The hours there, the spindled limbs and husks
of dead insects. The powders and the unguent
smells. What’s left, now, of the orchards?
What shape and hammer? What clang of apples?
What crease of brown paper sacks with greasy sandwiches?
What salt burned into the brim of my cap?
What spines? What limb-aches from paintbrush
handles? What white acrylics spattered on green
and dense humidity of dew from grass?
Where lies the fruit trees and the hardy stock?
Where lies the open acre where we broke bottles
with pellet guns during break? Where we shot
feral cats and rabbits? Where no animal was safe
from the ferocity of boy?
What’s left now? The dumb hours of early risings,
the laying down of metal irrigation pipe. Hush-a-bye
of sprinkler heads. We’d cinch the joints up, thread to thread
and we’d take dabs of stolen chewing tobacco. We’d tamp it
down into the pink edges of our cheeks as we’d launch
dirt clods at each other and hum to the prop-plane’s
low pass over tree line. Bell-sounds, the thwack of aluminum
on rock kept time. And so did the horizon, browning
from pesticides. So did our skins, browning in the bare acres.
We were keeping pace with a dying river, the water pressure,
weak with each new fitting. We were keeping pace with our shit job,
how we each knew we were getting ripped off and how the filthy
dollars we’d wad into our pockets couldn’t buy us a fuller river, time,
or the deep meaning of zinc powder on chapped hands.
What shape and what hammer held our breaths
in the storehouse where the migrant workers hid their liquor?
Where holsters hung from coat hooks on the landowner’s door
and where we moped, still shining despite our growing declension.
Vapor-bloom of apples crushed against the forklift’s tire
cooked our senses and we’d dare each other
to steal the pistols for quick target practice. We’d stack
mealy cores on top of each other squint and pull the trigger
back and laugh as arms jerked from recoil.
We’d pick off rabbits and birds, and though the owner knew
what we had done he’d drink black coffee with bourbon,
laugh, and shake off the radio static with a wave. Later
in our houses, our hands would arc to the tender and luminous
memory of firing a round and the twitch of a body’s last kick.
What crease of brown paper sacks? What amplitudes, our hunger
to be men? What cheese sandwiches and noon times
sick from soda and too hard running? Our hands were
the real language and we hit each other with closed fists
just to unhinge the details. This was a nowhere place.
Miserable lunches and shit pay left us scuffling between
rows playing the tripping game or slapping down hard
on each other’s backs, leaving red palm-shaped welts.
We were fuses, amped on caffeine and the urgency of youth—
and the orchard was hallowed ground. Like everything
we did was righteous and holy. Where the void was
nowhere and everywhere and where our brown skins, dappled
with paint and insect bites were as pastoral as the understory
which held all things in its cold radiance.
And what salt? What hard cake on the hat brims? Our sweat
gummed up the works, made us thick and slow-witted
in the early summer haze as we moped and stooped, painting
row upon row of spindly trees, from the full-leafed
to the saplings. Our arms were heavy and our hands
ached from carrying the gallon paint cans. We’d spill
a little here and there to lighten our steps. Moving was such
theater. Acres blazed in the late afternoon.
Chemicals dusted our caps and mixed with our body mineral—
white crystals and yellow film. We’d cough into our sleeves
and drink well water from our thermoses. And we’d pour
the rest of it into our caps, letting it run down
our lengths, letting it mix with the mud, oil, and dust of ourselves,
cold, decisive, and purely from the earth.
What spines and what handles? The thin stripes of paint
dried to bone on the boughs. The arc of our backs
curved. We were fingers bent on triggers—giddy
and the trees would break beneath our savagery.
What we didn’t kill, we’d break. Whole afternoons of breaking
left us breathless and wet. The sweet tang of chewing tobacco
curled into our lips and we’d press the stuff and spit
brown gobs at each other, until we were sick from the chase.
The bee boxes at the edge of the orchard were home
to our dares and we’d bet tins of chew on who’d do
the most damage with baseball bat to a bee box while suffering the fewest stings.
It was stupid and we knew it. And despite all discretion, we charged,
our lips stinging from cinnamon while the open air
hummed, impossible and kinetic.
Where lies the open acre and all limns? Where the shade
and what edges? What serrated blades and what cuts?
Where are we, leather-skinned, a spindle of nerves
and frayed edges? What spare parts are we now
who have gone to the orchard and outlasted
the sun and the good boots? The once tongued
salt from a tooth-cut wound scars now. The scars
the deep-ruts of tree root where the earth’s worn away.
And now, what? Salt? The memory of youth? The long
hours of hands holding trembling hands? And what of the hard
breaths and the crack of a bullet against a trunk. Leave it
to memory and memory’s unmaking. Leave it
to the sun’s hot sear and the haze-induced recollections. Leave it
to the hours and the hours and the hours.
What then of the orchards? What then
of the tree limbs, dark and heavy with fruit? What of the stolen
pistol and the animal deaths suffered in the heavy sun? And what of
our masks, the resonant pitch of our throats as we’d cry
fair or foul with each blow from a fist? What of the orchards
where we grew long as the bramble and just as jagged?
Where our hearts kept pace with the sprinkler heads’ chk chk chk?
Where the gauzy horizon was like a belt cinched around
our waists, keeping us together despite our youth?
What of our youth? What then, of our youth?
Of the cheap indiscretions with a stolen flask,
and a glance at skin magazines? Where we earned quick dollars
doing nothing except being boys, learning without comprehension,
the difficult industry of men?
**Oliver de la Paz** is the author of Names Above Houses and Furious Lullaby, both published by Southern Illinois University Press. He is on the advisory board for Kundiman, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to the discovery and promotion of Asian American poetry. He teaches creative writing at Western Washington University.
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