The Tile Layers
The tile cutter on his knees whistles “Fur Elise—”
five measures over and over—all day with no surcease.
A younger man behind him, in another room,
whistles tunelessly in rhythm as he wields a broom.
Hod carriers laugh and loudly call. Comida will be soon.
One of the youngest sings out a jolly ribald tune.
Their labors hard, their hours long as they hauled and carried,
and yet they have not seemed distressed, back sore, stressed or harried.
As they go to take comida, they move with one assent
as if to be relieved of where their labor time is spent.
Outside my wall they line the curb, their legs stretched in the street
to eat their warm tortillas––their chiles, beans and meat.
The only time they’re quiet is now their mouths are chewing,
for they are never silent when they are up and doing.
Five minutes and then ten pass as the silence swells around me,
until I feel the magnitude of silence might astound me.
Then one quiet voice is heard, and then another slowly after.
But still no music, calling out, whistling or laughter.
I can imagine well the scene. They’re spread out in the shade,
on their backs just resting in the shadows trees have made.
An hour’s camaraderie, like school kids taking naps,
their ankles crossed, their dusted clothes, their work hats in their laps.
Against their quietness, a motor hums out from afar.
Persistent birdcalls interrupt the tire crunch of a car.
A lawnmower chops at grass below. My clock ticks out the time.
This hour’s quiet interlude is almost sublime.
They must wonder what I do clattering on these keys––
my room cut off from all the dust , but also from the breeze.
The large dog’s bed is in a cage with an open door.
The little dog forsakes his bed to curl up on the floor
nearer the larger, older dog, although he’s sound asleep.
They too prefer to sleep as one, their brotherhood to keep.
An hour passed, the jefe wakes and jostles all his neighbors
who find their voices as they waken to resume their labors.
The gentle scrape of trowels sets the rhythm for
young men shouldering hods of what old men spread on the floor.
The jefe scolds for tiles mismeasured, rails against the waste
of both time and materials lost because of haste.
After the day’s siesta, they work three hours more.
They measure, chip and cut and smooth, then fit and trim each door.
By day’s end, hands are coated, and collars ringed with sweat.
The dust of their day’s labors in their work clothes firmly set.
But folded in each backpack they once rested heads upon
is a fresh change of clothing that later they will don.
Cleaned and pressed, they’ll walk on home unmarked by dust or dirt,
ready for the ladies to admire and to flirt.
For a man’s not made of merely the work that he might do,
and when he leaves his labors, his day begins anew.
Actually, I was imagining the scene described in the poem as the house hushed for an hour after a morning and early afternoon of extreme noise. Diego and Morrie were imprisoned in the small run outside my door but in sight of the front entrance gate all the men had vanished through, tortured by observing all the activity they couldn’t get their paws on, not to mention all those lunches in the back packs. Then, after I wrote the poem and started to hear a few voices from what seemed to be a direction not anticipated in my poem, I went out to the living room to see the younger members of the crew hunched over their smart phones on my patio, first watching some drama, then talking to what sounded like female voices. One lay stretched out as expected, but by the pool rather than out on the sidewalk. (I had earlier invited them to eat at the patio table and the table in the gazebo, but they had preferred to warm their tortillas in my microwave and then go eat in the street.) My former stereotypes dashed, I then ventured beyond my walls into the street, and there found the older generation living up to former experience and present expectations.
(Click on first photo to enlarge all.)