramped or stiff
by the end of the shift,
but comes out unscathed.
And maybe that hand
and glove have made something
like love: a snug doorframe,
a table to take the scrapes
and stains of countless meals,
or a floor where lovers
will dance or even lie down
and help each other out
of what covers them. Like that.

Two by D.R. James

Hospice Report

My wife comes home, cold, slides
into bed to warm against my sleepiness,

and sighs. That snow. I drove
through everything.
To the toddler

who never walked, and on every Friday
for eighteen months beyond predictions,

his slack presence swaddled on the
living room couch. Encephalitis—

nothing wrong with that little heart.
Though the tiny mother’s had broken

long ago, and now her nonstop sobbing,
her husband posted like friendly stone,

the older brothers already back in bed.
She’d held him dead for two hours

before the nurse could carry him outside.
How are you I whisper, my wife’s body

beginning to settle. Always sad for them,
but happy for the baby,
who was too big

for the funeral man’s basket, small
enough to stow beside him on the seat.

[first published in Caring Magazine]

Civilian

A bad eye and flat feet like mine
always kept him home. He’d try
again, but the war in Europe,
the war in North Africa, the war
in the Pacific didn’t want him.

For fifty years I knew that eye,
its milky look of no surprise,
his stiff-legged gait, but never
such longing, such capacity for
passion beyond company quotas.

Until between their deaths my mother
told her stories: all the other boys
leaving for the service, the rationing
of coffee, sugar, meat, and gasoline,

the bond-raising big bands in Cleveland’s
glitzy ballrooms, the occasional V-mail
from her brother bivouacked in Belgium,
the telegram that said he was dead.

Then just a modest wedding—It was
wartime, you know
—a few days off

from the aircraft factory for the brief
honeymoon at Niagara, but back to

eighty-hour work weeks, overnight trains
to the plant in St. Louis, the beginning
of my father’s industrious silence.

[first published in Passager]

 

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