This is probably the part where I talk about Philip Levine, and blue collars, and industrial decline. Or maybe my great-grandfather, bolting on the bottoms of tanks with his one good hand on a Lima assembly line, his work to rumble or break down through Normandy and the Ardennes. His other hand disappeared decades before down the mouth of a corn shredder, but still, he’ll do his part. Or my grandmother traveling a thousand miles to make cheese in some Carolina mountains when her teaching job broke for summer. And how I somehow knew Port Salut was her favorite, and didn’t taste it until she was four months dead.
I know all of that is work. I buy it (and even as I use that phrase, I realize: isn’t that how work is defined for us? Something we can sell?). But when someone says work, in my head, it’s this: my father coming home from his fourteen hours in an office — making phone calls, bidding paving contracts, checking there are silt socks (did you know that’s what they call them, those straw snakes) to catch the runoff on their stretch of the 71 job — to farm until dark. He’d till the garden or walk the riding mower along the steep slant of the ditch, swearing every time it tried to flip and crush him. Come spring, he would wander around finding downed trees to drag out, and cut, and leave cure to heat the house the next winter. And when, as I came home from college, he showed me the hydraulic splitter he’d bought — a wedge on a piston that just pushes its way through the wood, no axework required. The sound in his voice — “I can get the whole damn pile split and still be in by halftime” — a sort of resigned awe. The resignation coming in more when I asked why give up the maul and its overhand heave. His shoulders cantilevered into a barn coat and him wearing another old pair of my childhood shoes.
Because this is where I’ve been going. This is the point. This — all of this — is work, and I don’t do it. Was always shit at it. I dumped wheelbarrows of weeds halfway to the treeline. I never mowed close enough. I can use my hands, but didn’t care enough to. Splitting wood, once I’d grown into it, the only thing. The fights we had, growing up, were always about that — his fear that I would never work hard enough for anyone else. The real problem is, I think I believe him. I think I haven’t done a real day’s work in my life. Through all of these days sitting at a screen, moving words from one place to another, answering to no one and sleeping till noon, there’s this thud deep in my ears. I’ve nearly decided it’s a post-hole digger squelching through muck, and it’s saying this isn’t real, this isn’t real, this isn’t real. So I’ve venerated the labor of my father’s hands, decided that that’s the real.
Years ago, he told me how quiet he’d had to be as a child when he got home from school — his father sleeping off a compression station shift that always shifted (isn’t that funny?) by the week, from day to evening to midnight to cover-the-rest. The eighty acres that his father had gotten up to plow and plant with corn and soybeans, the hope that the tiles would for once do their goddamn job. How my father didn’t blame my grandfather his anger at the dropped basketball or shudder-slammed screen door.
And later, when I tried to explain to some smiling parishioner at my parent’s half-built church what I was doing — that I was being paid for no clear reason to write poems two thousand miles from there — I was dismissive. I waved it off, because how should I tell people who have worked for a living that I’m not? There’s this bit that I do: eventually, rich people are going to stop giving me money — I should probably have a skill set by then. I try to make up for my lack of work by acknowledging that work is waiting, always waiting.
Nights, after we’d fought, he’d come to my childhood bedroom piled with books and branches, sticks I’d made into swords, scrap leather. He would apologize, every time, for losing his temper. I can still feel the bed give as he sat there. I can hear the springs clang in my throat. Because I’ve lied, earlier — that wasn’t the work I think of first. It was always that apologizing pat on the knee as he sat there smelling of asphalt, sawdust, gasoline. And I’m sorry, but this whole time, I’ve been lying. It’s the only work I’m any good at, and I’ve only half been talking to you.
And when my father called me, weeks after that day in the church, he told me he didn’t like hearing me say that, making it sound like my work didn’t matter. My father, who’s read maybe a couple books in my life. His voice catching, thick and almost angry. Staring out my window at the small backyard, months overgrown with dandelions and strange plants that can survive California — all this time and sun, and I’ve wasted it on growing nothing. And I didn’t know what to say.