Labor Day
by Robbi Nester

It wasn’t my first job,
the one at the aquarium store,
just the one that stuck.
Once there was only
a man with a net,
a few sparse tanks
of mollies and swordtails,
bowls of fighting fish
in their elegant silks
eying each other through the glass.

By the time I turned eighteen,
an army of salespeople
patrolled the aisles.
In the two hundred gallon display,
triggerfish like African masks
picked at algae with their striped teeth,
orange anemones carpeted
the bottom of the tank.

Death was a regular
part of the job,
filling, then emptying
gallon bags of dead fish,
floating like lumber
on the surface of the tanks.

I learned something every day
about cleaning tanks
full of electric eels,
how to catch that one
elusive guppy
among hundreds,
learned also about myself
as I bent over the koi pool
with my net, looking for
the one with blue fins,
distracted by
my own reflection.

Chafing at being merely
a willing pair of hands,
I wanted more,
couldn’t keep quiet
if customers
or bosses
were wrong.
I never changed,
whatever job I was doing–
still telling people
what they didn’t
want to hear.

SOURCE: This poem will soon appear in the author’s second collection of poems, Other-Wise, to be released by Kelsay Books at the end of June 2017.

IMAGE: “Aquarium” by Theo Von Rysselberghe (1909).

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: As I say in the poem, this job at the aquarium store wasn’t actually my first: I’m not counting the brief gig at the bakery that lasted all of three hours. I couldn’t manage to tie the cake boxes securely; the string slipped off, and a giant layer cake plopped icing first onto the floor on the first box I tied. I was 15. The photo  at right is the only one of myself I have anywhere near that age. I was 18, or thereabouts, graduating from high school.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robbi Nester is the author of Balance (White Violet, 2012),  A Likely Story  (Moon Tide, 2014), and, soon, Other-Wise (Kelsay). She has edited two anthologies, The Liberal Media Made Me Do It (Nine Toes, 2014) and Over the Moon: Birds, Beasts, and Trees—celebrating the photography of Beth MoonHer poems, reviews, articles, interviews, and essays have appeared widely.

Author photo by Charles Hood.