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The Long Labors

My grandmother said it was going to be long — as long as you can hold your lineage

— depending on how long you can hold your tongue — as long as your tongue can wrap

around the pit — of some stolen stone fruit —as long as you can hide your pitter-patter face

— glued in sun-split splinters – lengthening shadows as long as your face — longing

to be mirrored back — back to your daughter your mother your grandmother — freckle by

freckle — furnished forever across — the long loaming haul — Collapsed

in a pool of spit — my mouth over papers — raccoon doctorate — luxurious loser with thin

branch fingers — no meat in the palm — no muscle in the bending — the farmer in me is

atrophying — the cook the factory seamstress the clerk the mother in me is pooling out —

all that I come from — all that I owe to them — what is left of me — what is — me:

professorial rat — book leavened and maddened in meetings — chewing at my desk on a

frozen anything — microwave spun and splattered on lessons — wondering who packaged

this — who spooned this glacial sauce into this plastic hull — whose hands whose daughter

does she look like me does she like dancing in the gloaming — funneled into my greedy

mouth — I: daughter of long labors — I: knock-off half-price guilt — I: impossible

imposter big words big words — trying to prove what — and to whom — I wait to be

seated at a restaurant — a white person enters and orders from me — “I want sweet and

sour chicken but without bell peppers and brown rice” — and I almost take it down —

In the twelfth hour of nightshift overtime — my mother gob-

bles the air of the facility — mouth opening a cavern or a bowhead whale or a sinkhole —

gobbling up its oxygen its nitrogen its argon its skin its hair dust its swirling smog — collect ing time collecting benefits — her eyes so baggy they carry a leaking pack of chicken breasts

— she had planned to cook tonight for us — but look at the break room clock she is out of

time and now — they will surely go bad — what a waste at $1.50 a pound — she returns to

her station rubs tiger balm and lavender oil along her wrists and hands — chews dried

ginger to keep awake — the root of herself sharpening salivating — reapplies pink lipstick

swivels the tube upwards — rituals of resilience — feeds letters to machines churning

intestinal noise — electricity bills and love letters and baby photos and magazines ladies

who lunch will take to the salon and credit card limited time offers and reminders from the

dentist and supermarket weeklies and postcards from Oahu “you wouldn’t believe how

blue the water how restful how peaceful bring the whole family next time” — ginger chew

ginger chew — Who made this for you — do you know the song that

reminds them of home — do you know to play the radio as loud as you can and roll down

the windows and smack your cheeks ten times in order to stay awake for the drive — do you

know who sewed on this button — do you know the murmuring leg ache from standing all

day a tree for whom — do you know who processed the letter you received today — fed it

into a machine with paper cuts as wide as a river you could float in — do you know how

long you can hold your urine until your 15-minute break — the roiling pressure in the

72

abdomen the tick-tap of the feet the hands — how much to tip the gas attendant in Jersey

how the smell sticks behind both earlobes — the temperature when flipping a wok the

oil burns the white-papered hat measuring salt at the brim — how your impatient face

resembles a slowly rotting peach — worms in the snarl — do you know the name of your

fishmonger the name of my uncle the times he has snuck in a call to say he will be late

picking up his daughter fish scales glittered to his elbows like opera gloves — do you know

cuticles peeling white like flecks of cod after washing dishes — do you know the smell of

nail polish remover stinging bees in your nostrils — do you know the back — how the back

curls how the back bridges how the back puckers and crunches — like packed snow no one

else but you will shovel out —

I look up how labor is used in a sentence — “the obvious labor” — “immigrants

provided a source of cheap labor” — “negotiations between labor and management” —

“wants the vote of labor in the elections” — “the flood destroyed the labor of years” —

“industry needs labor for production” — anthropocene capitalism gentrification – what

do these words mean – and to whom — helping my mother over the sink — I snip the ends

of long beans 豆角 with kitchen shears – the ends rolling away — little green lizard tails – I

cut away each word like a long bean — gentrificat — gentrif — gen — ge — g — glugging

the g — down the drain — If only lying on a beach — limbs

loosened like an old garden hose — if only watching the movements of our stomachs —

rising and falling like baby jellyfish — our thighs waxing and waning — in bristle-rough

sand if only — reading a book the pages — wrinkled and curled like a snail shell — from

falling asleep against our faces — if only devouring a cloud — full of no rain no metallic

muscle if — only softness if only we —went off in the softness — into the downy relaxing

abyss — what is this word — vacation — my grandmother asks me chili oil hitting the wok

like delicious dying stars — My grandmother said it was going to be long —

going out the door always late for work — shirt inside out — said go on and bounce a

howling baby (my mother/me/et al) – while skimming oxtail broth — the fat sheen of look

how well we eat in this country —lest you forget it was worth it — lest you forget — the

dilation of the cervix going the contractions going the grip the placenta the shit the vernix

the garbled life going the soft flashlight eyes the milk the teeth the nails the hand on heart

the soup coagulating on the stove — you must go — for what gleams in the dark turns to

look at you — remember this — the work and the afterwork and the work of being

perceived as not doing enough work though you are working well over enough — will this

ever be enough — when is enough enough — the chorus now: not until the knots of fat

— melt in this wok — not until you have nothing left but this suet — this smear of high

heat lineage — gleaming in the gloaming — and it is yours and it is mine and it is your

dream daughter’s and it will last longer than you will ever believe — believe us —

from How to Not Be Afraid of EverythingFind more by Jane Wong at the library

Copyright © 2021 Jane Wong
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Alice James Books.

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