I’d been laying foundation, digging
the footing for subsidized housing. My father,
afraid that I wouldn’t make tuition,
used his connections. The foreman lived
with whiskey at a local motel; he showed me
how to cut thumb-thick rebar with bolt loppers,
how to use the pick to break clay, how
to put my weight into the shovel.
He disliked me immensely. That’s how it was.
If I made it to college, I could stay
out of Vietnam. Nonetheless, I got fired
after a few days, and spent the summer
drinking three dollar a case Busch, and
watching Fat Jerry cannonball from a pickup bed
into East Quincy Pit. I made tuition later
with a crowbar and sledge hammer, a new boss
saying simply—gut the place.
Tonight, watching your class line up
at the stage, I picture myself in black robes,
mortar board sliding like cheese
off a pizza, the vowels in my name
rolled like a loose joint between Nelson
and Palmer. I’m certain I wasn’t happy,
just ready, like you, for the something
different we were promised.
Al Ortolani’s poetry and reviews have appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, New Letters, Word Riot, and the New York Quarterly. He has four books of poetry: The Last Hippie of Camp 50 and Finding the Edge, published by Woodley Press at Washburn University; Wren’s House, published by Coal City Press in Lawrence, Kansas; and Cooking Chili on the Day of the Dead from Aldrich Press in Torrance, California. His fifth book, Waving Mustard in Surrender, will be released by New York Quarterly Books later in 2014. He is on the Board of Directors of the Kansas City Writers Place and is an editor with The Little Balkans Review.