Tales of Corruption

MY FIRST TIME.

Wouldn’t it be great if I remembered the first bribe I ever gave? I’d love to shine a light on its romantic aspect, the shameful complicity between the briber and the bribed, the shy smiles exchanged. Maybe I’d write something like, It was a first kiss: loss of innocence paired with the excitement of getting away with something. Unfortunately, I don’t remember my first time even vaguely. It came and went as naturally as the first time I used deodorant or drank a beer.

EXTRA, EXTRA.

In “The Sun, the Moon and Walmart,” Homero Aridjis writes, “A child in Mexico soon learns that corruption is a way of life, and that to get ahead in school, work and politics, El que no transa no avanza—loosely, You’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t cheat.”

Published as an op-ed in The New York Times (April 30, 2012), “The Sun, the Moon and Walmart” immediately struck me as a rare specimen not because of the severe indictment with which it begins, but because we Mexicans—who love trashing Mexico while in Mexico—rarely speak a word of criticism about our Mexiquito lindo to foreigners, let alone gringos. Aridjis goes on to tell tales of once being asked for a bribe by a teacher and years later being offered one by a government official.

WHEN IN ROME.

a scandal had popped up in the news recently about Walmart having paid more than $20 million in bribes in Mexico to get permits for their stores, so corruption in Mexico was—momentarily, because Americans were involved—news.

Corruption in Mexico is as surprising as kidnappings or the national soccer team losing in the last minute. Why would the Times publish a piece on the obvious? Well, a scandal had popped up in the news recently about Walmart having paid more than $20 million in bribes in Mexico to get permits for their stores, so corruption in Mexico was—momentarily, because Americans were involved—news. People were talking about it. Aridjis’s argument was that Mexicans can’t be outraged at Walmart for taking advantage of our corrupt system. “According to a recent study,” writes Aridjis, “companies shell out approximately 10 percent of their earnings to corrupt officials. In the last 30 years, the Mexican economy has lost more than $870 billion to corruption, crime and tax evasion.”

INTRO TO BRIBES.

If a Mexican tells you they’ve never bribed someone, they’re lying. Bribing, in Mexico, is part of The System. Dealing with the Mexican government means dealing with poorly paid bureaucrats with no accountability who will do anything for an extra peso. A lot of the times the bureaucrat you’re dealing with has to move a certain amount of money up to his boss in order to keep his job. Guess where that money’s coming from. I remember once reading somewhere that police officers, who earned a little over a couple of hundred dollars a month, had to “rent” their guns and bulletproof vests from their superiors. I remember an architect complaining to me a few years ago that since the Left had taken over Mexico City the bribes had more than doubled for people in the construction business. I could go on and on. And I will.

IT MIGHT’VE BEEN A STUFFED FROG.

I do remember the most expensive bribe I’ve given. I was still a teenager, driving to my girlfriend’s house one night with some sort of a tacky gift in the trunk of the car. Let’s say it was a stuffed something or other. I ran a red light and immediately heard the siren. “Pull over,” said the bullhorn.

I was a weak and frightful—frankly, childish—teenager. Cops scared the shit out of me.

I plucked my driver’s license from my wallet as the officer’s belly stared at the side of my head. A knot formed in my stomach: the face of Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martínez was smiling at me like the reflection from a tiny, distorted mirror. A few weeks earlier, thinking it would be something amusing to show people, I’d cut out a little headshot of the Dominican All-Star from Sports Illustrated and taped it over my own picture on the upper left hand corner of the license. I liked to look at it every now and again: Pedro’s face with my name next to it. (Unfortunately, I’m sad to report, I seemed to be the only person who found the switcheroo amusing.)

I was a weak and frightful—frankly, childish—teenager. Cops scared the shit out of me.

“Wait a second, please,” I said to the officer. Then I proceeded to carefully unpeel Pedro’s face from mine. I handed him the license. After looking at it for a second, the cop said:

“Watcha got in that hand?”

“What? This?” I responded, holding up the little headshot as innocently as possible.

The cop took the picture from my hand and carefully covered my own headshot with it. He shook his head.

In order to get as much money from you as possible, I learned with experience, Mexican
cops try to convince you that you’re in way more trouble than you actually are. For example, say you run a red light and the fine for running a red light is $10. The policeman will tell you that the fine is $50 and that you have to pay it personally in an office on the other side of town and that, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but with this new rule they came up with to stop people from running red lights, you’ll probably get your license suspended, so why don’t you just give him $35? This officer told me that I’d defiled my official government identification and that it was, of course, a big deal. Millions or billions (possibly trillions) of pesos of fines were headed my way.

“But officer,” I said, “it was only a joke.”

“Please step out of the car.”

I did.

“Open the trunk,” he said.

I did.

He stared at a colorful little paper bag with a gift-wrapped something or other sticking out.

“What’s that?”

“I’m going to my girlfriend’s house,” I said in a shaky voice. “It’s a gift for her.”

The second officer appeared. “What’s that?”

“Says it’s a gift for his girlfriend.”

Then Officer #1 showed Officer #2 how I’d sullied my sacrosanct driver’s license and Officer #2 shook his head. He knew the drill. Said something like, “Oh boy. Tsk, tsk. This is bad.”

They asked me for money. I told them I didn’t have much cash.

“So you want to go to the Public Ministry?” said Officer #2.1 “Find out what the judge has to say about your little joke?” (I’ve been threatened with seeing “the judge” dozens of times, but I’ve never actually come across him.)

“No, officer, please. It’s just that I only have two hundred pesos.”2

“Well,” said Officer #1, “I noticed you had a couple of cards in your wallet.”

Long story short, Officer #1 gets in the passenger seat of my car and we follow Officer #2 to an ATM. Officer #1 goes into the ATM with me. I withdraw 2,500 pesos. I hand him the money. Then I ask him for directions to my girlfriend’s house.

WALMEX: A BRIEF TIMELINE.3

The practice of an employer paying its employees with vouchers only accepted by the employer hits a special nerve with Mexicans, since it used to be common during the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz.

Walmart paired up with Mexican magnate Jerónimo Arango in the early 90s. In 1997, Walmart bought 51% of Arango’s Cifra and renamed it Walmart de México. Controversy then erupted when, in 2004, Walmart built a 71,900-square-foot store next to the archeological site of Teotihuacan (north of Mexico City), on what was thought to be protected land.4 The alleged bribes doled out by Walmart to Mexican officials—of which we know, thanks to a 2012 Times article—happened in 2005. Then, in 2008, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Walmart could not continue to pay part of its employees’ salaries in vouchers that could only be redeemed in Walmart stores. (The practice of an employer paying its employees with vouchers only accepted by the employer hits a special nerve with Mexicans, since it used to be common during the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz.) According to Enrique Bonilla, the leader of something called the National Front Against Walmart, Walmart México pays 1.60 pesos in taxes for every 100 pesos of sales. In the first trimester of 2012, Walmart México reported utilities of 4,710,000,000 pesos (roughly 339,590,000 dollars). Currently, Walmart operates more than 2,000 stores and restaurants in Mexico.

MORDELÓN.

The slang term for a bribe in Mexico City is “mordida,” literally meaning “bite.” As in:

“I got stopped by the police for speeding.”

“Did they give you a ticket?”5

“Nah, I gave him a bite.”

That’s how Mexico City traffic cops earned the nickname “mordelones,” “biters.”

“I got pulled over by a biter.”

EN LA VERDAD HAY VICTORIA.

Of course Pedro Martínez was a phenomenal baseball superstar. The Dominican Republic (pop. ~9.5 million) basically exists to provide Major League Baseball with great players. Twenty-eight of the MLB’s 30 teams have “academies” in the DR. The DR supplies more players to the majors (103 in 2012) than any other country outside the U.S.6 (It reminds me of that city Henry Ford tried to build in the Amazon to provide him with an unlimited supply of rubber for his cars.) Every Dominican kid wants to go to the majors. Can you blame them? The DR’s per capita GDP in 2011 was $9,286;7 In his 16 seasons in the MLB, Pedro Martínez earned on average over $9 million a year. The reward for catching the eye of a big league team is being, literally, a thousand times richer than your average compatriot.

When the stakes are so high and there’s so much money involved, there’s going to be corruption. A common practice for Dominican aspiring MLBers is to lie about their age. There was, for example, Roberto Hernández Heredia, a pitcher who played for the Cleveland Indians as Fausto Carmona. When the Indians signed Roberto/Fausto they thought he was 17 when he was actually 20. He was caught and arrested. Now he travels up and down the DR talking to kids about his “mistakes” and at the end of the talks he hands them t-shirts that read In Truth, There is Triumph.

WHY I HAVE TO LIE.

Cheating worked for Dominican infielder Miguel Tejada. He played 15 seasons in the majors and earned over $95 million in salaries.8 In 2008, while Tejada played for Houston, an ESPN reporter pulled an ambush interview on him:9

ESPN: How old are you?

MT: Thirty-two.

ESPN: Born in?

MT: Dominican Republic.

ESPN: In which year?

MT: Seventy-six.

ESPN: You sure?

MT: Why I have to lie?

ESPN: We acquired the…birth certificate that your father filed when you were a boy and…I want you to explain this to me, OK?

MT: [Holding the document. Confused.] What is that?

ESPN: This is a birth certificate. Your birth certificate, right?

MT: Who give you that?

Tejada, whose last name was originally Tejeda, walked out of the interview. The documents revealed that he was not born in 1976 as he claimed, but in 1974.

AUTHORITY MEANS DIFFERENT THINGS FOR DIFFERENT PEOPLE.

I once read somewhere that authoritarian regimes breed rule breakers. While citizens of countries with democratic governments know that rules are there for a reason, people who’ve suffered dictatorial governments think that rules are absurd tricks designed to fuck them over.

I once read somewhere that authoritarian regimes breed rule breakers. While citizens of countries with democratic governments know that rules are there for a reason, people who’ve suffered dictatorial governments think that rules are absurd tricks designed to fuck them over. (Think of your craziest high school friends. Weren’t they the ones with the most authoritarian parents?) Mexico hasn’t had a dictatorship proper in a long time, but we Mexicans did live for 80+ years under the unopposed rule—disguised as a democratic system—of the cleverly named Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), something that Mario Vargas Llosa called “the perfect dictatorship.”10 Rules for us mean hurdles, potholes.

I JUST DRANK A FIFTH OF VODKA—DARE ME TO DRIVE?

I regret almost everything I did in my youth. For example, there was that hip-hop phase I went through, in which I wore expensive white t-shirts, baggy white sweats, white “sneaks,” a silver wristwatch, and listened to Eminem. There were plenty of times when I could’ve been nicer to my sister who’s always been, by all measures, a saint. One of the things I regret the most is how often I drove drunk during my late teens/early twenties. It’s a true miracle I never hurt myself or others. It still gives me the chills to think about it.

For example, one time I was driving drunk at two or three in the morning when I suddenly realized I was completely, desperately lost.11 Then, suddenly, from the heavens appeared one of those ugly green signs with white lettering that abound in the confusing metropolis: TURN RIGHT AND YOU WILL BE LESS LOST. The right turn was only a few feet in front of me and I was in the middle lane. I turned the steering wheel and almost crashed into the car to my right—which happened to be a police car. Siren. Bullhorn.

Cut to: me parked in a dark alley in front of the police car. I get out of the car. One of the cops joins me.

“You almost crashed into us.”

“Sorry, officer.”

“You’re drunk.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Of course you are. You can barely walk. We’re taking you to the Public Ministry.”

With the courage that comes from a night of drinking, I took my wallet out and laid a fifty-peso bill on the hood of my car. The officer took the money and left.

APOLOGY EXPECTED.

In 2009, Tejada admitted to lying to congressional investigators about steroid use in the majors and to having taken steroids himself. He held a teary-eyed press conference regarding the issue:

I’m sorry to my family, to the Congress, to the Houston Astros, to the Orioles, to the Major Leagues, and [struggling to hold back the tears] to all the fans in baseball. And I really apologize because I don’t want to be in this situation. And I apologize to the whole United States because this country gave me the opportunity to be who I am and the last thing I want to do is let this country down.12 I hope they forgive me.

MY 10,000 HOURS.

As with anything, experience in being extorted makes one better at handling extortions.

This next tale takes place when I was in my mid-twenties and had already had a considerable number of run-ins with the cops. I ran a red light. It was a red light that made no sense. An absurd red light. A red light that would serve as the inciting incident of a hypothetical preachy Ionesco one-act titled Job and the Red Light that served as a parable on dictatorial regimes. Anyway, this stoplight was in the middle of a slow, narrow street, no exits, no incoming traffic, just a narrow, slow street. Someone must’ve put the stoplight there by accident. Or maybe someone needed to fill a stoplight quota. It could’ve been someone’s way to steal a little money. In the surreal labyrinth that is Mexico City there are stoplights where there should be none, stop signs that mean nothing, speed bumps at traffic lights, cul-de-sacs that lead into the freeway, freeways that take you to dead ends.

So I ran the red light. Guess who was waiting on the other side. Yes, a cop was stationed there, his back on the side of his car, waiting for someone to run the red light that made no sense. He stepped in front of my car and directed me to pull over. This was how the man made his living. He probably bribed one of his superiors to get that sweet spot.

Officer, looking at my license: “I’m going to have to take this with me. You can pick it up in [whatever number of] days over at [government office that is one hour from my house].”13

“What? No. I have to work, officer. I can’t just take a day off and go to [government office that is one hour from my house]. I wouldn’t even know how to get there. Besides, how am I going to drive there without my license?” I was now a jaded young man.

“What do you want me to do? It’s my job to protect the people in this city. What if you pass a red light and you get into an accident? You might not like being stopped, but we do it to protect you.”

“I know, officer. I apologize.”

Interactions with Mexican cops are also taken from Ionesco’s playbook: both parties say exactly the opposite of what they mean and the truth is taboo. Then someone brings up the bribe. But the word bribe, of course, is never mentioned. (I guess that would make it a David Mamet play.) The police officer can say something like, “Dame algo pa’l refresco,” loosely translated as, “Give me something so I can buy myself a soda.” Or the driver will offer to help the officer out if only the officer could find it in his heart to help the driver out. Sometimes the officer volunteers, if given the money, to “pay the fine” so the driver doesn’t have to go all the way to [government office in Who Knows Where].

I don’t remember who did the offering in this particular situation, but I do remember I had no cash on me. And I was driving to a coffee shop on my day off from my dead-end job so I could spend the day writing. That I remember.

“Look,” I said to the officer, showing him the sad inside of my wallet.

“What do you want me to do? I have no option but to take your license.”

“Listen, there’s an ATM over there. I’ll just go over and get some money.”

He looked at me, trying to size me up. Was I trustworthy? He didn’t really have much of an option. “OK,” he said. “I trust you.”

“The ATM’s right there! How could I even—”

“It’ll be on your conscience if you don’t follow through.” The Morals of Bribery, by That Police Officer Who Stands Next to the Useless Traffic Light.

I drove on, seeing the officer shrink in my rearview mirror.

BRIBE OR DIE.

A good friend of mine was driving home late one night, drunk out of his mind, when he destroyed his car against a truck. Nothing happened to the truck or the truck driver, who calmly went on his way, but my friend was left sitting on the curb, face bleeding, a chunk of one of his ears dangling from his head, straddling the line between consciousness and unconsciousness.

A young couple stopped to help him. They were also on their way back from a night out but they were sober. A police car arrived. Then an ambulance. The first thing the police did was steal my friend’s iPod. They would’ve also taken his phone and wallet, but the couple who’d stopped to help him, knowing what was coming, had hid them in their car. “Where’s his wallet?” one of the policemen kept asking. “Where’s this man’s wallet?”

The good Samaritans were talking to the paramedics about which hospital to take my friend to when the other policeman intervened. “This man’s not going anywhere,” he said. At least not until someone gave the cops some money.

So there they were, paramedics, Samaritans and police all arguing under the pre-dawn darkness while my friend sat on the curb with a stupid smile on his face. Then another good Samaritan stopped. This one was a doctor. He told the police that if my friend wasn’t taken to a hospital soon there would be dire consequences to his health. The police didn’t give a fuck about dire consequences to anyone’s health, but at some point they got tired of arguing and just left.

YOU LIVED THE DREAM, MIGUEL.

As I’m writing this I read that Miguel Tejada just asked for his release from the Baltimore Orioles. Tejada—who as a kid allegedly idolized Orioles great (and Mr. Hard Work & Honesty) Cal Ripken, Jr.14— had already played for Baltimore in 2004-07, and again in 2010. According to the CBS Sports blog, “Tejada had been working his way back to the majors at [Orioles AAA farm team] Norfolk, where, in 36 games, he had been slugging a meager .296 and…showing diminished range at third base. As such, it’s hard to imagine that Tejada is going to find many takers out there.”

COKED-UP COP & SLEEPY COP.

The stakes with the Mexican police get higher late at night because cocaine enters the picture. I’m not about to sit here (in bed) and pretend that all Mexican police on the graveyard shift are coked up, but every once in a while you do run into one.

EXAMPLE #1: A young lady and I go to a party. The young lady leaves her car at a supermarket parking lot from where we take my car. The party’s kind of shitty. Also, either she didn’t like how I acted at the party, or vice versa (or both). I park in the supermarket parking lot and turn off the engine. Before she leaves we decide to argue a little. Am I an asshole? Is she being unreasonable? Suddenly, a police car parks next to us. Coked-Up Cop opens my door and sticks his coked-up head in the car.

“Don’t try to cover yourself!” says Coked-Up Cop to the young lady, who was, of course, fully clothed. “I saw you!”

“Saw what?” I say, panicking.

We get out of the car. Coked-Up Cop is maniacally screaming at me about Public Ministries and judges while his partner, Sleepy Cop, looks at me with a hey-I-have-to-work-with-this-guy face.

EXAMPLE #2: I’m driving late one night when suddenly I hear the staticky words of a bullhorn. I look at my rearview mirror and see a police jeep tailing me. I pull over. As I see Coked-Up Cop and Sleepy Cop walk to my car I open the window just a crack.

The first words out of Coked-Up Cop are, “You drunk?”

I’m driving a shiny, small sedan, so he probably stopped me thinking I was a sixteen-year-old driving drunk in his new car. (Which is, to be fair, an earlier version of me.)

“No,” I say.

Coked-Up Cop: “Your license.”

I hand him my license.

The date of birth on my license and my somewhat calm demeanor let Coked-Up Cop know that I’m not the target he was hoping for. But he still gives it another shot: “You fucked up? Coming from a bar?”

Sleepy Cop yawns.

“No sir, just driving home.”

Coked-Up Cop leaves to harass someone else. I feel a cold emptiness in my stomach.

DENOUEMENT.

I almost finished this piece without tying the loose ends of the Walmart bribery case. You’re probably wondering what happened with all that. If you are wondering that you know nothing of how the Mexican justice system works. It doesn’t. It’s no coincidence that there’s no word in Spanish for “justice.”15

President Felipe Calderón said he was outraged by the Walmart corruption case. Please, this coming from the guy who—maybe—stole the 2006 elections and then proceeded to start a nationwide drug war. Any Mexican knows that nothing will happen to Walmart México. The U.S. Department of Justice is holding its own investigation. Time will tell if that is also a sham.

WHEN IN ROME, II.
I’ve been pulled over a couple of times since I moved to the U.S. I’ve had a couple of little accidents too. Look, I’m not a good driver. (My psychiatrist says it’s one of the many symptoms of my ADHD.)

The first time I got pulled over in the U.S., it was because I’d forgotten to turn on my headlights. As the officer walked to my car I opened the door. Force of habit.

“Get back in the car!” said the officer.

I did.


1: Public Ministries are hell on Earth. They’re basically concrete, windowless boxes filled with judges, lawyers, scriveners, typewriters, files, cells, doctors, policemen, criminals, etc. back
2: Listen, the peso’s relative value to the dollar is something that’s always changing. These days, for example, one dollar can be worth anywhere from 12 to 15 pesos. Back then, let’s say, one dollar=10 pesos. back
3: Information for this brief timeline was gathered from Marta Lamas’s “Wal-Mart: lo barato sale caro” in Proceso, Roberto González Amador’s “Se privilegia a Wal-Mart desde el poder público, acusa ONG” in La Jornada, James C. McKinley Jr.’s “No, the Conquistadors Are Not Back. It’s Just Wal-Mart” in The New York Times, and Silvia Otero’s “Anula Corte sistema de ´tienda de raya´ de Wal-Mart” in El Universal. And Wikipedia. back
4: The store they built was not actually a Walmart, but a Bodega Aurrerá, which is a subsidiary of Walmart. back
5: No denizen of Mexico City would ever ask that. Police there don’t “give tickets.” back
6: baseball-almanac.com. back
7: International Monetary Fund. back
8: baseball-reference.com back
9: I’ve slightly edited the transcript for space. You can watch the whole thing on Youtube scored with blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again?” back
10: Mexico has just elected the PRI back into power only 12 years after their ousting. back
11: Mexico City is a monster. It feels like I spent half my time there completely lost. back
12: But Miguel, please, how can you think you let this country down? You did everything in your power to succeed. Nothing more American than that. back
13: This happened in the Estado de México, Mexico State, which horseshoes Mexico City and has no Public Ministries. back
14: Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gherig’s record for most consecutive games played: 2,632. He has a slightly different background than Tejada. His dad, Carl Ripken, Sr., spent most of his professional life with the Baltimore Orioles organization. At one point Ripken, Jr., was coached by his father while playing alongside his brother, Billy. back
15: Of course there’s a word in Spanish for “justice.” How dare you. back

Pablo Piñero Stillmann has received fellowships from the Foundation for Mexican Literature and Indiana University. His work appears or is forthcoming in Brevity, Cream City Review, Juked, The Normal School, The Rumpus and Tierra Adentro. He is a fan of the Swedish electro-pop singer-songwriter Lykke Li.

Freight

Just about the time that you really want to talk, you can’t say a word. The train talks for you; machinery rumbling beneath you, wheels turning faster than sound, faster than vision. You look down and it’s a blur: green, brown, green.

That night we curled up in the grain car, trying to compact our body heat, trying to bring it in closer. Lee and Christy crawled inside their sleeping bags. I don’t know how they did it, there was hardly any room to move. You could barely take two steps. I didn’t want to untie my bag, I’d barely gotten it to fasten just right to the backpack, and I didn’t want to do it all over again. So I shivered and pulled my coat tighter, pulled my hat over my ears tighter, shrank into a little ball, smaller. Time went by, marked only by the noise, the dark, the clunk, the clang, the sweeping sound of the wheels on the track.

I watched Lee rub sticks and rocks together.

“This is the only thing I learned in Boy Scouts,” he said, winking.

We spent the previous night in the field by the tracks. Dylan and Christy exchanged stories about people they used to know in high school. I watched Lee rub sticks and rocks together.

“This is the only thing I learned in Boy Scouts,” he said, winking. I watched him, crouching, rubbing, his fingernails caked with dirt. Dylan tossed Lee a lighter.

“Just use this.”

Lee sighed, then laughed. He built a fire. He rolled a cigarette. We looked up, and it was dark. Sudden, like a light switch. Fall had arrived. There was no denying the shortage of light, the chill.

I curled up close to Lee that night. We spread one sleeping bag on the dirt ground, and the other on top of us as a blanket. We slept in our clothes, with our coats on. Lee left the tiny fire burning in the middle of the four of us, one little flame. I worried we should put it out. He said it would be fine. He’d done this whole thing before. I aligned my body with his and tried to shelter the little heat between us. He breathed in deeply, slowly as I inched closer. I breathed out as he turned over, his face close to mine in the dark. The white air curled up between our noses.

“Are you still cold?” he asked.

“No,” I lied. He had arranged and rearranged the sleeping bag, trying to find the warmest, least lumpy configuration. He had offered his jacket to me. I had refused it.

“I can give you my jacket,” he offered again.

“No,” I said. “Really. I’m okay.”

When morning came, Lee explained the way things would work.

“You have to be ready to go,” he told us, “when it comes. You have to be ready to just run like hell or we’ll miss it.”

We sat on the dying wild grass, our backpacks and sleeping bags strapped tight to our frames. Lee ran ahead in the field, looking far into the distance. He perched up on his tiptoes, as if that would help him spot the train sooner.

Christy turned her head toward me, smiling, looking sleepy. Her dark brown hair had recently been bleached blonde. It was frizzy in the back, and bits of grass and dirt clung to the short waves. She scratched her brown roots, plucking out the plants and making the frizz worse. We watched Lee. He turned to us and shrugged, put one hand on his hip and leaned his weight onto his right leg. Dylan took off his black square frames and rubbed the lenses on his flannel shirt. He squinted in the light.

Lee walked back.

“I guess we should just hang out for a while,” he said. Lee, Dylan and Christy rolled cigarette after cigarette, and lit them, the tobacco sizzling and disappearing steadily in the sun.

Restlessly, I rose, and dropped my bag on the ground. Dust and grass flew up, cloudy. I noticed a cornfield to the left and walked toward it. I looked back at my companions, and there was Lee, a few steps behind me.

“Mind if I walk with you?” I didn’t mind. I had expected him to follow. We arrived in the field. The corn was overripe, the stalks turning brown in the post-harvest sun. The ears were hard, the yellow was deepening. I plucked one off a six-foot stalk and held it in my hand, like a sword.

“En guard!”  I growled, playfully, pointing the ear toward him.

“Ah-ha!” He grabbed another ear from a stalk nearby, challenging mine. I chased him with the corn, our ears hit each other, thwack, thwack, a smell of dirt and fertilizer and sun and insects rose up in the field around us. Thwack. My ear broke in half. Then his did. We laughed, nervously, and I pulled another ear off a stalk. We walked back to Dylan and Christy.

“Someone forgot about their corn, I guess,” I said, softly.

His beard was like a continent with several small islands trailing to his ears. The left ear was smaller than the right. Because of being born premature, he told me.

“Yeah,” Lee muttered, as he picked a long piece of stalk from his patchy beard. His beard was like a continent with several small islands trailing to his ears. The left ear was smaller than the right. Because of being born premature, he told me. The left looked as if the top and the lobe had been squeezed together, and had somehow stuck.

Lee’s smile was uneven, a kind of half-smile. One side of his face was immobile. The lip didn’t curl up at all. I never asked him why. He smiled up at me with his divided face, one half grinning and lively, the other half with folded ear and stopped-short smile.

Christy looked up from her cigarette. “Where’d you guys go?”

“Over there,” I said, vaguely.  I unzipped my pack and placed the dried ear of corn inside. Christy watched, and asked, “Are we sure a train will even stop here?”

“I’m sure it will stop,” Lee said, looking off again. “I just don’t know when.”

Dylan turned to Lee and said something under his breath. They talked and I rolled my black pants up over my sweating ankles. I looked up, and Dylan was leaving.

“Hey, where’s he goin’?” Christy asked.

“He said he just realized he had a lot of work to do at home,” Lee said. “Rent is due on Monday.”

“Maybe he didn’t want to wait anymore,” Christy said. “Bye, Dylan!” She shrieked into the blue sky, and Dylan turned and waved.

“So Dylan just decided he couldn’t come on the trip with us? After all that?” I asked. It seemed like a waste, after sleeping through the freezing night by the tiny fire, after waiting in the sun.

“He’s never done it before.” Lee raised his eyebrows, sighed. “I don’t know, maybe he’s freaked out.”

We’ve never done it before,” Christy reminded him.

Soon after Dylan left, there was a distant whistle and Lee took off running. Christy and I rose to our feet, flustered, not sure at first what was happening. And then we saw it, the great clunking beast approaching. We ran alongside the train, trying to grasp hold of anything to boost ourselves up. Lee was first. He hoisted his five-foot-three-inch body up and swung his legs behind the railing. Christy and I reached, running, grabbing, and then we were standing, watching the landscape swooshing by in green and brown and blue.

Later I learned we were on a grain car, and we happened to have found one that was especially “roomy.” It was about six feet long and four feet wide. If this was roomy, I couldn’t help but wonder what that non-roomy variety was like.

“A Cadillac! We got ourselves a goddamn Cadillac! Woo-hoo!” Lee shrieked and grabbed the railing, shaking it with joy. Later I learned we were on a grain car, and we happened to have found one that was especially “roomy.” It was about six feet long and four feet wide. If this was roomy, I couldn’t help but wonder what that non-roomy variety was like.

For a while, it seemed to me like flying. Water towers proclaiming the names of tiny Iowa towns spun by in the fields, fences chopped the land up into squares, cows grazed and looked vacantly at the train as we flew by. In the daylight, the sky was big and blue and like a giant dome sheltering us and making us feel invincible, super human. The sound was so loud it became a kind of silence.

Then as the sun started to sink, our Cadillac grain car slowed down. When it stopped, the actual silence felt strange and large and my ears buzzed. Lee whispered frankly that we should lie flat, in case the yard police were around. I realized, crouching there in the grain car, that I had to pee. I told Lee and he just said, “Hurry.”

I crawled down the side of the car with the help of Christy’s and Lee’s small hands. I peed under the car, nervous and wide-eyed, then scrambled back up inside, finally letting the breath out again when I thought I couldn’t be seen anymore.

The sky darkened, and the car stopped again and again, and every time it did, I felt fear creeping up on me. I imagined being caught on this train, somewhere between Iowa and Illinois. I imagined the rail police informing my parents, our college, that we had illegally hopped a freight train. There was a gradual slowing and then a sudden sensation of metal breaking on metal, a grinding halt.

The hours passed, but no one knew what time it was. And then it got cold, very, very cold. As I curled into my tiny fetal ball, I thought about how crazy this whole thing was. How a year or two ago, I would have thought this was completely insane. And really, it was.

Earlier, Lee had shown us the official hobo card that stated he’d attended the hobo king crowning over the summer. He also carried a secret manual that was circulated among all the kids who like to travel for free – a manual that said which trains stopped where and when. Rumor had it a manual like that had been around since the Depression. Lee was always writing poems about riding freights. He talked about waking up with the sunrise on his twenty-first birthday in a boxcar. His poems always used the word “barreling.” Barreling down the tracks at 2 am, flask of whiskey in my hand…

Lee had shown us the official hobo card that stated he’d attended the hobo king crowning over the summer.

He was smart and a little sad, with a collection of books in his dorm room that included The Outlaw Book of American Poetry. He liked Utah Phillips and Woody Guthrie. He could cook one thing: salty hash browns made from potatoes that had been diced into tiny cubes. He sometimes liked to wear a skirt on hot, humid Iowa days. He climbed trees. He developed a reputation for this on campus. I caught him looking at me while I worked on homework, and he caught me looking at him when he was reading. He had a smell that reminded me of my friends back home – the musk of unwashed clothes, the lingering staleness of cigarette smoke. Coffee or whiskey or both were always on his breath. He spoke of loneliness. His body language said he never expected to find anyone to love him. I wanted to prove him wrong, wanted to be the heroine in the story that saves the lonely boy and makes him her own, loyal, forever.

I didn’t know that Christy had begged Lee to take us on one of his train trips until she came by my room and announced the plan for fall break: we were hopping a freight train to Chicago. I probably never would have suggested the trip myself, although I was as curious as she was. Christy was more free-spirited than me, less worried about offending people. She played sad songs on her guitar and wore polyester thrift store pants. She illustrated her journal all through the daily assemblies required by the music department and made raunchy jokes about the boys in the music fraternity.

Four nights earlier, Lee and I had sat on the beaten-up couch in the house we shared with twenty other students. His head was in my lap, the TV was on, the movie was over and the screen had gone blue. The early morning light in the house was blue-ish and dark, and it made everything seem isolated and loud. Every breath, every word seemed magnified in that eerie blue spotlight.

He had closed his eyes, shifted his small body on the couch. I had my hand in his thinning, curling hair. His mouth was tiny, two fish lips. My mouth met his mouth, fumbling and graceless, with the downward motion of my head to his head. My spine curled to meet him on my lap. His shocked mouth woke up his eyes. He sat up to meet my face.

On the train, I fell asleep and dreamed that it was just Lee and me there. But in my dream, the train was small, like a toy, and we rode on top of the car, completely exposed. There was nothing covering us, nothing protecting us from anyone who happened to look up.

When we all woke up from our frigid nap on the cold, steel floor of the grain car, there were no more fields, no more open spaces. Instead there was steel and gravel and light all around us. We pried ourselves from the floor and hopped out the side of the car. We yielded to Lee’s hushing. We heard the gravel crumble beneath our boots and stick in the crevices of the treads. We walked towards the brightest lights we could find, asking each other where we were, how far we were from the center of the city.

“I’m tired,” Christy sighed.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“We could just sleep in a bush,” Lee added. But none of us wanted to sleep in a bush. We saw the bright heavenly glow of a Days Inn, and sauntered into the lobby at 1:25 am.

The next morning we ate at a diner and walked by a man holding a sign on the street corner that said, “Nuke them and there will be no war!” It was the first of October, 2001, and in every gas station, restaurant and gift shop there were bumper stickers featuring angry looking eagles and American flags.

We rode an El train to the loop. I looked down to the ground, felt tiny in this strange multi-layered metropolis: levels of trains, buildings with windows, pigeons and the ground below, the homeless men with yellow teeth, the heels of the women clicking, the rattling of change, the rattling of words, gum-splattered pavement. It seemed the city just went up and up and up. It was a jungle, and the El stations made strange canopies.

We passed doughnut shop after doughnut shop until it became a strange visual litany. Dunkin Donuts everywhere. The insane repetition. The rumble of the El overhead. My own smallness kept coming back to me.

Four days later we were on our way back to Iowa, first by Metra train, then in the car of Christy’s friend. He’d come to Chicago for fall break, too, but his method of getting there hadn’t been quite as adventurous as ours. I looked over my reading assignment for the next day’s class. It seemed so silly, so out of place. On the Metra, Christy leaned over and wrote in my notebook, Are you guys together now? And I wrote, I don’t know. But I did know. I had made him mine. The morning after the kiss in the blue TV light, Lee had said he woke up crying because he was so happy. Now he looked at me with devotion and moony-eyed disbelief.

Two months later, Lee and I went to a party. Dylan was there. He was laughing, drinking, rolling cigarettes, saying that Beck’s Midnight Vultures was the party album of the year. Six months after that, I was asleep on the top bunk in my dorm room, and Lee slipped in, letting the hallway light stream onto my face. He was crying, drunk, and when he breathed on me, I cringed at the mingle of tobacco, armpit sweat and cheap college beer.

“What? What is it?” I mumbled, half asleep.

“Dylan’s dead.”

I jolted awake. “What happened?”

“He told me he was just going to do it one more time.”

Lee leaned his head against the frame of the bunk and I touched the tiny curls that grew around his ears. He was so small and vulnerable, unraveling before me in a puddle of tears and alcohol. I ached to comfort him, and ached to send him away.

Lee and I went to Dylan’s funeral together. The chapel in the cemetery was filled with kids our age, none of whom I recognized. Christy wasn’t there.

She’d dropped out of school in March and we didn’t really know where she had been. Throughout the winter she had written songs on her guitar and sobbed in her room by herself. She had dyed her hair multiple colors in the same week. She found boyfriends and then lost them and then found them again. She decided she needed to get out more and then a few days later decided she needed to stay in. She decided what she really needed was to smoke more pot, and I wouldn’t see her for a week. She’d suddenly resurface, saying she needed to stop smoking pot forever. She’d show up drunk to class after giving some artist guy a hand job, then swear off drinking altogether.

Lee and I walked to the front of the chapel and peered into the casket. I’d never been to an open casket funeral before. Dylan wore the same black, square glasses, but his face was Ken-doll orange, his cheeks and lips a cloying pink. I thought back to Christy and Dylan smoking their cigarettes, laughing quietly to themselves. I wondered if she knew he was gone.

The morning was quiet and blue, with swans on the chapel pond. Dylan’s girlfriend kissed the casket before it was lowered into the still-thawing April ground.

“Fucking heroin,” Lee said, under his breath, as we walked back to my car.

Lee graduated from college and went back to his trains for the summer. He sent me postcards and letters with xoxoxo all over them. He called me and left half-drunk messages on the machine. I saw him once over the summer. He had gone home to New Mexico to borrow his parents’ car. Then he drove up to Denver to see me. I baked him a pie for his birthday, and he hugged me with his small arms, wearing a cowboy shirt with pearlescent snaps. We sat on the couch one afternoon, absently watching TV. I felt something curdling inside me as he told stories about the hobos he was meeting that summer. He used words like folks, Howdy, good ‘ol boy.”

Two days later he said goodbye. As I watched him drive away, I wanted to release everything he represented in my life: loneliness, uncertainty, insecurity and clinging to the past. I thought of the dying cornfield we’d found nearly a year before and how pieces of stalk had clung to his beard. I thought of the poetry he wrote about front porches and freight trains and lost love. I remembered camping overnight and running like hell. I remembered tracks thundering beneath a gray grain car, with three sleeping kids inside, and the fourth, wandering somewhere towards a blue morning and an open casket.

Tara Walker received her BA in English from Coe College, and her MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She currently teaches writing for both CU Denver and the Community College of Aurora. Her work has most recently appeared in The Columbia Poetry Review, After Hours, Requited, and elimae.

Wince: George and Trayvon

Manchester Scene, Eleanor Bennett

Manchester Scene, Eleanor Bennett

I want to see Trayvon Martin alive and well. I want to see Trayvon Martin do an interview on The Today Show and reveal this whole thing is a reality-TV-show hoax. I want to see Trayvon Martin cutting class and making B’s and C’s and getting the lecture about applying himself and the lecture about setting goals and the one about potential and the other one about priorities. I want to see Trayvon Martin blow off his parents because old people don’t know anything. I want to see Trayvon Martin make cradle-robbing jokes about the girl he asks to the Krop Senior High School prom, maybe a girl like my daughter, just four months older than Trayvon but old enough to make jokes. I want to see Trayvon Martin show up at my door in a rented tux and a pencil mustache that just barely made it with the help of his mom’s mascara brush. I want to see Trayvon Martin light up when he sees his dolled-up date—maybe not my daughter but maybe—appear in her dress. I want to see Trayvon Martin put a corsage on her arm, and watch her put a boutonnière in his lapel, knowing they only do the flower ceremony for the photos and they’ll ditch the greenery as soon as they walk out the door. I want to see Trayvon Martin bringing my daughter home in the wee hours and want to see my own face in the mirror, resisting the urge to knock his lights out, but she’s fine and he’s fine and I’ve been up all night pacing the floors, afraid their car has landed in a ditch but afraid to call the cops because cops mistake black children for paper targets. I want to see Trayvon Martin recognize that I’m proud of him. I want to see Trayvon Martin fall a little in love with his prom date and her fall a little in love with him, except 18-year-olds don’t fall a little in love, they fall hard and fast and gloriously and there will never be anyone like you and I’ll never love anyone else and where were you and whose number is that and how could you and the whole relationship over in six hot weeks. I want to see Trayvon Martin rematched with his prom date at the Class of 2013 reunion for before-and-after pictures and a second dance more awkward than the first. Except I can’t see what I want to see. I’ll have to settle for what’s left.

I want to see Trayvon Martin completely ignore the 2012 elections since he can’t vote until 2013. I want to see Trayvon Martin register for Selective Service. I want to see Trayvon Martin buy his first car. I want to see Trayvon Martin take the SAT and the ACT and fill out college applications. I want to see Trayvon Martin on the roster for my literature section. I want to see Trayvon Martin take off his headphones and stop texting in class. I want to see Trayvon Martin in my office so I can ask What grade do you want in my class and hear him say I’ll settle for a C but I want a B+ or an A so I can say Let’s figure out what you need to do because you have potential, you have so much potential but you’ve probably heard that before. I want to see Trayvon Martin get turned on by Zora Neale Hurston, by Ralph Ellison, by Kurt Vonnegut, by Emerson, Hughes, Eliot, O’Connor, Faulkner, by a Sonia Sanchez reading required because these kids may never have another chance to see Sonia Sanchez. I want to see Trayvon Martin paint his face in school colors. I want to see Trayvon Martin working out at the gym because he’s still so skinny. I want to see Trayvon Martin pledge a fraternity and dance in a step show. I want to see Trayvon Martin get pissed off in class and speak his mind. I want to see Trayvon Martin major in engineering or music or psychology or whatever he wants, have a career, make money, buy a house, survive a health scare, switch jobs, retire, un-retire, but still have a soft spot for Sonia Sanchez. Except I can’t see what I want to see. I’ll have to settle for what’s left.

I want to see Trayvon Martin at his 65th birthday dinner tell the story about the Skittles for the millionth time. I want to see Trayvon Martin and his wife, probably not my daughter but who knows, who knows you know but there’s potential there, I saw it on Prom Night. I want to see Mrs. Martin smile wistfully at Mr. Martin and see their kids roll their eyes. I want to see Trayvon Martin describe how a nutcase chased him when he was 17, how the dude shot at him but the bag of Skittles deflected the bullet harmlessly and before then he was kinda headed down the wrong path, hanging out with guys that never amounted to much, but he got a second chance at life and had to make the most of it so he ran all the way to his girlfriend’s house and apologized and declared he would ask her to marry him after they both graduated from college. I want to see Trayvon Martin’s grandkids videotape the story and post it online, because granddad Martin is the shiznit, for the video to go viral, for pundits to start arguing about the physics of Skittles and claim this is all just a socialist hoax to take away our guns. I want to see Trayvon Martin buy stock in Mars, Inc. after they change the Skittles slogan from “Taste the Rainbow” to “Makes You Bulletproof.” I want to see Trayvon Martin get his 15 minutes of fame as the old man marketing a line of hoodies with his face on the front and stylized Skittles on the back. Except I can’t see what I want to see. I’ll have to settle for what’s left.

Not George Zimmerman’s arrest. Not George Zimmerman’s trial. Not Black Panther posers collecting a bounty, not wannabe Nazis patrolling the streets, not grainy footage of a jailhouse beatdown. Not a made-for-TV reenactment of a 140-pound boy approaching a man my size and shoving his head into the pavement, although that would be some cool ninja-ass shit. Not the pundits, protests, petitions, press conferences or presidential candidates. Not Spike Lee making an ass of himself on Twitter. Not congressmen getting kicked off the House floor. Not the resignation of the Sanford police chief and an investigation into witness tampering. Not an elegant essay comparing Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till on The Huffington Post and reposted on TheGrio. I want to see Trayvon Martin reflected in George Zimmerman. I want to see a sharp shard of that boy inescapably lodged in the eyes of his killer. I want to see George Zimmerman wince every time he blinks. I want to see the lens of George Zimmerman’s soul permanently skewed towards what could have been. I want to see that sharp shard close up. I want to see Trayvon’s last moment, when his short life flashed before George’s eyes and revealed everything Trayvon ever meant to see and do and love. If I can find that small reflection of humanity in George Zimmerman, if anything of Trayvon landed in George, I will settle for what’s left. Because I’ll have to.

Andy Johnson (Tuscaloosa, AL) is a father, brother, and son. He’s also been a concert stage manager, a comedy show director, a sex reporter, and a foreign aid worker in Liberia. Andy is a former nonfiction editor at Black Warrior Review and a former assistant editor at Fairy Tale Review. His work has appeared in Whoopsy! Magazine, Dangerbunny, and on his blog Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse. He will graduate with an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Alabama sooner rather than later.

Sucker

—1—

Twenty minutes after I picked up my mother at the El Plumerillo airport in Mendoza, Argentina, we heard a popping sound near the back of our rental car. When the Chevy Corsica began to drag, I slowed down. A man of about thirty, with curly black hair, a pale face, and wide, excited eyes jogged next to the passenger door, saying, in Spanish, “You have a flat tire!”

I pulled to the side of the road, one of Mendoza’s major thoroughfares. The man said he would help me fix the flat tire, the right rear. After I opened the trunk, we removed my mother’s bags—she had brought presents for my two daughters and my wife and a new computer for me—and put them in the back seat so we had access to the spare tire. I had changed tires in my life, but I was driving a rental car (a Budget sticker was plastered on the back windshield) and I wasn’t sure if the South American-made Corsica or its tire-changing equipment had any peculiarities. So I accepted the man’s help, expecting to pay him for his trouble. On every corner within sight, lavavidrios (squeegee pests) waited to make a few centavos. I figured he was one of them and had seen an opportunity to reap a greater windfall.

But I wasn’t convinced money was his sole aim, so I kept an eye on him as the two of us removed the lug nuts from the wheel and jacked up the Corsica. My mother, meanwhile, sat in the shade of a nearby elm tree. When the lug nuts were off and the car was raised, the man, his eyes still dancing—I thought he might be mentally ill or on drugs—said he needed another tool for the job. “I’ll grab it from my house,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” Before he left, he patted me on the back.

I removed the flat tire and put on the spare. I put on the lug nuts. I lowered the jack. I began to tighten the lug nuts. Where was our Good Samaritan? What tool did he think we needed? Although traffic streamed by and horns honked, the noise faded as the blood in my temples throbbed. Something was wrong, and I knew what it was even before I opened the rear door to discover my mother’s bags, as well as my backpack, which contained my and my daughters’ passports, gone. But even as my mother and I sat in the local police department and recited what we had lost to an indifferent officer, we didn’t understand how the man could have taken our stuff. Hadn’t we been watching him the entire time?

Later the same evening, however, we came up with a plausible theory: The man must have had accomplices in a car who at some point during the tire change had driven up next to our Corsica. I recalled the man ushering me away from the car’s back door before I could lock it. His accomplices had simply opened the back door, removed the bags and knapsack, and driven down the street, where our Good Samaritan met them for his getaway.

But how did they know we had anything in the trunk? Because they had followed us from the airport, of course. Perhaps they had targeted us from the moment my mother, gray-haired and in her sixties, had exited customs.

And who had popped our tire? They had, of course, with a knife or other sharp instrument as we waited in traffic. Their plan had worked masterfully. My mother and I had played the roles of gullible tourists exactly as they had wanted.

For days afterward, I replayed our encounter with the Good Samaritan, wondering why I hadn’t been savvier, more suspicious. Why hadn’t I read the intention on his face? Why hadn’t I seen nervousness, rather than mental illness or drug use, in his jittery expression?

My mother and I weren’t the Good Samaritan’s only marks. In subsequent weeks, the Mendoza newspapers reported on half a dozen incidents in which the tire of a vehicle rented at the airport was popped and, as the tire was being changed, computers, cameras, iPods, cell phones, passports, and money were stolen. I found guilty comfort in this. I wasn’t alone in my gullibility.

My wife, our two young daughters, and I had moved to Argentina in January of 2009, when my semester-long sabbatical from my university teaching job began. During our four-month stay, the country was experiencing a crisis of inseguridad, and the newspapers were filled with stories of violent robberies, rapes, and murders. In comparison, the Good Samaritan’s crimes appeared gentlemanly. One newspaper, Los Andes, wrote, with what bordered on admiration, “He commits his robberies in full daylight, without pointing a gun or even speaking a single malicious word!”

Eventually, the rental companies caught on to the Good Samaritan’s scam and began warning their customers. When a German couple had their tire popped near the airport, they drove on the damaged wheel until they were out of danger. After this, I read of no more Good Samaritan crimes.

What, I wondered, did he and his accomplices do next? Did they immediately concoct another scam? Did they turn to violent robberies? Or did they give up their lives of crime and find jobs?

I suspect it wasn’t the latter. Argentina’s unemployment rate, which had soared past 20 percent as recently as 2003, was in the mid-teens at the beginning of 2009. And even though the province of Mendoza, Argentina’s wine region, was the wealthiest in the country, one-third of Mendocinos were receiving some form of public assistance. Jobs for uneducated Argentines paid poorly. On the vineyard outside of the city where we were living, workers received two pesos (about 60 cents) to fill a plastic box with thirty pounds of grapes. If they worked quickly, they could fill four boxes in an hour. The country’s minimum wage had recently risen to 1,240 pesos ($350) a month, but two million Argentines (in a country of forty million) were employed in jobs exempt from minimum wage laws. It was no wonder crime seemed an attractive alternative.

The land my family and I were staying on belonged to my wife’s cousins, who lived in England and owned a chain of Argentine steakhouses in Europe. In addition to the small vineyard with a guesthouse, the property included a swimming pool and a pine tree with a resident white-faced owl. The four of us indulged in long, lazy dinners at the table under the guesthouse portico.

The property’s caretakers, a Peruvian couple named Pasqual and Maria, lived in a smaller house in front of ours. Pasqual did everything from trimming the hedges on the property’s perimeter to cleaning the swimming pool to handling the six bull mastiffs who patrolled the grounds at night. Every year, he made his own wine with grapes leftover after the harvest. Maria made jellies from damaged peaches she collected from a neighbor’s orchard. As with the Good Samaritan thief, Pasqual and Maria confronted their tough economic circumstances with creativity. Unlike the Good Samaritan, they did so legally.

In the United States, the economy was also struggling, its bleakness symbolized by bankrupt auto companies and white-collar hucksters. At the same time my mother and I met our Good Samaritan, stories about investor Bernard Madoff, who had run a $65 billion Ponzi scheme, the largest in history, pervaded the Internet. To most of his marks, Madoff was far from a stranger on the side of a road. Indeed, to them he was “Uncle Bernie.” Madoff even stole millions from his best friend, someone he had known for thirty years.

Madoff came across as the ultimate Good Samaritan, someone to whom one could entrust one’s fortune and whose investment acumen ensured it would grow in both good times and bad. If greed motivated some of Madoff’s clients to sign over their entire life savings to him, so, too, did security. With guaranteed double-digit returns, Madoff’s investors could anticipate escalating levels of economic comfort. Madoff’s marks included some of the most successful people and institutions in the world such as Elie Wiesel, Steven Spielberg, and New York University. They also included men and women of more modest means—a physical therapist, a corrections officer, a real-estate broker—who had given Madoff every penny they had.

Suckers all. As I had proven to be.

 

—2—

A confession: I was once a con man. Or a con boy, since I was fourteen at the time. It was the summer of 1982, and my best friend, Eddie, and I owned and operated a carnival game called Jacob’s Ladder on the pier in Ocean City, Maryland. We’d seen the game at a Renaissance Festival the previous fall, and, with a loan from our parents, we bought a three-ladder model.

The object of the game was to climb two dozen rungs up a rotating rope ladder and ring a bell at the top. Winners received an enormous stuffed animal. But climbing the ladder was impossible without practice. It was simply too difficult to keep one’s balance. Time after time, climbers spun off the ladder and fell onto the inflated air mattress below.

Eddie and I had practiced climbing our ladder all spring, and once we set it up on the pier, we made the task look simple. We used our youth as part of our con. We would approach men who had their arms wrapped around their wives’ or girlfriends’ shoulders and say, “Don’t you want to win her a prize? Look—I’ll show you how easy it is. If I can do it, so can you.” And we would dash up the ladder like monkeys.

The men would hand over a dollar, step onto the ladder, and spin onto the mattress without having ascended a single rung. We would encourage them to try again. We would even give them a little instruction. They would hand over another dollar. And another.

If Eddie and I saw that a customer was becoming even modestly proficient at climbing the ladder—usually after he or she had spent twenty dollars or more—we would go behind the ladder’s net screen at the back and tighten the steel cords connecting the ladder to the base below the air mattress. A tighter ladder was even more difficult to climb. Sometimes Eddie and I tightened a ladder so much even we couldn’t make it to the top.

Another way we thwarted would-be prizewinners: As a customer ascended, one of us would hop on a free ladder, climb it quickly, then leap off, jarring the mattress and therefore the entire structure. At this point, the customer would usually lose his or her balance and tumble off. But they never complained. No doubt our youth shielded us from their suspicion.

In our eyes, the cost of our stuffed-animal prizes—twenty-two dollars wholesale—justified anything we did to keep them. During the entire summer, we surrendered only three stuffed animals. While we never popped anyone’s tires or stole property, we did deflate hundreds of egos and leave people’s wallets lighter. Eddie and I delighted in our craftiness and trickery. We called ourselves “carnies” and were happy to fulfill the stereotype. We were the heirs of P.T. Barnum.

The true carnies we worked with were mostly men in their twenties and thirties who hadn’t graduated from high school and spent eight months of the year on the road. When the summer was over, they would work in the pier owner’s traveling company, which ran the Maryland State Fair as well as smaller fairs across the Midwest and South. The men were amused by us; they were also impressed that we had the gumption—and the resources—to own our own concession.

On one occasion, Don, one of the men who ran the Super Himalaya, a high-speed backwards carousel, asked Eddie if he could borrow $50. Don was tall and blond, with a golden mustache and a ready smile. He had a girlfriend with long brown hair who wore tight-fitting jeans and looked, to my teenage eyes, like a movie star. At the time, I envied Don’s life. But now I wonder how he must have felt asking a fifteen-year-old for money. If Eddie was his best option for a loan, Don obviously moved in a far from affluent crowd. He did repay the loan, although much later than promised.

On the pier in Ocean City, Eddie and I grossed as much as $600 in a single day. Even after we gave forty percent of our earnings to the pier owner, we had a small fortune. I was thirty-four years old before I made as much money per hour in any other job I held.

Eddie and I imagined running our Jacob’s Ladder every summer until we graduated from college—hell, maybe every summer of our lives. But the following summer, the pier owner told us he had bought his own rope ladder. He would be happy, he said, if we would run it for him. He offered us fifteen percent of the gross—a pay cut, we quickly calculated, of seventy-five percent.

Eddie and I turned down his offer; we could have made the same amount of money bussing tables.

We’d been out-carnied by the boss. Our careers as conmen were over.

 

—3—

At the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, where my family and I applied for new passports, we were told about other scams perpetuated on Americans in the country. The most memorable: An American tourist walked into a bookstore, where a man in a pinstriped suit asked if he could check the tourist’s bag. The tourist handed it over. When the tourist finished shopping and returned for the bag, he discovered the bookstore had no bag check. Money, camera, iPod, passport—gone.

Throughout history, tourists have been easy targets for scams and worse. The experience my mother and I had in Argentina had a violent precursor in the United States. In April of 1993, a German tourist was robbed and murdered after leaving the Miami Airport when her rental car was bumped from behind and she stepped outside to inspect the damage. Five months later, another German tourist was killed in Miami in similar fashion. These weren’t isolated events. The previous year, 3000 “bump-and-rob” incidents occurred throughout the United States.

My mother and I had been fortunate our Good-Samaritan thief had relied on deception rather than guns. We were lucky in another respect: My mother’s insurance company covered all of our losses. She even received an extra thousand dollars from her credit-card company because she had bought the new computer on her card, which covered items lost or stolen within thirty days of purchase.

“I think I made out like…well…like a bandit,” she said.

 

—4—

Pasqual and Maria, the couple from Peru who looked after the property where we were staying, didn’t make enough money to own a car or pay for cable TV. For transportation, they relied on public buses. For health care, they depended on Argentina’s public hospitals. When the doctors in the public hospitals went on strike and Maria had terrible stomach pains, she couldn’t afford a private hospital. She had to wait until the strike was over. The strike lasted weeks.

When Maria was feeling better, we employed her to clean the guesthouse where we were living, paying her ten pesos an hour, as an Argentine friend had recommended.

The first time she cleaned the house, it took four hours.

The second time, it took five.

The third time, it took six and a half.

“Is the house growing?” my wife asked me, joking.

The vineyard manager had told us that Maria was “slow” and “simple.” But her ever-more-leisurely house-cleaning pace proved she’d mastered the art of working by the hour.

If Maria had reached a new record-high time with her next cleaning, I was prepared to suggest to her a flat fee. But six and a half hours proved the standard.

My daughters became close to Maria, joining her in harvesting peaches from the orchard next door and helping her hang laundry on the line behind our houses. One morning, when Maria invited them to her house, they noticed familiar objects on her tables and bureaus—broken crayons, old magazines from the States, a mate gourd with a faint odor of vinegar. All items we had thrown away.

At dinner the same evening, my daughters asked my wife and me why Maria was using things from our trash. I tried to put an environmental spin on it: “Because she likes to recycle.” But even my six-year-old wasn’t satisfied with my answer, so I added, “And because she’s poor.”

Afterwards, whenever we met someone new, my youngest daughter would ask, “Is he poor? Is she poor?”

“Are we poor?”

I had been poor only by association and proximity. My maternal grandfather often talked about how his ancestors had fled a potato famine in Ireland to come to the States. When my father was growing up, he lived with his mother and his grandmother in a one-bedroom house in Cleveland. His father, an alcoholic, had left the house when my father was eight and contributed nothing to my father’s rearing. If my father hadn’t earned a basketball scholarship to college, he never would have gone.

I had also seen poverty up close. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1990s, I visited the Guatemala City dump, where families lived in tents made of plastic bags and competed with wild dogs for food. For days afterwards, my shoes smelled of decay and something worse. Eventually I had to throw them away.

I hadn’t visited any Argentine garbage dumps, but on a trip to Buenos Aires, my family and I drove on a highway overlooking vast neighborhoods of shacks made of cardboard, rusted metal, and crooked sticks. I expected my youngest daughter to ask if the shack’s inhabitants were poor. But the answer was obvious, and she said nothing.

The economic inequality between rich and poor is most striking in countries such as Argentina and Guatemala because poverty in these countries is so dramatic. As heartbreaking as poverty is in the United States, poor families haven’t yet colonized our landfills. But while Argentina and Guatemala made a recent Gini Index list of the twenty countries with the most inequitable distribution of wealth (Namibia was first), the United States did not make the list of the top twenty—or even top thirty—countries with the fairest distribution of wealth. Denmark, Japan, Sweden, Ukraine, Croatia, and South Korea all distributed their wealth more equitably than the United States.

Certainly the American Dream has historically been nothing but a mirage for a certain segment of the U.S. population—African-Americans, for example—but it’s questionable whether it has become any more accessible over the years. From 1998 to 2008, according to the Gini Index, wealth inequality in the U.S. grew more disproportionate. Men and women, native or immigrant, who start with nothing are far more likely to remain with nothing rather than move up even to the next rung of the economic ladder. During the previous decade, only three percent of the country’s bottom twenty percent of income earners moved to the top twenty percent. The majority of the country’s poor have remained exactly where their parents were.

American Dream or American Scheme?

One hundred and forty-odd years after Karl Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital, the economic system his masterwork examined—and his more polemical works decried—is still functioning in most countries around the world, in one form or another. It isn’t, therefore, surprising that in countries such as Argentina, with its long- entrenched Peronist government, Marx’s ideas remain tantalizing alternatives to capitalism. No such Marxist enchantment exists in the U.S., whose economic inequalities would put a smile on the face of any Latin American oligarch. Decades of “Better Dead than Red” Cold War rhetoric have distorted and demonized his ideas, and the collapse of the Soviet Union has made them seem, at best, quaint. Besides, it’s difficult for U.S. workers to heed Marx’s call to unite when their unions have been dissolved and their jobs have vanished.

If Marx’s ideas have enjoyed a renaissance in Latin America, as evinced by recent leftist or left-leaning governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, they have yet to prove panaceas for long-standing economic ills. One of my Argentine friends told me he was stunned by the poverty he saw when he visited Venezuela in 2009 to play in a series of rugby matches. One of the fields he played on was surrounded by hills full of wooden shacks and cardboard houses. It seemed there were slums, he said, all the way to the sky. If this was the best face Venezuela could show the world, he said, imagine what it was hiding. Despite Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s belief that “socialism builds and capitalism destroys,” more than thirty-five percent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line.

Utopias flourish only in rhetoric.

 

—5—

My maternal grandfather—he of the potato famine stories—was the most practical of men. He always knew where he could find the least expensive gallon of gas, and always brought a bag lunch to work—even when he was earning a high five-figure income. After he realized he couldn’t send his three children to college on a high-school football coach’s salary, he became an optometrist. He began setting aside money for my college education the day I was born.

But when my grandfather turned seventy, he dispensed with caution and astute calculation and began gambling like a madman. Perhaps he felt Time’s winged chariot at his back. Perhaps for him the nearness of death became a disinhibitor, the way poverty can push the otherwise law-abiding man or woman into crime. He lost $100,000 by investing with a “friend” who promised him a quick, handsome return and instead spent all my grandfather’s money on wine, women, and a luxury boat. And he began mailing off check after check to whatever sweepstakes offer came in the mail. Eventually, the sweepstakes scammers learned his phone number and called at all hours, promising easy millions and soliciting his credit card number. As dementia claimed him, my grandfather became convinced Ed McMahon was going to show up at his door any minute, bearing a check bigger than a birthday cake. “I don’t hear as well as I used to,” he told me one morning. “Please listen for the doorbell.”

We suckers keep waiting for the doorbell because we want to believe that good things will come our way. We want to believe in our fellow humans and the gifts they promise. We want to believe in the possibility of miracles and in the inviolability of even the most casual of covenants. We want to be rich—the faster the fortune, the better—because, darn it, we deserve it.

This makes us vulnerable and all too human.

Being a sucker is optimism with bad consequences.

Or perhaps it’s merely naïveté—or delusion—with predictable consequences.

 

—6—

The morning after my mother and I had had our bags stolen, I called the car rental agency to ask what I should do about the popped tire. I was told I should have it repaired at any convenient garage—and, per the rental agreement, at my expense. There was a gas station five minutes from our house. Attached to the gas station was a gomería, or tire repair facility, in a large, dark, concrete room. In Spanish, goma means rubber or glue, and the place had the sticky feel and smell of rubber and glue.

There was a single worker in the place, a dark-skinned man with oil, grease, and dirt on his uniform and on his arms and chin. The room was unventilated and unairconditioned. Sweat dampened his forehead and neck. He was working over a machine to pull a truck’s tire from its rim. The work looked dangerous; his fingers, I thought, could easily wind up being crushed between hard rubber and metal. He turned the machine off to come talk to me, and after I explained the problem, he said he would repair my tire next.

I sat on a bench in a corner of the room, alternately glancing at a magazine and watching him work. On a few occasions, boiling, I stepped outside to wait on a breeze. In twenty minutes, he was done with the truck tire. He spent the next twenty minutes on my job—separating tire from rim and patching the damaged tube. I’d indicated the two-and-a-half-inch knife slash in the tire, the debilitating blow struck by the Good Samaritan or one of his accomplices.

As the man finished fixing my tire, using the machine to restore the rim, I prepared myself to be ripped off. By my accented Spanish, if not from my appearance, he could tell I was an extranjero, someone who wasn’t at home in his country. We hadn’t agreed on a price—something I had meant to do—and now I wondered if he would ask for 100 pesos or more. At the same time, I wondered, as my youngest daughter might have, if he was poor or, rather, how poor he was. What his house looked like. What he ate for dinner.

He clicked his machine off and strode toward me with the repaired tire. He held it up to show me his work before leaning it against a wall.

“Okay?” he asked.

The tire looked fine. “Okay,” I said. Then, nervously, I asked, “How much?”

“Cinco,” he said.

“Cincuenta?” I asked. “Fifty?”

He shook his head. “Cinco,” he said.

I pulled a five-peso bill from my wallet and handed it to him. He thanked me and turned back to his machine and his work in the hot, rubber-smelling room.

I rolled my tire back out into the bright morning.

Mark Brazaitis is the author of five books, including The Incurables: Stories, which won the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press this winter. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, The Sun, Notre Dame Review, Witness, Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Greensboro Review, and elsewhere.

Anything but Oatmeal

Today I stood in the kitchen and watched my father spoon cold, congealed oatmeal into a plastic bag. It can be very quiet, the moment you choose to forgive someone. The intention doesn’t always announce itself. It creeps in, there’s little calculation. You didn’t think it would be so small, so heartbreaking.

Standing in a room with my father watching him pack gruel for lunch—feeling sorry that this is what it has come to, wondering why he’s never learned to properly feed himself, realizing this is maybe where I get it from—throws certain things into relief. I am a grown woman (sort of—a twentysomething) living in an apartment where my father keeps the last three decades of his life. It’s amazing how strange we still are to each other. How even just this morning I noticed something in him that had gone unrecognized until now; those you should be closest to, so often the furthest away.

I was born in Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan and brought back to this apartment on West 123rd Street. I don’t remember it, but my dad had an old rocking chair where he’d sit holding me late at night. He was finishing medical school; my mom told me that most evenings it appeared I put him to sleep rather than the other way around.

I only see snapshots of what this early life was like—the steep hill down to the corner bodega where I’d buy a long plastic tube of pink gumballs, the tall co-op buildings across the street, the fence in front of them—but there are no moving pictures of my baby New York. When I was four, my mother packed up her kids and moved us to North Carolina for the sunshine and good schools and pretty ladies we wouldn’t have to watch my father try to seduce.

But now I am back. Yes, after childhood and college I returned to West 123rd Street where my father used to rock me to sleep. We have one of those odd living situations that often mark true New York families. A large percentage of college graduates return home to live with their parents at some point. Only, I don’t live with him exactly and I hardly consider it a return as “dad” and “home” are words that never meaningfully connected for me.

He doesn’t sleep here. I don’t know where he sleeps—he won’t answer direct questions. A shrug, a shake of the head, silence; these are powerful tools in the arsenal of evasion. What began as a temporary site to crash while I got my footing in the big city became permanent as my dad slowly started spending less time here; it became clear I wouldn’t have to actually live with him in any significant way. I’d be amongst his things, near his work, a phone call away (though wasn’t I always that?). But mostly, the apartment is mine. I write in the front room, I’ve had sex on the couch, I pace up and down the long hallway during insomniac nights: all freedoms conditioned on the fact that I am the primary tenant.

But he’s here in the mornings before heading to work, deeper in Harlem; fixing what passes for breakfast, brewing his coffee in that coffeemaker that I swear he’s never washed, looking like the day should be ending for him, not beginning. Sometimes it seems mere inconvenience to wake and find him here. I would rather not have to make small talk. Hell, I don’t like talking to anyone in the morning, but my dad? We don’t even know how to talk in general. But I can’t complain. Stilted communication in exchange for a rent-stabilized apartment is a good deal.

On a typical weekday I hear the front door unlock a little after seven a.m., his brown Rockports on the uneven wood floor, eleven beeps as he dials area code 919. My mother. Yes, they’re divorced. Yes, there are secrets. Yes, she is the love of his life. I don’t question these things anymore, though other people seem to need theories. My parents separated because of my father’s affairs. When one day it was announced that I had a half-sister, too—one he hadn’t told us about for years—then it was my turn to feel personally betrayed, as well.

Somehow my parents found a form of acceptance, though, and they still speak every day. The morning shuffle, my dad’s voice muffled in the back of the apartment; I can’t usually make out the words, but I know he is steeling himself for another long day. My mother calms him. She has that effect on many.

This morning was different, though; the murmurings unsteady, the air heavy.

“I told you, I told you, I told you what-what-what was going to happen. No listen, no listen, I, I, I…”

I didn’t know my father stuttered when angry, wondered if it was the pure intensity of his emotion or whether the person on the other end was just talking so much, the points of entry back into the conversation so small, that my father couldn’t slip the words in, had to keep repeating them. Or was he not listening? How could one hear when trying to talk over someone like that?

I knew he couldn’t be talking to my mother; she is the one he turns to for comfort and could never elicit such unpleasantness. It had to do with his new office, I figured. The one we’ve all been nervous about, its opening a year past schedule, a hundred grand sunk deep into its abyss. My father is a doctor and most of his patients are poor. He never turns them away for lack of pay; it’s one of the reasons he himself is always in financial straits.

I had to be up earlier than usual. As I tumbled out of bed, I saw the light on in the bathroom and realized this was why I could hear him so clearly: he was next to my room. I walked past, deploying one of our passive-aggressive tactics. The door to the bathroom doesn’t close. We don’t turn our heads to look, but you can’t help the peripheral vision, the glimpse of a compromised form.

He was in a very heated conversation—money can do that —and there seemed no good time to tell him to get off the toilet. He was doing his business. I walked past again, to reinforce my presence. Finally, I said from the hall, “Sorry Dad, but I’m going to have to get in there soon.” He told the person on the line to hold the phone and flushed the toilet, zipped up his pants.

Later, in the kitchen, he said to me, “Sion the Be-on, that’s your nickname.” He seemed aimless in his tasks, almost stymied by the hot water now cooling, the bowl still wet from washing. Though “Sion the Be-on” is most certainly not one of my nicknames, I felt it would be petty to correct him, he so fragile right then. I think my dad gets nostalgic for things that are hardly real, invents shared connections. Pretends like he’s been more a part of my life than he ever has been.

But maybe he has been, and that’s the rub. Maybe my father has spent hours of his life holding me in his thoughts. Spent years, those silent years when I refused to talk to him, playing conversations in his head that we might have had if only I would share my voice.

“Because your middle name is Sabreen. So, the B…you always seem to “be on” to something…” He stopped and shook his head. “You’ll have to forgive me today,” he said, choking on the last word. His eyes grew watery; they were already red. They’re often red. I don’t think he sleeps much, even as where he does sleep remains a mystery. This would account for my memories of him when I was a young child: the man who came to visit us one weekend a month in North Carolina and passed out for egregious amounts of time to catch up on all the missed slumber, snoring so loud that two closed doors did little to suppress the thunderous noise. I resented those snores. And I wondered what kind of man comes to see his family (one of them?) only to spend so long lying flat on a bed.

“I know, Dad,” was all I could say. I’d have to forgive him today, as he said, and I would. I did. I have. He was only asking for that one moment, I think, for this anomalous morning and his inarticulateness, but maybe it was for everything, too.

We stood looking at each other, and I finally walked over, awkwardly wrapped my arms around him, the process almost mechanical. A hug would be appropriate now, I told myself. Try to provide comfort. It would be right to do this. Whereas it was the bustling city that might have scared me when I moved back to New York, it was actually the proposition of having to forge a relationship with my father I found most terrifying.

Back when I did share the same space with my dad, phone calls came late at night, in the middle of it, even, and I would listen as he asked careful questions, suggested explanations and remedies, ordered prescription refills. His patients are devoted to him and he gives his time generously. It’s as if office hours don’t exist; he answers whenever they need him. Witnessing this side of him, I could understand how to some he is a healer.

Only, there are many things left unhealed.

“If you ever get into anything like this, get it all on paper. If things seem too good…Just make sure you know the people you’re involved with.” Dad was standing in the doorway, holding his cup of cold coffee, still filled to the top.

I nodded.

“Of course, you know that, it’s just…”

“I know,” I said. The fatherly advice—this, too, always seemed awkward, out of place. When I was younger, I told him he had no right to tell me anything.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“No, it’s ok.”

“I was always so proud of you,” he said, his voice breaking again. That was new to me, too. He turned around as he was saying this, walked heavily down the hall. I stood staring blankly at the coffeemaker still dripping black liquid intermittently. My bowl of cereal was now completely mush.

*       *         *

So few words I give to him—staccato sentences, short utterances—and still he intuits something to be proud of. Though I would not say I desire it, I also wouldn’t say I deserve it.

“You have such a silent way of viewing the world,” he said, another time, halfway down the hall again, his back turned. “I have no idea what you’re thinking.”

If he only knew all the words that are inside me. But how do I expect him to? With most people, I am empathetic and sensitive: a toucher, a feeler. With my father, these impulses morph to the robotic, the remote—I hear a cold voice offer monosyllables, my arms hang limp around his back, my mien as unappealing as his porridge. I recognize the worst in myself—for this I am not proud.

It frustrates me how much there is underneath it all, and the inexplicable force compelling me to remain so closed. I guess you could call it a defense mechanism, but a defense against what at this point, I’m unsure. I wonder why I must act as though I’m enduring something. The residue of a perceived insult, the detritus of past misunderstanding.

But we’ve come a long way. It’s better. Getting to know my father as an adult illuminates certain things I had never admitted before. I realize I am not the only one affected. I look at him and I see he is affected, too; no one escapes unscathed. At twenty-seven, an adolescent’s self-absorption has receded. I acknowledge his pain, which I never allowed before. I replaced my youthful rage with a certain measure of indifference, a coating of stoicism, at least. It is my parents’ affair, I say, (literally) theirs, and not mine. Perhaps I’ve swung too far towards detachment.

But I’m not detached, really, which is why I care that it continues to be so complex to stand in a room and love my father. But I do. There are certain facts that history cannot change—infidelity, distance—but facts now seem different from emotional truth.

There is mythology in most families. I can tell you of the woman named Day, the color of cocoa butter, her lover Night, dark as the country sky with no stars, and the strong boys they brought into the world during slavery times—Day’s sons.

But in this case, we are not surnames or genealogy or ancestry. In my brief twentysomething life, my father and I, the daughter, have created our own mythology. Like the rocking chair as artifact. The affectionate nicknames we do not use. The sentiments believed known to the other that were not.

In a way, I guess I am following my father’s advice: I’m getting to know the people I’m involved with, putting it down on paper. Investigating just why I haven’t wanted to admit that having a father is an involvement. Attempts at conversation still hard with his monologues and non sequiturs, me with a flowing pen, but tight lips—but I think we are both learning about give and take. Longings and shortcomings; we all have them.

I imagine my dad coming in one Sunday morning so we can go for brunch; we do every once in awhile. One of us might say, “We should fix the light in the hallway—it’s gone out.” Then we’ll walk down the hill to the corner diner; my dad will order the lumberjack’s breakfast, and me, anything but oatmeal.

-New York, 2005

Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris, France. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Utne Reader, The Wall Street Journal, Numero Cinq, and the anthology Strangers in Paris, among other venues. In 2007 she won a Barbara Deming Award for fiction and is currently seeking publication of her first novel. Sion holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She blogs at paris (im)perfect and can also be found at siondayson.com.

Alien

Mount Shasta, California,
at 8400 feet

Hours before the spaceship burst from the mountain, the four of us broke camp in snow just below tree line. Right away I fell behind, panting, leaning into the slope and a wind so warm you’d think it had cooked all night in Shasta’s summit crater before streaming down on us. By mid-morning I was drenched, my jacket flung open, the others glancing back at me, trying to hide their disappointment. Squinting behind glacier goggles, I grew furious at myself for misjudging the hard but simple science of altitude, for turning into a drag chute on friends who’d counted on me to show up in condition. I’d been misjudging so many things lately.

Chinook, Snow Eater, the locals called this wind. But it wasn’t eating anything fast enough for me, just softening the mountain so that with each step I sank to my calves, then knees, though at least the others had started post-holing, too. No need for the ice ax and crampons in my pack. Now the three of them had stopped above me, leaning over their poles, gulping air and water. I think they were also giving me a chance to catch up. But part of me was already drifting off, looking for a doorway buried in snow, a portal to one of the New Age dream vaults Shasta was famous for.

Lemuria with its white-robed Ascended Masters. The Sunken Continent of Atlantis, lifted somehow from the blue murk of the Mediterranean. A hangar for the spaceships that were said to hover at the summit in the form of lenticular clouds. All of them beating in the stone heart of the mountain. Who could believe such soft science?

But yesterday, in a bookshop in town, a clear-eyed woman had smiled at me and said a world of my choice was waiting inside Shasta, its curving gold walls spackled with whatever jewels my life needed. I loved her for saying that, though what I needed now, I thought, stranded in slush, was milder wind and a much fitter body. A gem or two of my old lost grace wouldn’t hurt, either.

Then someone yelled “Hey!” and I looked up into the roaring and saw something break from the high snow–a luminous orange ship in the form of a nylon tent, billowing, blown from its moorings. It took a giant bounce down slope, pole-like antennae sticking out. It bounced again, swerved in the air. When it flew over my crouching friends and grew larger, I thought of jumping to the side, but my legs felt locked in snow.

That’s when everything turned orange.

John Calderazzo’s stories, essays and poems have appeared in Audubon, Bellevue Literary Review, Georgia Review, North American Review, Orion, Witness, and in many anthologies, including Best American Nature Writing. His books include Writing from Scratch: Freelancing and Rising Fire: Volcanoes and Our Inner Lives, a personal travelogue which explores how volcanoes around the world have affected human culture. Since 1986 he has taught creative writing at Colorado State University, where he has won many teaching honors, including Best CSU Teacher. At CSU he also co-directs an innovative program on teaching climate change.