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Funeral_Procession_by_Ellis_WilsonIn August of 2007, our co-worker, Sherri’s, daughter was killed by an ex-boyfriend. He followed her car home, slipped under the arm of the security gate, and then shot her multiple times in her apartment. He went back to the parking lot and killed himself. The complex has them on videotape: Daneel standing her ground, telling him “It’s over, Manny. Go home,” and then walking back up the stairs to her place, Manny in his car, getting his gun from the glove compartment, loading it with bullets kept in the trunk, walking back up to Daneel’s, then back down to his car before putting the gun under his chin. It took him thirteen minutes to die.

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That’s my life in 2009: my Mazda 3, my new landscaping, my maroon curtains I thought went well against the cream color I’d chosen for the walls of the room downstairs I made into an office. The office my ex-husband (sans ex at the time) used to walk into and spread his arms and say, “Look what I gave you,” and say, “How much money can you contribute this month?” and say, “I’m posting an ad for a stranger/roommate on Craigslist to make up for your lost income.” If you looked through those curtains, you’d see me slumped over my computer, unemployed, drinking my fourth cup of coffee, submitting resumes and/or writing my novel I used to believe in, and/or posting on Facebook and/or feeling depressed about my depression.

The City of Mesa paid us $500 to replace that grass with desert friendly shrubbery. Removing grass is a horror. Annihilate it with chemicals. Wait for it to die. Rip it out by its roots. Cover the ground with black plastic so it can’t push back through. My father-in-law, taking a break from schizophrenia to help with our landscaping project, shoveled the remains of the grass into the back of his white van and drove the dead pieces out to the desert where he dumped them. The same white van he used to park down the street and watch our house in an attempt to catch the kidnappers who’d taken my husband. The same white van he called from asking my husband if he was safe to talk, if he was safe to signal from the window, if he was safe to use code words so the kidnappers didn’t catch on. When we planted the Jacaranda near the walkway, we imagined how beautiful it would look in springtime, how magnificent it might act as shield from the sun. When I left in 2012, the support beams were still in place, holding up that scrawny trunk like two men carrying their drunk friend out of a bar.

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In 2006, I started tutoring the Moorhead sisters twice a week at their charter school on Napoleon Avenue. It was one of the first schools to open after Hurricane Katrina with 319 students enrolled. The Moorhead sisters got to school by city bus. They had evacuated Katrina late – in a rainstorm – and saw the car in front of theirs drive over the spillway. Everyone in it died. Their family had lost their home and they’d relocated to a double on Elysian Fields. Their mom was an RN at Touro Infirmary, but she’d decided to open her own catering business.

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How can I characterize my love for a place I only came to know after its devastation?

I first traveled to New Orleans in 2006 with a group of student volunteers half a year after the failure of the levees. The city never knew I existed until it was undone by Katrina’s storm, when it was ravaged and its insides exposed on national television. My love for this place is the other side of heartbreak, and sometimes the line between the two isn’t so clear. It is a strange kind of attachment, one that comes from seeing destruction, persistent injustice, and, sometimes, resilience.

Through a local grassroots relief organization, my group was sent to work in Violet, Louisiana, a small city in St. Bernard Parish, located east of New Orleans proper. Katrina pushed a twenty-five foot storm surge into St. Bernard, leaving oil-tarnished water with nowhere to drain for weeks. All of the Parish’s homes were declared “unlivable.” I knew little of what to expect, though I understood residents had to clear out the site of their former home to qualify for a FEMA trailer. Our job was to tear everything down, leaving only the bare wooden frame.

I thought I knew the scope of Katrina’s wrath from photos and videos, but looking out the window while driving into St. Bernard Parish for the first time brought the reality into razor-sharp focus. It was seven months after Katrina and all the traffic lights were still broken along the four-lane road into town. There were virtually no other cars and certainly no people walking down the street. No businesses were open. We passed a gas station where the typical T-shaped roof had completely toppled over, its legs folded and buckled. I saw rusting cars in the grassy median and a motorboat in a ditch by the curb. A small wooden house with light blue siding lay off its foundation in the middle of the street. Even the most iconic American corporation didn’t survive, the golden double arches of McDonalds bent into an unrecognizable shape. As we drove deeper into St. Bernard, the accumulated mountains of trash and debris grew larger, more sinister: couches, tree stumps, broken furniture, refrigerators, mattresses, and entire chunks of wall and insulation.

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When I meet the father of my children, he is muscled and brown-skinned with freckled shoulders from swimming in the ocean in the midday California sun. I am a protozoan. Soft and open. Absorbing everything. When I change, we change. This pattern will repeat. By the time our children are born, my husband is shaped like the Buddha. I don’t mind the change in his shape. He doesn’t mind the change in mine. There are other things that will come between us and end us, but the shape of our bodies is inconsequential. Later there would come the confusion of how my body would be regarded as it aged, what my shape would telegraph to the next person who loved me. When our marriage ends, I am lean and shrewd. An apex predator.

Elizabeth

By Liska Jacobs

Essay

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There are times when she is gentle, but there are also times when she is not gentle, when she is fierce and unrelenting toward him or them all, and she knows it is the strange spirit of her mother in her then.

– “Her Mother’s Mother” by Lydia Davis

 

Every oldest daughter of an oldest daughter is named Elizabeth. We are all Elizabeths, except one.

I pick her up, the one not named Elizabeth—my oldest—at her apartment in Mar Vista. She’s packed only one suitcase for the trip and when she sees me, asks if she should drive. I am crying again so I say OK.

We stop at the house in Van Nuys to pick up my mother. It’s near the wash and has been remodeled often, the courtyard bricked in, a fountain in the side wall, jasmine and rose bushes and stone steps leading to the back. Every room smells like cigarette smoke and when she comes out, my mother looks smaller, thinner, cheekbones severe, her green eyes dark. I let her take the front seat. It is, after all, her mother who has died.

I watch her closely. She plays with the radio station, one hand over her mouth. My daughter, thank God, has enough sense to put on a cd, to talk about trivial things, like the length of the flight, where we are staying in Binghamton.

On the plane, getting us seated is a hassle. My mother wants to sit by the window and she’s been assigned an aisle. For a moment I’m reminded of our childhood. Her bouts of depression, her anger, how she used to, as punishment for some slight—perhaps the dishes were not completely dry—ignore us for long periods of time. Mom, I would cry. Mom, Mom, Momplease talk to me. But she would continue puffing on her cigarette, switching through television channels or reading some thick hardcover book. I was wind outside a window.

Paul Boyer

By Tanya Rey

Essay

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Recently I had a job writing the life stories of people with Traumatic Brain Injury. Accident victims, named so because they’ve had tragic events happen to them. Ceilings collapsing on their heads, steel fences burying them in construction rubble. Their only role in all of it was being there—showing up for work or living in a home with a soggy roof. The accidents were often fluke-like. Fateful. One woman was walking down the street when a giant red R came unmoored from its awning and met with the crown of her head. Her last name? Rodriguez. Coincidence?

The job made me question just how much control we have. I began to think it a silly notion, that control is something one can possess. Like drinking water from the earth and calling it yours.

I wrote these narratives for a law firm. I interviewed the clients and recorded their stories. They were used to strengthen the accident victims’ cases for trials. A “good case” was one in which the victim was at no fault and yet was undeservedly suffering a great deal. It’s a backwards reasoning that could sometimes get you into trouble. My boss liked to tell the story of a man who’d once been a potential client. The man had had an accident but his injuries didn’t seem severe enough to warrant a lawsuit, and the firm turned down his case. Years later, running into my boss on the street, he confessed that he’d only gotten worse—he was now experiencing debilitating head and back pain. Without thinking, my boss clapped his hands together and said, “That’s great!”

One of my best cases involved a man with light green eyes and hands covered in calluses from a lifetime of fixing cars. He’d had an accident while driving for work. It was a messy collision that killed the other driver on impact while my client stumbled away with multiple serious injuries but alive; and this, he said, was the exact problem he faced every morning when he woke up.

I knew from early on I didn’t want to hear his story. The deposition was practically damp with trauma. It awakened something in me.

Toll 1

 

In Tangier, in the winter, the Café Hafa becomes an observatory for dreams and their aftermath…. Long pipes of kif pass from table to table while glasses of mint tea grow cold … a matter of indifference to customers long since lost to the limbo of hashish and tinselled reverie…. They look at the sea, at the clouds that blend into the mountains, and they wait for the twinkling lights of Spain to appear.

—Tahar Ben Jelloun, Leaving Tangier, translated from French by Linda Coverdale

 

Just before departing for Morocco with my family, I finish reading Leaving Tangier.  The protagonist, Azel, looks toward Spain, recalling his beloved cousin who drowned attempting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, imagining his own “naked body … swollen by seawater, his face distorted by salt and longing…” This melancholy novel unfolds in a series of mutating reflections—in addition to the twinkling lights of Spain bouncing off the water–the view north reflects the view south reflects the view north again.

To reach Morocco, my family travels by ferry from Algeciras, Spain to the port of Tangier.  Which is not Tangier, but an armed camp with a formidable police presence, enclosed in barbed wire.  As soon as we disembark, we are bused to a blocky concrete building to be processed.  Tangier may have captured the imaginations of western literati, but this particular port of embarkation lacks signs of human habitation; it’s a bulwark to prevent trafficking emigrants and drugs.

Azel finally makes it to Spain in Leaving Tangier, but his successful crossing leads to sexual exploitation and ruin.  Laila Lalami plies related waters in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.  In that novel, she plumbs the frustration caused by lack of opportunity and failed futures, a sense of defeat that spurs her characters to risk everything for a place on a rubber boat speeding across the Strait of Gibraltar.  A character named Murad judges passage in a Zodiac preferable to sneaking in on vegetable trucks.  “Last year the Guardia Civil intercepted a tomato truck in Algeciras and found the bodies of three illegals, dead from asphyxiation, lying on the crates.  At least on a boat there is no chance of that happening.”  Murad is a bit too optimistic.  Despite paying exorbitant sums, these passengers are not smuggled onto dry land; they’re forced to jump from the boat 250 meters offshore.  It’s a miracle that none of them drowns.  All but one ends up in a Spanish detention cell awaiting deportation, or worse—rape and expulsion to a life of prostitution in Madrid, tempered only by Valium.  Like Ben Jelloun, Lalami sets her novel between opposing mirrors.  Initially the Zodiac passengers look north.  After they’re forced to jump into the sea, those who survive Spain’s underground economy look south to Morocco–anguished for the life they abandoned, while those who are deported from Spain assess the implications of that brief northern sojourn from their final, southern vantage point.

Photo credit, Jill Talbot

My daughter, Indie, and I sit on the back deck at night in the hour before she goes to bed and I go to worry.  She’s usually just out of the shower, her blonde hair still wet. She stretches her long legs from a plastic chair we found in the shed. I sit on the top step. We moved here last August, and three months from now we’ll move again.

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There is history here. Indie and I sense it in the creak of the pine floors, the groan of the heavy branches hovering over our roof, the way sifted dirt settles on the kitchen counter, fallen from hidden gaps in the vigas.  The adobe home we rent in Las Vegas, New Mexico, the oldest in town, is one of nine-hundred buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The row houses along our street were once the last stop on the Sante Fe Trail before settlers and searchers drove their wagons over sixty miles to the big city.

When my worry has worn itself out, I climb into my bed hours after Indie has fallen asleep on the other side of the house. Both of us often wake in the dark to the sound of footsteps and pauses in the pine. Out on the deck, we share stories of the way we sat up for a moment the night before and wondered about the noises. I never tell her how my wonderings fall fast to worry, and I tiptoe through the dark to check the empty living room. I never tell her how I press down on window frames and tighten latches, how I open doors and shut them again, turning the key.

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New Year’s Eve has never been a favorite holiday of mine, so I tend not to put much pressure on it. Don’t get me wrong: I love over-imbibing and celebration in general. I appreciate the idea of looking back and thinking ahead to new opportunities, but there’s something about the hype around New Year’s Eve that feels forced to me. Still, despite this aversion, I often find myself remembering the holiday mid-year. It’s possible that I do this because my birthday falls at the end of May, and birthdays seem to be a similar annual marker of celebration and progress.

None of this is to say that I haven’t had my fair share of wild year end celebrations. I lost my virginity in the wee hours of New Year’s Day to a fellow grad student. (Yes, you’re correct, I was a bit older, 22 to be exact, when I lost my virginity. Either you’ll accept the excuse that I went to theater school where there was one straight male to every fifteen women, or you’ll draw your own conclusions: that I was insecure or uptight or a late bloomer. All of these theories have at least a modicum of truth, so do what you will.) Earlier that night, before the clock turned, I’d decided to “embrace the old,” and publicly made out with a former undergraduate classmate at a party. After we rang in the new year, though, it was a current colleague that I accosted in the back of a cab we were sharing home, ready to find the “new me” of 2006. I love/hate that I lost my virginity on New Year’s Eve. It seems absolutely appropriate, like some harbinger of the year to follow, like a crux on which my life could pivot, but I hate that it sounds fake and planned, like it was a resolution I made, which it was, if only in that it was a vague hurdle I had wanted, for some time, to have already jumped. The New Year, though, had nothing to do with it.

Root People

By Meg Tuite

Essay

"Searching for Within," Deanne Richards

The world expanded when a stranger, who would have slammed back Reverend Jim Jones Kool-Aid without question, asked me if I knew where the molasses was.

“Sugar is the yeast beast,” she said. “Only bake with molasses.”

This was a gas station with beer, wine, chips, ice cream, tampons, and motor oil. My head moved horizontally. Molasses did not fit into the repertoire until Kool-Aid rounded a corner of a three-aisle gas-stop with a bottle in hand.

I had just moved into a shack in a mining town outside Santa Fe. My existence for over a decade had been parked in downtown Chicago in a high-rise working at advertising firms. Everyone was an addict. Gucci bags with gold tiny spoons were Christmas gifts. We wore long linen skirts in muted colors, snorted through the most expensive bathroom stalls in the city. It was either leave or die.

After shivering for a week buried under covers with snow filtering through cracks in the split seams of this shed, I decided to put a coat over my pajamas, throw myself in the car, and drive to get some supplies. This was the only store for miles, as far as I knew.

“Are you on vacation?” I asked, as if I was a local.

She set her molasses on the counter and pulled a change purse out of some unseen pocket of her patchwork skirt. “Have you been to the Tibetan stupa on Airport Road?” she asked.

I stared at her. I had actually landed in a place exempt of chit-chat. And Tibetans were here.

Photo credit John Venable

It seems that colors were brighter, deeper, more various when I was a child, and this is way they still are in Oaxaca. It is as if the color itself, along with the city, had not quite grown up.— Larry Levis

 

There’s a park off the zócalo rimmed by fountains and huge blue agave. Other interesting and over-the-top specimens flourish, such as the organ pipe cactus and The Montezuma cypress. There’s even an old man pressing out corn tortillas and using country cheese and squash blossoms to make tacos. A few baroque churches, a place to exchange money, a health food restaurant, outdoor cafes with waiters standing around to take your order, you get the picture. It’s close to my hotel on 20 De Noviembre so it’s easy to come here in the afternoons and jog around the square with my hotel key pressed into my palm. My running shoes are only a month old, but they’re already beginning to stink. And because I can’t sleep, and because John Venable is already three days late for our rendezvous, I have been jogging in the park now so much that locals are beginning to recognize me. Or at least that’s my impression.

We’re doing this as a sort of promise to ourselves that we’d get together after so many years. When I say “this,” I mean two unrelated men traveling together without their significant others. Perhaps you’ve seen other such examples as you’ve gone about the world. And perhaps you’ve glanced up from your menu in the café you walked past three times before wandering in, and wondered: Two grown men together out in the world—what are they up to? There is no word for it yet, but there needs to be. Venable now owns a restaurant in Pittsburgh. He’s a certified cheesemonger. His wife is a sommelier. I am none of these. I live in Wyoming. We chose Oaxaca, because, as we’ve aged, we’ve both become interested in food, and similarly bored with America. Oaxaca is known for its mole′s, seven different types which I can’t seem to remember, except for the Mole′ Negro, a rich, black sauce that I see on all the menus. But, due to a recent breakup, I have no appetite whatsoever. I think of mole′ in a symbolic sense. And there’s another reason we are here.

I Have Slept

By Jeff Burt

Essay

Photo credit Jim Fischer

Photo credit Jim Fischer

1.

Gault Street Park is Next to Nothing

 

Homeless, I curl like a shrimp in a sleeping bag under the skirt of dipping pine branches, dry on the side close to the trunk, wet on the side past the dirt ring underneath the branches where the grass is clothed in dew, the pine needles shed fog as it aggregates into drops, suspends, then falls to the grass. Underneath the branches, the sun does not penetrate, which makes it good for sleeping but not for warmth. At Gault Street Park, the first park I sleep in, three other men have their own trees. We are wary of each other, perhaps like the first Neanderthals by their caves or covers, perhaps like dogs. I suspend a bag of belongings from a pine during the day in fear every second someone will steal it.

The rooster crows when the first mother and her children enter the park after leaving another child at the elementary school nearby. Mothers run the park during daylight; homeless men run it at night. The mothers run us out of the park first with menacing looks. It’s an incriminating, suspicious glare, a glare that announces men could be pedophiles, circus clowns who play with kids but end up terrorizing, or hair-touchers, pawing long hair like Lenny did in Of Mice and Men.

IMG_2872.JPGI tried to stop writing, but the stories kept manifesting.

My father encouraged me to go to law school. I’d have to get to the point. I’d learn to think in outlines. I’d sit in lectures and imagine what my professors were like at home, if they had sex with their husbands or wives, or with hookers. Toothless old hookers with bunions. With six-fingered hands. I’d extrapolate and pray I didn’t get called on.

heart photoAnne is the goofy but sensitive friend, remember?—think Annie Hall/ Keaton—who goes with me to chick-flicks now, the ones You can’t abide, where they turn us to sappy crybabies, but we’re cool with that because girls are born knowing our genetic duty to share life’s triumphs/ wretched tragedies, though for a change of pace we jumped into our Sarandon outfits –breast-clingy blouses & kinky metal & sooty mascara & blood-red lipstick—for The Rocky Horror Picture Show where we strutted our stuff in a dark midnight theater shouting bits of dialogue  (**My high is low**I’m dressed up with no place to go**And all I know is I’m at the start of a pretty big downer**) with kindred spirits, passed a flask of Crown Royale and in the stark light of day I said, Who am I? because I used to know, now I don’t.

Better-to-have-loved-and-lost than loved You forever and I should take out a full-page ad in the WSJ:  “Thanks a million  – You – for bailing so I don’t have to feign shock & awe one more time at that bulging ‘S’ on your ripped-up, grey-faded Superman thong.”