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Nikia Chaney

In Poetry, San Bernardino, Volume II Issue 1 on April 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm

ripping the letter

this
is a
letter
to it. this
letter is to
it. this is a
letter written
down and sent
to it. this letter is
to be read by it. this
letter is a question, a
timebomb. this letter smiles
looks to it so that it can breathe.
this letter’s smell will blur and sting.
this letter’s feel, for it, is heavy. this is
Edward’s letter. this is Jeffrey’s letter. this
is Richard’s leftover in the car, waiting for him,
letter. this letter is like that. this letter is made of
chicken wire pulled tight to cut out a name. this letter
is made of ice to clean out the room. this letter is pieces
of grass, of eggs of sunlight in the glass. this letter is a rip.
this letter will take dogeared hands of understanding and place them
back on road, where Yolanda can be clear, or at least love with her feet
next time. This letter, says, yes, Inshallah, but this letter is not cotton candy.
It is not that they left this letter to crawl slowly out of that place where medication
is sprinkled on shredded minds. It is not that they left this letter to it, the whispering,“I
can’t make him love me”, and the walls running with their skirts away from the war, and
the understanding of goodbye. This letter is it.  This letter, this particular brand of cure.

__________
Nikia Chaney finds herself surrounded by very small people.  She teaches poetry classes for children and she has five children of her own.  Nikia also teaches community creative writing workshops at San Bernardino Valley College.  She has an MFA in Poetry from Antioch University, and she is currently in school for a second master’s degree at California State University, San Bernardino.  She has been published in 491, Sugar House Review, Badlands, Pearl, with upcoming publishings in New York Quarterly and Saranac.

Lawrence Eby

In Poetry, Redlands, Volume II Issue 1 on April 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Enigma

When radio waves get lost among the noise of sea,
A car fire burns its last cassette in the glove box,
Ignites a picture album,
A conversation about socks.

The forest shrugs it off—as nature does,
Just another bear-trapped raccoon with cheese in its mouth.

We spend the night in a tree house and play with a ghost spewing from candlelight.
Pretend its fog that calls us closer with a finger,
When it gets too real, we hide inside an orange we squeezed hollow.

Then we safety-pin our lips together—as mankind does,
But Mother grows mold in our showers to remind us:
We shouldn’t forget the dead.

___

Larry Eby writes from Southern California where he earned his BA in Creative Writing from CSUSB. His work has appeared in the Sand Canyon Review, Welter, Badlands, the Pacific Review, the Secret Handshake, and Call of the Wild: Being Human by Editions Bibliotekos press. He is a founding member of PoetrIE, an Inland Empire based literary community, and currently has plans to attend CSUSB’s MFA program in poetry. In addition, he also has plan to open a publishing house in the Inland Empire.

Mike Cluff

In Corona, Poetry, Volume II Issue 1 on April 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Reflections For A Lingering Summer
Raincross, California      September 1919

Summer rains
bring them forward
dragonflies
but for too short a time.

Estelle Sampson
notices legends
parallel reality
a bit neatly
in this set of hills and valleys
and her periods of placid years
are placed too far apart
by all sorts of gods and demons
that romp and rampage
under the signal of
the double raincross
a blend of Catholic and Navajo
that defines this land
just a bit too well.

De Anza and his compadres
brought strife and persecution
to this inland place
of sharp peaks and deep arroyos
the flattest plains
and their soils,
waters and animals
now suffer
now more than even before
when the other gods
were more benevolent
when the earthbound people
just let them be.

Estelle looks to the western
always-hot sun
and thinks of dogwood winters
back home
in eastern
West Virginia
and smiles.

Yes she just sits bemused
before rest calls her home
between Jurupa and Mission Boulevards.

___

Del Rosa    1968

In the full moon
of an August Sunday,
the one before Labor Day,
just above San Bernardino,
the stingy musky slap-smell
of grapefruits
from the tree next
to the half-covered patio
on Holly Vista where
Dogwood does a “T”,
is another special specimen
of lanterns in the darkness
which add a sad spice
to such a series of nights
right before autumn
and elementary school
comes galumphing in.

___

Emmaline Case

The lady in the moldy  woolen  cape
searches for the answer
to why all these years
have come up missing
or misplaced
and why children are in crosswalks
around three each afternoon
why the stores on Arlington
would not let her in
any more.

And those who give her rides
smile just a bit too much
for her taste:

Learning to drive in Arkansas
must have happened
was it yesterday
later today
sixty-seven years ago
or a week from now
but it occurred
and I was unbounded then.

___

Mike Cluff is a fulltime English and Creative Writing instructor at Norco College. He has lived steadily in the Highland and Redlands area since 1998. His eighth book of poetry Casino Evil was published in June 2009 by Petroglyph Books.

Jaime Garcia

In Poetry, Rubidoux, Volume II Issue 1 on April 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Petrodollar

the hill has been butterflied
and everything that causes noise speaks
in a foreign language

a radio chokes itself
saying the sound of empty country is snow

the distance between freeways is arrested

as reports about frost come second-hand
(things the soldiers fell like:
trees, leaves, airplanes)

an owl blasts through the mountain,
angels, expatriated from our father’s paradise
do taxes in a public park

Overpasses arc like the rings of a dying planet

Nobody can find work

now kids have taken to demanding
explanations from god

while last night the anarchists
doing their best to imitate the pacific
found only the silence of constant traffic

___

Jaime Garcia is a 23 year old libertarian conspiracy theorist from Rubidoux, California. His work has appeared in dotdotdash and Voiceworks, and is forthcoming in Contrary Magazine.

Lauren Gordon

In Poetry, San Bernardino, Volume II Issue 1 on April 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Once You’ve Seen Anything Die, You’ve Seen Everything Die

Mercury in retrograde 
has us on a red-eye,
lipstick on the fly,
racing on the 101
to get to the empty house,
afraid to ask aloud:
what if it smells like death?

We go first to the room where she fell
and expect fluid, an outline,
not this mess of shredded paper
from the starving dog.

One bent slipper under the bed, unmoved.
The picture frame
she must have grabbed wildly
before breaking her neck
against the wall.

In the kitchen: rotten fruit,
Dishes in the sink,
a blinking light on the answering machine
that porcelain creamer cow
I have always loved.

The coroner won’t let us see her,
she’s “unfresh” – we reel.

We didn’t buy enough cold cuts,
I don’t know how to make her noodle kugel.

They play “Turn, Turn, Turn” at the memorial,
We can’t remember if she liked this song.

Someone asks if they can keep her throw pillow.
Lawyers randomly ring the door bell.
A cousin wants to grieve with the big screen tv.
Her sister searches the closet for a borrowed coat.

Later, everything is Lysol, blank, and on the market.
No one wants to pay, say anything small and true
So we tell ourselves the body is mostly just water, anyway.

___

Sometimes You Submit

Oscar the cat sniffs out death
in a Rhode Island nursing home
and thinks: life is a confluence of shambling
but not really, he’s just a cat
with a pinked nose and paw,
light-stepping biting-ball of the best way to say goodbye.

Now see the eternal hummingbird,
Jimmy
who flits the window as the couple paints
his bedroom, it’s been fifteen years
since a two by four sticking out the back of a truck
struck him dead; but they see him.

My fighting beta never did a damn thing
about the Northridge earthquake
which nearly killed me, or did he
paddle upside down, bubble like a pipe
sing like a green canary in the still darkness
while I slept?

___

Lauren Gordon grew up in Southern California and commuted between the San Fernando Valley and San Bernadino while working for the Los Angeles Times.  Her work has appeared in Midwest Literary Journal, Knocking at the Door with Birch Brook Press, Scapegoat Review, Web Del Sol, and has been featured on Iowa National Public Radio.  She holds Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry from New England College, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Iowa.  She currently lives  in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband.

Matthew Nadelson

In Corona, Poetry, Volume II Issue 1 on April 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Jim Morrison and Dionysus Sober Up in Riverside County

On the steps of the County Jail,
Jim Morrison and I sit, waiting
for the sun to sprout and crown the skyline
or at least a light for our smokes.
Behind us, the glass doors swing open.
Cops stampede past us and descend
into their chariots as orderly as Apollo,
unable to summon the sun.
Jim recalls poor Dionysus, drunk and barefoot,
cornered between nausea and oneness with all,
staring blankly at the blood and other fluids
splattered against the drunk tank’s walls,
stuffing his shirt with our cell’s last toilet
paper roll, and wrapping the rest
from rotten tree-stump feet to eggshell skull
to keep his brandy, dreams, and memories
from spilling out. All through the night
the sockless men keep stumbling in,
with their beltless slacks slipping down.
You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!
Jim tells the man kneeling in the far corner,
as I brush a fly from my eye,
yearning to spy from its body, any body
but this one, barefoot, slumped against
the numbing concrete floor, petitioning
the same irreconcilable cosmos
as you, Jim, shirtless and sockless,
reading Neruda on these walls
and finally understanding his desire
for socks— spun moonlight,
soft and warm as fire.

___

Matthew Nadelson is an English instructor at Norco College in Norco, CA.  His poems have appeared in Blue Collar Review, ByLine Magazine, Chiron Review, Connotation Press, Mobius, and other literary journals, and in the anthologies Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude and America Remembered.  His first poetry collection, American Spirit, was published in August 2011 by Finishing Line Press.

Lorine Parks

In Desert, Poetry, Volume II Issue 1 on April 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm

the man who wrote in his hat
   I kept saying     it’s a miracle    Ed Rosenthal

because he is a poet
he always carries a pen for jotting down phrases
but now he is lost in a desert of grotesqueries
Joshua trees contorted like tongues tasting salt
he forgot to top off his water bottle
that was six days ago     when he left the resort
he thinks   thirst is rocks   sand and rocks
which he wants to write down but he hasn’t a pad
he will do without paper and still write his poem
he drags a stick in the hard-crust dirt to draw letters
then sketches on orange rocks with a black stone    then
erases his illegible lines with the back of his trembling hand

he wanders farther   he tries to drink his urine
but the output of his body disgusts him
he won’t dig a cool shallow pit in the sand
because it looks like a grave
he tries to remember the Sh’ma 
but only a few syllables of Hebrew
remain in his cupboard of prayer

he hallucinates he believes he has won the Nobel for Poetry
and the Peace Prize for Achieving Understanding at Sinai
till at last   from the low reptilian stem of his brain
an instinct claws its way over his city mind
the desert insists on economy   the kestrel and buzzard
do not flutter in their search   they glide
there is wisdom in staying still and letting it come to him

he stops moving in circles and collapses
flat as parchment    parched as his hat
he takes off his headgear to write on it
he still has his pen    his stylus for poetic inscribing
but instead of a new Xanadu    distilled from delirium
he scribbles his ethical will and testament in his floppy hat
naming his pallbearers   giving advice   leaving love and
now he recalls his Hebrew   shalom to daughter and wife
his witnesses a long-tailed pocket mouse chewing a seed
and a basking gecko    his notary a night moth
his signature validated by a black blob of a spider
sprawled like sealing wax on the hat’s brim

he waits    near expiring   the sun like a burning bush
for whichever piece of paper comes first
a coroner’s certificate   or a tabloid with rescue headlines
or a banner of light made by night stars over the desert
saying mazel tov   good fortune
a great miracle has happened here

___

Lorine Parks knows the high desert from having lived on an Indian Reservation in Nevada for a year.  In 2008 she took a plein air Tebot Bach Foundation poetry workshop in Joshua Tree National Forest and stayed at the legendary Twenty-nine Palms Hotel.  From that it was easy enough to imagine the trials of the poet-hiker who was lost in the Joshua Tree wilderness.  One must always respect Mother Nature, especially so in the strict economy of the desert.

Ryan Mattern

In Poetry, San Bernardino, Volume II Issue 1 on April 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Dream Songs

When you sleep beside me
your dreams seep from your ears.

I see milky images of you
dressed in braided rope,

twisting down tree roots.
You pin hummingbird markers

in the bark for place,
to find your way awake.

Dreams are like this,
I think.

A song in made-up language.
Airy twine sewn of Latin,

of French and German.
A place where Columbus falls into orbit.

You are singing in your dream,
so beautifully the sun cries.

Your voice wrings water
from knotted light.

Outside our bedroom window,
the katydids saw through their legs.

What We Become

I became a man in the marbled eye of a harelipped pronghorn bound at the hooves
to the pulley of an A-frame. Tongue-splayed shock heat fogged from its open mouth.
I smelled life in those winter morning ghosts. My father gripped my hands. We muscled
a buck knife throat to tail, etching through piebald fur. He reached into steaming
yolk center and yanked syrupy twin antelopes from beneath their mother’s lungs.
He held them at arms length and became a blackening shadow.

My son will speak of rivers and of the animals that leap them. I will give him my father’s
first .240 with notches on the stock. My son will close one eye and focus on mirror
images of pronghorns and their negatives becoming one as they waver above a spring.
Trees’ leaves morph into locusts who wing away as the antelope collapses.

___

Ryan Mattern is a recent graduate of California State University, San Bernardino, where he earned his B.A. in Creative Writing. His work has appeared in THE2NDHAND, Criminal Class Review, The Pacific Review, Burning Word, as well as others. He is an active member of poetrIE, a reading series dedicated to showcasing the literary voices of California’s Inland Empire. He is the co-founder and fiction editor of The Halfpenny Marvel, a journal for flash fiction and prose poetry. Currently, he is an MFA candidate at various California universities. He lives and writes in southern California.

Tisha Reichle

In Desert, Fiction, Volume II Issue 1 on April 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Safe in the Arms of Jesus

           Sitting in the passenger seat of Chris’s Ford truck, I watch his softball game from the comfort of the parking lot. If I was sitting on the metal bleachers this long, my cheeks would be permanently numb from the desert heat. Melting in here is only slightly less painful. I am such a dedicated girlfriend. I should have gone home instead, but Chris insisted on picking me up when I returned from my trip. Every year First Baptist Church sends a group of high school students to help build houses in Sonora, Mexico during spring break.

           Through half-open eyes, I see Chris’s team take the field for the bottom of the ninth, their cleats kicking up red dust. Or is that me in need of a shower? The low electronic buzz of the announcer is incomprehensible from this distance, but I see the boy on the scoreboard change the number of total runs for Chris’s team. Now they are tied. Either this is going into extra innings or Chris is going to come back to the truck in a bad mood. Either way, I would rather be somewhere cooler, somewhere cleaner.

           A voice in my ear interrupts my dozing off. “Hey, Lisett. Terrible about Jacob, isn’t it?”

           I look up to see Sheila, standing next to me in shiny blue biker shorts and an over-sized Chargers jersey, her bleach-streaked hair wild about her head. Her Aqua Net aura chokes me, so I know she just finished making herself cute.

           “Huh? Oh, hi Sheila.” My dad was her dad’s boss for most of our elementary school years, so we were forced to play together. She is also a Baptist, but not my favorite person in the world. Too gossipy and too flirtatious. “Sorry, I was falling asleep. I just got back from the Sonora trip.” I yawn, exaggerating my stretch and shifting my body away from her a little so I can lean over to rest my chin on the window frame. “Why didn’t you go?” I ask Sheila.

           She ignores my question. “I just can’t stop crying.”

           When I don’t respond, she misunderstands that as an invitation to continue confiding in me. I take a sip of the now warm water from my bottle.

           “Because of Jacob, you know.” She pats her lower abdomen, getting all squinchy-faced. “He might be the father.” She leans forward and I move out of the window so she has a place to rest her forehead while she sobs.

           The shape of her hair remains the same, not a strand falls forward with her face. I can see dark roots on the lightest chunks of hair. I know she’s lying about something. “I’m sorry?” I’m not sure if to congratulate her on her pregnancy or offer condolences for her condition. “Jacob who? My best friend, Jacob Davis?” If Jacob was with her, I would have known. I’ll give him shit on Monday in sixth period. “Uh Sheila, I still don’t understand why you are crying.”

           She looks up, sniffs, then sneers, “You don’t know?”

           “Know what?”

           “Jacob’s dead.”

           “What?” The cheer of the opponent’s fans at the game’s end obliterates whatever explanation she offers.

           I picture Jacob the last time I saw him when school got out last Friday. He was dancing across the Pizza Hut parking lot. Just us two.

           “Lisett? Did you hear me?” Sheila is choking on her sobs now. “They say Francisco is going to jail for a long time because he was driving.”

           As Chris approaches, Shelia turns her attention to him, hoping for more sympathy than I am providing. “Hey, Chris. Good game.” She sniffs. “You know, right? About Jacob?” She chokes on his name.

           I don’t give Chris a chance to answer. “Sheila,” I articulate with dry mouth and fat tongue, “maybe you should go.”

           She tries to protest, but I turn to Chris and just listen to her steps crunch across the gravel.

           A car pulls out, spewing dust between Chris and I. He walks back to sit on the tailgate, slowly removing his cleats one lace at a time. I turn around in my seat and talk through the open back window. “Chris. Why didn’t you tell me about Jacob?” But I knew the answer. Jealousy. Ever since Chris found out that I had kissed Jacob in ninth grade, he has felt threatened. “Is that why you insisted on picking me up from the bus? Why I couldn’t go home to shower or see my folks before your stupid game?” I smack my palm against the glass to get his attention. He looks over his shoulder but continues with the damn shoes. “Is that the real reason you suggested I watch from the truck?” With each question my voice gets louder and deeper. People stop loading ice chests and bat bags into their vehicles to stare at us.

           Chris, usually calm and quiet, throws his own equipment into the back of the truck, jumps inside the cab with me, and slams his door.

           “Chris, answer me!” I scream.

           “I wanted to tell you myself,” he growls,

           “but after the game. God, I hate Sheila.”

           “Why after the game? Why wait?”

           “I knew you’d be upset.”

           “And you didn’t want anything to stop you from playing?” I am appalled at my own realization. “Selfish bastard!”

           He puts the truck in reverse.

           “Are you kidding me?” Before he can guide his oversized monster out of the space, I grab my duffle of dirty clothes and my back pack and jump out.

           “Lisett,” he whines. “C’mon. I gotta take you home.”

           “I’ll take myself home.” And I leave his truck door open so he can’t follow me immediately. I cross the street and walk so fast a slight breeze dries my angry tears.

           About six blocks down and three blocks over, my best friend Angelica’s parents own a small panaderia. They are Catholic so she wasn’t on the trip. Even if she isn’t working in the store today, I can escape from Chris for a while and I’m halfway home. By the time I fall in the front door, I am sobbing more than Sheila had been.

           “Que paso mi’jita?” I cannot tell Angelica’s mom why I’m crying because my vocal chords are not cooperating. First, she inspects me for injury. Satisfied I have not been mauled by wild animals or hit by a car, she gets me a bottle of water. I collapse in a folding chair next to the tortilla press and lean against it to cool my forehead and cheek. She calls my mom before helping her next customer.

           I hear the ding of the store entrance six times and the murmur of familiar voices that I try to ignore before my mother rushes across the linoleum.

           “Mi’ja, are you okay?” She squats next to my shaking frame and strokes my hair. I am five again with a scraped knee and my mouth waits for a grape popsicle.

           When the sweet concoction does not arrive, I sniff and look up. “Jacob,” I whisper, feeling my rage rebuild under that one word.

           “Oh, mi’ja, Chris told you?” She looks around. “Where is he?”

           I sniff more and take a sip of my water. I clear my throat, trying to make the words appear. I try to tell my mom about selfish-ass Chris and stupid-ass Shelia, but I get all choked up again and can only squeak out, “Why?” through my tears.

           My mom hugs me, shushing me so I do not scare away customers. “Pray, mi’ja. Pray for his family and pray for his soul.”

           That is her answer to everything. Test coming up? Pray. Not enough money for bills? Pray. Friends stabbing you in the back? Pray. Boy you liked dies? Pray. But I am a realist. No heavenly father or holy blessed mother can bring Jacob back.

           I try to smile at her so she thinks I’m okay. But I’m not. I am angry at Chris, Sheila, Francisco, and Jacob. I stand up, put my arms around my mom, and walk back towards the entrance.

           We are startled by the short, dark flurry of tangled hair that enters, panting. “Lisett! I was calling your house for the past two hours. I thought your bus must be late. Then, my cousin, Chuy, said you came running in the store looking all crazy.” Angelica, my other best friend, tries to catch her breath between sentences. She looks at my face directly. “You know about Jacob? About the accident?”

           I feel the tears start climbing back up my throat. “Were you there?”

Her eyes widen as her mother approaches our conversation. “No. I spent the night at Isabel’s.”

           That is code for my mom doesn’t know I went. She and her cousin Isabel must have snuck out because Isabel’s mom doesn’t hear too well in the left ear and after she falls asleep, they roll her over onto her right side. Then they just walk down the street where Isabel has arranged for her boyfriend, Jack, to pick them up.

           With one arm anchored around my mom’s waist, I half hug Angelica with the other arm. “I’ll call you later.” I’m still sad but a little less angry; I just want a shower and my own bed.

           I stay in my room a long time, looking at the stuffed Ninja Turtle that Jacob won for me at the fair in ninth grade. How can I pray if I don’t know what to say?

           My thoughts are interrupted by a light knock. “Are you sure you don’t want to eat dinner?” My mom asks when I open the door. She has not forced me to talk about Jacob, but I did hear her explaining my afternoon to my dad when he came home from work.

           “No thanks, Mom, I’m going to call Angelica and then go to bed.” I hug her then take the phone into my room, careful not to pinch the spiral cord in the door as it closes behind me. After about six rings, I start to hang up then, breathless, Angelica answers. “Why do you always sound like you are running a mile?” I ask her.

           “Hey Lisett. My stupid brothers keep trying to get the phone. Nobody calls for them anyway.” She yells the last part, trying to insult her younger siblings. “You okay now?”

           I smile because more than anyone, Angelica knows I’m not. But what do you say when someone dies? “Tell me everything.”

           “Are you sure? Okay, hold on.” She tries to cover the mouthpiece but her tone could pierce steel. “Mom, I’m going to talk to Lisett in your room. Keep the boys out. I’ll finish my dinner later. I don’t care if it’s cold.”

           “Angelica, you can always call me later.”

           “No, girl, this is more important.”

           “So it was at some party? Whose party? Where?”

           “Slow down. Are you gonna let me tell the story?”

           “Sorry. Please.” I’m usually superstitious when it comes to talking about death. For Jacob, I hope it will help me make sense of it all and find a way to pray.

           “I went to Isabel’s because Jack heard some guys from LA, college guys, were having a rager by the river. He thinks we want to go for free beer, which we do, of course, but really, college guys. C’mon. I met this really cute gringo from Indiana.”

           “Angelica, can you tell me that part later, when I can enjoy it?”

           “Huh? Yeah, sorry. I didn’t even know Jacob was there until some other white boys started loud talking Francisco and his homies. You know how they are, they show up already wasted and try to start shit.”

           “But Jacob is cool with them because of baseball.”

           “Yeah, yeah. So Jacob had been talking to this chubby college girl, one of the guy’s sister I think. Oh, sorry.”

           “It’s okay, he’s not my boyfriend remember?”

           “Oh, yeah, Chris. Wait, where is Chris? Have you talked to him?”

           “Angelica!” She can never just tell a story without distracting herself and while I love her like a sister, it infuriates me when I need information.

           “Okay, so Jacob goes and tries to chill everyone out. He says, ‘My boy here will take me to town we’ll get some tequila shots for you.’ We got all this free beer and he wants to take the Mexican into town for tequila. What’s that shit about?”

           I hear banging on the door from Angelica’s end of the phone.

           “What dad? Okay. Sorry.”

           “You gotta go?”

           “No, but he can hear me cussing. I hope he didn’t hear tequila or beer.”

           “You usually get louder on the bad words,” I tell her. I never used such language until I started partying with my Catholic friend. The Baptists tend to frown on such things. “That’s how we always get in trouble in first period. Maybe we should meet at Carl’s Jr.” My stomach is finally protesting.

           She yells to someone in her house again. “Okay, in a minute.” Quieter to me she says, “My stupid brothers think they need the phone for homework. You know they’re lying. Homework over spring break. In junior high. Liars!” Louder but without covering the phone she says, “Why you wait until the last minute for that sh-stuff? Okay, let me finish eating and help my mom clean up and I’ll walk down to Carl’s about nine.”

           I look at the clock. “Okay. See you in thirty.”

           I hang up and reach over for last year’s yearbook. The grainy black and whites of my classmates stare back at me. I open to the junior section and turn past Angelica and Isabel Becerra. I hesitate, knowing Jacob Davis is on the next page, not sure I’m strong enough yet.

           I close my eyes and see him kissing me at a desert party then drinking more beer from his red solo cup. I open my eyes and turn the page slowly to reveal his sideways grin. He is wearing his Padres jersey and his hair had just been lined up on the sides. This is the picture I pretended with when I thought I wanted him to be my boyfriend. He’d signed the space below his photo: To my best girl, Thanks for the best times. Love, J. I run my fingers over the words he wrote and feel the indentation of the blue ballpoint on the thick glossy page. I close my eyes again, too late to stop my tears from dripping down.

           “Mom,” I cry out, waking myself from the painful memories. I sit up dropping my book open on the floor and walk out to where she and my dad are watching television. “Mom, Dad, I need some air. Is it okay if I walk to Carl’s and hang out with Angelica?”

           My dad looks at my mom; she looks at me then back at him. He closes the leg-rest of his black leather recliner with a loud thwap and stands up. “This is a re-run. I just got a call about some power lines down on the west end of town. I’ll drop you off.” He is an electrician for the city, on call every other weekend.

           “Thanks, Dad.” He tries to be understanding in his own gruff way. I’m sure he doesn’t know what to say anymore than I do. While my mom thinks prayer is the answer to everything, my dad thinks everyone should just tough it out. Doesn’t matter what “it” is. Stove your finger playing basketball? Tape it up and keep playing. Geometry too hard? Keep doing it until you get it right. Don’t like what mom made for dinner? Eat it anyway. Boy you liked dies? Be grateful it wasn’t you.

           Outside the fast food restaurant, I thank him again. “I’ll call mom before I walk home.” I slam the door of his truck a little too hard.
My dad looks up and down the nearly deserted street and adds out the window, “Or I’ll pick you up if you want.” He waves when he sees Angelica approaching the restaurant door.

           I don’t respond, but walk away quickly.

           Angelica waves back and waits for me. We hug. “You hungry?” she asks.

           I shrug. “Just a soda. Maybe some fries.” The whole place has the lingering odor of disinfectant mixed with whatever was burned during the dinner rush.

           We order and find a booth in the back but not too close to the bathroom. I sit so I can watch who comes in.

           “Okay, where was I?”

           “Jacob playing peacemaker and tequila,” I say.

           “Yeah, so he gets in Francisco’s Jeep. That new one he bought over in Phoenix, you seen it?” she asks.

           “Green, no top?”

           “Yeah. They get in and start driving too fast down that dirt road, you know, the one that goes up to Second Avenue.”

           “You were way out there?”

           “Way out there.” She reaches over to nibble on a few of my French fries then takes a huge slurp of her chocolate shake before continuing.

           “They kicked up all kinds of dirt and everyone was coughing, spitting it out. Even Francisco’s friends were threatening his tail lights. That one that just moved here from Indio with his Tio, he’s cute.”

           I sip my Dr. Pepper. “Angelica?”

           “Sorry. So we see them driving away and a few hours later, some one said, ‘Hey, where’s that guy who went to get tequila?’ and no one answered him. There is still beer, so who cares. I’m buzzed, everything’s all hazy.”

           “Angelica, how long did you guys wait for the tequila?”

           “Jack didn’t want to wait anymore and you know if we stay out too late, that damn rooster next door to mi Tia starts making all kinds of noise and mi Tia wakes up and then we get caught.”

           “Was Jack drinking too? Dumb question. Why would he go out there if he wasn’t going to drink?”

           “Shh, let me finish. It gets better.” Angelica must have forgotten she was conveying a fatal tragedy and she starts telling me what happened like she was watching it on television.

           “I hear Isabel behind me getting all mad at Jack because you know how he always tries to get her to do it when he’s drunk.” Angelica slurps the last of her shake. “So I think we are going soon and I try to drink my beer as fast as I can.”

           I interrupt her because I know what happened next. “You threw up, didn’t you?”

           “Right on Jack’s shoes.” She cracks up like the movie has a happy ending. “He is still pissed at me.”

           “Wait, when did all this happen?” I had been operating on the assumption that it was the night before I returned, Friday. But with no eight am bell to force people into class the next day, it could have been any night.

           “Wednesday. Listen. We leave and see three cop cars blocking the road. Jack turned off his lights and stopped so we could see them, but they couldn’t see us. They pulled Francisco out of the Jeep and put him into the ambulance. Then we see them looking around across the irrigation ditch. Jacob had been thrown from the Jeep, onto a cement block, killed instantly.”

           “You could see all that?” The barrage of details makes me want to barf.

           “No, I read it in Thursday’s paper. But we didn’t wait there for the cops to see us. Jack put it in reverse and we took the long way home. Man, we are so lucky we didn’t get caught.”

           “Lucky.” I can’t say anything else. Stupid Jacob. “Why didn’t anyone stop them from driving all drunk like that?”

           “What? Who? No one stops anyone. Ever. They just, I don’t know.” Angelica is clearly not traumatized even though she was there. Why wasn’t I there instead of building houses for people who I don’t even know? I bet God doesn’t even have an answer for that.

           “I would have stopped them.”

           “What? No. You might have tried to keep Jacob from leaving because you were jealous of the other girl he was talking to. But you would have been the most excited about tequila.”

           Angelica is right. I love tequila. My mom would die if she knew. She blames alcohol for her brother’s and her father’s deaths. That’s why she left the Catholic Church and joined the Baptists. They are more critical of such habits.

           “Angelica, school on Monday is going to be awful.”

           Angelica lowers her voice. “I know. The funeral is not until Wednesday. The paper said they had to bring somebody in special to take care of the crime scene. Can you believe it they are calling it that, a crime scene? Nothing exciting like this ever happens here.”

           I want to be angry with her for thinking all this is exciting. I want to scream at her and Sheila and Chris and Francisco because I cannot scream at Jacob.

           I call my mom about a quarter to eleven but tell her not to have dad pick us up. Angelica and I want to stroll. We live in a town where it is still safe to be a young woman alone at night. Police patrol the streets at regular intervals, mostly to protect people from themselves. That’s why we all know to party outside city limits.

           “You think anyone is out there tonight?” I ask Angelica as we cross the main drag and walk east towards the car wash. I went there with Jacob when he first got his car for Christmas.

           “Out where? Second Avenue? Probably.”

           “I want to go out there.”

           “Why? How?”

           “I just want to see it for myself.” I look at my watch. “It’s not too late. We can see if anyone getting off shift at Safeway wants to go out.”

           “You don’t want to call Chris?” Angelica asks.

           I glare at her and give her the quick version of his jealous stupidity. “How much cash you got?” We would have to buy a twelve pack in exchange for the ride.

           Angelica reaches in all her pockets and pulls out a five-dollar bill which surprises her. “Look!”

           I have a five too and we hurry past the T-shirt shop, a hair salon, and a bank before we cross back over to the partially-lit grocery store parking lot. Shelia’s cousin Ralph is getting into his Nissan 280Z.

           “Ooh, Lisett, not him. Remember how he got all touchy with Isabel at the fair last year?”

           “Yeah. His whole family is weird.” I frown, remembering Shelia’s obnoxious hair and clothes at Chris’s game.

           “There’s Ramiro,” Angelica says.

           “Who?”

           “My cousin Chuy’s friend. He’ll take us. And he’s cute.”

           As she walks faster, ahead of me, to catch him, I mumble, “I just hope he doesn’t have a girlfriend who’ll want to kick our asses later.”

           Ramiro takes the ten dollars and agrees to drive us. “But I’m only staying one hour, then I got to get home. I’m back on at eight tomorrow.”

           I use the pay phone and tell my mom that we are going to watch a movie at Isabel’s. Angelica calls Isabel to make sure she isn’t going to get us in trouble later.

           It takes twenty minutes to get all the way out to the party. At first, I stand away from the crowd, the damp smell of the weeds surrounding the river are more pungent than the campfire smoke from this position. Stars are brighter and more plentiful when there are no street lamps or traffic signals to interfere with the path of their light. Angelica walks over to mingle with the unfamiliar faces. It is as if she has forgotten why we are here, what I need to do. I watch everyone drink. Cigarette tips move in and out of the shadows that their bodies cast with the help of the flames. Someone’s truck window is open and “Pour some sugar on me” fills the party zone. I want to enjoy it, to forget about what happened when I wasn’t here. I want something stronger than beer to numb the pain. I want to ask God, Why? But I know there won’t be an answer.

           I fall to my knees in the sand and cover my face with my hands. Two more Def Leppard songs play through until someone decides to change the CD. Without the music, I hear people laughing and talking. My anger begins to surface. I look up at the circle of chattering young people and imagine myself pushing them all into the pile of burning wooden pallets. “That’s what you get for letting Jacob die.” I growl to no one in particular. They seem far away, acting like nothing ever happened.

           I pick up the sandy dirt and let it fall through my fingers slowly to the other hand. Back and forth I continue my sifting. With each handful I pick out a few sticks or a rock too big to pass through the narrow openings. Then I begin throwing small rocks and sticks just a few feet away from my squatting self but in their general direction. I throw bigger chunks of hill and tree. Then I grab handfuls of earth and fling them harder. I feel myself walking towards them and see myself knocking beer bottles and cans out of people’s hands and taking their keys.

           But really, I am still kneeling by the car, too scared and empty to move. Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” comes on. I yell over the noise, “My friend died.” And like a six-year-old, I whisper, “I loved him.”

           I fall forward; my hands protect my face from the rough terrain but nothing protects my shins and knees or the tops of my sandaled feet. I cry, the steamy snot sticking to my hands and face until I feel two small hands on my back.

           “Shit, Angelica, she’s fucked up,” Ramiro says.

           “No, she’s just sad,” Angelica says matter-of-factly. Catholics must learn to mourn differently. “Let’s take her home, Ramiro. I’ll clean her up there.”

           By the time Ramiro pulls into my driveway, I am calm again. All the lights are off; my parents must have gone to bed, assuming I stayed over at Isabel’s. “Thanks, man.”

           He looks at me like I am still crouched and crying. “You gonna be okay?”

           I nod and hug Angelica. “I’ll call you after church tomorrow.”

           She grins and tries to make me feel like a normal girl again. “We can plan our outfits for Monday.

           I can’t smile back. “Monday is going to be hell.”

           She nods and slides closer to Ramiro as they drive away.

           That night I wake up from my dreams holding Jacob and shaking us. I say to him, “If I hold on when I wake up, then you won’t really be dead.” I wake up crying and by morning I have no voice left.

           My mom interrupts my last dream with the smell of bacon frying. Jacob says he’d rather eat pancakes and slips out of my embrace. I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to go to Sunday service where I might see Sheila or other annoying people who will ask if I’m okay. Do I look okay? My reflection in the bathroom mirror says no. I try to wake myself up with a cool shower, my second one in the last twelve hours. If I stay in the pulsating stream long enough, maybe it will wash away my pain. I still can’t find the words to pray.

           “Lisett?” I hear my dad’s voice through the bathroom door. He knocks, then calls my name again. “Are you okay in there?”

           “I’ll be out in a minute.” He is probably more worried I’ll use up all the hot water than he is about my emotional state. “Hurry up. Breakfast is getting cold.”

           When I emerge with my hair combed and a long comfortable church dress on, I just want to crawl back under the blankets. Chris is sitting at the kitchen table talking to my dad about the NBA playoffs. Mom is whirling around the kitchen with a bright red apron on, serving them both plates full of scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns. I feel like I’m stuck in a bad 1950s film. I put on a fake smile and look at the clock. How can they all pretend nothing happened?

           “Good morning, Lisett.”

           “Good morning, Chris. Good morning, Father. Breakfast looks delicious, Mother.”

           My voice is half an octave higher than normal. My dad raises an eyebrow. I never call them mother and father. But we never have this all-American breakfast so it seems appropriate to play along.

           “Please pass the juice,” I say.

           Chris looks at me with his head tilted to the left and isn’t listening to my dad’s question about the Phoenix Suns. I blink back at him and try to keep my smile pasted to my face. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m afraid to pick up my fork and take a bite. The scratch and clink of the others’ eating motions echoes in my brain.

           My mom turns to me and says, “After church today, Chris thought we could all go –”

           I explode. “Are you crazy. How can you all act like nothing happened? Like today is a normal Sunday?” I throw my chair back behind me as I get up and I don’t know where to go. My room is the most obvious choice but I feel like I’m suffocating on the dense air concentration inside our house. I open the front door, letting all the flies in, and rush out into the bright heat. I only know I’ve stopped moving when I feel my dad’s hands on my shoulders. I hear his voice behind me.

           “Lisett, even if you had been there, there was nothing you could have done.”

           I turn around and cry into his white undershirt. He doesn’t try to stop my sadness. He doesn’t shush me and tell me to pray. He lets me cry until I can’t make any more tears. He holds me up as we walk back to the house. Chris isn’t there when I get back inside and I don’t ask why. My mom has cleaned up breakfast and my chair mess and she is sitting at the edge of the couch with a ladies magazine, trying to look patient.

           My dad announces, “I’m going to get changed and we’ll go to the later service.”

           I bite the inside of my cheek and take a deep breath. So just like that I’m really supposed to wear my regular face and pretend it is a regular Sunday and eat regular food like a regular person.

           Pastor Johnson is sweating before he even walks up to the pulpit. He watches as the choir finishes the last verse of “Rejoice in the Lord.” He uses a small white towel to wipe his shiny bald forehead; he cools his gravelly voice with a swig from his water bottle; then, he looks out at his congregation, pausing at particular people to offer a smile of recognition. I usually avoid direct eye contact, but today he catches me in his gaze and does not smile. He leans into the microphone, emphasizing the letters t and p for dramatic effect. “Today, I want to talk to our young people.” There are shifting noises, pants on the pews. “Today, it is possible that some of you do not feel like rejoicing.” Parents agree with a murmur. “Perhaps you are angry with God. Perhaps you think he has abandoned you.” Each “you” is drawn out longer than the previous one and he loses his breath on the last one.

           I want to stand up and scream, “Of course I am angry,” but my regular self stays in control.

           “Take a moment, young people, and look at what the Lord has given you. See your mother. See your father. The Lord has blessed you. Rejoice with me.” He motions to the choir who sings the chorus again and I feel rage tickling the back of my throat; my tears are not staying inside my eyes. Pastor Johnson looks directly at me again and motions for the choir to stop. “But something stops us from singing.” Every “s” is followed by a spray of his hot sticky breath and I want to be anywhere but in this pew, my arm rubbing my dad’s arm and my mom’s sweaty hand on my leg. “Something has caused us all some pain. Some of you say, thank God it wasn’t me. It is in this time of sorrow and loss that must show our strength. We must rejoice.” The choir repeats the chorus of the song with no visible cue, but I watch Pastor Johnson. He sips water from his secret stash behind the pulpit. He tries to smile but his forehead has those tight lines of concentration that make a V between his eyebrows. He doesn’t know what to do or say either.

           “Excuse me.” I climb over my dad and exit the side door. I slide down the stucco wall, causing my dress to rise up in the back and I feel my legs exposed. I don’t care. I keep sliding until I am sitting in the shade on the cool cement. From the open door, I hear the choir finish that song and Pastor Johnson continues as if I never left. As if I had not just spent the last seven days with him pounding nails and sawing boards under Mexico’s excruciating sun rays. “Is this what it’s like, Lord? Is this normal?”

           Sheila comes out of the nearby bathroom and walks towards me, shading her eyes. “Lisett? Who are you talking to?” She looks around. “Why are you on the ground?”

           “I don’t know.” I hear the harshness in my voice and realize she doesn’t mean to be so stupid. “I just needed some air.”

           “I’m not pregnant.”

           “What?”

           “I just got my period.”

           I am not sure how to respond. She reaches down to help me up. I accept her hand.

           As we walk back towards the door she says, “Pastor Johnson told my mom he wants you to read the scripture at Jacob’s funeral service. He said you have the best voice.”

           I look into the open door and see Pastor Johnson still sweating and wiping, but he is finished talking. The ushers are passing the basket and the choir starts slowly singing, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.”

           I join my parents back inside the church, trying my best to sing and to believe the words I’m singing. I try to forget the horror that Angelica witnessed. I look at my mom. I look at my dad. Then I look at Pastor Johnson who is also singing along. I look down to where Shelia has returned to sit with her own mom and notice for the first time they have matching sculpted hair. Beyond them I see Jacob’s cousins, Isaiah and Esther, with Jacob’s mom in between. She is trying to sing too, intermittently dabbing her eyes with a pink lace handkerchief. Isaiah wears a hard down-turned moth and a dark blue button-up shirt. He doesn’t sing but with his eyes closed he sways a little, keeping time with the hymn. Esther sings; her rich alto voice finds my ear and makes me feel safe. Safe in the arms of Jesus.

___

For 14 years, Tisha Marie Reichle has been teaching reading and writing to 100 plus not-always-willing teenagers and struggles to find time for her own work. For 10 years, she has been writing and revising a novel about the Chicana/o Student Movement at UCLA. Her stories utilize the desert landscape of her childhood and the urban chaos of her adulthood. She earned her MFA in 2009 at Antioch University Los Angeles. Some of her writing has been published at Annotation Nation, Travel by the Books, and The Splinter Generation; a short story is forthcoming in 34th Parallel.

Nels Hanson

In Fiction, Indio, Volume II Issue 1 on April 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Who I Am Now

          I crossed the Reno Harrah’s lobby like a man risen from the dead and they were playing “Travis Jackson” over the sound system, promoting our big opening show that would never happen now—

Travis Jackson was a friend of mine,
Cowboy-bred but out of time.
The West is going, going, gone.
You can hear it fade when you hear his song.

          Dr. Westbrook, that’s my last memory of the last day with Jodie—our two voices singing a hymn to the Western hero who wasn’t my bosom friend but myself and wore my real name—as I went out the glass doors into the blare of sirens and the smoke-filled city.

           Behind me someone called, “There goes Buck Cole!” and I didn’t hesitate or turn to look toward the man who was pointing at Travis Jackson.

           That day at Harrah’s I walked out onto the sidewalk and took a taxi for the airport and hired a private plane to the dirt strip in Waverly. From the ranch I didn’t look back for six months or more, all through 9/11 and the boiling anger that would lead to Iraq, to the awful prison at Abu Gharib that’s been on TV all week and made me remember Jodie and my time with the President.

           After Reno I’d been eager to get away, to put a lot of mental mileage between Jodie and Buck Cole, but her face and his and President Bush’s and murdered Johnny Black’s kept appearing in my rearview mirror, until I had to turn again and confront what was behind the “old” and “new” me who were both Travis Jackson.

           I knew I’d escaped from a dangerous spider, a regular black widow that had tried to eat her mate and had ruined Johnny Black, except Jodie had a guitar instead of a red fiddle on her stomach. She might bite anybody, including herself, but then of course she already had, when she tried to bury Travis and finally everything fell apart.

           I tried to hate Jodie, when I felt shaky or uncertain, when I’d get a late-night phone call from the man who kept pretending to be Travis Jackson, or I’d go into Waverly and start to lose my composure, have trouble walking into a store or facing some old acquaintance on the street who didn’t know whether to call me Travis or Buck.

           The town was mad with war fever and without a TV or paper the attack on the Trade Center had taken me by surprise—I’d unplugged the radio like the phone, to stay clear of the Coles and their songs and news of their split and the prank caller, the impersonator, who’d taken me in the last drunken year. The world had gone as crazy as Jodie and me and the death of Buck Cole bled together with the two jets hitting the Twin Towers.

           It was as if both Jodie and Buck had been killed in the sudden blast and falling buildings in New York that made the fire three months before at the Reno Grand seem incidental—there were flames and smoke but nobody was hurt and the black sky made a fitting backdrop to my last meeting with Jodie in her suite at Harrah’s.

           As I told you, that’s when I returned Jodie’s lost wedding band inscribed with our names and told her I’d just found out I wasn’t Buck Cole.

           Slowly, I began to see Jodie was a victim too, a rich and famous and pretty victim, trapped by the oldest web there is, the net you think you’re spinning but that’s already old as the stars and waiting to snag you in its sticky ropes.

           I talked to Jodie’s younger sister, Mary Ann, on the phone one night when I was connected again at the ranch, long after it all ended in Reno. She called me after she’d read about our break-up, in an article her mother Melva had given her—for three years Jodie had told me that Melva was dead, “up there with the stars,” far away from her alcoholic husband who’d died in a car wreck 20 years before. In the middle of a national crisis, the press and the public still had a healthy taste for stale celebrity gossip—maybe our tie with President Bush and his wife kept it alive.

           I’d been on the right track but I learned a good deal more.

           As a kid in Missoula, Montana, Jodie’d never got her fair share, she had a baby sister and brother to feed and raise and a sick mother to care for, a weird father to steer clear of the same time she had to milk him for what money she could get. They lived on the wrong side of the tracks and what decent clothes they had Jodie altered from neighbors’ hand-me-downs.

           She’d taught herself to sing and dance and play guitar, use the right make-up and cut her own hair from pictures in magazines. Jodie had been a majorette, a county second-runner-up for Montana Junior Miss, won a bicycle as a contestant on a radio show, started a morning paper route, in high school clerked nights at a 7-11—the same time she watched the house and kids and tried to keep her mother halfway sober.

           Mary Ann described Jodie as an overworked Cinderella, an orphan princess in a third-hand world a little short on Prince Charmings. Eager shiftless boys competed to possess her body but no one saw her for herself or recognized her true worth, no matter how she tried. She was sure she was somebody special, even though no one treated her that way, so she worked that much harder to prove it each time the one chance that might be her last strayed within reach.

           It was that restless angry hunger that drove her, that created Buck and Jodie Cole and made us both stars and took her to the Republican Convention where she’d sung “Travis Jackson” and us to the Crawford ranch and then to the White House, to the Lincoln Bedroom where I’d made drunken love as Jodie held me close and whispered, “I’ll always love you, Buck.”

           After the call with Mary Ann I remembered a story of my father’s, about a hired hand named Gregor who had worked at the ranch in the early ’30s. My dad was a boy and used to listen to him hour on end when they forked hay or mended fence and the skinny man told the story of his hunger.

           Gregor was born in Czechoslovakia and spoke broken English. During World War I, he’d become a refugee, trapped between the German and Russian lines. He didn’t have food and to keep from starving he’d begun to eat grass and leaves and the bark from trees. He learned which wood he could keep on his stomach.

           One day he saw a German patrol coming toward him and he ran and jumped in the river. He grabbed a log and floated all the way to the Baltic Sea, where some sailors on a Danish sealing boat saw him and pulled him out. He was nearly a skeleton and they hid him in the hold, wrapped in a sealskin, and brought him food, at first just soup and canned milk.

           Gregor never stopped eating. When he wasn’t asleep, he waited in the dark for them to bring him more. The sailors couldn’t fill him up, they had contests and bet to see who could stuff him full. When the ship docked in New York, they carried him ashore wrapped in the skin. For years he worked his way across the country until he ended up at the ranch.

           He was a steady worker, a good hand with the cows and horses, but at meals he’d eat a whole roast. He’d eat two chickens by himself. For breakfast he’d have a dozen eggs and a slab of bacon, a big basket of rolls. He had an iron stomach and would eat the green plums off the trees or dig up a potato and chew it raw.

           Gregor Spadel never gained a pound. He was thin and strong and healthy—he was never sick, he never missed a day’s work—but he just couldn’t get enough to eat.

           Finally my grandfather had to let him go, he couldn’t afford the food. For a dime, my father bought a big sack of Macintosh apples and gave it to him as a going-away present when he got on the bus. Gregor bowed and thanked him profusely.

           The man’s craving was too deep, he’d been so hungry so long, the pangs had been so keen, he could never forget, and spent all his time trying to fill the hole in himself that wouldn’t go away—the hole of hunger that had taken the place of the dread of death no one can completely appease.

           It wasn’t Jodie’s fault her appetite got a little sharper each time she tried to slake it. As you know, I haven’t seen Jodie since Reno, just on the cover of the tabloids at the grocery store and a time or two on TV. I don’t know for certain how well she really knew Laura Bush or if she ever saw the Bushes after Harrah’s.

           I never heard from George, only on the radio news when I began listening again. He never called anymore to pray with me to stop my drinking, then to laugh and hear my stories about Travis Jackson, that the fake Travis Jackson had told me. The President still liked to mention Travis to reporters when he talked about Afghanistan and Iraq and the Axis of Evil—you remember that he dragged Travis in with Ben Laden and the Old West “Wanted Dead or Alive” speech.

           Jodie told Barbara Walters that I’d driven drunk with the President at his ranch, put the whole country in jeopardy when I’d taken the wheel of his new pickup and looked for his cattle that weren’t there. “Buck Cole is a delusional alcoholic,” she said and it stung me but I couldn’t argue with her diagnosis. What would you call a man who forgot who he was, who needed to read his name on his wife’s wedding band to remember?

           Once, for a whole bad day when I’d gone back to the ranch after the breakup, I thought about Jodie’s ring. Did she pick it up off the hotel room floor or forget about it? Did she keep it or throw it away? Did a maid or another guest find it? Did someone sell it or wear it as a keepsake, or was it still at Harrah’s, waiting in a corner underneath the dresser?

           I thought about calling the hotel and asking them to look. In one of ten million places the ring with my name and hers kept living its secret life without us, just as it had those three years in the water barrel at the corner of the barn—until I found it, fell to the ground like a man struck by lightning, then in Reno gave it back to Jodie to watch her surprise.

           She’d insisted for a year that I’d made up Travis Jackson, that I’d taken an imaginary cowboy from a song I’d written and she’d revised and then convinced myself that Travis was real and a close friend of mine, the way children sometimes have invisible playmates.

           In several interviews, with a little prompting, Jodie admitted to a series of discreet, one-night affairs with music and movie celebrities, then a hint that she and Bill Clinton had talked on the phone after the Monica scandal. She wouldn’t say anymore.

           Once she mentioned Slim Frye, the Nashville singer who’d put her out of the car in the desert, before I’d come along in the pickup and taken Jodie in and she’d found my stack of songs on the kitchen table.

           “It’s true revenge is sweet,” Jodie said, about dating Frye again. “You put the poison in the sugar.”

           I don’t know if any of what she said was true and it doesn’t matter now, though the Bushes couldn’t have appreciated her “kiss-and-tells,” if that’s what they were.

           You know of course that she kept on singing, but for the fans it wasn’t the same. One actor had bowed out of the duet, like when Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge broke up. For a while, Jodie went with a well-known movie star famous for his many love affairs, then with a talented young Irish rocker who later died of a drug overdose. They cut a record together, “Winter Dreams,” which reminded me of the Christmas Day that Jodie returned to the ranch, in the new white Cadillac, and for a week she’d nursed me back to health before the Coles started for Denver to join Johnny Black and record “Travis Jackson.”

           I thought Jodie and her new partner’s rockabilly album was good—very good—but it didn’t sell.

           After that she did a series of confessionals with a therapist, about child abuse, something called “nonphysical psychosexual trauma syndrome,” so nothing I’ve said here is anything Jodie hasn’t said herself. She talked a lot about Melva and her father, who was still alive and living in Florida. Whatever happened early was the start of her never getting what she needed. And like so many children of alcoholics, she had married one, Jodie said.

           Or made one? I’d never had a drinking problem, before she left me that fall, then changed my name in December and we went out to Denver to the recording studio and then on the road—

           At the ranch after Reno, as I tried to get well on my own, I thought, “What does it matter now? Start from where you are.” I got the papers from Jodie’s attorney and I signed them and sent them back. The terms seemed fair—high but fair, considering I’d get to keep my land.

           Playing them over, I realized most of our hit duets were secret arguments, that even in the sweet rush of love we’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop. We listened for it, even imagined how sad and pretty it would sound. Like a strop, the coming doom put the keen edge on our music, made love enticing and dangerous because it was threatened and couldn’t last.

           How could it? It was already dead. With relief, we could cry and sing over it, like happy, sentimental murderers who wish their victim was alive and well to share their riches, but know that won’t happen, the insurance scam is safe. It was like that movie we were in, “Twilight Falls,” where the double kills Elvis and takes his place, sings one song, and retires—

           Once I saw her on a special, “Christmas at Fort Bragg.” Jodie sang  “Silver Bells” with Ann-Margaret and Paul Anka, for troops bound for the Middle East. She looked and sounded good and as I scanned the young faces of boys and girls heading off to war I thought of that Christmas morning Jodie had come back to the ranch—before the song became a platinum hit and we rose to the top and a million cars had “Travis Jackson lives!” pasted on their bumpers.  Jodie had fed and warmed me, when I’d quit caring about those things you have to do to stay alive.

           Whether I’d become human again was another question—after that I was Buck Cole.

           A few months after I moved to Hawaii but before I came to you—as the push to invade Iraq was heating up and George Bush began talking about a conversation he’d had with Jesus—I got the last midnight call from Travis Jackson. He said he’d just bought a pinto horse from Elvis’ widow.

           It gave me a chill for a second, but this time I recognized the voice as Red Stampley, Johnny Black’s pedal-steel player. Of course Red was an expert mimic, he’d loved to do Waylon Jennings and John Cash. He was the one who’d sent the letters and made the calls from Travis Jackson that had driven Jodie crazy and given me hope when I’d felt I had no where to turn. I realized now that the voice he’d used was my own.

           Jerry, the sound engineer, was right that day in the studio in Nashville, when Jodie threw the vase of roses, a few days after Johnny Black was killed by the punk singer in Arizona—Johnny who had given us our start and taken the fall when Jodie let him go, then gone to work as a fixer for Columbia Records.

           When Jerry answered the phone and Jodie was hoping it was the President calling to help with her drunken husband, Jerry thought Travis sounded like Red.

           Red had made up the baby snake that slipped through the wedding ring and got stuck so it grew in a figure-eight six feet long. And Tex, the cowboy who rode the saddled steer instead of a horse, and the story of the bull and heifer the eager would-be grandfather staked outside the newlyweds’ bungalow—the President’s favorite Travis Jackson story.

           Months before, Red had posed as Terry Riley, manager of the Branding Iron in Waverly, where Jodie and I first played with the Johnny Black Band. On the phone Terry told me Travis Jackson and his wife had split up and later I’d given that news to Johnny in the bar in Phoenix. Johnny had listened silently, knowing how lost I was, only a few hours before he met his future murderer, Eddie Rat, who wasn’t happy with his recording contract.

           I learned later from Marlene Black that Red had been in and out of hospitals, with lots of traveling and impersonation stints between stays on the ward. It was probably Red who introduced himself as Travis Jackson to Raymond Welch at the gas station in Wells—before the air conditioning on the Caddie failed and I’d stopped for repairs that Raymond couldn’t make, then decided to head through the blazing heat for Travis Jackson’s ranch.

           Hearing Red’s friendly, earnest, excited voice, and remembering our cordial conversations about ranching and the West, I felt some fear but no rancor and thought only, There but for the grace of God . . . .

           Red’s Travis Jackson had been my only true friend, before I found out the real Travis was me—

           After some rough times in Honolulu, I found you, Dr. Westbrook, and then later the place on the big island of Hawaii, the twenty-acre spread ten miles from Hilo, where I raise and train horses, Morgans, for the Forest Service.

           As you know I attended the local community college, to learn some history and read books and talk to other people. I read a lot and I thought a lot and I listened a lot. I met new people I liked. Most didn’t recognize me without the dark glasses and black clothes and the Stetson with the silver-dollar band, and the ones who did were decent about it.

           One guy, Walter Masumoto, joked that I should have run the President’s truck into the creek. “Good old Travis Jackson!” He grinned and slapped me on the back.

           I’m still listening and trying to learn as the wars overseas go on and the administration threatens to bomb Iran. Sometimes I think how George Bush was about my age when he hit the wall with his drinking, found religion, sobered up and became a new person. When he landed on the aircraft carrier in the flight suit and the banner read “Mission Accomplished!” I thought of myself dressed up like Johnny Cash, not knowing I was pretending to be Buck Cole as I sang “Travis Jackson.”

           I’ll say a prayer tonight for the President and his wife and for our country and the troops and their families and the poor Moslem people dying. I don’t wish any man or woman any harm, no child or bird or animal. If the President ever wanted to call me on the phone I’d be happy to talk to him, to listen to what he had to say, to assure him he can call me anytime.

           After all, haven’t we both been strangers to ourselves, at one time or another? I hope it’s never too late to begin to become the person you’re supposed to be—in both our cases.

           Once a month now I take the commuter plane to Honolulu to meet you for an hour. You’re kind and smart, Dr. Westbrook—you’ve helped me understand how Travis Jackson became Buck Cole and then Buck Cole’s only companion and the role Jodie played in my changing into a different person—like a snake that wasn’t meant to molt shedding a skin.

           You know about the blow-up at Harrah’s, about the angry tape I made after I reached into the bucket by the barn and found the ring engraved “Jodie and Travis,” then fell to the ground and had to crawl to the house. I played the tape for Jodie in the hotel room in Reno and you asked if I still had it. I said I’d burned it to ash when I moved back to Waverly and you frowned and said you’d liked to have heard it.

           “It might have saved us some time and medication.”

           What I haven’t told you yet is that at college in Hilo a classmate and I did a project together, on Queen Liluokalani, the last monarch of the Islands. The queen was an amazing woman. When she died, for two weeks the waves that struck the Islands turned crimson with strange, dying red fish. It was as if nature were giving up the ghost.

           My friend’s name is Jane and she knew all about the last queen. She and I studied together and then began going out and after a while fell in love. She’s pretty, with black hair and blue eyes, and doesn’t look at all like Jodie.

           My grandmother was right when she read my palm and said I’d find a good wife. Jane is very patient with me and my ups-and-downs. We’re going to be married in June, not long before the Democratic Convention, if she’ll still have me after my depression this long awful week of ugly news from Iraq—

           I’m teaching Nicky, her son, to ride and play guitar and harmonica. I’m relearning all the old cowboy songs, tunes sung by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. Nick likes “Cool Water” and “Streets of Laredo.” He thinks Lash Larue is strange but sort of cool.

           Nick is teaching me to body surf. Together we’ve written a couple of songs for kids, including that one about the western Rip Van Winkle I never finished, the lyric I was working out on the drive from Nashville when the air conditioning went bad and I ended up at Travis Jackson’s and saw the buck deer in the window, then found Jodie’s thrown ring at the bottom of the drum of stagnant water.

           We changed the song some, gave it a Hawaiian beat, took out the drinking and the broken marriages, put in a white-bearded, 100-year-old surfer and a killer wave, the Wave of the Century, the old man has been waiting for.

          The song is better now and when we were finished I thought things had finally come full circle, from that first night at the Waverly ranch when Jodie took my song and inserted the name Travis Jackson, to appeal to my vanity and make us partners and lovers.

          All this bad seven days, with the story and torture pictures of Abu Ghraib playing—the hooded naked man connected to wires—Nicky’s been a loyal soldier. Sitting with me, staring at the TV screen, he asked, “Is it true you used to know the President?”

           “I used to, Nick, a part of me did,” I said. “Not very well. Not for a long time now.”

           I got a card the other day from Janice Wheeler, thanking me for standing up for her and her sisters that day Jodie threw the vase of roses and tried to fire them in the recording studio. The Wheel Sisters had enjoyed touring and singing with me and she wanted to personally acknowledge what my friendship had meant to her. Janice said if Travis Jackson ever wanted to kiss a woman in a dark closet, Buck Cole might know a willing someone he could highly recommend.

           I know what it is to have to crawl across a barnyard with a lost wedding ring in your hand. When I walk, I try to go step by step. Each night I lay my head down softly on my pillow next to Jane’s. I know the past can rise up in a flash, from the shadow of a man and horse cast across green pasture, or from TV and a tortured prisoner’s picture that breeds a nightmare when you go to sleep after kissing your true love. I know I still have to take things slow, but then that’s as it should be for a new man in a new country.

           After all, my people were pioneers.

           I’ve written too much but I need to say just a little more—a few extra things I never told you— about what happened after I left Jodie in Reno and before I sailed with Captain Robert for Hawaii and met you, because it’s how I ended up where I am now, which is the most important thing of all, as you said our first day.

           When I landed in Waverly I went back to Wonder Valley and took up my old life as Travis Jackson, making repairs on the house and barn, running 200 head of white-faced cattle. I tracked down Cap, my paint cow horse, at a ranch outside Lovelock. He looked bony, but he recognized me right away as I drove up in the blue pickup.

           During the time we’d been in Nashville Jodie had paid the taxes and fees on the ranch and hadn’t put a pen in my drunken hand and made me sign a bill of sale. I thank her for that.

           Suddenly, I had a lot of energy. I felt like a sick man who’d come back to life and didn’t want to waste time. I cleaned up where the buck and other animals had got in the house, then added a room and remodeled the kitchen but kept the rest pretty much the same—I hadn’t returned to change it, but to find it again, to change myself back.

           I ate right, worked and didn’t drink. I rode and did a lot of walking. There were some hard patches, many lonely times, but at the ranch I was on home ground again. Like I said, I had to summon my will to go to town and be in public, and when I got back I was always pretty tired.

           On warm days I swam in the creek, diving deep from the tree shade and holding my breath, stroking a few yards against the current, through the stone door into the underground river where the walls glint with quartz and the water whispers things in your ears. I took the tin dipper from the cottonwood trunk, filled it from the creek and brought it to my mouth. I hesitated, remembering that late fall Jodie left me and I’d thought the cup held poison. Then I closed my eyes and took a deep sweet drink.

          I walked back toward the house, across the meadow where Jodie and I first lay together in the summer sun and I’d imagined we were carried under the pasture by the underground river.

           One day, following a trail of broken arrowheads, I stumbled on the entrance to a cave. Cap was skittish, like he smelled a rattler. I got my flashlight and pistol from the saddlebag and squeezed in past the big rocks blocking the door. I got spooked and nearly fired a wild shot, hearing my own breathing echoing off the walls.

           Then I remembered I’d been there before, I’d told the story in Mom’s Tavern in Nashville the night we’d finished “Lightning Strikes.” In the flashlight’s beam, two skeletons of unequal size embraced like lovers on the stone floor. The bear’s teeth and claws bit and raked the white shoulder blade. The woman’s bones wore a ripped deerskin blouse and long skirt. A medicine pouch and moccasins lay beside her. Her fingers held a stone knife between the bear’s ribs. The tall coarse basket with shoulder straps had been torn from her back. The Paiute woman was gathering firewood. Taking shelter from the Thunderbird, the sudden lightning storm, she’d crept into the cave where the hungry bear slept lightly. You could hear the stabbed animal’s roar and the echoes of her cries as they stumbled in the enclosed dark, holding each other in the terrible dance that wouldn’t end.

           All the time my parents and grandparents had lived and died, and I was a kid and learned to ride a horse and work and went to school, and later picked up Jodie along the road after Slim Frye had put her out and I brought her home and we’d sung together for the first time, then left the ranch and become famous and split up again—all the time the skeletons had lain quietly in each other’s arms.

           The white skulls didn’t turn away from the flashlight. Their dark sockets didn’t stare. The furious sounds of the secret battle had turned to silence, joined the weatherless breathing of the rock. I thought that now they were part of a stone hymn, the faint mineral singing that sounded like time itself. The bones seemed holy and I left them undisturbed.

           One October Sunday I packed a lunch and rode ten miles to Widow’s Tower and entered the box canyon of steep mesas. Carefully I walked the half-mile of rubble and shards of volcanic glass. The canyon floor was scattered with hundreds of perfect dinosaur eggs, big unbroken geodes. They were worth money and I remembered how Travis Jackson had taken only a few.

           After deathtime, the winter and the talking snowy wind, sometimes on spring evenings—when tall, sail-stacked ships of white cumulus crossed the valley from the west, past Jenny Lind and the other snowy peaks—I rode up on the butte above the greening pastures. The clouds were the burning turrets of Ur or Babylon, Troy or Jericho, like the lithographs in my mother’s Hurlburt’s Stories of the Bible. Billowing orange fire was destroying Heaven, overleaping alabaster parapets and marble palaces and balconies and now the final dizzy citadel. The flames had reached the shining tower where gold banners waved toward a world beyond sight—

           And below, beyond the pine in the stamp-sized square of glowing iron picket fence, my family’s tombstones stood up like houses made of yellow light, a little town where at last peace was, the quiet Earth far away and safe from the war of vying gods.

           The Battle of the Angels would fade, the satin night bring calm. The low sun turned the ridges and the pastures silver-red as it set quickly behind the Sierra Nevada toward the sea. In a sky gold and scarlet, then pure indigo, the first stars shone between the clouds.

           Later the glow of the summer dusk was soft as the lining of an abalone shell. Each sundown a single jet fighter from Fallon like a burning star climbed the pearl dome, paying out a contrail of gold filament, until Venus and then Mercury appeared. I remembered the first dusk, when I’d seen the orange fingernail moon and the string of big planets in the chocolate-colored sky as I drove up in the pickup after irrigating the pasture and heard Jodie singing “Travis Jackson” from the house.

           A time or two I wished the President could see it, that would do him good, give him a different view of things. Didn’t he really want to be a cowboy like Travis Jackson, instead of president?

           Sometimes I’d lift my hand and look at the star on my palm Jodie had showed me, like the one she still wore just above where the life and love lines meet. More than once I’d wake in the middle of the night with a start, thinking Jodie was beside me. Then I’d fall back on the pillow and gaze out the window at the stars beyond the cottonwood’s branches until the sky turned light.

           I breathed again the scent of grass and sage, pine and juniper. Again I loved the morning and the night and the day between. I felt the old thrill when a coyote barked clear and sharp and the moon rose late, yellow and full behind the sugar pines on the ridge.

           It was all a balance. That’s what I was working on. But after a year I began to get restless, not jumpy but eager to take hold of something that wasn’t in reach. Like Jodie, I had an itch I couldn’t scratch. The ranch wasn’t the same anymore, or maybe I had changed more than I’d planned. I’d lost my taste for raising cattle for slaughter. I didn’t want to hunt deer or kill anything.

           And I couldn’t take the winters anymore. I was tired of the snow, of the dark mornings when the dry flakes fell past the frozen kitchen window, like random pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that had no solution, all the pieces blank and white. I wasn’t Buck Cole anymore, but I wasn’t the old Travis, either. If his ghost still lingered, it was fading.

           I was worn out by the memories that didn’t finally go away, of Jodie and me, of the way we’d been and the songs I’d written and how the President and other people had loved them and us, the way we’d pretended to be America’s patriotic sweethearts. I felt ashamed of myself when I listened to “Secondhand Lace.”

           But in “Lightning Strikes,” our last cut, I heard something hopeful:

When lightning strikes
And your heart starts to burn
Then your world catches fire
And there’s nowhere to turn,

There’s no one to call
And no place to run
When the sun’s a freezing ball
And the red moon’s the sun.

So you jump into the fire
And the fire burns your bones
Until the flames are water
And the fire is your home—

Then you walk the fiery sea
And you swim the frozen land
Until you lose your way
And you find a place to stand.

That’s where you meet a friend
In clothes of burning blue—
What you thought was just the end
Is the start of something true.   

           I liked what it said—what I thought it said—and the way Jodie and I sang it, the way the band played it, and especially how the Wheeler Sisters gave us our baseline, like a gospel chorus. Jodie had been right, there was nothing wrong with our performance.

           By September I’d decided.

           “That good, Captain Robert?” I asked.

           I was feeding Cap his morning oats in the barn, listening to him chew the shells of grain, the light through the loft door falling on the stalks of clean fallen straw where the angry buck had tried to browse, the deer I’d seen with his head out the kitchen window when I’d driven up in Jodie’s Cadillac, eager to meet Travis Jackson again. He’d pushed open the torn porch door with his dipped antlers and walked calmly across the dead lawn and into the barn to nose the hay stuck to the dry dirt floor.

           I didn’t know that my horse and I would be on an island in a month, in the middle of the ocean, well before the snow came to western Nevada—but just in time for the storm clouds that gathered for Shock and Awe.

           There was still something in me that loved Jodie, and for a long time I’d quit fighting it. My passion for her had been deep and I sensed that a part of her, a lost broken part, maybe the best part, had loved me back in her way. And then, after all, she’d gotten Travis Jackson out into the world, even if she’d given him an alias, a rough push, dark glasses for a blindfold, and the President for his only non-imaginary male acquaintance. It was strange. In a way, hadn’t drunk Buck Cole been George Bush’s only friend?

           I knew I wanted other people, that I needed them if I were ever going to find out who I was. You couldn’t find yourself alone, just like you couldn’t love alone. I decided they were the same thing. It was time to pull up stakes, but I didn’t know where to go.

           I thought how Jodie had screamed and cursed at me in the barnyard that fall, when I’d refused to leave the ranch with her and Johnny Black to become big stars. She’d thrown her ring and driven off and later I couldn’t find the ring, hard as I looked. And then three years later, trying to get my sunglasses back, I found the gold band in the barrel of murky water under the faucet, without looking for it, just like Jodie hadn’t aimed for the barrel—

           By chance?  I wasn’t sure, but there was something real and magic that had always called me back, whispered right along in Buck Cole’s drunken ear. Then I saw the straw at my boot burn like gold and I remembered that it was the Indians, the Paiute Tribe, who called the valley Washtakoshkee.

           I began packing up slowly, half-stalling, getting ready. I was scared but resolved and knew I wouldn’t turn back on what I figured to do. I was going through some old magazines, throwing stuff out, when I saw an ad for the Hawaiian Islands. They looked pretty, green, warm. There were horses and pastures, beaches, waterfalls and mountains, even an extinct volcano with a grass-green crater.

           I liked the Hawaiians in the pictures. They appeared happy and eager, alert, but not for anything more than what the good day might bring. They looked like my folks, in the picture of them when they were young and just starting out.

           On my own and from Jane I’ve learned the Hawaiians are very spiritual people—each year hundreds of white tourists fly back to the Islands to return lava stones they’ve taken from one of the sacred volcanoes. It causes misfortune, to take things away from where they belong.

           Writing this out, like you’ve taught me to do when I get upset, I know now my story isn’t addressed to me, to who I am now, but to Travis Jackson and Buck Cole, that these words are for the spirits of the Earth and not for any living man.

           Dr. Westbrook, I think you knew that from the first, about my learning to surrender to the past and future if I was ever going to build a new person. Maybe the President was right after all, in a way he didn’t know, when he said we’d have to let History decide.

           Maybe he was really talking about himself, not the war in Iraq, when he said we’d have to wait 20 years, to know whether it was right or wrong, good or bad.

           I’ve got an old tin bank box from the ranch. When I go back to visit and show Jane and Nicky the pastures—and swim with Nick where the underground river rises and forms a clear pool—I’ll bury these pages among the cluster of graves under the lone pine.

___

Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and his stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Montreal Review, and other journals.

Hanson’s connection to the Inland Empire region is from childhood and memories of his Aunt Alice’s “O’Henry’s” drive-in and fruit stand in Indio, on the 99 Highway. At first his aunt’s family lived in a ramshackle house in Coachella–the fence was barbed wire– and later in a modest tract house on the western outskirts of Indio–it had once belonged to the English character actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke.

Hanson floated in the Salton Sea and at 9 hit golf balls at a driving range in Palm Springs, where he found a shiny dropped iron in the gravel parking lot and returned it to its owner. He saw “Flipper” and a “silent” Jerry Lewis movie at the Indio Fox, discovered fascinating rows of Biblical date palms with tall, narrow ladders that climbed their strange trunks, and returned to the San Joaquin Valley and his family’s small farm with the mumps.

Once, at night on a return trip from Indio, the car passed a hill of eucalyptus and Hanson’s mother said, “That’s the University of Redlands.” Years later, he met his wife, Vicki, at the writers’ workshop in Missoula, Montana: Vicki had graduated in English from Redlands, loved the college, and described the perfumed, luscious air and the acres of blooming orange trees. His nephew graduated in history from UC Riverside. When Hanson’s grandmother was 5, in 1895, she left a cattle ranch in New Mexico and got off the train in L.A., on the way to the San Joaquin and a new life. Los Angeles had 10,000 people and for a nickel she rode a trolley to the beach and for the first time saw the sea.