By Kevin McIlvoy
You asked me what I thought Sam Sierra thought
that day I put him out – fifty years ago today.
Well, first, you’ve got to know I wanted no one to know –
and it was Sam who has told it and does still.
Mill laborers saved each other’s asses over
and over through the years and didn’t tell – why should we?
Hell, the real mystery is why Sam won’t leave that day
go and give me some peace from making me his hero.
What’s the deal that he thinks his saved life is a big deal?
He’ll call me this afternoon and same as always
I’ll say, Could we please talk about something else, Sam? Please?
And he will – he will – but not really – he’ll tell me
about the anniversaries of his comparable miracles –
finding his lost car in the Walmart lot, or surviving an audit, or his
oldest returning from the newest war, his youngest from cancer –
wonders in which I had no part, except that Sam feels I do
because he wouldn’t have lived to be saved again and again
if I hadn’t thrown my jacket over the fire on him
made by the acetylene sparks arcing over his
shoulder and springing into flames small at first
and, just that fast, not – and big as fists, big as
pennants, big as whipping flags waved by ghosts.
At full sprint, I struck him off his stool, stuck
myself to him, his welding mask and mine still on,
and we rolled and spun and rolled for hours upon hours –
I thought he thought so too – though the time was
all in all about twelve seconds that we spent on
the ground until we sputtered out, smoked, rocked hard,
realized we had flung our heads off – well, I felt
he felt that also when we saw one ember made
of two men reflected in their – our – masks so far
away from us. Sam looked like me, I mean he looked
like he should let go, should stand up, should retrieve his
mask and torch, and check and clean them. Thanks, B, he said.
I said, Thanks, since for twelve seconds we were the same
man, the very same. Went to the locker room where we told our
foreman we were completely out and pretty much all right, agreed
to have the infirmary nurse certify us as cold ash, trashed
our damaged shoes, clothes, redressed, rejoined our crew, finished
our shift. Shit happens – and how. Every day we set ourselves
on fire. Some days we’re not put out and other days we are.
You asked me to tell you what I should have let Sam Sierra
tell. I told – and I’m ashamed of myself now.
Kevin McIlvoy’s poems appear in Consequence, Willow Springs, Olney, Barzakh, River Heron Review, LEON, and other magazines. His novel One Kind Favor (2021, WTAW Press) is his eighth published book.
He has published five novels, A Waltz, The Fifth Station, Little Peg, Hyssop, At the Gate of All Wonder, and a short story collection, The Complete History of New Mexico.
His short fiction has appeared in Harper’s, Southern Review, Ploughshares, Missouri Review, and other literary magazines. A collection of his prose poems and short-short stories, 57 Octaves Below Middle C, has been published by Four Way Books.
For twenty-seven years he was fiction editor and editor-in-chief of the national literary magazine, Puerto del Sol. He taught in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program in Creative Writing from 1987 to 2019; he taught as a Regents Professor of Creative Writing in the New Mexico State University MFA Program from 1981 to 2008.