That eighth-grade summer I was just a shade
above a buck sixteen, a would-be freshman
on the cross-country team who ran ten miles
afternoons, bone-tired, after mornings scuttled
from picking peppers on my hands and knees.
One day past midpoint of the break, thick clouds
gaumed up and billowed darkly in fraught portents
as I slogged into work. “It rained last night,”
Jake muttered, chewing on a blade of straw,
“and looks like rain a-coming. Best hitch in
the bundles fast before the downpour soon
or else the hay will mold and grow a fungus.
Could even burst in flames if waterlogged.”
I nodded sure, not one to analyze
his terse and contradictory country logic,
and hoped for torrents, but of course was thankful
for any reprieve from the crawling hours
spent chucking ripe poblanos into buckets.
We took the truck and packed the bales in stacks
then levered up each sodden load toward
the next top-heaver under-slugging silage
until it dropped into the silo, snug.
While looking off to heaven if thunder shook,
I heaved up hay-bales over half my weight,
those toppling burdens cradled and released.
With every catch and grip and swing and loft,
my brain was rattled and my muscles ached.
And then it mizzled and we had to toss
the hay-bales quicker—snatch and pitch.
Each raindrop fatter as we hustled fodder,
those bricks of hay took off, off-kilter, flicked
no faster, further than my crookback frame
could make them fly. At last, a laggard, I winged
one up which tumbled in a gap—as I
went teetering, fell backwards and capsized.
And all I know is next day I woke up
all-over broken, tender, oozy edges
in places like my toenails and my armpits,
as if I’d been raked over by an adze;
my shoulder blades a rout of bolus, tendons
racked in knotted folds, my sinews lactic
slurry. I couldn’t drag myself from bed.
I laid there, aching. Eeking out the minutes.
The bane of gruntwork made my flesh no more
than harrowed bulk of trundled needles. So
haggard, limp, I slumped in every sprawlful limb
like timber of old walls all fallen-in,
a bone-house sagging in its very marrow.
Called in that day—and didn’t run a week—
and Jake worked harder, wrung with worry for
quiet burnings in the barn bowed flush with hay.
My kid brother, Josh, who’s 28-years-old, still lives
at home and works at Wal-Mart, the graveyard shift
to earn an extra buck—without insurance, a pinch
less than forty hours. Each week he’s stuck within
the shuffle. His flipflopped part-time schedule brings
him back on Sundays, where he punches in, hopped up.
He wishes he could turn it down, turn back to sleep.
He needs to take a load off, but instead he off-loads
shipping crates, price-guns invoice, cancels breakage,
stacks up stock, pulls liquor from a locker, takes peanuts
out from boxes. Shelving, he ignores the expiration dates
before he sneaks a 15-minute break for lunch—dinner—
whatever you’d call Pop Tarts, Red Bull, and a protein shake
scarfed down between two cigarettes. He sees the same Day-
glo façade of strip malls with their aisles of ricocheting light,
alone within a prefab big-box crater where he loses sight
of anything except the whitewashed walls and an overhead
twitch of fluorescent luster, before he punches out, freefalls
fast asleep, climbing in a hatchback with his girlfriend
of the week. Awake, she nudges him; they kiss. She drops
him off. His drooping eyes no match for staring down
the clock. He boosts some painkillers, punching out.
I pick him up this time; he says I should be proud,
not everyone’s the brother of the Son of God. What
kind of crap is that? But then he crazy-talks about
infinity’s a maze of circles. C’mon, nobody’s stuck on earth.
End times are almost over. I’m raptured into some divinity—
He’s facing the lit-up runaway of Dover’s airbase.
you must have faith, we’ll all be judged by our good works.
I ask him why he hasn’t quit? —Fuck, you think
I haven’t tried? Not buying it, he rolls up his sleeve:
a new tattoo dyed royal. —A present to myself. Damned
near killed me, too. I turned into a zombie. Face blue enough
to match my collar. Needles at the shop delivered shell-
fish residue into my blood. Soon shocked my system.
Dragged ass to work, but they sent me back for once,
saying I’d scare away their customers. Felt like a heart attack
for two-three days while drifting off, seeing stars,
and barely knowing I was there enough to half believe
there might be any world still reeling beyond the end of me...
A scar’s since shriveled up my arm. Hardly like I’d been
out huffing, but mom and dad got pissed when I went off
to party. But hey, we’re born to suffer for our will to live.
Later, I argue with my parents. How could they
miss the warning signs? A shrink looks at him,
sends him upstate to the mental ward. Giving up
the drink and pills, he starts to think more clearly,
and sees a hole he’s dug himself and can’t afford
to backfill. He assumes an attitude of some working
stiff; resumes his makeshift grind. But my brother’s
warped tattoo proclaims, “Mad 4 Life,” no kidding.
Will Cordeiro has recent work appearing or forthcoming in Agni, Cimarron Review, The Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Poet Lore, Radar Poetry, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. Will’s manuscript Trap Street won the 2019 Able Muse Book Award, debuting summer 2020. Will co-edits the small press Eggtooth Editions and currently lives in Guadalajara, Mexico.