I live in Santa Cruz County, California, with my wife and a July abundance of plums. Much of my writing has centered on the homeless, which we also have an abundance of in the county. I have work in Storm Cellar, Star 82 Review, and eclectica, and forthcoming in The Homestead Review.
F I V E M E N
Isaiah, Stock Clerk
His thatched hair rose like apostrophes
from his skull, and the dimple like a comma
or a cleft in wood, a wry depression.
He whistled like a bad teakettle
and wore tennis shoes that looked like slippers.
he answered when I asked where
he had grown up, as if geography
had been subsumed by constant hyphenation.
Work gave him permanence
that love and family never had, a period
to the unending sentence of his childhood.
In summer he traced
the wrinkles of his forehead
in the deliberate way
he paced the plowed
garden rows in April,
as if by filling
the dippers of his fingers
he would spill
a full-formed thought.
Before the garden bloomed
his face held images
of stout, snug cabbage,
then cole slaw and sauerkraut.
In winter, reading seed brochures,
thoughts of harvest
would overtake his hands,
words would transform
the catalogue to tangled root,
a soil he could no longer turn.
Aroma of all-purpose oil,
pock-faced jack of trades,
king of none, mastered by visions,
harnessed by none, he took
a black-handled whetstone
from pocket, set it down, bent,
spat, drew the blade, then slowly
turned the blade to the face of stone:
the pass of steel over stone
is singular in sound.
To hone on whetstone
is to make a singular song,
and he who makes that song
is a king, who makes life sing
from knife and stone.
He stropped the blade on trousers, then held
the steel high to judge his labor
by eye, his calloused fingers too thick
of hide to prove an accurate guide.
I remember the copper color of his face,
the copper skin on a summer evening
when the clouds in the west were streaked with red,
the trees, walls, roofs, and hills to the east
with a soft and dusty rose.
I remember the copper of his face,
the burnished and beautiful conductor
which drew the pleasure and anguish
from his intricate heart to his eyes.
I remember long hot August
in the grist mill, ever-present chaff
like pixie dust in the planks of light,
the pig corn to be shelled
so many ears to hear his sermons on baseball,
how Clem had a joke for every farmer,
a twine in his belt for every gunnysack,
a way to turn his old hips arthritic
and bony to launch a sack full of grist
to the bed of a parked pickup,
and an arm that could launch a horseshoe
high as fireworks and cradle it on the peg--
that’s working, he’d say, that’s working--
and pay us a nickel for every dead rat.
I remember the dry August heat
when I cheated at checkers and lost,
when I followed him home to his chickens,
deaf sister, disabled half-brother,
the smell of wet asphalt and sizzling roads.
I remember his cool hands sealing the crease
and holding back the blood of my pummeled lip,
how cool the words when he said I would lose
him some day, not speaking of death or location
but when the mill would empty
and the grain sacks slump, the doors bolt
and the belts stop churning, rats
going out, ghosts moving in.
Wood was feminine, supple,
pliant, scented, mysterious, sacred.
In his rowboat he would guide
his light sister over
the dark friend of the lake
and land near the clearing and cabin,
wash his face
over a white basin
on a narrow birch stump.
He seldom talked.
It mattered little that he would leave
a mild shallow wake in the works of men,
that woodchucks would gnaw
at the woodpile waddling
away with tongues of salt, sawdust, and his sweat.
Surrounded by seedlings, he rocked
in a chair, smiled into sleep,
took his woman which was wood
and lived with her, rode in her,
spoke with his hands to her
in the knotted conservation
a plane and plank provide.
©2015 Jeff Burt