Feature Section 2Tell Your True Tale

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
By Tené Harris

________

There was something really peaceful about driving through this mostly rural area on a wide-open two-lane highway. The sky was blue with specks of pollen from springtime blossoms spiraling through the air. At 75 miles per hour, bugs spattered against the glass. It was warm but nothing like the heat that dominated June and July. I let the window down and felt the push of wind against my hand. It brought back childhood memories of family road trips.

As we neared Naples, Texas, the flat land shifted to rolling hills. Even the smallest of homes sat on huge lots. We got accustomed to the miles of land between one house and the next. At first glance, the tall commanding green things covering the landscape, resembled cacti. But they were pine trees, though not the kind you find in Oregon or California. They looked as if they were weeping. The breeze had finally gotten the better of my 6-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and she drifted off to sleep just as we neared Aunt Luanna’s house.

Both of my parents were from Texas. My brother and I were born on the Gulf Coast in Corpus Christi. Even though we moved north when I was young, I still felt a deep connection to the South. My mom and dad were part of the generation of blacks who left the South during the Great Migration in search of a better life. In 1964, my parents were married. That same year, my dad followed his sister’s advice and went to Michigan to take a job in one of the automobile factories that were booming. Once he was settled and found our new home in the same neighborhood his sister lived in, he sent for my mom, me and my brother.

Growing up, every summer my parents would load up the car and drive “home” to the south. In our case, that meant East Texas. My mom’s maternal family and my dad’s family were from the same little town, Dekalb. My mom’s paternal family members were from Naples. This was the family I knew little about and had come with my daughter to visit.

Living thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, now with my own family, I realized the importance of family history and wanted to share that with my children.

That morning, as we passed the landmark Aunt Oneida had told me to look out for – the steeple at Gethsemane Baptist Church – Jasmine shifted in her seat and her doll fell to the floor. The dirt was of vivid red clay. Maple and aged oaks stood guard. On the left side of the road, a sign read “Boyd Cemetery.”

I gently shook Jasmine awake. She stretched and yawned as she stepped from the car, wiping the sleep from her eyes. We walked across a field that led to a trail. When the tall grass and weeds grew high enough to reach her hip, Jasmine stood still and tears began to well up in her little eyes. My little girl who only knew a city life was scared. I picked her up and walked with her on my hip. I was feeling a little ambivalent myself, with the cemetery now in plain sight. I imagined all of my family members who had walked this land. My mom had spent summers on this farm and had shared so many stories about roaming the farm with her first cousins. They would sit outside their grandparents’ kitchen window eating fresh-picked fruit and mock their conversations.

I had come to this part of east Texas to meet a woman I had known nothing about a year before.

The trip grew from a call I made to my Aunt Oneida to invite her to attend my mom’s surprise 50th birthday celebration in California. She couldn’t come, she told me, because Aunt Luanna was celebrating her centennial that same weekend. I’d never heard of an Aunt Luanna. But meeting her, I realized, might fill out a lot of what I didn’t know about this part of my family.

Two concrete headstones stood in the cemetery. One read: “Mabe Boyd – 1840 to 1927.” The other read “Lou Boyd – 1853 to 1946.” Nearby was the headstone of Aunt Luanna’s brother, James Boyd, a World War I veteran. He died in 1994 at the age of 97. There was a huge concrete tomb with the name Napoleon. The placard with the last name and dates was worn. After taking a few pictures, we walked back to the car. The weight of Jasmine’s body began to tire me out.

We drove on up the road to a simple white house with an enclosed porch. A rusted old wagon wheel stood under the carport. We walked up the path to the porch and I heard a southern drawl that felt familiar.

“Come on in!” It was Aunt O.

There were lots of hugs and long glances, as we were introduced to Aunt Luanna and her daughter, Juanita, who lived with her. Aunt Luanna had long straight silver hair that was braided and pinned. We sat down and Juanita brought us sweet tea in glasses etched in a yellow and green floral design. Everyone laughed as Jasmine turned up her glass and said, “Yum!”

Two antique oval pictures hung on the wall. As I looked at the man and the woman in the pictures, I recalled the meticulous calligraphic script of the names in the large wooden family bible that Aunt O had shared with me just the night before. I knew that the man was Aunt Luanna’s father, Mabe Boyd, and the woman, her mother, Lou Boyd. This was the first time that I had seen a photograph of family members from the late 1800’s. I could see the resemblance between Lou and nearly all the women on my mom’s side. My middle brother had eyebrows just like Mabe. They were both attractive and you could tell from their clothing and the way they were groomed that they lived a good, comfortable life.

Aunt Luanna was small but strong. She lived on the Boyd Farm practically her entire life, with the exception of the occasional trip to Dallas to spend time with her daughters and one lone trip to Los Angeles in the late 60’s. Life in Los Angeles had gotten the better of one of her daughters, so she went to bring her back home. The hustle and bustle there was too much for Aunt Luanna. The quiet Boyd Farm with clean air and fresh running rivers and lakes, fruit trees, vegetables, poultry and cattle, was the only world she knew. At night, you could see every constellation, and the full moon was majestic.

As she spoke, I remembered my first drink from a well as a child. Lowering a wooden bucket with the tin can tied by twine, down to the water source and then turning the wheel to pull it back up, seemed like a lot of effort for a city girl, until I tasted the ice cold water. It was heaven, especially in the Texas heat.

Aunt Luanna talked on. The Boyd Farm covered most of the northwest corner of Cass County. Back in the day, it was full of fruit orchards, a blacksmith shop, a syrup mill, a smoke house, livestock, acres of vegetables, a schoolhouse and natural hot springs and creeks.

Several hours passed. Finally, I asked Aunt Luanna if I could come back the next day.

The next morning, we found her sitting on the enclosed porch with her food in a small stainless steel bowl and a paring knife. She no longer had her teeth, but she seemed to be enjoying every bite.

With her permission, I videotaped our conversation sitting on the porch. I asked her to tell me of her childhood on the farm. “There was always plenty to eat and plenty to do,” she said. They went to town a few times a year for cloth, coffee and other items they didn’t produce on the farm. Practically everything else they needed, they produced on the farm. Her mother kept the children healthy with castor oil and lemon several times a week, especially during the winter months.

Aunt Luanna began to talk of her father. Mabe had arrived in east Texas from Georgia, a freed man, in about 1859. He was a skilled carpenter, shoemaker, blacksmith and farmer. Over the years this man somehow amassed close to one thousand acres, 600 of which remain in our family. No one knew much about his parents. Some speculate that his father was a slave owner and that had something to do with his ability to purchase and retain so much land in east Texas. Truth is, we’ll never know. Too much time has passed and older family members have died.

But we know that he built a school for his own children and other black children in the area. She pointed it out, an old building hidden among tall weeds. “He called it Celeste School. I went there with my brothers and sisters,” she said. So did other black kids from the area whose parents were sharecropping on farms owned by white people. Mabe also built the home that housed the teacher he hired to instruct the children. Her home was miles away in Marshall, Texas. Back then travel was precarious on the dirt roads. The last teacher hired was Mrs. Dean, Aunt Luanna remembered, and the last students attended Celeste School during World War II. After that, more schools were built and the state of Texas took over the Celeste school in a different location.

I listened to Aunt Luanna tell the story of Mabe, her father, and wished I knew more about him, what made him so focused on self-sufficiency and education. Yet as she spoke, I realized his importance to the family, this relative of mine I’d never heard of.

Aunt Luanna lived to 106. We kept in touch through letters, as we promised we would. And I never forgot the story of her father, Mabe, and her mother, Lou. We were carrying Mabe’s legacy forward in many ways. His descendants are now college graduates in 11 states and two continents. We are teachers, engineers, authors, television writers and producers, military officers, computer network managers, nurses, business owners, longshoremen, and lawyers.

All that, I realized, started with Mabe and Lou Boyd, freed slaves who arrived in east Texas from Georgia with skills and a view of the future they could build with school and land.

That day, I wasn’t ready for our trip to end. As we rose to leave, Aunt Luanna took Jasmine by her hand and pulled her in close. She looked into her eyes.

“Don’t forget me,” she said.

______

Tené Harris was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. She has worked for 30 years at KCET in Los Angeles. She owns Sweet Beginnings, a bakery. She is also a government analyst with the state of California, and a freelance writer/producer. Contact her at mysweetbeginnings@gmail.com.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
CaliforniaFeature Section 2StorytellingTell Your True Tale

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
By Monique Quintero

________

It is 3 a.m. and I am lying on a cot in the bathroom of my grandmother’s hospital room, listening to other family members snoring away.

Angie has been unresponsive for a few days, and my family is keeping vigil. I know her end is near, but I can feel her presence, still hanging in.

She has had health issues most of her adult life and suffered a major stroke a few years ago. Unable to care for herself, she has been in a 24-hour skilled nursing facility. It has devastated me to see her—one of the most vibrant women in my life—unable to move or speak.

During a recent trip to Europe, in every church I entered, I lit a candle for Angie and prayed to God to give her peace.

Now I slowly get up, trying not to make any noise. I make my way around the other cots, step over an uncle. I sit at the edge of the hospital bed. I lean in, practically lie down right next to Angie. I kiss her cheek and take in her smell. I lay my head on her shoulder.

I can see her old heart-surgery scar, peaking out the top of her hospital gown. I was about 3 years old when she had that surgery. Holding my parents’ hands, walking down the L.A. County Hospital ward past the long line of beds, we found her sitting up, her chest stitched, looking worn but determined. She smiled big upon seeing us and patted her hand on the bed for me to come sit by her.

As Angie’s first grandchild, I grew up calling her Mom (my own mother was Momma). That’s how I heard my Dad address her, but she was adamant that she was never to be called Grandma. Other grandchildren would later transform her into Mom Angie, and then she became just Angie.

* * *

She was born to Maria Bracamontes and Primitivo Carrillo on Oct. 1, 1924, in Dawson, N.M., a coal-mining town. Her sister Carmen arrived a few years later. Her father had a previous wife who passed away, so Angie had half-sisters in Chicago and Mexico. After he died of pneumonia, her mother took in boarders to help supplement her income and later married one of them, Jesús Hernandez. They had two more children. As the oldest child and not his actual daughter, Angie was often the target of her stepfather’s bad moods, but she did not fight back; she suffered through it rather than have him take it out on her mother and sister.

After the family relocated to East Los Angeles, Angie met and married my grandfather, Joe E. Quintero. It was a toxic marriage; she was physically and mentally abused. He eventually left her and started another family. She persevered and raised her four children as a single mother. Some say it was her determination and survival instinct that bonded her to her children and grandchildren. However for me, my connection to Angie was more than that; it was something magical.

I must have been about 2 years old when my parents and I stayed overnight at my maternal grandparents’ house. It was early morning, my parents were still asleep, but I was awake in my playpen. I looked up to see Angie standing in the hallway. As I called out to her, she turned and walked away. I managed to climb out of the playpen, but by the time I reached the living room, there was no sign of Angie. I later told my mother what had happened, to try to figure out how Angie had disappeared so quickly, but she just shook her head and told me, “You must have dreamt it.”

When I recalled the incident as an adult, I could still feel the pain from hoisting myself over the side of the playpen. I mentioned it to Angie. She smiled and explained that when I was little, she was not able to see me as much as she had wanted. My mother, being a new parent, preferred to be at her own mother’s house. My vision that morning must have been one of the times that Angie was thinking about me.

And yet there was a period when she chose not to see me. When she discovered that my Dad had begun to communicate with his estranged father, she showed up at our house one evening, shouting that my Dad was being disloyal. My siblings and I were sent to our bedrooms, but I crept down the hallway. I peeked out and caught her eye as she announced that she was disowning us. I saw a slight hesitation but she looked at my Dad again, yelled some more, turned and stormed out the front door, slamming it behind her. It was about a year before we were allowed at family get-togethers. I cannot think of any other time that she was not a part of my life.

Angie had a love and respect for Mother Nature. She was a curandera (medicine woman). She knew of plants and herbs and their medicinal qualities. Her yard was filled with aloe vera, lavender, rosemary and sage.

I contracted scarlet fever when I was about 6 years old. I was seen by my pediatrician, but the high fever persisted. Angie was called. In my haze, I remember her praying and laying her hands over me. I can still smell the incense and the burning herbs. She sang in a whisper, yet she loudly ordered the illness to leave my body. Soon after that, the fever broke.

One of her favorite plants was the snake plant; its long leaves grow straight up and ended in a sharp point. She believed that growing it brought good luck. It is also difficult to kill. Angie would break up a plant with her bare hands, re-pot the pieces in coffee cans and then give those away to family and friends while praising the benefits. I later discovered that it is a treasured plant in Chinese folklore.

Angie taught me both practical and spiritual life lessons. After I earned my undergraduate degree, I took on night-time internships in Hollywood and could then drive Angie to errands and doctors’ appointments during the day. She taught me her shortcuts and the ins and outs of getting around Los Angeles. I also learned about the “Parking Angel.” Whenever we were on our way to a high-traffic location, Angie would pray and ask an angel to go on ahead of us and secure our parking space. By the time we arrived at our destination, a parking spot was always open.

Angie continued her curanderismo (healing) for family and friends, combining indigenous and Catholic rituals. She blessed houses. She also performed limpias (spiritual cleansings); she would take a whole egg, start at the top of a person’s head, not touch the body, but swipe circularly, always moving downward. Negative energy was pulled from the body and trapped in the egg. While doing this, she would proclaim, “I pray against the root of the cause of this condition, and I say to it: Leave now in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!”

Angie always ended by shaking her hands away from her body. “The most important thing,” she told me, “is to never forget to throw off the bad energy after you finish a limpia. You do not want that negativity hanging on to you.”

Angie also channeled a Mexican Indian spirit; she would meditate until she was in a state in which she allowed her body be taken over by her “spirit guide.” His name was Piel Rojo, literally translated as “red skin” but intended as “man of the earth color/man of the earth.” Through this process, Piel Rojo passed on knowledge to Angie, for her to gain insight to help herself and others.

One summer when we were in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Angie hired a driver to take us north into the state of Nayarit. The road was bumpy as we travelled through heavy jungle. Eventually we arrived at a small, lone house. We were greeted by a young girl and led into a sparsely furnished bedroom. We sat down on one of the twin beds. On top of the chest of drawers was a familiar display: a cross, statues of various saints, a rosary and several lit candles. The scent of incense lingered in the air. I was exhausted from the rough trip and humidity, but Angie was alert and ready.

In walked an older woman; she and Angie greeted each other warmly. Angie introduced me as her granddaughter. The woman prayed over us, blessed us and then did our readings.

Te toca ahora (It’s your turn now),” she said to Angie when she finished.

Angie closed her eyes, took in deep breaths, blew them out. She stood up, pounded her fists to her chest and stomped in place.

iYo soy Piel Rojo! (I am Piel Rojo!)” came a deep baritone voice.

Piel Rojo then spoke about the strength achieved when a family works together. He threw his arms into the air and called upon my ancestors to help guide my family and me, to lead us to harmony and success. I was advised to form a family business.

I felt the presence of unseen others in the room. A few burning candles went out.

Piel Rojo closed his eyes, again took in deep breaths, blew them out. There was no movement, just silence. Then Angie opened her eyes and smiled.

* * *

I believe that Angie knew she was not well. A few months before her stroke, I was late in picking her up for an outing. My morning schedule had been disrupted; I was stressed and not very talkative as I got her settled in my car and we took off.

“I want you to know I appreciate everything that we have done together,” she said, breaking the silence.

Angie spoke of all the times we had spent together, and said that she would never forget when I had taken her to the Indian pow wow or to see Los Lobos perform. I felt immediate guilt for being so stressed out and in a hurry. I swallowed the lump in my throat, took a deep breath, blew out all the negative energy, decided to let it all go and enjoy the rest of the day with her.

And now I know I need to help Angie on to her next journey.

I sense that Angie is hanging back because she is worried about us, her family.

In my head, I call out to my great grandparents, Maria and Primitivo, and to Piel Rojo; I ask them all to guide Angie to her next destination.

I whisper in her ear, “It’s OK. We will all be OK. You can let go.”

I lay with her for a while longer, until I feel that her spirit has moved on.

________

Monique Quintero grew up in Whittier. A graduate of UC Irvine with a B.A. in Critical Film Studies, she has worked over 20 years in various areas of the entertainment industry. Since 2013 she has been dealing with a brain tumor and kidney cancer; she found that the writing process not only inspires creativity, it is also therapeutic and healing.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Feature Section 2Mexico

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
By Jessica Gonzalez

________

It was the summer of 1963 and Mexicali was hot as hell. Back then, the streets were dirt roads; only main boulevards were paved. It was a hot, dusty hole of a city, but Dad had learned of the border town’s promise and had moved our family there from Guaymas, Sonora, when I was 4.

Dad never finished grade school. He started working after his father died to help support his mother and siblings. He shined shoes, had a newspaper route and later worked at a candy factory. As an adult he landed a job with a Mexican petroleum company. This would be his ticket to a better life. In Mexicali, he started his own business repairing gasoline pumps. He made frequent trips to Los Angeles to buy parts to resell in Mexicali. Eventually, he worked his way into real estate and bought the land where his shop sat. He became a businessman with an office and secretary, a younger Chinese-Mexican woman he would eventually leave my mother for.

My father left when I was 11 and by summer of 1963, his new family had grown to two girls and a boy in addition to us: Eva, 6; Raul, 9; David, 11; Sam, 15; and me, 16. He visited us weekly to drop money for groceries. But our relationship was strained by my parents’ divorce. I had a strong mind and a rebellious heart, and I resisted his authority. His new family seemed rich compared to how we lived. We resented him for that and much else. In hindsight, though the allowance he provided was modest, at least he didn’t completely abandon us. He could have disappeared, though I could not see that then.

So it was us: mom, the kids and me. As the oldest, I was in charge of the litter and had been for a long time. As far back as I can remember Mom suffered from migraines and often withdrew, spending entire afternoons and evenings lying alone in the dark. She had these episodes a few times a month, for two to three days at a time. I always thought then that mom was devastated by the loss of her husband. But I eventually came to wonder if perhaps her somber moods were part of the reason he left.

I started cooking when I was five. Often, Mom would be in her room while my brothers and I wreaked havoc in the living room, playing around.

“I’m hungry,” they’d start.

So into the kitchen I’d go, climb a chair and make them something to eat. I received frequent criticism from my brothers on my cooking and oddly shaped tortillas.

“They’re too thick.”

“These beans are dry.”

That’s how I learned to cook. Some nights as I prepared for bed I’d hear Raul sobbing. I would find him in his room, books spread out on the bed. He’d confess he had not done his homework—this he worried about at 11 p.m. Still, I always had patience for him and helped him get it done.

I had a boyfriend that summer, Jose, a friend from school. He was a few years older than I; he’d already graduated from the business prep school Dad made me attend. Dad would not allow me to go to a normal high school. He wanted me to study accounting and help him with the business, another point of contention between us. Dad would not have approved of Jose or anyone else for that matter, but he was not involved enough in my personal life to accidentally find out. Secretly, I felt empowered at 16 to take control of a part of my life, to live in one small space for myself. Jose was more than a boyfriend; he was freedom. Mom knew and supported me. On paper he looked great. He was handsome, worked at a bank, dressed well and had a nice car. He offered to take all of us out of the inferno to San Felipe for a weekend, along the coast of the Sea of Cortez. It was a bumpy ride along a narrow road but worth escaping the scalding desert heat. We arrived on a Friday night and slept on the beach. We had no tents, just sleeping bags on the sand, underneath the stars, lulled to sleep by the sweet music of the waves rolling in and out.

The next morning the sun glowed over us. The breeze was cool and I felt a great sense of relief. Mom and Eva and I cooked breakfast as Jose and my brothers dispersed. The teenagers, Sam and Jose, walked in one direction while the kids, Raul and David, scampered behind. They frolicked toward the beach, chasing one another about, buckets in hand. Because the tide was low, it was a great time to explore rocks and tide pools and hunt for baby octopuses. These we would season with lemon and chiles and grill to a crisp over an open fire.

As the morning progressed, the beach grew noisy with families. At some point that morning, news reached the camps of someone drowning. It didn’t strike us at the time that we should worry. We assumed the boys were together, watching over one another. But as the nervous chatter spread, we walked to the beach to see what was happening and found Sam and Jose. They were not with the boys. Panic set in. My eyes scanned the camp and the beach in search of my little brothers. They were nowhere around. A few hours passed and my brothers still had not appeared. By this time a search party had formed. Locals and visitors alike had heard the news and calls for help, “auxilio!” Finally, around 11a.m. a young couple out walking found David bobbing up and down in the water. They pulled him out, exhausted and nearly unconscious. Yet still, no news of Raul. We sat paralyzed, saying nothing, doing nothing, lost in time for hours. The carne asada we were preparing for lunch was left untouched and spoiled. We were numbed with fright.

Raul’s body was found by a group of men in the search party at 4 that afternoon. They loaded him into their fishing boat and returned him to land, where paramedics waited, his little body limp and lifeless. The boys had strayed from the tide pools, going farther out onto the endless shore. At low tide, the water can recede as much as 2 kilometers. As the tide swiftly returned, it caught them off guard and swept them in. Neither of them knew how to swim.

He was taken to the coroner’s office for examination. When that was done, his body, wrapped in a blanket, was carried to Jose’s Cadillac and gently loaded into the back seat. Sam, Mom and Eva traveled home by bus. Jose drove the rest of us back that evening. I rode up front with Jose, David in the back passenger seat, next to Raul.

Dad was waiting when we arrived and had already learned the news. He was furious. He unleashed his wrath on Mom and me, blaming us for Raul’s death, crying that it was my fault for taking us there. I cried and cried.

The day of the funeral I ironed Raul’s little suit, his Sunday best, remembering him with every stroke. The truth was I blamed myself too. I should have gone with them, watched over them. I would blame myself for a long time. Reason may try say it’s not your fault, and you may learn to deal with your grief and accept that you are not the cause but the pain and the memories never fade.

The funeral was held at Dad’s church. Though Dad was raised Christian, he never practiced or worshipped during my childhood; we were raised Catholic. However, now in this new life in which he reinvented himself, he had changed his ways and become a model Cristiano. My siblings went to his Christian church with him and the other family, half-brothers and half-sisters, on Sundays. But I refused to participate. I was bitter about his infidelity and that the fact that he left us. To me this was not an example of a good Christian and I found it all hypocritical. I could not appreciate that he was trying to be a better person. I only saw that his new family ate better, dressed better, had a nicer house and had a full-time father.

After the funeral, life resumed much like it had before. We went back to our lives. Dad went back to his bilateral family routine. It would be many years, until we were grown up, before we’d talk about that day again. My brother Sam named his second son Raul. Our kids would ask about his namesake. What was he like? How did he die? We always explained and shared funny stories about Raul. But we never spoke in detail about that day or the grief we lived.

Years later during a family reunion, when my father was in his twilight years, I found myself sitting alone with him on a park bench. He had summoned all seven of his children for a carne asada. It was an awkward gathering. We knew he sought to unite his children before he was gone, a comfort we indulged him in, though there would never be the kind of union he yearned for.

As we sat in the park in silence watching his grandchildren play, he suddenly turned to me and spoke of the mistakes he had made with us, with me. He told me he loved me and asked me for forgiveness.

“Abuelo!”

My five-year-old niece ran over and handed him a small bunch of white daisies she had picked from the lawn. She laughed and returned to play.

The afternoon sun streaked the sky with ribbons of pink and orange. I reached over and held his hand in both of mine.

________

Jessica Gonzalez is a native of Los Angeles. She received her B.A. in English from California State University, Los Angeles. She enjoys musing on the wonders and pains of life and writing about them. She has a passion for learning, the outdoors and yoga. Contact her at lotuspop@gmail.com.
Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
Feature Section 2Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
By Sarah Alvarado

________

I don’t want to go to my Dad’s house.

I can’t pinpoint why.

I always feel guilty when I don’t want to go. I feel guilty about a lot of things. I am guilt-ridden beyond my years. But I need to be present for Dad. Sometimes I need to be present for Mom. Today it’s Dad.

He called yesterday, and the day before that, and even before that. He confirmed and reconfirmed our plans. He wanted to be certain. We have plans. He’s so excited that we have plans. I’m going to go down there. We are going to see Straight Outta Compton: Me, him and my brother. It’s gonna be great. Our high regard for ’90s rap music is something we can easily talk about. We can remember way back when this song or that came out and where we were living and how great it was.

I liked the ’90s. I was a kid. The world felt amazing, I was born in the best state in the U.S.A. and the U.S.A. was the best country on earth. I liked going to my school, I liked reading, and I liked that our school library had a machine that would dispense a cool pencil for a quarter. I had plans every day after school; there was a solid block of cartoons on TV and I could rotate between channel 11 and channel 5. If Mom said it was okay, a neighborhood kid (there were plenty) could come in and watch TV with me. My family’s video collection was the envy of the block. We had a big TV, a VCR and a rewinder! No waiting to rewind stuff in my house of the future. I had tons of books. I had toys too – a Nintendo! Mom made a real dinner every day. My siblings knew I was the boss because I was the oldest. Life was good.

Rather, life was good most of the time. Every so often the ground underneath me would shift. Like an animal sensing an encroaching natural disaster, I could sense things as I opened the door. Trouble was on the way. Mom would seem that much more nervous. Dad would seem that much more removed. I had seconds to decide; where was I going to hide? Should I stand my ground? Was it going to be fight or flight?

Then it would begin – Dad slurs his words just slightly. Or he keeps repeating what he’s saying. Or he asks you to keep repeating what you’re saying. Then, craaaaap, he’s drunk. I feel the anxiety in me, heartbeat revving. My parents are going to fight right … now. Part of me wishes Mom would pretend he wasn’t drunk. If she could pretend, I could pretend. We can all pretend that this is not going to be the most uncomfortable, sad, ugly situation we will have this week. Then we can make it through the night. It can be over. But no. He stumbles. He laughs. He is the most annoying person in the world when he drinks. Mom is mad. She can’t take it anymore. His drinking is out of his control. He has a problem. If it’s a weekday, he’s probably going to stare at you incredulously as though you’re the crazy one for calling him out on his drinking. If it’s a weekend he might get violent. It’s never quite clear until it’s too late whether I, as the oldest, will be banished or called to the beast. Sometimes I try to keep the peace because I know he won’t hit me.

I would wish my hardest, the way only a child can, that Dad would stop drinking. My heart once crumbled when he bitterly burned the last $20 dollars of his check on the stove while my Mom cried hysterically in the background. That single $20 bill was all that was left to feed a family of four for a week; the rest had been spent in the span of three hours on one drunken Friday payday night. It was terrible on the nights we had to go looking for him, but worse on the nights when we had to run away.

Crap. Now I’m lost. As many times as I have journeyed to my dad’s small domicile in San Bernardino County, the route should be ingrained in my brain. I should be able to drive there instinctively, like a salmon that can drive a car. But I can’t. My mind is swimming in the memories of the ’90s and my mouth is singing along to Boyz-N-The-Hood on K-Day. I have overshot my destination by a great deal. I’m not at the tip of San Bernardino where I should be; I’m en route to the heart of it.

I hate San Bernardino. Driving into it, the landscape fills me with melancholy. The big, dusty roads are sad and barren. The loneliness I feel as I stare at the empty sidewalks burrows into my heart’s center. I have the impression that no one ends up living in San Bernardino by choice. Being banished from Los Angeles is a harsh reality that many people have come to terms with. I hope I am never one of them.

I feel cramped. My thighs are sweaty. Despite the double protection of the windshield and my jeans, my legs are pierced by the heat. The sun burns my forearms. The a/c is on, but the only relief it delivers goes to the exact area at which the vents are pointed. The rest of the vessel is an inferno. The dirt caked onto the windshield adds to the whole Mad Max-ish, dystopian feel that is: Driving To San Bernardino. I’m thirsty. I hate this drought. I hate being lost. And I hate San Bernardino. Everywhere is dusty and alone and sad but here I am, because I love my dad. My dad knows what it is to be San Bernardino. He knows what it is to be alone and sad.

Finally I’m here. Dad isn’t ready; actually Dad’s not here. My brother is.

“Dad’s gone out to the store but he’ll be back.”

Okay. And now I have to wait. Oh. Here’s dad. He seems tired, groggy. It must be the sun, poor Dad has been walking in this goddam heat. Well- let’s get in the car – let’s go to the Ontario Mills Mall – let’s make a day of this!

Dad’s in the front. As I’m easing back onto the freeway, he asks me, “How’s it going?”

Crap.

“Things have been gooood…,” I reply, cautiously.

Too late – I feel it – the anxiety. Fight or flight. I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s hot. People get dehydrated. Now we’re in the ticket line with the NWA fans, the families seeing Inside Out, and others seeing who knows what – we are in the stagnant, hot, ugly San Bernardino sun. It’s more obvious now, in the bold of midday. I can’t ignore this. Dad is drunk. I’m pissed. I don’t know what to do.

He knew we were going to see this movie. He knows I hate when he gets like this. And yet here he is, with no regard for my feelings, my spent gas and money, his health, or movie-going etiquette. This is what addiction does.

I can’t punish my brother for my dad’s terrible judgment. I tell Dad that he’s not fooling anyone. He has to have water and coffee and he has to straighten up. He accepts this. He does not apologize. I feel like I’m being punished because I’m angry as you-know-where and I’m doling out money for coffee and water because he had to drink. He had to drink even though we made a plan. Him having a drink this morning was not part of the plan. I survive the serpentine Starbucks line and make my way back to where I see him slouching in the over-crowded food court. He seems annoyed that I bought him a regular, hot coffee and not a foozy-woozy whipped sugar mess like I bought for my brother, and not a cool ice tea I ordered for me. I bite my tongue. I tell him, “It’s for your own good,” instead of “This is not a goddam treat.”

An hour or so passes by. Dad has sobered up. We file into the theater. The elation that movie-going should bring is absent. I’m just relieved to have a few hours in the a/c and time where I don’t have to look at or talk to him. I’m still mad. The movie starts and I see an era being re-enacted before me. This movie is not about my life …but it feels like it is. I remember the rap music that was playing everywhere when I was a kid. I remember watching Rodney King, and the L.A. Riots that followed, from the safety of my suburban living room. I remember the hairstyles and the clothes, just like those of the people from my old neighborhood, decades ago. So much has changed since then. So much hasn’t.

Walking into the lobby after leaving the theater, I’m haunted by the portrayal of Eazy-E’s death. It’s hard to watch a life be taken by a disease. My thoughts turn to Dad and the recognition that his own disease will also likely be his end; either by accident or by a slow, ugly poisoning of the organs.

In the car, then, we discuss whether we should stop for dinner. Dad teases me for being a vegetarian and I laugh. I ask Dad if he ever had a Taco Bell Bell Beefer and he wonders why it was ever taken off the menu. The Humpty Dance starts to play on the radio and I tell Dad about the time Digital Underground performed said dance on channel 11. Dad starts to tell me about a different Fox performance he saw, a live taping of Married With Children. I smile, because this is one of my favorite stories. I’m glad I came.

by

Sarah Alvarado

Sarah Alvarado is a San Gabriel Valley native who enjoys reading, writing, and embracing the obscure. This is her first published work.

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail