Work By Alexandra Umlas

  1. The Fast Food Restaurant

That work that gets inside and never leaves,
like French fry fat and golden arches arched
above the building, etched in thread on sleeves,
while through the tired hours burgers marched
in bags and boxes, filled the room with grease
that couldn’t be scrubbed off, her fingers slick
with food that wouldn’t rot, each bun, each piece
of nugget not quite chicken, but a trick
done quick with breading, covering up grey-
gristled stuff, what else could it be named?
The sizzled smell, the red burn that would stay
on skin, its tender territory claimed
with basket crisscrossed branding that would lurk
across her arm, a symbol of this work.

  1. The Bank

Across her arm, a symbol of this work,
a starched shirt sleeve for air conditioned rooms,
hot-coffee flooded mornings in berserk-
horned traffic, red lights blink, the vacuum zooms
on early morning carpet in the bank
before the customers arrive, she sits
uncertain what to do, the chilly yank
of thin papers from thick piles, at her wits
end, the only chatter the keyboard’s keys,
and clicking high-heels across a glossy floor,
she thinks at least its temporary – please
let summer go by fast, let there be more—
than secretaries, desked, with skirted hips,
another coat of lipstick on their lips.

  1. The Statistics Department

Another coat of lipstick on her lips,
her boss is French, and always wears black pants,
and drinks hot tea, in small sufficient sips,
goes off on walks, sometimes goes off on rants
about the university. The girl
leaves early from work almost every day
after filing applications in the curl
of manila folders, studies, gets her pay,
listens to her French boss telling her how
she won’t work on her birthday, but instead
she’ll pop champagne in the shower, vow
to live, then pour the bubbles on her head—
this is the best job that she’s ever had…
she lives a little sweeter, a little sad.

  1. The Candy Shop

She lives a little sweeter, a little sad,
works at the shop on Santa Barbara’s pier
where a threadbare turkey pecks away like mad
at salt-water taffy, where lemonade flies leer
and dive right in, their sugary deaths in vain,
scooped out with plastic spoons, secretly, trashed,
buried beneath boxes, their contents lain
in the long, back-lit, glass case, where she’s stashed
the chocolates, sour ribbons bright with fruit,
square-wrapped caramels, gummy bears, and ropes
of licorice, toffee peanuts warmed, her loot
waiting in white bags, folded over with hopes
for jobs that pay more than minimum wage
and candy, she gets her BA, turns the page.

  1. The PR Firm

Her BA’s on the wall, she turns the page
of the press release, scans the text for errors,
another office, air-conditioned cage,
crammed with phone calls, bankers, lawyers, bearers
of bad news, long lunches, suits, and happy hours
that aren’t so happy, filled with handshakes, hectic,
turn to dark dawn, even the coffee cowers
in its pot, awaiting the eclectic
mouths that will consume it, gulp by gulp;
she’s trapped inside a Fourdrinier machine,
pulverized then pressed into a pulp,
refined and bleached to bone-white, thin, routine,
typed and proofread, indelible ink
on so many things: the task, the call, the brink—

  1. The Public School Classroom

On so many things: the task, the call, the brink
of something new, she’s hired in a pinch
to teach kids how to read and how to think
about their reading, slowly, inch by inch
she fills the room with books, she’s twenty-two
now, this used to be a science-class
room, and now she’s tasked with breaking through
the webs, the dirt-crawled classroom, taking glass
jars off the shelves, what’s in them looks like brains,
or something worse, the students take their seats,
they read, she learns the unexpected pains
of calling child protective services, meets
the officer, in charge, who doesn’t know
if the girl will be alright or where she’ll go.


7. The Home

That work is done for now so where she’ll go
can’t be known, she watches her belly grow,
her ankles swell, veins river small and blue,
the girl births girls and all work becomes new
and strange, the work of keeping things alive,
by spoonfuls, fears that suddenly arrive
like swarms of bees, like locusts in a field
of blooming flowers. The work of orange rinds peeled
back, of apples sliced, of kissing knees,
of teaching right the work of teaching please,
the work of letting go, the work of loss
that travels through the body, weaves across
the workings of the heart, the way it cleaves—
that work that gets inside and never leaves.


Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher

Alexandra Umlas is the author of the full-length poetry collection At the Table of the Unknown (Moon Tide Press).  She serves as a reader for Palette Poetry and on the board of directors of Tebot Bach, a non-profit literary organization. A recent graduate of the M.F.A. Poetry program at California State University, Long Beach, she currently teaches English and lives in Huntington Beach, CA with her husband and two daughters.

These poems originally appeared in Poetry Super Highway