fiction, poetry & more

2024
POETRY OPEN
Honorable Mention
$25 Award

THE HAMMER

by Gilbert Arzola

When Sal the foreman pointed to the spot

where we had to jackhammer, 

we had no time for poetry.

There were three of us, two Mexicans and a hillbilly.  

We were nineteen and twenty—the Mexicans.

The hillbilly was twenty-one—not the brightest bulb

but the oldest and that was enough to be then.

He got us our liquor after work and handed us

bottles like secrets shoved into paper bags for the ride home.

Sal the foreman was fifty-five, thin as air with

a face made of putty and yellow teeth.  

Every morning we divided the jobs, flipping coins—

odd man out.  But there was no winner.  

It was hard to know which job was worse,  

the one that bounced with the hammer all day,

the noise sticking to him like a tattoo so that you heard it all night and shook

even in your sleep.  Or the one that shoveled rocks heavier than the dreams

of getting out.  Or the one that hauled the concrete a hundred feet away

in wheelbarrows; looking for balance, watching his step.

Sal sat in the backhoe where you dumped the wheelbarrow, waiting for a full load.

He took long drags on bent cigarettes he pulled from his stained shirt pocket

as easy as a magician yanking rabbits from hats.  And sipped at his coffee.

He waited till you made a circle with your hand—

“It’s full—take it away.”

He waited and sucked long on his cigarette, taking

the smoke in like every sin he’d forgotten.

And although I didn’t know it yet,

I was the Mexican poet who noticed birds minding their nests.  

I was the poet who wondered if the babies were confused high up in branches,

trying to make sense of the noisy world where some ill-mannered god had put them.

I was the poet who noticed the breeze pushing at the branches.

Do the trees have ears I wondered, are they annoyed by the noise?

Between loads I noticed what poets notice, deaf to the

songs birds sing and leaves whispering against themselves—

All I could hear then, and even now sometimes,

years later, was the hammer.

—doing its job.

______________________________

I am the second son of a migrant worker living in Valparaiso, Indiana with my wife Linda. I was named Poet of The Year by Passager Press in 2019. My first book of poetry, Prayers of Little Consequence, was published by Passager in 2020. Rattle published my chapbook, The Death of a Migrant Worker in 2021 after selecting it from 2,000 submissions for their annual prize. My work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018. I was also a finalist for the Montoya Prize. My work has appeared in Whetstone, Palabra, Crosswinds, The Tipton Review, Passager, Slab, Gemini, and The Elysian Review, among others. Currently I’m at work on a collection of stories entitled Once Upon a Time When I Was Mexican.

May 2024