We’re not in Five-one Land Now by Wendy Breuer

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A room filled with grey emeritus professors, husbands led by the hand to their seats by wives in sensible shoes. They are the wilting flowers of cultural appreciativeness in this university town. The musicians take their seats, women in long black skirts, and the men tuxedoed.  A few minutes of discordant practice and then the disciplined tuning of heirloom instruments. The conductor enters with his usual avuncular bounce, bows, and raises his baton. Mozart. A violin concerto, The Turkish. The pace is nimble, just shy of frenetic. Communication between the soloist and the conductor is impeccable, and the first movement comes to an end with the classical resolution of dominant to the tonic, the five to the one. In a less culturally trained audience, this finality always brings applause and the embarrassed disapproval of the cognoscenti. I hold back my applause, but I admit it takes restraint. I wonder every time if this polite self-discipline is what Mozart expected. It always feels like a Puritan church service. Tonight, we are a good audience and keep our impulses under control.

This evening the protocols of concert etiquette irritate me. Trump decreed his ban on Muslims from seven countries only yesterday, and this afternoon I found myself at a spontaneous demonstration at San Francisco airport, yelling slogans again. Yet my husband and I got home in time for our subscription concert.

This audience of elders has most likely done their share of yelling slogans and carrying placards. Some of them survived McCarthy, loyalty oaths, and the Reagan years. Some of them, no doubt, risked their lives during Mississippi Summer or were hauled out of the administration building by police during the Free Speech Movement. They are frail. Getting to their assigned seats is a stressful effort.

The soloist injects sensitivity and humor into her playing. She has a joyful affect. I know that with music you must give yourself over to a mental state that is more than just mindful or meditative. In practice or performance, you must be present in every muscle and nerve ending. If you split your concentration, you will lose the ineffable. I have had a split-screen feeling ever since the election. I need to compartmentalize and focus on the music, but I am overwhelmed.

These days, middle class everyday life is encased in the complexity of danger: an aunt goes into a nursing home, a friend has a knee replacement, a daughter plans a wedding, we calendar a trip abroad, negotiate conflicts with siblings, buy new shoes. The supermarket stays open and the shelves are stocked with products. The homeless man who is always outside the drugstore needs to plaster himself under an awning to stay out of the winter rain. Everyday life doesn’t change, but the splitting penetrates all its strata.

History feels like an extra sense. “What would I do?” “What would I have done?” “What should I do, now?” Ideological platitudes don’t reassure though it would be comforting to have those explanations now. My arthritic knee longs to jerk in that direction.

The graceful audience for Mozart slowly dies out. I had a piano teacher who used to say, “When you play Mozart, remember, you’re in Five-one Land.” But scapegoats have been chosen. The survival of the earth is threatened by greed and subterfuge. Mozartian resolution clashes with atonal vigilance.  We’re not in Five-one Land now.

 


About the Author: Wendy Breuer lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and cats. She’s been a waitress, office temp, visiting nurse, and has an MPH and a late-life MFA. She fights feelings of political despair by practicing the piano and teaching English to adult immigrants who affectionately tolerate her pedagogical improvisations. Her prose and poetry have appeared in print and online in Literary Mama, Inkwell Journal, Rattle, NOÖ Journal, and Calyx Journal.

 

First Down by Christina Gardner

FOR CHRISTINA GARDENER - by Alison Moncrieff


Brett Llewellyn comes to mind. On a clouded day, Brett Llewellyn stood on the field in the schoolyard. He was a freckled lanky boy with a conservative cut of red hair. He cradled a football, helmet-less. After a whistle, his red hair jostled as he dipped, faked left, and ran. He wore no team uniform—a light blue polo shirt. Blue flags flew behind him as he entered the end-zone. Grass, mostly crab and clover, upturned under his sneakers, while boys all around him with yellow flags dove. Still, he eluded them.

A few weeks later, a sign-up sheet appeared on the P.E. office door for fall sports. I decided to put my name on the tryout lists for the boys’ flag football team, knowing it wasn’t technically allowed at my parish Catholic school.

A group of classmates surrounded me as I wrote my name on the sign-up sheet hung on the door of the P.E. supply room.

“You can’t do that!” Chris R. shouted. “That’s the boys’ team. Can’t you tell you’re a girl?”

“Why would you want to play football?” Stephanie Clark complained with her popped hip of condescension.

“I want to play too,” another girl said, and she stepped up to put her name on the list.

I received other snickers and side-eyes for the rest of recess, but the controversy seemed to die down by the end of lunch. Kids have short attention spans for scandal, but though my classmates seemed to forget about the act, I didn’t. I was nervous. I had never played football before, but my intent was steadfast. I wanted to do something my school hadn’t allowed girls to do before.

Someone must have called my parents that night. Told them about what I did.

“Why do you want to play?” my mother asked at the dinner table.

“Because I don’t want to play volleyball,” I told her.

My father stayed out of it. He rolled his eyes, took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, and went to stand on our back patio while my mother spoke to me.

I didn’t know how to explain it to her exactly, how to articulate what I knew intuitively; it wasn’t fair that we couldn’t just be allowed to play with the boys if we were equal to them. That if you taught that girls could do anything, you should let them do anything. I wanted to prove that I could. I wanted to make a change, make a difference. I wanted, at the very least, to call out what seemed so carefully unaddressed.

Mom kept on, “But you could get hurt, playing football, something could happen to your ovaries.” Which made me think her stupid. I knew enough to see the flaw in her anatomical argument. She had joked before with other moms before about how much smaller boys are than girls at that age. Boys have penises on the outside of their bodies, yet no one was concerned with damage to their reproductive abilities. I imagined a big girl named Angela towering over Brett Llewellyn on the field and accidently kicking him in the balls as she plucked the football out of his hands and ran.

But it was of no use. I was used to this shoddy logic, and there was no arguing with my mother when she took to this kind of explanation. I felt betrayed by her ignoring what was obvious.

To say I was passionate about football would be a lie. I had a sense even then that I was playing some kind of performance of a feminist. The appeal of the football team lay mainly in my unjust exclusion from it.

This shouldn’t have surprised anyone. I’m not a religious person now, but I was a stone-cold Catholic then and Joan of Arc was my hero. She was my perennial choice for “Saint Reports.” As part of my presentation that year, I carried a cardboard flag and sword, donned construction paper armor, tied my hair up to mimic her shorn locks.

Glossing over every historical inaccuracy I know now, I presented to the class, “Joan of Arc was directed by God through three different saints to dress like a man and lead France to victory.”

I wanted to mimic more than her hair, I want to mimic her courage. If Joan of Arc could win a war in medieval France, couldn’t I could play flag football?

About a week later, there was a meeting called by the Arch Diocese to discuss if girls were allowed to play flag football at parish schools. Apparently, my school hadn’t been the only one with Catholic girls to ever have such a wild desire.

That whole week I had been hopeful. The two other girls that wanted to play seemed like an unlikely trio. Lydia, a small skinny pretty thing with too many brothers to pretend she was just small and skinny; Angela, the big girl we were all afraid to piss off but always picked first for teams; and me, bookish, enthusiastic, and generally a rule-follower.

I was called into the principal’s office to have meeting with my principal, Sr. Marie, an ancient nun, and our vice principal, Mrs. O’Donnell. The office was well-appointed compared to the rest of the school. There was a large blond wood desk and plush beige carpeting. Framed awards and photographs lined the walls. The room was dim, the slats of the wide mini-blinds were pulled shut. I had only ever been in there once before to deliver a note from my teacher two years before. In front of the desk, there were three cushioned chairs across from the door where Sr. Marie sat on the left and Ms. O’Donnell next to her. I sat in the chair across from them that was so much bigger than me, I felt I had shrunk.  

Mrs. O’Donnell was a stern lady, spoke to everyone with the same tone of voice she spoke to the class of kindergartners that she taught: drawn out words in the form of instructions, no elaboration, no explanations, no patience for discussion.

She began to speak and I can’t remember if she said anything before she said, “We know your parents told you about the Diocese’s meeting and it was announced that each school could choose what they thought was best. Sr. Marie feels it’s best, and I agree, that we will not be allowing girls to play football. If you’d like can still tryout for volleyball.”

I looked to the old woman on the left who was as small as I was.

“Why not?” I pressed, trying to be defiant, but slowly starting to cry, my response to frustration even now. I don’t whine or wail, it’s just that tears start to flow to my eyes and my voice starts to tremble, at best an annoying weakness.

I stared at Sr. Marie even as the other responded, “We feel it’s a matter of you getting hurt.”

I was crushed by their complete stonewall of my ambitions. My throat was thick with fear, but I told them what feels powerful even now.

“I’ve lost faith in you, in this school, and the church. I’ve lost faith.” I cried in front of these women, these gatekeepers. I hated them for watching me cry. I hated them for not reacting to what I was saying. They just stared and handed me tissues.

I imagined yanking off Sr. Marie’s habit, cutting off her pale blue dress with my left-handed scissors. I wanted to expose whatever matronly undergarments she wore. What right did a woman like her have in educating modern girls? I wanted her to feel the humiliation she was so desperately trying to avoid for herself and forcing on me.

Then there was her counterpart, Mrs. Donnell, such a loud and mean woman, always in some kind of blouse and long A-line skirt. I imagined even at that age that she had a giant mole, just above her vagina, and I wanted to stab it.

“Go wash your face and go back to class.” This was their only consolation. “Then send in Angela.”

That was all they could say for themselves. It seems weird that they had that meeting at all. I can’t imagine telling a child something like that. Why not leave it up to my parents to break the bad news? Let them figure out a way to put it easily. They could’ve made it seem like they had no control and we could’ve wallowed together in the unfairness of it all. Instead, I felt like I had done something wrong just for asking to be treated as an equal to my male classmates.

Maybe they wanted to fight the crusade head on, because I think what they saw in my desire to play football was a signpost of my bi-sexuality. Something I couldn’t even see back then. By denying me and other girls the chance to play football, perhaps they thought they could suppress what was ultimately inevitable. One of the other girls who wanted to play was queer as well. Maybe by just being myself, I was more of a threat than I could have known.

What I didn’t do was play football on the co-ed park team.

“If you really wanted to play football, you’d play wherever they let you,” my mother explained. “You’re just trying to be different.” This accusation has been repeated innumerably over the years, as if wanting to be different was universally a bad thing. She would tell me that for anything as small as liking a black choker—it was the 90s—to going to NYU for college.

In turn, rage was born out of the hypocrisy of the entire experience. We had girl altar servers and a woman principal, why not girls playing flag football? How could something so clearly unjust not be repaired? I didn’t understand why more adults didn’t see it my way, in a lot of ways I still don’t. The effect of this was that these people lost me to something beyond their horizons. I was transformed into a daughter that their world was too small to serve.

What’s important to know, what I realize now, is that it was a chorus of women—not one man—who stood in my way, trying to convince me not to want what I wanted. Perpetuating the patriarchal example that I’m sure had been set down in their own lives; how they rationalized that to themselves, I can only speculate. Maybe it was important to them to teach girls how to not step out of bounds. Perhaps setting the bar lower would protect me and the other girls from future disappointment. The sense of betrayal that rushes in when considering any of these possibilities mirrors so much of how I feel when I look at the news today. How are women still doing these things to each other?

I care so much for that little girl, my 11 or 12-year-old self. Wanting so much to participate in ideals and principles, and then learning that the world doesn’t much care for your ideals, even though that’s what those in control claimed to teach. I hold her bright ambitious body in my mind like you’d comfort any child. I grieve for that sense of idealism I no longer possess. What world would we have if we didn’t suppress those instincts?

The result is that I learned how to cast-off any rule that doesn’t serve me. I graduated from the small-minded world that likes to think I’m a prodigal daughter. Fled left for cities that drew me in and sent me soaring higher. There will always be obstacles; needing no permission, I fight them on my own—dipping, faking left, and running towards the end zone.

 


About the Author: Christina Gardner is a fiction and personal essay writer, living and working in San Francisco. Her work focuses on examining the female experience in the global corporate workforce. You can find her work featured on XoJane and the Minetta Review.

Artist bio: Alison Moncrieff lives in Oakland, CA and paints in her basement, which is just that side of water tight. Her painting style is probably called abstract or intuitive, involving right now mostly-empty dresses, unrealistic birds, common symbols & words. For Alison, painting is a visceral, playful thing. It brings her joy, and she hopes to pay that forward. She is currently working on the #paintfeelloveheal project (@alimoncrieffpaints on Instagram), a yearlong painting practice to grow a habit of creative production and to connect with people. For more about Alison’s painting, visit www.alisonmoncrieff.com.

Driver Training Days by John Laue

FOR JOHN LAUE - by Allen Forrest


I

      What was I doing sitting in a car careening from lane to lane of the Golden Gate Bridge, my heart in my throat, while Mrs. Cerf, my driving student, freaked out? Maybe I’m not cut out for this kind of drama, I thought. Maybe I should have turned down the job.

         I’d had to find some way of making a living after leaving my job as an Advance County Planner before they fired me. A bad reaction to LSD had pushed me over the edge to the point I couldn’t do the required math.  Now here I was, in my first job after I could work again, teaching driving in San Francisco, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

         Mrs. Cerf, please stay in the center of your lane, I mouthed without much conviction, ruing my mistake of missing the last turnoff and letting her get on the bridge. So here we were, having to go all the way across. Because I was inexperienced, I didn’t grab the wheel with my left hand as I would have later, believing she might think me rude. I just sat helpless with nonsense going through my mind: Why does the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.

          It must have been beginner’s luck; we didn’t hit anything. As soon as we were able to turn off and park, I got behind the wheel and drove us back across, all the way to American Universal Driving School on Geary Boulevard. My first student had almost been a disaster, but I decided to keep trying. There was something appealing about riding around all day in the sunshine. And the instruction car had a brake on my side too.

         I’d majored in psychology at Cal. Perhaps there was a chance to use that knowledge with people who were under stress, some acutely so. And I’d be looked up to as kind of a guru of driving by some students; I liked that.  Plus my creative writing training at San Francisco State University’s graduate school might be useful too; I could write about my experiences.  Most of all, I needed the money. The amount I’d drawn out when I withdrew from Alameda County’s pension fund was almost gone.

II

         Talk about being looked up to, here was an example. I picked up Dara in the Marina District where her one-room apartment was located. She was a very good  looking Italian American of 23 with an olive complexion and dark hair. I was happy to teach such a nubile woman. And she needed instruction: she’d never driven before except for a few lessons in high school driver training.

         I took her all over the city, giving lessons in several phases of driving, but remember best the time I had her going north on the stretch of Divisidero Street that descends precipitously to the Marina District, the street featured in the popular chase movie Bullitt where both cars went airborne.  The street descends at a forty-five degree angle, but is intersected by several cross streets where it levels out in a sort of stepladder arrangement.

         We didn’t go airborne, but another dangerous thing happened. As we headed down the sharp incline, I said, Okay, Dara, put the car in second gear so engine compression will help us keep our speed down. That will save the brakes and make it easier to control. Dara reached down and, instead of second gear, moved that automatic transmission gearshift all the way into reverse. With my left hand I immediately shifted it back. After that the lesson went smoothly and I explained what she’d done.

          The next time I saw her, she said she’d told her boyfriend about the incident. Bob said he would have killed me if I’d done that to his car. He told me you must be a saint not to let that bother you! I feel very safe when you’re here. Thank you so much for putting up with me!

          For the first time I realized how much gratitude I could get for doing this, the only job I’d ever had where that might occur. Students’ thanks were like a drug to me.  And I went one on one with a variety of people, anyone who could afford the $15 to $20 an hour we charged. I enjoyed meeting people so this was an ideal job for me although I only got $5 an hour of instruction, not counting time spent driving to pick up students (which could be considerable). Being a driving instructor isn’t so bad. It’s a lot better than sitting in an office all day, I said to myself.

III

           As the first months went by, I successfully taught a variety of people, from teenagers to new widows. I reveled in the freedom it brought them, not minding that it was sometimes quite nerve racking (less so as I gained experience and became more willing to take control when need be).  When I thought students were ready, I took them to the Department of Motor Vehicles for their license tests and was proud when they passed.  

         My second unusually difficult student (after Mrs. Cerf who totaled 120 hours with other instructors and passed the driving test on her ninth try) was Chris, a diminutive dark-haired, female social worker who had seizures controlled by two drugs, dilantin and phenobarbitol. She’d begun instruction with my friend Rich Farmer, but had complained about him to the management (Rich was having mental health problems far worse than mine, and could say outrageous things). Knowing I had a degree in psychology, the office had assigned her to me.

         Chris’s problem was lack of alertness: she failed to notice hazards in time, probably because of the heavy drugs she was taking. She had a bad case of tunnel vision, seemed unable to cope with people and objects coming from the side. I decided to take her to Union Street in the Marina District, and other areas where there were many jaywalkers and cars pulling out of parking spaces.

         As the lessons progressed from ten to twenty hours, she kept making the same errors. I began to think she mightn’t succeed.  I wanted to find out whether it was worthwhile to continue teaching her, so I decided to keep a running count of the number of times each hour I had to use my dual brake. I taped a tally sheet to the dashboard, made a check mark each time she was in danger of hitting someone or something.

         What are you doing with that list? she asked. Are you trying to discourage me by using negative reinforcement (like me, she was well-versed in psychology)?

         I’m keeping track of the number of dangerous errors you make each hour, I replied. If they don’t decrease, we’ll know driving isn’t for you. I don’t want to waste your money by giving you scores of lessons when it’s obvious you aren’t improving.

         Chris desperately wanted to drive. She was in therapy and had discussed this with her psychiatrist who’d agreed she should take lessons. Almost every day she had to ride busses to different parts of the city to visit clients. She needed to drive, especially for the more distant assignments. I liked her so much, I’d have given her lessons for free if that were required, but the obstacle wasn’t money. After twenty hours of instruction and practically praying that she do better, I felt quite frustrated.

         The data on the dashboard wasn’t changing; every hour of instruction brought two or three possible accidents. Finally I had to tell her she should give it up. That was a sad moment for both of us. I wanted to take her for a farewell drink, but she couldn’t tolerate alcohol because of her medications. We hugged before I left for the last time. I learned a valuable lesson from my time with her: not everybody can drive even if they seem intelligent and I do my best to teach them.

IV

         Dave Hammero and I were fellow instructors at American Universal and grew to be close friends. He was a tall guy from Minnesota, Norwegian American, Norsk, as he put it, who  had been a high school basketball star. He was one of the best driving instructors I’d met, even intending to start his own school one day. Dave claimed that we were practically guaranteed not to have accidents in our own cars because of all we learned while teaching people. He was an exponent of The Smith System of driving that advised us to leave as much space as possible all around our cars.

         One evening, after a hard eight hours of teaching, I was on my way home to 40 Clover Street where I lived with my wife Sandy. Clover was a single block street and to get to it I had to cross Eighteenth Street which slanted down from Upper Market to the Castro District. I reached the stop sign and waited, looking left and right, then quickly gunned it to cross swiftly because I saw only a small opening.  

          As I reached the center, I heard a thump and realized, to my total horror, I’d hit a man’s scooter, winged a big white wooden box on the back. My heart was in my throat as I realized I could have killed him. I pulled over on the other side. That driver, a large man dressed in blue denim, had pulled over too.  I wondered if he were going to get physical with me. I fell all over myself apologizing. I was practically crying, embarrassed even more because I’d been driving a car with Driving School signs all over it; What an advertisement! I thought.

         He hadn’t been hurt and the box on the back of his scooter just had a little chip in it. One inch to the left could have sent him tumbling and been a fatal accident. I thanked my lucky stars it hadn’t been worse. I’d completely failed to see his little scooter coming down the hill; it probably had been hidden behind one of my car’s window posts.

         That day I learned Dave’s accident free assertion wasn’t true. After a long day of high alertness while riding with students, and coping with their errors, I’d felt relieved to get in my own car and drive myself home, thinking I could finally relax; nothing bad could occur with me behind the wheel. After the scooter incident, I realized I had to watch just as carefully in the driver’s seat as on the instructor’s side; otherwise I was an accident waiting to happen. Ironically, I’d talked to my students about fatigue, but had failed to recognize it in myself.  

V

         Occasionally a student would be so naïve he or she thought, since the car was automatic and had power steering, it would do things it wasn’t designed to do—like steer itself. The most flagrant example of sheer ignorance (or purposeful mistake) I saw was when I attempted to instruct a woman who told me she’d been a teacher in the Philippines, but hadn’t ever been behind a car’s wheel. Ms. Pugao, a woman in her early thirties was quite pretty, which I liked. She seemed alert and intelligent so I thought she’d be easy to teach.

        The first lesson I gave her was on a straight, divided road bordering Glenn Park. We were nearing John Glenn high school at noon. I wanted to stay away from the mob of students and cars pulling out, so I asked her to make a U- turn through an opening in the median strip.

         She exclaimed,  Something’s wrong with this wheel; It won’t turn all the way!

          I reached over with my left hand to assist her, but couldn’t turn it very far either. To my amazement I saw that, without my noticing, she’d put her seat belt through the steering wheel, pulled it to her lap, and buckled it (seat and shoulder belts were separate then). She’d been driving in this condition three or four minutes, and I hadn’t noticed.

         I had a set routine for new students: I’d explain what the different controls were for, assist them in getting the seat and mirrors adjusted; I’d ask them to fasten their seat belts, help them find the receptacle the metal tab went into; even, if necessary, go around to the driver’s side and open the door to do it for them. But I’d never imagined a student would do what Ms. Pugao did. I learned from that to expect the unexpected, as I’d been advised by the California Driver’s Handbook.  

         Later, when I thought about the incident, I recalled I’d mentioned to her I might write a book about my driving instruction experiences. Perhaps she made that crazy error to be mentioned; I had no way of knowing. But here’s your part of my story, Ms. Pugao, if, by some stroke of luck, you’re still alive after all these years, and able to read this.

VI

           Some of my teaching failures were due to cultural differences, language barriers, and other difficulties dealing with an international clientele. I lost one student, a Japanese businessman who spoke almost no English, because he wanted to stop in the midst of a downtown lesson to fetch his briefcase.   I couldn’t understand the name of the building he was trying to pronounce. Guessing at the building’s location, I inadvertently stopped at another structure three blocks away from it. As I sat there trying to make sense of what he was saying, he suddenly jumped out of the car and began running.  

           He ran down three long city blocks, then came flying back with his briefcase in his right hand. I apologized, but don’t believe he understood. Either he thought I was trying to cheat him because we were on the clock, or he felt too embarrassed to continue his training. He never called to schedule another lesson.  

           On other occasions, unexpected things caused students to quit. I lost Mrs. Becker, a comely sixty year old widow I liked very much (She gave me a German Stollen Christmas cake from The Sunset Bakery where we used to stop for coffee breaks), because I put the black Mercedes her husband had left her through a carwash.  That made hundreds of tiny scratch marks on the pristine finish. I hadn’t realized that her husband had always buffed the car by hand with a soft cloth. I apologized profusely, but that did no good.

           Actually I was rather relieved not to be teaching Mrs. Becker because she’d insisted on having the lessons in the Mercedes. She’d driven some many years before, but had left that chore to her husband when he was alive. She had a constant battle with nervousness. Usually I succeeded in calming her, but she’d occasionally lose it completely and  become immobilized. Once she froze in the middle of the intersection of Junipero Serra and Sloat Boulevards. The light turned green and she failed to go

             I said, in what I thought was a comforting, calm tone, Mrs. Becker, you have a green light. Take your foot off the brake, put it on the accelerator. Be calm and do this slowly. There’s no reason to panic!

            She said, They’re blowing horns at me!

            Me: Don’t worry about that; just get going!

            Every time a horn blows within hearing distance, many driving students think it’s for them. I call it beginner’s paranoia. But in this case the horns actually were for us. Finally that sweet lady calmed down enough for us to start again, releasing a stream of cars that charged like race horses coming out of the gate.

           Mrs. Becker’s incident was only one of many times driving students held up traffic. Quite a few older men and women I taught seemed to think going slower was safer; several came for lessons because they’d failed their driving tests by not keeping up with the flow. My job was to convince them to speed up. Once in a while, I’d get someone who just couldn’t endure going fast enough to blend with traffic. I’d do my best to convince him or her to give up driving. A few were issued special licenses that restricted them to slower surface streets.  

VII

             The most unlikely student I ever had was a woman with a condition called bradykinesia, a disability from an earlier accident that resulted in her doing everything very, very slowly. When I first picked her up, Mrs. Goldman, a well-dressed woman of fifty, requested that I drive her to Presbyterian Hospital so she could get a note from her doctor to present to the DMV. Otherwise, in her condition, they wouldn’t grant her a Learner’s Permit.  I don’t know what she said or did, but, after twenty minutes, she emerged with his signature on a note that said, to my amazement, she was capable of learning to drive.  

           Mrs. Goldman could walk with a cane, but she wasn’t very mobile. Everything took longer with her. Just signing her name at the Department of Motor Vehicles took her at least thirty seconds. She told me, I’m dee–terr–minn–ed to dd–rive!   I gave her ten hours of in-car instruction, during which I had to take control most of the time. It was obvious to me that she couldn’t be a safe driver.

         I tried to discourage her, saying she’d never be able to pass the driving test, but this didn’t faze her. Finally I refused to continue the lessons.  I said, Mrs. Goldman, I don’t want to waste your money. I’m sorry but I can’t go on with this! You and I both know you’ll never be able to drive safely. I let her off at her house with that message, thinking that would be the end of her futile attempts. She phoned our office and complained about me. The next week I saw her out for a lesson in a car from National Driving School, one of our competitors.

VIII

            Another surprisingly difficult student, Monsieur Sequin, a balding, heavyset French gentleman about sixty years old, told me he managed a hotel in the Tenderloin. I thought it amusing that he’d shout  Merde!(shit) every time he made an error. A typical adventure with him occurred when we were traveling down Van Ness Avenue and he suddenly turned left.   

            I said, Monsieur Seguin, I didn’t tell you to turn. Why did you do that?

           He replied, See zat car up zere?  

           Yes.

          He turned left!

          Three days in a row I attempted to teach Monsieur Sequin proper uphill parking techniques, taking him to a steep hill on a street adjacent to the Presidio of San Francisco. With all the hills in the city, this was a very important skill to learn, one neglected by many drivers, who could get a ticket for not doing it properly.  

          The first day, when I talked him through the maneuver, he did it perfectly; the second day in the same spot, he pulled over and parked as if we were on a level street. I said Monsieur Sequin, we’re on a steep hill. You have to turn your wheels out so you can back the right front wheel against the curb. That’s for safety: if you get bumped, your car won’t go down the hill.

           On the third day, in the exact same place I used to teach uphill parking, I pulled him over. Again, he didn’t secure the right front wheel. I said, Don’t you remember how we did uphill parking the last two days in this same spot?  

           He replied, Is this uphill?  

           It dawned on me:  Monsieur Sequin was senile and couldn’t remember anything from day to day. I finally requested that he quit attempting to drive.

IX

           Another person I asked to give up driving for safety’s sake was an 89-year-old retired Army general.  He said, I’m Major General Edwin C. Walker. I can drive perfectly well, but they flunked me on my test. That young examiner didn’t like officers. He was prejudiced against me!

           I wanted to believe his story, so allowed him to have a lesson in his own car, a Cadillac (with no dual brake). As he drove away from his mansion in the Seacliff area of the city, I noticed he was weaving slightly.

         Have you done your own driving?, I inquired. It had occurred to me that, like many high-ranking officers, he might have had enlisted men driving him everywhere he went.

         He said, I did plenty of driving. I had a policy of driving myself.

        We came to T intersection with a stop sign. I asked him to turn left onto Fulton Street, a four-lane thoroughfare alongside Golden Gate Park. I saw him move his head left and right, then he turned precisely into the path of an oncoming car. Luckily, that driver slammed on his brakes and did a desperate evasive maneuver, just missing us.  

         I’d been watching the general’s eyes and was certain I’d seen him look both left and right. Then I had an idea; I asked him directly, Do you have any vision problems?

        Oh, yes, he replied, I’m blind in my left eye, and have cataracts in my right.

        I said, Sir, I think you ought to have an honorable retirement from driving!

       This ramrod-straight fellow, who had lost his wife the year before, began sobbing. I got behind the wheel, drove us back to his house, spent the next half hour trying to comfort him, but reiterating that he shouldn’t continue attempting to drive. I was sorry for the old guy, but hell, he wasn’t safe.

X

              Most of the people who became my students could learn to drive up to my standards after ten, twenty, or thirty hours at the most; however, as one can see from the General and others, some were absolutely hopeless cases. I remember   them with some degree of fondness, mixed with a touch of regret. If they’d driven before, it was almost like giving them a death sentence to request they abandon their attempts.

           One man, a rabbi of a temple in San Francisco, was partially paralyzed from a disease he’d acquired in the tropics. He convinced me to take him in his own car. I usually didn’t do this, but thought he was a special case.

          He said, Before I got this disease, I was a good driver. I haven’t driven for a while, but believe I only need a brush up course now, so I can pass the drivers test.

         Before we exited the parking space, he hit the Chevy in back, then the Volkswagen in front. There was not enough damage to stop the lesson right there, but I was a bit shaken. When we were finally in the street, I held my breath till we could find a curb parking area large enough for him to make it in without a problem.

XI

             Once in a while I had some unexpected successes too. I taught one Japanese businessman almost entirely by pointing where I wanted him to go, pantomiming what he should do in parking, etc. He spoke no English and brought a thick Japanese-English dictionary he put on the dashboard. He only used it once or twice during his ten hours of lessons, after which he passed the driving test with an almost perfect score.

            A few people I taught struck me as dangerous, not so much as drivers, but personally. I took out one man who said he was half eskimo, from Alaska. Like many students he confided in me, but some things he said made me wonder what he might do if he didn’t like the lessons.

           Tommy:  I told that guy not to fool with me, but he kept it up, so I waited for him at the Trading Post with an axe. I split his skull wide open!

          There was also the woman who, when I appeared at her door, said, You’re the psychiatrist, aren’t you? You’ve been sent by my doctor and minister. I know you think I’m crazy!

           I said, Did you call American Universal Driving School for lessons? I’m your instructor.

          She answered, Now I remember. I did call them. But I know how to drive. All I want to learn is how to parallel park.

          In those days parallel parking between four stanchions was part of the state’s driving test. Many drivers didn’t pass because of this. When I took students to the DMV at the end of their courses, I had to wait while they drove out with examiners for their tests. I’d stand by the parking lot, watch my students and other drivers sometimes backing into and over stanchions as if they didn’t exist.  

           I gave Mrs. Goodale two hours of instruction, concentrating on parallel parking, during which she said, I don’t know what I’m going to do. They’re sneaking in professional ringers against my bowling team.

          She sounded like some of the people from therapy groups I’d been in, paranoid and delusional.  I wondered if she might be a hazardous driver because of that. I finally decided it wasn’t my job to determine her sanity. After all, I could be classed as mentally unwell also, having been through some serious psychological problems. Technically Mrs. Goodwin was an excellent driver; I was only there to improve her parking skills.

         Now, much later, after mulling over my experience with her, I’ve concluded she probably wasn’t as dangerous as some of the teenagers I encountered who acted like they were immortal and took serious risks. I especially remember Johnny whose mother insisted he take lessons even after he’d had driver training in high school. The first day out on his own he was showing off for the kids on his street and ran into a phone pole.

XII

            After Mrs. Goodale’s lesson, I was assigned to teach a woman who lived in an apartment house near Golden Gate Park. I found her name next to one of the many buttons in front, pressed it so she could buzz me in. I didn’t notice another young woman park her car, and come up behind me. She heard me pronounce the first woman’s name as I searched for it on the list of tenants.

              I was let in and took the elevator up to the third floor. When I got to my student’s apartment, the other woman was already there: she’d run up the stairs ahead of me. The two were in the doorway, having a very emotional conversation. The second woman, a blonde, was saying, How could you betray me like this? You told me I was the only one for you. Now you’re dating men! How can I ever trust you?  

           Tara :  (my student): You have this all wrong. Stop crying! He’s not a date. All I want to do is learn to drive. He’s going to be my instructor.

           Second Woman: You mean you’re not going out with him?

            Tara: He’s going to teach me to drive, that’s all. You know I’m loyal to you. I love you!

            Second woman: Don’t they have any woman instructors?

            Tara: I don’t know. He’s whom they sent.

            Woman: You had me worried for a while. I’m sorry I’m so insecure!

           Tara:  Come here, dear. Give me a big hug! (They hug and kiss).

           I think, All’s well that ends well!.

XIII

          At about that time I was sent to the Sunnydale Public Housing Project to pick up a student. When I got there, a young black woman was waiting for me in one of the identical apartments. Knowing it wasn’t the best place for me, a young white man, I thought I’d get her started quickly. As soon as we entered the car, I told her the lessons would be $20 an hour.

          She looked at me like I was crazy, and indignantly spit out, You mean I got to pay for this–with my own money?

           I said, Sure! The school and I have to get paid.

          She said, Well fuck that! exited the car and stomped back to her apartment.

           I wondered why she thought she could get lessons for free, then realized she was probably on welfare, used to the government paying her expenses and her children’s too, if she had any.

           Another awkward racial encounter took place when I taught Shania, a pretty, young black women to drive in the Western Addition, a predominantly black area. As we cruised down a street at the beginning of her lesson, a man on the sidewalk shouted at her: Get out of that car! You betraying your race!

           I guess he thought we were dating, despite the signs all over the car advertising our driving school. Or else he thought she should have had a black instructor. There were no black instructors, so far as I knew, in San Francisco at that time.

XIV

            Ginger, another student, was a middle-aged, white woman with blonde hair who lived on California Street, and worked in a downtown office building. At first I thought she’d be fun to teach, because she seemed friendly and intelligent. But I was taken aback when she began to ignore my commands

           A typical exchange with her went like this: Okay, Ginger, See the intersection we’re coming to? There’s no sign prohibiting a left turn, so we’re going to turn left. Here we are. It’s time to turn left. Turn left, Ginger! Why didn’t you turn left?

          Ginger: Because I didn’t want to!

           Me: I thought you wanted to learn how to drive. I’m here to teach you, but you have to obey my commands.

          Her: I don’t want to!

          Me: Really, Ginger, do you want to learn or not? You’re paying me a lot of money to teach you. If you don’t do what I tell you, you might as well quit.

         Her: The company I work for wants to transfer me to another office in San Leandro. But they say I have to learn how to drive first.

          I suddenly realized Ginger was taking driving lessons because the company had told her to and probably was paying for them. I believe she thought that if she passed the driving test, she’d be transferred against her wishes, so she was determined to fail. I played along with her for a few more hours; then stopped taking her. I don’t know what happened to her later, but hope she didn’t have to relocate.

 XV

              After I’d worked there for a year and a half, American Universal Driving School declared bankruptcy. I’d suspected the company was in trouble since we instructors had to race to the bank to deposit our checks while they were still good.    Once, after I deposited the school’s check in my account, several checks I wrote on that amount weren’t covered. I became very angry about this; Bank of America charged me a fee for each bounced check.   

             Another thing that angered me was, when I’d first been hired, I’d been required to put up $100 for a bond, so if I stole or lost the school’s money, the company would be reembursed.. That was supposed to be held in a safe account, returnable when I left. I applied for it and found that my boss, Paul Halula, had spent all the bond money trying to keep the company afloat.

            Finally the school was taken over by another owner, Bill Azevedo, of International Driving School. His old, brown Studebakers would frequently stall in the midst of lessons, refusing to start again. I had AAA Road Service Insurance, so I called them when this happened.

            Me: Hello.  I’m a member of Triple A and my car won’t start. Would you please send somebody out?

            AAA Person: Your name and number please.

            Me: John Laue, __________

            AAA  Person: I’m looking at your record. It says we responded to your calls seven times already this year. I’m sorry, sir. Seven is our limit. We can’t help you.

            My friend Dave Hammero got a job working for a North Beach Driving School whose office was across the street from Washington Park.  It was owned by a man named Roberto Vasquez we called The Mad Mexican because he had a reputation for trying to seduce all his women students. Dave told me there was enough work for me, so I switched to that school. I worked there several months, training many people from the North Beach District, mostly Italian immigrants, plus a few Chinese from nearby Chinatown.  

              Most of the Italians learned fast, so I averaged about ten hours a student. I really liked one young guy called Santo, who introduced me to choice North Beach places like the U. S. Café frequented only by Italians, and people in the know. The Chinese were another thing entirely. For some reason I never could quite figure out, they had more trouble driving than any other group. My Chinese students did live up to ideas some Americans have about Chinese drivers. I thought it must have been due to some cultural quirk I didn’t understand; I doubt it was genetic.

XVI

               Disgusted with our poor working conditions, too few students, and the lack of living wages, Dave Hammero, Rich Farmer, Ralph Johnson, and I decided to start a union, The Driving Instructors Guild. We met at my second floor flat on Clover Street, on the border of the newly famous Castro District, an area swiftly becoming known as a mecca for gay men. (I saw the last straight bar out of eighteen go gay right after that and met Harvey Milk in his camera shop too).  

             Although we put a scare into some of the driving school owners, especially U. Hale Gamel, who’d come from Arizona with the notion that he’d rule the San Francisco scene (He owned the largest school in the city before he fled back to John Birch territory), our guild wasn’t all that successful. Too much turnover among instructors existed for us to gain much of a foothold. My good friend Rich had a bout with craziness that sent him over the edge for a while; the rest of us got rather disillusioned, and our union folded.

XVII

              Roberto wasn’t giving me enough work, so I moved to National Driving School on California Street. That school was owned by an Englishman named Jim Vivian, a first-class cricket player who took much time off to play in tournaments all over the world. Jim, who also had a school for prospective truck drivers, was impressive in manner. He got contracts with three of the most exclusive private schools in the city, Catherine Delmar Burke, Sarah Dix Hamlin, and The Urban School.

              I taught the classroom portion (Driver Education), along with some in-car instruction for the first two, which were girls’ schools. When I asked students to create scrapbooks, and do similar projects, their work is still some of the most colorful and comprehensive I’ve ever seen by high school students. They were all children of wealthy, socially prominent families in the city, mostly well-behaved, a pleasure to teach. But I was still working for $5 an hour. Tuition for these schools was very expensive, but instructors got paid only a pittance, not nearly what public school teachers made.

              The Urban School was for both sexes, and seemed to be full of non-conformists. I remember giving an in-car lesson to a petite sixteen year old Japanese-American girl from there. She appeared quite shy, but when another car cut us off, to my great surprise, she asked, Shall I give him the finger? I heard that the school was having a minor scandal that week; two of the students had had sex on the roof, and been spotted by people in surrounding buildings.

XVI

             One of the first students I got from National Driving School was Maria, a Filipina who worked as a maid in one of the enormous mansions in Pacific Heights. She insisted I pick her up two blocks away from that residence. When I asked her why, she said, I don’t want them to know I’m taking lessons. I work six days a week. I only have half a day off and I’m on call then. I owe them a lot of money for bringing me here, and I have to work to pay it back.

             Hearing this and other things she confided made me believe she was an indentured servant, practically a slave of these super rich people who were exploiting her. I felt sick about this, but could do nothing to remedy the situation. She never did get her license, stopping after three or four hours of lessons. I believe her employers might have found out.

           While I was teaching Sylvia Dalton, another National Driving School student, we got rear-ended on Geary Boulevard. She saw a yellow caution light and panicked: instead of proceeding through (there was time), she slammed on the brakes. We stopped suddenly, but the driver behind us didn’t react in time.

           Students had the idea that when a light turned yellow, they’d better stop in a hurry.  I told them all about the point of no return, past which they should proceed through intersections, but many had trouble estimating it. I had no way to override their braking, so we had occasional close calls.

           The car’s rear end was smashed; however, neither of us was injured. After getting over the initial shock, Sylvia was very apologetic: Oh, I’m so sorry. I know I shouldn’t have done that. I’ll pay for the damage.

            I calmed her, saying, Don’t worry; it won’t cost you a dime; the school has insurance for situations like this. It’s not your fault that you’re just learning how to drive. But next time,  go through when the yellow light comes on unless you’re too far from the intersection.

               Jim had the car fixed by his special mechanic, a German, the same man who worked on Jim’s vintage Rolls Royce (with the license plate reading OWZ-ZAT?–typical Jim joke!).  That garage hiked the cost of repair sky high.

              Jim got a large insurance settlement that not only paid for damage repair, but also for much lost business. He claimed the car was out of commission for ten days, although it had been fixed in two or three. I thought this unethical, but didn’t protest, which would have been futile anyway. He gave me $100 from the settlement.

              Jim was also a yachtsman. A year after I left the school he died by drowning while bringing a boat to San Francisco from Southern California. Just past the Golden Gate Bridge there’s an area of very rough water called the cabbage patch that capsized his boat and dumped him into the sea. I heard he was too seasick to swim to safety.

XVII

              While working for Jim, I occasionally had students across the bay in Berkeley, and on the North side of The Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. Although I did get reimbursed for the gas and tolls, I didn’t get paid for the time getting to where they were, but wasn’t too resentful; I liked the trips.

              I’ll never forget Mrs. Torchio, a diminutive Italian American widow of about sixty, whom I picked up at her house in San Rafael.

              Her: I can drive but I’m a little nervous on the freeway. I need to take this cake  to my daughter in Sausalito (a trip of about fifteen miles). If you ride along with me, I’ll feel safe.

             Me: On the way I can tell you some techniques for proper freeway driving. There’s no need to be nervous about that.

             We set off on Highway One with her driving her car, a late model Dodge, me in the passenger’s seat. Barely five minutes had passed when at sixty miles per hour she screamed, reached into her glove compartment, pulled out a bottle of bourbon and began swigging. No one had ever done this to me before. Although we instructors often shared stories, I’d never heard of this happening during a lesson, probably because most lessons were conducted in the company’s cars.

             After almost fainting from surprise, I got us off at the nearest exit, exclaiming, My God! Mrs. Torchio! Don’t you realize that drinking when you’re driving is one of the most illegal and dangerous things you can do? Why did you do that?

             I have diverticulitis! she mumbled.

            On the way back to San Rafael with me driving, I wondered what diverticulitis had to do with drinking and driving, but didn’t press her on the subject. Needless to say, that was my only lesson with her.

   XVIII

            Of course it could be dangerous, but I liked teaching driving. I enjoyed meeting students of all ages, coping with their physical and emotional problems, seeing most of them pass their driving tests and receiving their gratitude. Many were fascinating people, and we sometimes got close in more than a professional manner. But in some senses it wasn’t a very good job.

            In each school, the office had complete control of how many students we got, so we never knew how many we’d have from week to week.  Office people were supposed to distribute students fairly among instructors, but sometimes that didn’t occur, especially if you irritated managers, who’d tell the dispatchers to cut you off.  

            We were encouraged to be salesmen: the more hours we could convince students to take, the more income we, and the driving schools got. Some instructors tried to sell more hours than necessary, but I didn’t. My job, as I saw it, was to see that they were skilled enough to be safe drivers before they took their driving tests. I prided myself on my efficiency in getting this done.

            Voted one of the top five instructors in Northern California by the owners association, but frustrated with the job’s low pay, I took more graduate courses at San Francisco State University, earning a General Secondary School Teaching Credential, and a Driver Education Specialist Certificate. I did substitute high school teaching from 1970 to 1973 in several Bay Area schools, traveling to Redwood High on the peninsula, Novato High in Marin County, and others.

XIX

            Paul Halula, my old boss at American Universal, had become head of the Regional Occupational Program at Ohlone College in Fremont and gave me a weekend job there teaching prospective driving instructors as part of the adjunct faculty. Finally, in 1973, because I possessed the unlikely combination of Driver Education and English specialties, I got a permanent job at Watsonville High School in Northern California where I taught and counseled until retirement.

            If I had my life to live over, I don’t think I’d be a driving instructor for all of it. But even with the low pay, difficult working conditions, and our inability to know how much we’d make from week to week, I wouldn’t want to miss out on the better years.  

         I learned from each of my students. Making their acquaintance and being with them while they went through the trials and tribulations of learning to drive changed me for the better: it made me much more cosmopolitan (I taught people from over twenty countries), more patient with my own and other’s problems, and more compassionate.  Not only did these men and women give me a living, but because of them I grew up as a human being.   

            In the future driving may be obsolete with everyone chauffeured by satellite-guided cars.  If I’m around when that happens, I’ll be a little sad to see another skill we treasure going by the wayside. Without much of a stretch, I can imagine an era   when we’ve lost the ability to do most things for ourselves. Then if our systems break down, we’ll be helpless. But that’s not very likely, is it?


About the Author: John Laue, teacher/counselor, a former editor of Transfer and Associate Editor of San Francisco Review has won awards for his poetry and prose beginning with the Ina Coolbrith Poetry Prize at The University of California, Berkeley. With five published poetry books and one book of full length prose, The Columns of Joel Mobius, a guide for people with psychiatric diagnoses, he presently coordinates the reading series of The Monterey Bay Poetry Consortium, edits the online magazine Monterey Poetry Review, is a member and former Co-Chair of the Santa Cruz County Mental Health Advisory Board.

Artwork: Allen Forrest has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books, 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, creating emotion on canvas.

Website:

http://allen-forrest.fineartamerica.com/

Twitter:

https://twitter.com/artgrafiken

Portfolio: published works

http://www.art-grafiken.blogspot.ca/

Recent paintings available for sale:

https://plus.google.com/photos/105055604354853642879/albums/6006697142707400193?authkey=CKSXsqLakIfz5AE

Escape Velocity by Rebecca Chekouras

FOR REBECCA CHEKOURAS - by Ryan Buell


I couldn’t let my husband know I was driving. One week from my due date, big as a manatee, I sped through San Francisco hoping to get home before he found out, but the closer I got to our apartment in The Mission, the more new construction choked the streets. In the few hours I’d been away my old, familiar route had become a maze of detours. I topped the hill at Liberty just as a man in a white hard hat and orange vest stepped into the intersection and raised a STOP sign. I hit the brakes. Hard. The steering wheel branded my chest and the lap belt scored my round stomach like a pill. I snapped back into the seat. A cement truck shifted into reverse, bleated for attention, and backed into the street. I ran my hands across my stomach; froze at the lesser chime of my phone pinging the arrival of a text.

No name. A number I didn’t recognize. I tapped just to burn off nerves. A sprawling hyperlink appeared and turned a half dozen times in the text box before it petered out in ellipse. Outside the shell of my car the cement truck pushed its churning rear-end up on gasping pistons and, grunting like an elephant, ran a shitload of wet slurry down the chute. I clicked the link. A video opened. The camera was trained to the windshield of a car as it drove through mountains at the tree line. No sound. Sunlight hit the glass and bleached the view to white but it came right back. The two lane road narrowed to a vanishing point. Above it all was pure blue sky. None of this meant anything to me. The camera panned to the passenger window. Speed smeared the trees to a green line. The camera pulled back and crossed a woman’s bare foot propped against the dash, her nails iridescent blue, and found the driver. My husband of three years looked into the frame and smiled. His cheeks pushed up the sunglasses I’d given him for his last birthday. James said something but there was only his mouth shaping silent words and his face crinkled with happiness. I hit replay over and over attempting to read his lips, lips that have been on my mouth, between my legs where amniotic fluid now stained a dark triangle. Ethan was born later that day, feet first, his arms above his head, screaming like he was taking the Kowabunga chute at Water World.

 

James said he would take Ethan and he did. I called for a taxi and stood in the round bay of our Huntington Park Victorian to watch for it, next to me the spinner I’d packed last night. No business clothes. Only simple cotton shifts, tees, and slacks; some eye-popping jewelry to jazz up summer evenings in the desert. And a canvas bag I once used to haul the many things an infant needs just to leave the house. James and Ethan stood on the corner below holding hands. At WALK, they stepped down. The window glass, scalloped by time, distorted the geometry of my husband and our three year-old. Watery and loose-jointed, they shifted shape and crossed the street.

The taxi pulled up. I grabbed my spinner, its handle snapped to attention, and shouldered the canvas bag that now held an iPad, phone, book proposal, wallet, keys, passport, ticket, and, finally, a contract with two blank spaces for signatures. I had one leg in the taxi and was about to fold to the seat when I caught the red square of Ethan’s jacket in the blue V of his father’s arm. I straightened up to wave. James pointed to the sky. Ethan’s upturned face followed. I dropped onto the cracked and sprung black pleather seat and pulled the door after me. The cabbie eased into traffic. I leaned forward, “SFO, International.” I glanced back but the park was already gone. I had an instant, desperate fear I’d left something behind. I tore at the bag; found my wallet and passport. Everything was where I’d put it. I fell back and hugged my possessions to my chest. The bag collapsed like a bellows and sent up a whiff of stale baby piss as faint as a radio signal from the edge of space.  

 

7:45 a.m. I found an empty bar in the Aeromexico terminal and took a seat near the beer pulls. Thought about calling home but shook it off. I’d been gone less than an hour. The barman clicked on the TV and set a cocktail napkin in front of me. I considered coffee, ordered a bloody Mary. My editor wanted Lupé Garza’s photographs to illustrate my book, Women at the Crossroads: Gender, Culture, Work. She’d given me a catalog of an early exhibition in New York. I knew almost nothing about Garza who, I discovered, had been notorious in the 70s; a darling of the club and gallery scenes and then, poof, she disappeared into the Mexican high desert, rumored to be near Los Huesos. If Garza had an agent I couldn’t find them. If she had a phone no one had the number. To satisfy my boss, I sent a fax general delivery to the Los Huesos post office. A week later an answer came thudding back through the old machine. Garza would take a meeting at her hacienda.

The barman set my drink in front of me and returned to the Real Madrid game on TV. I took a sharp, peppery sip and flipped through the catalog. The text offered only dates and places, no narrative or critique of the plates, all black and white on heavy stock. Meager shacks, working animals burdened to the point of collapse, dogs whose jutting, corrugated ribs cut ribbons of dark shadow into their flanks. Women looked up from their ancient work and smiled into the lens. Half-naked, sun-blackened children squatted in rain puddles and dragged a stick through reflected sky. Garza made no apology for her subjects’ lives and neither did they. Their easy, direct confrontation with the camera balanced the power equation—the one seen and the one seeing were equals in a fair exchange. I ran Garza through Google; churned up scores of the famous shot of her studio window reproduced now on everything from handbags to dinner plates. It’s an arresting image. On the near side of the broad plane of glass are the cameras and lens of an artist; on the other side, the Mexican high desert as alien as a distant planet of thin atmosphere and relentless heat; rock and cactus punched up from colorless moon dirt. A place only the fierce could endure. And behind the camera Garza, unseen yet so present in her work I had the feeling she stood at my shoulder and watched me search for her until my flight was called and I gathered my things.

Five hours later, the plane banked steeply and aimed for a runway no bigger than a stick of gum shoehorned into a mountain pass. I could never bear to think of the plane as falling. James always told me to get over it so I imagined instead the strip rising up to meet us. The tarmac slammed into the wheels. I was thrown forward. My hand pressed into the seat in front of mine until some ratio of gravity to momentum yanked me back.

 

I found my driver easily in the small terminal. Felipe, dusty jeans, a plaid cotton shirt, unbuttoned, sleeves rolled above the elbow, a beater underneath, and a wide-brimmed hat that hung down his back on a strap, was perhaps twenty. His family owned a business shuttling snowbirds to vacation rentals. He said Los Huesos was a two-day drive up rough terrain. We’d stay at a ranchero that night; arrive tomorrow in the late afternoon. He took my bags and led me to an open Jeep. We buckled in and he glanced over to me, his eyebrows knit into a single band of dark concern. “You got a hat?” I didn’t.

The asphalt road leading us out of the airport stopped at the gate in a clean, straight line an inch higher than the compacted gravel that stretched away to the bend of an ascending grade. The Jeep took the incline with ease. Felipe shouted to be heard above the wind. “Only a few pueblos from here to Los Huesos.  Old. Very small. Let me know if you want to stop.”

Wind and dust choked our conversation down to gestures and smiles. Occasionally, the pass flattened out and a cloudless sky cupped the plateau. We picked up speed until the next turn and we climbed again, a pattern we repeated for two hours until Felipe tapped my arm and pointed ahead to a dark smudge lining the road. We closed in on a couple dozen parked trucks so weather beaten light wouldn’t bounce off them. Felipe shouted it was the anniversary of the mission church and, therefore, the founding of the village. He said people came from all over to celebrate. I asked him to stop and reached for my phone.

We parked and walked in with a knot of recent arrivals, all families, the men in their good hats, pressed jeans and stiff white guayaberas, the women in ironed cotton dresses or long skirts. We scaled a slight rise together and a smattering of one and two story buildings on either side of a dirt road appeared. The church stood at the end of this main street. When we reached the village, several of our compañeros stopped walking and dropped to their hands and knees to merge with those already crawling toward the priest who waited alone for his flock on the stone steps of the church, his arms open and ready to enfold them. I opened the camera app on my phone and raised it, pointed it at the procession. Felipe’s touch landed light as a hummingbird on my arm.

“It is a penance, Señora. Between them and God.”

I nodded and moved farther up the street. I silenced the shutter and took a few discreet shots of the church. I thought perhaps with sufficient distance I could photograph the worshippers as an anonymous whole rather than individuals. I back pedaled and caught their line at an angle revealing both the posture of the penitents and their number. The shot was as good as I would get and I slid the phone into my jeans pocket. I walked around the back of the church mostly to duck out of sight and return, inconspicuous, to Felipe. Tucked away so that it couldn’t be seen from the street a satellite dish raised its patient face and searched the sky for satellites. I checked my watch still on San Francisco time. Ethan and James would be waking from their nap. I was trying to connect to a signal when Felipe came up behind me. I asked him for help but he said we had to leave. The light was slipping away and the temperature falling.

“Night will come fast. Do you have a jacket?” he said.

 

We gained the road and picked up speed. The sun fell behind the tallest peak and all color drained from the landscape. Visibility soon wound down to the reach of our headlights. The loss of horizon disoriented me completely. Suspended in an ebony void, a thousand ice-blue stars all around, a man I’d met only hours before barreled straight at nothing I could see. No signs, no railings. I kept my eyes on the dashboard to avoid the terror in the windshield. This entire adventure suddenly felt crazy. I didn’t even know where here was. We arrived at the ranchero and were met by a husband and his wife who wrapped me, shivering, in a blanket until water could be heated for a bath. At dawn, Felipe found a jacket for me and we again set off for Los Huesos.

 

We topped a long, slow rise, the last in the series taking us up Garza’s mountain. The vista flattened to a broad sweep of sky and ochre dirt. My faxed directions positioned the turn to her place about two miles into the plateau. The sun was directly overhead and strong enough to melt the horizon to quicksilver. I was excited to be in the teeth of the thing now; to arrive, to work the deal, to finalize the book that had taken me four years to write. I dug in my jacket pocket. I wanted a picture to show Ethan I’d traveled to the end of the earth and back to make the book he would hold in his hands, an object of weight and edges and corners. His mother’s work. My work. I snapped a picture but it was useless. The landscape couldn’t be contained within the tiny frame. I enlarged the image hoping to find some serendipity of composition that could support the narrative of this moment, the enormity of time and place, but the harder I tried the more my purpose eluded me. I dropped the phone and strained forward searching for the trunk road. A dark husk floated on the shimmering horizon, no bigger than a fly rubbing its veined wings.

We pulled nose-to-nose with a two-tone Ford pickup, the white abraded by sand to chalk and its turquoise faded. The door opened. A leg of lime green stretch pants slid from behind the wheel. A pink Croc reached for the runner. Blue-black hair gathered in a simple, red rubber band fell to wide hips. With a jump to the ground, a nut brown woman of indeterminate age birthed herself from the truck. Her demeanor, masked by mirrored aviator sunglasses, bore no trace of emotion.

I hopped from the Jeep, pushed my sunglasses up into my hair. “Lark Donne,” I said and walked toward her with my hand outstretched. Her sunglasses reflected back to me a crazy woman. Wind-whipped hair sprang from a face peppered with road dust except where sunglasses had preserved the white hollows of my eyes. I smoothed my hair. She nodded to me and spoke to Felipe in Spanish. He replied at length and I wondered as he settled my bags in her truck bed whether he spoke of me, either defending me or calling out my astounding lack of preparation for the climate or journey. I still wore his jacket and offered it back to him.

“Keep it. For night,” he said and touched the brim of his hat, first to me, then her, turned and climbed into the Jeep. A trough of anguished split my stomach. I still held my phone, the one artifact that connected me to the world I’d left, to him. I pointed the tiny blue eye at the Jeep and hit Record; stayed with it until the Jeep and driver were consumed by dust. I let go; watched until the rooster tail faded from view. I turned back. There was no one behind me. Sunlight glinted off the truck’s rust-pocked chrome. The passenger door swung open.

The road in consisted of two jolting lanes worn into scrub. I felt stupid for not asking my driver’s name before but couldn’t bring myself to ask her now. She gave nothing, not so much as a glance. I admired the landscape and remarked muy buen or linda as beauty demanded but she said nothing. Appalled by my desire to win her sullen approval I stopped talking.

 

The hacienda simply rose from the desert floor, a single story the same color as the dirt it was made of; no yard, no trees or shrubs. Only a double door of sun-pounded wood set back in a wall of baked mud. I was dropped in front. The truck, with my bags, crunched around to the back. I waited in the mark of my own shadow, seared to the bone by the same ancient star that had cured the adobe. I was about to call out when the door opened and a tall, slim woman stepped forward. She stopped half in, half out of the slanting afternoon sun and, perfectly bisected by light and shadow, raised her hand to her eyes. Her fawn dress was indistinguishable from her skin and at first impression I thought she was naked. She wore her snow white hair plaited and wound around her head.

“Welcome to my home, Miss Donne,” Garza said. Her high, thin voice rose and dipped like a swallow in flight. “Please, come in,” and she stepped aside to let me pass.

The hacienda was constructed as a rectangle around an interior patio open to the blistering sky. Beneath an arcade that ran the perimeter, a series of doors set at even intervals marked the individual rooms. The patio was surprisingly verdant despite its exposure. Clay jardinières, some tall, others low to the red clay tiles, were scattered around the arcade’s weather beaten timber supports. They lent shade to an arrangement of red, yellow, and orange blooms as broad and wrinkled as handkerchiefs. A fountain at center drew from a catchment Garza said was trapped in mountain caverns. “It was a deep drill, Miss Donne. Went on forever.” She ladled water into a shallow, earthenware bowl for me to rinse my hands and face and then motioned toward a pair of low-slung canvas chairs next to a Japanese table set with two glasses and a pitcher. The woman who met me appeared, in each hand a plate of sliced tomatoes, roasted corn, beans and rice. “Gracias,” I said to her continuing silence. Garza did not introduce her. I snuck a glance to my host. She seemed unperturbed. The woman walked back the way she came, passing from the bright sunlight of the patio to deep umber beneath the arcade. Light fanned around her feet when she opened the door. The door closed and swept the light in with it.

Garza ate, slowly, patiently. I mimicked her pace to be polite. James often remarked I ate like a refugee. When she finished, Garza set her plate aside and lifted the pitcher. “More tea, Miss Donne?”

“Please, call me Lark.” I wanted to establish a sense of shared purpose, of being on the same side in some endeavor that did not include her nameless assistant. I asked about her work to draw a circle around just us. “Maybe begin with your aesthetic? How it developed?”

The longer Garza thought the more self-conscious I became. At the bright ring of her voice the air rushed from my lungs.

“I shoot to witness, not shape or interpret. My aesthetic is to stay in the background where I can observe unobserved, if you follow my meaning. Invisibility is my passport. One can go anywhere on it.”

I waited but she said nothing more. Perhaps it was fatigue or simply a nagging fear of failure but I pushed. “Tell me how you became a photographer. What obstacles did you have to overcome?” I hardly recognized the woman asking these ridiculous questions.

“Learning to use the equipment,” Garza said. “I had to learn my craft like anyone else.” With that she suggested I rest for a bit and we could talk again after. She rose easily from the scoop of her chair. “Alma,” she called, and the other woman appeared.

 

Alma showed me to my room. The air had lost some of its burn and the shutters had been pushed open. The sun teetered on a far ridge and cast our shadows long on the floor. Both bags were on the bed. “I’d like to shower,” I said and opened the spinner. I expected Alma to leave. Instead she remained. Not in the doorway but in the room with me.

She ran her hand along the top of the canvas bag. “You are a traveler?”

“Yes,” I said. “Well, not so much anymore. Once. I want to again.”

“You know Mexico?”

“I’ve been to a few places. Oaxaca. San Miguel de Allende.” I sounded like every rube come to San Francisco and making a beeline for Fisherman’s Wharf and The Haight.

“Yes, but did you cross to the other side?”

Before I could ask what she meant, she turned and left; closed the door behind her. I sat on the edge of the bed. The sun hit me full in the face. I lay back, draped my arm over my eyes.

 

It was dark when I awoke chilled and disoriented; my clothes twisted all about my arms and legs. The house was quiet. I rose and went out. The patio was awash in the bone light of the moon. Indigo shadows splattered the floor and walls. I retraced Alma’s steps and pushed the door open. Outside, in the scoop of three low walls and a slanted half-roof, I could just make out a table and stove. Alma’s truck was parked there. A sharp tang of wood smoke threaded the clear, clean air and I followed it about a hundred yards out to a low building with a wide entrance cut into the side.

A double panel wood door mounted on a tractor rail and pushed back exposed much of the interior. A small lamp glowed on a long wooden desk under which had been kicked a pair of shoes and Alma’s pink Crocs. Clothes draped the back and seat of a chair. And there, on the wall opposite me, the iconic studio window framed not the hostile desert but the Milky Way thrown like a bolt of luminous cloth down the table of the night. Trapped in the glass, my own pale reflection grew larger with each forward step I took. The cameras. The lenses. All still there. I put both hands on the sill and leaned toward my own face. Hard to my right, Garza and Alma sat naked in a hot tub, arms stretched along the rim. Light danced up through the water and jumpy white polygons tattooed their skin. Alma’s hair bobbed on the surface like a net that had captured the pale fish of her breasts. She said something I couldn’t hear. Garza raised her head to laugh and saw me. I drew back, ashamed to be caught spying.

Alondra,” Garza called. Her voice came through the open door behind me. “Come join us.”

I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t seen or heard her. I left the studio and rounded the corner to the building’s blind side. A wood fire burned in a stone pit and sent up a fakir’s rope of thin, white smoke. On seeing me, Garza nodded to where the firelight faltered and yielded to infinite night. There, a wooden pallet sat on the ground, above it the glint of a metal showerhead atop a pole. Another ten yards beyond the shower, the silhouetted struts and bowl of a satellite dish. The fax. The road trip to a tiny encampment in the middle of Boom Fuck. I whipped back to the women who watched me and waited for my reaction.

I stripped and left my clothes where they fell. The shower seemed to draw from the hot core of the earth and I scrubbed off road dirt, careful to run my hands over every inch of flesh, into every crevice and fold unconcerned with what the Garza or Alma thought. Dripping all the way to the tub, I climbed in and sat directly across from Alma; returned her silent appraisal. Garza was quiet. Minutes passed before Alma lifted her hands above the water and slapped her palms together first one way then the other like a woman flattening a ball of raw hamburger. The slow smack of her hands carried in the thicker air of night. I almost believed Felipe was listening. The priest could hear it. That James sat up in bed, his head cocked to the window. I refused to look away. I disliked her and wanted her to know it. She let her knees fall open and the light shone on her. I stood abruptly. My hot skin steamed in the cool night. I climbed out, gathered my clothes, and crushed them to a ball I held between my dripping breasts. “Alondra,” Garza called after me as I walked away. “Meet me in the studio when you’re ready.”

 

I threw my clothes to the floor of my dark room, sat naked there, my mouth slack, my hands between my knees. I waited for my heart rate to come down, for my head to deliver some kind of instruction. I understood nothing of the last twenty four hours. My mind churned the same three scenes. James in the video turning to the camera and smiling. Felipe turning to me in the Jeep and saying, You got a hat? Alma’s hands slapping first one way then turning the other. The loop persisted. I couldn’t stop it said out loud, James’ smile, Felipe’s question, Alma’s hands over and over, convinced my chant erected a barrier between me and whatever lay crouched in my heart unseen, unknown. If I stopped whatever hid there would detonate. So I shivered and chanted and waited until other voices crowded my ear, angry voices growing louder. The voices then stopped abruptly and I did, too. I listened in the dead night. The explosive start of a gasoline engine. The spray of gravel kicked against a hard surface. I rose and threw on a white tee and linen slacks and rushed out. Skirted the blue shadows. Hurried into the kitchen. Alma’s truck was gone and beyond the enclosure the studio convulsed in orange light. I ran.

The fire. It was being fed. I rushed to the back of the building. Garza stood alone, face to the fire. Scores of prints lay scattered at her feet others blackened and curled in the pit. She bent and scooped up an armload; hugged the photographs to her chest. I raced to the shower. There wasn’t a hose or bucket. I could only go back and scoop-up hands full of dirt to choke the flames.

Alondra.”

I dug faster. It wasn’t enough.

Alondra stop.”

We stood side-by-side. My chest heaved with each breath. Garza threw what she held in her arms to the embers. Paper curled and smoked. Flames closed over everything. I stared at her, completely defeated. She would not return my gaze. After a moment she walked away. I guarded the fire until it smoldered.

 

I entered without knocking. Garza knew I was there but studied the several cameras arranged on the sill. Alma’s clothes and shoes were gone. Garza lifted an ancient Leica. “It’s the same one,” she said showing it to me. “Stand here.” She positioned me in front of the window and killed the desk lamp. I heard shutter clicks and the ratchet of winding film.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“Your shirt.”

I reached over my head and grabbed a fistful of cotton between my shoulder blades. In one fluid movement the tee off and on the floor.

Garza half turned me and tilted my head. She dropped to a crouch. “The stars! A volcano shooting from your head.”



About the Author: Rebecca Chekouras has appeared in The Open Bar (
Tin House), Narrative MagazineCatamaran Literary ReaderEast Bay ReviewPithead Chapel, and Longridge Review, among other publications. Her story Free to Good Home, was shortlisted for the 2016 Glimmer Train emerging writer prize. Chekouras is a 2015 Tin House fellow and a fellow of the 2013 Lambda Emerging Writers Retreat. In 2014 she helped inaugurate The Basement Series with writers from McSweeney’s and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She lives in an old ironworks factory on Oakland’s waterfront where Port of Oakland boom cranes line the western terminus of the storied Southern Pacific Railroad.

Artwork: Ryan Buell is a writer and visual artist. He lives in California.

The Ride Back Home by Kimberly Reyes

 

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I prayed the thin white wires hanging from my ears would serve as sign, a signal saying: “Better to ask someone else for directions, or for the time. My time.” As a native New Yorker, I’d learned at a very early age how to erect invisible boundaries.

 

I was studying the Eiffel Tower through a scratched Metro window. With the Seine in clear view, a warm, marmalade light entered the car as the train surfaced from below. This was the first time I’d spotted the calm river and its flanking tower since arriving in Paris. Although this wasn’t my first time visiting the city, my heart raced just as it had exactly ten years earlier.

 

The Parisian riders seemed coolly unaffected, the way I was when the D or N train rattled over the Brooklyn Bridge howling at our pointy and sparkling brown and silver city. I smiled and nodded to this territorial ambivalence as the train doors opened and closed, and I collapsed into the Chili Peppers throbbing through my earphones.

 

Taking in my surroundings was always easier this way, with bass and separation. Plus I was about to move to California when I got back to the States, so it was fun to fantasize about Anthony Kiedis, and what we might do together in Paris if I was his Dani California. He was so creative, excitable, unstable, conflicted, scarred, addicted, recovering, and, more than likely, emotionally detached. Sweet imperfection. Just like my last love in Paris a decade ago.

 

The train filled at the next stop, Trocadero, where we’d found that addicting, orange-filled macaron café years ago. My nostrils flared, and I flashed back to the citrusy zest as I dropped my head against the window.

 

I didn’t wonder if he was happier now as much as I wondered what that meant.

 

Ready to disappear into melancholy and the anonymity of the crowd, I felt two sets of eyes on me. A couple, brunette, in their twenties, carrying a large bag that read “Paris” in a serif font mimicking the design of the Eiffel tower. He was holding the center car pole, and she was grasping onto him for balance. Both studied me. Wide-eyed, not communicating to each other or to me why they were staring, but eerily fixated.

 

This would’ve driven me nuts back home, and I would have returned a squinted, slow and deliberate gaze to show my annoyance. But this wasn’t a NYC-subway stare. This was nonthreatening and innocent, friendly, even before our wide eyes met and they simultaneously cracked half grins. They were happy to see me, giddy almost. Their excitement and concentration were so palpable that I almost smiled back, but my reflex to turn away kicked in first. Their four brown eyes were so glued to my movement that the mouths below them automatically started to mirror my grimace.

 

What was it about me that caught their eyes? They were obviously American, with their eagerness, blue jeans, Chuck Taylors, and tourist tote full of travel bounty. But what made me stand out as familiar and amiable to them on this busy train?

 

This wasn’t Tokyo or Melbourne, where my copious melanin and head of exploding curls always gave away my alien status. There were people of every shade and design on this train, so it had to be more than that. Was it the way I was dressed: a black, peplum-collared raincoat, black leggings and black ballet flats? Doubtful. This was Parisian camouflage.

 

It pained me to consider, but I wondered if they’d recognized, in me, the fresh-faced naiveté I detected in them? Or maybe the distinct American tension that comes from the compulsion for companionship mixed with the juvenile need to be exceptional, to stand apart?

 

I’d come to Paris to embark on a vision quest of sorts, alone. I wasn’t committed to staying that way, and hoped to meet like-minded people, maybe even give the love thing an honest try again, but I was proud to walk the streets without the armor of constant company.

 

At least I thought I was. Had they seen through my ruse, sensed my insecurity? Felt the terror they’d just awoken, or worse, the long-dead hope?

 

As the train stopped they moved toward two matted cloth seats, unbalanced, clinging onto each other for dear life. I felt exposed, fraudulent—and immediately grateful the two open seats faced opposite mine.

 


About the Author: Kimberly Reyes began her transition to creative writing after receiving her MA from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2013. She’s since been a post-graduate journalism fellow at the Poetry Foundation in 2013, a Callaloo fellow in 2014, a Watering Hole fellow in 2015, and she is currently a William Dickey Fellow and MFA candidate in poetry at San Francisco State University. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Associated Press, Entertainment Weekly, Time.com, The New York Post, The Village Voice, Alternative Press, ESPN the Magazine, Jane, Honey, NY1 News and The Best American Poetry blog. Her poetry has appeared on The Feminist Wire, The Acentos Review and in Belleville Park Pages.

Interlude by Alyssa Oursler

Untitled Art for Oursler


He was a big fan of silence, except when he wasn’t. He was a big fan of Chipotle too. Over a burrito bowl one day during lunch, Dom talked about Berkeley tee shirts. He had graduated from the school but declared that he would never wear one because he didn’t want to flaunt it.

I think that’s called a humble brag.

He wasn’t only better than everyone else, but he was better than everyone else who was better than everyone else because he didn’t have to show it. Except when he showed it.

 

Dom always seemed to be declaring, even through his silence, that he was different, and yet he was ending up in exactly the same places.

Dom and my ex Don were one letter, two time zones and all the words apart—Don too insecure and chatty, Dom too cocky and quiet—but each just one story.

Their names alone made me laugh.

 

The opposite of Don’s neverending game of 21 questions—I’m not sure Dom ever asked me one question. Correction: I remember one text that read: “How’s home?” It was a classic example of setting the bar so low that skipping over it seemed like an Olympic feat.

 

The other time Dom was quite talkative was when he was talking about how everyone else talks too much. It was sparked by the fact that he refused to answer the most basic questions and I refused to let it slide.

I don’t always mind silence, and I really just wanted the sex, so I didn’t bother telling Dom that I’d had the same conversation with Don at the beginning, the roles reversed, the outcomes so different and yet really, technically the same.

In the beginning, Don was always running his mouth while I theorized that two people were only cool when they could share silence comfortably. And we got there.

Around Dom I was always running my mouth because we were nowhere near that level yet he insisted we start there and stay there anyway—the most forced foreplay.

His rant about talking continued, climaxing with him sneering not at the world at large but directly at me: “Everyone just has to hear what you have to say, huh?”

“Okay,” I replied.

Then I probably laughed.

We didn’t have sex that night.

 

Dom knew I was a writer. He probably didn’t know that the insignificance of my perspective was something I thought about far too often. But then again, he never asked.

I had nowhere to be but I also had nothing to say, so I left the next morning before he woke up.

His fantasy, I assume.

 

Later that day he texted me the link to an article sporting the headline “Why We Speak” but I didn’t read it or reply. Then I left San Francisco for a month—the trip during which he texted me to ask how home was. The night I got back to the city, he texted me an emoji.

 

A few days later we again had Chipotle—or at least that was the intention. I had convinced myself there was a difference between being quiet and being rude, and maybe I shouldn’t sleep with Dom.

Over burrito bowls we talked about writing.

Did I mention that he was a writer too?

I remember his articles about music—his superfluous vocabulary describing and applauding up-and-coming artists. He showcased people making noise, people who thought the world should hear what they had to say, via word choice after word choice that would put a Berkeley tee shirt to shame.

A tee shirt is just a piece of cotton—not necessarily a badge. Someone could wear it because they were a fan or family member, because it was really a piece of nostalgia, even simply because it was on sale.

Words are all we have.

 

I laughed again.

 

Perhaps he didn’t mean it, perhaps he was being sarcastic, perhaps he was being intentionally ironic as only the best among us can do, but I realized I indeed preferred it when he didn’t speak.

We still had sex that day after Chipotle. Then I texted him some small talk, I think it was a day later, to which he never replied. I guess that means I got ghosted.

Choices are curses anyway, I thought. And then I laughed.

I would write that we never spoke again, but I think it’s more accurate to say we never really spoke at all.


About the Author: Alyssa Oursler is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. She covers tech, travel, gender and money and has written for Forbes, Business Insider, The Bold Italic, 7×7, Mental Floss and more. Her work also placed second in the 2015 Litquake Writing Contest is forthcoming in Luna Luna Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books and others. You can find her at http://www.teainacoffeeshop.com

 

BECOMING OUR FATHERS by Lisa Mae DeMasi

Harriet Poznansky Death Through a Child's Eyes


The biggest influence on the child is the unmet dreams of their parents.

–Carl Jung

Every reader has a secret obsession. Besides masters like Tolstoy, Austen and Marquez, bedtime often finds me curled up with books by those wily women who somehow make it up the ladder to the c-suite. What strikes me most about these recent missives about corporate America including Lean In and Thrive is how utterly clean these books seem, discussing good-girl themes like balance and self-esteem. Back in the 80’s when all this corporate madness began, we had precious time for aspirations on the small end of Maslow’s hierarchy. Those of us who paved the way for Sandberg and friends had to contend with a sort of schizophrenic messiness. In fact, it might still be messy, but that doesn’t always make a great book. A recent Monster poll, released in conjunction with the anniversary of the film Working Girl, shows that 44 percent of women and 28 percent of men think nothing has really changed since the 80’s. In which case, whatever we were doing back then, stuck.

I was born in Feb. ’65, a few years before Steinem published After Black Power, Women’s Liberation. Surely some mothers were having their babies on Ina May Gaskin’s bus and picketing for abortion rights, but mine and the others I came to know in Wellesley, MA had mostly worked as secretaries and then gotten married. My mother’s aspirations involved clubs and Jaguars.

The year I graduated from college, the microchip was on the rise. The iron curtain was collapsing, and the first American test-tube baby had just been born. Trailblazing was in order, and yet the gender situation was schizophrenic at best. The forerunners of the current lean-in frenzy were tottering around in nine-inch heels with sprayed hair that sometimes caught fire when someone lit a cigarette in the boardroom. I was confused. To remedy this confusion, I swam a lot senior year, plunging deep to the pool’s bottom and blotting out the world. When my lungs felt ready to implode, I hauled myself out the pool and returned to my room where I made pots of black coffee and smoked Eve 120 Menthols until class time rolled around. In the late spring of ’87, starting to despair my future, I decided to get married.

I met my future husband through Melinda, a girl in my dorm with unharnessed pendulum breasts, who was frequently found in the living room, watching TV in a threadbare nightgown and chewing on her hair. The boys congregated like bees to honey smeared on, well, unharnessed pendulum breasts. Tristan was one of these boys, cute, reserved and naïve. I wanted him and figured eventually, I would get him. But he’d enlisted in the air force two months prior and before long shipped out to Texas and then to another planet called Guam. In his absence, I grew intimately close to his best friend, Tom Flowers.

The summer I graduated, Tom proposed to me. We were vacationing in Ocean City, Maryland, and I said yes because Tom was ambitious and career-oriented, like my father. Also like my father, he was understanding and tolerant when it came to his wife holding down a full time job. This came in handy since I’d graduated from a curriculum representing “a sound liberal arts base” targeted to “instilling a woman with a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things” and thereby rendering her incapable of pursuing a given discipline.

I stood beside Tom in late May of ’90 at the altar of Regis’s chapel wearing my mother’s gown armed with a sundae spoon in which to consume the best man, Tristan. (Despite my attempts to indulge after Tom and I were married, the sundae never allowed me even a taste.)

Tom wore glasses and had a twenty-seven inch waistline, which was interesting since the only things he ate were toasted raviolis, Little Debbie Marshmallow Supremes and homemade whoopie pies. Tom was plain, predictable. Once, to spruce him up, I brushed on eye shadow as he stoically sat on the closed lid of the toilet. He hated this, even in jest, and washed it off after a glimpse in the mirror. In all actuality, he should have married my roommate, Prudence Dearheart—she weighed less than him, I had introduced her to the benefits of falsies and waxing and her acne eventually cleared up. Tom needed a wife, and unbeknownst to both of us, I was about to plunge head long into non-wifehood, a dive that would finally seem to pave the way for every working millennial gal in corporate America today.

That first year with Tom, I found myself staring into space, remembering my wild days at Regis and contemplating the perfect boredom that was marriage. While my mother found satisfaction in getting into certain suburban clubs, I could hardly find the gumption to make chicken casserole. I was worried I would turn into my mother. Or Tom’s. His mother, a warm, kind woman from a working class city just west of Boston, had been enslaved into servitude by her five children and a husband. She called trash “rubbish,” soda “tonic,” potatoes “b’daydas,” the day after Friday “Saddadee,” and the numbah aftah thirdy-nine “foddy.” Tom’s father, on the other hand, didn’t spare many words but when he did, over Sunday’s roast beef and turnip dinner, he’d say, “Mama, pass the blood” and “Mama, I’m ready for my tea, now.”

It was my father, out of this crowd of Tom’s parents and mine, who seemed to have the most fun. My father was both powerful and amenable. Aside from cucumbers, he didn’t appear to be disagreeable about anything. Perhaps being the only child born to second-generation Italians made him docile for survival. His parents did all things Italian, besides cooking an amount of spaghetti that could have extended from their home in Bridgeport, CT to Sicily, they did a whole lot of yelling and dictating. My grandfather would often crack walnuts between his fingers and say, “Aw, Frank, you did the best you could with what you had to work with.” A pistol shot, disguised by complimentary overtones.

Despite this winning assessment, my father’s self-esteem never seemed particularly bothered.  He was full of initiative. A mechanical engineer by trade, he could explain highly technical things as if he were talking about a recipe for meatloaf. At AVCO Lycoming Engines and Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, Connecticut, he labored on engines—taking them apart down to their washers, re-assembling them with his eyes closed, testing them, and making them better. He’d met my mother at AVCO–she was beautiful then, before pacifying her hurt with food—and the initial encounter of the two meeting was, according to my mother, “love at first sight.” Quite different from my father’s first impression—“she was stacked!” What kept coming back to me during those bored first years of marriage was that somewhere in my adolescent years, Dad’s career had  allowed him to pull out of the whole family thing. He’d taken a hiatus at Cornell’s two-year graduate program and lived in a high rise dorm infected with roaches.

That’s when the plan to become my father began to formulate. He had always wanted to work for the Department of Defense, and about two years into marriage, I applied for a job at PB&J Corporation in Wellesley, a Fortune 100 conglomerate that served as a top-tier contractor to the Department of Defense, NASA and other federal agencies. They put me to work in the corporate office; a plush location where women remained confined to traditional roles and were frequently seen carrying pots of coffee in the wake of some suit-wearing executive.

Situated in mahogany row, I reported to a division controller in an administrative capacity and readily developed a knack for building Lotus 1-2-3 macro-run spreadsheets and a chronic intolerance for bean counters. My boss, a nervous CPA afflicted with twitches and a lightning speed gait, was an expert at creating a tension-filled monotony. Consequently, I befriended my neighbor, an elderly secretary who reported to a well-respected Executive Vice President, Max Powers. Max was a master at operations strategy.

When special occasions arose, I celebrated offsite with Max, his controller, and his secretary. Once, driving back to the office, Max asked me out to dinner. I thought it was odd—we were both married and there was quite an age difference between us—I was in my mid-twenties, and he was well into his fifties. But he drove a Mercedes, so I agreed.

Max wasn’t a player—he was content in his stale second marriage and active in his daughter and sons’ lives. And yet here I was fresh out of college and not wanting to be a housewife. I brought some life into the nearly geriatric office. He was attracted to that quality along with some of my other features, like breast size. And age.

In turn, I was attracted to him because unlike Tom, Max’s middle boasted something I could grab hold of—a 42” waistline. As well, when Max passed by me in the office, if the coast was clear, he’d look me up and down, bug out his eyes and waggle his eyebrows. Tom never did that sort of thing—even when we first met. Max was also tall, Italian, mature, successful, a personable no-nonsense type. Kind of like my father. Back in the 80’s when the working girl movement truly began, you were trying to be your father, and your boss was also your father (or at least someone like him), and you were, inevitably, sleeping with him. This was all mildly disorienting. Jane Miller’s new book Sleep Your Way to the Top (and other myths about business success), another bedtime obsession, nails all this right down and actually gives you some guidelines about sleeping, or not sleeping, with some senior level execs.
Aside from this ogling, Max and I were discreet about our infidelity; he had a great deal at risk. And though I did too, I didn’t consider carrying on with him such a terrible thing—the relationship was well rounded, and I loved the attention. This line of thinking, however vile was par for the course. While riding around in Max’s Mercedes, I sometimes remembered my Dad inviting two young women from work to the beach near our house. They showed up wearing bikinis. I was in the water next to the blond at one point and her nipple was exposed and I remember feeling so embarrassed and plunging below the water’s surface. Why would Dad invite two young women to the beach? He was also seen driving his ’54 Corvette through town with some woman at his side. And now perhaps I had become the woman in the Corvette, just exactly at the same time I was trying to become my father.

Some weeks later, after we had regularly steamed up the Benz’s windows, I indulged in a couple of cocktails at one of our group luncheons. Upon returning to work and feeling frisky, I bypassed my desk for Max’s and entered his large corner office. Nowhere in Lean In does Sheryl Sandberg talk about plopping into an oversized leather chair and placing one’s heels and legs up on the boss’s desk. When he crossed the threshold to his office and found me stationed at his desk, he drew a few steps backward and glanced at the door. “Lisa,” he whispered. “Get out of that chair.”

I crossed one leg over the other. “I kind of like this chair.”

He checked behind him. “Lisa,” he repeated. “This isn’t funny. Get out the chair now.”
And there ensued a dialogue much like ones I might have had with my dad when I was young:

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Now.”

“Oh, alright.” Pretending to submit, I placed my feet on the floor but then changed course and gleefully spun around.

“Lisa!” he hissed. His face was the hue of a Detroit Dark Red beet.
Finally I popped up and out of the chair and sauntered past him. He avoided eye contact the remainder of the day.

“Just what did you think you were doing?” he scowled the following night.

“Playing,” I answered. Play girl, married girl, working girl, daughter, who was I?

“Well, don’t do it again,” he said. The corner of his mouth curled into a smile.

 

I didn’t want to sit around with Max and the elderly secretary all my life, and when the opportunity arose, I left my job to report to the V.P of Management Information Systems (the dawning of IT). After assimilating quickly into the admin position by working with a networking guru to transition staff from the use of dumb terminals to PCs, I became a valued resource and my training skills were in constant demand. Just as my father did when he left us for Cornell, I began to consider an MBA as a fast track to management.

Similarly, all my male counterparts were getting their MBAs part time at Babson College, a school that had previously been predominated by men. This, I figured, was the ticket to my future. My father had wanted the MBA, too, but because of a family curse in accounting, he had decided to audit a course and so got a certificate instead.  I had struggled with accounting at Regis, too, but managed it. I was not only going to become my father, I was going to surpass his wildest expectations.

The only thing standing in the way of graduate admissions was the GMAT, an entry exam designed to quantify and humiliate all those who fall below a superior level of intelligence.  I prepared for it for weeks. When it came to taking the exam, though, I panicked halfway through and handed in more empty circles than filled-in. When I later mustered the courage to try again, I completed half the exam to the best of my ability and then overwrought with anxiety, filled in “C” for “correct” throughout the remainder. To my dismay, the test results again fell short of the admission standard. It fell below any standard. Anywhere. For anything.

FairTest, the national center for open and fair testing, claims that this single 3-hour test wields a tremendous amount of power. Many B-school admissions officers use GMAT cut-off scores of 550 and higher but women average only 503. Although we make up more than half of all college graduates and post higher undergraduate GPAs than our male peers, two-fifths never attempt the GMAT. Determined to get into Babson, I made an appointment to see the dean, who unlike the Regis dean, was male. Leveraging the traits Max found attractive, and the make-it-happen mentality that both he and my father instilled in me, I walked into the Dean’s office, hand extended, wearing a cinch-waisted suit and crippling high heels.

When he stood up to make my acquaintance, I intercepted his hand over a copy of my rejection letter.  “Good Afternoon, Dean,” I began enthusiastically. “Thank you so much for seeing me. I realize how valuable your time is.”

He smiled at my chest. “Good Afternoon, Ms. DeMasi, the pleasure is all mine.”

I assumed the chair opposite his desk and launched into my agenda. “I was extremely disappointed to receive that rejection letter. Although I scored a tad low on the GMATs,” really my brain shut down completely at the ghastly sight of it, “I assure you that I’m an ambitious professional and require Babson’s MBA as a platform for a career in executive management.” I paused to cross my legs and flutter my lashes. “In turn, I would serve as a critical value-add and fitting member of the student body.”

Shifting his weight forward in his button-tufted high leather chair, the Dean placed his elbows on his desk, formed a bridge with his fingers and studied my face. Moments expired. He inhaled deeply, and flexing his eyebrow said, “I like your style.”

“Thank you, Dean,” I smiled back and reinforced my intention. “I’d certainly appreciate it if you would give me the opportunity to prove myself and reconsider my acceptance to the program.” Lash flutter.

As if engaged in a game of dorm room hoops, the Dean picked up my rejection letter, crumpled it into a ball and discarded it into his wastebasket. “Consider yourself in,” he said. A feat of feminine wiles (a la my mother) and business go-get-em (a la my father) and I was on my way.

The Babson College campus was less than three miles from work and twenty minutes from our home in Westwood. Tom was supportive (at first), my father was thrilled, and Max was impressed. And because my studies were complementary to my responsibilities in the office, my department extended a lot of flexibility and reimbursed the steep tuition costs. Financial Accounting, the barrier that had turned my dad’s academic status at Cornell from graded to auditing, was one of the initial requisites. I put it off.

The first night on campus, I sat in a state-of-the-art multi-tiered hi-tech classroom—a far cry from Regis’s cozy classrooms with heat hissing out of old steam radiators. My peers were not giddy freshwomen, but experienced businesspeople, mostly men. I didn’t feel intimidated. I’d work extra hard to keep up and soon I’d be just like one of them—on my way to making an impact as an executive.

The first thing I did when I started the MBA program was change back to my maiden name, something that was just starting to happen in the 80’s. When the judge was perplexed because it didn’t involve a marital dispute, I explained it had to do with a hear-me-roar type of thing. I also became an early bird. At 5:30, I rolled out of bed, tugged on some sweats and arrived at the gym around 6:00. Energy begets more energy. I got to work around 8:00, studied or exercised some more at lunchtime and left for campus by 5:30. I didn’t get home before 9:30 at night. And an entire weekend day was consumed in relative effort.

Halfway through the MBA, my marriage came undone. Tom wanted kids. I didn’t. My schedule left no time for them. Nor would it ever, it seemed. Vaguely I remembered visiting my father at Cornell on the weekend. He’d made friends in grad school. Namely, “Barbara,” a pimply-faced woman maybe 10 years his junior.  My mother was suspicious of her, and I can see why. “Barbara this and Barbara that.” Why is Dad always talking about this Barbara? Dad also made friends with a tall Russian man named Sasha who gave us Olympic pins from Russia (Olympics were in Lake Placid during that time). I remember him being very friendly while Barbara seemed aloof.  I can’t imagine Mom was happy about it; home by herself raising three kids.  Years later, it wasn’t a surprise to me when Slaughter’s article on having it all in The Atlantic went viral and created backlash and hate mail. The truth hurts. I couldn’t have kids because I wanted to become Executive Vice President of ABC Widget & Co. Finally, Tom and me filed for divorce, divided our possessions and sold the house we acquired from an elderly couple that had decorated the kitchen with avocado-colored wallpaper and orange countertops.

 

I was a new person; re-engineered and overhauled and single. I had done away with the ultimate setback that would have placed my career on hold—becoming a vessel of reproduction.

By this time, my helpdesk job at PB&J had slowed down. Personnel had been long trained on Windows and aside from the occasionally challenging “how would you do this” scenario, I was ready to take on equal opportunity in an environment that wasn’t engaged in producing weapons of mass destruction (I let my father down gently).

I became a financial analyst reporting to a Vice President of Marketing in a work hard/play hard software company, called Cold Boot, Inc., which was growing rapidly. I figured once I got my foot in the door as a prospective MBA, a management opportunity would crop up. Cold Boot was located in an office park in Concord, Massachusetts. A week before my start date, I found a charming apartment inside a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse and bid farewell to Max Powers who once asked me “why didn’t I meet you thirteen years ago before I remarried,” and laughed when I answered “because I was fourteen.”

The Cold Boot job was a great step up and my enthusiasm soared. As it was in the 80’s when we were all getting our corporate heels wet, sales were skyrocketing and the fifty-person marketing team pushed to keep the numbers off the charts by wildly promoting the company’s product. As a result of this spending frenzy, invoices by the hundreds—many in the form of credit card statements and expenses scratched down on cocktail napkins—flooded Accounting and the staff couldn’t deal.

Consequently I developed and evangelized the use of a simple software application I called, “The KISS Initiative,” based on the design principle “Keep It Simple Stupid.” In short I was an accounting genius. With just eight out of the twenty MBA courses remaining, and feeling superior, I bit the bullet and enrolled in the initial requisite of financial accounting.

Cold Boot, like PB&J, picked up my tuition costs as long as I made a B or better. I’d earned a mix of B’s and low A’s. By taking summer sessions, I’d planned to complete the masters six months before the usual four-year turnout. By then, I’d be carrying out significant management responsibilities.

Then, a couple months into the horrid accounting course, Cold Boot was acquired for millions. I wasn’t certain how it would impact my job, but things looked promising. In fact, to demonstrate how promising it looked, the company hosted a ridiculously expensive affair at The Sheraton Tara in Boston. Naturally, it materialized into a rave.

After a two-hour workout in the hotel’s gym, I skipped dinner and for the next few hours, the product manager and his cohorts seasoned various parts of my body, doing shots of tequila and licking the salt from wherever. The only thing I remember is the D.J. finishing up with “Stairway to Heaven” while Bill, the Sales V.P. and Ian—a guy from accounting who I dated until I found out he was married and had a newborn—played a tug of war with me over the threshold of Bill’s hotel room. At some point, they noticed my arms had grown considerably in length and became civil. They escorted me downstairs to reception. Bill, at his own expense or quite possibly the company’s, checked me into my own room. If you think this is very un-modern and slutty of me, you must have been born after 1975 or so, so you couldn’t possibly see behind Oz’s curtain to what was really happening whilst paving the corporate woman’s yellow brick road.

After that, I passed out in bed, alone. I think.

After developing this new kick-ass accounting system that had saved the company, this new company purchased a different requisition system and phased out my job. I was not offered my dream management role, but a lateral position with an ambiguous job description working for a peer. This disconcerting news was delivered just hours prior to my accounting final exam. I kept mindfully clear and calm throughout the day, however, and found myself feeling confident when I arrived to campus that night.

The air was mild and hinted at spring. Everything was going to be okay, I reassured myself—the job would work out, and before the night was over, I’d have conquered the family curse in financial accounting. Settling into my usual seat along the back row of the classroom, I set two pencils, a sharpener and calculator before me. Standing militantly at attention before us was the professor, the Accounting and Finance Department Chair, a woman who reminded me of those terrible educators in Pink Floyd’s movie The Wall. She fixated on some invisible point above our heads and clutched a bunch of crisp blue booklets to her bosom.  Counting with her eyeballs and curt nods, she distributed the exam.

Four words in ticker tape fashion tracked into my cerebral processor:  … School … Divorce … Career … Freedom … I whispered aloud, “Not now.” But the tape tracked in again: … Cost of freedom … No babies … Lousy lateral … Body shots …

The person in front of me held the exam and booklet behind his head awaiting my receipt.  I took it and set them down on my desk.

“You have two hours,” the professor announced.

I stared at the ridiculous elementary school booklet for several minutes before managing to pick up a pencil. I inscribed my name on the cover—tracing over it again and again. About a half hour into the exam, I managed to open the booklet. While the other students bit on ends of pencils and vigorously managed calculations, I remained fixed on the first blank page in a debilitating state of, well, debilitation. “Lisa?” I called inside my head.

No one was home. Up front Max wasn’t at the helm. Nor the dean who had looked at my boobs, not anyone but a woman who looked like she played by the rules. Every single rule that had ever been put in front of her.  Everyone had their own way of rising. And this woman had found hers. This woman who’d probably had to work harder than anyone I had ever known to get a professorship at Babson College.

I made my approach.  “Professor?”

“Yes,” she snapped, never glancing up as she bore down to inscribe another red X on some sorry soul’s exam.

I opened my mouth to speak.

“Realize I can’t help you,” she interjected. “The problems are self-explanatory.”

“Professor,” I began graciously. “I can’t concentrate. I’m going through a divorce and my job was eliminated today.”

No response.

I tried again. “Could I please take a makeup exam? I just need a couple of weeks to get over favoring my freedom instead of having a baby and reporting to someone younger than me with no supervisory experience.”

“You have to take the exam now or you’ll fail the course,” she looked up at me with her reptilian eyes. “Take it or leave it.”

I lingered there, wringing the booklet in my hands. Puddles of napalm burned on her desk and singed the exam in front of her and then wafted over to me. I observed the crown of her head and thought about the culminating events that had made her so nasty. There wasn’t a fiber of soul-sister-I-got-your-back in her. Maybe a long time ago before her bun got so tight and her mouth got so small she might have tried that. And it didn’t work. If only I could get hit with a heart attack and dramatically plummet to the floor, I thought. That might bring out the compassion. Mountains crumbled, seas receded, hills burned, the stage curtain cascaded closed.  There was to be no quarter. My heart just continued to thump blood through the appropriate channels, enduring the crucible of my accounting professor. I regarded the booklet in my hands and then gesturing forfeit, offered the measly thing for her receipt.

She ignored it.

Finally, I let the booklet disengage from my sweaty grip. The damp crinkled cigar toppled to the desk and swayed back and forth before coming to rest.

“Then, I leave it,” I said.

In a buckling state of doom, I turned away, gathered my things and the entire class launched into a panic, assuming I quickly mastered the exam.

When I eased into the seat of my car that was parked in Never Never Land—because student parking is designed to taunt those who work all day then come to school stressed, exhausted and late—I gazed out over the hood dumbfounded. I don’t know how long I sat there, envisioning the scene from Apocalypse Now when the villagers slaughter a water buffalo (an authentic no-PETA-interference sequence) and Willard attacks crazy Kurtz with a machete.  Lying bloody and dying on the ground, Kurtz whispers, “The horror…the horror…”

I had no way to approach the Dean for resolve because then I would risk Professor McNasty, learning of my “unorthodox” acceptance into the program; ammo to further enforce my ineligibility for a makeup exam. Moreover, I couldn’t submit for reimbursement at work, having failed a course. The lack thereof would raise a red flag, suggesting weakness and incapability in light of my ability. On that particularly eventful evening, I had crashed into the invisible barrier Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt had aptly termed in the 1986 Wall Street Journal article:  the glass ceiling. In a quandary and feeling sick, I headed home.

In college, my father, having performed frightfully in his accounting throughout the semester (not intentionally, it’s the family curse), needed a C to pass the course. He’d been running late for an accounting exam, a requisite for getting his B.S. degree. With heightened anxiety brought on by habitual procrastination, he ended up racing to make it in time, passed all the vehicles in a single lane of traffic, lost control of his car, and crashed it into an eighteen wheeler. He totaled his car, walked away from the accident, and didn’t take the makeup exam until a month later. He ended up scoring lousy on the exam, but the professor realized he did the best he could with what he had to work with. He was passed without the big hair, without the boobs, without fogging up the Benz’s windows. He was passed by another guy who believed him when he said he was too much of a wreck to do well on an accounting exam.

 

The following morning, I woke up feeling like a machete was splitting my face in two. I thought of the woman at the front of the class. And the ticker tape ran its course. And then I thought:  I should do something compassionate, someplace new and sunny and warm all year round. Surely by now, my vile deeds have been paid in full, and by focusing on others, good things will come my way.

I typed up my resignation and despite my boss’ nudge to stay, tendered my two-week notice. The next morning, making coffee and trying not to look at the accounting book still spread out on the dining room table, I again routed around for someone’s footsteps to follow.  Except I wanted the footsteps to be far away, in a place that didn’t hold the broken shards of all I hadn’t achieved. My father had always wanted to go to California, but his mother had wanted more kids, and when she couldn’t have them put a load the size of the world on Dad in terms of him being around to be part of their lives to take care of them.

I could go to California myself, I thought. My father had been a terrible manager and communicator at work, perhaps there he found some semblance of power he hadn’t had with his parents. He hardly ever erupted at us kids and only in a blue moon, at my mother. The latter was prefaced with Italian expletives that to this day, I’ve never repeated. But with the 500-something staff under his wings he often erupted at his employees if they exhibited even a semblance of laziness, which he hated. Congruently, he had an enormous soft spot for any Affirmative Action sponsored disabled person that shared the workspace. I suppose he liked “the cripples” as he called them, mimicking my grandfather, because he figured they were trying hard to overcome their challenges. That’s it, I thought, closing the accounting book and trying to figure out how to burn it. I’d start a fundraising effort for the disabled among the wealthy and glamorous residents of Southern California.

Over the weekend, I announced to family and friends I was heading west like so many hopeful pioneers before me. Though I didn’t know it yet, I would stop first in Wyoming and, seeing the power of the boys who handled horses, would take a brief hiatus trying to become a cowboy. And there, too, would run into myriad ways we look for power and run into strange bedfellows and wild borders. But that’s a story for another time.

In May 2006, I finally did finish my MBA. Was the Monster Poll right? Have we transcended the 80’s? Can we start aspiring to higher elements of Maslow’s hierarchy? I got a job working at the Boston Ballet, reporting to the Executive Director in a financial support capacity, but all I did was type her handwritten notes of meetings. So I quit and became a project manager for a Cambridge consultancy. I put in 60+ hour weeks, traveling to and from the San Fran office and developed an application to manage our 1M-dollar client. Thank goodness I didn’t have kids. About three months into it, I was let go. The CEO’s hubby had started showing up at the office, asking me about how I used the project management tool I developed. When they let me go, they offered me two weeks severance if I supported the CEO’s hubby for two weeks, while he “learned the ropes.” That’s when I met a very odd cardiologist who said he wanted me to help him write a book. And that’s when I started writing.

My parents just celebrated their 50th anniversary. They said it was us kids that kept them together. I think if my mother had the choice and the security, she might have left my father a long time ago. By staying married and having children, my mother gained some semblance of security (and a Jag or two). But she doesn’t know what I know. When I cuddle up at night next to my boyfriend and my cat and open those books by women on the fast track to the c-suite, between the words, I see the body shots, the men named Max, the business school deans. I also find compassion. I see an accounting professor at her desk, bearing down to mark her papers, a woman who can’t quite find it in her to reach out to the person on the other side. That someone being another woman who was, at one moment, feeling powerless as she tried hard to pave the way for others the only way she knew how: by becoming her father.


About the Author: Lisa Mae DeMasi has been shortlisted for the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards and last summer Shark Reef published her essay, “Subversive Writer on the Writing Life.” Her work has also been published in HuffPost, Elephant Journal, Rebelle Society and Midlife Boulevard.

Artwork: Harriet Poznansky is a visual artist, writer and musician from the UK based between Oakland, London and Cornwall. She studied at the Slade School of Art London and School of the Art Institute Chicago, SAIC. She currently works from her studio in Oakland’s Fruitvale district where she is part of a vibrant literary and arts community. Poznanksy’s artistic practice predominately gravitates towards painting, however, she also makes electro/classical music and writes short stories. Poznansky’s is represented by the dynamic central london gallery The Kopple Project and her most recent past exhibitions include a solo show at The Nomadic Press Workspace Oakland (2015), Waterbody at London’s Hardy Tree Gallery and Death and Dying, at MAG3 Gallery Vienna. Her work can also be seen at the Australian House London by appointment, and in the Nomadic Press 2015 Journal, where Poznansky is this year’s featured Artist. She is a member of Grace God Collective and her music and drawings have been used for many of the collective’s audio-visual and/or fashion projects. Poznansky’s most recent work can be seen in the group show “Pandiculate! ” The joy of stretching, opening at The Kopple Project, March 15, 2015 and in September 2015 The Kopple Project will proudly present Poznansky’s inaugural solo show in London.

http://www.thekoppelproject.com/pandiculate_exhibition.html

http://www.harrietpoznansky.com/

http://www.gracegodcollective.com/

http://www.nomadicpress.org/

Pancakes on the Ice by Melissa Wiley

pexels-photo-medium


Did she know I might be in love with her husband? She did, I was certain. The love usually lasted for only twenty-four hours in succession, enough for me to dream of him the night after I’d just seen him. Each time I saw him again, however, the dream lengthened.

As Kirsten looked at me, glimpsing all the erotic visions I’d had and soon forgotten, her eyes could hardly have been browner, the same as my own color. Only mine felt blue in comparison, because love or something approximate forever alters your appearance, leaving marks on your face and reconfiguring your fingerprint patterns. Without me looking in a mirror, I knew my irises had dissolved into pellucid water. She had clearly seen the abalone shells so many mollusks had abandoned shining throughout my interior.

The wife of my gamelan teacher, Kirsten came to class because today was Alex’s birthday and this was her present to him, though someone else brought cupcakes she couldn’t eat because she was allergic to gluten. He was, I later learned, allergic as well and turning thirty-seven.

At first, I thought she was older than I was when I saw her from across the carpet, woven into a mandala long faded by no sun within this room inside this basement. It was only when I came home and washed my face free of makeup that I realized I was likely the older woman. So much longing has overstretched my epidermis, while her forehead was smooth as marble with real blue veins holding real red blood that kept far from the surface. Had she not looked at me with such lapidary focus, I would have thought her oblivious to the desire of another woman. I would have taken her skin’s tautness as confirmation.

Logically too, I see no reason for my face to fulfill an aesthetic function. Unless I’m trying to pull other human beings closer, men only to be honest, despite the fact I have a husband. Were this face better at attracting men to examine it, I’d likely never have studied Buddhism. Were I only beautiful enough, I’d have no need for Eastern wisdom.

Yet when I first wake up, I don’t know that I’m a person. I have no memory of any pain or problems but am effortlessly enlightened. The space around my body’s edges clings to me with the warmth of a cocoon before cooling like a cake taken from the oven. My breathing feels so much like flying as yet that I do nothing except lie in bed and wait for my ribs to open, to unburden themselves of heart and lungs and other internal organs. I close my eyes to the sunlight filtering through the curtains, waiting for my lungs to leave me breathless. That they will fly blind without the eyes in my head they intend to abandon I let them forget during these moments.

This is the way, I think, to live with an emptiness filled by only the one phallus. Keeping the mind all but empty, breathing all but lungless. Keeping memory something consciously summoned. Because you cannot love someone without carrying the weight of his image behind your retinas and making them burn on occasion. Not while you’re lying in bed beneath a blanket feeling the warmth between your legs begin to moisten from the light of a face your mind has almost but not quite forgotten.

Yet not all of life is an eroticism. And after my night’s dreaming of Alex was done with, I returned to deeper emotions, preferring to see the two faces of my parents before they stopped breathing once I fell unconscious, more than my teacher of Indonesian music. Even in dreams now, though, their faces look hazy, and I believe in no afterlife, at least one with no bodies. Belief alone too guarantees nothing. It is only the ego’s wishing.

Kirsten told me Alex hated being wished happy birthday but that she liked to say it anyway. “Me too,” I started chirping. Then, “Happy birthday, Alex! Happy, happy birthday!” I said laughing. The only thing worse than having someone repeat something so inane, I told him once he hushed me, is having no one to say it in the first place.

He looked at me a little sadly, when I admitted I’d once wanted someone to wish me happy birthday so badly that first I told my bus driver in the morning then a woman I’d never met before in my apartment building doing her laundry later that evening. Both wished me happy birthday reluctantly, when I felt I’d made them say it to me, as of course I’d done all but intentionally. Whereas I would have leapt naked into Alex’s arms as a present if he’d have let me. I’d have arched my back while licking the salt from his neck begun to lengthen. Even without him touching me, I was a burning candle with its bottom half steeped in icing.

There is no one left now who remembers me as a baby, no one who still in her mind’s eye can see when mine were blue as the ocean over which my lungs will soon go flying. No one is alive who looked into my eyes before melanin seeped in and made them dark as cow paddies, which a farm girl a farm girl no longer knows all too intimately. I slipped on more than can be worth telling while herding cattle with my father, a farmer no one now remembers except for myself and my sister.

I’m a little tired, however, of the same memories, even if they have begun fading. So rather than trying to see them more clearly, I’m trying to live more like a person just waking, a person whose sex dreams of no one worth recalling are all she knows of reality. I’m trying to live like someone who expects nothing of life except for certain responses from her body when a beautiful man is approaching.

My husband I still find attractive, he whose eyes grow blue when he’s happy and turn greener when he’s angry, when I don’t wash dishes or do something similar about which I care nothing. He who met me an hour before my gamelan class for a hamburger and a glass of something alcoholic. He who wanted to come to class with me but whom I told, “No, leave please, honey.”

Before we begin playing a little after eight of a Wednesday evening, our teacher asks us each to share a thought we’ve had the past week related to this music. So I told Alex I was reading Two Serious Ladies, a novel in which respectable women descend into debauchery. Only I left out its central theme, instead mentioning that a Miss Gamelon—like the music but with a variant spelling—preys upon the richer of the serious ladies, who aren’t very serious at all from my perspective. Because serious people assume life means more than the passing brush of a stranger in a hallway, whereas I have always felt differently.

In the passage I’d read the previous evening, one of the serious ladies asserts she has always been a body worshipper while her acquaintance says she likes men for their brains. And reading in an armchair as my husband reminded me to vacuum the stairway, I realized I was the same. I realized with the force of a past life memory that men’s bodies are everything to me, that I wanted nothing in life except for beautiful male bodies to rub themselves against me. Instead of vacuuming, I shut the bedroom door as my husband watched TV. I lay down on our bed and started masturbating.

Neither my teacher nor his wife had read the novel, I’m guessing. And while I sat on the mandala rug expatiating on Miss Gamelon’s antics, I stared at my teacher as much as I had stared at another man on a barstool an hour earlier while I ate my hamburger and listened to my husband analyze stock market vagaries. I listened while nothing could mean less to me than money so long as male arms were outstretched in front of me.

During class, Kirsten played the instrument I normally prefer playing, the gong and a series of mini gongs tied along a truss like a swing to a tree. It was her first time, Alex told us, but she played better than me already. And my voice sounds sweet, more than a few people have told me, but hers sounded like bubbles full to bursting. All her movements were graceful as a giraffe’s on the verge of dying, an animal separating itself from the herd and walking regally into the savannah where lions lay in wait.

Her body looked so lissome too I wondered whether she ever ate anything. Meanwhile, my husband had just complained I’d eaten half his hamburger when he left the table to pee, when I’d already eaten mine along with his mashed potatoes because he ate too slowly. He should have known better, I told him, than to leave his plate with me half empty, because he knows better than anyone that I’m always hungry. I could have eaten two hamburgers easily. Some ketchup had stained my teeth, he only said in response to me.

Kirsten, though, was a bath of a woman with no meat on her bones that anyone could eat. She was a bath that would clean your fingernails of dirt beneath while wrinkling the pads of your fingers so they deadened your nerve endings, because there is such a thing as being too clean. Watching Alex’s face watch hers as she played my favorite instrument flawlessly, it was clear she bathed him regularly.

Had she dried him, though? I wondered. Did she stand with her own clothes on the rug in a heap while wiping his back with a towel the color of butter just warm from the dryer? Were she naked, all her ribs would be visible, arranged in perfect symmetry, sealed so her lungs would not escape her body. She would have never eaten another person’s hamburger, would never have eaten anything so red and thick. Then if you were a bath pretending to be a person thin as a flute with only a few holes punched inside it, you wouldn’t.

And while Kirsten adjusted her legs in preparation to play the gong I would have banged harder had I only the option, while she folded her skirt over knees looking like door knobs I wanted to twist off her so the door would close completely, I felt myself begin to cry then tried to make myself sneeze, as if I were allergic too to something. Because my own husband was a boulder and I was a grain of sand in comparison, because he stood still always while I tried wriggling free of him. Yet wind kept whipping me against him. For the weather between us, I tried not to blame him, as every fresh abrasion pained me yet also eroded some of my corners. The wind rounded me, I told myself by way of consolation, smoothening me so someday I would be the softest of sand. Only by then I’d be an old woman.

When I first walked inside the basement where we practice, Alex, Kirsten, and a Vietnam veteran who lived in Java for several years, he once mentioned, were arranging the instruments. Kirsten looked at me at first, I thought, as I would another woman I sensed my husband wanted to have sex with. I saw her face register some shock when I unzipped my coat, perhaps seeing I was not as fat as she had thought when wearing it.

Then she walked toward me and introduced herself while holding out her hand. I told her Alex had spoken about her often, though he hadn’t. Her face relaxed at once, I noticed, perhaps because she also saw the weather-beaten marks on my face from being flung up against a much larger rock than she could imagine.

Her hair was darker than mine, her face a clamshell with its ridges still in formation. I was shorter and had twenty pounds on her, because she was as thin as Alex, maybe thinner. She was less of a person altogether than someone who ate so much hamburger.

And were my head swept clean of memory either by some car accident or enlightenment reached through meditation, I would remember her now no more than my husband. I would no more see Alex’s eyes sparkle either when I reached for my mallets, when I began to play my thigh to no particular rhythm.

Kirsten emitted a smell of stale lavender as she replied to Alex’s questions regarding theories of music in Java while I stayed silent. Her laugh’s high timbre also made me hold my breath a moment, because it was so delicate and I didn’t want to break it. And because I had also begun to love her a little by then, I wanted nothing more than for her to be a happy person, though she was happier already than I could fathom. Of all things to pray for, Kirsten’s happiness would be most redundant. Better to beg the gods for amnesia. Forget all thoughts of Alex giving her orgasms.

To think the gods liked her better, however, making her life easier as a reward for being a person already closer to a bird with lungs for feathers, was only my ego growing stronger. I was only making myself larger by feeling smaller rather than nothing altogether. I told myself this over and over.

And after class while Kirsten checked her phone for messages, I asked Alex what he was doing for his birthday by way of celebration. He said he was spending the weekend at a cabin Kirsten’s parents loaned them. So Kirsten also had parents, a man and a woman she resembles who may have hunted animals and hung their heads above their mantle, parents who considered her beautiful when she was in truth only thin with a voice I’d want soak in when reading a novel. The only real thing I had on her was sadness. A faux fur scarf also.

When I put it on before I zipped my coat on again, she told me how elegant I looked then reached out to stroke as it as if to tame it and me in the process. “This squirrel I slaughtered?” I said. Then, “I’m joking,” I told her as her jaw dropped wide as a drain pipe funneling rain water. “This,” I add, “I bought in the gift shop of the National Portrait Gallery in London instead of a biography of the Bronte sisters.” Anne, Emily, and Charlotte all had gray-green eyes that might have been bluer too when they were younger.

Then looking into Kirsten’s eyes for the final time that night and likely ever, I palpated the seam of my scarf, sewn into a circle so I could slip it over my head as if it were a fallen, fuzzy halo. Were this fake piece of fur more natural, it would lie across my shoulders like a small, flayed animal. As it was, I fingered the thread tying one end to the other into something whole.

Had Kirsten’s eyes been blue when she was born also? Very possible. If so, they had darkened by the time she turned one or two years old. That had been, I told myself, all the darkness she had known.

Most parents with blue-eyed babies never want them to change color. It’s something you don’t realize as a brown-eyed child until later, discovering that an essential part of human nature doesn’t like things growing darker. It’s the same part, I suppose, as finds older women uglier. My husband says my own eyes are golden as an eagle’s, less brown than yellow, that the right one squints when I smile or giggle. Sometimes he asks me if I can see out of them—they’re so pretty when they’re wider open, usually when I’m sad or frightened—but that’s only when his own eyes are blue as the ocean becoming frozen. When the wind picks up and he’s bristling with irritation, they look more like algae overspreading water starved of oxygen.

Eye color can also alter with age. My eyes are lighter now than they were a couple years ago, though my parents are likely the only people who would have noticed the difference. “Are you going through the change of life too early, perhaps because you had no children?” they may have wondered. “Nothing’s wrong,” I would have had to tell them. It’s the only way I can become less of a person. To keep from loving men besides my husband.

Had I not seen the woman Alex makes love to most often and to whom I imagine he’s faithful, I would have left class happier if less enlightened, feeling myself more of a woman. Because however much I try to empty my mind of all memory, of times when my irises were bluer, however much I may try to eat less hamburger, the lower half of my body remains a phallus glutton. It grows hungrier and hungrier.

I have a friend I meet every few weeks at a coffee shop where the barista makes conversation, particularly with me, my friend observes often. One day while we sat there sharing a scone and I admitted I was feeling weepy from some argument I’d had with my husband, she told me that coming here should be good for my ego. In response, I stared out the window and watched a winter bird attempt to extract a snail from its carapace.

As a way of shifting her to a new subject, as a way of trying to become less of a person and more enlightened, I told her the organs of mollusks each serve several functions. The heart and kidneys aid in reproduction while the gills assist excretion. The brain neatly encircles the esophagus.

But in this she had no interest. She only pointed to the barista now circling us with a broom, saying this was for my benefit. The bird, meanwhile, was eating all the snail’s softness, digesting the brain woven around its windpipe like a nerve-ending necklace. Then I wanted to leave, I told her, because I was growing cold sitting so close to the window, which was leaking coldness.

I live in Chicago, where the river’s ice is melting in a mild late January. Only it doesn’t melt evenly but in patches. It shatters like a windshield broken by a bat, and the ice is melting all across the planet. This world is growing hotter, and there’s little we can do to keep it from thawing altogether, because the gods prefer the tropics. The gods make love among the palm fronds and don’t bother dressing afterward. They keep those of us less than beautiful living in northern climates from spending as much time naked in our beds as we would were we warmer. Desire heats all bodies, though. Someday my desire is sure to cool like a tree in snow, or so I’m told by those who are older.

Given the right conditions, ice contracts into lily pads scientists call pancakes, for obvious reason given their shape when you see them. It dissolves into shards of wholeness. But to me they look more like eyes stricken with blindness. They are evidence of the ice aging into colorless irises.

Pancake ice on a Scottish river made headlines when scientists photographed round discs normally observed exclusively in the Arctic. Only the pancakes with raised edges, abutting each other like checkers on a board of water, don’t form on their own. It is the waves that flow against an icy abrasion that create them, waves uncommonly gentle if also cold. Waves that jostle the edges of what were once pointed arrows.

Yet even pancakes filling rivers melt sometime. Even pancakes on ice are eventually eaten. Not by the frogs who might sleep on them but by the water that made them. And however peaceful, this dying should surprise no one who is not entirely beautiful. I am aware I am dying little by little more often than most, and at times almost feel I am one of the few people alive who can say so. At the moment, I am dying a hot death, though.

The Vietnam veteran asked me to help lift him from the carpet at the end of the song we had been playing for well over an hour, at a faster and faster tempo. All the songs we play tell stories indigenous to Indonesia, and at the beginning of class Alex typically relays some sense of the song’s narrative so we can envision some human imbroglio. Yet this time he told us nothing of the lyrics. The Vietnam veteran sang them softly regardless.

When Alex saw me supporting him beneath his shoulder, he came and helped me heft him higher, when I asked the veteran for a translation of what he had been singing. “The lyrics are erotic. I’m not sure I should tell you,” he murmured. I felt my face and neck flush, as if a dragon were winding its tail around my esophagus like the brain of a mollusk while Alex turned his head toward Kirsten. “Love among the birds,” the veteran clarified, as if to calm us. The coitus was in flight and lasted no longer than a few seconds.

The body cannot distinguish between truth and its opposite. You cannot expect it to decipher reality among mirages and not to cry at movies, for instance. So you should expect it to love every beautiful body you witness. And if you still have parents, expect ungodly tolerance, knowing it’s no reflection of your attractiveness. Know the barista at the coffee shop would sleep with you if only you gave him encouragement. Know he would tell you you’re beautiful as he undressed a body that hardly knows reality from illusion.

Remember too that when Kirsten asked you how long you’d been taking gamelan lessons, you responded, “Three times or more with your husband.” When she said, “Really?” and you nodded then asked how long she and Alex had been married. You cannot remember the number but asked only to hear her voice once more, to feel her waves wash over all your body’s contours, cleaning and smoothing all your edges as if you were no more than rocks piled inside a bathtub, kept clean and protected from all the winds outdoors.


About the Author: Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in literary magazines including DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, PANK, Prick of the Spindle, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Poydras Review, Gravel, Pinball, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Midway Journal, Pithead Chapel, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit.

 

Rock, Paper, Scissors by D’Arcy Fallon

PE - rock paper scissors (final)


I.

I’m calling my new husband from a pay phone not far from Pescadero State Beach on a wind-blown summer afternoon. It’s 1985 and the clouds are drifting in. Dunes and cliffs and wildflowers and cattails and buckwheat and pebbles. Driftwood logs and kelp and oh sweet Jesus lots and lots of rocks. I lean into the phone booth as the raucous wind pulls at my lady reporter clothes. His voice on the phone, melodic, sensible, sane, full of good will and kind humor, keeps me from falling off the edge of the continent. I’m sad for some reason—maybe it’s the wine I had for lunch or the feeling of being lost I feel whenever I come to the end of the world.

We don’t know yet about the baby to come or the houses we’ll inhabit or basil we’ll plant in the high, unforgiving soil. We’re innocent about the dogs we’ll leave behind, buried under the lilac and rose bushes. Still ahead, wrapped like fragile Christmas ornaments in tissue paper, wait our grown up, complicated lives: endless drives through Kansas cornfields, Colorado’s sudden snow days, camping trips in the rain, marathon salsa making sessions in the fall. All I know is what’s before me: the salt-tang smell of anchovies, the raucous gulls, the battering wind.

Pescadero in Spanish means “the place to fish.” I’m thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, someone with a notebook and a job and a car, fishing for stories on this stretch of fickle coast. All the days in the world break against the shore, one after another, dissolving and regathering in a long tidal sweep.

Decades later, becalmed in Ohio, a fish hook in my heart, disconnected, unmoored, I will swim untethered. But for now, I look down at the waves and the birds that run at the water’s edge, car keys in hand, hoping to beat the traffic home.

II.

Thirty-two years later, it’s ledges and edges again. The papers have been filed. In a month, we’ll be divorced. All summer it has rained. Thunder rumbles through this wet valley. The swimming pool has barely been used. What had we been thinking when we built an in-ground pool? The house smells close and moist, doggy. I will leave this domicile and he will stay—until it sells. I try not to take it personally that we haven’t been flooded with offers. In fact, we haven’t even received one. The dogs know something is up. We aren’t really talking, except in telegraphic barks. Doors open, slam shut. Boxes multiply.

What happened to July? It’s gone, baby, spent, wasted, done, over. I order books for next semester’s classes, he trolls through the want ads. We’re both trying to start over. What’s mine? What’s his? The dog-eared geology books belong to him, everything by John McPhee and Stephen Jay Gould. I get custody of the fragile hand blown vase that survived a three-day train trip on the California Zephyr. What else will we take into the future? Wind chimes, crock pots, ski poles, salad bowls? All these possessions tell stories. They want to plead their case. Morning glories tumble hungry and wild over the front fence, twisted tendrils seeking anything to grab on to and live.

III

The wedding quilt my husband’s mother made is the soft baby green of fresh grass, Easter bonnets, tiny seedlings nodding on narrow stalks. I remember Johanna’s big bethimbled fingers working the voile cotton, stitching in and out, lamplight glancing off her glasses. She was taciturn, with an ample bosom and Midwestern reserve, a woman who raised six kids by herself. One year I gave her a sign for her kitchen that said: “Got more time for misbehavin’ since I started microwaving.” The joke was on me. Johanna made everything from scratch.

Who could she count on? What did she know to be true? She sewed as she watched her daytime soaps, piecing paisley to geometrics, or broadcloth to calico, always her hands busy. I was a coastal girl unused to inland ways. Baptisms, wakes, deer hunting, homemade wine. I was grafted onto the tribal tree, stitched into the family by default, simply for showing up. Oh Johanna, your wedding gift, that quilt, is folded in the linen closet, smothered beneath the heavy Indian blankets, crocheted tea towels and cool pillowcases. I never understood you. You had so much give, so much selvage and stretch in your hands. You sat in your Barcalounger and rocked and sewed as the familiar stories unfolded. All My Children. Days of Our Lives. As the World Turns. Your quilt meant family, acceptance, you’re one of us, in for the long haul, even if you seem a little strange.

I see your face before me now: head bent, mouth pursed, sewing basket on the shag rug. I see your steady hands, those working fingers, calmly keeping the thread taut at all costs. There was tension in those stitches, knowing just how hard to tug, plumping cotton into shape, knowing when to give. Quilt, guilt. You are long dead, but I still think of your shiny silver scissors, tiny in your white hands, flashing like wing beats, sure as Guiding Light, knowing when to make the final cut.


About the Author: D’Arcy Fallon was born in Monterey, California. She was a journalist for nearly twenty years, working for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Colorado Springs Gazette. She now teaches journalism, English, and creative writing at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Her memoir, So Late, So Soon, about living in a remote Northern California Christian commune, was published by Hawthorne Books in 2004. Her essays have appeared in The Sun, North Dakota Quarterly, and other publications.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

When the Lane Ends and Other True Memos by Kelsey Liebenson-Morse

Kristin Williamson_for Liebenson-Morse


Date: October Third, 2014
To: Hecklers of Morgantown
From: Enraged Female
Subject: Who Do You Think You Are?

Strike One:

First you leer at me, four of you out of a moving truck. You say something, but luckily I can’t hear because I am talking to my friend. I am still trying to forget last weekend when someone said I would fuck the shit out of that, any night as I walked by. When you drive past in the rusty truck, I am grateful for the cement barrier between us. I can see your round jeering faces, your red craning necks. I wonder if you think I cannot see you, seeing me.

Today is an unseasonably warm October day, so I wear a sundress because I don’t like to sweat walking to campus. My dress is an appropriate length and it covers my thighs. There is no cleavage, and I wear my hair pulled back in a ponytail. My hair is blonde. I realize it is bright. I realize you can spot it from far away. My hair causes me trouble. I did not spray myself with come hither perfume. I did not wear high heels or coat my face in makeup. Because signals like those are what attract you hecklers, right? Those are the signals that made it ok to say would you look at that fucking ass.

Later, when I am walking alone in my sundress, you beep at me. You beep so loudly and unexpectedly I jump out of my skin. I do not appreciate this. There is just one of you. This scares me more. You pull back around and drive past again. I hover somewhere between sheer terror and abject rage. I am holding a Tupperware container, for Chrissakes, a Tupperware container with remnants from my lunch: quinoa salad. I have the sudden and unexpected urge to throw my eco-friendly Kleen Kanteen through your car windshield. It would make a satisfying sound – loud as a gunshot. I probably couldn’t launch it with enough force or accuracy to shatter the glass, but I’d like to see the look of shock crossing your shadowed face. You all look the same: wolf eyes, hungry open mouths.

However, I was raised to be a polite woman, so I don’t turn around and chase your car screaming motherfucker, which is what I am thinking. Of course it isn’t safe to chase you back. This is unfair. What defense do I have? All I have is the ability to ignore you. I quicken my pace. Mercifully, you don’t come back. You make me feel unsafe on these streets, and for that I hate you. Sticks and stones may break my bones, and your words fucking enrage me.

I am writing this memo to politely request that you get the fucking fuck away from me. I would like to request that when I ride my bicycle you do not come alongside me and say things like you know you beautiful right? I’d suck that pussy. I wonder if you think I will stop what I am doing and acknowledge you. I wonder if you think I will put down my bike, take off my helmet and climb into your car. Will I unzip your pants? Will I let all four of you take a turn with me?

I hope you crash your car into a telephone pole, turning your head trying to look at me. Trying to take what isn’t yours. Trying to take what is not being offered. I hate you, for making me angry.

I wonder who your mother is, and how she allowed her son to grow up to become a heckler. Burn in hell, fuckers. I’d like to kick you in the ball sack.

***

Date: October Fourth, 2014
To: Marcus V. Canner 435 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215
From: Kelsey A. Liebenson-Morse 276 Warren Street Morgantown, WV 26501
Subject: What I Didn’t Say To You & Never Will

Some Time Has Passed:

So maybe I am not as angry as I was a few weeks ago. That’s not true, actually. I am still really, really, angry. When we said goodbye in my parent’s kitchen this past July you looked right at me and said this isn’t goodbye. Why did you lie? Because it was goodbye. Is it fun to be a liar? You said I love you. Why did you bother? Did you mean to entrap me so you could give up on me as soon as I left the state? We knew it would be hard, because distance is hard, you dummy. But you didn’t try.

In my spare time I imagine you finding pieces of my hair all over your apartment, which is likely because I shed a lot. I picture you finding them, crying face-down on your meticulously clean floors or smoking lots of cigarettes even though we quit together. I actually quit. I haven’t cheated once since June. But you cheated a lot of times, even before I left. I should have known you weren’t to be trusted because you couldn’t follow through with a simple promise.

What else do we have to give to each other, but our promises?

I pretend not a single woman will talk to you at your new restaurant, a fancy steakhouse in Midtown. In fact, I imagine no females even come to your restaurant. You are cooking for a constant stream of men. Only men. Manhattan is made up only of men since I left. Anyways, what do I care that you’re going to trendy restaurant openings and glamorous glitzy socialite filled parties? I am down here in West Fucking Virginia trying for all the world to be happy, to avoid getting assaulted when I go running. I bought Mace last week. Mace. I imagine you getting home late, unpacking your groceries from Whole Foods: expensive fair trade coffee, half and half. You sit in silence listening to the ticking clock, missing me. A tear or two escapes. You are wretchedly, desperately lonely without me. The tears slide down your face. Your mouth holds a bitter flavor. Let me tell you, Chef, what you’re tasting is regret.

The Cold Hard Truth:

Remember the time? You were eating gummy bears in bed and one red bear escaped your mouth. When you woke up in the morning, I was gone. The gummy was in my place, like he’d been sleeping, too. We couldn’t stop laughing about it. That’s all you have now, Chef. Memories. Me, and the gummy are gone. Forever. We aren’t the coming back types.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any news to report in terms of dating. So far, so bleak. But I refuse to be deterred, and I remind myself that I did not, I repeat, did not plan on marrying you despite our various conversations about having a family. You said I would be a great mother. Well, duh. Women who have great mothers become great mothers, and you know just as well as I do that my Mom is a great one. Too bad. You snooze, you lose. You let me go, and I am lost to you. Lost without a return ticket. Do I sound melodramatic? Overwrought? I swear I’m not. I accept my nun-like existence and try to come up with reasons why I loved you in the first place.

Tonight, I roasted golden beets and chicken breast. I tried to learn how to French-braid my hair using a YouTube video. Mostly my arms got tired, and the braid kept coming undone, but I’ll keep practicing until I get it right. Tomorrow, I will hunt for new kitchen chairs to strip, sand, and repaint. Something bright, cheery. A fresh coat of paint masking scrapes and burns, covering over markings of the chair’s past life.

Somehow, between trying to stay happy and hating you, I find myself otherwise occupied.

I didn’t bother to say any of this to you, how hurt I was that you let me go so quickly. Love can be filled with trickery and treachery. I was made a fool. But I will survive you, yet. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be in the garden, sitting on my new chair, a striking shade of red

***

Date: October Fifth, 2014
To: New York-The Big Apple-The City That Never Sleeps
From: Former Brooklyn Resident
Subject: I miss you. Please, let me come home now.

Can’t Get You Out of My Mind:

This is the worst breakup I’ve ever had. And believe me, I’ve had some bad ones. The thing is, I can’t get you out of my mind. I can’t watch movies about you. I can’t read magazines talking about anything that’s going on with you. It is obvious you’ve moved on, without me. It’s obvious that you don’t even notice I’m gone.

But I fall asleep at night picturing walking down Fifth Avenue stopping at the pie shop, or walking down to the water, looking across the river at your breathtaking skyline. In my dreams I am riding the train, packed up against a stranger, and I’m so happy-can’t breathe-can’t sleep-can’t eat-I’m just so damn fucking happy to be part of it.

Why Does It Hurt so Bad?

If only you would let me come back. I swear I won’t complain this time about having a college degree and working as a nanny. I won’t say a word about my night job, taking people to their tables at a restaurant. They called me a hostess. I swear I won’t talk about graduate school anymore, or trying to be a writer. If you take me back, I will be yours, faithfully, forever. I’ll do anything you want if you just let me have one everything bagel toasted with cream cheese and one tiny cup of drip coffee. I’d like to go to the library and sit quietly in the stacks. I’d like to walk down the subway stairs to the screeching grinding metal-on-metal. That’s not asking too much, is it?

I’d like to rush down the subway steps, trying to catch the orange F train before the doors slam shut. I fall asleep recalling biking out to Coney Island to watch the ancient Russian men, shirts off, tanning. I fall asleep pretending I can have one single day in which everything isn’t exactly the same as it was, before. I want noise. I want honking, beeping, yelling. Vitality. I want life.

I want to know that it’s all happening, and that I am happening, too.

But I live in West Virginia where everything is slow, backwards, hot. The morning sky is pink, delicate, and I don’t hate everything for thirty seconds before the sun fully rises, illuminating the scarred land-now home.

Cycle Of Love:

I try to recall all the times you slapped me down, tried to break me. All the times I missed my train or walked home in the wrong shoes when it was only seventeen degrees or stood in line for hours to buy a stamp. It didn’t matter how many curveballs you threw at me because I kept fighting. You respected that.

In exchange for all my fighting, you let me call you home, and that kindness I will never forget. I want you to know I won’t give up, until you let me come home. Because the truth is New York-I love you.

What Have I Done?

With a sick jolt I remember I made the decision to leave you. You didn’t make me go. I’ll never forget what it felt like to pack up all my belongings, to close the door to apartment 2M, while you stood by silently. I can’t forget how much it hurt to drive away, leaving your hustle, your bustle, your tall, straight lined beauty.

Leaving you was leaving a party early, when I really, really wasn’t ready to go. I try to comfort myself with remembering all the good times we had. Long, luxurious Sunday brunches, bars with soft orb lanterns, you always meticulously dressed up in your bright lights, putting out your best shows for Christmas, dazzling everyone with your glimmer and magic glow. You know there isn’t anywhere else like you. They mention Paris, but they are fooling themselves. Your security in your own greatness makes you smug. You are magic. You are possibility and hope. You are refuge, fame, fortune and luck. E.B. White wrote about you, no one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky. 

I was so damn lucky. I see it now.


About the Author: Kelsey Liebenson-Morse is currently working on her M.F.A at West Virginia University. She is an amateur baker and avid runner. Most recently her work appears in The Rappahannock Review and is forthcoming in Wraparound South’s “Food and The South” issue.

Artwork: Kristin Williamson 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Comic Strip in Ten Panels by Barry Blitstein

Ignacio Pena_For Blitstein


 

  1. A comic strip in ten panels: In the first panel, there is a crescent moon. In the second, a cow. In the third, the cow spins its tail and inflates its udders. In the fourth, the cow rises and in the fifth, reaches the clouds. In the sixth, the cow appears below the moon; in the seventh, above. In the eighth the moon wrinkles; in the ninth, it pierces an inflated udder and there is an explosion. In the tenth and last, the cow is shown falling through space.
  2. The backstory: When it was a calf this cow experienced a trauma when her father was killed in the bullring. Without advice, without therapy or emotional support, this cow was left to heal as best she could; and she conceived, during this period, which lasted into adulthood, a dream of flight. Through an act of will and a special kind of genius, she discovered that she could make her tail spin like a propeller and her udders inflate with hot air. This made her rise and move low over the meadows, which gave her the serenity she lacked in her daily life. One day on one of her flights, misdirecting her heat energy away from her inflated udders, she farted and rose like a rocket into the upper atmosphere, in the vicinity of the moon in its crescent phase. To the cow’s perpetually fevered brain and inappropriately applied imagination, the moon took on the person of her father, with his horns. As traumatized creatures will, she fell into an obsessive condition which compelled her, at each crescent moon, to fly above the crescent, expressing with all manner of cow noises her love for her father. To call this a habit is to undervalue it. It was one of the great obsessions, to be memorialized in all media from Norse epic to Pixar blockbuster. At last, the cow’s pathetic history reached a newly independent Kyrgyzstan, whose formerly state-owned newspaper soon initiated a popular cartoon series in the first flush of capitalist enterprise.
  3. The Dénouement: Why, then, did the moon act in so reprehensible a manner? I believe, month after month, in all innocence, the moon, being only half-bright, came to think of itself as the cow’s father, a bull. All well and good for the cow, who doubtless sensed the moon’s empathy and bathed in its glow. But one night, the moon rose blue, and in a fit of depressive delusion, saw the cow as a matador and seized the chance to take a father’s revenge for having been lost to his daughter all those years ago.
  4. The Lesson: If you are going to jump over the moon, and you are a cow, make sure you have a cat to comfort and a fiddle to soothe a deranged crescent moon.

About the Author: Barry Blitstein began in theater (MFA); he has lived in New York, The San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles, and Berlin, Germany.  He feels very much at home wherever he is. Most recently his poems have appeared in Off The Rocks, Hartskill Review and The Inflectionist Review. His objective is to make each poem’s form and content inseparable and has no fixed ideas about either.

What Really Happened by Sylvia J. Martinez

Lynae Cook_for_What Really Happened

 


It wasn’t a penny, actually. It was a nickel. But she’d called it a penny. That I’ll never forget.
We’d been walking home from school which at the time for me was Edison Elementary in San Francisco’s Mission District. Our mascot was the “Lightbulb.” I was in the fourth grade, having just transferred from Alvarado where I’d spent second and third grade. At age nine, I’d just gotten tired of the commute. Starting when I was seven, someone would walk me to the bus stop across the street from the library where I would take Muni by myself for a nickel each way, all in the name of education. There was no gifted program at Edison like there had been at Alvarado, but I’d convinced my mom that if she let me transfer back to my local school, I would learn just as much there. I didn’t. What I remember was a wrinkly-faced teacher with bright pink lipstick and yellow teeth having us spend 26 entire days making an alphabet book that was supposed to be for the younger kids at the school. I remember that and a light blue windbreaker I wore every day–it had a lightbulb on the front and made me feel official.

Back to the penny which was really a nickel. I can’t tell you what season it was, but just that it wasn’t raining. I was walking with a fifth grader who often wore knickerbockers. She’d been new that year. I guess since I was kind of new having just returned after a two year stint at a school a bus-ride away, we became friends fast. Oh, it was a fourth/fifth combo class. I was a four, and she was a five.

Strange thing though, is that I can’t remember her first name, but I remember her last name. It was McElravy. She pronounced it Mac-ul-ravy, but my mind would always think Mick-el-ru-vee. To this day, I’ve never met anyone with either name.

From what I do remember, McElravy lived with her mom and her aunt. She’d had a first grade cousin at the school, a red-headed girl named Kay. I don’t know if her name was Kay or if it was just K, short for something, because I never saw her name written.

Kids in 1982 didn’t get bored the way kids do these days. We’d find a stick or a rock or use just about anything to keep ourselves occupied. That day, in 1982, it was a nickel McElravy fished out of her knickerbocker pocket. At some point the nickel fell to the ground. We all scurried to go after it, and the idea for the game was born. McElravy, Kay and I took turns throwing the nickel ahead of us and raced to see who would get it first. Being the old fogeys that we were compared to Kay, eventually McElravy and I got tired of playing and would just throw the coin for Kay. She’d bring it back to us each time, eager for us to throw it again.

During this sidewalk game, we’d talk, I’m pretty sure, about boys. That was the year I had my first crush. His initials were B.S. I would eventually go to my junior and senior prom with B.S. and eventually it would all turn to B.S. Hindsight. I do remember that McElravy liked Henry, and he liked her back. They’d even kissed already. Strange, but his first name I remember. It seemed like a man name to me, and not a fifth grader name, which is probably why it stuck. It’s kind of a stupid thought, as I think about it now, though, because every boy name becomes a man name. Unless there is a tragedy, I guess. Henry and McElravy would even French kiss before the end of fifth grade, and often, which probably made him seem more like a man. I wouldn’t french kiss B.S. until after watching War of the Roses on our first real date when I was 16 and he was 17.

So we’re back to playing fetch with Kay, and it’s hot. Maybe it was during the time of what they used to call Indian Summer. Do they still call it that now? My high school mascot was the Indian, but protesters I never saw made it so that my senior year it was nothing. That made it difficult at cheerleading competitions. Then they became the Cardinals the year I left. Cardinal Summer? My mom would always call the climate of that time of year, “earthquake weather.” 1989 would prove her theory correct, so maybe she was on to something. Or maybe she didn’t start calling it earthquake weather until after that earthquake. Hmm, I’m going to have to call her tomorrow. I do remember that seismic October day being pretty muggy. It’d been like the City had a fever that wouldn’t break. Then it did. I was alone that day, living with my dad by then in the Richmond district because he lived closer to my high school than my mom did. Again with the commute. Again in the name of education. I would spend twenty-two minutes on one bus that moved parallel to the beach instead of an hour on two buses. Most days it was too foggy to see the waves, though. And I probably had a Walkman on and didn’t pay attention to the coastal view, anyway, listening to Phil Collins or Madonna or Lionel. Probably Lionel and thinking about B.S.

So we’re back in 1982, and the nickel clinks on a hill on Guerrero. It’s actually just past Hill Street, so it’s an intersection of hills on Hill. It’s a pretty dangerous intersection, come to think of it. A few years later, I would become a nighttime passenger in a car driven by Carlos Gutierrez who would eventually be my first boyfriend when I was 12 and he was 13. First boyfriends’ full names you never forget. I can’t remember if I was a passenger in that car before or after we became a couple. I do remember him turning right on Hill and Guerrero, though, and a loud honk blared at us in his friend or cousin’s car. There was screeching and fear, but no impact. Neither of us said a word. He had just taken me around the block for a ride, but it wouldn’t be until I was 22 or so that I would get in a car with him again. That time it would be as old friends catching up, with me behind the wheel, listening to his stories of his toddler daughter Stephanie. Or maybe the girlfriend was named Stephanie. I’m pretty sure both mother and daughter names started with an S. And so did mine. Maybe he had a thing for females with curvy esses.

So the nickel that McElravy threw clinked, but then it rolled. It rolled into the hilly, four-lane street with the concrete island on the hot, earthquake weathered day. It’d been a beige Rabbit, not a convertible I’m certain, that drove down the hill that day, the day Kay was hit by a car. The driver stopped, but I can’t tell you if it was a man or a woman, or if it was a man and a woman. But Kay in her red shorts and short-sleeved furry pink sweater set was moaning some way away and was lying in the street, and eventually someone came out and covered her pink and red clothes with a blanket even though it was hot.
The ambulance was called.

I don’t remember us calling it 9-1-1 back then, but I do remember the scene in War of the Roses where the live-in-nanny can’t remember the number to 9-1-1 when the Roses almost kill each other. Or is it when they finally kill each other?

The ambulance arrived. McElravy was scared but not crying, and I was supporting her the way any fourth grader would comfort a fifth grader. I stayed with her until the grown-ups showed up.

I don’t remember how long the rescue of Kay took, or how long it took for her mom and her aunt to get there. But I do know there was a bit of time when McElravy left me to talk to the two adult sisters in a three person huddle.

I stayed. I stayed on Guerrero there to support McElravy on that hill on that hot day in 1982.
Then this: Kay’s mom came over to me and said, “Little girl.” She pointed a rigid finger at me forcefully, what my adult memory knows was her way of restraining herself from striking me. I think “girl” had also been used as a euphemism that day. She continued, “Your penny almost killed my Kay.”

I was speechless. I would eventually learn the word for that moment was flabbergasted. First, I’d wanted to tell her it was a nickel and not a penny. Then I wanted her to know that it was McElravy who’d thrown the nickel, the nickel she got from her own pocket. But McElravy wouldn’t even look at me, what I now know was her feeling a new brand of shame for making me her scapegoat. She was covering her tracks because maybe the pointy finger wouldn’t be restrained on her. Maybe the pointy finger would have become a fist or the holder of a leather belt. And she also knew I wouldn’t tell on her. Because I was a four, and she was a five, and I hadn’t even kissed a boy.
McElravy would speak to me the following morning to let me know she was no longer allowed to hang out with me. I’d been banned. And when Kay’d return to school with a cast on her entire arm or her entire leg a couple days later, I wouldn’t even be asked to sign it. I hadn’t wanted to, anyway. I was so angry in my light blue windbreaker with the lightbulb on it.

At the end of the school year, I saw McElravy graduate from Edison. In knickerbockers. I saw her from my seat in the orchestra below the stage, where we’d played a screechy version of the Star Wars Theme and “Ode to Joy” on school-issued violins.

McElravy saw me minutes after the morning ceremony ended that June day, with her mother and aunt nearby, and she gestured some sort of friendly goodbye. Maybe she’d even said goodbye. I can’t remember. I do remember, though, that I would never see her again.


About the Author: Sylvia J. Martinez has been published in the S.F. ExaminerTattoo Highway, Art From Art (Modernist Press), and Cipactli, among others.  She is currently finishing up an MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University where she is working on her first collection of stories. She grew up in San Francisco and now lives in the East Bay with her husband, two children, and dog.

Artwork: Lynae Cook

 

Dancing the Demons out in DF by Angela Rage

(USE PSEUDONYM)_for_Dancing the Demons Out in DF


It was a Friday night in Mexico City. I had been living in the Distrito Federal, or simply DF, for a year, getting by with several teaching jobs throughout the city. To get to each one I spent over 20 hours using all forms of public transit: the metro, peseros, taxis, the metrobus, the regular buses. If it had wheels, I was fighting the hordes to get on it so I could get to work, and that week I had worked overtime. Demons were crawling under my skin. Tonight I had to dance them out. There was no controlling it, I either danced the electric rage out of my bones or I would spontaneously combust; my muscles didn’t give me a choice. I cast my bait and texted all of my gay friends. One would surely bite. Orlando: no, he was busy. Howard: sorry, out of town. Mark: no response. Finally, a text from Starkey: hell yeah.

Score.

Two hours later, I was exiting the metro with a cheap flask of Jimador tequila in my purse. I hurried my pace through the dark streets of Centro Histórico, not the optimal setting for a petite young woman. Even worse, I had taken out the big guns that night; I was wearing my blue baby doll dress with my hair done up pompadour-style, face armored with fierce cat-eye makeup. I looked good. I navigated myself along the granite walls of the district’s colonial Spanish buildings. The cobblestone pavement had been made damp and precarious by the evening’s rolling showers.

The whole neighborhood was deplete of greenery except for Parque Central Alameda. Adjacent to the park stood the recently renovated Palacio de Bellas Artes, a breathtaking art nouveau opera house capped with three domes colored like reverse tequila sunrises. During the day the front square effervesces with food stands and trinket hawkers. Children chase each other through swarms of shoppers. Bohos sit cozily on the grass taking in the sun and emo delinquents hunch up against the pillars with their cigarettes looking bored. The only people out at that hour, though, were the occasional group of meandering partygoers and solo men cruising for other game contenders for a casual hookup. Peering in that direction of town, I could spy the lone Torre Latinoamericana with its spindly antenna sticking up, threatening to pop the sky. The tower once toted the proud title of Mexico’s tallest building, a considerable architectural feat as it was constructed on an unstable seismic zone. It simply looked anachronistic to me now, stuck in a futuristic past, belonging more to The Jetsons’s Orbit City than to modern DF.

When I arrived at the apartment I found Starkey not at all ready to leave still in his basketball shorts and t-shirt. Typical, I thought. Starkey evaporated into his room after introducing me to his new booga roommate, so I suspected an ulterior motive for his delay. Waiting for the Princess to get ready, I shared an atrocious shot of tequila with his roommate and we chatted about how he, a German, had come to be in DF. By the time he put his hand on mine and told me how cute I was, I was ready to go.

Right on cue, Starkey stormed out with a crisis, “Guys, this is urgent! Okay. Hat or no hat?”

We hit the strip of gay clubs in Centro Histórico, just north of Bellas Artes a few blocks away from Plaza Garibaldi. Our first routine stop was Marrakech, which is without fail jam-packed like a beautiful mosh pit, maybe even as bad as the metro during rush hour. However, instead of savage youths or the bored masses, you’re bumping elbows with scores of stunning young men, essentially an anybody-who’s-anybody type of scene. We hustled our way in to find boys in their tighty-whiteys undulating on the bar. We did our mandatory lap, I almost got in a fight with a guy who pawed at my ass, and we blew kisses to our pal Orlando. After, we hopped to another club across the street where we studied the leather-clad man strippers air pumping to electronic beats. We ordered a few drinks and when our favorite hit spilled from the speakers, it was dancing time.

Watching my friend Starkey dance is like watching a unicorn prance through cloud puffs of cotton candy. He’s a sight to admire. Having grown up in North Carolina, he specializes in J-setting: a cooler, more cheerleader-y vogue with lots of big arm movements and pauses, and of course some sassy swishes of the hip. You’ve gotten a taste of J-setting if you’ve seen Beyonce’s Single Ladies video. What really gets me are the ferosh faces he flashes with every move. He has this great toothy grin, alternating different expressions. Fantastic. With enough booze in us and a steady stream of pop hits, Starkey and I will bring the house down, him swinging his arms around every which way, me all sexy hip swerves and waist. A tepid crowd will suddenly transform into a bedlam of dancing raging all around us. There’s nothing better. Only once we’re drenched in sweat is it time to hit our next spot, Plaza Garibaldi.

Plaza Garibaldi is insane. Imagine a huge courtyard full of mariachis competing to troll out ballads for swaying groups of partiers and hugging sweethearts. They’re decked out in charro suits: tight, compact pants with embroidered serpentine flourishes up and down the sides, black coats, white shirts, and bright handkerchief bowties pouring out of their taut vests. People stream in and out of clubs on the prowl to Plaza Garibaldi, ready for the meat market. There are drinking stations with cheap liquor, micheladas and mixers, venders of chiclets and lighters, men selling roses, and a guy who will electrocute you for twenty pesos as some kind of love test called toques toques. If you can hold onto the electric rods attached to the machine belted to his chest the longest, the more in love you are?

Starkey and I began to make our rounds scoping the sexy vaqueros. But this night it was a no-go. No cute cowboys to harass. Plaza Garibaldi was on a downswing with droves of people slowly emptying out, leaving behind a lot of trash. We were wading in it.

Not known to filter himself, Starkey exclaimed, “This is fucking disgusting!” A group of passing ambulators rubber-necked us with looks of anger.

“I think they thought you were talking about them, Starkey.”

“Well then they’re just fucking stupid. Let them try something.” We stopped and mad-dogged them back, but nothing. Unamused, we continued surveying charro breeches.

And then bam; Starkey flew forward, catching himself just before he ate it face first into the pavement. We both spun around to find an angry little dude from the group before. This was bad because Starkey was MAD and Starkey isn’t small. I didn’t know what the kid was thinking.

“Oh, fuck no. he did not just push me from behind,” Starkey rolled up sleeves ready to pounce. Taking in the gravity of the situation, I pulled Starkey back, jumped in between the two, and pushed the kid.

No estaba hablando de ti, pendejo,” I screamed in his face. Within microseconds, looks of confusion, understanding, and regret registered across his dumb face. He had misunderstood. Starkey wasn’t talking about him. He got it. I kept Starkey back as the kid trudged away.

Irritated, we got out of there to head home, but I remembered there was one last stop to make.

We ended up at in front of a concealed stairway of a rundown building not too far down from the main drag. There was one single rainbow flag hanging limp near the entrance. This was the spot. We ascended into the darkness toward music. Behind a heavy velvet curtain was my favorite trashy bar. We made our way to our seats zigzagging between tables full of people, through the plumes of cigarette smoke heavy in the air, and around the raised dance floor in the middle of the club. We glided by a table of heavily painted-on Amazon diva women with men hovering around like flies.

Guapas, guapas, guapas,” I snapped my fingers as I passed. I had seen them around at other bars before. They smiled back and gave me a little wave of reciprocated recognition.

Music blared from speakers in the corners. I dug this bar for the the music, classic cumbia, and salsa staples: La Sonora Dinamita’s Que Nadie Sepa Mi Sufrir, Elvis Crespo’s Suavamente, Celia Cruz’s La Vida es un Carnaval, Margarita la Diosa de la Cumbia’s Escándalo, Los Ángeles Azules’s Cómo Te Puedo Olvidar. I had a few dances left in me.

The best thing about dancing in DF is that you don’t have to wait but a second to get asked to the dance floor. A good male lead is everything. He’s not too jerky. He doesn’t get too wrapped up in his own machismo and kicks. He leads you slowly, taps your hips, your back, your arm, and your waist ever so gently to signal the direction of the next move, the next turn. And with the right partner, it’s magical.

That night I had found my guy, bald-headed with glasses, dressing sharp. He was spinning me all over the floor. At one point he even spun me off the edge on accident. I crashed onto a table with my dress flying up and my panties showing for everyone to see. A cacophony of laughter and whistles roared up all around me. I gathered myself blushing like a ripe tomato. I laughed it off though and gave them another quick flash of my lacy behind and continued dancing.

Even Starkey joined in at a certain point. The Latin ladies were getting a kick out of his clumsy steps. Salsa wasn’t his forte yet. He got by with flashes of his big smile and a deviously raised eyebrow. Finally down for the count after a series of songs, Starkey and I collapsed into our chairs and clinked our next round of beers together contented.

Then there was an abrupt music change. The tempo slowed. The sound of strings filled the air. The lights darkened. There she was standing in the spotlight. She lifted her microphone to her mouth and began to sing. The crowd erupted in excitement and everybody in the joint sang along. She was a queen, a beauty with broad arms, long blonde hair, perfectly executed makeup that accentuated the contour of her cheekbones, and lots of turquoise eye shadow. Her cobalt blue sequined gown came straight out of a beauty pageant. I recalled the sexy Amazonian trans women I had seen at the front.

Those ladies were the singer’s posse, I realized. They sat cheering her on, throwing flowers as she floated across the floor with arms out and intermittent expressions of anguish, seduction, and torment swaying back and forth. At the dramatic climax in the song, she shook her head in defiance and shot her arm up pointing at the ceiling and bring her hand down into a fist, and then hold herself as if comforting her own suffering. The audience ate it up. Me, I was on my feet bouncing up and down like an excited chihuahua. I love me a beautiful drag queen. It’s a mix of awe, admiration, envy, and desire. I was ecstatic. As her ballad ended, she bowed to the standing ovation, whistles and all, and stepped out of the limelight.

There was another music change, an upbeat tempo. A man appeared in a vest, loose black silky pants, and yes, a luchador mask. He thrust the air with smooth gyrations of his hips. I sat there mesmerized. He turned, slipped off his vest looking to the side sensually, swung the vest above his head flipping it between his legs with a nice grind. He threw it and it disappeared into the crowd. Then the pants were magically off. He was donning a pink thong. Oh my lord. I was crawling on top of my table applauding with ecstasy. And at last there was the grand finale: the thong came off to reveal his delicious bulging apple butt.

The group next to my table called him over to their birthday girl of the night. She screeched with delight and horror as he rolled his naked body against her. I was cracking up as I watched her mortification. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, he was on ME. I had a butt-naked stripper on me. It was an out-of-body experience, like a whirlwind of manic giggling, shocked shrieks and squeals, and a whole lot of cocoa butter.

After he finished and grabbed his clothes from the floor, Starkey and I settled down and decided to finish our beer and get the hell out of there. But before we could manage, a muscular man in a black pants and a buttoned up shirt with a little chest showing came up to me and asked me to dance. Why not?

            Bachatta, which is typically more slow and sexy than other Latin dances, was playing. The man and I immediately got close, so we could feel each other’s rhythms and motions. His firm muscles pressed against me through his dress shirt as we moved. His shoulders, his arms, his back, everything was rock solid. And he could move. I lost myself again for a moment dancing and getting into it, but with the change of song, I became sharply aware of how hot we were becoming and realized that this innocent dance had turned into something a bit more intimate than I could handle at the moment. His massive sensuality intimidated me. Panicking, I thanked him, pecked him on the cheek, and hurried back to the table. The crowd swallowed him up behind me.

Starkey immediately barraged me with questions. “What did he say? Did you get his number? He was sexy. Why didn’t you go home with him?”

I was still taking in what had just happened. “Who was that guy?” I muttered.

“The stripper, you idiot.”

What? That sexy man of bodaciousness was the stripper???…. OF COURSE he was the stripper, I thought, face-palming myself. I scanned the room in search of my Cinderella. He had disappeared. I was half disappointed, but frankly, half relieved too. I didn’t know if I could handle all that man.

With enough excitement for one night, Starkey and I finally departed. Daylight was already falling upon us, menacing us with the ominous reality of having to be self-sufficient adults. I still managed to get in a fight with an annoying chiclets vendor on our walk home though, and Starkey managed to pick up a cute cholo from Tijuana. When we stumbled into the apartment, I left the lover boys to their roll in the hay in Starkey’s room and lay down on the couch. The sun had just begun to creep through the blinds. Gleeful squeals faintly seeped through the walls. I closed my eyes. What a night.


About the Author: After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2010, born and bred California girl, Angela Rage, has successfully evaded reality by trotting across the globe from Mexico all the way to South Korea teaching EFL. What she’s really passionate about, though, is creative nonfiction. Being one of six girls, she enjoys writing about her crazy family and their current crisis of the week. As of late though, she has pivoted her focus to travel writing with her blogs, jejujive.wordpress.com  and chileongringa.wordpress.com.

Artwork: B.F. Pullman

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

 

 

Flagstaff by Tony R. Rodriguez

destiny


I pull into Flagstaff where I-17 merges into South Milton Road, just near Northern Arizona University. I think of my studies at San Francisco State University. I think of my various courses analyzing American Literature. My eyes then spy across the campus of Northern Arizona, and I see a name on one of the university’s buildings. It says “Philosophy” in large black font. For some odd reason I think of the concept in modern philosophy known as “Speculative Realism.” I was introduced to this philosophy at SFSU.
     My mind shifts.
    Feeling a bit hungry, I stop off at a Chipotle Mexican Grill near the corner of South Milton Road and South Plaza Way. I enter the restaurant and move to the side of the line before I order. I call Pearle again. No answer on her cellphone or home phone. I leave another message on her home machine.
   Grilled chicken burrito with white rice and black beans, roasted chili-corn salsa, sour cream and cheese, with a three-finger pinch of additional cilantro.
     I take my time eating.
     I ponder my entire trip thus far.
     I think about Theo and my job situation.
    What should I do now?
    I exit Chipotle and sit in Shadowfax, dazing off for a while. It’s now a little before 8:00. The rays of sun are now only spare shards of gold, a remnant of solar rays offering their last direct collection of radiant pulses. The exodus of light will soon engulf all in a beautifully poetic way, the moon providing the only brilliant light to be digested by the human eye. I take out my laptop and begin editing the twenty-three pages of prose I’ve conducted thus far in my road trip memoir. My edits are focusing on shortening my non-poetic sentences of passable length, chipping away at failed adjectives and adverbs and the laughable syntax I vomited on the screen in certain sections.
    My iPhone goes off. Theo’s calling. It’s close to 8:45. The sun is long gone. I pick up the phone and stare at the screen. I don’t think I love him. Then I put my smartphone down and stare at its screen. Theo doesn’t leave a message. I try Pearle again, leaving another message on her home phone, and then my first message on her cellphone messaging system.
     Screw it.
    I drive around aimlessly, all throughout Flagstaff: down Route 66; to South Woodlands Village Boulevard; down South Plaza Way; then up on South Yale Street; east down South Mertz Walk; then into bizarre patterns of road I’ll choose to pass on sharing. I wander stupidly.
     I find myself back on South Milton Road, somewhere near a gas station. I pull into the gas station parking lot off to the side, just near the water and air pumps. A drunken Native American approaches Shadowfax with slow, draggy steps. He’s about twelve feet away. He begins blathering incoherent nothings. I immediately wonder if I am foolishly mistaking his drivel for perhaps his native tongue. After about ten seconds of trying to comprehend his rambling poppycock, he drags his bitter legs a few feet closer. I become uneasy. This man is smashed. He then groans his inebriated nothings toward me as I choose to roll-up all of the windows. I turn away and pretend I’m working on my laptop. He then hauls himself to Shadowfax and starts tapping softly on my driver-side window, babbling out more of his dribbled words never to be recognized by coherent English speakers.
    He shows me his hands which appear to house deep lacerations still struggling to heal. They’re infected and perhaps induced by hard manual labor.
    He begins banging hard on my window, still spilling out his incomprehensible woes.
     I start Shadowfax and slowly drive away, seeing him in the rearview mirror.
    What the hell?
    It’s about 9:30 when I reach an America’s Best Inn just at 910 South Milton. I pull in the parking lot. I need a place to stay just in case Pearle flakes on me. I park Shadowfax and enter the office. I instantly become friendly with the motel manager, a young man named Malik Sharma. He tells me many things. We get to talking about politics and religion. I know nothing, so I choose to remain quiet as he lectures about our nation’s current state of affairs—national debt, foreign enemies, the Second Amendment, and on and on.
     I notice framed pictures on his wall of quasi-famous people who’ve stayed at his inn. I offer Malik a headshot and some business cards—and he promises he’ll display them immediately on his counter, then later frame the headshot and put it on his wall. He asks me to sign the headshot.
     I do.
    He then shoots me a few names of hip dives in the area.
    I’m not staying in.
    I go to one named Bun Huggers Lounge nearby on South Milton Road. One of the locals, a beautiful dirty blonde college girl, a student at the university, tells me they have great burgers. I order a beer, pass on a burger, and soon meet a guy named Henry, a decent looking fellow in what seems to be his mid-thirties, regal face. We start talking. I’m taking small sips of my beer while Henry throws back his rounds like a sexually-repressed groomsman during a Las Vegas bachelor party peep show. He’s not flirting with me. He’s just talking to me. I think he just needs someone to confide in. Something might be going wrong in his life. He stops ordering drinks for himself. We then share moments of stale silence. He then dissolves the silence and asks if I’d like to have a cigarette outside the bar to help him sober up. I don’t smoke. But I go anyway. Gentlemanly, he escorts me outside of the bar, just in front of the main entrance. He puts a cigarette to his lips and then puts his right arm around me. I push him away and tell him I have a boyfriend. He starts laughing with his unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. He calls me a dirty little dyke. He tells me that I’m a liar. He says my boyfriend is stupid for letting me out alone. I get nervous. Someone may hear this confrontation. I storm directly toward Shadowfax, get in and lock the doors and drive out of the parking lot.
    I make my way back to the inn, trying to avoid being seen through the front office window by Malik. But he sees me anyway. We make eye contact. I notice he has already set up my headshot and my business cards on his counter. He quickly pokes his head out of the front office door and shouts at me.
    “Did you enjoy yourself?”
    “Great.”
     I give him a comedic salute and wave goodbye.
    Where’s Pearle?
    I grab my duffle bag and laptop from Shadowfax and enter my room, heading straight for the bathroom where I turn on the lights and drop to the floor, my knees before the toilet—the toilet seat is down. I cry and cry. I check my iPhone and see that I have no missed calls. I open Facebook—and then close it immediately. Leaving the bathroom, I toss my body onto the queen-sized bed and cry some more, punching my fists at the pillows, wiping my tears on the comforter. I become restless. I think of many things.
    I speculate my reality.
   I flip on the television and fumble through the channels until I reach HBO, which just so happens to be showing the 1999 hit literary film Wonder Boys. Nearing the end of the film my eyes become sleepy, and I’m about to gently float away to the netherworld of dreams where I’m free to imagine that I’m a Wonder Boy type of writer, one who may get discovered by a much larger audience.
    And so I’m dreaming—again.


About the author: An East Bay native, Tony R. Rodriguez works the dance floor pretty hard. His novel Under These Stars, excerpted here, is published by Beatdom Books. 

Artwork: Destiny Silva is an artist, she lives in The East Bay. She enjoys stencil art, music, night photography & poetry.

On Escape Never Being that Simple by Phillip Kobylarz

old pic for K
OAKLAND AT DAWN

from Dimestore Paperback Memories

    Winter is a mystery that can happen in a day. Never has there been a consummation or ceremony that doesn’t in some way symbolically involve snow, ice, frozen clouds of respiring weather. Virgin snow. Fresh-driven snow. Snow that at first falls miraculously, this Wonderful Life-ly, then after days and years of it, in a sheet that deadens. A white sheath that hides the corpse from what we want to see. An end to it all. What most taboos are: what we know most intimately. Great advice: paint it white. Satanicly so.
     Winter in the midwest plain sucks. Winter is a form of killing. After it’s initial planetarium laser show of making everything in the real, perceptible world all of a sudden outlined, it’s an endless, barely ebbing tide of sorrow that causes most living creatures to feel depressed, to sit back moodily, to seek the consolation of milk or ice cream, or to lay back in wooden-framed chairs whose cushions are over worn as to allow the mind to forget about the body and boringly, emotionlessly, ponder. Winter is deadsville. To willingly spend an entire winter in a place that has true winters, north of the Mason-Dixon Line, is a way to torture the mind into believing that martyrdom is truly an option. Winter is expressively for to suffer the slings and arrows of mental sadomasochism.
     And it’s not like winter sports are a lingering hobby one can pursue. To what to wit: snowmobile luxuriously over the tundra, cross country ski oneself into a coronary in the woods, perhaps ice fish into ecstatic reverie all the while trembling with glee or frostbite. Although to watch a game of hockey in a dark basement tavern where they have an air hockey table and a slide-a-shuffle-board-puck-at-bowling-pins bowling game, might be near fun’s essence. There comes a time, after the appreciation of condensation arrays itself frozen and solid, that leads all that is animate to utter stillness, which leads to a letter drawer’s opening and it’s shutting to occur obsessively and the glint of the letter opener scintillate menacingly. Winter leads one to travel up and down stairs in a house repeatedly for a semblance of travel, it leads one to the damp basement to inventory a collection of soda pop cans hidden for future consumption. It leads one to stare repeatedly and for hours into the refrigerator hoping that by doing so somehow the behavior will accumulate into the appearance of a fresh, authentic Mediterranean dish. Winter also leads one to the most futile behavior of all, the one that looks most like a coma enjoyed: reading and writing.
     As in any place distant from spot lit reality, where there are horrors. Even in the spotlight, where there are televised bank robberies, suicides by cop, more murders than can be cynically considered population control, and in this great land, hourly vents of evil instantly morphed into media just as the weather is endlessly gossiped about and made out to be an adversary. Turn on coverage of your local war. Winter is the same thing. A battle that can never be won. A time beared with. Only the fools pretend to enjoy it. Never forget the core of Dante’s hell was frozen over.

     Winter brings back stories of memories better left unremembered. What the world doesn’t ever need to know about is Scotty who lived in a low-rent, colonial façaded apartment building on a hill, more of a mound of dirt behind a convenient store. It was near the gully of the always trickling crick bed, near University avenue, near Eleanor L.’s house that was built by her father out of varnished wood and weird in the style of modern architecture, like museums or gas stations are: blocky and low. Scotty lived pretty much alone because his mother was a nurse to old people. He was a kid of 13.
      The first principle irony of his situation was that his sister, who looked vaguely oriental, was retarded and confined to a wheelchair. She was really Hispanic. Her body was wracked by genetics gone cruel but not unusual. She drooled and wore the same dark blue/ white flower dress for days in a row. It was kind of cool that she always smelled like a baby. She said that it was her favorite dress, but we knew better, when we could understand her, sometimes she tried to take it off and show us, or really anybody, her clean underwear. She could kind of talk and you knew what she meant by how she made noises and faces and moved her arms about. When she wasn’t trying to talk, she mostly drooled and smiled. Not much drool.
     One day when we were eating chunky peanut butter on spoons in his apartment and watching cartoons, Scotty said that she liked to do this thing. I said what? Scotty said yeah she liked to have it done to her because she saw it once on t.v. and since then she moves up and down and makes funny noises weirder than the ones she usually makes, like cows mooing, and she tries to point and she touches herself. Scotty said that if I wanted to I cold do anything I wanted to her, just as long as he could watch, as long as I helped him clean her up afterwards. Put her dress back on right. I didn’t know what he meant but it made my peanut butter spoon taste like a mouthful of saliva just before you’re going to throw up. He said if we wanted to since there was two of us we could even take her out of her wheelchair. She was looking at me and trying to smile. Her name was Angeline. Then Scotty tried to convince by saying that she really did like to do the thing because they did it all the time. Sometimes this is how life welcomes you to the age of twelve.
      I told him I had to go home. I ran all the way there, up the hill of a place they called “Tanglewood”. I ran until I could drive a car. I ran for three years. I ran until I was enrolled in Driver’s Ed.

     There’s nothing more essential to youth than driving a car. Especially if it’s an American muscle car, the height of motorized nirvana. In contemporary society, there’s a huge selection of the exact same rounded, easy to drive teardrop-shaped vehicles, in various sizes featuring pretty much sameness on wheels. Who knows why there is a market for complete lack of style/personality, no angulation, no prominence, no rugged individuality in a vehicle’s shape anymore.
     Back when cars were cars and what a person drove was taken for granted as their commentary on what life means, rather than the status level they thought they had achieved, there was one car in particular. There was one car that defined what it meant to be young and alive in a certain era and to remember that era and drive it around a decade and a half later. There was one car that had a style all its own. There was once a midnight blue 1966 Pontiac Tempest.
     Slick, like a dark shark. Couch-like vinyl front seats, front and back. The back seat was everybody’s dream of a mobile bedroom. Its trunk was everybody’s dream of a bash in the making: big, so big that it could easily haul up to three kegs. Big enough to comfortably smuggle two people into the drive-in. Even on a hot night. The vehicle was the devil in mechanical disguise.
     Designed for the appearance of flight, it had wings that took the shape of fins or horns. Giant lightning bolts of metal that tapered into glowing jets of propulsion turn signals. It’s front looked like a portrait of a partially insane bee, or a hornet having a bad day, or a basking whale from a robotized planet, or even maybe an angry Mig-27 winking.
     Sacral, purity of chrome everywhere. Bumpers, trim, wheel covers. Swords of windshield wipers. The hood was so wide and slate-like that the car felt and looked and drove like the prow of a boat, or submarine. Sadly, it was an automatic, but it still could easily lay a patch and rush the senses with that airplane-taking-off-acceleration feel. Its straight six cylinder had enough power to impress if not to drag race. No one back then dragged anyway, except in b-movies.
     Other kids who were secretly jealous of my set of wheels called it the Bat Mobile. Nothing wrong with that. Kids with faster cars– Cameros, Challengers, Mustangs– they made fun of it because it was a cool beyond what they had learned. They’d forgotten it their cars were the little brothers of the GTO.
     It was a dream machine. Prometheus’ chariot with an AM radio. Turn signals that sang “I’m on, I’m on, I’m on.” A speedometer and dashboard that read like very old wind-up alarm clocks. So much room that driving it felt like piloting a Barcalounger made of steel. The worst thing about having owned this car, having driven it, having to have sold it when it was impractical to take it to college with me, is that when a similar one drives by every six months or so, bringing back its shadow from oblivion and rust, a headless horseman behind the wheel, the memories it leaves plowed in its in tow. The memories it churns in its tail fins. The memories a car can possess and drive away with, forever.
     Simple escape. The opposite of a wheelchair. The opposite of winter. The opposite of the aftertaste of guilt.

     It is a place called Jubilee. A series of riverine bluffs and hillsides masquerading as a park, contained. Concealed within its treelines are buildings of an old abandoned pioneer college building that’s now attended to by a few women and by some park rangers who have nothing better to do than engulf themselves in the smell of old wood rotting and stacks of Readers from the nineteen twenties, bound by string and ties of leather shoelaces, while their pages tether away like lost butterfly wings in the last full days ofany season. Women and men in their early twenties, thirties and forties who have given up on anything that might resemble success or fame. Men and women whose skin is so pale and faded, who have glass bead clear liquidy eyes, whose hands and feet are so hard-worked that their fingers and toes are permanently chapped pink. People whose job it is to tend to history, to remember and record, to whom we should ask questions but we never do. People who are the most real people of us all. And we rarely see them.
     They are in places like where what is mostly heard is birdsong. So far off the highway, the highway itself surrounded by rolly-polly farmland, and if they are not living history cemeteries these villages that call themselves cities, then the cemeteries that encircle them staffed with way too many Voorheeses to even be mildly funny, then what is?
     It is this place called Jubilee. It of course has its own turn of the century cemetery. Defined most notably by its wrought iron fence that introduces the ruin of the college’s founder’s house, wherein lived his wife and who knows how many mistresses (they have secrets that if we make them up, they had been already been true) in a typically Midwestern gothic existence. Trees, mostly oak but some cedar, dripping with vines, a tendril transplanted from a patch of green from Louisiana. Fence now tilting once painted blue now painted (badly) black, leaning in its attempt to hold down a plot of land. Failing to do so. Rolling into the netherworld of the woods.
     It is and has been a place where for centuries young people come to consummate their lust. The ritual probably originated in a spring school picnic. In sixth grade, classes from the local private religious schools were taken out to Jubilee for lunch and afternoons of baseball or hiking or doing whatever could be done while being monitored by apathetic teachers, some of them young enough to feel the yearn of the season.
     Always, every year, there would occur an unstoppable water balloon fight between boys and girls. The reason this happened was obvious to everyone involved. Amateur wet t-shirt contests. The hormonal soup we rained upon each other was a blessing with no disguises. Near strip tease shows in white button downs and Polos.
     Makes sense to return to the very locale where Lisa M. was chased into the park service’s women’s bathroom. To hunt her down for nailing you on the top of your head with a fat round light blue balloon thus wiping out your hair thus making you look like a wet dog, flat-headed fool, fag. Oh the infamy of it. Her saddle shoes a blur of zebra skin. Sweet cherub laughter when you tackled her in the crispy autumn leaves.
      Lisa M. . . . a brown-haired, olive-skinned maiden of fair-weather Lebanon. The first crusade of Prince Lionheart. We return to our victories and defeats as if they were cathedrals built over springs of emotion. Waterfalls of memory lost somewhere in the forests that surround. Look around in them and you’ll find nothing and some of its traces. Empty beer bottles, some paper burnt, the key to a house that no longer even stands. Baseball cards with their quartzified pink tongues of gum. Simple apothecaries of believing, especially ingesting anything for the reality it promises. A gram of memory, or a memory gram.
     On the hillside of the tiny cemetery, shaded place in a bed of leaves fallen last fall, above the creek that ran so clear it was believed to be a spring that paused for a moment where a tree had toppled over some rocks (or were they blocks of concrete?) into a pool. Pausing into pools of each other. Another wicked writhing.
     The innumerable number of these places in an America that is sprawling out of control. What is created is living cemeteries of strip mall mortuary. Inside of which anything can be acquired for a small fee. No one realizing that a purchase is a transaction– a form of trade– giving something for something else, bills and coinage for some equally useful or useless object, or service, or trademarked illusion. That what it is isn’t about anything at all, the sell of absence, the purchase of nothing, and the strip malls keep encroaching and promising the end of architecture as an act of aestheticism. The vision is simple and even scarier than that at the end of the Planet of the Apes. Badlands. An abandoned K-Mart, its door swinging open. From inside, the sound of clean version music. Behind it, a garbage dump of a Walden eroding into sunset.
     But before this happens everywhere, back to Jubilee. A patch of forgotten valley and woodland. Nothing special. A meadow off a small, cracked up and tarred back together blue-grey highway. Forgotten to time, it forgets time too and grows vines and vines of itself, dirt and hillock on which trees grow. And worms eat everything below. Including bones and secrets. The produce section of carnality. A branch creaking in the wind.

     On a lighter, more airy note. Driving a car at night to the weave of loose gravel white rock road in the farmlands was the perfect way to try to find and race UFOs. With a six pack on the floor ready to be opened and nursed into empty aluminum can oblivion. Unlike the mythical, government sponsored sightings in New Mexico or Colorado or Arizona where there’s so many air force bases that it’s pretty obvious what’s going on, here, in the farmlands, who knows what’s up?
     They cross the skies almost every night, especially when you aren’t looking, but then nothing escapes the corner of the eye. This was way before some idiots in England went out to fields and made landing patterns that are so totally fake. This is before that. This is when life from other realms actually used the anonymity of cornfields and forest ravines and riverbeds as rest stops for their summer vacations. Complete seclusion. Far from big cities.
     To track them all one needs to do is to drive out to the square-grided country roads of farmland, past the city’s limits, their outer limits, and keep driving, while sipping and looking up. It’s pretty hard to get lost and quite easy to not be found.
     You roll the windows down, put the heat on low, turn the radio on even if it only plays AM. Then you go get one of your best friends at the time so that he or she will open and serve you a beer while you both slowly move through the night, looking up, illuminated only by the headlights and dashboard’s dusty glow. With luck, the local police won’t pull you over on your way out of town, after having shone a light into the vehicle, having seen arms gone akimbo in an attempt to hide the beverage in question, then pull you over for a lecture and a bottle emptying party. Just in case, as a big boy scout, you must be prepared.
     Gently, secretively, as a gourmand might sip at a glass of Château Neuf du Pape 1912, you, holding a bottle between your legs pssssshsssst it open and taste in gradually larger and larger fizzy, wretched, tin-tasting gulps, and becoming slightly more and more buzzed while piloting. Incremental bliss.
     In small amounts, two to three cans of the ass-cheapest you rationalize as economical and drinkable, known as bottom of the barrel, completely overlooking the taste found in Mexican, European, or Japanese brews, you sip a liquid that tastes of bread, burnt and liquefied.
     Driving through big scary weed trees, wild roses, fields of yellowing corn in a late summer, hearing the static of 1970s hits on WIRL and laughing about anything that isn’t even funny. Driving slowly into fogginess under a clear blue ocean sky of lightning bugs and stars, looking up above in silent wonderment. What were those occasional moving lights? Falling stars or meteorites crashing out of sight like we eventually would, like our dreams and songs of illusion never brought to a boil. Looking for tracers of ourselves who have passed and are incapable of remembering their one time famous gigs as stardust.


About the author: Philip Kobylarz is a teacher and writer of fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays. He has worked as a journalist and film critic for newspapers in Memphis, TN. His work appears in such publications as Paris ReviewPoetry, and The Best American Poetry series. The author of a book of poems concerning life in the south of France, he has a collection of short fiction and a book-length essay forthcoming.

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.

 

The Tricycle by Stephen D. Gutierrez

prints


        My dad picked up the tricycle for me from the Martinez’s around the corner.  I was afraid for him because my dad was sick, and the Martinez’s were tough, and I feared something wrong happening, something violent, something bad.  I watched him walk out of our yard through the gate at the sidewalk and limp across the street with the orange sunset filling up the ivy embankment of the Long Beach Freeway that slanted before him, filling it up in squares and chunks of orange, and below it, my dad an insignificant figure.  I kept my eye on him, my dad making his way to that weedy, overgrown yard where my tricycle lay on its side next to the older brother’s bike, who said he was keeping it, come and get it if I wanted it.  So I left.
        I had come home in tears.  And now my dad was on his way there in the pre-dinner hour when the street quieted and nobody went outside but for trouble.  I saw it that way.  I had seen a fight in the street once.
        But now my dad came back with my tricycle dragged in his hands, half-rolling, half-carrying it.  And he lifted it over the white picket fence that ran along the front of our small house in Los Angeles.  And he opened the gate and limped up the walk and made it to the front door.  He wiped his shoes on the mat and came in.
        “I got your bike.  Mr. Martinez was nice.  He said why didn’t you take it home?”
        I couldn’t tell him any of it.  I just turned away with a broken smile.


Author Bio: Stephen D. Gutierrez is the author of The Mexican Man in His Backyard, Stories & Essays, recently published by Roan Press. His two previous books are Elements and Live From Fresno y Los, which won the Nilon Award sponsored by FC2 and an American Book Award, respectively. He is well published in anthologies and magazines in both creative nonfiction and fiction, and has had award-winning plays produced. He teaches at California State University East Bay. Learn more about him at stephendgutierrez.com.

Artwork: Dan Stuckey is a Bay Area graphic designer and screenprint artist. For more visit www.dstuck.com.

 

Ten Dollars and Detroit by Kenneth Radu

Kolongowski_The Ambassador Bridge_FOR RADU


Our friendship occurred years before Detroit burned. Years later I learned the word that describes what my best friend liked doing to me, or perhaps doing to himself. A telephone pole may have served as well, although now I understand that something like willing flesh was his preferred choice. I never said no, although willing may be overstating it, but he was my necessary friend, and his father lived in Detroit, the fabulous city across the river from Windsor. Whatever he wanted, I wanted, or at least, swilling in a hot fudge of emotions, allowed. Friends were hard to come by, and his father, a big man about town, so Daniel kept repeating, drove his Detroit boat of car over the Ambassador Bridge or through the Windsor-Detroit tunnel under the river on his monthly visit. When he stepped out of his white Cadillac convertible in his black suit, he stood bulky and tall, his eyes always hidden behind dark glasses with gold threads in the frame, rings flashing on several fingers as he opened his wallet to give a substantial allowance to his son, and Daniel disappeared for a day after winking at me. Left on the curb I caressed the shark fins of the car and wondered how many Detroit dollar bills made a wallet fat.

My large family (parents, six siblings, boarders) managed their chaotic lives in shabby houses, one not far from the open-air market where farmers sold their produce of the season, clucking chickens in wire and wood cages, hunks of bloody meat dripping like truncated corpses from terrifying hooks, and carp gasping in a barrel of water, which they’d kill by slamming a wooden mallet over their heads on a butcher’s block. People travelled from Detroit to shop at the Windsor market where Daniel and I often wedged ourselves between shoppers, looking out for the opportune moment to snatch fruit off a farmer’s stall on a Saturday morning. You could always tell Detroiters: something about the way they took possession of public space with their movie clothes, relaxed gait, twangy voices proclaiming the merits of peaches and potatoes, excessive friendliness with people they didn’t know from Adam, and money that all looked the same. Canadian money had a different colour for each denomination, including an orange two-dollar bill, terra cotta to be accurate, but my youthful perception couldn’t distinguish the difference.

In those days the words coloured and Negro were common, not Afro-Canadian or Afro-American. Or black, a term sometimes heard in the background, usually with pejorative intent, but not gaining general favour until the Black is Beautiful mantra repeated throughout the sixties. Because I hankered after Daniel and followed his lead wherever he chose to go, he was beautiful in my eyes—although I’m sure I wouldn’t have expressed my feelings in those terms. Because his father glinted in the sun and amazed me with cash and rings, I believed that Detroit was populated with beautiful black people, more beautiful than Windsor’s coloured people in my neighbourhood who were as poor as my parents and got clothes from the St. Vincent de Paul outlets or the reduced to clear bargain basement bins. My boyfriend Daniel, often sporting outfits from Detroit, was therefore beautiful. His father was beautiful. The Americans who came to the market, white and black, seemed to me easy and lovely, if also loud, and semi-divine: if not immortal, at least enlivened by good fortune. They lived in Detroit! I didn’t regard myself as beautiful—although during puberty, like every boy I became self-conscious about the shape and independent urges of my body.

Of course, other words could be ripped out of the lexicon of racism, and I remember when some kids called my sister a nigger. I never really understood the word, but knew it was so insulting and wrong that I blushed when boys in the schoolyard spat it out like diarrhea in a parking lot. Had they no manners? Were they brought up in a cowshed? We were all poor, yes, but my mother had warned me often enough, “If I ever hear you talk like that….” Well, you get the picture. Daniel, whose mother was white, hated the word, and once smacked me hard. We were tussling in the kitchen and he hurt me, so I threw it like a stone at his head. The look on his face made me fold into a cringe and I accepted his mother’s slap as just and proper, the sense of humiliation so deep I could hardly walk home, but I never used the word again. Following Daniel around after school the next day like a remorseful dog on a leash, wondering what he was thinking because he didn’t say much, tolerating my companionship, I remained silent, afraid of my own speech. I learned then not only how words could make the mind bleed and the heart sore, but also how I could never really get inside Daniel’s skin and feel the world the way he did.

Everyone was poor on my street and I was old enough then to understand the limitations of poverty. Poor but not like The Waltons. No wise elders spouted philosophical insights or consoling anodynes from their rocking chairs on porches. Fuck, bugger, bitch, cocksucker, get your shit outta here, fucking bastard, ass wipe: I heard those a lot, but like Oliver Twist did not repeat obscenities. The turmoil and rages of family life kept most of the neighbourhood kids out of doors and away from our overworked and underpaid parents. I don’t remember anyone spending much time in front of their black and white television sets with rabbit ear antennae. Our playgrounds were the streets, hydro fields, railway tracks, parking lots, alleys and riverbanks opposite the looming city of fables and big men. Because of Daniel’s Dad, I associated Detroit with rich people, oblivious to its actual economic conditions and racial tensions. Didn’t his father drive a Cadillac and own a fat wallet? Couldn’t I see phenomenal buildings thrusting up and bursting through the clouds, a city of great fortunes and Pashas on silken pillows? I didn’t know any wealthy people in Windsor, but of course they existed, just not in my neighbourhood or fields of investigation.

When not in school, I belonged to Daniel, he owned me. Often we climbed through broken windows into the abandoned house redolent with the stench of mouldy carpets, cat piss, clogged drains, and emptied bottles of drugstore rubbing alcohol consumed by hobos, rubbydubs as they were locally called, who often squatted in the premises until chased off by police. We explored the rooms, stripped water-stained paper off the walls, or wrestled in a second floor bedroom where a rusty bedspring leaned against one wall. He always wanted to win and get on top of me. And that’s where Daniel acted out his erotic urges and expanded my vocabulary although he didn’t use the word. He forbade anyone, even his mother, to call him Danny which he claimed was “a fucking baby’s name,” and he “wasn’t no baby.” He got me in a sleeper hold, wrapped his legs around my thighs to immobilize resistance as he manipulated my body flat down to the splintered hard wood floor. He rubbed against my buttocks or thighs or up and down my prone body. I could feel the boner under his jeans. Uncomfortable and hurting, anxious and close to panic, I nonetheless did not yell out. His breathing became faster and shorter, more like miniature explosions as intermittent syllables of broken words, the occasional fuck and yeah blurted out of his mouth, as he pressed and rubbed, then stiffened, shuddered, tightened his clutch around my neck as if he wanted to choke me to death, and came in his underwear. Frottage.

He rolled off and I remained face down, watching a spider tumble about a dust ball, uncertain of what I was feeling, but knowing from the sound of Daniel’s voice that he was happy. I remember wanting to call him Danny then, but I dared not rub him the wrong way and risk his rage. His hand on my buttock, he announced that his dad was coming for his monthly visit tomorrow, and I could stop by to see the Cadillac if I wanted, but I wasn’t to say anything about what just happened. He knew I liked it, didn’t I? I said yes, but I wasn’t certain what it was I liked. I didn’t have a boner myself on this occasion although I had been masturbating for a year already, had seen sexual episodes of one kind or another, so I knew what pleasant sensations a boner could lead to.

When we stood side by side on the river banks at sunset, watching the last rays of the sun splatter in ethereal rose and gold against the Detroit skyscrapers, particularly the Penobscot building rising above the dirty water like a Martian tower in a comic book, my face flushed and my breathing labored like Daniel’s during an episode of frottage. My mind stupid with fantasies, I wanted something to happen without fully knowing what. My hands delved into my pockets. Detroit gave me a boner. In my searches through paraphilia fixations, I have never come across a word to describe the erotic fascination a pubescent boy might develop for the unattainable city, a kind of longing for an ill-understood, maybe illicit paradise causing a hard-on. The immensity of the city stretched as far as the eye could see on the riverbank opposite, its cosmic splendor at night infiltrating my imagination and wet dreams of girls I knew in my class, especially red-haired Sophie who always wore huge ribbons pinned on the top of her head. Not only girls, but Daniel as well, and Batman who swooped me up between the towers that became a mesmerizing blend of Metropolis and Gotham City. Both Daniel and I ate up Batman and Superman comics although I retained a secret love of Classics Illustrated that I sometimes stole from the corner store. They cost more than Batman. Gulliver or Crusoe or Quasimodo, however, didn’t give me wet dreams.

In addition to plentiful cash and fancy clothes (I never met a poor person, black or white, from Detroit), I believed that Detroit had something to do with the unspoken and forbidden, the daring and even the criminal. Aside from shoplifting trinkets from the local Kresge’s or Woolworth’s and sneaking into the movies, I couldn’t define what the criminal meant. Snitching plums off a farmer’s stall or sneaking into a movie didn’t count, for that is what boys did. Perhaps Daniel’s father had something to do with the criminal, and I fell into his son’s way of admiring the big man from the big city across the river. Put a cape on his back and he’d be our very own Super Hero. Wondrous in his abilities, Superman nevertheless always seemed to me a kind of soft man, a marshmallow on steroids, a word unknown to me then, an essentially mild-mannered Canadian (Clark Kent) who wouldn’t look at you cross-eyed or take you into abandoned houses for a private wrestling match. Did he even get boners? It’s surprising to learn that the Canadian Joe Shuster, co-creator of the American hero, also produced a series of erotic sadomasochistic illustrations and stories (e.g. Nights of Horror, c. 1954). Unlike Superman, Batman simmered with subterranean passions and belonged to the night of the city, much like Daniel’s father who was as big as the dark, caped, masked superhero.

Daytime Detroit meant music studios, thousands of workers in busy car plants, baseball games, and cross border shoppers. Even in Windsor when Daniel and I bought cherry cokes, we inserted our nickels and dimes in a jukebox attached to the wall over each booth to hear music produced in Detroit studios. Daniel’s father owned a nightclub, so he said, which the son was forbidden to enter, and the father never went to bed before dawn, because “he had things to do after midnight,” the things never explained. Daniel’s conspiratorial whisper persuaded me that he, Daniel, knew “things” I didn’t, and not just because he was two years older than I. Windsorites often crossed the river to shop, returning home with goods they smuggled through customs. My oldest sister donned loose clothing so she could wear two new blouses and skirts under them, purchased at Detroit department stories for much less than she would have paid in Windsor, and not declare them. Everyone knew someone who spent Saturday night in Detroit, for the city’s skyscrapers and streets flamed with electricity and the beacon of the Penobscot Building not only warned low-flying planes to fly higher, but they also lured Canadian would-be revelers to join the party. Many parties. The same streets ruptured by riots, and their houses set on fire in 1967, and buildings I once passed by as a boy to this day stand in ruins.

Daniel took to splashing himself with cologne. I could smell his cologne, the same aroma exuding from his daddy’s well-suited body, as he pointed across the river and said his father lived somewhere in the shadow of skyscrapers, and he had a lot of friends and was too busy with his businesses to spend much time in a shithole like Windsor. Well, true, Windsor didn’t have high buildings that cut through clouds and tickled God’s ass, and the adults in my life didn’t pull out wallets thickened with cash, and the men didn’t wear rings with stones as big as my grandmother’s warts or the blue and red marbles on the Bible the Orthodox priest made me kiss when he came by to bless our impoverished circumstances.

Windsor didn’t have the Tigers or the baseball stadium where twice I ate American hot dogs loaded with chili sauce, paying little attention to the game, but dumbfounded by the countless number of people and the endless rush of sensations pounding my eyes and ears as Daniel screamed out his approval or disapproval over a player’s actions. His daddy had driven us over for a Sunday afternoon match in what then called Briggs Stadium, on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, before the name change to Tiger Stadium, decades before the demolition. What remains today is a field of weeds and memories and the hopes of civic groups to do something with the grounds. His Father gave us both a ten-dollar bill to buy food. Ten dollars bought a lot. When Daniel and I went to Saturday matinées at Windsor’s Palace Theatre, we never needed more than a dollar for ticket (when we paid, for sometimes we sneaked in), popcorn, pop, and licorice. And we could frottage in the middle seats of the very last row, if no one sat next to us. Daniel rubbed my hand rubbing his seemingly permanent boner under his jacket as we popped popcorn into our mouth with our free hand while watching Disney cartoons or the newsreel before the second feature. We kept rubbing until Daniel either pushed my hand away or shuddered in his seat. We had to watch out for the usher with his flashlight. I remember thinking his boner was big because his father was big man in Detroit, the big city of sky high buildings, and Daniel was also American, it had to be big.

Detroit became a city of fantasies: unattainable, inchoate, alluring and dangerous, even if I didn’t understand it in those terms. When I masturbated or rubbed myself against the metal bedstead as brown as Daniel’s skin, I sometimes visualized frottage with Daniel in the abandoned house or movie theatre, but I also imagined his father picking me up over his shoulder and carrying me to the white Cadillac and driving me over the bridge or through the tunnel to Detroit. I’d be dropped off in front of the Penobscot building which towered above me and glittered in the sun, knowing that at any moment something tremendous and unimaginable could occur if only I waited. I stood like a supplicant under the arch of the entrance, waiting for permission to enter the hallowed precincts since the doors presented a rather forbidding religious aspect. Nothing ever happened in those dreams, which only exacerbated my longing for the otherworldly event. Or I trudged along Woodward Avenue, forever lengthening and widening the way streets do in dreams, or down side streets away from the main thoroughfare, streets of flames and riots, trying to find the address of a house that would open its doors for me and reveal an Ali Baba’s cave of jewels and red licorice sticks, big boners, and bottles of Wishing Well cream soda or cases of Coca-Cola in small glass bottles.

It was a city of tremendous buildings, beauteous caverns, humming factories that went on for miles, libraries whose shelves bent under the weight of books, of thousands of noisy fans standing for the seventh inning stretch in the Briggs Stadium. Something had to happen to me here. Or he carried me, always Daniel’s dad was carrying me, never my own father who sat glum as a toadstool at the kitchen table after work, staring at a newspaper and drinking a bottle of beer. He rarely spoke, and when he noticed my existence at all it was only to command me to go buy cigarettes, Player’s. My two half-sisters came in for a lot of stares as if he wondered who they were, and yes, there’s a story there, which I didn’t discover until I was older and wrote a novel about my complicated family.

Daniel once called me a “kind of brother,” and his mother Angie, whose hip slung out so out of kilter as a consequence of scoliosis that her left hand could scrape the ground as she walked, seemed especially loving towards me. She had worked as a housekeeper for a Detroit manufacturer in her youth before returning to Windsor to give birth to her son. Once, after riding over the Ambassador Bridge in the back seat of the Cadillac, Daniel sitting proud as a prince in the front next to his big father who drove with one had lightly resting on the bottom of the steering wheel, he took us to Michigan Central Station where he had to meet business associates delivering a package. I didn’t see the associates or the package, but I sat on a bench, agape at the interior. Compared with this magnificence, Windsor had a poky little hut of a train depot, but here I sat beneath the vault of a veritable palace, half-dazed with desire to be transported to a fabulous realm, and then return to Detroit to be greeted and embraced by Daniel’s father the way he embraced his son, loud and laughing, fingers flashing, a big man of a big town with loads of cash.

Windsor, as I’ve mentioned, had a substantial population of Afro-Canadians, or coloureds or Negroes, to use the epithets of the day, including my two half-sisters, but a child playing is more conscious of the action of the game than he is of complexion of the players. I sensed that only bad people somehow felt differently about black people than they did about white, except good people, as I knew, from the depths of their goodness dredged up and spat racial obscenities with shocking ease. With one or two neighbouring towns in the county, Windsor was the destination point of the Underground Railroad, and most of the coloured population descended from escaped slaves, and they all had relatives in Detroit, including my half-sisters as I later discovered. When the city caught fire and the sound of gunshots zinged over the river to the stunned crowds lined on the banks, we all thought about people who knew people, relatives, friends, countless associations and interrelationships, and perhaps congratulated ourselves in that self-righteous Canadian way that Windsor had not yet exploded in a civil war between the blacks and the whites. I was a university student in 1967, visiting my sister. Daniel had crossed over to join his father in Detroit not long after my family moved away from Windsor, except for one married half-sister whose skin was the colour of ripe chestnuts and who married a black farmer. I hadn’t seen Daniel in several years.

Although I am told it is making strides to recover from the devastations of the decades, we are mostly familiar with Detroit as a destitute city, its inner core bereft, many of its impressive palaces of capitalism now dilapidated, its public buildings victims of economic collapse, and the predation of vandals and weather, great factories hollowed out, residences burned, boarded, and otherwise abandoned. One has only to troll through various Internet sites or, even better, peruse the excruciating and fabulous collection of contemporary photographs, The Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre, a sorrowful depiction of the emptied buildings of a ruined city, the skeletons of Detroit. They compare the city’s dereliction to the collapse of ancient empires, and such monumental urban edifices like the Michigan Central Station to the ruins of Athens and Rome. They even use the word “mummification” to describe the process of urban decay. Before and after the great and deadly riots of 1967, Detroit was and is an inseparable part of American mythology, just as it is an inextricable part of mine.

It is saying the obvious that nothing lasts, that friends go their individual ways and lose forever what they had once possessed like the city of my childhood fantasies. Daniel, I believe, stayed in Michigan with his father. I don’t know what happened to him. The Central Station, the Book Depository, theatres, schools, residences are stunning and hopeless in their devastation, but once, at the height of empire, an empire torn apart and ravaged from within (no barbarians at the gates), the grandeur of Detroit fed into and stimulated a young pubescent boy whose hands played in his pockets on the riverbank. He stood almost hip-to-hip next to a beloved friend whose father paid our way into the Brigg’s Stadium and gave us ten dollars each. His nightclub apparently burned to the ground on the second night of the riots, my sister informed me, and his head cracked under the blow of a policeman’s baton. Like my favourite superhero, the dark Batman, he survived bodily harm.

To this day I have an “orange” two-dollar bill, no longer legal tender, as it has been replaced in Canada by a bright and shiny coin.

 


Author Bio: Kenneth Radu’s most recent book is Butterfly in Amber, a novel set in Montreal and Russia, released by in the spring of 2014 by DC Books. Radu has also published several collections of stories, including Earthbound, and Sex in Russia. He has twice received the Quebec Writers’ Federation Award for best fiction. He lives in a village where his neighbours don’t know that he’s an obsessive writer of English. Working on new stories, he has also discovered the charms of the personal essay.  

Artwork: Jill Kolongowski