UPS Guy

My phone went off loudly around five thirty in the morning. There’s no way for a phone to go off quietly that early. A gentle coffee warmed voice asked me if I was who I am, and asked if I was available to work that day. Foggy headed, half asleep, almost too tired to speak, I could not think of a good excuse. Yes ma’am, I said, and sealed my fate. I could expect a call from a driver within the next two hours. Shipping things for a living seems a precarious venture. It forces us to treat the mundane with a misplaced urgency.
You’re handing someone an impossible job.
Demanding they do hard work gently.

The United Parcel Service, UPS, hires what they call driver helpers, for the month of December. If you get called in for the orientation, you begin to glimpse what you’re in for etched in colorful posters advocating daily stretches. Stared into a television monitor watching all the wrong ways to lift heavy things. At least sixteen of us around the table. My manager told me maybe five worked a full day, and of those five, no one worked two. I was one of those. Not because of the work, but because of the structure. You would never know if you were needed until your phone rang sometime before six in the morning. It worked on a daily basis, you see, and so you did as well. There are particular rungs down at the base of the economic ladder where a day off is a sort of miniature death sentence. If I had an open Thursday to offer, I said yes. Even though I had no clue what I was saying yes to. Until my phone rang about an hour and a half later.
My driver was on route.

They had given us all a hat. A brown toboggan. But the driver would have the rest of my uniform. Because UPS delivery persons have special security clearances, that let them enter airports, schools, and businesses. Each of their shirts and pants and issued hats has a long tracking number associated to it, and they use it. You’re probably not going to find old UPS uniforms in Goodwill or any other consignment shop. Which also makes the dull brown a sort of symbolic color for the company. UPS has strong suggestions for how an employee should represent their self when wearing this uniform. Like the military. There is no casual piece of company clothing. Branding control. Marketing cohesion. Which trickles down to guys like me, putting on my tremendously oversized milk chocolate colored coat and pants in an Exxon bathroom, where I was asked to leave my car parked for the entire day, a potentially twelve plus hour shift. I hopped up into the cab with a guy named Jeff, and we took off exchanging introductions. All my options and freedom of movement and control sitting locked and turned off totally abandoned in a cramped gas station parking lot.

It is also important to note, I’m working and living in an area that I am entirely unfamiliar with. Having only moved to Upstate New York that November, working now for UPS in December. The man actually gave me one of their GPS and shipping information handheld tracking devices, like I had any idea what to do with the fragmented five digit house numbers and road names that may as well have been in a different country. Jeff took it back when he saw me looking up addresses on my phone. He understood. Accordingly, he had quit this job just the week before. Jeff had come down with the flu, and was forced to call in sick to his active, high energetic and technically demanding job, and his supervisor told him no. So he quit. ‘Supe’ called him back four days later, five days into December, and with no apology, simply offered him a shift. The one we were both part of at this very point in the story. He has three kids, loves to snowmobile, is good at his job, started like me as a driver helper, took that position to something basic in the warehouse, and in just a short time, they had him driving his own truck around his own hometown. He loved it. And several people on his route loved him.

Waves, conversations, playful jokes about someone’s yappy dog, bigger more dangerous animal owners came out smiling and waving and clearly knowing. One young military wife came outside with a Christmas card after I had just dropped a package off on her front stoop, with ten dollars inside, for Jeff, or as he demanded, the both of us. And he gave me a five. I learned more about the area I had moved to in those high up violently shaken and crazy chaotic scanning barcodes and staring down mailboxes than the entire month before. I learned more about reading addresses and following road signs instead of verbal commands and diagrams and actively oriented maps on my phone. I scanned the horizon for highway signs and little flat green strips hosting street names. House numbers, how they hop across the street, very rarely move along sensibly linearly.

Cat piss covered front porches and wide open mudroom doors and setting down Amazon packages in front of houses I could not fathom anyone actually lived in. Though they did. Dogs tied up in rough outside conditions. Jeff throwing his hands one over the other sliding back and forth, dangerously smiling wildly and bouncing up from his seat, as we skated left and right across a mile long, frozen sheet of ice someone calls a driveway. UPS trucks are only two wheel drive. At least most of the trucks were, Jeff attested. Made it all that much more fun to slip around in. I detested it, as I smiled politely, and gripped the base of my bucket seat, as a friend of mine would say, hard enough to pinch the vinyl.

I live for days like this, challenges like these, but that does not mean I do not get tired. Psychically, physically, empathically exhausted. I do. And that started around five thirty in the evening, twelve hours now from when my phone first started ringing. Glancing into the back of the truck, it still looked brimming with odd sized gift boxes and brown cubes and dented rectangles one big plastic eye wrapped around paperwork stared back at me. A monster in the middle, something flat and massive, a baby crib I guessed, but never said out loud. I made the rookie mistake of casually asking what we do with the packages still in the truck at the end of our shift.

Something happens to people when they work in ridiculously difficult conditions so long they get numb to them. When someone new comes through and experiences it, they can’t help but feel a twinge of resentment. Of reminder, that oh yes, what I am doing is hard, in some ways, demeaning, and in one clear instance, humbling. They see it anew in the eyes of the trainee. And the trainee, feels for the first time the same fear and exhaustion this tried and tested worker put down and submitted to a long time ago

Corporate, as Jeff called it, never communicated to a driver directly. Always through this supervisor, who was out to get him, to hear him tell it. He had for a long time suspected, but never knew to what level they truly tracked his time and movement on the job, until he was seated in his supervisor’s office, three sheets of paper on the desk in front of him, all cataloging and detailing a five minute pit stop he had taken. Not during his recorded lunch stop, which was entered into the device. He had pulled off the road at a gas station to grab a Mountain Dew. It was five minutes as the record showed. And he was told to not let it happen again, or he might be better suited to the warehouse.

Three kids. Loves to snowmobile. Appreciates he gets to raise them in his own hometown.
Defending five minutes.

Needless to say, there is no option to end the shift until the truck is empty, he told me. He had it take him over fourteen hours in a single shift, in the past. So I asked, what if I needed to leave early, could I even be dropped off at my car, just asking out of curiosity, of course. We were over forty five minutes from there. Jeff said he would gladly take me back, but I’d be setting him back just about two hours in recovery and driving time. I told him of course not. I did my breathing exercise. I also sometimes force myself to smile. I made a joke at my expense. Caught a glimpse of myself reflected in the dingy window. Hey, I see you. UPS guy.
Who else could do what you do?

Meet a stranger out in the world, change into a strange uniform in a bathroom, hop into a truck and head off into the never less known. I wasn’t home until after ten that evening, making it a nice clean twelve hour shift. I got a check for a hundred dollars, after taxes. And I got to be a UPS delivery guy for a day.

And on top of that. They let me keep the hat.

Broken Pieces

You want to know my secret.

You could ask my sister. I remember one night, she had graciously invited me to venture out into the world with her friends. In the car on the way out of town, we were passing a cemetery, and I looked over and said that graveyard is full of people who felt the same way we do tonight. Young. Ready. More in front of us than behind us. And that’s where they are. And it went by quicker than they ever could have imagined. Elisa looks back at me and says great, now you’ve gotten that out of your system, no more of that tonight, okay brother.

But I’m telling you, contemplating mortality puts a brake pedal on time.
It slows the world down just enough that you can feel the immensity of the present.
Life is not a house you build from a blueprint.
It is a stone wall, and plans change as much as the rocks.
And you must strike a balance between imagination and functionality.
A balance. True balance. Or you will never build what we call happiness.

Which is almost exclusively made out of broken pieces.

The Freest Labor

Start building your farm in your brain. Don’t wait for land or lumber. When each nail is set, it damages the wood. Change is not the nature of nails. They’re not meant to walk back. So hold off on the expensive heavy stuff until you’ve done the brain work. Bricks lighter than light and concrete clouds that flash up and move on like summer storms. Learn. Slide up eyelids like barn doors wipe across wide short open mouths, spitting out horses and cows, and goats in molecular droves. Listen. To the names of creeks.
Legends recorded in no legends.
Word of mouth myths. Tell one story to every twenty. Farmers will give away their life’s works secrets for ten minutes of real committed roadside conversation. Don’t waste it.
Don’t wait to taste it. Don’t make them regret it.

Start your garden in your brain. Till it.
Invite the stories and criticisms of other farms in to disc it.
Commit to learn. And to listen.

Dream. Not the kind that find you asleep.
But ones that wake before the sun is up.
Dreams that wait at the bottom of a coffee cup.
Build it. Write it. In the cheapest journal ever sold.
Brain paper. Mind stuff. The freest labor. Human thought.

I like to say, if you lack perspective, you require imagination.
One or the other.

That’s one of the primary problems with human imagination.
It makes it hard finding a good excuse to wait to start anything.

The trucks that come for us

Sports Utility Vehicles on flatbeds.
Abandoned basketball courts. Backboards
look down like judges robed in dead kudzoo.
The art of checking in to a hotel room.
Tricking the lady up front into putting incidentals
on the company card. The faded gray places
where there once was stark white lines
marking parking spaces. So many engines
designed around combustion sitting in rows.
Waiting to explode. To so much
‘I never could have imagined.’

How tragic.

That red Jeep Cherokee with the crumpled nose.
Just below a second story hotel room window.
Footsteps at six am, at seven cardoors slam.
And sleep. In a place I should not feel safe.

Where the keys are plastic
and so many strangers
also have them.

Yet. Here I am.
Drove down state and ended up a night at Comfort Inn Apalachin.
Just outside Endicott. The highway noise never stops.
New York mountains frame towns and keep them from being cities.
Waking up in April and the world outside is snow white.
I remember. The trucks that come for us.
When cars no longer drive.

Marbles

It is snowing in April. Last time I saw snow this late in the season I was a teenager. Hiking across Roan Mountain. We woke up in an old fire-watch cabin converted into a simple shelter. With a loft. It was the last weekend in April. Of course we had to sleep up top, and woke to snow on our sleeping bags. This time is a little different. I’m currently in my early thirties, toe rocking my two month old son, a sort of mountain all on his own, watching flurries of snow descend like white hot hornets in waves breaking before a double layered windowpane.

I’m not going to lie, I still woke up excited. Every time. I wake up and the world is clothed by the crusty white eyelid of winter. Whole great lakes lie like frozen teardrops, wind lashes dark tree filtered horizon. All that milk chocolate churned up by cream lipped waves, all along the shore like lips. Something about this temperamental weather lends itself to similes. Pardon me for not holding back. But the whole scene is like being inside a marble looking out.

And we were going to hike in it. Through it. Wind building its own structures out of snow, men and boys stomping over drifts three feet between trees in places. We climbed down onto the road in Carver’s Gap, which was completely frozen, and I ate it. All of it. Bit off so hard I actually cracked my Nalgene water bottle. You can ask anyone who was there. I was finished. In the moment, and for good, even though I hiked the next fifteen miles, I really didn’t. I was drug along in a sort of social stretcher formed of positive reinforcement and statement of base facts. I was rocked into stasis, and sustainable forward movement, by people who, in that moment, were far far more put together than I was.

It went from novelty to reality on that trip. Snow. Between here and there. Where I’m sitting now, under siege by an army of angry water in varying forms. Navy archers behind a cavalry of seething aqua and a tooth bearing beige wearing infantry up front, eating the shoreline foot by foot, entrenching and digging their way into this place. Where I am. Toe-rocking my own little Roan Mountain to sleep watching it snow this far into spring. Typing. Drinking black coffee.

Not as much as you might think has changed between then and now.

Mostly. I’m just not so surprised when a scene I was happy to wake up and see first thing eventually also makes me slip and fall.

There are a lot of experiences that are really quite dangerous.
That are also inexplicably, breathtakingly, treacherously.
Beautiful.

Now take your breath back. And brace yourself.
Marbles weren’t made just to be beautiful.

Land Poor #oldjournals

You work dirt soft
and form rocks
out of the palms
of your hands.

The skin flakes off and leaves you.

To bruise blue and callous fingers.
Wrinkle knuckles.
Vein-traced paths twist above bony
wrists bent and flexing always. Stalling.
Avoidance in abundance.
Blisters too.
Fast friends to you.

And you are their inspiration.
They depend on you for friction.
For handwritten diction
dated phrases of speech
strangers looking stranger
than if southern meant
alien off another world.

Cut grass. Wave passed.
Smile miles down the road.
Flush commodes into septic tanks
emptied in cracked quartz rock clay.
Hot sun. Burnt red necks brown.

The skin flakes off and leaves you.

To bruise blue.
Same tan trembling finger. Only you linger.
Only what was planted at the core.
Only what was unafraid to be called poor.
And you are.
You stay.

Sore.

Actually #oldjournals

Being told by new friends I should write my ideas down.
I chuckle. No feather ruffled. Just a bit bemused

by how convinced
people are
that all of which
they are ignorant
does not
actually exist.

Never asked to see it.
Didn’t inquire about it.
It isn’t real.

And it makes me feel like a liar.
Like here I am sitting on a double-egg secret
refusing to be caught sharing it. When I’m not.

I cherish the idea of an audience.
The few I’ve had so far ran so far
that remembering their faces,
recalling their brake lights fading,
seems more gesture than decision.

But they taught me an invaluable lesson.
One new friends are not likely to ever offer.

People crave ignorance like a drug.
Giving them truth is not giving them a thing at all.
In any regard.
But taking away their favorite toy.
The great timeless game all humanity can not help but play.
And it is called by the name plausible deniability.

Out of sight. Out of mind. Head in the sand.
Willful ignorance. Fake innocence.

Like using a blindfold to turn off the lights instead of the switch.

I have no fear of more powerful persuasion than going to God
in my final instance
and actually claiming ignorance.

Write-Handed

Write hand has lost its stamina.
Whipped-shaken fingers clacking at the end of every sentence.
And penmanship, embarrassing. Some secretive tribe-speak
encoded only in laziness. Right hand has not been writing.
It has been fighting. Curled close folded like cats on cold nights
hugging leaky windows beside the fire inside.

Forming poorly insulated fists. Lifting over and over
a backpack stuffed with old World Books.
Autographed contemporary poetry reader.
An anthology of lesbian literature.

Throwing weak punches at unflinching air.
Short-hair. Tucked shirt. Alive like all it takes to survive
happens between eight in the morning and five at night.

And it isn’t right for the wrong hand to write too long.
Hardened hands at nothing. Feed clink in crimped metal pans.
Dead goats into clay. Write the very ground into ripe gardens.

Folded and unfolded and massaging keyboards and gripping pens.
And when the write hand has been found not writing, then what then?

How often should a writer have shake out his or her hand,
just to finish a poem?

New Rooster #projectlocal

About five years ago, my father purchased fifteen fresh hatched chickens for me to raise. The end goal being a freezer full of meat that knew life before it met the knife. He was to take ten of them, and I took five. But somewhere along the line, I changed my mind and decided to keep at least one rooster for the farm. Out of fifteen baby birds that showed up at five thirty in the morning at the local post office, stuffed in a box, this single Rhode Island Red was the only one who made it past a year.

There are many common misconceptions about chickens. And roosters in particular. One is that it is impossible for two roosters to cohabitate, in the same coop, tending the same brood. It isn’t all the way true. In my experience, roosters who have known separate farms, separate flocks, at least a year or two apart, will most likely fight it out a few times, and if one does not give up, which one usually does, they will continue to be a problem. But definitely not a fight to the death all at once. I’ve seen years pass by between warring chickens. As long as one backs down at some point, they’ll go on neighboring. Also, if one bird is raised around a grown rooster, or two dibby roosters grow up together, they won’t even fight. As long as a hierarchy remains solidified, a rooster really doesn’t want to peck anything to death. This was the case with the Rhode Island Red. I had another rooster on the farm, but he was no threat, so they all got along.

Then five years passed by. My older rooster, affectionately called Big Daddy, got to the point his legs couldn’t pick him up anymore. So the young one inherited the whole flock of over twenty, all to himself, for about two years. Never intended to make it past six months. You go into farming thinking it is all about this ebbing balance between life and death. Then you find out they’re both in a three-way with time. And time has a way of making life and death trade masks. It made one out of fourteen, five years out of half of one, and what would have been a single meal into half a decade of crowing, strutting, staring down tree-lines and running off hawks. But time, like all other things, has limits. It can’t make an exhausted heart keep beating, or tired legs go a mile. And just a few weeks ago, home late from rehearsal, we found the Rhode Island rooster had died.

Now, on my street, some of our neighbors are gamehens and roosters. Partially kept. Partially wild. Roosting in this short thick Magnolia tree. They hatch eggs with no human interference. There are a ton of them. Mostly little screechy males who strut slow in the road and head tilt at car bumpers and crow. Randomly, about a week after my rooster passed away at his first hint of old age, I had one of those roadside neighbor to neighbor conversations in passing as I was getting home from work. And wouldn’t you know, she offered me to keep one of these for the most part wild roosters already roaming my yard for weeks. Of course I laughed at the idea of being able to catch one, let alone having one actually get along with my hens, stay in my coop, commit full time to my farm.

I thought it was laughable. I’m not exaggerating when I say there are seven or more of these little guys roaming up our street at any given time. But, to my disbelief, one especially small game rooster, the color of a slice of sunset, just started hanging around my birds. All the time. Stopped crossing the street every night to roost in his squat magnolia tree. Caught him sleeping on a perch in my coop, where he has now been staying every night. Completely committed to the flock. Now this is not a rooster I bought. Not a rooster I went looking for, or asked about. Not one I even want, really. But it helps to have him. He watches the birds, watches the sky, finds worms in the yard and cluck-struts to call them all over. They get along, and most importantly, he knows people are people and birds are birds. Because when that line gets blurred, it makes for a fighty rooster. He is small, much smaller than the others, smaller, even, than most hens. Which I think they prefer.

This story stands out to me in particular because of the effortlessness of this modest exchange of power. How a natural opening formed on my farm, and natural excess from down the road emigrated up and filled it. How no money changed hands. Just the mere utterance of an idea by a roadside one afternoon. But the universe was listening. And without much intention, one of its humble feathered counterparts perked up and answered the call. A new rooster, to replace the one who almost never was. A new voice, to sing to the sunrise. A seed of orange fire lit up in his eyes.

But why, why this one and not another, why this one but not all the others?
Every rooster learns to crow, even after the sun has risen.
But I think, somewhere along the line, this new rooster of mine,
he learned to listen.

Not like ghosts, like knives – Old Journals

Look at me. Do not look to me.
Your eyes pass through me.
Not like ghosts, like knives,
parting flesh in furrows, seeding lies.
Not not truth. Just misrepresentation.
Which may yet prove worse.
I am honest to myself first.
While others seek to hurt, pin, nail,
quenching thirst in drought on blood, in floods,
poured over reflecting blades curved crooked,
serving to snag more of my skin,
tear away more at my armor, laid tight,
heavy over weak pale white. Then,
look at me. Not at Jeremiah. At me.
Which, to you, is I.

This idea my work has been seeding.
It is only for you who are reading.