Nature Lessons

Grandmother’s house nestled at the edge of a wild wood. In the summer, my parents left me with her while they traveled north for my father’s job. He worked part-time for logging companies, clear-cutting forests, harvesting pulp and timber near Grand Marais and Stonington in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Those were summers of tanned bare legs scratched by blackberry brambles, bee stings I hardly felt, and staying up late on the back porch with Grandma Kate watching moths, sometimes as large as my hand, cluster around the light cast from the oil lamp.

Grandmother, in her late sixties, lived like a pioneer. She had neither electricity nor running water and heated her home with a wood stove. She cooked her meals on its heavy, cast-iron burners. Every morning, she cleared ash from the stove’s belly and hauled it in a bucket to the ash pile beyond her house. She stocked her cupboards with homemade blackberry jam, apple butter, jars of thick, spicy pickles, and green beans from her garden.

She taught me the names of flowers, trees, birds, and the habits of animals. On those long summer days, we sat for hours on the porch in the shade of the oak that grew bent, twisted, and cast long shadows to cool us. Grandmother sprinkled seeds across her palm and held her hand out carefully. I leaned into her bulky frame as I watched the sparrows creep closer, until a brave one finally snatched a kernel. It was difficult for me to stay still for too long and sometimes my jerky movements sent them wheeling into the blue sky and back under the eaves of the barn roof where they nested.

A large field stretched out into a wooded area beyond her cabin and sloped into old growth forest, where a pond slept in partial sun and shadows. On early June mornings, we walked through drifts of orange hawkweed, Queen Anne’s lace, and patches of goatsbeard and daisies to the pond where cattails grew in abundance. I bounded ahead of her on my long, gangly legs, scattering field crickets and meadow katydids before me. The grass filled with clacking as grasshoppers rubbed their legs together and their singing echoed inside my head. Clouded sulphur and copper butterflies, delicate cabbage moths and swallowtails darted from blossom to blossom.

“Slow down,” Grandmother often scolded me. “Look, even the downy woodpecker is leaving now.” A small woodpecker with black and white checkered wings abandoned his perch in the nearby oak, and all I could see was the flash of red from the patch at the back of his head as he flew away.

Now that I am older, I know my grandmother’s most important lessons were about patience.

As a young woman, I used to think my grandmother’s lessons were about nature and learning how to appreciate the stillness found in the natural world. Now that I am older, I know my grandmother’s most important lessons were about patience. As a child, this required stepping carefully without flattening the grass and crunching dried leaves beneath the soles of my blue plaid Keds. It meant lowering my voice to a whisper, like that of morning wind slipping through needles of a Norway spruce. And when we sat on the back porch under the afternoon sun, it meant keeping my body still, holding my arm out, fingers open so I, too, could coax the shy sparrows to take seed from my hand. For a child who was constantly hopping on one foot, twirling to imaginary music and talking loudly, stillness was not an easy state for me to obtain.

“Someday, you’ll understand about quiet,” Grandmother said. “How restful it can be to just sit in the sun and contemplate nothing.”

“Is that what you do, Grandma?” I asked.

“Often,” she said. “There’s so much to think about.”

Grandmother knew the names of many birds, and recognized their songs in all seasons. During the winter months, when my family moved back to Wisconsin, she often sent me pictures of birds clipped from magazines, and once she sent me a perfectly woven robin’s nest abandoned by its family. Birds were plentiful those summers. I recall the killdeers circling overhead in early evening calling out their distinct kill-dee, kill-dee, cedar waxwings preening in the juniper bush, and yellow warblers singing dee-diddly-dee! Dee-dee-dee-diddly-dee! Several purple martins nested in the tall wooden birdhouse near the porch.

“The Martin is viewed in the Christian faith as serving God, being God’s ‘bow and arrow,’” my grandmother told me. “The Martin brings good luck to any home where it nests and rears its young.”

“A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage”

She quoted whenever a robin landed nearby. Later, when I studied English literature in college, I learned those lines came from the poet William Blake. She was delighted if a blackbird built a nest on her roof. “This is a sign of good luck,” she said. If we walked down to the pond and encountered a hissing duck, Grandmother would say, “Rain is on the way.” In the evening as we lit the oil lamps, sometimes we heard an owl at the edge of the woods. “If an owl flies around the house at night, it means that death is near.” She lowered the pitch of her voice. “If you see an owl during the day, it’s bad luck.”

I shivered and stood closer to Grandmother, listening to the distant cry of a screech owl as it echoed through the night.

One morning we walked to the pond, Grandmother moving slowly as always, quietly pushing branches out of her way. I walked behind her, trying not to trample twigs and rustle leaves, proud because I was not running wildly ahead in a hurry to arrive as I usually did. I was practicing patience and the way to walk through nature like my grandmother often showed me. When we reached the pond, she lifted a hand to stop me, and then I saw the bird. It stood regally at the edge of a cluster of cattails on its long, slim legs.

“I think it’s a sandhill crane,” she whispered. She lifted her binoculars and let me look through the lenses. The bird was a soft gray color with a plume-less head.

After a second look, she bent down close to my ear.

“No, it’s not. It’s a Little Blue Heron.”

We watched the heron for a long time then furtively turned back and retraced our footsteps.

When I was about nine, I decided I wanted to study butterflies, moths and other insects when I grew up. The name I discovered for this type of scientist was a lepidopterist. My parents bought me a butterfly net and my father made a spreading board out of cork and balsa wood. All that summer, I used the patience my grandmother taught me to sit in the field waiting for the perfect Tiger Swallowtail to land on an orange hawkweed blossom or a Painted Lady to stop and take nectar from a milkweed, then I would catch one in my net, gently find the butterfly’s thorax and hold it between my thumb and index finger to still the fluttering of its wings before I carefully placed it in the killing jar. My collection grew all summer, but my grandmother was disappointed.  She shook her head when I left in the morning carrying my net.

“I didn’t teach you patience to kill such treasures,” she said. “It disturbs the fragile balance Mother Nature intended. Someday, the butterflies that are so abundant now will become scarce.”

“But I want to be a scientist. I want to study butterflies. I’m keeping them beautiful forever,” I told her. I collected butterflies for only one summer. Then I quit. I realized I hated watching them struggle to breathe in their glass prison, until finally they grew too weak and died.  I decided to become a geologist and began collecting rocks instead.

 *     *     *

I realize I have not seen one butterfly all summer like any that flocked to the fields behind my grandmother’s cottage.

Many years later, I sit on the back porch of my own home in the small town where we live at the edge of a larger city. My daughter is playing with our dog in the yard, and her laughter echoes as she tosses him a ball and he catches it in mid-air. It’s August, and bumblebees buzz around the bee balm in my butterfly garden. I realize I have not seen one butterfly all summer like any that flocked to the fields behind my grandmother’s cottage. Back then, there were red admirals with distinct bands of red wrapping their wings, tawny crescents, and mysterious dark purple mourning cloaks. Brown elfins fluttered over blueberries and willow catkins, and the Great Spangled Fritillary perched jauntily on clusters of black-eyed Susan. I recall Grandmother’s words, and I realize she was right. Although she did not know what it would be called, global warming is slowly killing all the butterflies, and it is a privilege now to encounter their ethereal beauty.

The patience my grandmother taught me has served me well through the years. While my daughter was growing up, I took her for long walks through the wooded area behind our home in Northern Michigan, naming the fields of spring flowers, or sitting on a rock by Lake Superior explaining how the great glaciers shaped and carved our land. We pressed wildflower sprigs between pages of her picture books and glued bright autumn leaves into a scrapbook. I consulted my Trees of Michigan guide, and we sat cross-legged on the floor matching the leaves to their names.

Senara is seventeen now and living with her father up north. As she entered her teenage years, her interests centered more on clothes, television shows, and spending time with her friends.  When she comes home for visits in the summer, she sits for hours in front of a computer screen chatting online, or curls up on her bed with her cell phone, texting messages back and forth to her boyfriend. I worry she is forgetting my teachings about nature and no longer noticing or finding harmony in the beauty surrounding her: spring rain, a full moon sailing above the trees at night, the first red-winged blackbird swooping down when there is still a trace of snow on the ground.

She attends high school where we used to live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The other evening she called me as she was driving home. It was late at night and dark along her road, so she kept the speakerphone on until she reached her dad’s house safely. When she got out of the car, she was suddenly silent.

“Are you still there?” I ask. I could hear the soft rustle of her clothes and crunch of her boots in the snow.

“Yes,” she says. “I was just looking up at the sky. Mom, it’s so beautiful. The stars are so brilliant tonight. It’s amazing!”

I turn off my kitchen light and go out on the back deck in the chill air. The constellations are not as clear as up north due to the nearby lights of the city, but she is right – the sky is filled with stars.

“If you wait a while, you might see a shooting star,” I tell her.

“Maybe, you will see the same one,” she says.

As we stand waiting patiently, separated by distance, in different latitudes, I feel my grandmother’s presence. I remember her sending me sky charts during the winter months and naming the constellations when we sat on her porch in the summer dark.

I visualize Senara, hair tucked under her Stormy Kromer hat, one hand covered by a wooly mitten shading her eyes as she tilts her head back. I wonder—if I were with her, would I see her the same way my grandmother saw me? Does my daughter hear me the way I heard my grandmother? There is, however, one thing I do know: Grandmother’s teachings are alive tonight as we gaze up at the stars.

Petrouske headshot

Rosalie Sanara Petrouske lives near the Grand River, the longest river in Michigan. A writing instructor at Lansing Community College, she has published essays and two chapbooks of poetry, the most recent with Finishing Line Press. Last November, she received a first honorable mention in the Abbie M. Copps Poetry Competition.

The Memoirist

I like to think I have it all figured out.

Take the rifle.

As long as I can remember, the gun was there, resting next to the exercise bike in our house in New York. My father probably assumed he’d hid it well, draping it under several terry cloth robes. But I knew.

Perhaps my older sister pointed it out to me, gently lifting up the robes with one hand while twirling her dirty blonde hair into knots with the other.  “That’s a gun,” she may have said.

Or maybe my mother told me.

“That’s a gun. Don’t touch it.”

I actually held a rifle once, at sleepaway camp. I remember laying my body on the grass and pulling cold, shiny bullets out of a cardboard box. I remember carefully placing those bullets in what our instructor called the chamber, then snapping it closed. I remember the slight jerk of my arm when I fired and the powerful feeling when my bullet actually hit the target. What a strange thing, come to think of it; little girls shooting guns.  If I had grown up in Israel, it may have seemed completely normal.  But my father, mother and eldest sister left there for America in 1960, eight years before my birth, and life took a different course.

I’ve often wondered where my father’s gun came from and, with no clear answer, as an adult, I create one.

He never told me about killing anyone, of course, as he was a quiet man. A man of secrets.  But I was a daughter of hypotheses (a regular Nancy Drew, my father once said) and I had carried this one in my head so long it now blurred into near-fact.

It came from Israel.

It was the gun he’d carried as a teenager fighting in the war of 1948. The gun he’d killed people with. He never told me about killing anyone, of course, as he was a quiet man. A man of secrets.  But I was a daughter of hypotheses (a regular Nancy Drew, my father once said) and I had carried this one in my head so long it now blurred into near-fact.

 

I saw my father about a month ago, in what’s now become our annual weekend reunion. We met at the hotel in New York where we meet every year. He and Terri, his second wife, flew up from North Carolina; I drove down from Boston with my husband and two boys.

When we arrived, I found my dad sitting on a couch in the hotel lobby. He wore the usual – a leisure shirt with plenty of pockets. Khaki slacks. Clip-on sunglasses. For the first time however, he no longer looked well preserved, but his actual age: 82. His eyebrows were the most unkempt I’d ever seen them, like two plump, hairy centipedes nestling across his lower forehead. His face was drawn in around the mouth, as though the recent loss of his original teeth had caused the flesh in his cheeks to slump in mourning.

“Hi Dad,” I said, leaning over to give him a hug. He returned the gesture with his style of hug – no real embrace, just a light tap on the back and a quick retreat.

“You look good,” I said.

He nodded and almost smiled.

Later that afternoon, my father and I sat snugly on a small outdoor wicker couch by the pool. He lit his pipe.

I told him how I had driven by our old house and how almost nothing had changed. The odd collection of signs my father had created announcing “196” (our address) for his psychiatric patients still bordered the driveway. Even Buddy’s run remained, including the dilapidated doghouse, all of it looking like an ancient doggie graveyard.

“Really?” he said. He was looking ahead and not at me. He was always uncomfortable looking at me.

“Yeah,” I said. “And there was a man outside. Right near the dog run. Must have been the father. He was gardening or something.”

My dad sucked on his pipe, then laughed. “I wonder if he found the bullets yet.”

He was referring to the bullets he’d buried in the front yard right before the move—shortly after Terri had sold my father’s rifle in a garage sale.

“Did you really bury them there?” I asked. When he originally told me this, I was horrified. As though they were live grenades. I suppose buried bullets could do little harm, but I wasn’t sure.

“Yeah,” he said. “The guy was such a pain in the ass when we were selling him the house. One problem, one complaint after another. First he wanted the house, then he didn’t. So I left him the bullets as a little present.”

An uncomfortable silence followed. Then I nonchalantly asked him: “So where did you get that rifle anyway?”

Here it comes, I thought. All those horrible stories of death and destruction and the people he’d killed, tumbling out like items from a closet finally opened after six long decades.

 “It came from one of my patients,” he said. “A woman whose husband had threatened her with it.”

Damn.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” he said. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” I said. I changed the subject.  “Is it even legal to sell a gun in a yard sale?”

He shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”

We sat in silence for a moment. I tried a technique I’d learned years ago in a counseling psychology class in graduate school.

Keep quiet and eventually they will talk. The truth, the really meaty stuff, will come out.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” my father said, then walked away.

I waved at the cloud of pipe smoke hovering in front of my face until I could see clearly again.

Such is the sorrow of the memoirist, I suppose. Discovering not everything is loaded.

Amy Yelin’s essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Literary Mama, The Drum and the anthologies Mamas and Papas and Tarnished: True Tales of Innocence Lost. “Torn” (originally in The Baltimore Review), received a notable essay recognition in the Best American Essays 2007. She holds an MFA from Lesley University.

Green Vase

Up at five. I rise before she does. I begin cleaning by six. It takes seven hours. It never ceases to humiliate: cleaning another woman’s home.

Take a break to wake Mrs. Pattershall, serve her tea, and provide a hand to help her out of bed. After dressing, she gets under my feet. I think of her as in my way, as out of place, as imposing. It is her apartment. I just clean it. But I am the one taking care of it. She is in the way. In her own home. How humiliating.

She’s poking around, looking for the green vase with the gold filigree. “It’s the only thing I have left of my mother.”

Trying to be helpful, I say, “I know I’ve seen it recently, but can’t place where or when.”

She says, “Now, who could have taken my green vase? If you were to come across it, you will give it back, won’t you?”

I would emphasize the word “Catholic.” I think that she hates us even more than she does the Jews.

I aim my eyes and my energy, with the focus of an intercontinental ballistic missile, on polishing her credenza. I want to say that I would never steal from her, and not just because of my Catholic morality. I would emphasize the word “Catholic.” I think that she hates us even more than she does the Jews. Although I’ll never forget this particular Pattershall-ism: “I can distinguish between New York Jews and California Jews by their facial features alone.” I’ve never heard Mrs. Pattershall utter a word against blacks. Her prejudices, like her, are antique. They calcified long before the Civil Rights Movement; even before the Holocaust, in the early days of the twentieth century, when she was a young schoolteacher, in white gloves, and scary Jews and Catholics from Eastern Europe clogged urban ports. I would never steal from her, I would say, not just because of my Catholic morality, thank you very much, but because of my good taste. It’s raining outside, heavily. I reconsider. I do not say anything. Eventually I will say the thing that will make her kick me out, but it will not be this thing, not on this day of heavy rain. I view my reflection in the fiercely polished surface of Mrs. Pattershall’s credenza.

She finds a different green vase, the one with the white enamel. She insists, “This is the only thing I have left of my mother.” She retires to the living room to watch her big-screen color TV. I don’t want to steal her vase. I want to steal time in front of that TV, which I never get to watch. I go out every day, see the sky, the world, people. I envy a shut-in’s big-screen color TV. Feh.

While cleaning, not seeking for the long-lost, gold-tricked, green vase, I toss the white enameled one about roughly. If – accidentally – I were to drop it, she’d have to throw me out, now, wouldn’t she? “It slipped,” I think. “I couldn’t help it!” I mentally practice pleading, as I mentally pack my bags. “How could you do this to me?” I accuse, as I mentally slam her door for the very last time. The vase does not drop. I am, for another term, a live-in domestic.

I fix her lunch, though that is not part of my contract, as are the morning tea and evening dinner, which nail my every day to her. Take a thorough shower. Hike to campus through a driving rain that renders my shower redundant.

Suddenly there is a new sound in Stephen’s Lounge, or something entirely new – any sound at all! – other than the subdued turning of pages, politely creaking furniture as bodies reposition strategically, muffled coughs or, rarest of all, escaped, apologetic, farts.

In Stephen’s Lounge, I dive into Preface to Plato, a tremendously exciting book. Today read two hundred pages of it; learn oral cultures are fundamentally different from literate ones. Suddenly there is a new sound in Stephen’s Lounge, or something entirely new – any sound at all! – other than the subdued turning of pages, politely creaking furniture as bodies reposition strategically, muffled coughs or, rarest of all, escaped, apologetic, farts. This sound is unpracticed, more dolphin-like than human – has this man ever spoken? “Is there a Nancy Hobart in the room?” asks the Stephen’s Lounge caretaker, a tall and rugged Daniel Boone of academia.

I look up and see a dripping delivery boy in a yellow slicker holding high a dozen red roses, reminding us that it is Valentine’s Day. A blushing and giggling Nancy Hobart, freshly wrenched from her version of Preface to Plato, rises from her study, reaches out over a couch, over the heads of three studying students, and takes her the roses, which drip, subtly, on the students. Daniel Boone hands her an emptied-out milk carton to serve as vase for her bouquet. We all laugh. After an initial pause, one person begins to clap. We all applaud.

I am surprised at how quickly, after I have clapped a few claps, my head drops back to my book; at how quickly I have changed from a working class Jersey girl who would have, with her buddies, milked this moment for a good thirty-five minutes of boisterous camaraderie, to a Berkeley scholar for whom silence and isolation are paramount, for whom they are gems wrenched from the pinching claws of life as Mrs. Pattershall’s live-in domestic.

I wonder if Glamorous Biker is here. I saw his bike downstairs. Even his bike is sexier than I, and pricier. I fell in love with him the day I came upon him as he rode his bike to the foot of the stone stairs leading up to Stephen’s Lounge. He stopped, dismounted, took the heavy bike in his right hand, held it away from his body, and sprinted with it, up the flight of stairs.

Have I been imagining it all? This is a silent study lounge. I’ve been in the same room with Daniel Boone for the last ninety days and all I know about him is that he looks like his name ought to be Daniel Boone, and that he keeps the coffee percolating, and the Pepperidge Farm cookies splayed on a tray, for a small fee, which we drop into a coffee can, a fee whose accuracy he calibrates by the thud our coins make as they collide with the mound of mixed coins at the bottom of the can.

They say that you can tell when you are being stared at. For at least the past month, in silent Stephen’s Lounge, deep in my books, I’ve been feeling that Glamorous Biker has been staring at me.

They say that you can tell when you are being stared at. For at least the past month, in silent Stephen’s Lounge, deep in my books, I’ve been feeling that Glamorous Biker has been staring at me. One day last week, I lifted my head from my book and gazed directly at him. He struck a pose of affront, as if I had started it, so I stopped noticing him. At all. After three days of my refusal to notice him, he dropped a piece of paper into my lap. There was a phone number on that piece of paper. Alone on that piece of paper. No name. No proposed plan.

I didn’t want to phone from Mrs. Pattershall’s. Last night I walked to Oakland, to Rick’s.

For whom would I ask? Glamorous Biker? Offering my name wouldn’t help; Glamorous Biker doesn’t know my name any more than I know his. But I’d recognize his voice – I’ve never heard his voice.

“Hi, this is Danusha from Stephen’s Lounge,” I ventured.

“Oh, yeah, right. He said you’d call. I’m Nate, the housemate.”

Nate’s knowledge was either a very good sign, or a very bad one. Nate took a message.

“Well, how did it go?” Rick asked gently.

I told him.

“Omigod. He lives with Nate?” Rick exclaimed.

“Nate?” I asked.

“All the girls I meet…all the girls I’ve rented houses with…all the girls in Slavic…they’ve all been with Nate in Political Science.”

I felt so crushed. Whenever Glamorous Biker enters Stephen’s Lounge, I, I alone, recognize him, and – and just, just, appreciate his light and loveliness and, and … okay, so we haven’t spoken, but I can just tell…

If Glamorous Biker and I ever do go out for a beer, I’ll have to ask, “Why do you flirt with me? And, come to think of it, not just with me, but also with that German student with the flea-bitten ankles and the chocolate addiction? She’s never met a Pepperidge Farm cookie she didn’t like. How does she stay so slim?”

Nancy Hobart has folded her roses unobtrusively into the studious gloom of Stephen’s Lounge; she is once again, an anonymous scholar in reading glasses, fighting, like the rest of us, to rein in her focus, her enthusiasm, and her farts. Daniel Boone is deep in his book, keeping the most disinterested of eyes and ears on the cookie change clunking into the coffee can. My fingers tighten around Preface to Plato. Glamorous Biker has just entered the room.

He doesn’t look my way; doesn’t greet me with a silent nod or a mouthed “Hi.” Displays no awareness that I’m here. But he must know I’m here. He must be able to tell I’m looking at him. Everyone here, whether they are looking at their books or not, knows I’m looking at him. It’s a spontaneously combusted wildfire of silent awareness. He swings past, slices right through my eyes’ importunate appeal, stretches his blond and lean and limber body on a couch, places The New York Times over his eyes, and, perhaps, sleeps.

What’s the right metaphor – I devote little time to trying to figure out how to describe other women’s breasts. Her breasts are better than mine.

Then why did he give me his number, then? Was it just bait? Did I fall for a trap? Do I exist to make the German chick jealous? I’ve told you she has flea-bitten ankles; did I tell you that she has breasts like grapes, melons, bowling balls? What’s the right metaphor – I devote little time to trying to figure out how to describe other women’s breasts. Her breasts are better than mine.

I walk back – I do not say “home” never “home” but “back” – in a streaming rain and prepare a perfect soufflé for Mrs. Patershall’s dinner; she delays coming to the table; it partially deflates. I do not care. I dine on a care package of Rick’s hummus; hummus does not deflate.

After I have the dishes all cleaned up, and the floor swept and washed – I do not do that on my knees, no matter how hard Mrs. Patershall insists – I return to my room, to quiet and solitude and Preface to Plato. I hear some small commotion: the doorbell ringing; Mrs. Pattershall finally answering it; some chirping, some arranging of something. And then: CRASH! Followed by tears.

I just know. I walk into the kitchen and across water and sea-foam green, gold-flecked shards. Mrs. Pattershall found the long-sought vase. Trying to fill it with water for the red roses her dutiful daughter has sent her, late, on this day (Mr. Pattershall died more than half her life ago), she dropped it. She is now seated on a chair, crying. I begin rubbing her back. I say nothing. I’ve come to conclude that she can’t accept others’ words; hers must be contrary and superior. I want to avoid frustration. So, I say nothing, while rubbing her back.

“That was the only thing I have left of my mother.”

I nod.

“She died when I was four.” That buzz-saw Yankee accent. “Four” comes out as “foah.” “As she was dying, she said to Aunt Lucy, ‘Take care of my husband and the farmhands. Don’t worry about her, though. She can take care of herself.’ I was only four! I’ve kept that vase for almost one hundred years. I’m so stupid. All I do is drop things.”

I squat, pick up the splinters of green glass, which nest readily in the palm of my hand, as if to make ready for a family of glass bluebirds. “I drop things too,” I say.

“Not as many as I!” she announces.

“It was a mistake,” I say calmly, “everyone makes mistakes. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” I think I risk saying this because I’ve never heard her speak of her mother, or anyone, for that matter, with any warmth. She spoke of the vase – as a connection to her mother – with warmth, and now it is broken, and it was she who broke it. “Do you want me to keep the pieces?”

“No! Take them from my sight!”

I descend to my knees. My fingers venture gingerly under the cupboards.

“I feel so guilty,” she says, softly, “for suspecting people of taking things. But people have taken things.”

I remembered. Mommy had been promised, before she left, that in America the streets were paved with gold; she was informed, upon arrival at Ellis Island, that she had been invited to America in order to clean those streets. I remember one day that Mommy had gone to a new job, and her new boss had placed large wads of dollar bills on top of a dresser and in the refrigerator. Mommy could see what was going on. These greenbacks were the bait of a trap. He was testing her. She walked out, never to return. She didn’t linger long enough, even, to get paid for the work she had done there. That was her victory. That bastard. I don’t know his name, but he lives on in this family story.

“We had more than the others,” Mrs. Pattershall announces.

“The others.” She knew I was an “other” because I was poor; that’s why Professor Dundes sent me to her, so I could pay tuition and have a roof over my head at the same time. She rejoiced when she discovered that I am Catholic. “Catholics have too many children! That’s why you have to live with me.” How did she know who “the others” were in her New England village, where everyone was a WASP whose family had been in North America for the previous three hundred years? Incidents like this: “My mother left me a truly beautiful hat. A true chapeau. I wore it in front of the other children, who envied me because I was smart, and envied my father, because he was intelligent, and rich. They made fun of my hat and called it ‘an old piss pot.’ ‘I wouldn’t put that old piss pot on my head!'”

She waves her arms around the apartment, around the things that make a four-room, two-bath apartment a seven-hour job to clean. “Why don’t I just throw out this old junk?” she asks.

Foolishly, I take the bait. “Why don’t you donate it?”

“Are you serious?” she looks down at me. “Why just that little cracked toy there, do you realize how much it’s worth? Take a guess. You’d be wrong. I’ve had it appraised. Five hundred dollars! It’s been passed down in my family for one hundred and fifty years. Be careful when you dust it. Probably you’re not used to handling things like that.”

My not stealing must be such a disappointment to Mrs. Pattershall. She lacks the aesthetic sense to appreciate her things. My stealing them would solidify for her their real value: to arouse others’ envy.

I rise and place the glass splinters into a bag. I knot the bag. I’ll take it downstairs immediately after saying goodnight to her. She need not be tormented by having the remains in the apartment. I put the bag down on the countertop. I rinse my hands of quills. With clean hands, I stroke Mrs. P’s narrow shoulders under her velveteen robe.

Mommy couldn’t afford a babysitter for us when we were sick home from school. After third grade, we fended for ourselves. Before that, before she felt safe leaving us home alone, she would take us with her while she worked. If I hadn’t already known that cleaning houses is dirty, the way the rich treated my mother was enough to let me know.

I was five years old, and too sick to attend kindergarten. Mommy transported me to a neighborhood confected of clouds. I gazed at tiny glass swans afloat on a mirror pool in the forgotten corner of one rich woman’s vast home. I knew that these swans belonged with me, not with the shits in that house. It was a question of justice.

The phone call came that night. I was in bed. Mommy looked at me. “They want to know if you stole their swans.” There was no anger in her.

How could I spirit away large waterfowl in my little kid coat? That was really the first confused image that staggered into my mind. I learned to disassociate from my crimes early. And it was already night. In little-kid time, what had had happened that morning was eons ago.

I breathed out an exaggerated, “Noooo!”

Nothing more was ever said. The swans, the elegant glass miracles, were inviolable in the most remote place I knew, a place never entered by others: my sock drawer. It had never occurred to me to question how socks entered that drawer. One day I realized that the swans were no longer there. At that moment I felt much older than I had felt before it; I felt much older on that day of awareness, followed by awareness, followed by awareness. In that domino cascade of awarenesses, including, “Oh, so that’s where socks come from,” was this one: That I had stolen, not liberated, the swans. That they were not my long-lost family, and that my placing them in my pocket was not an act of reunion. That they were objects, and that they were best classified, not as something loved and appreciated, but as something owned. Their ownership was decided by something I did not have: money. I realized that I was ashamed. In another awareness, I realized that I was ashamed for a different reason.

After dredging up this story, a fresh awareness suddenly arises. That was probably the classiest way that my mother had ever behaved toward me. I can no longer continue to say that my mother never showed me any tenderness. And I realize why she was so kind to me on this occasion, rather than, say after I’d gotten a good report card. I feel a fresh compassion for Mommy. Thank you, Mrs. Pattershall.

Sometimes I worry about myself. I fear that I’ve lost who I am; I fear that when I have a dog to pet again, a boy to kiss, and my own place, will I, the me I’ve lost, return? I tell myself, “Trzmaj sie. Hold on.” But then I realize that in this place, I am meeting new aspects of my most prized self that I never would have encountered, had I not come here.

I put Mrs. Pattershall to bed. My hand is on the light as she volunteers something that surprises me. “You know, dear, Professor Dundes has high hopes for you. He says you have it. Of all the students he has this year, he says that you have it. Never forget that, dear.”

I blush. I smile. I put out the light. “Good night, Mrs. Pattershall.” I still have some time to read Preface to Plato before I go to sleep.

Danusha Goska is a New Jersey teacher and writer. Her work has appeared in anthologies including The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Her new book, Save Send Delete, tells the true story of a debate about God and a love affair she shared with a celebrity atheist.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Woman

I.
Twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, I saw them. Oiled, buttered up, ready for consumption. And though black writers hate to describe skin color in terms of food, it’s true: their bodies were all the shades of brown you’d see on a Thanksgiving dinner table.

That’s not the important thing.

This is. Heads tucked down, asses pushed out, they’d mastered the Kim Kardashian pose, though they hadn’t quite figured out how to achieve her money or status.

It’s interesting how the kiosk owner had set it up. These black women dominated the magazine rack. The rows of glossy brown bodies tumbling out of bikinis seemed to have been placed almost strategically in front of The New Yorker. New York Magazine. The New York Times. Psychology Today. An old issue or two of Wired.

And I always wondered, who at the 116th Street station was buying these magazines?

I was taking a seminar at Columbia, and was the only black person in it. That could have been an anomaly, but I don’t think so. The first time I ran into a brother who was also in my graduate program, we almost hugged each other.

So who was buying these magazines? And why had the kiosk owner put them there, smack in the middle of the station?

Was it to give people something brown to look at as they came and went? Or was it for his own enjoyment? Did he, a forty-something Indian man, get tired of the similarity of the people walking by? Was positioning a video vixen’s defiantly arched backside in front of the Times his version of an STFU to the world?

I never had adequate time to ponder these questions. The train would come, leaving fifty minutes to get to Long Island City, Queens, where I taught.

In any case, it didn’t matter. The moment I exchanged the 1 train for the 7 train, I relaxed.  Rather than look away, people looked me in the eye, or at least, in the vague direction of my voice. I felt like an invisible object suddenly gaining form. It’s funny how the more you move away from certain sections of Manhattan, the more you notice the darker and more varied faces, and the intricate-almost-magical way a potpourri of accents blossoms.

 

II.
My very first sex dream was about a puppet.  That may sound odd, but it’s probably because you don’t hear much about girls and their wet dreams. But I woke up, wet and scared and excited. I could feel my vagina vibrating, and though at thirteen I didn’t know what an orgasm was, I knew I’d had one; I knew I had experienced something. To this day, I can’t figure out what it was about this image that did it for me. If I had to guess, maybe it was the way the puppet moved its genderless, boxy form. The little brown puppet pushed itself up and down, out and in, in all kinds of crazy, jerky ways.  The oddest part of the dream?  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t tell who held the puppet’s strings.

 

My students were never afraid to express their opinions, and for a while, I attributed their fearlessness to the fact that I was another black woman, just a few years older than most of them, and therefore not intimidating. But over time, I wondered if I was wrong, if what I had thought was self-confidence was, perhaps, something else.

III.
Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham brought us the most useful term ever: “the politics of respectability.”  In Righteous Discontent, Higginbotham describes how black women in the post-Reconstruction era adapted a politics of respectability in order to combat the “widespread assumptions of the black woman’s innate promiscuity.”

The politics of respectability was, in many ways, a visual fight. Black leaders cautioned black women to keep immaculate homes, dress modestly, and appear clean and neat at all times.

And yet, the politics of respectability always had a vocal undertone.

Most people are familiar with the photograph of a bespectacled Rosa Parks sitting calmly on a bus, but in At The Dark End of the Street, author Danielle McGuire describes how Parks seldom sat; she traveled across the country, investigating cases of violence, including sexual violence. Long before the boycott, Parks was noted for her campaign of justice for Recy Taylor, a black woman who was raped by six white men. Parks, McGuire explains, was tireless in making sure her voice was heard. She “wrote letters, signed petitions, sent postcards” in support of Taylor.

It’s impossible to hear battle cries in a silent image. Still, the Rosa Parks photograph, which has seeped into our consciousness, is not entirely without noise.

 

IV.
When I Google “black women and rape,” the first website that pops up is www.womenagainstrape.net. The second is from a man claiming that black women were never raped during slavery. Black female slaves, he writes, willingly had sex with the slave master because that was “moving up in the world big time.” The fact that black women were property and thus could not legally give their consent either does not enter the man’s consciousness or is something he does not wish to discuss.

 

V.
Before I taught at a community college, I taught at a historically black women’s college. My students were never afraid to express their opinions, and for a while, I attributed their fearlessness to the fact that I was another black woman, just a few years older than most of them, and therefore not intimidating. But over time, I wondered if I was wrong, if what I had thought was self-confidence was, perhaps, something else.

One year, I brought pictures of women – black, white and Latina, dressed similarly, in bathing suits and biking shorts – to a couple of my composition classes.  I held a stopwatch and asked students to write their immediate reaction to each picture.  We’d been reading personal essays from both ordinary women and prominent feminist scholars. Because the pictures were from women’s and men’s magazines, I expected to have a conversation on the male gaze. But that’s not what happened.

“She looks alright,’” one student said, and pointed to a white swimsuit model. “But we can’t wear things like that. It looks different on us.”

“Black women can’t wear bathing suits?” I wondered.

“We can’t have all our meat hanging out,” the student answered. “It looks disgusting.”

Other students nodded, though their bodies were similar to the ones they were critiquing.

I went home, tired. How do you get to a place in life where you are disgusted by the images that resemble you most?

 

VI.
Black women: Steve Harvey says you can’t get a man.

 

VII.
Black women: The New York Times says you can’t get a man.

 

VIII.
Black women: Fox News says you can’t get a man. And yet, ironically enough, you’re still a whore.

 

IX.
I spent my teen years wrapped in a cocoon of ugliness. Other than my butt, my body was on the slim side, and in the South, in the 1990s, you didn’t want to be shaped this way. You wanted to look like one of the models from Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison video; you wanted a round butt and thick thighs, attached to a tiny waist.

But my shape (or lack thereof) and other aspects of my ugliness – frizzy hair, acne, braces – de-sexualized and freed me. I played with dolls longer than I should have. I read novels and became immersed in my own little world. I had a long, extended childhood, which ended abruptly when I spent a summer in California.

The aesthetic was different there. For the first time, because of my body, people overlooked the braces, the frizzy hair.

That summer, I dated a guy a few years older than me. He grabbed me in public, no matter where we were. When I protested, he said, “Look at how you’re dressed. You wouldn’t wear shorts if you didn’t want attention.”

This escalated. A few weeks later, I was in bed clawing my way from him.

“Don’t act like you don’t want it,” he told me. “Look at how you’re built. Like a ho.”

The meanness of the comment made me want to scream. In fact, I did scream, so loudly he jumped away from me.

Who can blame him?

That evening, the force of my voice scared me too.

 

X.
In the Columbia seminar, I was aware of my body from the moment I walked into the classroom. If a reading alluded to a concept outside of black American culture, it was assumed I was unfamiliar with it, but if it mentioned race, the class assumed I was an expert – and then I faced eleven sets of eyes staring at me.

I tried to ignore my body, but over the course of the semester, I grew more aware of it, and less confident, less sure of my abilities. The assumptions about what I had or hadn’t read, what I did or did not know, didn’t just make me want to escape my body, they made me want to crush it up and fold it.

 

XI.
For months after the attempted rape, I couldn’t use tampons. When I was in bed with cramps, my mother would come from the drugstore with a box of Playtex and I’d beg her to go back and get pads.

When I decided to have sex, I found that I couldn’t. My body tightened and prevented anyone from getting close. To others, I seemed normal, outgoing, even flirtatious. But intimacy scared me. I didn’t seriously date.

My body had, without my being fully conscious of it, adopted a politics of respectability. If the world had looked at my body and rejected it, decided it was dirty and tainted, then I – my body – would reject those assumptions, rebel against them.

But the problem with adapting a politics of respectability is that by doing so, you decide that someone else’s version of you is powerful or factual enough to resist.

Still, there has to be a way of resisting that doesn’t destroy you, a way of making yourself visible in a world that doesn’t see you. Or maybe we can never really be seen, though there are moments when we can be heard.

The man who would later become my husband is a patient person. Because we lived in different cities, we’d been distant friends for years. One night he came into town, and I decided to sleep with him (I made this decision only because, if the sex were bad – or, more likely, impossible – then I’d never have to face him again).

That night, my apartment was so quiet you could hear our breathing, the sound of Atlanta’s traffic, even footsteps from someone outside plodding around the building. But the one thing you didn’t hear was the sound of human voices. I was too nervous to speak.

“Talk to me,” he said after a few minutes. “I don’t care what you say, but say something.”

I didn’t speak, but I did finally relax, knowing I was in a place where I could be heard.

 

XII.
The spring after my first semester at Columbia, I was tired of the isolation, so I registered for a literature class in the African-American Studies Department.

The young, black woman who taught the class was an academic rarity: a brilliant intellectual who was also a good listener.

I loved the class. In my excitement, I talked way too much. One student in the class was as quiet as I was talkative. Like me, he was an older student, but unlike me, he was white – and I assumed Jewish because he wore a yarmulke. He was one of three white students in the class of nine; the other students were multi-racial, Asian, or black. Though he didn’t speak, he looked like he was listening, absorbing everything. I wondered if his silence was because he thought an opinionated student like me would jump all over him simply because he was white. Perhaps my professor wondered the same thing because she nodded in his direction, offered him smiles of encouragement.

We discussed Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was my third time reading the novel, but the first time I felt I had actually understood it. It seemed more applicable to my life – and where I was at that moment in time – than anything I had ever read.

“The protagonist isn’t an Uncle Tom,” I said. “He’s subversive. Even when he doesn’t realize it, he’s taking his grandfather’s advice and undermining a society that constantly sees him through this veil.”

“But that’s true for everyone. Everyone is seen through a veil,” my quiet classmate said, and everyone looked at him in surprise. “People see this beanie on my head and think they know everything about me. They don’t. They know nothing about me, or what I’m thinking.”

It was the most he had said the entire semester.

 

XIII.
In the weeks since the class ended, I have been thinking of Jack, my shy classmate, of what I would say if I were to see him now, and whether I would even recognize him.

I know now that he’s right. No one is ever really seen. We can only be understood by the traces our images leave behind. We are all mysterious blackbirds.

And yet, even knowing this to be true, even as I write these words, I long for sound.  I remain less interested in the way a blackbird appears in a green light than the sound it makes when it takes off and flies.

Rochelle Spencer has an MFA from New York University, and her work has appeared in African American Review, Calyx, Poets and Writers, Cake Train, The New York Times and other places. A recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, she’ll complete a doctorate in 2013.

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.