Issue # 69/70

June 2020
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Art: Linda Hall, "Cake for Dinner"

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Apalachee Review # 67
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Featured writers/Featured Prose

Patricia Henley


   Man with a big belly in a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt leans on a newel post at the foot of  stairs leading up to a scruffy foursquare. Winter wind nudges me along Ormond Street. It’s the kind of weather you don’t want to be out working in. He’s delivering phone books. He curses those stairs. Something about Christ on a crutch.

            Once I did that.

            Once I waited tables at a Bible camp.

            Once I clerked in a library.

            Once I assisted at a daycare in a bowling alley, cigarette smoke fog-like over me and all the munchkins.

            Once I was a barista in the steam and squeak of an espresso shop and I laughed falsely — nearly every day — at my boss’s jokes. That’s work, too.

            Once I folded wool sweaters at a stand-alone shop. We could see the mall proper, that oasis, but we were not allowed to go anywhere for lunch. We sweater-folders ate our smashed tuna sandwiches knee-to-knee in the utility room, the fusty odor of a mop bucket overtaking the tuna. Sometimes I was banished to the rickety balcony to sew labels into sweaters on an old black Singer sewing machine. The word sweatshop comes to mind, but I’m not recalling this to align myself with oppressed people. I knew or thought I knew all along that privilege was mine, waiting down the highway.

            Once I sold handguns and Virginia hams at a roadside stand. The men who came in to own the handguns with their eyes made my skin crawl. They were excited by the guns, as if by porn.

            Once I cleaned houses. Big houses at Big Sky. Places where the walk-in-closets were lined with twenty pair of cowboy boots.

            Once I wrote real estate ads and answered the phone for the realtors in their stilettos and false eyelashes.

            Once I cooked the evening meals for paying customers on raft trips.

            Once I sold Christmas trees.

            Once I taught aerobics classes.

            Once I picked potato bugs off potato plants and drowned the bugs in a coffee can of kerosene. I traded that labor for a burlap bag of wheat berries that lasted most of the winter of 1976.

            Once I pruned apple trees in February, my cheeks chapped, my trapezius muscles seized up as if in cartoon shock.

            Once I picked apples.

            Once I picked cherries.

            Once I picked pears, but that only lasted a few hours. I couldn’t stand the sticky pesticide that clung to my  hands and hair.

            A friend from that era used to say, “Enlightenment can be found at the end of a shovel.” He died of an auto-immune disease. I can still hear him playing his flute among the lodgepole pine. I can picture him, in the brassy light of a lantern, reading Lord of the Rings to kids we knew. He taught me how to use a misery whip. How to hoist a bag of grain on my shoulder to save my back. How to ration my breath while hiking up a steep switchback in the Enchantment Range. He taught me attitude I’d call tough, or stubborn.

            Now, a young neighbor tends her roses and says to me, “Don’t you like to be outside? I never see you outside working.” Times like that I zip it. Times like that it comes home to me how little my neighbor, or anyone, knows me. The exhaustion that colonized my body or the euphoria of hard work, the way it fixes in your mind and sinews. I still dream about those apples. Winesaps. Reds and Golds. Braeburns and Cameos. In the dream my bag is always full and my bin is always empty.

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