The complete and fully searchable archive of ZYZZYVA’s 26 years of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and art is coming soon. We’re working hard behind the scenes to make the entire archive available right here, free of charge. In the meantime, we hope you’ll enjoy browsing through these selections from our back issues.

From ‘Strange Attraction’: ‘Black Dress’ by Elizabeth Tallent

shop_anthology_01_strange_large-1000x988Caro—late, late—suffers the acid brightening of the senses that is panic, her eyes on the mirror where her pregnancy pantyhose are an opaque shade of clay, her arms in black sleeves, her belly welling out, sleekly white, below the wadded silk. There is a new, slyly nauseous tilt to this familiar room, which she loves, which her husband swears he bought the house for—where at night, between her husband and the bedside lamp, she lies waiting for him with sudden but predictable impatience to rise and lean across her. The slide of light up his left arm, the graying dark hair in his armpit, and the nicely braced balance of his body spell safe. He is forty-eight; she’s thirty. He says it takes an immigrant like her to want marriage to be a fortress, and a Catholic (lapsed) to believe this is possible, but each night his breathing chest above her, as darkness clicks on, reassures her: here at last is the thing no one ever leaves. The night he lies there and asks, “Can you get the light?” will count as disaster as surely as if the roof fell in. There are other signs, minute betrayals any outsider would miss, that will predict the falling-off. It’s her business to watch for these—to keep him. For the last year, nothing, no premonition or threat of loss. Now she needs this dress for his son’s girlfriend’s funeral.

Caro fears funerals. She arches her back, which only gives her seven months’ belly a more adamant jut, before sawing the silk downward, careful to keep her nails from its tension. From the kitchen her husband calls, “Ready?,” and she has no time left, and no belief, to steady herself for what lies awaiting thirty miles away in Santa Fe: a seventeen-year-old girl, her expression closed, her hair brushed for the last time, tucked into one of those claustrophobic satin beds, lid open, banked in white flowers, a voice over a microphone describing her life. Her family asked if Kevin wanted his class ring back. Kevin said no. Caro, his young stepmother, hadn’t known he had a class ring. Not that she knows everything about Kevin—she’s hardly had time—but his father hadn’t known either. Sometimes the kids of wrecked marriages did that, got covertly conventional. Could this be true of Kevin with his punk haircut, the crucifix that sometimes hangs from his ear? Hart’s divorce from Kevin’s mother couldn’t have been more confused, with mutual wistfulness hanging on long after they separated, enduring even after Hart had met Caro. No wonder that when Kevin fell in love for the first time he dropped through a trap door into blind adoration. He’d grown up with parents who had no idea what was real in what they felt—what deserved protection. The girl in the coffin would be wearing Kevin’s class ring. She might as well have his heart tucked under her folded hands.

Kevin has been waiting with his father at the kitchen table. A while ago Caro heard the coffee grinder, the single sound, apart from the widely spaced wild barks of their neighbor’s new Labrador, to break her fascinated comprehension that the dress isn’t going to fit. Coffee, she’s aware, is a game note of ordinariness introduced into their wait. From behind, as she forces the dress down another quarter of an inch, comes the spiteful sound of tearing. In the small of her back, her fingertips search out the rip. When she inhales, her fingertips feel the rip widen, though now it is soundless. Caro pictures how the father and son sit across from each other, and how acutely conscious they are of having nothing to say. She is never late, and their waiting—being made to wait—is more than rude. It has to give Kevin’s disorientation a deeper, bitterer twist. From a stack of magazines on the dresser, she takes a glass with what’s left of last night’s milk. Room-temperature now, it is the taste of terrible sadness. Kevin’s girlfriend overdosed on Valium, gin, and her mother’s prescription anti-depressants. She had taken the pills from their hiding place under her mother’s tissue-wrapped lingerie, snapped off the child-proof caps, and eaten them in handfuls. It can’t have been easy swallowing so many times; wouldn’t her body have been on the verge of refusing? Wouldn’t nausea have entered in? Ah, Caro thinks, and places her own nausea: with no sense of linear time, no conviction that things that have happened are irrevocably over, her own body is mimicking the girl’s nausea, the nausea she wishes the girl had felt. Caro’s pregnant body wants the girl to throw up. Caro’s secret sense, which she has not mentioned to her husband, is that death has alarmingly little respect for boundaries, that once tipped out it can spill through entire families. That she should stay away.

Her husband prompts, “Car?,” his tone patient and impatient in an oil-and-water mix. The bedroom and kitchen are not far apart. He didn’t need to raise his voice. He did so for politeness—even now, politeness—the pretense being that they can’t be overheard by each other in this house unless they mean to be. That from their bedroom, the father and his young wife haven’t heard his son the last two nights. When, really, there is little more privacy among them than in the house where Caro was born, though that house had a dirt floor and was in Nicaragua and had seven children and a harried, intrusive mother in it. Her mother went down on her knees in dirt that had been drenched in goat’s blood and let dry; her mother began rubbing the floor’s seal to a high sheen, brown saturated with carmine, finally as polished as brick. Caro has always thought her mother invented this trick. She has never asked her mother if this is so. It remains one of those ways in which your parents are, in their competence, magic. See? Brick from dirt. Food from thin air. The butterflies that staggered in hurried fight across the wall at night were the shadows of her mother’s hands. The centipede her mother shook from Caro’s littlest brother’s shoe was ground to bits, hammered with the heel of that tiny shoe, and then it was not the appearance of the centipede but the rage that was magic. It could protect you. Caro shakes her head to clear it.

Last month, coming in after one in the morning and finding Caro still awake, Kevin had taken her carton of ice cream and her spoon, talking music, physics, cars, things he wanted to tell his mother, in Europe with a new boyfriend, someone her ex-husband thinks isn’t good enough but her son, unpredictably, likes. Whose existence Caro was grateful for as she was grateful to be talked to so fast, looking across the table at such open, childish greed. Kevin doesn’t even like ice cream. He was eating just to eat. So many things that are appealing in children are adults’ worst uglinesses. Greed’s one. Kevin’s not often childlike, more the kind of kid who takes part in adult conversation when they begin to rasp toward quarrels, who can divert his father from rising irritation with a joke. “Dad, what do you get if you have an agnostic dyslexic? No. Wait. An insomniac agnostic dyslexic—what do you get? Someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a dog.” On the table between him and Caro, as he spooned raspberry ice cream, was a bunch of Indian paintbrush he had gathered from the deep grass along the highway into Santa Fe. He had stopped to look at the moon, he said. “It was—It was—” He was trying to describe the moon. They both laughed. When Caro finally went back to bed, she found her husband awake, wanting to make love, saying her name over and over into the nape of her neck until she was no longer detecting the sound through her ears but only warmth against her skin and a barely perceptible reverberation of bone, and she had felt confident at last of the love of both of the people she lived with. She had tricked herself, of course, believing this confidence could easily, reasonably, extend into the future, because the girl’s death had changed everything. In Caro’s family, articulate, demonstrative, confessional, grief was nobody’s secret. Her father’s death had fused his five smallest children into a shadow that followed their harsh-eyed mother everywhere, unwilling to let her out of sight. They may not have been noticed, but they were not left, either. They would never be left again, not if vigilance could prevent it.

So, tracing the zipper where it is torn from the silk, Caro considers calling her mother, in Brooklyn now, and a seamstress, who might suggest something that could be done for the dress. Even as Caro debates this, she’s sure there’s nothing her mother could advise. Besides, it’s difficult to picture asking her mother for a favor. Her mother is the kind who requires being prepared for all requests, however minor. Theirs had been a delicately balanced system of exchanges. Perhaps it reflected a widow’s just sense of precariousness—someone who had been so conclusively robbed couldn’t easily give. Caro had never known her life with her mother was claustrophobic, not until she left it. When she had needed to cheer her mother, there had been possibilities in abundance, from weighing her mother’s alive black hair in one small hand while, in the other, the tightly gripped brush fought downward, through washing her oldest brother’s shirts (smell of the outside world), to chasing her little brothers. The eyes of her brothers, when cornered, were glossy and inconsiderate as those of monkeys. Yet within this system, Caro had been recognized by her mother as an unusually resourceful child bent on pleasing. If that couldn’t make her a favorite, it at least got her respect.

“Move,” she whispers, and her arms lift to work the dress off over her head. In the mirror, her legs are so grimly gray it appears that she’s half buried. Awkwardly, she strips the pantyhose off. Their light bundle lands on the dress in the corner. Her belly has the lustrousness of pressurized skin, and that vertical flutter is the baby’s elbow.

When her husband calls, “What’s wrong?” her guilt reaches the baby as a rush of adrenaline, and the baby aims both feet upward and kicks. Caro sits down naked, breath gone, staring at the black dress, whose fault this panic is. If it had fit, she could have gone to the funeral, protected by her own somber, proper appearance. She could have shaken the pale hand of the mother who, caught in traffic on the way home from her acupuncturist, had not known her daughter was dying. Until she heard that part of the story, Caro had always believed in telepathy, between mothers and children especially. The dexterous thumping inside her subsides until the baby seems to be prodding experimentally with a single foot at her ribs. Boy or girl, she wonders, and finds herself thinking, girl. No, knowing. It’s a girl inside her. She leans to the side, drawing her knees in, hands flat to the floor. The dust under her palms is her own inattentiveness. She launches herself upward in a long, graceless uncurling. She rests with her back to the wall.

Order Strange Attraction: The Best of Ten Years of ZYZZYVA (338 pages; $20) here.

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The Dead Ones

ZYZZYVA Issue 100You came to say goodbye to her because she was your mentor. Years earlier she had given you something precious, and precious things need their recognition. Instead you sit in her kitchen with its flat Californian light washing in while her husband’s energy pulses most talk out the window. He sidles from around the counter to be with the two of you. How often he has stood beside her talent, you wonder, the way each mate in a partnership does, helping to uphold the myth, her husband a mystery now uncloaked. You recall those moments in her work in which lady characters enjoy their satisfying flirtations: a Mexican shop clerk, a gas station owner. The lipstick applied before she went out. The local gas station owner, an appreciator of Portuguese wine, in vivo, has told you of his appreciation of her, whether it was for that quick intelligence or those miniskirts that managed to survive the sixties in Berkeley along with her Jackie O. hair. A legacy of beauty: by chance you realize, hearing the husband’s name, that years ago you took classes with her daughter, long ago, dancing for the first time and all of you at that pubescent cusp.

The daughter with her long flowing hair had seemed to occupy a calmer moment, a different century. One couldn’t forget such calm. While the husband, father of that flowing-haired girl, mate to that wry mentor, is unforgettable from the other end of the spectrum, small with restless eyes, standing while performing an intake of the vitals, manic at the apparition of you, the former student. He has heard much of you, he says, she passed you the baton, right? While talking, he peels and eats in quick succession three hard-boiled eggs.

The eggs matter. He needs the fuel, being a doctor heading to see clients. They will talk to him about their problems in neat forty-five minute segments. Or is it fifty? For each of those segments his ears will remain, in theory, open while his mouth closed, hiding the impatience he stuffs down with those eggs.

He’s a psychiatrist, she tells you, or maybe a psychologist? A psychoanalyst! She lands on the right profession and is triumphant. The flag plants on accuracy.

In other words, her memory is failing. It had failed, it would fail more. What had been charming ellipses and cutoffs in her prose style now are permanently imbricated in her psyche.

She has forgotten much, a wave of her hand says, but the dry humor remains intact. She takes you to a dusty backroom, she the beautiful teacher, her legs stockinged filaments leading you to a library squeezed in between other domestic needs. My study, she says, and in that spot she has something to tell you, something about horror and loss, what she keeps calling her own good-bye party. As she tells you about it, you hear how much she lives in an echo chamber of recall, and how deeply each echo pierces her anew.


Call mentorship a form of death in life. Why? Because our mentors show us that we must feel the quicksilver shooting through our veins. This is the one life we have! Make use of it.

In a neat back-to-back, two dominoes facing out, you can also say death stays our ultimate mentorship. Then the question remains: must we carry the hearts of everyone until our heart, like a ship crowded with the memory of those who have left, eventually also sinks like they all did? Or could memory itself act as a buoy?

There is a black chair with the impress of his body still upon it. As he faded, he liked to sit there while a party took place. The music played louder while he became more of a phantom, inhabiting his skin and bones as if all the better to shrink from them. Occasionally, indignities overcame. With a helper, he had to excuse himself until eventually he excused himself altogether from the greatest indignity, which is living when you can no longer move. Otherwise the chair still sits there: same creased worn spot where the wrist lay, same grease on the reading-lamp’s swivel-switch, same poetry books he favored, the translations on the facing pages, helpful unlike the music of all those parties. Now all of it explains nothing, as phantom as his body, the memory alone speaking in dream-tongue, polyglot but inscrutable.

Order a copy of Issue No. 100 here.

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From ‘Strange Attraction’: ‘Tracking the Family Beast’ by Po Bronson

shop_anthology_01_strange_large-1000x988Like the water-bound beasts lawyers are so often compared to, Klacker, Lipmann et al. had swallowed Deb whole. Klacker had 230 lawyers on three floors of the BofA building, and Deb—onetime queen of the Golden Gate Park tennis ladders—wouldn’t stay on the bottom floor long. At home, my desk, her desk, our bookcases, and our tabletops were all buried under Criminal Procedure and Mason v. Richmond and the agonizing briefs that turn socially conscious law students into the money grubbers we are all too familiar with. She had traded in our Saturday matches for days at the library searching for restatements of “cases of, pertaining to, or affected by vicarious liability as it applied to food packaging.” Over rewarmed dinners I had prepared with the Deb I once knew in mind — fettuccine with marinated mushrooms in wine sauce—the Deb I knew now spoke of “interfacing with clientele” and “implementing objective criteria on a go-forward basis,” lingo that pained my young ears to hear. First six pounds lighter, then eight, then twelve, Deb was making it up the organization but disappearing in the process.

We weren’t happy. When together we used f-words often, mine being “fuck” and hers being “firm,” as in “The Firm” and her loyalty to it. It was a price she was willing to pay, but her struggling author/husband—your narrator, Bobby Joe Edmunds—proved incapable of.

I tried! Sort of. I made it through years one through four, each worse than the one prior, keeping my lip stiff and my backbone rigid and trying to think of a future when we could look back and laugh at how hard it had been. I tried to be sympathetic to her motivation—climbing to the top was just her way of survival—but that couldn’t comfort me for long. Nor did it comfort me to find, from the marriage counselor The Firm referred me to, that my plight was common and shared by many. “So what!” I shouted, a man of eloquent and elevated diction reduced to blubbering rage. A line was being drawn in my life, at first blurry but increasingly sharp, a line that separated my love for her from the integrity of life my father had once, among other things, taught me to seek out. He had also taught me, by example, that love is impossible to sustain. I had heard his arguments with my mother and every girlfriend of his I’d known. I had heard his monologue on Blake Island, the week we went camping the summer after the divorce, telling me that all good things come to an end. So when I looked, I saw life as a tornado, risky and dangerous and fundamentally unstable. And I saw the studio apartments and lost jobs and repossessed sports cars of a man I was the spitting image of.

Now I was at risk of losing not only my love for Deb but also the spontaneous wit and open heart that makes a young man a young writer.

I could go on forever here, but my complaints are already exaggerated by anger, while my own role in our undoing is ignored. In truth, it was a difficult time. I was full of indecision when I woke in the morning, not sure why I should climb out from under the covers or what I would do if I did, and for this I blamed Deb: I didn’t consider that my job was godawful boring or that I was frustrated with my unpublishable fiction. I began to think that 28 was a dreadfully young age to have lost the lust for life, and I pegged Deb as the cause of my woes.

Once again, my real life sneaked its way into my work,
culminating in a piece handed over to Forest Henning when we
asked to see what each other had been writing since I’d seen her
last. Hers was a near-perfect story based on her year-long adventure
in Africa, while mine was a heavy-handed tale set in the late years
 of the last century. Orin Ringling—trapper, trader, and all-around mountain man—waits for his wife in the log cabin he built overlooking the Klamath Lakes. She has taken the mule and sled down the mountain to Grand Falls for supplies—only a half day’s hike each way—but she has not returned. Orin waits and waits, knowing that he should go after her but knowing how much she loves Grand Falls, how she loves the organ player at Whiskey Jack’s, how she likes the flannel sheets and flowered wallpaper in the Gold River Hotel, how she gazes so fondly at the Southern Pacific train that steams to San Francisco. While he waits for her, he fells, chops, and stacks firewood for the oncoming winter, which he knows will be very cold. Gradually, we are led to believe, by the size of his woodpile, now as tall as the cabin next to it, that he has been waiting not a matter of hours but rather months.

“You’ve changed,” Forest said, first thing, when we met at a North Beach cafe to discuss our fiction. She was wearing a gauzy print skirt without the leggings underneath that make the style acceptable in public. When our coffees came, she pulled a fifth of tequila from her knapsack and poured a shot into her mug. It was 12:30 in the afternoon. We were two blocks from where I slaved as a copywriter for KL Computronics. Forest was exactly my age, but at that moment I was aware of how little age has to do with the size of the world one has come to know.

“Why, Bobby Joe,” she said, “why?”

“Why what?”

“Why are you married to it?”

“To what?”

“The Firm, for chrissakes!”

Forest mentioned the Tswana tribe of the Mabutsane Delta in Botswana, Africa, where men can take as many wives as they have fingers to wear wedding rings on.

I said that I’d missed her point.

She lit a cigarette and took several deep drags. “I’m just saying that in many cultures, sowing one’s oats is encouraged.”

This was a come-on (even my inexperienced ears could tell that) and I was honest, both to her and to myself, with unexpected wisdom that shot the truth of why I hadn’t betrayed Deb earlier.

“Sowing one’s oats,” I repeated. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Order Strange Attraction: The Best of Ten Years of ZYZZVYA (338 pages; $20) here.

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Labor Poem No. 10, Emilio Fonseca Construction I

The flagstones or stepping stones, one mushy tire.
The house. The loaded wheelbarrow, you almost
have to. If you slow, the flagstones, the dirt
path. The slope on which, the slopping concrete.
Or it pushes you. To run, handles, and strain.
The house sits. To get momentum, you almost.
Two wood handles, one mushy tire, the stepping
stones over the dirt. The slopping, the stately
stucco house that pays. Or it pushes you
back down. The wheelbarrow loaded with wet,
the two wood. Almost have to run. The dirt
path, the slope on which, the flagstones or stepping
stones. To get momentum. One mushy, two
wood, the slopping. The house that pays. And strain.

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A House Well Furnished

Out the window she saw a field. It was small and only on one side of the tracks. There were clothes stretched out on the cut grass. At first she thought they had been abandoned like all the clothes on the streets of the Mission. Maybe she would go through them, but she realized they were laid out to dry. She imagined it was some Richmond version of them. Richmond-her had washed the clothes in a creek and then put them in the field while Richmond-him went out to get some money, get some booze. They slept in a tent under trees by the creek. They were happy.

He started walking and she kept up. He was no longer strutting, but walking with at least the confidence of someone who knew where he was going. She looked around.

The town was poor. Churches and cats were everywhere, like old ladies ran the town. All the churches had bars on their windows. She was pretty sure it was a weekday but everyone seemed to be home. People sat on the porch and fast music came from most of the faded, sagging houses.

They had to walk forever to get to the bar, it was at least thirty minutes, and she expected it after every corner. She stopped looking around and stared at the sidewalk with him. Thinking of the promised beer, she put herself in a timeless trance until it was served. Her mouth, her whole body, longed for it. It waited for her, too. She was glad he wasn’t talking.

The bar was a building made out of sheet metal. The jukebox stood against the wall and shook the whole building to make it a big, shitty speaker blaring out Motown. All these people, now dead or divorced, passionately singing things about love that no one in the bar believed but still felt they should hear. It hurt her head.

His head was still down even though everyone in the bar seemed to know him. They smiled and said hi. They looked at him, then they looked at her and stopped talking, even though it seemed they wanted to say more.

He ordered for them. He had the money; this was all his idea. The bartender came back with two beers and a shot of whiskey. She drank her beer and watched as he downed the shot. She looked at the bartender to see if he was going to bring her one, too. They always had before.

“Don’t I get a shot?” she asked.

“Not now, later. We got to be cool for now. Just drink your beer.”

She didn’t need to be told that. She held her tongue now, but her skepticism warmed. She was angry for a second, but it faded as the beer filled in her skin. At the first sip of beer her dream of the day vanished. She just wanted to get drunk and stay there, nothing else mattered.

They had another round, no shot for anyone this time. They looked at each other as they drained their second bottles. When they put them down he smiled and said to her, “That’s it. I’ve got no more money.”

“What are you going to do?” She kept herself from saying “we.”

He smiled a strange one and looked her up and down. “That’s what we’re here for.”

“Just tell me what’s going on.”

“Don’t worry, freaky, it’s no big deal.”

She realized this whole day had been some stupid plan of his and, somehow, it involved her. She looked around at the other men in the bar. Surely one of them would buy her drinks until she didn’t remember who he was, either. She could live the same blur she’d been living, just in Richmond now.

He put his hand on her naked arm and she remembered the morning. She had to follow the way she felt then. Maybe it could happen with him again. It beat out drinking, which nothing had in a long time. They walked out of the bar.

There was more sun and she lingered in what the two beers had done to her even as she felt it slipping away. This was the only thing she was paying attention to.

He stopped. “Here we are.”

She looked around. They were at a house, the same as all the others, maybe a little more kept up. “What is this place?”

“This is where I grew up.”

“What are we doing here?”

“We’re going to see my mom.”

She tried to remember his name. “Why am I here?”

“Why wouldn’t I bring you?”

“Why would you?”

“Baby, we’ve done everything together the past two weeks. I just thought you’d want to come along.”

“I’m not going to have to do anything am I?”

He smiled. “Just be yourself.” She could see that his beauty was something that he could turn on and off. This was what he had been living off, probably since he was two.

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Christopher Hitchens

Lyle claims he can cure faith. I asked him to do it. A year ago I wouldn’t have, I would have paid to believe in anything. Elena gets worse every night, though. She fell asleep in my bed, and I thought she wasn’t breathing because her little three-year-old face was so gray, but it turned out to be nothing but the shadow of the quilt. I moved her stuffed sea lion closer and she rolled over on it, dragging it down to the deep. The doctors just tell me to love her. Someone else suggested I pray, but belief of any kind at this point feels like being rocked in the arms of an insane mother—faith, that great and breaking bough—not with Elena at stake, I’m done with that.

When Lyle gave me his card, I thought it was a joke. It had a picture of a beach on it with that poem about the footsteps. He’d crossed out the words and written: You can be alone again. According to his website, he can extract the finest strands of transcendent hope. That’s what I’m counting on.

I broke down last night and prayed. I thought I felt something and told Lyle. He said it’s natural. Faith is the only gateway to no faith, he says. I asked what he meant and he said that beliefs, all beliefs, are like a series of tunnels.

“What we’re after here is an open road.”

He showed me the room where it’s going to happen. The walls are covered with pictures of Jesus, Shiva, JFK, Osiris, and the Mandelbrot set—each image with a big, black X through it. Lining the windowsill are smaller icons: Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Elvis, Malcolm X, Christopher Hitchens, and a woman fromlate-night infomercials who sells Ever Bliss™ powdered nutrient drinks. Each picture in a cheap plastic frame with the same black X. Lyle had clearly snapped the shot of Hitchens off a TV screen with his phone and the frame had no glass. The Sharpie lines of the X were fading to gray in the sunlight.

“Nobody is pure anything,” Lyle said, “We have to get it all, even beliefs we think don’t count.”

“But I don’t have any faith, I just wish I did.”

“Same thing.”

“But it’s not the same thing because if I were capable of any real belief I wouldn’t be here. I’d be gone.”

“Besides,” he said, “I’ll bet you have more faith than you think. In situations like yours it’s usually just spread underground.”

I thought of my Wiccan high school years, and the Marias I could only take in Spanish or Bosnian, and the candles and Mexican rosewater, and the vague authority of humming rocks, shells, and feathers, and cigarette smoke blown in all four directions—Lyle was right. Faith was in me like a curtain behind a curtain. Put a gun to my head and ask me if I believe in anything and I’d point to Elena and say, I don’t believe in a goddamned thing. Not if she’s going to die. But take that gun away? Faith grows back in me like a field of mushrooms. Almost overnight.

“The first thing I need you to do,” Lyle said, “is to write down a history of your beliefs. Like praying you don’t get caught stealing candy. Or calling Christians cowards when you’re drunk. It’s all the same thing, it all has to go.”

“Should I write it on anything special?”

“Write it on anything. That’s the point.”

I started that night. I went all the way back to second grade, when I thought I heard God’s voice in a dream. By the time I fell asleep it was dawn and the bush outside my window was filled with chattering finches. I know now what Lyle means when he says faith and no faith are the same thing. I saw both sides of the coin flipping through the air. He means they come from the same place, believing and hating believers, a single tree, and if you don’t pull out all the roots it grows back.


Elena goes to her dad on Fridays. I don’t get a choice in that. The worst part is that if something happens to her over the weekend, I won’t be there. The idea that I wouldn’t be there when it counted, that I might be out somewhere not even thinking about her when the real stuff happened is just too much. I try not to think about it but I do, all the time. I can’t sleep when she’s gone, and there’s a revival going on down the street. It’s in a vacant lot out there in the weeds, right on the corner. They put up a tent. You can hear the preacher’s voice through the PA echoing off the basketball courts in the park two blocks away. I’ve been hearing it every night. At first it was just annoying. Another thing like gunshots and Greenpeace knocking on your door, stuff you should care about but don’t anymore because it happens all the time. All evening and into the night:

God’s got it! God’s got it!

And all the black voices calling it back.

God’s got it! God’s got it!

If they had been white I would have called the cops.

Every day I walk through the reedy lot. I see them setting up for the revival. Raking the flattened clumps of grass. Chasing the newspaper tumbleweeds. Bagging the bottles and needles and collecting grocery store circulars, holding them in their hands like garish fans.

They’ve been there all summer.

Fix it, Jesus! Fix it!

They yell out all the things that are wrong—

Fix it! Fix it, Jesus! Fix it!

They have a van full of clean white shirts for the converts, and they come in all sizes. I saw a man that weighed over 400 pounds get saved. They wrapped him in white like a baby. No one is banned from the arms of Jesus. I imagine myself in white steeped in the smell of starch and irons and lemon water, and for a second, I’m pretty damn sure that if everybody would just get the hell away from me I could ride this feeling down into forever, this moment of grace, but they don’t and I can’t and it all breaks into smaller and smaller bits, even when they’re already so small you think they can’t, they do. Faith is like entropy, according to Lyle. The heat it gives off is just from decline. It’s not a closed system.


Lyle set up our second consultation at the food court tables by the Orange Julius. He has a face like Eric Clapton’s. You’d never recognize him without context. Both times we met I thought it was a stranger approaching me.

This time Lyle came with diagrams. He set his smoothie down and unfolded a sheet of paper. On it was a genderless human form with tiny lines drawn all over the body. My body.

“I’m thinking we’ll put the needles here.” He took a slug off his Orange Julius and pointed to a series of hash marks. “One for every belief.”

My whole history of hope before me in train trestles and broken rails. I tried to see the pattern, but couldn’t really. Some lines looked like sutures and others more like Amish hex symbols or asterisks.

“Will it hurt?”

“Probably,” he said.

“Is that the chakra system?”

Lyle looked at me for a second then borrowed a pen and drew another set of lines on the figure. “You should have told me about that one.”

Later on that night, I threw a full can of beer at someone’s head. I was at a show and it was a singer of this band I knew. He was prancing around, doing the Iggy Pop thing, rolling on glass with bloody handprints and finger streaks all over his chest. When he pulled himself up on the microphone stand I threw the beer can as hard as I could. The Pabst logo spun like a ninja shuriken across the heads of the audience. I punched a wall when they threw me out. When I woke up, my knuckles were swollen and there were dried brown streaks of blood on my hand.

After I washed up the next morning, I went to see Elena. She and Silas were eating macaroni and cheese for breakfast when I came in. Her cheeks were sticky with orange sauce. In front of her was a huge, half-drunk glass of milk.

“Is it hormone free?”

“They were out.”

“I thought we had an agreement.”

“I didn’t ask you to come over.”

He knows how I feel about those things. I keep Elena away from plastic and fish and she’s never had antibiotics.

“That’s not the point,” I said. “We had an agreement.”

“We also had an agreement about you not taking her to the doctor.”

“I didn’t take her right away, I watched her, for a long time. You would have taken her, too.”

Silas looked at me like I were wearing a wristband or a day pass or something. But I’m sick of seeing patience on people’s faces. It doesn’t affect me like it used to. You have to be an advocate. Silas will believe anything a doctor tells him. And the doctors say Elena meets all the developmental markers for her age. They say she’s fine. But she’s not fine. They don’t know her like I do, and so they can’t see what’s happening. She’s changed. I’ve watched her now through countless car crashes, slips on the stairs, through terrible accidents on the playground when the bigger kids on the chain bridge pretend to shoot each other and knock her off. She’s not the same. It’s written all over her. She is going to die. Someday that is going to happen. And even though I don’t know when, I know it will be too soon.

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Oh, Oh, Oh

Let me tell you about Jackson: the only child of a state senator and an avid bridge player who rarely spoke to each other, he grew up in an airy mansion in Wilson, North Carolina, with six antebellum ancestors in gilded frames looking sternly down on him. His carefree summers left permanent tan lines around his waist and knees; he dominated the little league, excelled in tennis.

At fourteen Jackson left for Virginia to attend the finest boarding school south of the Mason-Dixon Line. White lies and exaggerations, told with a wink and a knowing smile, became his specialty; good-natured imitations, his stockpile of charm. With a trained aw-shucks grin he won over his teachers and classmates, was elected to student council three years in a row. He captained the rowing team, escorted half a dozen debutantes, grew tall and muscular, and applied early to the college where a library was named after his grandfather. Somewhere along the way he learned to mask his upper-crust Southern drawl and began calling himself Jack.

But he had always known that he would derail from the track that had been so carefully set down for him. As he read Dickens in AP English, it hit him: he wanted to be a writer—preferably a tortured one—who wrote about the sordid real life outside the ivied gates of his world: cruel con artists, whores with hearts of gold, self-hating crooks, that sort of thing. He was ready.


Here’s Jacques in a nutshell: born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, he was named Jacques Henri by his Quebecois parents, who struggled to keep up with the rent for their one-bedroom overlooking the murky Blackstone River. When he was four his mom, Marie, shook him awake in the middle of the night and together they tiptoed over crushed cans of Natural Ice and past his father, who was passed out on the floor as usual. With them Marie brought nothing but a six-pack of Dr. Pepper to keep her awake. She sped down I-95 until the Chevy broke down in Springfield, Virginia. There, she traded in the car for the security deposit on a one-story house on a dead-end street.

Without the unpredictable tableside temper of his father, Jacques learned to enjoy food for the first time, began eating prodigiously, and soon grew too big for children’s husky size. He tripped and stumbled under his sudden weight, was taunted by the neighborhood kids for his heft. He never learned to retaliate, though—he wasn’t that kind of a boy. Instead he began calling himself Jack, good ol’ American Jack and never the prissy Jacques Henri, so as not to give the world another reason to tease him.

After long days waiting tables at a disreputable establishment called— must we utter that vulgar name?—Tits-N-Bits, Marie attended night classes and earned a nursing degree. But she couldn’t instill her respect for education in her son. Throughout public schooling his grades remained dismal; he saw no point in writing a five-part essay or figuring out when Train A would catch up with Train B. He never liked the word “junior,” so he felt no remorse dropping out of school after driver’s ed at the end of his sophomore year. From then on Jack worked diligently for years in a series of driving jobs—first delivering pizzas, and now large construction equipment.

This was in the boom years, when everyone was awash in cash, and banks handed out bundles of money to anyone with a name and a Social Security number. As a surprise gift to celebrate his and Marie’s twentieth anniversary in the house, he applied for one of those “No Credit? No Problem!” mortgages advertised on late night television. The landlady, who was moving down to Daytona Beach, tearfully gave him the deed, calling him the most perfect son a mother could ever dream of. We’ll see about that.


Jack first skidded toward six on the Kinsey Scale in his freshman year of boarding school. His roommate, Donald Jr., the belligerent son of a well-known real estate mogul, offered some of the vodka that he’d hidden in various containers among his toiletries. Jack’s hands trembled, not from fear but excitement—about what might happen in their drunken state. He tipped back the Listerine bottle and gulped the Grey Goose like he’d seen teenagers chug beer in films. That night, as the vodka burned his throat, he learned how irresistible his winces could be.

Soon Donnie and Jack were wrestling each other to the floor, laughing, snorting, then reaching for each other. They hardly spoke again after that night.


Father Patrick responded with a kind embrace to twelve-year-old Jack’s confession of sinful thoughts about boys. But then the embrace gave way to frantic caresses—which Jack knew weren’t entirely innocuous. When Father Patrick’s hand crawled between Jack’s soft tummy and the elastics of his sweats, Jack kicked him in the shin and elbowed him in the beaked nose before running out of the church and swearing never to go back. And no, you are grossly mistaken if you thought Jack enjoyed Father Patrick’s spidery touch even for a second. Jack’s wicked thoughts were about what lay inside other boys’ briefs, not Father Patrick’s dark robe.

Roughly a decade later, the telephone became Jack’s next gateway to what some misguided souls call “that lifestyle.” Glued on a payphone at a rest stop in Ohio, a palm-sized ad promised a certain boyish beauty with bright white teeth. Jack’s first call lasted less than three minutes, a fact he would later figure out from the $4.97 charge on his credit card bill: $2.99 for the first minute, 99 cents per minute afterward—algebra hadn’t been so useless after all. The event was nothing spectacular: unsightly droplets stained his khakis before Huck the Farmhand completely “undressed” him.

Frequenting odd rest stops that bustled with life in the dead of the night, he had rushed encounters with wedding-ringed men, climbed into other truckers’ cabs, sat on a filthy toilet to take a chance on whoever would come into the next stall. Once he was eagerly groped by a bald man who, he would later see on the news, was a congressman from one of those large rectangular states in the middle. Another time, he barely escaped arrest when his truck pulled into the parking lot minutes after an undercover raid. Seeing men scatter from the restroom into the dark brought tears to his eyes; took him back to that day when, as a young boy, he helplessly watched a bully stomp on an ants’ nest.

Curiosity gave way to sporadic guilt, which then turned outward into childish disgust (the stench! the grime! yuck!) but never hatred—toward others or himself. It just wasn’t in his nature to dwell on things he couldn’t change. After each encounter he rubbed his hands with the sanitizer he kept in the glove compartment, and drove away, the echoes of the oldies station trailing behind his truck.


The inebriated affair with Donald Jr., it turned out, wasn’t an anomaly. Oh, Jack wasn’t queer or anything. He convinced himself he was just … “curious.” (Later in life he would come to flinch as he recalled using that cliché.)

Curious he was, and he grew more so with every chance affair until he discovered a public library a few blocks away from the boarding school. He’d sneak out for half an hour before dinner and prowl chat rooms. Between each hastily typed line he craned his neck above the carrel to make sure no one else from school was there.

“6’2″, 175lbs, brown eyes and dirty blond hair. 20, bi-curious, discreet, very athletic.” Jack’s online profile was accurate except for his age. And it made him sound like an Adonis. That wasn’t his word, actually. He’d once overheard it from a flaming redhead on the D.C. Metro on a night out with his rowing teammates: “Sure, everyone sounth like an Adonis online when they’re just numberth. That is why you have to ask for their picture!” His naive protégé: “But then don’t I have to give them mine, too? What if it’s my boss I’m chatting with?”

As they sashayed off the train at Dupont Circle, one of Jack’s friends coughed: “Phfags!” Jack joined his teammates in uproarious laughter that swirled inside his gut like shards of glass.

Not that it stopped Jack the curious from rowing to the other side of the Kinsey Scale. In chronological order: Donald Jr. the Freshman Roommate, James on Amtrak over Thanksgiving, GeorgeMasonU from the Internet, Travis(?), James number two, the go-go dancer from PowerBar, Uwe the exchange student, Edwin from the public pool, Dmitri the heartbreaker, Miguel the Nutcracker (ouch), Hector/Hortencia, dearie, who taught Jack how to camp it up like a true queen.


While picking out Christmas lights and a new Santa costume in one of those colossal shopping emporiums, Jack impulsively bought a desktop. The routine of dingy rest stops and the constant fear of arrest had wearied him. He had heard people talk about “going virtual,” and it seemed anything would be better than the real world as he knew it. Soon, however, he dioscovered hje just wasnm’t built for computrers. He typed, hunched obver the keyboasrd, withj his two imdex fingers, which were too large amd often hit m,ore than one key at a timne. Buit he got his points acvross.


Jack took a deep breath and decided not to feign shock when he heard that his parents were separating. Though they hadn’t seemed too unhappy, he had never seen them particularly happy with each other, either.

“Your father’s going down to Charleston to be with his brother,” his mother said on the phone. “And I’ll be here with your grandparents. I suppose you’ll be staying with us?”

“I don’t want to take sides,” Jack said, perhaps too eagerly, thrilled to be excused of his family’s stuffy Presbyterian suppers. He could hear her sipping something—mint julep? No, never after Labor Day. So it must have been bourbon on the rocks, the only other drink that touched her painted lips, and only under dire circumstances.

“That’s very mature of you,” she said, sounding equally relieved. “I’m proud you’re being more adult about this than your father.”

Jack’s father rang immediately after they hung up. “It’s over,” the patriarch slurred into the phone. “I heard.” “I’m going to have a damn good life without her.” His throat clogged

between words, reducing his baritone into quivery wisps of air. “A damn … good … life, you hear?”

Jack’s father had spent his adult life being cordial to strangers and gregarious with acquaintances, and spared his loved ones from his true feelings. Now, for the first time Jack could remember, his father was unfurling what lay inside his heart to him.

Jack had seen his father cry only once before. After his grandfather’s funeral their mansion was filled with throngs of people clad in black, whom Jack’s father received with his trademark bonhomie, as if he were being a good sport after losing a golf match, not his father. But in the wee hours of the morning after, as dazed Jack rose from bed and made his way to the bathroom, he caught his father sunk deep in the living room sofa, weeping openly as the host of an infomercial chattered on obliviously on the television set. Shocked and scared, ten-year-old Jack tip-toed back to his bed.

The same fear eclipsed Jack’s heart as his father gasped for air on the phone. Jack wanted to traverse the great distance between them and shawl his arms around his father’s sturdy shoulders. But there was only so much he knew how to say.

“Oh, Papa” was all Jack managed, though his own eyes had begun welling up.

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The Mr. Smith Syndrome

An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance.
—Richard Hugo

I was a teenager, and I walked two or three miles down Clairemont Drive to my first steady job—donut cooker at Tas-T Donuts. We had left Tijuana ten years before, and we’d left the heights above Barrio Logan five years after that and homesteaded this white working-class suburb. It was an astonishment tome, because it was the first time I had seen green lawns in front of every house and every apartment. In Tijuana, it was dirt. In Shelltown, it was yellow patches with burr clover and more dirt. Man, I thought these white folks were all millionaires. I was the one infected with Story in my family, and the lawns of Clairemont told me I had entered a new narrative.

Going to work was certainly a new chapter in that tale. Just that evening walk felt epic to me, wrapped in my teen self-pity and general fear—there were no knife-swinging bastards in Clairemont, but still, the old shadows don’t die easily, and every oleander bush could have sprung a homicidal vato. It was a journey that symbolists or Joseph Campbell might have found rich. The hike, in poverty, alone, downhill as the sun set. Far below, ocean. To each side, canyons. Animals and scrub brush. Then houses nicer than my own. Rushing by me, whiplashing me with their wind, the speeding cars of those more fortunate than I. At times, on the dirt path where the sidewalk petered out, these cars rushed quite close to me, perilous and roaring like beasts. Mean dogs on one side, metal creatures on the other and a lone boy going down a dirt path in the dark.

Once there, at Tas-T Donuts, the metaphors continued. It was on a dank alley, a horrid little two-story building with a drive-through hole where cars could insert themselves and collect their donuts and coffee from the downstairs serving window. It was backed by a rundown apartment complex across the alley that gave off bad cooking smells and the cries and shouts of the working-class families and old people who lived there. Among these sad apartment dwellers was the owner of Tas-TDonuts, Mr. Smith.

The donut kitchen was upstairs, and you’d get to it up a rattling, old paint-splintered, wooden staircase. One bare bulb, possibly yellow, over the door.Mr. Smith paid $1.35 an hour, but during training it was only 65 cents. Quite literally, it paid to learn fast.

Inside, it was L-shaped. Cement floor. Wooden pallets to stand on. Down the long arm of the L were two deep-fat fryers on the right and a sink on the left. A cooler for Mr. Smith’s fancy stuff, like cream filling, milk, eggs. Around the corner, in the squat alcove of the L, he kept the mixers and the big sacks of powdered sugar and flour, and the noxious bottles of sugar glaze and horrid chemical “flavors” in psychedelic colors that we would mix into the rank sugar goo and make chocolate, maple, vanilla, orange or lemon frosting. The citrus toxic chemicals had little shaved chunks of peel in them. Sugary bathroom cleaner.

Also down there we had tubs of “coconut” and “cinnamon” and “sprinkles.”A box of stale donuts was to be crushed with sugar and cinnamon and nuts in the mixer to make crunchy coatings for cake donuts.

Brooms. Mops. A squeeze bucket. And, on a long metal pole handle, a flat blade we used to scrape up fat white kernels of dough and lard from the floor.

There was no toilet. Mr. Smith told us to piss in the sink. The same sink where we mixed the various glazes. But we were to wash the urine down only with cold water. Hot water cost money and the steam made everything smell like piss.

If the health inspectors ever knocked on the back door, always closed and locked, we were to immediately call Mr. Smith at home and wait for him to come across the alley. While we waited, we were to do some quick cleaning.


Beside the fryers, we had a dumb waiter accessed by a small folkloric door in the wall. Fairies could have come from it, ghosts, El Cucuy. Instead, racks of donuts went in it like fat commuters jammed in a lift. A little rope-pull elevator.

Mr. Smith would leave his order on the pad: 24 maple, 24 buttermilk, 32 old-fashioned, 12 chocolate cake, 32 glazed, et cetera.We’d fry them up, put them on trays, put the trays on the elevator.More symbolism. The real donut shop was below us. You’d have to go down the dark shaft to get there. And we would. We’d get in the dumb waiter and hand-over-hand ourselves down there. It was where the cash register was. But we didn’t care about the cash register.We just wanted to go where we were forbidden. Where it was dangerous. Cops driving by could see you through the window, if you weren’t careful.

I kept in mind the possible scenario of a San Diego PD officer catching a Tijuana boy in the dumb waiter, breaking and entering Mr. Smith’s rancid wonderland at midnight.

Also down there was the trash can full of fancy donuts. Mr. Smith alone made those, the jelly-filled and cream-filled. And the goop in them would spoil, so he had to throw them out. The layers of these fancy donuts were divided in the garbage can by sheets of newspaper. So, when we rode  the elevator into the donut mine, we knew to steal the garbage from the top two layers. If it didn’t have coffee grounds all over it, we’d pull donuts out and put them in boxes. We’d take bismarcks and long johns and boston creams home to our moms, never telling them where they came from.


I was training under my Boy Scout best pal, Leon. He was cool. I aspired to be as cool as Leon. He liked John Denver, and I remember first listening to “Rocky Mountain High” while in that foul kitchen. It, along with being a Boy Scout, might have sown the seeds for my later Rocky Mountain mania. There was none of the old music I knew in Tas-T. No
James Brown (called “Chaze Brrong” in our Colonia Independencia accents).

Mr. Smith, like all donut bosses, wisely allowed us to eat all the donuts we wanted. Every extra donut, every mistake, every ugly donut. It took exactly one night to get deeply and utterly sick. We were too stupid to be disgusted by the sink/urinal. We just ate ’til we barfed.

Leon was an old hand at cooking. He was making a head cook’s wage of $1.65 an hour. And he knew all the bad lore of Tas-T Donuts. Like the guy Mr. Smith fired who decided on his last night to piss into the fryer and not the sink, but the hot grease exploded, cooking him and “I swear to God, fried his dick off!”

As a concession to hygiene, Mr. Smith made us wear hairnets.


At the end of my shifts, dictated not by the clock, but by the cooking load, I’d walk back up the long hill. 10:00, 11:00, midnight, 1:00. I could see inside lit windows. Families. Women. Televisions. A cold California glow. A mom in a hallway in her underwear.

Between walks, it was hours of clatter. Fryer. Sink. Mixer. Steel pans on the steel counters. Scraper. The donut machine crank handle. The clash of the metal mesh donut drainer running fat back into the noisy  fryer. Radio. The slamming door of the dumb waiter. Filthy air: a haze of oil, sugar, water, smoke. Dough stench. Grease stench. Glaze stench. Sour fermenting sugar fluid. Spices. Mold. Floor detergent.

Mr. Smith never drained the fryers. The grease was old and sour. His fryer was never turned on when I was at work, so as my fryer heated and the sludge inside liquified and cleared, his stayed clouded and thick. It was an ugly tan/yellow mess that looked like a frozen pond. Big old grease bubbles caught in place.

Flies and roaches would fall into the grease, struggle and sink. This was fascinating to me. It was like a quicksand scene in a Tarzan movie. It didn’t occur to me that the crisp raisins that surfaced and sank repeatedly as I cooked were deep-fried bugs, circling endlessly like fossils in the La Brea Tar Pits.


To make a donut, you’d follow the recipe and mix up the dough in the big hook mixer. Then you’d concoct your vat of toxic glaze. Then you’d pour your batter into the crank, which was kind of a funnel with a handle on the side. It rested at the end of an extendable arm. You had to be smooth on the crank, plot rings of dough in neat patterns to float and fry on the grease. Ideally, you timed it so the last ring of dough plopped in as the first was golden brown on one side. Then you would take two wooden dowels and, pushing down one while lifting with the other, you’d flip the donuts in the same order you’d cranked them. When both sides fried, you’d grab the handles of the submerged mesh platform and lift it out to drip oil back into the boiling sea. Unload ’em, put the mesh back in, crank the next load. Formost donut orders, three crank runs were enough. Then you’d dunk your plain cake donut (basically a delivery vector for the indescribably yummy chemical glaze) into the pans. One twist, out onto the rack. Drip, drip and then into the elevator.

If you screwed up the mix, the donuts were a ruin. Too much water or milk and the dough was drooly and shapeless. Bad wrist action on the crank and loops would fall on each other and fuse into strange archipelagos of fried dough. Your donuts would end up looking like fried underpants.

Now, Mr. Smith himself was as filthy and fiendish as his donut shop. He seemed to be an old man, though if I met him today he might reveal himself to be a spry 55. In my teens, he seemed to be 100.

He didn’t bathe. His hair was thinning, gray and slicked back. But it looked as if it was slicked back because it was dirty, not because he had used hair oil. Dirty glasses, yellowed T-shirts. He chain-smoked and coughed into the donuts. His teeth had fallen out.When he couldn’t afford my $1.35 wage, he bucked me back down to 65 cents for “retraining.” Then, he put me on probation: 35 cents an hour. That’s when I finally quit.


Before I left, Mr. Smith taught me something about writing, and work, and life. Sensei Smith, roshi of the Tas-T zendo. Like many teachers, he didn’t know he was doing it. He didn’t know he was changing my life. He thought he was teaching me about Tas-T Donuts.

Mr. Smith would show up unannounced while I was cooking. He’d get up behind me as I was trying to work the crank. I was bad at it anyway, but he made me so nervous it turned catastrophic.

Cigarette smoke. Body odor. Bad breath. And I’d start to choke on the crank. And he’d start to scold me: “Jesus Christ! Jesus, kid! Do you call that a donut? That ain’t a fucken donut! What the fuck’s the matter with you!”

And, of course, I’d made worse and worse donuts. “Holy shit! You dumb bastard! You retard! What the hell is that called! Because that ain’t a goddamn donut!”

I’d be frantic at this point, and the whole batch would be ruined.

“Can’t any Mexican make a fucken goddamn donut is what I’m asken!”

There would be a huge raft of frying dough in the middle of the grease. Mr. Smith would shove me aside and snap, “Get out of my fucken way, you idiot! I’ll show you how a goddamn donut is made!”

What is the sound of one hand frying?

I learned right there at the fryer that we have three indwelling spirits in our small cage of bones. One of them is unclean. The Angel is that one who sings the pretty songs, who tells you those lovely things you spill out like sunshine and joy when you just don’t know any better. The Editor is your friend, like a good teacher—sometimes severe, but steady. The Editor helps you tighten, toughen, clarify, focus. But then there is that son of a bitch, The Critic. Your own smelly inner Mr. Smith.

He is the one who makes you fail. He scares you. You get nervous. Have you noticed that when a cop pulls up behind you in traffic it makes you start to swerve in your lane as if you were drunk? When you take a test and the teacher stands by your shoulder, you feel as if you’ve been cheating, even if you haven’t, and suddenly your eyes rove to a neighbor’s paper. People pick you last for the basketball team and you call yourself a loser forever.

The Critic is lost in his own horror. His own stench and his own poverty and shame. Like Mr. Smith, he’s going out of business. And tomorrow, for him, holds only ruin. He hates and he’s inside you.

Mr. Smith stands near every person, cursing and yelling, smoking and insulting. You call that a poem? You call that a sentence? What kind of a writer are you? What kind of a person are you? What kind of a wife/husband/child/lover are you? What kind of no-good, useless, idiotic idea is that? You beaner. You fatso. You wimp. You fool. You skinny bitch. You loser.

Your donuts, your lovely pale loops, your perfect circles, start to stick together and become deformed. Ruined. You’ll have to eat that spoiled meal, eat it and eat it until you throw up. And then Mr. Smith will make you re-cook that order all night long until you get it right. You’ll be in Tas-T Donuts for eternity. Mr. Smith will never let you climb up that hill. He will never unlock the door to the kitchen. He’ll never even let you out of the dumb waiter. If you don’t learn to silence Mr. Smith, you will never get home.

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Cuba + Kids – Water

Here was our first sight of our new landlord in Havana: on the landing behind a barricaded white door, a faked sticker on the jamb allowing him to rent, his pimp hat askew, grayed T-shirt too tight, belt buckle too big. My early life in Northern California should have taught me never to trust not Greeks bearing gifts but rather men of any nationality bearing ostentatious belt buckles. That said, there are lessons that lack guidebook, exam or even popularizing self-help book: one gets to keep on making the same mistakes over and over.

From under that pimp hat, Juan Ruiz smiled.

In contrast to everyone else in Cuba, even his Spanish vowels came out with a slow drip, as if incredible pumps of internal pressure and springs of ethical concerns, pushed against the coils of hard life lessons, made him respect the speed of words: they emerged in inverse proportion to the thoughtfulness required just to deal. Because “stoic” and “taciturn” are adjectives rarely wielded in my family about anyone, I had to respect the
guy. After all, I had come to Cuba to research boxing, and the sophrosyne of boxers—sophrosyne being perhaps one of the most beautiful of the four classical virtues, a self-discipline requiring that one hold off from the temptations of lesser wisdom—drew me.

Juan Ruiz, in his self-presentation, exemplified sophrosyne, a trait above and beyond the usual weary endurance of Cubans barely subsisting off the tickets in shrinking ration books.

“You want rent?” he said, because he had rented to other foreigners and liked to practice English.

In this venture toward understanding sophrosyne, in the interest of expanding everyone  else’s horizons, I was in Cuba with semi-willing artist mate and two curious daughters, aged eight and four. It is not that I had lacked a certain amount of propagandizing in selling everyone on the plan. “You could do pen-and-ink studies of Old Havana!” I let slip to artist mate. “Before it becomes Starbucks and McDonalds.” To the oldest daughter, I had suggested the possibility of becoming fluent in Spanish, making friends from a world as removed as possible from our tiny upstate New York hamlet, which no one would ever describe as ethnically diverse, and practicing swimming in the blue waters, a sort of Disneyland approaching embargoland, as if one could accomplish some part of the rubber-raftable ninety miles back to Florida. To the youngest, I was not sure what to say, but she liked the idea of going to Koo-ba, which probably sounded like a cute emporium in which plush teddy bears frolic.

I was talking to Juan Ruiz while standing next to a saintly woman whom I had met in one of the shared ten-peso cabs. Contemporary Cuba runs on two currencies: one is the convertible currency, meant for foreigners, in which one can buy such luxury items as, well, soap, cereal, and, it has to be added, in a proleptic maneuver, water. The other currency is the national currency, in which most Cubans are paid an average of twenty-six dollars a month. With this money, a citizen’s ration book in hand, most go to the government markets, often open-air affairs but sometimes looking like a dark tobacconist’s stall or a big meat warehouse, and for ten cents get a good amount of rice, for the odd twenty cents even some packaged foods, usually imported from China, such as crackers, and whatever vegetables Fidel’s minions have mandated onto the trucks that day: on one day, every stall will be serving up eggplant, unripe pineapple, and onions. A family can survive, almost.

Most families I encountered, living in small apartments into which they had been literally grandfathered, make do with their salaries by such mild rackets as paying off their monthly water or electricity inspectors five dollars in foreign currency, a currency you get from consorting with tourists, relatives abroad, or from sisters married into proto-prostitution with some Italian or Swiss man, a man usually as rich in avoirdupois and emotional autism as he is in gifts of cash. Back on the island, such foreign remissions, whether generated night or day, matter. Five foreign bucks and a whole building can use an infinite amount of electricity or water. The apartments, in which inhabitants conspire with well-revolutionized collectivist zeal, usually boast a reserve water tank on the roof in the event, not infrequent, that the city fails them. Viva la Revolución! scream the banners around the city, or the more oxymoronic 53 Years of Revolution!

That impossibility noted, one of the best aspects of Cuba—despite all the foreign press about its failed transportation system—remains the way you can travel within a city. Your two main choices, if you live close to the way most Cubans live, remain these: you may ride a bus or you may attempt to hail a ten-peso cab.

About the first: never before have I encountered a worldly paradise like that of a Cuban bus. To approach a bus in Cuba with a child or two is to encounter the true moral being of the revolution, the new man about whom Che opined. There the bus, provenance 1972, with its broken windows and ill-fitting tires, screeches up to the corner. Bodies stagger out from the press of others. There you approach, a humble petitioner, your coins and a stroller, perhaps, hanging off one hand, a child off another. Then comes the magic moment of comprehension. Because the mind of the crowd understands: the magi have come.

Miraculously, as if there were room to do this, a path carves through bodies. Hands hoist your child as if she were less bodysurfing punk star circa 1988 and more saintly visitation. Your child, exhilarated with a tiny dose of terror, doglegs past the driver, to be given a prime seat at the front of the bus, often on some grandmother’s lap, a woman who acts as if for this exact moment she had been born, as if holding a little sweaty child on her lap redeems all life’s sufferings. Never mind that the weight of an American child could impair the inevitable varicosity in her legs after years of sugar-and-coffee-fueled backbreaking work at a factory or at one of the dark tobacconists.

No. A child comes and joy lights the faces of all bus riders. This is more than making do; this is humanity as celebration.

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A Little Bit of Fun Before He Died

Only weeks before, I’d been across the street at the University of Texas at El Paso museum, working a three-story add-on as a carpenter—the second-highest-paid worker on the job site at five dollars an hour. It was because I could also tie steel, an ironworker’s trade, that I got this big-time wage. No, it was not good money even then, in 1979, except in El Paso. Yes, I was proud of myself to have backdoored my way into an English department teaching job that included a well-airconditioned, downstairs office. It really belonged to a full-timer who never used it, and because he liked me, he wanted to help a young writer out. A sweaty carpenter banging nails those weeks ago, now I was banging an electric typewriter, finishing my first novel. I would learn that lots of my new colleagues there didn’t really like my having an office. I was only a part-timer—a couple of remedial composition classes I had to learn to teach under the false assumption, theirs, that I had a graduate degree in English. But there I was, a luxurious office completely to myself, with a sweet, picturesque view of the very poorest lean-to shacks of Juárez across the border. Typing. I was not unhappy with the change in my personnel status.

Next door was one of the many and mostly shared offices. I did not socialize much with campus people, so initially I was not very responsive when Bill Ripley, half of my next-door neighbor, interrupted the precious artist-at-work concentration I kept on my first opus. He was bigger than those numbers, six-two. His belly was prominent even then, and that’s what I and many called him, too, Belly Ripley. He showed much personal abuse all over his body already, beginning with the acne scars from his youth. I don’t remember what his exact first words to me were, how he charmed me, but I am sure it had to do with his country-boy grin, and I’m sure it had something to do with him suggesting how both of us surely needed an afternoon toddy. I had never heard the word “toddy” before, and so I certainly had never had one. So I stepped out with him, persuaded, sold, actually smiling about cutting my afternoon schedule short.

I think the word “toddy” didn’t only make me want to laugh in itself. It was the way Ripley made the word’s fussiness sound even funnier, especially as it echoed in an air-conditioned hall at the Texas-Mexico border. It was so, like, Eastern—at once both sophisticated and classy, yet mocking that pretension. Like drinking hot tea in teacups and saucers with those rings in the middle to secure the cup there and teaspoons (as in, spoons for tea) for, I guess, a lump of sugar. Or honey. Or maybe to stir milk? I hadn’t been taught any of this in my youth. El Paso was the most East I’d ever lived. Whereas Ripley, with his Texas drawl, he’d gone to Harvard. I knew what Harvard was like; I knew what the White House was. President Kennedy went to Harvard. Ripley was the first person I ever met and talked to—had a toddy with, which he taught me was just a shot of whiskey at a bar—who’d gone to Harvard.

Not only that, Ripley’d published his first short story in the Harvard Crimson, the campus paper. Which was all the more impressive to me, as he thereby became the first person I hung out with who’d ever published anything. He’d turned down a scholarship offer, he told me, to play football at Texas. After Harvard, he got into a law school—I think in Colorado—but he hated law school and loved drugs and therefore lasted only a week, give or take. He moved to Austin. He had title, he would say, to some iddy biddy acres there in Central Texas, which, like anyone else who’d never been east of El Paso, I assumed was lots of dirt, not what I know now to be Dripping Springs, which is twenty miles west of Austin, in what is the idyllic Texas Hill Country. He began to sell marijuana on a larger scale than many, moving it out of West Texas to the north and east. He had three women drivers who, he claimed, listened to him attentively and loved his cocaine. Women, he explained, were the best drivers because the cops never suspected them. When one of them got pulled over with a few hundred pounds of weed, his theory was proven to be mistaken. Except his stepdaddywas a congressman in Colorado, and he knew a lawmaker in El Paso. His conviction was adjudicated into a sentence of him never leaving the city limits of El Paso without permission while enrolling himself in a master’s degree program in creative writing at UTEP.

I knew nothing about creative writing. Until that point, despite evidence everywhere that apparently didn’t register in my brain, I thought all writers were dead—not their literature, only them—and therefore I had a good shot at some openings. For years, I was the only living person I was conscious of who wrote. What I knew of the contemporary writing business came out of a used copy of Writer’s Market. In El Paso, with my new job, my outlook was transmogrifying. I had even befriended a much-praised, published poet and teacher who introduced me to Gary Snyder when he visited. We had dinner together at a small table! I watched and heard a spectacular Robert Bly reading—way before his men’s movement fetish and probably before that drum-beating-in-a-circle thing. And the faculty at UTEP, my “colleagues,” included Raymond Carver. Now there was Ripley: my first fiction-writer role model.

I liked knowing men who were older than me, because I liked learning from them, and so I liked Ripley, even when I wasn’t always comfortable with him. First of all, despite being a large landowner in Central Texas (he’d sell an acre now and then when he needed cash), he was always broke and mooching. He would often slump his big shoulders and virtually pull out the pockets of his pants right when he got to the cash register with a bottle of whiskey, looking at me like a puppy dog. I didn’t really like whiskey, and though I plead guilty to drinking more of it than I ever had in my life, he drank three to my one. I lived in an apartment with only a wife, a double mattress on the floor we shared, a rocking chair, a TV (black-and-white), and a newborn baby who shared the rocking chair with her and the mattress with both of us. This was the entire expanse of our belongings besides clothes and books. I barely made the monthly rent, and that was with construction side jobs I did.

Along with Ripley’s busty girlfriend, whom he called Peaches or Cookies or Creamy—I can’t remember—we were once asked to leave a late-night Denny’s. They’d been eating their food with too much wet, licking spoons and chewing on forks, too drunk and high, and I did laugh too loud myself, too. Though I’d concede that the noise at our table didn’t help, in my opinion the heap of staring was out of a visual taboo—his petite girlfriend, who was in her early twenties, looked fifteen and would often be taken for his daughter if left without an introduction, while he, being over-indulgent in every category of intake, had more middle-aged bulk, and his other excesses prematurely lined his face into that of a man in his mid-forties. Not that the two of them couldn’t in fact offend. Back in his apartment, little Peachie might jump on his stuffed chair, straddle his lap, and pull up her top so that he could nibble and suckle. I had to tell Ripley that, nice as that seemed even from my distance, could he please take me home?

Numbers of events in his El Camino. I had to tell him often to be careful when he spoke about Mexicans. Always uncomfortable with his cracker side, I would steam about his favorite descriptives. When I’d blow, he’d say I was crazy and exaggerating and being overly sensitive. Once he was driving and another car did something he didn’t appreciate. Niggers, he yelled, though none were black. I had to tell him: Let’s be clear, Ripley. You ever have a problem with any black dudes because you just said that, I’m telling you now I do not and will not back you up. You are on your own, and I will make it very well known whose side I’m on. He could only shake his big head and go like it was me making something of nothing, not getting his humor, while I would wonder what I was doing riding with him. I didn’t drink whiskey and I didn’t like shitkickers. Maybe it’d be considered exciting to be moving at a hundred mph, bouncing high off the small rises on Mesa, that big westside El Paso street, but I was never drunk enough to not think it was way stupid and beg him to stop. Like slowing through red lights and stop signs, driving too fast was his deal. Maybe the draw for me was that Harvard mix in it: He was going maybe forty-five through Kern Place—a desirable, rich, attractive Anglo neighborhood—and ahead not fifty yards, on the left side of the street, a yardman in a straw hat was raking leaves. Without losing any speed, Ripley steered that El Camino and ran it over the curb and onto the middle of the lawn and into a stop exactly beside the man who could not have moved fast enough. He rolled down his window. As stunned as I was as a passenger, the Mexicano clutched the rake.His mouth might not have been open, even if it seems as though it was to my memory. I swear he didn’t blink. I, too, would have thought I had just survived death were I him. And then, as he did, I started listening to Ripley lecturing on the topic of life’s sorrows and expectations after retirement from sports. The yardman, who I don’t think was following a word of it even if he knew enough English, didn’t move, didn’t flinch, made no sound whatsoever. It certainly was not as hilarious as it hit me, drunk enough, but I was crying with shameless and shameful laughter.

Laughter. Laughing was how we wrote a poem one afternoon at a relatively new gourmet-style coffee shop on Mesa Street. Ripley was in a graduate class in poetry and had to write a poem. He didn’t write poetry and, no, I certainly could not help him—never an attempt at verse ever. “Come on, Dagoberto.” There was always something funny, humor-inducing, about Ripley even saying my name. It alone caused me to grin. Maybe how he made each syllable a drawled word of badly accented Spanish. … He wrote a line. I shook my head. Then we had to talk and figure until we started laughing about what we were trying to do—you know, scamming out a poem for a class to keep his parole grades up—and it got so that what the poem should be about was us doing this. That is, not working, drinking, high, creating poetry, more cheating on “homework” than making art. Which was the art of it! As true poets, he’d pronounced us, we were so often so very busy “researching” for serious art that it was demeaning to have to write obligatory poetry for a class. Therefore, it wasn’t fair. He’d write a line about life not being fair. Once a line made us both laugh, it became a keeper, and more lines piled up. It got so that, toward the end, we were laughing way out of control. A funny poem, the fun, much of it off the page, was that we were writing this at all, and editing it through laughing. We were just messed up, until finally he was downing coffee to get sober enough to type it up and submit it to his early-evening seminar.

The poem was about us sitting there in an air-conditioned coffee shop, in the middle of a scorching desert afternoon in El Paso, having nothing but poetry to do, while everybody else out there in the world was responsibly employed. All we wanted to do—all we had to do—was to have a little bit of fun. That was what Ripley always said, like it was his motto or creed. Especially when he was Rippedly, wasted on drugs or liquor, usually both, which was a lot. Funny, Ripley was a sad, self-destructive, self-abusing man. And when he was really too fucked up, so gone his mass became a limp blob of can-barely-move, he might get his breath too close to my face, and in his most insincere voice, say, “Dagoberto, all I want to do is have a little bit of fun before I die. Now is that too much to ask for? Is it?”

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The Monkey Look

I stop blood. I stop it between rounds for fighters so they can stay in the fight. Blood ruins some boys. It was that way with Sonny Liston, God rest his soul. Bad as he was, he’d see his own blood and fall apart.

I’m not the one who decides when to stop the fight, and I don’t stitch up cuts once the fight’s over. And it’s not my job to hospitalize a boy for brain damage. My job is to stop blood so the fighter can see enough to keep on fighting. I do that, maybe I save a boy’s title. I do that one little thing and I’m worth every cent they pay me. I stop the blood and save the fight, the boy loves me more than he loves his daddy.

But you can’t always stop it. Fight guys know this. If the cut’s too deep or wide, or maybe you got a severed vein down in there, the blood keeps coming. Sometimes it takes two or three rounds to stop the blood, maybe more—the boy’s heart is pumping so hard, or he cuts more. But once you get the coagulant in, sometimes you need another whack right on the cut itself. That can drive the blood away from the area, so now the stuff you’re using can start to work. What I’m saying is there are all kinds of combinations down in the different layers of meat.

Some fighters cut all the time, others hardly ever. It’s not something a guy can do anything about, being a bleeder, any more than a guy with a glass jaw can do something about not having a set of whiskers. I don’t know if it’s the bone structure around the eyes, or something to do with the thickness of the skin. Some guys get cut damn near every fight, and it doesn’t take long for a bleeder’s eyes to droop from severed nerves. They develop a monkey look around the eyes. Nature builds up scar tissue to protect the eyes, but in boxing the scar tissue can be the problem—the soft skin next to the scar will tear free, because of the difference in texture.

Boy gets cut, I always crack the seal of a new one-ounce bottle of adrenaline-chloride solution 1/1000. When it’s fresh, it’s clear like water, but with a strong chemical smell. The outdated stuff turns a light pinkish color, or a pale piss-yellow. When that happens, it couldn’t stop fly blood. I might pour adrenaline into a small plastic squeeze bottle if I need to use sterile gauze pads along with a swab, but I never use adrenaline from a previous fight. I dump it, even if three quarters of it is left. This way it can’t carry blood over from one fight to another, and none of my boys can get AIDS from contaminated coagulant. I’d give AIDS to myself before I’d give it to one of my boys.

I used to train fighters. But I got too old. I was walking around with my back and neck crippled up all the time from catching punches. My first fight working the corner of Hoolie Garza came after his trainer talked to me, Ike Goody. Ike was a club fighter in the fifties, but like most first-rate trainers, he was never a champ. With the exception of Floyd Patterson, who trained his adopted son, Tracy Harris Patterson, I don’t remember another champ who ever trained a champion. Hoolie Garza is a smart featherweight Mexican boy who thinks he’s smarter than he is. He was born in Guaymas, raised illegal in East Los Angeles. He fought with his big brothers for food. His real name is Julio César Garza, but as a kid he was nicknamed Juli — in Spanish it’s pronounced hoolie.

After the Korean War, I went to school in Mexico City on the G.I. Bill. I wanted to learn Spanish, maybe to teach it. So I hung around with Mexicans, not Americans. Some of my friends were bullfighters. I had a fling with the daughter of the secretary to the President of Mexico, a natural blonde who drove a car with license-plate number 32. She, God bless her, was one of the ways I learned Spanish on several levels and in different accents. I usually keep my Spanish to myself, like a lot of Latinos in the U.S. keep their English to themselves. But if they find out and ask about it, I tell them I was a student in Mexico and Spain both, and I say, Hablo el español sólo si me conviene—l speak Spanish only -when it’s to my advantage. They always smile. Some laugh out loud and wag their finger.

A lot of Latino fighters coming to fight in L.A. use me in their corner; some fly me to Vegas. I’m as loyal to them as I am to an American, or to an Irishman, which is why I never bet on a fight I’m working—not on the boy I’m working with and not on the other fighter, either. This way, if I somehow screw up and cause my boy to lose, it can never be said that I did business.

Ike caught up with me at Bill Slayton’s gym in South Central. “Hoolie’s got a fight in Tijuana. He wants you.”

“What’s he getting?”

“Short money. You know about his California suspension problem? The Mexicans know about it, too. A lousy $2,500 for ten rounds. It’s with a tough TJ boy, Chango Pedroza. They want to make a name off us. It’s Hoolie’s third fight after his suspension. Two wins by kayo. Hoolie says he’ll pay the regular 2%. I told him no good, you won’t work ten rounds for that, but he kept after me, so I said I’d talk to you.”

“He smoking dope again?”

Ike shrugged his shoulders. “I know he’s hurting for bread.”

“I don’t work that cheap, fifty dollars. Tell him to get someone from down there.”

“He’s a bleeder. That’s why he wants you.”

“It’s 150 miles down there, Ike, so I go for a tank of gas, right? Now I don’t get home until after four a.m. I don’t work for fifty here in L.A., unless it’s a four-rounder.”

See, Ike’s always told me the truth, always done square business with me, so I believe that Ike is telling me the truth about what Hoolie told him about the purse, but I know some things about Hoolie, and who’s to know what kind of truth he’s telling Ike? Let me tell you, Hoolie’s a hell of a fighter, a tough little bastard who will meet you in the middle of the river and fight you. He’s got an underslung jaw and a hooked nose that points off at an angle. And scar tissue. At 29, he’s losing his hair, so he shaves his head. Tattoos from jail and from every country he’s fought in, roses and daggers, same old shit. Fought for a title his third fight out of the joint, where he did time for assault with a deadly weapon. Not his hands, he didn’t want to hurt his hands; he pistol-whipped some guy who smiled at his wife. He almost won his title shot, but he got tired late, and the other guy came on in the 12th. Hoolie, like always, was cut up, but the cuts didn’t become a factor. After the title fight was over, Hoolie failed his piss test. They found traces of marijuana and suspended him in California for a year, and held up his purse as well. It means Hoolie can’t fight anywhere else in the States that counts, because most state boxing commissions honor each other’s ban. But Hoolie’s a good draw, promoters from all over want him, because he’s so tough and because of the blood. That’s why Hoolie has to fight for short money in Australia, in Latin America, in the Philippines, wherever there are little guys. And to stay busy, so he can be ready for his next shot at a belt.

So after Ike makes three phone calls, I settle for a hundred. I take it because Ike is a long-time friend, and because it gives me an excuse to go down to a seafood restaurant there in TJ named La Costa, a place I can get some of the best camarrones rancheros in the world—shrimps in hot sauce with garlic and peppers and onions and tomatoes and cilantro. Wash it down with a couple of Bohemias. For appetizers, they serve deep-fried freshwater smelt with fresh salsa and limes. I say an Act of Contrition every time I leave the place. Been going to La Costa thirty years.

I also take the fight because once the suspension is lifted, Hoolie’s sure to get another title fight. He uses me, I can make a little money. Ballpark, I get first cut of the purse, two percent. Some guys get more, some less. It’s business. On a $50,000 fight, that means a thousand for me. But maybe my boy doesn’t get cut at all, so I just sit ringside and watch. But I still get paid. Bigger fights, I try to get the same 2% if I can, or I charge a flat fee. But a four-round prelim boy, he needs a cutman same as a champ, right? So if I’m going to be at the arena with another boy anyway, and I like the prelim boy and his trainer, or maybe I feel sorry for a scared kid, a lot of times I don’t charge —the prelim boy’s only making $400 in the first place. Out of that, he’s got to pay his trainer 10% off the top, and his manager another 33 1/3. Ike doesn’t charge his prelim boys.

But this is a game of money, right? So I got to be careful. I charge too little at the start, some boys won’t respect me, and then they don’t want to pay more when they make more. And some will stiff you, even after you save their careers.

Before I left Ike at Slayton’s, I told him that the Tijuana Commission would look for any way to disqualify Hoolie, and to warn him that they’re sure to make him take a piss test if he wins.

“You right, you right,” said Ike. “Damn.”

“Is he clean?”

“Say he is.”


The weigh-in is at noon the day of the fight. Hoolie’s staying in the same hotel where the fight’s going off. He wants to eat at five, but not in the hotel, where at lunch he was pestered by people after his autograph. He’s a big man in Mexico, what with him being born down there and making it in the States. He asks me about seafood and if I know a good place to eat in town. I tout him on La Costa, but tell him it isn’t cheap. In TJ, he’s got his wife, his mother, and two brothers he’s got to feed; he’s got to feed Ike and me; and Ike’s back-up cornerman. There are two more to feed, a homeboy member of Hoolie’s Toonerville gang and a black kick-boxer, a kid called Tweety, who’s as polite and well-spoken as a Jesuit. With so many eating, it has to cost Hoolie a bundle. I wondered why he’s paying for people who aren’t family or working his corner, but he paid the tab without a bitch. No problem, until the waiter collected and counted Hoolie’s money. I could tell from the waiter’s face that Hoolie had stiffed him. So now I got to wonder if he’ll do the same to me. I slip the waiter $30 for himself. With the tank of gas I had to buy, I’m working for nothing, right? The adrenaline I know I’ll be using on Hoolie’s cuts later that night has already cost me another fourteen dollars and change. But what am I going to do? I know these waiters for years and I can’t let them get stiffed on my call.


In the second round Hoolie’s eyes started to bleed. I kept him going, and as long as Ike and I could get him ready for the next round, he was standing up at the ten-second warning and waiting for the bell. Little shit, he recuperates between rounds better than anyone I ever saw. Punch by punch, he wore Pedroza down. Pedroza went after Hoolie’s eyes, twisting his fists on impact to tear open the cuts even more. Hoolie stayed close, went to the body with shots to the liver, ribs, and heart. The liver shots made Pedroza gasp, the heart shots made him wobble.

Pedroza was a local boy, a good fighter with the will to win. The crowd was clearly in his corner, and so was the ref, who took a point away from Hoolie by calling a phony low blow.

In Mexico, if somebody’s cut, they tend to let the fights go longer than in the U.S. But if you happen to be the guy from out of town—and you’re the one who’s cut—and if the promoter is looking to get a win for his boy—you know you better knock him out in a hurry, because they’ll stop the fight on you as soon as they figure the local boy’s ahead on points. The ref kept calling time and looking at Hoolie’s cuts, but I had stopped the blood and the ref had to let him go on.

I repaired Hoolie’s eyes after the third and the fourth. After the fifth, I did it again, then swabbed his nose with adrenaline to jack some energy into him through the mucous membrane. Hoolie punched himself on each side of his face and slid out to the center of the ring, his hands intentionally down low. Before Pedroza could get off on what he thought was an opening, Hoolie caught him with a sneak right-hand lead. Then he caught him with a short left hook to the liver. An uppercut put Pedroza down on the canvas. He twisted into a tight ball of hurt. The time keeper and the ref stretched the count, but they could have counted to 50 for all it mattered.

The crowd was howling and throwing beer bottles into the ring. We got to the dressing room as fast as we could. All of Hoolie’s people crowded in, while Ike and I were pumping fluids into him and trying to towel him down. We were all happy and toothy. It’s always like that when you win. A bottle of tequila was passed around and Hoolie took a couple of hits.

Tweety went into the crapper, turned off the light, and hid behind the partly closed door.

Two minutes later, the Commission doctor arrived, followed by the promoter whose boy Hoolie had just dropped. With a smug look, the doctor held up a plastic specimen bottle. Ike glanced over at me, rolled his eyes.

“La-la-la,” said the doctor, sure he had busted Hoolie.

If Hoolie fails the test, the promoter’s boy doesn’t suffer the loss on his record, and the promoter doesn’t have to pay Hoolie. Hoolie doesn’t get paid, neither does Ike, neither do I.

Hoolie took the bottle with a smile. He went into the crapper, pushing the door ahead of him. He dropped his trunks and cup to his knees, and stood where the doctor could still see his bare ass. From my position, I could see the action. Hoolie handed the bottle to Tweety, who already had his dick out. Tweety pissed into the bottle. Hoolie sighed a piss sigh and jerked his arm around like he was shaking his dick. Hoolie took the bottle back from Tweety and handed it to the doctor.

From Hoolie’s relaxed attitude, and from the heat of the specimen bottle, the doctor was no longer so sure he’d nailed an offender. The promoter saw the doctor’s face, and began talking to himself.

What the doctor and the promoter were trying to do disgusted me, but the game Hoolie and Tweety were running got to me. I love boxing like I love the sacraments. You play by the rules. You never throw a fight, and you never throw intentional low blows — unless the other guy does it first. When I realized that Hoolie was still smoking dope, I got out of there as soon as I could.

“Hoolie,” I said, “I got to go. How about takin care of me.”

“I’m broke until the promoter pays me, man.”

“When’s that?”

“Tomorrow morning when the bank opens, homes. Hey, I’m good for it, you know me, man. I don’t see you around, I’ll give your piece to Ike so he can take care of you, what you say?”

“It’s only a hundred.”

“I’m broke, man, that’s why I took this shit fight, and my wife’s knocked up.”

I took off. I saved a doper’s ass, and it cost me money. I knew then I’d never get my hundred. It wasn’t enough to shoot him for, so I let it go.

It was one a.m. when I got back to the border. There were long lines waiting to get across. Vendors selling hats and serapes and pottery stood along the Mexican side. Groups of ten-year-old boys begging for change flowed like alley cats along the lines of cars; haggard women with scrawny kids sat by the roadside with their hands out. A stunted three-year-old boy stood rigidly between two lines of traffic. Tears streaked his dusty little face, snot ran down over his lips. He wailed a senseless little song and beat two small pieces of scrap wood together. Sanity had left his blue eyes. On the way home I stopped at a Denny’s for coffee and a piece of gummy lemon pie.


My brother died suddenly and left me some income property on Bull Shoals Lake down on the Missouri-Arkansas border. I moved back there to fix it up and sell it. Three months after I’m in Missouri, Hoolie gives me a call. He says he’s got a new trainer and a manager from Mexico. The manager’s positioned him into a WBC title fight with Big Willie Little in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I want you in my corner, homes.”

“Why Kansas City?”

“Big Willie’s from there. It’s a big deal on one of the riverboat casinos, Pay TV, all the shit.”

“Why me?”

“The promoter only came up with four plane tickets, and I’m using one for my wife. That leaves tickets for my trainer and one more cornerman from out here. Besides, I don’t want to chance it with some hillbilly white-bread mayonnaise sandwich from back there, right?”

“Like I say, why me?”

“You’re the best, man, look what you done for me in TJ, man, they’da stopped it except for you. Besides, you’re already back there, homey.”

“How’d you get my number?”

“From Ike.”

When I heard that Ike had given him my number, I knew Ike was scheming on the punk, that Ike wanted my presence in Kansas City, and I got interested.

“You owe me a hundred dollars, forget the gas and what else it cost me in TJ.”

“I know I do, man, but you gotta know how broke I been since the suspension. It’s over now, but my old lady’s got cancer in the tit, ese, and it’s costing me, but I’ll give you your bread, no sweat, man.”

“Is Tweety going to be there?”

“No, man, I’m squeaky clean for this one.”

“Here’s my deal,” I said. “It’s something like three hundred miles from here to Kansas City. That’s all day both ways and three tanks of gas. So if I do come, I don’t want to waste my time, understand?”

“No doubt about it.”

“How much you gettin? Level with me.”

“Yeah, yeah, only fifty grand, see? I’m takin it cheap just to get a shot at that mayate Big Willie mothafuck.” Mayate is a word some Mexicans use for black people. A mayate is a black bug that lives in dung. “I’ll take his black ass easy.”

I don’t trust Hoolie the fight’s only for fifty thousand, not with his name on the card, but if I can make a grand, it’ll buy the paint I need to finish the work on my brother’s buildings.

“I’ll come,” I say. “But up front you send me the hundred you owe me by overnight mail. I don’t get it overnight, forget it. Once I drive up to Kansas City, the day I get there you pay me a thousand up front, which is 2%. Or I turn around and come back home.”

“You got it, ese, no problem, man.”

“When’s the fight?”

“A week from Saturday. We’re flying in day after tomorrow.”

“When you want me there?”

“Promoter says two days before the fight, to get your license, and all. I already got a room in your name. Your meal tickets will be at the desk.”

“I don’t want to lay around that long, so I’ll be there one day before. Give my name to the commission at the weigh-in. I already got a Missouri license from a fight last month in St. Louis.”

He gave me the name of the casino and the address. I gave him my P.O. box number and the deal was made. It took three days for my hundred to get to me, because I live way out in the hills. I cashed Hoolie’s money order and drove down to Gaston’s on the White River for catfish, hush puppies, and pecan pie.

The day before the fight, at six in the morning, I picked up Highway 5 out of Gainesville, and slowly headed up the climb to Mansfield. It had snowed in the night and the shivery landscape glowed in the Ozark dawn. Before the turn-off to Almartha, I watched a ten-point buck and three does race below a line of cedars, the snow kicking up like puffs of fog. Going west from Mansfield took me through the rolling hills of Amish country, black horse-drawn buggies driven along the paved shoulder by bearded men in black wearing wide-brimmed round hats. I passed through Springfield and much later on up across the backwater of the Harry S Truman Dam to Clinton.

The snow on the highway had melted because of pounding semis long before I got to a little spot called Amy Jane’s Cafe in Collins, Missouri. I had two pieces of lemon pie with my coffee, which was country good. Pie and radio is how, in my family, we entertained ourselves during the great Depression. Even after World War II, when not everybody had TV sets. Picking up crumbs with my fork, I sat there thinking back. I do that more and more. I’ve started to miss people I’ve never missed before, to return to scenes from my childhood that are as fresh as if I was standing there again.

After taking the wrong exit twice in Kansas City, I got to the casino at 3:30. At the front desk they told me the weigh-in had been at noon, and that Hoolie’s fight would go off at eleven the following night. From fight guys, I also learned that Big Willie Little had been three pounds overweight, had had to take them off in the steam room. Three pounds is a ton to a featherweight. It sounded good for Hoolie.

After leaving my gear off in my room, I went to the buffet, where among other things they prepared fresh Chinese food. I hadn’t had good Chinese since L.A. In Springfield and Branson, and on down in Mountain Home, Arkansas, it was hog slop. The stuff in the casino was first rate and I stuffed myself. I wouldn’t eat anything else that day. When I finished, I went straight up to Hoolie’s room and asked for my thousand. He was playing dominoes with Policarpo Villa, a scumbag trainer from L.A. Policarpo likes to help other managers build a record for their fighters by feeding them inexperienced kids; for this he picks up a couple of hundred, a nice reward for destroying his own boys’ careers. He sports a mandarin mustache that he grows down over his mouth to hide his bad teeth, and he wears a white Stetson indoors and out. It turned out that Policarpo was Hoolie’s new trainer as well as his new manager. That saves Hoolie the 10% he’d have had to pay Ike, because a manager/trainer only gets 33%.

When Hoolie didn’t answer me about my dough and instead kept on playing dominoes, I started tipping his pieces over so Policarpo could see his numbers.

“Hey, watchoo doin, man? I was kicking his ass!”

“We got a deal, or not?”

“I’m playin dominoes, I’m thinking, man, I got ten bucks ridin!”

“I got a grand ridin. You got my money, or not?”

“I was gonna pay you out of my training expenses, ese, but I had to pay more for sparring partners back here than I thought, you know how that goes.”

“We got a deal or not?”

“We do, we do gots one. Only, look, I can only come up with three hundred now. Sparring partners back here tapped me, man, mother’s honor, but you’ll get the rest right after the fight when the promoter pays up, I promise.”

“Do yourself a favor. Cross my name out of your chump-change address book,” I said, and started for the door.

“Come on, come on, goddamnit! Don’t be like that, you got to go with the flow.”

Policarpo said, “Screw it. I’ll be the cut man, save us both fuckin money, ese.”

I laughed in his face. “You gonna handle cuts on this guy, and give him the right instructions in the corner in the one minute you got? You got a kit, one that’s ready to go? You got all the shit? You bring adrenaline? Missouri ain’t like California, you got to have a prescription for adrenaline here. And where you goin to find a drug store that even handles it? We’re dealin with a bleeder, did you miss that? Go ahead, lose the fuckin fight for him, I don’t give a rat’s ass. I’m gonna hang around just to watch the fucker bleed.”

“Calm down, calm down, ese, be cool,” said Hoolie. He turned to Policarpo. “How much you got on you?”

“Two hundred, that’s all I got.”

Hoolie counted out his three hundred and Policarpo added two hundred more. “Here,” said Hoolie. “Take it, homes, no shit, man, it’s all we got until after the fight. Gimme a break, O.K.? We’re gonna make big money together, you and me, word of honor.”

“Gimme an IOU for the five more you owe me,” I said, taking the five hundred. “You stiff me, I go to the commission.”

“Hey, you write it, I sign it, that’s how much I respect you, homes.”

I did and he did and I left. On my way out, he asked, “When am I gonna see you?” all humble and small and best of friends. “We got to get together before the fight so I know you don’t split, right?”

“You want your chiselin five hundred back?”

“I trust you, my brother, I didn’t mean nothin.”

“Your bout goes off at eleven. I’ll be in your dressing room at nine.”

“Hey, homes, no hard feelings, right?”

“Why would there be?”


The next day I slept late and took a walk down by the river. It was muddy and dark, and there were patches of foam in the weeds along the snow-covered bank. This was the river that Lewis and Clark took to open a way to the Pacific. I would love to have been along on that ride. Less than two hundred years ago, where I stood was uncharted Indian land. I wondered what kind of ride Hoolie planned for me.

I’d had a light breakfast and the cold air made me hungry. I went back for more Chinese. I was seated by the same hostess at the same table. The place wasn’t crowded and I noticed for the first time that the tables were arranged in little booths made up of dividers and screens for privacy. On my way back to my table, I saw that Hoolie and Policarpo were bent over hot tea at the table next to mine. I took the long way around. They hadn’t seen me, and when I sat down, I realized they were speaking Spanish. I had nothing to say to them. I’d handle the cuts, I’d collect my money, and I’d go back home and start painting. That was my deal, and I’d do it. I was kicking my own ass for showing up, but now that I was here, I was going to get my other five hundred. It was a rule.

Hungry as I was, at first I didn’t pay any attention to them. When I heard them scheming on million-dollar fights, I had to smile. Then I heard something about a two-hundred-thousand-dollar fight, and realized they were talking about the fight with Big Willie Little. I turned up both my hearing aids.

“I know they take taxes, but I don’t get what we do with what’s left of the two hundred thousand,” said Hoolie. “The promoter said we could cash his check here if we want to, but then what? I mean, we can’t pack it to L.A., right?”

Policarpo said, “Two ways. First, we could trust the promoter, and cash his check in L.A. But what if the check bounces? I say cash it here, so we got it in our hands. Then have the casino transfer the money to banks in L.A., one third to me, two thirds to you, like the big guy said.”

“How much we got left over from training-expense money?” asked Hoolie.

“About thirty-five hundred. One thousand for me and two for you after the cutman gets his five.”

“The cutman gets it in his ass,” said Hoolie, “that’s what he gets for hustling me.”

“He’ll be pissed, raza.”

“Son cosas de la vida—that’s life.”

“Can we get away with that?”

“What’s the old paddy cunt gonna do?”

“You signed your name, ese.”

“What I signed was Julio Cercenar Bauzá, not Julio César Garza.” They laughed about the one word, cercenar—to trim, to reduce. “Dumb old fuck didn’t see the difference.”

It was true. Because of Hoolie’s scrawl and fancy whorls, I hadn’t picked up the name switch.

“What if he says you signed it phony?” said Policarpo.

“I say I never signed it at all. He’s the one who wrote the IOU, not me, right?”

“What, we just split his money, one third/two thirds?”

“No,” said Hoolie, “half and half. After I kick the nig’s ass, we’ll go buy us some black pussy on the old man, eh?”

When they gave the high five, they saw me for the first time. I turned to one side and didn’t make eye contact.

“Hey, man,” said Hoolie, looking through the screen, “how long you been here?”

“Couple minutes,” I said, shoveling rice into my face with chop sticks. “What’s up?”

“We’re gonna take a little walk, it’s not too cold, and then maybe I’ll have me a little siesta,” said Hoolie, as he and Policarpo came around the divider. “How come you don’t say hello, or nothing, man?”

“I was eatin. Didn’t see you.”

“Yeah, we didn’t see you, too.”

They stood there while I continued to eat.

Policarpo said, “You don’t speak no Spanish, right?”

Hoolie’s eyes flicked between Policarpo and me.

I shrugged, kept eating. “About like the rest of the California gringos,” I said. “Cerveza, puta, and cuánto.”

That got a laugh and they left feeling satisfied. I went back for seconds, took my time, and chewed on the fact that I should be getting four thousand dollars, not one. There were big posters of Hoolie and Big Willie in the cafe. More were set up throughout the hotel. This was Big Willie’s fourth defense of his title and he hadn’t looked good in his last one. With his weight problem, and with Hoolie’s speed and boxing ability, it figured that Big Willie was due to lose. But he was a durable little battler who loved being champ. Under pressure he was mean. He would have regained his fluids since the weigh-in, and Big Willie could bang, even when he was tired. Of course, Señor Julio Cercenar Bauzá was known to bleed.

When I didn’t see anyone around that was connected with the fight, I went into the casino and checked the line. Big Willie was a 3-to-1 underdog because of his weight problem. That’s when I went to the nearest ATM and pulled some cash from three banks.

I looked for someone who knew me from nothing. There were hillbillies and bikers and college boys. There were sorority girls and telephone operators and welfare mothers. Old people and young. Sporting types, squares, drunks and junkies. All colors. None looked right, so I waited.

I got a whore, a skin-and-bones Thai whore with frizzed hair. She was maybe 30, but looked 50. I wondered how she could make a dime, much less pay the rent. I don’t know if she was a crackhead or had AIDS, but for sure she had lived hard in the night. She made me for a typical old John, someone who wanted to feel her, not fuck her. I told her what I wanted and that I’d pay two hundred. I told her that I’d be right on her tail, that if she made a run with my money I’d stab her. She understood. What I did was slip her 15 hundred-dollar bills in an envelope —to lay on Big Willie Little at the Sports Book. I win the bet, I pick up a fast forty-five hundred. Afterwards, I tailed her to a video game room. She gave me my fifteen hundred dollar print-out, and I gave her four fifties. She shoved them into her training bra.

She said, “You no wan’ mo’? You no wan’ bro jo’? I goo’.” I gave the poor bitch another hundred and told her to go home. She gave me a tight little smile, maybe the first she’d given in a year, maybe her last ever.

In my room, like I always do, I opened my aluminum attaché case and spread my goods out to make sure everything was there. But this time, instead of reaching for a new bottle of adrenaline, I unsnapped a flap pocket and took out an old bottle I knew had gone bad, an out-dated bottle I hadn’t used from a couple of years before. It was a bottle I kept in my kit just to have a back-up bottle if I ever needed one. I’d taped the lid so I wouldn’t make a mistake. When I broke the seal and poured some on a tissue, it was a pale piss-yellow. I mixed a fresh batch of salve, as I always do, using Vaseline and adrenaline. It smelled right, but the salve I prepared was from the piss-yellow stuff, not the clear. The salve’s color wasn’t affected. Once I made up the salve, I diluted the remaining solution with water to lighten the color. Under the ring lights, no one would notice, especially since it still smelled legit.

Even though I’m no longer a trainer, I always walk off the size of the ring. I test to see how tight or loose the ropes are. I check how hard or soft the canvas is, which is to say how fast or slow it will be. I check the steps up to the ring, how solid and wide they are, and how much room there will be at ringside. This time I checked dick.

It was a twelve-round fight and it went off on time. Hoolie and Big Willie split the first two rounds, but Hoolie came on in the third. In the fourth, each fighter knocked the other down, but neither could put the other away. Hoolie had planned to fight Big Willie from the outside, to keep him at the end of his punches, but Big Willie wouldn’t cooperate. The fifth was even, but at the end of the round, Hoolie returned to the corner with a small laceration in his left eyelid. I was quick into the ring and used just enough fresh adrenaline, along with pressure, to temporarily stop the flow of blood. I also used the phony salve, which meant there would be no coagulant continually working in the wound.

Hoolie was winning the sixth easy. Near the end of the round, Big Willie countered, whacking Hoolie on the way in with a solid one-two/one-two combination to the face, the second left-right even harder than the first. Suddenly there was a deep cut above Hoolie’s right eye, and the cut in the eyelid was split wide open. The ref called time and looked at the cuts, but he let the fight continue. By the bell, Hoolie was scraping at both eyes to clear his vision.

I cleaned the wounds with sterile gauze and applied pressure with both thumbs. Once the cuts were clean, I applied some more of my out-dated piss-adrenaline.

Hoolie said, “You can fix it for me, right, homes?”

“No sweat, man.”

“You’re the best.”

Because I had cleaned the cuts properly and because of the pressure I applied before and along with the swab, and because of the bogus salve I packed into the holes, it appeared that I had solved the problem. Policarpo and the other cornermen were so busy giving Hoolie instructions and watering him that I could have used green paint and they wouldn’t have noticed.

The bell for the seventh sounded. Big Willie and Hoolie fought like bats, each turning, each twisting and bending, each moving as if suspended in light, neither stepping back, both wanting the title, both ripping mercilessly into the other. Both were splattered with Hoolie’s blood. The head of each fighter was snapping back, and the ribs of both were creaking. Big Willie suffered a flash knockdown, but he was up again by the count of two. As he took the mandatory eight-count, his eyes were focused on Hoolie like a rattler’s on a rat. The ref waved the fighters on. Big Willie stepped up and delivered a left-right-left combination, the second left hand snapping like it had come off a springboard. It would have destroyed most welterweights, but Hoolie grabbed Big Willie and held on.

The round ended and I cleaned the wounds and applied more pressure. I used more piss yellow.

“I thought you fixed it, ese,” said Hoolie, his voice coming out small between bruised lips.

“I did fix it,” I said. “But you let him pop you, so it opened up on me. Be cool. Go with the flow.”

In the eighth, Big Willie looked exhausted, but there was no quit in him. He sucked it up and concentrated his shots on Hoolie’s cuts. Blood filled Hoolie’s eyes until he was punching blindly and getting hit no matter how he tried to cover up. People at ringside were shielding themselves from the flying blood. Big Willie saw the ruined flesh and his heart jacked up as his own adrenaline pounded through him. Walking through Hoolie’s wild punches, he drilled more shots into Hoolie’s blood-blind eyes. Two more cuts opened in Hoolie’s eyebrows. Veins weren’t cut, but blood pumped down, and the fans were yelling to the ref to stop it. He called time and waved in the ring doctor, who immediately stopped the fight.

Big Willie Little, still the featherweight champion.

In the corner, the doctor checked Hoolie’s eyes. By then I had used fresh adrenaline, which stopped the blood cold. The cuts were an inch and a half, two inches long, which is big-time when it’s around the eyes. But like I say, no vein was cut, and with the right stuff in there, Hoolie could have fought all night. Since Big Willie was sure to have run out of gas, and since I had no trouble stopping the cuts when I wanted to, I figured Hoolie should be the new champ. Except for me. Son cosas de la fucking vida.

Hoolie’s cornermen were washing him down with alcohol and the doctor had stitched up three of the cuts when the promoter came in with Hoolie’s check. He was a big round Afrikaner with a walrus mustache and a huge Dutch gut from Johannesburg. He had kind, wise eyes and seemed to float rather than walk.

“Too bad about the cuts,” he said. “I thought Little was ready to go.”

“I beat Big Willie’s fucking ass my eyes don’t go,” said Hoolie, who was desolate from the loss.

“You’ve got one of the best cutmen I ever saw,” the promoter said. “Cool under fire, he was. I watched him. Did everything right.” He sucked on his mustache. “What was the grease from the little container?”

I pulled out the piss salve. I unscrewed the wide lid. “Smell.”

“Ahh, yes, good lad, you mix adrenaline right into the grease, yes? Keeps working, right?”

“That’s it.”

“Tough break, Hoolie being a bleeder.”

“Sure is. Listen,” I said. “I know it’s not my place, but I’m not going back to L.A. with these guys. I’m wondering if there’s some way they can cash out in the casino? So they can take care of me before they take off?”

The promoter looked at Hoolie. Neither he nor Policarpo said anything.

“I’ve got an IOU,” I said.

Hoolie saw that the promoter realized something wasn’t right. He played dumb. “But once we cash the check,” he asked, “we can’t have the money transferred to L.A., can we?”

“Certainly can. Like I previously explained, we can arrange the transfer of funds through the casino.”

“Ah, yeah, I remember now. Cool.”

At the cashier’s window, Policarpo counted out my money in English. “One hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, five hundred.”

As he handed the bills to me, I glanced at Hoolie, whose bandaged eyes were telling me he’d never use me in his corner again. I love a guy who says he’s going to fuck you because you won’t let him fuck you. In his ass.

As I re-counted the first two bills in English, I decided to lay rotten eggs in Hoolie’s mind. Without a break, I slipped into sing-song Mexican street-Spanish. “Trescientos, cuatrocientos, quinientos. Correcto, mano three hundred, four hundred, five hundred. Correct, my brother.”

Hoolie remembered our conversation over my Chinese food. “Hey, you speak Spanish?”

Now I went into a guttural, old-man Castillian. “Pues, coño, but only if it’s to my advantage.” Pues, coño is what nailed it—well, of course, cunt.

Hoolie blinked six times. Policarpo’s jaw flopped open. For the first time I saw fear in Hoolie’s eyes. Did I fuck him or didn’t I?

I left him standing at attention. I showered and packed and at two in the morning went down to the casino. I saw the last of the fight guys on their way out. I pissed away a fast fifty on the quarter slots to pass time. I knew Ike had watched the fight and would know that something had gone down. We would never talk about it. I waited until three o’clock and collected my bet, plus my original fifteen. I slept for a couple of hours, had three cups of coffee in the coffee shop, and checked out.

It was 7:15 when I eased the old truck into traffic. I listened to news for a while, then switched to a jazz station that was playing Jackie McClean. I headed home the way I’d come. There was more snow on the ground, like a Christmas card.

When I got back to Collins, I pulled into Amy Jane’s. Pie was in the air. A good ol’ boy in a John Deere cap recognized me from the fight.

“Buddy, you looked good on TV last night. Too bad about your boy, tough little booger.”

“Real tough.”

I ordered two pieces of lemon pie with my coffee, and then I found myself on the couch sitting next to my father. He was leaning into our new radio, an inlaid upright Philco with a magical green tuning light. It was June 18, 1941, at the Polo Grounds. Irish Billy Conn, the former light-heavyweight champ, and Joe Louis. Louis outweighed Conn by better than 25 pounds. In the thirteenth round, Billy went for the kill and hurt Louis early on —my father was yelling at the radio—but Louis rallied and knocked Conn out at 2:52.

At the count often, I watched some of my father die. As he sat with his red face in his oil-driller’s hands, my mother turned off the radio. We were to eat lemon meringue pie after the fight, my father’s favorite. I was able to eat a little piece, but not my dad, though he tried. He fell off the wagon that night.

I finished my coffee and at the table paid the waitress.

“You didn’t eat your pie.”

“Lost my appetite.”

I fiddled with my spoon. I sat for a while looking at my knees. I counted my keys. I fished out an El Rey Del Mundo Robusto Suprema, a hand-made maduro from Honduras that comes wrapped in white tissue. I’d fire up that spicy pup and smoke it down the highway for a good hour and a half, chew on it for more.

By the time I got up to the counter, my appetite was back. I smiled the waitress over and ordered country —a deep-fried pork tenderloin sandwich, with pickles and chips, and coffee, all to go. She didn’t know what was going on. And pies. Two gooseberry and two rhubarb. And two lemon, too. I like tart.

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The Real Joan

After Joan left, I really started noticing the starlets. I’d remarked on them before, particularly the ones who are always standing at the bus stop near the farmers market on Fairfax, but after she left I saw them everywhere. At first glance, they just came across as crazy old ladies — they wore false eyelashes and turquoise eye shadow and crocheted caps or turbans — but if you looked closer, you could see they were actually very well put together. Their pants and tops matched perfectly; they always wore sunglasses and sometimes carried parasols. They were, in a word, glamorous. I mean, they were crazy, too, but in the same way that everyone else in this town is crazy.

I’d always had a certain respect for those ladies, and, I thought, a sense of the pathos of their existence, but now they bothered me. You could see it from your car, the far-off look in their eyes, focused not on another place nor even on another time, but on another them. It wasn’t that they were ghosts of their former selves— because their former selves had been phantasmagoric, too—they were more like projectors. Stranded by the studio publicity machines when their contracts expired—in the fifties, let’s say, if not before — they’d assumed for themselves the impossible task of beaming their images out into the world. Once you became aware of their existence, you felt them everywhere.

Or at least I did, but perhaps I’m more susceptible to that kind of thing than most. All I know is, the day I stopped researching my dissertation and sat down to write it, the world clutched at me with its long yellow nails and refused to let go. That is to say, I lost all ability to concentrate.

It had begun to pull at me before Joan left —before I’d ever met Joan, in fact —but once she was gone it wouldn’t leave me alone, tapping at my windows during the night, rapping at the door in the early morning, swiping my note cards off the table at midday and depositing them suggestively next to the trash can.

I was living in Silverlake, in an apartment I’d found on short notice after Joan left and I could no longer pay the rent on our old place. I’d taken over the lease from a guy I knew named Virgil, an antique dealer, which in L.A. means someone who sells furniture manufactured in the fifties and sixties (nineteen fifties and sixties). At one time he’d been an English graduate student like me, but he’d decided early on that he preferred handling fetishes to writing about them.

Virgil had a certain Buddy Holly quality to him, a cool squareness I’d always found appealing, and now that he was leaving L.A. for Houston, I was sorry we hadn’t been better friends. I used to stop into his store over on La Brea every once in a while, although I only ever bought one thing from him—a kitchen set Joan made me get because, as she pointed out quite correctly, if she ever left me I’d have nothing.

The two of us would hang around chatting about movies and furniture until some art director would show up and Virgil had to go make a $10,000 sale. Movie people would pay any price for any item, as long as it had the right look. He hated to sell to them, though, because none of them showed any reverence for the objects themselves. They reserved it all for Virgil, the man you could always go to in a pinch.

His own apartment was sleekly outfitted with Eames chairs and kidney tables, low-backed sofas and fans. Fans were his true passion.

“A couple weeks ago I picked up a whole bunch at the Rose Bowl flea market,” he told me gleefully, the night I came to check out the apartment. “And Houston’s where it’s at for fans.”

“Because Houston’s hot and muggy,” I pointed out. “I’ll bet hell’s where it’s at for fans, too.”

Virgil smiled ruefully and I felt ashamed of myself. At least he was following his desire.

In the silence that followed I shivered in the breeze from Virgil’s fans — the 14 of them that were plugged in and operating. When I first arrived, it had been more of a gale, and I’d had trouble getting through the front door. Virgil ran around switching all the fans to LO, until it was safe for me to enter. Now they whirled calmly, purposefully, blowing him inexorably east. I found myself wishing I had a passion that blew me somewhere, in one direction or another.

“What’s the big deal about fans, anyway?” I ventured to ask, now that he was leaving.

He looked around the room.

“Fans are good company,” he said, pointing to a dull green metal one. “Look at that face.”

I nodded in a show of understanding, but it just looked like a fan to me.

After Virgil left town with his furniture and his fans, the apartment turned out to be nothing special — two square rooms, one bigger, one smaller, a kitchenette and a bathroomette. And it continued to be nothing special, because it was only meant to be temporary, until Joan came back or I finished my dissertation, whichever came first.

Every morning I busied myself shuffling note cards—spreading them out in various configurations, then smushing them back together—just as I’d been doing for the past five months. A cup of Ramen noodles for lunch, and then back to shuffling.

In the late afternoon I usually took a walk around the neighborhood to clear my head—not writing makes me jumpy and febrile, as does writing. In the sepia-toned light, I’d make my way into the Silverlake hills, up Micheltorena all the way to the top, where there was a panoramic view of the taquerias and pupuserias and auto body shops lining Sunset Boulevard. From that far away, you didn’t see any people, only signs and cars and the frozen surf of barbed wire cresting the chain-link fences.

It was only up there, really, that I felt the urge to write, and, of course, up there I didn’t have my computer with me. I’d try to sustain the feeling all the way down the hill, but inevitably it vanished the moment I sat down at the keyboard. I’d sit there far into the night, typing in the occasional word just to break up the silence and then erasing it, but the feeling wouldn’t reappear.

One afternoon I was at the high end of Micheltorena, attempting to summon my powers of concentration back from wherever they’d gone, when I spotted something squatting on the sidewalk a block or so downhill from me. From far away, it looked like a little plaster gargoyle, the ones people put all around their homes and gardens nowadays, without ever really looking at them, I think, because if they did they would see they are truly disturbing. Gargoyles were an early security system, designed to scare demons away from medieval cathedrals. They were never intended to round out a frog pond.

There was a lot of variety in the original gargoyles, but the new ones seem to be made from only three molds: malevolently grinning, writhing in agony, or terribly sad. This one was terribly sad.

I felt an immediate identification.

I started to walk toward it, and as I got closer, it got up and started walking toward me. A moment of panic, and then I realized it wasn’t a gargoyle, but a little dog so grizzled with age it looked as if it were made of stone. On closer inspection it turned out to be a pug, one of those miniature Chinese dogs with the smashed-in faces, the kind the emperors kept. And it had come to me, across continents and dynasties, to be rescued.

I bent down and held out my hand with the fingers curled in against the palm. The dog lapped at it feebly with her wide pink tongue. I looked down the hill to see if there was anyone huffing and puffing along after her—it was a pretty steep incline—but there was no one. Nor was there any answer when I called out, “Anyone lose a pug?” My voice ricocheted foolishly off the concrete walls of the surrounding apartment buildings.

I was contemplating leaving her there —I had to get back to work, after all—when I remembered a telephone pole at the bottom of the hill with all kinds of lost-dog-and-cat signs stapled to it. She seemed perfectly happy to follow me there. Hers was half-hidden under a big glossy flyer with fancy computer graphics offering a $300 reward for Brownie the chocolate Lab: a water-stained index card that looked like it had been out there forever; in spidery handwriting, it read, LOST PUG. Josephine. Under that were directions to her house, which was five blocks away.

I looked down and murmured, “Josephine?”

Josephine looked up at me and her bulging eyes filled with tears.

“It’s O.K., Josephine,” I said, squatting down to give her a nervous pat on her Softball of a skull. “You’re home now.”

Josephine heaved a great sigh and lay down on the sidewalk, fat little legs sticking straight out in front of her.

“Not yet,” I shrieked. “Just a little further.”

She lifted her head off the pavement and gave me another liquid glance. Obviously, she had traveled a great distance and was too weak to drag herself the last five blocks home.

So I picked her up and, cradling her compact but not exactly featherweight body in my arms, made my way to her house. After two blocks she started wheezing, and I ran the rest of the way. By the time we got there, we were both wheezing, and I stopped to catch my breath.

Josephine’s house was one of those Tudor affairs, white stucco with black wood trim, two turrets on either side of the heavy wooden front door and a swirly shingled roof—like a little fairy castle. It hadn’t been looked after for some time, though; the paint was peeling off the window frames and the lawn was full of foxtails. I stepped onto the porch and rang the bell.

I’d rung several times when somebody finally opened the door a few inches and peered out. I shaded my eyes with one hand and peered in.

“Uhmm, I think I’ve got your dog here,” I stammered. I still couldn’t see who it was.


“That’s right, Josephine.”

The door opened all the way to reveal a handsome old man in a powder-blue three-piece suit.

He stepped out onto the porch.

“Ah, Josephine!” the old man said softly.

I tried to put Josephine down, but she declined to dismount.

The old man’s powder-blue eyes were bright with tears.

“Thank you, Miss. Thank you so much. I’m sorry for your trouble.”

I started to choke up. It had been a long time since anyone had appreciated me like that.

I cast about for something to say.

“Has she been gone long?”

The old man nodded mournfully.

“Since eight o’clock this morning. She probably went over to my ex-wife’s around the corner. She puts out chicken livers for her.”

He leaned in close to Josephine, and she licked at the spider veins in his nose. I smelled alcohol.

“Oh! How silly of me! I —I thought…” I stammered.

The old man held up his hand.

“Every time she goes,” he gestured helplessly out into the world, “I’m not sure she’s coming back.”

I nodded dumbly and set Josephine down on the porch, where she sat gazing myopically at the old man’s knees. He pulled out a neatly-pressed handkerchief and wiped his eyes. He looked down at Josephine and they filled again.

Then, suddenly, he staggered back.

“The light!” he cried out sharply.

He shielded his eyes dramatically with one arm, as if I were standing on his porch in a full coat of shining armor. I looked down and saw my watch was reflecting the last rays of the dying sun directly into his eyes. It was truly a beautiful moment.

For the first time in months, I walked home feeling proud of myself.

When I met Joan, I’d already been not writing for a couple of months, so none of it was her fault. We met in a laundromat after I’d been bullied out of my apartment for the evening by my then-roommate, Ramona, a musicology grad student who was writing her dissertation on Madonna’s appropriations of the operatic form.

After dinner Ramona had let slip that she was hosting a Madonna videothon for her fellow musicologists in ten minutes and she hoped I didn’t mind. Of course, she knew very well I hated her fellow musicologists. They all wore cat’s-eye glasses and had melodic laughs and left red-lipstick smudges on our wine glasses that didn’t come off for weeks.

I scooped up my laundry and headed for the door.

“Wait!” Ramona appeared in the hallway, holding a bag of her own laundry.

“Could you do these, too?” she asked, cocking her head to one side kittenishly. A sturdy girl—more of a fisher-cat than a kitten, really — Ramona is nonetheless a great believer in the power of feminine wiles. While I usually hesitated to feed into that particular power trip of hers, that night I grabbed the bag eagerly.

Flushed with victory, she retired to her room to don a black-and-gold bustier.

In the end it was lucky for me I had brought her laundry along, because I just happened to be putting a loud handful of Victoria’s Secret thongs into the washing machine, when Joan suddenly materialized at the machine next to me and I felt compelled to say something.

“These aren’t mine,” I said.

Joan looked up in surprise.

“O.K.,” she said.

As I’d suspected from her profile, she was very pretty, if somewhat over-refined, with large, fluttering dark eyes, a thin nose with flared nostrils, and a long, taut neck.

“They’re my roommate’s,” I blundered on, fully aware of how crazy I must sound. “I could never wear these things.”

“I see,” Joan said, but she didn’t move away. Instead, she turned around, leaned back against her washing machine and lit a cigarette.

Joan has an uncanny ability for making people talk. It isn’t that she’s especially nurturing, although she’s always willing to listen. No, it’s something about the cadences of her own speech; she’s comfortable with long pauses other people usually feel the need to fill. With Joan, I talked and talked and talked, if only to obliterate all the stupid things I’d already said.

Like then.

“She’s into Madonna,” I said.

“Still?” she asked.

“It’s kind of sad—Madonna was all the rage when she started writing her dissertation,” I explained. “And you know how long these things take. But she’s doing her best to initiate a Madonna revival, in musicology at any rate. In fact, she’s holding a Madonna videothon in my apartment right now.”

Joan shook her head sympathetically.

“I’m a grad student, too,” I confessed, after a moment.

“And what do you work on?” she asked.

“Joan of Arc,” I said. “Which makes it a little tense around the apartment. Ramona — that’s my roommate —hates Joan of Arc, because she was this big virgin. She’s always screaming, Fiona, the Joan of Arc myth is oppressive to women, Fiona, don’t give in to the madonna/whore complex, Fiona, what do you have against thongs?”

Joan smiled.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a student, too,” she said. “Sort of. I’m training to be a psychoanalyst.”

“Do you keep a dream journal?” I asked. “I had a friend who did that.”

She nodded.

“It’s really a bust, though,” she sighed. “My dreams are so obvious. Textbook. It feels like I’m cheating.”

“Mine are obvious, too,” I said. “They’re all about Joan of Arc.”

Joan looked at my mouth.

“I’d like to analyze you,” she said softly, and I felt my stomach turn over.

“I mean, I can’t,” she said, turning away. “But I’d like to.”

“What’s your name?” I asked, touching her arm shyly.

“You’ll never believe it,” she said, turning back.

I was very happy with Joan. For one thing, she allowed me to write in peace. She never turned on me —unlike Ramona, who moved out when she was in the final stage of her dissertation because she’d started having nightmares where I stole it and filed it myself.

No, the thing that got to Joan was when I stopped dreaming. After Ramona moved out and she moved in, we used to begin every day by discussing our dreams. Joan would never tell me what they meant; she said what’s important about dreams is not what they “mean,” but what they tell us about our desires. But even so, I knew when I’d had a good one, because she’d grab the tips of my fingers and squeeze them ever so slightly, and the corners of her mouth would twitch unprofessionally, as if she were holding back a laugh.

Joan spent her nights piloting an airplane without knowing how to, stitching up a wound with yarn instead of thread — the standard anxiety dreams of the burgeoning professional. I spent mine berating a tiny Joan of Arc, no bigger than my finger, for having strangled Ramona’s cat with a Wonderbra, or climbing up the armor-plated leg of a leviathan La Pucelle, trying to reach her ear to tell her the English were on the move, but always sliding off just as I reached her massive, rounded knee.

Then, without any warning, I stopped dreaming, and everything fell apart. At first, I tried making dreams up, just to keep the ritual going, but Joan caught on right away and glumly told me not to bother. She started urging me to go to sleep earlier, get up later—she even offered to move out again, but I told her I couldn’t sleep, let alone dream, without her, and she relented.

A couple weeks or so after I stopped dreaming, I awoke in the middle of the night to find Joan scribbling furiously in her journal. I gazed fondly at her neurotic profile. Not a single image lingered in my own head.

She stopped writing and turned around.

“What was yours?” she asked breathlessly, pencil poised.

“No dreams,” I said cheerfully, holding my hand out to her.

Joan was horrified.

“You didn’t dream again?” she howled.

“But I’m perfectly happy,” I protested. “You’ve fulfilled my every desire.”

“That’s not how it works,” she said. “You’re turning into a vegetable.”

She started pacing around the room in her skimpy little Anna Freud T-shirt, shaking her head and mumbling to herself.

“Come back to bed, you’re shivering,” I said, grabbing her hand.

“Why do I need to dream?” I murmured, once I’d gotten her to lie down again. “I’ve got the real Joan right here.”

She hugged me fiercely then, and kissed me under the chin, but in the morning when I woke up she was packing her things.

“I’m sorry,” she said solemnly, when I asked her what she was doing, “but I just can’t be a party to this.”

Like her namesake, Joan is a woman of great principle. Of course, I can’t say I agree with all of the sacrifices she’s made.

Two days after rescuing Josephine, I looked out the window and spotted a duck sitting in the middle of the intersection in front of my apartment building, honking at an orange cat with no tail. It was early on a Sunday morning, and, as at every other time of day in L.A., there wasn’t a soul around.

With a sense of mission that was new to me, I rushed downstairs and lunged at the cat to scare it away and then lunged at the duck to get it out of the intersection. The cat slipped away, but the duck stayed put, honking at me now.

“Is that your duck?” a voice called from up above.

I looked up and spotted a pair of naked pectorals in the window.

“No,” I called back. “What do you think I should do?”

“I’ll call Animal Regulation,” the pectorals offered. I was pretty sure they belonged to Frank, the guy who lived across the hall from me.

The duck had stopped honking by then and had folded its wings back under itself. Sitting perfectly still like that, it looked like a decoy.

Frank joined me a few minutes later, fully dressed — as fully dressed as Frank ever gets. He’s one of those gay men who perfected his look in the late seventies—the mustache and the white jeans and the muscle T’s —and has made little or no alteration to it since. By his own admission he was quite the disco devotee back then, but now he’s a member of the voluntary simplicity movement. I’m not sure what that means for Frank, though, since he still drives a white Cadillac limo that takes up two and a half parking spaces.

“I called,” he said. “But I think they’re going to be a while. Maybe we could scare it out of the road at least.”

“Maybe the two of us could,” I said doubtfully. “It wasn’t scared of me.”

“Did you try this?” Frank asked, bending over slightly and flapping his arms. The duck stepped sideways and then settled back down.

Frank and I moved in on it, flapping our arms. It moved another step sideways, then two more, and then finally flapped its wings and landed on the sidewalk.

“I’m impressed,” I said to Frank. “How’d you know to do that?”

“Did you see the movie about the geese that imprinted onto that little girl?” he said.

I shook my head.

“You should rent it,” he said. “I think it would really speak to you.”

“I think it’s probably O.K. here,” I said, pointing to the duck. “Want some coffee? We can keep an eye on it from the window.”

Frank graciously acceded to a cup of sludgy coffee in my apartment. I caught him looking around disapprovingly at the foam-rubber sofa I’d dragged in off the street, the futon on the floor, the bare walls. The only nice thing in the whole apartment was the kitchen set I’d bought from Virgil, which was in the living room because it didn’t fit in the kitchen: a flecked-red Formica table and four chrome chairs with licorice-red seats.

“Who needs earthly possessions, huh?” I said, thinking to score some points.

Frank shook his head and wandered over to the window.

“Hey, the duck’s gone,” he said mildly.

“It is?” I gasped.

I ran downstairs. The duck was gone. If not for an iridescent green feather floating around in the intersection, it might never have been there at all.

Frank came down and joined the search, peering behind trashcans and searching the St. Augustine grass by the side of the road. No duck.

“I guess I better go call Animal Regulation and tell them not to come,” I said, crestfallen.

“Don’t bother,” Frank waved his hand. “They never show up anyway.”

“Don’t you care what happens to that duck?” I asked him.

“Maybe it flew away,” he said, looking up at the sky.

I looked over at him in annoyance. Sometimes Frank was a little too voluntarily simple.

“But if it could fly away, why didn’t it fly away before?” I asked.

“So maybe somebody kidnapped it,” he shrugged, turning to go back upstairs. “But it’s definitely out of here. Me, too — I’ve got to get to the gym before I lose my motivation.”

I sat down on the curb, feeling very alone. What kind of world is it when a duck gets kidnapped in broad daylight and nobody gives a damn?

“Hey,” Frank tapped me on the shoulder after a moment. “Maybe you should try Little Darlins.”

“What’s that?” I said, a little hostilely. I thought he’d already gone back inside.

“It’s a private rescue operation,” he said. “They go out into the Los Angeles National Forest and rescue dogs that people have abandoned there. A friend of mine used to do it. He really got into it.”

“Would they come out and look for the duck?” I asked, confused.

“No, no,” Frank said, laughing. “Do it for you.”

The next morning I drove over to campus to meet with Professor Spires. My plan was to go in and confess all.

“Not a word?” she asked, wonderingly. “You haven’t written a word?”

I shook my head, feeling the immense calm of absolute disaster. I always felt calm in Professor Spires’s office, which she’d painted the brilliant greens and blues of a medieval manuscript, but that day I was almost eerily composed.

“It’s been six months, Fiona,” she reminded me. “And your fellowship runs out at the end of this year.”

Her mousy little face, under its froth of frizzy orange hair, was pinched and worried. Professor Spires was only an assistant professor, and rumor had it she wasn’t going to get tenure: she devoted too much time to her students and too little time to her own scholarship. I loved Professor Spires and felt guilty for contributing to her certain demise. Because she was only an assistant professor, I hadn’t been able to get her as my dissertation chair – he was a gruff, gray-bearded full professor who wrote on Mark Twain—but it made no difference to me. I never went to see him. I always came to see her.

What I really wanted to tell Professor Spires about was the animals I’d been rescuing and almost rescuing, but then I remembered our last meeting, largely taken up by a description of a starlet I’d encountered on the way to campus. What I’d really wanted to tell Professor Spires at that meeting was that Joan had left me the day before, but since I’d never told her that Joan had moved in with me or that I’d ever met Joan to begin with, it would have been painfully anticlimactic. So instead I went on and on about the starlet, who’d given me the finger when I turned into the crosswalk as she was wafting across Fairfax Avenue.

Professor Spires had smiled indulgently throughout the entire story, waiting for me to relate it to my dissertation somehow. But, when I inevitably proved unable to do so, the smile abruptly disappeared.

I shuddered at the memory. I couldn’t risk that again.

“Well,” she sighed. “Let’s see: You’re working on images of Joan of Arc in Anglo-American literature, right?”

I nodded.

“And have you completed your research?” she said. “Have you got all your sources lined up?”

I nodded. I did have all my sources lined up. There was Shakespeare’s Joan, the “wicked and vile strumpet” of Henry VI, Part One, mirror opposite of Twain’s Joan, “a vision of young bloom and beauty and grace, and such an incarnation of pluck and life and go!” Then there was G. B. Shaw’s Joan, the “genius,” a “pure upstart,” who refused to accept “the specific woman’s lot,” and Vita Sackville-West’s “tough and sturdy Joan,” who through sheer force of personality managed “to inspire disheartened men and to bend reluctant princes to her will.” I knew all their Joans inside and out; I knew how they contradicted one another, where they agreed —I knew all that and still I could not begin.

“So what do you think the problem is?” Professor Spires asked.

I stared into my lap for a long moment.

“I can’t seem to get to the real Joan,” I whispered finally.

Professor Spires didn’t appear to have heard me. I looked up and caught her peeking at her watch, a cheap little drugstore bracelet-watch that looked adorable on her pale, freckled wrist. The gold had rubbed off in places on the wristband, exposing steel.

“I’m sorry, Fiona,” she said, in her wavering New England spinster’s voice. “Next time you should call before you come and I can schedule a nice big block of time for you. But I’ve got a meeting right now.”

She looked nervous, and I felt a terrible pang. It was probably a tenure meeting.

“You’re too good for this place,” I wanted to tell her, but I knew it wasn’t what she wanted to hear.


Little Darlins Animal Rescue Mission was located in an unprepossessing beige bungalow on a flat brown street in Glendale, a depressed and depressing little city on the outskirts of L.A. It appeared to be one of the many institutions and businesses in Southern California that begin in someone’s home and never leave it. I hesitated to just walk inside, but since no one answered my knock, and the door was open and the screen door unlocked, I did.

I entered a large, bare room lined with folding chairs and tables with magazines on them, as at a vet or a mini-mall dentist. There was a bar at one end, with a telephone on it.

Behind the bar, on a high bar stool, sat a tiny old woman, a starlet if ever there was one. She wore violet eye shadow and her hair radiated out from her scalp like spun gold. She was filing her nails.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hello,” she said sweetly. “I’m Mary. Did you lose someone, dear?”

I hesitated, not sure what she meant.

“I — I’m here about volunteering?” I said.

“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “You looked like you’d lost someone.”

“I’ve been doing it on my own,” I said, eagerly approaching the bar. “You know, rescuing animals. But I feel I need to get more organized about it, a little more systematized, because…”

“That’s fine,” she interrupted, pointing to a folding chair at the opposite end of the room. “Have a seat.”

I sat down in the chair she’d pointed out and waited. I assumed I was merely the first volunteer to arrive, and the others would soon follow. But an hour passed, punctuated only by the pop of Mary’s gum and the whisper of her nail file, and nobody else showed up.

Afraid to pick up a magazine for fear of seeming uncommitted, I amused myself by reading the various poems tacked up on the bulletin board opposite me, all penned in the same shaky hand. One in particular caught my eye, the ballad of “Knickers,” whose back legs were paralyzed when he was rescued, but who’d apparently been restored to full mobility with the help of a two-wheeled cart.

I stopped reading and strained my ears to catch the sound of wheels, but the place was eerily quiet.

“Is Knickers around today?” I called out to Mary.

She looked up briefly from filing her nails.

“We don’t have animals here anymore,” she said. “We’re broke. Dark—she’s the one who started this place — gave every last red cent we had to her 22-year-old surfer-boyfriend. She’s my age, mind you.”

“Oh, how terrible!” I cried. “What happened to Knickers?”

“Went to the pound,” she answered shortly. “Got put to sleep.”

“He sounded like such a nice dog,” I murmured.

“Dark wrote all those poems,” Mary said, jabbing her nail file toward the bulletin board. “All she ever did was write poems. Me and Alex did all the work.”

“What a shame,” I commiserated.

Mary narrowed her eyes.

“What do you do?” she said, suspiciously. “You seem kind of young to be retired.”

“I … actually, I’m a student,” I responded.

“Oh yeah?” she asked, without interest. “Having some trouble getting through?”

“A graduate student,” I said. “In English.”

Mary stopped filing her nails and appeared to be ruminating on something.

“You like those poems?” she said after a moment.

“W-e-e-11,” I said, uncertain how to proceed. “They do capture a certain experience. It’s really a genre unto itself, animal-rescue poetry.”

“Dark says she’s going to get them published in a book,” Mary said. “And then we’ll have the money to start taking in strays again.”

“So your operation is still running?” I asked.

“It’s still running,” Mary shrugged. “But all we do now is go feed the dogs in the forest. We used to bring them back and try to find them homes. Now they just have to stay out there.”

Another woman walked through the screen door and dumped an army-issue carryall onto the floor in front of me.

“Well, finally,” Mary called out. She hopped down off her bar stool and came over.

“Alex,” she said, pointing at me, “This is a volunteer. She’s a communications major.”

“Fiona,” I said. “And I’m actually a doctoral candidate in English.”

“A volunteer,” Alex said, smiling. “We haven’t had one of those in a while.”

She appeared to be around Mary’s age, but she was unusually tall for a woman that old. In fact, she was quite statuesque, with an aquiline nose and silver hair that sprang into tight curls at her temples. I noticed with some trepidation that she was wearing combat boots and cargo pants and a Desert Storm flak jacket.

Now that I saw her up close, Mary appeared to be wearing the “fashion” version of the same outfit; that is to say, she had on a camouflage jacket and lace-up boots, too, but her jacket was silk and her boots were patent leather.

“Fiona wants to come out to the forest,” Mary said.

“O.K., let’s do it,” Alex said, picking up the carryall again. I made fluttering attempts to help her sling it over her shoulder, which she ignored.

I followed the two of them out to the parking lot, where a purple van adorned with aerosol portraits of nubile young women awaited us.

“My grandson’s,” Alex muttered, and Mary winked.

“We’ll all sit up here,” she said, patting the seat beside her.

There were no seats in the back of the van, so I slid in next to Mary, wondering what I was getting myself into.

“Too bad you’re not a writer,” Mary said to me as we screeched out of the parking lot. Despite her impressive physique, Alex had a senior citizen’s nauseating tendency to drive fast, then slow, then fast, then slow. I started to feel sick. “You could help us put that poetry book together.”

“Actually, I am writing something right now,” I blurted, rolling down the window.

Mary raised her spun-gold eyebrows.

“Yeah?” she said. “What’s it about?”

“Joan of Arc,” I said.

“No joke?” Mary said. “My agent put me up for that role, but they said I was too short.”

“Well, you know,” I said, pleased to show off my knowledge. “In the movies she’s always made out to be tall and blonde and blue-eyed, but the real Joan was actually small and dark.”

“I heard she was kind of plain,” Alex interjected.

“Now, wait a minute,” Mary protested. “I was never plain.”

“Nobody knows exactly what she really looked like, because no paintings were ever commissioned of her while she was alive,” I said. “It’s Vita Sackville-West’s theory that Joan of Arc was plain, but that’s because it was the only explanation she could come up with for why men didn’t want to sleep with her and women adored her.”

“You know, you look a little bit like the gal who did end up playing her,” Mary said. “Not Ingrid Bergman, the other one.”

“Jean Seberg?” I said gratefully.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Mary said. “The blonde with the short hair. She had fat ankles, you know.”

“Mary,” Alex admonished her, without taking her eyes off the road.

“Alex thinks I’m vicious,” Mary said. “But she was never scratching with the chickens the way I was.”

She turned to me.

“Alexandra Bailey, you ever heard of her?” she asked accusingly.

I shook my head. “But I’m hopeless with movie stars.”

“I wasn’t a big star,” Alex leaned forward to explain. The van swerved into the next lane and back again. “B movies, mostly.”

Sunrise Over Topeka?” Mary asked. “A Mother’s Love?”

I shook my head again.

Mary sighed.

“She got all the good roles —that was in the Fifties, when hourglass figures were in,” she said. “Me, I should’ve been born in the Twenties.”

“You were born in the Twenties,” Alex reminded her.

“I mean, I should’ve been in my twenties in the Twenties,” Mary said.

“I would’ve liked to play Joan of Arc,” Alex said. “A woman of action.”

“What a way to go though, huh?” Mary said. “Up in smoke. That part was real, wasn’t it?”

“That part was real,” I assured her.

“Now that’s a tough scene,” Mary said, shaking her head. “Don’t know how I would’ve played it.”

An hour and a half later, we pulled up to the first feeding station, and my two companions switched into what can only be described as commando mode, jumping spryly down out of the van and jogging over to the feeding station, where Alex unzipped the carryall to reveal a hefty supply of dog-food cans. Whipping a can opener out of one of the pockets in her cargo pants, she proceeded to open the cans up and hand them to Mary, who dumped them out onto tarps laid out inside a three-walled Plexiglas structure that looked like a bus shelter.

“Fiona!” Alex called, pointing to the back of the van. “Bring a jug of water over, would you?”

There were several ten-gallon water bottles in the back, and I seized one by the neck, only to discover it was too heavy for me to lift. I stole a look at the old women, but they were chatting with their backs to me. I shoved the jug out of the van with my foot and then got down and dragged it over to the feeding station.

“I think if we all three…” I was starting to say, when Alex picked the jug up, unscrewed the top, and proceeded to empty it into a trough. When she was done, she and Mary motioned for me to follow them back to the van.

We got in and shut the doors. I started to say something about the jug, but they shushed me. The two of them were staring straight ahead, in the direction of the forest. They appeared to be waiting for something.

Almost immediately, the something came, blinking out of the green shadows into the yellow light. Scarcely a minute after we’d shut the van doors, dogs began pouring into the clearing from every direction.

Of course, it wasn’t at all clear to me that they were dogs at first. Some were missing eyes, others paws, others teeth—every last one of them was beggared in some medieval way. Hoary and misshapen, they hobbled and slunk, crab-walked and galloped toward the mounds of food that awaited them.

“Coyotes,” Alex said, when I asked what had happened to them. “Or mountain lions. Scrapes, parasites, hunger, thirst. Life in the wild.”

The ones that struck me most were the silly ones, the poodles and the chows and the Pomeranians, the ones who looked as if they couldn’t have lasted one night on their own, who’d been bred to please an idle preference for soft fur or little faces. I was sure they’d rush to the van when they saw us, sure they would leave food sitting, rather than spend one more night out there away from civilization.

But, I was wrong. They feasted alongside the others, and, when the food was gone, as if signaled from beyond, they slipped into the trees without a backward glance.

There were five feeding stations, and, by the time we were done stocking them all, Mary and Alex were gray with exhaustion. I offered to drive home, and, to my surprise, Alex accepted.

“Will Darla be there when we get back?” I asked, once we were on the freeway.

“Not unless she broke out of Sibyl Brand,” Mary said.

“What’s Sibyl Brand?” I asked.

“Dark’s in the slammer,” Alex said. “Didn’t Mary tell you? She embezzled a whole bunch of money from the organization.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “And they locked her up for that? Isn’t she, you know —elderly?”

Mary giggled.

“That’s the kicker,” she said. “She’s had so many facelifts the judge didn’t believe her when she said her age. But she’s going to make everything up to us with that book of hers.”

I nodded enthusiastically, saved from further comment, I thought, by our arrival at the shelter.

But Alex stopped me at the door after Mary had gone in.

“Darla’s poems are crap, aren’t they?” she asked matter-of-factly.

“To be honest, there’s not a lot of money in poetry,” I said. “No matter how good it is.”

“They’re crap,” she said, shaking her head. “They don’t get what it’s all about.”

“No,” I agreed. “I don’t think they do.”

“Maybe it’s just as well,” she leaned over and whispered. She had the dead perfect teeth of the elderly. “Because you know what I think? Those dogs out there don’t want to come back.”

Three weeks into volunteering at Little Darlins, I started to write. I called Joan that very night. It was the first time we’d spoken since she left.

“Did I wake you?” I asked. Her voice sounded very far away.

“No,” she said faintly. “I was up.”

“It’s just that I’ve started writing,” I said breathlessly.

“That’s great, honey,” she said. “That’s really wonderful.”

“Do you want to hear about it?” I asked.

There was a pause.

“The thing is,” Joan said, “I don’t think I should be talking to you.”

“What do you mean?” I said. “Are you with somebody else?”

“No, well, sort of,” she said, pausing again.

“I —I wasn’t expecting anything,” I stammered. “I just thought…”

“I’m in analysis,” Joan said.

“Oh,” I said.

Another pause.

“Well, it’s not like it’s terminal, is it?” I asked.

“In a way, it is,” she replied thoughtfully. “Because we’re in the process of deconstructing my whole personality, and, when it’s put back together again, I’m not sure exactly who I’ll be.”

“I see,” I said.

“No, you don’t,” she said. “This isn’t a kiss-off, necessarily.”

“O.K.,” I said doubtfully.

“I miss you, Fiona,” she said, her voice growing stronger. “All the time. It’s just I’m not sure right now who it is that’s missing you. It might not be the real Joan.”

“Does it matter?” I said, my voice dropping to a whisper. “Does it have to be the real Joan?”

“Yes,” she nearly shouted. “You, of all people, should understand that.”

There was a pause. A long pause.

“Well, will you call me?” I asked finally. “I mean, when you’re…”

“I will,” she said, her voice fading as she hung up the receiver. “I promise.”

I’d forgotten to tell her that I’d started dreaming again, too. Well, I’d had a dream—a dream in which Joan of Arc appeared to me in the middle of the Los Angeles National Forest, holding my dissertation. I was annoyed to see she was tall and blonde, just like in the movies, and wearing the standard Hollywood-issue white tunic with the red cross on the front. I’d always prided myself on the historical accuracy of my dream Joans, who were all very sturdy and dark.

I reached for the dissertation, but she held it up out of reach.

“Give it,” I said.

Joan shook her head solemnly, and her cornflower blue eyes filled with tears.

“I release you,” she said, and floated off into the forest, taking my dissertation with her.

“Wait!” I cried out, just before she disappeared into the trees. “What will I write now?”

Joan turned back, and I noticed she was hovering a foot or so above the ground. She kept fading in and out of view, like a hologram.

“I release you,” she mouthed once more.

And I woke up.

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