At Work

I asked my father if he liked being a tailor.
We were in the basement rec room, the brown and orange
Floor tiles still damp from my mother’s scrubbing.
“Like it,” he said, his green eyes behind the thick glasses
Blazing like a king’s jeweled scepter. “Why would I
Like it?” It was an unfortunate question. I should have known
Better. Why would a voracious reader from rural Poland
Be a tailor? Except that’s what boys his age in his
Circumstance did. All his friends, cousins, sewn
By bitter threads to their machines.
Even later, in Panama, in America, repairs, alterations.
My mother polished, sanitized, swept, vacuumed,
cooked, washed until energy vaporized. In school we learned
matter cannot be created or destroyed. Energy she expended
in cleaning returned as dissatisfaction, irritation. When she determined
we were old enough, she got a job. Now she organized, prioritized
for World Book Publishers in an office with a dracaena plant,
a plaster of Paris pen holder one of us made,
a typewriter and a Dictaphone. Later I’d work
on the factory side, collating pages the press pulsed out.
I was going to college and needed a job and worked
At keeping my fingers out of the machine. Like
Didn’t come into it. Until the job in the college coffee shop—
Ceiling ribbed with mahogany, curved like a ship’s prow,
Polished wood tables gleaming under globed chandeliers.
I took coins for coffee and pastries, made change, ate
Thick date nut cookies, read the entire Chicago Sun Times,
Made up stories about professors, their protegees,
Watched romances glitter and fade like the plot
Of a Victorian novel. That job I loved—
I was made for this work. Which amounted to very little.
The culmination of endless generations
Struggling to survive, I leaned back
On the ruched velvet couch and sipped
Oh luxuriously my Earl Grey tea.
Outside the clerestory windows,
Winds shooed clouds across the sky
And I turned to Classifieds looking for work.

Karen Mandell has taught writing at the high school and college levels and literature at community senior centers. Her short story “Goddess of Mercy” is forthcoming from Notre Dame Review. She’s written Clicking, interconnected short stories, and Rose Has a New Walker, a book of poetry.

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