We found ourselves in this small mountain town filled with floating castles and ancient-looking buildings—museums, churches, capitols, old houses—each historic and antiquated monument floating atop its own individual mountain, like a dozen acropolises. We’d spent the morning visiting each one, gallivanting around with the other tourists. The city itself was in a large valley made up of the small hills and cobblestone streets that wound around these edifices. White snow topped the green mountains on either side of us.
The sun was bright, but you could barely feel it as the narrow valley and hills and many buildings had a tendency to slant its rays and keep the sun from penetrating totally in the street of the city. The whole town looked as if it were painted as a chiaroscuro. Light. Dark. Light. Dark. In some parts, particularly down low, the cold air and dark shadows felt as if they were emanating from the earth itself.
We were on vacation in this small, fairy-tale-like-town for, as they call it, a “Babymoon.” Particularly special for us because we’d spent several years navigating the hellscape of miscarriages and infertility treatments, with visits to doctors’ offices becoming more frequent than meals eaten out.
As evening encroached, my six-month pregnant wife and I soon found ourselves in line with all the other tourists to go to a famous ball put on by the locals. The waiting area sat atop an inclined street that led to the base of a small castle. The entire city and valley stretched out on either side of us. A 360-degree view but for the stone structure right in front of us. Pink snow topped the green mountains as dusk approached.
They said the city began as a refugee camp, some years, long ago. A different time, but the same world. These residents walked and lived in camps at first. All borders shut. Some of them lived in cages. There was no room at any inn they stopped at along the way. So, one day, they made their own way to a part of the world no one cared they’d occupy. Somewhere in between Greenland, Wyoming, and Azerbaijan. They built a city for themselves. Because no one else would. Some of them were architects after all. And doctors. And city planners. And philosophers. And lawyers. Those that were still living.
My wife and I were tired. The tiredness that hits the bottoms of your feet and lower back, exacerbated from walking around on cobblestone all day. My wife was not feeling good. She sat down next to me as we waited in line for the doors to open.
After thirty minutes or so, people began grumbling amongst themselves. It was a strange noise to hear after walking about this town all day and hearing nothing but laughter, joy, and curiosity coming from folks—both us tourists and the locals alike. That’s when I first felt that something was not quite right.
Perhaps it was because there was a man in line I didn’t like the sight of. He looked like he was concealing a weapon but it couldn’t have been, for weapons were outlawed, no, not outlawed, didn’t exist.
In fact, the more I thought about it, I realized that this entire fantastical little city existed without a single unit of police or military. There were not even jails for there were no need for them. A guide had told us this as we toured the largest castle on the tallest peak—it’s location right behind the smaller castle in front of us. It was strange for us Americans, who were so used to guns and men in uniform patrolling the streets. So used to violence and the unpredictability of men.
Night started to descend while we waited in line, and as the lights of the town flickered on, everyone’s phones started to ring and ding, one by one, with the sound of text messages and call alerts. People began picking up, unworried at first, and then more so as they realized that it was not just their phone going off, but everyone’s, and something of this nature could only be an emergency alert.
My wife stood up with one hand holding her stomach, the other on her lower back. I grabbed her left hand to help her rise. The sound was far enough away and unexpected enough that most of the looks the other tourists’ faces were ones of shock and confusion. Were they bombing the ski resort up above us for avalanches, perhaps?
We all rushed down and around the cobblestone street leading up to the castle and over to her so we could see what had caused her to scream. And that’s when we saw it as we wound around to the right of the small castle to join her: The large castle crumbling and falling off the side of the hill. Another explosion punctured the air. We all flinched. More of the castle crumbled away. Distant screams.
Then, other sounds. Closer, deeper, faster, and more shocking. Right behind us. The sound of a gun, I think. The sound of bodies suddenly flapping against the cobblestone next to us.
I grabbed my wife and we rolled down a small knoll in the street to the left. I pushed her down hard, harder than I should have for a woman carrying a child. The shots continued.
“Let’s go!” I whispered to my wife.
We got up, crouching, and began running down the street that wound itself down the hill like an ice cream cone.
“We have to get down and get out of this city,” my wife said. I nodded.
We jumped a small guardrail and I caught my wife as she jumped and then tumbled on top of me into the sweet, green grass that covered the hills in between the switchbacks of the road. Grass so green and fertile you could nearly taste it in the cream and milk at restaurants and coffee shops.
I pushed her down beside a small bush and lay flat. The trucks drove by above us, the men wearing Viking masks. We heard them stop. Doors open. More sounds.
Pop pop pop. Pop pop pop.
“Down with the imperialists!” one said. Or was it tourists?
I nodded at my wife to keep moving and she nodded back. We moved straight down the grass this time, slowly, my wife huffing, and when the road came up again below us, we paused, looked right and left for signs of anymore trucks, dashed across the road like the chipmunks and squirrels had done all day, and began moving down the next stretch of grass between the winding-ice-cream-cone of a road, always crouching. Staying low.
We had moved fast. That’s what had saved us. Despite my wife’s pregnancy and the slow walking down the hill now, those first few moves were crucial. The drop and the roll down the small knoll in the street, then around to the left. Then down the street. Now the hills.
We would get out of this I thought. Whatever this was. And that’s when the top of the small mountain we were just on exploded. Tiny pieces of rock and ancient brick from the castle flew over us. We hit the ground again. Our ears ringing now. For this one was close and loud and big. We covered our heads with our frail hands. I threw myself on top of my wife. We could hear the trucks coming back down the ice-cream-cone road.
We moved down the hill and were back in the town, the city of shops and stores and restaurants and bars that spread across the base of the valley and clustered up around each acropolis. The place that earlier today had seemed so beautiful and peaceful and quiet and calm. We ran across the street, into one of those fancy touristy-yet-local restaurants that serves high-end Italian dishes alongside hand-rolled sushi. We burst in, my wife and I. Covered now in grass and rubble. Short of breath. A small trickle of blood was running down my wife’s left temple. A bruise was developing on my knee. Everyone looked up at us simultaneously. Most of them locals. Not one of them looked concerned. Did they not know? Did they not hear?
“The explosions!” I shouted. “The men, the guns! Didn’t you hear it? This place is not safe. We need to move, all of you. Now!”
They continued to stare at us in silence. The approaching steps of two men in suit jackets.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re going to have to ask you to leave.”
They threw us out.
Our goal was then to make it out of the city at all costs. We could survive in the woods, my wife and I. We could survive in the streams and rivers and fields and glaciers and whatever was beyond this town. It was where we were most comfortable, to be honest.
“There’s two of them there!” someone shouted, as we crept through the streets.
I whipped around to see four men with guns behind who had caught sight of us. I grabbed my wife and we barged through a door to the building on our left as shots hit the cobblestone street.
We entered what appeared to be the circular lobby of a bank or a governmental office. Everything was polished and white and marble. A large chandelier hung down in the center of the space. There was only one desk at the far end of the room, a concierge of sorts. My wife’s right arm was draped around me as she held her stomach and leaned heavily onto me. I held her around the waist. We walked toward the concierge who, upon seeing us, promptly picked up his phone and began dialing.
“No, wait!” I shouted. “She’s pregnant.”
The man seemed unconcerned.
“We have papers, documents! We’re travelers, American citizens. Do you see what’s going on out there?”
The man paused for a second, considering. Maybe he considered the baby. Maybe he considered us a nuisance more than anything, as less than, as not even something worth giving up.
“You can go out the back way,” he said. “You cannot stay here, but I can let you leave quietly. Where you choose to go from there is up to you.”
“Please, just don’t send us back out there,” screamed my wife. “We just need to get out of this city!”
“Fine. Follow me,” said the man. He was black and wearing at least a thousand-dollar suite.
He led us through the door behind the concierge desk and then another one. Each hallway was white, polished, and marble. He let us out into an alley. In one direction was a dead end. The other led back into one of the main streets.
“Goodbye,” he said. “And, Good luck.”
The door slammed behind him and we froze.
And that’s when we were rescued. Sort of. A young, muscular man in a hoodie sitting outside a door further down the alley. He looked at us for a second, then waved us over. We ran to him. We had no other choice.
The young man closed the wooden door behind us a with a small bang. It made both my wife and I flinch for it sounded like a gun shot.The young man, however, also seemed unconcerned. He was nearly apathetic and unapologetic as he sized us up. Contemplating what to do with us. As if we were a hindrance to his evening and not fleeing for our lives from the violence outside. He didn’t offer us tea or coffee. Neither did he even offer us a seat. Not even to my pregnant wife who was now bleeding rather profusely from somewhere on her head. All he said, was, “Follow me.”
We followed him through two rooms and down a small flight of stairs into a cellar of sorts. It smelled of wine, dates, figs, and cheese, was earthy and comforting.
“Here,” he said, opening a latch in the center of the floor to reveal a large hole.
“This slide will shoot you out of the city.”
“Yes, it’s an emergency slide. Should things ever get too bad.”
I was dumbfounded. “But … Isn’t this bad?”
“This is normal,” the man said. “On this day, you just happen to be the unlucky ones. We cannot shelter anyone here who was not born here. And sometimes the locals get a little bit tired of all the tourists.”
“So they shoot them?” my wife asked.
“But what about the buildings?” I asked.
“We like rebuilding things. It’s what makes this city so interesting. But then everyone wants to come and look at the things we’ve built. And sometimes we get tired of it. We do not have to let anyone come, after all. This is our home. A home we were forced to make on our own when no one would accept us into theirs. So we are not obligated to help anyone. No one felt obligated to help us.”
“But what about—”
“Please,” the man said. “You must go. I must return to my work. I have much to do.”
“Thank you,” my wife said, even though I did not feel like thanking this man.
“I must go,” he said. “Au revoir.”
I spun toward my wife. She nodded at me. Giving me strength. I took her hand and we jumped.
When I was young, I often assumed that every German living in 1940’s Nazi Germany was a full on Nazi. Or else a resister. But no, many of them were bakers, simply going to work each day, baking bread, watching the ash rise from the smokestacks and thinking nothing of it. They thought nothing of war. They merely went to work and did their job and didn’t ask too many questions. Like this man.
Or was it I who, in a past life, was the baker?
We landed on the soft earth some thousand feet below the city. A lake stretched out in front of us. My wife and I did not look back at the city above us but kept moving forward. The city in the valley with the hills and acropolises and the sweet, green grass. That city was probably red now. Red and yellow from fire. Beautiful City. City of Terror. City of No Samaritans.
Pop a mind-altering substance. Maybe a cup of warm cider. Or a soft wool blanket. Or the semaphore of a cat who sits just out of reach. Is an edible available? Sure, that works. Or simply rub your entire torso against a wooden fence until your neighbor buys a shotgun and brandishes it at you. Next, take out your pen and stab yourself with it, like a Super Solider™ preparing to go into battle except the battle is the act of laying extremely still in a purple meadow surrounded by swaying trees. Birch and Elm and Oak and Willows and every conceivable genus of Eucalyptus. Trees. Those woven sinews snaking between now and next, up and down. Sit and smell your invention. No don’t write, you dummy, that’s how the ink spills out and ruins the meadow. Don’t sully your imagination by pressing it against these soft, sweet trees. You little Longhorn Beetle. You fruit of rot. You inadvertent mycelium. Holster that pen, soldier.
Parents will probably start to creep in at this point. As they do. As they will. They’ll stain the walls with bits of china and they’ll bring with them the artifacts of childhood. A watercolor of a nameless boat. Charles Aznavour records stacked to the ceiling. A Bescherelle of nonexistent conjugations. A few pets will appear. A floppy-eared dog. A cat named Magic who ran off into the ravine. Maybe a small bird will perch on your shoulder as you practice your scales. Or a rat will emerge from your sleeve with a sage piece of advice. Something about the soil in a cemetery. You should listen to it, because it’s just you in animal skin, which is the best skin, the best you. There’s a bloodletting coming, obviously. But it’s not prophetic. Just a happy splatter. A happy little splatter with your family watching proudly.
"No don’t write, you dummy, that’s how the ink spills out and ruins the meadow. Don’t sully your imagination by pressing it against these soft, sweet trees."
This piece was originally published in the Stansbury Forum on June 6, 2020. The Stansbury Forum is a website for discussion by writers, activists and scholars on the topics that Jeff focused his life on: labor, politics, immigration, the environment, and world affairs. Please be sure to check out their impressive work and support their mission. The original link to the piece is here and their website is here.
The Narrative of Change
by Gary Phillips
Trying to get a breath in a time of COVID 19 and knees to the neck.
I belong to several dues paying mystery writer associations. These groups do not have the collective bargaining power for its membership like my white-collar Hollywood union the Writers Guild of America (WGA). The WGA has a past when its members got in the face of the studio bosses and some got their heads knocked in for their efforts and others blacklisted. Different then from the WGA, these aforementioned associations don’t exact a floor for book advances, set a standard pay for a short story of a given length, or seek to establish working conditions for the writer – which in the case of prose writers as distinct from script writing; it’s a solitary undertaking. But not for nothing the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), a national board I once served on as well as past president of the local chapter, does have as its motto, “Crime doesn’t pay…enough.”
To that end the 75-year-old MWA has used the bully pulpit to advocate for a better status of genre writers, intervened in contract disputes, called to task shady publisher practices, and more than anything, provided a way for established pros to interact with first timers or those looking to get published. This through formal talks and seminars as well as bending an elbow at a neighborhood tavern or the bar in the evening during a mystery convention. And like the history of a lot of unions, the MWA wasn’t always diverse. It would be fair to say the MWA was something of a white old boys club for many a year. In fact, Sisters in Crime (SinC) was founded in 1987 by 26 woman crime writers including bestseller Sara Paretsky specifically to address the frustration they had with the obstacles they faced in publishing, and not receiving their fair share of book reviews in a field then dominated by male reviewers.
Today matters are different. There is not only diversity of gender and race/ethnicity on the board of the MWA as well as sister misters on the SinC board, the membership reflects a changed landscape of the types of writers penning these stories. While the police procedural is still told, it could be a story of cop who’s a black woman confronting departmental racism to do her job right. Or about an Asian-American private detective who not only is perceived a certain way by others but is investigating the questionable death of a suspect at the hands of the police or some other so-called authority.
No surprise then when in 2018 the MWA awarded former prosecutor turned author Lina Fairstein its Grand Master award and the membership rose up in opposition. Fairstein to many, me included, helped railroad, along with the police, five black and brown teenager into prison for serious time, convicting them of rape and beating a victim half to death in a “wilding incident” in the infamous Central Park Five case. A case where DNA finally exonerated the now grown men and the city paid out $41m in a settlement. The award was soon rescinded.
Fairstein who has a solid record of pursing justice for years in cases of sexual offenses, maintained the youths were involved in some way in the rape in an op-ed piece she wrote for the Wall Street Journal in June 2019. Really the surprise was the MWA board picking Fairstein and claiming not to know the controversy surrounding her.
Now in the wake of nation-wide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, captured agonizingly on smartphone video, by fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (now charged with 2nd degree murder), the MWA and SinC (and I’m a sister mister) have both stepped up. The organizations issued statements in support of efforts at reform of the police.
From SinC’s statement, “The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are only three recent reminders of the 400-year history of violence visited upon Black people of the United States.”
“Listening leads to understanding, and action leads to change,” the MWA’s statement read in part.
On a listsev I’m part of, Crime Writers of Color, various discussions fly back and forth via email among the loose-kinit group – some of whom are part of the MWA and SinC. The morning following the publishing of these statements, folks on the listserv heard of examples of pushback from the membership, and the nature and character of such was bandied about.
More importantly, reality demands that writers of color and their white colleagues have to re-evaluate what they write and how in they tell the story. There is no getting around the way in which black and brown communities are policed, be the cops white or not or a mixture as was present at Mr. Floyd’s demise. In this time of the virus that too will have to be depicted in some way in our fictions. Yet not every mystery story has to be about that (though I can imagine a story where a murderer kills someone and tries to make it look like complications from COVID) or the use of excessive force and race. But me and my fellow crime writes are challenged to consider the point of view, of who is telling the story and thus who controls the narrative…from the hardboiled to the cozy.
Family Crypt Chorus Blog
“And on my best behavior I am just like him
Look underneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid”
“John Wayne Gacy Jr.”
In Dad’s Home Movie, I Defy Him
I’m still rocking on unsteady hips, but already
he’s bragging to his universe about me.
(Favorite daughter; see how much she knows.)
He sets us up:
first the camcorder, then the game.
Marie! Can you go get me number fo-ah?
His voice is gentle, New England music.
A toddle, a squat. A yellow magnet 4
retrieved from a board. The thunderclap
of Dad’s applause.
Aww-right! Number fo-ah, thank you!
Now, how about… number two?!
A shy smile forms beneath the armor
of my thick-bobbed hair.
I hold up my index finger. Numbah one?
You play your own game, huh?
And I do.
(And still I do. Favorite daughter, born
or burst forth, formed
Each number he counts,
I counter. Each number I name,
I find. And Dad’s laugh,
instilling this in me:
As long as you’re smart enough, Sweetpea,
the rules are yours to make.
Just once, I pause
to investigate his camera,
my huge hazel eye gazing at its gaze.
Then it’s right back to gleefully retrieving
(three instead of seven, eight instead of five)
until one day, I see myself, and see
how the numbers have changed:
add 35 years, and one near-fatal accident, and--
I don’t think I really want to be Minerva.
I wish I’d sought your wisdom
before warring for my own.
I wish I could put both of us
back inside your head.
Dad’s footage runs down; Mom’s key
turns in the lock, and I run to her, arms-up.
Jacket off? I entreat her
and crawl into her lap, remembering
I’m no deity, but a child
—but too late.
Those Dead Spaces: When No One in Your Family Talks
My family didn’t talk much growing up. There was a lot of family history that, if not covered up, was at least unspoken. Most of it was barely scandalous, but still, we didn’t talk, not about things that were actually going on, not if it wasn’t in whispers. Certain things were better left unsaid after all. The nice, decent, Christian-white-people-way. No “gossiping.”
We didn’t talk about abuse or mental illness or even teenage rebellion. We whispered about these things as if they were dirty, radioactive secrets. Just like those three monkeys: “See no evil, speak no evil, hear evil.” To do so was to bring a demon to life.
This eventually provided a reactionary state of mind within me to convert to an all-honesty, raw-confessionalism later in life as a response to the safe, closeted, sheltered, see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-do-no-evil Christianity I grew up with. This, at least, is what a therapist once told me in couple’s counseling once. She said I should be careful not to overdo it with my honesty. That I was over-reacting against my past.
“Fuck you!” I said to her. “I’m not overreacting against anything! People can’t just pretend that life is nice and tidy and never be in touch with reality!”
Maybe she was right.
This lack of familial communication is perhaps why I still have trouble communicating with people today, preferring to spend most of my time, alone, in my own head. Unless it’s through writing, I don’t share things easily. I bottle my emotions. I have imaginary conversations and fantasies in my mind rather than confronting people directly.
This creates problems. In marriage and relationships mostly, but also at work. I am distanced person. I rarely convey my emotions through speech. It’s like, I just can’t. This is perhaps why I’ve always been drawn to writing. Why I attempted to write a raw, confessional, edgy memoir in my early twenties. Why I’m still trying to write that book to this day.
I might be mad at the crypts underneath my family’s history. Those dead bodies buried (some of whom are still alive) that we never speak of. But I have the same dead spaces within me and beneath me. Mistakes I’ve made. Many nights I would not want televised on the big screen. Vaults underground I’d do anything to keep you out of.
Sometimes I even try to cover up of these chambers with raw honesty. As if confessing to one crime will spare me from the others. Sometimes it even works.
But I’m still forced to live with the smell.
the green door
a green mottled door winks itself into existence and creaks open. a sort of yawning creak that might be a groan. or a slow flood. or a winter fling with a grad student you never really liked that much but then got so busy existing—between exams and learning how to cook udon noodles without a stove—that your slipped right into a whole life together. chipped dishes and microwaves and too many kiddie pools for one person to own balled up in the garage. a garage. Christmas lights and stamp collections and decorative whatevers until you wake up thirty eight years later as if the photos of you and the now-gray grad student that adorn the walls are poor reproductions. that sort of creak of a door. you never asked it to open but it did.
the door itself is so aggressively unobtrusive it might be a prop on a movie set. not the kind that goes up for auction on eBay some number of nostalgic years in the future before being snapped up by a highly sympathetic man named Tom from Wisconsin. no, it’s the kind of prop that gets left in a studio’s alleyway for the garbage collector but somehow gets wedged in a gaping sewer grate and nobody bothers to fish it out and so it remains slowly decomposing over the course of several human lives. and nobody seems to mind. people are generally agreeable to ornamental decomposition. something about HyperArt or Situationists or other stone-cold thoughmongers. the door keeps opening it and you, idiot, keep walking through. like maybe this time there won’t be a twelve-foot crocodile tick-tocking its way through the foyer. like maybe the disproportionate hangover is ever-coming instead of never-ending. the colorblind pond-scum of its exterior will keep you away, but it doesn’t. though the grass may be greener, it scuffs your seams just the same.
Lifetime Spent Sitting
originally published by Thirty West Publishing House in Marrow
Lifetime spent sitting
My whole life was
spent in the backseat of my parents’
car while they looked for
a brand new house.
In new neighborhoods, with
new car smell, I was woozy with motion.
I asked for the radio and
they turned on stations I didn't like.
Old music and new cars and new homes
and repeated bumps over potholes; I was always sick.
I’ve wasted my adulthood sitting on men’s
laps, listening to music while drunk.
New men and old music and sitting.
And my life is a chart scaled by carsickness.
The Building of a Crypt
My family has been building its own crypt since 2007
That’s not true, but that’s how it feels,
My mother grew ill
My sister left for college,
My childhood rushed to an end
Yet this is par for the norm of life,
But when my mother died I found that my family, well
My family’s house crumbled brick by brick
And while those left have tried to build it back
Those bricks have been joined together for a crypt
Here lies a former family, it reads,
Scattered to the West, broken and disorganized
Nothing has been the same, though we try
The family has died, it came to an explosive end,
And though glue remains, trying to hold two ends,
The effort seems fruitless, and impossible to mend.
By J. Sam Williams
Dear San Francisco 49ers,
It’s me, Tom Brady, the best Quarterback and football player of all-time. I hear you’re going to the Super Bowl this year. Congrats! It’s been a bit since you last played for a Championship. You know I’ve been to the Superbowl four times since you fellas lost to the Ravens. I won three--I mean all four of those Super Bowls, orchestrating the best Super Bowl comeback ever against the Falcons and definitely did not get stripped, causing a turnover, on the final drive against the Eagles.
Anywho, you are going to the Super Bowl and that’s a big deal. Are you sure you’ve got the best team? Are you sure you’ve got the best Quarterback? Have you seen all the reports that Jimmy G is just a game manager? That people don’t trust him in big situations? I know Jimmy really well. He backed me up here in New England. There's a reason we traded him. I mean come on! He threw eight passes, total, in your Championship Game. He threw for less than 80 yards. You could use a new Quarterback. You know whom you should get, me: Tom Brady, Bay Area native and a GIANT 49ers fan.
How perfect would this be? The prodigal son comes home, leaving behind his life of working for The Dev--I mean Bill Belichick. With this win, San Francisco will tie the Patriots, and no one else, for six Super Bowl Championships, becoming the best franchise ever. But also, with this win I’ll get seven Super Bowl rings, more than any franchise has total, and finally unlock the secret to immortality.
Think about it. Jimmy might only play two more years, if he goes the way of Andrew Luck. I will be immortal, getting stronger with each ring I collect, kinda like Thanos. Don't you want Thanos running your team? What a story that will be! Tom Brady returns home, becomes Thanos, wins every Super Bowl, and lives forever. They’ll build a shrine for me--I mean us.
I know what you’re thinking. “Tom, it’s the week of the Super Bowl, we can’t trade for you.” When have rules ever stopped The Patriots anyone from doing anything? Plus, I’ve gotten that sort of thing handled. Just bring Jimmy to a TB12, his key card should still work. I’ve got a lab in the basement where we cant switch our faces for the week, and then we can put Jimmy in one of the hyper-sleep tanks where I keep my clones house plants.
It’ll be great. You won’t regret it. This will be the best decision your franchise has ever made.
Looking forward to hearing back from you,
What time should Jimmy show up at TB12?
When Tía Lupe arrives to pick me up, she honks the horn. I rush out. I don’t like to keep people waiting.
When I’m close, she gets out of the car and walks around to the passenger door. Her car is loud and hot and filled with trash. I settle into the driver’s seat. I put on my seatbelt, adjust the mirrors and roll up my window. As I drive away from the curve, the bottles of soda rattle in the back.
Lupe is calm and confident as she gives me instructions. She’s my mom’s niece but they’re the same age. She’s married to my dad’s younger brother.
Unlike other families, the women in our family don’t drive. Tradition weighs heavily on us. Unlike getting married and having children, this is a choice. My mother doesn’t drive. Her mother doesn’t drive. My dad’s mother doesn’t drive. Primarily, the men drive. They decide where we go and when. My mother doesn’t leave without permission.
Tía Lupe drives. When she leaves the house, she’s often followed by her husband. He spies on her, stalks her, watches her. I’ve been in the car, when she’s spotted him. My mom was in the front passenger seat. I was ten and sat in the backseat. Lupe pulled over and got out of the car to talk to him. I held myself still in patient tension as I watched him talk to her through the rearview mirror. Mom didn’t say anything. She looked forward. But I wondered with constricted breath what we would do if he hit her. It was a hot day and I remember the warm seats caused puddles of sweat beneath my thighs. I was relieved when she returned.
I haven’t decided my place in the family yet. I’m 20. I want big things like independence and autonomy. I’d rather die than be stuck here. It seems so cliché, but I’d rather die than live without freedom. I don’t want to be my mother. I’m a practiced self-harmer. When I tell myself I won’t live without freedom, I do this with an escape plan in mind.
After I’m 30 and I leave El Monte—a city east of L.A.--again, I will have nightmares about being trapped here. Those nightmares will hold me into my forties and beyond that.
“Now turn to the right,” she says, “We are heading to the mall.”
“Okay,” I say.
Her hair is long and permed into tight curls that tend to frizz. She’s a cloud of golden brown fuzz. She hates her forehead so she keeps her curly bands at eyebrow level. Her traditional aesthetic means she’s all dressed up and wearing heeled shoes. At this stage in the timeline of her beauty, her eyebrows are tattooed. Her lipstick is a freshly applied bright mauve.
There’s a cassette tape playing loudly. I ask her to lower the music.
“It’s fine,” she says.
“It’s too loud.”
“No, it isn’t. You have to learn to drive with distractions,” she says, “You are so young, you need to learn to live a little. Stop living like you’re an old woman whose life is over.”
“It’s hurting my ears,” I say.
“You’ll get used to it.”
As I drive, my face is pinched and I have to take deep breathes. My senses are overloaded. And I’m angry that she’s ignoring me. I take deep breathes to calm down. But being with her right now, is one of the most joyous moments of my young adulthood.
Despite how critical she is, she believes I might be something. She sees the possibilities of my life unfolding in front of me. I think she sees hope. As we drive, I wonder again who she is defying to teach me. It is her mother-in-law or my father or her husband? Is it my mother? How many are rooting for me to fail?
Tia Lupe and I always had a tense relationship. She’s a declarative women with a deeply abusive past. She constantly rubs me the wrong way. She doesn’t like to hear me say “no” to her.
But love is tricky. Lupe has been in my life from the beginning. She spends every weekend with us—with my mom. We are as close, but I know she also lies to me.
We head to the mall, Lupe turns up the music and rolls down all the windows. She’s ablaze in sound and wind and the chaos of hair. I take a deep breath.
In a few years, Lupe will be dead. And my mind will circle back to this moment between us again and again. A moment. What’s a moment?
A moment can be everything. I doubt it took her longer than a moment to write that note and take those pills. In a single moment she decided she was done. She flung her head back and swallowed death. She probably didn’t even think of me.
She comes once or twice a week to teach me how to drive. In that hour that we spend together, I smell her perfume. Beneath the chemically scent, I can smell her skin coming alive like a jungle. She wears tight pants and a loud patterned blouse. And she talks to me in clipped tones that are self-assured and unwavering.
She has severe mental illness. But I don’t know this. She doesn’t share her stories with me. Her stories are making the rest of the family panic. Her omission feels like lies. I wonder later if she was as afraid of my judgement as I was of hers?
My family doesn’t like me. I break their rules too much. I’m driven. I’ve graduated school with high honors. They act like they are proud. But I can tell something is wrong. My male cousins aren’t achieving what I’ve achieved. They aren’t graduating. My father’s family is wondering who the hell I think I am to usurp their men so easily.
I come from a family of criminal immigrants. In my father’s family, the men dominate and somehow always end up in jail. They don’t believe in respecting the American system. They all came in illegally and live their lives skirting the edges of society. We aren’t really engaged. We aren’t really involved. We aren’t fully here. Part of them in still in Mexico. Part of me is stuck deeply in trauma.
I’m at the edges of this family—a marginalized person within a marginalized group. Later, much later, I will feel betrayed by Lupe’s silence. I will be angry that my mother isolated me this way. And much later after that, I will understand that this isn’t anger. It’s grief.
I adore her. Tía Lupe is a second mother, much bolder than my own. She somehow balances my mother’s unbending anxiety. Unlike my mom, Lupe talks more openly about her own anxiety and depression. Lupe talks about her bad marriage. And she complains a lot. She’s one long wail.
Every weekend, my father’s family visits Grandmother Lola. She lives next door. After Lupe greets her mother-in-law, she comes over our house. Often, Lupe’s mom is also there. My mom, Belia and Lupe gather around the dinner table and talk about their husbands and their children.
Sometimes, Belia’s other daughters visit as well.
I prefer to stay in my room. But the laughing and the bellowing draw me out. It’s 11 AM on a Sunday. I’m 14 and believe people have no business visiting at such an early hour. I’m still in my pajamas.
It’s Isabel laughing. When she laughs it’s a booming sound like the explosion of a tire on the highway. I wave as I head to the kitchen to grab something to eat. I’m quiet as I move about. Lupe is talking about her sons.
“No, no. Boys are so gross. You should see how they leave the bathroom.”
I cringe. I grab a bowl and set it softly on the counter. I open the fridge to take out the milk. There’s very little left. I miss the conversation as I lean into the fridge to see if there is more milk.
“This is just so hard,” Lupe says, “I don’t really want to be around. I feel done.”
She has two sons. Her oldest son is 15. The youngest is about 10 years old.
“We all feel that way,” my mom says, “It’s just so important to remember what it says in the Bible.”
I’ve heard my mom’ speech before. I pour out the cereal and head back into my room.
They are here so often, I don’t think they should expect the niceties anymore. But there’s more to it than this. I’m afraid of their rejection. Inside me is my mom’s voice telling me that no one likes me.
Isabel enthusiastically greets me. Tia Lupe makes some comment about how bland I am. My Tia Belia softly says, “Hi Mireyita.” She speaks in a voice that reminds me of children.
I hide back in my room with the cereal I got from the kitchen.
I sit in my room reading. When I’m done with the cereal, I set it down and begin to wonder when it’s okay to go out again.
The women’s voices are a constant buzz against the walls of my room. I tell myself I hate the fact that they talk so much, but this isn’t true. I hate that I’m left out. I love that they are here. I love that they show up and unload and create worlds together.
When I leave my room again, mom is talking about buying a plot of land in Mexico.
“We can all live together,” mom says.
“No,” Lupe says, “the kids are American. Besides that one would never agree.”
“That one” is what she calls her husband.
I set my dirty bowl on the counter. I walk by them again and close my door.
For the rest of my life, I will think about this. I will wonder what loneliness drove her to end things. What was missing? But mostly, I will wonder what kind of person I needed to be for her to trust me. And this, this will change everything.
It will change the way I see mental health. It will change the way I understand compassion. The responsibility I feel over the systems in our family that made her death possible--will change me. And for many days over the next decade I will wonder about her arms. I will wonder about the arm she tossed over her body as she lay dying and waiting. I will think about her inky veins visible underneath the pale pools of her skin that look like blue Danube china. Later, when I’m married, I will collect this china and store it in my laundry room. I won’t use it. But owning it will mean everything to me. I won’t understand why, because sometimes thoughts are imprinted in us like transferware and they just don’t leave. All of my life, I will love the elegance of blue against white. As dignified as her death was not. For decades I will wonder what she felt in those last moments. I will wonder about the thickness of her skin—translucent like a moth’s wing.
For years later, I will wonder if death has lined us up like children ready to go home after the school day has ended. Had it, without my knowledge, put me in line after Lupe? I will spend hours thinking about this, wondering if my death is inevitable. Secure in my belief that depression is a deadly condition and I am next.
Except that I’m not like Lupe. I am stubborn. I am a tenacious problem-solver. When my own son turns 17 and has a mental illness, I rail passionately about what suicide teaches those that are left behind.
“It’s a damned legacy,” I will say to him.
He’s sitting on the living room chair. I’m sitting on the rug in front of him. And I’m yelling. Which isn’t necessary. He exudes fragility. He’s trembling. His eyes are shiny with tears and his mouth is shut tight. I hang on to him hard and decide that if I don’t let go, he can’t leave me. But I keep thinking that I can pull him through by sheer force of will. The way I might have for Lupe.
I find out about Lupe’s death as I’m walking into my mother’s house. I’m home from the mental hospital and still feel shaken from my own experience.
The scars of her death will haunt me. I will wonder at what point she decided to overdose. At what moment did she decide that emotions aren’t temporary? At what moment did she believe that the depression would last forever? I will also wonder about how she had the courage to do this while I was in the hospital myself. Was she trying to tell me something?
But right now, we drive.
I refuse to see Little Women, no matter how good I've heard it is, because I am so emotionally dependent on that one from 1994.
The Irishman: A very moving meditation on death, aging, reaping, sowing, crime, the canon of Scorsese movies, and the waste of using so much money on anti-aging CGI.
Knives Out-Just a fun and good mystery movie by Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, Last Jedi) where Chris Evans plays an asshole in an excessive white sweater alongside a phenomenal cast.
“for you, anyway”
by Liz Bergland
smelled like cinnamon.
tasted like salt.
brushed against me
when you slammed your eyes shut.
knocked me to my knees,
layering bruises on bruises,
and that was the end of the game.
* sad hockey image taken from here
6/19/2019 0 Comments
t's like the Dating Game, only way hotter. I'm Janie and I'm trying to date your new book. In this case, I'm trying to get in with Cactus by Nathaniel Kennon Perkins and published by the gorgeous and world-shakin' Trident Press. According to Cactus' Hinge bio, it's all about [how] "In Cactus, correctional officer and ex-punk rocker Will Stephens works guarding prisoners who pick up trash on the side of the highway. One of them, a hardened inmate with a tattoo right beneath his eye, seems oddly familiar, but Will can't quite place him. When he realizes that the inmate is none other than the former lead singer of his favorite punk band, he must navigate an emotional desert landscape populated by neo-Nazis, asshole cops, guilt, student loans, and a double dose of mescaline tea."
Since I love punk rock and really really love mescaline, I feel pretty confident that the book and I are on a one way trip to bang town. But for the sake of the game, let's Dating Game the shit out of this book:
A. Cactus would be a little self-conscious about its face tattoo (it’s only a small face tattoo), but it would still look your parents straight in the eyes and give them firm handshakes.
Q4. Let's say your book and I are going to our favorite chain restaurant, what chain restaurant would we be going to? What drink with an unnecessary (or necessary) amount of candy in it would we get?
A. It’s a first date. You’ve been talking to Cactus at the record store it works at, and after a few weeks you’ve started messaging each other on Instagram. You meet it after work and walk to In-N-Out because it’s by the park and Cactus is broke. You don’t get drinks because Cactus has forties and a flask in its backpack. You sit in the park and eat and drink, and Cactus talks for almost a full hour about how it used to be vegan.
Q5. Does book have any creepy discrete collections in its home? Like porcelain miniatures or bottle caps or nail clippings?
A. Cactus isn’t sure if its collections are creepy, though it is worried that they might be. Covered in dust are a bunch of powerviolence and grindcore records that have disturbing and violent cover art. It has a bunch of early 20th Century French erotic novels (translated into English. It doesn’t speak French). It has stacks of horror VHS tapes. It has a folder on an external hard drive full of a collection of nude photos of all its exes. It feels incredible guilt about this folder, but can’t bring itself to delete it. It only looks through it when it is really, really drunk, and hates itself later. The folder is password protected so you won’t stumble across it.
You meet it after work and walk to In-N-Out because it’s by the park and Cactus is broke. You don’t get drinks because Cactus has forties and a flask in its backpack. You sit in the park and eat and drink, and Cactus talks for almost a full hour about how it used to be vegan.
Q9. What are book's motivations? Did book birth itself like Athena jumping out of Zeus's head or did book come to life some other way?
A. Not unlike Mithra born out of the rock, Cactus was born from a bucket of dirty mop water left over from the cleanup of a previous, failed attempt at a novel about being a Mormon Missionary.
Q10. What does book prefer: WCW or WWF (wrestling not world wildlife)? Why?
A. Here’s a confession: Cactus doesn’t really know anything about wrestling, which makes it feel incredibly uncool in the indie lit community right now. But Cactus has very vivid memories of one particular WWF trading card it somehow acquired in its youth: Chyna. If not for Chyna, Cactus might not have become what it is.
Q13. If your book was to date any Mortal Kombat character who would it be and why isn't it Johnny Cage? (will accept Sonya as a secondary answer)
A. Cactus is only interested in dating Street Fighter II characters, Chun Li specifically. That upside-down spin kick. Those legs. It might like to hook up with Blanka, too. Seems electric.
Q14. What song does your book perform at karaoke when its pretty drunk and shouldn't be making this sort of public spectacle but does anyway because sometimes you just have to belt it out to a crowd full of grimacing strangers?
A. “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard. Cactus knows prison. Merle Haggard knows prison. “[Cactus] turned 21 in prison doing life without parole.”
Go support innovative and prose and poetry and pick up Cactus. Go support our boy and by extension all bossin' indie lit making a difference in this big bad world.
Our fabulous blog team