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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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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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Pinkville

HELICOPTER

Exactly what did, in fact, occur in the village of “Pinkville” in March, 1968, I do not know for certain, but I am convinced that it was something very black indeed. I remain irrevocably persuaded that if you and I do truly believe in the principles of justice and equality of every man, however humble, before the law, that form the very backbone that this country is founded on, then we must press forward a widespread and public investigation of the matter… I think it was Winston Churchill who said, “A country without a conscience is a country without a soul, and a country without a soul is a country that cannot survive.”
—Letter by Ron Ridenhour, requesting an investigation into the My Lai incident.

He followed the shadow of the helicopter along the earth, against the green of the paddies and the gold of dry ground, and thought it resembled the body of a bird in flight. In his bubble there was a jarring, a terrible roaring that made contemplation impossible, only a leading to and then avoidance of danger. Their job was to draw fire, to act as bait, to protect the men on the ground, but until there was the electricity of firepower, his mind took other paths.

He switched places, pretended that instead of being contained in the hot pounding of the machine, he was underneath, lying in the tall, burnt grass, or better still, lying in the moistness of the green stalks of rice. Leaving the imprint of his body on the tender crushed blades. Yes, even the lukewarm muck of the paddies would be preferable. He pictured himself lying there prone, staring into the blue of the sky, and then like a dark genie, like a portent of the future, this black vulture shadow would swoop overhead, blocking out the sun momentarily, the rush causing the air temperature to drop a degree or two. After, the sky would appear even more blue, the sun so bright that it would burn the blue wings of a butterfly he had never seen the likes of before. It was small. Delicate. The roundish wings homely. In his years of high school collecting, he’d never come across one that was quite this color, as if infused with light, or the energy of the land, like a spirit made manifest, electric, in motion. If he ever returned home, he would unpin each of his specimens and release them from their glass prisons.

 

GROUND

The four reasons that I did not report the shooting of any innocent or noncombatants at the village of My Lai 4 and the reason that I suppressed the information from the brigade commander when I was questioned are as follows: Number one, I realized that instead
of going in and doing combat with an armed enemy, the intelligence information was faulty and we found nothing but women and children in the village of My Lai 4, and, seeing what had happened, I realized exactly the disgrace that was being brought upon the Army uniform that I am very proud to wear. Number two, I also realized the repercussions that it would have against the United States of America. Three, my family, and number four, lastly, myself, sir.
—Captain Ernest Medina, Charlie Company

The earth turned against us. I’d never experienced anything like it. We’d trained in the jungle in Hawaii—backbreaking, brutal, Medina made sure we were ready—but it was, like, neutral, you know? It didn’t care. Nam, every step you took, that could be your last. The place wanted to shit us out.

The first guy that stepped on a mine, that shook us up. But then in the next two weeks, our men were falling left and right, never in combat, just mines and snipers. You knew it was coming for you, and there was nothing to fight.

When X stepped on the mine, I’d never seen anything like it. It split him open, from groin to chest, like the earth raised up and bit him in half. Like lightning splitting a tree. Never seen anything like it. No one should. They lifted him over to a plastic poncho spread out, and that blew up. You only wished that it could turn into a nightmare; a nightmare had nothing on this.

The same fields that we got blown up in, you’d see villagers making their way through to go to work. Clear as day that they knew where was safe. If that’s not a sympathizer, I don’t know what is. Why didn’t they warn us? So, yeah, sure, sometimes we grabbed one of them and made them walk ahead. They knew, you see. Sometimes they got blown up, I guess they can’t remember everything, but at least we could follow and figure to be fairly safe.

Even now I remember the smell of the place, and it makes me sick. What I’m saying is that we were in a bad way.

Did I participate? I did not. Did I stop it? I … did…not.

 

VILLAGE

The Enemy Is in Your Hand
Pocket Card, Nine Rules
…The Vietnamese had paid a heavy price in suffering for their long fight against the communists. We military men are in Vietnam now because their government has asked us to help its soldiers and people in winning that struggle. The Viet Cong will attempt to turn the Vietnamese people against you. You can defeat them at every turn by the strength, understanding, and generosity you display with the people.

 

1

The American soldiers had come before so we were not afraid. The first time they smiled, handed out candy and played with the children. We said among ourselves that they were like children themselves. The second time they didn’t smile, no candy. They took water, but they didn’t trust us. The last time we were invisible to them. They were fighting demons in their heads, our bodies in the way.

2

My brother and I were in the field before breakfast. There was a drumming noise, the sky filled with planes, then the sounds of guns. I looked down and my brother’s hand was bleeding, a bullet had hit him, but he just stood there, watching, mesmerized, while I begged him to run away into the trees. Then I was in the ditch. What scared me most was the sound of the adults screaming and crying. The water sealed my ears so the cries sounded as if they were coming from inside me, but I did not make a sound. I did not speak again for over five years. The dead covered me, protected me, and I felt safe. When the soldier pulled me out by my shirt, I did not want to go. I felt naked as if plucked from my mother’s belly. A sad birth. The sun burned my eyes, and all I wanted was to go back into the water. I was flying above the earth in a bubble. The soldier held me and cried. Had I already died? It wasn’t until the hospital that I knew I was alone in the world. I looked out the window and saw small blue butterflies in the grass—I knew these were the spirits of my family. They wanted me to go back to the village for their burial. I ran all day and night through the forest, following the blue fluttering, knowing they protected me, back to the village.

3

It has been many years, yet I am still young. I tell myself I should go away, forget, start a new life. But I know what I saw will go with me. It’s better to stay, tend the graves. The women did not cry out because their tongues were gone.

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Víctor Comes Back

They told me to walk three blocks north and turn left. Then walk half a block and, on the east side of the street and half-hidden by the branches of a magnolia tree, I would find a sign for the bus stop. At every step the maracas of the battery-powered toy monkey that I bought my daughter twelve years earlier, before leaving New Orleans, where I lived almost three years, jingled in my shoulder bag. And the magnolia and sign were there, in the middle of an almost perfect circle of fallen flowers.

When the wind blew, the weather seemed cold; but in fact it was hot and my skin felt sticky and I was sweating. In the heat memories began to smell, like a dead dog in a mangrove swamp. “Goddamn lunatic,” she had said, with the blood flowing from her mouth and nostrils.

In the bus the air conditioning dried my temples and back. Six or seven stops, they said, and you get off in front of a big building, with two chimneys, which is the electric company. Ask the driver. There’s a subway station there. But then I forgot to ask and we passed it, and the driver stopped the bus and said that that was the last stop. Where did I
want to go, he asked me, and I told him. Better take the train, he told me and pointed to where I should walk. You can go back on the bus but they leave here every hour on Sundays, he said; better take the train. Four or five blocks and there I’d see the elevated tracks.

I walked next to fruit stands amid the aroma of peaches and next to fish stores that smelled of sea bass and octopus. In the bag, which was hanging from my shoulder and beginning to wear out the tendons in my neck, the maracas jingled to the rhythm of my steps. And the elevated tracks appeared with the train on their back, quick as a lizard, and in the background, among a thick line of buildings, the sea also appeared.

Better than in the airport, I thought, six hours in an airport. And after seeing the sea and looking for a while from far off at the waves that broke against the breakwater, I walked on the boardwalk toward the south, where two roller coasters and a Ferris wheel could be seen. On the benches of the infinite boardwalk that stretched beside the beach were old men with muscular bodies and old women with wide hats who covered the bridges of their noses with white cardboard to protect themselves from a sun that, at that moment, was not out. Someone called out and, for an instant, I thought they were calling me, Víctor. But it wasn’t me (they were shouting in Russian), and then I turned to watch the sea, into which a sailboat set off precariously, as though beginning a voyage to the end of the world.

“Goddamn lunatic,” she had said and locked herself in her room to cry. Twenty years ago. And then she called Saúl and told him that she was afraid; that she had broken up with me a long time ago but had felt sorry for me and for the girl and that now she was afraid because I could kill her or something. No, it was a miracle that the girl hadn’t woken up, she said. No, she didn’t think I had broken her nose, she said, while outside the tropical sea beat forcefully against the seaside promenade.

Out at sea the mist had swallowed the sailboat and was now dissolving the tanker ship that had appeared, amorphous and funereal, through the doors of the bar when I began my drink. The doors were wide, they gave onto the boardwalk, then onto the sand with seagulls (almost two blocks of sand until the water) and then onto the sea. The bartender told me that he had never seen such a wet and warm spring.

The tropical sea beat forcefully against the seaside promenade. And I began to call her. She shouldn’t be afraid, my anger had passed, I told her. I called her affectionate names under the door crack so she could hear me. She wasn’t crying and she was no longer talking on the phone. Saúl and the others were surely on their way. “Get out of here!” she shouted from the bathroom with a calm voice that froze my heart.

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Eye

Voice low, father, you are
hurting aloud from the book of your life on this earth.

You are tearing out verses, pages,
reciting histories of mountains, waving

like oceans, gritting down teeth
at the sound of a needle as it enters your eye.

The telephone, father, you heard its call, you blinked in red
pajamas. You groped for the nightstand. Knocked

things over. I’ve read your sunken chest.
Halfway to death is blindness. And fingertips,

shin bruises, and if your hands broke, father,
you could not stroke your wife’s hair nor mouth

and neither could a son’s beard
fill your palms. Psalm is an open, burning text

but please, dip only your thumbs in twilight. Talk
not of God’s white furnace, father, and the fires

we are left in. Don’t tell
a tale of a man erased

like scuff on a window.

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