Vashti Speaks for Herself

Teakettle Mountain, Columbia Falls, Montana

Teakettle Mountain, Columbia Falls, Montana. The industrial area that the tracks lead to (at the mountain's foot) is Anaconda Aluminum Company (now Columbia Falls Aluminum Company), where I worked summers during my college years. I took this photo sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Vashti Speaks for Herself

But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him. (Esther 1:12)

He said that?  you heard him?  The bastard!
I used to love him.  Some ways I still do . . .
but honey, don’t believe all you hear.
He can put it on Larry King Live,
he can write it up in the Bible
for every preacher to preach,
it’ll still be a goddamn lie. . . .

Did you know my name means beautiful?
He knew it, too, first time he saw me
parked on my bucket, graveyard tired
with the rest of D-shift, waiting for the whistle
to blow us off-clock for that wild headlong hurry
to the changehouse and showers and gate.
All I wanted was clean, and home, and bed.

He was a C-shift man, walking in,
and I felt his eyes, and I felt them the next
morning and morning till finally he spoke.
Didn’t matter then my jeans had holes
from hot cryolite spat like brimstone
from between the devil’s own teeth, or that
my hair was dull and gritty with ore
and my shirt stank of eight hours’ baked-in sweat
and my skin, rough and red from pitchburn,
stung at his whiskers’ kiss.
Grime and all, he saw I was beautiful,
and I saw in him the same.

But no sooner did he stick his ring
on my finger than he wanted to yank
me clean out of my steeltoes, drop me into a dress
at some jewelry counter at six bucks an hour.
He told me a man’s work wasn’t for me.
I guess he thought union wages weren’t, either.
I guess he thought he should be enough for me.

He was the type said his home was his castle.
His was a trailer, east side of town,
all trimmed up in antlered heads
that rode home down the North Fork road every fall
under tarps in his pick-up bed.
He never bought meat— his freezer
was full up with moose and venison steaks.
Stay home, I bring home all we need, he said.
He thought he could rule by the depth of his bellow.
My lungs got real tired proving him wrong.

When he came home that night after eight hours’ swing
and two or three more at the North Fork Saloon
and shook me awake at 3.00 AM
to play pretty hostess to his buncha friends —
goddamn, I was working day-shift that week!
did he think I could work without any sleep? —
yeah, you betcha, I yelled, I said, That’s what you want,
then just shoot me and stuff me and stick marbles in
my sockets and nail me to your goddamn wall.

So yeah, he can say all he wants to about it
and look for a nice quiet good-looking wife.
But it wasn’t him that put through the papers,
it wasn’t him that opened the door.
He didn’t push me, and he didn’t dump me.
I rid him of me — and I rid me of him.

[February 9, 1994]

About this poem

This poem is centered in an aluminum reduction plant in my hometown of Columbia Falls, Montana, where I worked summers during my college years. But the poem’s characters are fiction.

Cryolite is a compound used in the reduction of aluminum, often found in the plant in its molten state.  Ore is what we called alumina, or aluminum oxide, the product of the refining of raw bauxite.  The plant’s function is to reduce it — remove the oxygen—to produce aluminum.  It’s a white powder with much the same appearance and consistency as baking powder. Pitchburn is a chemical burn to the skin, looking and feeling similar to a bad sunburn, caused by exposure to hydrocarbons used in the reduction process. The
North Fork is the North Fork of the Flathead River, Flathead National Forest.

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