To Work

Brookshire had come to work second shift
at Walker Manufacturing the day it opened

and stayed until the recession shut it down
a dozen years later.  He was an end finisher,

six-foot-four and strong enough to hang
the bent and welded tailpipes and mufflers

on a fast-moving chain that would loop them
through a room-sized oven for rustproofing.

He loaded and unloaded them left-handed
until that arm was so muscular it looked

like the claw of a human fiddler crab,
until that hand was so thickly calloused

he didn’t need to wear protective gloves
when he handled the rough or heated metal.

He liked the work, its good wage and routine
and not having to think about what he did.

He liked his forearm, its Popeye tattoo
that slowly vanished underneath the grime

of a nine-hour shift, as daylight itself 
clocked out while he worked.  He liked leaving

the plant at one-thirty in the morning
exhausted, especially in the summer,

walking into the cool mountain night
dark as the water that would soon be flowing

from his skin as he carefully scrubbed away
all the filth that had seeped through his clothes,

blackening his pale body utterly
except where his underwear and socks had been.

His sleep was clean and deep and very long.
To work is to get dirty then get paid.

Copyright © 2001 Michael McFee. From Earthly (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2001) by Michael McFee. Used with permission of the author.