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.

More by Michael McFee


Its perpendicular
tilted, falling forward,
this oblique stroke
between lines of verse
or fractions’ numbers
or month/day/year
separates & connects
parts of some whole:
its diagonal can also
offer us alternatives
like his/her, and/or,
a skinny twig partway
between limb & ground,
like me not quite vertical
or horizontal, a slash
leaning into stiff wind.

Cast-Iron Ghazal

My mouth won’t ever forget her skill with a skillet,
my father’s mother, cooking
with her mother’s skillet.

Looking deep into its heavy antique mirror, I see
her wedding day: white dress
and this coal-dark skillet.

Heaven was bacon’s sizzle waking my ears and nose.
Or was it one of her chickens 
slow-frying in the skillet?

Her husband once took it hunting without asking:
she said she’d bust his skull 
with that upraised skillet.

Fire-born bell whose clapper was a plain dinner fork,
juicy fauna and flora notes
rang out from her skillet.

I see early widowhood, cooked-for children gone:
darkness lends its seasoning
to every cast-iron skillet.

She hid its teardrop handle inside her strong grip
when pouring red-eye gravy
from one lip of the skillet.

What went into the oven as batter we two mixed
came out as cornbread glory,
steaming amen in a skillet.

Black as her Bible, black as her once-maiden hair,
black as a panther howling
at midnight, this skillet.

I see her funeral day, the kitchen filled with food
not made by her, no flame
kissing the empty skillet.

I say McFee into its circle, hear her savory voice 
giving back the family name 
from her (now my) skillet.


U’s mate, O with a new root,
the one capital letter
which probes below the base line,
here’s to the quirky beauty

of its tail, that fluent tongue
stuck from a wide-open mouth,
that elegant half-mustache
parted quickly toward the east,

that antique handle we grasp
to lift up the monocle
of our alphabet’s monarch,
that final flourish of the quill.