THE END OF LABOR by Al Maginnes
I stared through noon-shaded glass to see
how we are measured against our tasks.
My father and other men made sacraments
of sweat, days measured in squares of dirt, lengths
of wood, packets of seed. And tomato plants,
doghouses, leaf piles rose before them. Summoned
to apprenticeship, I labored and dreamed labor’s end,
my small hands once again soft fields.
In a city where I had never been, I had no math
to total the worth of the money in my pocket.
So I passed a woman kneeling on the sidewalk
as if she was a statue, monument to unending want.
Or I handed her all I carried and continued
down an alley echoed by strange words, smells
of fried meat, trees thick with unnamed fruit
bending over stucco walls to shade the ground,
the air cool with the symmetry that once came
after a day of building forms, pouring concrete,
when we turned from work’s closed world
and felt day settle across our shoulders,
our shadows skimming mud our feet dragged through.
In front of a Chinese restaurant, two boys,
skinny in their starched uniforms, faces lashed
by acne, stood with automatic rifles heavy
over their shoulders, protection for tourists
intent on moo shu pork or egg drop soup.
Their hands wove against the air as they talked,
illustrating stories of girls and back alley fights,
motion filled with the careless grace I saw
in the stride of a carpenter returning to work
after lunch, who walked from the elevator
on the unfinished slab of the fifth floor.
Minutes later he forgot to hook his safety line,
leaned back and kept falling, and I saw him
step again from the elevator, a moment
that deepened and widened until it was
something to be held, a coin, a bone
polished to the dull sheen of ivory,
as though a moment could be held inside an object,
sealed by something less changeable than language.
Shadows laid a dark weight across
suddenly unforgiving ground. Breath snarled knots
I knew from working with my father.
The building’s familiar shape held, lights
the shape of tears burning over each empty floor,
leaving us to weigh what we had to give
a job willing to consume us so completely.
Now the curved road into the city bends,
my eyes narrow against the light from buildings
I saw rising under the priestly dominion
of cranes, shadows climbing without language
or thought to gleam like small coins that tumble
into hands that hesitate, then close
to save the counting for later.