Snow Globe by Monica Wesolowska

B. Ellis Williams_ For Snow Globe


From his hospital bed, he could not feel the heat of the day, but he could see the wind tearing the last, wrinkled leaves from the silver branches of a tree and bending the top of an evergreen beyond. He thought he should ask her the day.

“Tuesday,” Helen said.

But what he had meant was the date.

Beyond the evergreen, three palm trees bent in unison beneath a blast, then sprang up, brushing and slashing at the sky with their fronds, and then he remembered. Almost time for her holiday bash. Was that it? In fact, there was Santa, a man dressed as Santa, napping on the hospital lawn across the street. She would be amused by that. “Santa,” he said, lifting what felt like his arm but turned out to be no more than a finger to point in that direction. But perhaps Santa wasn’t the right topic after all. He wished she had told him the date.

“Jesus,” Helen said, not looking at the Santa. “This is no time for jokes.”

“Name’s Harold,” Harold mumbled. It was an old joke, a reflex; if he had the strength, he might tease her that Jesus might be the guy in the next bed, but Helen suddenly stood and went to the window. She’d been sitting for hours, for days, next to his bed it seemed, but now she was standing with her back to him. What day was it anyway? he wondered. From the nibbling pain at his side, he knew he needed to straighten this out fast.

“Goddamn it,” Helen said, “I’m only doing this for you.”

Too late, Helen realized she should have smiled at him when he made that old joke about Jesus; turning back from the sealed window, she tried to smile at him now and was embarrassed to be caught by the wife at the next bed. Always there were visitors there, hovering, a wife, a sister, children, grandchildren, always ready to give Helen a sympathetic smile as if they were all in this together. The man there had been given a month to live, she’d overheard the wife telling a visitor that, as if one could ever know how long someone had left. “It’s warm out there,” Helen said at last. “Bone dry. No snow at Tahoe. It’ll be a smooth ride up.” She returned to her chair by his bed. “All I’m asking is a day or two, Harold. We can drive back whenever you want. We can leave your family up there and come back to the hospital. Just put yourself in my shoes, Harold. I’m just trying to do what’s best.”

She tried to smile again, but now a nurse was in the way, rushing in and bending over him, saying, “Hello, Harry.” Yesterday Helen had reminded this nurse that Harold was still a doctor in the hospital and should be addressed as such but here she was again, saying, “Of course, Harry,” almost giggling with helpful pleasure as she adjusted something on his drip. Yesterday, this nurse had also tried to talk to Helen about hospice, and Helen had roundly told her off for losing faith in Harold’s recovery.

“She looks fourteen,” Helen said bitterly as soon as the nurse had left off fiddling and drifted to the other bed. “You’d be better off with me. We’ll set you up…” When Harold looked as if he were about to speak, Helen stopped, but then he didn’t so she went on, “We’ll set you up in your La-Z-Boy. We’ll bring it to the head of the table.”

Again Harold tried to speak. “The catheter,” he began.

“I’ve asked Dr. Carey about that,” Helen said triumphantly. At least Dr. Carey had agreed with Helen on this. “Traveling to the cabin is fine. She’ll set you up with a portable catheter, make you comfortable. She said champagne is fine, brandy butter, it’s all fine. She said this party is just what you, just what we need to lift our spirits.” She laughed hollowly and then waited.

For some reason she did not remind him about the unveiling of his mother’s gravestone. It was the party afterwards that she wanted him to come for, she wanted the relief after the unveiling of a party in his mother’s winter cabin. The relief of his mother being gone. A year she had been dead, a year it would be, the day after tomorrow. For a year Harold had planned the unveiling, and for a year Helen had imagined the party afterwards, the party when finally she would have Harold all to herself. The first holiday party in years where his mother would not be there, poisoning the fun, making them nervous about what she would do next to grab their attention, smashing a champagne glass, swallowing a silver charm from the pudding, her charisma, her wit suddenly going too far, leaving her naked in the snow singing something from Carmen while Harold tried to pull her back inside.

Harold looked past Helen, out the window at the wind in the trees. “You go…” he said. He was thinking of a time when he was young and had a kite. A summer on Fire Island. He and Bill and his mother together. The kite was gray with pink ears.

Helen laughed again. “I’m not going without you. I’m doing it for you. You’re just being stubborn. Think about it. Bill and Ruth are bringing all eight kids, even Shoshana. Shoshana is interrupting her junior year abroad to come. Maybe she’s in the air already. How long does it take to come from Israel? You can’t let your brother collect his family from all the corners of the globe and then refuse to budge because of a catheter. I don’t buy it.”

When Harold still said nothing, she looked back out the window at the tossing trees. It was unnatural, she thought. After thirty-two years in California, she still found the seasons wrong. Today the wind was actually warm, a warm wind that refused to let the cold of winter start. She wanted to take that blue sky and shake it, shake it like the snow globe Harold had given her just a few weeks ago for her collection. To get you into the holiday spirit, he’d said, in his generous way. He hated Santa, he hated Christmas, he hated blind Christian hegemony – together they’d moved away from any semblance of the religious practices of their youth – but every year he’d given her a snow globe for Christmas because he understood her nostalgia for the joy of childhood holidays. They’d gone to a play that night, getting out their season tickets without looking at what was on, but when the play turned out to be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he’d insisted they leave at intermission. She’d never seen the play before and all he would tell her was that the madness of it continued, that it had something to do with having children or with not having children. He’d given her the snow globe afterwards, in the car, straight from the bag from the store where he’d bought it earlier that day. Go ahead, he’d said, play God, shake it. And when she’d shaken it, it wasn’t snow that lifted up but a flurry of little kites with tiny tails. It was something entirely knew to her collection. As good as the one with umbrellas falling around the Eiffel Tower. He’d kissed her warmly in the car. Then he’d told her about his diagnosis, that the cancer had already spread, though he wouldn’t tell her more.

“I’ve already ordered the beef from Magnani’s,” she said unsteadily.

His eyes rolled from the window to his morphine drip sailing at the top of its pole. The kite had belonged to him but Bill had flown it, and it got caught in a pine tree, and his mother had made them leave it there, stuck in a tree on Fire Island, because she was in one of her moods; and when he asked months later if Santa could bring him a new kite, she’d yelled at him because they were Jewish and Santa didn’t come to their house. He should tell Helen about the kite. He’d never told her that story about his mother and the kite. He used to call Helen, “my sweet kite,” he used to tell her that he’d hold her to the earth while she sailed free above him. He opened his mouth to speak, but a little mouse stopped him.

“But you can weigh in on the side dishes,” Helen went on, regaining her footing. “I was thinking mashed potatoes but then I saw a recipe for potatoes mashed with parsnips. They have nice parsnips at the Berkeley Bowl. We haven’t had parsnips since…”

The mouse had little pink ears like his kite, but it had real teeth and claws, and it had finally eaten through his skin and was inside now, trembling and gnawing.

“I’ve asked Dr. Carey,” Helen tried again. “I’ve got the equipment…”

Now that one had gotten in, he could feel a stream of them slipping in. He could feel them in his veins, his organs, nibbling, gnawing. His liver, his kidney. He had to tell Helen something fast. Why couldn’t he remember? The words. Were they leaking out the mouse hole? At the mouse house, Helen’s face loomed and he knew he had to say something, to convince her that she would be fine, that she had never needed him as much as she thought, and he felt his mouth moving and thought he said, “Helen.”

But Helen had turned from him to the commotion around the next bed.

The man there wanted to get up. “Where’s my Gucci bag?” the man asked.

“It’s right here. Everything’s okay,” his wife said soothingly, and then they surrounded him, two teen-aged boys, a girl of six, a skinny young man with a tie on, lifting his tubes, swinging his legs to the edge of the bed, closing his gown in back, heaving him up and into his wheelchair. Helen though it was ghastly. But at last they were setting off, all of them attached in some way, wheeling his oxygen, holding up a tube, jingling like a sleigh – his wheelchair had been hung with bells and holly – and as they passed, the wife said to Helen, “Harry started that, calling their catheter bags Gucci bags which is a hoot, your husband’s a hoot. Thank God Robert’s had Harry, that they’ve had each other to laugh with at the end, you know?”

“God better have a sense of humor,” the man called Robert said to the young man with the tie who was pushing his wheelchair.

“Robert said he’s not going to heaven unless Harry gets in,” the wife said to Helen.

“Damn straight. If humor doesn’t count for something, I’m not sure how I’ll get in,” Robert said and lifted his hand to swat at the bells attached to his IV pole.

The wife looked back at Helen. “Don’t listen to him,” she said. “I have full faith that we’ll all be reunited some day, all people, no matter what we believe,” and she smiled her sympathetic smile at Helen again, before turning with her family out of the room, the sound of their sleigh bells and laughter slowly fading as they moved together down the hall.

In their absence, Helen heard the silence of the room, a sickening silence, a whirring, a ticking, as if mice ran in the walls. In the cabin, sometimes, there were mice. They ate a tunnel through the bread one year. If Harold refused to budge, she’d have to deal with the mice herself, and sit at the head of the table, carving roast beef with the candles all lit, and say what? They would ply her with questions, and what would she say? Harold had always been the healthy one, the tough one, the stoic, ever since her parents’ funeral, all those years ago, Harold, not even married to her yet but flying all the way to Milwaukee to sit there at the wake like a tough Midwesterner, trying to cheer everyone. She saw again the foil-wrapped lasagnas and cakes left overnight on the porch by parishioners. Snow all over everything. No, too early for snow. That was her grandmother’s funeral, most funerals it seemed; at her parents’ there’d been rain, of course, that week of torrential rain, blamed for the car accident. So much rain that snails left their trails on the foil-wrapped food left on the porch, which Harold pointed out, making her laugh, everyone laughing, the house full of stunned, wet, laughing Midwesterners who were nice. Just so nice, Harold had said, even though he’d feared being in a room with that many Catholics. “Take comfort in your parents’ faith, Helen,” Father Marek had said, Father Marek who’d been a young priest when he’d first passed through the parish, when she was a teenager and susceptible to crushes on young, Polish priests. “Our Father,” Father Marek had nudged her, “who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…” and she had tried with him for a minute to find comfort in thinking of our Father, all hallowed, up in heaven until Harold reminded her that there were other ways of finding comfort.

Making love on her parents’ bed, for instance. That had been comforting.

“Ignore them,” Harold had said, when her cousins caught them coming out of the bedroom and called her crazy. That’s what he always said. “Ignore them.” He didn’t care what other people thought. He didn’t care about having children. People always blamed the woman, but he was the one. That was the deal. No children. Children only brought out the craziness in parents, he said, and she had believed him; she had believed that it was better to love only each other. But now? How could she bear her own holiday party, all the children tearing her beautiful wrapping paper to shreds, ravishing her roast beef, Bill sidling up to her to say as he always did, as if this were a revelation, that his mother had been wrong, that Helen wasn’t a crazy shiksa after all? Would she have to stand there, trying to feel complete, while Bill stood there smirking about his generous, fecund, respectable life? No, this time she would say…

“Is it time?” he asked.

“For what, dear?”

“It’s time.”

“You’ve got to come. You can’t do this to me,” she said.

It was time. He wanted more morphine, but it wasn’t time yet. Was it time yet? There was a family of mice named Bill and Ruth, and Shoshana, and Bill had eaten almost all his insides out but where was his mother? His mother needed to be here. He needed to make sure that his mother was all right. Had he not promised? To live a long life since there would be nothing after death. Or was that Helen whom he’d promised to stay with until the very end?

“You promised,” Helen said, not knowing what he’d promised anymore. As his eyelids fluttered, she realized the damned nurse had given him more morphine in his drip when he didn’t need it yet. They should give it to him only when he was in pain. He would tell her when. With morphine, he couldn’t tell her anything. With the morphine, he was drifting away, further each time, leaving a rope, a string, a thread between them. She had told him when he came around, last time, that she wasn’t ready for a thread. They had not planned for a thread. If he would just say yes, just nod, she could whisk him away from all this, get him alone. So he could remember why he needed to stay here for her.

“Please,” she said, “just tell me what you need.”

He struggled, his face a mass of struggling wrinkles. “My kite…”

“Your kite?” she asked.

After a while he said, “I want…”

“Yes, just tell me what you want.”

“Bill.”

“Do you want to see Bill?”

He said something that sounded like “fly.”

“Do you want to fly to Tahoe? Would you like that better than driving?” she asked, unable to stop herself. When he said nothing more, she followed his eyes to the window. Outside, beyond the whirring of the room, the wind had stilled and the trees stood to attention, as stiff as plastic trees beneath the blue-domed sky.

 


Author Bio: Monica Wesolowska is the author of the memoir Holding Silvan: A Brief Life. Named a “Best Book” of 2013 by The Boston Globe and Library JournalHolding Silvan is forthcoming in German and Polish. A long-time teacher of writing at UC Berkeley Extension, Wesolowska has published both essays and fiction in many other venues including The New York Times. Read more at www.monicawesolowska.com

Artwork: B. Ellis Williams is a poet, visual artist, spiritual counselor, occasional philosopher, aspiring psychopomp, and priest-in-training. He holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary’s College of California, and presently studies and resides at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

 


 

And the Hills Opened Up by David Oppegaard

Reviewed by Amber Parker Hills Cover_FrontCover_FINAL-01


And the Hills Opened Up
By David Oppegaard
Published 2014 by Burnt Bridge | New Orleans | San Francisco
$11.99 paperback ISBN 9780988672710

And the Hills Opened up is a horror novel set in the small mining town of Red Earth, Wyoming in 1890. From the first scene, David Oppegaard propels the reader into a quiet tension. The story opens on a hot July day with Hank Chambers—a foreman sweating through a summer fever—giving a headcount of his men before they set fire to the dynamite that would blast open the hills, unearthing much more than copper ore. There is something very unsettling about this opening scene: the sweat in Chambers’s eyes (a cringe-worthy, recurring detail), his uncertainty over the headcount of his filthy crew, the crow that flies overhead, the way the earth shakes once the mine is blown, and the way the black smoke curls upwards from the depths, darker and thicker than usual. And it’s in these tiny details that Oppegaard builds this sense of dread, and he does it without revealing anything too soon. He only hints at something being awakened, something so unexpected and so terrifying that Chambers “felt a heaviness resting on his shoulders, like the hills themselves were pushing down on him”—a delicate foreshadowing of the hell that is to come.

Oppegaard paints a simple yet vivid backdrop for his tale: the town of Red Earth survives on salaries paid by the Dennison Mining Company, a monopolistic entity owned by the absent character of Mr. Dennison—a man who wants things done his way, a rich man’s way. Despite his elusiveness, Dennison’s presence is felt, particularly in the people working for him, like the villainous overseer of the town’s payroll, Revis Cooke, a pompous creep who lives in a limestone-walled mansion that stands out from the small church, hotel, scattered shacks and cabins in town. The miners are overworked and paid poorly, spending most of their money and off-time drinking and sleeping with the prostitutes at the Runoff Saloon. These are the inner workings of the town and Oppegaard, patiently, makes it real for us. He takes what could be a clichéd western with one-dimensional characters—a sickly foreman, a young and inexperienced sheriff, a widowed whore, a gang of outlaws, a priest with impure thoughts—and amplifies all of it with a unique perspective, a completely twisted one.

There are a lot of characters in this novel, but the prominent ones are developed thoroughly. The main characters are given individual storylines, which eventually connect together, seamlessly, contributing to the larger story arc. Through light brush strokes of physical description and back story, Oppegaard gives his characters the attention they deserve. He brings them to life. He humanizes them, makes us believe in their story. It’s all necessary given the world Oppegaard has created, and the absolute devastation he eventually hurls us into. Impressively, Oppegaard is able to establish that feeling/connection readers have with characters without dragging out the main story. It’s that connection that heightens the destruction of the events that follow.

The events that follow are nothing short of epic and horrific; the violence escalates as we are introduced to the larger villain of the story: “The Charred Man.” He’s a skeletal figure with claw-like fingers and blackened skin, like he had been burned and buried alive, deep in the mountains. Within the dark tunneled mine, The Charred Man is first discovered by one unsuspecting mineworker. Equipped with no more than a single lit candle, the miner has only enough time to notice the lack of light in the burned man’s eyes before his throat is ripped out. But there are several monsters in this story: The Dennison Mining Co. and Cooke are symbols of moral decay and greed, while the Charred Man appears as a kind of “demon” or evil unlike anything living, a form of punishment for a small town living in sin (or perhaps he was just looking to harvest some new skin.)

What makes this western/horror successful is Oppegaard’s prose. It’s minimal, but written such precision of language and detail. The dialogue is on point. And who knew gore could be written so beautifully:

“It defied physics and good sense, but the tunnel packed with the bodies of the dead and maimed did not collapse as Hank Chambers climbed across its sloppy floor, which was actually less a surface and more a constantly shifting mass of knees, elbows, and anguished faces he did not want to look upon…He did not know if it was the smell, the wetness, or his fever, but he felt his mind loosening as he slipped forward, its grinding cogs reverting to some ancient form of thought, his body an eel among eels. His only focus was the light in his hand, which must not go out, which must not go out, which must not go out no matter what else might happen. Chambers had spent much of his life edging darkness and he would not submit to it now, even if this was his final hour.”

Oppegaard doesn’t tie a neat bow on this ending; there is an uneasy sense of relief, as if some great question is left unanswered. Who or what is the Charred Man and why is he here? Is the Dennison Mining Co. to blame for blasting too deep, or is it more complex than that? I feel like Oppegaard doesn’t need to explain anything, it would only take away from the experience. And the Hills Opened Up gives the reader exactly what they came for: a thrilling, real-time experience. This novel is so visually stunning, so utterly gruesome, and so perfectly paced, that it truly feels as if you are just another resident of Red Earth. And after closing the book, it will feel as if you were the only one who made it out alive.

 

 

Under These Stars by Tony R. Rodriguez

Review by Charlene Carusounder deez


Under These Stars
By Tony R. Rodriguez
Published 2014 by Beatdom Books
$12.99 paperback ISBN 9780956952585

Under These Stars is a novel by Tony R. Rodriguez that follows a young writer named Sarah as she embarks on a solo road trip across several states after getting in serious trouble at her job. Sarah is conflicted and boozy. She works for an online journal conducting interviews but she has aspirations of becoming a famous and respected writer. Anything but a heroine when we are first introduced to her in an office in San Francisco, she sits in front of her boss,  awaiting his pronouncement of punishment for getting a wildly successful underage author drunk during an interview.

Afterwards, Sarah makes up her mind to drive alone around the country visiting friends and write a memoir about her trip, leaving behind a fragile relationship with a serious young man named Theo. Theo pleads with her not to go on such a long trip without him. He fears it will ruin their relationship. But she leaves anyway, anxious to begin her new adventure, but stops short of breaking up, even though she admits to herself she probably doesn’t love him.
Sarah experiences life like she drinks alcohol, in gluttonous gulps. At first, the result is a lot of throwing up, both literally and virtually, with insipid regurgitations on Facebook, where she is recording her trip. She uploads an endless stream of Instagram pics and posts verbal snapshots, “Jack-In-The-Box is good,” while staying silent on her suspension from work. She counts the number of “likes” each of her posts inspires. She puzzles over which filters to use to edit her pictures. Sarah tells the reader she limits her use of Twitter to sharing her movie reviews in inspired tweets, proudly admitting she has 12,000 followers.

The story spirals in brief scenic chapters punctuated by Facebook posts and philosophic riffs. Rodriguez’ narrative skill is on display as Sarah flits from thought to thought and place to place at a frenetic, fevered, alcohol-soaked pace that mirrors the rapidity with which this reader turned each page. She pours out pages of her memoir. Pours down drinks. Soaks in movies. Forever bar-hopping. The only constant for Sarah is the music. All her travels are propelled by wonderfully chosen songs. She specifies with precision each song and artist and album she plays while driving toward her next destination. It is the only time she seems to listen. She plays the album by The Naked and Famous “Passive Me Aggressive You,” twice, and their single “Youngblood.” She listens to “There’s a Girl,” by Dressy Bessy, and Tennis’ retro sound in the song “South Carolina.”
Rodriguez beautifully renders images of the land to conjure a vision of conflict and tragedy with passages like, “Near the Mexico border, two countries lip-locked in geographical tension.” He crafts unforgettable moments from sentences laced with unexpected verbs as in Sarah’s reaction to the desert landscape, “Farther and farther, I see the land continue to vampire the sparse life out of the scenery and beyond.”

Before long, Sarah’s trip takes her to an unexpected destination, herself. Rodriguez captures in devastating detail the challenges of being a young woman in today’s world through Sarah’s revealing interactions with females from her past. He deftly manages to build the conflict between his characters so that each friend she meets is a puzzle piece: a fractured part of her history, a glimpse of what she might become. Sarah struggles to build a relationship with herself amid the chaos of memories, desires and fears that she previously resisted or denied. Each encounter shakes up Sarah’s deluded sense of self. She begins to perceive something in her life is lacking, but she can’t identify what.

After a drunken, blacked-out night, in circumstances that disturb her, Sarah decides her problem is alcohol. So she takes a detour to Yellowstone National Park, surrounded by the night sky of the title.   She spends time in sober contemplation. Instead of sharing all her thoughts, she tells the reader they need to experience their own private revelations in such a place. Sarah decides to cut her trip short. She has found a new direction.

Using a concept learned in college, Speculative Realism, as her model, she rewrites the second half of her memoir in the language of what if, an experiment in the intersection of philosophy and literature. Through Sarah, Rodriguz explores the interaction between creativity and reality, where the text itself acts on the reader, provoking new actions rather than simply evoking emotional meaning—art that sparks.  The experiment is certainly successful. After finishing the book, the story impelled this middle-aged reader to re-read the novel while playing each carefully catalogued song to accompany the text. A male writer who has created a young female protagonist that makes an older woman want to take a road trip with them both, is what speculative realism in literature must be about. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali: whatever Speculative Realism means, if it’s good, Under These Stars, is that.


 

In Paris by Charles Bane Jr.

photo (7)


 

In Paris
In Paris, all the streets
were rained and magpies
in the shadows of Notre Dame
poured tunes. The cafes dripped
and all the city was wet that
afternoon; you said, look
at the long haired Seine; do you want
to walk in the Jardins des Plantes ?
No, I said, let’s hold Mass in your room.
You lay and I heard bells at the lifting
of the moon. A thousand souls somewhere
in the dark of France flew.


Author Bio: Charles Bane, Jr. is the American author of The Chapbook (Curbside Splendor, 2011) and Love Poems (Kelsay Books, 2014). His work was described by The Huffington Post as, “not only standing on the shoulders of giants, but shrinking them.” Creator of The Meaning of Poetry series for The Gutenberg Project, he is a current nominee as Poet Laureate of Florida. “In Paris,” is from his new release.

Artwork: Justin Schapker is an artist living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Green to Blue by Rebecca A Eckland

Eckland_For Green to Blue


 

When my partner of seven years begins to see another woman, he will buy me a small, calico cat.
        It’s a Saturday in November, and we’re out together when I see the cat in a cage in a PetCo. He immediately offers to buy her for me, and I won’t think that there’s anything unusual in this. Instead, I’m fixated on how shy she is—dashing beneath the bed and remaining there for weeks—and I worry I’ll have a new cat in this small family of ours who is scared of most people and by extension, the world.
        But the cat will come out at the same time he does: “I’ve decided I don’t love you anymore,” he’ll say.
        And, I will think it’s me.
        We had just discovered we were pregnant, and I’d lost my adjunct teaching position for the spring (budget concerns, I was told), to which he said: “I can’t spend my life waiting for you to amount to something.”
        So, I’ll think of drowning myself in the dark Truckee river downtown at ten o’clock on a Tuesday night in late December when it hits me that he’s really gone; our life is gone and it is because I’m not enough. But then I will remember I am an elite triathlete, and I swim too well for drowning. And so, I wander home under flickering street lamps to our—I mean, my—loft where I push my nose into the living room carpet to muffle my sobbing.
        When I return to sanity, I realize all of this has nothing to do with me not being enough. Instead, I think it has something to do with honesty, with newness and the disguises we wear around the people we don’t know, and the ones we forget to wear when we think we do.

*
        There’s a mural in downtown Reno that depicts a sky filled with clouds at either dusk or sunrise. There’s no horizon line and no depth, really, just the figure of clouds colored with the faintest trace of growing or fading light on a pale blue background. There have been days when I’ve walked along the Truckee River and looked up at the stone building, and I found myself thinking that the mural serves as some sort of camouflage.
        It’s one of those Sundays in January after my ceiling collapsed, when it hadn’t snowed in quite a while, and it’s too cold, that I decide to go downtown. And I know I’m completely alone in the world. The ice skating rink is filled with young families, and the hip bars are filled with jersey-wearing twenty-somethings rooting for their favorite team in the playoffs. I don’t follow football (I used to, when I lived with a man who cared about the game), so I walk past the hip bars and the ice rink and wander into a dive next to the mural.

*
        I call the cat Sanchia. This was name of the third daughter of a not-so-wealthy 13th century Baron in Provence, France, who married a man who didn’t love her, who left her for a campaign in Germany after their only child died.  She died alone of the flu.  He remarried shortly thereafter.
        She has abandonment issues, the woman from the shelter tells me on the phone when she calls weeks later to make sure I still want the cat. She’ll reach out with her paw and hold you there and grab you with her mouth, like she’s biting.
        She’ll do this with me. Fall into rapturous purring and then a swipe when I pull my hand away. But only briefly—a week or two—until she discovers I’m not going anywhere.

*
        He’s the only figure in the dive bar, a short sixty-something Caucasian man with wire-rim glasses and hair that’s more gray than blonde. He’s got a half-finished glass of Chardonnay in front of him, and he doesn’t notice me, at first, sitting as far away from him as possible next to the brick wall.
        I can tell he’s been there a while by the way he slouch-sits and the way the word “fucking” seems to make it into every sentence as he chats with the bartender. But I know what I’m there for—to not be alone in my loft—so I tell myself again and again that it’s OK to be in a bar; it’s OK to have a glass of wine; it’s OK to pretend to watch the game as the clouds mimic the mural, outside.
        But then the sixty-year-old, glasses-wearing man asks me what I do. And I don’t want to talk about myself—about my unemployment status, the hole in my ceiling, how I became alone. So I say the only thing that comes to mind: I’m a writer.
        He moves a few stools closer and says: I’m an artistYou want to see my work?
       Fuck yeah, you do, he says and reaches into what looks like a laptop bag (without a laptop) and pulls out snapshots of the mural. He points and says: I did that.
        I don’t believe him, at first.
        He says: I stood on a fucking crane and pissed on that fucking wall and said: fuck you, Reno, and painted a mural.  I laugh at this (pissing on something you’ve painted seems funny to me, somehow. Or, it approximates how I feel about certain things in my life. The wreckage of the past few months, for instance.)

*
        Later that night when the muralist sits on the stool next to me:
        Green to Blue? That’s fucking brilliant!
        He’d just asked me what the name of the song was playing in the bar, and I knew it was Miles Davis, and it was from the album Some Kind of Blue, but the words mixed themselves up and I’d said: It’s Green to Blue.
        You know why that’s so great, darlin’? He doesn’t wait for me to respond. Because that’s fucking impossible!
        Because blue’s a primary color?
       Because you can’t turn Green to Blue, darlin’. That’s fucking brilliant.

*
        When things fall apart it’s hard not to call it a tragedy. The cracks and fissures reveal the empty spaces in what had once been a life. My partner was in my life for seven years, and the size of the hole that much absence leaves is vast and dark, much bigger than the hole in my ceiling when it gave way on New Year’s Eve, the 80-year old plaster crushing my office chair where I had been sitting minutes before, writing.
        And when one person is your life for seven years, you miss out on a lot like adopting rescue cats and pissing on walls and meeting really drunk muralists at a bar in downtown Reno on a Sunday in January. Or, you stop calling the people you loved once, and they end up dying, and you miss their funeral, and you forget how much you miss them now that they are gone.
        Now that you are alone.
        And the silence, instead.
        So, when I reach for my phone these days, who can I call? I can’t call the one person whose number I have memorized.  After all, he doesn’t love me.
        But there are names saved in my cell phone of friends who’ve passed.
        I put my phone on speaker and expect the monotone beep of nonexistence after I dial these numbers that can’t, possibly, exist since it’s been at least eight years since I’ve dialed any of them. Instead, I hang up when the expected silence of a disconnected number turns into a ring.
        I wonder, at the other end, about the puzzled faces who read the 775 area code and ask themselves if they know anyone who lives in Reno. 

*
        The cat’s name’s Sanchia but I call her Sanchilla.
        Sanchilla like Godzilla, stomping across my chest when I’m trying to sleep. Sanchilla with her monotone voice which says: “Get up. Feed me. I’m here.”
        But also Sanchilla, soft as a Chinchilla and just about the same size. Gentle and delicate, a creature who, above all, needs me.
        She stops hiding under the bed around the time I saddle up to the bar next to a muralist who says “fuck” a lot. 

*
        The muralist tucks my hair behind my ear and leans too close, as if to kiss me.
        You’re fucking brilliant. His Chardonnay-breath says. You’re a fucking writer.
        I try to back pedal but my back’s already against a brick wall. I didn’t ask for this. I wanted a distraction. To feel like I wasn’t alone in the world. Not admiration or attention.
        He buys me another glass even though I tell him to stop, and I get up to leave. He grabs my hands, pleads with me to stay in a way that makes me embarrassed.
        Come back another night, he says.
        So, I give him my number, scribbled on a cocktail napkin. Before I walk out the door, he’ll claim he lost it.  I sigh, relief, and silently thank fate or God for watching out for me. 

*
        But it happens like I feared it would: the repeated calls, the shrill ring of my phone on another Saturday in January. It’s the muralist, and he’s just gotten out of a meeting with another writer who’s brilliant, and he’s stopped by the Tap House in downtown Reno for a glass of wine. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon.
        The fucks haven’t started yet, but I can hear them building in the back of his throat with each audible sip. The bar behind him sounds empty, and I tell him I don’t want to join him because I’m floored with the flu (really), and when he starts slur into something mildly pornographic I’m not calling for your cooch, darlin’ I tell him I have to go.
        He calls back: five, seven, eight, eleven, twenty, twenty-two and twenty-nine minutes later. Each time I hear the tingle of my ringtone, I half-hope it’s any other number than the one I’ve come to recognize.  My parents, the tax guy, my ex. But no: it’s the muralist, again and again, his calls like the heartbeat of some medieval monster which lives in my loft with me.
        He continues calling throughout the night, and I bury my cellphone under a pillow in the couch, and I dream, briefly, of the man who left me. But then I hear the rings from my phone which wake me, muffling into the early morning: 4:38 am, 4:47 am, 5:14 am, 6:45 am.
        The messages, the few words of each I listen to before hitting the delete key, begin the same: You’re a brilliant fucking writer. But you know what? You’re pathetic!           You need somebody. You don’t fucking need anybody, darlin’. Except for an asshole like me. Yeah, I’d marry you. Let’s get married, and I’ll take that sweet cooch…
         I boil water to make tea as the Sanchilla dances around my legs, demanding food. 

*
        It is eight o’clock on a Thursday night in February, and after another call from the muralist, I lose myself; all those messages I have no desire to answer weigh against the heavy silence of my new life.
        In the darkness, I hold myself in my arms while the headlights from passing cars flicker, casting my body on the wall. I’m alone, and it’s cold, but I force myself to feel an arm I can’t feel and the exhale of a breath that isn’t mine.
        Then, I feel the brush of a softness at my ankles, rubbing because of instinct and desire, a feeling beyond the painted walls of propriety I have abandoned. The newness of this silence renders me the most me I’ve been this snowless winter when my ceiling gives me access to the nighttime stars. And as I’m about to withdraw into illusion—into a life that no longer exists—the spell is broken by something small and innocent as the light fades from green to blue.
        “Mew,” the Sachilla demands, calling me back into the world, again.


Author Bio: Rebecca A Eckland holds an MFA in Nonfiction writing from Saint Mary’s College. She also has two Master of Arts degrees in both English and French awarded by the University of Nevada, Reno where she has taught in the Core Writing and Core Humanities Departments. Additionally, she freelances for local periodicals as well as for longer ghost writing projects. Her work has appeared in The Barnstormer, Caught in the Carousel, 3/Go Magazine, and The Rudder Magazine; she has forthcoming work in Weber: The Contemporary West, TAYO Literary Magazine and Hotel Amerika. She is the creator and organizer of “Literary Arts & Wine,” a reading series held every third Sunday of the month in Truckee, California. She is also the winner of the 2014 Boise 70.3 Ironman, the 2014 Lake Tahoe Triathlon and plans to compete in the Ironman World Championships in 2016.

Artwork: Rebecca A Eckland

 

 

Conquistadors: On the End of Oakland

 By Kaya Oakes 

conquistadors
Luis Maria Peralta arrived in Alta California as a member of the Spanish-led de Anza expedition in 1776. After pursuing a group of Native Americans through the San Joaquin valley and eventually massacring them, he was awarded with the Rancho San Antonio land grant. That grant spread over the cities now known as San Leandro, Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, Berkeley, and Oakland. Luis never lived on his land, choosing instead to stay ensconced in what is now San Jose, but his sons and daughters fanned out across the Peralta grant, asserting themselves onto territory previously occupied by the Ohlone tribe. Before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo threw the ownership of the land into dispute, it became a sprawling squat. Natives, Spanish-born Californios and immigrants lived in uneasy tension. Among the houses built by Peralta’s children, only a few remain standing after the 1868 earthquake on the Hayward Fault ripped a seam through Alta California. But the Peralta sons stayed put in Oakland: in Fruitvale, in West Oakland, and in Temescal.

My paternal great-grandparents arrived in Oakland some time in the late 1800s. Forced out of Ireland, they inched their way across America, eventually winding up in West Oakland, back then an enclave of lace curtain and shanty Irish elbowing up against Italians, and eventually, working-class African Americans. My grandfather’s family followed the now-underground stream of Temescal Creek from cheap flat to cheap flat, until my father was born in 1938, prematurely, to older parents who’d thought they were barren. At this point they moved to West Street, near the intersection that now bears a plaque indicating the location of the first Black Panther Party meeting. My father went to Sacred Heart School on 40th Street, now a dying Catholic parish attached to a Spanish-immersion charter school run by an overworked nun.

In 1960, at a meeting of the Newman Club in Berkeley (a social group for Catholic students at Cal, which later became a parish), my father, who had left the Catholic men’s college he was attending in nearby Moraga, met a young woman from Montana who’d recently transferred to Berkeley. My mother was bored out of her mind by her own small town Catholic college, and came to California, like so many before her, in search of something wider. Two years later, they married and moved to Howe Street, near Piedmont Avenue. Three years later, with three small children crowding their apartment, they bought a shedding, badly wired 1908 house on the edge of Rockridge, then a neighborhood of Italian and Portuguese immigrants. They paid twenty thousand dollars for the house, and it sent them into debt for decades. Several drunken Irish guys, my father’s drinking buddies at McNally’s bar on College, fell off the roof after being hired to “repair” it. The basement flooded with regularity, and we were only allowed to plug in two appliances at once lest we cause the power to go out. That house is now worth just under a million dollars. My grandparents and my father are dead, and my mother now finds herself the matriarch of a neighborhood that looks nothing like the one she arrived in as a young school teacher with children in her arms.

What I mean to say is this: the other day, I drove through Temescal, the neighborhood I lived in for a good decade, after I left college and came home to Oakland. In the early 90s, my neighbors were Eritreans and broke lesbian couples. My neighbors were skate punks and elderly Black ladies who cultivated rose gardens. My neighbors were Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong. My neighbors were from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Chile, Venezuela. My neighbors were Christians, Jews, Pagans, Buddhists, Copts. And I drove through Temescal the other day, and everyone, every single person was white. With the same beard, the same bangs, the same plaid, the same Prius, the same goddamned straw hat, the same baby stroller, the same smugness of having discovered the new neighborhood, the one nobody knew about, the one that was their secret which they would shortly blab about all over the style section of the New York Times, in a feature which actually mentioned $300 jeans as something aspirational, which included a single paragraph about the displacement of 50% of Oakland’s black population within the last decade.

What I mean to say is this: in November of last year my landlord sold the house I’d lived in for seven years, down by San Pablo and Adeline, in an area where one house is Emeryville and the one next to it Oakland, and he put it on the market for $600K. Across the street is a Mexican family with three adult children living at home because they cannot afford to move out due to the rise in Oakland rent, which has shot up to an average of $2500 a month. I am currently in exile, living in the hills above El Cerrito, which is basically a two mile strip mall. Should I desire to spend my life moving between Bed Bath and Beyond and a series of Safeways, I can do that in El Cerrito. What I can’t do is feel like everything I grew up believing in—multiculturalism as praxis, working-class values, staying put in the city you grew up in, walking the same streets my father did—isn’t vanishing in increments.

Temescal was always going to be the next to go. The gentrification of Rockridge, which began in earnest with the opening of the Rockridge Market Hall in the 90s, meant that more modest upper middle class folks couldn’t afford to buy one of Rockridge’s stately craftsman homes, so savvy real estate agents came up with a plan. They re-labeled Temescal as “Lower Rockridge” and slapped it on For Sale signs. Then came the Priuses, then came the organic almond milk, then came the restaurants where the entrees cost more than most families spend on groceries for three meals. Then came the white kids, working as servers in those restaurants. Then came the people from San Francisco and Marin, fighting over parking spaces. Then went the idea of a neighborhood being a place where people root themselves.

I am in the parking lot of the Walgreen’s in Temescal just before Christmas. A homeless woman is moving though the lot, staggering, weaving, you understand. She’s asking people for money, and they’re getting into their cars. She’s asking me for money and my hands are full of shopping bags, so I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t put them down and dig out a $5 bill, which I do, and she bursts into tears because no one will speak to her. No one will look her in the eye. And because I make breakfast at an overnight shelter for homeless mothers and have heard this story again and again, I take her in my arms and let her cry. All around us, people get into their cars.

It is easy to turn away from poverty because poverty reeks. It is easy to ignore history because history is inconvenient: all those dead Native Americans, all those Oscar Grants, all those strivers and failures, all of that money performing its steady act of erasure.

When I talk about white people you may want to point out that I am white. The sunburn I get when walking even halfway around the loop that encircles Lake Merritt (if you are new to Oakland, and perhaps you are, you may not be aware that it is not really a lake but an estuary, and a man-made one; also, it is full of dead bodies) is testimony to that. My family brought struggle and poverty to America, but not melanin. When I talk about white people I mean the deliberate erasure of a history that includes poor white people and working-class white people alongside people of color. The erasure of the Oakland I grew up in is the erasure not just of race, but of class. 40% of Oakland lives below the poverty line. It has one of the highest rates of robberies in the nation. But where is that in the news? Poor people are funneled out of one part of town, and then another, and then another, and where do they go? Private security patrols drive through Rockridge. Temescal recently completed a crowd-funded campaign to hire its own private security, from a company that prides itself on having cars that are easily mistaken for the OPD. Meanwhile, the city does little to provide community centers, after school programs, or any sustained support for the young. This is what I mean by erasure. People without money are being erased.

The house where I live now sits at the top of a steep hill above Richmond. It is always windy, a wind that moans up from the Bay. There are no trees, only a peeling palm in a neighbor’s yard that looks like it has a disease. Down the hill, the Chevron refinery glows at night, plumes of smoke rising up from the cylindrical tanks. Just a few years ago, it exploded, and thousands of working poor and middle class people rushed to the ER, unable to breathe. All over Richmond, Chevron has posted billboards testifying that “Chevron Cares.” Enough to choke the people who live here. The bearded and banged people have not discovered Richmond; there is one coffee shop, a 20 minute drive, and it closes at 3PM. In exile, my view is of a refinery killing thousands of people slowly with cancer and asthma, and the wind sends the garbage skittering down the street. The rent, it must be said, is much cheaper.

It took a writer as gifted as Rebecca Solnit to make people care that the Google Bus was killing the San Francisco she loved. Can I persuade you that Oakland, as cousin-ish as it has always been in comparison to San Francisco, is also losing its soul? Perhaps not. Maybe my rhetoric here is off, and I should stop lobbing grenades and tell you instead about walking over the long hill of 51st street to the all night Payless, where you could always find something bizarre on the shelves, like a fishing pole, or the ceramic dragon that still sits on my desk years after I shoplifted it. On the other side of that hill was the home of the guy who’s been my friend for nearly 30 years. In the graveyard at the top of that hill are my grandparents, my father, and his older brother, dead as an infant, buried under a tombstone the size of a shoebox lid. Maybe you’d be convinced there was an Oakland decades and decades back if you’d driven in a beater over to the Merritt Bakery late at night for waffles. Or we could talk about Bif’s diner on Broadway, where punk kids razzed the elderly waitresses, the days when downtown was so empty and creepy you’d never expect to find a band playing in an out-of-the way bar, but I was in that band, playing for three old Vietnamese guys and two comic-book-reading nerds from the comic shop where I worked. Or junior high at Claremont Middle School with Mister Puente, and his talk about La Raza and his bell-bottom jeans. The summers of Festival at the Lake, standing with thousands of Ethiopians listening to Aster Aweke, plumes of pot smoke in the air; evenings of cooking up last-chance produce from the market on Telegraph and 48th into curries so hot we couldn’t eat them but that was all we could afford; afternoons outside of Royal Coffee reading books in the rain, under an awning; the certain slant of light that hits Oakland like no other place in the world and reveals that yes, much of it is ugly, but also, much of it is home.

Okay, but also the bad shit. Yes, there was that. Cars broken into and stolen over and over, bags snatched, being driven around in the back of a cop car looking for the thief with the cop repeatedly asking why I lived in this neighborhood (“because I was born here”), a friend raped in her apartment, another friend stabbed, another shot. My mother taught for decades in the Oakland schools; she’d lock her purse in the trunk of her car and her own students would crowbar it out. Drugs that were fun that turned, for some of us, into drugs that stopped our heart. If we lived, we stayed (“because I was born here”). Or some of us left, and years later, came home. Oakland was ours because San Francisco was always for people who had just a bit more money, more hustle, who just had more. If you were from Oakland, San Francisco was mostly where you went to buy clothes.

It is easy to ignore history when a town is a town, and not a city, even though half a million people live there.

It is easy to ignore history when it looks like the Ohlone. Like Dr. William Watts, an African American doctor who opened a hospital for Black patients turned away from other hospitals. Or like the tens of thousands of poor people who streamed into the town to work in the canneries and shipyards. Like the Braceros from Mexico. The 1946 General Strike. The Black Panther Party. El Movimento in the Fruitvale. Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean immigrants. Too $hort selling tapes out of his trunk at the Laney Flea Market. That smell that comes off of the lake, which is not a lake, on a hot day. It’s easy to make that disappear.

It is hard to say this. Perhaps I am part of the problem. Some friends started a magazine ten years ago. Yes, I confess: I was involved. We threw parties in Oakland warehouses to pay the printer’s bills, and people came. And articles were written in newspapers, “hey, something is happening in Oakland.” More people came. Then some friends opened art galleries, it turned into a thing on First Fridays, more people came. And a sense of alarm began to creep in, well, at least for me. There were too many people walking around and treating us like an exotic species, people making art in Oakland. Who knew. When in fact it had been happening for decades. When in fact we had no idea what we were doing, but people liked it, and they latched on.

It is hard to say that the neighborhood where we used to meet and lay out the magazine pages is now called “Uptown” and has condos that start at five hundred thousand dollars and yes, I am going to write that number out.

It is hard to say that the magazine died in fights and stress and acrimony, and that the boxes of it we had stored in a friend’s attic were destroyed when his landlord decided to renovate the apartment, because the rent in the neighborhood was going up.

Now Oakland makes lists. Hot cities, happening cities, cool cities, conquerable cities. When the landlord sold our house, we went to a series of open rentals and found ourselves crowded into kitchens, filling out applications alongside dozens and dozens of people, each of them looking anxious, trying to catch the landlord’s eye. And most of them were saying, well, we looked and looked in San Francisco. And we were saying “I was born here” and, as it turned out, that did not mean we deserved to live there. Beyond the Ohlone, who does?

It is hard to say that the place you live is built on a history of conquistadors and of their erasure of those who came before. But that is where we live. That is America and that is California, and that is Oakland. The new conquistadors do not ride in on horses with nostrils flaring and sweat pearling their flanks. They arrive in cars that whisper, and the disease they bring is called privilege. And the natives flee, and watch, waiting, from the tops of the hills.


 

Kaya Oakes is the author of Radical Reinvention (Counterpoint Press, 2012), Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture (Henry Holt, 2009), and a poetry collection, Telegraph (Pavement Saw, 2007). Her fourth book, about faith, doubt, and non-believers, is forthcoming from Orbis Books in 2015. She is a contributing writer and editor at the website Killing the Buddha, and her writing about faith and feminism regularly appears in many magazines. She teaches writing at UC Berkeley.