Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

024

Since her, I am a cultural Christian at best.
The bright spirituality of my youth, so vibrant, has waned through the years.
Petered out, as they say.
I don’t trust in God any further than I can see Him.
I see the Divine as the hope dangled before me like the proverbial carrot.
Prodding me onward, never to be satisfied with where I am.

An Unsettling Hope. Nothing more.

This diminutive spirituality of mine, I believe, is self-inflicted.
All the wrong in my life I can trace back to a singular act of cowardice.
A decision so selfish, so disgusting and perverse, I know full well that I deserve every ill that has come way because of it.

I abandoned a woman. Left her in a state of divorce, to her own devices, when she needed me the most. I committed this Cardinal Sin in full view of the sun. And now, only Night is left to me.  I had vowed before God to love her and cherish her, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Then I turned my back on her like some such dish at a buffet I no longer wanted. A dastardly deed if there ever was one and I wasn’t ashamed of it then.

I am now, utterly so.

Since her, all that I have loved has been unrequited. All my dreams looked upon, without the full bloom of experience. I have been on the outside, looking in. Like a phantom. The Odorous Act was insidious like that, like the loneliest little sin on the planet. A puddle in my path that to this day, I have not overcome.

A Chronicle of “Barnia”

Posted: February 5, 2015 in Fiction

Mr. Maldonado

“…it seems like a crossroads of existence and for a small town, it might as well be.”

For a place like Kingsville ripe with paradox (a curse-of-a-small-town nestled within the largest ranch in the world), their lives seem so mundane. And by mundane I mean broken and perplexed, triumphant and forward-looking, over worked and under paid; like the rest of the world but in the microcosm that is small town living, Taking what this life gives and making anything out of it whether the best or the acceptable, I have the lot of seeing them everyday in this endeavor. It’s my job.

The frantic mother who’s always late hurrying to buy breakfast for her kids before school. The still sleepy student who, in frustration, confides in me that he still hasn’t memorized Avogadro’s number for the Chemistry quiz he has in 30 minutes – Red Bull, please! There’s Maritza. Sweet, precious, efficacious Maritza Maribel. Every time I see her I can’t help but hum the chorus to Rod Stewart’s Some Guys Have All the Luck. It tugs at my heart until what’s left of me is a platonic oblivion. Then, there is Mr. Maldonado.

I have often sat in judgment of his drinking habits which start bright and early as the dew. He drives into the Party Barn with his fingers raised in a “V.” This is the sign letting me know he wants two 24 oz Bud Lights. “Dame dos,” he always adds making sure I’ve gotten his order right. He’s always joking and there are days he checks his shirt pocket and adds Camel Filters, always in the soft pack, to his order. Most times shit he says isn’t at all funny but I’d like to think he jokes for the sake of joking, just to have a reason to let out his raucously big laugh. A laugh fraught with all the character that decades of beers and cigarettes have given him. A laugh as deep and varied as the insistent wrinkles all over his face.

My judgments often take the form of snide remarks held within myself. Thoughts like “Ah yes, the breakfast of champions,” or “Are you on a liquid diet or what?” With these, I indulge in little victories. I’ll never forget the day my judgment came to a sudden end. As usual, he drove in full of purpose, his gray Camry sporting a new spare tire. Only later did the lack of “the signal” become obvious.
Como estas, sir? Dos? I asked him before he could say a word.
Si, dame los dos, he said averting his red swollen eyes.

I plunged my hands deep into the icy water that held the coldest beer. Solemnly, he informed me, “Se me murio mi vieja a noche.” I could hear his voice cracking along the fault lines of his sentence structure. It took just a second to register and my inner voice, the one reserved for judgment, chided me: No pendejo! This is no joke. By now, his words brushed cold upon me like the water that surrounded my hands.
“Apenas vengo del hospital.”

I looked at him feeling dead in the water, wondering if I should say anything at all. Or, whether to let my silence speak for me and just listen. And really, what does one say that has any semblance of meaning at a time like that In a haste, all I could think to say was what I’ve heard my mom and countless elder relatives say at news like this: Pero como? It turns out diabetes had struck its interminable changes upon yet another soul. “No se que hacer ya. Voy a tomar hasta que me muero yo tambien.”

He offered this foresight with a rather shallow laugh, almost entirely through his nose like he was half joking. But the tears in his eyes told a rather different story. Commerce can be cruel at a time like this. With such emotion hanging in the air refusing to be denied or overlooked, the price of his purchase lingered like the proverbial white elephant in the room; oh so ready to burst the bubble of poignancy he had created. That’ll be $4.58, please. Combing through his hands, he countered: “Aqui tengo unas centavitos.” Continuing, he bleakly surmised “Pos, que le hacemos? Alla vamos todos.”
Very true, I dimly offered.

I’m very sorry to hear about your wife, Mr. Maldonado.
Wanting to relate further, I reached out in clumbsy Spanish: Que descanse en paz, eh
He let off a sigh, gingerly shaking his head. “Pos ojala que puede, era bien repelona mi viejita.”

And there it was! Like a gritty refugee breaking through the tyranny of grief, his laugh. His raucously big laugh. His Grand Laugh. His I-miss-her-so-much-I-just-wanna-fucking-die laugh! It was early, like 7:15 in the AM and the cars where stacking up behind him. The morning rush had overtaken the Party Barn and not even the death of a cherished one could stop that. With polite acceptance he looked into the rear-view mirror, bid his farewell, and drove away.

Cover Girls

She always tried to cover them, the scars of her former self when she was into cutting. Every shower revealed them. As she stood there, water dripping off of her, all wet and squeaky clean and free of the dust of the day, the irony was not lost on her.  At her cleanest the scars presented themselves to her.  At first she used what was convenient.  A long sleeve shirt or a piece of fabric she’d fashion into a cute little bracelet but she finally decided that her foundation made the best cover for the scars.  Wiping away a large swath of steam from the mirror, she mocked herself derisively: You’re an honest to God “Cover Girl.”

She’d often feel shame. Ashamed that she had let him besmirch all the pride her mother had instilled in her. But she was a mother now too and full of hope.  The kind of hope only a mother can have and she was determined to better herself.  Determined to be the best mother she could for Jamal like her mother and grandmother had done before her.  She assured herself of this, that nothing would stop her. But he had before and she feared he might again.  Only time will tell she thought to herself as she walked into the bedroom to clothe herself.

Maritza, her longest friend, was playing with Lil’ J in the living room and whatever she was doing filled her little apartment with his raucously joyous laughter.  Renita hastened her clothes on so that she might catch them in action; almost tripping as she made her way toward them.

“Watch this,” Maritza exclaimed, “watch this!”

She covered her face in a peek-a-boo fashion revealing herself to Lil’ J in a playful tone.

“Auntie Maritza loves you, yes she does!’

Her hands moved from her face to his belly in one smooth motion the length of the sentence like a skater on a rink.  Whether it was the tone of her voice or the poke of his belly with her fingers, or perhaps a combination of the two, the gestures sent Lil’ J into a fit of laughter, sudden and boisterous, that ended when she covered her face with her hand. And then again.

“Auntie Maritza loves you, yes she does!”

Laughter eruption.

This went on several times when Renita declared, “I’m going to the store now, M, want anything?”

“Auntie Maritza loves you, yes she does!” Her hand impatiently shushed the question away in a bothersome gesture.

“I guess not,” Renita said as she made her way toward the door adding: “I’ll be right back.”

Renita walked down the same street, coming from the same store, humming the same song. She was a creature of habit after all.  She was thankful Jamal wasn’t with her and that she had some time alone.  She was grateful for the space and that Maritza had agreed to watch him even if only for the time it took her to get back from the store.  This caused her to hum along with extra jubilation.  Melodies took on another form, she thought, when it was just her voice. No words. No music. Just her voice.  The notes seemed more real. More alive, like they had crawled themselves out of her own soul.

It was hot, oven hot, but she didn’t mind because stiff winds blew by her a brief respite at a time.  Hot air was better than nothing and besides, she told herself, at least it made the trees dance; entertaining her.  The heat of the asphalt crawled up her flats making the soles of her feet uncomfortably warm and sweaty.  She was approaching 2nd and Huisache when she stopped and sat on the one bench that remained there.  Smoking a Black & Mild, the one with the wood tip, she couldn’t help but think of the stories her father often told her.

In the 80’s this corner was the center of a thriving community with bustling streets.A restaurant here, a barber shop there.On that corner a night club that later became Hill’s Antiques and Collectables. A grocery store over there gave closure to the space bracketing it in as a hot spot of black wealth and entrepreneurship.  Her father was fond of calling it: Kingsville’s own Greenwood, Archer and Pine.  What the rest of the town called “Little Africa.”  King Star Baptist church was just up the street where her grandfather used to preacher and where he fell in love with her grandmother.  These were the days of a by-gone era. The good ‘ol days her father came to call them.  It all hardly seemed possible considering the current state of the neighborhood: graffiti filled red brick facades, broken down doors and windows. Trash piled up against walls left to fend for themselves.

When she returned home, Maritza had Jamal sprawled out across the floor on his favorite green blanket. She was thoughtful enough to keep the oscillating fan fixed on him.

“He just fell asleep,” she said.  His naps didn’t last long so they sat on the kitchen table to talk, music just audible in the background.

“So have you made a decision or no?” Maritza inquired with curiosity.

“I made the decision a long time ago, M, only thing left is the courage to follow through. I don’t know if I have that yet.”

“Well you know I believe in you Love. I know you can do this,” she consoled her punctuating the point with her finger on the table. She continued.

“I’ll help you in any way that I can. Come live with me for a while until you get back on your feet, you know, like we talked about.”

“I can’t do that, M, I told you already. I can’t risk bringing trouble to your place cause you know that is what’s gonna happen.  He’s not gonna just let me just walk away from him. He ain’t gonna let that happen. I know him, he’ll make this as hard as possible for me. And for you too. I can’t live with that. I won’t live with that!”

Maritza countered, “Harder than you have it now, living under his thumb all the time? Not getting to live your own life or make your own decisions?  From where I’m sitting, Love, you have it hard already! Can you live with that? Will you live with that?”

After some time, the intensity of their conversation subsided.

“Fuck girl, it’s hot in here!” Maritza indulged in the obvious. Can’t we turn the A/C on or something?”

“You know X-Jai won’t have that shit.  It’s bad enough he pays for my bills.  If we want A/C we’ll have to go chill at his pad. And besides, grandma paid my utility last month when X-Jai and I had that big fight. I’ve got to take it easy on her.”

Looking around to comfort, she clicked the fan in Maritza’s direction.

“Here you go, my Peach,” she said smiling.

“Just for a bit, Love. I got to head to work soon. I was late yesterday and got my ass chewed.”

“Don’t forget about you Sprite and Hot Cheetos, M, you’ll need your strength.”

“I didn’t ask for anything,” she replied. A big smile on her face.

“I know but that’s your favorite combo. You’ll want it later on at work. And here’s you Lone Star card too. Thanks again”

She sighed, her words escaping without courage.

“I’m flat broke again.”

“No worries, Love. I got your back. You know that,” she comforted her with a warm smile. Lifting her right arm in the air, she cocked her left shoulder and gave Renita her best solidarity fist.

Little Renita Jai

She had been called “little” since birth.  Her namesake came from her great grandmother, the grand matriarch of the family.  She was a woman so important, so revered that her name had been hers alone, kept from at least two generations. Hers alone, that is, until: Little Renita Jai.  Her birth was the stuff of miracles.  She was born premature, given a grim prognosis by all the doctors in the city.  Her parents were told that if she lived at all it would be at a ghastly price.  That she would never maintain a “normal life.”  Her eyes were malformed though she could see.  Her tiny arms were mangled and deformed. The shape a stick of Laffy-Taffy might take if left in the South Texas heat too long.  Her legs were bowed at the knees, so much so that it seemed they might have been a portal to another dimension or another time.

Her skin was so dark and mysterious, multiple shades of deep dark bruise purple, it made the night sky writhe in jealousy of her.  Her eyes, when they were open to be seen, were a deep eerie white. As white as pure sin after the Lord’s grace has washed it clean.  She was the scion of a proud African family that came to Kingsville very early, when dark folks were welcomed only for the labor they could provide.  They had settled in what was called “Little Africa” on the corner of what came to be 2nd and Huisache.  Her great grandmother among the first blacks to settle the neighborhood on land donated to the “town folk” by the venerable King family.

Little Renita Jai was not expected to live beyond a year.  And that year, they were told, would be a year full of heartache and medicine, doctor visits and costly procedures until finally what ailed her would prove victorious and take her fragile little life.Leaving the family with only bitter memories and gnawing questions of Why?

For all that, here she was at age four, a precocious little girl with dark curly hair, eyes a splendid moss-green and a smile as wide as Texas itself.  She still suffered the pains of her misfortunes, of course, because miracles never work out as we’d like them to.  in life, Lazarus never really rises from the dead, or Jairus’ daughter for that matter.  But here was little Renita Jai, alive and well despite all the wisdom of the learned medicine men.  She had just began learning to talk, a symptom of her mother’s insatiable need to read her stories at night.  All the classics too: Dr. Seuss, the Bothers Grimm, Aesop.  When she began to speak it was a little miracle in and of itself.  When she was able to put words together, enough to string sentences along toward a semblance of meaning, she told her mother about a recurring dream she ‘d been having.

Mommy, I dreamed of place I’ve never been. I was wearing a pretty dress with new shoes and my hair was up in a bow.  It was a big parking lot but there was no cars.  It was night-time and I was all by myself. A few lights were on but I could only see just so far into the distance.  And it was purple everywhere. Dark and purple like when I look out the window when you read to me and the train tracks go on for ever and ever.  I was scared because I could feel something was there in the dark. I could feel something was looking at me.  I call out to it: monnstro, monnstro, like I know the name of the thing that’s out there. But nothing happens.  Then there is a man who come out behind me and asks me why I’m all by myself in the dark parking lot.  He’s a good man, mommy, he asks if I need help.  In my dream, all I can do is point out into the darkness.  He asks me, “What are you pointing at, sweetie? Are you afraid of the dark, there’s nothing there I promise.”  All I can do is point out there into the dark place.  Monnstro, I say, over and over again but he doesn’t understand me.  “monnstro? what is that sweetie, what is it?”  And again I point.  “Do you mean, monster?  Is that what you’re trying to tell me?  There’s a monster over there?”  Then he walks a few steps closer to the dark place.  “There’s nothing out there sweetie.  Look, there’s nothing there. No monsters, nothing. You don’t have to be afraid.”  And then we hear it.  A loud noise, mommy. A very loud noise like a lion and a pig and a human all screaming together at once.  The man jumped toward me and pulled me behind him. He tries to protect me. All I can do is close my eyes real tight and cover with my ears with my hands.  Then I wake up

Her mother was rightly put off by the dream she heard. It was just a dream she said.  Told Little Renita Jai that dreams are mysterious things that happen to everybody.  Sometimes the dreams are scary but sometimes they are really good one too.  She consoled her with these words.  Throughout all your life dreams will happen to you. There is no need to be afraid of them.  She took her in her arms and showered her with affection, somewhat saddened that her precious daughter now had nightmares to worry about on top of everything else in her young life.  Little Renita Jai, sighing into her mother’s chest, asked her pointedly: Then why do I have this one all the time and not those other ones?

Little Renita Jai has regained much of the normalcy the doctors predicted she would never have. She outgrew those words a long time ago.  She has made something of herself. She can walk and talk.  She has friends and even a lover, all those things normal people have.  She lives in Kingsville, the place her great-grandmother came to as a young girl.  He mother has passed and her father too.  She has had a thousand dreams since then and a thousand nightmares too.  But this one, this dream, of her fragile little voice echoing in the night, “monnstro,” haunts her still.

A Powdery Nothingness

Genius visibly struck her as Maritza closed the door to leave.  She would take advantage of Lil’ J napping and finish putting her make up on.  Looking at herself in the mirror, and gently humming the Lauryn Hill that played in the background, she peeled her now-sweaty clothes off the mass her physique had become.  She tried to take hold of the fact that she was older now and a mother, not wanting to let her mind drift back to her younger years when she had mad booty.  Many more men looked at her then, with desperate eyes, like she had all the power in the world.  Even so it was not like she could give over to them anyway.  X-Jai just exploded when me looked at her.  It always embarrassed her but at least they looked.  It got to the point that he’d lose so often the men just stopped looking.  Or rather they did look, but they were older now and less attractive. Their eyes had gone from inviting to hunger, plain and pure, like they wanted one thing and one thing only.  Fixating on a remnant pimple under her left eye she softly hummed the first melody her ears deciphered.

“Renn?” a booming voice called out from the front of the apartment.

“Renn? Where are you girl.”  he asked with intensity.

“I’m in here, in the bathroom,” she said informing him.

X-Jai poked his head through the doorway, his eyes darting her up and down.

“Aren’t you ready yet? I told you we’d be leaving by six when I got here.”

“I know,” she said gravely, “I just have to finish up. We have to drop Jamal off at grandma’s house. Will you get him ready?”

“Sure, but hurry up. We gotta go Renn,” he said with typical curtness.  And as was his custom, he let off a sharp crisp snap of his fingers over the operative words of his sentences.  In this case: hurry up!

She peered into her eyes in the mirror. It was time to be strong. She had heard someone say on television that God did not want us to be happy. He wanted us to be strong.  And that was her mantra the last few months while she built up the courage to leave X-Jai.  Could she go through with it? Could she escape her former self and be brave enough to leave him come what may?  He heart pumped with great resolve. today was the day.  Today was the last day of her former life.  Any love she had for X-Jai withered long ago.  After the threats of violence became occasions of pain and sorrow, after the hospital visits became more and more frequent her love for him withered away into  powdery nothingness like the wings of a butterfly.  She could not stand it any longer. Not with Jamal around. She could not take him learning to be like his father. A violent and possessive man, full of jealousy.  She was tired of worrying. She was tired of being afraid.  And she simply did not want to think about X-Jai anymore.  Never again.

It wasn’t just that she was tired of the thoughts of him. It was that she had in mind another.  A man she’d met altogether elsewhere. Had not even told Maritza about him.  He was handsome, yes, but there was more.  It was his eyes, yes, but there was more to him than that.  It was the peculiar way in which he looked at her and saw all that which she could not see in herself, like her father used to before he died.  All the potential wrapped into her package he just intimated without a word.  And it was in that moment that she knew she loved him deeply because all of her insecurities solidified themselves within her, vast and immovable as the sea.

A Better Man Might Have Said…

Posted: June 11, 2013 in Fiction
Tags: , ,

Silence is the first verse in the song of forgetting.

And he knew he fucked up.  Treated her like shit because he wanted her to feel a little of the pain he was feeling.  Wanted to have an effect on her the way she had an effect on him.  He wanted to have some power over her to match the immense power she had over him.  And it back fired in ways that he had not even anticipated.  And what was left to him now was her silence. He was sorry he was so sensitive and emotional.  Sorry he wore his heart on his sleeve.  It was a symptom of his upbringing.

I grew up with my mom and my sisters, he implored, so much so that I practically have a vagina myself.  I care too much and too often and too easily and I let that guide my behavior way more than I should.

Is that such a terrible thing, he asked her at the cusp of exasperation. Was it a bad thing that he wanted to hear from her everyday? A bad thing that he wanted to hang out with her everyday?  To hear her laugh and to tell her jokes that made her laugh again and again? Was it such a terrible think to notice the littlest things about her; like how her fingers elongated every time she would make a point; they punctuated the rhythm of her sentences and gushed over him like fresh and living water.

And don’t even get me started on the tenderness in the shape of your neck, he warned gravely, and how it ebbs and flows as you breath.

He didn’t know how to share the truth of his heart with her.  That gave her way too much power. But for moments at a time, he was perfectly OK with relinquishing so much power to her. Her kindness and tender heart would have absolved him of the tyranny of his fears and self-doubt, his insecurities.  But rather than sheer honesty, he was cryptic and coded.  Wreathed himself in drunkenness and desire and became but a burden on her.  He was erratic and careless with her friendship. Used her as a springboard for his own selfish desires. And for that, he was deeply ashamed.

In all honesty, I was proud of the way you handled me.  Extremely proud of how you shut me down because as you said: “I don’t play that shit.”  I couldn’t have been any more proud of you were I your brother or your father.  I remain utterly impressed as your friend how you stood up for yourself.  I would’ve been the first to tell you: Don’t ever let a man treat you that way!  You don’t deserve that bullshit; drop this fucker like it ain’t no thing!  It is to my complete and utter humiliation that I let myself be that man.  I am ever more thankful and grateful for your kind heart and gentle spirit.

Silence is the first verse in the song of forgetting.

I suppose he deserves her silence now.  Can only assume, because it was the one thing that brought him the least amount of pain, that she was simply letting him cool off and accept the reality of their relationship: Dear friends and nothing more. But certainly nothing less.  He looked forward to the days when, again, they could share in this life together. In laughing and sharing; on roads headed toward times well spent and days worth remembering.

I shall not forget the greatest truth between us: before anything and everything, you are my friend.  Nothing more and certainly nothing less.

He must now have the strength and the courage, the faith even, to trust in her. Trust that at the root of this silence placed before him there lies her kind heart and gentle spirit.  The very reason he ever loved her in the first place.

Lugar de Agua Y Nopal

Posted: May 16, 2013 in Fiction

In a fearful state of mind grass in the wind sounds like a hissing snake.  A babbling brook a rattler’s tail.  Out here I was being philosophical, coming up with all sorts of reasons why he was better than me. Why she was so aloof.  Shit like: Well, you’re feelings aren’t real.  They are but a perception of events, an interpretation had through a prism.  A very broken prism, but a prism none the less.  You have to isolate and distance reality from you perception of it.  She not wanting you is one thing. Assuming you don’t deserve her is quite another. Just then, I heard from among the trees what ought not be there.  Footsteps. I thought I was alone.

Perdoname señor, perdoname.  Puedo molestarte por una gotita de agua.

Were I thirsty, I might have thought the better of it. But I had gulped half the bottle of water not a minute ago so thirsty I was not. Seguro que si, I say

Ando caminando desde Mexico, mijo. Ando bien cansado.  muchisimas gracias por el agua.

He slumped on the ground, heavy of breath.

No te qiuero molestar mas mijo asi es que; por casualdiad no trais…

He gestured with his hand some kind of universal sign for money. I admit, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that my first reaction was: This fucking dude!  I just spent my last dollar on a girl who didn’t even bother to hug me last night.  Last week I gave my last twenty-five to a bill from twenty years ago. And now this guy wants the last of my cash now?! I took a single deep breath, the sigh of which, encapsulated my immediate sentiments.  I observed his broken down form, his beleagured spirit. His dark skin looked sickly and inedible.

Crouching slowly beside him, I spat upon the ground beside us expelling the bitter taste of superiority that dried my toungue.  I tilted my great head and was like: dejame pregunarte una cosa. Encontraste a Dios en el camino. Lo enconraste aqui, este lugar de agua y nopal?

Dejame decirtelo haci mijo, he said, de lo tanto que qiueria oyir una voz; hasta pedi por el.  Solo oyi el voz mio, que es voz de angustia.

His shoulders shrugged, his eyebrows lifted and his lips puckered in sheer acceptance.

Pero, he continued, cuando esta muy fruerte el sol busco la sombra.  Cuando viene la oscuridad, lo tengo miedo.  Cuando…ya no puedo mas, lloro.

He lifted the bottle of water in the air. Cuando me da sed, me dan agua.

He smiled

Y, nodding his head, cuando encuentro la maravilloso digo “Wow!”  Mijo, en el camino , como aqui en este lugar, son los hormigas el que te quita lo pendejo, no la voz de un dios.  Las Palmurranas.

I rose to my feet ready to give him money from my pocket.  In the distance the train echoed its haunting refrain and beat its wheels into the track like mighty drums.  This jolted him out of his pensive state. I gave him the last of the money I had in my pocket.  We locked in a gaze for a second, then turned and walked away.  Walking back from the brush, I came upon an old pier that was alone and disheveled, left to fend for itself.  I thought about the old man and how the two were eerily similar in form.  I thought about the memories made on that pier andabout the memories he had locked away in his heart and mind.  Among the miscellany of carved out words and sentiments drawn in ink, I noticed one particular one dated June ’96:  “I was here, she was not.”

Dije “Wow!”

Pier DKP

The Bell

Posted: February 19, 2013 in Fiction
Tags: ,

“It’s not the act of death that bothers me,” she said, “it’s the unanimity.” And she laughed as she said it. Sure, I thought it a curious place for a laugh and I told her as much. But she shrugged her shoulders in that familiar form and the irony of what she had said fell off of me like a meaningless insult. I went on telling her the story:

There is no real concept of hell in the Old Testament. It’s a rather ambiguous place called Sheol. It’s there the Patriarchs went after they died. When the Nicene creed reads Jesus descended into “hell” it probably doesn’t mean what we think it means.

She thought for a moment and asked, “so it’s kinda like when we say the underworld?”

Something like that; yes, I replied.

“Do you think maybe the Hebrews got the idea from the Egyptians; you know when…”

Just then, a knock broke the intensity of our conversation. We stared at each other, almost as if we had been caught doing something wrong; or perhaps it was that we hadn’t heard a knock at all. Then the jolting sound of the doorbell followed by a distant knock echoed through the hall into my room. It was the front door we finally surmised. I was halfway to the door when I realized it was a Fed-Ex delivery.

“Something from Amazon.com for you, sir!”

He was a tall pale fellow, rather lanky. His hair was styled to be messy and jet-black almost as if he had colored it the night before and the true color hadn’t taken just yet. Considering the myriad tattoos covering his arms, I thought it quite fitting. It seems early 90’s ‘grunge’ has yet to die out, I thought to myself.

As I signed for my parcel, it struck me that his jovial nature and the excitement with which he had presented himself was at odds with his styled look.

“Last name?” he asked.

Oh, Al-va-rez I retorted.

“Is that with an ‘S’ or a ‘Z’?”, he clarified.

With a ‘Z.’

“Cool man, thanks!”  he said, jogging away.

And before I could say anything in return he was in his truck and off to his next delivery. As I made my way back to my room, Ariana called out: “I’m over here”

I stopped mid-step and turned over to where she stood.

“What are you doing in the kitchen?” I asked.

“I figured I’d make us tea, what do you think?” she inquired, already knowing the answer.

“Sounds very refreshing!”

“Is that the book? Huh, Huh. is it…IS IT??” she inquired playfully.

“Yes, yes, yes and yes it is. It’s finally here!” I said matching her silliness.

It was a book of photographs I encountered while browsing Amazon.com. Very specific pictures. It was a collection of black and whites of two 3rd century catacombs from Jerusalem and Rome. Early Christians used the underground necropolis for burying their dead. Some say they also took refuge. Some say they even had fellowship there; that the earliest expressions of the Eucharistic Mass took its form in that underground world.

Whatever the case, they left their mark in wall carvings and in frescoes and mosaics. What was of interest to me was the specific manner in which they depicted Jesus, the miracle worker. Whether it was Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead or Jesus multiplying the loafs and fishes on the Mount of Olives, invariably these early images placed in Jesus’ hand a thing which can only be described as a magician’s wand.

I had become interested in the correlation of Jesus and magic after reading a paper called “Magic and Meal.” In it, the author, a former Roman Catholic Priest, expounded upon the sociological difference between a “miracle worker” and a “magician.” He had come to the conclusion that there really was no substantive difference between the two. It was a matter of semantic nuance.

His analysis across many societies had persuaded him that the only real difference, in whether a person was called a miracle worker or a magician, was the difference between official and unofficial religious practice. That is to say, within an official accepted religion the harbinger of wondrous deeds was called a miracle worker and within unofficial and unaccepted religious practice, the harbinger of wondrous deeds was called a magician. Or as he put it: “we” practice religion, “they” practice magic. “We” say prayers, “they” cast spells.

With the dark smell of brewing tea hanging in the air and the gurgling cadence of percolation breaking the silence of the room, I tore open the package. The book was not of an impressive size. A sure clue that the photos within were not heavily laden with text from an editor’s hand. A chamber from the Roman catacombs of St. Callixtus adorned the cover. The frescoes that bordered the ancient loculi were small given the size of the book but enough was revealed to tantalize. Seeing my excitement and taking advantage of my inattention, Ariana grabbed the book from my eager hands.

“LET ME see it!!” she barked as she ran off in a giggle.

Annoyed, I gazed at her making sure she noticed the offense.  But it took only a moment for me to realize, yet again, that such attempts at passive aggression were futile. She had always found ways to cast them aside by rolling her eyes, like a moody teenager.  But this time she perked up and looked back at me square in the eyes.

“What?” she asked with utter bravado.

“This book will always be with you; but me you may not always have,” she said as she turned again toward the book.

Then she halfway looked up again, and through her hair she flashed a muted smile, wanting to know if I had picked up on the gospel allusion. In fact, I had.  As I approached the sanctum of her remark, I noticed she was paused on a certain page. And gazing at the picture of the Cubicle of the Sacraments she asked pointedly:

“Isn’t it more important to study what they said of themselves rather than what we say about them? Of all the images they could have used to commemorate their dead, why these? A Shepard, a communal meal,” and she trailed off, quietly looking through the book.

As she pointed to the frescoes which surrounded the four loculi hewn into a wall she continued:

“I mean, even if you find anything approaching “Jesus the magician” in these pictures, wouldn’t that just tell you about the people who made the paintings rather than Jesus himself?”

“That is one of the aspects I’m curious about myself,” I replied, “either way, it’s fascinating.”

“Well you’ll have to do that on your own, I have to go,” and she cast the book aside on the couch.

Ariana mooned about the room gathering her things thinking aloud.

“These catacombs are from the 3rd or 4th century. Even if it could be shown that what Jesus held in his hand was, in fact, a magician’s wand and not, say, a walking stick; it would still be required to account for how far back the idea went.”

“Hence the book!” I announced.

“Good luck with that one geek!” she spat off in her pithy humor and left, closing the door behind her.

The Bell

South Texas is a place where memories linger. Legend has it that the flat land, where one can see for miles around, allow the memories of its people to wander for there are no mountains to guide them upward into infinity. I had often wished to be born elsewhere. Rome or Greece, I had thought, would be the best place to be born. It was so rich in history and memory that to walk the roads under the Parthenon or the streets along the Colosseum on any given night was to walk where ancient people had walked. And that had always struck me with a gong of romance. It was a far cry from South Texas to be sure. Our history went as far as the arrival of the Spaniard in the 1500’s. As impressive as that can be, it was eons away from those great city-states.

I had come to the Bell Library in Corpus Christi on the cusp of a memory. Years ago I had come with a friend, Juan Solizeno had invited me to peruse the family history section of “the Bell” as he had come to call it. He was particularly interested in a set of papers collected in early 1760. The Englehardt Papers preserve, in four journals, the travels of Daniel Englehardt, whose journey along the Rio Grande, gives us the first glimpses of the families living along the great river. He details a number of family names, local customs, laws and other information that had remained unknown until Englehardt’s journals were discovered in the 1930’s.

“Here it is.” mumbled Juan. “This is why I love the Bell, a 18th century collection cherished and preserved as if it were from the first.”

“Here put these gloves on,” he insisted.

I obliged and while he removed the journals from the safe-box, I imagined we were archaeologists viewing the documents for the first time in history.

“I want to tell you of the first time I encountered these journals,” he said mysteriously.

“I was 34 years old when these journals were brought here. I was teaching English at the high school when the city hosted the event in conjunction with the library. It was a huge deal when the choice was made to house them here,” he recalled, savoring the residue of the memory.

“I thought it would be a good idea to somehow incorporate these journals into my lesson plans. So I would read them an hour each day after school and find ways to use them.” He continued: “One day I came across this page.”

He pointed halfway down the page. The irony of primary sources struck me like a death punch. I could not read the handwritten text. My eyes were not accustomed to deciphering quickly the cursive handwriting of Mr. Englehardt. Noticing my struggle, Juan took liberty.

Allow me: “…some miles south of the River, encountered a most curious regional aspect. head of the household proudly boasts his family as first to bring the printing press to the region. A quaint little ranchito called El Solizeno. All manner of material printed by their nimble hands…”

I looked at Juan with a puzzled look. That is your last name.

“Yes. Yes it is. This is where genealogy became real to me.  I had always been interested but with this my curiosity soared! It was the start of a long journey. A journey I continues to this day.”

“You know it’s funny. I remember sitting on the porch with my grandparents, my aunts and uncles when they would tell stories about our family. Most of the time it was boring and I wasn’t interested but there were times I couldn’t help but listen. One such story was about el jacal abajo de la casa.  Way back, when our great-great grandparents lived on a ranch in Mexico, there was talk of a shed or a shack under the house.  The details about what was in there differed from telling to telling Some say gold and silver, others say precious jewels. Based on this Engelhardt account, I think it was books they stored there.”

My recollection suddenly burst,.

“What are you doooing?” Ariana asked in her stylistic playful greeting.

“I’m trying to find a book.”

True to form she added: “That shouldn’t be too hard here in a library.”

“No silly. I’m looking for a book I found years ago while here with a friend. It was my first time here at “the Bell” so I wandered. I came across an archaeological report about a site on the Gulf Coast, here in Corpus. I seem to remember the remains of a shipwreck found.  In my rush to take in the facilities I only quickly read through it. But I recall it stating that Roman denarii were collected and that it might be dated to Roman times. The only evidence of a Roman ship on the shores of Corpus Christi. But that’s all I remember, so, I’m trying to find it and read the full report.”

Books Like Bodies

Posted: October 11, 2012 in Fiction

It became normal for me to wake up to my mother crying. Not in the full weep of a tragedy but in muted groans that were inexplicable, though I knew the reason why. Father had left a year ago and mother had not grown accustomed, as adaptable as she was, to the silence that remained when he left. They were life long partners up to that point, had met when they were still children on the play ground. Were both from the same neighborhood. They both would tell me that they “just knew” they would be together. They just knew it. The passing of time and the changes it brings, however, are often imperceptible. And as you get older, the dreams you have change you. Father’s dreams changed him.

She’d heroically wipe the tears from her eyes and proceed with her day. She’d get me out of bed with a gentle scratch of the head, “C’mon, it’s time to get up,” she’d say. On the days I was obstinate and unwilling to get out of bed, even after the third or fourth time being told to do so, she would bring me a warm wet towelette so that I could wipe the sleep from my eyes. She was patient that way. Even when I made us late, she’d tell me to do better next time. God only knew what she endured when I was away at school.

In the year of my father’s departure, when school had ended I usually walked home. Father had taken the car when he left and mother had no way of getting another one. When she could find a ride for me, from an uncle or a friend, I had it easy. We had made plans to the effect that if my ride was not there by the time school was out, I’d have to walk home. I’d walk straight home avoiding as best I could the black side of town. There was a deep seated fear I could not explain. Nothing ever happened to cause the fear but the congregation of young male black bodies terrified me.

Today I do not feel like walking the extra mile it takes to avoid the black side of town . With all the courage I can muster, I’m walking along 2nd street fully anticipating Huisache St up ahead. From a distance I can already see them assembled. They are raucously laughing and engaging each other in conversation. From a distance it appears as though my fears are for naught. You see there’s nothing to fear. As I pass the intersection, the vitality of their conversation wanes and they fall silent. Some mind their own business, talking amongst themselves. A few others are looking right at me.

Yo, what’s up little man,” one calls out to me.

I don’t answer and keep walking, my eyes fixed on the pavement under my feet.

Hey, I’m talking to you!” he’s angry now. 

Not wanting to make eye contact, or even turn their way, I begin to run as fast as I can away from them. I can hear only the faint crackle of laughter behind me.

Laughter and the one voice just behind me shouting: “I’m coming after you! Run, run little man!”

The grip of fear I am in creates this beleaguered bubble of existence. Everything’s becoming unreal. I have tunnel vision and can hear nothing but my own chaotic breathing and the beating of my heart pounding in my ears like drums. When I come to the railroad tracks ahead, it will take everything with in me to turn around. The rapture of fear I am in leads me to believe that the instant I stop running and look behind me, there he’ll be waiting to grab me. But there’s no one. Exhausted now, I think I’ll rest by the recycling facility.

Sitting against the wall catching my breath, a trail of fear-laden tears running down my face, all I can think about is how much Father would be ashamed of me. For running and not standing up for myself. The deep masculine voice I have not heard in a year reminds me that when I run away in fear, I might never stop running. For a brief moment I cry into my hands. I cry for everything; father leaving, for mother having to raise me alone, her mornings spent crying, for having to walk home, and not having powers to stand up to the guy who made me run away.

Hey there, little man, is everything OK? What has you crying this fine day?”

My head shot up out of my hands to see an older black man standing above me. His eyes were deeply set behind his glasses. His hair was a pale gray and white and in every place a man could have hair, it was unkempt and overgrown: his nose, his ears, his eye brows.

I did not want to reveal the source of my fear and crying so I lied and said a dog had chased me down the road, and that I was hiding and resting. He kindly invited me inside for a drink of water and time in the shade. Once inside, he gave me a chair to sit on and a glass of water to drink. I glanced around the cavernous room where large mounds were neatly aligned into separate stacks for paper, plastic, cardboard, and glass. And there to the right, beyond the other piles, were stacks of old books. Some of them were on the two book shelves that were there like at the library, others were neatly stacked along the base boards of the wall. And curiously, there were still others strewn across the floor. Books like bodies laying there with their guts ripped out, some of the pages of text still visible from under the book covers.

Perhaps noticing my repeated glances toward the stack of books, he called out,

Jairus, come out here.”

On my way, pop!” a voice replied from behind one of the stacks.

Jairus appeared from behind one of the larger stacks of card board. He was sweating profusely, and his shirt was already drenched from the labor he was doing. He was youthful, large and overbearing, full of girth and muscle. When he got close to me, he called out: “Hey there, little man, we meet again.”

I instantly knew that it was him, even though I had not even taken the time to look his way when he called out to me up the road at the intersection. A fear gripped my heart, and I’m sure my face showed it too.

Jairus, take him to the stacks of books over there.”

Looking at me he said, “You can take one or two books with you, if you find something you’d like to read.”

Thank you, sir”

Walking toward the books, Jairus asked pointedly.

Why wouldn’t you answer me? I just wanted to see how it was going.”

I was afraid, I said. I was afraid so I ran.

Afraid of what though? I just asked you a question,” he said laughing.

I don’t know why I was afraid, I just was.

Well, that’s in the past now little man. Next time stop and say hi and maybe you won’t have to be afraid.”

He began to explain to me the reason for the books. He told me that these books were from the public library, the books people hardly checked out. They’re taking up too much space there, he explained, so they get rid of the older damaged ones. The books on the shelf there are the ones that just came in this week. The books stacked on the floor are the ones we are gonna recycle next.

What about those right there? I asked, pointing toward the mangled stack of hollowed out books.

Well, little man, those are the ones we’re almost done with. We tear out the pages and put them into the shredder. Then the covers we put into the proper stack, usually the card board stack.

You can take a book home with you if you want to, no one’s gonna read them here. Pop already took the one’s he likes home.

As a matter of fact, he continued, I think you will like this one.

Jairus placed a tattered copy of Aesop’s Fables into my hands. It was moldy and broken at the spine. You can keep it as long as you want, he reminded, and when you’re done reading it, or if you get bored with it, just toss it out into the trash.

He smiled and foretold: But something tells me you won’t be able to throw it out.

Jairus,” called out his father, “it’s time to close up shop son.”

Alright Pop!

Walking toward the door, he asked: ‘What’s your name little man?”

Junot, my name is Junot. It’s good to finallymeet you Jairus.

It’s a pleasure to meet too you Junot. I’ll see you around little man.