Issuu on Google+

los angeles

I AT _F

OR

M _A

11

20

Š los angeles

Safety Area: All Text, Logos & Barcode should remain inside the Pink Dotted Lines Bleed Area: All Backgrounds should extend to, but not past, the Blue Dotted Lines


_F

OR M _A 11

20

I

AT


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

Š I

AT Front & Inside Cover > David Jien : Trey OG/Level Up & Top Wizard, Graphite & Colored Pencil


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

The Origin Story’s job is tricky. It seeks to make impossible things seem possible, or at least plausible. In comic books, it’s the part of the tale where the radioactive spider bites an awkward high-school kid, making him a web-shooting superhero; in The Bible it’s the part where mountains are hewn from God’s whim and a woman jumps forth from—where else?—a rib. Since the very earliest storytellers sat around prehistoric fires spinning their yarns, the starting point has always fascinated us. Not the why, necessarily, but the how. Through mythologies and oral traditions, and even our own family histories, we have figured out ways to explain the origins of things. How did this world, these mountains—mankind itself—come to be? The tricky part of the Origin Story is that it tends to address the big ideas—human existence, the physical world, scientific mysteries—while often times neglecting the subtleties of a day-today life that is in some ways simpler, and in some ways infinitely more complex than the stories of Prometheus or Jesus or Peter Parker. So in our fourth issue of Amor Fati, we present a different set of Origin Stories. Not of gods and goddesses but of simple, complicated people. Their stories. The hows, if you will, of a lunch thief, of a family secret, of a curious love for a donkey. We attempt to explain not The Universe, but Our Universe. Here in L.A. and a little beyond. We Angelenos are the greatest dreamers on earth: arched perennially forward, arms fixed reaching toward some bright, uncertain future. As a city of aspirants, we look forever ahead. Perhaps then it is we who ought most to pause and, every once in a while, look backwards. Not at where we are going, but how we came to be.

Wilson Bethel Content Editor

Brit L. Manor Creative Director

Sam Wickham Editor & Sales

John Jajeh Editor & Graphics

Aaron Garcia Editor & Promotions

Ashley Atkinson Copy Editor

Jennifer Beatty Graphic Designer

I

AT

Michael Flores Editor in Chief


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

Origins are always a messy business. They’re a roar of ten hundred thousand heartbeats Or like grabbing hold of a black rope and being pulled forward after treading water. That was how we wanted to feel thunder. So, when the pepper tree trembled, by instinct we knew of the storm and rose up from sleep to creep like thieves across the bedroom floor. Full moonlight made each of us two boys: real boys up and down and wild shadow boys slithering around on the oak boards as we went toward the window and jumped out onto the soft dirt of our stalking fields. We slunk around the thick yard of a neighbor who dropped dead while yelling at the postman about getting too much junk mail; the vacant lot where that kid was shredded trying to free his pet dog from a pack; the house where the kitchen drawer still hung open, the thin knife removed to carve twinned initials on a false lover’s chest; the studio of the out-of-work, queer photographer who threw ice-cream parties for poor children before he caught a bullet in a crossfire. We wanted to learn by heart what didn’t hurt and because of the dark we felt safer with our shadow selves up next to us. We found that in some places only death is possible. Imagine; this was more than we wanted to know.

I

AT

7


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT

11 10


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT

13 12


20

Š As a babe, refus g milk, refusin

11

I dropped my bonesoft fingers and plucked the black, of my stolen human root.

The curator walked with the insurance man past the geological cocktail that brought Africa to the new world.

OR

M

_A

shriveled stem

Past the hummingbirds scattered at the feet of taxidermy, their hearts beating as fast as their wings,

_F

and past the formaldehyde jars spilling baby octopi.

AT

They arrived at the mixed bone pile of a man and a white whale.

The curator lifted the cracked skull from under a leviathan rib.

I

14

How much you figure that’s worth? the insurance man asked, and natural history resumed its quiet course.

15


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT


©

“Why have we come here?” the boy asked, furrowing his face.

20

“You don’t remember, at all?” the man asked, taking his hands from the pockets of his frayed pants. “No, I remember. But this place has no meaning for me” said the boy, gazing over the barren landscape.

11

The man’s face fell. “I just thought that coming here would be, well, satisfying.”

_A

The boy looked down. “I know. It was supposed to be satisfying for you because I would find it satisfying. I’m sorry I can’t help you there.” “But, this is where you were born. You lived here for nine years; it made you what you are now.”

“No. I’m afraid you don’t understand.” The boy bent down and picked up a small rock. He gave it to the man, who met his eyes, glanced down at the rock, and then put it in his pocket.

_F

The boy turned away and walked back to the car.

OR

The man shifted his weight, aware of the way the ground felt beneath his shoes. “I suppose you have something to say about how it only matters where you’ll end up.”

M

“No. You want it to be that way. It doesn’t matter where I came from.”

The Reb Yaacov ben Yaacov was so very advanced in years that his first followers had already become by then all great-great-grandfathers, white-bearded and stooped, eyes red-rimmed, watering and rheumy, their learning in tatters and mostly forgotten. One day some weeks before yet another new year arrived, those that had wandered up to him and stayed on long since all the others returned to their own places fell to remembering the dozens of years they had spent sitting at his feet, more years than the years of wandering in the desert of Sinai endured by the Children of Israel after their escape from Egypt’s tyrannous Pharaoh. And quietly, first one, then another began to wonder and worry what it amounted to, the having stayed on beneath and below the canopy of his wisdom. In a little while, their vexed questioning grew irritable; a little while longer, and voices raised in tones near to anger filled the Study Hall, murmurings presaging revolt – until one of them, the youngest, reminded the rest that perhaps it might be well to go to the Reb to request satisfaction – were they not at least entitled an explanation as to why they had come so far, yet found themselves becoming as it were daily older yet still steeped in ignorance? moreover, why it seemed now that although they’d passed the end, they somehow had not set out? Had not they made their way to him, but instead taken ships for Gerona, might they not by this late hour have learned to count and construe meanings from the letters of all words by means of the Gematria? Might they not have glimpsed what it was the Reb had never told them, or even promised to teach?

18

I

AT

Having resolved to confront him before the High Holy Days arrived, and know once and for all how they had sunk so deeply into fearful doubt after a lifetime of study, they settled on a time and day, preparing themselves to be patient whatever he might answer. Of course, it never occurred to them that their very decision to pursue this course was in itself the sign of their hopeless situation. Can you imagine what they heard when they rose and went forward? Probably not. So here is a

19


silent, she tiptoed from her bedchamber to see what was to be seen. Nothing. So she slipped out and around to the stable and peered through a crack in the door and saw into the donkey’s stall. What did she make out, but the girl’s naked form where she crouched on all fours, her breasts pressing upon a stool set between the donkey’s forelegs – and he performing the act, just as a man does with a woman! Enraptured by that unexpected vision, the woman grew breathless and excited . Jealously she asked herself, Is such a thing possible? Am I imagining it? That cannot be! If it is so, and since Jacob belongs to me, what is by right more proper than that I should be the one to claim first call on his strength and service!

20

©

lesson never written, but descended from father to son, from many sons who were fathers of many sons. Why it was not set down, its nature will tell us. Who can say how old the Reb Yaacov ben Yaacov was that day they r, went to his chamber door, that their leader, a great-great-grandfathe , might prepare the way to plead their plight, which he did mildly enough some in presenting its piteousness with the same gravity that weighs capital complaint made to the highest court in the land. The Reb, who may or may not have been blind – his white eyebrows were so bushy they hid the light of his eyes, if those eyes had ever looked directly at them and not askance at the ceiling of his study – the Reb heard , them out. He sighed a sigh of patience; perhaps it was understanding his by perhaps tender sympathy. Contemplating the little Ark formed finger tips pressed together but which contained no sort of Torah, only empty air, he seemed to reflect; then, sighing, was it sadly sighed? He related this tale, plainly, sans hesitation, sans embellishment; for that matter, sans reticence or reserve.

I

20

“The jackass nuzzled her ear briefly, snorted at her strange perfume, and promptly set to work, pressing between her buttocks with his swelling pizzle, which she felt commencing as it entered her to burn like a torch in her womb. And just as he’d been trained, he pushed, pushed hard, and harder yet – right up to his balls! At last with a great shove, Jacob tore into her bowels, severed her liver, and just ripped her belly all to shreds. Uttering a groan of pleasure, she perished on the spot. The

AT

“The next morning she feigned weakness and permitted herself to sleep in; then rose after a while to listen to the sounds the girl made as she went about her chores. After an hour passed and the house fell

_F

herself ?

“The maid scrambled to her feet, drew her simple dress down from her shoulders, put away the stool and thrust the gourd beneath the hay in the manger, grabbed a broom and opened to her mistress, grimacing as if she’d fasted and swept all morning. Oh, jeered that lady under her breath, Quite the clever girl, aren’t you, with your broom in your hands and a sweat-smeary sour puss on you – but what’s my donkey doing out back with his half-done rammer swinging to and fro, waiting for you to bring him off! To the maid, though, she ever-so sweetly sang, ‘Do put on your veil and go over to such-and-such a one’s house. Take them a message from me, and say, this, that, and the other....’ “As soon as the slut was well out of the way, she skipped around back to find Jacob. Intoxicated with lust and, in a frenzy of impatience, she threw off all modesty with her caftan and spread herself as she’d seen her maid do, belly down over the stool.

OR

He said, “There was a servant girl who trained a donkey to mount her and bring her to satisfaction. She had taken a large gourd, and drilled through it a round hole by which it could easily be fitted upon the donkey’s engorged member. By this means she made sure somewhat less than half of that tremendous organ could enter her during their of amours. She knew that much as she desired it, were she to have all a him, it would tear through her womb, and penetrate her guts. After time, the poor beast, constrained to her daily service, went off his feed and began to lose weight. Her mistress, the donkey’s owner, noting his condition, led him to the veterinarian, hoping to learn what ailed him. That physician examined Jacob and concluded that he could discern no reason that might account for the animal’s wretched condition. As she was leading him home again, a suspicion rose in her mind: surely her maid was stealing sums from his food allowance to spend upon

M

_A

11

“She retreated quietly, dressed herself, and pretending to have returned from her marketing began to knock at the door, calling loudly, ‘Hurry up! Never mind your sweeping. Come, let me in!’

21


stool laid tumbled on one side, the poor woman to the other, while the earthen floor glistened, strewn with blood-soaked straw. Ignoble deaths the world has always seen. Nevertheless – who’s ever heard of someon e martyred by a donkey’s dong?

_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

“When the maid returned from her errand, she searched everywhere about the house until at last she found her mistress in the stable, lying crumpled below Jacob the Jackass, stone dead. She cried out to her, ‘Oh, you foolish woman, you! You snatched at knowledge before you were ready for it. Too greedy to learn the science? Too proud to ask me how it must be employed? Yes, the outward appearance you plainly saw – yet the inward secret of art remained hidden from you. Not having even begun to master the true technique, you took it upon yoursel f rashly to practice on your own? So eager in your haste you forgot the gourd? Alas, that honey-dripping prick was the only thing you reached for. To you, it was be-all! And proved your end-all!’”

I

AT

22


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT


©

Day One. I make it to site bright and early. I’ve got my lunch in a brown paper bag packed by Doreen, the Oomph Girl. I’ve been assigned to an old Victorian out in West Fallbrook, working demolition with a guy named Jesse. He’s there already when I show up. Jesse is small and birdlike. He wears army khakis, rubber boots, and a World War I doughboy’s hat with the brim pulled down over his eyes. “The job is a joke,” Jesse says. A temporary work-stoppage order has come down from God-knows-where. God himself maybe. It’s all the same

Here: The eve of my death ath h

11

20

I got a great tan the other day reading Murakami out in the yard chain-smokin sm mok kin ng over an iced ed d ttea ea

I dream of the databases

into our underground lair. It’s a beautiful moment. Jesse’s life, I learn, consists of such moments snatched from the sequence of the daily grind. He has twelve children, seven of them boys, five of them grown, none of them any good. One is doing time for rape, another is a murderer, the other three are thieves. Jesse lives in a shanty in West Fallbrook on the edge of a celery bog, raises pigs and chickens, never has the rent on time and drinks his paycheck on Friday night. All this Jesse tells me in a pleasant monotone as we squat in the black dirt passing the pint back and forth. Jesse has so many problems that he has no problems. Faced with mountainous obstacles he did a long time ago exactly what I would have done. He gave up. Jesse is

I

26

If I live through this I will reinforce the fence I will lie naked in the sun and let my sweat dribble down

Drinking from the bottle, I savor the moment. Dark all around me and the whiskey going down, the floorboards creaking above my head, and at our feet the picks and shovels and wrecking bars we’ve dragged

AT

Dream of the tepid mattresses of the sighs and shaken heads

bottle.

_F

So I browse through a catalogue and dream of books unread and returned to libraries, houses

Underneath the floorboards Jesse and I crouch opposite each other in the black dirt. Jesse pulls a pint of Old Heaven Hill out of his hip pocket. He tips the bottle up and guzzles. In the half darkness Jesse is almost invisible. He’s a ghost, a wraith, an apparition. Only his eyes, dancing under the crumpled hat brim, are alive. His tiny bright eyes. They glisten like moist grubs as he swallows noisily and hands me the

OR

Someone’s got a hit on me Someone’s got a bullet smeared with my lipstick M•A•C Mystic

M

And I want to pierce through my entire body with a single shard of the broken brick-smashed window pane

from our point of view.

_A

I scrimp and slog and admire the pale against the dark

27


so much as pry a nail out of a board. Your red tape again. How to explain it? I’m not even interested. Far be it from me to question the order of things.

so far down he has come through on the other side. The other side of the human problem. For Jesse now there remain only the animal problems. Squatting comfortably on his haunches he tips the bottle up and swallows a mouthful of warm whiskey. He savors what there is

©

to savor.

Jesse is rattling on in his raspy whiskey voice. I sit in the mud with my back resting comfortably against a rotten beam, the bottle in my mitt, letting Jesse’s words wash over me while I watch a spider spinnin g her web on a joist above my head. It’s beautiful, I’m thinking. I really am happy here. No matter what I fall into these days, I seem to come up smelling sweet.

20

On the third day, around mid-morning, I eat a cucumber sandwich with mayonnaise, courtesy of Doreen. Jesse and I pass the bottle. Centipedes meander at our feet. He scrapes the soft earth with the heel . of his boot and uncovers a thick white grub with shiny black pincers

Later. I swallow the last drink of whiskey and toss the empty bottle over my shoulder. Jesse grins under his crazy hat brim. He digs out another pint of Old Heaven Hill he has stashed in his boot. We drink whiskey. Three or four days go by like this. We don’t do anythin g. Nothing happens. Occasionally the floorboards creak above our heads.

of a burr to it.

And where are the other pukes, I find myself wondering, our coworkers upstairs, who are supposedly gnawing away like boll weevils at the beams and rafters? Hiding away in the woodwork, no doubt, half dozing but ready like us to spring into action the instant the Grand Dragon comes rolling around. But when does the bastard come around? Nobody comes around, as far as I can see. Once in a while we hear the floorboards groaning above our heads and that’s about it. Jesse goes a long way back, I decide. He’s older than I thought. No guessing his age, however. His teeth are brown. I sit staring at the wisps of smoke hissing between Jesse’s teeth and I see a white grub, a centipede whose mandibles secrete brown tobacco juice. I shake my head, I blink my eyes, I try to calm myself. I’m getting stir crazy. But we can’t go out until five o’clock. Those are the rules. The Imperia l Wizard might be sliding by in his solid gold Cadillac. And one can’t stand up to pee. The floor is too low above our heads. You squat to make water, like a brain-dead cockroach cowering under a sink drain.

_F

I

AT

28

By the morning of the fourth day I’m beginning to feel that maybe it’s not so beautiful after all. We’re insects, centipedes, white grubs. After three days under the floorboards with Jesse I feel like I’m in solitary. It’s not that he doesn’t talk, no, he does plenty of that, but he speaks a different language. He speaks a white-grub language.

OR

Our job … It’s difficult to explain, since I don’t profess to understand it. Bunch of red tape. We’re to look busy, in case the boss comes around. This much, of course, I understand. But how can we look busy if we’re entombed under the floorboards? At the same n to time, we can’t dismantle anything, even e ev even amuse ourselves. We’re forbidden to en

M

ingg in Couching, I nudge with the wreckin d ood bar at a rotten piling. The moist wood ter Afte Af After g. crumbles like sponge cake. Amazin Hee a few moments Jesse holds up his hand.. H th ot b both We cautions me not to do too much. d ead hea listen intently. The floorboards overhea s was wa it likely have stopped creaking. Most s. s. just some joker getting up to take a piss.

_A

11

“We used to eat those things when we were building the railroad in Panama,” he whispers. The floorboards creak above our heads. Time to look busy. Jesse asks me in a pleasant whisper, that whiskey monotone of his, if I prefer to use the wrecking bar or the crowbar. It’s mid-morning, you understand, and we haven’t lifted a finger. I tell him I prefer the heavier wrecking bar because I feel sorry for the old Jesse. And because I voice with a bit y key like his voice. It’s a gentle voice, a whiske

29


it’s bread, and bread is good. And I definitely prefer the liverwurst to the cucumbers. It’s good to feel a piece of meat between your teeth now and th then, even if it’s only snips and sno sn snouts, o hog rinds, pig’s trotters and ch chicken hic i ke assholes stewed up together and p an pressed into a loaf. It’s meat! It’s good go good! od!

Lousy bastards!

©

We’re cockroaches, dung beetles, centipedes, salamanders, grubs. We’re the lice that fester and itch under the Grand Dragon’s dirty hide. We’re doodles on an air-conditioned expense account. We’re a jot and a squiggle on the shirt cuff of a white maggot who sits at a desk dialing telephone numbers.

20

The hours pass slowly. We take turns sleeping. Can I last until payday? I watch the spiders spinning their intricate webs. Such patience! We line the empty whiskey bottles up in rows next to the pilings. Dead soldiers.

11

Every so often the whole hulking works jars off the foundations. Glass shatters and plaster dust filters down on our heads. It’s not the guys working upstairs, no; it’s the big guns booming at the artillery range a few miles west of here. On Thursday, a trip to the dump enlivens our routine. I drive the company truck. Jesse is too drunk to sit behind the wheel. On a back country road I swerve to avoid a black angus bull. The tarp blows off the back. Junk strews all over the road – boards, broken glass, hunks of plaster and drywall.

Jesse is tapping me on the shoulder. My turn to drink from the bottle. The plan is to remain at the dump until quitting time. Here, Jesse assures me, we’ll be safe from Mr. Big. The rat bastard is too cheap to pay the three-dollar admission fee.

AT

Gazing through the smoky haze into the abyss, I bite into my last liverwurst sandwich. The fire flares, like a raw wound. The stink makes my eyes water. The sun is blistering hot. I unbutton my shirt.

I

30

_F

We eat lunch at the dump, sprawled on the paint-spattered tarp in the warm sunshine. I’ve backed the rig up to the edge of the slope. My lunch, packed by Doreen, the Oomph Girl, consists of two liverwurst sandwiches and a pear. For two days now it’s been liverwurst and mayonnaise sandwiches on porous white bread like cheesecloth. But

OR

After I get the tarp tied back on and the trash picked up, a mile or so down the road, we blow a flat. Girls in white blouses wave from passing cars as I wrestle the huge truck tire. Jesse is stretched out in the seat, snoring. It’s a fine sunny day. The flower fields on both sides of the asphalt are blooming red, white and yellow. As we get moving again sweet aromas of fodder and manure tickle my nose. In the distance the guns are booming, louder now, since we’re driving west. On the horizon a pillar of greasy black smoke rises, as if from a torpedoed ship: the dump.

M

_A

It was on a Wednesday, I recall, that the shelling began…

Munching my sandwich, shooing M aside the buzzing hordes of green b bo bottle tttle flies, I watch the clouds of thick greasy gr rea easy smoke billow up from the chasm as sm smolde m ring bundles of newspapers shift li sh llike pedals in the fire. The dump m ma master stter e emerges from his shack, stoopsh shoulde hou o lderrred, ed grimy as a coal miner, carrying a wide-toothed wooden rake. He does a standing glissade over the edge of the chasm. Halfway down he whirls, plants himself thigh-deep in steaming garbage and begins to rake the perpetually falling slope of smoldering dreck and ruin. The fire banks down; a section of the slope shears away in an avalanche of clattering tin cans and soot-blackened bottles clanking together. Charred scraps of newspaper fly up from the red-orange cholera-boil of eggshells, fizzing grapefruit, murdered dolls, sputtering rags and curling banana rinds. Bottles explode, rats burst like grenades, light bulbs pop, and occasionally you hear a muffled chug as a jar of rancid mayonnaise buried deep in the mix goes off like a depth bomb.

31


now? We’re in no hurry, either of us, to do anything, not even to collect our pay. Fuck it! When the butterfly emerges from its cocoon, aren’t the air and the sunlight alone enough to dazzle him?

My sandwich is sopping with mayonnaise. It’s like biting into a fresh a compress. I try my best not to think about it. The wind shifts and I get think to ng faceful of coarse gritty soot. My gorge is rising. I’m beginni that maybe we were better off under the floorboards.

We finish off the wine, get our money at the guard shack and take a taxi to Club Paradise. Then we hit the Shamrock Club, and then the Coral Seas, where Jesse pours quarters like a fiend into the slot, singing and hiccupping and dancing all alone in the orange-green jukebox glow while the brokentoothed barmaid in her skinny red dress and white cowboy hat sways to the twang of syrupy guitars, clapping her hands and urging him on. From the Coral Seas we head back to the Paradise, where we get the heave-ho, then it’s the Shamrock Club again, and finally we wind up at the Tradewinds, drunk as skunks, and Jesse’s old lady, a frightful harridan in a bile-green dress, comes and drags us out.

and sputters, rolling his eyeballs skyward.

_A

11

20

©

Jesse is going on in his thin whispery voice, something about payday the being a couple days off. Looking at Jesse, I can’t help wondering if fainter, poor blighted bastard will make it to payday. His voice is getting of for one thing. The sunlight seems to pull him apart. Suddenly a series are trip-hammer explosions rocks the truck off its chocks. The big guns out booming again on the horizon. The Poet Laureate of Death is testing his terza rima. I finish my sandwich and bite into the pear. The pear is rotten. I throw s it into the abyss. The dump master looks up at me, his face and forearm glistening with wet garbage. He shouts something. He waves. I wave back. He laughs uproariously, slapping his thigh. I laugh too. He grins

“Five o’clock!” he whispers merrily.

I

32

AT

On my hands and knees, hooking a half-empty jug of red wine along with one finger, I crawl out from under the building. As I stand erect for the first time in eight hours, stretching my arms to the sky, the world a rushes up to greet me, the cars, the people, a blinking orange beer sign, like softly, g glowin is girl on horseback clattering up a hill. The pink sky s an uncut gem. Jesse looks up at me and grins. What’s a few more minute

_F

Saturday rolls around, that’s payday. “Good day for sleeping,” Jesse is remarks, letting out a huge shuddering sigh. I nod my head. My mouth dry. We drink wine all day. Afternoon. The sun’s rays are slanting under the beams into our . spider’s lair. I take off my shirt and ball it up for a pillow. I take a snooze his I wake up. Jesse is squatting in front of me on the baked clay, holding eyes his watch in the palm of his hand. He gives me a jerk of his chin, dancing like faint sparks under the scoutmaster’s scarecrow hat brim.

OR

M

Jesse shoves the bottle at me. I take a last long swallow of Old Heaven Hill. It glows raw and warm all the way down. I toss the empty bottle over my shoulder into the chasm. Another dead soldier!

Now I’m sitting at a table in the kitchen of Jesse’s reeking clapboard shanty. We eat: white rice boiled in suet, scrambled powdered eggs with a greenish tinge, instant mashed potatoes, day-old bread and welfare peanut butter. Commodity foods, e ve r y t h i n g tasteless, soupy, like wallpaper paste. The hulking wife, cursing like a drill sergeant, cigarette glued to her lips, doles it up with a huge soup ladle. She curses Jesse, she curses the kids, she curses me. She drags the sleeve of her dress in the kettle d and she curses that. an

33


This is the jungle, I tell myself. This is the heart of darkness, a festering sinkhole where black orchids bloom in the dead of night. The domain of the tsetse fly, a heaven of putrefaction and mold. The sloth calling to its mate in three feet of swamp water.

Schlup, schlup, schlup! Dessert is a plate of suet laced with sorghum or Karo syrup. It looks like afterbirth. I choke it down because I feel it’s my duty to be polite. Jesse does the same. The dogs and pigs watch every bite that goes into our mouths.

©

The disarray is incredible. Ducks and squawking roosters strut through the two grimy rooms as if they owned the place. The kids eat sitting on the bare-boards floor, balancing their plates of steaming slop on their laps. Throughout the meal they jabber and shriek like a troupe of monkeys. The little ones have the look of faded rags. Potato faces, pale chalky eyes, as if they’ve been soaked in lye and all the vitamins leached out of them, or boiled with dishrags and hung out to bleach in the sun.

11

20

After supper everyone sits around belching contentedly and picking their teeth with splinters pried up from the floor. Everyone except the old lady, that is. Already she’s on her feet, filling the sink with Clorox. The TV screen flickers faintly, as if it contained a swarm of fireflies. In a corner a retarded lad wearing an orange propeller beanie is pulling himself off. A grimy baby, shaking her rattle, burps and coos. Suddenly pinfeathers are flying. One little devil has caught a rooster and has twisted its neck. The others close in for the kill…

sired. I can’t help being impressed. It’s a sort of triumph.

Half dozing in my chair, I study the family portraits on the wall, faces of imbeciles, faces of psychopaths, faces of Pithecanthropus men. As I drift in and out of sleep they pass in review, pederasts and pocket-pool fiends, bile-green monsters that should have died in the egg, dumb brutes sagging under the executioner’s hammer. Step right up! The white trash Genesis, pellagra begat rickets begat beriberi. The scraps of meat that

I

AT

34

Ruminating, shifting my cud, I peer at Jesse snoring with his head on the supper table and the cockroaches scurrying over the plates. He’s such a pipsqueak compared to her, I can’t get over that. The size of the woman! The heft and girth of her, not to mention her towering height. It makes one shudder. Poor Jesse. It’s as if she’s squeezed all the sperm out of him and now he’s collapsed on the table like a punctured bladder. But the kids he managed to fuck into existence, the idiots and murderers he

_F

I shovel the food in while a ragged hound, slouching under the table, nibbles at my toes. Moments later a gaunt hog trots through the two rooms, in one door and out the other. It snorts fiercely and almost tramples a child. Nobody so much as glances up.

that we’re slowly sinking into the muck.

OR

M

_A Jesse and I eat in chagrined silence, like condemned men. Halfway through the meal the old lady takes Jesse’s wad of bills, what’s left of his paycheck, out of her purse and stuffs it down her sweaty bosom, this with a venomous look at me. Don’t worry, sister, I feel like saying. It’s plenty safe there, as far as I’m concerned.

I doze off … I wake up. I glance around the room. The old lady is peeling potatoes – for tomorrow. The hogs sit in a circle at her feet, waiting to snap up the parings. I close my eyes. Suddenly the floor under my feet gives a shudder. The celery bog’s rhythmic contractions are rattling the dry bones of the shack. Or maybe the big guns are booming again. The tin roof creaks, the crazy pictures on the wall jerk sideways, pots and pans clatter in the cupboards, the TV screen flickers out of kilter. I sense

35


writhe on the slaughterhouse floor, the lips choked with spit, the heart choked with ice, the white hands that clutch at the plumes of departing flesh, the hopes that glitter like fragments of chewed glass on the tongue of a carnival god.

©

When the sky begins at last to give off a copper-kettle glow I get to my feet and tiptoe out of the shanty, leaving the sleepers to toot and wheeze like a family of bassoonists tuning up.

11

20

I walk west, the red sky behind me, until I hit the railroad tracks. Here, at the first sign of civilization, I instinctively check my poke. Squatting on the gravel bank overlooking the tracks, I unwad the crumpled bills and smooth them out. I count them. I still have 78 bucks and some change, I discover, after taxes and drinking. Doreen will be pleased, I’m thinking. Now I can buy her that vibrator she’s been talking about.

_F

OR

Birds are beginning to trill. I step briskly along. Amazing how still it is out here, wherever that is, I’m thinking, when the big guns aren’t booming on the horizon. And when I reach the blacktop I know I’m right. The sun is peeping over the rim of a hill. A new day is dawning. I pause and shine my teeth on my soiled t-shirt. Walking along, I pat the golden egg in my pocket. I feel like I’ve just served a hitch in the Coast Artillery. Bueno. Yes! I stick out my thumb. There’ll be a ride along in a minute, I tell myself. And whichever way I’m going I’ll get there faster.

M

_A

Stepping along, I whistle a few bars of a tune, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” and last night comes rushing back. Jesse is pouring money into the jukebox. At the Shamrock Club, it was. We must have sung that song a dozen times. The whole bar was singing, in fact. Everyone looped and the beer foaming over the rails. What the heck. It’s fun to have a good cry once in a while. Healthy. Like a diet of lentils or a dose of rancid suet pudding.

I

AT

36


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT


©

11

20

Nadia works at the convenience store a block away from my house. They sell anything from Vaseline to Saltines, bruised apples and floss. I mostly go there for stamps, quarters and Cascade. Nadia is from north India and she has two teenage sons and one daughter, away at college . She praises the daughter and curses the sons. She says her sons are slow. Her daughter, on the other hand, is studious and diligent and always tries to please. “Similar to you,” she adds.

When I got pregnant I felt nervous about going into her store. Especially since I knew I was having a son. But I finally forced myself to go there because we were in dire need of milk and paper towels one us morning, and when she saw my protruding stomach she was solicito and asked if my hair had grown thicker, if my skin had stayed clear, if I felt sluggish? When I answered each question, I wondered if she a secretly thought that my life was ending. Nonetheless she pressed dark The . special ginger drink from Australia into my palm for nausea

_F

AT

brown bottle felt cool to the touch.

Walking home, I ran my palm along the honeysuckle hedges, the It white flowers nestled in the green, giving off a sweet puckered scent.

I

40

OR

Oftentimes it seems as if she is squinting into the sun, her own long shapely eyebrows drawn together. Her skin reminds me of how tea looks when clouded with milk. A few gray hairs glint in her light brown hair, which she has recently cut because she says it’s easier this way. I ask if her husband liked her long hair better, but she laughs bitterly and says he doesn’t care at all. I only ask this because my husband prefers long hair to short and was disappointed when I cut it off last summe r. Since then, my hair has grown back, longer than it ever was, past my shoulder blades.

M

_A

I stop by the store maybe once a week, sometimes twice. Nadia has taken a liking to me. She usually comments on my appearance, which at first made me uncomfortable but now I have gotten used to it and I realize it’s just something she does. Scrutinizing my face, she will say that I look tired, or that I have lost weight. I tell her that I always look tired. Once she asked me about my eyebrows because she liked the shape. Another time she wondered about the small blonde hairs on my upper lip. “How do you get rid of them?” she wondered from behind the counter. Yesterday when I ran into the store for a bottle of water, dressed in black jeans and a white button down shirt for teaching, Nadia raised her eyebrows, impressed, and told me I should wear makeup more often. “You look better today,” she said, pinchin g her cheeks. “More color.”

Nadia’s husband sporadically appears in a gray BMW with tinted windows. He owns the store. On an odd Tuesday morning or late Friday afternoon, he’ll pull up to the curb and check things out. He has salt and pepper hair and a beard trimmed close to his face. She will argue with him about not having enough inventory. He will cajole her into covering another shift. I imagine they also fight behind closed doors because Nadia has said that she hates her life. She tells me this casually, ripping off a neat line of ten stamps from the roll. The coiled up little American flags are released into my open palm. Her sons are stupid and she must help them with their homework every night after working here all day. If not, they will never get into college. Behind her, miniature bottles of Purell gleam on the shelf, along with new toothbrushes and disposable razors. Her sons are twins and I have seen one of them riding his bicycle down Lincoln Boulevard, dangerously weaving in and out of traffic, his t-shirt billowing in the wind. She constantly tells me not to have children because children will ruin my life. “No more movies, no more vacations, no more anything. All your freedom, gone! I work here day and night to send my daughter to college in Canada. It costs fifty thousand dollars a year.” I nod, wondering why her daughter is in Canada. The cash register opens, signaled by that high-pitched ring. Instead, she advises a dog is better than a child. She allows my dog into the store even though dogs aren’t allowed. My dog of sniffs at all the candy bars and packaged nuts, leaving a slight trail saliva on the plastic wrappings.

41


as if I was examining an ancient photograph. I wondered where the baby was, and even now, the dream hung in the air as I tried to calm down and reassure myself that this was real life, here in the garden with our nice garden furniture made of weathered teak. The lone table and two chairs planted on the far side of the yard was where my husban d and I sometimes drank coffee. Yesterday, sitting there, we’d shared raspberries straight from the carton. This was real. The dream wasn’t.

©

was the height of summer and the Jacaranda trees were shedding their lavender petals, crying violet. Bougainvillea sprouted erratically over walls and fences, bursts of magenta and faded orange. I walked up the hill, noticing my shortness of breath, which I had also noticed a few days ago in ballet class during the barre exercises. I placed a hand on my stomach, and felt the heaviness there.

He looked at the spider wistfully, his hands deep into his pockets. The spider slowly began to lower itself down and then stopped at eye level.

“If it’s poisonous then it’ll be loose, running around,” I said, convincing him to get a can of Raid. He sprayed the spider until it became weak and fell from its web. Then he smashed the spider with a large rock from our garden, to make sure it was dead.

_F

That day, while I was explaining the Russian scorched-earth policy to my class, I stopped feeling him move. It must be the heat, I though t, and he’s probably just resting. I pictured him with his little baby legs crossed, hands behind his head, as if he was at the beach taking a break. After dinner I thought I felt him moving again while we watched TV in bed, a stupid romantic comedy about a house-sitter and her search for the owner’s standard poodle. Of course the woman finds the poodle and in the process, falls in love with a landscape architect.

I

AT

42

A week later we found an enormous spider hanging from the carport, dangling from its web as nimble as an acrobat. The spider was light brown and furry and as large as my outstretched hand. Standing in front of it with our arms crossed over our chests, we debated what to do. I worried that the spider would make its way into the house and hide in some dark corner, and when the baby was born, the spider might creep into his crib, and kill him. “What do you think?” my husband asked. “Kill it.” But I knew he felt bad about killing insects. He always let spiders and bees go free, ferrying them carefully out of the house in a wad of toilet paper, depositing them into the potted aloe plants.

OR

As I approached my house, she turned around and the sight of her high forehead, a great expanse of white papery skin, startled me. She fixed her eyes on my face and dropped her rake. The clang of it against the cement sent my heart into a frantic throb, as if someone could see it beating under my shirt. I hurried inside, closing the front gate behind me, relieved to find myself safe in our sequestered front yard, I enclosed by thick ficus trees. But I was sweating, and in an instant, ’s woman old the into remembered a dream from last night. I looked attic, as if the roof of her house had been lifted off. An empty baby d crib stood in the middle of the room with faded newspapers scattere on the floor. The crib was old and made of dark wood, cushioned with . a few dirty blankets and bats flew in and out of a broken window A mobile hung lopsided from the ceiling, circling over the crib. The dreamscape was bathed in monochromatic light, all muted sepia hues

M

_A

11

20

I could see my next door neighbor standing outside on her porch, fussing with her potted plants, all succulents, her white hair in a wispy bun. She never leaves her house and on rainy days the smell of cat piss emanates through her screen door. She has lived on this street for forty years with her husband who has gray skin and gray hair and does not speak. He is eternally busy in their garage tinkering with a vintage car that seems irreparable. When we first moved here three years ago, she used to stare at us through her living room window. When we ate dinner, and I passed the salad, I’d catch a glimpse of her ghostly face of peering through the darkened window. Once she took a photograph d us, the flash reflecting off the glass and I screamed, which my husban her, ted thought unnecessarily dramatic. When my husband confron a she explained in a lilting little girl’s voice that she was only taking and room Polaroid of her cat. After that we hung curtains in the living planted more ficus trees along the border of our property.

43


Early the next morning, I went to the doctor. “Just to make sure everything’s fine,” my husband said, kissing me lightly on the mouth. “Because I’m sure it is,” he added. “Yes,” I said, buoyed by his optimism, “of course.”

cell phone was in my hand, and I would tell him what happened and then it would be real for him too and the more people who knew the more real this would be and the less real everything that came before this would become.

©

Afterwards, I avoided going to Nadia’s store because she would be another person I’d have to explain it to. Some people cried when they saw me. Some people acted as if nothing had changed. My close friend Laura brought me muffins and peaches and jam all in carefully wrapped parcels and listened to me tell the story of how I’d lost him, of how kind the nurses had been on the labor delivery floor, of how we were planning to scatter his ashes off Point Dume in Malibu but we couldn’t bring ourselves to let him go yet, as if keeping him in a little box in the bedroom bookcase that also housed The Trial and Civilization and Its Discontents was a comfort. When I was strong enough to return to ballet class, one woman congratulated me on having my baby, unaware that I’d lost him. Another woman commented that at least I’d lost the weight quickly. I wanted to punch her in the face. When I finally walked into Nadia’s store, she immediately knew what had happened, and so she wasn’t shocked, and I was grateful for this. The last time Nadia had seen me I was twenty-seven weeks, just a few days before. I thought about her two sons, and how they displeased her but at least she knew them as living breathing creatures, as entities outside of herself. Before she said anything, I blurted out, “The doctors don’t know what happened. They’re doing tests.” I didn’t feel like telling her the details: that the autopsy results came back inconclusive and all the usual reasons, such as a cord accident, chromosomal or genetic abnormalities, an undetected infection or a lack of amniotic fluid, did not happen. The doctors kept saying that finding nothing was better than something, because if they found something than there would be an issue to treat, a complication next time around. And I kept correcting them, saying if there’s a next time because we don’t know if there will be. Nobody knows that. Nobody knows anything.

_F

OR

AT

Nadia pursed her lips, nodding sadly. And then she rung me up for toothpaste and stamps, stamps I needed for all the thank you cards,

I

44

M

_A

11

20

I lay on the examining table. The nurse had already tried to find a heartbeat, but she seemed unfamiliar with the Doppler machine and I internally criticized her lack of skill, for the way she nervously fumbled around my abdomen, moving the Doppler from one side of the stomach, and then to the other. She just doesn’t know what she’s doing, I thought. Then my doctor walked in and she looked concerned, impatiently taking the Doppler from the nurse. She said, “You should have come earlier.” Earlier than what? I wanted to say, but didn’t, cowed by her voice. I remember staring at her silk wrap dress, a paisley print against navy blue. I almost said I liked her dress but for some reason decided against it because by that time she too was fumbling with the Doppler and it didn’t seem appropriate to compliment her dress. I remember thinking that she wasn’t wearing her white coat because she had just come into the office, and her hair, freshly washed, was slightly wet. I remember the ghostly sound of the swish of my blood coming through the Doppler and nothing else. It sounded as if someone was whistling through the skeletal shells of bombed-out buildings. And then she quickly said she would do a sonogram. I nodded, feeling reassured by the word sonogram, as if this would all be cleared up in a minute. I remember wondering why she wasn’t saying anything, and why her unwavering eyes, a light blue, kept staring at the screen in front of her where she had the image of the baby up. The screen was behind my right shoulder. I remember thinking that I didn’t even have to ask her what was wrong. I already knew from her face, a face stripped down to its bare elements as if blinded by the sun, rendering her mute. After a pause, she looked away and said, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I cannot imagine, I’m sorry.” I heard myself say, “Is he gone?” She nodded. Then she left the room, saying she’d be right back, and before the door closed I heard her curse Jesus fucking Christ. I sat there, my legs dangling off the examining table, the white thin paper crinkled under my thighs, and I couldn’t believe this was really real but I knew it was real and I knew that I would have to call my husband very soon, the

45


thanking people for the white lilies and orchids and roses they had sent in elaborate displays, which had filled our living room. Giving me change, she carefully asked, “Are you okay?” Through her fingers, pennies and dimes slid into my hand.

©

20

I don’t know why I told her this next thing, which I’d been turning over in my mind for weeks. I’d been thinking about that dream, my neighbor’s attic with the empty crib. “I think my neighbor gave me the evil eye. She stared at me right before this happened and maybe she willed it.”

have stayed inside more, at home.”

“I know these are very personal things to speak of,” she paused, “but it is much worse to be alone in these matters.”

AT

Her house was so quiet and still, I thought I heard the red numerals of the digital clock change from 1:07 to 1:08. I swallowed, feeling a

I

46

_F

her anywhere else. “Okay,” I managed. She smiled. “Tomorrow, one o’clock. Come to my house. It’s just around the corner. With the green gate on Marine.”

We sat down on the leather couch and she closed her eyes for a minute, pressing her knuckles into her temples. “Pressure points,” she said with her eyes still closed. I nodded, taking in the blue skinned Vishnu caught in a graceful pose, his four arms fanning out from his body. She had placed him next to a potted plant, an angel ivory ring topiary, its foliage trimmed into a tidy green orb. A tepid breeze blew in and she opened her eyes, gazing at me intently for a second before pouring us some iced green tea that had been placed on the coffee table. Fresh mint leaves floated among the ice chunks. When the tea was poured she settled back into the couch and I fingered the tassel of an oversized pillow.

OR

She paused, considering what to say next. Her face looked as pale and full as the moon. “You think the way they do in India. Backwards.” I considered this. Recently, I’d hung a ceramic turquoise eye from Turkey on our front door to ward off evil spirits, and I tried to purify the house with white sage, the thin blue smoke filling every room until t the smoke detector went off. And now I wanted to move to a differen house, to get away from the old neighbors because sometimes I really believe they took him from me, like in a fairy tale. My husband keeps I repeating that the neighbors have nothing to do with it, and that am I if as shouldn’t nurture such unhealthy thoughts. He speaks to me a small child, or someone who is quietly losing her mind. “Meet me for tea?” Nadia called out as I was leaving the store. I only ever saw her here, the cash register a familiar and comforting e fixture, which seemed to facilitate our conversations. I couldn’t imagin

M

_A

11

Nadia smiled wanly. “You are an educated woman. You shouldn’t think such things. It is not your kind of thinking. In my country, we . believe this, but not here.” She shook her head, somewhat amazed is it ncy pregna the “In my country, if something goes wrong with always the woman’s fault. They blame her for going out too late, for not wearing warm enough clothes, for sleeping too little, for not taking all the precautions. Even for attracting the evil eye, they say she should

A black and white cat treaded silently through her front yard, jumping gracefully onto the green gate and then off again, disappearing into the birds of paradise, the flame-like beaks beckoning. As I opened the gate, I wondered if he was Nadia’s cat, but the cat was collarless and Nadia seemed too conscientious to let a pet roam free. The gray BMW wasn’t in the driveway and the house seemed quiet. Standing in front of the door, I felt strangely nervous, and through the peephole, I wondered if she could already see me. Before I knocked, the door opened and Nadia stepped out of the darkened entryway wearing something around her head, almost like a bandage. As the door opened wider I realized it was a belt usually attached to a terrycloth robe. It was tied around her head, resting there like a laurel wreath. “So glad you came,” she said, and I followed her into the hallway. I expected to smell cumin or coriand er or some other spice but instead the house carried a musty scent. She had all the windows open to generate a cross breeze, but it was still stifling and leading me into the living room, she complained about the heat and pointed to her head, explaining that’s why she was wearin g the terrycloth sash, because it was cooling, which seemed entirely implausible but I didn’t have the energy to ask more about this.

47


tough lump gathering in my throat, and to stop my eyes from watering, I focused on the long beaded earring dangling from her ear. The beads were dark red, maybe coral.

cannot say the name of our son. It is too painful even to say “him” or “he” let alone the name we’d picked. Instead we say, “When the accident happened” or “When September came.” “So.” Nadia’s voice dropped. “Tell me. What was he like?”

©

“I lost my first son too. I was nine months pregnant – it happened on my due date – when they took my vitals at the hospital, and checked for the baby’s heartbeat, there was nothing.” She glanced at me and then quickly looked down into her tea, studying a floating mint leaf.

20

I couldn’t speak because there was so much pressure in my mouth, in the place where words form; a blankness funneled down my throat like sand. I turned up my palms, as if to say: I only knew what I thought he might be like, a blurry forecast of a boy. I swallowed hard, the sand thickening and looked up at her. Her eyes were liquid and malleable, as if she yearned to enter into the fantasy realm where dead sons were suddenly alive enough to

“Oh,” I said, “I’m so sorry.” I stared at my nails, which were torn and bitten down and realized why I’d been invited to tea, because now I was part of this universal world-wide group, the childless mothers group.

11

speak of in material terms.

48

“He,” I tried again. I didn’t know how I could ever explain him to me.

I

“Aanand,” I said, and this made Nadia smile. My husband and I

“I,” I caught myself. She wanted to know about him, not me.

AT

“Guess what the main character’s name is? Aanand. Same name as my son. A sign, you see. And in the book he was just as playful and mischievous as my son, because my son was always moving around like a fish, poking my ribs with his toes, making me laugh in the middle of serious conversations.”

play basketball.

_F

Nadia’s eyes lit up and she leaned forward, pressing the tips of her fingers together. “Oh, yes. He gives me little signs. Yesterday I started a novel.” She told me the title and asked if I knew it. I shook my head.

“Well,” I said, trying to catch my breath but feeling as if someone had shoveled even more sand down my throat, burying me. I thought about telling her how I had played Brahms for him and how I had always stood close to the piano in ballet class so he could hear the Russian pianist play Chopin nocturnes as I demi-pliéd and elevéd, and how I had often imagined him as fluid and strong as Nureyev but I had hoped he would

OR

“Do you ever feel him – around?” I asked this because I’ve heard of people feeling the presence of loved ones after they’ve died. I have not felt my son around at all and it makes me think that he is too far away, or that I was a poor mother to him, even in death. Possibly if I had been a better mother, with a keener sense of intuition, I would know it if he came to visit. The other thought is that nothing follows after death but a great yawning darkness.

M

_A

She touched the terrycloth band around her head and feeling that it was in place, she continued, “And like you, they never found out what happened. I remember his lips – so red – but otherwise he looked perfect.”

49


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

Š I

AT Damina & Matu Green


_A

11

20

Š (left to right) Danny Farahirad; Faramarz Farahirad; Ali Farahirad

_F

OR

M

(left to right, top) Braxton Johnson, Sr.; Braylee Johnson; Talea Wright; Koury Angelo; Brea Cola Angelo; Francesca Grande; Jarad Cola; Anais Wright; Jim Wenzel; Brandi Wasdin; Dave Wasdin; (bottom) Braxton Johnson, Jr.; Lydia Kimble Wright; Daisy Wasdin; Carol Magraff; Cenae Bullard; Tamir Wright

I

AT


_A

11

20

Š (left to right) Jose Luis Valenzuela; Evelina Fernandez; Esperanza Ontiveroz; Fidel Gomez

_F

OR

M I

AT


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT


I make notes so that I don’t get lost. Literally and figuratively. Note cards represent a small stock of my brain. Each one gets a small piece of scotch tape and is then attached to my wall. This is so I can see what’s going on inside my head.

©

Half-read books, torn pages adorned with strange drawings, pieces of yellow tablet paper make up a potentially brilliant plan to rule this city. I’ve drawn up a contract with the Devil trading my everlasting soul for fame and fortune but I wrote it in crayon so it’s not taken serious ly.

20

I shouldn’t enjoy grit and grime. The dirt that collects beneath my fingernails should bother me more than it does. The roaches that crawl along my plates, my cups and my snack crackers don’t mind my clutter. They have very low expectations and are very easy to please.

Old hard-boiled eggs make opening my fridge like taking a solid pop to the nose, but a little cayenne pepper makes them easier to get down. Bologna and hot dogs are fixed seven different ways and each more desperate and sad than the last. Eggo waffles are no longer just waffles but an agreeable replacement for bread and an excuse to add syrup to a bologna and Eggo sandwich.

11

I’ll get around to picking up the empty beer cans and the loose leaves of paper. Cigarettes stained purple on the butt from cheap wine will get thrown away eventually. Empty bags of chips left from laughin g and happy people. They ingest, they receive pleasure and once sated they leave.

I don’t mind it when I wake up and my throat feels like an exhaust pipe on the 405 in August. Only when I take a swill out of a beer I used for an ashtray the night before does it bother me.

Many could never understand this way of life but it makes sense to me. The battle for your dreams is fought every day. Whether it’s some cockroaches or it’s your self there will always be something to battle. I’ll be forever grateful for my narcotic-ridden – roach-infested – rundown studio apartment in Hollywood because that’s where my battle began.

I

58

The trenches of Argyle, Ivar and Wilcox are filled with crazed dreamers who earn their stripes in lines of dust white. Respect must be shown to the fallen by taking up arms and continuing the cause withou t hesitation.

AT

Dirty clothes have a tendency to pile up. It’s not because I’m lazy. I’m actually quite ambitious. I just loathe tedious tasks. I prefer the laundry to escalate to an intimidating level. I want a pile of clothes that will make you sweat on a quiet Sunday afternoon. I want to make my way down three floors with the pile blinding my vision causing me to stumble down the steps spraining my ankle.

On cold nights I turn the oven to 500, open it up and close the windows. I read in the kitchen next to the open oven, over an out-of-place lamp with cheap wine. I sling an old quilt made by my grandmother over me because I’m naked, trying not to create more laundry for myself.

_F

Stacks of periodicals, old newspapers, and clippings from National Geographic that I felt were important for some reason scatter my small studio. I spend a lot of time worrying about what a girl will think of my place before bringing her over. I don’t spend a lot of time cleanin g it up for her though.

If my own living conditions aren’t glamorous enough then you should meet the neighbors. Years of heartache, lost dreams and mental anguish flow with more tenacity than any raging body of water once the right set of ears is found. People infected with disdain are more presently crawling around than the bugs in my kitchen. I wish I could reward them with as quick a death as the roaches I battle. Unfortunately people aren’t always as lucky as the bugs we walk over.

OR

I like falling asleep to the sirens of the police and the sounds of inebriated drivers racing down the street searching for parking like bloodthirsty savages.

M

_A

I enjoy the stains on the bathroom wall. The stains are proof of life. Physical evidence of existence is comforting and exciting at the same time because plain walls kill creativity.

59


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT


just steal your lunch?” Tina drummed her fingers against the steering wheel, the immense Heff-T-Burger drive-thru menu looming outside her window. The third cigarette had lifted her fatigue and made her stomach itchy and grasping, needing something to wrap itself around. She was dizzy with hunger.

©

Clay kicked at the cracks in the sidewalk, toeing the weeds that jutted through, hoping that each step would break another bone in his mother ’s back. The morning sun scattered across the sedans and minivans that rolled slowly down the street, delivering carloads of children to school on a glittering spring morning perfect for the zoo or baseball diamon d.

20

She leaned out and tapped against the speaker. “Hello?” A blast of static. “—eady to ord—”

Clay smacked his brown paper lunch bag rhythmically against the side of his leg as he walked. His father had made his lunch that day, as he had every school day for the past two months since Clay’s mom left on vacation. He dreaded the thought of the slapped-together ham sandwich, its mayo spilling out of the still-crusted bread and spreading between his fingers, the one napkin his dad included never enough to wipe it all. He’d begged for money to buy hot lunch but his dad refused , insisting that the government was putting growth-stunting additives in the school food.

11

She leaned in closer. “I’ll take a Heff-T Heifer,” she yelled, “large fries, and a root beer!” “—ixty two please drive aro—”

“I know.” Sammy dug at his nose and flicked a gob onto the sidewalk behind him. “But you think?”

Sammy backed away, his look approaching disgust. “Did that guy

The drive-thru window slammed open and the teen dropped the change into Tina’s hand. “Ketchup?” She nodded.

I

64

She handed him a five and he closed the window, mumbling. Tina flicked the air conditioning up to full blast. The heat had come early and thick this year. A fat drop of sweat slid down her cheek and she dabbed at it with a loose tissue from the cup holder, using the rear view to ensure that she didn’t smear her makeup – as if Stew needed anothe r reason to criticize her appearance. She was determined to find a new job by summer, away from Stew and his constant slithering around the office, popping up behind her the instant she began a personal e-mail. “Writing your boyfriend?” he’d ask, nearly choking on his slimy laugh.

AT

Clay’s hand felt heavy, as though he still held the bag.

The teen placed his palms heavily on the counter and eased himself off. “Four eighty-two,” he said, left eye glancing towards her chest.

_F

The pounding noise came suddenly, from behind. Like a gust of wind, a man rushed up between them and grabbed Clay’s bag midslap. There, then gone. He sprinted away in a bouncy gait, puffy cloud of brown hair flopping on his head as he ran. The boys watched him take a right at the corner and dash out of sight.

She resisted the urge to pinch the exposed fat until it matched the color of the uniform. “Excuse me?”

OR

Clay took a running leap and crunched a dandelion. “She only does that ’cause you’re smart and Mary’s stupid. She can’t even read level one stories.”

M

_A

Next to Clay, Sammy flicked the strap of his backpack as it dangled below his waist, the bag hunching low and full, stooping his posture . “Think Ms. Davis will make me reading partners with Mary again?”

Around the corner a uniformed teen sat with his butt out the service window, chatting with someone in the kitchen. A slab of pale flesh squirted out between his purple shirt and black pants, quivering as he laughed.

65


wasn’t American to eat a sandwich without chips.

He dumped a few packets into the bag and reached out to hand it to her.

He leaned back again and closed his eyes, letting the sunshine drip over him. Let the burn come. The hobos had it right.

“Whooooooosh!”

A tinny crunching noise shook him out of the daydream and he jolted up to see his chips gone. A tall, skinny man sprinted away towards the pond, neon red of the Doritos bag glinting with each stride.

“He stole my lunch!” Tina looked at the worker, her confusion congealing into anger.

Alex bolted from the bench and tensed, readying to sprint after. A dollar twenty-nine, though, wasn’t worth the effort. Sitting back down, he watched as the man ran around the hobo pine towards the bridge. Not a single bum moved.

20

©

A man jumped out from behind her car and intercepted the bag s before she grabbed it. He gave a quick stutter-step and sprinted toward the parking lot.

The teen followed the running man with a slack-jawed gape, admiring. “Did that guy just say ‘whoosh���?”

11

It’s not like Lloyd ever planned to be a lunchthief. But he couldn’t pretend to be surprised that things turned out that way, either. He could even pinpoint the exact moment when his life reached its apex and began an exponentially bad downturn.

Tina swore and crushed the gas pedal, forgetting she still had on the parking brake. She popped it off and hit the gas again, but in her excitement let up on the clutch too soon and stalled the car, which

_A

lurched to a stop.

The man cut across the lot and took three bounding steps before leaping up and twisting athletically over a chain link fence, arms to following behind him, the purple Heff-T-Burger bag the last thing

He wanted to keep it in the box to savor, with giddy anticipation, the day when he would actually open and operate it. As seen on the commercials, TommyTron could motor about on its foot-wheels and respond to voice commands such as “walk,” “grab,” and “dance,” the

I

66

AT

A fly landed on his sandwich and he didn’t flick it off. The tuna was too dry, had been ever since Ellie made him start his diet. Dijon a mustard just didn’t take to tuna like mayo did. He munched on handful of Doritos purchased on the sly from 7-11; sorry Ellie, it just

There. That was his peak: the moment right before he pulled back the last strip of wrapping paper, withholding the joyous mystery that lay beneath, basking in the knowing-but-not-quite-knowing. He peeled off the last jag of paper and oh it shone, “TOMMYTRON 5000” in silver letters so reflective he could see his own dopey expression as he ran his hand over the clear plastic sheet that separated him from the robot.

_F

The old folk’s walking club had already left and the softball crowd wouldn’t arrive until later so the park was nearly empty; just some s. hobos sleeping under the pines and a few mothers pushing stroller . delivery next the until Alex checked his watch: forty-five minutes Enough time for a quick nap.

Lloyd took his time opening it, removing each piece of tape individually so as not to tear the paper. His family shifted and grew restless to finish their own presents as he tried frantically to savor each second, fighting the urge to rip straight to it and uncover his treasur e. His hands shook as he peeled off the bow.

OR

He could already feel the tingle that meant his face had passed tan and was well on its way toward sunburn. He’d only been in the park for twenty minutes, but with the sun that strong and his skin near translucent from a winter’s worth of pale, Alex knew his face would be splotched by evening. “Fall asleep in an oven?” Ellie would ask when he got home.

M

disappear.

It was a Christmas morning more than twenty years before, when he was still a dumb-faced kid hoping desperately to receive the one gift he had ever really wanted: TommyTron 5000, the “robotic superdoll.” He had saved for last the snowflake-speckled present buried behind the far side of the tree, knowing instinctively what was inside.

67


last done in a series of convulsions devoid of rhythm.

look around and then snatch it off the ground, tuck it under his jacket, and sprint the last three blocks to his apartment, heart racing as it hadn’t in years?

“Not going to open it?” Lloyd’s mother looked on, frowning. “After all I went through to get it, you’re going to open it and play with it every damn day of your life.”

©

Ham and cheddar on wheat, no mayo, yellow mustard, an apple that he threw away, a miniature container of Pringles that he ate in one gigantic crunch, and three Oreos in a Ziploc. Fifty cents in quarters clanged on his table as he emptied the bag. A napkin stuck to the bottom, lined with repetitive images of costumed teddy bears: a cop and a doctor twirling each other, a farmer doing a handstand.

20

So he did, grudgingly, and as he pierced through the cardboard to the toy underneath a gushing sadness inundated him. He knew that this was the best Christmas present he would ever receive. Never again would it be wrapped and waiting. The mystery had died. Christmas was over, and even in his seven-year-old fogginess he knew that nothing would hold this type of excitement again.

That night’s work had been particularly brutal, as McNamara had yelled at him for mixing up the zip codes and causing a jam on his route. “Crack-smoking chimp would make fewer mistakes,” he’d said, slamming his carrier bag onto the table and overturning a stack of leaflets from the Val-U-Mart. Lloyd didn’t pick them up until McNamara stomped out.

Stalking forward, Lloyd ran through the ideas sparking in his mind. The lunch pail grew larger in his vision, the kid still oblivious, too close now, grab it grab it grab it –

I

68

Then, on the first sunny morning in months, Lloyd spotted a runty boy balancing on the curb in front of him, blue lunch pail in hand. Lloyd’s breath tightened. He dared not break into a run and grab it this close to the schoolyard, the child’s screams sure to alert authorities.

AT

Lloyd nudged it with his foot. He’d just eaten a Slim Jim before leaving the post office, and had gone shopping the day before, giving him enough Hot Pockets and Cup O’ Noodles to last for a week. What, then? Why did he stand over the bag, twisting his head, as though it would change appearance at different angles? Why did he take a quick

The second time was not an accident. He walked by the school every day on his way home from work, slowing when he approached the schoolyard, sweatshirt hood slung low over his eyes, scanning the street for any sign of lunch. For a week, nothing.

_F

He nearly kicked it. The brown paper bag was wrinkled along the sides and bunched at the top, but otherwise looked fine. “Lindsay” was scrawled in black marker along one side. It sat on its base, as though Lindsay had set it there to tie a shoelace or poke a bug and then ran off without it when her friends called from up the street.

It took Lloyd a sleepless night to figure out where the joy from his lunch-thievery came from. The thrill was a part of it, certainly. But most of it was that moment when he had the bag poised underneath him, ready to be opened, as he wondered what possible treasures could be waiting inside, the expectancy of the unknown making him quiver in a way that only the excitement for TommyTron 5000 had. The type of bread. The condiments. The endless permutations of chips, fruit, and desserts that meant nothing and yet meant everything.

OR

Lloyd walked with his hands in his pockets, the hood from his sweatshirt pulled over his curly mound of hair. It was around 9 A.M., and the weary sky hung heavy and gray.

M

_A

11

Lloyd found the first lunch on the ground near the schoolyard while walking home from work one morning. He worked at night as a mail handler for the post office, sorting the stream of mail into easilydeliverable stacks for the mail carriers. The mail left and he stayed there in his box-tight office, night after night.

Lloyd devoured the food, barely registering the taste. He put the napkin back into the bag and set it up in the corner of an empty cupboard, taking care to ensure the name faced outward. Lindsay’s mother probably put the lunch together the night before, taking the same care she did when choosing Lindsay’s outfits. He wondered what Lindsay ate instead, if she had to borrow from friends or whine to the cooks until she got a free one or, most likely, go hungry.

69


dipped in milk, letting the excess drip back into the glass as he watche d reverently.

Lloyd reached out just as the kid’s heel skidded off the curb, causing of him to fall against the sidewalk as his lunchbox scattered in front him.

He set the lunch pail, smiling cars facing outward, in the cupboard next to the “Lindsay” bag. They complimented each other: the rumpled, uneven contours of the bag mysterious and foreboding next to the bright, clean plastic lines of the box. He left the cupboard open the rest of that day, stealing a glance inside every time he walked past.

©

“Alright?” Lloyd asked as he bent down to help him up.

20

Freckles clumped across the boy’s nose and his blond bangs fell in uneven spikes across his forehead. He looked at Lloyd’s hand, then grabbed the curb and lifted himself up. “Almost made it all the way from home.”

The boy wiped his hands on his jeans. “Can I have my lunch back?”

Lloyd decided not try the school again. He began walking by the city’s other elementary schools, sometimes a two-hour detour from his normal path. But he didn’t mind; the air crackled with spring and he swapped his hooded sweatshirt for a pair of mirror-lens sunglasses for cover.

Lloyd looked down. He didn’t remember picking up the lunch pail. On it, a group of anthropomorphic racecars smiled at each other through their front grills. He shook it, feeling a sizable lunch slide back and forth inside. “Cool design.”

He became efficient in his theft, clever, knowing it was best to avoid face-to-face confrontations whenever possible. He soon developed a strategy to take advantage of the children’s natural weakness: gullibility.

“Long as you’re okay,” Lloyd said.

_A

11

The boy nodded and wormed his tongue through the gap in his front teeth.

“Well, no, because the thing about that is …” Lloyd jolted his head forward and furrowed his brow at something behind the boy. “Wait, what’s that?”

I

70

He ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with crusts, turkey sandwiches without crusts, sliced sections of orange with the peel curved into a smile, half-eaten fast-food hamburgers, cheese burrito s, trembling cups of lukewarm yogurt, carrot sticks with ranch dip, baggies containing sliced tomatoes to be added to a sandwich later, salsa packets, hard-boiled eggs with tinfoil squares of salt and pepper,

AT

The pricks of guilt burrowing through his stomach were smothered by the egg salad on white bread, Ziploc full of Funyuns, banana, and graham cracker sandwiches filled with chocolate frosting, which Lloyd

On the glorious days he hauled in more than one lunch, Lloyd placed the extras carefully on the shelves of his fridge, never opening them, keeping the one with the most attractive bulk at the table. The pause before he opened up the lunch had become shorter, more perfunctory.

_F

He took off the instant the boy’s head turned. Clutching the box to his chest as he sprinted down the sidewalk, Lloyd nearly toppled over an old woman walking a pug. As he rounded the corner he braced himself for some sort of shriek – the primal wail of the hungry – but nothing came.

When his luck was good groups of kids would rush up, leaving their lunches in sacramental piles in the middle of the sidewalk as they tried to heave over the stone or rip open the box. Approaching from across the street, Lloyd would scoop the entire pile into a duffel bag and proceed on, squeals of disappointment echoing behind him.

OR

“Can I just have it now? I want to go to play.”

M

“Actually, your mom wanted you to give me your lunch.” A stupid, terrible lie. “She said this lunch is poisonous. I’m going to take it to my lab and take out the poison and then I’ll bring it back to you.”

Large distractions worked best, placed near the sidewalk. Ones that would require two hands: a heavy stone with ‘Turn me over, money underneath’ painted on top, or a giant cardboard box duct-taped shut and marked ‘Free Puppies.’

71


dill pickle spears, purple-filled Twinkies, individually-wrapped squares of processed cheese, fried chicken, corner slices of chocolate birthday cake with fudge frosting; each wondrous, surprising, and undeniably perfect as he removed it from the bag.

directly in Lloyd’s path, dangling, begging. “Excuse me,” Lloyd mumbled as he brushed by. He kept walking, clicking his teeth with each step, almost to the corner when he heard a heavy padding behind him.

©

The collection of trinkets from inside the lunches grew. An assortment of hair ties, clips, and bands, some with spidery strands of hair still attached. Plastic racecars and action figures. A house key that he hurriedly tossed into the dumpster. And almost ten bucks in quarters.

“Sir?” A hand fell on his shoulder lightly. Not enough authority for a cop.

20

Lloyd stopped and turned. The security guard. “Can I ask you a few questions? We have reports of someone stealing children’s lunches and were wondering if you had any information.”

One of the lunches contained a note. Written in black felt-tip marker on a post-it, it read: “Oscar: Love never runs. Hate never waits. Listen to Mrs. Kendall and apologize to Benny.” Lloyd taped it up to his refrigerator, where it flapped gently in the breeze from the ceiling fan.

11

A car horn from around the block blared sadly. “Why would someone steal a kid’s lunch?” The guard shook his head and grinned. “Probably some kind of psychosis.”

The guard clutched at his belt and shook his head. “No, but one child said that the thief could turn invisible. Pure nonsense, but still.” He looked somewhere above Lloyd’s eyes, into his hair. “Have you noticed anyone matching this description?” “Sorry.” He took a step backwards, still facing the guard. “Good luck though. Weirdoes like that are bound to keep showing up.” The guard mouthed something, too quiet for Lloyd to hear, and then waved his hands. “Alright then. Thanks anyway.” Lloyd nodded and hurried away. It was his fault. He’d gotten lazy. The sounds of the schoolchildren echoed behind him and he felt the weight of all the uneaten lunches, felt the moments of excitement right before he loosened the Ziploc-trapped smell of Miracle Whip swirling

I

72

Lloyd dug his hands in his pockets and tried to slouch as low as possible. “He can fly?”

AT

Lloyd curled tight within his windbreaker as he approached the cop. The guy in the car moved his head to follow him, and the undercover subtly reached into his jacket with his free hand. The lunch pail hung

“By the children’s descriptions it’s a man, around seven feet tall, possibly a scientist. We’ve had conflicting reports on hair, eyes, and superpowers.”

_F

Lloyd kept walking, watching as the undercover student turned his back to him, jutting the lunch pail away from his body. The man in the Taurus sunk low in his seat, lips moving. The security guard, apparently not as well-trained, took a few determined steps towards Lloyd, then caught himself and picked up an imaginary piece of trash in the middle of the street before backpedaling towards the schoolyard.

Lloyd hid a shiver.

OR

It was obviously a stakeout; he knew it the moment he stepped onto the block. A boy with a compact build too bulky for a third-grader loitered near the bus stop and flailed his bright orange lunch pail in windmill motions. A man with a buzz-cut atop his stern face sat in a parked Taurus across the street. A uniformed security officer paced back and forth in front of the schoolyard.

M

_A

He’d been waiting for some kind of response, having hit the city’s five elementary schools a few times each. His cupboard overflowed with lunch sacks of all different types: brown paper, plastic grocery bags, a rainbow collection of lunch pails, and even a few cloth sacks, the thick hippie lunch bags filled with the organic food Lloyd could barely stomach. He grew greedy with his treasure, yet was unable to stop, jittery all night through work until he could hit the street in the morning and capture lunch.

73


dropped to the ground.

away. He wanted to turn around, take one last look, but knew that would be too suspicious, and so cast a silent farewell along the greyveined streets to the schools, the children, and their lunches.

The bag nearly tore from the force of Lloyd’s pumping arms as he ran. Adrenaline ripped through him, propelling him the two miles back to his apartment in a blur, until he finally slowed down and coasted up the stairs into his unit, slamming the door and locking it behind him.

©

Lloyd quickly depleted his refrigerator reserve of stolen lunches and a constant hunger hollowed him out. He couldn’t return to Cup O’ e, Noodles and Hot Pockets; with a picture of the product on the packag hed; diminis there was very little mystery as to the contents. His weight sometimes he grew faint at work and realized only afterwards that he’d stacked entire columns of mail in the wrong bins.

20

He dumped the contents of the bag on the table unceremoniously. The mystery-factor was diminished greatly since Neato Burrito’s menu was basically twenty different variations on the same five ingredients. The tasteless food hung heavy in his gut the rest of the day. He placed the bag up with the others, the bipedal, pants-wearing burrito logo smiling from the front, but it seemed too bright, too ostentatious among the others. So he took it down and, for the first time in weeks, closed the cupboard.

_A

11

High schools were out of the question. The few kids there who took a t bag lunch were not as likely to be tricked or give up their lunch withou a fight. He took the bus to the neighboring town after work to check out the elementary schools there, but it was already past lunchtime and the sight of the kids, fat and happy as they ran from the cafeteria to the playground, nearly made him cry.

Distraught, afraid to face the waiting day as he trudged home from work each bright morning, Lloyd began stealing from adults.

gravestones.

The car’s owner bolted up, slammed his head against the roof and

Lloyd had been grocery shopping with his mother the day TommyTron died. Arriving home, he ran from the garage into the kitchen, hoping

I

74

The man approached him, hands buried deep in his overalls. “Sorry, thought that was my cake,” Lloyd said, crab-walking away on all fours. The man’s hands moved quicker than Lloyd could see and the blackne ss came down like a lowered curtain.

AT

away.

Lloyd finally got caught on a Tuesday. He grabbed a cake box from a skinny balding guy in overalls emerging from an ice cream parlor, but tripped on a crack not more than ten feet down the sidewalk and fell, the ice-cream innards of the cake smearing against the pavement. People backed away from the melting carnage as though it were a murder scene.

_F

Heat lines waved off the car and swirled around the bag like a desert mirage. The car sat five feet away from Lloyd, separated by a thin line of bushes. He moved instinctively as his synapses fired with the same predatory intensity as a lion’s. Crashing through the bush and ripping the bag off the roof, Lloyd bleated a Neanderthal grunt as he dashed

He stole more than he could eat. Bags of food rotted in his kitchen, most of them unopened as the grease seeped through and thickened on the table and floor. Anything he could get his hands on: chips, sodas, coffee cups, napkins, brazenly ripping them out of people’s hands and running away.

OR

The bionic tweet of a car alarm snapped him to attention. He looked up to see a young man in a corduroy suit striding across the parking of lot of Neato Burrito. White takeout bag in one hand, spinning a set keys in the other, the man stopped at a black Mercedes. He placed the bag on the roof, popped open the door, propped his foot on the seat and began to tie his shoe.

M

It came to him spontaneously as he walked by a fast food restaurant to one morning. He’d been wandering for a few blocks, not wanting like d arrange return home to the cupboard full of bags and boxes

Lloyd felt as though he were flailing. Like he was trapped in a syrupy, cola-flavored quicksand, and every move he made, every lunch he stole, sunk him deeper. He stole indiscriminately, trying in vain to recaptu re the rush.

75


to get to a TV in time for “Kooky Kats,” and stopped just short of crunching the robot underfoot on the kitchen floor.

“Few weeks until it’s off. You’ll be out of here before then.” She smoothed the sheets over his body, running her hands along the curve of his sunken chest. “What have you been eating, air? Need to fatten you up.” She balanced the tray across his bed. On it sat a large frosted glass beaded with condensation.

©

The TommyTron, which he had left on the countertop, now lay on its side, the plastic eyepiece and right leg snapped off and scattered lewdly across the tile. TommyTron shuffled its remaining leg, stuck in a “walk” command, circling around in a death spiral on the floor. A slamming door or too-loud TV had confused TommyTron’s sound receptors before, and Lloyd had walked into rooms to find it trapped in a solitary dance or reaching its over-sized claws to grab something that wasn’t there.

Lloyd sat up. “Hmmm mmm hmmmh?”

20

The nurse pulled a straw out of her breast pocket and peeled back the plastic wrapper. “They have this new machine downstairs, this processor, that can make milkshakes flavored like almost anything. Not just chocolate and vanilla, real flavors: meatloaf, chicken pot pie, tuna salad. Anything.” She slid the straw into the glass and stirred.

11

The robot’s head gyrated back and forth in denial when Lloyd picked it up. He’d stopped playing with it regularly months before. He didn’t feel sadness, or even shock, but something else, something quiet and permanent. The last few times he’d played with it he’d been careless, trying to get it to walk down the stairs and leaving it outside with the dogs at night.

“Mmm hmm hmm.” A dull ache settled somewhere near the base of his skull but he couldn’t take his eyes off the brownish sludge as it curled around the straw.

A pale, squatty nurse entered the room, smiling as she set a tray next to his bed. “Easy honey.” She replaced his sheets. “You’ll be here for a bit, so don’t start getting fussy now. Plenty of time to do that later.”

“Yeah honey, they had to wire it shut.” “Hmmh hmm?”

I

76

AT

Lloyd ran his fingers along his jaw. “Hmm hmm mmm hmmh?”

_F

Lloyd burst awake as pain shot along his jaw. A thin metal snake slinked through the inside of his mouth, forcing it closed. The hospital bed was stiff and the sheets too thin, floating like tissue paper as he threw them off.

Lloyd bent back his lips, and, despite the pain, smiled.

OR

Lloyd didn’t answer. The battery case cracked as he yanked out the batteries, killing TommyTron in half-stride. He dropped it headfirst into the trash basket. The clang was metallic and resonant.

M

_A

As he picked up the dismembered pieces, his mother, setting two heavy paper bags on the countertop, asked him why he left it on the counter in the first place. Didn’t he know something like that would happen?

She moved the glass closer to him. “Since this is all you’ll be eating for a while, let’s make a game of it.” She aimed the straw up towards his mouth. “Can you guess what flavor this is?”

77


sand. Hamsters behind the shelf. There was no stopping the shadow in her brain. She drank all day. There is magic in seven. There isn’t magic in five. She couldn’t keep a job. She put a sign on her door. It said “Translator.” She wore very short shorts. And cork platform shoes. She hung out with the neighbors. In the building’s courtyard. On her bedside table she kept one book. Every night she dug through its pages. She stared at its cover. She whispered its title like a mantra.

20

©

She was one of seven. Fifth of seven. What should have been nine. (Two of them died.) She would have been seventh if they hadn’t died. There is magic in seven. There isn’t magic in five. She could have been a contender. If she had had money to buy the dresses for the beauty pageants. She was a lousy painter. Or perhaps just lazy.

Not Without My Daughter. Not Without My Daughter. Not Without My Daughter ...

_A

11

He found her at the bank. She was working as a teller. It was love at first sight. At least, that’s what he called the sudden obsessive urge to possess her. He followed her home. It was thrilling being pursued. Like someone whose life meant something. So she married him. She quit work. She bore two daughters. She wrote bad checks. He divorced her. One of seven. Fifth of seven. Not seventh of nine. She would have been seventh if no one had died. There is magic in seven. There isn’t magic in five.

I

AT

78

_F

The girls were asked their preference. And they chose to be with mommy. Because they loved her. At least, that’s what they called being comfortable with someone. So they packed their bags and moved down south. Her older daughter collected buggers on the wall. Turtles in the

OR

One of seven. Fifth of seven. Not seventh of nine. She would have been seventh if no one had died. There is magic in seven. There isn’t magic in five.

Magic. Two. One. Nine. Five. Seven. Died.

M

Alone with her two daughters she moved two hours away. Got a job at a chewing gum factory. (She was too short to be a stewardess.) Two and six. And he wanted to take them away. Told the judge she was insane. Sometimes she did feel she was going out of her mind. But she loved her little girls. At least, that’s what she called not wanting to lose someone. Especially to somebody else.

But in the end she left. Yes, Without her Daughters. Across oceans she went to Germany. She married an alcoholic. She congratulated herself on the courage to break a promise. Delusions of grandeur. Religious bonfires. And slowly the meaning of things deteriorated with her mind.

79


Nose ice drips, breath turns fog, oh it’s cold by this river and colder by the crackling harbor: never mind indoor cedar-fire music, or tender teen exchanges whispered together or long slow silent dances in basement rec rooms, no, whoop-holler-swoosh goes the slap-shot flash and a fast, fresh, unknowing target gets blasted, score again, bloody blade rises. But the rodent revives, scurries off. Hot sweat drips off hollow triumph, and I, complicit girl-boy witness, watch North Star jerseys

_F

I

AT

80

Sing while you swing oh lovely boys in hopeless fun confusion Sing while you hack hard through tundra grass mostly missing, but then …

OR

Land undressed and pillaged You expect as much in any place Feed the men and railroad cars Drain the lakes to fill the wounds Take the land for what it’s worth

M

no miners here, just giant claws stripping down old forest hills ripping fast through burial grounds tearing through geologic time Searching down the mother lode

_A

11

20

© From backseat car windows You learned the earth had holes gaping maws filled with trucks twisted valleys, raw and ragged testament to power of iron and steel

You run, bare headed in winter, trampling the frozen field, hockey stick in anxious hand, chasing rats between grain tower statues. Forget tomorrow’s history test or scrutinizing stars above. No matter that Orion laughs – you’re swinging hard at little creatures running right past you in the night, you and other shadow boys … I sit on cold, blue Chevy steel, ritual girl watching the swarm, studying your unsullied flesh searching for something that can’t hit back

81


Sing while you swing my lovely boys in desperate high delusion Sing while you hunt blunt through crumpled grass mostly missing, but then …

11

20

©

sliding between harsh spotlight high beams searching for more fresh kill

I

AT

82

_F

Sing while you swing my lovely boy in rapturous high confusion Sing while you rush blind through crunching snow mostly missing but then …

OR

M

_A

Let me run, scoring and leaping, letting loose holler and muscle, flush with secret unknown retributions, oh let me try swinging my stick in the dead grass, let me try screaming, mindlessly whacking at phantom creatures. I could kill. but instead my tongue sticks on steel while I pose in icy admiration. This rite will not last forever: you and Pete or Kerry and Eric or Roy will not rat forever – at some point you’ll look up, challenge Orion to take out his sword and with one righteous clang, he’ll bash your silly skull to the ground. Later, on the couch, you twist my nipples and I remember the cold hard car hood and my joy at your lack of skill.


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT


should fly, and flew when it should freeze. There wouldn’t be enough time for him to get better. He wouldn’t be going home; he would pass those coveted hours with his son here, in this prison ward. Could he do nothing to improve his miserable situation? After many tosses and turns, grunts and sighs, Fu allowed his eyes to wander, searching for inspiration. He talked to himself one minute and became tongue-tied the very next. His son would hate it here. Their time together would be sterile and joyless. It was no way for an old man to greet his child after so many years. Fu was almost ready to admit defeat – the victory of that drab room, his illness – when his blue-veined hand landed on a book someone had placed for him on the bedside table. It was the biography of Sun Zi, the most famous ancient Chinese military strategist.

20

©

Fu finally ate. The blockage in his esophagus had not allowed food to enter his stomach for a whole week; he was repulsed at even the sight of it. But his throat opened now just enough for him to swallow.

11

Fu was not a believer in miracles, but the moment he heard that his son would be arriving on a 14-hour cross-ocean flight from Americ a, he felt the muscles loosen in his throat. He wanted to clink glasses with his son. He wished to chat with him by a fishing pond. “Check me out of this hospital,” Fu said to his wife Shu-Zhen. “What? You must be kidding.”

_A

“Have you ever known me to be a kidder?”

Fu’s dull eyes glinted with excitement.

“But you’ve just shown the first sign of improvement.” “I can improve at home.”

”You were either too young, or too busy, or too distant.”

“And most of the time, either my mother or my sister or my wife was around.” Fu’s smile grew wider.

Liang swept the ward with his eyes, as if to say “We are alone now, are we not?” “This is not the perfect place, but the time is right.” “So what do you want to talk about?”

I

86

“If you say so, that must be the case.”

AT

Ever since the ambulance had rushed him here, time had been lingering, but with the news of his son’s arrival it suddenly commenced its harried forward march again. This bothered Fu. Time froze when it

His father’s mysterious grin, combined with the unexpected question, intrigued Liang. He wondered if he was searching for meaning where there was none, or perhaps he was missing some obvious message.

_F

Fu leaned back on prodded pillows without uttering another word. His eyes were blurry with fatigue. He knew he was letting his emotio ns trample logic, but it was unbearable to think that his son would be trapped in the hospital with him. So many haggard faces, the moanin g, the thick odor of medicine. If Fu, sick as he was, found it repulsiv e, how could a healthy person put up with it? The last thing he wanted was to subject someone else to such misery. Least of all his son.

“Liang, have you realized that the two of us have never, in our entire lives, had a man-to-man talk? A serious conversation that does not involve your mother or your sister or your wife?”

OR

Fu knew his wife was right. She was the best caretaker one could expect in a wife, but she was not trained to deal with medica l emergencies. He could not place the burden of his illness on her alone.

M

“No. Your condition is still unstable and you need constant medical attention.”

When Liang sat down with his father, a smile split Fu’s weathered face. They were alone together at last,

87


“I noticed that. Sometimes he would stop in the middle of telling me something when you came in.”

Fu looked out the window and saw the sky laced with wispy clouds that caught the red glow of the setting sun. His wrinkled face looked soft in the wash of light. “I’ve picked you to write my biography.”

“We didn’t quite get along.” “Why?”

enough talent to – ”

“He believed I betrayed him, and I believed he ruined my future.”

©

Liang looked at his father a moment. “Well, you’ve got quite a lot to live up to with a name like yours. I just hope you’ve endowed me with The old man let out a sonorous laugh.

20

Liang tipped his head toward his father, curious.

11

“Come on, Liang. I am joking! Even if you were the best writer in the world, who would want to read the biography of a common man like me? Forget about that. I just want to share with you some of my stories.” “You have some secrets to surprise me with?”

“Some of them I will take into the grave. Others …”

“Right. I will tell you one story every day.”

“Who?” Fu frowned.

After bringing his father a bottle of water and making himself comfortable in one of the two chairs, Liang said: “I’m ready for the Fu cleared his throat. “Do you still remember your grandfather?”

“He never talked to me much.”

“No, I didn’t.” “Why did you refuse?”

“I was one of the first generation of anti-aircraft artillery officers in the Chinese army and my military career was beginning to take off. Older officers would look at me and say, ‘You are a rising star, Fu.’ I was very proud. I loved the army. Anyway, I had no interest in leaving my future behind to return to the country. I had no desire to run the family store. I never had any interest in business at all. So I stayed in Beijing.” “What happened to grandfather’s business?”

“It went bankrupt. He blamed me.”

“And you? What about your military career? Did you get promoted

I

88

“And you didn’t honor his request.”

AT

“I remember he liked to drink and that he became talkative after a shot or two.”

“I was in Beijing, quite far away from where he was.”

_F

opener.”

“Where were you?”

OR

“Never mind.” Liang realized that his father was not an avid reader of classic literature, yet he liked his father’s plan as much as he liked Chaucer’s.

M

“Like Chaucer.”

_A

“I’m about to hear.”

“Your grandfather came from a well-off family that owned some land and a grocery store. But the family business stopped prospering just when your grandfather was old enough to take over. He had always been bothered by health problems, and was troubled constantly by the state of the country; one war would start before the previous one ended. By the time New China rose in the late 1940s, he was exhausted both physically and mentally. I was a man myself, by then. So he sent me a letter and asked me to come home to rescue the family.”

89


as expected?”

wife were drowning in a flood and you only had time to save one of them, who would you save?”

“No. I got ousted instead.”

“That is terrible to imagine.”

“Why?”

©

“I went through something like it many years ago.”

“Your grandfather wrote a letter to my immediate superior. Some time later I received notice that I was regarded as unfit for the military, and was forced to accept a transfer to a civilian job.”

Liang’s eyes bulged in disbelief.

20

“I made a decision to send you away to live with your aunt for a while when you were ten years old.

“What did he say in the letter?”

“I’ve never found out, but I did find out from your grandmother why he wrote it.”

11

“And a while turned out to be three years. I remember living in Hangzhou, that beautiful city known for the famous West Lake.

Liang leaned forward. “He did it to get even with you?”

“No, he did it to prevent me from being deployed to Korea.”

“He was trying to keep you in one piece, father. You would have fought the Americans. You would have lost. Maybe died.”

Liang wanted to say something, but words failed him. He opened the water bottle and pushed it across to his father.

“Let me ask you a hypothetical question. If your mother and your

“Your grandmother,” Fu’s eyes welled up; behind the moist eyes seethed guilt and regret. “I took you away from her, and it literally killed her.” A cold premonition sliced through Liang, and the sudden silence in the room became unnerving. He remembered being very close to his grandmother, but he had no memories of her death. “She adored you. You were the centerpiece of her life, the source of her happiness, and the only cure for her illness. But I took you away from her without telling her why.” Tears broke across Fu’s face. He wiped them away, but more followed. “Tell me what happened.” Liang could hear his own pounding heart. “I am no liar, but during that period of time I wove one lie after another. First I told her that you did so well at school that you were

I

90

“What was that?”

AT

“So what’s the next story about?” asked Liang.

“Yes, but there was something very wrong with it.”

_F

The night wind died to a whisper. As dawn was breaking, the gray morning rose in the windows. Liang opened one of them to take a lungful of fresh air. Although the eastern sun was another hour from sliding over the horizon, he had already blinked into full wakefulness. A new day promised a new story. By late morning, Fu was done with his simple breakfast, a routine check by his case doctor, and a short walk around the hospital building. The morning news flickered on TV.

“Then it was the right move, wasn’t it?”

OR

“But I couldn’t thank him for that.”

M

_A

Fu nodded, and his sallow face folded into a bitter smile. For a second he locked his gaze on his son. Then he turned away to a distant mountain out the window. Liang caught something simmering in his father’s eyes, something he couldn’t decipher.

“China and the former Soviet Union were at war, and we were too close to the border. You were a sick boy, allergic to cold weather, and winter lasted half a year where we lived. For your safety and health, and for the lack of a better option, I sent you away.”

91


days had come as a complete surprise to him. As his father shed one shimmering skein of his vague past and then another, Liang found himself fraught with worry and wonder. When a quiet man broke his silence, the words he spoke carried weight. How many words could the old man have bottled up in his feeble frame?

©

honored as a school representative with a visit to Beijing. Then I told her that in Beijing some experts identified you as having extraordinary gifts, and strongly advised you to attend a special school for young g talents. She was so proud of you, though she was torn between wantin you to succeed and wanting you to come home. At one point, she felt to the urge to go to Beijing, but I stopped her, telling her that the key the visit to aged discour success was focus. Even parents were strongly school when it was in session.”

20

If Liang felt conflicted about his father’s revelations, that fear was soon supplanted by a worse one. When his father set his morning water to his lips, he choked and spat, and out with the water came blood. The color drained from Fu’s face; his chest heaved as he inhaled; saliva frothed out of the corner of his mouth; he was drenched in sweat. Liang immediately pressed the bedside emergency button.

“She never knew where I really was …”

11

“No, she never did. She waited for you for a few months. When you didn’t come back for the summer, her health collapsed. She lost her mind and died begging to see you.” Fu choked out the last bit between strained breaths.

“Because I lied to you, too. You didn’t have a chance to say good-bye to your grandmother before you left for Hangzhou because I told you she couldn’t bear to see you leave. When you wrote and asked about her, I told you that it was her decision to send you away, for your own good, and that she wanted you to have fun and stay put. I even kept the r news of her death from you until you came back to spend the summe stroke.” sudden a of died she that you more than a year later, and I told

Liang looked at his father, anxious for a verdict.

With the stories, Liang found himself craving more and more of to his father’s mysteries. But he was scared, too, of what might come two last the and man private a been light next. His father had always

Through most of the stories, Fu’s face was serene. Occasionally he clapped his hands faintly or flashed an understanding smile. Most times though, his eyes remained closed, making Liang wonder whethe r he was conscious or not. Still, Liang continued to read. If he ran out of stories, he would make up more.

The Canterbury Tales was meant to include 120 stories, ultimately cut short at twenty four. Liang had no way of knowing how many stories his father had planned to share with him. Maybe just the two;

I

92

Sandwiched between two IV stands, Fu’s eyelids fluttered when Liang entered the room. The sudden deterioration of Fu’s organs, combined with the medication, had silenced him. His father would tell no more stories. So Liang reached into his bag, still packed from his long flight from America, and pulled out a book: The Canterbury Tales. Before he began to read, Liang told his father who Chaucer was, to which Fu jerked a thumb up.

AT

“There is no black and white but a thousand shades of gray.”

Some time later a doctor appeared. Fu had been moved to the ICU, his condition grave. Liang’s mother told Liang to go to him.

_F

“Son, did I do the right thing?”

His mother and sister arrived and sat with him.

OR

Liang sank into his chair. The weight of his grandmother’s memory visited him, not little by little as if through a sieve, but all at once. She to was never tired of cooking his favorite food; she bragged about him ed; ground was he when her neighbors and friends; she sheltered him she bought him his first dog …

M

_A

“Why have I never known this?”

The next minutes hummed past in a haze. Doctors and nurses rushed in; they huddled over his father talking quickly in a vocabulary that meant nothing to Liang; two women dashed out; a gurney was brough t in; his father was wheeled away. Before he knew it, Liang sat alone in the room, a boat without a rudder.

93


two was enough. In the middle of Chaucer’s eighth tale, Liang looked up from the book to see his father drifting away. Chaucer had managed twenty-four; Fu, only two. Not enough for a book.

©

_F

OR

When Liang stepped out of the water to join his mother and sister, he saw four shots of Mao Tai, the most famous Chinese liquor, sitting on each side of the table. As if in unison, the three of them raised the shots to their lips and drank. The warm fragrance lingered long after the liquor had gone down. Then Liang picked up the fourth one and poured its full contents onto the beach.

M

_A

11

20

Two weeks after Fu’s passing, his wife, his son, and his daughter stood in silence on a beach in Qin Dao, a seaside city better known for its beer than for its ocean view. It was about ten o’clock in the evening when light faded and the beach was almost deserted. Although the reddened sea had given way to darkness, one could still hear gulls swooping. Liang stepped into the wavy vastness, murmuring a prayer as he met its embrace. In his hands he held an urn. When he was knee deep, he opened the cap of the urn and allowed the ashes to cascade freely into the most powerful body of life. Turning around, he watched the silhouettes of his mother and sister. In spite of the darkness, he could see their sparkling tears. Silently they began to empty a big cooler. On a folding table, they set the plates, and in them were enough delicious dishes to feed a squad of soldiers.

I

AT

94


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT


_F

OR

M

_A

11

20

©

I

AT


_F

OR M _A 11

20

I

AT


los angeles

OR

M _A

11

20

Š los angeles

I AT _F Safety Area: All Text, Logos & Barcode should remain inside the Pink Dotted Lines Bleed Area: All Backgrounds should extend to, but not past, the Blue Dotted Lines


Amor Fati | Origins Vol 4