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By Michel Stone

I’d known Angel a few weeks when he told me about his being sealed by blowtorch in the underbelly of a truck.  His words flowed fast, like the cork had blown on something bottled inside him, and the telling and my interest gave him great satisfaction.

We were tagging elms with yellow plastic tape in the tree nursery where we worked.  “You cannot imagine,” he said. He had an easy, boyish smile, almost devilish, but his eyes revealed a perpetual weariness.

“Tell me,” I said, stretching out an eight-inch piece of tape and snipping it from the roll.

“We lay like this.” He stood rigid, his arms pinned to his sides.  “Is very close, you know? With the shoes of the other mens is rubbing my head here and here,” he said, tapping his ears.

“How many of you?”

His sudden, wide smile puzzled me.

“Is ten of us.  This space is very, very small.” He stepped to a nearby elm and bent a thin branch for me to secure the length of tape.

We had to tag the best looking elms for a landscaper who’d pick up the trees the following day.  Angel could tell the caliper of a tree with a glance.  We’d walk down the field, he’d select the trees, and we’d tag them.

I didn’t want to be nosy, and I figured he’d be guarded about telling me much more, but  I was wrong.

“I try not to move in this truck, is so tight like… how you say… the little fishes in the can?”

“Sardines?” I say, tying a strip of tape to the limb.

Si, is like the sardines.  And the coyote – he is the man I pay the moneys to bring me in these truck – he close the hole in the truck with the… how you say… the fire, you know?”

“Blow torch?”

Si.  Is very dark in this place.  Is very long time in this place.”

“How long did it take you to cross?”

“Oh, is many hours!”

“Pretty scary, I bet.” I said, as we made our way down the row, eyeing trees to select.

“I think I will die on this trip.  I could no tell is day or the night, is Mexico or el norte outside this space.”

“Did you and the others talk?”

“No, not so much because we is scared of the coyote in the outside, if he hear us or if the border patrol hear us.  We not talking in there.  But then one man he get very crazy in the head,” Angel says, his perpetual smile lost now.  “Is very bad.”

“Crazy in the head?” I said.

Si, is true.  He say crazy things.  He screaming and he wanting his mama, but is no space in there and is no mama, either.  I want to hit him in the face!  You see, is no because I am a bad guy, but this man, he could get us caught, you know?”

“Did you hit him?”

“No.  Is impossible. The… how you say… the top?  Is right here, is very near to my nose.  Is no able to move to hit this man.”

I shook my head, unsure what to say, thinking about my story, my life, and how simple and unencumbered my existence would seem if he were to ask me to tell my personal narrative.

(Michel Stone’s first novel, The Iguana Tree, is just out now on Hub City Press, about a Mexican couple’s trip into the United States, ending in South Carolina. It has been called a “compassionate yet unsentimental story [recalling] the works of John Steinbeck.” …    Read an excerpt here.)

“Then the mens, they have to piss, right?  And what can they do but they have to go.  So these mens pisses, and one man he… how you say?”  Angel shoves a dirty finger into the back of his throat.

“Vomit? Throw up?” I said.

Si, he vomit and smelling very, very bad in this truck.”

As we made our way across the field, tagging the last couple of trees, I wondered what I’d do in the situation Angel just described.

I said, “Did you pray?”  I fold my hands in prayer and briefly close my eyes to illustrate my question.

“Oh, si!  I says to God, ‘Please! Please! Please!’  And the other mens I can hear them talk to God and to the Virgin, they say like me, “Please, please!”

I tried to picture Angel prone, scared, and lying in human waste among his fellow travelers with barely a few inches between their faces and the top of their hidden, sealed compartment. I imagined the unbearable stench.

(View a trailer to The Iguana Tree)

Suddenly I am thankful Angel is a thin man.  How could he have fit into the space otherwise?  Maybe a plump, well-fed fellow wouldn’t have had Angel’s motivation to leave Mexico in such a way, under the protection of a coyote, in search of something better.

“But you made it across,” I said, smiling at him.

Si,” he said, his mischievous grin contradicting the horrendous tale he’d just shared, the truth about his deliverance to el norte in the dark belly of that truck.

“When was this?” I said.

“This was in five months ago.  In Marzo.  You know Marzo?”

“March,” I said.

“Si.  In March I come here.  Soon is my wife coming and my boy.”  His face darkened when he said this, and for a moment I suspected I’d misunderstood, imagining he’d be thrilled to be reunited with his family.

“Where are they now?” I said.

“In my country, in my town, Cortazar.”

My familiarity with Mexican geography was minimal.  “Is that near the sea, or near the border?”

“No, no, is no near the sea and this town is very far from the border.  Is in middle of my country,” he said.

Then I pictured his young wife – How old was Angel? 23? – traveling up through the center of her country with a small child in tow, trying to cross into America.

Perspiration dampened the front of Angel’s shirt in this muggy August South Carolina heat, and I wonder how insufferable a sealed undercarriage of a truck would be in Mexico or Texas this time of year.

I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand.  “Why’d you do it, Angel?  Why come here?”

“Is much better here, Michel.  The moneys I make here in one week?  You know in my country I make this moneys in many weeks. Is much better here.”

My relatives owned the farm where Angel and I worked, and I kept up with him through them for years after that summer.

His wife and son did make it to el norte that autumn, their journey across the border different but equally as harrowing as Angel’s.

Then one day I learned they were gone.  Disappeared.  Rumored to have returned to Mexico.  Some farm hands mumbled that Angel had begun drinking too much, had gotten in trouble with the law, and left before he got locked up.

Where is he now?  His wife?  Their child?  I often wonder.


Michel Stone is a writer living in Spartanburg, S.C. Her acclaimed first novel,  The Iguana Tree, is just out on Hub City Press, and available in hardback or Kindle. Contact her at www.michelstone.com.


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By Anonymous*

Two years have passed and still no one has seen Rosalba Andrade. She was kidnapped soon after her 46th birthday, and has not reappeared. Her houses, cars, clothes, and other property have been divided among those who envied her and befriended her. Even her family has stripped away at all she owned.

Rosa and my mother attended the same elementary school together.  They grew up in the small town of Dr. Belisario Dominguez, in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. My mother admired Rosa’s dedication and willpower.

Rosa was tall, with honey-brown eyes, long eyelashes, and a button nose. Her hair was black, layered down half her back. Young and beautiful, she was also filled with pride. She didn’t always have enough money to bring food to eat for school, but never would she allow others to offer her help. She refused to go with her classmates at lunch because she hated the humiliation of having others feel pity for her. She dreamed of becoming a doctor, but would be content as a secretary.

Her family could not provide her with more than a high school education. Instead, at 17, she was forced to marry Dagoberto Estrada, who was 24 years old. Dagoberto worked for a government agriculture program, buying crops from farmers – so he had money.

The program ended soon after the marriage, and Rosa and Dagoberto went illegally to Dallas, Texas. They had a son and worked as butchers. Rosa, however, was ambitious, and would take on the tougher and higher paying jobs. She began to make more money than her husband. People said she had a masculine nature. The job required a lot of physical exertion, and she worked more than many of the men. They said she was a lesbian because she took a man’s role.

Rosa dreamed of owning a huge, beautiful house because as a kid she was very poor and her father was lazy. She was not allowed to work in Mexico because it wasn’t the norm. Even in Texas, as a woman, she had to begin with the easy jobs and work herself up.  She had two other daughters whom she attempted to shelter. Rosa wanted her daughters to live a proper life, away from the hardships she had to overcome.

As she continued to work beside the strongest men, including her cousin, who was very close to the boss of the Juarez Drug Cartel, she began to deal marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs. The cartel boss was sought by the D. E. A. and he decided on plastic surgery to change his appearance. He died on the operating table. The doctors and bodyguards were later found dead in cement barrels. The death of the boss led to the opportunity for Rosa.

First, Rosa’s cousin took charge of, but he didn’t have the support of, the cartel and he soon was arrested, along with his wife. Nolberto, another one of Rosa’s cousins, came into power, leaving Rosa third in line. Nolberto’s reign lasted five years, and in that time he helped Belisario prosper. He offered people jobs in drug packaging, assassination, in the construction of his mansions and car theft. He also opened a dance hall that was more like a prostitution bar. He provided the people of Belisario more work, but he poisoned their hearts with drugs, ambition, and violence.

Finally, the struggle for the dominion of the cartel killed Nolberto. Froylan, another of her cousins, gained power, but Rosa sent her son to murder him. In the attack, Froylan lost a leg, a kidney, his liver was damaged. He was partially paralyzed. He went into hiding and hasn’t been heard from since.

Rosa now took control and moved back to Mexico. She admitted she was a lesbian and divorced her husband. Those who could not work efficiently Rosa disposed of as if they were old rags. She took some of the independent drug connections of her cousins, who had introduced her to the trade, and murdered many of these dealers as well. Consequently, she began to destroy her family. Rosa’s son became an assassin despite her numerous attempts to make him live a decent life.

Meanwhile, Rosa renovated the town’s chapel. She had ceramic tiles placed inside the chapel and on the stairs at the entrance of the chapel. She renovated the walls of the building and placed new wine-colored wooden doors with beautiful engraving. She had granite placed around the altar, and furnished the chorus area with a wooden balcony. She also helped many people who were sick and gave many women jobs in cleaning. She was frequently criticized for being a lesbian, but as in most towns in Mexico, help from anyone is accepted.

About the time of her 46th birthday, Rosa organized the annual fiesta in Belisario. At that festival, her son noticed he was being followed. He left town because he didn’t want to disturb his mother. Some say that he was attacked because he was being pressured to kill his own mother and had refused. In his car he carried a 50-caliber gun, a .308, an R-15 rifle, grenades, and enough ammunition to take down a helicopter. But outside the town that night, he was killed. Authorities found four bodies, but his was the only one claimed by his family. His family lied about his hometown and said he was from San Buenaventura because they didn’t want to bring shame and attention to Dr. Belisario Dominguez.  People involved in the drug business often lie about names, residency, and much more.

With the death of her son, Rosa began to lose power over her drug business. One day when she was selling her bean crops at the central market, she noticed she was being followed. She had already received a threat by phone. She called her daughters and told them that if anything happened to her, she didn’t want them to look for her. She asked them to live their lives honorably and move forward no matter what.

She was never heard from again. Some say Rosa was placed alive in a container full of acid. After her disappearance, authorities, rivals, and her cousins took her property and left her daughters with only their education. Others say, however, that Rosa had planned her own kidnapping. They believe that she knew she would lose everything and die, so she decided to escape. Some say she was seen in Manhattan.

Whichever story is true, Rosa is gone. Her house sits empty in the town of Dr. Belisario Dominguez.

Drug trafficking has destroyed Belisario, as it destroyed Rosa. Young people can no longer be outside after the sun goes down. Only a few people are seen walking the streets. People talk only with those whom they trust. They fear social gatherings; weddings and quinceaneras are forced to hire armed security, and the town is being abandoned little by little.

My mom thanks God every day for our distance from Belisario.

The only thing that couldn’t be destroyed was the education Rosa worked so hard to provide for her daughters. One is a lawyer and the youngest is 18 and aspires to be a doctor. The last anyone heard, they were still living in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.


*The author, a high school student, has requested anonymity.


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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 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.


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.


“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.


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 David Chittenden*

I want to tell you today about my friend BJ.  His name was really Billy Joe, but we called him BJ, or just Beegee.  Now BJ was a fat little boy, but this was at a time when it was OK to be fat, and it could be argued that if the Lord God had decided that you were to be fat, then who were you to argue with the decision of the Lord?

Then there is the spinning Earth argument.  Here you are – a fat person on one side of the Earth.  You perhaps don’t realize that the Lord God has placed another fat person on the other side of the Earth to balance you off.  (I realize that you have probably been wondering what was the purpose of all those people on the other side of the Earth.  I am glad to be able to fill you in on that.)  Now you decide to become thin. You’re going to unbalance the Earth!  I would not want to be responsible for that!

BJ’s parents really loved him, and they wanted him to be close to them.  Therefore BJ was not allowed to leave his yard.  He could go to school all right, but other times he was supposed to be either in the house or in his yard.  And if he were not in his yard, then you would hear the call, “Billy Joe, where are you?”  You could hear it all over the neighborhood; in fact, you could hear it four blocks away.  If BJ were with us, he would start to run home saying, “I’m gonna get a whopping now.”

But Billy Joe’s yard was nice; we liked to play there.  For example, it had big shade trees that you could climb.  It had such dark shade that was never really hot in Billy Joe’s yard.  You could do things at BJ’s that you couldn’t do other places.  This was because BJ did not have a monocultural lawn like the rest of us.  Billy Joe just had a broad collection of native plants that liked to grow in the shade.

So you could dig your hole to China anywhere you wanted.  Well, I shouldn’t have said just anywhere.  Because when the sewer came down our street, it was free, but you had to pay to be connected to it.  Billy Joe’s parents never felt it was worthwhile to pay, for they still had the outhouse there behind the house, and it was working fine.   There was a well-worn path from the back door of the house and to the outhouse.  Naturally you couldn’t dig a hole to China on the path, or you couldn’t place any obstructions on the path in case someone had go in a hurry.

When we did dig the hole to China, we got down about two feet.  Then we found there was tough clay down there.  It was tan, and had blue streaks in it.  But it was tough, and we didn’t have the equipment for penetrating that clay easily.  Also when we were in the bottom of the hole it seemed rather hot down there.  We had heard that the center of the earth was very hot and we were little concerned that we might be getting to close to the center.  However, the hole to China was never filled in.  After all the labor of digging it, what would be the use of filling it in?  Besides we might later get new technology that would allow us to dig further.

And another thing that Billy Joe had that really attracted us was the fireworks.  Now we had fireworks sometimes, but it was only around the Fourth of July.  Billy Joe would have fireworks anytime his father brought them home. There were none of those sparklers, pinwheels or those awful gray snakes that burned along the ground.  Billy Joe had cherry bombs, and we certainly wanted to use them when we could.  I can’t imagine why anyone’s father would bring home fireworks that they didn’t expect would be used.  What good would that be?

Another thing that Billy Joe had first on our block was television.  It was a 10-inch diameter screen that showed movin’ pitchers in beautiful black and white.  We would go over on Saturday night to Billy Joe’s house to watch wrestling and I want to tell you about what happened one Saturday night when we were there.

Of course, we thought the wrestling was real.  We would do some wrestling ourselves on the floor at Billy Joe’s living room.  We were all careful not to really hurt each other.  But we must have been too noisy.  Billy Joe’s dad came out of the downstairs bedroom, and shouted, “Out, out, out in the yard!”  He was trying to sleep.  Billy Joe’s dad worked for the railroad, and he had rather irregular hours.  Now was the time for him to sleep.

So we went out into Billy Joe’s yard and it was getting very dark now.  So it was just the time to hunt for night crawlers.  We took the hose and saturated the ground with water.  This made the night crawlers come out of their holes to see what was going on.  You had your flashlight and flashed around in the weeds there until you saw a night crawler.  Then you grabbed him quick, but usually he got back into the hole before you could catch him.  And if you did catch him, then he would throw out his anchor, so you couldn’t pull him out. Earthworms have anchors.  But sometimes you got one, and then when you pulled the worm you could see it get thinner and thinner in the middle.  Then it broke, and you had two worms.  That didn’t bother us because we heard that they can regenerate themselves from pieces.  We just considered that we were taking an important part in their reproductive process.

After we had worked on night crawlers for a while and tired of that, we decided to test out the cherry bombs.  We had heard that if you put the cherry bombs in tin can, and crush the can around it just leaving a little space for the wick, you can make a bigger bang with that device.  We wanted to test it.  We got our cherry bomb into the can, and crushed it down leaving a spot for the wick, and then lit that wick.  We then threw the device into the hole to China.  This must have been the beginning of what we now know as underground testing.

Then something happened that we were not prepared for.  The back door of the house opened, and BJ’s father came out running.  Running down the path to the outhouse.  I had never known that big people could run that fast.  He was really making time.  Also I didn’t know that big people sometimes slept in their long johns.

Billy Joe’s father was really fast until he came that muddy spot on the path, that got muddy from our earthworm activity.  Billy Joe’s dad hit that spot, and then flew into the air and he was waving his arms so fast that I thought he was gaining altitude for a while.

That is when the cherry bomb went off in the underground testing hole to China. POW!!  The next thing I heard was another POW! when Billy Joe’s dad hit the path — flat on his back.

I can say, however, that as I ran for home just as fast as I could, I heard that familiar call, “Billy Joe, where are you?”


*David Chittenden was trained as a chemical engineer, but he enjoys telling stories more. He has been co-President of the South Coast Storytellers Guild. This is his second story for TYTT. His first was Climbing the Mesa.



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By Monah Li

The night before I leave New Delhi, I stare at the dress-samples hung up for my inspection.

They suck.

I force myself to smile. Those women, some not even 12 yet, have worked around the clock to bring life to my lackluster designs, all without a fan in India’s brutal heat. I don’t want to seem ungrateful!

While I pack my suitcase at the Taj Mahal hotel, I order room service from their 5-star menu. The cart arrives with dinner for six.

“Where are your guests?” the waiter asks.

“They’re on their way.”

“Would you like company…?”

“I would love to. But. They’re almost here. Another time?”

I’m thinking:

“When the fuck will you be out, so I can eat!”

Finally! I stuff myself using my hands. This could be dog-food. Too frantic for the bathroom ten feet away, I vomit into the Champaign-bucket whenever I need room for more.

I try to pace myself. But an hour later I’m licking the last plate.

Now what?

Panic about those samples sticks to my brain like the sweet burhfi (yes, that’s an Indian dessert) I can’t throw up no matter how deep I stick my toothbrush down my bleeding throat.

I wake up to the stench of vomit.  Handfuls of extra money will help the cleaning crew to see this as the remains of a decadent party – I hope.

Dragging myself onto the plane, I have no idea that last night was to be my last orgy with food.

I need to back up. How did I get trapped in this hopeless cycle of binging and purging for almost two decades?


I grew up in Vienna, in a family obsessed with weight. To maintain my ideal of 90 pounds, I had to become a junkie. Another deadly trap I barely escaped.

But, my friends and even my dad are at my favorite restaurant to celebrate my first year without drugs.

They are amazed – and so am I – how fast I’ve changed from junkie to celebrity fashion designer – with my very own boutique!

However, the downside to clean living is killing me:

I can’t stop eating. I’ve gained 60 pounds!

365 diets have all ended the same: with a monster binge.

365 mornings start the same: ashamed and even fatter.

So, before I blow out my candle, I decide to try what my beautiful sister does to stay so skinny. It hasn’t worked before, but maybe tonight it will.

With a spoon up my sleeve I sneak to the bathroom. I bend over the toilet, touch that spot she showed me so many times,  and:  WOW!

Everything I ate spills out.

I have the magic touch!

I can eat whatever I want and lose the weight! My life-long dream has become real.

I rinse my mouth and check my face: I’m meant to do this. Otherwise – would it be so easy? This is a gift. It’s my reward for staying clean.

I am finally in control.

Over the years, I train myself to vomit without a noise. In public bathrooms, I sit all the way back on the seat and barf between my spread legs.

I’m envied for my slim figure. But the price I pay for this is steep: By 45, I have full-blown osteoporosis. My teeth are replaced with implants, for the cost of two houses.

Relentless back-pain, constant fatigue and shame make me suicidal.

I pray for just one day of freedom, but I am stuck.

Fast forward to the present and to India:  A holy man I asked about my future has warned me: “I see a huge rock rolling towards you. Too late to change direction, fight or it will kill you.”

No kidding.

Stuffed with salty airplane-grub, I’m in the bathroom, about to do my thing, when a sudden image stops me: An image of a scale holds my public self and my private self in such a very dangerous balance, shivers run down my spine. I flee back to my seat without throwing up.

This moment in a stinky toilet marks the end of my shameful double life.

I land in LA. In Los Angeles, my fantasy of reclaiming my fame as a designer, a famous designer free from bulimia is just that: a fantasy.

Out of my mind and too anxious to focus on my work, I inspire confidence in no one. I am lonely and bored.  I miss food … my only friend.

I’m fucking hungry all the time and terrified of getting fat again.  I spend too many hours at the Gym, hating every second.

After five months of agony, I can’t take it anymore. Then, one day, about to leave the gym to binge myself into oblivion, exotic music pulls me into a room, where a dance class has just begun.

I am intimidated but I join the class anyway. What I see in the mirror is a pathetic and ungraceful weirdo, not a dancer at all, but I stay – for the music and the costumes that remind me of my lost creative fire and fill my heart with hope.

But why does the beautiful teacher look so familiar? The voice! Dark bangs, falling over those eyes?

Oh My God!

She is my ex-husband’s former girlfriend. The last time I saw her, she cried and said I stole him from her. I did not know he had a girlfriend but I should have.

That encounter was 20 years ago. Now this woman stops the class to hug me. Then she returns to her place in the front and starts to teach me the steps and moves that begin to save my life.

Which is how, for the past five years, I’ve exchanged my bottomless longing for a passion that feeds my body and my soul:

Belly Dancing!


*Monah Li, a native of Vienna, Austria, is a fashion designer and writer living in Los Angeles. This is her second story for TYTT. Her first was Speed Kills. Contact her at monahli.wordpress.com.


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By Alexis Rhone Fancher*


I remember listening

to Bob Dylan in Donna Melville’s attic

bedroom, 3 a.m. We were

drinking her daddy’s bourbon, playing

Subterranean Homesick Blues over and over,

memorizing it word by mumbled word.

Johnny’s in the basement,

mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement, thinkin’ ‘bout

the government… Donna passed me the bottle. The bourbon made me sick but I took a swig anyway. I didn’t want her to think I was a lightweight. The word might get


Maggie comes fleet foot, face full of black soot…


Donna took the bottle to her lips, her moon face flushed,

beautiful. She was my first Catholic and I was in

awe of the certainty of her faith, couldn’t take my eyes off

the lucky gold crucifix that dangled between her breasts.

“What do you think Freewheelin’ means?”

We were on the bed, pretending to study

the album cover, Dylan and some blond on

a New York street, looking happy. “I think it means fuck the

consequences, just do what you want,” I said.

Drunk, reckless, soon I’m ready to do what I want –

let my hand slip from the

album jacket to Donna’s left breast. Her sharp intake of breath. My tom-tom heart.

Look out kid, it’s somethin’ you did God knows when but you’re doin’ it again…


These were the moments I lived for at 13: the hot, disheveled solace

of Donna’s attic room, her clueless family asleep below,

Dylan’s growl on the stereo,

Donna in my arms, her lips on mine, her tongue down my throat,

Fingers fumbling with my zipper.



Get dressed get blessed try to be a success…


Donna hits the Confessional.

“Father, forgive me for I have sinned.”

I am that sin. I listen in.

“I kissed a girl,” says my girl.

“You’ll go to hell,” says the desiccated

man in the box.



light yourself a candle…

you can’t afford the scandals…


The Gospel According To St. Donna:

She is the innocent,

I am the sin.

I am the bad girl

That let the sin in.



I remember listening

to Bob Dylan in Donna Melville’s attic

bedroom, 3 a.m., the last time I drank

her daddy’s bourbon, the last time we ever touched.

This was the moment I dreaded at 14: Afraid of

the spark, afraid of her own ignition –

Donna changed the rules.

Jesus had entered the bedroom.

“See ya,” Donna said as she walked me

out of her life.

“Soon?” I asked. ( A girl can dream, right?)

“Sure,” she said.


She didn’t call.

I didn’t call back.


You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows…


*Writer/photographer Alexis Rhone Fancher’s latest chapbook is Gidget Goes To The Ghetto. Her “pillow book,” explicit, came out in 2010. She studies with the poet Jack Grapes, and is a member of his L.A. Poets & Writers Collective. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Gutter Eloquence Magazine, Downer Magazine, Bare Hands Anthology. She was recently named poetry editor of Cultural Weekly, where this poem was first published. Contact her at hotnovelist@me.com.
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By Gina Reyes*

This is the story of Joe. He was a helpful, loving, compassionate person. He did his best to prove he was worth the air he breathed.

In my time of need, Joe was there for me. I had just found out I was pregnant. My boyfriend, the father of my son, decided he was going to be with both me and another woman at the same time, until I found out. I confronted him. I told him I was pregnant. If he was not ready to be a father, be responsible, then goodbye. He did not care, so I left and never turned back, though it was devastating. I fell into depression, stressing about what I was going to do and how I could do it alone.

Joe was my shoulder to cry on. He was my companion to keep me occupied. He was there for me to kill time and help me keep my mind from getting stuck in a rut. We would lie around making jokes, laughing, playing spades over and over, and having a fun time together to pass time.

In the time we spent together, we built a stronger bond that turned into a love that was unmistakably precious.

He was willing to accept me and my unborn child, as well as the child I already had. He was willing to support us knowing he was not the father. He cherished my children as if they were his own. How many men out there are willing to do that? Boy was I lucky.

Joe came from a broken home. His mother was a single mom raising four children on her own. He was the oldest, so he took on the role of the father in their family. His mother did have boyfriends who would come in and out, but they treated her children poorly. In comparison, I was raised in a family that had more structure. I have two brothers and one sister; I am the youngest. My mother and father are middle class working people. He was raised in Guam and I was raised in California. Through our differences we created a powerful bond that we thought was invincible.

We had our differences. He felt the need to constantly prove his worth to others. I accepted him no matter what his struggles were, as he did with me. He was going to school, and trying to earn his GED. He was attending classes with my brother, David, and my brother in law, James. He was struggling on the essay portion of the exam partly due to English, which he didn’t speak well. He tried over and over, and failed and failed again. James and David passed the exam easily and on occasion would call him “stupid”. They made jokes like, “Are you ever going pass the test?” He also struggled getting a job. He was so driven. Out of determination, he would go to temporary agencies that pay the same day. When he was short on cash, he would ask his mother, but she would also call him “stupid” and tell him to go get a job.

In our relationship, I learned he hated the word “stupid”. It extremely offended him. I learned this because I would use the word jokingly. No matter how the word was used, it was offensive to him. At the time, I did not really understand why he was bothered and offended by the word.

Then, one night, we were fighting and in the midst of anger, I told him, “Get out. Leave me alone.” After that, I went to sleep for the night. It was a heated fight and I even put his clothes outside.

In the morning, when I awoke, he was gone. I was over the anger, so I looked for him. I could not find him, but his clothes were still outside. Later that day, I went to his mother’s house to see if he was there. He was not. His mom said she had not seen him, which made me feel worse. I continued on with my daily errands, wondering where he went. What was he doing?  I stopped by all of the places that he would go. Nobody had seen him.

Feeling bad and confused I returned home. I began telling my mother all that had happened since the fight and she said, “He was probably just upset and when he calms down, he will be back.” And I remember telling her how weird I felt because I looked everywhere and I had this funny feeling that he was watching me.

A while later, Archie, my cousin, and Marky, his friend. Marky’s car was in my garage and they were working on it. The car had been there for about a week. It was up on jacks with the hood open. The right corner of the garage was blocked by the car; the garage was a mess, so I did not bother going out there at all.

They opened the garage opened, so they could work on the car. The next thing I heard was, “NO!” “NO!” ”JOE! “

I ran out. Joe was hanging there in my garage from a rope connected to the wood studs in the roof. He was wearing a grey windbreaker pants and a black hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head.

I screamed, “Oh, my God!” and repeated his name over and over. Why? Joe? Why?

How could a person go so far as to take their own life? I used to think it was impossible for someone to go to that extreme.  Use your words wisely. The wrong ones can break a person’s soul.


*Gina Reyes is a student at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton.


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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 Rachel Kimbrough

For four years, I could not remember what my son looked like alive.

If I shut my eyes and focused, I had one vague memory of him laughing–the second and last time he ever laughed, immediately before the nap from which he would never wake. But I couldn’t remember his face. My one vivid memory of him was what he looked like when I found him dead, SIDS having somehow drained the life out of him–his blue cheeks, purple lips, spiderweb-like something spreading on his tongue. Thoroughly limp, all the infantile will to remain fetal completely gone.

I have a chest of all his belongings. Clean and unwashed spit-up cloths and onesies and sleepers and pacifiers and blankets, a small wooden box, courtesy of Amos Family Funeral Home, containing clay imprints of his hands and feet and a lock of hair.

I thought, for these four years, that if I opened that chest, I would die. And I don’t mean a piece of me would die, or whatever–I mean I thought I would physically perish. There is such a thing as too much to handle.

A couple weeks ago, though, my therapist urged me to dig in anyway.

So I did.

I went in my room, shut the door, paced around for a while, occasionally glancing over my shoulder at the chest pushed up against a wall. Eventually I sat on the ground in front of it and lifted the lid.

Everything inside smelled like wood, not babies. There on top was the item he died in–a full-length sleeper, cut through from top to bottom with medical shears. The Amos box with his hair in it. Same color as mine. Further digging yielded his favorite blanket, birth confirmation, gag-gifted t-shirts like the one featuring Chewbacca with the phrase, “Change me, I smell like a Wookie!”

I found the one photo album we’d gotten around to making. The day he first smiled, when I took about a hundred pictures in half an hour, doing all sorts of ridiculous things to earn the toothless grin again. The week his eyelashes started to grow, when I took the whole week off work to watch those insanely long, luxurious lashes unfurl. Our family Christmas photo–”Kill the houselights, it’s Christmastime.” I reached in and dug a little deeper.

I felt a CD or DVD case, and couldn’t think what it may be. I pulled out the case and discovered the DVD we’d played at his funeral, Sigur Ros’ “Glosoli” playing over bits edited together. I’d thought we left that at the funeral home.

I figured, what the hell, I was already in this far. I put the DVD in my laptop and watched.

And Jesus Christ, did I lose ten pounds in tears. He was just right there, video revealing nuances in his expressions pictures can never quite convey. There he was, only four weeks old and already bopping around in a Johnny Jumper. Six days old and already holding his head up independently. Three months old and already trying to crawl. I’d forgotten he was some superbaby. There was my favorite of all his smiles, the slow-builder, when he’d catch your eye and hold it, and then slowly, so slowly, the corners of his mouth would lift until he was fully grinning. Him almost but not quite sneezing. Trying to sit up but rolling forward onto his dad’s chest instead.

I could remember all of these things. Not just what they looked like in video–I could remember being there with him, the sound of his voice, the feel of his skin. The video ended. I put it back in its case, put that back in the chest and closed the lid.

And then, I didn’t die. I felt close to him again. I sat on my bed and allowed myself to remember him, calling forth every memory I could from pregnancy to death. I couldn’t tell if it felt good or hurt, like getting blood drawn or extracting a splinter. And after a while, it occurred to me that his death isn’t a thing I’ll ever get over, like an ex-boyfriend or daily offense. It’s something I can only hope to eventually accept. But I am so lucky he lived at all, and I can still hold on to that.

I opened the chest again and removed a picture from the photo album. I pinned it on my wall.


Rachel Kimbrough is a writer living in Kansas. This is her third story for Tell Your True Tale. Contact her at rkimbrou@stumail.jccc.edu.


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By David Chittenden

Some folks who haven’t lived in southern Wisconsin, and even some who have, don’t know about the mesas.   But in fact, there are mesas in southern Wisconsin rising up above the rolling plain.

Oh, they are not like the great stone mesas of Arizona.  They are only 50 or 100 feet high and a few square blocks on top.  Like the rest of the state, they are covered by grasses, bushes, and trees.  Geologists believe that when the glaciers of the last great ice age scoured away the face of Wisconsin 10,000 years ago, these mesas were unaccountably missed, and stand at their original height.

I arrived at the mesa one Sunday afternoon with a group of young people.  We parked at the southern end of the mesa, and it seemed like a smooth vertical wall.  As we walked closer, cracks and creases appeared.  Cracks in which one could climb.  It would be foolish to suppose that a young man of 22 could resist climbing the mesa.

And as luck would have it Maryann and I decided to climb in the same crease.  She would have to go first, of course.  She was such a lithe, sprite of a creature—if she were to fall, I would be able to break her fall.  But if clumsy old Dave fell on her, it would be over for us both.  So up she went—and so quickly , so easily.  She was like a pixy climbing a morning glory vine.  I labored along behind struggling for every handhold and toehold, huffing and puffing, and trying not to let Maryann know how hard it was for me.

Now when climbing in a crease there are three or four things that can go wrong.  First, the crease can get too narrow, so one is forced out on the cliff face.  Then, the crease can get too wide, so one can’t brace arms and legs from one side to the other.  Also with the rather unconsolidated sandstone of the mesas, a toe or handhold may crumble when pressure is applied to it.  Fortunately none of those things happened to us.

All too soon Maryann reached the top and popped out of sight.  Now I had to get there.  In five more minutes of sweat and struggle I was there, well almost there.  I could see over the top of the mesa.  I could see through the tall grasses Maryann down in the bushes like an elf-child, searching for wild blueberries — those tart messengers of God’s grace.

Now I really had to get there.  But the fourth thing had happened — I was stuck.  I couldn’t go up and I couldn’t go down, at least down slowly as one would choose.  There was a another thing I could not do – I could not ask Maryann for a hand up.  Finally in desperation, I flung my leg up as high as it would go, and caught the heel of my shoe on the top.  (My leg used to go up higher when I was young.)  Then I pulled myself up with handfuls of that tough Wisconsin grass, and slid over the top on my belly.  Maryann was looking the other way when I made my entrance, probably on purpose.

Soon Maryann and I were down on all fours scouting out the blueberries.  I don’t remember just what happened next.  Certainly there were many burrs and stickers in the bushes, and  we got covered with them. No doubt we stirred up the mosquitoes that hide in the tall grass, and were liberally bitten.  I’m sure there were several other people with us searching for those blueberries.   But all that I remember is Maryann.

It seemed like only a few minutes, but must have been two hours when I felt a change.  There was a breeze, a bit of a chill, a touch of dampness.  I looked up and saw that the sun was low in the sky.  Then the awful thought occurred to me: How are we going to get down from here?  I knew that coming down is a lot harder than going up.  I had a vision of helicopters coming from the Army base to pluck us off the top of the mesa.  In my mind I saw a team of climbers with ropes coming up the mesa, and bringing us down in baskets.  My face must have turned gray, and I turned away from Maryann, so she wouldn’t see my fear.

But she knew, somehow she knew.  Maryann stood up, and in a high lilting voice said, “Time to go home.”  Then she began skipping north toward the far end of the mesa.  I followed at a half gallop through the grassy meadow.  I would have followed her anywhere.

Now, the south face of the mesa was a vertical wall, and the top was rather flat, but much to my surprise the north end was a gentle incline that sloped down to the rolling plain.  Maryann danced lightly as a fairy down that slope.  She skipped out onto the plain and out of my life forever.  But she left me with something.  She left me with a beautiful memory that I can take with me wherever I may go.

But wait – for those who really must know the truth:  I have an ability, a special ability that has given me a lot of comfort through the years, an ability to remember things that never happened.  Oh, there really was a mesa there in southern Wisconsin, and I did really climb to the top of it, but there never was a Maryann.


Dave Chittenden was trained as a chemical engineer, but he enjoys telling stories more. He has been co-President of the South Coast Storytellers Guild.


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By Rachel Kimbrough

Far as I can tell, you spend the first 18 years of your life not knowing what the fuck is happening, and the rest of your life trying to figure out what the fuck happened. My private nickname for my mother has been “Crazy Ma” for as long as I’ve been a thinking person. That used to be a term of endearment. Now that I’m a little older it’s just accurate.

Ma built her relationship with her children on fear instead of love or loyalty. Kids grow up. Stop being afraid. What’s left after that is: nothing.

My sister is now employing the same tactic with her own son, lacks the foresight to understand that what will be left of her relationship with him will soon be: nothing. My family denies the responsibility of telling the kid’s totally-not-crazy father, my sister’s ex, what my nephew’s home life is actually like. History repeats itself.

Recently I was driving home from work. I’d just received an update about Crazy Ma’s and my sister’s latest bullshit. I was fuming, white-knuckled at the steering wheel, eyes brimming with hot, bitter tears. I’d chewed the inside of my mouth so that it felt like raw hamburger meat against my tongue, left a metallic aftertaste.

And I kept being pissed when I just missed a green light, let out this stupid Johnson-County-bitch grunt at the world in general for not allowing me to reach my home about 30 seconds faster than I now would. I lit another cigarette.

A little boy and a woman caught my eye, bumping around the clear bus stop gazebo at the street corner farthest from me. I couldn’t see exactly what was happening for a second—the boy, probably about 4, was holding a metal pole and hitting the back side of the pavilion with it. Every so often the woman would gently put her hand over his and bump the pole around for him.

As they made their way around the side of the pavilion, he held his other hand in front of his face, palm-out, like a mime. His eyes were closed. He inched forward, wagging the walking stick in front of him, his outstretched palm and stick contacting the edge of the pavilion simultaneously. He walked around the structure instead of crashing into it. The woman recognized the achievement with applause.

They bonked around that way for a minute or so, turned the corner. I, mesmerized, snapped out of it only when the fellow in the truck behind me honked angrily at my not going at a green light—outraged that he, too, may now be home 30 seconds later.

I arrived home soon thereafter, chewed on what I’d just seen, a sight at once sad and somehow sweet. And I got to thinking about Crazy Ma and bipolar disorder and chronic depression and schizophrenia, got to thinking about my sister and bipolar disorder and PTSD and depression and desperation. Two women who never chose to be born with a condition or conditions, but just seem to have them anyway. Two women who will never change if nothing changes.

I called my nephew’s dad and told him everything.


Rachel Kimbrough is a writer and poet who lives near Kansas City, Kansas, with her son. Her first story for Tell Your True Tale was Smashing Plates, published in January, 2011.

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By David Orr

“Hurry up!  We’re late for school!  You’ll like school.  You’re going to be in the same class with your cousin Johnny.  Sister Mary Margaret is expecting us!”

My mother whisked me across the park past the immense statue of Christopher Columbus through the grove of Dutch Elms that arched over the path to St. Michael’s Parish School. I clutched my mother’s hand and looked for something familiar.  I recognized Lucibello’s Pastry Shop and Frank’s Pizzeria across the park, and finally there was the school.

The school was behind the church.  I knew the church well.  We crossed the park every Sunday morning, so I could sit in the pew with my mother and stare at the altar rail and the marble statues all imported from Italy.  I was fascinated by the patterns of light that filtered through the stain glass windows.  The priest’s chanting and the incense made me dizzy.  My mind would wander until my mother would look at me and whisper, “Sit up straight.  Listen to the priest.  This is Mass!”

I shivered in the mid-morning sun and tried to kick some leaves as my mother pulled me across the street.  The fall term had already started earlier in the week, and school was in session when we entered the principal’s office.  Sister Mary Margaret was tall and wore a long white robe with black trim.  I could see only her face.  My mother quickly kissed me goodbye, and Sister Mary Margaret escorted me up to my kindergarten classroom on the third floor.

My teacher, Sister Mary Rose, stood up from her desk at the back of the classroom.  She showed me my place in a long row of iron desks with scarred tops that were bolted together on rails.  As soon as I sat down, the row of desks wiggled, and the kids turned to look at me and giggled.  Sister gave me a sheet of paper, a pencil, and a ruler and told me to copy the shapes that were on the blackboard.

Sister walked up and down the rows to make sure that all the boys and girls copied the neat, straight lines correctly.  More than once she snapped her ruler on the shoulder of any boy who dared whisper, laugh, or even turn around.  I kept my head down and stared at my desk top.  I could hear the soft sounds of breathing and desks creaking.

Suddenly the buzzer sounded for recess!  Sister told us to leave everything on our desks. She marched us in formation out to hall, and all the boys and girls scrambled up the steps to the roof.  I was astonished to see a playground on the rooftop!  What would happen if you fell off this roof?   There was a waist high wall around the edges of the playground, and it was divided by a long, thick rope – the boys’ side vs. the girls’ side!

The boys quickly formed up for baseball and ran to different places on a faded diamond that was painted on the playground.  The biggest kid yelled at me, “Hey you – you new kid!  You’re in the outfield.  Get out there by the rope!”

I stood at the rope and watched the little girls on the other side playing something like hopscotch, squealing and arguing, darting and dodging chalk squares.  I was five years old.  I had never played baseball. I looked around this strange world for my cousin Johnny who had not been in Sister Mary Rose’s classroom.  Maybe he was somewhere on this baseball team?  Just as I started to look for him, the batter swatted the ball.

“Hey you!  Who is that kid?  Does anybody know him?”  Everyone yelled at me, “Hey, new kid!  Get the ball!”

“What are you doing on the girls’ side of the playground?”  She grabbed me and dragged me to the parapet.  She hoisted me up and held me over the edge.  I hung there!  I was frozen with fear as I stared at the traffic in the street four stories below!

“What is your name?” demanded Sister.  “Even though you are new, you are going to learn the rules at this school!  I’m going to show you what we do to little boys who don’t follow the rules!”

All I could hear were the screaming voices from the other side of the playground!  “Hey, what happened to that new kid?   Where is he?”

After Sister set me down, I sprinted back to the boys’ side.  Recess was over, and we marched down the steps to our classroom.

That first day of school on the roof I was the new kid who began to learn the rules.  From that day on at St. Michael’s, I learned never to cross certain lines, and instinctively I knew where the boundaries were.


David Orr was born in Connecticut and grew up in Arizona.  He lives in Tucson and has recently retired after teaching high school English for 35 years.


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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 Matthew Loflin Davis

After getting back from Thailand without my score, I wound up on the streets of Ann Arbor — the homeless shelter on Huron to be exact. I had built up a sizable habit in Asia and now was sweating it out cold turkey in bunk beds with a bunch of other junkies, drunks and thieves who swept through the room at night going through the pockets of the destitute, stealing what they could, and pretending to be friends in the day.

I got to know quite a few of the fuckers there as we slept together in the two big rooms provided for us, ate breakfast at the church together, and saw each other on the easy streets of U of M every day.

I still had my interest in photography and was able to hold on to my Minolta X-700 but had to steal the 35mm film from Krogers when I needed to create some art so I had something to keep me feeling like I wasn’t a complete low-life. My old instructor at Eastern Michigan University would let me use the darkroom so I was able to keep shooting film on the streets.

Carrying that camera around actually got me laid once in a while with the U of M college hotties while I looked like a photographer with a job. Getting small jobs was easier too as I played the starving artist, which is exactly what I was. Carrying a camera around my neck and the knowledge to use it gave me gave me an air of decency.

I was in the church eating my free breakfast of Honey Nut Cherrios with all my buddies and I decided to start taking some pics of my favorites: the scared and the scarred, the ancient drunks and crippled. The shelter was a host of subjects to record. The women’s shelter was different from the men’s but we all ate together in the morning so I had the gamut of the streets all in one place to photograph, as I’ve always been a street photographer.

I snapped a few pics of the locals eating their cereal while kids worked off their community service for getting caught with a bag of weed by serving the Kool-Aid and day-old doughnuts to the homeless and the nuns poured powdered milk on your bowl of cereal. After a minute or so I had a black man, slightly younger than me, in my face asking me what the hell I was doing taking pics. He knew me; most everyone in the church knew me by then. Black was in my face questioning my motives. I explained my usual rant that I’m a street photographer, as well as being on the streets. He got in my face some more but seemed surprised when no one had his back. They seemed tired of his BS partly, and they seemed to know I was one of them. I stood my ground and stayed calm, not giving him a chance to go off. I’m sure my size over him had something to do with it.

Black and I had another run in or two, usually when he was drunk but he seemed to know exactly when to stop. He was a kid not much younger than me. Black wasn’t a bad kid; he just wanted to be bad.

A month or so later, I was hanging out in the shelters office with Malik, one of the workers I had made friends with. I had done some photo/graphics work for one of his poetry-reading fliers, so we had a decent rapport. As I was leaving the office, Black was limping around the corner, his legs bowed and face pummeled black and blue. It looked as if someone took a two by four to his face in a fit of rage. His arm was in a sling and his other hand held his ribs. I don’t think he could even see me through his two swollen eyes and he walked right by me. Instead of his usual stone stare and bad ass demeanor, he just turned the corner and limped into the office.

Later, I asked Makik, Black had been raped; I never heard the details but the understanding was he had snitched on someone and that person had finally gotten out of prison and came back for revenge. I believe Black had been hiding out in the shelter which is often times common practice. His past had caught up with him.

Sometime later, I heard that before I was in the shelter Black had noticed an Ann Arbor News photographer taking pics in the church during breakfast. Black had rallied the people while they ate their doughnuts and he started asking some aggressive questions. Who was this employed man who thinks he can come down here and exploit the poor? Black, I heard, had a following that day, the folks at the church didn’t wanted to be treated like objects for fodder and they chased that photographer out the church.

He had that power to point out a wrong and rally the people.


*When he wrote this story, Matthew Loflin Davis was an artist and recovering addict living in Detroit. “Black” was his second story for TYTT. Sadly he died of an overdose in 2015. I never knew him personally but wish I had. His blog remains: www.junkysays.blogspot.com,


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