Penny Men

(for Emiliano, who came to live, and die, picking grapes)

These are the men from Mexico's boot, the ones
who fell out from a hole in its bottom. They are bony
but well-attached as scissors. When they become
hungrier, they will cut their own stomachs
in half. They come to live like loose change

in a country that drops its pennies
and leaves them there; in a country whose jingle
of coins muffles the sound of backbones cracking.
These men squeezed through the gate, that slot,
and found the backroads with crosses

on which the grapevines wave their leaves
like dollar bills. Green, edible, the vineyards
promise to feed--to stuff--their pockets
though the cups of wine aren't theirs
to drink. Thirst concerns the boss no more than heat,

nor how much of it garlands each head.
After work, their faces glow sun-flat; they resemble
copper centenarios with dust instead of a bridge
over the nose, with a rust-heavy hinge for a mouth.
These faces promise to reveal exotic lands

and languages. But the bridges are impassable,
distant as the waters of a river on a map,
and the tongues are too tired to speak.
They sit beneath the pines for shade,
their heat-suffused hair steaming off. Precipitations

of sweat clean off their arms, those thin pokers
that have been stirring ash all day. They express no
criticism here, no shame. Their ears build up dirt
into stones inside their wells, at times confusing
the memory of a woman who speaks inside their sleep.

To stretch out the afternoon breeze, they play
blackjack and twenty-one, gambling bottle caps
instead of silver. Slowly, the darkness in their eyes
blends with the shadows; the sparkle of the caps
and beer can tabs ascends into the canopy of sky.

Beds are too luxurious; back seats too cramped
and sticky in summer. The men prefer cool car hoods,
their own hands for pillows, the privacy of twilight.
The moon, their second mother, knits their sleeping
coats, which always fade away with stars.

Some dawns, not all the men wake up so quickly.
One man always sinks too deep in dreams, clinging
to the woman he wishes he'd never left--the woman
who throws her voice toward the North, whose words
stir up a breeze for all the men below.

:: Rigoberto Gonzalez, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #6 (1995)

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