Dying Slowly in the City of Bad Thoughts

[This is chapter 8 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 7, see here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/10/17/hurtling-through-the-air-and-hitting-things-on-the-way-down/]

There were a few things Evan had to do before he died.  He had an aching in his heart for one more cupful of Rocky Road ice cream.  He hurt for one last glimpse of the colors of the Bellagio.  He would miss music worst of all.  He sat in the middle of his living room and listened to Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” five times and imagined that he knew Cat Anderson, the only one who could hit that high, high note.  It was the most incredible note he had ever heard.

And there was the girl.  He didn’t know her name.  The girl might not even remember him.  She probably wouldn’t even want to talk to him.

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She worked at an entertainment agency on West Sahara Avenue that booked Hawaiian entertainment, which was all the rage that month.  She was slender and dark haired but definitely not Hawaiian.  She wore the type of clothes that flattered her but didn’t make her look cheap, which was a tricky line to walk.  He’d first seen her in the darkness of a club with Bruno Mars blasting.  He hated Bruno Mars and all he stood for.  She had been walking through blue and purple flashing lights to shit music.  That was the vision, flashing lights and shit music.  The bouncer had told Evan a little about her.

“She ain’t a cunt,” the bouncer said, which to him was a supreme compliment, that’s just the way he was.

Nightclub 1a

It was a couple months before he’d met Kendra and he thought he should be cruising a little.  There was something in her eyes, it was hard to put his finger on, Evan seeing her only from a distance, but it was just in the way she talked over the house music to a friend, like, Don’t hurt me, not like anyone was about to hurt her, just that in every move she made, talking to this girl or ordering a drink or just taking in the dancing bodies, whether she was happy or having fun or whatever, there was always a little touch of Don’t hurt me. 

Five years ago, a girl had told him that he liked wounded birds.

“That’s not true,” he said.

“E, trust me, just look at the girls you choose.”

Φ

The agency was a small office in an industrial mall.  Evan walked in the door, but nobody was there.  It was just shelves full of DVDs and posters on the wall of hula dancers and luaus and big, fat Izzy.  Evan poked his head into an office door and there she was at a desk, dressed all professional, turning her head, her mouth and smile saying May I help you, but her eyes saying Don’t hurt me.

“Uh…I was thinking…” Evan started, then stopped.

She waited for him.  You could see in the set of her face that she had dozens of things lined up on her to-do list, but she waited.

“Luau?” he finally said.

“Okay,” she said.  “Have a seat.”

Evan sat down.

“So tell me about your party,” she said, her pen steadied above a clipboard.

“Well….”

Girl 3a

Evan knew he was chickening out, and he tried, like a lost motorist, to find a route out of his cowardice.  You just have to find a street that you know.  Follow that street.  You’ll come to something you recognize.  Evan looked at her hands.  He remembered those hands.  He remembered thinking at the time that they were short and ugly.  Not ugly exactly, but not gorgeous like the rest of her.  Months ago, when he had seen those hands, he had thought about mighty Achilles, who at birth had been dipped in the River Styx by his heel to make him invincible, but his mother had neglected that heel.  Evan thought, Those hands make her real.  It touched him.  Evan looked up at her.  Something had changed and she knew it.

“What?” she asked.

“I’m the guy.”

“What guy?”

“The guy who chased those guys off.”

She looked at him and her smile began to fade.  He couldn’t tell whether it was okay or whether she was going to call the cops.

Φ

It had been after 3 am, and he’d seen her a couple hours after his conversation with the bouncer.  Suddenly, he caught sight of her being rushed out a back door by two guys, and she didn’t look terribly ambulatory, much less conscious.  In all the noise and hubbub, nobody seemed to notice.  He walked over to the exit and walked out after them.  Suddenly, he was in a messy back alley.  They had her draped over a table in the dark and her skirt pulled up.  She was passed out.  Their eyes were turned towards him.

“S’none of your business!” one of them said.

“You’re saying my sister isn’t any of my business?” Evan said.

It was the first thing that came into his mind.

“She’s not your sister,” the other said.

“Yeah, she’s not,” the first one said.

“So get the fuck out of here.”

“Yeah, get the fuck out of here.”

Earlier in the evening, Evan had been doing this card trick.  You have a card chosen, signed, then returned to the deck, shuffled and lost.  You spread the cards out face-down on the table in a big mess—a shmear, as they call it.  Then you blindfold yourself and take out a knife.  Wearing that black blindfold, you are able to stab the signed card.  It’s a killer trick because of the knife.  Knives focuses the audience’s attention, as does fire, cursing, and flirting.  That knife was a crowd pleaser.

That’s why he had a 7-inch knife in his pocket.  Don’t hurt me was why he pulled it out.

Evan donned his best Raylan Givens face and strode purposefully towards them, his knife held in front of him at the ready, because he knew that attitude and intention were required to pull off this particular trick, although he had not thought through what he would do if they didn’t buy it, he just walked forward, knife in hand, on instinct.  The young idiots ran.

In the car, her eyes opened barely halfway.

“Thangew,” she said in a voice that was so soft and slurred that his first impulse was to turn up the VOLUME knob, and then he immediately laughed, because, as he termed it in his head, There is no volume knob on life.

“Don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay.”

Some girls you really don’t want to see hurt.

Φ

“You were that guy?” she said.

“Yeah.”

She lowered her head.  She became strangely immobile and quiet.  Finally, she took a deep breath.

“It’s all a blur,” she mumbled.  “They must have slipped me something.”

“I figured.”

“You drove me home.”

“Yeah.”

“You tucked me in.”

“Yeah.”

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Finally she lifted her head.

“You put a barf bag next to my bed.”

Evan laughed.

“I was sure you would need it.”

“And you didn’t take advantage.”

Evan just smiled warmly.  Tears were filling her eyes now and she tried to wipe them away but they kept coming.

“I don’t drink anymore,” she said.

“That’s a good idea.”

“I wanted to thank you, but I didn’t have your number.”

“I thought it might embarrass you.”

She smiled, and it was a smile that, he realized, he’d been waiting months for.

“No, it doesn’t.”

Φ

When she got off work at 5:30, they caught a meal at the Peppercorn Mill on the Strip, with its screaming highway of blue and green neon lighting everything up.  They had great booths in there, cushy, curvy, and spacious.  Lilibeth had come to Vegas several years ago from Dayton.  She liked the lights of this city.

“Incredible lights,” Lilibeth said, “I mean, it’s the only thing, really, that makes me stay.”

In those days, Lilibeth was young and fun loving and even printed up a sign for her bedroom door, PARTY ANIMAL.  Gradually, though, she realized that wasn’t where she wanted to land.  People don’t always land on their feet.  Vegas will teach you that much.  So will a back-alley attack.

Evan showed her a few magic tricks.  He floated her ring, which was some costume jewelry she had gotten for a play she had acted in after college.  He brought out the cards.  They laughed.  Laughing with someone, Evan thought, is an extraordinary thing.  He was seeing everything differently now, as if he were a Martian who was examining Earth customs.  Laughing seemed like this incredibly intimate disruption of the face, an emotional explosion, and it suddenly struck Evan as the most wondrous event in the world.

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Lilibeth asked what it takes to be a magician.  Evan said it was a way of thinking around corners.  You had to have a sense of what was around that corner waiting for you.  It could be happiness or it could be a hole in the ground.  It could be anything around that corner and you had to be prepared for it.  To be prepared, you had to think of motivations.  That’s one thing his parents had never taught him, and they were still stupid about it.  You had to watch their eyes, because eyes tell you much more than you realize.  It tells you what people suspect.  It tells you how much a pushover they are.  Belief is a building, and you have build it brick by brick.

Then Evan looked at his plate, the food all eaten now, and from the look in his eyes, she knew he was going to talk about what had happened months ago.

“I saw it on their face before they even saw you,” Evan said.

“Saw what?”

“They just wanted to…fuck somebody.  Not necessarily sex, but fuck somebody up.”

“You could see that in their face?”

“I can see those things.”

She smiled, then placed her hands on top of his, their eyes meeting.

“You’re a good man.”

Evan hung his head.  Her words had triggered a small chain reaction in his head, and it was like somebody stepping on his neck while he was down.

“I don’t know about that.”

“I do.  I know it like I know how to breathe.”

Evan was quiet for a long time.  Part of him was savoring it, because he’d waited a long time to hear that, but part of him was ashamed, because he knew what lay in his future.

“Well, I have to confess something,” Evan finally said.  “Lately, I’ve been having bad thoughts.  I’m sorry, I just feel I can be honest with you.”

She squeezed his hands.

“Yes, but you’re capable of such good things.  Don’t worry about it.”

“Seriously, I’m not always good.  A few months ago, I made a compromise, and ever since, it’s affected everything that I do.”

“What kind of compromise?”

“In my job, we’re cheating people.”

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Lilibeth stared at him.  She was weighing and considering.  Finally, she lowered her voice and leaned in.

“Well, I have a confession, too.  In my job, we cheat people, too.”

“Trust me, we’re bigger cheaters than you.”

“Well listen, Evan, you know that this is the city of bad thoughts.”

“Sometimes, it seems like the only way to be good is to be bad.”

Evan looked at her hands again.  She didn’t paint her nails.  She didn’t grow them long, like some girls who wore lavender silk blouses and too-short skirts.

“You were good that evening,” she said.  “I know that you’re capable of being good.”

“It’s confusing.  What I’m saying is that maybe I don’t want to be good.”

“You’re not going to rape anybody, are you?”

Evan smiled.

“I’m not the raping kind.”

“Well then.”

Φ

They went over to the Bellagio and looked at the fountains.  Then they went inside and looked at all the Monet colors.  It was the most beautiful spot in all of Vegas, he told her.

“I like to just sit here for an hour or two sometimes,” Evan said.

“I know what you mean.”

“You don’t have to spend anything to be here.  You can be poor and still sit here and enjoy all the colors.  Sometimes, that’s all I need to be happy, is colors.”

“It’s so simple sometimes, isn’t it?”

Evan thought, There is no REWIND button on life, although he certainly wished he could play this back again and again.

 

Φ

By 1 am, they were at her apartment, slumped back on a dark leather sofa, Miles Davis playing in the background, and eating Ben & Jerry’s out of the carton, two spoons.  From the kitchen, she called out.

“You want a glass of wine?”

“I thought you didn’t drink anymore.”

“Wine doesn’t count.”

“No thanks.”

So Lilibeth poured her own glass of white and walked back to the sofa.  She stood above it for a long moment, looking down at him, an imposing pov that she held for the longest time.  It was like the Incredible Hulk’s daughter standing above him.  Finally, she downed the rest of the wine in one toss and sat down in his lap.  Evan breathed in the aroma of her makeup.

“Hello, sailor,” Lilibeth said.

She leaned in.  She tilted her head.  Then the other way.  Finally she kissed him, the empty wine glass still in her hand, her mouth relaxed and open and wet.  He went with it, but after the moment was complete, he gently pulled away from her lips and looked into her eyes, which were inches from his.

“It wouldn’t work,” he said softly.

Lilibeth shrunk back into herself.  It wasn’t so much Don’t hurt me now as much as it was Shit, I always screw things up.

“You’re fine, Lilibeth.”

“Not attracted to me?  I don’t see why you would be.”

“No, I am.”

“You don’t have to lie.”

“You’re very attractive.”

“Theoretically attractive, but you don’t feel it.”

“Fact is, I’m in love with you.”

That stopped her.  There was a question that appeared in her eyes.  She had wanted to make love in a teacup, while he was going to a place that was expansive and arid, like a desert, a road that suddenly had no road blocks anymore and infinite rainbow skies, a highway to all the secret places, that if she just looked, would reveal everything about him: his abomination, his shame, all the sins he intended to commit.  His voice was suddenly aglow with motivations.

“I’m in love with who you were that night,” Evan said.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m in love with who I was, too.  And what I did.  I’m in love with it all.  And I had to come to see you.  I needed to fill myself up with that love.”

Evan grabbed her hand and squeezed it.

“Then why can’t we do something about it?” she asked, and then she leaned her body into his and he felt the room go electromagnetic again and her voice became a pussycat whisper.    “I’m a hellcat in bed, I promise.”

“Hellcat?” he said, the smallest smile like a spider creeping onto his lips.

“That’s right, baby, hellcat.”

“Okay.”

“So why can’t we?”

“Because I’m dying.”

“What?” Lilibeth said.

“Dying.”

Evan watched her face change.  It was like the changing part of the day, dusk just before night, when you can see unbelievable shapes and colors move in and phase out.  He saw bruised clouds drift in front of her mood, darkness falling like a hammer, tomorrow crumbling like dried leaves.

“What are you dying of?”

Evan paused, then said, “You couldn’t pronounce it.”

There was a silence that sat down between them for a while.  She didn’t seem to want to let go of the intimacy, but after a while, it just died and she scooted off Evan’s lap and back onto the sofa.  After a while, she stood up.

“I need another drink,” she said.

Lilibeth walked into the kitchen again and filled her glass, downed it again.

“Man, you are full of surprises,” she said.

Finally, she sat down next to him again.  After a while, she reached out and held his hand.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I don’t know.  I don’t know.  I can’t seem to focus.  Is—is there anything I can do?”

“Well, in fact, yes there is.”

Evan reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out a letter.  It was sealed and stamped, all ready to mail.

“When you hear that I’m dead, can you mail this?”

Lilibeth took the letter with a touch of reverence.  It was buff stationery and had red sealing wax on the back.

“Of course.”

“You’ll get a call about it.  I’ve seen to that.”

Lilibeth smiled, and this time, he realized, she had solar systems of expression in her face, it wasn’t just Don’t hurt me.  Some people, he thought, are infinite.  Or maybe all people, Evan wasn’t sure.  He hadn’t met everyone.

Φ

Eventually, Lilibeth left the sofa and visited the restroom.  In that moment, Evan got up and did what he had been waiting to do.

All those months ago, on that difficult night, Evan had helped Lilibeth into bed.  She had crawled into bed without removing her clothes and had fallen immediately into the sound sleep of the inebriated.  Evan had looked at her on that bed for a long moment.  He had a surge of emotion.  He wanted to make sure she was okay.  Then he wanted to disappear.  He didn’t need that responsibility.  Finally, Evan figured that she didn’t have enough blankets.  He walked over to the closet and grabbed another one.  As he was about to close the closet doors, Evan had looked up and seen something on the top shelf that caught his eye.  It was an old box with printing on the side— “Springfield EMP”—along with a photo of a small pistol.

While Lilibeth was in the restroom, Evan pulled the box down, set it on the bed, took the pistol out, and quickly put the box back.  He quickly glanced at the restroom door, where he heard noise, but the door wasn’t opening just yet.  Evan went back to the bed and stuffed the pistol into his waistband in the back, where it was hidden by his jacket.  Then he returned to the sofa and sat down.  When Lilibeth came back out, Evan stood up and said his goodbyes.  They hugged.

“Stay safe,” he said.

“You too,” she said.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

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Five Meanings of I Love You

[This is Chapter 3 of an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 2 is here.]

1. I want to be closer to you

Evan had learned something about his mother that had robbed him of his smile, Kara couldn’t figure out exactly what, she wished to God she knew, it killed her that she didn’t know.

“What is it?  You can trust me.”

“I know I can, but…”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“…but I need to sit on this one for a bit.”

“That’s what love is all about.”

“I know.”

“Then why don’t you tell me?”

“It’s just that—”

“Is it something about me?”

“No, it’s just that some things take time to process.”

The look on his face broke her heart.

It was like the ancient Rapa Nui written language.  They have ancient writings, but nobody knows what it means because the Spanish conquistadores killed all of the Rapa Nui scholars by 1888.  Today, we look at the writings, but they’re absolutely impenetrable.  That was sometimes how Evan seemed to her.

There were so many things that Kara wanted to do with Evan.  Go on a train trip with him.  The idea of bumpy train sex made her wet.  Life was all about rhythm, she knew, figure out how his rhythms counterpointed with her rhythms and make a song, and whether that song was a good song or a tired-ass clunker.  Rhythms explained everything.  Once, she had stood onstage with her lead guitarist playing a solo behind her, and just from the rhythm, she realized that his girlfriend had just broken up with him.  She turned around and looked into his eyes incredulously.

Really, her eyes said.

Yes, he nodded.

It was all there in the rhythm: details and concepts, math and emotion, pink and zigzaggy and booyah, everything.

The next morning, Kara wrote up a list of other things she wanted to do with Evan, too.  She so liked lists.

  • Hike in Red Rock Canyon till we’re knackered.
  • Sing him my best songs. In the living room.
  • Not talk about coke ever.

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2.      If I can’t love, I can at least pretend to love

After a set in the casino, someone with a loving face came right up to Kara and killed her with kindness.

Oh my goodness gracious, your voice is such a blessing.  You songs open up my heart, I can’t tell you how much.  We’re from Indiana.

But, Kara thought as she showed her lovely smile, she still lived in a crummy apartment and drove a crummy car.  Sometimes she heard somebody on television, some real person in an interview, who said to a girl, I will transform everything, and he did.  The guy who married Mariah Carey.  The guy who married Celine Dion.  The guy who wrote songs for Ke$ha.

I want to meet one of those guys, she thought.  I could pretend to love him, too.

Sometimes Kara wracked her brain for something that would change things—a new song, a new band, new chops, a new writing partner.  But the thought that tortured her was—What if I need a new heart?

3.      I have the right to take what I want

It was 8 at night and Kara was on her way to surprise Evan at his apartment, but for some reason, she veered into a Catholic church.  Inside, it was so empty and shadowy that it made her think of an ancient Italian cathedral she’d read about once that had a splinter from the True Cross.  She couldn’t imagine being that close to Christ.  She walked up the aisle and the tile echoed off her heels, the proof of her own aloneness.  Kara had never felt close to Him, only far away, so far away that He’d always been nothing more than a vague concept.  Written on a piece of paper.  Stored in a vault.  Bolted to the bottom of the sea.  On Jupiter.

The sound of her own heels hurt her so much that she started to cry.

There was a young priest there.  He patted Kara on the back and said, There, there.  They ended up at Ichabod’s for a late dinner, and then at her place at 1:30 am.  They nestled together on the sofa and he was saying, I’ll tell you everything, and then he did, not like Evan, who wouldn’t talk.  The priest was young and handsome like Jesus, but humble and kind like no handsome man ever is.  When he took off his clothes, Kara saw he had a scar on his side.

Is that where the centurions stabbed you? Kara joked.

He became solemn and spoke softly.

You know, there’s a lance in St. Peter’s Basilica that they claim is the lance that the soldiers used to stab Jesus.

Really.  You know, I didn’t sign up for a sermon.

What I mean is, there’s another one in Paris.  And other ones in Vienna and Krakow and Istanbul.  So don’t worry about feeling far from God. 

Ah.

Kara pushed her head into his chest.  There was so much consolation in his attitude towards despair, as if despair were simply proof that we can be happy.  She made love to his despair more than anything else.  Afterwards, their conversation settled upon their pasts.  He talked about trying to please his Mexican father, who was so obsessed with not going to hell that his son wondered what horrible thing he had done.  His father had indeed done a horrible thing.  One day, he discovered what that sin was: him.  That’s what made him join the priesthood.

It was my way of committing suicide, he said.

Kara talked about what was consuming her, the old love that was ruining everything.

Harris left me.

Oh no.  Tell me what happened.

November.

What, you mean…last November?

Yes.  I always think about him when I’m making love to Evan.  Sometimes I start crying when he’s making love to me and I have to make an excuse, like I say, ‘Oh, I’m only crying because it’s so awfully beautiful.’ 

You do what you have to do.

Exactly.

I mean, I do what I have to do.

Of course, I paid her back…

Who?

My sister.  She stole Harris.  She dug a grave in my heart.

I’m sorry. 

My boyfriend Evan is a complete mystery to me.  I wish to God there were an Evan-to-Kara dictionary.

I’m sorry.

It’s so beautiful that you apologize.  I wish everybody would apologize to me.  All the time.

I’m a great apologizer.  Give me a sin and I’ll apologize for it.  I’ll apologize for Saddam Hussein’s sins.  I’ll apologize for the weather. 

We’re a great pair.  We fit into each other like puzzle pieces. 

Hey, you want to do some more blow?

IMG_2026 smaller.jpg4.      Don’t blame me, I’m a mess

Five days later, Kara made a list.

  • Organize papers
  • Do delicates
  • Never go back to church ever

Kara loved making lists.  She did it because her life was a shambles.  She made lists and she sang for the same reason: so that she could live with the chaos.  Singing elevated the mess into art.  She’d heard that in ancient Greek, chaos comes from the word sing, which made complete sense to her.

5.      I must control everything

Kara was out shopping with her friend BabyLynn, who was a costume designer for performers on the Strip.  They were eating frozen yogurt in the mall and talking about late paychecks.  One thing they had in common was they both worked in entertainment, and both their employers commonly delayed payment.  Another thing was sobriety.

So how are you doing with your twelve steps? BabyLynn asked.

Kara had forgotten that BabyLynn was her AA sponsor, they had so much fun together.

I don’t know.

That doesn’t sound good.

I mean, look, the Big Book says to be “searchingly honest.”  Why can’t we just be honest?  Isn’t that a bit obsessive, I mean, like, trying too hard, to be “searchingly honest”?

You are too much, Kara, that’s why I love you.  What brought that up?

Oh, I guess I’m having a little trouble with control issues.

Like what?

You really want to know?

Yes.

I’ll be searchingly honest, then, all right?

Okay.

Okay, here it is.  I want Evan to talk to me.  It kills me that he holds back secrets from me.

You think he’s cheating on you?

Could be.  All men are dogs.

What are you going to do about it?

And then Kara began to cry and people at other tables started peering over their shoulders.

I just…I just….

What?

I hate myself for loving him so much.

[Chapter 4 is here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/]

I Came from Somewhere

My grandmother Paula Cruz was from another time and place. Born in 1908 in Leon, Mexico, she emigrated to the States in 1915 with her family to flee a bloody battle that was brewing in the area, and which eventually wiped out most of the population, thanks to the Mexican Revolution. At age 12, she was living in sleepy Azusa, California, according to the 1920 Census.

Through the years, my grandmother had to fight many things—poverty, a violent husband, the pervasive racism of the times, her own low self-esteem. Among the most revealing fight, though, was the one she waged against the Department of Motor Vehicles.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

You see, Nana (we pronounced it Naw-naw) could only barely read and write. Her father had died when she was in third grade, so she and her other 12 siblings were quickly pulled out of school and put to work picking fruit in the fields. Another strike against her was her dyslexia, which in those days went by another name: stupidity.

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As an adult, Nana got a job working at the Wilson meat-packing plant in Vernon. I visited her once when I was four. It was an ugly old factory on a nondescript industrial street south of downtown. If you’ve never driven down those streets, you don’t know how ugly an industrial section can be, because it’s still that way. Last year, I got stuck in a freeway traffic jam, exited below downtown, and had to drive through that hell.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula Martin with coworkers at the meat packing plant

As a 4-year-old, I remember visiting her at Wilson. I remember being lifted up onto the receiving dock and walking in. Inside the factory, it was dank and reeked of freshly cut meat. In a room with only high windows, I saw a row of workers, my grandmother among them, rolling sausages with her bare hands. She seemed happy to see me, and gave my tiny face a kiss, then went back to the sausages. It was the job she did for 40 years.

My grandmother and I were very different. Take the war.  In 1957, Nana’s third husband died and her war against the DMV began. Suddenly, she had nobody to drive her places and had to obtain her own driver’s license. The written tests were difficult for her from the start. She had to sound out the words phonetically, like a first grader. As the years went by, the tests became increasingly difficult. I don’t blame the DMV. It’s good to have drivers who can read and understand what they’re doing. But it was hell for my grandmother.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

My mother would drill my grandmother on practice tests. She enlisted the help of relatives, asking them to save their written driver’s tests so she could coach my grandmother from them. Nana would sit at the dining-room table and try to read the questions, sounding out each word. Every so often, my mother would help her or correct her. Once the question was read aloud, my mother would reason out the answer with Nana.

We were always worried that she wouldn’t pass, that she would lose her driver’s license and be homebound. My mother would drive her to the test and sit nearby, waiting for her. It wasn’t a quick visit. Nana took a long, long time with those tests, sounding out each question and then trying to “think it good,” as she put it. Miraculously, she always passed. To be sure, she earned those passing grades.

Interestingly, Nana took great joy in her cars. In the 1960s, she started buying Camaros, which were a big deal in those days. There was a yellow one, followed a few years later by a green one, followed a few years later by a red one. Nana would drive around town in that hopped-up car and feel young again. We all called her the “hot-rod Nana.”  Later, my mother bought a Camaro, too. It was kind of the family car.

In her eighties, it was in one of those Camaros that Nana got into a serious car accident. She was turning left against oncoming traffic and was hit broadside. It was clearly her fault. I was called to her bedside, because, my mother said, she might not make it this time. She had some broken ribs and internal damage.

She was lucky though.  She healed up.  We all debated whether we should take away her keys. Her eyes and her reaction time were getting worse. But we were also worried about taking away her independence. We worried that without her independence, she might just wither away and die.

“You have to be more careful when you drive,” my mother told her.

“I will.”

“You’re getting older.”

“I know.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yes, of course.”

So we never took away her keys, and neither did the DMV. She drove until two years before the end, increasingly cautious.

My Nana was a throwback to a harsher, more complex time. It was never simple. Without the ability to read or write fluently, much was denied to her. The DMV was a house of horrors. Ingredients lists on canned foods were of no use to her. Electronics were impenetrable and users’ manuals were no help at all. Many movies were puzzles ready to be misinterpreted.

Once, I tried to tell her how she was mispronouncing a particular word.

“It’s spoon,” I said. “Say it. Spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, there’s an n at the end. Like in Nancy. Spoon-nah.”

“Spoom.”

At my first performance at the Magic Castle, Nana sat in the front row. It was a highbrow show, and my grandmother, who never finished the third grade, misinterpreted one of my jokes. In the middle of the show, I saw her urgently shaking her head and shushing me, thinking that the joke was a humiliation for me in some way, or a vulgarity that she thought I might go to hell for, or something, I don’t really know. It wasn’t.

In many ways, I was like the DMV to her, estranged because of my education and difference. She grew up in poverty and violence. I grew up in middle-class comfort. By the sixth grade, I had already had twice the education that she ever had, and the estrangement worsened. By high school, I was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and reading my published articles would have been an ordeal, so she didn’t. By my twenties, I was publishing articles in Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mademoiselle, and we lived in different worlds. I flew in to New York City twice a year to receive assignments from my editors, and was living in a whole different world. Later, I was appearing alone on stages at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, and on television, as well.

When Nana died at age 90 and three months, I was sad, of course. But in some ways, it was also like an ancestor dying in 1722. At the same time, though, it was like my own mother dying. She had babysat me as a child, rocked me in her arms, stroked my face, kissed my forehead. My most vivid memory of her is of my lips touching her wrinkled cheek. I can smell her makeup even now. I can feel those wrinkles on my lips.  At family dinners, she would sometimes stand in front of the stove and make corn tortillas by hand. She would wink at me and smile. With her very presence, she reminded me that I wasn’t just a television kid with no past, but that I came from somewhere.

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Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula holding the author's hand.

Paula holding the author’s hand.

A Fighter’s Long Walk

It was twenty-four years ago when my mother took her last trip to Great Britain. She has yearned to return, and finally this year, in her 84th year, she convinced us to accompany her. She longed to see everything she had missed the first time. She wanted to visit the museums, see the Roman baths, see a play, maybe even take the train through the chunnel and visit France and Spain.

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“There’s something about England that I love,” she says.

She likes to tell the story about the mustard. While in London, she bought a hot dog from a vendor on the street corner. She asked him to slather on some mustard, because she’s always been a huge fan of that tasty spread. He gave her a tiny dab.

“More please,” she said.

So he gave her another tiny dab.

“More, more,” she said.

So he gave her a bigger dab, and by this time, people standing around were starting to stare in wonder.

“Much more,” she said.

The man gave her a strange look, but he complied. The hot dog he gave to her was literally smothered in mustard. The English were whispering beneath their breath at the strange American, anticipating what would happen when she bit in. When my mother finally did, she says it was like inhaling a nuclear blast up through her nostrils, past her sinuses, and into her brain. Turned out the mustard was Dijon, not French’s. But of course.

The other patrons politely stifled their laughter, a sign, she says, of the English character. In fact, she has told that story for years.

“The mustard is different over there,” she now likes to say, “but they were too polite to tell me.”

By 2014, my mother had developed hip problems. She could walk normally for about 25 feet, but after that, her arthritis would start to stab at her hips. Bone is rubbing on bone, her doctor tells her.

Watching my mother walk is sad and inspiring at the same time. She used to walk with the grace of a beautiful woman, but now, walking causes great pain, and takes the same courage with which she has addressed all the crucial issues in her life.

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In fact, there has been a lot in my mother’s life that has required courage. When food was scarce in her household in East L.A. in the 1930s, she would walk with her brother into the Chinese cemetery and steal the food that was left out for the dead. Her mother burnt her feet on the stove when she was 12 for coming home 10 minutes late, but the real reason was her developing curves, something that took her years to figure out.

My mother (R) in 1942 with her brother and mother (center).

My mother (R) in 1942 with her brother and mother (center).

Once, when her father came home drunk on a Saturday night from playing in his mariachi band, there was lipstick on his collar. Fighting ensued, he grabbed a kitchen knife, and it was a miracle that nobody ended up dead. But when he threatened to kill his wife and children, the kids were farmed out to Catholic charities for two years while her mother searched for a new husband.

Jesus Jimmy Medrano, 1930s

When my mother went back to school at age 21 to get her high school diploma, and then back to college at age 35, and then to get her Master’s at age 48, that took courage.

“I’m a fighter,” she likes to say.

So in Bath, England, when I see my 84-year-old mother walking the 100 yards from the train platform to the taxi stand, the repressed pain etched into her face, it also etches the portrait of a lifetime. I walk beside her, holding out my elbow for her to grab, steadying her. She’s had a couple strokes in the past 15 years, as well, that have compromised her balance.

“How much longer do we have to walk?” she says.

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“Not far,” I say.

And so she fights on. She’s a fighter.

When we arrive at the taxi stand, we talk to the first cabbie in line.

“We want to go to the Roman baths,” I say.

“It’s just up there,” he says. “An easy walk.”

“My mother has arthritic hips,” I say.

“We can’t do it,” the cabbie says. “We can’t turn right here. Go across the street and catch a cab. They’ll be headed in the right direction.”

So we hobble across the street and, after ten minutes, wave down a taxi.

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“We want to go to the Roman baths,” I say.

“I can’t do it,” he says, and he doesn’t even give me a reason.

So we hobble back across the street and ask another cabbie who is now first in the queue. He looks at me like I’m crazy.

“It’s just up there,” he says, pointing. “Up the road, two blocks up.”

“My mother has bad hips,” I explain. “Can you drive us?”

The cabbie seems upset.

“I’m not even first in line,” he says.

He walks over and gestures at the other taxi driver, who is busy chatting with a colleague.

“Hey, it’s your turn!” he says.

But try as he might, he can’t get the guy to take his turn, so he turns back to us.

“It’s just over there,” he says, pointing. “See that?” he says, pointing to a spot perhaps 50 yards across the street and to the left. “The baths are just 50 yards up from that.”

I know what the problem is: Nobody wants a short fare. Then he has to get back in line again. Uncertain, I think that maybe the best solution to this problem is to walk my mother 100 yards up. So we start out, get 50 yards up, and then I turn.

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“Wait here,” I say. “I’ll scout it out.”

I walk briskly up the walk-street, looking for the baths.  But when I get to the curve in the road, I ask a police officer how far it is. He points to a spot about a half-mile up another walk-street.

I turn back, now really angry. Just fifty yards up? Just fifty yards up?! What kind of person are you, to turn down service to an 84-year-old woman with arthritis, forcing her to walk a half-mile in pain?! I’m really pissed now, so I walk back to my mother.

“We’re going back to those damned taxi drivers,” I say, purpose in my voice now. “And we’re going to take down some names and kick some ass. It’s illegal what they’re doing, and we’re going to be driven to where we want to go, dammit, or we’re going to report them.”

So my mother turns around, and we trudge the 50 yards back to the taxi stand. When we arrive, the previous cabbies are gone, but there are a couple new ones there. I walk up to one.

“We’d like a cab,” I say quietly, loaded for bear.

“Where would you like to go?”

“The Roman baths,” I say.

It’s a sixtysomething man whose cool sunglasses make him look like he was once a player in the singles clubs and nobody has told him it’s all over. I am ready for his evasions. When he starts his double-step, I will say something like, Excuse me?! Excuse me?! Do you know that my mother has arthritic hips and can’t walk 100 yards?! Then I will take out a pen and start writing down his license plate number while saying, I’m going to find the nearest policeman, or report you to whoever you report these things to, and your ass, as we say in America, is going to be grass…. And then we’ll see if turns me down, or if he suddenly changes his tune, saying, Okay, all right, calm down, I’ll drive you….

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We wait for the cabbie’s response. It takes a moment, but when it comes, it’s direct and friendly.

“Okay, hop in,” he says.

At first, it stuns me. I’ve got indignation in my shovel and nowhere to dump it. But then we’re inside the car and we’re driving. I immediately start explaining what had happened with the other cabbies and he shakes his head.

“That’s wrong,” he said.

“You should go home to your wife tonight and explain that you’re a hero,” I say.

Because my mother, who has gone through so much and whose courage knows no bounds, deserves to be driven around England in style.

[Here are some photos of my mother in Bath, England, where for 25 years she has dreamed to return.]

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Her Daughter’s Homeless Parents

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine came onto the Facebook page for the ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors), saying that she was going through something extraordinary: Her adopted daughter’s birth parents had just become homeless.

Vanessa asked where she might pitch this great article idea she had.  It was indeed a great article idea, and we helped by suggesting outlets, including third- and fourth-tier publications.

But Vanessa didn’t have to settle for third or fourth tier.  The idea was so good that she got an assignment from the august New York Times.  Not only that, but she did such a bang-up job on the execution of the article that today, it was published.  I defy you to read it and not say, Wow.

http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/26/the-birth-parents-move-in/

How We Kick Ourselves

[This is chapter 2 of an ongoing work of fiction. Chapter 1 is here.]

At Los Angeles Union Station, Evan boarded the train, and by 10:30, the train was rattling through Ventura and he started his set. Ambitious card. Sybil. Three Fly. Pegasus Page. Trix all have names, just like songs have names, just like hurricanes, just like sins. It’s how we kick ourselves. We give names to things. But Evan had done the trix so many times, thousands of times, even, that he’d gone far beyond the names, it was automatic, it was like his hands were doing the trix and his mouth was saying the patter, but he was hovering above it all, just watching. It was the people’s reactions that interested him.

No way!

Get out!

Don’t tell me!

That is so sick!

Am I being punked here?

I’m going to cry.

At lunch, after two hours of strolling magic, Evan was sitting in the dining car eating a sandwich across from Jazmine, one of the coach attendants, dressed in her smart royal-blue uniform. Lunch was over and the passengers had all vacated the dining car. While Jazzy ate clam chowder and talked casually about a graffiti incident that had just happened at her mosque, Evan was somewhere else entirely, wondering whether this was a thing he wanted to stay in, a relationship with a girl with silky black hair who sings in a country-rock band. Whose twin must be harboring a ginormous rage over the dawg she let into her litter box, although he wasn’t really a dawg, he told himself, he was just in the line of fire, he was just kind of there, he just let it happen. Twins are a whole other dopplefück, he knew that now. It must have roots reaching down to the center of the Earth, holding on with some death grip onto volcanic rock like Beast from Haunted Cave or Beast from Choose Your Dysfunction or something.

Okay, he thought sadly, I’m guilty, too.

That night, Evan collapsed in his cabin. He nestled in, reading a history book about gambling cheats in the 1930s, but it’s like a phenomenon he heard about once. Apparently, when nitrogen is chilled down to 271 degrees below zero, it becomes a liquid with strange properties. It has an incredibly low viscosity, which is the resistance it provides against a surface it’s flowing against, so low, in fact, that it can flow against itself, two streams of liquid nitrogen, one on top and another directly below that, each flowing against the other. His reading was like that, reading about gambling cheats, but beneath that, pondering dopplethängs.

Φ

The next morning, the train was passing through the Cascades. Every time he passed through here, passing by thousands and thousands of pine trees on hillsides of a valley that goes on for an hour or two, his heart suddenly swelled and he believed in God. Then he went back to Vegas and its heartless asphalt streets and he went back to believing in nothing. In the Cascades, the train climbed higher and higher up the hillside while Evan performed tricks for the gawking tourists, when suddenly, a face stood out to him. Evan did a couple tricks for him and then stopped.

“I know you from someplace,” Evan said.

“Don’t think so,” he said.

“Strange. What’s your name?”

“Brundage.”

It stopped him cold.

“That’s my mother’s maiden name.”

Evan looked at him hard. He looked a few years older than his mother, and come to think of it, he seemed to have a family resemblance. He looked at Evan hard. Without thinking, Evan said, “Are you John?”

A grin appeared on his face, and that’s when Evan realized that this guy was his uncle, the one the family lost track of 20 years ago. They heard he got kicked out of Vegas for cheating at cards, and shortly after that, he showed up at their doorstep. His parents put him up for a couple days, and then one day, he disappeared, plus $1800 Mom had stowed in a hidden compartment in the garage. The family never heard from him after that.

“You’re good with cards,” John said.

“Thank you.”

“You gamble?”

“Never.”

“Shame. Why?”

“I don’t like to lose.”

“You don’t have to.”

Φ

That evening over screwdrivers, Evan and John chatted amiably about card games, Chinese face reading, strategic thinking as another name for cheating, stepping on baby stingrays in Tampa Bay, and people you haven’t seen in 30 years and how your memories of them age like soft tomatoes.

“Gimme that deck,” John said, and Evan handed it over.

John started playing with it, and it was an eye opener, like watching chilly water flow over a series of rocks, a deck like the Holy Trinity, many and one at the same time, and it was like he wanted to touch it, jump into it, splash in it, let it wash over his hair, but he knew the water would freeze him to death, so he just watched. John started dealing seconds, which is a way of making people think you’re dealing the top card when you’re not, you’re saving the ace for yourself, it’s a scam that takes years of practice, you’re practicing to be devious.

“This deck is light,” John suddenly said.

It hit Evan, because he recalled the six of clubs that a 15-year-old brat pulled out of the deck and then, in a kind of antisocial act, crumpled up, popped into his mouth, and chewed up, and Evan just smiled weakly while his parents said nothing.

“Fifty-one, am I right?”

And Evan nodded his head in awe.

John ordered Evan another screwdriver that he didn’t need, because that was three now.

While John talked, Evan saw flashes of his mother in him, as if John were a variation on a theme.

If Mom had turned left rather than right.

If Mom had a twinkle in her eye.

If Mom had never loved anyone.

Evan flashed on Kendra saying, All you need to know about someone is the decisions they’ve made.

He also remembered Kara saying, I have a personality disorder. It’s named Kendra.

An hour later, Evan was thinking he had to start wrapping it up for the night when John turned his head in a strange way.

“You know why your mother married your father, don’t you?”

Evan shook his head no.

“Because when she was a kid, she was messed with. Your father had a savior complex. Didn’t help much, of course. You can’t really fix it when you’re messed with.”

Evan asked him what he meant.

“I don’t want to say it any plainer than that.”

Evan’s mind was reeling and it wasn’t just the liquor. It felt like he’d known it all his life, but only now had it swum to the surface.

“I’m 10 years older than your mother. When I was 15, she always wanted to hold my hand. She worshiped me. But I always wanted to be somewhere else.  On the road.  I’m just that kinda guy.”

Liquid nitrogen was flowing through Evan’s head again, on the surface trying to look like he was listening, but below that, pondering the repression that his mother had always conveyed to him somehow, he didn’t know how, that strange, shaken look she had when he first kissed a girl in front of her, his first open display of sexuality, and later, the unexplained hostility she displayed towards him occasionally when she saw him as a man rather than as her son.

“What did you do on the road?” Evan finally managed.

“Learned how to bend a note.”

“Uh, come again?”

“You know that feeling you get when you come up with a winning hand? I mean, an unbeatable hand? Three kings or something? Well, I knew I’d never get that feeling in that dirty little town. That hypocritical little state. Plus, I was tired of cheating Butch Maggart out of his lunch money just to get my blood going. So I hit the road and started doing everything my folks told me to never do.”

Evan glanced at his watch.

“I gotta call this girl before I go to bed,” he said.

“Oh, so that’s it.”

“What?”

“I could see it in your eyes. There was this thing eating at you. I couldn’t tell whether you were bored with our conversation or thinking about a girl.”

“It was a girl.”

“There’s always a reason to leave ‘em, you know. Remember that. Every girl does something that you can blame her for. And if they’re a saint, you just say, ‘You always act like you’re too good for me,’ and that’s it, it’s her fault, that’s your freedom.”

Evan glanced at his watch again. He stood up. He looked into the eyes of this old man who was, strangely, the man in the mirror.

“Where do you live?” Evan asked.

“I’m not really living anywhere right now.”

“Well, I mean, where’s your stuff?”

“You don’t really need stuff, buddy. All you need is money and a way to get it.”

“Yeah, well, I hope I see you again.”

“That’s doubtful,” John said with a grin.

“Well, good luck, then.”

Evan turned to leave.

“Listen,” John said.

Evan turned back. John reached for Evan’s breast pocket and stuffed inside a thick wad of bills, then raised an index finger in front of his nose.

“And if you thank me, I’ll hurt you.”

Evan started to say something, but then stopped.

“I had my reasons for what I did, trust me, John said. I mean, I was going to get hurt, okay?”

Evan looked at John’s face, which was dead serious now.

“There’s interest tacked on, too,” John said.  “Now piss off.”

Φ

John got off the next morning in Klamath Falls. Evan was still in bed in his cabin, leaning his toasty forehead against the chilly window. Evan caught a glimpse of John carrying one duffel bag off the train and into the snowy morning, his breath condensing in the wintry air. He stopped and lit a cigarette. The way he did it, with immense relish and patience despite the cold and snow, Evan realized that he’d been waiting to do that all night. Evan tried to remember this moment, this scarred diamond that he’d never see again.

“Wow,” Evan said out loud.

Evan got up and did his six hours, and that night, he checked into the motel next to the Space Needle and finally called Kara.

“How’s the trip been?”

“Eventful.”

“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too.”

“Do you?”

Evan heard flashes of Kendra, as if Kara were a variation on a musical theme.

If Kendra had turned right rather than left.

If little Kendra had always wanted to hold her big brother’s hand.

If Kendra hadn’t had fangs.

Evan had to play it differently. They weren’t photocopies, after all.

“I’m sorry,” Evan said, “I just met somebody on the train.”

There was a conspicuous silence, and then he realized what it sounded like.

“An uncle I never thought I’d see again. We had a long talk last night over too many screwdrivers, and he gave me thirty $100 bills.”

There was a silence, and then Kara said, “Three thousand dollars?”

“Yeah, it’s payback for the sins of yesteryear.”

“What does that mean?”

And then Evan explained the whole thing.

“So you gonna take me out and spend it?”

“Honey, I can’t.”

“No, look, he stole $1800 from them, right? So we just give them the $1800 and don’t tell them about the rest.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why?”

“Because I can’t.”

“That’s what your uncle intended.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Then why did he pay you so much? He threw in a little for you.”

“No, that was interest. To take care of inflation.”

Kara sighed.

“You can’t even….”

“No.”

“Not even just a thousand?”

Evan felt his soul was standing on thin ice. Sometimes, he could hear the ice cracking. Evan saw himself as being honest and good. He returned lost wallets. He was teaching magic for free to a kid whose mother just gone on a drug binge and lost the kid to foster care. For three months, he gave lodging to some stranger who had inherited $900,000 from his mother and then spent it all in two months on poker games in the Bellagio.

Now, he had done one bad thing. This whole doppleshït had messed with his sense of who he was.

After they had hung up, Kara breathed wearily. She had never had a sense of being good and pure. She saw herself more in terms of flow and hitting the high note. Trying to be good was just a fucking distraction.

When Evan returned, they flew to New York City for the weekend to see a Broadway play.  It cost a little over a thousand.

[To continue reading, Chapter 3 is here.]

If you like this fiction, you’ll like David’s newly published enovel, What Happens to Us. Download it onto your Kindle for only $3.99. Click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

Read excerpts from the novel here:
https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2013/08/18/a-moment-of-stunning-and-naked-honesty/
https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=272&action=edit
https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2013/07/26/getting-alcoholism/

Who Sez He’s a Dog?

In a previous post, this reader called my character Dante “a dog.”

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Some people are so eager to point fingers.  How can one be unfaithful to someone who’s never been your girlfriend?  Someone you’ve never kissed?  Someone with whom you simply have an unspoken attraction?

Once, a woman showed me a book she had bought.  It was called Men Are Pigs and Deserve to DieI thumbed through it and discovered that it was a spoof of feminist books.  The author, Sonya Steinem (a sure giveaway that it was satire), wrote page after page of humorous invective pretending that men were the root of all evil.  But the woman who showed it to me thought it was serious.  As hard as I tried, I couldn’t convince her it was satire.

See for yourself.  Download the novel onto your Kindle for only $3.99 here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

To Kiss a Stranger

The idea of Other is a powerfully frightening one.

Consider the act of kissing someone.  If your significant other kisses you, it makes you smile.  It can lift you to the mountaintop.  Or, if you’ve just been fighting, it can bring you to tears.

Patrice and David kissing NYears Eve 1a smallerBut if a stranger kisses you, the moment might haunt you for years.  It might be considered a crime, either harassment or worse.  Your emotional reaction might be repulsion, panic, or even violence.

In the photo above, my fiancee was kissing me, but there was clearly a subtext.  Perhaps you can see it in my face.  It was New Year’s Eve.  I had decided to break up with her in September, but had forestalled the date because I’m the kind of card player who holds.  On January 4, I would deliver the final news and she would explode, cursing and accusing.  Go ahead, look, you can see that she had already become Other.

Bob Filner, the dethroned mayor of San Diego, has been the Unwanted Other many, many times.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/15/bob-filner-guilty_n_4101496.html

I’m not saying Bob Filner is excused.  What I’m saying is that it’s no wonder that nations go to war against each other.  Often, it’s just the idea of Other that is offensive.

In my new novel, my main character Cat comes home one night to find a stranger in her apartment holding a gun on her.

Suddenly, he was walking slowly towards her and the calculus began to rapidly shift, and although he was talking, she was not hearing any of it, for his gun was pointed at her now, pinning her to the desk like a straight pin thrust into the thorax of a preserved butterfly.  He took one slow, tiny step after another, until she had recoiled as far back as she could and was leaning back at an extreme angle and she felt the gun barrel against her left ribs and suddenly he was only twelve inches, if that, from her face.  He dropped his cigarette and ground it into the hardwood floor with his toe.

“If you just hadn’t turned your back on the high life, we might’ve made it work.”

His breath smelled of Jack and cigarettes.  His skin was smooth and she was close enough that she could see a spot on his chin that he hadn’t shaved perfectly.  His eyes were languorous and imposing, like dark planets.  The aura that hung about him was of a flooding amorality, like he had kicked down with boots every doorway within him that had stood between him and whatever he wanted, no matter what the thing was that he wanted, and that nothing could stop him now, not the law, not convention, not sentimentality, not anyone else’s will, no matter how strong, not people or protectors, not things or objects or emotion or anything.

“You’re everything bad that’s ever happened to me,” he said in a low, strangely tender tone.

Then, in a moment in which her vision was filled with the blue and black smudge and a smear of bright nighttime headlights and she could actually hear screaming, he leaned over and touched his lips to hers.

Consent.  In the above example, it was clearly not granted.

But in other cases, it’s not so clear.  When I was dating around, one of the most difficult things for me was determining consent.  Of course, it doesn’t do to ask someone.  You have to figure that out for yourself.  In the end, you have to take a risk and just do it.  Every so often, you get a strange reaction.

“You took a big risk there,” Polly told me in January, 1994, when I kissed her in a Mexican restaurant.

Polly had just been put out of her home by the Northridge earthquake and so had I.  She had woken up to the shaking at 4:31 am, and had wanted to run and stand beneath a doorway.  But there was broken glass all over the carpet and she had bare feet.  I had had insomnia that night, and when the building started shaking, I jumped up and stood under a doorway, too.  When I tried to return to the bed, I discovered that the bookcase had fallen onto it.  Had I not jumped up quickly, that bookcase would have fallen onto me.

We had some things in common.  But Polly had a few trap doors, such as a cocaine addiction in her past, or, possibly, she implied, her present.  So it didn’t get far before it ended, and she ultimately became Other to me.

Over the years, I’ve collected in my mind a few offensive acts of Other.  At a strategic moment, I inserted some into my newly published novel, What Happens to Us (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU):

  • “After Dante left, Cat walked downstairs and found a curved oaken semicircle table set against an ancient granite staircase.  She slipped into her spot, a quaint little reading light illuminating her space.  She opened the book at random and read about an incident in 1282 during the time that the Frenchman Charles d’Anjou was ruling Sicily.  On Easter Monday, a French soldier made a lewd comment to an innocent Italian bride during vespers.  Her husband killed the cad, French soldiers retaliated, rioting ensued, and by morning, 2,000 people lay dead.”
  • “In 1712 in New York, a slave named Rose was arrested for speaking to a white woman.  The magistrates gave her 48 lashes at the whipping post and had her tied to a horse cart and dragged around town.  In 1743 in New York, a mob attacked a Jewish funeral, stole the corpse, and gave it a Christian baptism.  In 1689, New York governor Jacob Leisler led an early fight against the English crown, increasing colonist representation in government.  Two years later, soldiers sent by the English crown beheaded him, cut out his heart, and gave it to a woman, who held it aloft and yelled out, “Here is the heart of a traitor!”  Sometimes, it seemed that What Happens to Us was no more than a series of heads on spikes.”

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I should point out, however, that this novel isn’t just a listing of historical events.  It actually has a compelling story.

To download the new novel, What Happens to Us, for only $3.99, click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

Adventure on Road X (part 6)

[Continued from a previous post]

I must confess that I long to be descended from someone special.  I search records for evidence that proves I’m special.  Perhaps an ancestor was a Union hero in the Civil War.  Perhaps I was related to Shakespeare or Mozart.  Perhaps I was descended from royalty.  Or, at the very least, perhaps I was descended from the best barefoot sprinter in his village in 12th-century Provence.

It was always the subtext of all my researches.  How am I special?

Neurology face 1a

I know, for example, that I have an excellent facility with language.  I type 105 wpm.  When someone says a foreign word, I instantly repeat it correctly.  The language center in my brain must be highly developed.  (Good thing, too, because my math/science center is pretty atrophied.)

Thus, while embarked on my genealogy search, I wanted to find someone else in my line who was, say, a newspaper reporter on the Kansas City Star who mentored a young Ernest Hemingway in 1922, say, or maybe just someone who spoke ten languages fluently.

The long-lost relative I met in the minuscule town of Reading, Kansas was a mechanic.  He talked with a country twang.  He couldn’t learn computers, so what was his logical next step?  He decided to close down his business.

IMG_3084 closeup 1b

My long-lost relative Preston

Presented with this sad personage, I told my girlfriend over the phone that I didn’t see much of him in me.

“After all, we share only 1/16th of our DNA,” I said.

“You’ve told me that twice already.”

“Well, it’s true, if you calculate it.”

“Okay.”

Charles S. Groves

Charles S. Groves

The next day, I woke up in Hutchinson, two hours’ drive away.  I decided to research a different epoch in my family’s history, from 1915 to 1955, and Hutchinson is where it happened.  Once again, I was hoping to find someone special.

Hutchinson is a town of 42,000, much more than the 150 who now live in Reading.  By afternoon, I was searching through the historical archives for my great-grandfather Charles S. Groves.  By 1905, he must have rejoiced, because his wife Caroline had just given birth to his third son.  Being a farmer, he knew that three sons could form the basis of a farming success in little Twin Grove, Kansas, where he lived.  It’s still a minuscule town, with a current population of only 601.

By 1910, Charles pulled the two eldest out of school and put them to work in the fields.  But after a year or two, the sons rebelled.  They hated farm work.  They wanted to continue in school with their friends.  Good for them.  They wanted to graduate.  Charles resorted to corporal punishment, but even so, the kids couldn’t find any enthusiasm for the job, and as a result, productivity slowed to a standstill.  Ten-hour days are more than a 7-, 9- and 16-year-old can handle.

Charles couldn’t run the farm by himself, so finally, he gave up.  He moved to Hutchinson to work as a chemist in the Solvay Factory.  By all signs, it was a sad fall from grace for him.  It was his dream to own his own farm, as his father had back in Reading.  Charles’ father had two sons, Orlando and Frank, to help him run the farm, and they loved it.  They thrived on mechanical challenges.  They weren’t enticed by the glamour of the big city.  Why couldn’t his own sons be like that?  Charles was quite angry.

In researching Charles’ Hutchinson life, I picked up other signs of conflict in the family.  The boys went back to school, and by 1917, the oldest had graduated at age 20 from Hutchinson High School.  At the time, they were living at the house pictured below.

628 5th Ave Hutchinson 2b smaller

I took this photo on my recent trip to Hutchinson, then Photoshopped it to look like an old photo.

After the Reno County Historical Society archives closed at 5 pm, I drove over to the house and took some pictures.  Amazingly, much of old Hutchinson is still intact, and very few houses have been torn down and replaced by apartment buildings and newer homes.

The two younger sons, John and Roy, dropped out of school, I suspect, because I can find no trace of them in the HHS yearbooks.  Now here’s a strange fact.  By 1923, John and Roy had moved across the street.  I mean, who moves out of their parents’ house and to a house across the street?  Only someone who truly wants to get out from under someone’s unpleasant thumb.  Below is a photograph of that house.

629 5th Ave Hutchinson 3b bw smaller

I took this photo on my recent trip to Hutchinson, then Photoshopped it to look like an old photo.

From here on, we encounter what I call a lost generation.  None of these brothers distinguished themselves as special in any way.  Each failure, however, is interesting in its own way.

My Uncle John, the middle son, became a professional gambler.  In the 1960s, he walked up to me at a family reunion and gave me a deck of marked cards.

John Wesley Groves circa 1934

“I’m going to tell you the secret to winning at cards,” he whispered.  “Cheating.”

“What are you telling my boy?” my mother said, quickly coming to my rescue.

“Don’t tell her,” John said.

“What did he say to you?” my mother said.

“I can’t tell you,” I said.

Later, John was kicked out of Las Vegas for cheating.  In those days, kicked out of described a bloodier process than they describe today.  His wife and daughter ended up hating him.

My Uncle Earl’s son Earl, Jr., grew quite obese and made his living playing music in smoky lounges around Los Angeles.

Earl Groves, Jr.

Earl Groves, Jr.

I remember going over to his house with my parents on July 20, 1969, the day of the moon landing.  He was living with a woman he had met in one of those lounges, and truthfully, all they did all the time was drink and yell at each other in an ugly manner, even with company present.  It was quite unpleasant.  I wanted to watch this historic moment, the moment that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but these boobs were interrupting it with their own dysfunctional melodrama.  Earl died soon afterwards.

And Earl Jr.’s own son was a complete loser.  When he grew up, he became a Hell’s Angel and we never heard from him again.

My own grandfather, Roy, moved to California before the Dust Bowl hit.  He got a job in a paper mill and married a pretty young thing.  They had a child in 1929.

Roy and Dorothy Groves 1

But soon, it became clear that his wife was mentally ill.  She would pester her 8-year-old son with obsessive thoughts and conspiracy theories, following him for hours around the house until he was nearly insane himself.  When the marriage broke up, amazingly, she received custody.  One rainy night, she was gone, as she often was, spending the night with a man.  Donald was left on his own.  The thunder became more intense.  Donald became frightened, not knowing if it was the end of the world.  There was no mother there to calm him.

“There there,” a good mother would have said, “it’s just thunder.”

Donald Groves as a child

Donald Groves as a child

Finally, Donald couldn’t take it anymore.  He ran out of the house, down the street, through the pouring rain, and to his father’s house, but his father wasn’t there.  As always, he was working the graveyard shift at the paper mill.  When Roy returned at dawn, he found his son huddling in a fetal position inside the screened-in porch, wet and shivering.  That was the moment that Dorothy lost legal custody of her son.

But Roy himself was no bargain, either.  Not only was he a racist, which is a philosophy that had no future, even back then, but he went public with it.  He doubled down, marrying another racist from Arkansas.  The name for that kind of person is, put politely, a jerk.

So my view of this generation was shaping up quite nicely, that is to say, quite badly.  Losers all, nothing special.

One of my relatives has traced our line back to Henry VIII of England, who distinguished himself by killing two of his wives.  To be frank, Charles and his sons weren’t even as distinguished as that.

It wasn’t until my father came along that the family gained some decency again.  Dad married a Mexican-American woman from East L.A. because he loved her.  He gave up his dream of being a photographer to provide for his kids with a boring job as an architectural coordinator.  He coached on his son’s Little League team.  He never drank.  He never hit us.  He never owned a gun.  He was determined to be a good father, because so many people in the previous generation had been shits.

My father Donald Groves in his twenties

My father Donald Groves in his twenties

But then again, this is genealogy, not science.  I don’t know what earned rebellion turned John into a card cheat.  I don’t know what heartache of dispossession turned Roy into a racist.  I don’t know what dysfunction may have turned Earl, Jr., into an excessive mess.  I don’t know Preston’s extraordinary sides, given that I’ve spent only four hours with him.

The challenge, really, is to see every single person in his best light, as I have done with my father.  The challenge, as with your own children, is to find and see all that is special within them.  The challenge, in the end, is to love them.

Given that, it is clear that my genealogy search is not over.  I must find a reason to love them.