After my father died,
I spent my summers working in
the canneries on the edge of town.
Days of sweat and machinery thunder,
nights full of hard men
and dark country drives
past shadowy fields of sleeping alfalfa.
Weekends spent down at the tavern
trading old stories for the next round
of cheap domestic beer.
Always looking for someone
to take beneath the pepper trees.
Somebody with swagger and words
to fumble at my belt
until we wander back to the bar,
spent and day-drunk,
listening to the rabble of the other men:
Off world, I hear they have real jobs
Once I hit Atmo, I’m never looking back.
the rally cry of all the boys at drink:
Real life is up there, on the other side of the sky!
Sometimes I look up and wonder…
what’s a man like me for?
We all know a guy,
who knows a guy,
who got into The Program.
He got out
they always say.
And we raise a glass,
whether to his memory,
or his destination
I can’t say.
But we take one drink for him,
and throw back the rest for us,
still here on the rock.
They got single women up there?
one of them asks and everybody laughs.
They got lots of men.
and they all look to me and have another good one.
Then it’s back to the dirty jokes and another round.
I go out for a cigarette.
Nobody smokes anymore,
you have to quit if you want to get anywhere in life.
But the cannery don’t care
and Dad smoked 77s until the day he died.
Outside, the May moon splays over the landscape,
and far afield of wild sage,
crickets howl to the darkness of the woods,
where ancient oaks reach up,
into the abyss,
to the most beautiful mess
of twisting purple darkness sky,
and then the stars…
When you travel out to the colony,
you move so fast
that time slows down around you.
But everyone back on earth
just keeps going,
living and spinning,
keeping up the place.
Out there, you might be anybody.
A streak of light in the sky
and I see a freighter coming home,
bringing back a whole mess of people,
leaving empty space out there, somewhere.
I look down at my smoke, only half done,
when a breeze comes up from the field
and I see something moving out in the darkness…
something immense and ancient,
lumbering through the night.
Half scared, I retreat back to the safety
of the neon lights and jukebox tune.
I put my cigarette out by the door,
leaving my pack in the gravel.
And I go back inside to say my goodbyes,
and close out my tab.
The night is too long already,
and it is a long way to the place
where I will feel at home.
Mack W. Mani was born in rural Washington State. He currently lives in Portland, OR.