Since moving to Palm Desert several years ago, Tami Sigurdson ["smoke trees in bloom", "easter lily cactus pod", "living desert pathway"] has been capturing the striking contrasts of the flora and fauna of the desert and its unique beauty with her photography, which she continues to further her interests in. Coupled with the images she creates, she most enjoys putting pen to paper and spends her spare time writing poetry and short stories reflecting on her keen interest in social studies and life experiences.
Archive for 2012|Yearly archive page
Were you or your parents born outside of the United States? Have you ever called Inland Southern California your home? Do you have a story to tell?
For this special issue, we will be featuring writers who represent the current face of Inland Southern California’s shifting cultural landscape. We want work about your experience as a person of your particular background, and about the ways in which your cultural identity has been influenced or shaped by the varied cultures present here.
Some examples of relevant topics might be: how your family has maintained or changed cultural traditions/rituals since coming to the region, inter-cultural relationships and marriage, finding a sense of community (or lack thereof), what it was like to grow up as the child of an immigrant parent or parents, or conversely what it was like for a person of your background to parent (or grand-parent) children in this region, and/or explorations of interaction with cultures in the region, including your own.
All genres accepted – poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, images, and hybrid works.
(*For our purposes, “Inland Southern California” is defined as any non-coastal city or area in southern California, stretching from the San Felipe Valley just east of Oceanside up to Death Valley, near the California-Nevada border, including the deserts of eastern Riverside and San Bernardino counties all the way to the Colorado River.)
The Fog Has Moods
The fog has moods
that I tiptoe quietly through.
It rolls in thin and laughing,
tumbling over itself,
a mean edge to its saunter,
begging for play, but canyons
lay still, too frightened
to respond. Rejected,
it sits heavy and brooding,
hiding things in its pockets,
a boulder, a fox, the red
warning of a street light.
Finally it weeps under
its own weight, tiny circles of
tears bubbling up on its skin
like a burn.
When we are sad
Gene Louise and I walk/scramble to the lake.
We sniff urine, dandelion fluffs, that stupid stray
cat, the rotting corpse of a fish and someone
somewhere is grilling steak. We curse them
and their happy, Laissez-Faire life. We want to
chase egrets but all we can find are ducks. We
dig holes for strollers to stumble into. We discover
two tennis balls (one neon orange, one bleached
a beige) that have sat on the shore since
our last visit. Poor tennis balls. We cautiously
lap the water. Sand-coated and sun-warmed,
we finally make our way back home, pissing
on everything along the way.
Shali Nicholas is a student in the MFA program at Cal State San Bernardino. Nicholas lives and teach in the San Bernardino mountains for Rim of the World School District.
Workshop Feature: Inlandia Creative Writing Workshop – Riverside
Workshop Leader: Ruth Nolan
Getting on the 215 to San Bernardino meant
we were going to grandma’s house.
Passing the 5th street exit,
then getting off at Baseline
meant I would be
making fresh flour tortillas on Saturday
and walking to St. Anthony’s on Sunday.
Going on the 60 meant
a trip to the drive-in movies
right by Rubidoux mountain
where you can see the truckers pass
on the freeway as they honk their horns.
I climb into bed at 1 am after
trying to stay up for two movies.
The 91 freeway to Riverside meant
possibly going to the mall,
getting new shoes for school
or maybe even a long trip
to the sandy beach.
But at the end of the day,
I was always glad to be home
where I have my new daybed
and flower bed set
that matches my sister’s.
On the third of our many dates,
we drove down the 60 freeway
around the midnight hour
to see the glimmering meteors.
We talked about how
beautiful the sky would look
once we got to the badlands,
small, but still beautiful.
I imagined it would look like
a brighter version of the moon,
glowing in the darkness
We passed the exits with the stores
and other signs of life,
until we reached our destination.
The headlights lead the way
to the dark hidden spot.
We got out of the car and
sat on his dusty hood.
Looking up, all we saw were
the shadows of clouds
covering the dark sky.
There were no meteors to be seen,
but somehow, that was fine with us.
We decided to stay and talk awhile.
He asked, “Have you ever made a wish,
on a shooting star?”
I lie and say, “No.”
It’s too early to tell
all my secrets.
Michelle Gonzalez is a longtime member of Inlandia’s Creative Writing Workshop in Riverside. She earned her BA in English from the University of California, Riverside. She also received her teaching credential from University of Phoenix and MFA in Creative Writing from National University. For the past 29 years she has lived in Riverside and has no plans on leaving the Inland Empire. Her poems have been published in National University’s literary magazine and other local magazines such as Slouching Towards Mt. Rubidoux Manor and 2011 Writing from Inlandia: Work of the Inlandia Creative Writing Workshops. Recently she has published her book of poems, Morning in the House by the Field.
Written as an exquisite corpse during the first workshop session, Spring 2012
Authors: Marie Griffiths, Florelei Lueb, Linda Rhodes, Heather Dubois, Bill McConnell, Victoria Waddle; Workshop Leader: Cati Porter
Sprinklings of an Inside-Out Beach Tea Party
He sat on a sofa in the sand, his saxophone
leaning sadly against his leg. I am walking out
at low tide at Chapin Beach & the breakers
are half a mile away; stepping over clam shells
I can smell the salt air & hear the call of gulls
overhead. The air conditioner couldn’t quite
cool the room, leaving a hint of mugginess,
like the air in the veterinarian’s office the day
I had to give my dog the needle. Shining,
smooth and polished, the titan’s spoon reflects
scribbling patrons in its concave bowl, scooping up
their delicious thoughts. Sitting at the maple
dining table, covered with a fifty-year-old linen
tablecloth, she waited until her grandmother
appeared with the tray holding a silver sugar bowl
full of cubes, silver tongs, pink napkins, a fine
china teapot, and matching cups. Really? It is
another emergency? You mean to tell me that
the contract you signed three months ago
and the other technical studies you’ve had written,
yet again didn’t clue you in to tell me you needed
an air study before the week you need it finished?
The first object I saw when I walked in the room
was the iron backed chair, scroll-worked into
fanciful curlicues. I hear the chinking
of silverware as Sandra scoops up two fistfuls
of spoons and forks out of the sink, and I smile.
Background: This was a fun workshop exercise in which I wrote a random selection of words/phrases on the backs of large sheets of paper; each author was asked to use that word/phrase to write a line of poetry. We were seated in the cafe at the Ovitt Family Community Library in Ontario, California. Many of the sounds & images were drawn, either deliberately or subconsciously, from our surroundings.
After everyone had finished writing, I collected the sheets and read them in order around the table, and, strangely, they all fit together, with an implied narrative and surreal setting. While the participants were initially skeptical that an exercise like this could produce something readable, everyone was surprised by the clarity & cohesiveness of the finished product.
– Cati Porter
Arguably, this has been one of the hottest and most humid summers in the Inland Empire in recent memory, and the excessive heat has driven many people indoors, looking for something good to read. Fortunately, a compelling new memoir by one of our region’s most prolific academic scholars and longtime Riverside residents has appeared on the local literary horizon. Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time Time, published by Heyday and the Inlandia Institute earlier this year, was penned by Carlos E. Cortes, professor emeritus of history at University of California Riverside who also happens to be a prolific playwright/actor, lecturer, and collaborating writer for the popular children’s TV series, “Dora the Explorer.”
Cortes was born in Oakland in 1934, the son of a Mexican-American/Catholic father and German-American/Jewish mother, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri before attending University of California, Berkeley and eventually taking his teaching position at UCR in 1968. He took time recently from his busy schedule to talk about his book while sipping coffee and munching at oatmeal cookies at Riverside’s iconic Back to the Grind coffee house.
“At my daughter Alana’s request, more than 10 years ago, I agreed to write the stories of our family history,” Cortes says. “I never set out to write or publish a book. In fact, the whole thing ended up being about 600 pages, in all,” he chuckles.” He began by writing short mini-biographies about each of his grandparents, and then his parents, and then about other family members, until he ended up with somewhere between 50-60 little anecdotes that focused on each person’s life and character. Much of the manuscript was penned while he sat at a table along the downtown Riverside promenade adjacent to the Mission Inn.
He quickly realized, once he began to review what he had written, that what he had originally considered to be personalized family stories, written for his daughter, just might appeal to other people. He relates an anecdote about how, when he was reading part of the manuscript aloud to Alana while seated at a former Bob’s Big Boy restaurant located at the corner of University and Iowa Avenues in Riverside, another customer poked his head out from another booth, and said “that’s a great story! You should publish a book!”
He realized that the heart of his story collection resonated strongly with a number of cultural and historical themes and nuances common to most, if not, all of us, including the search for identity and belonging that so many people in our richly diverse multicultural and religious diaspora that comprises our society struggle to reckon with. As the son of a mixed race/religion family, and keenly aware all his life of the tug-of-war he lived in between his parents and other family members, Cortes has struck, and poignantly elicited, something that many readers can easily identify with.
Initially, Cortes skimmed his manuscript for the key ideas that formed the core of a one-hour, one-person play that he wrote, based on these stories, and titled it A Conversation with Alana: One Boy’s Multicultural Rite of Passage. He has subsequently performed the play more than one hundred times around the country.
He later decided to edit and create a narrative structure to his larger manuscript and publish it as a book. With help from Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books – who he reveals that he shared a long lunch with, with both of them telling little stories in Yiddish as they discussed ideas for the book -, and Heyday’s Acquisitions Editor, Gayle Wattawa, the much-abbreviated, final version of the current book began to take form. He also notes that, in creating the final manusucript for the book, he took the advice of author Elmore Leonard, who wrote the novel Get Shorty: “…leave out the parts that people skip.” It seems to have worked for Cortes’ book.
“It was important to me that I make my book accessible to as many readers as possible,” he Cortes says. “I was hoping to open up a general discussion, among readers, and at the readings I do, about issues of mixed racial and cultural backgrounds, which affects so many people everywhere in the melting pot of our society. I wanted to help articulate the experience, and find a common thread in this that others can relate to, so they don’t feel so isolated.”
The start of Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time begins, for example, by giving the reader a clear sense of this, at the start of Chapter 1: “Dad was a Mexican Catholic. Mom was a Kansas City-born Jew with Eastern European immigrant paragraphs. They fell in love in Berkeley, California, and got married in Kansas City, Missouri. That, alone, would not have been a big deal. But it happened to be 1933″ (p.1).
The narrative arc of the book follows his parent’s controversial marriage and his own birth and growing-up years in Kansas City, and is told in short chapters, each of which serves as its own vignette, as a story in itself. Cortes reveals his parents’, and his own, struggles in their search for belonging to a society that all too often expects people, and family, to fit into neatly-prescribed and restrictive “norms.”
Although much of the book’s setting is placed in Kansas City, the book does have a definite Inland Empire-area flavor. Cortes talks, later in the book, about how he came to play an important role in the development of inter-cultural curriculum at UCR, as creator of the university’s Chicano Studies program in the 1970’s, which helped both him and his father reaffirm their Mexican-American heritage.
There’s also the passage in the book where Cortes and his wife discover his parent’s decades-old love letters, in storage in Cortes’ garage in Riverside. “Now, at the very time I was trying to reconstruct our family’s story, the letters had been revealed to me,” he writes. “And as I read them, I yet again rediscovered my family, as I had so many times before” (p. 160). The letters had somehow survived many moves across the country, and in fact, Cortes had almost mistakenly thrown them out while moving.
The overall impression of this gently-rendered, often humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, and honestly-written memoir is one that will remain with most readers, long after they’ve finished reading. Taken as a whole, the stories are highly readable, familiar, spirit warming and also, in a profound but never forceful manner, tinged consistently by the current of the book’s wider sense of vision and the compelling themes that it evokes.
In the past few months, Cortes has given readings from Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time throughout the Inland Empire, which he combines with a question and discussion forum with his audience. So far, he’s appeared at events sponsored by the Inlandia Institute, the Inland Empire Latino Artists, the Redlands Library, and at at UCR and at the annual Cesar E. Chavez breakfast in Riverside. He continues to give readings, and will soon be appearing at College of the Desert in Palm Desert and at a book festival scheduled at Barnes and Noble in Riverside this fall.
“It’s important to open up the dialogue on these issues,” Cortes says. “So far, all kinds of people have approached me to say that the book has given them a sense of understanding and familiarity with some of the bi-racial and bi-cultural and other issues of social duality that they struggle with.”
Pieces of the Ocean Are Floating in the Sky
The sun’s rays heat the top
of the ocean – its waves cresting
and falling, the krill bobbing
and swimming, the seaweed
Warmer and warmer it gets as the sun
seems to climb and presto
chango! it poofs into vapor,
causing the thin blue horizon to
shimmer, if you’re looking
The sweating vapor is released like a
balloon striving for the cooler
air to calm and condense it
back to water, tiny droplets that
are magnets of white fluff
Until windtraveled and seeping
with inky blue and grey
these chunks of ocean floating
in the sky finally succumb to gravity
and make their mad, foreseen dash for home
Lunch at Victoria Gardens
a man with a beard black
and grey sat on a bench under
a sheet of shadow and light, his
dark jacket keeping him warm,
his folded card-table legs propping
up an opened book, his disinterested arm
holding up an apple, its orange-red
variegated skin like an ornament
and behind the bench the boxwoods ran
their green around a sycamore which
was all reflected in a storefront window,
the glass glinting silently as a shop-
woman, young and full of possibility,
stooped like a simple calligraphy
rearranging the props and wares, as if
Edward Hopper hadn’t been here
a hundred times before
In addition to being published by the Inlandia Journal, The Pacific Review, and The Sand Canyon Review, Jeff Mays is considering joining an indie rock band to write lyrics for in order to find an audience for his written work.
Root-bound pot of cattails packed vegetal solid,
black pot cracked, stretched into white plastic
the roots a dense mat, truly hair-vegetable,
Mandarin pun on ‘long life’: ‘can never die’.
Roots tough as wire slice your bare fingers.
Crack open the pot to release
not roots but shoots prowling around slow inside the pot
circling, hell-bent on digging in
then rising up, zombies called from their graves,
hunting fresh food, driven to take hold.
At the edge shoots escape, hang over the side
like cold fingers, rusty ivory, cracked,
weathered like zombie fingers.
You must chop them off.
The host will not stop, will not die.
Once the pot gives way, cattail spears
will invade the entire water garden.
Zombies hanging over the side,
they’re thumping solid against the pot,
no need to rush when pressure is all.
Crouch low in the ditch among cattails.
They crowd the banks
in ditch water clear like you’ve never seen it.
Snow melt numbs your feet,
your hands are become strangers.
Cattails are Wal-Mart in a ditch,
strange flour, sweet syrup, Cossack asparagus.
Over-ripe, even green, boil them and eat up.
Iris rhizomes, those will kill you.
You will die in this green-gold place under the trees
where the light is filtered as through water
so cold you forget how to swim.
Cattails, the Wal-Mart of rushes,
zombies in a ditch
spreading by pollen slough, by cold white spears.
To destroy them
cut off the fingers, below the water-line
drown the new sprouts do not let them breathe
Karen Greenbaum-Maya is a retired clinical psychologist in California. For five years, she reviewed restaurants for the Claremont Courier, variously in heroic couplets, anapest, and imitating Hemingway. In an earlier life, she was a German Lit major and read poetry for credit, earning her B.A. from Reed College. She started writing when she was nine. Since 2007, more than 70 poems have appeared in many publications, most recently The Centrifugal Eye, Word Gumbo, Convergence, and dotdotdash. Her first chapbook, Eggs Satori, was a finalist of note in Pudding House Publications’ 2010 chapbook competition. She keeps water gardens.
Hewn from the granite mountains,
each petal edged in frail white
carved across millennia, you were witness
to the graceful pronghorn as they made their way
through the Piute and San Jacinto mountains.
You mourn the shrinking grasslands,
scarce desert tortoise, forests of Joshua trees,
and sunshine amidst vast silent spaces,
the wild valleys of a vanishing frontier.
You long for a time devoid
of the footprint of mankind,
of telephone poles and fences.
The Last Bird
In the trees, along the lake,
countless water birds
breed in the winter months.
Snow-white egrets resting
beside soot-black cormorants,
the mighty open bill storks lived peaceably
next to the small white ibises,
the purple night herons.
The common sparrows twittered,
busily hunting for dry seed
and nesting twig.
In the autumn, after the rains,
beyond the yellowing grass
gleams the rich dark green
of the lofty sal.
The fiery blossoms of the
flame of the forest disappear.
May-awe screams the peacock,
displaying its splendid feathers,
fanned out before adoring hens.
Those forgotten sparrows bathed in the dust
collected beneath overhanging branches.
Mumbai city attracted the screeching parrot
that scolded from the burnished brown
of the gulmohor tree.
Grey pigeons goodo-goed,
awkwardly encircling each other
along dusty ledges of rusted windows.
Crows held a caucus in the evening gloom.
Sparrows drank off muddy water
gathering along the dripping eaves.
Then the river waters rushing through
Manac’s spectacular gorge
Sanctuary grasslands that sheltered
the chukor partridge and the sarus crane
Leaves of the city’s gulmohors
the garden guavas, house of the green totas
And then the birds were gone.
Only the dull sparrows,
unnoticed amidst the dustbins
a last faint song.
A Scattering of Stars
Supposing that abruptly you learnt
how brief your life was to be, a year
left in this veil of reality,
what would you do?
A woman of consummate morality,
hers is a sunny life, rewards of work,
love of family, the warmth of friends.
She believes that men are intrinsically good.
She knows that for some there is a world
of darkness, but it has not touched her.
Disregarding prayer all her life,
she lives it quietly instead.
Her mind becomes a tumbled jumble
of unfulfilled desires and disbeliefs. What
if it were not true? Could she spend a week
amidst the tangled golden waters of Kerala?
Did she have time to read the holy Vandidads?
Whom should she tell? Seek out a habit of prayer?
Recount stored memories, to leave behind some mark?
She chooses the precious familiar,
a world reflected in her beloved’s smile,
the neighborhood evening walk,
and daily bread.
On an eternal orbit, her life span
is a tiny speck amidst a scattering of stars,
here, and then gone, her tracks slowly fading.
The waiting room of the psychiatric clinic was crowded as teens of varying piercings and tattoos awaited a group anger management session. Sharalyn, sitting quietly next to her husband, Mike, noted which teens sat with a parent, and concentrated on their multiple silences, the ways they ignored one another, waiting to be united in conflict.
Mike was busy with his Blackberry, checking his work email and the score of the Dodger’s spring training game, lamenting aloud the trials of being a fan of losers. If only LA could get a decent owner and be winners again. When this didn’t carry him through the wait for the psychiatrist, he switched to his fantasy baseball league, scratching his graying temple as though some strategy were to be awakened there.
“See, Sharalyn, if you had gotten an iPhone for your birthday, you could be listening to music right now. This guy is 30 minutes late.” He pointed toward the office door—one of four—with the “Dr. Darmen” nameplate.
“Maybe he had a psychiatric emergency.” She thought then that she probably should have agreed to the iPhone. But ten months ago, she hadn’t been able to admit that she was afraid she couldn’t learn to use it. Then, it seemed like magic. To think of it now that the device was commonplace was to resign herself to another attachment, weighing her down.
For Sharalyn, each new piece of electronic gear floated into rare use, flecks of entitlement in her life landing like dandruff, a dry, unhealthy addition. She wanted to brush them away, shake off her snow globe existence, create a clear, clean path.
“Mrs. Mitty?” the receptionist looked up. “Doctor will see you now.”
Sharalyn stood. Why do health workers always say “Doctor” like it’s a first name?
Dr. Darmen was Indian, maybe. Pakistani, maybe. Sharalyn had meet him a month earlier at her first appointment and had wanted to ask about his origins but wondered if he would perceive it as culturally insensitive. She had hoped to keep the conversation going with a few incidents from her youth, the time that her fourth grade teacher grabbed her and pulled her to his crotch and she had flung the can of paintbrushes she’d been holding into his face. She’d never told anyone the story, and thought that was the kind of thing the doctor would want to hear if he were to make sense of her.
But Sharalyn discovered that going to a psychiatrist wasn’t about therapy. It was about getting drugs. So on that first visit, she had walked away with a prescription for Prozac in the hope of lifting her spirits because she did tell Dr. Darmen that Mike said she was just too hard to be around—a real downer. Now she was here to report on the drug’s success or failure.
She sat down on the couch across from his weighty desk, scooting toward the edge and clutching the armrest, tracing the pattern of leaves on the navy and emerald upholstery.
“How do you feel?” the good doctor asked.
“Any thoughts to hurt yourself?”
“What? No—no. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“Do you feel the way you would like to feel?”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“How would you like to feel?”
“Madam.” That made her smile, this form of address, Dr. Darmen’s own polite vestige from some other life previously lived. “I don’t mean to alarm you, but there is a worm on the sofa, making its way toward you.”
A worm? She thought, curious. What is a worm doing out of the ground? Here, no less. How can it move on a couch? She edged forward, so that she could turn her head over her shoulder. A chubby little creature, green and fresh as iceberg lettuce, inched along the back cushion to her left. She wouldn’t have called him a worm, but she wasn’t sure whether he was a caterpillar. He had the inching suction—but no soft, furry pelt, certainly not the black caterpillar of her youth. No potential monarch.
A moth? She thought of the green becoming brown, the powder dust covering that would allow its night flight toward distant stars or death on a burning electric bulb, as chance had it.
Fresh as the pale green was, lucid and wet, the poor little creature was still ugly.
Sharalyn shifted right. “He’s like the very hungry caterpillar,” she motioned at the creature.
“What is the very hungry caterpillar?”
“The children’s story? Everybody reads it to their kids. The caterpillar has an amazing appetite and eats a lot of junk food and gets sick. But then he finds a nice leaf, feels better, and takes to his cocoon. Don’t you know it? My son loved it.”
“I do not know that story.” Dr. Darmen cut in. “How has your sleep been this month?”
“How many hours each night?”
“You have to try to sleep regular hours. Go to bed an hour earlier each night.”
“So, no thoughts to hurt yourself?”
“Are you sure?”
“If you want to increase the medication, we can increase it. If you want to be happy.”
Dr. Darmen stood up, and for a second Sharalyn was confused, thinking she was being dismissed.
“Madam,” he came around the desk and stepped toward her, leaning down. “The worm.”
Just as she turned to observe its progress, the caterpillar leapt—yes leapt, as though to prove that flight was his creature purpose—to her shoulder. She sprung from the couch and yelped, barking her shin on the ebony end table and knocking over the mica-shaded lamp. The caterpillar, having missed his target, plopped onto the seat cushion.
Dr. Darmen grabbed the cushion and carried it, hot potato style, out of the office, while Sharalyn set the lamp right, thankful that its translucent mineral cover hadn’t broken. She heard the outer door click shut and wondered about whether this had drawn Mike’s attention. When Dr. Darmen returned, she peeked out at Mike, who looked up with a shrug and a ‘What was that about?’ raised eyebrow, and then went back to the Blackberry.
“Is that your husband with you?”
“You mean the guy with the crackberry?”
“I do not know what a crackberry is.”
“Sorry—it’s just a bad joke. Yes, that’s my husband.”
When they left the office and headed back to the hybrid Escape, Mike sat in the passenger’s seat. “What else do you have to do?” he asked.
“Grocery store. We need to drop off your dry cleaning. Just errands.”
“Can you take me home before you go?”
“I guess. Don’t you want to pick out some treats for yourself?”
“You can do it—I’ll eat whatever.”
“Hey—if you’re bored, why don’t you make a quick visit to your Grandpa Walt? It’s only five miles from the clinic, and I’m sure he’d love the company.”
“I can’t take the smell of that old folks’ place.”
“But he’s probably pretty lonely.”
“You know that old coot doesn’t know what’s real and what’s all in his head. Sad part is, he never did.”
“Well, people like company.”
“He doesn’t know who I am anymore. Hate to say it, but he’d be better off kicking the bucket, six months to the century marker or not.”
“Mike! Maybe he’d just like to hear a friendly voice, even if he doesn’t know whose it is.”
“Nope, Sharalyn. I’m not going to listen to him hocking up and swallowing loogees. Just drop me in the driveway.”
When Sharalyn pulled into the concrete drive, and Mike opened his door, the familiar tones of a car alarm greeted them. “We-woo, we-woo, beep, beep, beep, beep, whaaa, whaaa.”
“That’s weird,” Sharalyn said. “That sounds like a voice.”
“It’s that damned mockingbird you were so happy to see the other day. That’s all it knows how to sing. So much for the good luck of a pair nesting in our yard. I guess we’re gonna be listening to that all spring.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’ll learn something else. A mockingbird can be anything, you know.”
“The term birdbrain didn’t come from nowhere. Don’t hold your breath.” Mike swung the car door shut and jogged toward the house while pulling his keys from his pocket.
The dry cleaner was in the same strip mall as the grocery store. Sharalyn picked up the week’s groceries, thinking that Mike would like some chips and crackers for watching the week’s many baseball games. On a whim, she grabbed three packages of dough, cylinders that could be popped open to make crescent rolls, cinnamon buns, and biscuits. At one time, she had liked to make bread because when she kneaded the dough, it pushed back, swallowing her fingers with a life of its own. Now, it just felt like a lot of work.
Pushing her cart back to the car, Sharalyn passed a nail salon. She had been born just a bit before weekly manicures had become necessities rather than self-indulgence. But she thought of Dr. Darmen’s question “Would you like to be happy?” and considered that, yes, maybe she would, and maybe a massage mani/pedi was a start, so she hauled the groceries into the rear of the little SUV and walked back toward the dirt-streaked plate-glass storefront that exclaimed, “Walk-ins welcome!”
As she entered, four Vietnamese women looked up at her, two from stools where they were applying acrylic nails, their mouths and noses covered with surgical masks. Sharalyn wrinkled her own nose at the acetone smell of the place. The two customers were heavy and white, all the workingwomen pretty and petite. Perhaps a family business, Sharalyn thought, as two of the women appeared to be in their twenties while the others looked to be a generation older, Sharalyn’s contemporaries. Moms and daughters? The younger woman with the UC Berkeley sweatshirt gave a quick smile before turning back to wash the pedicure basin she was leaning over. Sharalyn started to tell her that her glossy, long hair was so pretty. After all an easy compliment like that doesn’t cost a thing. Before she caught the girl’s attention, one of the older women walked to the front counter and spoke.
“What you like?” she asked Sharalyn.
“I’m here for a manicure and pedicure, please.”
“You want wax too?”
Sharalyn stepped back with the mini panic that always clutched her chest when other people were too familiar.
“I’m fifty years old,” she laughed in a way that she hoped wouldn’t sound offensive. “I don’t need a perfect bikini line. These days my motto is duck and cover, you know?”
“You likeitlonglike that?”
The woman pointed at Sharalyn’s lip and spoke slowly. “You like it LONG like that?”
“Oh. Well, no—I didn’t think I looked like Frieda Kahlo.”
“What you say?”
“Oh, nothing. Just a bad joke.”
“You get rid of that. Nine dollar.”
“Well, OK. Why not? I’m here, right?”
Sharalyn imagined a dark room with ‘the sounds of nature’ music, but she was escorted to the chair over the basin that had just been cleaned, and sat under a bright light, as though she had come to the dentist. The woman applied the hot wax strip there, in front of the other customers. “You wait,” she said.
Voices clicked around her, in tones she couldn’t comprehend. Sharalyn focused on the little boy who walked in with his mother. ‘Sit there,” the mother pointed to a white molded plastic chair near the door before grabbing a bottle of polish from a rack, and making her way to the pedicure station with vibrating back massage. She hit the button and closed her eyes, her arms draped over the armrests, so slack that the bottle of polish seemed poised to slip to the floor.
If she didn’t keep her eyes on the boy, Sharalyn knew she’d spend the next minutes willing the polish not to fall.
The boy, his eyes electric with awareness, couldn’t have been more than five.
He could grow to be anything, the voice in Sharalyn’s head, her own voice, said before her mother’s voice took over. Sharalyn now heard the articulation of a woman who, even before she’d died, was so fused with God that she would have put a nun to shame, was shaming Sharalyn now. Because Sharalyn thought she knew what intrigued the boy, thought she knew what he was going to do and certainly knew that these days, anything with a possible consequence was prohibited. Not for the first time, Sharalyn devotedly wished to be an atheist, someone who, without the consistent presence of that God-human hero mix watching her every move, could experience moments of solitude when no one else was there. A believer never walked alone, true, but she never had privacy either.
Shame or not, a story was going to spin out, and Sharalyn needed to know how it would end.
In the front corner of the shop, hidden from the workingwomen by the intervening reception counter with its cash register, was a low shrine with a gold-leaf Buddha meditating in front of a carved wooden altar. He was not the happy, hefty fellow Sharalyn remembered from the neighbor’s garden of her childhood. He was the silent one, the one so heated with longing that snails took pity and cooled his head, their hundred shells tightly packed over his naked scalp. Now luminous under the warmth of the ceiling spotlight that doubled as his halo, he drowsed, unaware of the long-clawed fingers in the framed posters over his head, multi-colored acrylic nails reaching toward him, a moment from snatching him in their rainbow clutch.
In front of the altar was a raised cake plate full of fake fruit—some golden-red apples, a banana—and real donuts. The donuts were dusty, and Sharalyn’s conscience was uneasy on that account.
Sharalyn thought of the signs she’d seen on walking trails, a triangle of arrows anchored in each corner by a figure. One arrow shows that the walker must yield to the horseman, but the other two arrows show that the bicyclist must yield to them both. Who should yield here? The disembodied hand, the Buddha, or the boy? Add the ancestors in whose memory the altar was placed here, and directional arrows became useless. Sharalyn’s mother’s voice was silenced for once, now, when a mental traffic cop was needed.
The boy slithered from his seat and undulated as he moved, a silent, stealth natural. He cupped a cake donut, was a magician in making invisible the chocolate frosting and multi-colored sprinkles until the circle hung from his mouth. The ancestors whose shrine this was and who hadn’t cared enough for the food to eat it themselves made no move on him. The boy didn’t like the donut any better than they had. He bent from the waist, gagging, a dark glob slowly sliding from his wide mouth. As it hit the floor, he followed with a hard retch, a thin stream of vomit, and wailing.
The cries woke his mother from her mechanical massage trance, and she jumped up, dropping the nail polish, which broke on the floor. She ran to the boy and pulled the remains of the donut from his hand, throwing it back on the cake plate. The woman who had applied Sharalyn’s wax mustache followed her.
“This boy a brat. Look this mess. Who clean this up?”
“You make my son sick to his stomach with rotten food that you leave laying around when you know that any kid is going to want a donut? And you want to blame me? What is wrong with you people?” the woman screamed to be heard over the pitch of her son’s wailing.
“You teach him. What wrong with you?”
“Listen, bitch, you’re lucky I don’t sue you. I’m going to call the . . .”
Apparently, the woman wasn’t sure who she was going to call. The police? Sharalyn was embarrassed by her fumbling for words and was about to suggest that she was thinking of the Better Business Bureau, but in a karate kick worthy of a Jackie Chan movie, the mother knocked the cake platter into the counter, only cracking an inch in the corner of the plate glass, but splintering the platter, and just missing the Buddha and his altar. She then flung herself toward the door, holding the boy, who was still wailing, by the hand.
Sharalyn didn’t think the boy was a brat, only curious, as boys should be.
Meanwhile, the manicure customers paid and slipped away. The proprietor brought a mop and rolling pail out of the back room, all the while letting fly what Sharalyn thought must be curses in Vietnamese.
Ten minutes had passed since the proprietor had waxed Sharalyn’s lip, but she remained silent until the woman remembered her and tore the strip away, causing her to yelp for the second time that day.
“You have soft skin.”
“No—it bleed. Here, you hold this.” The woman handed a gauze pad to Sharalyn and pointed to her lip. Sharalyn pressed it to her face.
While she was having her manicure, Sharalyn held the gauze pad by turns in her idle hand. By the time she had her pedicure, the pinpoints of blood had dried.
“You like flower?”
“Of course. I love flowers. I had some gladiola bulbs on the east side of my house that came up for ten years, and I never—”
“You want? Five dollar each, OK?”
Sharalyn did not want, thought she was too old for that look, but thought, too, of the boy and of his terrible mother, and said, “Um, OK.”
The woman quickly painted a flower on each of Sharalyn’s big toes.
Back on the road and waiting at a nearby traffic light, Sharalyn set her elbow on the armrest, her chin in the palm of her hand. “The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone,” she thought to sing, but didn’t. An old oak was growing too close to the street and made an easy specimen for examination. It was burnt hollow through its trunk, but layered branches arched outward, tiny green-gray leaves sprouting skyward.
“I thought only redwoods could do that,” she spoke, still facing the window. She heard a crack and a sharp pain popped the right side of her head. She reached up to finger the spot and came away with a bloody hand.
“Shit!” Drive-by shooting? “Oh, my God. Oh no.” Though Sharalyn felt blood in rivulets down her neck, she was not losing consciousness. She even thought to put her car in park and turn on her emergency flashers. The bullet only grazed me, she thought and reached for her cell phone to dial 9-1-1. Cars pulled around her, but no one stopped.
The fire department paramedics arrived first and then an ambulance. “Are you OK?” a young man in uniform asked. Tall, dark and handsome with the obligatory mustache, Sharalyn had wits enough to notice he could have been the calendar fireman of the month.
“Someone shot me, but luckily, it just grazed the side of my head.”
“Ma’am, if someone had shot you, your window would be broken.”
Sharalyn hadn’t thought of that. “But, you are bleeding pretty good here on the right side of your head. Did you hit it on something?”
“No. Really. I promise.” The ambulance attendants stood by while, with the help of his partner, the paramedic sat Sharalyn on a pop-up gurney.
After bandaging the wound, the man told Sharalyn to lie back on the stretcher and they’d get her into the ambulance. “I need my purse, please,” she said, and he leaned over to pull the heavily loaded black hobo sack from the passenger seat.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “What’s this?” He showed Sharalyn a metal disk, just bigger than a silver dollar, with a splatter of blood. “This is your culprit.” He looked over to the back seat and pulled up the rest of the dough cylinder, now popped open and grown over the end of the tube, like that wicked Blob of B-movie fame.
“Are you telling me that I’ve damn near been done in by the Pillsbury Doughboy?” Sharalyn sat back up.
“Yeah, it kinda looks that way.”
“I’ve had it. I’ve had it today, OK? That’s an urban legend. That’s not real. That can’t be my life.” Sharalyn knew this bordered on whining, so she added, “If that’s all it is, maybe I can just drive home?”
The ambulance driver looked over, along with his attendant, at the paramedics. They all joined in the laughter. “This is one for the books,” the driver said, then turned back to Sharalyn.
“No can do,” said the paramedic. “Sorry but, doughboy or not, that’s a pretty good cut, like I said. You might get a bit too dizzy to drive yourself. Plus, your lip’s bruised. Maybe you’re gonna get a black eye. It sounds weird, but stuff like that can happen from a hard hit.”
“Ah—no.” Sharalyn touched under her nose to feel the tenderness. “The lip is from something else.”
“We’ll park your car over to the side of the road. Do you have someone who can come to the hospital and pick you up?”
Sharalyn waited until she had gotten five stitches in the center of a shaven spot on her head, was bandaged, and filled her prescription for Tylenol with codeine before calling Mike. When he didn’t answer, she tried his cell. When he didn’t answer there, she left a message telling him that the car was on the corner of Brookhaven and Oak Drive, and that she was taking a Taxi home.
“I’m having a crappy day, and the least you could do is answer the phone!” Sharalyn longed for the era of receivers, hefty realities to be slammed down. ‘Hanging up’ now was just an imperceptible touch of a button, soundless.
Sharalyn found Mike in front of the TV with his Bose earphones on. In the kitchen behind him, she pulled a leftover low-carb chicken breast lettuce wrap from the fridge, and filled a glass with water from the door. She got the Tylenol from her purse and sat down next to her husband. She pulled the left earmuff away from his ear. “Is this the Lakers?” she asked.
“Those shorts look pretty short. Is that Magic Johnson?”
“What is this?”
“The 1988 championship game.”
“Why do you want to watch that?”
“Nothing else on.”
“Well, it’s not like you don’t know the outcome.”
“It’s still a good game. And we won.”
“We?” Sharalyn said.
“Did you forget your medication today?”
“No,” she lied. She had forgotten to take the Prozac, but she knew it wouldn’t have stopped working in one day—well, two days, since she’d forgotten the day before as well. It didn’t matter. She realized she wanted to be angry, and being able to identify her desire made her feel better.
“Did you talk to the doctor about the dose?”
“Knock it off—you are the one who is being a pain in the ass here.”
Mike turned to look at her. “What the hell happened to you?”
He’s paying attention, Sharalyn thought. She could tell him about the whole, incredible day.
She didn’t care to. It was something her mother used to say. “I don’t care to.” Could it become her phrase, too? Could she move through the rooms of their house saying, “I don’t care to talk to you?”
“Long story,” she said instead, handing him the Tylenol. “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s no big deal, but we have to get the car. Listen to the message on the answering machine.”
She walked back into the kitchen and stuffed her lettuce wrap down the garbage disposal. “I’m going outside to check for stars.”
“It’s cold. Why don’t you take some of that codeine and hit the sack. You’ll feel better. You look awful, I swear to God, I wouldn’t lie to you. You’d better take care of yourself.” Mike had gotten up and was heading toward the phone.
“I look awful because I feel awful. But I was wondering where Van Gogh got the idea to paint his starry night. Maybe I’ll take a painting class down at the rec center.”
“I hope you won’t be too disappointed if that doesn’t make you a Van Gogh.”
“I’ve already given up on being Frida Kahlo.” Sharalyn touched her lip.
“Nothing, just a bad joke.” Sharalyn went to her room and fumbled through her bottom dresser drawer for her fleece hoodie. She stopped to outline one of the cowboys on the boy’s pajamas, an unworn pair she had kept all these years. The boy had refused to wear them because, he said, no one wears cowboys anymore. She knew even then that they had been a funny thing to keep, a thing without a scent or a memory. But it reminded her that his half-formed opinions had been buoys stretching across her path for five years. Not a brat, she’d always know that, just someone who knew what he’d wanted.
He could have been anything. And then he was nothing. And so Sharalyn knew that she could not work her will on the world, that the world was having none of it.
Sharalyn opened the front door and stepped into the cool breeze. There were few stars visible, but they were out there.
Taking another step into the night, she felt a strand pull across her face. She tried to grasp it, but she couldn’t quite manage. Whether it was a thread blown from some intricately-designed spider web or just her own hair blown out of place was impossible to tell.
When she was no bigger than the boy in the salon, no bigger than the boy who refused to wear cowboy pajamas, her family had visited her grandfather, who, in his summer cabin in the Pennsylvania Blue Mountains, spent most of the time drunk on the porch. She thought of the spider webs there, which decorated every corner, top and bottom.
That was the first time she’d met Grandpap, but she immediately fell in love when he’d shown her how to shoot watermelon seeds into an empty pie tin. “Come here,” he motioned to her as she looked for bunnies under the rotting foundation. “I want to teach you a song.” She moved into the circle of his outstretched arm, and it closed on her. “Crooked teeth and crooked nose/That’s the way the nigger grows,” he bellowed.
Grandpap had laughed and spit tobacco juice into his beer bottle. Sharalyn ran inside to repeat the song for her mother, who narrowed her eyes and said nothing. For a moment, Sharalyn thought her mother was going to spit on her, spitting being something the family seemed to do with accuracy. But her mother decided to ignore her throughout the evening and wouldn’t kiss her goodnight.
But I could’ve been anything, Sharalyn thought.
As awful as the old man was, he had also had sober moments during the vacation back East. In his sobriety, he taught her how to cup her hand into a bowl for water, clamp her other hand over it as a lid and then blow into the opening between her bent thumbs, making a trilling noise. “Bird whistle,” he’d said, and she’d left the bunnies to their underground hideout in order to captivate the jays in the trees.
Sharalyn stepped into the little gravel path through the drought-resistant zeroscape of her front yard, for which she’d given up her gladiolas last year. Bending to the faucet, she turned the spigot, and water and air blasted in alternative bursts, making sounds like quacking ducks. At this, the mockingbird, who was hiding in the old Crape Myrtle on the side of the house, took flight, landing across the street atop the Jetson’s-styled shrub next to the neighbor’s door.
Cupping the icy water as her grandpap had taught her, Sharalyn blew. When she took a breath, she accidentally sucked back the water. Gagging, she pulled away to see tiny red dots of blood on her upper thumb. She held the cupped hand of water to her lips to wash the blood, then spilled it onto the saguaro cactus, and tried the faucet again. She held her hands to her lips and turned outward toward the street, a Pied Piper in her white glowing bandage with the crimson blot soaking through, her red and blue swollen lip, her jewel-toned peasant top and cropped purple pants. She sent out a call for all with winged creatures to join her in her march, and the mockingbird echoed her quavering warble.
Victoria Waddle is an unapologetic reader, a closet writer, and a lover of all things literary. She is also a high school librarian in the Inland Empire and writes teen book reviews for her Colony Library Lady blog at http://colonylibrarylady.com.