Doing the Work

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from July, 2020.

I. Delectus, n.

With Will going to Basic Training this fall,
his old Camry would just sit in the garage
for who knows how long, especially
if he gets stationed somewhere far away.
So, naturally, I asked him
if I could have the car.

“You can’t even drive yet.”
He shakes his head,
looks back at his phone.

“But I’ll be able to soon. You know
my birthday is at the beginning of September.
I can take the test then.”

He scratches his head.
“Why can’t you just use Mom’s car?
That’s what you practice on.”

“I won’t be able to drive that car
to school, Will.
I’d need it to get a job, too.
Come on.”
I feel my back tighten. 

He sighs, rolls his eye.
“Fine, Nate. But—“

I freeze mid-fist pump.

“You have to earn it.”

“What?”

“Being goal-oriented,
showing determination, grit
are values I wish I had learned
when I was your age.
What kind of big brother would I be
if I didn’t try to help you grow, y’know?”

“You’re serious? I need to pay for it?
How much?”

He types and scrolls on his phone.
“Kelley Blue Book says
the car is worth $2000.”
He raises his eyebrows,
sees my eyes widen.
“I’ll give you the family discount of $1000.
You have two months of summer left.
It’s possible.”

I exhale through my nose.
“Fine. If you say so.”

“I do. Deal?”
He sticks his hand out to shake on it.

I grab his hand.
“Deal.”

II. Coxcombery, n.

Of course he would get on some sort of
high-horse nonsense
in this whole thing.
Always has to have the moral high ground.

I lie in bed, stare at the ceiling, brainstorm.
What can I do to get some cash?
Yard work is obvious.
People probably don’t want
a stranger cleaning their house.
I can walk dogs?
Keep it vague.

I get a piece of paper out of Mom’s printer,
a sharpie and a roll of tape from a drawer in the kitchen,
make an ad for help with “odd jobs”
with my name and number on it,
tape it to the side of the neighborhood mailbox.

III. Jibbons, n.

Mrs. Plover
is a retired nurse who
lives in the house at the end of the street.
She’s the first person to call me,
says her vegetable garden needs tending.

“Be careful with those,” she calls
from her lawn chair, maskless,
as I turn some dirt.
“I started those as seeds in an Aerogarden
my daughter got me for Christmas.”

“The stalky things?” I ask.

“Yes.
They’re spring onions,” she answers,
looks at the clouds in the sky.
“I transplanted them a few months ago,
just after quarantine started.
Hurt my knee somethin’ fierce that day.
Haven’t been able to work
that low to the ground since.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am.
Would you like anything else done
when I’m finished with your garden?”
I spread compost between rows of stalks,
holding my breath best I can.

“Not today, Nathaniel.
Maybe something will come up soon.”

“Just let me know. I can help with
whatever you need.”
Whatever can get me paid.

Mrs. Plover nods, smiles, closes her eyes,
takes a deep breath of the summer air.
“That’s nice of you,” she says
in a tired voice
as she relaxes in her chair
and falls asleep.

IV. Ambigue, n.

Just gonna be honest:
I think Mrs. Plover gives me work
so she has someone to talk to.

The day after I work in her garden,
she asks me to take out
the weeds in her front yard.

She sits in a camping chair
by her front door as I work,
talking about her favorite books.

she gets quiet as the Danielson’s
park their Explorer in their driveway.
They wave as they walk inside.

She waves back, watches them
enter their house down the street
on the other side of the mailboxes.

“Never felt very sure about
those Danielsons,” she says.
“I’ve dealt with people like them before.”

I put a handful of dandelions in the bag,
wipe my forehead with the hem of my shirt.
“What do you mean?” I ask.

“At the hospital,” she says. “People like them
would always exaggerate their pain
for prescription drugs.”

Don’t know how to respond to that.
“That certainly sounds frustrating,”
I say, bending down to pull up more weeds.

V. Brigue, n.

My relationship with Jessica
has been rough
during quarantine.
She wants to FaceTime every day,
which I’ve been happy to do,
but now we can’t do that as often
since I started doing work
around the neighborhood.

Last night was bad.
I was exhausted
after weeding Mrs. Plover’s yard,
and I started falling asleep
on the call
while Jessica told me about her day.

She was upset, said
it’s apparent
she’s not important
to me.

I told her
I need the money, but
that wasn’t a good reason
to her.

VI. Alembic, n.

The summer sun,
alone in a cloudless sky,
relentless
as I mow yards of several houses.

On my break, I look at my phone to
check for more jobs,
check how much I’ve made,
calculate how much I need to make
per day
to stay on track.

I drink some water,
wipe sweat from my brow,
wring sweat from my mask, then
push my lawnmower to the next house.

VII. Ambarvalia, n.

Sacrifice.
How does she not get it?
I know it’s hard now, but
the benefits of having access to a car
infinitely outweigh
the current burden.

VIII. Thingism, n.

After a week of working around the neighborhood,
Mrs. Plover asks me to mow her yard.

She offers me a glass of water when I’m done,
cold and damp with condensation.

She takes a sip of her glass, shakes her head.
“So materialistic,” she sneers. “Vain.”

I follow her gaze to the Danielson’s driveway,
see Mrs. Danielson behind their Explorer

load her arms with canvas bags full of groceries
out of the trunk to avoid a second trip.

I take a long drink of water.
“Mrs. Danielson?” I ask.

“The whole family,” she says.
“Spending their money on such frivolous extravagance.”

I can see the Kroger-brand chip bag
peaking out of one of her bags.

“Are you sure?” I pause.
“Seems like normal groceries to me.”

“It’s not just the groceries, Nathaniel.
It’s everything. They always flaunt their wealth.”

I look at their house and yard—
identical to every other one on the street.

“Huh,” I shrug, finish my water,
thank her, get my money, leave.

IX. Ayuh, adv.

I was a bit surprised
when Mr. Danielson called me
to mow their backyard.

I don’t know why.

I guess I assumed that
they wouldn’t need the help
based on how much money they have.

That’s what Mrs. Plover said.

Even if
it’s just a pity thing,
it’s still money.

I accept the job.

X. Nomina Sacra, n.

When you go to a rich person’s backyard,
you expect to see fancy stuff—
a pool or a tennis court or whatever.

But,
the Danielson’s yard
looks just like ours.

A clothesline stretched to the back fence,
lawn chairs on their small patio by
an upturned cornhole board.

Above it, next to the sliding glass door
a placard that says
“OKE” with a line over it.

Mr. Danielson
catches me staring
as he winds up the garden hose.

“You alright?” He asks,
setting the hose behind their barbecue.
He wipes his hands on his jeans.

“Uh, yes, sir,” I stammer. “Sorry.”
I shake my head.
“Just admiring your yard. It’s nice.”

“Thank you, Nathan.”
He tilts his head at the placard.
“You have no idea what that says, right?”

I blink, shake my head.
“No sir.
I was curious.”

He chuckles. “No one ever does.
It’s an abbreviation for ‘Mother of God’
in Greek. Reminds us to be thankful.”

“Oh cool.” I nod, look at it again,
then around the yard. “I didn’t realize
how similar all of our yards are.”

“Really?” He laughs.
“They don’t make special houses
for Black people.”

XI. Dreich, adj.

When I was young,
my mom scolded me
when I asked about race
at all.

“That’s rude,” she’d say, 
then apologize to
whoever I asked about,
whoever was around.

“You judge a person
by the content of their character,
not the color of their skin,” she’d say;
something that was echoed by
every teacher I had in elementary school
in the month of January.

XII. Bricole, n.

I stammer through an apology
as an automatic response.
“Oh, sir, I’m so sorry.
I didn’t mean to imply—
I was just—
I’m sorry, sir.”

Mr. Danielson laughs so hard,
he bend over, hands on knees.
After a deep breath, he says,
“Don’t sweat it , Nathan.
You’re not the first white boy
to assume racist stereotypes about us.”
He wipes a tear from his eye.
“I just like messing with you guys.”

“No, sir, please.”
I shake my head,
wave my hands like windshield wipers.
“It wasn’t
about race at all,
I swear.”

“Oh, it wasn’t?” He asks skeptically.

“Not at all, sir. I just thought—“
It turns out, this is
even more awkward
to say out loud.
“I thought your family was wealthy, sir.”

Shames washes over me.
First, talking about race.
Then, talking about money.
My parents would disown me.

Mr. Danielson
furrows his brow, leans back.
“What
would have made you think that?”

XIII. Pacation, n.

I did my best
to end the conversation
as quickly as possible.

“I’m not sure, sir,” I told him,
seeing Mrs. Plover’s scowl in my head.

“Well, it’s alright, I guess,”
Mr. Danielson said, confused.
“Don’t worry about it,”
he added, his hand on my shoulder.
“You’re young
and have plenty still to learn.
Just be conscious. 
You’re a good person; I can tell.”

I swallowed guilt
as he pointed around the yard
to warn me about molehills,
soft patches that might need an extra push
as if nothing had happened.

XIV. Bastille, n.

I finish mowing the yard, hurry home.

Once in my room,
I put Mr. Danielson’s ten dollars
in an old Folgers tin,
update the running total
on a sticky note under the lid—
only a third of the way there.

I take my phone out of my pocket,
see multiple messages from Jessica,
lay it face down on across my bed.

I lie down and stare at the ceiling.
How had I never realized
the Danielsons were
the only Black family in our neighborhood?
Why did Mrs. Plover
say those things about them?

How much do I not know?

XV. Travertine, n.

I do only thing I can think to do:
Talk to my mom to figure things out.

“Nathan, it’s inappropriate
to talk about such matters,”
she responds immediately.

As I expected.
So, I try my brother.

He shrugs.
“I don’t know, Nate.
Mrs. Plover was a nurse for forever.
I think she’d know
what she’s talking about.”

Something still feels wrong.
I talk to Jessica.

“I don’t see why you have to
make it all about race.”
She shakes her head.
“It could be anything,
like their jobs or whatever.
Or maybe they’re from Tacoma.”

XVI. Staycation, n.

My turn to do the dishes
after dinner.
My phone face-up by mom’s coffeemaker
next to the sink.

A notification for a voicemail from
Mrs. Plover
stares at me—
an angry cat’s eye, blood red.

I wet the sponge, squirt soap
onto the baking sheet.
I scrub the sheet in small circles
slowly growing bigger.

When she called,
I dropped my phone on my comforter,
let the ringtone echo
until it ended on its own.

I’ll say I was busy.
I’ll say I needed a break.
I’ll say my mom needed my help.
I’ll say—

XVII. Simplicitatrian, n.

I turn off the faucet,
drain the sponge in my hand.

I place it in the holder,
and a gleam travels across the room

from my dad’s dog tags
hanging on the key rack by the front door.

I stand frozen at the sink.
He would be so ashamed.

He was direct, cut through
pleasantries when he needed to

address something or someone.
I need to be more like that.

XVIII. Bombogenesis, n.

Mrs. Plover asks me
to sweep out her garage,
clear her driveway, admitting
to looking for chores to “help
such an industrious boy like yourself.”

Before going to her house,
I rehearse a bunch of “call ins”
that I found online to be more polite,
just in case.

I collect dead leaves and broken twigs
in a dustpan behind her Volvo
when she finally makes a comment
about the Danielsons.

“Those Danielsons
always play their music so loud.”
She shakes her head,
places a palm over one of her ears.

I empty the dustpan into her garbage bin,
look down the road.
The Danielson kids were
drawing with chalk in their driveway.
A rumbling bass vibrated
the frame of a car further down the road.
Familiar—
a Camry. Will’s Camry.

“That’s not the Danielsons, ma’am.
It’s my brother Will’s car;
he must be vacuuming it out
and turned it up.”

“Hmm.” She squinted to
see the source of noise.
“You might be right, but
that family
does have a habit of being way too loud.
So inconsiderate.”

I gulp.
“Mrs. Plover, I don’t mean to be rude, but
I’ve never noticed the Danielsons
making any sort of noise.”

“You haven’t??” She asks, aghast.

“No, ma’am.
It usually my brother Will, I notice,
playing his music so loud.
Just because it’s hip hop
doesn’t mean
it’s the Black family playing it.”

She leans back in her chair,
clasps her hands in her lap.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” she says slowly.
“Thank you for that insight, Nathaniel.”

XIX. Abrodietical, n. and adj.

For the next week,
Mrs. Plover doesn’t call.

For the next week,
fewer people called
in general.

Maybe
people are vacationing
or on road trips.
Hopefully.

XX. Don’t-carishness, n.

Most people stopped calling.
I see them
around the neighborhood
when they said
they’d be out of town.

So what?
It’s nothing.
I can still do it.
There’s definitely something
I can do.

XXI. Ryotei, n.

Jessica tells me about
the restaurant she and her parents went to.
Some place with a French name
I don’t know the letters for,
finally accepting reservations
after reopening
from the coronavirus closure.

My eyes dart between
her FaceTime window
and
my half-empty Folger’s tin.

She talks about
eating on their patio
under a forest green umbrella,
the sun setting over the sound
as her parents clink crystal glasses.

I chew
the inside of my lip.

XXII. Taffetine, n.

The only people who call anymore
are the Danielsons.

Mrs. Danielson asks for help
putting laundry on the line
in their backyard.

“The factory is hell on my shoulders
some times,” she says,
placing a bin on the grass.
“With all the orders Amazon gets lately,
it’s been real bad.”
She rubs her left shoulder
with her right hand,
her elbow like a bird’s beak.

“Of course, ma’am,” I say,
picking up a shirt.
“Do you want them spaced a certain way?
Or, like, hung some way?”

She flicks her wrist at me.
“Psh! As long as they’re all up,
doesn’t matter.”
She winces, holds her shoulder.
“After a few hours,
you can come back and pick ‘em up.
I’ll have the girls fold ‘em;
they need to earn their keep.”
She smirks.

“No problem.”

Stiff clothespins over the taught line,
high over the yard.
I have to stand on the tips of my toes
to hang a pair of jeans.

I pick up a scarf,
a deep blue,
no end, a complete circle,
so soft in my hands.

Felt like holding 
a target and 
a halo and 
the ocean and
a band that holds us all together

all at once.

XXIII. Coulrophobia, n.

Since I started working
for the Danielsons,
it’s felt like
a floodlight flipped on—
I can see so much more than before.

Comments
from my mom,
from my brother,
from Jessica and her parents,
from my friends on Instagram
echo
Mrs. Plover.

I always hesitate,
aware that my lack of work
is directly related to
how I responded to her,
aware that people who do respond
are insulted, ridiculed,
drowned in torrents of
trite clown emojis and memes.

So, my thumbs
hover over an open keyboard
as I look out my window,
down the street,
to see Erica, the youngest Danielson,
riding her trike around the mailboxes
across the street from her house,
up and down the sloped curb
in constant circles.

XXIV. Fakement, n.

Maybe
I need to just act
like a garbage white person
to get the work.

Michael Jordan once said,
“Republicans buy sneakers too,”
so it shouldn’t be a stretch to say
racists need mowed lawns too.

Can I really
throw the Danielsons under the bus
for my own gain?

Maybe
I fake it to get the work, get the cash,
then call them out
after they say something awful.

XXV. Sprigger, n.

“... Thank you for the opportunity.
Have a good day. Also,
Black lives matter.”

“... It’s no problem; I enjoy the work. Oh and,
Black people have every right to protest
without retaliation from the government.
America was founded through protest.”

“... Of course. I’m happy to help.
But, you must realize what you said earlier
about, uh, ‘they bring gangs’
is a racist stereotype, right?”

“... No, thank you. But,
your privilege
as a white person
gives you opportunities
that people of color
do not have.
It’s not as simple as
‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.’”

XXVI. Myriad, n. and adj.

“What the hell are you doing?”
My mom’s question punctuated
by her dropping a bag from Taco Bell
on the kitchen table.

“I’ve been getting weird stares while
driving through the neighborhood lately,
and they keep whispering—
as if I can’t tell
what they’re doing when
they put their hands over their mouths.

“Then, then, as I get out my car tonight,
Mrs. Meredith has to call me over
to tell me that my son—
my well-mannered, kind son—
has been terrorizing the neighborhood,
calling everyone racist.

“What the hell were you thinking?
I raised you better than that.
You know
not to talk to people about that stuff.
I’ve told you so, so many times.”

She pauses, looks over at the key rack.
“... your father... 

“I am so disappointed in you.”

XXVII. Bricktop, n.

I stammer,
“I was just trying to do the right thing.”

I am small,
a child hiding in their bedroom closet.

“I was doing
what Dad would have wanted—“

“You don’t know what he would have wanted!”
She closes here eyes, deep breath in.
She wipes her black curls from her face
as she exhales.

“I know
he was bullied for his hair color
most of his childhood.
I know
he spoke his mind,
stood up when he saw others getting hurt.
I know
he joined the army
to defend our freedom.
I know
he died
fighting for our country and our rights.

“Don’t tell me
I don’t know
what my father would have done.”

XXVIII. Metempsychosis, n.

She places her hands on her hips,
shakes her head.
“You’re just like your dad.”

She nods slowly,
walks over to me,
rubs my cheek with her thumb.
“You remind me of him so much.”

She inhaled shakily,
walks back toward the front door.

“Now eat your quesadilla.”

XXIX. Social Climber, n.

“What are you even doing?”
Jessica’s face was serious,
eyes intense.
“Madison said
you were making
everyone in your neighborhood
uncomfortable.”

She said it with hesitance,
like she was afraid to talk to me at all.

“I only made racists uncomfortable by
pointing out their own biases
against Black people.
They should be uncomfortable.”

“You can’t just go around
making people uncomfortable!
You’re just going to
drive people away from you!”
She shakes her head,
face in the palm of her hand.
“That whole
Black Lives Matter thing
was trending months ago.
It’s over, Nate;
you’re too late.”

“Who am I driving away?
People who don’t want to see
how they’re mistreating others?
People who want to allow
people of color to stay oppressed?
Good riddance.”
I take a breath to stop myself from yelling.
“Human rights are not a trend.
They’re not something that goes away
after Kanye says something outrageous.
People need help,
and I want to help them.
Don’t you?”

She sighs.
“There isn’t anything I can do, Nate.
I posted the black square,
which did bring
a lot of awareness to the cause.
I did my part.”

I stare.
“Have you done anything
to confront your own privilege
as a white woman
since then?
Especially
as a wealthy person?”

She back away from the screen slightly.
“What are you even talking about?”

“You have a huge platform,
vast amounts of money—
don’t deny it.
Your family just went to an
expensive restaurant a few weeks ago.
You have thousands
of followers on Instagram.
Your life is easier because of your race.
That’s just how it has been.”

“My life hasn’t been easy!”

“Comparatively, it has been!”
I yelled. I tried not to, but I did.

“Is this really
how you’re going to be now?”

“Are you really
going to act ignorant
of your power, influence, and privilege?”

She ends the call.

XXX. Nuée Ardente, n.

“Dude, what’s going on?”
Will enters my room, disheveled,
after I put my phone down.
“I just got home, and
Mom is out there yelling at
Mrs. Meredith.
You know why?”

I sigh, exhausted
by the two previous conversations,
lamenting another negative response.
“Me.”
I sit up on my bed.

“What? Why you?”

I close my eyes,
attempt to center.
“I was doing some jobs
around the neighborhood
to raise money for the car,
right?”

“Right.”

“Well, I became aware of the racism
in our neighborhood after doing some jobs
for Mrs. Plover.”

“The old lady on the corner?”

“Yeah.
She said a bunch of rude stuff
about the Danielsons
down the road.
I confronted her about it,
then she told everyone else
I was a problem.”

“Oh.
That’s why Mom’s yelling at Mrs. Meredith?
She believed Mrs. Plover?”

“... Not exactly.
After a while,
I called around for work
at the places I had heard racist things,
so that I could call them out
on their racism
after they paid me.”

“What.”

“I know.
I stand by it—
it had to be done.
Mrs. Meredith yelled at Mom
when she got home tonight, because
I told her
it’s racist to believe 
the Danielsons will
‘prowl the neighborhood’ to
‘loot all of our cars.’”

“Oh what? No way. She said that?”

“To my face, Will.
I had to call her out on it.
Those beliefs are dangerous.”
I paused, a deep breath.
“Are you angry at me too?
Mom and Jessica were.”
I look down at my feet.

XXXI. Similitude, n.

I can’t tell if it takes him
five seconds or five minutes
to say,
“Naw, man.”
He sits next to me on my bed,
punches my shoulder.
“You stood up for what you believe,
fought against injustice—
it’s what Dad would have done.”

“That’s what I told Mom!”

We laugh.
I didn’t think
I would be capable of that tonight.

When he calms down, Will asks,
“So you tanked you’re business then?”

“Completely.”

“How close were you?”

“Several hundred short.”

He whistles, nodding his head slowly.
“You can have it for whatever you got.
Antiracist discount.”

I can’t breathe, excitement bursts
from my chest.
But.

“No.”

“What?”

“It wouldn’t be right.
I have to earn it,
like you said.
Just being handed a thing
doesn’t happen. You have to do the work.
Working for something is important.
I want to earn the car.”

Will lies on his back, looks at the ceiling.
He thinks for a while.
“Okay. You’re right. So,
I leave in two days.
Maybe
you can give the money to Mom
when you get what you need, and
she can deposit it for me;
I’ll leave her the keys.
That way you can get it
when you earn it.”
He holds his hand up toward me.

I grab his hand
for the most awkwardly angled handshake
of my life.
“Deal.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s