Three-Man-Operation, poem by Mathews Wade

Papaw’s ranch ain’t so much a ranch
but a two man oper­a­tion with his neigh­bor
Ter­ry, whose wife is also named Ter­ry,
just two men rub­bin pen­nies, joined
by fences mend­ed with zip-ties, where
strung-out race horse res­cues pop­u­late
junked-fields & hunt­ing dogs are kept
hun­gry for the let-out in cages inten­tion­al­ly
hid­den behind the barn for fear of PETA or
a stand-in mail­man who might be canine
sym­pa­thet­ic, where frog ponds ain’t real
ponds but bro­ken field tiles filled-in
with cof­fee-col­ored water as to not be a haz­ard,
though the two’s per­cep­tion of what a haz­ard
is, or isn’t, is one of the many things you’ll
soon learn not to trust, like when Ter­ry
tells you to point your tal­ly-whack­er at
that third-wire, you don’t lis­ten & if you do
you won’t again, or if Papaw tells you
to drink the Kool-Aid from his spit­toon,
you don’t lis­ten, & if you do you’ll spend
the rest of your life try­ing to for­get the taste
of anoth­er man’s stains.

//

Before he hands over the cat­tle-prod, he zaps it twice to remind
you of the pow­er you’re about to hold, mul­ber­ry pie lingers
in his den­tures from your annu­al blood­mouth break­fast, a fun
tra­di­tion as you recall—press it to hide, he says, get it to move.

//

After Papaw’s sec­ond heart attack, after
Ter­ry took up drink­ing when female-Ter­ry
left him for a man they both called a word
Meemaw wouldn’t allow spo­ken inside
the house, you spend your sum­mers
mow­ing, shov­el­ing, lis­ten­ing to the radio
spill racism & spit­ty fear, clop­pin about
in mid-high muck boots past your knees, proud
of the trac­tor keys in your pock­et, the camel
on the key­chain is smok­ing a cig­a­rette,
but you con­sid­er him a friend, looks friend­ly
enough, you learn a lot in these sum­mers,
the taste of Old Mil­waukie, about shanks
& jig­gers, why shot­gun shells are red,
that drink­ing cold chick­en broth from a ther­mos
will keep you hydrat­ed while you search
for castel­lat­ed nuts with a met­al-find­er, the ranch
becomes a three-man-oper­a­tion, as they start
to call it, even let you sit on the porch as the two
of them croak at the moon like frogs
in a whiskey-lin­go you pre­tend to under­stand.

//

You awake to a flash­light in your face, predawn shad­ows mov­ing,
by this time you know the drill, the pie for break­fast, the zap, zap,
get the beasts to move while they’re still sleepy—wait for the Semi.

//

It’s Labor Day week­end, your last week
on the ranch before start­ing sixth grade,
you’ve been prac­tic­ing your lock­er com­bi­na­tion,
the sat­is­fy­ing click-pop like dri­ving
a nail into new-cut wood, Ter­ry wants to ship
the cat­tle ear­ly this year, says he needs the mon­ey,
& by this time you’ve made enough mis­trust-
mis­takes that you’ve start­ed ask­ing ques­tions,
you want to know where the cat­tle go after
the round-up but Papaw refus­es to say, so you ask
Ter­ry, & Ter­ry says to hop in the pick-up
when he goes to get the mon­ey, so you ride along,
fol­low­ing the 16-wheel­er car­ry­ing all forty
of the fur­ry Here­fords you’ve named,
you can see their eyes through the per­fo­rat­ed
met­al, same eyes watched you work all sum­mer,
dumb as inbred retriev­ers, but always smil­ing,
& when you arrive, you real­ize real quick
some things are bet­ter left unknown.

//

You’ve seen enough sun­ris­es to know a good one & you pray
that that morn­ing it would be good, but it came blunt as ham­mer
to skull, just a sneeze of light, not a smear of color—see that boy
lean­ing against the fence ask­ing for for­give­ness? that’s you.

mathewswadeMath­ews Wade was raised in Hilliard, Ohio, and is cur­rent­ly work­ing towards his MFA at Colum­bia Uni­veristy. He is the win­ner of the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets Ben­nett Prize, 2016.

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