By Joseph Milosch
I believe I have come back unfamiliar with the language of my trade. I try to remember where a handful of sand rolled down slope and water darkened earth until it sparkled gem-like. I try to recall the mornings when men focused their imagination on cut slopes, verticals, trenches and willed their backs, arms, and hands to build my country.
I drive down a street trying to recognize the intersection. I stop for a light and remember the stone mason, who broke from work twice a day to rinse old chew from his mouth. His three-fingered hand cradled the rock he chipped as he built Burkett’s milking barn.
It was my first job. I mixed concrete for him. I brought him rocks in a wheel barrow. I rolled a stone over my finger. The nail turned purple, blood leaked along its edges. I had a sliver I couldn’t find in my palm. It was the longest day of the year, the summer solstice.
Near sundown, we stopped and helped Burkett feed his stock. The mason said, “By the end of summer the days won’t be so hot and long.” The two of them laughed; then, I laughed because I realized it wasn’t going to get easier. I smelled water in the evening air as I watched his cows moaning for their metal mouthed-calves. I thought of my hands sweating in my blister’s heat. Up until then I didn’t know hands swelled from labor.
Burkett pointed to one cow, her udder swollen like a gooseberry in late August. He said, “She’s due in a couple of weeks,” and I learned dairy cows gave more milk if they gave birth every couple of years. The farmer said, “Wives are a lot like cows. To keep them happy, you got to give ‘em a child every once in a while”
That cow didn’t look happy as she drew with the aid of her lower lip a few grains into her mouth. The mason thought he was funny as he volunteered me to clean the pig sty, and I wished I was hiking along the road where corn leaves caught dust and bees left splintered trails as they walked across clover.
That was how it was. I came to find there was no dignity in work. There was comradeship. I learned in the trades, I could return years later to say, “I built that.” I came to believe it was good to walk among the cows in winter, as the corn froze in its crib. During these times, I thought I could feel the solid construction in the moist air dampened my chin. It was like feeling the cold in the stone, whose cut revealed the profile of a man’s face.
I rubbed my hand across the ridge under his eye, rubbed the chink in his lip. My hand moved as if it was drawn to the joint between stones. I enjoyed feeling the even space between rocks. I enjoyed feeling the smooth saw cut of the window sill where snow gathered like dirt on its glass. I enjoyed touching our work, as I watched cows standing in their own mist and looked at the wind, pushing snow under fences and around trees.
In the evening of the first day of summer, I park and raise my hand to shade my eyes from the sun. In the street, vapor strands rise from a manhole cover. They merge at a tree of steam. I remember the shade of the white ash tree as I washed trowels, floats, and shovels. I remember that three fingered mason. He laughed when I dropped a rock on my toe, hammered my thumb. My last day, he paid me, shook my hand, and said, “You’re not afraid of work.”