Music Swells By Zephir O’Meara

Untitled


Music Swells

I tell my kids don’t worry
You’re not the ones
That gentrification is there
It’s happening
We’re not forcing anyone out of their homes

I want a big tent daddy, like the homeless ones have
I want one of those

We warm this house
You’ve never really been hungry
You’ll never really be hungry
Not if I can help it under this roof you eat
When they don’t finish their plate
When they casually demand breakfast
When we’ve been playing at the park well past dinner time

What part of the movie is this
Are we at the end
Has the redemptive bit happened already
Or is this part of a training montage
Where nothing we say really matters
As music swells to determine mood

Circle back around again it’s always food
For good or ill
Sitting around a table
Breaking bread is important
Systemic institutional ritual
Politics makes strange bedfellows should ever be discussed at the table

Is there anything more wondrous than smashing something
A bottle on cement
Priceless ming vase
A dropped pint
If you don’t know maybe you need to smash something
Maybe you need time to slow down
Think about what you’ve done
Think about what you’re going to do next
Because at this rate you might never catch up


About the Author: Zephir O’Meara’s writing has appeared in the Oakland Review, Be About It, sPARKLE & bLINK, Naked Bulb Anthology, and other secret places. He has three cats, two kids, and a dog.

TOUGH GUY LOOKING FOR TOUGH GIRL, MUST HAVE OWN BRASS KNUCKLES by John Grey

Image - Chelsea Moore (Instagram ww_chelsea)


 

TOUGH GUY LOOKING FOR TOUGH GIRL, MUST HAVE OWN BRASS

KNUCKLES

 

Model yourself
on the young Robert Downey,
only with more tattoos,
cuss and spit,
form out of nothing but your heart
and your image in the mirror,
a brutal package.

It will help in your relationship
with the one
who dotes on real bastards,
who’s aching for a bad guy,
can’t wait to go public with him.
She likes to live dangerously.
You need to be dangerous enough.

You haven’t met her yet
but she’s out there somewhere,
warding off the too-good-to-be true,
hungry for someone who’ll stop at nothing.
Be whatever it is
will more than satisfy
whoever she is.
Remember, the road to true love
is lined with other wannabe lovers.
So beat up some guys along the way.


About the AuthorJohn Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Stillwater Review and Big Muddy Review with work upcoming in Louisiana Review, Columbia Review and Spoon River Poetry Review.

Artwork: Chelsea Moore

Ode to MRE No. 08 Beef Patty by Aaron Graham

black bird


 

Out of sky
or stratocumulus
you drop
sailing
like a segmented, rotting lemon
once cool yellow hemispheres
matte brown.
Rhinoceros hide,
you
remained
there
attached to nothing.
Bird beaks
cannot gash
jaws of jackals
never puncture
your Internal organs.
Your life
your death
your sand
falling, moveable feast
My ka-bar scalpel
measures you
and empties you
in the air,
in the smoke,
the rending
tearing
teeth
the meticulous
surgical
incision,
in the broken alley
of summer,
reveals
some assembly
is required—
grey sheathed
patty coated
by greying
solidified lipids
smooth slicken
flow
after submerged
in the water
that is plutonium
of a magical
nuclear fusion
furnace that little
fucking phosphorous
heater and two
wheat snack breads.
spoke place.
Words here make
sense only if kept
aside myths
in your head.
Camel rides, bouncing
in a pickup truck bed
as it passes.


About the Author: Aaron Graham hails from Glenrock, Wyoming, population 1159, which boasts seven bars, six churches, a single 4-way stop sign and no stoplights. His work explores the relationship of desire and violence currently ostensibly through juxtaposing Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with classical exilic figures. He is an alumnus of Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Ashbury Home School. He is a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he served with Marine Corps Intelligence as an Arabic linguist. Aaron is currently finishing his PhD at Emory University; specializing in modernist poetics, Arabic language poetry, continental philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience.

 

SO WE SAT DOWN AND SAID by Steffi Drewes

Allen Forrest for Steffi Drewes


SO WE SAT DOWN AND SAID

Rise and shine Guanajuato, Sebastian’s got five tongues
to your one, odds and ends the acrolinguist flings into

his breakfast banter. Not just the number of bricks it takes
to build a church or trips to Peru before he stopped eating papaya,

tell me how to launch a comeback that steals his morning thunder
—this is high stakes choreography with a mathematical accent.

Here I am climbing a cabeza de piedra to feel closer to history
and here my funnybone exposed under a cactus, underlining all

the parts about silver tunnels and mountains, rebel monuments
that fade and flash. So raise a fist to greet the day block out the sun

and sweep your rival, all muscle and gold sky. Sold two flicks of flint
to unroll a funicular steep on a hillside—feel the weight of

your limbs, the change in elevation, every arched window
an eye unfolding. Half-notes shimmy from a kitchen floating O’s

what a bunch of white rabbits down a hole, what a mouth making its own
magic show or bronze hero come to life. Did you miss the punchline?

Pause for selfies? Wake up, Quixote! We can see you counting tiles,
chasing tides. If you can say it better, go ahead and write my lifeline

in all caps or A minor, in any case think of the chords that can’t be spoken
running an instrument through your veins. Here you are with a piccolo bird

in your head or deep in the jungle coughing up leaf scum. Bit by breath
pushing tongue against teeth what licks the air and starts to howl.


About the Author: Steffi Drewes is author of the chapbooks Magnetic ForestCartography Askew, and History of Drawing Circles. Her work has also appeared in 6×6Zen MonsterEleven Eleven, and the anthology It’s Night in San Francisco But It’s Sunny in Oakland. She organizes Featherboard Writing Series and manages the Writer in Residence program at Aggregate Space Gallery in West Oakland.

Artwork: Graphic artist and painter Allen Forrest was born in Canada and bred in the U.S. He has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books. He is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection. Forrest’s expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements reminiscent of van Gogh, creating emotion on canvas.

Art website (paintings for sale):
Twitter account:
Portfolio: published works

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time And Its Relatives by Peggy Aylsworth

Vinayak Harshvardhan_for Aylsworth


 

 TIME AND ITS RELATIVES

I hobble in the ruins of myself,
grateful as a bronco out to pasture.
Layers of dust find ways to hide
the glisten underneath.  Red, as in coral

thanks the longest waves of light.
I didn’t die at 24 as I once thought.
At 93 my wits remind – the bell

still tolls for me, even as my ears

have given in to half-closed doors.
This or that makes choice less

wobbly now – The sand keeps
temporary prints the sea will swallow.

Hosanna to the wheelchair and the cane.
Daylight wouldn’t be the same without them.


About the Author: Peggy Aylsworth’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals throughout the U.S. and abroad, including Beloit Poetry Journal, The MacGuffin,Poetry Salzberg Review, Yuan Yang (Hong Kong), White Rabbit (Chile). Her work was nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prize.

Artwork: Vinayak Harshvardhan 

 

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mexican Man in His Backyard

Reviewed by Jeff Chon

mexican man

The Mexican Man in His Backyard
By Stephen Gutierrez
Published 2014 by Roan Press, Sacramento
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0981596891

In the essay “Lucky Guys Forever,” the young narrator sits in a booth at Lucky Guys – a local burger joint and struggles with feelings of inadequacy as he watches a former classmate named Herrera preen over his beautiful ten-speed bicycle. We are told Herrera is in trouble, even though nothing particularly bad happened in Lucky Guys that day.

“Nothing bad happened at Lucky Guys,” the narrator tells us, “and that is the honest truth. In my story, certain versions are played with, but none of them untrue. That is the virtue of writing imaginative non-fiction. You get to do what the fuck you want.” This spirit of fearlessness propels the rest of the essay, as Gutierrez uses speculation and personal reflection to show us how something bad did indeed happen at Lucky Guys. Herrera had bullied the narrator throughout elementary school years before their encounter at Lucky Guys. Years after Lucky Guys, Herrera became a junkie. In the recursive landscape of memory, something bad did indeed happen at Lucky Guys: Herrera triggered Gutierrez’s retrospective impulses–impulses that carried through his teenage years and culminated in an essay filled with the regret and sadness that has clung to his memories like barnacles.

A sense of fearlessness permeates The Mexican Man in His Backyard, a collection of essays and short stories set in Gutierrez’s youth in East L.A. and adulthood in Fresno. Whether he’s writing about watching his father succumb to Huntington’s Disease, or the paternalistic privilege of white academics, or his inability to connect with the Mexican neighbor who’d watch Dodger games while sequestered in the back yard, Gutierrez illuminates the sadness and beauty of recollection with courage and clarity. Gutierrez gets to do what the “fuck” he wants because he’s telling the truth. We know he’s telling the truth because we believe the things he says. And readers believe the things he says because, from the first sentence on, our guide addresses the subjects of his pieces with tenderness, while assessing himself with a brutal honesty that is precise, lyrical, and unsettling.

Reading The Mexican Man in His Backyard, I was reminded of how all great writing aspires to draw the reader into its world. I spent a good chunk of my twenties living in East L.A. and I always felt like an outsider. No matter how hard my very kind neighbors tried to embrace my presence, I never felt as though I belonged there. This book was not only a homecoming of sorts, but by accessing his internal monologue in such an effortlessly conversational tone, Gutierrez finally made me feel like an insider, more than a decade and over 400 miles later.

 Creative non-fiction is unfairly seen as the bastion of the self-centered. The practitioners of this craft are frequently viewed as people who can only write about themselves, can only illuminate what has happened to them. With The Mexican Man in His Backyard, Gutierrez shows us how essayists have the ability to write about their lives in ways that resonate with all of our lives. Stephen Gutierrez isn’t merely writing about himself; he’s writing about all of us.


 

 

Just how we say what we say is what we say. by Julia Tranchina

Herrington_(Untitled Photo)_FOR TRANCHINA


 

Just how we say what we say is what we say.

This valley. Death shall be at the start. Drown the object in its history. Sank after it capsized; exploded in a ball of fire; derailed and plunged into a canyon; died at 97 of pneumonia. Tell the truth gradually, carefully. I’ve never met a man my age I wouldn’t have to carry around. It drained to the current level after a prehistoric earthquake. Erfam will go thirsty without clean water. The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood. I may go wrong and lose my way. Agua de Jamaica laced with white rum. Here then, was her liquid illusion of happiness. She over kissed. Your advice is truly profound when you’re snockered. Clear all the jelly! It was part of a cosmic order. Pain and suffering are the most fruitful sources of noble deeds. I just saw the police with a dump truck clearing out the homeless encampments down in the creek. Drought. A return to rambling. She taught me to tie my shoe laces with an unnecessary loop. Our dining room table is covered in lead. In Yugoslavian it means dirty drunk and dirty pig. A noun is the name of anything. Meta is conceit. The borders of my memory are shifting. How near winter death is. She is overcome. My father spends his mornings—after his wife died and I’m certain before—at the bar, where he’s able to buy cheap Gallo salami chubs from the bartender. All knowing is remembering. She is in no shape to drive. Gravity is a law of nature that controls all construction. The glass shattered under the weight of my wife and son. I will always be their second choice. The invisible monsters descend upon our human hearts. Side by side. We sleep in your shade. I took off his clothes to find the source of the bleeding. I love her but I don’t like her. Seeing his dead grandmother crawling up his leg, with a knife in her teeth. The emergency room was surprisingly quiet on New Year’s Eve. Where is mama’s bocchino? The gout makes him move like a weeble. I am quiet and keep myself to myself. Her history ended in Gridley. They like their martinis wet. Maybe this year will be better than the last. National Thank You Month! I’m joining our gene pool with theirs on paper. Your mother’s honesty borders the brutal. She looked great in a leotard. Drink lots of water and don’t eat fried foods. In a home she designed and had built in 1929. The resentment lingers. It’s the same season every day! The great arm of the sea. They dropped her to the ground, breaking both of her legs. I’m nervous. Giant black butterflies cover the sun. Tell all the truth but tell it slant. In her private life she was a popular hostess. That’s not her, she disappeared. They came for her in a windowless, white minivan on Super Bowl Sunday. Enough about the Filipino appetizers already.


Author Bio: Julia Tranchina is currently working on a series of 27 language poems. Her writing has also appeared in Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, Ohio Edits and Literary Orphans. She lives with her wife and two-year-old twins in San Jose, California. 

Artwork:

Payback by Jacqueline Berkman

 Jessica Herrera_(Untitled)_FOR BERKMAN


            Tamara was yelling at Peter to get in the car, but her mind was on the garden of the Malibu house, sensing that everything could begin or end there. As Peter shuffled down the stairs with a morose gait, she envisioned a pebbled entryway and bougainvillea everywhere. It was all in the sketch she had meticulously detailed the night before, the sketch she would present to the new clients today, and she hoped, as she always hoped, she would appear cool and collected. The key, she figured, was to appear immersed in the wildlife of her work, oblivious to the aridness of the recession that had infected everyone else.
            “I didn’t have breakfast,” Peter said.
            “Your loss, buddy. Get in the car. Now.”
            They walked down the driveway to the Honda Civic that was parked under the hot morning sun. Peter shuffled to the backseat, his Spongebob backpack splayed out next to him, and Tamara, squinting into the rearview mirror, evaluated the state of her lipstick before pressing on the accelerator and driving off. She had to present her landscaping vision to Bradley and Julia Chapman, a cinematographer and his fashion model wife who were looking for the perfect landscape architect to complete their “rustic on the beach” utopia in Malibu. Tamara knew that to be that person she had to be prepared, and persuasive, had to imply that only by following the plans in her sketches would this couple be able to successfully pave their way towards beauty and truth.
            “I really don’t want to go to school today,” Peter said.
            Tamara squinted as she made a right onto Ventura Boulevard, shielding her eyes from the sun’s glare as she mentally reviewed how the hydrangeas and trellises would adorn the water fountain in the Chapman’s courtyard.
            “Please don’t make me go,” Peter said.
            Tamara sighed. “I thought you liked school, honey.”
            “I don’t like Max Wilburn.”
            What if they don’t like hydrangeas? Tamara thought. What if they think they’re overdone, tacky, and completely obvious? To Peter she said, “Who’s Max Wilburn?”
            “This kid in the grade above me. We got in a fight yesterday at recess. He pushed me really hard.”
            “What did you get in a fight about?”
            “He said I was hogging the jungle gym, and when I was walking back to class he pushed me.”
            Tamara sighed, turning left into the parking lot of John Burroughs Elementary School. “Well hon, you can’t hog the jungle gym. That’s for everyone to play on.”
            “But that’s the thing, mom. Everyone does play on it. I was playing on it with everyone else, and he kept telling me I was hogging it, but I wasn’t.”
            Tamara pulled up to the drop off curb and turned around to look at Peter. He was small boned just like her, and pale and wide eyed. His eyes were especially wide right now, in the telling of the story. And Tamara felt worried for her son, worried about the wide-eyed look that would inevitably make him seem too vulnerable, a “pansy,” a target for elementary school punks like Max Wilburn. Christ, she thought. Why couldn’t he inherit more of Raymond’s genes?
            “Honey, don’t let anyone push you around,” Tamara said. “You’ve got to be strong.”
            “But he’s bigger than me, mom.”
            “Well stay away from him, then.”
            Peter didn’t say anything. Tamara checked the time, fluttered her fingers against the steering wheel, and looked resolutely into the rearview mirror. “Peter, you need to tough this out. Stand your ground. Don’t let that jerk get to you.” When Peter sad nothing in return she said, “I have to go, buddy. I’ve got a big day ahead. But I’ll see you right after school. Try to have a good day, okay?”
            Peter slung his backpack around his shoulder, and she could see him take a deep breath and close his eyes, as if mentally preparing himself.
            “Just stay out of trouble. I’ll see you after school.”
            “Bye,” Peter said. He shut the door and walked over to the blacktop driveway where all the kids were standing, backpacks swinging, walking to their classrooms. Driving away, Tamara saw from the corner of her eye that Peter was still standing on the pavement, as if waiting for her.

            One hour and one freeway later, Tamara was over at the Malibu house, where Julia Chapman whipped up lattes on the espresso machine and listened attentively to the script that Tamara recited from memory about the potential of hydrangeas and bougainvillea.
            “I really do believe that with all of these plants working in tandem you’re going to achieve your authentically rustic California garden,” Tamara said, her face flush with nerves. “But, as with any garden, it’s going to take time and care. You’re going to need to be watchful and attentive, especially of the Mexican evening primrose. The roots grow fast in the warmer months, and you don’t want it to overpower everything else in your lovely garden.”
            “Of course not,” Julia said. “We just have to pay attention.” Julia nudged her husband, who looked increasingly perturbed by a recent text. “Honey, are you even listening?”
            “What? Yes. We have to make sure that plant doesn’t grow like crazy,” Bradley said, looking up. “I’ve gotta run back to the studio. The post production people are having issues with some of the footage.”
            “But honey—”
            “You just let Tamara take care of things, okay dear? You can trust her,” Bradley said, in a tone that Tamara thought was a more than a little condescending, the tone of someone who was used to used to jumping up at a moment’s notice and escaping from things.
            “Men,” Julia said, sighing, loud enough for Bradley to hear as he walked over to the Porsche parked in the driveway, his car keys jingling with each step he took. Tamara smiled, for lack of knowing what else to do, and it struck her for the first time that perhaps she had been only one of many landscape architects that they had consulted with, and that Bradley’s abrupt departure had signified that she had somehow failed their screening test. In the quiet of the kitchen, Julia Chapman cradled her espresso and studied Tamara’s sketches, a neutral expression on her face, and Tamara, clinging to her own espresso cup, wished she could read Julia’s mind to such an extent that it embarrassed her, in the way that all of her feelings embarrassed her when she felt them too strongly. When her cell phone lit up and an unfamiliar number flashed across the screen, she sprang up instinctively, glad, at least, for a physical action to divert her from sitting at that table. “Excuse me for a moment,” Tamara said, stepping out of the French doors onto the terrace, before answering her phone. “Hello, this is Tamara.”
            “Hello Tamara, this is Jeanne calling from John Burroughs Elementary School.”
            “Hi.”
            “There’s been an incident on the playground concerning your son, Peter.”
            “What happened?”
            “He was involved in a fight with another boy. We think he may have broken his arm. The paramedics are on their way. I just notified your husband, and he said that he would meet you at Providence Tarzana Medical Center.”
            Tamara felt a surge of nausea rise up her throat. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she said. She hung up and walked back into the kitchen, where Julia was still cradling her espresso and studying the plans. Tamara was momentarily glad that she could at least break this stretch of intolerable silence, that she had a mission that was completely independent of Julia’s aesthetic preferences. “I’m sorry, Julia,” she said. “I just got a call from my son’s school. They told me he may have broken his arm. I’ve got to go to the hospital. We’ll talk later.”
            “Yes, of course,” Julia said, “I hope everything is alright.” Her furrowed eyebrows were in the pose of concern, and Tamara sprinted to the car, leaving behind a memo that emphasized what a difference a chrysanthemum bed could make.

            I’m a stupid idiot, Tamara thought as she made a sharp left onto Malibu Canyon Road, a goddamn stupid idiot. Pieces of the conversation from the car ride that morning came back in fragments. Bully. Max. Pushed me. She had been indisputably distracted, yes, overwhelmed by her first major referral in God knows how long, but she had also been concerned about Peter’s meekness more than anything else, his vulnerability that made it so easy for him to get singled out and targeted by bullies. There had been that incident at Sam Stouffer’s eighth birthday party at the miniature golf course, where Peter repeatedly had trouble hitting the golf ball, swinging the club back only to come up with air. There had been those gaps of silence between the missed swings, followed by other boys’ laughter, and then Sam’s father’s gentle suggestion that it might be a good idea to get Peter’s hand-eye coordination looked at as they were leaving, party favors in hand.
            Tamara had thanked him for the advice, but what she remembered more was her difficulty trying to read that night before bed, how the words seemed to swim around in a blur on the page. She remembered turning to Raymond and telling him that she was worried about Peter and his meekness, his lack of coordination and his inability to relate to other boys. But Raymond, of course, had managed to dismiss her anxiety with a cool detachment, his signature inability to get worked up about anything. “So he’s a little clumsy,” he said. “Maybe he’s not destined to be a neurosurgeon, but he’ll figure things out.” He turned off his light. “Christ, Tam,” he had said. “He’s only eight.”
            It was easy for Raymond to say that Tamara thought, pressing on the accelerator as she snaked her way up the winding canyon. He had never been one to struggle with those sorts of things. Raymond was six foot two and raised in a family of meat and potato eating athletes. He had played varsity football and ran track in high school and now in his forties seemed to move with a relaxed and self-satisfied gait, as though he had nothing else, really, to prove.
            And even though she kind of resented his assuredness, about Peter’s well being, about everything else, she also envied it, because it was his confident ability to brush things away with a dismissive wave of the hand that she had never been able to master. All of the nights that Raymond had said, “Let it go,” and had fallen asleep the moment his head had hit the pillow, Tamara spent lying awake, involuntarily enabling thoughts to link up to other thoughts, as though she were constructing some sort of cerebral daisy chain.
            She merged onto the 101 South, turning up the radio in an attempt to ignore her heart’s angry thud and the intrusive images of Peter recoiling in pain, his arm bloody, his bones protruding.

            When she saw Raymond standing tall and composed in the waiting room of the orthopedics pediatric ward she burst into tears, all of that anxious energy and teeth grinding that had carried her through Malibu Canyon finally breaking down into untamed sobs.
            “I came here as fast as I could,” she said. “As fast as I could.”
            “Shh,” he said, running his hands over her back, her head nestled into the crook of his shoulder. She smelled the faint scent of his cologne, crisp and smooth, mingle with the staleness of the hospital.
            “Where is he? How is he?”
            “He’s sedated,” Raymond said. “They gave him morphine for the pain, and they’re about to operate. He fractured his arm.”
            “Morphine?” Tamara said. She associated morphine with her father during his losing battle with cancer, his rattling breath thin like a whistle, as his EKG flattened and his breaths grew smaller, imprints of the ones before them.
            “You need to sign some forms before they operate.”
            Tamara started walking to the reception desk before she turned to face her husband, her sturdy husband with his cornflower hair and pale blue eyes, and said “Did you know that a bully did this to him?”
            “The school mentioned that he got into a fight with someone.”
            “It was some kid named Max Wilburn,” Tamara said. “Peter was telling me about the kid this morning, how he’s always giving him a hard time, and I was too busy thinking about flower arrangements for the new clients because I am a terrible mother.”
            “No you’re not,” Raymond said. “Christ, you didn’t know this would happen.”
            “I should have known. I should have done something when he told me.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “I told him to tough it out. I’m such an idiot.”
            “Just sign the forms, Tam,” he said. “We will talk about all of this later.”
            So she went to the desk and signed the consent forms, and then they walked back to the waiting room, hand in hand. “We’re going to make the Wilburns cough up more than they’re worth,” Raymond said. “Those fuckers are going to pay.”
            Tamara blinked at him. Everything he said was right, but his voice was too calm, too steady, his hand too cool and smooth against her hot, clammy one.

            It was three AM, and she had just woken up from a nightmare where she was on a small boat with a bunch of people she didn’t recognize. There was a storm, and the boat was bobbing unsettlingly over waves. The captain was some kind of quiz show host, and he walked from one person to another asking trivia questions, and when a person didn’t know an answer he threw them overboard, tossing them into the choppy blue waves where the sheer weight of their exhaustion would drag them down, never to be seen again. In the dream Tamara kept thinking about how seasick she was, how her nausea would make focusing impossible, how she was bound to be tossed over any minute.
            When she awoke her heart was racing, and her skin was cold. She was in a sleeping bag on the floor of Peter’s room, and when she abruptly sat up she could feel the coiled muscles in her neck stiffen from curling up on the floor. She stretched her legs and listened to the rhythm of her son’s breathing, which, to her relief, sounded deep and even, not the breathing of someone who had been drugged by morphine. She stood up, grimacing at the sound of the creaking floorboards, and looked at Peter for any signs of pain, but he appeared to be in the midst of a deep sleep. His left arm was thickly bandaged, and his right arm was outstretched, dangling off the pillow, as if looking for some comfort that the parameter of the bed could not provide.
            Tamara sat next to him and combed her fingers through his hair, finally resting her hand on the bony crevice of his shoulder blade. She leaned against his bedpost and closed her eyes, trying to will herself to go back to sleep. But in that quiet moment in the dark she felt her mind carrying her back to a place she didn’t want to go, a window of time she had closed off and which, involuntary, she felt herself revisiting again.
            She was not much older than eight of nine, and she had accompanied her parents to a Fourth of July party at their friends’ house, the Whitby’s. Her parents had gone to the Whitby’s every Fourth of July, and she had always stayed at home, preferring to feign sickness rather than watch her parents mingle with all of the other adults, who seemed stuffy just by virtue of being adults. But there had been something different about that year. Her parents told her that the Whitby’s daughter Sophie was in town, having postponed her annual summer trip up to her grandparents’ beachside cottage in Santa Barbara, and that she was Tamara’s age, and that Tamara should start going to these parties and developing social skills anyway. And Tamara had felt a change within herself, too: when that Fourth of July came around she felt a kind of emerging restlessness, and she didn’t want to spend another languid summer day by herself, hitting a handball against the screen door while her depressed babysitter ate bonbons and watched reruns on TV. So she had joined her parents in attending the party at the massive Beverly Hills estate, and after being introduced to Sophie, who was actually two years older than her and a big boned mare of a girl, they broke off from the crowd and jumped into the pool. Their conversation was brusque, fragmented. They made no effort to get to know one another, but rather, in that primal elementary school way, assumed they were already on the same wavelength. After revealing a mutual dislike of Marco Polo Sophie demanded they play her favorite pool game, Colors, where one person stands in the shallow end of the pool with their eyes closed while calling out the names of various colors in the rainbow. The other person stands on the same side of the pool as the color announcer, and upon hearing the name of their color called, has to dash underwater and paddle like a silent warrior to the other side, all in the hopes that the first player will not hear movement and tag her.
            Tamara had played Colors before and had vehemently disliked it, having found the concept of being chased underwater far more frightening than being chased on land. But she wanted to get along with Sophie. And if nothing else, the game seemed a viable enough distraction from the world of the grown ups, who stood around talking about traffic and movie scripts, the husbands stuffing their faces with ribs while the wives daintily picked at their potato salad with patriotic toothpicks.
            Before she had tried to submerge the memory altogether, Tamara used to blame herself for what had happened. But in that moment in the middle of the night, with her son’s arm wrapped in a cast next to her, the facts of that day returned to her, in their unbiased, unadulterated form. She had picked indigo as her color. Admittedly, she realized now, as she must have then, that that was probably considered cheating by anyone who adhered to the Colors handbook, as anything outside the typical rainbow spectrum was considered a “stretch” or “unfair.” But something about Sophie had unsettled her from the moment they met. Maybe it was her physical largeness or her loud, boorish voice, but when Sophie naturally assigned herself to the role of color announcer while subjugating Tamara to be the floundering color with the assigned task of swimming to the other side untagged, Tamara felt doubly terrified. And so in some kind of absurd and indirect form of self-protection she had picked the most obscure color she could think of, a color she had only seen once in a 64 set Crayola box.
            “You cheated,” Sophie said at the end of the first round, after she looked over and saw that Tamara was still standing right where she started.
            “You didn’t call out my color,” Tamara said. She wiped drops of water off her face and felt herself break into a triumphant flush. Her adrenaline rose and in the empowering haze of the moment Sophie didn’t look like a mare but a chipmunk, dumb with her overbite, and Tamara felt released from fear, soaking in the sensation of lightness.
            “What are you talking about,” Sophie said. “I called out every color in the rainbow.” Her eyes squinted at Tamara, scrutinizing and cruel.
“Unless you picked emerald green.” She splashed Tamara.
            “Nope.”
            “Or magenta red.” Another splash.
            “No,” Tamara said, swallowing a mouthful of chlorinated water. “Cut it out, will you?”
            “Or let me guess, turquoise blue.” Another splash.
            “Cut it out,” Tamara said, and in a moment of fury so particular to an eight year old, she pulled a strand of Sophie’s dirty blonde hair, to which Sophie kicked her in the stomach and pushed her underwater, both of her hands clamping down on Tamara’s head, while Tamara’s eyes, opened wide, burned in the chlorinated depths of the pool.
            Plunked underwater, she couldn’t see anything but the flailing of her own arms, and bubbles, tons of them, produced by her gasping mouth as she kicked and pushed and fought for air. The more she struggled upwards the stronger Sophie’s hands pushed her down, and she felt her lungs start to burn. For a frantic moment she wondered if she would die. The alternative afternoon option of staying home and playing handball, overcome with heat and the numbness of boredom, was a longing that seemed, the longer she was underwater, to grow increasingly distant, a moment in time so delicious in its blandness that she would never be able to appreciate again. But, then, just as she began to feel faint, Sophie’s hands let her go, and she surfaced up to the world, gobbling up mouthfuls of air in between coughing up water.
            “What’s going on over there?” a woman with a large hat and sunglasses asked, a woman who Tamara didn’t recognize.
            “We were just playing a game, weren’t we Tammy?” Sophie said, to which the woman shook her head as if to say, “Kids.” Tamara, seizing this as her moment of escape, glided over to the tip of the shallow end, ran up the steps of the pool, and still coughing up water, ran out of the pool and through the throngs of mingling adults and past the field of grass, the sun hitting her back, never wanting to look at another body of water again. That was her first and last Fourth of July at the Whitby’s, and when the next summer rolled around she resumed making excuses about why she couldn’t go. She never told her parents about what happened, but she had swam hundreds of time since then, was decidedly over it, as she had told herself many times before.
             “Mommy?” Peter said.
             She opened her eyes. Peter was looking at her in the dark.
             “Hi, baby,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”
             “I don’t want to have any bad dreams,” he said.
             “You won’t,” she said. “I’ll protect you.”
             And he, taking that as sufficient enough proof, or too tired to say otherwise, closed his eyes and fell back asleep.

She could hear Raymond getting ready for work in the morning, fiddling in the kitchen, likely burning his toast, as she woke up and helped Peter out of bed. She walked him to the bathroom where she helped him brush his teeth and after, in an attempt to appease him, asked if he wanted to watch cartoons. He nodded, reaching over instinctively to change the channel, but the sudden movement caused him to wince, and when Tamara looked at him and asked, “How do you feel?” he only grimaced.
             They sat watching the bright, animated characters flash across the TV screen, the curtains filtering out the haze of a smoggy morning, while Tamara braced herself to ask the question she didn’t want to ask.
            “What exactly happened, honey?”
            “Max did it,” he said. His voice was constrained, as if it pained him to move his lips.
            “I know he did, but what happened?”
            “I was doing a flip on the jungle gym, and he said I was hogging, and I told him to go away, and he pushed me off.”
            “While you were in the middle of a flip?”
            “Yes.”
            She looked away. The thought of Peter getting pushed off the jungle gym, when he wanted nothing more than to rise above the tumult of the playground and find a moment of peace, made her sick.
            “Honey, I’m sorry I didn’t listen more carefully yesterday. I was really distracted. It was stupid of me.”
            He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now.”
            They sat in silence, Peter absorbed in cartoons. Tamara grew increasingly upset by Peter’s frailness, how his cast overwhelmed his frame, how he seemed to almost disappear amongst the oversized pillows. She feared that already, at this young age, he was accepting the role of a victim, allowing defeatism to mingle with his blood.
            From the other room, she heard the phone ring. Let Raymond get it, she thought. She sank into the pillows and watched cartoon vegetables dance across the screen, stroking Peter’s hair as he leaned against her shoulder.
            Raymond picked up the phone on the third ring, answering with his typical, non-committal, “Hello.” She could hear him say, “He fractured his arm. How do you think he’s doing?” And then, “Honestly, what’s wrong with you people? Are budget cuts so bad that you can’t have a goddamn chaperone on the playground?” Peter seemed not to hear, out of either lethargy or pure absorption in the program, but Tamara, her fingers smoothing out Peter’s curls, felt her heart begin to pound as she strained to hear what was next.
           “You bet your ass I’m angry—” He was cut off abruptly, undoubtedly tapping his foot on the ground, before jumping in and saying: “Good, well I guess that makes you the expert witness then. I’ll see you and the Wilburns in court.” He slammed the phone down, and moments later, burst through the door. He looked relaxed, enlightened really, as he leaned against the doorpost in all of his masculine glory.
           “That was the Principal,” he said. “I gave her a piece of my mind.”
           “Good,” Tamara said.
           “Yes, it is good. These public schools are so inefficient. How about we sign you up for some karate lessons, Pete, so that something like this never happens again?”
           “Raymond,” Tamara said, lowering her eyes. Typical Raymond. Peter was just out of surgery one day, and Raymond was already thinking about self-defense classes, preventative measures, always having to be the problem solver. She was surprisingly angered by the gleam in his eye, the sense of satisfaction he derived from commanding the family in this way, as if he were some kind of sergeant. And yet, she was also amazed, because she could tell when he said, “I’ve got to run to the office now,” that he genuinely felt better, lighter, as if by expressing his anger in a three minute conversation he had really made a difference. He was a simple man, Tamara thought, calm until he got angry, and when he got angry he let it all out, like a steam engine, before ambling on, completely back on track.
            The little engine that could, she thought. She smiled a small, tight-lipped smile as she watched Raymond, briefcase in hand, whistle a tune as he climbed into his black Audi. Then she closed the blinds and turned back towards the television. Peter had changed the channel and an old Looney Tunes episode was playing, the Tasmanian Devil never ceasing in his quest to give Bugs Bunny some hell.

            It wasn’t until later that afternoon, after Tamara had given Peter his afternoon dose of extra strength Tylenol, and he was napping on the couch, that the quietness of the day caught up to her. She thought, again, about her visit to the Chapman’s house the day before: frantically driving to Malibu, her overly rehearsed presentation about the garden’s potential, Bradley’s sudden departure, Julia’s enigmatic aura, the abrupt call from the school. It had all happened less than 24 hours ago, but already it seemed like some kind of foggy, half-conceived dream. The unresolved nature of the meeting gnawed at her, and Tamara, despite her best efforts, was overcome by the desire to hear some sort of verdict.
            She called the Chapman’s at home, expecting that Julia might answer, which she did. She picked up on the third ring, her voice soft and almost musical. This time, Tamara’s speech came easily, no script required. “Hi, Julia, it’s Tamara. Listen, I’m really sorry about yesterday. My son fell on the playground and broke his arm, and I need to take a week or so off to take care of him. Can I check in with you next week?”
            “Oh,” Julia said. “I’m so sorry to hear that. But I think we’re going to have to put the landscaping project on pause for at least a few weeks. Bradley has to go back to Rome to do some reshoots, and he won’t go ahead with any design plans until he approves it all first.”
            Tamara paused for a moment, allowing that to sink in. “I see,” she said.
            “I love your ideas,” Julia said. “But Bradley’s got all kinds of his own opinions, so we’ll just have to wait until he’s back in town to see what he wants to do.”
            “I understand,” Tamara said.
            “I’m sorry again to hear about your son. Take care,” Julia said, adding, “I’ll be in touch.” And then her soft lilt clicked off, and Tamara listened to the dial tone, wondering if this time, perhaps, Julia had been the one reciting a script.

            That night, Raymond tucked Peter into bed, promising him plenty of ball games once he healed. Tamara figured that Peter’s enthusiasm was due to the fact that his father was talking to him and seemingly not preoccupied by the days work, even though Peter never really liked baseball and probably never would.
            She pretended to be asleep when Raymond walked into the bedroom, but later in the night, after he was long asleep, and she had been staring at the ceiling for hours looking for answers to an unformulated question, she tiptoed downstairs to her study and powered up her laptop. She found herself typing Sophie Whitby into Google, just to see what would turn up. After scrolling through a few miscellaneous images, including a picture of what looked like a grandmother focused at her needlepoint, and a woman standing in front of a palm tree holding a huge pair of overalls with a caption underneath that read, “Look how much weight I lost,” she saw a picture of a woman with blondish, reddish hair and a smile with teeth that were too large for her mouth. Underneath was an ad that said, “Need to sell your home? Contact Sophie Whitby, connecting buyers and sellers in the Tucson area since 1994”. With a sense of familiarity that produced a kind of nausea, she saw in the eyes of the woman the same squinting cruelty of the girl who had held her down in the pool. Her hair had clearly been through the ringer of dye regiments, and was now a battered looking copper color. And what had been the butch, intimidating quality she had carried in childhood had now morphed into an ordinary adult homeliness. For a moment, Tamara was tempted to call her, wanted to leave a voicemail pretending to be a prospective buyer and have this woman show up at some random house, primly dressed and roasting in her arid desert city, only to be greeted by silence. But then Tamara sighed, knowing that she was too old for such pranks. So she powered off her computer and stared at the black screen, a tingling energy brewing through her veins.

            Just two days post-surgery, on an overcast Thursday afternoon, Peter’s classmates and their parents started dropping by with get well cards and cookies. There was Dan Persky and his chatty mother Myra, socially awkward Jimmy Leavitt and his apologetic mother Patricia, even Sam Stouffer and his good-natured father Eric stopped by. The kids signed Peter’s casts, and Tamara could tell, from the emphatic voices of the boys gabbing in Peter’s room after he told them stories about getting wheeled through the emergency room, that he was receiving the kind of all-encompassing, devoted attention from his peers he had never received before. During a quiet moment when Myra and Patricia were talking amongst themselves in the hallway, Eric Stouffer turned to Tamara in the kitchen.
            “How are you doing?” he said.
             Tamara shrugged. “Fine I guess. Thrown for a loop.”
            “Sam tells me that kid Max is awful, a real bully. I hope they expel him.”
            “Yes, well,” Tamara said, drumming her fingers against the counter. “Fingers crossed.”
            Eric looked at her, as if really studying her. Tamara looked back into his big blue eyes, realizing, for the first time, that he looked a little bit like Raymond.
            “Have they apologized?” he asked. “The Wilburns?”
            “No,” she said. “Not yet.”
            Eric shook his head. “Unbelievable,” he said. “Makes me want to give them a piece of my mind.”
            “Raymond and I are pursuing it,” Tamara said, her face flushed. “We are going to take them to small claims court.” And then she added, “That boy Jimmy saw the whole thing. Patricia said she’d be willing to have him testify in court as a witness.”
            “Good,” Eric said. He dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small red book. John Burroughs Elementary School, it read. “All of the kids got this student directory at school today with everybody’s contact info, and I asked Sam to pick one up for you guys. Let us know if you need anything,” he said. “We’re just a phone call away.”
            “Thank you,” Tamara said. She looked down at the book, and then back up at Eric. “That’s very kind of you.”
             He shrugged. “Just trying to do the right thing,” he said. “For what that’s worth.”

            On Sunday night Tamara was perched upright in bed, stuck on the same paragraph of an article for nearly twenty minutes, when Raymond turned to her and said, “I think Peter’s ready to go back to school this week. Maybe Tuesday.”
            Tamara looked back into his unblinking eyes. He was serious. “Tuesday? You can’t be serious. He just broke his arm last Tuesday.”
            “Exactly, it’ll have been nearly a week of recovery time. He’s got his cast and his sling. He’s got energy. He’s feeling well. Obviously he’ll stay away from the playground, but I think going back will be good for him, show him there’s nothing to be afraid of. We need to show him that he can bounce back from this.”
            “Bouncing back is one thing, sending him back to school before he’s ready is another.”
            “Come on, Tamara, it’s for the best. We can drop him off, and then I can take the morning off work, and we can go talk to my friend Geoffrey who works at the firm down the street from my office. I’m sure once he hears what we have to say and that there were witnesses who saw Max push Peter, he can give us some solid advice about when we can take the Wilburn’s to court. Plus, he already said he could meet with us that morning at ten.”
            “You already asked for a time to meet with him?” Tamara said. “Why would you schedule a meeting without asking me first? Peter can’t go back to school on Tuesday, he’s not ready. This doesn’t feel right.”
            “What doesn’t feel right?” Raymond put his hand on her leg, letting it graze up her thigh. “Come on, Tamara,” he said, whispering into her ear. “You need to relax.”“I can’t.”
            “Just try.” He kissed her on the cheek, and then hard on the mouth, and as he climbed on top of her, his mouth traveling down to her neck, and then to her breasts, she felt her chest tighten.
            “Not tonight,” she said. She turned to her other side.
            “What’s the matter?”
            “Nothing,” she said. But knowing that that wasn’t enough, that there was a space growing between them, she added, “I feel like I can’t breathe.”
            “Take a Valium,” he said, and turned off his light.

            That Tuesday she got takeout Chinese for dinner, greasy noodles and orange chicken smothered in MSG, because she didn’t have the heart to stand in front of her kitchen and mix ingredients together. Somehow Raymond worked on her the past two days with the same hyper rationality that enabled his clients to trust him with managing their money. Tamara and Raymond had dropped Peter off at school that morning, his first day back, and then went to talk to Raymond’s friend Geoffrey, as scheduled, at ten AM. Geoffrey, who was composed and assured like Raymond, told them that, given they had all of the proper documentation and witness statements, they could have the Wilburns in small claims court within three to four months.
            Tamara kept thinking that she should have felt better, should have felt that things were progressing, but instead she had spent the day in a kind of anxious daze, repeatedly opening her curtains out onto the smoggy morning. She was momentarily relieved when she picked Peter up from school and saw that he was smiling, and his cast, just as he wanted, was completely covered by designs, but that relief subsided quickly, giving away to a lingering, insatiable knot inside of her.
            At dinner, she was nauseated by the sight of the greasy chow mein noodles that Raymond and Peter devoured, and she picked at her plate. She listened to Peter talk about how one of his classmates brought in cookies and ice cream for his welcome back party, how his teacher doted on him and let him sit on the cushioned couch instead of at his wooden desk, and she felt, under his falsely cheerful expression, that there must have been something darker, a burst of anger that would come bounding outward when they’d least expect it.
            “You’re not hungry?” Raymond said.
            “Not particularly,” Tamara said. “In fact, I don’t really feel very well at all.”
            Raymond looked up at her, his earnest blue eyes showing concern. “What’s wrong?
            Tamara struggled to explain what was wrong, racking her brain to try and think of the right word that would fit. “Nausea,” she said. “I think I’ll go to Walgreens and pick up some Advil.”
            “Okay,” Raymond said.
            She stood up and felt dizzy, pressing a hand to the table to steady herself. “Okay,” she said. She grabbed her car keys. “Be back soon.”

            She was in the car, her right turn signal tick-ticking, waiting at a red light before turning onto Ventura Boulevard towards Walgreens. But it was while she was sitting there, waiting for cars to pass, that she realized ginger ale and Advil weren’t going to help that dark, queasy feeling she had in the pit of her stomach. Sighing, her breath shaky, she fished in her glove compartment, past her registration and insurance forms, past a Joni Mitchell CD covered in dust, past a PTA newsletter, until she found what she was looking for: the John Burroughs Elementary School student directory. Flipping past the s’s, the t’s, the u’s, and the v’s, she found the name that she was looking for, and on the green light she made a left turn instead of a right.

           She told herself, as she drove over, that she wasn’t making a mistake. It had been a week since the incident and she had heard nothing, and she wanted to know why. She wanted face-to-face interaction, pure, not tainted by the formalities of court procedure, or by the second hand opinions of her husband and Eric Stouffer. She wanted to look Mrs. Wilburn in the eye and ask her how she could raise a boy who would think of pushing another boy off of a jungle gym, and then not even have the decency to call and apologize. Isn’t the point of child-rearing to raise your kid to be a decent person, she wanted to ask Mrs. Wilburn. Isn’t that what all of this is about?

            The Wilburns lived further into the valley, deep into Woodland Hills. By the time she got there the half moon had risen higher in the smog filled sky, which had morphed from a washed out denim color to a darker, richer blue. They lived on a quiet side street with only a few modest one-story tract homes. The rest of the street was barren. A bunch of houses were likely waiting to be developed, but currently there was nothing to show for it but a vacant lot covered by a chain link fence, filled only with a giant dirt mound.
            The addresses were hard to read, but she finally found their house, a crumbling stucco one story with peeling brown paint and shut blinds. She parked the car and was about to cross the street, but was jarred by the sight of a boy, around Peter’s age, emerging from the side door with a stuffed trash bag. Small, pale, head down and feet shuffling, he seemed almost pitiable. But as he hoisted the trash bag over his shoulder, his blank face morphed into a horrible grimace, and Tamara instinctively jumped back as the bag landed with a thud and the bin rattled, a plastic shout reverberating through the quiet dark.


Author Bio: Jacqueline Berkman is a writer based in Los Angeles with a background in publishing and public relations. She has a forthcoming piece of fiction that will appear in the Winter 2014 edition of the online literary journal The Writing Disorder.
Artwork: Jessica Herrera