Mudlark Poster No. 65 (2006)

David Alpaugh  |  Summer Job

David Alpaugh David Alpaugh’s second collection of poetry will be published by Alehouse Press in 2007. His first collection Counterpoint won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry prize from Story Line Press and his chapbooks have been published by Coracle Books and Pudding House. His poetry, drama, fiction and criticism have appeared in over a hundred publications. His essay “The Professionalization of Poetry” was published by Poets & Writers Magazine in 2003 and is available online at Houston Poetry Review. He has taught writing at the University of California Berkeley Extension and edits the Small Poetry Press Select Poets Series.

Summer Job

The truck that says Norwalk Vaults
arrives at Fairlawn Heights at 10 AM
going almost 60 miles per hour
pulls up alongside grass and flowers
brakes squeal—man & boy jump out
yank boards from under canvas tarp
run them off side of truck
loosen ropes that hold their cargo
swivel then slide it down planks
till it hits macadam with a thud
they look up at the dark green canopy
shielding the sun at the top of the hill
it’s New Jersey in July it’s 90 degrees
the man spits says This one’s a bitch!
arms legs thighs shoulders straining
they roll their heavy burden up the slope
two feet or so each time the man cries Push!
near collapse they finally reach the summit
sweat dripping off them like hot rain
with less than fifteen minutes left to go
the boy hurries back and gets the tripod
they straddle it across the freshly-dug hole
then hoist the concrete box off the ground
it sways back and forth in the humid air
the man holds it steady with both hands
as the boy cranks the lever in reverse
(it’s so much easier going down)
then all at once the steel chain slackens
and the burial vault settles at the bottom
like a sunken battleship or freighter
they raise the lid with hooks and ropes
and prop it against the side of the grave
with no one by to clap for work well done
man & boy must find their way off stage
hide behind hedge or tree or bush
or that mausoleum fifty yards away
with “Briggs” engraved on its arch
and a marble angel by the door
guarding bodies resting within
waiting for those yet to come
and those still to be born
the boy wipes his face on his shirt
snaps open the lid on his lunchbox
to see what his mother’s put inside
the man pops open a Bud mutters
Goddamn turnpike’s like a parking lot!
saving sandwich and fruit for later
the boy puts a Necco on his tongue
and peeks around angelic wings
glad to see the hearse is on its way
two limos and three dozen cars
lined up behind it like a train
gloved hands ease casket off runners
wingtipped feet plod ceremoniously
here they come all in black up the hill
men and women of all ages and a child
a priest with a cross is at the grave
saying words man & boy never hear
not yesterday nor the day before
nor on the afternoon yet to come
finishing his beer the man is itching
to put the finishing touches on this job
so they can make their 3-PM on time
he’s pleased to see solemnities ending
weeping woman lays flower on coffin
takes the child’s hand and turns away
black swarm follows her downhill
all aboard—the hearse starts to move
and once the last car is out of sight
the boy follows the man to the grave
where Higgins & Son are waiting
nodding silently to Norwalk Vaults
that it’s time to lower the concrete lid
(they watch as the casket disappears)
it’s the man’s job to mix the cement
and the boy’s to leap into the grave
reach up and grasp pail and trowel
now comes the boy’s favorite part
working like a mole in the earth
laving and smoothing mortar
all around the lip of the lid
of a vault that will last 10,000 years
(or so the front office likes to say)
still he’s glad to climb out of the grave
and see young Higgins’ hand in his pocket
there’s a ten dollar bill for the man
and a five dollar bill for the boy
though the seat’s hot as hell in the truck
as the man starts driving away
the boy fondles the undertaker’s tip
and thinks What a great summer job!
but as they pass through the cemetery gate
he sneaks a furtive glance at the man
delivering vaults for twenty years
and thinks to himself Thank god
I won’t be doing this in December!

stuck for forty minutes in the cab
with a man who has little to say
the boy plays tic-tac-toe with the pen
the shop steward gave him with a wink
on his first day at work back in June
For employees only kid—mum’s the word!
and he plays against himself for a while
with a ballpoint that says Norwalk Vaults
We’ll get your business in the end.

Copyright © Mudlark 2006
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