The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Steven Knepper

Night Shift


                                The truck is late again
So we chuck rocks at dumpster rats and smoke
Cigars on milk crates by the rolling doors.
We talk of cars and God and goddesses
Who’ll scan the cans we stock tonight, their hair
Pulled back in ponytails or sun-licked buns,
Their faces masked by vacant eight-hour smiles.

We bitch about the manager who times
How fast we get a box up on the shelf
And doesn’t let us take our break with girls
But who won’t haul his ass from bed to watch
Us work this shift we wait for every week.
Still, he’ll get his wages’ worth tonight.

We heed the driver’s warning not to screw
Around when he’s already running late
And make those pallets fly off of the truck.
We wheel them out onto the floor or stash
Them in the freezer where we sometimes lock
Each other for a prank—“the blue ball room.”

The speakers that project the weekly specials
Now crackle as they strain out chugging riffs.
We wield our razorblades to metal swells
And bash our heads to rustbelt symphonies,
Four country boys who find in Nashville’s cast
No heir at all to Hank or Johnny Cash.

While one of us rotates the bread and milk
The others fan across the grocery aisles
To litter them with empty cardboard boxes
We’ll later feed into the crusher’s maw,
The last thing that we do before we punch
The clock and squeal out of the parking lot.

Wired from work and cans of Mountain Dew,
We speed to where the concrete road is straight
Enough to pull up side by side and race.
Headlights off, we howl through windows at
The pockmarked moon, some cry of recklessness
We lift to Valkyries up in the sky,

While closer by the marble Virgin clasps
Her hands before the Catholic cemetery
As if she’s praying for the pagan hearts
Of boys who think that death is not a deer
Or weaving drunk but just a bony hand
That cannot reach them from the album cover.



Steven Knepper

Preserves, 1994


I heard those girls of Amy’s laugh at me
For putting up these jars of beans and pickles,
For sweating at the stove when cans are sold
Four for a dollar at the IGA.
They’ve had a dozen years of easy living
And smirk at me for saying it won’t last.
Their mother ought to set them straight on that
But she don’t discipline those girls at all—
Might have to turn the TV off to do it.
One generation gives up thrifty ways.
Next one mocks them. Then hard times come back.
You’ve screwed your head on straight so I tell you
Rather than wasting time and breath on them.
When I was young it was good times that seemed
A fairy tale—depression and then war,
An eighteen-year-old girl who barely said
‘I do’ before her man shipped off for France.
Those years brought out the best and worst in people.
Look to your right, a saintly charity.
Look to your left, the stain of Cain and Adam.
One spring when I was still a little squirt
I got myself a lesson in both sides.
Daddy’d given most of our potatoes
To uncles out of work in Robertsdale
Then taken in a boy that wandered down
The lane and offered help for room and board.
He was a handsome boy. A good one too.
He saw we needed fewer mouths to feed
So he walked down that lane again one morning,
Left a note of thanks beside the stove.
We culled the poorest layers from the flock
And willed those peas and cabbages to grow.
Then daddy spent a week away from home
Working for wages at the Thousand Steps.
On the third night we heard the dog bark twice.
My brother stuck his head outside the door
Then sent us back to bed. He was fourteen,
Acting the man but with a boy’s fool sense.
We found our collie by the garden gate
Stretched stiff with gashes in his fur, poor boy.
They’d used a burlap sack to muffle him.
Then they’d gone about their thievery—
The roosting hens, the smokehouse ham and bacon,
The lettuce, turnips, peas, and cabbages.
They trampled what they didn’t steal away.
My brother got the gun but momma stopped him.
He bawled while we replanted ruined rows.
Things got so bad that spring we ate the cleanings
When heifers dropped their calves. Just boiled them.
That kind of hunger changes how you look
At food and waste and cupboard shelves.
It changes how you look at people too.
Besides, those store bought cans don’t have no taste.




STEVEN KNEPPER grew up on a small dairy farm in Pennsylvania, and he currently teaches literature and writing at Virginia Military Institute.  His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Road Not Taken, Floyd County Moonshine, Modern Age, The James Dickey Review, Autumn Sky Poetry, and Farming Magazine.



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