by John Struloeff
Left with a sleeping forklift operator,
he stood alone beneath the two-ton funnel,
nozzle neck-high, its stream of seeds creaking
the conveyor as they flowed into the machine—
the jostling of screens, the sifting,
the augers that could catch a sleeve
and draw his hand into corkscrew blades.
The dust was a haze at night,
hot and gritty in his eyes.
He stood in the musty shadows, sound muffs
sealed over his ears, breathing mask cinched
around his nose and mouth.
A round, white clock ticked his sanity,
nailed to the wall in front of him.
Every thirty seconds he latched a sack
to the funnel, dropped the lever, listened
to the rush of seeds swelling—
fifty pounds of it—and unhooked the sack,
lifted and dropped it onto a scale to scoop
in or toss out to make weight,
pulled the heavy sewing machine down, ripped
the seam closed—how many seconds now?—
lifted the sack, turned, dropped it onto a pallet,
punched it flat, wiped his brow,
and turned back for another.
If thirty seconds broke,
seeds spilled over the funnel lip
and rained onto his head, making the dust
heavy as smoke. He couldn’t stop.
The machine wouldn’t allow it.
This was what work was that summer.
Eight hours, six nights a week, five dollars an hour.
After shift, when dawn was blue ash
above the horizon, he rode his bike
eight miles home to a cold shower.
During the day he slept in a sweltering house,
waking up in sweat at dusk, dizzy,
bruised meat. He ate breakfast at the window
watching the sun set red and violent,
and at full dark he would ride out again.
On the seventh day, he rested. His muscles twitched.
It was the only day for the fibers of his being
to try to bond again, to become what could
be strong. He would nap and awaken in bed, unsure
if it was morning or night, listening to the passing
of cars in a half-dream. He thought of working
in an office, of sipping coffee and driving a car to work,
of not standing beneath tons of seed, and then
in a delirium he would dream of swimming in the ocean,
a friend treading beside him. The water swirled
into thrashing, a shark, his friend screaming, pulled down
into a bloody murk. All day in his sleep, sweating,
he swam toward shore, feeling a dark presence
beneath, knowing at any moment it could rise
and take him.
It always seems to End up like this
I was just starting as a writer, really,
and driving my old Toyota pickup east
out of Lincoln, Nebraska, through Kansas
City, into the night, for blearying hours,
the tires shimmying and humming, the rusted
exhaust buzzing, my headlights skewed
like a set of lazy eyes, rolling at midnight
through St. Louis, when police lights flared.
I was heading toward the mountains of southern
Tennessee and would pass the hometown of Jack
Daniels, high up on Signal Mountain where there
awaited the most prestigious conference of writers
I’d ever heard of – and those writers had said to me,
Come join us. But first I needed to stop
for the officer. He shone his blinding flashlight
in my side mirror as he approached my window.
Good evening! he called, standing so I had to twist
my head to see him in my periphery.
He flashed the light in my eyes. My vision
burned bright blue. License and registration.
I reached into the glove compartment.
That’s when I noticed the other officer
in my passenger mirror, quiet in the dark,
staring into my eyes. I leaned back,
offered my license and registration.
He asked, Where you coming from?
I told him Lincoln. Your eyes are bloodshot.
I replied, I’ve been driving for eight hours.
He sniffed once violently.
Do you know why I stopped you?
I shook my head. Where are you headed?
I told him. He watched me for a few moments.
I guess I didn’t look like a writer—
a bearded thirty-year old man in a dirty
ball cap in a pickup with mismatched fenders
and a missing headlight. You wouldn’t happen
to have any drugs in the vehicle, would you?
I shook my head again. Some new lights
flashed in my rearview mirror. Three more
police cars had lined up behind the first.
Their silhouettes moved up to the tailgate.
Just some Tylenol, I said, gesturing to my backpack.
Nothing else? Nothing you might have forgotten
in your glove box or under the seat?
I lifted both hands. He looked at them.
Where I grew up on the north Oregon Coast,
you were taught to evade police questions,
to be a smartass and give them nothing.
A decade earlier, he probably already would
have been dragging me from the cab,
but I had left that part of the world deliberately
and wanted to live an upright life.
Absolutely nothing, I said. He shone his light
through the canopy window into the bed.
So you wouldn’t mind if we searched the back?
He was looking at about four-hundred pounds
of old story drafts and notebooks in old boxes
that had been back there for years, sliding and tumbling,
sodden with Nebraska humidity in the summers,
freeze dried in the winters. If he wanted to dig
through that mess at midnight on the shoulder
of I-70, I was too tired to want to stop him,
even if all the ex-cons I knew said that was a bad idea.
Outside my window came heavy panting,
and I looked down to see a German Shepherd
straining at its leash. It seemed the entire
highway patrol in this area was interested
in my writerly journey east. Go ahead, I said.
He raised his eyebrows. Go ahead?
I lifted my hands now. The sign of defeat.
So you give us permission to search your vehicle?
I heard laughter just under his voice.
They could now tear my truck to pieces searching.
In my quest to be an open book to the world,
this officer thought I was a fool.
If you want to. He went to the back and conferred
with the K-9 officer. Then five of them shone
their lights through the grimy topper glass
trying to decipher what sort of mess
I was hauling through their jurisdiction.
They would need a key to unlock it.
I waited, feeling as if the world was testing me,
ransacking my soul for weakness once again.
The officer returned. You know, he said,
pausing as if undecided. You seem like
an honest guy. He nodded. I nodded.
Thanks, I said. Then he added, I think I’ll let you
get on your way. I nodded again.
You drive safely, okay? He laughed, then
added, And good luck in Tennessee.
Their silhouettes faded toward their car lights.
I exhaled, starting to sense that I’d tightened
with fear. A friend of mine had been shot
by police. I’d once been thrown over the hood
of a police car and frisked when I’d done
nothing. One night an entire state police
task force had surrounded me and my friends
out in a remote part of the river dike lands,
glared their spotlights on us, aimed their rifles
at our heads—and we’d done nothing wrong.
I had thought I would die that night.
I was sixteen, afraid to lift my Mountain Dew
to take a sip for fear I’d get shot.
So I felt relief as the police cruisers rushed past
and faded into the night—in part
because I did have something dangerous with me
that they never found: my stories.
John Struloeff is the author of The Man I Was Supposed to Be (Loom Press) and has published poems in The Atlantic, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, ZYZZYVA, PN Review, and elsewhere. He is a former Stegner and NEA Fellow and now directs the creative writing program at Pepperdine University. http://www.johnstruloeff.com/