“My Father Worked Piece-Rate at the Schult Mobile Home Plant” by Josh Bontrager

Josh Bontrager


And when time is so diligently money
you learn fluent precise movements—
an economy of seconds, the cost of a step.

For outlet cutouts in wall paneling, he would run lipstick
around the rim of the switch box, dry fit a panel,
drill out a corner and saw a hair wide of the red line.
He told me tapes lie and waste time.

When I showed up at my first construction job
the guys inspected my tool box: how fancy
my new work belt, your sister’s? my Craftsman’s tools.
Then their faces lit up like drop lights. The lipstick.

My tool box became my purse with Rainbow Brite
and My Little Pony stickers stuck on with PVC glue.
My hammer glittered in the sun, pry bar spray-painted pink.
Sparkling stars marked my tape’s sixteen-inch increments.

I was Betsy, Melinda, sugar-tits and sweetheart.
It was salad for the lady at lunch, tampons in my truck.
Yes Ma’am when I got mad and walked off
one of the guys would put his arm around me,
whisper in my ear—Dude, your vagina is showing.

The guys measured over and down for drywall cutouts,
misread it by half an inch, slack in the tape, or over-cut it.
Even when the boss would come around,
see the waste and threaten to take it out of their pay,
they’d stay late, sweeping or cutting all the odd pieces
to make good—but they’d never put on the lipstick.

Perhaps that was not the way their fathers
had taught them, or they learned too much pride, hated change.
But really, they couldn’t stand to lose the joke.
We weren’t the boys of summer, on a ball field honing our swing.
We swung hammers and never wore gloves for anything.

People don’t know our names—the guys who built their homes.
No banners, plaques or columns in the paper.
Just payday for men passing from job to job,
going on disability, blowing town
to avoid child support, the probation officer.

Men not remembered by the number of boards they carried,
how fast they rocked a ceiling, or weaved shingles in a valley.
Same tasks over and over that blur into years
of floor plans and lot numbers you can’t tell apart
or if the new guy is just an old guy passing back through.

How you’re remembered is around beers at the bar.
The time so-and-fuckin’-so hung six cabinets sideways
or went to hardware asking for board stretchers and a sky hook.

The guys don’t want to talk about the one weekend
a month they get their son, their cut hours,
or the women who work them like jobs and move on.
No. Tell the one how Shirley carried lipstick in his tool purse.

from Rattle #46, Winter 2014
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist

[download audio]


Josh Bontrager: “I work construction and drive a late-’80s rust-cut Ford Ranger with an unlicensed decal rendering of Bill Watterson’s Calvin mischievously urinating on a Chevy symbol. The Ranger has some stories. I got some too. Here’s a story about working construction. Like carpentry, I see poetry as a craft. Sure I’m missing some of the poetic tools (pawned for dog food money or broken with ignorance), but I’ve learned to jury-rig houses, mobile homes, poems, and pick-up trucks. A few years back I started to call stanzas—then whole poems—‘word piles’ in an attempt to gain distance from the esoteric and move toward crafting concise, accessible, and hopefully meaningful narratives that can be enjoyed alike by bartenders, writers, brawlers, you and drywallers. Enjoy this word pile as you would a sandwich from the deli of your choosing.”

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