David Salner

1968: THE DIGGERS PLACE                       


San Francisco, the summer of love,

and I wander the streets, searching for some,

and a place to crash. The wind off the bay

has been beating me all afternoon, all night,


a chilly fog. I enter a soup kitchen,

order beans. People younger than me

troop past, smelling of musk and dope,

talking about the towns they left last week,


Milwaukee or Baltimore, and the good vibes

here, always the good vibes here, while I

shiver despite the air full of steam and grease—

and the shoulders of a big guy with tattoos


and shoulder-length hair, who squeezes in next to me.

"You ought to try the Diggers Place," he says,

"If you need a place to crash." So I go

to the three-story house, where they tell me,


"Sleep anywhere you can find, except

the couple's room." The hallways are dark

and packed with people who don't wake up

even when stepped on. I fall through a door


and I'm in the couple's room. A few feet away,

under a pink light bulb, a woman's back

arches—the walls seem to grind and convulse.

They ought to lock the couple's door, I think.


I give up on sleep, find a playground outside,

and sit on a Jungle Jim. The dew on the steel

soaks through my jeans. I light my last smoke,

sniff the bouquet of tars on my index finger,


watch the tile roofs darken as dawn

transfixes each gable in a coral light,

a jumbled perspective. Where will it end?

Where will I sleep tonight? The future drops off


into mystical space; I vanish, 

can't see the decision I'm going to make,

or the years of hard work I'll gladly put in

in towns like Hibbing, Guadalupe, Nitro.


More recently, my daughter holds up

a stringer of blue fish and grins for me

and the camera, while the head boat

rocks underfoot, spray cold on my face.


But during the summer of love, I didn't

know where I'd find my next smoke, let alone

a future like this—and how easy it was

to arrive here. I had survived my past.





It has that 1930s look,

and they look like men of that time—

no more famous than I am.


Except for the baseball jerseys,

they could be two harvest hands

who wandered into a tavern


after tossing square bales in the sun.

The shade and the overhead fan

are good things to these men—


elbows resting on the bar, chaff

in their eyes, chaff in their hair.

"I might follow the harvest south


to Texas or California," Lou says.

The two men shake their heads

and exchange oblique grins.


"Hell of a life," Babe adds,

crows feet showing through his tan.

Lou places a dime on the bar.


One more beer for Babe and Lou

and then they're gone.




Early winter—I'd gotten the day off school

to go to Dean Bentzel's farm

for my first slaughtering. It would be

educational, said Mr. Hamm, my fifth grade teacher.


I got up early—sniffed the low-hanging clouds.

"Warm for winter," I thought, and shook my head,

"no," as Mom held my bulky coat up. Then we drove

in the green station wagon, passing fields


that were x-s to me—ex-corn, ex-wheat,

tilled stubble, all gray and brown. They were

too rough for hard-hit grounders—and if

you ran deep for a pass, a pheasant squawked up.


She dropped me off as the winter sun

parched the last of the mist, chilling everything

in its blue-bright spell. No one warned me

there'd be so much standing around, or I would've


dressed warmer. But there were important things

to watch for—like Dean's dad and Mr. Zumbaugh,

arranging the chains on a giant brace,

which looked like it should've been on a playground,


holding up swings. They pushed it, on wheels,

to the barn and hooked tackle and chains

to the apex, high in the frozen air. Meanwhile,

Mrs. Bentzel worked in the kitchen,


with women from nearby farms. They were

where I wanted to be, where the air smelled of bread.

I was freezing outside with the men—

who loaded and sharpened—when the women


burst from the kitchen and marched to the barn—

each bearing a tub of steel, heated

and wrapped in a towel. A curtain of steam

rose in front of the steer—and I heard                     


a clink as they  placed the tubs

on the frozen ground, then a crack!—

as if those farm-women had broken

the earth wide open. The steer slipped,


like he was on ice. Dean's father

let out the rope on his neck, and Mr. Zumbaugh

lowered the gun. It was over—I'd seen

the stunned look on the face—and how small


the red hole was. I asked Dean if we could

get warm, but he pointed at his father,

who hoisted the steer by the feet

from the quivering chain, strung like a harp


in the frozen air, and Mr. Zumbaugh

sliced the neck and jumped back

as the steer came to life for a sickening moment

and a stream of red poured out and steamed


in the cold, while the men danced with their tools,

and I slid to the ground and got sick,

which no one noticed, because of how hard

they all worked except Dean,

who led me into the barn. "Some kids

throw up the first time. You can rest here—

I need to go back—we've got two more

Holsteins to do." I shook my head, "no,


I'm okay," wiped my mouth on some straw,

and we found a corner to pee in (which Mr. Bentzel

told us never to do in the barn) and went back.

The afternoon passed as the men


shot and sawed, the women carried off tubs,

and fluid of different colors ran out. About four,

Mrs. Bentzel called us for apple pie. "It takes

some getting used to," she said. Our eyes met.


"We'll have an old guernsey next month—

tell Mr. Hamm, if you want the day off."


David Salner worked as an iron ore miner, steelworker, and machinist for 25 years.  His fourth collection of poetry, John Henry's Partner Speaks, appeared last spring. His work appears in recent or forthcoming issues of The Iowa Review, Isotope, and Southern Humanities Review.  His first published short fiction was nominated for this year's Pushcart Prize. He has been awarded grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Puffin Foundation and is currently working on a novel about the lives of hard-rock miners in the Old West.



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