Issues Archives

Volume 28, #2, Fall 2012

<p>Featured in our Fall issue: Fiction from <strong>Tatjana Soli,</strong> <strong>Gilad Elbom,</strong> <strong>Karl Taro Greenfeld</strong>, and Colombian writer <strong>Tomas Gonzalez</strong> (translated by PEN award-winner <strong>Joel Streicker</strong>). Poetry from <strong>Judy Halebsky</strong>, <strong>John Freeman</strong>, <strong>Dan O’Brien</strong>, <strong>Wendy Willis</strong>, Brendan Constantine, and <strong>Jesse Nathan</strong>. Nonfiction from <strong>Dagoberto Gilb,</strong> <strong>Edie Meidav</strong>, and <strong>Luis Alberto Urrea</strong>. Introducing First Time in Print author Brian Boies. And a portfolio of stunning photography by rising talent <strong>Lucas Foglia</strong>.</p>

Featured in our Fall issue: Fiction from Tatjana Soli, Gilad Elbom, Karl Taro Greenfeld, and Colombian writer Tomas Gonzalez (translated by PEN award-winner Joel Streicker). Poetry from Judy Halebsky, John Freeman, Dan O’Brien, Wendy Willis, Brendan Constantine, and Jesse Nathan. Nonfiction from Dagoberto Gilb, Edie Meidav, and Luis Alberto Urrea. Introducing First Time in Print author Brian Boies. And a portfolio of stunning photography by rising talent Lucas Foglia.

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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In the Fall Issue

“Zyzzyva is a snouted beetle, as any dictionary kid knows. It’s a word that nearly can’t be played in Scrabble, on account of all the Z’s. But those are novelty uses. The real meaning is this superb literary journal, which has real meaning. If you want to learn the things that literature can do with language, read it.” —Ben Greenman

The latest issue of ZYZZYVA adds another dimension to the journal’s mission of spotlighting the West Coast’s best writers and artists. This Fall we present “Expats,” a selection of new work by John Freeman, Dagoberto Gilb, Edie Meidav, and Luis Alberto Urrea: authors with deep roots in the region, who have now made their homes elsewhere.

Here’s what inside:

  • Fiction from Gilad Elbom (on an Israeli brother and sister getting by on vinyl records and training for a swim competition), Karl Taro Greenfeld (on a father’s unsettling surveillance of his adolescent daughter in the midst of the mortgage meltdown), Tomas Gonzalez (on a haunted man killing time at a gloomy boardwalk before his flight), and stories from R.T. Jamison and Jennie Lin.
  • Poetry from Jesse Nathan, Judy Halebsky, Darin Ciccotelli, Wendy Willis, John Freeman, Jennifer Elise Foerster, Brendan Constantine, Kathlene Postma, Dan O’Brien, Ryan Ragan, and John Olivares Espinoza.
  • Also in Fiction: Jane Gillette’s timely tale of the mysterious appeal of Ayn Rand, and the puzzling relationship between a newly rich Russian man and an elegant older woman from the States, Tatjana Soli’s retelling of the My Lai massacre, and introducing Brian Boies, with his affecting story of lost souls on a day trip away from the Mission District.
  • Nonfiction from Dagoberto Gilb (a meditation on his “first fiction-writer role model”: a bigger-than-life, debauched man perhaps best known as the subject of a Sheryl Crow song), Edie Meidav (navigating Cuba, with family in tow and a slippery landlord lurking about), and Luis Alberto Urrea on the early job that made him a writer (you might never eat another donut).
  • And featuring a portfolio from acclaimed photographer Lucas Foglia, along with the artist’s notes on the series, titled “Frontcountry,” which looks at the struggling mining, farming and ranching communities of the western United States.

Get your four-issue subscription to ZYZZYVA now and start with the Fall issue. (Copies are limited.)

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