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A Cowboy Crosses the Border in Silence

Gerónimo González Garza was born unable to hear or speak, but this did not keep him from going as a young man to the United States to work and to make a life for himself. Nor did it stop him from returning to Mexico many years later, and traveling over the highways of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, in the middle of the drug war being waged in northeastern Mexico.

Mother throws in the cow stomach and this makes the boiling water jump from the blue tin pot. Now she drops in a little deformed thing that must be a cow’s foot. Then go in the tomatoes, the rosemary, the mint, the garlic and oregano. On weekends Home is fragrant with spices. Nowadays when the aroma of certain natural condiments hits me, I often remember the economic crisis that began in December 1994 in Mexico.

Father wakes up early and empties the stew in the pot onto Styrofoam plates. He carefully puts them in the car, as if they were recently dug-up treasure: so not a single drop spills over, so not a single precious jewel falls, so that the menudo arrives safely at its destination.

In Monterrey it’s typical to eat barbacoa on Sundays, but Father’s friends are true. On those Sunday mornings in 1995, instead of trying barbacoa, they eat the menudo they buy from Father.

During the week, Mother puts other things into the pot that always seems to be boiling water. In go chickens, rice, vegetables. Then Father places the contents into the thin receptacles and the destination of the plates is much, much closer. One goes to the neighbor next door, the other to the neighbor across the street, to those around the corner, to that neighbor who just moved to the other block, to the mean woman who punctures soccer balls and to Mother’s friends, who are also true friends.

The kitchen at Home is the neighborhood kitchen. In northeastern Mexico there are no fondas. The word fonda is not used to describe a cheap, homestyle restaurant like it is in other places in Mexico. But Home is a fonda. A fonda that offers food delivered right to your door.

And the topic everyday at the fonda is Home. For a moment Home has nothing to do with the walls and the ceilings between which my childhood and adolescence transpired. The word Home refers to a problem. Home means uncertainty, the bank, risk, evil, unemployment, struggle and, above all, a strange and very aggressive word: Hipoteca. Hipoteca—mortgage—is the word nobody wants to hear, or to say, at Home.

Some advanced future civilization will have to somehow erase this word from the dictionary.

But in that year, the word Hipoteca is there, in the everyday speech, though it is actually spoken little.

Mother’s boiling pot defies the word Hipoteca. Father’s Styrofoam plates do, too. Yet, in those times of crisis (said to have been all because of an “error made in December” which devalued the peso and sent interest rates sky-high), the word Hipoteca is very powerful. It can’t be defeated by the aroma of the oregano or by the friendships that are true.

For the word Hipoteca to leave us in peace something else would be needed.

One day Tio sends fifteen thousand dollars from the United States. That day the word Hipoteca lost a battle, leaving Home in peace.

Tio is a cowboy who crosses the border in silence. His name is Gerónimo González Garza.

I promised to one day tell his story.


They dismounted. They tied up the horses under the shade of the same tree. They walked, each one with his rifle. They were talking softly and sparely, the alert black eyes of Magdaleno and the alert light brown eyes of Gerónimo. A half hour and some miles later, they couldn’t find any game to shoot. Nothing stirred, not even a tarantula. The hot wind dried up life on the mountain.

They split up to increase their luck while they explored. A while passed and at last the first shot—the only shot—of the hunt was heard. Magdaleno ran into the thicket to look, but instead of an animal lying on the ground, he found Gerónimo’s hat. Gerónimo was kneeling, he had a bullet hole in his neck and it was bleeding. He died soon after.

Magdaleno went back to find the horse. He untied it, and later turned it over, along with his best friend’s hat and body. He described in detail what had happened and said that they could do what they wanted with him. The family banished Magdaleno from Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo León. He never returned. Some say that he crossed the R.o Bravo and then hanged himself from a mesquite tree on the Texas cattle ranch where he had found work as a ranch hand.

The years passed, and on May 24, 1953, in her house near the city’s bus terminal, María de Jesús Garza gave birth to a baby of little more than four pounds who came into the world with a full head of hair. The baby’s umbilical chord was cut and buried in Monterrey, his birthplace, as was the custom of the day. The father, Guadalupe González, was content that the baby was a boy. He had wanted a son to name Gerónimo, after his brother who had died tragically by a bullet from his best friend’s rifle.


Gerónimo crawls for a few seconds and then slumps to the floor. He seems distracted. Something weird is happening and his parents think they know what it is, but they take him to the hospital to find out for sure. They get up at dawn and are seen by a doctor at the public clinic. He looks over the baby, touches his ears, and speaks in front of him in different high and low tones. Then the doctor becomes grave and asks the parents to go to a laboratory so the baby’s hearing can be studied. Ten days later they return. The doctor receives them with the same serious tone from the time before. He gives them the news that Gerónimo does not hear, nor is he ever going to hear. When he sees things he will not be conscious of their sound: He is totally deaf. Everything for him will be like a silent movie.

They are going to have to speak to him with their hands like mimes, so he doesn’t go crazy. They are going to have to show him that he shouldn’t eat with his mouth open, or that when he needs to drink milk he has to say so with his hand. They will do this, and little Gerónimo will watch them and they will wait for him to imitate them. They have to be patient. It’s no small thing: they will create their own language to communicate with each other. In this way they will gradually show him how to live.

The parents listen to the doctor and his advice. More or less they know what they have to do. Graciela, one of their other children, also was born with hereditary deafness. They have investigated and know that deafness runs in the family on Gerónimo’s father’s side, at least two generations back. Due to the profound deafness, Gerónimo will not know sound and won’t be able to use his vocal chords to talk, even though they are not damaged in any way. No person born deaf can use his larynx, his voice.


Guadalupe González works from Monday through Friday at Trailers of Monterrey Corporation. The small company has a storehouse into which noisy trucks coming from the United States are jammed in together every day. As part of their cargo, they carry oily car transmissions, obsolete medical equipment, peeling multicolored wires, broken hydraulic tubing, loose furniture, and other things. Guadalupe’s job is to weigh the junk and bargain as much as possible with the junk collectors.

María de Jesús Garza makes red chorizo that she sells in their neighborhood in Monterrey. Before, they had spent a long time in Rancho Nuevo, a communal land in Los Ramones, Nuevo León, some ninety miles north of the city. It was a good-sized piece of land María de Jesús had inherited, but the soil was broken up and of the kind that doesn’t allow for easy sowing, and so they had to immigrate to the city.

On weekends, to cover the family’s expenses, Guadalupe travels to Rancho Nuevo in his cherry Ford pickup truck, driving through a remote landscape—one mesquite tree here, another over there. There he kills baby goats, which he later sells in Monterrey. If it is the birthday of one of his children or some other truly special occasion, he kills one of the cows that graze on the paltry pastureland at the ranch. Enough barbacoa and menudo comes from the animal to last for days, and it makes everyone happy.

Sometimes there is no time to kill animals at Rancho Nuevo, and the sacrifices are made at the house in the city. It is not unusual for dead goats to appear strung up in the patio of the small home, hanging as if they were recently washed clothes waiting to be dried.

Of the six children in the González Garza family—María de la Luz, Graciela, Teresa, Guadalupe, and Martha—Gerónimo is the one who collaborates most in the weekend slaughters. His siblings study instead, and their chores include helping with the sale of the chorizo and in the butchering and packing of the meat. They treat Gerónimo normally. They run away for hide-and-seek or jump around for hopscotch. Gerónimo spends the first ten years of his life in this way, without him, his parents, or siblings knowing official sign language. All of their communication comes from moving the hands, a voice that doesn’t emit any sound but that can be seen. They use a silent alphabet they created.

Gerónimo’s parents don’t impose on him the world of those who do hear, they try to understand his. It’s a normal, spirited, and happy family.

It’s not unusual to see Gerónimo in bloody jeans after he’s spent the whole day with his father in their improvised slaughterhouse at home. Killing a goat is arduous work: first you have to calm it down, later bury a knife in its jugular, let it die as it screams, hang it up so that all the blood drains from it into a pot, take out its intestines by hand and strip it of its coat. There is one Saturday when Gerónimo, alone, without his father’s help, kills all eighteen goats to be eaten at a wedding to be celebrated that same night in Monterrey. He is ten years old.


Someone knocked on the door on a summer night in 1965. Guadalupe went out to see. A young visitor approached him and gave him a white card on which was printed many small hands drawn in different shapes—the hieroglyphics of the sign language alphabet. On the reverse side there was a message in Spanish: “I am deaf. Please donate to my school.” Ger.nimo’s father took out some change and gave it to the boy. He kept the card and the following afternoon took his son to the address written upon it.

It was a big house on Madero Road, one of the most important avenues in old Monterrey. There they taught Mexican Sign Language. (One might assume there is only one sign language for all deaf people in the world, but that’s not the case. There are many differences even between the sign language of one country and another. Deaf gringos speak American Sign Language. The language of deaf Mexicans even includes its own regional slang, and a deaf person from Monterrey doesn’t speak the same way as a deaf Mayan.) The place had few windows, three rooms, and a large area where in 1951 the first school for the deaf in northeastern Mexico was established. In the entranceway there was a sign that gave its welcome by offering the Greek definition of man: zoon logon ejon, “the animal that has language,” as well as photos of a deaf lucha libre wrestler who, at that time, every once and a while shared the ring with the famous fighters El Santo or Blue Demon. He was called El Prisionero, the Prisoner. There were also images of “Deaf” David Rodr.guez, another lucha libre performer, who was lesser known but a native of Monterrey.

The school was affiliated with the Mexican Association of Deaf-Mutes Corporation. Its symbol was a squirrel. The incessant movement of the hands of the sympathetic nut-eating rodent seemed to the professor Abel Sauza to be similar to the deaf students during their class discussions, and so he adopted it as their logo. It was Professor Sauza who involved Gerónimo in the rest of the activities at the school. The place doubled as a recruitment agency. The young deaf children who traversed the populous neighborhoods of Monterrey asking for money for the school were attentive, so if they came across any other deaf people they would invite them to join the community they were trying to form.

The deaf students, once they learned how to communicate through Mexican Sign Language, would form soccer teams and compete in amateur tournaments, or they would go out together to get to know other cities in Mexico. They would sell key chains, pens, or toys which they offered with cards bearing signed phrases on them, like “Te amo” (right hand with two bent fingers making a type of horns to be placed at the chest, at the height of the heart) or “Que D.os te bendiga” (left hand and right hand symmetrically in the form of horns).

The professors presented these trips to parents as a way to integrate their students into the world, though they had a commercial logic to them as well, as part of the sales went to the school and another, smaller part went to the young deaf entrepreneurs.

Gerónimo made his first trip at 14 years old. It was like going to another planet; the never-ending asphalt of Mexico City contrasted with the loose topsoil of where he had grown up, as much so in Rancho Nuevo as Monterrey. He spent four months there. He made short visits to the other states of Puebla, Aguascalientes, and Guanajuato. He met deaf people from Mexico City who were infamous for being abusive to those from the countryside, but some of them became good friends of his for a long time. The Monument to the Mexican Revolution was Gerónimo’s preferred site to sell key chains. The tourists behaved generously, especially the regular evening customers of the neighboring cantinas. Whereas outside the nearby offices of the Federal Security Department (DFS), a shadowy organization that coordinated paramilitary and “counterterrorism” efforts at the time, the pickings were quite slim.

Before returning to Monterrey, the group traveled to Guadalajara for a few weeks. While he was there, Gerónimo decided he would go as a mojado, or “wetback,” to the United States.

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You were supposed to keep your eyes closed. Jerry Adelstein knew this, but still he couldn’t help himself. Through his half-open lids he saw Nicki, or rather, the top of Nicki’s head a few rows in front of him. Her black hair was shiny and slicked back with massage oil, glistening like an otter sunning itself on a rock. Though he couldn’t know for sure, he would bet good money that Nicki’s eyes were closed. Unlike him, she tended to follow the rules.

But he shouldn’t be thinking about Nicki. He shouldn’t be thinking at all. Follow the breath, the teacher had said. If you feel your mind drifting, just label the thought: thinking, thinking. She made it sound so easy, as if it were no small matter to shut down the mind. To have thoughts, label them without a running commentary, then let them go, presumably to float up, up, up and away, to some sort of graveyard of lost thoughts.

The teacher’s name was Samjana, the Sanskrit word for awareness, but her surname was Resnick, and Jerry would bet—meditation seemed to put him in a betting mood—that her given name was something more along the lines of Sarah. Or Rachel. In another life, he might have seen her during Yom Kippur services, her head bowed in contemplation during the silent Amidah.

But instead, here they were at the River Bend Retreat, a former monastery situated, aptly, at a bend on the Snake River in Idaho: a thirty-something meditation teacher (not just any meditation teacher, as Nicki had told him back home when trying to persuade him. Samjana was a rock star, the Lady Gaga of meditation teachers) and he, Jerry Adelstein, a fifty-seven-year-old intellectual property attorney fresh off a triple bypass.

Now that, he really, really didn’t want to think about. If he thought about his heart, it would respond, as if in a pas de deux, by thumping irregularly against his chest wall. He peered at Samjana, still and stately as one of the trees outside the picture window which overlooked the rapids. Her legs were crossed in a full lotus position, and it seemed from the peaceful upturning of her lips that she could effortlessly remain that way until nightfall. Thinking, thinking. Behind Samjana, hanging high up on the wall, was a photograph of the Swami who had founded the place. When Jerry had first Googled River Bend, he found many references to the Swami, mostly involving his hasty departure years earlier amid swirling rumors of both sexual and financial impropriety. Thinking, thinking.

Mentally, he slapped himself. Snap out of it, Adelstein! Discipline ruled his life, from the half grapefruit he ate for breakfast each morning and the daily 3.4 miles around the reservoir (a thing of the past), to the color-coded files he meticulously kept on every client past and present. Christ, he even got through The Brothers Karamazov last summer when he and Nicki spent the last two weeks of August on the Vineyard, but this—just turning down the volume, slowing down the avalanche of loose data pinging through his mind—this seemed to be beyond him.


It had been his cardiologist at Mount Sinai who first brought up the idea of meditation.

“Medication?” Jerry had asked.

“No, meditation.” The cardiologist hadn’t realized that Jerry was joking. What was the expression: about as funny as a heart attack?

“Be serious, Jerry.” This, from Nicki, who had been in the room at the time. “You know, I read a study last winter. There are significant benefits.”

Two weeks earlier, his chest had been sawed open, an event that occurred less than twenty-four hours after a stress test and subsequent angioplasty had revealed major blockage in three coronary arteries. It had been a routine visit—an annual checkup—and Jerry couldn’t help but feel that if he’d skipped the visit, none of this might ever have happened. It could have been, as his kids used to say when they were little, a do-over. No railroad track of an angry red scar in the center of his chest, still bare from being shaved pre-surgery. No new normal, a phrase he abhorred. And certainly no fucking retreat in the middle of nowhere led by a woman with a cockamamie Hindu stagename.


Sadjama tapped an ornate gong with a soft mallet, and a single, mournful note filled the room. Slowly people started to come back from wherever they had been, as if returning from a country to which Jerry had been denied access. It seemed like a peaceful place, if perhaps a bit boring, and he found himself wishing that he could at least visit—though he was certain he didn’t want to live there.

As the final vibrations of the gong faded into silence, he trained his gaze on Nicki, willing her to turn around. His fellow retreatants (was that even a word?) stretched and rolled their necks. Joints cracked. Knees popped. The rustling sound of a hundred asses shifting position. Come on, baby. Come to Poppa. Nicki lifted one long arm, then reached behind herself and scratched her back.

“And so.” Sadjama’s bird-like ribcage rose and fell. Her voice seemed to pick up where the gong left off, as if part of some sort of ancient chorus. “And so, we begin to see the contents of our minds. In following the breath, we meet ourselves.”

Jerry pictured a cartoon version of himself, shaking his own hand.

“We are like busy little monkeys, going, going, going so that we don’t have to consider the truth of our own insignificance, our brief time in this vessel, this physical body.”

Jerry didn’t see the upside of pondering his own insignificance. And he was quite fond of his vessel, thank you very much. His physical body staged a rebellion against Sadjama’s words. Surges of uncomfortable energy coursed through him, wave after wave. He wanted to do something. Maybe a few dozen push-ups, though that might kill him, or at the very least mess with the cardiac surgeon’s handiwork. You weren’t supposed to leave the room—another rule on a list of unspoken rules—but still he could feel himself on the verge of leaping up and stumbling to the door. Through the picture window, a foggy mist rose from the river. It looked almost like a photograph of a river, a postcard designed for tourists. If his thoughts weren’t real, then what was? Please, baby. Turn around.

As if he had spoken aloud, Nicki swiveled her head and looked straight at him, her large dark eyes gleaming. The rest of her face didn’t move. No amusement, nor frustration, nor concern creased his wife’s lovely brow. Her eyes, those twin pools, offered him exactly nothing, which was, of course, worse than nothing. A few seconds passed, maybe more. He was drowning. Nicki turned so that she was once again facing Sadjama, her posture as straight as a knife.


His grown children called Nicki “the homewrecker” when she wasn’t around. It was their loyalty to their mother that caused this mean streak, which was otherwise quite out-of-character. Amanda was twenty-eight, Ben, twenty-six. They were good kids, excellent kids, and Jerry was aware that he didn’t have any grounds for complaint. They had sailed smoothly through their childhoods on a sea of academic achievement: Dalton, then Taft, where they boarded during the divorce, and then Ben had followed Amanda to Wesleyan, where both had distinguished themselves. Law school for the girl, an MFA in poetry for the boy, though Jerry couldn’t help but wish it had been the other way around. It was only this one ugly word, homewrecker, which he had overheard as they planned his fiftieth birthday party, that let Jerry know that the wound of the split had remained open, festering. A blight on their otherwise blessed lives. Though, in Nicki’s presence, of course, they were unfailingly polite.

Twelve years since all that had happened—surely long enough to legitimize any sense of sordidness about the whole thing. Yes, Nicki had been a summer associate. Yes, he was a partner, and married, a family man who should have known better—who did know better. Nothing like this had ever happened, or likely ever would have happened if it hadn’t been Nicki. Only Nicki. He wasn’t looking for trouble. In fact, he’d thought of himself as relatively happy—as content, he would have said, as anyone trying to run a law firm and raise two kids in the pressure cooker of Manhattan. But when the firm’s number one recruit arrived at the beginning of that June in the form of a small, fine-boned young woman with the gait of a dancer, whose soft-spokenness masked a formidable intellect and, what’s more, a wicked sense of humor, Jerry found excuses to stop at her desk, to hand-deliver correspondence, to ride the elevator just as she was leaving for the day. An impulsive invitation for a drink, which led to dinner, which led to a lie to his wife about working late. The gentle, quizzical expression that first crossed Nicki’s face, that night, as some invisible hand began to knit the air between them, connecting them in a way that felt bizarrely inevitable. By the time he stopped to ask himself what he was doing, he had already done it. He had fallen in love with a woman technically young enough to be his daughter, and whom he had met through work. He couldn’t have made a bigger mess of things if he had tried.

“The whole world doesn’t just revolve around you, Daddy. What about us?” He could still hear Amanda’s wailing voice. She had been sixteen years old, and she thought of herself, her brother, and her mother as a unit. To violate one was to violate them all. But Jerry couldn’t explain to her, couldn’t barely even explain to himself the way he had been dying a little bit each year, the way he had been feeling numb from the neck down, a head bobbling along on a set of insensate shoulders, all brains and no heart, just getting through day after day. It wasn’t about sex, but rather, a desperate need to feel—to be back inside his body again.

“I’m sorry,” was all he could say, and say it he did, over and over again until the words broke down into syllables, until they lost all meaning.

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Life Span


“I have it,” our grandmother repeats. She again extends a dime, four nickels, and ten pennies pinched in her beige cotton glove. Our mother, behind the wheel of the Hudson, bats the gloved hand back as we near the tollgate. “You paid last time,” our mother says. The car sways over the dividing line to the right. “I certainly did not,” our grandmother says. “Yes,” our mother says, digging for a fifty-cent piece through the open purse on her lap, “you did.” The car sways over the dividing line to the left. “I think I know what I did and did not do,” our grandmother says. She reaches across our mother to thrust the money toward the open window. Our mother slaps her back. Our grandmother plants her elbow in our mother’s chest. Our mother backhands her. The coins from our grandmother’s glove shoot across the dash; the coin from our mother’s purse rolls onto the floor. Our car lurches and brakes. The car behind us screeches to a stop. Two other cars honk. A man yells. We kids sink down in back. “Now look what you’ve done,” our grandmother scolds. “Look what you’ve made me do,” our mother screams. My brother and sister and I search our pockets. I have three pennies. My brother has a nickel. My sister doesn’t have anything. We roll down the back window and give the man in the tollbooth our change. He waves it away, nods toward our mother and grandmother hugging each other, each of them weeping Sorry Darling So Sorry and says, “Just get them out of here.”


Hey you. Yeah you. Don’t be scared of us. See this red shoe? Guess where it came from. Can’t? Well we’ll tell you. It came off the foot of a little girl just like you who was killed in a car crash; she was hit so hard by a Mack Truck on the bridge her shoe flew straight across the bay and landed here in our back yard in Sausalito. How do we know? Because Jimmie and Stevie and Pete and I saw it happen. If you look close you can still see something dark on the heel. Something wet. That’s right. Blood. The little girl’s blood. No one knows where the other shoe is. Maybe a shark swallowed it. Maybe it’s in China. Want it? No? It’s your size.


Squinched in a window seat on the Greyhound Bus with white gloves on my lap and my first Kotex belt digging into my hip while the fat woman beside me scratches a pink hand oozing with poison oak and an old man behind me reaches through the space between the seats to stroke my elbow, once, before I yank it away to frown at a freighter passing in the gray water below and will myself to be on it, a foreign correspondent bound for adventure, adult and brave and free.


Ralph Mathis works in Tollbooth Three Ralph Mathis works in Toll booth Three Ralph Mathis works in Tollbooth Three—perhaps this time he’ll notice us—four high school girls from Drivers’ Ed—and let us into Johnny’s show for free.


Dan smells like Aqua Velva and Marlboros and I smell like Arpege and Tareytons. We pass a plastic cup of my parents’ gin mixed with his parents’ Scotch back and forth as we drive. My head is on his shoulder; I help him shift; he’s such a good driver he can steer the Ranchero with his knees. We have never seen each other dressed up before but this is surely how we’re meant to look from now on: he like Peter Gunn in his dark suit, me like Kim Novak in my strapless lavender gown. After the prom we are going to the Tonga Room and after the Tonga Room we are going to not-go-all-the-way under the bridge at Fort Point. I have not been this happy since

I was a baby. I will write a poem about the city, the way the lights look like jewels on velvet, no, sequins on slate, no, diamonds on a pet jaguar’s back, but I will have to write it later, for there is nothing in my purse but lipstick and a dollar, no pen, no paper. Dan turns the radio up—it’s our song—Andre Previn, “Like Young”—and blows a perfect smoke ring and I poke through the center with my index finger like I always do and we both laugh as we cross over our bridge into our city.


The baby sings in the backseat. The baby does not know that the lanes are too narrow. The baby does not know there’s a drunk in a Corvette careening in front of us, a legion of tourist buses crowding behind us, a blind man on one side, a stroke victim on the other. She doesn’t fear the proximity of the guardrail or expect the towers to crumble or the girders to buckle or the pavement to break in midair like a plank sawed in half, which is exactly what will happen the minute we bomb Cuba and Russia bombs us back and I am forced to roar into the open gap braking all the way down to the ocean floor as the baby sings in the backseat. E I E I O.


Jay jumped. Twenty-seven years old. No one knows why. Oh there were reasons. He’d lost his job at the paper. He’d started drinking again. He feared he was gay. He feared he was crazy. His wife had divorced him. She’d taken his son. She’d taken his dog. His son called her new boyfriend Dad. There was a lump in his groin. He owed ten thousand dollars. He had to beg from his father. He hated his father. His car had blown up. He lived in a motel. He was losing his hair. He’d gained thirty pounds. His left molar throbbed. He was brilliant and kind and funny and good but Jay had never learned and never would learn to play the saxophone the way the saxophone should be played so what was the point, Jay whispered, leg over the railing, what was the goddamned point?


Toni meant to jump. She parked at Vista Point but when she saw the perfect moon rise over the perfect silver water she thought: Not now.

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Out of Notebooks

Late in the P.M. I’m riding BART through its bay waters tunnel, coming home from Berkeley, where whenever I emerge from the Downtown Berkeley station I feel culturally confused and morally disoriented. I’m surrounded by scolding righteousness and a classmotley nuttiness that comports itself as if it were exquisite entitlement. The speedy angry wheelchairs, the ganja aromatics, the dopey cheer of gutterpunks (and their pits and rotts), the streetfolk indistinguishable from grad students—that Shattuck Avenue corner induces a vaguely precious congestive disgust and primes me to find even more disgraceful than usual the other Berkeley where I was headed, the tamped-down, moneyed gentility of College Avenue, where good behavior is on its best behavior. So I’m happy to be going home to San Francisco, when a young woman sits next to me. “Excuse me, sir. Sir? Can I ask you something?” Hard to guess her age. Anglo, heavy-bodied, sweaty, pimples disfiguring her nose and forehead, nicely dressed, but she stinks of piss. “Sir? Tell me, if you knew somebody was going to die tonight. I mean you knew it, and you knew when. And you know the person. What would you do?” Whose life? Anyone’s real life? Is she in her right mind? Does it matter? My existence on earth in an instant contracts to our shared seat. Any words that might pass between us, beyond what she has said, are fraught with urgent intimacy. My head feels pressured by the water around the tunnel our train is pushing through. The sea is just down the street.


If you live a long time with chronic pain, when the levels spike it helps to have a map. Tonight I imagine my body as a night sky, and certain stars are hot spots. They constellate to form a picture, a self-portrait. Star light, star bright.


Poetry is cellular matter, connective tissue, interstitial stuff, not skeletal. “Life,” writes a friend, “is lived in its transitions.” Thus the fatigue of writing: it comes from sustaining that awareness of a life that never quite arrives or leaves.


Daylight Saving Time. Saving Light in Time. Late day, sunlight breaks into the kitchen but along the way diffuses into powdered ores on my unwashed windows. Yesterday, a fat, faintly opaque moon like buff linen. In the A.M. the whiter light of morning spreads west across white buildings to the blue-gray plateau of the Pacific. A raven’s shadow wipes the rooftops.


How I love Schiele. His “Sunflowers” is nature as root cellar, drab greens and browns, all snotty effluvial color, the blooms sickened, failing, and in the middle sky a sun blanched of its fires, its sunfloweriness.


Back in Marfa and its high-desert West Texas heat. Winds today at 30+ mph. I’m accustomed to the sea wind in San Francisco—it’s frontal, it comes at you. A windstorm here comes for you. It’s a woman’s voice halooing right outside the door late tonight, trying to slither into the house and harmonize with the Figaro I’m listening to. It shimmies, it turns corners, it bullroars, in this otherwise silent place. How can you not believe that the wind carries the voices of the dead, long interred but now singing again for us to come to them and their sweet fine nothingness.


What if death is just another country of contingency, contingency we can’t imagine, so we have to believe it’s an empire of pure necessity. Then imagine death not as a state, not non-being, but a condition where consciousness is free in a way that it cannot be free in life.


Dreams are the deranged, disguised partners of our clarified waking mental life. A recent twosome:

1: A young Asian woman walking with a much older man, their arms sexily around each other, the image rich with feeling of a lasting passion undeterred.

2: A neurologist shows me three sketches he’s made of the interior of my skull; on each one, a mark indicates the same abnormality: “Priapism.”


Fat Tuesday then Ash Wednesday. Runny pork fat chased by dry charred atonement. An excess of ashes is as inviting as an excess of meat and beads and bacon grease. Poetry treads water in the stream of the process, wet to dry, fat to dust, superfluity to barely surfeit. In my childhood the ashy forehead smudge was more a mark of fallenness than sign or promise of rebirth. We were already—at eight years old—consigned to earth or urn. What had we children done to cause this to be required of us?


Riders on public transit bent to the shape of piety, ensorcelled by smart phone, iPad, BlackBerry. The prayer beads of our time. Checking, checking. How’s the universe doing today?


I’ve decided to sell off or give away most of my books. If I read them well in the first place, I’ll always own them. They have certainly owned me, which is a reason for letting them go. I want them out of my apartment, out of my sight, and me out of their sight, for they’ve watched me—watched over and examined and compassed me—long enough. Time to go now, old friends, old obsessors, forsakers, forget-me-nots. Give me reprieve finally from that life of mind and heart that has come to oppress me. Time for you (and me) to go.


Concentration is a distraction. Hiking the rim of Taos gorge I was looking down so I could get as close as possible to the verge, I wanted to see the river running below where it combed in explosive little bursts over the rocks, I wanted to feel the rush of suddenly falling, but while looking down I missed the two bald eagles my companions saw flying above the river at eye level.


Aspirations. I wanted to write a poetry that enacted what it felt like to live in that impossible moment when a lived instant seems to recapitulate every previous instant—I wanted to engage consciousness as it lived into its own layers or zones. Reading all those books I’ve been selling off was as aspirational as it was instructive. And as a prettily pious Roman Catholic child I muttered my way through who knows how many thousands of aspirations, though a short walk through online dictionaries doesn’t give up that meaning: a prayer or devout utterance that’s no more than a breath.


The country of contingency is full of rain.


In the Museum of Modern Art, my heart’s adrift and achy with thoughts of young sons who lose their fathers when I hear a guard—from the islands, from St. Vincent, it turned out—softly singing to himself what sounded like Gospel, and was Gospel, he said when I asked. The sound of song in public—doesn’t matter if it’s Gospel, opera, tuneless humming, or rap: it thrills the air. (Today in a streetcar, a high school kid improvised a rap he was still pattering when I got off after several stops: as riders entered he worked into his song their clothes or shoes or belongings or skin type.) After that museum song came the formless sorrow I feel before one of Rothko’s dark-smoky pictures, the nocturnal palette, always enchanting and unsettling, and I overhear a father tell his son how R’s pictures were like windows and how you can see or imagine all sorts of feelings looking out windows, right? “He wasn’t a happy man,” he tells the boy. While I’m thinking about wisdom and tradition, R’s mental agony, the hurt heart, I hear somebody call my name (sharply, like a cell phone dropped on a hard surface) but when I look around, nobody’s there.

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Adventures in Language School

Rome: such a great city for walking unless
You are hit by a car, as I was tonight, though it was only
A tiny car. The cretino driver had my language progress
In mind as I practiced my idioms and gestures,
Like what they call “holding the umbrella”
(don’t ask, think about it). The driver’s eyes
Told me I had a long way to go if I wished to
Score a point about livestock and his love life.
Still, a sorrowful ghostly city like Rome is good
For dying if it came to that, so many spaces
For monuments, someday maybe one of Me in Language
School, in full command of the imperfect subjunctive,
Which is called the Congiuntivo Imperfetto,
Which sounds like a coffee or pasta but is not.
Later this night a girl in a piazza swathed in moonlight,
Unlit cigarette in her fingertips, asks in her English,
“Have you a fire for me?” Sometimes even Italian fails.
You won’t believe how much you use the Congiuntivo
Imperfetto during foreplay, painting a ceiling, or when hit
By a car. Night times I spent in the Piazza dell’
Orologio—orologio means clock—sweepingly
Subjunctive and imperfect, and studied the big clock
On the tower, the one with missing hands,
And appreciated anew Italians’ conceptions of love
And death and why they were always late.
I am the oldest student in the class by a factor of two.
Also the only male, by a factor of no idea. The Russians
Have atrocious accents but their grammar and miniskirts
Are exceptional, especially with the subjunctive mood.
The goal is to think in Italian, to speak without
Thinking, so I am halfway home. Maybe it was my toga
That turned the teacher against me. I ask her to go
With me to the Coliseum, where everyone soon dies,
As I will, which is why I first came to Rome.
The most beautiful girl in school is from Algiers.
Her black eyes demand I re-examine my whole life.
Oh, the things I could tell you about language school
Would fill a book, a little grammar exercise book
Specializing in the imperfect subjunctive, required
Every minute in Rome especially while sitting next
To a gorgeous sweet Algerian girl named Sisi,
Which in Italian sounds like si, si, yes, yes.
That’s why, if I have to live, Rome is not so bad,
It’s such a sad city, with the best art over my head,
Cars so small that afterward I run back to language school.

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The Chinese Barracks

Ten days after the opening, the work schedules were already growing long. Betty explained it all to Hannah. You worked until your job was done, or you worked until someone stopped you. Jozef, who worked like a machine and chased overtime, never slept until he was ordered to. You were called a broken taco if you worked less than sixteen hours, a champion if you worked more than twenty-four. You compared hours of overtime. You compared hallucinations the way sailors compared tattoos. The shadows of the fresh-frozen house got animated late at night, roused by the clanging of the belt and the slap of the salmon as they fell into empty metal bins, or the slap of salmon as they fell against other salmon. They all saw them, creeping shadows and bright spots in their vision. When the salmon came in half rotted from Bristol Bay, the smell agitated the shadows even more, making them flap like bats. The dark circles under everyone’s eyes grew luminous and sometimes bled like mascara down their cheeks. It was impossible to fall asleep with all this chattering movement: a foreman would grab someone as they stumbled and tell them to take five hours to sleep, but without fail when you lay down the rhythm of some chain clanking in the wind, some seagull, the waves or the waving of the curtain would demand attention and there was a simple and perilous choice—to give it attention and remain awake, or to close your eyes and encounter the current of adrenaline that gave you horrible rhythmic dreams: dreams of conveyer belts of fish; when the conveyer belt stopped you scissor-kicked yourself awake. Everyone understood the slipperiness of the minds of sleepy people, and everyone kept up a watchful camaraderie that had as much to do with self-preservation as it did with brotherhood—it was part of the local currency of kindness, like Skittles and back rubs.


Maryanne, whose father owned boats out of Kelso, kept a supply of Metabolife under her bed and would slip a vitamin-sized pill into the pocket of her friends’ hoodies if she saw them lagging on the slime line or growing emotional. The first night of the season, which stretched from the bell at midnight to noon the next day, she was giving out painters’ dust masks to people who were cold. She handed one to Hannah, who had started shivering around five in the morning. Maryanne helped her put the dusk mask on, tightening it in the back and saying:

“The mask will keep you warm, but the warm air around your mouth will make you sleepy, OK? It’s an even trade.” Hannah nodded, tears of gratitude in her eyes.

When Hannah’s head started dipping after breakfast, Maryanne got sharp, and yanked the mask down to Hannah’s chin.

“If you get dozy, take the mask off!” Hannah nodded doggedly. “Also, don’t eat much at breakfast. If you’re hungry, you’re awake. Fill up on coffee.” She clapped Hannah’s cheek, hard enough to make her understand, gentle enough to get away with it.

As Maryanne moved away, Betty heard her muttering, “That girl has broken taco written all over her.”


Betty had worked with Maryanne the year before, and she knew enough to treat her with respect. She knew well enough what “broken taco” meant, and she new how to avoid becoming one: don’t lag, tow the line, don’t quit the cannery before the last sockeye run comes in. Betty wondered why they didn’t just say “pussy.” To be a broken taco was to be the lowest of the low: incompetent and spineless. Maryanne was the head of the roe house this year, working with the skinny Japanese men who wore white boots and smoked cigarettes as they packed boxes of Grade C roe to ship back to the low-end sushi buffets back home. Maryanne would pick only her friends to work in the roe house. It was the best position you could get: the roe house was away from the noise of the machinery in the cannery and the fresh-frozen house and you could play music and take breaks whenever and maybe learn Japanese.


In the first few days of the season, when everyone worked in the evening and got twelve hours off to sleep and everyone slept, even, often for ten of the twelve hours, there was a quiet held like an inhaled breath. The days were sodden and gloomy, and the bunkhouses stunk of wet wool and sleep and the sweetness of fish blood. The bunkhouses would grow louder by ten p.m., the sun still glowing behind the clouds, and by midnight everyone, flabby faced with sleep, would troop over to the cannery buildings. One of these first few nights the Child brothers, Zack and J. Child, started working in fresh-frozen, and the season had its first fight and real beginning. The Child brothers were delinquents from Portland: Zack’s face was pleasant, round and ripe with acne, and J. Child was sullen, pointedly handsome. Both of them were already notorious for covering up the smell of fish blood with Axe body spray. Both of them had bought their plane tickets from Portland to Alaska on cannery credit.


It was Nusky, the veteran foreman, who assigned the Child brothers to fresh-frozen, stacking fish on pallets and moving them to the freezer. Everyone called Nusky “Leatherneck,” behind his back because his neck was wrinkled and tanned from years on boats. That evening, the Child brothers sauntered in late and Nusky ran up to them and started yelling. Zack, cowed, backed away, but J. Child yelled back at him, calling him, in a voice louder than the machinery, “You leathernecked old bastard.” Nusky stopped talking, grimaced a smile, and patted J. Child on the back. J. Child was wrong to make an enemy out of Nusky, because he put J. Child on duty stacking fish, and J. Child’s carpal tunnel got so bad that the vein started to blacken. Everyone said that he had put things in that vein, though, and no one but Hannah, who later started sleeping with him, held him up as a pitiful martyr. Betty, who decided to cope with her exhaustion through anger, supported J. Child because she decided to hate Nusky.


Betty didn’t get to work in the roe house. She was put in the sorting crew, separating the sockeye from the chum and pink salmon. It was lonely, the work started at midnight, and there were only girls for company. Hannah was on the crew, and Hannah’s roommate, and a Polish or Ukrainian girl named Ilsa. There were a lot of internationals this year—the stringy Japanese and then all these Poles or Ukrainians. Some were returning: Jozef, the machine, was a favorite. The sorting crew left for work when everyone else was getting off and going to sleep. Every two hours they got ten minutes with a coffee pot and a selection of white bread and cold cuts—but even the coffee breaks were lonely for the sorting crew. Betty got angry. The fresh-frozen house was colder at night, and echoed.


Last season, when she was working in the cannery and was good friends with Maryanne, Betty was a favorite of Nusky and the other foremen who rode around on their bicycles with haughty impunity, regally nodding their heads. Bicycles were for the foremen only, but last season Betty hadn’t known this, and when she had found a bicycle by the incinerator, rusted and dented and missing a saddle, she brought it back to the cannery. She saw Maryanne set her mouth in disapproval, but in the excitement of the moment she continued riding in circles around the dock. She set it down to go in to dinner, and when she came out of the mess hall she saw that someone had thrown it onto the rocks. Every low tide, the bicycle was revealed, hanging with seaweed. This season it was gone, dragged into the bay by some angry winter current. Now, standing at the sorting belt, watching the salmon rolling, squirming or stiff with rigor mortis, it seemed clear that Maryanne had thrown her bicycle off the dock. Maryanne kept her distance from Betty, and kept a close eye on her Metabolife. Sometimes Nusky would ride around late at night to check on the night crews at the sorting belt and the beach gang. He was still pleasant to Betty; he offered her chocolate. That was his bartering tool, his restorative—little fun-size candies he’d produce from his pocket with a flourish.


Jozef the machine had already abandoned sleeping. He came up, one night, to the sorting perch, unsteady on his feet, and Hannah asked in a small whisper if he was drunk. His eyes were red, he swatted at the handrail and missed.

“Is he—Is he drunk?”

Jozef lurched. He said nothing about why he was up there. He turned to address the conveyer belt of salmon and spoke in Polish. He had a ring of spittle, dried white, around his mouth. Hannah was watching him with a half-open mouth, backing away.

“He’s not drunk, he’s just sleepy.” They all used the word “sleepy” to describe the various stages of exhaustion, because it sounded cute and chummy. Betty took Jozef’s arm.

“Joe,” she said, and Jozef wheeled: shocked, rocking. “Joe, get some sleep. It’s time for bed.” She helped him down the stairs. He walked in the opposite direction of the bunkhouses.

Back at the sorting belt, Hannah was stock still, glazed with concern.

“He’s fine. He’s just sleepy.”

Betty understood Jozef’s aversion to sleep: without sleep you got the elation, the slamming heart and joy that hammered like a headache, between the troughs of sadness and fear.


Hannah got hysterical when she was in the trough, weeping silently. Eyes scanning the moving shadows in her vision, she would ask, “What was that? What was that?” pointing at nothing. When she was happy, she was silly, giggling and recounting the snippets of her dreams. Betty’s trough was anger—she spat and punched at the fish when she sorted them, sometimes pulling the softer ones apart. She engaged with what she saw moving at the edge of her sight, cursing. When she was happy she was also angry, but giddily so. The girls on the sorting crew tried to stay in rhythm, so that no more than one of them was spooked or anguished at a time. At coffee breaks they poured and sugared each other’s coffee. Sometimes there were fights—they liked the fights best if they were between the Ukrainians or Poles, because they could sit and relax and pretend to interpret what they were saying as they hit each other. Hannah sat and rocked gently and giggled, and Betty balled her fists and said: “Yeah! Yeah!”


Her real name was Tess, short for Teresa, but she had changed it to Betty. The inspiration for this name change was her boyfriend. Her boyfriend’s name was Carl, but his stage name was Mikey Mnoxide. He was never really onstage; he worked repairing motorcycles, and once, when they talked about their plans, he said that they should start a joint bike-repair shop and beauty parlor so that the Bettys could get their hair done while the Johnnys got their bikes looked after. He said it casually, in his bland Kansas accent, and she decided right then to go to beauty school. Now, to practice, she teased her hair into a bouffant, or a beehive, and drew on her eyes with liquid liner. She combed her boyfriend’s hair back into a ducktail, using egg white to give it that sheen and hold. When she opened her beauty parlor next to the bike shop she would make sure that the only haircuts the Johnnys could get were ducktails and crew cuts. She never called him Carl, but she never got used to calling him Mikey, so she called him “you.” He called her “the little lady.”

Even at the cannery, she did her hair before work. She brought a can of hairspray and a jar of pomade. She told the girls on the crew about her boyfriend; she called him “my boyfriend.” She brought a tape deck, and a collection of tapes, all doo-wop. When she was in a trough another girl, usually Hannah, would play “My Boyfriend’s Back” to cheer her up. When Hannah was acting spooky, Betty played her “The Leader of the Pack.” After work some days, they would sit and listen to the tape deck in Betty’s room. Their personalities changed at each song, and grew wistful during the love songs and hard, almost manic, when the music was raunchy. They always skipped “Last Kiss,” because it was about death and made the shadows in the corners of the room flutter with ghostly portents.

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L.C. Smith and Bros., Makers of Fine Guns and Typewriters, Advertise

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no lost time, no wasted energy, no mistakes or misplaced letters

the proper aim is up to you, but you can leave the results to us

the inexorable law of Survival of the Fittest is proved

take it with you and give yourself a fair chance

ball bearing, long wearing, hair trigger

improvements cease to stand out against the background of “No Shortcomings”

a necessity for emphasizing

the fullest possible pleasure in the field, and the maximum game in your bag

no necessary operation takes the hands from writing position

prevents fumbling and delay

a key for every character

it speaks with a directness and force

which leaves no room for doubt as to its meaning

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Clear as Cake

Marvin Helgarson smoked a pipe. When he listened to us, he nipped at the pipe—pah, pah, pah—the way that people who smoke pipes do, and when he told us things about our writing, he jabbed the pipe in the air for emphasis. I liked Marvin Helgarson. He was tall, not just everyday tall but tall even by Minnesota standards, though that’s not why I liked him. I’m just trying to give details, what Marvin Helgarson called “salient features.”

The class met Tuesday evenings in the Humanities Building library, sixteen of us wedged in around two long wooden tables that came together in a T with Marvin Helgarson at the head. It felt like Thanksgiving the first night, all of us too close together and filled with dread, though later, after Marvin Helgarson explained about perspective, I could see that maybe that was just my perspective.

“Liars and thieves,” said Marvin Helgarson to get things going. “That’s what you get with a room full of writers.” He rose and swept out his arms like Jesus to include us all.

He meant it as an icebreaker, and most of us chuckled, but the woman across from me said, “Oh dear. I didn’t know anything about that”—meaning, I guess, that she had a different idea about writers and writing, a different idea about what she had signed up for. Her name was Wanda, and she had large warts on her chin and cheeks, and later these warts would appear on the characters in her stories. We were always nervous about discussing them, worrying, I suppose, that we might read something into the warts that Wanda had not intended and that she would know then what it was that people saw when they looked at her.

“Wanda,” said Marvin Helgarson, “I don’t mean writers are really thieves.” He paused, picked up his pipe, and sucked on it. “It’s more like when someone lends you a pen to use, and then you just don’t give it back.” About lying, he said nothing.

“You’re going to be working together intimately,” Marvin Helgarson said, “so you need to know who you’re dealing with.” He asked for a volunteer to begin the introductions, and Fred Erickson, who was wearing a tie with a treble clef on it, jumped right in, describing his family and hobbies and years as the director of a choir in Idaho, from which he was now retired. Idaho seemed far away to me, and I wondered how he had ended up in Moorhead, Minnesota, but I didn’t ask because I was intimidated by my classmates, most of whom came to campus once a week for this class but were adults with jobs and families the rest of the time.

I took a lot of notes that semester, tips that Marvin Helgarson shared to help us with our writing, like when he told us that sometimes the things that seemed most compelling to write about should not really be written about at all. They were just anecdotes, he said, odd things that had happened to us that were interesting to discuss in a bar but were not literary, by which he meant that they could not transcend the page. He explained this the first night of class, jabbing the air with his pipe so that we understood it was important, and then he said it again several months later when we discussed the nutty lady’s story about a woman who cleaned rest stops along I-94. In the story, the woman and her cleaning partner were finishing the rest area near Fergus Falls when they discovered a body inside one of the trashcans. The story, which was just two pages long, mainly a lot of boring details about cleaning that lent veracity, ended like this: “The woman was dead and she was also naked. We were shocked and scared, and after the police came, we finished the bathrooms and went home.”

When Marvin explained to the nutty lady that it wasn’t really a short story, that it was more of an anecdote, she stood up. “Anecdote?” she said. “This really happened, you know. It happened to me, right after my ass-wipe husband left, and I had to be at that job every morning at six.” She snorted. “Anecdote.” Then, she walked out. It was late, nearly nine o’clock, and we could hear her footsteps echoing, not only because the building was empty but because she was wearing ski boots.

We didn’t see the crazy lady again, but at the beginning of the next class Marvin showed us what she had left in his mailbox: a manila envelope with our stories for the week, chopped into strips with a paper cutter. You see, she really was crazy. But also, she’d had enough of us I think, enough of us telling her stuff about her writing. Three weeks earlier, she’d submitted a story about a woman whose vagina hurt all the time, except when she was having sex. As a result, her husband, who was a farmer, got very tired of having sex all the time and told her that she needed to go to the doctor to have her vagina checked. “I’m putting my foot down” is what he said, which made me laugh, though I didn’t say so because I didn’t think the story was supposed to be funny.

The woman and her husband spoke with what seemed like Irish accents, but when they drove into town to see the doctor, they drove to Bemidji, which is in Minnesota. I raised my hand and said they sounded Irish, pointing to things like “lassie” and “thar” because Marvin had told us to back up our comments with examples from the text, but the crazy lady looked pleased when I said they sounded Irish. “Yes,” she said. “They’re from Ireland. They moved to Minnesota when they were young in order to have an adventure and be farmers and also because something tragic happened to them in Ireland and they needed a fresh start.”

“I guess I missed that,” I said and began shuffling back through the story.

“No,” she said. “It doesn’t say it. It’s just something I know. I was creating a life for my characters off the page, the way that Marvin said we should.”

“That’s a lot to have off the page,” pointed out Thomas in what I thought was a very nice voice. Thomas was also one of the older students in the class. The first salient feature about Thomas was that his parents met at a nudist colony, where they were not nudists because they worked in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and frying meat. The other salient feature about Thomas was that he was a minister. I knew these things because he sometimes wrote his sermons at Jack’s, the bar that I hung out at, and one night we drank a pitcher of beer together and talked, but when we saw each other in class the next week, we both felt awkward.

“But the story isn’t about them leaving Ireland,” said the crazy lady triumphantly. “It’s about”—she paused because I guess even a crazy lady feels strange saying “vagina” to a minister—“the pain in her female parts.”

None of us knew what to say, so we looked down at the story, at the scene in which the woman and her husband, who was tired from having sex all the time, visited the doctor. When she was in the doctor’s office, lying on the table with her feet in the stirrups, the doctor, who was an elderly man, positioned himself between her legs and called out, “Three fingers going.”

This was supposed to be a minor detail I think, but Tabatha, who was a feminist, got mad. “That’s ridiculous,” she yelled at the crazy lady. “What kind of a doctor would say, ‘Three fingers going’?”

“Doctors are just regular people,” the crazy lady yelled back. “They get tired of saying the same things over and over, day after day. This doctor is like that. He’s old, and he’s tired. I am showing that he’s a regular person who is exhausted and wants to retire. I am developing his character.”

“That’s not development,” Tabatha said. “Then the story becomes about him, about how he’s a misogynist and is going to get sued one of these days for saying things like ‘three fingers going’ to women when they’re in a vulnerable position.”

Tabatha was not someone that I wanted to be friends with, but I liked having her in class because she never disappointed me. Her first story, called “Cardboard Jesus,” was about this guy Bart who spends all day watching television, and then one day a cardboard man jumps out of the TV and starts going on and on about how Bart needs to change his life, so Bart names the little man Cardboard Jesus. Finally, Bart gets tired of Cardboard Jesus making him feel bad about his life, so he puts Cardboard Jesus in the garbage disposal. The story ends with Cardboard Jesus getting chewed up, and the last line is him calling out from inside the disposal, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Most of us did not really care for “Cardboard Jesus.” I said that it seemed unlikely, and Marvin said, “Are we talking character believability?” and I said that I couldn’t really put my finger on it but that there wasn’t a character worth rooting for in the whole piece. Tabatha snorted and said, “It’s not a football game,” even though we weren’t supposed to talk when our story was being discussed.

“Maybe it’s the dialogue,” I said finally.

Just the week before, Marvin had explained about dialogue, how it’s supposed to sound like a normal conversation except less boring. Our dialogues, it turned out, had too much verisimilitude. “Look,” Marvin had said. “Imagine a guy goes into McDonald’s and says, ‘I’d like a Big Mac and fries,’ and then the cashier says, ‘OK, that’ll be $4.05,’ and the guy pays and walks out with his burger and fries.” He paused. “Typical conversation, right?” and we nodded. “So what’s wrong with putting that conversation in a story?” he asked.

Tabatha’s hand went up. “Why is everything always about McDonald’s?” she said. “I would never have that conversation, because I would never go to McDonald’s.” She looked around the table. “Or Burger King,” she added, pre-empting the possibility of a setting change.

Marvin Helgarson sighed. “Fine,” he said. “But my point is that this conversation is only interesting if one of them says something we don’t expect, if the cashier says, ‘No, sir, you may not have a Big Mac and fries.’ Then you have a story.” Tabatha started to speak, probably planning to point out that the cashier was doing the man a favor, but Marvin held up his hand at her. “Dialogue,” he explained, “is all about power shifting back and forth.” His pipe volleyed illustratively through the air.

“What’s wrong with my dialogue?” Tabatha asked, looking at me and making her eyes small.

“I don’t know,” I said. Her dialogue was the opposite of what Marvin had cautioned us about. It didn’t have any verisimilitude. “I guess it just feels sort of biblical.”

The crazy lady raised her hand and said that there was nothing biblical about the story. She said the story was libelous, and Marvin said, “I think you mean blasphemous,” and she said that she knew what she meant and so did God. Thomas said nothing, even though he was a minister, and then Tabatha announced that everyone had missed the point, which was that “Cardboard Jesus” was a “modern-day crucifixion story.”

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Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry

Dean Rader was born in Stockton, California during the Summer of Love. His sorrow is his own. He believes in star-sting and misnomer; he carries a toy whistle in his pocket. American by nationality, he was conceived in a Fiat near the Place du Châtelet. If asked, Rader will lie and say he doesn’t remember it, but his lazy eyes and hunched back give him away. His left pinky finger, broken from basketball, has never healed, which he attributes to the caesura of distance and longing. His heart, the size of a normal man’s heart, has been used as a model for a forensic mannequin. As a young boy, he once carried a small package to the river, but it was the wrong address. If asked to describe the river, he quotes van Heisenstadt (“die grenzen des wasser nicht vom errinerung”). Rader is not the little cricket. He is not a scissors for lefty. His soul, the size of a tiny condom, slides quickly onto time’s blind spot. In 2004, he was asked about time’s blind spot but responded only that “time, like a bandage, is always already wound and unwound.” Once, as a student in college, he grew a third sideburn. Darkness, his maquette, darkness, his morning coffee. Rader’s father studied to be a mortician; his mother was a therapist and, not surprisingly, Rader pursued both. His head, matted with crude sketches of benches, nipples, and flower petals is roughly the size of the Place du Châtelet. Strong at math from an early age, he helped develop what has come to be known as the Osaka Postulate, which proves that the square root of asyndeton is equal to the inshpere of trespass, skin-spark, and elegy. As for his own spiritual beliefs, Rader is silent, though one of his recent poems, entitled “The Last Day of 34” suggests an influence of Simone Weil (“community is work. // For all I know, God may be in both. / For all you know, God may be both) and Luigi Sacramone (“We want so much. // We only believe / in what we ask for”). Considered neither the lip blister nor the noodle wrenc, Rader has emerged, at least somewhat, as the repetitio rerum. In more recent work, he denies this (though indirectly) citing instead his commitment to interlocutory boundaries (bornage) through what he calls the “phatic interstice.” At present his voice, the pitch and timbre of a young girl’s, asks only for Tang. Consumed by his charity work with the NGO Our Uncle of Instrumentality, he has stopped writing entirely. When questioned about this at a 2007 fundraiser, Rader quipped, “Let my words say what I cannot.” Since then, a fragment of an unpublished poem attributed to Rader has started appearing on the Internet:

Line up and line out
says the moonwhittle.
Loss is the ring on our finger, the bright gem
compassing every step as we drop down.
Believe in what you know and you’ll go blind.

Experts doubt its authenticity.

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Variation Under Nature

The slow loris dances
With the same strange detachment that
A philosopher argues, nonchalantly, non-chaleur,

Without heat, this pace, never an illogical leap
But always capable of
A quick rhetorical twist:

He says, We are not here to disturb the trees,
Only to win them over
With complete understanding.

The slow loris asks these questions:
Why do we need a resurrection?
Does the fruit fall or leap from the trees?

When I am sleeping,
Who are you, without my attention?
He answers,

The body is a fruit you can’t peel,
Life is energy organized
Into stillness.

Mostly stillness. The night room,
The fruit bats, the liquid giraffe,
The siamungs, the orangutans

Which are dangerous. The zoo,
Is not about hunger, but
About heat.

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Melinda, Doing Her Best

“I think she’s a bad person,” said my friend Fred Hirsch, his face creased into lines of grief, failure to sleep, defeat. A graduate student with a decent job coming up, he was too early for those etchings and purplish bruises.

The person under discussion, Melinda Hopkins, seemed like a fairly standard California and Stanford beauty, except for the shy way she had of not meeting the eyes when you looked at her. The population tended to look at her. Flaxen hair with almost no wave in it; tennis shorts on campus or, for more formal occasions, white tennis dresses; an unusual smoldering thing going on in those eyes that did not meet mine and, according to stricken garrulous Fred, did not meet his, either, as he loomed above her or squirmed beneath her. He said she had a talent for computers, was working on advanced programs for import-export purposes. Even when she made love, or a kind of love, looking into the eyes of others, it was a distraction from her interior life. “Bad, bad person,” Fred repeated.

“She did harm to you, maybe,” I said, a true buddy, “but that’s because you chose to fall. Let yourself get done to.”


“Hey, come off it. Let’s just say what kind of person she is has yet to be determined. Just, far as you’re concerned, it was a bad deal, okay?”

Closing out my buddy duties for the spring quarter.

Melinda, graduating on one of those glorious June days, kissed her dear ones goodbye, kissing Fred and then turning to me with the same lightning brush against the mouth.

Her father lived in Belgium (sometimes she saw him during the summers); her mother was an actress in New York. It wasn’t convenient for her parents to show up for graduation ceremonies. “They’ve been there, done that,” she explained. “Anyway, Mom is an ingénue, working at it in New York, still the ingénue.” She was smiling more than just at one corner of her mouth, enough smile to assure Fred and me that she saw the humor in her mother’s career. “But she’s not forty yet—well, maybe—so why shouldn’t she play twenty-two-year olds?”

I asked Melinda if she was interested in acting or modeling, and she said they were fifth and sixth on her list of interests, after sheep-ranching in Australia, running garage sales, knitting multicolored skull-caps for Hassidim, and—her serious talent—writing computer programs. “But that’s lonely sometimes,” she said. “So maybe I should get into the ingénue business, like Mom.”

Clever Melinda seemed to have some humor or at least irony. Sad young people often develop this as a useful device.

“I’d like it if you stayed in Palo Alto with me,” Fred said, ever the hopeless nerd. “We could get married?” It was a question. He wanted me as a witness.

She wouldn’t tell him where his idea could be found on her list of career alternatives, but she puffed out her cheeks in a throw-up gesture. She didn’t like it when Fred talked dirty to her, and as to tenure with an untenured professor — hadn’t been there, didn’t want to do that.

“I’m sure Stanford is a fine school with an excellent reputation,” she said. “And I love the architecture, too, all those beige buildings, that time in the computer lab, those rich kids with their fathers living in Belgium or someplace.”


Folks like Fred and many other young men tend to judge people by what they do, inadvertently or advertently, and what they look like, and how they happen to lock into the guy’s dreams. Fred made a mistake to set his sights on this high I.Q. campus belle with the programming talent; she was too much for him, her wildness searching to waste something more than a Fred. Personally, of course, well-warned and prudent, all I wanted to do was follow her to the ends of the Earth.

Instead, when Fred and she stopped seeing each other, and I was no longer on campus either, I lost track of Melinda. She ducked. She disappeared off my screen, but I imagined she was still on her own.

And then I heard she was in prison. It shouldn’t make a difference, but I especially disliked the idea of somebody like her doing time. The charge was smuggling cocaine in her luggage on a flight from Ecuador; what did she think, that the dogs and the narcs couldn’t meet her eyes and therefore would spend all their time trying to get Melinda to look at them? That they would spend their strength sniffing at her and not noticing that she was a mule? That a flight from Ecuador was safe because it wasn’t a flight from Colombia?

Her karma was that of a winner, not a loser?

Her Colombian boyfriend had given her such guarantee. “Just carry this, Me-leen-da, and you get twenty thousand nice ones and I get whatever the market turns out to be. I also am taking a chance, my sweet.” He, of course, took another flight.

The market held firm, so in general he won. Coke sales are more reliable than other forms of retail.

On the other hand, a tipster with problems of his own gave her up, so in specific Melinda lost.

The friend who called her Me-leen-da decided to head someplace where there was no extradition treaty with the U.S. to avoid all the time-consuming legal hassles. As to Melinda, sorry about that. Sheet happens.

Fred had given me the news and a few years later told me she was getting out, maybe hadn’t been raped by the matronly truck-driver population of her federal prison, and now what should he do? Surround her with caring, pay for therapy, woo her with his kindness into a new life program that might also include Fred?

“Stay away,” I said.

“Can’t,” he said (wailing).

“Then why are you asking me?”

As it turned out, it was I who had the chance to avoid contact with this bad-luck Melinda, formerly of Stanford University. She called from San Francisco, where I live, and said: “Beached here, man.”

Yes, I would take her to dinner. Probably I also wanted to see what twenty-two months in a federal prison looked like on this fresh-faced, shy-eyed young computer programmer.

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Get Lost

Homeless Dude living in the alley across the street has found a creative way to keep warm. It involves a blowdryer and an industrial outlet near the dumpster. Dude spends half his day blowdrying himself. His dirt-gray tennis shoes with the toes sticking out, his shredded MC Hammer pants revealing a scabby pair of knees, his torn Hawaii sweatshirt with what I hope are ketchup stains all over the front. Being the friendless clinically depressed loser I am, I spend most of my free time watching him from my breakfast table three stories up.

“Dude,” I tell him on my walk to the bus stop Monday morning. “You’re seriously going to kill yourself if you don’t stop it with the blowdryer.”

“Why’d I kill misself?” he asks with a gap-toothed grin as he blowdries his armpits. The alley stinks like singed clothes and ancient sweat and the garbage bins he calls Home.

“Because it’s October, and the rain starts soon—” “Gotta cigarette?”

“No.” A lie.

“Gotta quarter?”

“No.” Another lie. I clutch my messenger bag tighter.

“I ain’t gonna kill misself.” He points the blowdryer at me, hot and nasty.

“Stop,” I say, pulling back my hair, which is everywhere.

“Warm, ain’t it?”

“Smells like burning.”

“I ain’t gonna kill misself,” he shouts louder. I hear someone from my building slam a window shut. “Wanna know why?”

“I need to get to work,” I tell him. I turn and walk up the street and regret the conversation.

“Cause I’m invincible!” he screams after me. “I’ll be invincible ’til I die!”

“Sure thing, Dude,” I say under my breath.


I can barely make rent lately. I’m a professional dogwalker. It was kind of my life dream to start this quote unquote business. My best friend Candy wants to sing the blues and I want to exercise pooches. We all have our calling, my father would say. He works for God. White collar. Black suit. He sends his regards in the form of a card once a month, cards with comic dogs on them. I miss him like hell.

I moved from Weed this past May with Candy, best friend since before my memory begins. We came to S.F. to pursue our dreams. There are a lot of nightclubs and restless canines in this city. But snap, I’m talking overnight, Candy fell in love with a man and eloped with the man and soon got impregnated by the man and left me alone in this crappy Tenderloin apartment where I can barely make rent. This was two months ago. I’ve been wandering around this stupid city with all these flashy signs and high rise apartments and hipster haircuts, wandering like a zombie with several dogs on several leashes. Confession: Candy left behind a pillow and I hug it to sleep at night. I never turn the light off, either.

I recently turned twenty-one and got drunk and sat in the back of a dark bar and listened to Candy sing a bunch of Dinah Washington and Nina Simone covers. I wore a fabric flower in my hair and cried into my greyhound. It didn’t start out that way. I was going to surprise her, but then the drunker I got, the more ridiculous I felt, and the more ridiculous I felt, the more I cried, and the more I cried, the more I drank, and the drunker I got. And the cycle, it repeated. Luckily she didn’t notice me. It was crowded. It was dim. I slipped out the back while she sang “Lover Man.” It’s been a month since she bothered to drop by the TL apartment and she hasn’t even invited me to see her new place. His place. I blame my clinical depression on Candy.


Oh I still call her, though, and inject fake-happy into my voice and act like everything’s just the best fucking thing in the whole world.

“Hi, Frankie,” she says. “I only have a sec. I just got my ultrasound!”

We squeal. I am sitting at my breakfast table scribbling out a crossword puzzle with an ink pen. “How big is it?”

“Smaller than a finger!”

I draw a finger on my finger. “Wow, just a tiny little worm! What else have you been up to? It’s been days.”

“Things have been just so crazy. Jack’s parents came into town last week, total whirlwind. We just finally got the place clean again.”

I imagine some fancy apartment, one of those skyscrapery buildings that make me nervous with a view of all the bridges and the freeways and the sea of downtown lights. “When do I get to see it?”

“Like I’ve been saying: girl time, soon. I’ve just been so nauseous is the thing.

I draw a baby on an envelope on the table. It has one eye.

“Did you get my birthday present?” she asks. She sent me a package in the mail even though we share a zip code.

“Yeah.” Pink fisherman’s hat. I love it. I wear it every day. “I’m wearing it right now.”

“Well, I hope you had a good birthday,” she says. I draw flames around the one-eyed baby.

“Yeah.” I wish I could tell her I heard her sing on my birthday, and that she sounded like velvet with a voice.

“Okay, well, hope you’re good.”

“I’ve been super busy,” I say, looking at my calendar, which I realize  is still on last month’s page: the dachsund. I flip it to the beagle and sit back down.

“How’s the apartment?” she asks.

“Same. You know. Watching the nonstop adventures of Homeless Dude through the window.”

“How is Homeless Dude?”

“He’s got a blowdryer and he spends his days blowdrying his smelly ass—”

“Jack’s home! Jack, honey, me and baby are hungry, do you want to make us a sam-wich?”

“To keep warm,” I say, not caring she’s not listening as I tear the envelope with the burning baby on it into tiny bits. “Dude does it to keep warm.”


Sometimes I browse dating websites and look at men and women and imagine dating them. I imagine waking up next to them with bedhead, I try to picture the smell of them. I shut my computer. I dated before, but that was back in Weed, where I knew everyone face to face, customers at the pizza parlor or friends of the family or whatnot. Here the people are closer and everywhere on the streets, but there are oceans of awkwardness and strangeness dividing us. If I could, I would live with a hundred dogs. Back home, dad has six golden retrievers. But here Candy picked the apartment that explicitly said no pets in the lease. And now she and Jack live with The Awesomest Dog in the Universe, a blue-eyed husky named Major Tom she sends me picture texts of. Cute!!! I text back while writhing alone in my jealousy. I walk rich people’s pooches in the urban tree-spotted streets of San Francisco. I dream my best friend moves back in with me and we share a bed, I dream I kidnap dogs. I’ve forgotten how to smile back at strangers. No wonder I’m suicidal.


On my twenty-first, I walked home drunk in my silver dress, crying my eyeliner down my rouged cheeks. Men woowooed at me out of car windows. Drug dealers offered me a sniff. I passed Homeless Dude curled up asleep with the blowdryer beside him and stopped by the corner market for a pint of Smirnoff and a small OJ. I said to myself, if the guy behind the counter doesn’t say happy birthday to you, then you’re going to go home and kill yourself. And guess what? He didn’t even check my ID or smile back. He looked at my chest and yawned and handed me my change. Little did he know my life was in his latex-gloved hands.

Clearly I didn’t kill myself that night. But I googled suicide and read about it for several drunken hours. Did you know that, worldwide, 30 percent of people commit suicide through the ingestion of pesticides? I found that really interesting and then spent some time Googling pesticides. I looked at firearms online and read about the proper way to slit one’s wrists. I was planning on taking a cab to the Golden Gate Bridge to jump, but ended up passing out on the couch and drooling all over my laptop instead. I’m glad I didn’t jump off the Bridge. It would have been too melodramatic and clichéd. I’m still looking for the best way to die.


Today the sky looks gray and ready to turn teary so I open my window to yell at Homeless Dude. I’m eating a PB and J and worried about electrocution again.

“Enough already,” I say. “Don’t you see the clouds?”

“What?” he screams up at me. “You talkin’ to moi?

“I think it’s dangerous, what you’re doing.” I shake my half-eaten sandwich for emphasis.

Whatchu just call me, bitch?”

“I didn’t call you anything—”

“Shut the fuck up, both of you,” yells a man from an upstairs window.

“Fuck you,” I yell upwards in his general direction, and it feels good.

“Fuck you,” Homeless Dude screams, brandishing his blowdryer.

“Fuck all of you,” I say. Feels less good the second time, but still good.

I slam the window shut. Make a mental note to self: say fuck you more often. Maybe call Candy and say, Hey, fuck you, Candy.

And that’s the extent of my human interaction today. Saturday. Day off.

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