The Year We Learned about Tet by Gary Finke

This morning, as if the past had unwrapped
Its greasy sack of regret, I am describing
How Cecil and I worked as punishment, how,
After we swept floors and hauled trash to give us
Humility we both needed, we were noisy with relief,
And yes, pride that we’d finished ten hours
For our case of petty, bad college behavior.
Because it was February, we’d worked
Something we called the “light shift,” returning
Our tools in near-dark and standing, for once,
Among men who worked each weekend at jobs
They’d never foreseen as boys, laborers
Who did what was necessary, the work
We wouldn’t be repeating, not if we
Used our brains to earn the future’s comfort.

Those men huddled inside cars they idled
Toward warmth, windshields clearing from the bottom
In rising moons.  From the back of campus,
It was sixteen blocks to where our friends were
Already lively with beer and music,
And whether it was the twilight cold or
The simple solidarity of work,
One car door opened as “Where to?” offer.
The two of us crowded beside that man
On a stiff bench seat, the heater full-blast
On our feet while Cecil gave directions
That stopped that driver early, spilling us
Into the just-beginning snow two blocks
From our Greek-lettered house, standing in front
Of the cheap apartments where locals lived
As if he wanted that maintenance man
To believe we were not the spoiled sons
Of distant fathers, able to manage discipline,
Gesturing in the flurries as if he was already
Enlisting, his war victim future so close he needed
To celebrate our small, unimportant work.

Gary Fincke’s latest collection, The Infinity Room, won the Wheelbarrow Books Prize for Established Poets (Michigan State, 2019). A collection of essays, The Darkness Call, won the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose and was published by Pleiades Press in 2018.


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