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Archive for April, 2008

Art Gallery, April 2008

Click each image to see full-screen; click “back” to return to the Gallery.
 
Click each artist’s name for an artist bio and statement.

 
 

Alitha Martinez

Yume and Ever Cover

“Yume and Ever” original comic book series cover

Yume Pen Ink 2

“All of the great Heroes are dead!”

Yume Pen Ink 1

“Nefarious evil-doers hatch a diabolical scheme to rule the world. Super heroes unite to halt their odious plans.”

 
 
 

Eileen McNamee

Painting the Bronx

“Painting the Bronx”

 
 
 

j.c. rice

Car Wash Chains

“Car Wash Chains”

Untitled #1

“Untitled #1”

 
 
 

Toni Roberts

Breath of Love

“Breath of Love”

 
 
 

Christy Speakman

Eyewall 1

“Eye-wall 1”

Eyewall 2

“Eye-wall 2”

Eyewall 3

“Eye-wall 3”

Audio

Oscar Bermeo reads “About B-Boys in the Boogie Down” and “In the City, you can’t help but think of God.”

 
Kentaro Yoshida reads an excerpt from his short story “Double Vision.”

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Arpeggio of yellow,
rocks on rolling sounds of cello,
nursing rhythm with delight
and a child caught a kite.

The wind made a whistle
from a ripple of the tide
surfing high upon a splinter
at the Orchard Beach side.

The geese felt the ripple
on the nipples of the sea
and they lifted up their nose rings,
flying flutes in synchrony.

Flapping kites with whisper wings
tumbled down on silver strings
and the children rolled in sand
laughing at a horseshoe hand.

The wind strolled out
through the sun drenched crowd
undulating hip sticks
on a pillar of a cloud.

Salsa drums,
mango rum,
disco soul,
rock and roll,
windy flappers,
belly rappers,
old men calling,
basket balling,
hand ball paddles,
rhythmic battles,
bird tapes
and a city skate

board on the arc
of a loose sidewalk,
where the Bronx
reached the sea
and the gulls hung free,

where the Bronx
reached the sea
and the gulls hung free.

And the wind played tag
with a baggie and a raggie,
throwing sand seeds to the children,
chasing sun balls on the ocean.

But the wind
began to holler
when three nuns
turned round the collar
of the shoulder
of a boulder
that rested on the sea.

They pedaled so fast
past meadows of sea glass
that the wheels of their bikes
splattered mud against the spikes

of a giant sea horse
that sunbathed on the porch
of a long sandy spit
where the gully sharks did sit.

The children turned it over
like an old man’s lover
while the wind crept under
the nun’s great wonder.

Black habits billowed freely
on the shadows of the seaweed
while the children ran gawing
at the nun’s black stockings,

and their laughter
filled the rafters
of the clouds
with glee,

and their laughter
filled the rafters
of the clouds
with glee.

 
 
Alice S. Myerson, a long-time resident of the Bronx, is a nurse practitioner, an HIV specialist, a teacher and a human rights worker. She writes: “I raised my daughter, Alethea Pace, on these hard streets. I dug my roots in the fertile soil that nourishes our cement sidewalks and take pride in the hardy plants that flourish here. My daughter is the source of my inspiration as an artist. From her I have learned to be fearless, to try new things, and to constantly seek new edges in my life.” This is Alice’s first publication; she began writing 5 years ago at the onset of the war in Iraq.

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“Concha”

The rats came out at night or early morning. When we unrolled ourselves from the cocoons where we slept on the concrete floor of the cacahuate, to pick our way to the bathroom, we caught them creeping along the sprawling branches of our lone tree, a pomegranate. In the delicate pre-dawn silence, we heard them lapping dew from the cupped leaves. During the day they hid away in the walls. Except for once in late afternoon, when the murky prison-tinged light, under clouds, must have seemed nearly-night to one disoriented rat who ventured into the open. A few screams and the ridged sole of Concha’s left sneaker stilled him. With 220 pounds of “gotcha,” she squashed the fat gray rat into the stained patio of our communal courtyard. Gray on gray, with guts.

Concha was with her harem of young friends, gathered in a semi-circle around the little booth made of wobbly boards where Maritza sold toilet paper, laundry soap, gum and chips in colorful foil bags. It was the only place with a ready electric socket, and Concha had a boom box. With surprising phonetic accuracy, the girls sang along in English to pop tunes on tape. Concha spotted the rat as it darted out from behind the three garbage cans in the corner by the army of colorful brooms.

“Hey-Hey! Una rata!” Concha sounded gleeful. Her voice broke through the contemplation of the crocheting circle, the buzz of the gossip circle and the chatter of the women scrubbing at the laundry sinks. Some women scattered in alarm, others gathered, curious.

“Dios mío!”

“Call the guards!”

“Don’t be ridiculous. What would the guards do?”

“Be careful! Don’t hurt it! Step on its tail!”

“Yeah, remember what it feels like to be cornered. Give him a chance!”

I watched from a distance in my shady spot under the pomegranate where I wrote, moving my pen against the page as the other women moved their crochet hooks through variegated strands of shiny nylon. The women gathered their yarns and rushed to put on their shoes, dispersing.

“Oh, but don’t even think you are going to escape this, my friend!” Concha went after the intruder as the women gave her wide berth. There was general mayhem that fluttered from joyous to repulsive depending on where you stood. Concha was on her stage. “This’ll teach you to come into my turf you sneaky bastard! One less of your kind and we’ll all sleep sounder, eh ladies?”

I thought the guards would come, or Concha would swat it with a broom. But her reputation as the roughest, surliest, most volatile woman in Ixcotel weighted her response. Concha and her rat were captives of each other. When the rolling groan went up from the crowd, most women turned away. I wrote “The tough woman crushed a rat with her foot” and watched as Concha used the disfigured rat as a soccer ball, making graceful, athletic passes through the courtyard. With triumphant bellows of laughter, she kicked her prize until she thought enough women had seen, and then left the remains behind the garbage cans when she was sure it was dead.

“He’s out with the morning garbage! What you all staring at?” She shrugged, plunking down into her white plastic chair, patting at her sneakers as a pistolero would blow curls of smoke from his gun. She ran her hands through her short cap of curly hair spit through with silver and adjusted her tight “No Fear” tee shirt around her thick middle.

The rhythm of the afternoon resumed. The crocheters returned to their bench, and rested their bags of yarn at their feet.

“I am not surprised by anything in this crazy place any more,” Soraya muttered.

I felt well along that same path. Everything seemed crazy since that Monday night just a few weeks back.

***

On that Monday night I did not make sure that Russell, my nonagenarian professor friend and charge, was safely tucked into his book-strewn bed at nine-thirty, as I had every night for three years. I did not ask him where he was in his latest reading of Neruda’s autobiography; and I did not bring a biscuit to the dog at the foot of his bed, scratching her tummy and promising her a walk in the mountains early the next morning. I did not turn off the computer in my writing studio, full of Russell’s collection of dusty volumes. Before bed, I did not set a place at the breakfast table for Russell, with his pink and white pills on a demitasse saucer, alongside the plate with blue flowers where his Siamese cat would share his bacon. I didn’t read Carlos Fuentes, looking first at the mountain washed in moonlight and framed by the jacaranda tree outside my window. I did not pull a thick woven blanket around me in bed, nor smell the age of its heavy wool as I had every night for three years.

That night, I lay on a concrete floor that smelled of insecticide in the Oaxaca State Penitentiary in the town of Ixcotel, on a garish blue Tweety Bird blanket taunting “Pleasant Dreams” in fancy cursive. It was almost midnight by the time I’d been led down an exterior corridor, following two guards dressed in black and dodging whole families of rats. They took me to an unused office, where a rusty sink clogged with gray paint hung against a crumbling wall. There was a half empty snack-sized bag of chili-lemon corn chips in one corner and the Tweety blanket they had arranged for me, which barely fit in the width of the room. Hoarse groans and the sound of a clanging toilet seat came through a barred window near the ceiling.

The photos and fingerprints were done, the body searches and the medical history. Tired clerks had filled out forms in triplicate, pounding earnestly on tinny manual typewriters. No, I have no tattoos. Yes, I went to college. No, I have no specified religion. Yes, I am in Mexico legally. Finally alone, I splashed cold water on my face and fell against the wall, sliding to the floor, dripping.

Tranquila. It will be fine in the morning. Someone will send a lawyer, there will be apologies, and I will go back home. I was worried about Russell. I wanted to sleep so the night would pass quickly; so this would be over. I lay down with Tweety and steadied my breath, bobbing fitfully between dream and reality. The crickets I dreamed under my jacaranda turned shrill and sharp as the guards whistled signals throughout the night. The lone owl on the branch of the ceiba tree by Russell’s tool shed screeched and took off on a great flutter of wings for the dark woods, but it was the guards keeping vigil in the outer corridor, horsing around, playing tag and singing falsetto to the love songs on their radio. I had no pillow to blunt the reality invading my dreams.

I had been a writer living a quiet and participatory life in a rural community, connecting with the Mexico I most loved after 15 years working in Mexican beach tourism. What happened? Few things could surprise me after the tectonic shift that landed me in prison.

Ixcotel. At least it had a tantalizing name.

***

I was first aware of Concha because of her size. We lined up in the courtyard for roll call four times a day, according to the date we arrived. On the first day, I noticed a Gulliver of a woman surrounded by Lilliputians in the lines of the long-timers. Someone whistled at her and as she turned around, I was stunned by her playful face. From the back she was as big as any of the male guards, and I imagined a glower to go with her size. But Concha’s face wasn’t hostile. It was remarkable for its absence of lines and its full cherubic cheeks under eyes that seemed to just barely hold a wink at bay. Her mischievous face was childlike, her proportions otherwise Amazonic. Maybe this made her pose for power more urgent. If you stopped at her face, you might have thought her a soft touch.

“Get any lately, Concha?” The whistler shouted from a few lines over.

“Every night, my friend! Every night!” There was symmetry in her timbre and her body. She laughed large and full, throwing her strong arms around the young woman in front of her and kissing the top of her head. Deep and resonant with a capricious edge, her voice was a fog horn warning of a hulking danger below the surface.

***

At my arraignment, I’d been brought by guards to a small gray room. There were bars along one short wall. Beyond the bars were two desks, two manual typewriters and two clerks. They were to read the accusations and I was to respond. That is what I knew from the five minute visit from Russell’s lawyer, who had been quickly drafted into the role of my defense. Minutes before the proceedings my counsel told me to listen and respond. Nothing more.

Then the fiction unfolded.

In the fat file, inches thick with documents, testimonies, eyewitness accounts all sewn together with thick twine, was a tale of threatening violence. Mine.

On an evening in early May, I was allegedly seen guiding a mid-sized truck onto Russell’s property, and, with sinister intent, commenced to unload furniture. I was taking over. Staking claim. The witness who had reportedly seen me, said she did not stop me for fear of the violence I might direct towards her. She was a representative of the university to which Russell and his wife had donated their land – to take effect upon their deaths. Jean had died three years earlier. Russell just turned ninety-two and was showing few signs of wanting to leave the home where he had lived and loved for more than forty years. This representative whose testimony condemned me regularly visited the house on behalf of the university rector, who also just happened to be the Federal Chief of Security. She came to see if Russell was still alive, I supposed, making small talk about the jasmine or the ruts in the road. I suddenly remembered the phone call she made several months prior, to ask for the spelling of my full name. She must keep thorough records. I spelled clearly and thanked her for calling.

I couldn’t recall any truck on the property that could have been mistaken for this terrifying, conspiratorial truck. I reached for some memory of behavior that could be misconstrued as menacing, some furniture that might have come onto the land improperly.

It was all an invention.

As instructed by the lawyer, I responded. My voice was shaky from not having slept or eaten, but the buoyancy of truth kept me clear. “I am Russell’s friend and have been invited to share his home for the past three years.” When they finished typing my testimony I saw them toss my case file on the floor.

For seventeen years I had studied the lives and landscapes around me because I wanted — more than anything — to fit in. Then, for the six long days that followed – while colluding lawyers and judges “decided” if I would be formally committed and moved from a private room to the compound where 110 imprisoned women lived deprived of freedoms – I met each night with a chant in my brain — that fortune would allow me to slip through the bars… slip through the bars… slip through. I realized that — more than anything — I did not want to be… please, not like them.

“How bad are they in there?” Before being moved in with the general population, the warden checked with the female guards to see if I should surrender my cheap watch.

“They are calm right now.” He let me keep it.

My Mexican friends used to tell me: “The stork made a mistake when it delivered you in el norte. You should have been left down here with us.” Over my years in the country I had worked to Mexicanize myself. I was blonde and blue-eyed, with a dark Latina streak. But I wondered if the prison women would want to crack the marble to assure the vein was authentic.

***

At 29, Concha had already served seven of her fourteen sentenced years for armed robbery at a major Mexico City bank. Capitalizing on the effect that her bulk and swagger had on the women, she had an entourage of handmaids who ironed her jeans, made sure her space in the shower was reserved and washed her clothes every third day. Her music circle was closed, though. Few approached without being invited.

The day after the rat kill, I was sitting in the corner where I wrote at a picnic table. Beside me was an altar with a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Her blue plaster cloak was nicked but her piety intact. Behind her, a faded poster print of the Virgen, and to one side, a creased Virgen postcard taped to the peach colored wall at a short person’s eye level. One more Virgen appeared in a retablo that Fátima had painted on the back of a soup can that had been cut and straightened, depicting the miracle bestowed on her father, when a prayer to the Virgen saved his leg after a tractor accident. The four Virgenes were all draped in a royal blue mantle peppered with stars, each standing on the curved belly of her own crescent moon. A spiky golden halo radiated from her cloak. She was dark skinned with sad, downcast eyes. To the women who invoked her she was more popular than Jesus and stronger than God himself. She posed serene and silent in her niche, her omnipotency cleverly disguised by gently folded hands.

I sat by the quiet Virgen, claiming a space to write. The women came to share a word or a nod with the Lady, but otherwise that corner was far away from the rumble, the gossip and shouts — only three steps removed, but within the radius of solemnity required by the Virgenes.

I looked up from my writing when a dark cloud drifted in front of me. Concha had her arms crossed in front of her chest that jutted out like a shelf. She did not look happy.

“Hey! I have something to say to you, Gringa.” She glared down at me. Concha spoke no English, and her Spanish with her ring of friends was sparked with slang. With me, she kept as straight as she could. She sounded serious.

“Yes?” I wondered under what circumstances someone would refuse Concha.

“You look a little sad today, Gringa.” I expected some version of anger, and got insight. She bit the inside of her cheek and cocked her head to one side. Straddling the bench on the other side of the table she drummed a syncopated riff on the table top with stubby fingers, stopped, and looked me in the eyes.

“Well?”

“Not sad, just thinking.”

“You do a lot of that.” Could have been a question or a command. I saw I couldn’t second guess her.

“Thinking, dreaming, whatever you call it. I write it all down, anyway.”

“You write, like, stories and stuff? I bet you write poems.” I wasn’t sure if she was mocking me. She gave a quick look over her shoulder and settled in on the bench.

“I just write notes right now. Anything to keep my pen moving. I’m like the women who crochet purses. Except I’m not great with a hook.”

“They’d teach you, but stick to your writing. It makes you different. Not that you aren’t already different enough!” She gave me a wink as if she were cluing me into a secret.

“Everyone here calls you Gringa, but I hear the guards called you Mari in roll call.”

“It’s María Elena.”

Vaya vaya! Yeah, right! A blondie with a Mexican name! Take that bone to another dog – No, what’s your name, really?” Concha was loosening up, getting a kick out of herself. She rocked on the bench.

“Okay, so it’s not what’s on my birth certificate, but my parents just happened to give me a name that translates into Spanish.”

Maria Elena. Maria Elena — we all figure you must be a teacher or something, since you speak Spanish and write all the time. You gonna teach us English?” Concha didn’t wait to hear if I really was a teacher. She just barreled on, leaning in a little closer. “I’m gonna tell ya something, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.” On Concha, trying to look threatening had an absurd effect — the sun pretending to be hot. I smiled. “Go ahead – promise!”

“I promise.”

“Promise what?” She was enjoying this.

“I promise not to tell anyone what you are going to tell me.”

“Forever!”

“Forever.”

“Okay, Gringa – you asked for it.” Even though I hadn’t. “I write, too,” she whispered.

“You write too?”

“Shhhhh! I said nobody knows. And you won’t see me doing it here.” She made a locking sign over her lips.

A friend who had been in prison in the States gave me a tip in the first days of my confinement in Ixcotel: blend in and buddy up to the toughest, meanest women there. I had muddled success with trying to blend. I swept with the women, but unaccustomed to the task, I had to hide my bloody blisters. I sat in the circles of women that formed in the courtyard, but left suddenly to receive visitors. Concha took care of the buddying up. If bullies had wings, I was under one.

“So – you write poetry, right?”

“No, I’m just rehashing what the lawyer told me this morning. See all these folders? The blue one has notes, the brown one has letters coming in, the red one has letters going out, and the green one has blank paper for new letters. It’s like a job.”

“Don’t worry blondie. Someday you’ll write the good stuff again.” Her incongruous pep talk made as much sense as anything in Ixcotel. I grabbed at the lifeline she tossed, even though it left me with questions. What is the good stuff? When is ‘again?’

When we were alone, Concha was open and inquisitive. If someone walked by, she would jump in with a smart retort, louder than necessary.

“And that alley was black as the inside of a mean wolf’s mouth! But I got away, easy!”

She wasn’t hiding our friendship from the other women – she greeted me openly, even calling me by name from across the courtyard. What she did hide was this serious side; a side that was seeping out during our talks by the Virgen.

“I was only twenty-two when they caught up with me. I had already pulled off seven armed robberies in Mexico City when it all came down.”

She didn’t start as the leader, but she ended up as one after her big brother moved to “Da Bronz en Nueva Yor.” But that last time in the Banamex, she and her little gang were careless. The take had been effortless and quick. Not like the first times when the young crew was jumpy. After years of practice, this time was perfectly choreographed. So they got cocky and didn’t go straight back to the stash house.

“Cops caught up with us at a taco stand just as I was putting some mean habanero sauce on my tacos. The yellow plastic squeeze bottle was grimy with fingerprints. Funny the things you remember about your last moments of freedom. I had just one bite before they were on me as fast as a skinny dog on garbage. They couldn’t wait to take my greasy fingerprints back at the precinct.”

The police found the take and the stocking masks in the back of the getaway Ford. Too easy. She was in the Penitentiary in Puebla for her first year, where she calloused and quickened.

“You wouldn’t have lasted a day in that miserable dungeon, Mari.” Concha wagged her head at me and smirked. “In Puebla they were really tough. The place was full of crazies, real criminals. My first day in, the boss lady shoved me up against the ringleader so she could watch as we went at it on the floor of the mess hall. The rest of the women threw black beans and eggs at us. Puebla made the women mean… It made all of us mean. I passed boss lady’s test, though. Last time she tried anything with me.”

When she was sentenced to thirteen more years, she was sent back to Oaxaca where her family lived nine long hours away from the prison: one hour walking, two in the back of a pickup truck, and six on the second class bus along the serpentine highway that led up from the coast. They brought her pictures of the cousins and homemade quesillo four times a year, but tried to stay in contact by phone. Concha was a regular in the phone lines, where she waited like everyone else to call her family. Except when she saw someone heading to a phone that happened to be free. Then she would shout “Hey-Hey!! It’s reserved you know!” and nobody came back at her. Concha’s communication to her home town took two calls. After the first call to the public phone in the provisions store in San Mateo de los Bajos, the store attendant would announce the call over a speaker system that was heard throughout the town.

“Call for the Miranda family from Ixcotel State Prison!”

By the time Concha made it back to the front of the line, someone from her family had run to the store to receive her call. The women made it a practice to stay away from Concha after she hung up with her family. Her gloomy gaze advised an ample no-approach zone.

“Were you afraid when you were raiding the banks, Concha? I mean… Twenty-two is young!”

“I was only afraid when the police showed up that last time. I was too excited to be afraid when we were pulling the jobs. It was an adventure. It’s all an adventure. Isn’t it?”

“Were you afraid in Puebla?”

“Nah. Not afraid. Mad. In Puebla, we were all just criminals to the guards. And they treated all of us like the worst of us. Not like here. After that fight we were both sent to solitary lockdown. No chow for a few days. Not like here, Mari. This place is a party.”

“Yeah, a real party.”

“No, Mari. It was different. Trust me. They would have eaten you alive there. You’re a teacher. That pen and notebook? These files?” She tossed my color-coded files aside and they scattered. “They would have sunk their claws right into your soft parts and ripped… you… apart!”

We sat looking into each other’s eyes for a time. She was remembering and I was imagining. She had inadvertently thrown me another lifeline, as I imagined something worse than where I sat at that moment.

“And you, Concha? How did you make it through?”

“Absolutely, positively NO soft parts.”

***

Concha’s new gang inside was her circle of “girls,” outside of which she didn’t seem to have friends or enemies. The women steered clear. Nobody approached as she sat with her girls yowling along to the music every day, except during the talacha when we were required to sweep the entire courtyard. Most of the long-timers who were exempt from sweeping rose and lifted their white plastic stacking chairs so the bits of potato chip and candy wrappers from their lap would be whisked away with the rest of the mementos of a day’s languishing. They remembered what it was like to sweep around the daily activities. Concha wouldn’t move. Sometimes she would put her feet up on another chair and let the women sweep underneath. Or she would empty a coke on the ground in the path of a broom with an “Oops!” and only half-swallow her smirk.

I swept against the wall at the visiting grate during my midday sweep. Men who were allowed roaming privileges congregated outside our courtyard and the women brought taquitos and tortilla soup to them from the kitchen. I swept up cigarette butts, bits of lettuce and bottle caps from between the feet of the women who ignored me as they held hands through the bars with the men outside in the walkway. It made me feel like I was accomplishing something to haul so much away, leaving that section clear for a few minutes after my sweep.

Two fellow talacheras who were fed up with Concha’s antics, thought they saw a way around her that didn’t involve confrontation – for them anyway.

“You go do Concha’s circle today, Gringa. She likes you, doesn’t she? I mean, maybe not like that, but we see you guys talking…”

“Yeah – see if she rips up a gum wrapper just to throw you something, like she does for us. Bet not!”

I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t up for a game, but I knew Concha would prove them wrong. She wouldn’t allow a public exception. And I thought it would be a chance to “blend” more as the women saw that she didn’t treat me any differently. Counting on Concha’s unflinching public lack of cooperation, I moved toward where she sat.

“Hey, Mari!” Concha was sucking on a purple popsicle and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “You got some time this afternoon?”

“I’ll check my schedule and see if I can fit you in, Concha!” I made sure she saw my smile, and I started sweeping around her feet. Then she stood, moved her chair, and picked up a few peanut shells from the ground. The two women watching threw their brooms down with an “I quit” look on their face that would have been comical if anything in Ixcotel could be.

“I gotta go check on my girls. See you this afternoon.” She stuck the peanut shells in the pocket of her jeans.

“Oooh, Gringa! Concha likes you! What’s she want from you, eh?”

Concha was the victor again, leaving us all with a question on our lips.

***

That afternoon when Concha came by, I was writing under the vigilant gaze of the Virgen. Concha kept looking over her shoulder.

“Waiting for someone?”

“No, just wanted to make sure… No, never mind.” She didn’t sit opposite me on the bench this time. She sidled alongside me, close. She smelled like Ivory soap.

“Hey, you ever… You mind if I ask…” She was tugging on the wiry curls at the back of her head.

“What’s up?”

“Listen… Have you… Have you ever been, you know, in love?” She looked at me through wide eyes, with a curiosity that forced furrows into her unlined forehead.

She was serious. Speaking of love in Ixcotel was like eating cotton candy in church. It didn’t mesh with the gray, the smell of the toilets, the petty fights. Still… Concha’s incongruity was compelling.

“Yes, Concha. I’ve been in love. Why?” She looked at me with a question as huge as any I had ever seen brought before the Virgen.

“Well, it’s just… I think… Are you in love, like, now?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I thought so. And does the other person know?”

“Yes, he does.”

“How does he know?” She picked at the splinters of wood on the tabletop, but kept her gaze fixed and anxious.

“I told him.”

“You said ‘I love you’? Weren’t you afraid that he wouldn’t say it back?”

“Well… I guess I just figured… I guess I just knew it was right. Sometimes you just know.” How had I known? A lump started in my throat.

“But how do you just know?”

“Well… I’m really not the authority on these things. I just know… I just knew my own life. I said ‘I love you’ because I felt it from my heart. At the time it didn’t matter if he felt the same thing.”

“Well, does he?”

“Does he what?”

“Does he feel the same thing?”

How could I know anything anymore? After everything I knew to be safe and sure shifted under my feet, how could I trust…?

The molten stars of the plaster Virgin’s cape swirled in front of my eyes, in dizzying mimicry of my thoughts. Just a week before Ixcotel, I had returned from a visit to New York with a big question in my pocket. There was a man there, and for the first time in seventeen years I started to consider my life outside Mexico. Before I left his apartment, I hid messages – “I didn’t expect to love you like this” – written in small, sure script in tiny handmade books made by Russell’s wife. Ever the romantic, Russell had given them to me before I visited New York “just in case” I needed them. I didn’t get a chance to figure any of it out upon return to Mexico. Just a week after my return, love — and most of what I knew outside of the walls of Ixcotel – belonged to that former and distant reality.

Mari? You okay?” Her voice was low. She touched my hand and I landed.

“Yeah, sure. I’m fine. Sorry. Just thinking again.” Concha’s hand stayed on mine for a moment, and I turned my palm up and lightly held hers. “But, you were saying something? You’ve got a question about love?” Concha shifted in her seat, leaning closer, and withdrew her hand, tucking them both beneath her.

“Yeah. I was wondering if you… maybe if you could help me with this letter for… for a person I know. I’m trying hard but it’s really important. I don’t want to mess up. Will you read it for me, Teach?”

Her three-page letter was draped in the vulnerability of a woman in love. The ocean of differences between us receded, and in the course of the next twenty minutes on that rickety bench by the altar, Concha helped me understand her feelings of love for the recipient of her letter. She stumbled a little, and infused the usual clichés of love with her own brand of tenderness.

“Concha, you put a lot of emotion in here…”

“Yeah, but do you think this person will get it? I never used the word “love” before and it’s a little scary…” Tough Concha cracked open, all buttery soft inside, with a crunch.

“I don’t know if I will lay my head on your shoulder or you will lay your head on mine. I’m the tallest so it’s easier for me. Someday we will be together. Might as well be here.”

I helped her edit her letter down to one page. “That’s it. Yeah.” Concha folded the letter carefully to fit in the back pocket of her jeans. “I have to write it now myself. I’ll give it to her tomorrow. I can’t stand another day without telling her.” She waited for a response from me.

“It’s a good letter, Concha. It’s a brave letter – just like you.”

“Yeah, but what if she doesn’t feel the same thing?”

“You may never know if you don’t try.”

“But…”

“But nothing.” She rose slowly. Her vulnerability settled heavily on her — a tigress with a cupid’s dart stuck in her huge paw. “So how did you make it through Puebla, Concha? I thought you didn’t have any soft parts!” She made a locking sign over her lips, then turned and stalked, squaring her shoulders, back into the jungle.

***

Concha wasn’t sleeping as often in the cacahuate, to the delight of the women who had been assigned spaces on either side of her.

“It’s good to have room again! She took up more than her share.”

“She was going to tell the boss lady I stole her pillow.”

“She’s rolling around with some girl over there in the dormitories. Good luck, I say.”

The women felt relieved, as if a stone were shaken from their shoes.
Concha brought up the letter only once.

“Thanks for the letter, Teach.”

“How’d it go?”

“Not sure yet. But for now it’s good to have someone to ask the big questions with.”

Exactamente, mi Concha.

 
 
 
Mary Ellen Sanger lived for 17 years in Mexico, and has published short stories and poems in Spanish and English in several Mexican journals, including Luna Zeta and Zocalo. Her essay “A Grammar of Place” was anthologized in Mexico, a Love Story, published in 2006 by Seal Press. She was a finalist for the Room of Her Own Foundation “Gift of Freedom” in 2007, and was awarded a writers’ grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund/Money for Women. She is currently writing a collection of stories inspired by the women of Ixcotel State Penitentiary in Oaxaca, Mexico where she spent 33 days and nights falsely imprisoned in the fall of 2003. Mary Ellen leads a creative writing workshop for adults through New York Writers Coalition at the New York Public Library in Inwood and volunteers with PEN American Center as a mentor in the Prison Writing Program.

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You’d better be careful ‘round
The women of Arroyo.
Because if you go astray
And another she-cat they scent,
They will chop it off for you and then
Serve it on a platter.

They have blood lines going back centuries,
Lines crossing in three sections
Across three continents.
No one knows the source of their anger.
No one knows the source of their love.
But if you cross them, man,
Head for the hills,
‘Cause they’ll come after you with kitchen implements:
Frying pans, pots of hot water, knives, rolling pins,
The very same implements they use
To define and express their love for you through
Chuletas, asopao, tostones, arroz y habichelas o pegao,
And in the mornings, quesitos and café con leche.

Watch your step around the women of Arroyo.
They don’t waste time with hexes or potions.
Don’t store your crotch hairs to keep you
Nor enlist spiritualists to get rid of you.
Man, they are self-sufficient.
Don’t go the wrong way on them.
They’ll call you “Papi chulo” as they send you off to bed,
They’ll run their fingers through your hair,
Even close your eye lids for you,
Then, bam! You’ll awake in a fix.

Don’t test the women of Arroyo.
They have a hot gleam in their eye and calculations running in their head.
They know the exact measure of everything, the payback for
An indiscreet fidelity
A hand raised in anger after a night of too much drink
A gambling away of the baby’s milk money
And if you try to beat them on the ledger,
They will swat you like a fly!

Man, don’t mess with those women from Arroyo.
If you’re gonna be a clown, go to San Juan or Ponce,
But do not, do not mess around with the women of Arroyo.
Those sisters don’t play.

 
 
Ken McManus has published poems most recently in Crux: A Conversation in Words and Images (Fulton County Arts Council, GA) and Black Arts Quarterly (Stanford, CA). His chapbook, Americana, was published by Rogue Scholars Press in 2000. In 2001, his poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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Click here to listen to Kentaro David Yoshida read an excerpt from “Double Vision.”

 

“The language, too, of these low and rustic men is adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best language is originally derived…Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by poets.” – William Wordsworth

***

 
X,y,l,q,p,o,a,e were rotten, rotten to their innocuous core. Sure, they seemed like harmless, nonsense letters pasted to a chart twenty feet away. At least that’s what I thought, until the day my vision became too blurry to decipher them. Spotting their chance, x,y,l,q,p,o,a,e viciously attacked and executed their cruel plot. Suddenly, my face was serving a life sentence behind a wire metal frame with transparent plates welded over my eyes. My mom told me the glasses were “cute.” The mirror disagreed.

I would try them on in front of it, twisting my face this way and that, changing facial expressions, and even tousling my hair in different ways, but it was useless. The mirror still reflected an Asian kid who likely read too many books, carried around a graphing calculator, and pulled his socks too high. I wasn’t that type of Asian; that type didn’t survive seventeen years in this gritty part of New York.

I took them off, pushed them behind the flower vase on the table, and shoveled down another piece of my mom’s pancakes.

“Teppei, you’re going to be late!” my mom shouted from the stove. I looked at my watch; I had a few more minutes. “And don’t forget that you have that DAPP program today! Are you working hard? You’re lucky to be in that program son!” she said, sticking her head out from the kitchen.

I sighed, trying to block her out. She had been nagging me non-stop about the program ever since I was accepted.

“This is your chance, son. You’re finally around smart kids who are going places. You’re going to be just like them,” she continued, smiling proudly.

Rolling my eyes I replied, “Mom, They ain’t nothing like me, I—,”

“Nonsense,” she said cutting me off. “You didn’t get in by accident; they interviewed you and saw your potential. Do not let those kids in your school drag you down. You’re not like them,” she said, giving me a stern look. I nodded, knowing that arguing with my mom was pointless. She didn’t have to grow up here, so how could she ever understand?

I quickly rose from my chair, grabbed my book bag and headed toward the door. I nearly made it, but more familiar hollering caught me just as I stepped into the hallway.

“Teppei! You almost forgot your glasses again! How do you expect to see in class without them?”

“Oops…,” I mumbled, shoving the glasses case into my pocket.
“And goodness! Tuck in your shirt, fix your tie and pull up your pants. Are you trying to look like a hoodlum, young man?” she yelled as I ran down the hall and to the street.

***

When I ran like this, late as usual, I’d sometimes be overcome by the feeling of strangulation. The collar and tie seemed more like a cloth noose with a silk knot. None of the kids in my school liked the school uniform and always found creative ways around it. When no one was looking, they would sag their khakis below their boxers, pull out their shirts, unbutton their collars and loosen their ties. The faculty did their best to enforce the dress code, but dressing up inner-city kids in prep school clothes was like the dressing up of pedigree canines in decadent attire at those fancy dog shows: the costume benefited only the audience.

A hard slap on my back interrupted my thoughts. I turned around to see my friend, Jose Vega, grinning back at me.

What’s really good, Tommy,” he said. Tommy is what I told them to call me. TEP-pay wasn’t hood enough. Teppei wasn’t anything.

“Hello” in the Bronx took on several different forms, depending on what phrase the coolest thugs decided to put together. This month “what’s really good” seemed pretty trendy.

“Not much, kid, chilling and shit,” I said back as we walked through the gates of my school. Seventeen years in the Bronx had been good for something, and my accent was flawlessly, rhythmically ghetto. I under-pronounced the ends of sentences to a tee, turned every “th” into “da,” left off the g’s in “ing,” added a “ud” and dropped the “at” in “what,” and pronounced “know what I mean” “Nah-mean?”

But the words I valued most, were those that weren’t thrown around lightly: you only knew what they meant if you were party to the crime involving them. This criminal slang implied power, threats, courage; some illicit substance to be possessed – capable of packaging euphoria in delicious poison. It wasn’t like the vocabulary at school; that language could never understand us, could never empower us. Our language fathered us, and you respected it first and foremost.

Son, I could even recite dozens and dozens of DMX, 2pac, Nas and countless other rappers’ hip-hop lyrics back verbatim. Every time I let loose with one of those verses around my friends it was impressive, and I felt comparable to the university English major who could, at will, recite an appropriate Shelly, Keats, Shakespeare or some other legendary poet’s verse for any situation.

knew a few verses from them too at the time, but there was never a right situation to cite those – even in the right situation.

***

The cafeteria was always so loud that you had to scream anything you actually wanted someone else to hear. David Ramirez shouted to me across the lunchroom and waved, signaling me to come over. As I walked across the cafeteria, I passed by the white kids’ table in the corner. They always looked out of place in the room full of African and Hispanic kids, but at least they had enough of them to actually fill an entire row of tables. The Asian table would have been me sitting at any empty cafeteria bench. I sat next to David and immediately sensed that something was amiss in our group.

All eyes were focused on David and Miguel Hernandez: the two were in the middle of a very serious conversation.

“…So, basically, he wants to settle it by tossing up the one’s, just me and him, on Friday at the Concourse,” David said slowly, peering around at each of us. They must have been talking about the clash David recently had with one of the Latin Kings’ gang members. The thug didn’t like that David was flirting with his girlfriend. David had asked him, “What the fuck you going do, Nigga?” Apparently, they hadn’t decided on a friendly discussion to hash out their differences.

There was a pause, and Miguel leaned forward, shifting his weight fully onto the table. “And you saying, basically you need mad heads for this fight, cause the kid’s bringing his whole crew, right?” he said. Another pause, as the weight of David’s appeal for help settled on all of our shoulders. I wondered how David could keep getting into trouble this often. He was building a street reputation, one that was just beginning to overshadow the person behind it. Brandon Williams, our imposing Haitian, broke the silence.

“Yeah, man, I’m down for you, fam.” The rest of the group slowly gave their word to David, and soon all eyes turned to me. My leg was fidgeting underneath the table, but my upper body remained completely still. David spoke again.

“So what’s it going to be, Tommy, you know I need you, son.” He kept his stare squarely on my face. “If it get twisted, if they on some funny shit, how you going to let me go out like that? I just need you to have my back, this once, I wouldn’t even stress it but, like everyone at this table knows, after what you did, rolling just one deep, to Malcolm, you someone I know ain’t going to be shook behind me. And yo, we’ve been down since day one freshman year, you remember?” David said the “you” like it was collective, referring to everyone sitting at the table with us.

“Yeah, of course I’m a hold you down, kid,” I said calmly. The lunch bell punctured the air, ending our conference on an awkward, abrupt note. The students started filing out of the cafeteria. I walked to the garbage can and threw out my lunch tray, which was still full. My usual ravenous appetite had been replaced by a large, tight, knot in my stomach. I breathed in. Nah, I wasn’t scared.

***

You ain’t never scared when you snuff the one dude who had the whole block shook, believe that.

The few eyewitnesses now remember very little about that day, but the sight of Malcolm – who had played the block bully part since the day he first balled a little hand into a fist – bloodied, limp, and rudely dumped against an alley wall, was preserved almost unaltered in their minds.. For those who saw, the image bore the story, and I had to agree that their story was the better of the two.

When you ran into Malcolm, whatever time of day, wherever around the block, you didn’t have to get hurt, not anymore at least. It was now understood, generally, that Malcolm didn’t want to waste his time hurting you if you didn’t want to waste your time getting hurt. You could simply relent, even under the guise of friendship.

“Yo, yo what up” Malcolm would say. “You remember that twenty I owe you from last week?”

“Oh that, nah, don’t even worry about that, duke, you can hold that down for now, anything to help you out, my nigga,” you might say.
“Iight, yeah so good looks for that, son, you know I got you whenever you need. But yo, could I borrow whatever you got on you right now, I’m trying to make a few sales round here but I need a few more chips to cop out,” Malcolm would say, sometimes like he was asking you, really asking you as a friend.

Some kids said “No,” and after getting snuffed by a couple overhand rights, Malcolm would respond, after ripping cash from their wallet, “Son, and I thought you was my mans. I guess I see how what it is now, selfish motherfucker.” And he found no humor in those words, making some believe that he really meant it.

If you had balls, I mean on some serious Braveheart shit, you could also run. He didn’t like it when you ran, and as punishment, he’d rough you up much worse when he caught up. And he would chase you. He had long ago put together that if you ran, you had something even more valuable on you than you usually did. He was going to catch you because he wanted it more than you did.

So two years ago, somewhere towards the end of July, I decided to run. Why? I had just copped new kicks, and I had heard from others that Malcolm and I wore relatively the same shoe size. Confidence was another reason – I had beat him once before, making it to the safety of a friend’s apartment complex before he could get across a busy intersection. The chase began in a similar area, and this time I had an even larger head start on Malcolm. But my new sneakers were stiff and seemed to be slowing me down. As I rounded the corner and headed towards the alley that lead to my friend Ruben’s back door, I looked back to gauge the distance between Malcolm and me.

Suddenly, I was sprawled on the ground by a fire hydrant and a No Parking sign.

I had slipped, on a pile of dog shit, which was now smeared heavily around my formerly white Air Jordan 17’s. I scrambled onto my feet, but only a few seconds later I felt a rush of wind and braced myself for the half tackle half right hook that Malcolm delivered from behind. He then grunted as he proceeded to throw me into a row of plastic garbage bins, which was down the alley of Ruben’s building.

“Chill, yo man be fucking easy, I’ll give you everything,” I choked out, still wheezing.

“Shut…the fuck up,” he spit out.

“YO, all my shit – whatever you need, son for real I –” but I was cut off by the rusted back door, under the fire escape, wrenching open. Malcolm, his hands still on his knees, turned his head toward the disturbance.

“YO—,” Malcolm said, his voice rushing out from the bottom of his throat. In place of his expletive was a short but resonant “Thouck,” as a red blur cut through the air and connected with the side of his skull, a little above his right ear. I thought I saw crimson spittle fly from his mouth.

He staggered, still half bent over, into the alley wall, and then slumped over as his head hit the black asphalt. Blood trickled down from his nose, his eyes were almost shut, a slit of white flickered from under his eyelids.

“Holy fuck – you hit him with the fucking Club, man?” I shouted at Ruben, who stood rigid in front of the back door that was half-way hanging off one of its hinges. In his hands was a worn, scuffed red Club, the thick, steel automotive security lock.

“You fucking killed him, son, the fuck we going to do now? God damn it, nigga, you broke his fucking dome,” I said, gesturing blindly in Malcolm’s direction. “Yo, come here, grab his legs – I’ll get him from his shoulders and we can get him inside your building so no one sees him like this, iight?”

“I can’t get at his legs, he’s too heavy.”

“God damn take his legs, son, we got to move him,” I shouted, as I attempted to heave Malcolm up by his underarms.

The familiar sounds of bouncing basketballs and squeaky Nike kicks silenced our conversation as they grew louder, advancing towards the alley. Ruben, who had at this point awkwardly locked Malcolm’s shins in a half nelson, threw off Malcolm’s legs and dashed through the open back door into the building.

The sudden displacement of Malcolm’s weight caused me to lurch backwards. My shoulder banged into the alley wall, and Malcolm’s sweaty torso began to slide out of my grasp. I stepped to the side and grabbed at the collar of his t-shirt so his head wouldn’t hit the concrete. With a handful of his shirt squeezed in my right fist, standing directly over him, I pushed his limp body against the wall.

“Yo…it’s Malcolm,” one of the teens, all of whom were dressed in white t-shirts that hung down around their knees, blurted out.

They saw me in that position of power, in that isolated moment that signified utter dominance and victory. I could have been Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston on that infamous Sports Illustrated cover. Like that contest, my victory was a questionable one, won by a phantom punch. But there were no journalists to snoop around; my street legend would be uncontested.

I ran, leaving Malcolm exposed, slumped over in that oddly picturesque position.

***

The sight of decaying buildings and murky streets slowly glided by and disappeared as the train rumbled into the underground tunnels. I slouched against my seat, and softly bobbed my head to “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot” in my CD player; sometimes I put on an angry expression and mouthed the words as I waved my hands menacingly at some imaginary adversary. My restrictive prep clothes were now in a pile at home, and in their place were a pair of baggy Sean John jeans and an oversized Ecko shirt. I kept pulling the shirt from one side to the other, in a futile attempt to keep it centered on my shoulders. I felt like I was drowning in it, and all the extra material made it seem like I was carrying ten more pounds on my shoulders.

About fifteen feet down the train car four black girls, three of them under the age of eight and other was about twelve or so, caught my attention because of the high-pitched yelps coming from the three little ones. They were wildly chasing each other around the silver pole in the middle of the subway car, howling away. The adolescent girl gazed up blankly at the advertisements plastered along the subway car walls, but you knew she wasn’t reading them. She wasn’t paying any attention to the little girls either, but they had to be with her – there was no one else around.

As we moved farther from the Bronx and deeper into Manhattan, the character of the faces on the train began to change. The guys with the dirty Timberland boots, sagging pants and thick chains vanished one-by-one and were slowly replaced by prim-looking businessmen with dress shoes, tailored slacks and silk ties. The ghetto girls, who noisily gossiped and spewed obscenities, were supplanted by tastefully dressed women who spoke softly about their day at the office. Eventually, it seemed as if I was the only one left from the Bronx in my train car.

At last, the silver-steel subway doors opened at my stop. My body felt stiff from sitting for so long, and I bounded toward the exit, up the stairs and onto the sidewalk of Wall Street. It was warm for an October day, and the sun glimmered off the tops of the majestic skyscrapers, adorning the prestigious kings with golden crowns. I crossed a couple more busy intersections and stopped in front of the entrance to another towering building. The sides of the revolving doors made a slow, whirring sound as I pushed through them and into the spacious lobby.

***

The guard glared at me as I fumbled inside my pocket for the key-card. I slid it over the sensor and a high-pitched beep came from behind the security desk. The guard nodded and waved me through the turnstile. I made a left past the shiny elevators and pushed open the double doors that had “DAPP” painted across them in large letters. DAPP stood for “Digitally Abled Producers Program.” It was a special program that selected 15 out of hundreds of students every semester, and taught them how to create different types of multimedia. I was in Phase One, and every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I would spend the afternoon creating my “digital movie” with powerful graphic programs. I was slightly behind on the movie, and with only a week left, I knew I had to work late.

I rushed past the posh furniture and the 10-foot projector screen on the way to the room lined with Macintosh computers. While I was used to them now, the sight of the state-of-the-art facilities was overwhelming at first. My high school computer lab was more like a PC graveyard that old, decrepit computers dragged themselves to when their hard drives were just about to stop whirring. Once inside the lab, I hopped into one of the comfy swivel chairs and pulled myself up to the computer.

I looked over to the center table and saw most of the other students eating lunch in a circle. As usual, none of them acknowledged my arrival. When I would attempt to say hello, I would receive a few disaffected nods and unintelligible mumbles. The eight Asians ignored me the most; they didn’t know what to make of me. I looked like them, but I was missing the doctor and lawyer parents, the $15,000-dollar-a-year mid-town prep school, the tight button-down shirts and expensive vocabulary. I didn’t really know what to make of them either. I had never been around so many Asians before, and they made me uneasy.

As for the others: Lindsey Huber had been sent to special pre-schools and middle schools, ones needed to even have a chance of getting into her high school. John Cappriatti’s dad worked for NASA and every year he went to “Space Camp,” whatever that meant. And Elaine Roberts would brag endlessly about how her high school placed the most students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton out of New York City. It was enough to make me wonder who confused my application to the program with the other Japanese sounding name.

The sound of crumpling food wrappers crackled through the room, as they finished their lunches and returned to their computers. Dave Lee, sporting a pretentious smirk, sat down next to me. Dave was almost exactly the same height as me, just much skinnier. My mother, when seeing him at the interviews for the program, said he strongly resembled me, especially if he were to take off his glasses and change his haircut. I hated the thought of that. Today he was wearing his signature flannel shirt, which he owned in seven different colors. It was buttoned all the way to the top, and he often looked like he had trouble moving his neck. I waited, in hopes of a friendly hello. There was the soft patter of computer keys – otherwise, silence. I sighed, and went back to work on my movie. Soon, I became frustrated. There was one particular part of the program that refused to cooperate, and I needed someone’s help. I glanced over at Dave.

“Yo, Dave, can you do me a solid, kid?” I asked, blinking rapidly.

“What? Do what for you?” he snapped.

“A favor. I need help with fixing the transitions on the timeline,” I repeated uncomfortably. I loathed talking to him; somehow our conversations always ended with me feeling stupid.

Dave peered in my direction through his glasses, which seemed too tight for his face. You could tell he was about to release something he had been mulling over for a long time. “Why do you sound like you’re some music video rap guy? How come you don’t speak normal English?” His voice was louder than normal, and his half smirk was now devouring his face. “No one here can ever understand half the things you say. If you think you’re some thug, then why are you here?” he questioned, his arms folded tightly over his chest.

I couldn’t see the others, but I felt their burrowing stares. “What the…? What are you saying? This is just how I talk. This is how all my friends talk. How does that make me a thug?”

“Things aren’t ‘mad crazy, mad ill, mad cool.’ Mad is not an adverb! And why don’t you buy clothes that fit?” he said, gesturing at my shirt and pants. “You look like you’re walking around in a giant sheet with a hole at the top, and you could fit three more of you in those jeans. In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t the hood,” he finished, rolling his eyes.

How the hell was this happening? was all I could think. It didn’t make no sense, no sense at all. He’d done lost his mind; didn’t he know if he was anywhere else but here he’d be mangled by now? Dave Lee didn’t lead Blood or Crypt gangs. He had a small flock of wafer thin Asians who all wore corny-looking glasses. And yet he was really doing this to me.

I stuttered as I tried to respond, and the words shrunk back inside of me. My eyes looked around for support, but everyone avoided them and stared back at their desktops. More whispers came from the other side of the room as I slumped back into my chair. Dave, now expressionless, swiveled around and started typing again.

I was frozen, and couldn’t do much more than stare at the computer screen; the inside of my chest burned and I could feel the veins pounding in my arms. The lab disappeared for a moment. And all I could see was an image of my hands smashing in Dave’s head, so his glasses wouldn’t pinch his face anymore.

***

I could feel the room shake. No, it trembled. The bass from TuPac’s classic Hail Mary thumped through the room, pressing against the walls, the ceiling, our feet. Miguel had just bought a new sound system, one that came with a dark black subwoofer the size of a small child. Miguel was like that, someone the kids at school liked to call “Nigga rich” — barely able to make rent but had all the newest, most expensive products before everyone else on the block. Miguel sold drugs, told his mom he worked at some supermarket downtown, and helped pay the rent.

Pac’s hypnotic voice weaved its way through the humid bedroom:

All through your body
The blow’s like a twelve gauge shotty
Uhh, Nigga feel me!
And God said he should send his one begotten son
To lead the wild into the ways of the man
Follow me; eat my flesh, flesh of my flesh
Blood of my Blooooooooooooood.

“Yo – YO turn it up,” I yelled over the music. I could hear it fine; but we needed more. To feel it, to have it absorb us, the room, the world. The words woke Miguel out of his trance – for the past three songs we had sat in silence, eyes closed, heads nodding to the beat – and he got up and walked toward his bed. He slithered under it, until all I could see was the bottoms of his bright red Converse. The floor kept vibrating. I didn’t wonder what he was doing under there; I want to say I knew, but I really had no idea. Dust dispersed through the air as Miguel slithered back out of the darkness. Clutched in his hand was a Nike shoebox, tan and light orange on the top.

Shoe boxes are always ominous, especially when you encounter them outside of the shoe store. Miguel opened the lid slowly, almost reverently.

There were two of them, wrapped tightly in an oversized black FUBU t-shirt; the handles stuck out at the end. On top of them was a plastic, white rosary. There were also three white envelopes, words were scribbled on each and they bulged with folded stacks of bills. They read: “Food. Rent. Jordans.”

“What’s that for?” I said. Stupid questions like those always ask themselves first.

“Protection,” he said as he pulled out the rosary, slipped it over his head, and tucked it safely inside his shirt.

“Nah…Nah, son, be easy. I ain’t trying to mess with that. You acting a fool right now, like we going to war over a block or bricks or something, this ain’t even like that,” I said, backing away from the box.

“Of course it ain’t like that. Of course, nigga. But you DO know that this isn’t some by the flagpole movie fight, right? This kid that David is throwing down with is in a gang, man. This is real hood, gully shit. If they pull, then we pull. But only under those circumstances, you feel what I’m saying? It’s about not being dumb, about just holding it down, by holding.” Miguel kept staring at me hard as he finished, paused, then silently passed the 9mm Berretta pistol.

This is NOT a movie, you know that right? kept shouting in my head. I wanted to say it back to him, just throw it back in his face.
My hand wilted under the unexpected weight of the firearm: it looked much lighter when it was being waved around like a paperweight or ballpoint pen on television.

“What – you look like you ain’t never held the tech before,” he said, smirking.

“Nah, it’s just been a minute, son. Of course I have, just not the nine – not with the clip.”

“Don’t front, son, you could end up dumping the clip on your self. Yo, let me show you.”

“I know, man; I said I know. I popped one of these off into the sky at this kid’s roof last summer – I’m good, iight?”

“Iight, whatever. Just don’t get shook with that shit. Keep it in your book bag and keep your eyes on whatever is going on in the fight. Grill their hands and their faces, you’ll know what to do.” I nodded as I slipped the barrel into the bag, then let the whole piece fall from my moist palm.

I ain’t a killer but don’t push me
Revenge is like the sweetest joy next to getting pussy
Picture paragraphs unloaded, wise words being quoted
Peeped the weakness in the game and sewed it
Bow down, pray to God hoping that he’s listening…

Was Pac’s Hail Mary still playing? Was it even still Monday afternoon? The whole exchange seemed to have taken several hours. Miguel was right. I had no idea how to use one of those things. Ignorance kept me afraid, assured that I would never pull that out under any circumstance. Ignorance kept me safe. Ignorance was bliss. Knowledge, a bitch.

***

“Yo, yo check this,” I said over the white noise that consumed the subway car. “Iight, go head,” Miguel said.

“Nah, I mean I’m just saying, I was basically just thinking, and I just want to kick it with someone so I could figure the shit out,” I said, taking measured pauses between the words. “Yo, so you think we done choose this?”

Miguel shrugged, “What you mean by that though? Choose what?”

“Nah, I mean this whole ebonics language shit, this whole baggy clothes hood shit, we chose it right? Know what I mean, kid?” I asked the question like I needed to elicit a certain answer, like I was prodding him or leading him on in some way to an answer I desperately wanted him to say.

We both jerked forward as the train came to a halting stop at the station, which seemed to distract Miguel. I couldn’t tell if he had even heard me and decided to let it slide.

“You iight, Tommy? You look like you shook, kid….,” Miguel said as we walked out of the Grand Concourse subway station. The afternoon sky was overcast, and I couldn’t find the sun behind the washed-out clouds.

“Shook? Nah Nah…I ain’t shook. Yo, did we have to bring the heat, man,” I said, avoiding his eyes.

“What kind of question is that? Just keep that shit in your book bag, we ain’t going to need it anyway.”

We made a right on E. 170th street and headed toward one of the run-down residential blocks. I looked at the neglected homes, lining the sidewalk like broken old men with sunken eyes and withered bodies.

As we turned the corner, frenzied shouting tore through the air from the end of the block. “Shit! They already going at it!” Miguel broke into a sprint; I raced behind him. Instantly every nerve in my body was pulsing. Finally, we burst into the semi-circle of our screaming friends and anxiously looked for David. My first glance revealed the fight wasn’t going in his favor. His left eye was swollen, his lip and nose were bleeding and he had a lost, empty look on his face. Then there were more wild cheers from the Latin King side, as David’s nemesis hit him with a vicious uppercut. David’s head snapped back violently and he stumbled backwards, his legs giving out. Silence fell on us as he crashed hard on to the sidewalk.

But the thug wouldn’t stop; he jumped on top of David and continued to savagely pummel our fallen friend. We looked on in disbelief. The fight was clearly finished; David was defenseless.

“YO, What the Fuck you doing? He’s done man, you trying to kill him?” Brandon shouted. He was answered by the sickening sounds of more punches and bloodthirsty cheers from the Kings. “YO! Get off him motherfucker!” Brandon shouted again as he ran out into middle of the circle and tackled the King member. An ear-splitting roar exploded out of the semi-circle of Kings, and they wildly charged at us. I froze as I recognized the ugly consequences of his actions. Brandon had given the crazed gang members the excuse they needed to cause carnage, and now we were staring into the face of a forty-man brawl.

Everything became a blur as the sidewalk transformed into a swirling sea of punches and raging screams. A fist flew into the side of my head, and I saw bright spots flash over my eyes. I tried to recover, and turned around just in time to barely dodge another vicious blow. Suddenly, my attacker staggered backwards. It took me a moment to realize those were my knuckles that had knocked him squarely in the jaw. Now I was screaming too, and I started swinging at anything that moved. I didn’t stop until the piercing sounds of police sirens sent all of us scattering.

***

The clock that hung over the elevators ticked monotonously as I stood motionless in front of the program’s doors. It didn’t seem possible that I could be here less than 24 hours after I was in that street hoping to rend apart anything living with my bare hands. I tugged harder on the hood of my sweater but to no avail; it wouldn’t go any farther over my head. My swollen cheek and purple eye still felt painfully conspicuous. I sighed, squeezing my eyes shut.

Maybe the DAPP kids wouldn’t notice – or even better, they all decided to stay home this Friday. Another moment passed before I forced my hand onto the doorknob. I walked in with my gaze pointed at the floor. In my chair I kept my head tilted down toward the keyboard. I started to type, wincing because of my bruised and puffy knuckles. Suddenly, my chest tightened as it sensed an unwelcome presence.

“What happened to you?” Dave. I quickly slipped my sleeves over my hands.

“Nothing, fell off my bike going down a hill,” I said into my computer screen.

“Right, and then you rolled into a construction site where cinder blocks fell on your knuckles.” I chewed on my bottom lip. “What really happened? Did one of your drug deals go wrong causing some gang war?” Dave sneered.

“Whatever, man, believe what you want…,” I mumbled.

Why couldn’t he just let me exist? I wasn’t so different from him anyway, was I? Maybe that’s what bothered him so much in the first place.

“Don’t you get it? You don’t belong here. You just make all of us here who actually have a future look bad.” My hands throbbed as I balled them into fists, desperately wanting to stuff them as far into my ears as possible. Either that, or stuff them down his skinny, snake-like throat to shut him up. I could have killed this kid. Easily. Just smash his yellow face in, unless he knew some martial art bullshit. Does he even know, do he recognize that I fucked up Malcolm? I’d break him in half with sheer physical force. Sure, I would have gotten kicked out for beating him into the ground. But screw the program. Maybe I didn’t want the stupid program.

For some reason I kept screaming in my head that he was a dirty racist bastard. I knew that didn’t make any sense, but I kept thinking it. As ridiculous as it sounded, I felt right then that he hated my shade of yellow. And I wanted more than anything at that moment to be a black guy: firstly because I’d probably be a foot taller, and secondly because I’d have the race card. The race card made everything make sense.

“Seriously, just go back to your ‘hood,’ and make a career out of gangbanging,” he spewed, as if telling some immigrant to go back to his damn country. My eyes were attempting to burn a hole into the ground under his sneakers, but it wasn’t working. “It would be better for all of us, and I wouldn’t have to explain to my parents what you were doing here.”

My legs slowly disappeared underneath the computer table, and I slumped as far as I could into my chair as the humiliation seeped into my skin. As Dave walked away, I focused my gaze on the ceiling. The sharp pricks of needles spread out like ivy from my ribs down to my arms.

***

The sign on the decaying, green door read “WARNING: Only Authorized Personnel Allowed On The Roof at Any Time. This Door Is Alarmed And Will Not Open From Outside.” I ignored it, and shoved the door open. I hadn’t visited the roof of my building for years. But it was the only place I knew, for sure, I could be alone.

I lingered in the entranceway, allowing the crisp, night air to embrace me. My lungs sucked it in as if I hadn’t tasted oxygen for weeks. I threw my bag next to the concrete chimney by the door, and walked over to the ledge overlooking my block. The gravel that carpeted the ground crackled with each step, objecting to my uninvited presence. I stopped at the ledge and leaned against it, burying my head into my arms.It had been four days since the gang riot incident, but the memory of it lingered, stagnant like recycled air.

My thoughts circled wildly now, and a different voice began to dominate.

Damn it, I kept it real; I held it down, mothafucker! I wasn’t no fake-ass, punk-bitch…Asian. This wasn’t no act. This wasn’t no stunting on my block. If a nigga wanted to test it, then he could come with the raw to the block and see how the fuck we rolled in this hood. We’d son everyone one of these cats out, straight up son them. Rough ryde on all these bitch-ass niggas who be trying to look hard and shit. Cause I showed them all that a souljah like me had mad heart, was hard enough for these streets with or without a tech or ratchet, hammer or a pump strapped up on me. But, and please believe me nigga, if I wanted to roll like that, I could of strapped up and squeezed off, just started dumping these hollowtips on any bitch bustah nigga who tried to front on us. On some real shit, all of ya’ll be looking but you just couldn’t see a nigga like me…

And when the voice ran out of things to say, bravado and hate to repeat, it would subside and fade. An episode such as this would happen periodically, maybe at the times when I felt the most threatened, , and when it hit me I’d continue on a long, inward mental spiel for a while before I even noticed it. I couldn’t tell you why, but when that voice, native and in its rawest form, occurred it always ended with me feeling queasy.

I lifted my head out of my folded arms. I stared out at the city. Squinting hard, I attempted to make out the skyline, but my vision remained murky. In frustration, I trudged back to my book bag. The teeth of the zipper parted, and I began to dig around for my glasses case.

When I pulled it out, I paused; I never wore the glasses outside my house before. They felt abnormally cold as I slipped them onto my face.

Through the rows of my book bag’s grinning teeth I could see the 9mm at the bottom, hidden underneath one of my corroded textbooks. I almost gave it back to Miguel, which ended with me begging him to let me hold on to it a little longer. We lived a block away from each other; it’s not like I was going anywhere. What you need two guns for anyway? Miguel said something about if I lost it, I’d be meeting with the other fairly quick. I hated corny lines like that. You know this ain’t a fucking movie, right?? I didn’t say that to his face; I should have. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to lose it.

I had been carrying it everywhere I went outside the house since the brawl. If I could have attached it to my gold chain, as a black gold charm, I would have. It kept my head still, my eyes straight ahead. If there were a retaliation by the gang members I’d be prepared – even though I still didn’t know how to shoot it, I would wave it around menacingly like a pro. I had been practicing in front of my mirror in my room. Just pull it out and stick it directly into the middle of someone’s face. The middle, right about the bridge of their nose. Have the tip of the barrel touch. Not too hard, don’t make them panic. Don’t look away. Don’t blink. Grip it strong. Strong and still. Shout. Deep and guttural. Say something threatening. Real menacing. A warning shot into the air, as a last resort. It would work. I knew because my own reflection scared the hell out of me whenever I did it correctly. I stuck my hand into the gaping, black mouth of my bag and gently pulled out the Tech.

Kicking the gravel as I walked back to the ledge of the roof, I wished the empty threats on the warning sign were true. I would have loved for the door to swing shut and bolt, locking me on the roof forever. I planted my elbows on the cold ledge, and gazed down at the shadow-covered playground across the street.

For the first time in a long while, my vision extended far into city streets in front of me. I could distinctly make out people sitting on park benches and walking along the sidewalk. My lips formed a tiny smile. There was an unspoken bond between us, and I just knew it would remain with me for the rest of my life. I carried a piece of their burden – a burden that no one seemed to really understand but us. There was something redeeming in it all, something less than beautiful but attractive nonetheless.

And I didn’t want to be Dave Lee, or any of the other kids in the program on Wall Street. Maybe it was just jealously. Or it could have been fear, or the feeling of weakness. I could choose that life, but it would scorn me, right? Maybe hating it was easier. Or maybe hating it was more pure – more noble. I didn’t know.

But I did suddenly realize, no matter what I chose, I’d have to betray; it was just a matter of how. And now that I thought about it, I realized that even at my birth I was a conspirator against my own skin, my own supposed race, and maybe that was more detestable than a Benedict Arnold turning on his nation. I started to softly recite one of my favorite rap songs, a TuPac song that seemed to comfort me when I was feeling really down:

…Got me worried, stressing, my vision’s blurried
The question is will I live? No one in the world loves me
I’m headed for danger, don’t trust strangers
Put one in the chamber whenever I’m feeling this anger
Don’t wanna make excuses, cause this is how it is
Through this suppression
They punish the people that’s asking questions
And those that possess, steal from the ones without possessions
The message I stress: to make it stop study your lessons
Don’t settle for less – even the genius asks-es questions
Be grateful for blessings
Don’t ever change, keep your essence….
Keep ya’ essence dawg, keep ya…

The rumbling of the subway from blocks away disrupted my thoughts, and I looked up. The distant lights on the bridges connecting the Bronx to Manhattan sparkled as the sun disappeared. For a moment, it seemed as if the bridge lights were stars that had been pulled from the sky to be suspended over the river. New York City was beautiful from up here, especially at night. It was that seductive nightclub dancer – mysterious and desirable when the lights were too dim to see her broken smile. The wind blew against my face, numbing my eyes and inflamed cheek. I wondered to myself, did I ever have to move? Did the lights ever have to come back up?

I slowly lifted the 9mm to my face, rested my cheek on it, rubbed the cold steel over and up my skin until the barrel dug into my temple, scraping aginst the thin metal of my glasses frame. It didn’t feel so heavy anymore. Light as a paperweight or a ballpoint pen, really.

I lifted the gun from my temple and pointed it at the sky, at one of the stars on top of that bridge leading into Manhattan. I closed one of my eyes, squinting over the barrel, adjusting it, measuring the distance as if it were a deadly sextant. How many bullets were in this clip? Enough to shoot off all the stars on the bridge? But that was the trick, wasn’t it – that we could never get close enough to possess or destroy those pretty lights, hung so high.

 
 
Kentaro Yoshida is a recent graduate in English from Boston University, but was born and raised in the Bronx where he still resides. He has written and edited for various Boston publications, including The Daily Free Press and 201 Magazine. He is proud to be a 4th generation Japanese-American born into a family of thespians – a rarity among Asian-Americans. Over the years, he has appeared in numerous plays, TV shows, and commercials, which helped pay for college. He is currently applying to MFA programs in Creative Writing, acting, and living frugally, all the time wondering why he did not go pre-med when he had the chance.

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“Gold”

Don McLaughlin stooped and picked up a white balloon from the ground.

“Know what this is?” he asked me, dangling it. The thing had a hard round opening ringed with dirt, like a kid’s mouth. “A rubber.” He leered. “And I guess you don’t know what it’s for neither.”

I said only, “We better get back. Peggy’ll be waiting.”

“You goony sonavabitch, you don’t, do you?” Don chucked the thing, disgusted by it, or me, then faked like he was going to wipe his hand on my shirt. But he smeared it over his own, thinking nothing of dirtying a nice clean shirt.

We walked out of the clump of trees we called the Wilderness that decorated the grounds of Saddle Creek Hospital. The classroom building was only a few feet away from us, but from the Wilderness, it seemed miles away. Don was a Platinum, which meant he could take short leaves from the supervisors as long as a Gold accompanied him. I was Gold. Gold, Silver, Platinum, Bronze: no matter who you were, they had a winning medal for you.

As we walked, I said to Don, “Maybe you can get to be a Silver if you follow the rules.” But the words sounded like something my mother would say, and I wished I could take them back. When you told a friend to behave himself, you weren’t a friend anymore, you were just another supervisor. Don’s eyes sliced meanly across mine, confirming this. His eyes were yellowish and you could see blood creeping up into one of them.

“Maybe you can live if you shut up,” he shot back.

Once I cracked open an egg to find the beginnings of a chicken. Those were the reds, yellows, and whites I saw in Don McLaughlin’s eyes.

***

“…that Europe could no longer intervene in American affairs,” Peggy was saying. Peggy, our teacher, had a potato-shaped body and a red beehive hairdo. She reminded me of an aunt I didn’t like. Now she was on the subject of the Monroe Doctrine. Richard, the ward supervisor, leaned against the back wall of the classroom folding and unfolding his arms, just making sure of things. As Peggy was going on about the separateness of the Americas, Don yelled out, “Fuck the Monroe Doctrine!”

In two long reaches of his legs Richard was at Don’s desk. “Hey, buddy.” His voice low, calm. “What say we go for a little one-on-one?” Putting his widespread hand on Don’s shoulder, he steered him toward the door. Don whipped his head back to me and let go with a loud punching laugh, and I smiled back at him. We alone thought this was hysterical: Peggy trying to cram the Monroe Doctrine into Don McLaughlin’s head, as if that could make a difference to anyone, or the sorry world at large.

***

There were twelve of us here: seven boys and five girls. One of those girls was Diane. I had a terrible secret crush on her. She was tall, with delicate shoulders that curved in and silky hair that weaved with light. A nurse’s station separated the boys’ from the girls’ wing. The girls’ wing was painted yellow and blue, and a powdery smell drifted from it like the memory of my grandmother.

I shared a bedroom with Don and two other boys, Raymond and Peter. A guy named Kline slept in another bedroom down the hall. Kline was his last name but we’d turned it into his first, and it was all the same to him. He’d been a Bronze longer than anyone in the history of this place. Once he’d slit his wrist in the bathroom, so now they couldn’t even let him relieve himself on his own. A supervisor would stand outside the stall, looking at a watch, and open the door after two minutes if the toilet hadn’t flushed.

Peter Easterbrook was the quietest kid on the floor. He had knotted curls of black hair and a constant, annoying smile. Don and Kline laid into him, punched him and called him things like wuss and wimp because of his smile and the fact that he wet his bed. Pete’s only answer was to smile more, which only made Don and Kline punch him more. But he surprised us once. It was when Peter came screaming through the corridor, ripping his T-shirt off his scrawny chest like a monkey gone stark mad. He didn’t stop with his own clothes, either, but got into our dresser and ripped our underwear into thread and dust. Just a ripping spree, which you’d never expect from a kid like Peter, with kinky hair and wet sheets in the morning. After that incident Don was his friend forever. Pete the Ripper, Don said.

***

Six weeks remained in my treatment. But this morning when I woke up, six weeks seemed as far away as death. My perfect Gold was like a first prize in those Olympics for crippled kids: you’re just the best of the worst. Peter’s reeking sheets and his Desenex had gotten into our blankets. I was sick of class, of counseling and tranquilizers, the thought of these things as unpleasant as the simple thought of myself. So when Betty Chu, the short Chinese lady, waddled into the bedroom with her tray of jiggling pills, I refused mine. Refused it because I was above it, above Don or Kline or Peter.

“Mitchell, you know you have to take it.”

“Why?”

“Is what the doctor say.”

But it wasn’t what I wanted. So I took the little ribbed cup, crushed it, and threw it against the wall. Betty just stood there, raising her lips in a pouting, punishing way. I had to get out of her sight, so I ran…. Out of the bedroom, down the hallway, through the TV room, then down the main hallway past the nurses’ station. A tingling in my legs made me fly, and I had to keep running ‘til I ran it out. I could feel my heart swelling and pounding in my chest, a wrong kind of excitement, but it felt good, it made me want to keep running, and I knew I’d die if I stopped. I headed for the girls’ side, but something held me back–the flowery smell, my grandmother. So I turned and went for the nurses’ station, and there was Peggy folding laundry from a basket piled up with girls’ things. I grabbed the basket out of her surprised fingers and heaved it with all my strength. It hit the wall with a crack, panties and socks and pajamas going everywhere. I could feel tiny sparks sizzling over the surface of myself–up my legs, through my chest, across my arms. With one last shudder of excitement, I swiped my arm across someone’s desk, sending pens, paper clips, thumbtacks showering onto the floor with the girls’ laundry. Then the tingling stopped…

Stop.

Richard and Betty ran toward me. Kline, dumb as a performing bear, roared from the TV room, “Go, Mitch, go! Mitch! Mitch!” Richard and Betty stood looking at me, gunning me with shame. They didn’t lay hands on me, just kept giving me that You should know better look. As if I didn’t have the right to be just as crazy as everyone else here. If I were Don I’d have an arm around Peggy’s neck right now, or one of those pens pointed at her fat throat. But me, I just stood there, bathed in sweat and keeping my fingers wide apart so as not to feel my own skin against itself.

***

The silence room: a gray-padded chamber at the end of the hallway. It was thick with the smells of dirty socks and sweat and hate, of DonKlinePeter all heaped together. I looked out through the barred window toward the main hospital building and down the green apron of lawn as it fanned out to the classroom annex farther on. Plunked in the middle of the lawn was our Wilderness, looking like those fake trees they stick in the middle of plastic turtle bowls.

A small square of glass with wire crisscrossing through it allowed them to look in on you. But no one had to worry about me. All I was doing was slouching in a corner with my stockinged feet turned out. After a few minutes, an eye filled the window. It was a wild eye: Don’s. He yelled something, but the gray padding drank in his words so that only a muffled hoarseness got through. Don stepped back so I could see his face. It reminded me of the cartoon Road Runner when he slams into a tree. Don’s greasy hair zoomed off in several directions, and mysterious little red cuts danced on his forehead. He was laughing in that high whinnying way of his. But the joke we shared had gone rotten and now it was his joke alone, idiotic and private and rotten.

I looked down at the mats covering the floor, at their rips with the white stuffing pushing through. Each rip was someone’s tantrum, a mad-hearted rip for everyone here. Crossing my eyes I made the rips double, the tantrums double. Pretty soon Don got bored watching me do this and turned away. But not without rapping on the glass and giving me my reward for looking up: his animal tongue squashed up against the window, the wire diamonding through it.

Use this hour to think about how to use my feelings as a friend, not a weapon, Richard had said. Instead I thought about the day I arrived at Saddle Creek. The ride up in the Pontiac at night. The rain exploding against the windshield like bullets. Mom felt certain this would be the right thing and let me know by squeezing my white-knuckled fist. (She’d read articles about Saddle Creek, talked with people, made a decision.) Dad was staring hard through the windshield, his look the same one I imagined he had landing planes in bad weather in Korea. He chain-smoked Pall Malls with tight, dry lips, holding the smoke down till it escaped blue from his nostrils. The wipers clearing away quick slices of night….

Suddenly a rectangle of matting separated away from the wall. Richard was opening the door.

“Hey buddy, get a chance to think about those feelings?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Everyone went to eat. Let’s go get some lunch.” He told me that he was sorry, he must walk me down to the cafeteria because I’ve been lowered to Silver.

***

Dinner was over and we were walking in a ragtag group to Saddle Creek’s movie theater. It wasn’t really a movie theater but a damp old shed with fold-up chairs and a screen that collapsed when the movie ended. We were going to see “The Sound of Music.” Diane was a few feet ahead of me on the sidewalk, so I quickened my step to catch her.

“You ever see this movie?” I asked, wedging in next to her.

“Nuh-uh.”

“Me neither.”

“I heard you got the room today,” she said.

“It wasn’t bad. Just sat there and waited.”

She gave me a sweet knock on the shoulder. “Just couldn’t keep your hands off those panties, could you?”

Then I heard Don from behind. “Hey, Twinkle Toes.”

Before I could turn around, he’d shoved himself between us, his runty chest threatening me, his face ugly for a fight.

“Get out of here,” I said.

Don grabbed my arm and yanked me back, pulling himself forward at the same time. “Stay away from Diane,” he said. “She’s my girl.”

I looked into Don’s dead-chicken eyes and through to his brain, wondering how it had invented that idea. Words formed themselves in my throat, but my heart pounded them into a stuttering mulch, and I just stared at him. Don found an empty liquor bottle against the curb and flung it at a lamppost. It shattered, becoming a million diamonds sparkling in the cold light.

“That’s what’s gonna happen to you if I catch you touchin’ her,” he wailed.

But then his arms were pretzeled behind him, his wrists locked in the vicegrip of Richard’s hand. His whole body went limp as a dead person’s, and he let Richard drag him back to the ward like that. We all stopped to watch him—his heels dragging along the broken glass, face beaming in a kind of twisted glory.

“You dumb piece of shit!” Kline yelled, like the guy who had it all figured out.

***

In darkness, after lights-out, Don was bragging about how many times he’d done it. “A lady’s jugs are the softest things in the world, gentlemen.” I laughed at the way he said “gentlemen.” Peter, from somewhere in his sappy dreams, said, “Go to sleep, will you please?” That’s when we heard Kline’s bellow from down the hallway.

We scrambled out of bed. Kline was up against the wall, heavy and sagging like a bag of cement, holding out his right arm to us. A slit ran the length of it, and every time he flexed his arm the slit yielded up a fresh shelf of blood. The blood pooled into his palm, streamed down his fingers, and fell in fat drops to the carpet.

“Okay, everyone back in bed,” Richard ordered. Betty and an orderly came and pressed a cloth gently to the slit. When they removed the towel, you could see the skin lift, like the gill of a dying fish.

Don yelled, “What the hell you do, you crazy mo’fuck?”

“Screw you,” Kline roared.

Betty ran back to call the intern up from the main hospital, and we returned to bed. Don looked disappointed, like he’d been gypped out of something. Peter slithered down into his sheets. Don and I knew those sheets would be the first thing we’d smell in the morning.

***

Sunday was visiting day, and sometimes Mom and Dad would take me off-grounds to a coffee shop. I’d order my favorite, a fish sandwich with onion rings and iced coffee. But today we’d taken a short walk and now we were sitting around the TV room, talking. Everybody else had gone off-grounds except Don, who was out tossing a football with Richard. Once I asked him about his parents. My ma’s always working, he told me, and my old man’s a drunk s.o.b.

“Just one month to go,” my mother said.

My father looked at me. “That’s not so bad, is it?” In the same tone of voice as when he says, “Just punch ’em back, you can do that, can’t you?” He looked around the room, as if checking for evidence, maybe evidence that we were really here. I talked about Don and Kline, about how crazy they were. If I made them out to be crazy, I thought, it would make me look normal. Then we could all sit around and believe that I didn’t really belong here.

“And then we all go on vacation,” Dad was saying.

Mom added, “To Florida, to see Grandma. Won’t that be fun?”

It’s not them, it’s me, and I will try to change. For them. They tell me that I’m so great. But now I feel it again, a feeling that I stole something from them and now I’m ready to give it back. If only I knew what it was.

I’d been put back to Gold, so I was allowed to walk my parents to their car. After we hugged, I watched the Pontiac make its way down the hospital drive. It came to the main road, stopped, and made a left turn into the world of houses and schools and fried onion rings.

***

We were in the classroom building, in group talk. Raymond was saying why he thinks school sucks, and how he’d rather stay in his room all day playing his gitfiddle. That’s what he called a guitar. He further offered us the opinion that Duane Allman was the best gitfiddle player in the world. Fastest fingers you ever seen, Ray said.

My attention drifted from Ray’s voice to the rain plucking the leaves outside. The rain reminded me of staying home sick and watching The Match Game in the middle of a school day, Mom bringing a thermometer and scalding tea into the den.

“How does it make you feel?” Jeanette, our psychologist, was speaking to me.

“What?”

“The school you were going to. How does it make you feel?”

“Afraid,” I said.

“Can you tell us why it makes you afraid, Mitchell?” It was a waste of time to tell them, as long as I knew why.

“Mitchell?” Jeanette put a hand on her hip.

“Because they beat up on me.”

“Why does that happen, do you think?” My fingernail traced a deep groove in the wooden surface of my desk. Jeanette turned to Raymond, whose fingers were flying over his invisible guitar.

Raymond didn’t have much to say about why they beat up on me, either, and I couldn’t blame him. So Jeanette looked at Debbie, the chubby girl who always had this sour expression like she’d just thrown up.

“Who else feels like they’re different?” Jeanette asked, giving up on me.

I rode her question back out to the rain. The rain trickled in the corrugated metal gutter along the seam of the building. For some reason this sound made me think of the first day of school. It always seemed to drizzle the first day. I could taste the reek of those brick corridors, a combination of wet textbooks, rain-soaked bag lunches, and the bubblegum sweet of urinal deodorizer. Summer vacation in the outside world was over now. Or was it? I strained to remember, but Saddle Creek had blurred the time that summer turns into autumn and autumn turns into school.

Raymond said, “Wa-a-wa-a-waow,” his body convulsing to some kind of plugged-in fantasy. A crack of thunder, a whoosh of rain, and it was time for lunch.

***

Tonight my parents would pick me up and drive me out of Saddle Creek for good. But now Peggy and Richard were herding us into a van for a trip to nearby Lake Winnepaug. All the kids were yelling and fighting about which seat they wanted. Diane and I got in first (both of us being Gold), and we sat together in the back seat. Don shoved in next to her. Kline, with his small hard frown, yelled, “Get this jalopy moving!”

“Juice up the radio!” Don shouted up to Richard. I waited for the van to reach the main road before I threaded my fingers through Diane’s. She seemed surprised, but then accepted them with an embarrassed flicker of smile. Richard, craning his head back, yelled,

“No swimming beyond the ropes, understood?” He also mentioned something about real teepees at the lake. But all I could think about was swimming with Diane, her brown hair clinging dark to her neck and cheeks, her naked rear shimmering underwater.

We reached the main road and “Sugar, Sugar” came on the radio. Everyone but Diane and me were shouting out the lyrics:

Aw honey, oh sugar, sugar,
You are my candy, girl,
and you got me wantin’ you.

I moved Diane’s hand playfully to the song. Then I tried to turn it palm up, confused by her resistance; until I saw the ugly mark of her devil: a pinkish rise of skin about a half- inch across her wrist. It had scabbed up dull and shiny, like candle wax. In the same moment, I saw that Don had taken Diane’s other hand. He raised it roughly, dropped it, up and down again, shouting out the words in his hoarse voice. It was like a blunt weapon, his voice, and I tried hard as I could to shut my ears against it. I pumped Diane’s hand gently, and she pumped mine back, while across the seat Don kept up his clowning. I was sure I had her then.

The sun at the lake was hot. Blankets and ice chests were laid out over a strip of pebbly sand. I stretched myself on a blanket next to Diane. The brightness against her black bathing suit turned her skin milk-white. Once again Don placed himself on the other side of her. But this time he turned away from us. I thought he’d fallen asleep. His bony legs were hiked up behind him like a deer frozen in mid-run. He was skinnier than me, but darker, with rough feet, the kind of feet that could fly down pavement and tough out pieces of broken bottle. I envied them next to my own, which were soft and white and red-splotched.

After a few minutes I got up and motioned Diane to walk with me. We followed a dirt path along the lake, toward a wooden bathhouse with showers out front. The shouts of the others grew faint, and then they didn’t reach us.

Diane spoke first. “You’re getting outta here tomorrow, you lucky stiff.”

“I’ll give you my address so we can write.”

The lake was sending back the sun in lazy sparkles and a clean earth smell came up from it. I was afraid Diane would see my heart beating against my bird-like ribs, but she was concentrating on the ground instead. The pine needles caught up between our toes as we walked.

“You write first,” she said. “And remember to put your address on the envelope.”

“When’s your time up?”

“My parents say in a month, if I don’t mess up or nothin.’” She glanced at me and smiled. Tiny buds of sweat sparkled in the hollow above her lips. I took her hand and felt along the waxy scar on her wrist. Then I thought about kissing her. But before I could work out how to do it, I felt a sharp yank at my neck. Someone’s towel was choking me.

“I told you to stay the hell away from her!” It was Don’s breath in my ear.

“Let go.” I tripped backward and crashed against a tree. Don nailed me there with his sharp knee, and I squirmed in pain, the bark eating into my back.

“I guess you think I’m nothin’!” he shouted. “Ain’t that what you think, pretty boy?” But I was only thinking, keep breathing, and that Richard had lied about the teepees because there weren’t any around. “Ain’t that what you think, you twinkle-toes faggot? That I’m nothin’! Ain’t it? Say it!”

I couldn’t get my arms up, but I discovered that one of my hands was free to move, so I put a fingernail to Don’s thigh and dragged it up. He yelped and drew back his knee. Then I heard a pounding of dirt and Richard was galloping full speed toward us.

“Ain’t it?” Don kept screaming. Then he slapped the side of my nose, and I felt a warm trickle deep up. Richard was almost to us then, and it was Richard I hated more than anyone, because he was about to take away the last chance I’d ever have to kill Don.

“Tippin’ over them panties, scratchin’ like a girl. C’mon, try to hit me, Twinkle–”

“Kill him!” Diane yelled. But Richard already had his neck in a strongarm lock, and Don was flailing like an insect turned on its back.

“You O.K.?” Richard asked me, his chest swelling and sinking.

“I think so.”

“Wipe the blood off.” He nodded to the ground where Don’s towel lay twisted. I shook pine needles off the towel and put it to my face. Then Richard started back with Don trying to jerk out of his arms.

“Idiot’ll be a Bronze forever,” Diane said, helping me pat up the blood.

You couldn’t see our group too well, but you could make out the confused Frankenstein that was Kline. He was loping toward us, maybe upon the scent of blood. But then he caught sight of Don jerking around in Richard’s arms, and he decided to watch that show instead. Diane and I watched, too, as Richard fastened something around Don’s hands and led him to the van.

“Least you won’t be seeing any more of him,” Diane said. “You won’t be seeing any of this shit.” I didn’t answer, but I knew that she was wrong, that I would see Don again. He’d be the troublemaker in the hallways and he’d be the old man on the sidewalk with crazy hair and leather feet, and I’d walk past him with a sorry look, knowing he never stood a chance.

The van’s engine revved, and there was Don’s face, pressed to the window with his cracked grin, like the Road Runner against a tree. Then the tires skidded on the sand, caught the pavement, and disappeared toward the main road.

Diane took the bloody towel from my face. She shook her head at me, laughed, and said, “Let’s go.”

 
 
 
Bruce Tallerman’s short stories have appeared in Laurel Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Reader’s Break, The Paterson Review, Quarter After Eight, and The Southern Anthology. He is the 2007 recipient of the BRIO (Bronx Honors its Own) Award for Fiction. Mr. Tallerman has studied creative writing at UCLA, The New School for Social Research, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and is currently at work on a novel. He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and two children.

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“Aguantar”

Emma resisted the urge to kick the old woman in front of her. She refused to shout at her. The impulse to dump the grocery bags–filled with cans of cooked nopales, chicken soup and pinto beans– on the ground and walk away nearly overpowered Emma, but she would not yield. Instead, she waited. She watched as the woman stepped slowly, as if her feet were mired in quicksand, down the sidewalk. Emma’s arms sagged from the weight of the food. She felt her shoulders stiffen, the pain rushing through her veins like hot lead.

¿No puedes caminar con prisa (Can’t you walk any faster?)?”

Claro que si, hija. ¿Pero por que? Necesitas tener paciencia. Por eso no estas casada (Of course I can. But why? You need to have patience. That’s why you’re still not married).”

“Make sure you don’t squish the bread,” Emma said, switching quickly to English. She spoke mainly English, with a sprinkling of Spanish, while her mother, who understood both languages, stayed in her native tongue.

“Is that all you care about? No, not your long-suffering mother. Of course you don’t. You’re just like your father.”

“Oh, Mom. Not now. Please.”

“I know you’re on his side.” With red-mittened hands, Graciela Lopez clutched the bread loaf to her chest like a baby. She turned her head, glared at her daughter, and continued shuffling. Emma heard the loud whines of windows opening from above. Her neighbors, of course, were straining to hear their arguments. Emma’s fights with her Mom were legendary, her poor attitude widely criticized. She knew the crazy Lopez women would be the topic of conversation tomorrow.

Graciela Lopez walked to the stairs and stopped at the bottom step. She needed only to climb about 20 steps but her mouth creased in expected torment. “Why do you make me do this?” she said. With a huff, she pulled her short, round body up the steps. It was about 35 degrees. The old woman, with one hand, tightened the waistbelt of a lime-green wool coat around her. Emma could see the collar of a red sweatshirt peeking through a lapel. Under that, her mother wore a long-sleeved t-shirt. A purple fluffy cap, which stretched across Mrs. Lopez’s head like a rubber band, topped off the ensemble. Emma shook her head. Long ago, she had given up trying to dress her mother.

As she waited, Emma’s thoughts centered around one idea: escape. It would take one kick, a swift chop to the back of the knees, for Emma to be free. Her mother would go sprawling down the stairs, her thick, layered body tumbling across the slippery steps like an ice cube on glass. Emma knew such thoughts weren’t the Mexican way. They were barely human. But who could blame her? Her job, Emma knew, was to aguantar, to tend to her mother’s disease and care for her without complaint. Only Emma had never been very good at the Mexican way.

She wondered how long it would take the neighbors to notice her Mom’s fallen body. She wondered if she should wait and call 911 or let someone else do it. She wondered if she would cry. Either way, it would all be over. Emma could leave. After a period of mourning, maybe a few weeks, she could move back to Los Angeles and resume her life as a journalist. It had been a year since her byline had graced a real story. It wasn’t too late.

Graciela Lopez heaved herself up the last steps, the wood creaking loudly in protest. She slumped against the wall’s crimson bricks. At 75, she weighed about 150 lbs on a once fragile 5-foot frame. Sweat beaded down the old woman’s forehead. They had stopped, after the church celebration, to buy some groceries. It had taken them nearly 45 minutes to walk four blocks from La Chiquita, a neighborhood store, to their home. Mrs. Lopez had insisted on chatting with nearly everyone on 26th St. Despite the late evening, crowds of people strolled the sidewalks of La Villita, Little Village, their west Chicago neighborhood. Mrs. Lopez stopped to smell the barbacoa cooking at a late evening taco stand, the smoke from the grill shooting tomato-spiced charcoal clouds into the night. She waved to the kids drinking café con leche at a local coffee shop, smiling when they yelled “Hola, Senora!” and paused to listen to the ranchero songs blaring from Discoteca Navaros. Even their apartment building, at nearly 11 p.m., was alive. Emma glanced at the middle-aged man selling churros on the curb, the guitar player singing “Paloma Blanca” under a maple tree, the group of teenagers gathered on the corner. So much life that Emma couldn’t join.

“Come on, Mom. It’s late.”

“Ok, Ok.”

Once her mother reached the top of the stairs, Emma rushed past her. She shoved a key into the lock, opened the door and braced herself. The smell of frying oil and onions, mixed with the fetid, sweet scent of shit, whooshed out the door. Emma gagged.

Tengo hambre,” her mother said, “I’m hungry,” as she walked into the apartment. “ Why don’t we eat some tamales?”

Emma sighed. Her mother often repeated the same question over and over, like a tape rewinding itself. “It’s too late now for tamales,” Emma said. “Why don’t we have some tea? Something light, maybe chamomile, would be nice right now.”

“No. Let’s have tamales. We never have them.” Emma didn’t respond. She lifted the bags and walked into the living room. Photos lined the avocado-colored walls. Most were of Emma, the youngest child of Graciela and Mario Lopez. The pictures showed younger versions of Emma at her grammar school, high school and college graduations. One had Mrs. Lopez handing her daughter a bouquet of flowers, another hugging Emma, and then a series displayed the two women standing together in front of fountains, gardens and amusement parks. Another featured Emma, in a blue business suit, holding a microphone in front of a much older man. And in another, a college picture, Emma and her mother were both wearing purple Northwestern University sweatshirts. They were standing on the lakefront. Her mother, 14 years younger, was smiling and slim, her still-black hair curling along her shoulders. They had their arms around each other like girlfriends.

Emma glared at the photos as she walked to the kitchen. “This is why I’m here,” she whispered to the ghosts. She avoided looking at the framed copies of various newspaper articles that lined the walls. “Alderman Jailed in Corruption Sting” read one headline, while another shouted, “Man Shot 29 Times.” Emma walked around a large china cabinet, nearly six feet tall, which threatened to take over the living room. It held various medals and trophies, mostly hers. Moonlight reflected off a gold pen, a prize Emma had won in college for an investigative piece on the economic crisis in Mexico. Next to it stood a bronze typewriter, an award for a story on the murder of Latinas along the U.S.-Mexico border. Emma could not look at the various prizes without grimacing. She could not believe how her life had changed.

¿Donde vas?

“I have to pee, Mom.” Emma tried to smile. Her mother’s paranoia increased whenever she left the room. “I’ll be right back.” As she opened the door, she knew what she would find: her mother had missed the toilet. Feces splattered the white-tiled floor amidst wads of used toilet paper. Wearing rubber latex gloves, Emma rinsed the floor with a bleach-drenched sponge. She poured cleanser into the toilet, waited 15 minutes and then scrubbed. She opened the windows and let the cold air freshen the room. She knew better than to remind her mother about her hygiene. Mrs. Lopez would only forget. But Emma knew she was lucky in this regard. Her mother at least remembered to use the bathroom. Some Alzheimer’s patients, in the late stages, didn’t.

Emma caught sight of herself in the bathroom mirror. She looked old. Wrinkles around her eyes creased like tiny fans. Her lips were chapped. She touched her hair, frizzy at the ends, and sighed. She would be 36 in two months, but the gray was shining from her roots like the stripe of a skunk. She touched up her hair every four weeks when she lived in L.A. Now she was lucky if she washed it.

Leave the door open.

***

Two years ago, when Emma first arrived, she would never have entertained such a thought. Now, the idea intruded with alarming frequency. She had learned to accept the feelings, the hate, which stalked her. The thoughts began a year ago, when Emma realized she wouldn’t be returning to Los Angeles. In December, when Emma first arrived, she hadn’t grasped how much she would miss the sprawling city, the strip malls filled with sun and warmth in January, the fights with coworkers over a story, the salty beach smell as she drove through Santa Monica. Now she craved everything, even the gangs of fake-boobed starlets that trolled local diners on Wilshire Blvd.

Emma knew the current situation was all her fault. It was she who wouldn’t leave her mother in Chicago. It was she who couldn’t sign the papers that would place her mother in an assisted-living facility, to survive at the mercy of strangers who cared only that Graciela Lopez didn’t poop in her bed. It was she who refused to move her mother out of La Villita.

Instead, Emma returned home. She sold her mother’s bungalow on Pulaski Ave. and rented a two-bedroom apartment in La Villita, the barrio where she had grown up and once vowed never to return.

“Your mother’s lucky to have a daughter like you,” or “You’re a rock, Em,” nearly everyone had said during those first few months. Emma had been proud; happy that people had noticed her sacrifice. The affirmation helped her withstand those first weeks. How lost she had felt, how alone. The minutes passed slowly, filled with Graciela’s rages, her complaints, her screams. Emma could do nothing. The hours turned to days, which sped into weeks and months filled with watching outdated novellas together, changing Graciela’s soiled bed linens, and forcing her to brush her teeth. Emma grew angry. And the same people who had championed her didn’t like that she was mad. She should be understanding and not yell when her mother set things on fire. She shouldn’t complain when Graciela ripped up clothes. She shouldn’t shriek at her brothers for rarely visiting, for leaving her to tend to her mother’s craziness all by herself. Emma should just simmer down.

Months later now, and she knew it wasn’t good to hate, to be so upset. She leaned her head against the door and tried to think positively. It had been a relatively good day. They had spent the evening at St. Agnes Church, praying, celebrating, eating and drinking hot chocolate. Graciela loved Dec. 12, the day all of Mexico — and Latino immigrants in the U.S.– celebrated the birth of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Emma smiled at the memory of her mother as she cheered a group of dancing school children. Dressed in feathered headdresses, breechcloths and moccasins, the children portrayed the Virgen’s appearance on a mountain to a lonely Aztec.

A mass had followed. Her mother slept through the priest’s 30-minute homily on the Latino responsibility to bear the burdens of poverty, suffering and inequality with dignity — to aguantar, to endure. The sermon had angered Emma. She wanted to shout at the Father, whose heavily accented Spanish (he was an American priest visiting for the holiday) made him hard to understand.. “We’re not ignorant Indians anymore,” she imagined herself saying to the priest. “We deserve rights, a house to live in and Dunkin’ Donuts every morning if we want.” She looked at the people filling the pews, the abuelitas wearing their black shawls, the children running through the aisles while teenagers checked each other out, and realized no one was paying attention.

When the mass ended, the crowd descended on the Church’s cafeteria. Mariachis played “Las Mananitas” or “Buenos Dias Paloma Blanca” while more children ran shouting and playing throughout the large, white-walled room. Families sat eating tamales and cookies at lunch room tables. Nearly everyone carried roses, some red, some orange, some white. The flowers, a gift to the Virgin, were blessed.

Emma held four roses in her hand as she stood in line to refill a styrofoam cup with Atole, a hot chocolate drink. She could barely hear herself. Everyone was laughing and singing. Through the din, she heard her mother yell in Spanish to all that could hear: “Aquí esta mi hija, Emma. ¡Mira que quorda esta! (Here is my daughter, Emma, everyone. Look how fat she is!)” or “Aqui esta mi hija, Emma. Tiene 36 anos de edad y soltera todavia. ¿Pero crees que esta triste? ¡Claro que no! (Here is Emma, my modern daughter. Thirty-six years old and still not married. But is she unhappy? No way!)” The older ladies of the neighborhood, some of whom she had known all her life, poked Emma like a goat for sale at the Mercado and pinched her cheek. Emma tried to laugh at the shocked looks on the women’s faces. They could not believe she was still single. Usually Emma would have been repulsed by such treatment and shouted at her mother. But she was so relieved she kept silent. Her mother was enjoying herself. For that evening, for those few hours, it was as though Graciela Lopez of 10 years ago had rejoined Emma’s life. Her mother gossiped and talked to her friends as though nothing had changed; she laughed, she teased, she didn’t throw anything. Emma was delighted and allowed her mother to eat several tamales, some cookies, two cups of Atole and a piece of cake. At 9 p.m., she cut her off. “No more food, Mom,” Emma said.

“But I’m hungry.” Graciela was seated at a steel lunch table, her short legs swinging like a child’s.

“Mom, look how much you’ve eaten. You’re on your fifth tamale.”

“No, I’m not. I haven’t eaten any.” As if in shock, Graciela Lopez stared at the food on her plate, the empty cornhusks in front of her. She was confused. She had forgotten how much she had eaten. She looked around to see if anyone had noticed. Some of her friends glanced away.

“It’s ok, Mom.” Emma patted her mother’s hands. “I know that you just need some reminding.” She smiled at the old woman and waited for her to grin back. In a few moments, Graciela Lopez began laughing.

***

As she cleaned the bathroom, Emma felt her life wash away. She waited for the shit smell to fade but it never really did. Sometimes she dreamed that the doctors would produce a cure for her mother, and then she would be free. It could happen, however unlikely. She could still go back to her job at the L.A. Times.

Emma sat on the toilet and shook her head. It was unlikely that she could leave anytime soon. She had to be realistic. Yet, she was glad for the evening’s respite. Especially since the day had not started out well.

***

“I can’t believe that man!” her mother had said that morning. Streaks of sun cut through the kitchen windows, making the dull gray linoleum sparkle like marble. Graciela’s breath frosted the glass. It was 8 a.m. The temperature outside hovered in the 20s but the kitchen felt like a sauna. Wearing a burnt orange housecoat, grey sweatshirt, purple sweat pants, pink fuzzy slippers and brown leather gloves, Graciela slurped her cup of coffee. “Look what your father’s done. Again.” She paused. She waited for Emma to respond, to acknowledge her pain.

Twenty-four months ago, Emma would have asked “What?” This morning, she had said nothing.

“He brought another woman home again. Can you believe him? How old is he now? That fat old man bringing his whores here.” Mrs. Lopez banged her cup against the table, splashing hot liquid on the table and her hand. She didn’t notice the burn. “After all I’ve been through. Raising his children, going to work, making dinner. Only to have it come to this. Why can’t he respect me?”

Emma still didn’t say anything. Her mother glowered at her. Emma turned and stared out the window, and as she did, the coffee mug flew past her head, landing on the floor with a loud clunk. She didn’t react. She had grown used to her mother’s rage. She had removed all the knives and breakable objects from Graciela’s reach months ago.

“Listen to me!” Graciela yelled. “Oh, why won’t someone listen to me?”

Emma watched as tears streamed down her mother’s cheeks like a passing rainstorm. Graciela had been so attractive when she was young. High cheekbones, coffee-colored eyes, red lips that didn’t need any paint. Her waistline, a slender 22 inches before childbirth, had been renowned through all of Little Village. Now her face puffed out like two overstuffed empanadas, the folds of flesh hiding her once warm eyes. Her lips were shriveled like dried-out figs. “It’s time for your pill, Mom,” Emma said.

“No more pills.”

Ama. You know these will help your memory.” Emma placed a light blue tablet into her mother’s hand.

“What’s this for?” Graciela looked at the pill as though it would attack her.

“It’s to help you remember better.”

“I’m not crazy.”

“No, you’re not. It’ll just help you remember things.”

“Old people forget things all the time. It’s only natural. Just because I forget what time it is doesn’t make me crazy.”

“You’re not crazy.” Emma placed a glass of water near her mother.

“Please, Mom.”

“No more pills.”

“Please, Mom. Pretty please?”

“Fine.” Slowly, she took the pill into her mouth and swallowed.
In three hours time, Emma would hand her mother more tablets, which would help stem the rages. Graciela usually fought her late afternoon pills, which treated depression and psychosis. She only swallowed the drugs after making Emma promise to attend mass more often. And then in the evening, more capsules, more pills, anything to make living with Graciela easier. Emma doubted if any of the medicines really worked. Her mother still got mad and threw things. She still forgot.

Emma wondered if her mother would ever fully comprehend that her husband, Emma’s father, was gone. Maurio Lopez had died two years ago. He had suffered a heart attack while at McDonalds, –dropped dead holding a bag containing a Big Mac, large fries, a chocolate McFlurry and a diet Coke. “He went happy,” Graciela Lopez said.

A few weeks after the funeral, Graciela woke one morning claiming her husband was alive and well and living in Mexico City. “That bastard,” she said. “Why does he chase all those girls? They’re just using him for his money. My money! That stupid old man.”

Emma and her brothers, after the initial shock, laughed. They reminded their mother of her husband’s death and showed her the death certificate. She remembered and cried, her sobs breaking her children’s hearts all over again. Two hours later, she demanded to see Maurio. Again they explained. The next day, Graciela ransacked her bedroom searching for evidence of her husband’s infidelities.

“That fat bastard. I’ll show him,” she said. Each time Graciela would weep as she realized her husband of more than 50 years had passed away, leaving her alone. The children, after the first 10 episodes, stopped explaining.

The Lopez kids, during that early period, believed that their mother would revert to her friendly, sensible self. She just needed time. They watched in horror as her sanity declined. She would cry at a Lassie re-run, the tears dripping down her cheek like a river. Or throw a plate at one of her sons when he asked for the salt. She began hording money, hiding quarters and dollar bills in the freezer to stop Maurio from spending it on his whores. They began finding shoes in the oven, a cooked chicken on a car roof, a cell phone in the washing machine. (“It felt dirty,” Graciela said.) The children were embarrassed when the neighbors called in the early morning hours one day: Graciela, wearing pink lycra shorts, a beige cotton sweater and long white gloves, was found wandering the Chicago neighborhood at 2 a.m. She was searching for Maurio. Then, a few days later, she slapped her best friend, Matilda. “She’s fucking my husband,” Graciela yelled. “That puta. Go into her bedroom. You’ll find him there.”

After several doctors and tests, the diagnosis had been unanimous. Graciela Lopez suffered from dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s. More tests, more doctors followed until finally she was forced to swallow nearly 10 pills a day. The tablets supposedly stalled the disease. Two years later, she still claimed her husband was a cheating, hooligan swine. But Graciela could feed herself, as long as Emma prepared the meals, and she could dress herself. She bathed alone if the night shadows didn’t scare her. She remembered her children.

She still forgot, though. It seemed that everyday Graciela Lopez failed to remember one more thing.

“What happened to the pictures?” Graciela had asked. Emma had picked up her mother’s coffee mug from the floor and refilled it.

“What pictures?”

“The ones of me and Maurio. At San Juan de los Lagos.” Emma remembered that trip. Her parents had acted like honeymooners. Emma was 8 years old then; Rudolfo 15, Esteban 17. As the children walked together, Maurio and Graciela held hands and kissed when they thought no one was looking. They acted like lovebirds after more than 20 years of marriage.

“The frames are different.”

“No, they’re not.”

“Yes, they are. You’re just covering for him. His girlfriend, that bitch, came here while I was sleeping and changed the frames.”

“They look the same to me.”

“Of course you would say that. You were always your father’s child. You never cared anything about your suffering mother. I want my sons.”

Emma picked up her coffee and sipped. The best thing to do was to divert her mother’s attention, she knew. But she was too tired. She had only four hours until her deadline and needed to work. A woman’s magazine had hired her to write an article on plants and relationships. What is your inner flower? Does a collection of Philodendron Cordatum, the easiest houseplants to keep, mean you take the easy way in life? And what should you talk to your plants about? These were the weighty issues which Emma was to explore. The magazine had promised $1 a word for a 3,000-plus feature, including photos. Once a prize winning reporter, Emma had jumped at the offer.

She allowed her mother to shout for nearly an hour. “That swine! That asshole! That horrible man! How could he do that to me?” Graciela Lopez screamed.

Emma didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say. With only 13 days until Christmas, Emma resorted to a Hail Mary pass. She tried to remind her mother of her responsibility, her duty to withstand every crisis stoically. “You need to aguantar, Mom. Just deal with it, with Pop and his ‘habits.’ It’s the Mexican way.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Mom!”

“You are the last person to tell me to aguantar. You never aguantabas nothing in your life. You fought everything. Everything.” Her mother began crying, her breath coming in gasps. “You only care about your father. You never loved me,” she said again and again.

Emma kept quiet. She waited until her mother’s sobs turned into dry heaves. Graciela’s sorrow was as real to her as Emma’s rage, but she could do nothing about it. “What are you going to wear tonight?”

“Why?”

“Mom, don’t you know what day it is?”

Graciela Lopez’s whimpering stopped. Her mouth opened slightly, like a child in thought, as she tried to remember. “It’s the Virgen’s birthday,” Emma said happily.

“December 12?”

“Yes, Mom. There’s going to be a big party at the Church. You always like the party.”

“Yes. But Maurio likes it better than I do. He’s such a dancer. Did I ever tell you about the time at your cousin Rita’s quinceneara?” As the old woman continued talking, Emma gulped down the now-cold coffee.

***

She shouldn’t complain; she had chosen this fate. A few months after Graciela’s diagnosis, when her mother was still running through La Villita hunting for Maurio, the Lopez children realized they needed to take more desperate measures. “I’ll search for a nursing home,” Esteban said. “We can all chip in.” Emma had been shocked by the words of her oldest brother. They were so American, so foreign. Clearly, not the Latino way. Nursing homes were not acceptable for most Mexicans, who typically lived with their parents, and even grandparents, in the same house.

“She can live by me,” Rudolfo said. “In an apartment. I can be there in five minutes if something happens.” Rudy, a computer programmer, lived with Madeline, his blonde, polish-American wife in Downers Grove, a middle class suburb 30 minutes outside of Chicago. Emma knew her mother would hate it there. She would know no one, would be held prisoner in the all-white town where she would need to drive everywhere. Graciela wouldn’t even be able to buy tortillas by herself.

“No, that won’t work,” said Emma, who didn’t even consider moving her mother to L.A. Graciela Lopez would never leave her sons and precious grandchildren. “What if I come home and help? For a little bit. We can try to figure something out.”

It had been Emma’s decision, her choice, to return to Chicago. No one forced her to leave the L.A. Times. No one had objected, either. She had planned on staying only a few months, sure that she could cure whatever was ailing her darling mother. But Graciela, with all her pills, never improved. And Emma never found another solution. She extended her initial six-month leave of absence again and again until she finally left the newspaper, a year ago now.

***

After cleaning the bathroom, Emma opened a bottle of Negra Modelo and sat on the couch. She could hear the Mariachi’s playing in the distance. She had been tempted to stay at the church longer but didn’t want to risk her mother suffering a crying jag or tantrum. And she needed to buy food before the store closed.

Emma heard her mother moving in the bedroom. She wondered if she had left out anything sharp or heavy. She shivered to think of it. Even during the worst of the disease, when Graciela hated everyone and everything, her mother had never tried to hurt her. There could always be a first time, though.

“Mom, are you ok?” Emma shouted from the living room.

“What?”

“Are you ok?”

“Of course I am.”

“What are you doing?”

“Fixing my closet.” Emma opened the door of her mother’s room and saw Graciela sitting on the bed. Next to her lay a pile of clothes. Emma could see her mother’s cherished dresses from the ‘60s and `70s — disco purple, sparkly gold, pale yellow — dumped on the floor. When she was a child, Emma had hoped to inherit these outfits. Now she had no place to wear them. “I’m just arranging things,” Graciela said.

“Oh, ok.” Emma returned to the living room and saw that the front door was unlocked. A strong gust could probably open it. After her mother’s first wandering, the family had installed a hook and eye catch lock with a spring load that was too complicated for Graciela to master. A dead bolt provided added security. Yet, Emma would sometimes sleep on the sofa in case the old woman tried to break out. Leave the door open. The thought burst through like a speeding car. She ignored it.

She spotted the photo of herself and her mother on the lakefront. She remembered that day in college. She was 22 years old, on the verge of graduating. How proud her mother had been. Emma had won a prized internship at the Chicago Tribune. “My precious daughter,” Graciela Lopez had said to her, “will become a world-famous journalist one day. Just you wait.”

Her father and brothers had been against her career choice. They had doubted Emma’s chances at getting in to college. “Girls only get married,” her father laughed.

“What are you going to do with a degree once you have kids?” Rudy said.

“Both of you, shut up!” Graciela scolded her family. “Emma can do whatever she wants. She’s just as smart, smarter even, than any of you.”

It had been like that through all of Emma’s life. Graciela and Maurio hadn’t expected a third child so late in their marriage, they hadn’t planned it. When the surprise turned out to be a girl, Graciela Lopez was thrilled. Her husband wondered how they would handle the problems that a girl promised. “What if she gets pregnant? What if she shames us?” Maurio Lopez said.

“Shush. She’s a blessing.” Emma was named after Graciela’s aunt, a nun who had left a Mexican convent after learning to read. That Emma, the original, had disgraced the family by having an affair with a wealthy patron and then running off to Paris to “see the world.” Graciela, of course, never told her husband about Emma’s great aunt.

Emma was a thin, bookish child with curly brown hair and thick, charcoal eyes that her father claimed “saw everything.” She began writing stories at eight years old, often documenting both the turmoil and joy in her family. She grew up to be a slim, ironic woman that no one could ever say was pretty. But she laughed. In her trademark jeans and t-shirts, Emma liked to drink a beer after work and gossip about her coworkers. She watched sports and read the business section of the newspaper. She rarely read women’s magazines, or worried about her appearance.

Her father and brothers had greeted Emma’s college scholarship with hoots and scowls. It was not the Mexican way. Rudy and Stevie had attended city colleges and earned responsible degrees in accounting and programming. They all lived at home, as commuter students and then through adulthood, until they married. Emma, her brothers said, should keep her hopes suitably modest, maybe securing a job as a secretary or perhaps a beautician before becoming a wife and mother. That, they said, was the Mexican way.

Only Graciela had been excited by her daughter’s success. “You could do a lot with this degree, Emma. You should be honored.” Even the yearly tuition, which, including living expenses, reached more than $25,000 a year, failed to dampen her mother’s enthusiasm. “Don’t worry, Emma, we’ll make it,” her mother said over and over. Somehow, Graciela produced the extra money;she worked days as a receptionist at a law firm. Once Emma entered college, her mother took a second job selling Avon eye shadows and perfumes to neighborhood ladies. Always beautiful, everything looked wonderful on Graciela, and her blushes and face powders were top sellers. Maurio Lopez didn’t object to his wife’s success. He laughed when the crowds of women entered his living room to try the “Crystal Aura Face Highlighter” that promised to firm a saggy chin, or the “Beyond Color Wet/Dry Concealer” that claimed to erase years. “Mi amor,” he said, “these women will never look as beautiful as you. Don’t they know that?”

“So what? I’m doing nothing wrong. And if it helps Emma, who cares?”

Maurio Lopez, who loved all of his children, knew better than to argue. On the day of Emma’s college graduation, her mother cried with happiness. “You will see the world, my Emma. Break hearts, wear lots of good shoes, and laugh.”

“Oh, Mom.”

***

Now, more than a decade later, Emma found herself sitting on the living room sofa, the plastic creaking, wondering what had happened. She wanted to flee. No one could blame her for wanting to get away. She gulped her beer. As a reporter, she had always been searching for the “one,” the story she could develop into a Pulitzer. Her mother, during Emma’s daily phone calls, loved to hear about her job: who she was interviewing, what sources she was developing, the people that slammed the phone down on her. She loved everything about Emma’s life. Even her daughter’s failure to get married and have children did not cause a stir. “Any animal can procreate, Emma. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. So this guy dumped you. Another man will come along. And if not, who cares? You have to think about that Pulitzer.”

Leave the door open. Emma realized that the dead bolt was still not secure, the chain lay limp. She really should fix that, she thought. Instead, Emma turned on the television. It was nearly midnight. The news had finished, the late night talk shows were mocking that day’s political fiasco. Emma furrowed her brow. She didn’t understand the jokes, she didn’t laugh. She didn’t recognize the topic, which centered around another White House scandal. Emma realized she hadn’t read the newspaper that day or that week. How her life had changed. Before, she was a master of current events, reading several newspapers each day before arriving at work. Now she barely watched the evening wrap-ups.

Emma finished the beer and opened another. She continued to stare at the door. Unlocked, anyone, a child even, could wander out into the street. It would be hours before Emma or anyone would notice. The temperature, barely freezing during the day, would drop into the teens at night. If she survived, Graciela would be taken to the hospital and then to a facility where Emma would not be required to make any decisions. Her brothers would blame her for a time, and then they would forget. What an easy plan. Emma knew that her brothers, busy with their lives and children, didn’t want to be bothered, even if it was their mother. She barely saw them.

Sometimes, one of the brothers, usually Stevie, would stop by on a Saturday. He would sit in the living room, watching sports, as Graciela and Emma hovered and made snacks. Then, after a few hours, he would leave, happy that he had entertained his mother.

Emma finished the second beer. She opened another and chugged the dark brown liquid. She considered drinking so much alcohol that she would pass out. She knew no one could see, no one cared how mad, how tired she had become. She popped open a fourth beer. “Oh, Mom,” she moaned.

¿Mija, porque estas tan triste (Honey, why are you so sad?)?” Emma turned, stunned by the voice. She found her mother staring at her from the kitchen. The old woman, her gray hair in a ponytail, was wearing light blue pajamas decorated with red teddy bears, blue socks and white sneakers. “Emma, are you ok?”

“Yes, Mom. I’m fine.”

“You sure? You seem really upset.”

“I’m fine. Really.”

“No, you aren’t. Let me make you some tea.” Instantly, Emma jumped up.

“No, Mom, let me do it.”

“Honey, I can do this.” Graciela picked up a tea kettle and began filling it with water. She placed it on a burner and turned a knob. A blue flame sparked. Emma watched, amazed. It had been months since her mother had cooked anything without setting something on fire.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“No, Ama. Just tired.”

“Liar.”

“Let me help you.”

“No. You just sit.” The kettle began to scream, the shriek stinging Emma’s ears. Calmly, her mother lifted the pot and poured the liquid into an oversized cup. She added loose manzanilla (chamomile) leaves. “This will make you feel better.” She placed the drink in front of Emma along with some shortbread cookies.

“I’m not hungry.”

“You didn’t eat anything at church. You should keep your strength up. No one likes a skinny, sad woman.”

“Yes, Mom.”

Emma looked into her mother’s eyes. They were brown, focused and clear. Emma saw that her mother hadn’t layered her clothing. In fact, her pajamas looked neat and sporty. Even her hands were naked. Graciela had always been vain about them. Her fingers were long and smooth, like a piano player or an artist. As a child, Emma remembered her mother often applying lotion to them, to guard against dry skin and age spots. “The hands are where you can tell the true age of a woman,” she would say. “Always take care of them.”

Now, her mother reached out and touched a white, plastic vase in front of her. It held the roses from the evening’s mass. “I wanted to tell everyone tonight how proud I am of you,” she said. Graciela’s fingers lingered over the red petals. The skin on her hands appeared soft and smooth, without any discoloration. “You’re my little flower, did I ever tell you that?” her mother said softly. “My little flower. I was so worried when you were born. I couldn’t breast feed you…”

“What? Is that why I’m so short?”

“Oh, honey. I don’t know. But I couldn’t breastfeed you. I had to work. And I was soooo worried. We didn’t pump back then and my nipples ached for you. It really hurt. But then the milk dried up after a few weeks.”

“It’s no fair. Rudy and Stevie were breastfed.”

“I know. It’s unfair. I was so worried you wouldn’t be healthy. But I came home one day, you were about three years old, and there you were, sitting on the porch, waiting for me with Stevie and eating a sandwich. And I knew you would be ok. My little flower.”

Emma laughed. “So you thought everything was ok because I was eating a sandwich?”

“You were just so happy, Emma. So happy and so strong. Nothing could keep you down. I knew you could face anything. Your brothers need someone around to guide them, to tell them what to do. But not you. You always do the right thing.” Emma remained silent. Graciela had always been psychic when it came to the state of her children’s souls. She waited for her mother to start arguing, to complain. Graciela merely stared at her.

“I worry about you, honey,” her mother continued. “You should take better care of yourself. Get your brothers to help you.”

“Oh, Mom, you know how they are.”

“Yes, I do. But that doesn’t mean they won’t help. Tell their wives on them or their children. Shame them. You shouldn’t have to do everything yourself. They’ll come through. You’ll see.”

“Ok, Mom.”

“Promise?”

“Yes.”

“And one more thing.”

“Yes?” Emma leaned forward so hungry was she for her mother’s advice.

“Do something with yourself, ok?”

“What?”

“Do something with yourself. You heard me. Cut your hair, put on some makeup. Wear something more than t-shirts. You used to be so…attractive. I know you’re on break here but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself go.”

“Mom!” Emma tugged at the Nike top she wore. The hem, which was frayed, sported several small coffee stains. “So what if I’m a little messy?”

“It’s no big deal, I know. But it’s a mother’s job to make sure her baby’s ok. Even if it hurts. And you know I’m proud of you. You’re the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“Aw, Mom.” The two women laughed quietly. Emma had so much to say, so many questions to ask but she couldn’t think of anything at the moment. It had been so long since she had really spoken to her mother. But Emma didn’t want to spoil the moment. The apartment felt so calm, so quiet. The kitchen buzzed with warmth. Emma picked up a cookie and nibbled. “Mom?”

“Yes.”

“I miss you.”

“That’s so sweet. But I’m right here.” No you aren’t, Emma wanted to say. Tomorrow I’ll wake up and you’ll be gone and the crazy woman will be back. I’ll be alone again.

“I love you, Mom.”

“Are you ok, Emma? Maybe you should take a vacation or something.”

“I’m fine.” The two women sat at the table for a few minutes. Emma could hear the faint singing of the guitar player outside, the vroom-vroom of a speeding car on the street, the television set talking in the living room. She could smell the clean scent of her mother’s rose water hand cream. Graciela hadn’t worn it in years. The fragrance made Emma’s eyes water. Maybe something had changed. Before she could stop it, Emma felt hope surge through her heart, causing it to race. A miracle had occurred. Maybe, somehow, her mother had cured herself. Graciela Lopez had beaten Alzheimer’s! Her mother’s synaptic pathways had fought back, destroying the disease that mucked up her mind like dirty motor oil and ravished her memories. It could happen. Her mother’s brain had won! Emma and Graciela could both return to California where Emma could resume her life. Her mother would make new friends, maybe get a part-time job selling cosmetics. They could be happy again.

A tear slid down Emma’s cheek but she didn’t feel it. She smiled at her mother who beamed back. “I love…”

Suddenly, the wail of a car alarm sounded. The walls shook, a dog howled, Emma and her mother jumped.

“Oh my God.”

Ay Dios Mio.”

“Car alarms should be banned.” Emma picked up the vase that had toppled over. The flowers lay on the floor. “You ok, Mom?” With a paper towel, she began sopping up the spilled water. “Mom?”

“What?”

“You ok?”

“Yes, Emma.” She heard the familiar waver in her mother’s voice and looked up. In the kitchen’s light, she could see her mother’s eyes. The pupils had narrowed, the black of her eyes had grown…fuzzy. Graciela’s head sloped at an awkward angle, as though it were off balance like a toy top about to fall.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“You sure you’re ok?”

“Of course I am.” Graciela stood up. Emma could hear the flowers crushing beneath her mother’s sneakers. Graciela didn’t notice. “Well, I’m going to bed now. Make sure to clean up. Your father will be home soon, I hope. He’s too old to be staying out so late with his girlfriends.”

“Oh, Mom…” The words, a wail, escaped from Emma’s mouth before she could stop them. Her mother didn’t seem to hear. From her pocket, Graciela took out a pair of leather gloves and slipped them over her hands. She shuffled into her bedroom, tipping over a chair on the way.

Emma finished cleaning. She saw that one rose, a floret with about 10 petals, had survived her mother’s destruction. She placed the flower back on the table. It stood in the center of the kitchen as if shouting to everyone that it had survived. Emma stared at the head, the stem, the thorns. In a few days the rose would wither and die. Emma wondered how long she could last.

She poured out the remaining tea, washed the cup in tepid water and placed it in the dish rack. Did God give her mother these moments of serenity to remind Emma of her responsibilities or to torture her? She didn’t know. The scent of her mother’s hand lotion, of roses and glycerin, lingered. How Emma missed her mom, missed her laugh, her touch. She walked into the living room and picked up a beer. She drank it in one swig. She had hardly eaten all day, and she was sure she was drunk. Through the haze, Emma realized she wasn’t angry. She didn’t hate her life, she didn’t resent her mother or her brothers. The fury had evaporated.

Emma stepped to the door. She didn’t know if the fury, her constant companion these months, would return. She maneuvered the deadbolt into position and secured the chain.

 
 
Luisa Beltran was raised in Chicago and currently lives in the Bronx. Her writing has appeared in various newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and Latina magazine, as well as KeepGoing. She was awarded the BRIO award for fiction in 2006 and attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference that same year. She spends her off hours valiantly searching for good Mexican food in New York City, but has so far come up empty.

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