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By Brian Rivera

Returning to the United States from a two-week trip to México City, we crossed into El Paso, Texas. My friend José and I sat on a charter bus that maneuvered through narrow streets of brick buildings, bisected by railroad tracks.

“We lived two blocks away,” I said to José, staring out at the desert and mountains that surrounded the city. “Before that, we lived in Ciudad Juárez.”

El Paso was dry and the buildings were short. We left the bus station and walked to the apartments where I’d spent my childhood. The only trees in our neighborhood formed a border around Armijo Park across the street from the apartments. We stood at the entrance to the apartment complex and I noticed fresh paint on the mural of the Virgin Mary. We crossed the street and talked on a stone bench outside the Armijo Recreation Center.

My family and I moved to Ciudad Juárez from Los Angeles in 1993. I was seven years old and my brother Deren was five. My mother wanted to be with my stepfather. Since my stepfather’s family was native to Ciudad Juárez, she felt it easier to relocate from Los Angeles.

We rented a room the color of mint ice cream in Ciudad Juárez. The room had a black rooftop and was equipped with a bathroom. We used the living room as a bedroom and our kitchen was a sink inside a narrow hallway. The living room took up most of our living space. We lived next to the landlord and his wife. She had an array of plants in tin cans carefully placed throughout the property.

One of the first things my mother did when we arrived in Juárez was to enroll us in school in El Paso. When the school administration asked for an address to prove that we lived within the district, my mother gave my grandmother’s address in El Paso. Eventually, we moved into the white apartment complex where my stepfather’s mother lived. But for a year, we crossed the border daily.

That first morning we crossed, my mother woke Deren and me at 5:30.

Persínense,” she said.

We made the sign of the cross using the thumb and index finger and got ready for school.

The morning in Juárez was dark and cold. Like smoke, my breath rose into the sky every time I exhaled. We walked down a road of hard-pressed dirt until we reached the bus stop. I remember the feeling of the jagged rocks under the soles of my shoes. Because there was one light post every thirty feet, we relied on local businesses to illuminate our path. Few businesses were open. The ferretería or hardware store rolled up its metal gates as we walked past. Señoras working at the tortillería fed chunks of masa to a steel machine that produced golden discs and laid them on a conveyor belt. Another señora stood in front of the conveyor belt and separated the tortillas using off-white butcher paper to wrap tortillas by the dozen. The smell of warm, ground corn filled the air.

Eventually, we made it to the bus stop. The bus grunted and heaved as it arrived. It was shaped like a traditional school bus but instead of being yellow, it was painted a black and white checkered pattern. From the bus driver’s dashboard hung tassels and fragments of mirrors that danced with the bus’s every jolt. The driver drove down an empty riverbed until we reached the plaza in downtown Juárez onAvenida Lerdo and got off and walked north. Everyone walked north.

A woman with two black braids sat at the entrance of the bridge that connected Juárez and El Paso, with children seated nearby. She looked up and raised a small cardboard box filled with gum. She shook the box enough to make the coins inside rattle. My mother gave the woman a dollar bill and gave my brother and me loose change to give to the children. I do not remember crossing the Mexican side of the border. I have a faint memory of people sitting in a hall, reclining against the wall and my brother and me holding my mother’s hand and men in forest green uniforms. As we continued to walk up the bridge, exhaust from the cars, trucks, and charter buses waiting to cross disappeared into the sky. My brother complained about walking up the bridge. “Estoy cansado amá – I’m tired mom.” My mother smiled. “Vamos como tren,” she said, and held onto his backpack and pushed him up the bridge like a train.

We crossed a concrete bridge overlooking a narrow stream that was once the Río Grande. The fence curved high over our heads and looked like a wave of metal crashing onto oncoming traffic. The bridge was our lifeline. When we reached the U.S inspection area, my mother reminded my brother and me to say American Citizen. “Tú primero, mijo, you first,” she said. I placed my backpack on a plastic tray, rolled it onto a metal conveyor belt and walked through a metal detector. My brother and mother did the same. The officer glanced at me from his podium and beckoned me to walk forward. In fluent English, I said “American Citizen”. The officer nodded approvingly and allowed me to collect my belongings.

The bridge led us into the El Paso Stanton Port of Entry. My mother walked us into Aoy Elementary School, one block from the border. Behind the school’s playground was a set of railroad tracks and next to the tracks was the Río Grande. Ciudad Juárez sat in the background. Her uniform stood out in the crowd of parents, making it easy to find her as she walked to the bus stop to go work: black shoes, black pants, a burgundy shirt and a badge with her name. She wore her hair in a ponytail.

Caminen a la casa de Estella. Los quiero,” she said, instructing us to walk to my stepfather’s mother’s apartment. She said I love you and kissed us on the cheek.

My mother spent the next fifty minutes on a bus to the El Paso International Airport and walked to the Marriot Inn where she worked as a housekeeper.

“We can go,” I said to José.

José and I left the park where we sat, walked back to the El Paso bus station and took the next bus home to Los Angeles.

____

Brian Rivera

Brian Rivera was born and raised in East L.A., where he still resides. He received his B.A. in English from California State University, Los Angeles. He spends his time playing music, chess, fútbol, eating and traveling. Leaving Tijuana was his first TYTT short story.
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By Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek

[dropcap1]W[/dropcap1]hen I was a kid I would tell others I was from somewhere else. Hawaii was a place I had visited and loved when I was 13. The Hawaiian and Tahitian music and dancing, the beautiful racial features, and the mellow, peaceful ways of the islanders captivated me. I had met a young native Hawaiian surfer, Dustin. I scared the pants off my mom and her boyfriend Bob, after staying in the water with Dustin on our surfboards for close to four hours; they couldn’t find me. Finally, I was telling people I grew up there, even though I was a native Angelina and had only spent two weeks on the islands. I started to believe it.

At 16, I ran away from home and crossed illegally into Mexico. I dropped out of college in my late 20s to go live in Spain with my boyfriend, a Spaniard, to study flamenco and become a professional belly dancer.

Then, on one of my visits home from Spain, I was handed a treasure chest full of old family photographs. One photo in particular caught my attention.

In the photograph was a handsome man who looked like Pancho Villa, standing lovingly next to a white woman who smiled broadly while embracing him. She held his hat in her hand, while draping her arm around him. This was my introduction to my materPieceSusanna_1200nal great-grandparents. Pedro (Peter) Leon Lopez, born (1867) and bred in the city of San Fernando, and Lettie Mae Williams Lopez, a white Protestant who came to L.A. by herself from Ohio to visit a friend. I knew about my great-grandmother, who we called Grannie. She was still alive when I was little, but I knew nothing about Peter. Seven months after they were married in 1894 they gave birth to my grandmother, Bertha Lopez.

The contrast of their skin color ran counter to the segregated norms of the time. It seemed that my great-grandparents were breaking some social and racial barriers that drew me to them even more.

I began to research their lives. The Lopez lineage was linked to 44 settlers who left the San Gabriel Mission in 1781 and founded the city of L.A. at Olvera Street. I was a Poblador descendent, but never knew it.

The sepia and black and white photographs my aunt had kept became an inroad into my quest for the cultural heritage gone missing from my childhood. I took seriously my role as caretaker of these heirlooms. A cracked and yellowed clipping from a Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine dated February 9, 1936, described the historic founding families that dominated Los Angeles during the time historians referred to as the “romantic era” of the ranchos. The Lopez clan was one of the 25 familias that owned most of the Southland during those early years when the area was part of Spain and then Mexico. The article also mentioned that another of my ancestors, Francisco Lopez, discovered gold back in 1842 in Placeritos Canyon, six years before the gringos came in to claim their big “discovery.”

I then came across a piece of memorabilia that belonged to my grandmother, a pamphlet titled Enchanted Pueblo: The Story of the Rise of the Modern Metropolis Around the Plaza de Los Angeles, by Ed Ainsworth, sponsored by Bank of America. It was an Anglo American’s version of the pastoral rancho days, describing “a town in perpetual siesta, and a population that had moved forward in most slothful fashion.” The well-known Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz – whose father was French Basque, and whose mother was part of the Lopez clan – dedicated the book to my grandmother Bertha, his cousin.

I was baffled that I never heard about this family heritage while growing up.

I began devouring every book and historical document I could get my hands on. I learned my ancestors came up from Baja California with the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola and Junipero Serra in 1769. Later generations of the Lopez clan were mayordomos at both the San Gabriel and San Fernando missions. One ancestor, Pedro Lopez, who Peter was named after, continued converting Indians into Catholicism even after the missions were secularized. During the Mexican American war, he had a close friendship with General Fremont, and his nephew carried the truce flag when Fremont and his troops invaded.

I assume that because Pedro and his siblings and extended family were all born in Los Angeles, they felt less allegiance to Mexico. By the 1850s, the rancho lifestyle in the Valley was slowly becoming a thing of the past as many of the aristocraticCalifornio families, including mine, comfortably integrated with the white Anglo population, even as their lands and fortunes were confiscated. The Lopez family showed no resistance to these changes, perhaps because they maintained their land and positions of influence while developing strong friendships and marital ties with the newcomers.

Peter’s father, Valentino, built the Lopez Adobe in 1882-83 on land he bought from a mission Indian. It’s still standing today on the corner of McClay and Pico in the city of San Fernando. Peter was 16 when the Adobe was built. He later became a mail carrier, a road overseer and cement contractor – he laid out the streets and poured sidewalks – and was the first marshal of the city of San Fernando. My mother remembers him taking prisoners, handcuffed to him, up to San Quentin prison. I spent months scouring the streets in San Fernando to find those old sidewalks with the P.L. Lopez stamp.

My treasure chest of photographs and old newspaper clippings also revealed that Mr. and Mrs. P.L. Lopez held frequent parties and barbeques at their Rancho Solitain Little Tujunga Canyon. The more I read, the more it seemed that mixed race couples were less an aberration. All of their friends and guests at these parties and barbecues were Anglo. There is no Hispanic surname mentioned. Their generation intermingled and intermarried more with Anglos than within their own ethnic group; both my grandmother and mom’s generation followed suit. I broke the pattern by marrying a Mexican when I crossed into Mexico illegally as a teenager.

Yet photographs show my grandmother, Bertha, as a young woman dressed in Spanish mantillas draped over the traditional high combs, and beautiful embroidered mantón de Manila shawls. But over time, Bertha felt the anti-Mexican backlash and told us she didn’t like being called “a dirty Mexican;” she chose to disassociate as much as possible with anything Mexican, but occasionally alluded to her “Spanish” heritage. Similar to my made-up story about being from Hawaii, she also created an imagined identity.

Bertha’s friends were all Anglos, and she socialized with the more affluent circles of the day in San Fernando. They would travel the world together. Her house was full of artifacts from the “orient” – the term she used when referring to some of her favorite destinations: Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Hawaii, etc. I was fascinated with the ornately carved furniture and knick-knacks that adorned her living room; I would dream of going to the places where they came from. Sometimes I’d play the grand piano that had the mantón de Manila from her childhood draped over its edge. But she reprimanded us if we ever touched her stuff, and scolded us harshly if we broke anything; I never felt at home there. Even though I inherited her adventurous spirit and travel bug, I never had a close relationship with my grandmother.

It’s still surprises me that she never mentioned anything about the Lopez Adobe. When I returned from Mexico, we sat and chatted in Spanish; hers was somewhat broken by this time. She was on her second marriage, to a man who was much younger, a Southerner who reminded us of Fred Flintstone, but who took care of her until she passed. Her gusto for life had not changed. We drank cocktails that afternoon while I told her about my life in Mexico; she gave me hell for having run away from home and causing them all so much angst.

By the time my generation came along, any connection to the Lopez cultural legacy was nonexistent. I stumbled upon my roots at a time when Latino culture was fast becoming a part of mainstream America, and when in many areas of L.A. Spanish was the unofficial language.

A piece of myself was satiated knowing I was a Lopez. It’s no coincidence that I had been a child bride down in Mexico, or chose to live in Spain all those years, or that upon returning to Los Angeles in 1984 my work would be intricately tied to the Latino community; it still is today.

Yet I couldn’t keep my mind off the photograph of Peter and Lettie Mae, most likely taken when they first met or had just married – the union of two cultures that was just beginning to mix and create what became Los Angeles.

Lettie Mae came out to Los Angeles alone, and married a dark-skinned Mexican. She crossed cultural boundaries and settled far from her roots, which in the late 1800s must have felt like the other side of the world. I wonder how her family responded to her marrying a non-white man. Perhaps no different than mine did when I traveled to Mexico and married Oscar. My mom tells me that Peter had a gentle disposition. It comes through in all the photos I have of him. I wish I had known my great grandparents; sometimes I feel like I did.

And that special photograph that reveals their warmth and love for each other? With its ragged and ripped edges, it never seems to fade. It’s my iPhone wallpaper; they accompany me wherever I go.

____

Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek is a native poblador descendent of the city of Los Angeles. She is a cultural anthropologist and has her own business conducting consumer research among mostly Latino immigrants and their second generation offspring. Passionate about writing her memoirs, she hopes to eventually publish these short stories in a book. She paints and plays Persian percussion when she isn’t writing.
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By Fabiola Manriquez

She took her time walking across the room, scanning the computer lab as though preparing for battle. When she finally reached my desk, she handed me a referral from a government program she was forced to enroll in and said, in a low voice, “Hey Miss. I’m here to get help with my Math and English, so what do I do”?

I was recruited into the tutoring program by my trigonometry professor at East Los Angeles College since I often enjoyed assisting classmates. I remember Flaca sitting in front of the computer simply staring at the screen. I thought she was struggling with the operation of the computer. I learned later that she would come to class intoxicated and brought her happy juice. It was a thirty- two ounce soda mug with alcohol but because it had no aroma of alcohol I didn’t know. It was also a little strange that she preferred wearing her slick shades in class. I thought the computer screen was too bright for her. In reality, she was loaded and she hid behind them.

I had a feeling that she wanted to improve her life since she was attending this class. As she behaved, I continued to assist her and in time we became friends. We talked. I asked what her favorite drink was? With a naughty smile she looked straight into my eyes and confessed that she enjoyed her alcoholic beverage while she worked on her lessons. This situation was new to me, so I said nothing. Over the weeks, we talked a little about college studies and concerns about the weather as I tried to figure out what to do.

When I felt more comfortable with her, I finally addressed the issue of coming to class loaded and bringing her happy juice. I could have lost my job if my boss found out that she was drinking in class, but my heart told me to stay quiet. I told her that I needed her help. We would work as a team in order for her to stay in the class since it was mandated by her program. I asked her to pretend as though she was doing her work by hitting the computer keys every few minutes. I also asked her to stay awake because her snoring might disturb other students and attract attention. I suggested she refrain from bringing her favorite drink to class, which was better enjoyed outside class.

With time she stopped bringing her mug and, eventually, began to complete her lessons. But she kept her shades on.

Flaca was raised by both her parents as an only child for a decade, followed by a brother ten years younger and by a sister four years after that. Before the arrival of her siblings, she and her parents had money and time enough to take camping trips, go bowling and to the movies. Her father worked in the roofing industry and she was his assistant for a while. However, he always wanted a son and he taught her to work and play sports as if she were so.

But she reached her teenage years as her parents were occupied changing diapers, and working harder than ever. “I felt as though my brother and sister stole my father from me,” she told me.

At fifteen, she was searching for attention and began to hang out with the neighborhood gang. After school, she and her comrades would put their lunch money together and would pay a local wino to buy them a six pack, which led to a twelve pack, and eventually to cases of beer. They began breaking into newspaper vending machines. From there, she began using drugs. She even smoked Angel Dust on the lawn outside the East Los Angeles Sheriff station.

Her parents talked with her about her mischief, beat her, threw her out of the house, but gave her chances to return home. Her troubles kept growing. She would behave for a while but it didn’t last long, and her defiance would intensify.

She was expelled from Schurr High School, attended Vail Continuation High School and was expelled for fighting. She was in and out of juvenile detention and jail. Eventually, she was sent to the Mira Loma detention facility in Lancaster which gave her much needed structure. There she completed her G.E.D.

Once on the outside, she worked at the Sears Warehouse, then as a mail clerk at Wells Fargo Bank, followed by a printing shop. Then

in her mid-twenties, she began using heroin. She met Sheila at a party and grew as addicted to her as she was to the drug. They became lovers and sold heroin together. Addicts, called Sheila with their orders; Flaca made the deliveries. “It was just like delivering pizza- like a franchise, in a way,” she said. Sheila was her immediate boss, but there were other distributors above her.

Flaca and Sheila shared the upkeep of the house and expenses for about a year. Then one night, Flaca stayed out all night. Sheila and she argued. The next time Flaca stayed out all night, Sheila kicked her out. That proved lucky, as a few days later cops raided the house and arrested Sheila.

Flaca moved back with her parents. At this point, longing for children, she decided to take a break from women. Her next door neighbor, Smokey, was a longtime friend and they kind of messed around when she was younger. He was eleven years her senior, had a good heart, was handsome, masculine and was right on the other side of the fence. He had also served in the Vietnam War. The proposition was simple, she told him: I need your help to have my children. He would not have any responsibility or claim to them, but he could see them from next door. With time, he fathered her two sons. He also was in and out of jail and survived working odd jobs, then died from a bleeding ulcer soon after the birth of her second child. He was found on the lawn of what is now the East Los Angeles Library.

Meanwhile, Flaca continued making poor choices. She was stabbed twice, took part in drive-by shootings, kept drinking and using drugs, and was in and out of jail. She was respected in the gangster community since she did bad things in a big way.

Years of abuse wore her down so that she lost her eye sight for a year. Consequently she was unable to work and went on government aid known as SSI in 1991 at the age of 31. Her parents didn’t condone her behavior, but they loved her and cared for her two sons.

After a year of therapy she regained her eyesight. One morning while visiting a friend, she realized that she had not drunk or used drugs the night before. For the first time in decades she was able to think with a clear mind. Because she qualified for a free bus pass, she got on the bus after visiting with this friend to be alone and think. For a week, she left her parents’ home early and rode the bus all day. Those bus rides were a turning point.

She began to attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and tried to stay clean and sober. She relapsed several times, but eventually held to it.

As years passed, she learned a more structured lifestyle. She began by taking her sons to school regularly and picking them up afterwards. As time went on, she befriended the principal of the same school as he later invited her to enroll in parenting classes. Flaca learned how to kneel down and look her children in the eyes when she spoke to them. She became skilled in establishing parameters when giving her boys a choice when selecting things. She was taught the value of punctuality, whether it was to arrive at school on time regularly or returning library materials by the due date.

When her sons were toddlers, she entered them in baby contests and won several times. Later, she enrolled her boys in baseball, soccer, karate, and taught them to bowl. The year that her sons played peewee baseball was the first time in the league’s history that both the coach and the assistant coach were women. Flaca was the head coach as the team made it to the playoffs.

She learned to use the libraries, and showed her boys how to do the same. In the annual school fundraiser she sold candy for her sons and was the top seller for three consecutive years. The first year as the top seller they won tickets to Knott’s Berry Farm and the second year, tickets to Disneyland. Flaca already had experience selling things. Candy sales came easy to her and it was legal. “No one was shot. No one got killed,” she said. “It made me feel like I was a real mother.”

I remember the year she first came in for tutoring telling me about selling enough candy to win bicycles for her sons.

Two weeks before her father died, he told her to go back to school and become a rehabilitation drug counselor. She’s doing that now, working on her degree at East Los Angeles College.

It’s been 21 years since she first showed up in my class. I have watched her all that time.

I see her on campus now, an adult finally, and no longer in her sunglasses and khaki shorts that meet her tube socks at the knees. She is usually with one of her sons, who is also a student. I see them after class, walking together slowly toward the parking lot.

___

Fabiola Manriquez grew up in East L.A., where she still resides. She loves to teach Math and English, and hopes to complete a Master’s this year. Through the TYTT workshop, she discovered a deeper joy and beauty in the formation of storytelling.
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By Milton Alex Chi

It is another sunny day in southern California. While walking down the pier I can feel the cool ocean breeze and smell the hot dogs and cotton candy. I feel thirsty all of a sudden and I crave a tall glass of ice cold orange soda. Kids are running around excited about going on the rides. Along the beach I can see people laying on their towels working on their golden California tans. Beyond the pier I see a few sail boats slowly glide across the blue ocean.

It was late 2009 when I first started to get headaches and started feeling out of sorts.

I figured it was just temporary and it would go away eventually but it did not. Then I noticed a small bump on the right side of my neck, sort of like a pimple, which I thought was strange.Image for Story

The headaches continued and the bump on the right side of my neck kept growing. I was able to feel it now like a small pea. In a few weeks it was the size of a lemon. In February 2010 I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I went to the hospital the following Monday to start chemotherapy.

The first week I felt no side effects but as the treatments increased soon came nausea, vomiting, dizzy spells, joint and body aches, flu-like symptoms, etc. I could no longer work and had to apply for disability. Without work, I couldn’t pay my mortgage and bills. The bank foreclosed on the house and gave me thirty days to vacate the property. My brother lived in a two bedroom apartment so I ended up moving in with him.

Six months later I felt better. The doctor gave me a release letter to go back to work. When I called my employer I was told that my position had been eliminated. I updated my resume and asked my former bosses and co-workers if they heard of any openings. Five months later I started a new job. It was quite a commute but I was thankful to have a job nonetheless.

Then in October, 2013 they again found some tumors, this time under my right arm. A battery of tests showed that the Lymphoma had returned. I started chemotherapy again. The weekend after the last treatment I felt really sick. My head throbbed, my body ached and I had no energy. I wasn’t sure what it was. I drove myself to the hospital and checked my self in; I had a fever of 108.

I was there a few days. They could not give me any antibiotics until they found what type of virus I had. The fever was not going down. They had me in a tub with ice and cold blankets; in the meantime the flu turned into pneumonia. My blood pressure was really high and my body was going through shock. I was having a hard time breathing. They had no choice but to induce a coma in order to connect me to all the machines and to get oxygen to my brain and help me breathe.

While I was in the coma, they determined that I had caught the H1N1 virus; also know as “swine flu,” a human respiratory infection caused by an influenza strain that started in pigs. I was on strong antibiotics and oxygen, had an IV on my arm, a heart monitor, and a tube in my stomach where I was being fed, and a tracheotomy, as well.

My body was shutting down. The doctors were giving up and they were getting ready to unplug me from the respirator. They advised my family and friends to come and say their goodbye as they thought I would not make it through the night.

Everyone came; they made a circle around my bed and as they held hands they thanked God for my life and prayed for my health. I remember then being lifted from the bed. It was like I had wings beneath me and as they flapped they reflected a silver light with a white glow. I felt the air flowing under me as I rose.

I looked down and saw the nurses and my family around my bed. Then all of a sudden everything turned dark. My spirit returned to my body and I was back in bed. Still unconscious, I had a lot of nightmares and sweet dreams during that period. I dreamed I was walking on the Santa Monica Pier and it was a hot summer day, which was something I hadn’t done in years.

At my bedside, my brother didn’t know what to do so he called my oncologist for his opinion. He told my brother to tell the doctors that they should give me a few more days. My body was fighting. Soon the fever started to go down slowly and I improved.

A few days passed. I stabilized. Then I heard voices and I opened my eyes for the first time in weeks. I looked around. I was alone in a room; I had no idea where I was, what day it was or what time it was. I tried to move and could not. My arms where strapped to the bed and I could not speak. I was paralyzed from the neck down. I could only move my head and my eyes. The nurses came in and asked me a few questions. My family arrived and asked if I recognized everyone. All I could do was nod. They told me what had happened and that I had been in a coma for about two months.

I was told that while I was in my coma I had a lot of visitors: my family, friends, church members and co-workers. Some came to read books or the Bible and held my hand in prayer. They told me that my aunt had come to sing to me a hymn -“Because He Lives”- and that by the time she finished tears were rolling down my cheeks. She asked the nurse if she had done something wrong. The nurse said that it was a good sign; I was reacting to her singing and my blood pressure had gone down. Then the nurse asked my aunt if she could go and sing for another patient on the floor and she did.

A couple of friends created a blog for me on “Caringbridge” where they kept everyone informed of my condition. People wrote their comments on this site as well. The last time I checked there were over six thousands hits on this blog.

One of the nurses told me that I might never walk again. After a couple of weeks they sent me to another hospital with a respiratory facility where they helped me breathe on my own. I was transferred to another hospital where they provided physical therapy and speech therapy. Every time my family came to visit they would massage my legs, feet and arms trying to reactivate the nerves. I believe that the massages and prayers really helped my recovery.

Slowly I started to move my fingers, then hands, arms and feet. One day three nurses tried to help me stand from the wheelchair. My legs gave way. I was too weak. But the physical therapy continued and after a while I could move a little. The speech therapist helped me learn to speak again.

So it was that within three months, I had learned to function again as a human being.

When they saw my progress they sent me home; my insurance, they said, would no longer be covering my stay, and I could continue my physical therapy at another hospital. I was released on July 7th,2014; in a wheelchair.

I kept the physical therapy. They taught me how to walk with a cane and how to go up and down stairs. Within five months I was able to walk slowly on my own. My first trip was to Marie Calendar’s for a slice of pie.

Now I walk and talk and drive. I’m looking for a job, and, as you can see, I’m writing. I am staying with my brother until I get back on my feet again. I threw a party for my friends and family who stood by my bed.

But there is one thing left to do.

So today, the forecast calls for highs in the 90’s. I am at the Santa Monica pier. The fresh cool air brushes my face. My shoes are off so I can feel the sand between my toes. I look at the seagulls flying overhead. I will have that ice cold orange soda now.

____

Milton Alex Chi was born in El Salvador, the son of a Salvadoran mother and Chinese-immigrant father, who together ran a store and a restaurant. His family left El Salvador during that country’s civil war and he has resided in the Los Angeles area for more than 40 years. He has always wanted to write and he feels grateful and honored to be able to share his life tale in this book.
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By Jacqueline Gonzalez Reyes

The summer of 2009 I spent in Houston working with janitors as they fought to renew a union contract. IMG_6637 - Version 3

That July 4th, local pastors held a press conference supporting the janitors. Several union janitors were asked to attend.

That’s when I met Carmen Sanchez. I picked her up and drove her to the event. Carmen was our shortest member, in her sixties, direct, well groomed. She was from Chihuahua, Mexico. She was always at union events. She’d been a janitor for 12 years.

That afternoon, driving her home, my car got a flat tire. I called AAA, but it was clear that due to the holiday help would be a long time coming.

So it was that I found myself with Carmen Sanchez in the middle of downtown Houston on July 4th.

I thought I’d just get Carmen a cab and have her on her way home. But she refused.

“I don’t have anyone waiting for me at home,” she said.

That day, Houston dripped with humidity. She took out a jug of ground-oatmeal water.

“This water saves lives.”

I smiled and drank.

“Whenever it gets this unbearable, I go to my nearest department store and cool off,” she said. “We’re just blocks away from JC Penney. You want to go?”

Sure, I said. AAA was going to call when their truck was on its way.

We walked to Carmen’s JC Penney. The air conditioning hit us like an arctic blast.

We walked every aisle of that store. Carmen slowed when we came to the makeup. This lipstick is the best, she said. Ruby red. She wore it every day for work.

“In the office where I work, I figure I have thirty minutes where the executives and I exchange eyes. They get dressed up, so why shouldn’t I? If they take time to look good on the job, so do I.”

We walked through the shoes.

“I prefer copper brown shoes when I work,” she said. “That color best matches my work uniform.”

She wore a uniform every day. Shoes and makeup were all that were hers at work.

We passed the Bath and Body Works store and tested the seasonal lotions. Then we talked lady stuff – my favorite lipstick, her favorite recipes, and men she recommended I date.

“Why do you do this type of work?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you prefer to date and be a bit mischievous while you can?”

Before I could speak, she said, “No need to answer now –that’s your homework.”

She began to talk about her life.

When she was young, she had a daughter, then a son. She separated from an abusive husband.

To offer her children a future, she left them with her husband’s sister and took a train to the border and crossed into the United States using a phony ID. That was in 1978. She went first to Washington D.C., but with no Latinos in the capital, she didn’t feel comfortable. She moved to Houston.

Living on minimum wage jobs made it hard to ever get back home. But she wired money to her children in Chihuahua every week.

“One week the money would go to my kids’ necessities; the next week to save for the `coyote,’” who would someday take her children across to join her.

Then one day she called home and no one answered.

She called from different phones. Still no answer. She kept calling. She waited six months and went to Mexico. In her town, her mother told her that her kids now ran away from her when they saw her.

Carmen went to the house and knocked. No answer. She waited outside her children’s school – they were teenagers by now. They saw her and ran away. Carmen broke down crying. She stayed for a month and her children refused to see her. A neighbor sent her a message, No quieren saber nada de ti. No one wants to know anything about you. The coyote fund you were sending money to we used for a family emergency.

Carmen returned to Houston. That was in 1988 and she hadn’t seen or talked to her kids since then – except once. She continued to call the number she had for her children’s aunt. Then one day her daughter answered.

“It’s your mother,” Carmen said. There was no response. Silence.

“Okay, don’t say anything. Just give me a minute and don’t hang up. I just want you to know I love you and never stop loving you.”

A minute later the phone went dead.

Later, they changed their number. She kept calling her mother. Go to the house, Carmen pleaded, bring them cookies.

Tightened security on the border and low wages in Houston kept Carmen from ever traveling back to Mexico. She couldn’t attend her mother’s funeral in 1995 and still wasn’t over that.

But for 20 years, she never stopped wiring money to the same account for her children that she’d always used. Every month the bank told her that the money had been picked up.

She still sends the money, she told me, even though the kids are now adults and they haven’t spoken since they were in elementary school. An older aunt is the only family she has left in Chihuahua who still talks to her.

Perdi todo,” she said. “I lost everything and I don’t know why. My mom, my kids. I even didn’t take the opportunity to getIMG_0280 amnesty.”

In her neighborhood when amnesty for illegal immigrants came around, so did a lot of fraud, and people pretending to be attorneys. Money was tight, too, and she no longer trusted anyone.

“If I can’t trust my own family …” she said, her voice trailing off. “I’m in a foreign land. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

Night fell and by then we were sitting on a curb near the parking lot. The AAA guy had finally shown up. We spotted a hot dog vendor and treated ourselves to hot dogs and chips.

As the AAA guy worked, we ate and watched fireworks explode in the distance.

“Ahh, I liked that one, the three-colored firework!” Carmen said. “Now that was worth the wait.”

____

*Jacqueline Gonzalez Reyes was born and raised in Koreatown, Los Angeles. This story first appeared in Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles. Contact her at gonzalesreyesj@gmail.com.

 

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By Diego Renteria

________

As a teenager, I was part of a mariachi group with high school friends. We performed at birthday parties, masses, quinceañeras, and weddings around Southern California, each time becoming part of someone’s special occasion.

We always hesitated about taking gigs after December 15th because members traveled with their families for the holidays. In 2006, however, almost all our members stayed in our town of South Gate for Christmas, so that year we accepted a Christmas Eve gig because it was a one-hour performance in our hometown.

I arrived at the house about a half hour early and warmed up with my fellow musicians at a nearby strip mall parking lot. The night was chilly and our thin trajes were no match for the cold. I worried about not being able to feel or control my fingers in the cold but looked forward to a quick festive performance without worrying about being harassed by a drunk.

We walked down their driveway to their backyard. Most of the backyard was taken over by a stucco-on-chicken-wire two-story rear unit that looked perpetually under construction. A few people sat around a small fire in the center of the backyard, eating tamales from disposable plates and staying warm by the fire. The lights in the front unit were on and the smell of pozole wafted from the open kitchen door to the backyard.

They had hired us but did not seem very invested in our performance. I was accustomed to the occasional grito or exhortation in the middle of songs, clapping at the end of songs, and song requests, but this audience seemed unusually indifferent. As we encircled the family members and sang for them, the embers and smoke from their fire blew towards us, enveloping us and choking us.

When our hour was done, we bowed and started to take our leave. One of the men stopped us.

“Stay for one more hour.”

I did not expect anyone in the house to notice us leaving, let alone ask us to stay.

“Can’t. It’s Christmas Eve and we agreed to only one hour. We have to go be with our families.”

“I’ll pay five hundred dollars for the second hour.”

“Sorry, we really have to go.”

“Seven hundred dollars?”

“Look, we must…”

“One thousand.”

“We’ll talk about it with the rest of the group.”

We thought he was bluffing about the money. He gave us $500 and said he would give us the rest at the end. One hour of our time on Christmas Eve was worth $1,000 to him. Usually we charged $300 an hour.

We started singing, happy we were each getting over $100 for that night. He was pleased to have us at the family reunion for one more hour – more cheer for the house. Because it was Christmas, we tried our best to keep our songs cheerful or boisterous. We also played a few songs of heartbreak and loss because we knew they wanted to hear them. Their gritos indicated we were right.

About twenty minutes in, a woman emerged from the house and asked, “Can you come inside and play a song for us?”

We filed into the house through the kitchen and I noticed everyone outside the house followed us inside.

We walked into their living room. There, beside the Christmas tree and gifts and above the mantel was a large framed portrait of a boy no more than twelve years old. He looked down on everyone, eternally smiling for a school portrait, his hair spiky and clad in a gray school polo shirt. On a nearby stool were a backpack and some toys. On the mantel was an unwrapped tamal, a glass of milk, and two cookies. The couches were arranged to face his portrait.

I knew what song they would request and secretly hoped I was wrong.

“We want you… to play ‘Amor Eterno’ for our son…”

“Amor Eterno” was composed by the Mexican ranchera singer Juan Gabriel. Juan Gabriel is said to have composed the song to the memory of his mother and as the title (“Eternal Love”) suggests, it speaks of the pain of remembering the loss of a loved one who will never be forgotten or replaced. The suffering is so strong that the narrator prefers sleep because the pain disappears. “Amor Eterno” is almost solely requested at funerals or wakes or by people remembering their loved ones.

IMG_7077 - Version 2I don’t like performing “Amor Eterno.” It elicits such sadness and despair in listeners. There is always at least one person who starts crying. I feel bad for them and don’t know whether to cry or hang my head. Other mariachis have told me they feel the same. Our group vowed to play this song only when requested because it was too sad for most occasions.

We anxiously looked at each other. Our singer for “Amor Eterno” was sick at the time. Luckily, another member knew the lyrics and could sing in range. We were saved from the embarrassment of not being able to play the song.

We stood in a semicircle behind the couches. The family sat on the couches or in the doorways. Everybody in the room looked at the portrait.

They started crying as we started to sing. I stopped paying attention to who cried when. We mariachis exchanged glances to distract us from the mourning. Everything seemed to stop. No glasses clinked, no laughter punctuated the song. Everyone started singing to their son, their nephew. His mother broke down in tears on the couch, comforted by his madrina. A man who seemed to be his father stood against a wall, stone quiet.

The song ended but the family’s sobs did not. We filed out and finished our hour outside the house, colder than before we entered.

The man who paid us $1000 for the extra hour was in the street, burning rubber in his truck, drunk. Family had to drag him out of the truck. He kept his word and paid us the remaining $500.

We went home to our families that night. I went straight to sleep. But I think about that family, and the boy whose name I never knew, every Christmas Eve.

_________
Diego Renteria
Diego Rentería is a semi-retired mariachi musician who plays the guitar, vihuela, and  guitarrón and now lives in Boston. This story grew out TYTT workshops at East L.A. Public Library in the winter of 2014 and was first published in the book, Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles, Volume 1. Read more of his  writing at http://soledadenmasa.wordpress.com.

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By Johnathan Quevedo

I’m 28 and grew up in the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest — in different states. My mother suffers from severe bipolar disorder. I came out to Los Angeles to get away from her.

You can Google her and understand perfectly why I left. She was a mess and made the news in every state we lived in. Somehow she wrote a book and it’s on Amazon now.

She was a medical doctor for 34 years, originally from Panama and immigrated here in 1984 with my grandmother who was from Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. She was considered “gifted” and graduated medical school at 17. She and my father divorced in 1991, but recently got back together in 2011. He is Chilean, and a cook, an author, and a small restaurant owner in Michigan.

I haven’t seen them in seven years and I’m actually going to visit them tomorrow for the first time since I left for Los Angeles.IMG_3641

But the last time I saw her, in 2006, she was living in a mansion in a gated community in Detroit called Sherwood Forest. I planned on staying a week but she was in full manic mode and people I didn’t recognize were constantly coming and going. I remember the neighbors handing out flyers out front and purposefully avoiding me, which gave me a clear indication that something was going on. The house had also been raided by the D.E.A four days before I arrived.

I love my mother but she constantly treated people badly when she was manic. I was her son but nobody else wanted anything to do with her. Her manic phases didn’t allow her to sleep so she worked at Henry Ford Hospital, ran a medical clinic on the southwest side of town, and hosted a radio program in Spanish about medicine and health.  She did the same thing in Alabama.

Anyway, back to me. I moved here from Detroit with two brothers from Los Angeles who I met when they were living in Michigan with their father. I stayed with them and their father in Michigan for a time. This was common. My mother’s manic phases meant I lived with different people all the time. When I was 15, I lost my virginity to a 46-year-old woman named Gina. I left her place at 16 and stayed with another woman named Maria who was 35 and the same thing happened there. Maria did it to get back at her husband who was cheating with a prostitute, who was an old friend of mine. Now that I look back on it they both took advantage of me knowing I was desperate and had nowhere to go.

It was during this time that my two friends from California helped me out by allowing me to stay with them and their father.  By the time I graduated high school I had credits from schools in four different states: New York, Georgia, Michigan, and California, which I visited with the brothers. During one visit, I met a girl I stayed in touch with.

I fell in love with Los Angeles. The mountains, the deserts, the climate, and the beaches were so different from what I knew growing up back east. When you aren’t from here, the vision of California you have is what Aaron Spelling and Arnold Schwarzenegger show you: Malibu, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. A lot is overlooked — like all the social tensions within the communities.

When I turned 21, in 2005, I moved here permanently. Anything was better than the on-and-off hell of my mother. I knew something was wrong with her but I didn’t know how to help her. Because I didn’t realize how much it cost to live here, I eventually ended up staying in Skid Row for a while. I slept on benches, in car trunks, in the Panama Hotel and finally the Ford Hotel on 7th St.

I didn’t have any family or support. The girl I met on an earlier trip became my girlfriend and her family helped me. She is Mexican-American and her family moved here from Michoacan, Mexico in 1983. My existence is due to her entirely.

She and I had the idea that since we couldn’t go to school simultaneously, she would go, then I would go. So she finished in 2008 and that was when I returned. Because she was in school at Cal State University, Los Angeles and doing her student teaching and I didn’t have a career job to support us, we decided to move to Compton where her father owns a duplex.

I knew Compton was bad, but I’m not involved in gangs, and I worked, and this was only a temporary thing, so I agreed to live there.

I had two jobs, one working for Evergreen Aviation and the other as a Loss Prevention Officer at the Marriott Hotel in downtown L.A.

Then my car’s transmission went out, so I had to take the train to work: The Blue Line to 7th and from there I’d just walk. I had to be there at 6 am.

One day, I was walking to the Blue Line station in Compton, when an SUV with four Latino gang members passed me as I was at the intersection. The passenger held a gun out the window and said, “Don’t move, motherfucker!”  They were talking directly to me as if they knew me personally.

I ran. They made a U-turn and raced after me. They came up on me. All four of them hopped out, and one of them shot me once, point blank. I just remember not believing I was hit until at the same time I fell face first in the cement and had a concussion. I tried to get up but noticed my equilibrium was off. I remember feeling the blood spread inside my head and grabbing the left side just to see a handful of blood, bone fragments, and pieces of my own brain in my hand. I remember tasting it because it was in my throat.

I remember being carried away by the mechanic and my girlfriend to the back because they thought the gang members might return. As they carried me, a neighbor’s wife was coming home and she helped us also. I was yelling for help. But people there stay out of things even if a life is in jeopardy. I’m pretty sure they heard me.

I stayed conscious for about 30 minutes until the blood started swelling in my head. I still remember seeing pieces of my own brain, mixed with blood and skull fragments in my hand and on the street.

I had never seen these guys before and, as far as I know, they’d never seen me until that moment. They passed everyone and came directly for me and left the rest alone.

I had surgery at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood and immediately moved to Downey. Physically I was fine but it took me two years to recuperate psychologically. I suffered from massive headaches, seizures, short-term memory loss and post-traumatic stress disorder. I had to learn how to walk, read, write, and socialize all over again.

I wanted to be a stand-up comedian but that ended with the depression and anxiety I began to feel.

Everyone I know believed this happened because, though I’m ethnically Latino, I have black features. The gang members never yelled a racial slur, so it was never counted as a hate crime. But I don’t think it was anything else.

Since then I’ve seen other cases and I’ve listened to people, coworkers, students, teachers, family, and witnessed open encouragement for hatred of blacks on the trains, in these communities, and downtown. This is the city’s very open secret.

The guys were never caught, and the lack of justice sparked my interest in political science. I’m hoping to finish a degree in that soon.

My boss was able to contact my mother later that day. She had been in prison by then for three months.

She was released a month later. Then she remarried my father.

___

*Johnathan Quevedo has remained in Southern California, working full time and studying political science at California State University, Dominguez Hills. This is his first story for Tell Your True Tale.
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By Milovan Pompa

[dropcap1]T[/dropcap1]he game had no meaning. We were playing Santa Clara University. But we’d already lost two of a crucial three-game series to them. Had we won those games, we’d have gone to the playoffs by being co-champs in one-half of the season. We still had to play the third game, but we were done.

I got the start that Friday against Santa Clara University and on the drive to our field I was thinking of something to tell the team so we’d at least show up and not get slaughtered. The team wanted to get the game over with quick cause there was beer to drink.

I walked into the coach’s office. My god-mother had called me, I told him. Fresno State’s number one pitcher was academically ineligible and the team was going to forfeit all their games in the second half. We, the San Jose State Spartans, were back in it. The college season is has two halves, with a champion of each half. We could be Champs of the first half of the season now, and we’d be in the playoffs if we beat Santa Clara — as both of us had tied for second place in the first half of the season.

“One sec, I’ll get Bennett (the Fresno state coach) on the phone,” my coach, Gene Menges, said.

My heart dropped.

“Damn, no answer! Are you sure about this?”

“I just talked to her. She was so excited to know we could be going to the playoffs.”

I told the coaches that she was a Fresno State Booster (she wasn’t) and had come to see me pitch when I beat them that year (she didn’t).

“We got to get to the field and tell the team,” he said.

Santa Clara was one of our hated rivals and this year was one of the worst for rag-talk between the teams.

The coach announced to the team what I had told then. They couldn’t believe it, nor could some of the fans and parents.

With new energy, to the mound I went.

Santa Clara was tough that year. They had a good team: Big Jim Sunberg from Texas and Donny Davenport, whose dad was a coach with the San Francisco Giants and a supporting cast of tough players.

I came from Los Angeles two years before with the attitude of teaching the Bay Area kids a thing or two about baseball. So when Santa Clara started to rag-talk me while I was pitching, they were only cutting their own throats.

It was a close game. I had a one-hit shutout for seven innings. Then someone on their team said something about my grandmother. When I heard that, BAM! High and tight right on the outer bicep of one of their best players. The benches cleared but calm was restored when the umpire told everyone that he would call the game unless we got back in the dugouts.

They tied the game in the 8th inning on an unearned run. In the bottom of the 8th inning we scored again and took the lead, 2-1.

In the ninth, I got the first out but the second hitter singled and stole second base. One of their best hitters was up. He had hit me hard earlier.

The count was two and two. It had been a little windy that night, though not anything to notice. I start to deliver my pitch. The wind picked up and a dust-devil funnel cloud about two feet tall suddenly spun right on home plate.

I was releasing the ball and the batter, eyes squinting, threw his hand up and jumped out of the batter’s box.

“Time out! Time out!”

The umpire didn’t move as my pitch sailed over the plate.

“STRIKE THREEEE!”

The stadium exploded. The other team was yelling and screaming, jumping up and down, running onto the field. Their coach raced to the umpire.

“He couldn’t have hit that pitch!”

The batter was on fire.

“I called time out ! I couldn’t see!”

The umpire looked at everyone and walked out to the infield, raised his hands and held his mask over his head. The crowd quieted.

“It was an Act of God. He’s out!”

Santa Clara exploded again. The ump had none of it.

“Play ball!”

I got the next hitter to fly out for the third out and when the catch was made I walked over to the foul line by their dugout, peered in and pointed my finger at them.

“I don’t hear anything about my mom now.”

They promised to beat me down when they got me alone.

“Yeah, right,” I said.

I walked over to my dugout hearing their coach telling them to sit down and be quiet, that I had beaten them fair and square.

That night the game was on Spartan radio, KSJS. As I was putting my gear in my bag, the announcer asked me if I’d do an interview.

I went up to the announcers booth atop the stadium behind home plate. I gave the play-by-play of the last inning. After about ten minutes the interview ended.

By then, the stadium was empty. In the dugout, I found my gear bag and stuff lying on the floor.

“Thanks, guys!” I yelled to a ghostly empty dugout.

I grabbed my stuff and came out of the dugout and back through the field access gate to leave the stadium. As I exited the field, the entire Santa Clara team began filing out from under the stadium to the visitor parking lot. I stopped between the field and the service gate and slowly took a step back.

There I was. Just me and them, face to face.

“Well, well, well, lookie here? All by yourself, Two-Nine?” (My number)” said their big catcher, Jim Sunberg.

“You’re dead, you punk ass!” yelled another player.

By this time the entire team had come out from under the stadium. I was standing at the field access gate, a double-gate, but only one side was swung open. Realizing I was alone, they started to come around me. But the gate didn’t allow all of them them to get in at one time.

I told them that I didn’t give a shit who they were and that there was no way in hell that I was going to allow candy-ass boys to come into my stadium and talk shit about my mom and grandmother.

They started to come at me.

“Oh, what a fair fight?! You can’t beat me on the field so ALL OF YOU have to come at me? Really? You must think I’m as stupid as you look. Want to make it fair? Line up!”

They all looked at each other and then at me.

“Are you serious?” said one.

“Get in line! I’ll kick your asses one by one here, too!”

So they got in line. Sunberg started to pull a bat out of his bag. I told him that he’d better not miss cause I was going to wrap the bat around his arm and break it in three places.

I reached into my bag and put my cleat knife in my glove. As they yelled at him to kill me and as he started to take his first step towards me, the Santa Clara coaches and the umpires came walking out of the tunnel.

“What the hell!” yelled their head coach, who walked over, looking at his catcher and his team in line.

He looked at me.

“You?!!”

“Get in line, coach!” I said. “I’ll kick your ass after I kick this big asshole’s first!”

He saw his team has formed a single-file line. He turned to me.

“What the hell did you say?”

“I said, `Get in line, coach, and after I break this guy’s arm, I’ll kick your ass next!”

He slowly looked at his players lined up then at his catcher holding a bat.

“Yeah coach, can you believe it?” said one player. “He told us to make the fight fair to line-up and he’d kick all our asses one-by-one!”

The coach looked at me. I was in my fighting stance.

“Give me that bat and go get in line,” he said to the catcher.

“Relax, son,” he said to me.

His team began to protest. He cut them off.

“So all of you come out of the tunnel and see him by himself. You attempt to fight him and he tells you all to line-up to make it fair and you all do it?”

Again, one players chirped, “Yeah, coach. Can you believe it?”

The coach looked at me and then at his team.

“I think that if I encountered ONE MAN who told TWENTY-FIVE men to get in line to get their asses kicked that I think I’d run! ARE YOU ALL THAT STUPID? He beat you on the field and thank God I got here in time to prevent him from beating you physically!

He looked at me.

“Son, what’s your name?” He stuck his hand out to shake hands. I didn’t.

“Son,“ he said, “you pitched a helluva game. I wish I had nine players like you.”

He looked at his team.

“Stand aside and let this man walk by. If I hear one word about him while he’s walking by or when we get to the van, none of you will play tomorrow. I might even bring up the JV instead.”

I headed to the dorms. When I got there everyone was showered and shaved and drinking beer celebrating our win without me.

“Where you been?”

“Shit,” I said, and told them what happened.

They all looked at each other, then at me, then burst into laughter.

“It’s true.” I said

We partied most of the night and I wondered what happened to Santa Clara the next day. But that’s a whole nuther story.

___

*Milovan Pompa was raised in Claremont, CA, where he graduated from high school, played baseball and was influenced by Rod Serling. In 1981, pitching for San Jose State University, he led the nation in shutouts, and his league in ERA and hit batters. He was a recipient of a National Academic Athletic Award for also maintaining a 3.92 GPA. He has moved back to his hometown, where he now works and raises a family, plays bass and writes stories about his life. This is his first for Tell Your True Tale.
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By Richard Gatica

One day I went to my vent and called my buddy, Manny, who lived on the tier above me.

“Hey Manny! Are you hungry?”

“What you got?” he yelled back.

“I can make some bean and cheese burritos with Tapatio sauce and side of hot-cheese crunchies.”

“Shoot it,” he replied.

We stepped away from the air vent.

My defense team put money on my trust account every week. I would buy food from the commissary. I was able to feed the homies who came through. Sometimes it was simply snacks. Other times, we made entire meals. But in some prisons it’s not easy to pass an item from one cell to the next. If our cell door is too low to pass anything, or the cell we want to pass to is above or below use – in those cases, we fish – which is what I was about to do with Manny.

A fishing line is made out of strips of sheet or by using nylon that is taken from waistbands of underwear. Hooks are made from a small piece of plastic comb. We drop the hook into our toilet and flush. The hook will travel into the main drain and be tossed around by the flow and pressure created by several flushings. We do this at the same time with the person we want to fish with. We coordinate our efforts by yelling to each other through the air vents that connect our cells. When the water settles, I pull in my line hoping to find his line attached. Sometimes it takes two or three attempts.

Once the lines connect, they are pulled tight. I soak up all the water in the toilet bowl with a towel. The towel is stuffed deep into the drain to absorb every last drop. Then it is rung out in the sink.

The absence of water creates a powerful vacuum. Air from the cell is sucked into the drain. We do not have to communicate through the vent any more. We can hear each other through the drain, although there is a slight echo. Prisoners also remove the toilet water to smoke weed or cigarettes. We blow the smoke directly into the drain. The powerful vacuum sucks the smoke and odor out and prevents the guards from smelling it. In some places, our ability to communicate through the air vent is poor due to a particular design. In those units, by habit, some people will keep their toilet devoid of water while not in use. This allows them to hear if someone calls them. This is why we call toilets and vents our “telephone.”

I reached into my canteen bag and pulled out the ingredients.

“Hey, Manny,” I yelled, “you want a slice of hot pickle with that?”

“Hell, yeah!”

“All right.”

I ran the hot water in my sink. I needed it to get as hot as possible to soften up the dehydrated refried beans. I dumped the beans into a large plastic cup, added hot water, stirred and popped a lid on.

I sliced the pickle with a small razor blade. I made four burritos. I wrapped two of them individually in multiple layers of plastic. Each layer was secured with string taken from my sock, one layer on top of the other.

Burritos are naturally shaped to travel through the drain. I was careful not to make them too fat.

I smashed up his portion of the crunches in the same bag in which they were sold. I pressed the air out and tied off the top. I shaped the bag into a form similar to the burritos. I then wrapped it up in several layers of plastic, each layer tied with string.

“Hey Manny! You ready to eat?” I shouted into the now-open toilet drain.

“Man, what took you so long? You got me up here starving.”

“Any more complaining and I’ll take a bite out of one of the your burritos.”

Manny laughed but complained no further.

I tied the burritos and crunchies to the line. I was careful to make sure both ends of each item were secured. I fed them into the drain as Manny pulled. Slowly they traveled from my cell into his.

Manny took in the burrito and disconnected my line. I pulled it back.

Although there was no visual contamination, the first thing Manny did was rinse off each package in his sink. He patted it dry with toilet paper. He then removed the first layer of plastic and rinsed the package again. He repeated the process down to the final layer of protection. He then washed his hands.

Manny opened the finally layer of each package. He removed the burritos, sliced pickle, packs of Tapatio and hot cheese crunchies and sat them on his desk.

He licked his chops and called me to the vent. We no longer needed the toilet so we flushed them and they filled back up with water.

“Richard, they look delicious. Thanks!”

“No problem. Are you ready to eat?” I asked.

“Yes. You ready?”

“I’m ready,” I replied.

“Go!” he said.

“Go!”

Although we were in separate cells and on separate tiers, we ate together. We sat at our tables, closed our eyes and imagined ourselves in a Mexican restaurant.

___

*Richard Gatica is serving three life sentences for murder in the California prison system. He has also just completed a memoir of his life in prisons, jails and the streets of California, from which this story was taken. His first story for TYTT was Killing Donald Evans, about the night he killed his crack dealer. Contact him at
Richard Gatica – #D48999
Kern Valley State Prison
P.O. Box 5101
Delano, CA 93216

 

 

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By Theresa Asiedu*

My phone rang.

”Theresa, I am so sorry.”

I heard my mother’s quivering voice.

”He’s burning everything, all of your belongings.” I let the words digest and hung up.

I stared at myself in the mirror, the red marks around my neck slowly turning blue; my forehead was still bleeding.
I had lost everything within the last twenty-four hours by the same man who had been in my life since I was three; the man who had tormented my family for as long as I could I remember; the father of my two younger siblings and the reason my mother decided to move to the Caribbean from Germany many years ago.
That morning, all I wanted to do was take a jog. It was a morning too beautiful for such ugly things on Dominica — the Caribbean island so often mistaken for the Dominican Republic.
The sun was shining, the fresh mountain breeze was gently touching my skin and I still had the scent of pink blossoming hibiscus flowers in my nose.
My stepfather popped in and out of our lives trying to maintain control of our family. He would yell at everything, from the house that was never tidy enough to the food that didn’t suit his taste. I would find myself holding my breath when he spoke, my body tensing with every word he uttered, his voice leaving goosebumps on my skin.
That day he had come by and ranted and raved as usual. My younger brother and sister were crying terrified by his behavior. ”I will kill all of you and line you up in graves,” he screamed. This man did not need a reason to ignite his rage. The smallest things would make him act like a mad man. Before I knew it I said,”Then kill me!”
I swallowed the lump in my throat, my heart pounded, in my chest and throughout my body. All my sense of sanity must have left me in that moment.
”Kill me, then,” I repeated. ”If that’s what it will take for you to leave this family alone!” I was only fifteen but I felt so strong.
His eyes red filled with rage, shocked at my audacity.
Before I knew it his, hands were around my neck choking me. I felt nauseous, stars appeared. He banged me against the metal gate. My forehead began bleeding profusely. He just left me there lying at the gate.
I managed to get up. I was disoriented, my clothes were torn. I walked down the graveled roads filled with pot holes without looking back, until I found someone who took me to the hospital. I later found out that my mother had run to the neighbor who was five minutes away to call the police after my stepfather had ripped our phone cords from the wall.They didn’t show up, something that wasn’t unusual for such a small island. It wasn’t until after I appeared battered at the station that they finally took action.
Before the police arrived that day to forcefully remove my stepfather, he had enough time to single me out and burn all of my belongings childhood photos, school books, all the clothes I owned.
Unfortunately the Caribbean police tend to be slow and didn’t show up in time. He burned the things right next to our house with my mother watching too scared to do anything, an act of revenge to show me one last time what he was capable of. I was left with the torn shirt on my back, my sweats and a pair of sneakers.
He was gone, though.
____
*Theresa Asiedu, from the island of Dominica, is an international student at San Joaquin Delta College. She is currently finishing her degree in Business. Contact her at theresa_heitz@hotmail.com.

 

 

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By Matthew Garcia

I close the door at work behind me. It’s 2 a.m.

I look up and see a car up ahead. It’s my coworker Cecilie. She got off an hour before I did. I go to the window and say ‘’What are you doing?’’ in the cuntiest voice I can come up with.

She laughs.  ‘You know, just hanging out.’’

I see someone in the back seat; her boyfriend. I roll my eyes. She smiles and then says, sorry, I can’t give you a ride tonight. But come in the car and kick it with us.

I remind myself that I need to be back at work at nine in the morning. I need all the hours I can get.

I look up to the night and feel the breeze as wraps its arms around me. I pull out my CD player and put on my headphones. I start my walk. I only live five blocks away, but five blocks feels like 50 after having to clean most of the store on my own. There are no cars, though.  This is one of the busiest streets in town.

I cross and turn the corner I can see my friend’s house where I am living for now. I am excited because I was given some fruit cups from my store that was set to expire in two days. They were perfectly good but you know how food regulations are. There was a recent Taco Bell outbreak where people got sick from the food, so nobody wanted to take any chances. But to me, food is food and this means one less trip to the dollar store this week.

As I cross the street, I see a car coming and the lights get brighter. I am one step from making it across and the car turns in front of me. Time freezes. I don’t close my eyes. The car hits me and I am on top of the hood. I hear the screech of the tires and the smell of rubber burning. My head then hits the windshield and my sight goes black for a second. My body flip upside down as if I were on a roller coaster. The car isn’t done with me. It is as if the car grows arms and grabs me and spins me around — just as in wrestling where after being spun around you get slammed into the ground. My body is tossed to the side. Silence. The car takes off.

‘’Don’t leave me here I don’t deserve this,’’ I say.

My face is bleeding and I cannot feel my legs and blood is running all over me. My mouth is bleeding but the blood is mixed with saliva. I spit out as much blood as I can. I feel like I am drowning in a pool of my own blood. I try to move my legs and I hear a scrape. My left leg bone is sticking out and scraping against the asphalt. I feel like my legs are being cut open with a hacksaw. I can feel flaps of my skin dangling from my body and bones.

‘’Is someone going to help me or what?’’ I yell.

I cannot stand the pain in my legs. For some reason I think to myself that I need to spread the pain. So I start to scratch the concrete with my nails until they start to bleed. Then I start to bite my hand as hard as I can until I bleed.

I can hear someone running up. My roommate. I know this because I can always tell what his steps sound like.  Andrew is 6’2″ and 200 pounds and a strong person. Growing up with him, he always did the heavy lifting. He was never scared or one to be queasy. In high school a senior hit him in the face with a bat, and he never cried.

“Matt! Oh my God. Oh, my God!”

He sputters his words I can hear them break and crackle like when you sit on an old chair that needs to be thrown out.

“I’m calling 911.”

He runs back to the house but just a few footsteps away I hear him stop and the sound of splashing comes to my ear as he throws up. My best friend comes out with her boyfriend. She is crying and screaming. Her boyfriend who I had just known for only a few weeks is talking to me saying, ‘’Don’t fall asleep.” But it’s too late. I have already invited death to come put me to sleep. The pain is intense. If I can just close my eyes and go to sleep the pain will go away. I feel the cold wrap around me. The breeze gentle before is now a grip on my body. The back of my head starts to feel like there is a drill going inside. I really wish my brain would shut up. I just want to sleep.

I can hear the sirens coming. Within seconds, people are around me asking me questions. I wait for death — even mocking it, saying, ‘’What are you waiting for?’’ People around me stop talking; they think I have lost it. I tell the police officer what happened as I lie on the ground bleeding. His voice is over all the others. I can hear the empathy and his touch is light. His hand is shaking as he puts his arm on my shoulder. I can feel him crying. He says to me ‘’Its okay. We’ll get them. Don’t worry.’’

The chorus of the song I was listening to is in my head and playing over and over.  ‘’It cannot be, it’s not me my heart is weighed down with grief for not being made of stone when the heavens asked me for patience.’’ The song is of two people who fall apart, a memory of my family comes to mind.

I was in a wheelchair for a year and from the waist down my legs are filled with metal. I still have foot-long rods in my hips and legs.

Lying there that night, I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel or some stupid shit you hear on Oprah. I was not depressed or feeling upset when I thought I was about to die. I just thought it was my time. At times I feel death was feeling annoyed with me and wanted to see me scared before taking me away.

 

*Matthew Garcia is an honor-roll student at San Joaquin Delta College, working on transferring to San Jose State University in two years. Contact him at Zelkova2297@gmail.com.

 

 

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By Christian Lockwood

I once had a house with a white picket fence. In it, I lived with a wife, and two children. Life seemed pretty good. But the shell shock from a tour in Libya fighting the war on terrorism tore me up, and drugs and alcohol became a way of life from which I could not free myself.

That is how one warm August day in 2009, well into my self-medication, I awake on the seat of my pickup after another night of no place to rest my head. My pickup, my dog Batman, and my cell phone are all I have left. My wife and kids have been embarrassed by me for the last time. They have disowned me.

I am sweating profusely as most junkies who need a fix experience. The gagging has started. “I need a drink,” I say to myself. If I don’t get one I could die. I am in the DT’s. My skin is crawling as if overrun with bugs. I am drenched in my own bodily fluids. The hallucinations are starting now. It’s  as though I am being pursued by little green men coming from everywhere. A full blown seizure is sure to happen soon. I need a dose bad.

I scuffle across the street to get my medicine. I gag the entire way, only bringing up yellow bile. It’s 5:56 am and this damn storekeeper better not be late today. By 6:05 am, with no store owner in site, I’m getting sicker by the minute.

Finally, at 6:12 he drives up and notices me and my condition. He exchanges pleasantries with me and hurriedly opens the door to let me in. He knows what I need. The storekeeper doesn’t stop to turn the lights on and upon entry goes immediately to the shelf to pull down my elixir.

A pint of Jose Cuervo and a tall Coors are my usual liquid meals. I’m infamous here at this store. They know me all too well. I pay for my stash with change I’ve bummed from passing folks and leave. I barely get away from the storefront and I need to get the first couple of pops in me. The sooner I down it, the better. The first couple never stays down anyway. As predicted up comes the burning alcohol through my nose and mouth. My Boston terrier gazes up at me with a look of “Really?” Then he smells the frothy discharge and laps it up. Wow, I’m turning the damned dog into an alcoholic too. I need to sit down and let these first two swigs work. After a minute or two my gag reflex has given me a reprieve and it’s time now to completely bury my torments in life.

I was once a proud United States sailor with an impeccable service record and receive citations for Honor and Expert Marksmanship. In civilian life I  was a well-respected member of the Tri-County Gang Task Force and had a reputation as a tough cop who was known for fighting gang crime and drug interdiction. Now, in fact, this is more of a hindrance when it comes to copping my dope. Too many of these street people know me. Only my selected posse at Gibbons Park know me as Rocky, just another park dwelling bum like them.

Speaking of my posse, it’s time to get back to the park.  I finally feel fit enough to navigate my way back to my home, the park. I get to our favorite picnic table where we all hold court and share our harrowing tales about surviving the night before. We begin to pass our bottles between us as if in attempt to see who could out-drink who. Then the talk always turns to who has weed, and eventually someone comes up with some to smoke. Then it moves to crystal and soon we are all snorting meth off of a paint chipped picnic table.

Eventually it happens. Black-and-whites drive into the park from all directions; everyone runs but me. I am as if frozen in time. Was it that I was surrendering? Nope, really how fast can a man run with a little black dog tethered to his leg? A cop car stops in front of me and the officer jumps out and immediately opens the back door.

“Oh Jesus,” I say to myself. I know this officer.

I quickly drop my head hiding my face and obey every command. I am frisked, and out comes my driver’s license. The officer puts his hand on my shoulder and yanks me toward him forcefully.

“Lockwood?” he asks.

“Yes, it’s me bro,” I reply. I used to work Gang sweeps with this officer on multi-agency procedures.

“What in the world has happened to you?” my buddy asks. “You need help.”

My cop friend for some reason lets me go. My posse, on the other hand, is not so lucky.

Once again I am alone, the dog and I. It was time for another drink. I feel lucky. I stumble to my truck and upon trying to get into the driver’s door I see my reflection in the window. My cop friend’s voice rings loudly in my head as I stare at somebody I don’t even recognize looking back at me. I have checked out of life completely.

The day before a church guy had stopped by the park and gave us all sandwiches, talking “God” the entire time. We all pretended to listen because we were actually thankful someone was feeding us. He quoted the Bible and said something from the book of Romans that while we don’t want to do wrong, we are powerless to stop. He quoted scripture that didn’t make sense to me at the time. But it was all making quite good sense now.  I was a proud United States Military Veteran who was trained to adapt and overcome. But I can’t figure out why I am destroying myself when deep down inside I don’t want to.

I recall a saying I saw on a flier I saw at the VA Clinic. It said, “It takes the courage of a warrior to ask for help.”

The time has come. I need to ask for help. I pull out my dying cell phone and make one last call. They send someone to come to the park and pick up Batman and me.

I haven’t had a drink or a drug since that August day in 2009.  I have started a new journey in life. That’s who I am now.

____

*Christian Lockwood is studying at San Joaquin Delta College and Bible College at Fellowship Church Community in Stockton and aspires to be an ordained pastor and serve military veterans in San Joaquin County.

 

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By Darshay Smith

My mother, Shaun, was about to turn twenty-five in January, 1994.

She had one beautiful daughter, who had just turned one. They were living in Hayward with their aunt’s family. That day, Shaun had worked an eight hour shift at work. She was exhausted and couldn’t wait to get home to see her baby girl.

Driving the dark streets of Hayward alone, Shaun went quickly. It was 1:45 in the morning. She was stopped at the spotlight. To her left, she saw a group of young Mexican men readily to cross the street. Shaun waited.

Next thing she knew, these guys were walking towards her car. Shaun began to panic. Her fingers hit the lock button on the doors. She wanted to speed off.

The guys approached the car with no force or intention to hurt her.

“Excuse me ma’am, do you know what time it is?” one asked.

“It is 1:45 am,” my mom replied.

As she began to drive off, she saw the light. One of the boys had pulled out a gun and shot her. She screamed. Blood poured down her face and all over the inside of the car. Her face was steaming hot. Immediately her whole body grew very hot and she had no control of it.

“My last day on Earth. Shay is going to grow up without a mother,” she thought.

After managing to drive away she picked up her phone and called her sister Jessica.

“I just was shot!” Her sister hung up and called the family.

My mom made it to her aunt’s house and ran in her room. “Call 911! My face is burning!” she screamed. Her aunt and uncle were barely waking up and thought she was hallucinating. They started to scream, and then called 911.

All my family came up to the hospital. They cried and prayed. The doctor later came with the results. The gun had hollow point bullets and the bullet exploded inside her face. It would take more than eighteen months for the bullet fragments to surface to the skin.

“I would then be able to pick them up out of my face like pimples,” she told me later. My mom stayed in the hospital for a while as she went through a serious operation and later had plastic surgery.

Months passed and my mom was back at home. After she was released her face was swollen and in pain. The part where the bullet entered remained very dark. For three months, my mom stayed in the house, afraid to go outside, and replaying the scene in her head.

During recovery, she never went to therapy or counseling. She thought that she could deal with it by just talking to family and close friends. Later she realized she needed counseling.

It has been eighteen years since that incident.

She still replays the scene in her head. When she watches a movie or crime show that has anything to do with guns and killings she catches herself replaying it.

When we go to bed all the televisions are on. It can never be dark in our house because she gets so nervous that something bad is going to happen. When the power goes out, all these thoughts in her head begin to pour out. When my brother and I are out with our friends late at night, she calls often to make sure we are okay. Her nerves are always acting up until we are safely at home because then she knows we are okay.

I ask her how life has been. “I am living and I have a story to tell,” she says. “I am blessed and thanking God every day.”

But I catch her crying sometimes at night when we listen to killings on the news or in a movie.

____

Darshay Smith was born and raised in Oakland, CA. She now attends San Joaquin Delta College as a sophmore student studying to become a registered nurse.

 

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By Sam Quinones

In the 1970s, Pomona was a big thrift store of a city in the smog-covered valley east of Los Angeles that bore its name.

I grew up in the neighboring town of Claremont, which had five colleges, two graduate schools, a strict zoning code and large old oaks and elms.

But by the time I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Pomona was about two decades past its prime. The Fox Theater downtown had once been a major venue. Bing Crosby had once played its Fox Theater. As I entered junior high school, The Fox showed B movies, then B movies in Spanish.

Pomona’s downtown was quiet. In the early 1960s, city fathers were persuaded that outdoor shopping malls were the wave of the future. They put in a fountain and piped in music. A Buffums department store was supposed to feed the smaller shops along the mall with customers.

The Pomona Mall was finished by the mid-1960s, about the time that the wave of the future turned out to be the indoor mall. A decade later, pawn shops replaced the jewelry stores and boutiques, which left for the air-conditioned comfort of the Montclair Plaza about 10 miles away.

Pomona had neither luck nor luster; it was a flowery polyester shirt 10 years out of style. On Holt Boulevard, the city made a vain effort at attracting glitz. Anything went along Holt, as long as it had neon and an oceanic parking lot. Running parallel a few blocks south was Mission Avenue, where Pomona gave up entirely and bared its true soul. Neon was too expensive for the shops on Mission. The United Mission Inn was on Mission. So was the YMCA. Both were home to derelicts and drifters who paid by the week. They were men who tried to hide their desperation behind greased-back hair and blazers one size too big.

Midway between Holt and Mission on Reservoir Street sat Tropical Ice Cream. A `Help Wanted’ sign was painted on the building in bright red letters. I’d seen the sign before. I’d gone in once and learned that to work there I needed a driver’s license and, for insurance purposes, I had to be 19.

It was September of 1976, about three weeks before the start of my senior year in high school. I was back from a summer trip and I needed a job that I could quit easily when school began. I was 17. I went down to Tropical.

A pasty-faced man with gray hair met me at the door. I think his name was Ed.

Nineteen, I told him. He asked for my driver’s license. Simple math would have told him my true age. You’re hired, he said.

I had to work one day free for a driver who would train me. Then I’d be working for myself, and Tropical Ice Cream. I’d make 30 percent of whatever I sold. That day they put me on a truck with Wilson. Wilson was a nice old guy. He was retired from some job that had worn him down, but Social Security didn’t pay enough, so now he spent his golden years living in a trailer home and selling ice cream around the Pomona Valley. That’s how I figured it anyway. He didn’t talk much about his personal life.

Wilson was like a lot of guys at Tropical: pensioners who had never saved enough to make retirement a time when they could take life easy. Some did it to get out of the house and away from their wives. Tropical attracted another type: the Down-and-Outer. They were usually younger men. This, apparently, was the only job they could hold. Anyway, Tropical didn’t ask for references. Nor did management get too upset when an employee didn’t show up for work. This happened often. Management figured the driver had moved on or died.

These drifters were usually less dependable than the pensioners, so Herm Trop showed them no mercy. Herm Trop and his brother, whose name I’ve long forgotten, owned the company. Each was as squat as a fire hydrant, with curly brown hair, thick necks and a bustling waddle to their walks.

The Trops had played football. Their gridiron memories – from the days when helmets had no facemasks — were dear to both men. Graying photographs of them in action graced the imitation-walnut paneling of a dark room where the ice cream men counted their money late in the afternoon. The Trops had played the front line.

We always knew Herm was coming long before he appeared in front of us. His gruff, cussing baritone was the soundtrack to everyone’s day at Tropical Ice Cream. I don’t remember his brother saying much. But Herm never passed up an opportunity to bark his wisdom at his crew of retirees and alcoholics. He clearly viewed today’s male specimen as lacking the toughness that allowed him to claw his way to the top of the Pomona Valley ice cream game. Few who stayed had the gumption to talk back to Herm Trop.

At Tropical, the ice cream men were gruff, unshaven and with poor teeth. They grunted a lot. They never, for example, said “Yes, ma’am,” or “Okie-dokie,” or “Coming right up.” They showed little feeling for the kids.

I figured I’d be different. At first I was eager to engage the children. Countless five-year-olds came to my truck, plopping 17 cents in gooey change on my counter.

“How much can I get with this much?”

“Well, let’s see,” I’d say, trying my best to sound like Mister Rogers. “How much do you have? One, two, three. Do you know how much this is worth? That’s worth five, so now you have eight.”

And so on. Finally I’d have to let him know the brutal truth. He could only afford a Popsicle.

“But I want a drumstick.”

“You don’t have enough for a drumstick.”

A drumstick, a cone of vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate syrup and sprinkled with nuts, went for 35 cents. Our positions thus stalemated, the discussion would go on as a line would form. One of us would eventually relent. As time went on, it was the kid.

In time, I became more “efficient.” I’d quickly count the kid’s change and give him two or three choices. I’d grown to understand a little about the old men I worked with. They figured that life owed them more for years of toil than a retirement spent in the oppressive Los Angeles heat in a tin box on wheels selling ice cream to kids with dirty faces.

Wilson and I spent that first day rumbling along his usual route through Walnut, another faceless L.A. suburb. Like so many towns, I knew of Walnut only from the tacky television commercials where some discount furniture mogul with a bad toupee would stand in front of a dinette set reading from cue cards that announced his latest great deal and easy credit terms. He’d then launch into his inventory of stores around the L.A. basin where these great deals were available: La Puente, La Canada, Marina Del Rey, Glendale, Costa Mesa, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, Ontario. Then he’d usually finish with something like: “And our new store in Walnut. Se habla Espanol.”

Here I finally was in Walnut. As our jingle blared out the loudspeakers and down its quiet streets, Wilson shared with me the sacred tricks of the ice cream trade. Jealously guarded tips like: “Go slow,” “Turn your jingle off when you’re selling” (a lesson I quickly ignored since I didn’t see the point. The jingle let people know I was there), and of course, “Put the most expensive ice cream at the bottom of the freezer because people don’t buy it as much.”

Wilson showed me how to fill the truck freezer. Every morning, the drivers would load up, ordering that day’s product from a porthole in the Tropical building. Behind that window was the company freezer. Gusts of frost blew out of it into the early morning sunshine. Inside, two guys would shuttle between the window and the stock, filling orders. The product came hurtling out: boxes of Ice Cream Sandwiches, Drumsticks, Sundaes, Push-ups, Popsicles, and their red-white-and-blue, rocket-shaped cousin, the Astrojet.

Wilson taught me to read a routebook, a tablet that had the turns written out from the moment the driver left the Tropical lot: “Turn left on Mira Vista. Turn right on Del Mar. Turn left on Rancho Val Verde,” and so on.

Under the smog and relentless sun, the truck grew furnace hot. To quench my thirst that first day, I gulped down six orange sodas. I returned home with teeth coated in sugary moss. I never ate or drank anything out of my truck again, and I haven’t had an orange soda since that day. Instead I brought a gallon jug of water, put it in the cooler and drank it throughout the day.

After the first day, I was a pro. I’d sub for whatever driver turned up missing that day. I often had work. I did Baldwin Park, Hacienda Heights, Upland and other cities that I can’t remember. The jingle was my constant companion and even now, 36 years later, it still comes readily to mind.

Only once was I asked to sell someone marijuana. “The other guy did,” said the disheartened customer, when I told him he was out of his mind. And only once did someone ask if I wasn’t scared, since someone had shot at a competitor’s truck a few days earlier.

About two weeks into my Tropical Ice Cream stint, I walked into work and heard Herm. Drivers stood in a circle around him and another man whose pride Herm was dissecting.

The driver, a scruffy younger fellow, had apparently had his truck towed from Santa Fe Springs when it broke down the day before. Repairmen later determined the problem to be a snapped fan belt. Herm seemed to think that any moron could have figured that out.

“A simple fucking fan belt. Don’t you know how to fix a fan belt? It’s the easiest goddamn thing in the world.”

And the abuse went on and on. The drivers crowded around, looking uncomfortable, but drawn to the smell of blood. Finally the driver, whose name I never knew, could take no more. In front of all of us, he began to cry. He held up his hands. They trembled.

“You see these hands,” he screamed, losing control as he tried to explain. “They used to slap ab in some of the best restaurants around. Now they can’t do it any more. I used to be one of the best abalone chefs around. Fuck your job.”

He ran out and stalked toward Mission. I never found out what was wrong with his hands and why they no could longer cook abalone.

We all stood there for a moment, embarrassed. Then Herm broke the silence that he could never stand for long.

“I don’t know what his problem is? All I said was it’s easy to fix a fucking fan belt. Jesus, he takes things too personal. Everybody back to work.”

Then with a wave of his cigar, he was off.

We all took our cue and slowly dispersed. Ed came up to me and informed me that the Santa Fe Springs route had an opening that day. I’d never heard of the place, not even on television commercials.

He gave me a routebook, an ice cream order and as I was walking away, he said, “Oh, and watch out for Big Al.”

I was a little too numbed by what had just occurred to wonder much about what he meant.

Santa Fe Springs proved to be about 30 miles away, over the hills and into the Los Angeles basin. It was near Downey. Downey, as any kid who watched commercials could tell you, was the home of Bob Spreen Cadillac: “Where the freeways meet (pause) in Downey,” went his commercial. I was glad to finally know where Downey was.

Still, I doubted I would make much. Santa Fe Springs sounded middle class. Ice cream men learn quickly that the best selling is in blue-collar neighborhoods, which can’t afford store-bought ice cream, but have the money for the occasional Popsicle or Push-up for their kids. So in the 1970s nothing warmed the ice cream man’s heart like driving down streets lined with big and battered American sedans, Doughboy swimming pools and seeing guys in blue mechanics shirts and Budweiser baseball caps going to work.

Once in town, I followed the routebook, then parked under some trees to read my path for the day. With my jingle going loud, I didn’t hear him come up.

“Hey, you!”

I looked up. Next to me was another ice cream truck. Sitting in the springy driver’s seat, which was begging for mercy, sat an enormous squat white man, with a cap, a mustache and a scraggly beard. His belly-button peeked out from beneath a faded blue t-shirt.

“You work for Trop?’

I nodded.

“You see that book in your hand there, that’s my route. I wrote it,” he said. “This is my town. I’m going to dust your ass of the road.”

He roared off. As I watched him go, I said to myself, `There goes Big Al.’

I don’t remember much about that morning, except that I didn’t see Big Al at all. I forgot he existed and concentrated on making a killing.

I did all right that morning, for a morning. Santa Fe Springs wasn’t as middle-class as I’d feared. I saw a couple of Doughboy pools. And a few women were out watering their yards with curlers tangled in their hair. The yards were small, the grass was not too green. It was going to be an excellent day.

Still, any ice cream man knows the real selling doesn’t start until the sun is high in the sky. It was just after noon when I saw Big Al again. We were both making turns onto parallel streets, a block apart. He must have seen me because as I rounded the block and made a left onto the street between us, he had already made a right. He had sped up, come down the street ahead of me, and now slowed to a crawl as I trailed him. Down the street we marched, our jingles turned up loud. We sounded like a calliope run amok. The peace of the street was ruptured. Housewives came to their doors, holding their children to them.

Half way down the street, Big Al stopped for a customer, blocking my way. I could only sit and wait until he finished his sale. By this time our dueling jingles had brought the neighborhood to their front doors.

Big Al moved on and I left him as he turned down the next block.

The war escalated throughout the afternoon. Half a dozen times we met on some quiet street. Big Al, more familiar with the lay of the land, usually had the advantage. As the afternoon progressed, I found myself less concerned with selling and more preoccupied with beating Big Al onto the next street and leading our mad calliope for while before I stopped in the middle of the street and blocked his path. On a couple of occasions I sped by little children waving for me to stop. Wilson’s counsel to “Go Slow” was forgotten.

Once, as I stopped to sell, Big Al sent over a stringy-haired teenage boy who I’d seen working in his truck. I’m still mystified as to why. The kid stood in line, trying to act nonchalant. Some kind of reconnaissance mission, no doubt. He got to the front of the line and I told him to go to hell. He walked off, apparently lacking the intelligence he was supposed to gather.

Through it all, I thought of all the reasons why Big Al might have it in for me. Clearly, when he looked at me he saw Herm Trop. I could imagine Herm cussing the big fellow out.

Still, I had my competitive edge honed fine when about 3:30 that afternoon I was finishing the route for the second time. I found Big Al stopped and selling. Great. A golden opportunity to wreak havoc on the fat man. I parked beside him, relishing the thought of stealing his customers and forcing him to back up to get around me.

The plan was succeeded. As our jingles rocked yet another quiet neighborhood, I took three of his kids. I think I even sold a drumstick. I was hot. Big Al would be displeased.

Sure enough, his tires squealed as he backed up to get around me. I stood at my window selling Astrojets as fast as I could. The kids were all mine now.

I remember vaguely sensing him not pass by, but stopping instead. Strange.

Then I heard something fall into the front of my truck. The next moment the vehicle shuddered with a thunderous explosion. I fell back. The sound ricocheted against the tin walls. Shards of paper littered the floor. My ears were humming.

Outside a mother stared up at me with her mouth agape. She quickly pulled her son to her as I cursed and ran to the driver’s seat, pulled away and gave chase. I rounded a curve and saw him at a stop sign.

I accelerated. Big Al was mine. I’d like to say I rammed him and sent him headfirst through the front window. But at the last moment I lost my nerve and only bumped him.

My ears were still ringing and I was dazed from the attack. But I quickly realized my mistake. Big Al was truly enormous. Not tall, but wide. His arms were like hams and his stomach still peered out at the world from beneath his sweaty t-shirt. His truck sighed with relief as he got out.

He trundled up to me, hitching up his pants and adjusting his cap. There was no fooling him.

“You hit me.”

Here I figured I’d play dumb.

“What? You threw a cherry bomb in my truck and I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

He reached in and switched off my jingle.

“You hit me,” he said with a sneer, “and if I wasn’t on parole I’d rearrange your face.”

I left Santa Fe Springs that afternoon and didn’t return for 20 years or so.

I stayed for another three weeks at Tropical, working intermittently, then school started and I never went back.

I’d love to know what became of Big Al. I saw where Herm Trop died a few years back, at the age of 87.

Pomona’s downtown has made an unexpected and successful transformation, and the Pomona Mall is now an arts and antiques district and the Fox Theater has been restored. The last time I drove down Reservoir, there wasn’t an ice cream truck around for miles.

____

 

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By Anthony L. Quinones

I go to the ballet for the same reason people go to watch NASCAR: The pile up in turn number three. For a long time, I’d had the same ballet experience as everybody else. Making fun of guys in tights. Going to see the holiday productions of the Nutcracker and the annual pain of watching Swan Lake.

Then one day, while visiting family in the nation’s capital, I was invited to go to the ballet for real. Where men wore tuxedos and women donned evening gowns. It was like attending the Oscars. Senators and congressmen were there. There were Africans in robes and ambassadors from several countries. It was the Saturday evening production of Don Quixote at the Kennedy Center, starring the most famous dancer in the world, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The lights went down and the curtain started to open. I was nervous. People couldn’t stay in their seats.

Then the announcer came over the sound system. Due to having performed for underprivileged children of Washington D.C. earlier in the day, he said, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland will not perform tonight’s ballet. Instead, they will be replaced by their understudies — a Mr. Bujones and a Ms. Van Hamel.

The audience went wild. A man two rows in front of our group stood up and shook his fist. The Japanese ambassador, who was sitting in the presidential box, walked out in protest, with his entourage in tow. The crowd went mad.

Then the music started, the crowd slowly composed itself, and the dancing began. It was nice, but nothing special and the audience knew it.

“Poor technique,” one woman, seated directly behind me, announced very loudly.

Everyone agreed. I continued to watch. I could feel my eyes starting to close. Then, during the village scene, the peasants were jumping and everyone on stage was laughing. Right in front of me, the lead dancer threw the prima ballerina into the air and dropped her on to the stage. Without missing a beat, he picked her up again threw her into the air and dropped her a second time. Now you could see the bone sticking out of her ankle as she lay on the floor.

The lead dancer was panicking; the audience was in shock. The lead dancer grabbed a peasant girl and threw her into the air. She fell as well. By this time the lead ballerina had crawled off the stage with a broken ankle. The peasant girl now lay on the floor too afraid to move. The music kept playing but no one was dancing. Slowly the curtain descended and the music stopped. The announcer once again came over the loud speaker as the lights went up. Due to an accident we will have a short intermission.

It was as if a natural disaster had taken place. People walked around the lobby in a fog. The bar opened and people started drinking and talking. Did you see that? The audience could not control themselves. People were amazed. I, on the other hand, had no idea that this didn’t happen every day. Almost never, I soon found out.

About forty minutes into the intermission, the lights in the lobby started to flicker and everyone returned to their seats. The announcer once again came over the loud speaker. Due to an accident the dancers cannot continue; instead, we will start the entire ballet over with the lead cast — Mr. Baryshnikov and Ms. Kirkland.

Let me tell you, it was a shame that you ever saw anybody else try to dance. I’d never seen real dancers leap into the air and fly before. It was beautiful. The crowd went wild. People started crying. They clapped and rose from their seats whenever Mikhail came on stage. And when it came to the peasant scene, everyone held their breaths. The ballerina was thrown into the air and it was as though she never landed. The audience gave the dancers standing ovations several times. They brought flowers to the stage and people talked about the evening as they walked out.

Several weeks later I read an article in People Magazine, describing the entire evening. But it didn’t quite capture the event. So now I go to the ballet as often as I can, but not for the dancing. Instead, I go for the same reason people go to NASCAR. The crashes in turn number three.

___

Anthony Quinones lives in Miami Beach with his wife, Shellie. Together they own Aventura Invitations, a stationery company. He is currently working on several screen plays and a children’s book.

 

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By Richard Gatica

The day before I killed Donald Evans I did not even know he existed. The day he died I was smoking crack cocaine and when I smoke crack, nothing else matters. Not family, not friends – not even God.

Each time that I smoked crack, I could hear little demons and their excited little whispers. I knew what I was doing was wrong. That pleased them even more.

At the time, I was out of money and robbing drug dealers on the streets of Los Angeles. Crack was everywhere then. Black dealers would stand in the dark shadows near street corners and sell to people as they drove up in cars. Sometimes several dealers would share the same spot and race to the customer as soon as he pulled up. A half-dozen hands would thrust through the car window, each with a display of rocks. The customer would make his selection according to size, color, and weight, as if he were buying precious jewels. He would then speed off and the dealers would run back into the shadows.

I was driving around at five in the morning looking for a dealer to rob. It was still dark. I was planning on simply snatching the rocks out of the dealer’s hand and speeding away. I found no one at my regular spots, which was odd even at that hour. It seemed as if the cops had just done a sweep.

I drove further into the slums and finally seen a woman standing on a corner. I asked if she knew where I could get some crack. She said yes. I told her to get in. She had me drive a few blocks. I could tell she was a smoker herself. Probably a prostitute. They were called “strawberries” – women who sold their bodies for crack. I once saw a strawberry actually perform fellatio on a dog for a hit of crack.

So as this strawberry directed me to a dealer, I knew she would be willing to rob him. After driving a few blocks, she had me pull over in front of a house. Donald came out from the shadows. He was dirty and I saw that if he was a dealer, he was his own best customer. Donald walked up to her window and showed her some rocks. I asked him to pass them to me so I could see them more closely. He was hesitant at first. I told him to hurry before the cops came. He passed the rocks to me. As I pretended to inspect them I put the truck in gear and stepped on the gas. The truck shot backwards. I had put the truck in reverse by mistake. Donald the crack monster held on to the passenger side door unwilling to surrender his product. I put the truck in drive and it shot forward in a cloud of smoke.

People came out of the shadows and started throwing objects at the truck. Through all of this Donald held on tight. The strawberry started screaming like there was no tomorrow. For Donald, there wasn’t. I gathered speed and started zigzagging down the street in an attempt to shake Donald off, but he held tight.

Somehow he got the door open and was swaying back and forth on it. I seen this as an opportunity to smack him up against a light pole or parked car but every time I would get close the door swung inward.

Donald’s last words were, “I’m going to kick your fuckin’ ass.”

For suddenly he was gone. He had fallen off the truck and was sucked up under it. We were doing about sixty miles per hour. His body slammed against the undercarriage. The rear tires lifted off the ground. Donald never had a chance. He bounded and rolled and slid down the street and came to rest under a parked car.

I drove a few more blocks, made a series of turns, pulled over and told the strawberry to get out. She turned to me and asked, “Aren’t we gonna smoke some rock?”

I yelled at her to get the fuck out before I killed her. I would have hit her face against the dashboard until she was dead because she was delaying me from smoking my rock. She tried to get out but the door handle was gone. Donald must have taken it with him. Maybe he was holding onto it and it broke off, causing him to fall. Finally, the strawberry climbed out of the window and as she did, she told me to never ask her for a favor again. Later, I learned she was killed by one of her tricks soon after that.

I went back home and found that my beautiful wife had left me – I wonder why. I thought we were doing pretty good. At least I had my rock. I smoked it in the living room alone. As soon as the rush came I went to the window and peeked through the curtains watching for any suspicious activity. I stood there motionless for over an hour trying to detect any danger. I seen an old lady walk by with a cart and could see that she was covertly talking into a police radio as she glanced my way. They thought I was so stupid!

I finally laid down on the couch and started to formulate a new plan for my next rock. I had just killed a man for a fifteen-minute high and an hour of paranoia.

I went to sleep and woke up to the sound of the police banging on my front door. I tried to run out through the back door but found more police waiting for me back there.

I was arrested but not for killing Donald. I was arrested for stealing the truck that I used to kill him. The police did not connect me to killing Donald for another sixteen years.

Donald was a black man. He was forty-four years old. I was twenty. He had a long rap sheet but nothing very serious. He was addicted to crack just like me.

He died from what is called “eggshell” cracking of the skull. Imagine taking a hard-boiled egg and dropping it, then rolling it around a little. His left ear and most of the left side of his face and neck were torn off as well.

I often look at the autopsy report and photographs as a reminder of what drugs can do. When I was a little boy at school playing on the monkey bars, I never imagined that I would one day be addicted to drugs or that I would kill another man to support my habit or that I would spend the rest of my life in prison.

As I said, prior to killing Donald I did not know he existed. Yet because of our mutual addictions, our fates will forever be entwined. His body is rotting in a dark cold grave and mine in a dark cold prison. The distance between us is very narrow and if there is a God may He have mercy on our souls.

_______

RICHARD GATICA 1Richard Gatica of a former prison gang member and crack addict who is serving three life sentences for murder in the California prison system. He has completed a memoir of his life, from which this story was taken.

 

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By David Lee Caudill

I never got to hunt with my father. As far back as I can remember I would watch my father, along with his brothers and their father, come home from hunting trips. They would show off their deer, explaining every detail that led to the kill. Then they would describe how the deer felt, how far he had run after the shot. I was never there for the fall, the shot, the first step into the woods before the sun sparkled on the frostbitten fields of tall grass and dormant wheat. But I was always there when they came home.

I would wait by the front door for hours, and when I saw the truck coming down the street I would run as fast as I could, coatless, bouncing through the snow, to throw myself into his arms and watch them wrap around me as I looked at the deer blood that was smeared on his camouflage coat sleeve. “Got me one, son,” he would say. Or, “Not this time. Maybe next year.” Either way, his grin was on display and the embrace was just as powerful. My father was never more alive than after returning from a hunting trip.

He had said for years that he wanted to take me hunting. From a very young age, I was good with a gun, especially a shotgun. I could hit any target, still or moving. Clay birds never landed wholly after flight, falling piece-fully to the ground a split second after I yelled ‘pull.’ But hunting, I never did. I was always working toward some sporting event or athletic scholarship.

Still, hunting was more than a sport for my family. We lived in Dayton, Ohio, where my father worked in a paper mill, and though industry was more present than nature, we relied on them equally. Often times, a deer meant that my family could eat through winter. I would ride to the butcher with my father to pick up our venison, and on the way home we would stop at the houses of friends and family, sharing what we had, offering as much as they desired. I wondered how we would have any left after giving so much away, but there always seemed to be just enough to get us through the winter. It was my father who provided this, to us, to others. I never wanted to be more like my father than during those moments.

By the time I was 14, my father couldn’t hunt anymore. Walking was a chore for him, therefore hiking was impossible. He couldn’t handle the cold seeping into his degenerating joints, his knees locking up as if in a vice. I tended to post-surgical wounds and listened to his cries in the night. In the morning, he would reach for the window sill near his bed, pulling with all his might just to get himself upright before hobbling to the bathroom and then the living room. But somehow, he was at every baseball game, every school event. His pain stopped him from living in every way, except vicariously.

The year after he died at the age of thirty-nine, I finally went hunting. I was twenty-one. I went with two of my dad’s brothers, Dan and Dwight, as well as my two grandfathers. We decided to go to my father’s favorite hunting place in Fallsville, Ohio, about 90 minutes southeast of where we lived. We stopped at the same Citgo station I had heard of so many times, getting a cup of coffee, a biscuit, extra hand warmers just in case. I thought about my father’s hands touching the same coffee pot I was pouring from. I touched the metal rack that held the biscuits, just in case my father’s hands had grazed them as he passed by over the years. Then I went to the truck and began drinking my coffee and watched my uncles and grandfathers as they walked out of the station, and I pictured my father walking with them, his wide-eyed anticipation of the hunt. When they reached the truck, I imagined his wraith sitting down beside me, grabbing my knee with a strength he only knew in his youth, in moments of bliss. Then I realized I had simply taken my father’s place in their adventure, and if only for one day, I became my father.

When we reached the gravel road that parted the woods, uncle Dwight turned off the headlights, let his eyes adjust to the darkness, and then continued to their favorite parking nook and slowly pulled off the road. We got out quietly and let our bodies get used to the cold, and as we reached for our coats we heard a stirring in the distance. Ahead, we saw a buck and five doe following behind him. It was the first time I had ever seen a deer while sharing the woods with them. I watched their white tails bobbing as they entered a thicker set of woods, and into the darkness.

“Davey,” whispered Dwight, “those deer are headed straight for where we are going. This is going to be a good day.”

I pulled my hunting pants over my jeans, laced up my boots and reached for my father’s camouflaged coat, the blood from his last deer still visible on the sleeve. I put on my gloves, my orange toboggan, and reached for my father’s shotgun. It was a Remington Wingmaster. “This is the Rolls Royce of shotguns,” my father used to say. That was a stretch, but it was his favorite nonetheless.

We started to walk into the woods slowly, letting our feet make contact with the ground before shifting our full weight to the leading foot. I walked between my grandfathers. I looked at my mother’s father in front of me, his white hair reaching just below his orange toboggan, blending with the snow falling lightly. I looked back and saw my father’s father, and he nodded slowly, as if to tell me everything would be alright. These are the two most beautiful men in the world, I thought. My grandfathers had no intentions of shooting their guns that day – I could see it in their eyes. They were simply there for me, to see their grandson’s first hunt, his first chance at bringing a deer home to his family.

We walked for maybe 20 minutes, reaching our desired location at first light. It was a beautiful spot, atop a hill that led straight down to a creek, then a field beyond. The trees were bare, still. The ground, covered with a light dusting of snow, was crisp under our boots and offered the only sound of the morning. Dwight pointed out a log to me and said, “That was your daddy’s favorite spot. Maybe he’s still close by and can send you some luck.” I sat down on my father’s log, watched Dwight walk away, and for the first time, I realized what it felt like to be alone in the woods.

As the sun began to rise toward the cloudless sky, the woods awoke. I could hear the creek below as if it had just begun to flow, and I heard a squirrel in front of me, bouncing in the snow looking for a lost nut or a forgotten friend. Beyond the creek, I could see the field of dry wheat stalks and paths from hunters past. The field seemed endless, and I wondered if my father had walked those paths, if it was the end of the woods or the beginning of the rest of the world. Sitting on this log, did he think of me as I thought of him then? Did he imagine me smiling as I saw his truck coming down the road toward home? Did he think of nothing at all, as if this very spot was his escape from the world of bills, from heartache, from arthritic deterioration? His wraith had reappeared, and I could hear his voice. He said, “It’s the rest of the world. Out there, beyond the field. That world is yours, whatever it may be. You just have to want it.”

Suddenly I heard a splash from the creek. I had only been on my father’s log for a few minutes; it couldn’t be a deer. I clutched the Wingmaster to my chest and as I looked down towards the water, I saw the doe as she crossed, reaching the base of the hill and starting to climb upward, toward me, toward my father’s log. She climbed the hill as if it were no hill at all, as if it was flat ground. She reached the top of the hill, still running full speed, and as I stood and clicked off the safety to my gun she heard me and stopped. She was broadside, maybe ten yards in front of me, completely motionless.

As I raised my gun, I heard my father as if he was looking over my shoulder: “See where her front leg meets her chest? Six inches to the right. You can’t miss. Bring her home, son. Nice and easy.” I thought of how he would have already fired, but I was patient, just looking at the doe, looking into her eyes as she looked into mine. She turned her head and looked around, pondering her next move, but I kept her in my sites as my finger caressed the trigger and readied for the shot.

Then I watched the doe as she slowly turned away, took a step, then two, and burst into a sprint. And when she was no longer in sight, I sat back down on my father’s log, his wraith long gone, and I smiled, for I had just been graced by the miracle of one of God’s creatures. I thought of my father being angry that I didn’t take the shot, but I was pleased that I didn’t. Somehow, another death just didn’t seem necessary.

____

David Lee Caudill resides in Canton, Ga., with his wife and children. He currently works as a mortgage underwriter and is an author of one book of poetry. Contact him at caudill_david19@yahoo.com

 

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By Frank Deese

“Don’t be a tourist.  Be a traveler.”

Karen seemed to get what Min Thant meant while I stood nearby distracted by the round eyes of Phoebe Cates, wondering what could possibly merit her poster being the only decoration on the bare walls of this dirt-floored Burmese home.  Phoebe Cates was certainly pretty and spank-worthy enough for Judge Reinhold in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” – but why would Min’s family worship her like a foreign goddess?

My girlfriend back then possessed all the adventurous impulses I lacked.  They had taken her to Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Rangoon, and now into the home of Min Thant, a schoolteacher we met at an open market while trading our smuggled whisky and cigarettes for local currency and laquerware.  I was here in October of 1985 only because I followed Karen, and now nodded my head to mimic her understanding.   “Don’t be a tourist.  Be a traveler.”

We bowed good-bye to Min; and I quickly asked about his unusual wall poster.  He smiled sagely, answered knowingly:  “Phoebe Cates!”

“Okay…  But why her?”  Min maintained his smile.  It was either self-evident, or would need to remain, like the tourist/traveler thing, a mystery of the Orient.

We rushed to join our new American friends at Rangoon Central Station for the night train into the heart of Burma.  We had met George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally the night before over an indescribably horrible dinner (prepared, no doubt, from a hundred year-old British cookbook with missing pages) at the colonial-era Strand Hotel.  After weeks away from home, real American conversation felt luxurious, even over bad food.  It was a pleasure and relief to once again understand and be understood in native nuance and sentiment.

The windows of the humid night train had no glass and at every station stop, local hawkers stretched in deep to loudly sell strange drinks and unknown meats wrapped in exotic leaves.   Insects buzzed around the dim lights in the car’s center, and the “bathroom” on the train was nothing more than a dark room with a hole in the floor rushing over the rising and falling tracks that made the trip like an amusement park ride without any assurance it “must be safe.”  I was vaguely aware this rocking train was, up to then, the most foreign place I’d ever been; but that appreciation didn’t penetrate the loud, opinionated company of George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally.  We were three American couples on facing wooden train benches trading travel anecdotes, arguing movies and sports, insulated by continuous conversation from the strange world that became less and less comfortable as we traveled further back in time.

The tiny hamlet of Pagan, with its immense scattering of stone temples held inside a sharp curve in the Irrawaddy River, remained very much the place it was a thousand years ago.  With one tuk-tuk driver per couple (a tuk-tuk is like a two-passenger motorized tricycle), we shot from Buddha to Buddha, more focused on the conversation than the beauty and timelessness of the brown temples rising from the semi-verdant landscape.  George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally had forceful (and sometimes knowlegeable) opinions on every detail of what to see, what to do, where best to eat and not get sick; and, being travel-weary, Karen and I temporarily surrendered to not discovering for ourselves.  For three days, we took comfort inside this four-person American tour bus whose final stop was an open-air cafe for bottled beer and “the best Chinese food in Pagan.”

Karen’s contact lenses hurt from the long day so she and I left early.  We collected our things from the cheap plastic dinner table and headed to the rustic guesthouse to pack our bags on the mosquito-netted bed for the long and early journey back to Rangoon.  It was hardly an hour later when George, Marcia, Leon and Sally thundered in, angry and indignant.

A tuk-tuk driver stole George’s flashlight!

George and Leon had noticed him looking at it earlier – then it was gone.  Despite the young driver’s pleas of innocence, they planned to alert the local authorities.

What did George’s flashlight look like,” I asked.  “Was it gold plated?  Diamond encrusted?”

“It’s not the value, Frank Deese, it’s the principle.  The man stole and can’t get away with it.”

“It’s a two dollar Duracell flashlight,” Karen offered. “I have one just like it.  You can have mine.”

But there seemed no way to stop them from sending this young man to the police in a police state – that is, until Karen discovered in her bag a second Duracell flashlight.  She had two.

Uh oh…  Our burst of private laughter faded quickly as we both realized how Karen’s mistake of taking from the table a flashlight that looked exactly like hers (but wasn’t hers) led to the abuse by angry Amercians of an innocent Burmese tuk-tuk driver.

We crossed the guesthouse courtyard to confess the mistake to George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally.  We apologized, returned the flashlight and solicited from them anything we could do to make this as if it had never happened.  But there was nothing.  George focused all his anger, all the pompous self-assuredness we had surrendered to before, directly at us now, and quickly concocted a new truth.  Marcia explained to us tearfully in our room that her husband believed we planned this all along, engineered it to embarrass him, but only confessed because our hearts bled for a hapless local.  It was ridiculous and Marcia clearly didn’t believe it, but the weight in her expression suggested a much longer fight she had never been able to win.  Leon and Sally were already in line with official account of our treachery.  Karen and I were as good as foreigners – we could not be trusted.

“I’m sorry,” she wept.  “I really liked you guys.”

As we sat close and alone on the train car heaving to and fro on the curvy tracks to Rangoon, we looked quietly out at the huts and rice farms in the rainy landscape.  Exile hurt, as did the ugliness unleashed on the innocent by Karen’s simple mistake.

Karen reached deep into her bag for a Cadbury “Fruit and Nut Bar” she kept in a zippered compartment in case of severe homesickness.  We ate it slowly, savoring each square, but barely noticing when it was gone as we were long into our own conversation about what we’d seen, the remainder of our trip, why Min Thant had Phoebe Cates on his wall – we still had no clue – and our lives back home.  We noticed a Burmese family preparing dinner on the floor across the aisle and a group of loud teenage boys at the end of the car.  As daylight dimmed behind the rain clouds, Karen fell asleep on the bench next to me and I now felt grateful those other Americans were two train cars away.  But then, in the darkening train, I realized something troubling:  I had to pee badly – and (out of spite) the night before I’d tossed my own flashlight into George’s suitcase to pathetically prove he was wrong about us.

There was still the faintest glow of dusk.  Maybe my eyes could adjust enough to find that hole in the floor.  But the “bathroom” was completely dark; and even with my pupils wide open, I could get little more than complete blindness in the face of a dire need.  Did I dare step in and risk my leg falling through the dirty hole and breaking off on the moving track?   I stood there helpless, clearly the best entertainment of the evening to the giggling Burmese teenagers nearby.

One of the laughing shadows reached into his knit bag, fiddling with something:  D-Cell batteries? He slipped them into something else I couldn’t see, then switched on a cheap chrome flashlight handing it to me like Lady Liberty.

“Thank you,” I said loudly.  “Thank you.  Thank you.”

As I peed through the exrement-rimmed hole in the floor, the light in my left hand illuminating my golden stream splashing off the wood of the rushing track ties, I realized that – at least for this moment – I was not a tourist.  I was a traveler.

And I sure as hell better not drop that flashlight.

______

Frank Deese is a screenwriter, teacher, and former traveler living in Los Angeles. Contact him at fdeese@aol.com.

 

 

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By Kristi DeMeester

I gave up sleeping in the same bed as my grandmother after the first night she moved into my bedroom. That first night, I stretched my body along the corner of the sagging mattress, my calf muscles cramping; the thin quilt tucked tightly beneath me so that her sagging, yellowed skin would not touch mine. Her chest rose and fell, and I timed my inhalations against her tobacco stained exhalations.

“It’s just until she gets back on her feet. It’s not easy being evicted,” my mother said.

For the next four years, my mother recited her truth. “It’s only for a little while, Kristi.”

Like anything worth hating, it took time to learn how to do it just right.

But before I hated my grandmother, I loved her. Every Thursday I waited for what she called our “nature walks.” From the porch swing, I searched for her faded blue station wagon and rubbed my feet together with impatience.

She’d sweep in smelling of sweat and tobacco; her dark hair teased and sprayed into an immovable coiffure. She wore her makeup like a shield, layering on foundation, blush, and mascara, but no lipstick.  “Chapstick is all I need,” she said.

If a handsome man passed us, she smiled and winked. “When you get a little older, I’ll teach you how to flirt,” she said.

“I’ve always loved tulips,” she said as we stopped to admire the yellow petals. I sniffed them while she lit a cigarette. “Prettiest things I ever saw.” As the scent of tulips and cigarette smoke washed over me, she led me home.

Every year on my birthday she drove me to Shoney’s for breakfast. “It’s my oldest grandbaby’s birthday,” she told the waitress when she raised her eyebrows at my bacon filled plate, “If it’s bacon she wants, she can have it.” In kindergarten, I wrote my first sentences about her. I called her my best friend.

Then, in 1991 her younger sister was diagnosed with lung cancer and was dead four months later.

The next week, I waited on the porch for my grandmother, but she didn’t come. My mother told me, “Grandma is sad right now. Give her some time, okay?” Pretty soon, I stopped waiting.

I imagine she’d hoped she could drown her sadness in a man, and a few months after her sister’s death, she started dating. Three months after meeting Jimmy Head, my grandmother made him her third husband. He laughed easily and loudly, played with me and my brother like he was a child, too. I loved him as a grandfather.

When her marriage didn’t alleviate the sadness of her sister’s death, she began drinking. She hid plastic bottles of vodka under the kitchen sink and drank until she couldn’t stand. “Don’t you touch me,” she hissed when Jimmy tried to lift her.

He hovered, waited for her depression to lift, for the hurt of losing her younger sister to dissipate. When she left him, I cried. Something inside my grandmother had broken in the face of losing a sister with whom she shared so many secrets.

To survive, she waitressed at the Waffle House and weaned herself off of the vodka, only taking a nip every now and again. “To take the edge off,” she said.

On a day my mother couldn’t find a babysitter, my grandmother took me to the Waffle House and sat me at the counter with a dish rag and ketchup bottles that needed wiping. I watched as she delivered coffee and winks to her male regulars.

When her shift ended, she collapsed beside me and pulled her tip money from her apron.

“Count that out for me, hon” she said as she ordered lunch: a double cheeseburger with hashbrowns followed by a honey bun, which she slathered in butter.

“Don’t you ever eat like this,” she warned.

“Why do you?”

“I have a high metabolism, but you’re like your momma and will get bigger than a house,” she pinched my thigh, “and you can’t afford to get much chunkier.”

After that, I jogged in place for twenty minutes before bed each night for the next three years.

In late 1994 my parents divorced, and my grandmother offered us temporary shelter in her three-bedroom home.

No longer married, my grandmother gave up the façade of the tidy housewife and lived in squalor. The kitchen sink crusted under her unwashed dishes; flies ventured into the cool depths of the refrigerator to die in piles around rotting meatloaf. Dirty clothes covered the floor.

Watching her sit in her own filth disgusted me. Often I stared at her and imagined what it would feel like to kick her, or pinch her, or place the dead cockroach I’d found in the kitchen inside her snoring mouth. Even better would be to throw away all of her lottery tickets, but I knew better.  Nothing came between my grandmother and her love of gambling.

When she wasn’t sleeping or working, we could find her at Grand’s gas station feeding her tip money to a slot machine. With her mouth open and eyes glazed, she drank Diet Pepsi and chain smoked as she tapped her darkened fingernails against the buttons.

My mother met a nice man and married him in February, 1996. After three years of saving, my stepfather closed on a house he’d had built for us. For the first time, I had my own bedroom and bathroom.

Then on Christmas Eve of 1999, my grandmother came home from work to find her things scattered on the icy front lawn and an eviction notice taped to the door.

“She’ll only be here for a little while,” my mother said as I shouted, cried, and threw small items. My grandmother moved into my bedroom that weekend. What remained of her life was stuffed into plastic grocery sacks.

“Which side is mine?”

“Next to the window,” I said, pushing the grocery sacks she’d placed on my bed onto the floor.

On the hand-me-down pine dresser, she’d laid out her essentials: her makeup bag, Rave Ultra hairspray, half a bottle of Benadryl. My grandmother had quit drinking, but she took long pulls from that bottle before bed.

I spent the next four years sleeping on the floor and growing to hate her. I had dreams of being a writer. The chirping of the television or her wheezing in the background didn’t allow that.

Sometimes, she caught me on a Sunday morning, a cup of coffee in her hand.

“So who is this Chris boy you’ve been talking about?”

“Just a boy I know at school.”

She sipped her coffee, tilted her head, “So when did he kiss you?”

“Last night.” I clapped a hand over my mouth, “How did you know?”

“I figured somebody had kissed you. You came in this house last night glowing like a lightning bug.”

She told me she loved me every day, and I couldn’t stand her for that.

For my sixteenth birthday my mother and grandmother promised me a sleepover. I’d never hosted a slumber party and was embarrassed at sharing a room with my grandmother.

“You’re sure you won’t be here, Grandma?”

“I’m sure, hon.”

When the day finally came, I raced home and flung open the door only to find her sitting on the bed.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m at overtime, and Craig says I can’t work any more hours this week.”

“Can’t you stay somewhere else?”

“I’ll sleep on the couch tonight. It’ll be like I’m not even here.”

She hovered on the outskirts of the party, entering the bedroom because she had forgotten something. “Don’t ya’ll mind me! Oh aren’t you just the prettiest thing? If you were any skinnier, you’d just blow away.”

At one point, she stumbled into our bathroom. Her Benadryl had worked its magic because she proceeded to urinate with the force of a Thoroughbred.

At school the next day, word spread about my crazy grandmother. When I sat down at lunch, my friends picked up their trays and moved to a new table.

At home, as I stared at my grandmother’s mess, rage boiled in my belly.

Walking into the bathroom, I grabbed my grandmother’s toothbrush. Our toilet hadn’t been cleaned in weeks, and a blackish green mold sprouted across the white porcelain.

Taking care to push the bristles deep into the mold, I scrubbed every inch of that toilet with my grandmother’s toothbrush. For the next two weeks, I secretly laughed every time she brushed her teeth.

My grandmother bought a trailer and moved out shortly before I turned eighteen. I celebrated by sleeping naked in a new set of bed sheets, but soon I found I was behaving like her. Coming home after my undergraduate classes and job as a waitress, I’d fall into bed still wearing my smelly uniform. Doing laundry meant dousing a t-shirt in perfume and popping it in the dryer. If I ran out of underwear, I’d turn them inside out and wear them anyway.

“Why am I like this?” I asked my mother. “If Justin’s out of town, I won’t change out of my pajamas for days. I leave food containers just lying out. Oh God, I’m just like grandma.”

To offset the periods of sloth, I cleaned every surface until I bled and felt at peace.

At night, I tried to write, but I’d sit instead in front of the television. Paper threatened to consume my desk, reminding me of the pages I hadn’t written. “You’ll never actually peel yourself off of this couch and finish your novel,” I thought, “because you are just like her.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was leaving us. When the doctor diagnosed her with emphysema, she joked, “At least it’s not cancer, right?”

She swore to get more exercise, to eat better, to stop smoking. The oxygen tank hissed as she drew breath from the cord looped over her ears. Each of us scolded her like a child when we’d catch her smoking.

“Are you trying to kill yourself? You shouldn’t be smoking any way, much less next to the oxygen tank!”

Every week, she called me. “I miss you, baby girl,” she said. Too often, I ignored the call.

The last time we spoke was on my twenty-sixth birthday. “Remember when I used to take you to Shoney’s on your birthday?”

“I remember. Listen, I’m really busy.” I never spoke with her again.

Three months later, my grandmother was found dead in her mobile home. While we waited for the attendants to take her body, my brother sat on the ground picking at his cuticles, his hat pulled low. My mother walked in slow circles. I bowed my head so my hair covered my eyes.

“I need to see her,” my mother said, pausing at the rickety front steps. She placed her hand on the door knob then took it off before turning back to me. I couldn’t look at her.

“Oh, Mom,” she said as the door clicked behind her.

Moments later, she called for me. “Kristi, can you please help me? I need to send clothes.”

I turned from the body when I entered.

“Is this nice enough?” my mother held up a cream colored pantsuit. “Can you look in her dresser for socks? She hates to be cold.”

I touched everything with my fingertips, ashamed that even now I was squeamish around her things.

Inside the trailer I held my mother as we cried.

This spring a tulip in my garden flamed out in vibrant pink among the white blooms I’d planted in the fall. I hadn’t planted it. But its petals remained long after the others faded and dropped.

____

Kristi DeMeester lives, teaches, and writes fiction in the Southern Gothic vein in Atlanta, Georgia. Her article “Why I am Not a Luddite” was published in Free Inquiry magazine, and she is currently working on a novel. She blogs about everything she sees at www.oneperfectword.blogspot.com.

 

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