Hanging Clothes
In the Sun

Cheryl Savageau

His youngest daughter helps him
wring the clothes
while his wife answers phones
for doctors. The washing machine
is broken again.

In the factory
where he etches pathways
onto silicon chips
he wears a white coat and pants,
special shoes
to protect the chips from dust.

This is the best job he's had.
Better than last year
when he sprayed lawns with poisons,
then set up little signs
warning others not to walk there,
his clothes saturated,
his asthmatic lungs
choking on the clouds
marked hazardous to pets and humans.

All summer, he'd had to refuse
his daughters' hugs until
he removed his poisonous clothes
on the back stoop. Tee shirt,
jeans, baseball cap,
he put them in a plastic bag,
and showered while his skin burned.

Before that it was asbestos.
Wrapped in plastic,
he'd remove the sagging ceilings,
the flaking insulation on basement pipes,
vacuuming to remove the tiny particles
that would lodge in the lungs.
They floated in dreams, followed him
like a swarm of invisible bees.

This job was better than that,
in spite of the tanks of solvents
leaking noxious fumes,
the paychecks that didn't stretch.
Better than working at the defense plant
across the lake, where Air Force personnel
checked his I.D. badge each morning,
where everything and nothing was secret.

He squeezes water
out of shirts and towels.
He knows he drinks too much.
He dreams of moving to New Hampshire,
where his people walked
for 10,000 years,
and where, he believes,
the water is still clean,
but up north, the Lancaster paper mill
spills dioxin into the Connecticut River,
and downstream, five young girls have surgery
to remove cancerous wombs.
Anyway, there's no money.

Now the washing machine
is spewing soapy water
onto the basement floor.
His daughter frowns determinedly
at the towel in her hands.
At five years old, she knows how to help,
squeezing out the dirty water,
hanging clothes in the sun.

--- From Poetry Like Bread,
Edited by Martín Espada
©2000, Curbstone Press

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