August 30, 2029

GUADALAJARA, Mexico

In those days, I was finishing up a degree in the Spanish language in Guadalajara, Mexico, riding the wave of what was left of my mid-life postponement, wedged between two countries, two languages, girlfriends, professions, et al. I remember I turned 36 there, straddling the fence between youth and middle-age, having just moved from Madrid where I had lived for almost six years, and the six weeks in Mexico was an understated adjustment, preceded by the initial shock that Mexico was not even second but third world.

Thanks to a particularly media-hyped influenza virus outbreak called the H1, la gripe porcina or swine flu, it was the first time I noticed a budding prevalence of hand sanitizers located at the thresholds of buildings and doorways. These containers came in various sizes and modes of bringing you a smattering of transparent gel that -as advertised on the label- purported to kill 99.9% of all bacteria. As we now know the action of trying to kill off 99.9% of all the bacteria on our hands only resulted in some vicious mutations that, in turn, killed a healthy percentage of of our own. Even when the US government declared the official “War on Bacteria”, no one really believed it would work based on the other unending, unrealistic wars they had waged and lost at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. In fact, it’s obvious that the bacteria are winning the war because they’re so hard to see and, in comparison, we’re such big targets (which was basically the same problem we had with those pesky terrorists).

Coincidentally or not, these signs of those times occurred around the same rise in popularity as the current standard handshake alternative we now call the knuckle knock (a.k.a. fist bump). It was the obvious choice since no one bites their knuckles, picks their nose or rubs their eyes with their knuckles, allowing us to bump away at our leisure without worrying about any germ-addled palms or bacteria-infected fingernails.

That was, of course, after shaking hands became outlawed and heftily fined (except for political photo-ops), the inter-touching of citizens was largely avoided and fully a part of our national ethos. We became the paradox that we now are: self-isolated from each other, humans in need of touch, but unable to get it.

Guadalajara, the huge chunk of sprawling gaud that it was, shocked me awake every morning to the sounds outside my window: a broom sweeping long assiduous strokes starting at 6:30 am by calloused hands whose owner I never once saw; a particular bird that endlessly repeated two sounds similar to a doorbell during the day; and a train a few blocks from the house where I slept would lay on its horn as it entered the city for about 30 seconds. Every morning for six weeks I entered third world modernity with a brutal aural shock that, only near the end of my stay, became commonplace enough to be an afterthought, part of the background and, as I recall it now, something to which I yearn to return.

That, and the storms. The rainy season brought at least one storm a day that hinted Armageddon. About 30 minutes before, the wind would pick up, thunder echoed its cacophony throughout the city and finally the sky could come down in inexorable sheets of sopping anger. I sometimes found myself staring at the storms, into their chaotic spit, rooting for them.

Every morning I walked about 30 minutes to the school, which had a route of a massive L from my house to there linking two major streets. In the six weeks throughout the course  of my commute, I learned to weave through the street grids in patterns that equated to many different smaller Ls, sometimes in order to find the most efficient path to the destination, sometimes with the route serving to just avoid large puddles.

Over the course of my six weeks there, I fell in love with the plentiful and varied trees that densely dotted every street, flanked buildings and shaded parks. But what most struck me about them was their open discontent they had with the city itself: All large trees grew quietly but never complacently. Many of the upper root systems were above ground, and many of those grew rampantly through the sidewalks, cracking the cement, sometimes shooting through it, sometimes even breaking the sidewalk into shards. Occasionally large slabs of concrete were upturned on their sides. These broken shards of cement and rippled slabs of concrete sometimes caused the sidewalkers to trip. After my first near fall, I walked with vigilance toward the ground, their anchorage, their veins exposed and ripping through dense human progress. Occasionally I glanced upward at them, a little fearful.

What was the government’s response? Apathy. The Department of Parks and Recreation seemed to be nonexistent. Only when a particularly harsh storm would knock down too many branches would they eventually –several days later– come around to pick them up.

But the roots, the trunks, the discontentment, was fully ignored.

The trees were constantly in their own process of becoming, an act that I never consciously witnessed yet knew was always happening right before my eyes.

Then, I wished I had been an arborist as I would’ve known what all the species were. As it was, I could barely distinguish the Ficus from the Laurel, nor did I know then what I know now: the thousands of Guadalajaran trees included many Orange, Ash, Poplars and Jacaranda trees, to name a few.

One day while I ambled my way through a series of Ls, I stumbled upon the following image, which inspired these words.

Elephantine fountains of air.

Green soldiers with gangly, tangled

anchors

surfacing, in protest of

civilization’s progress and Mexican

indifference, manifested in their belligerent machines

spewing soot and distorted ranchero brass.

Sidewalks cracking, separating

silently

like glaciers,

in distances too minute to be measured,

in time to slow to be counted,

by us: the ones who planted them,

who falter above their discontent,

who have no time to watch them grow,

who are outgrown by their patient, massive loom

and their inconspicuous revolution.

I stand here

awed,

dwarfed,

humbled,

rooting.

***********************************************

You can view some of these militant trees and their root uprisings here.


Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
The recipe
markets
Motor car
Real estate
Motor car
Science and technology
Street fashion
Big data
Fashion show
Small tools
The recipe
A bad girl
catering
health
outdoors
Reduce weight
science
stretch
training
Street fashion
The recipe
Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
Classic cars
Classic cars
Fashion magazine
Fashion show
Female models
health
Small tools
The recipe
Motor car
Science and technology
Lose weight
Reduce weight
A bad girl
Small tools
Street fashion
The recipe
Motor car
Real estate
Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
The recipe
hygiene
industry
invest
markets
medical
Real estate
technique
animation
car
games
Motor car
movies
music
news
Science and technology
tutorial
business
cookbook
fashion
fitness
health
magazine
news
sports
Street fashion
travel
Big data
business
Fashion show
fitness
health
lifestyle
Small tools
The recipe
A bad girl
appetite
attitude
movies
rendezvous
sex
toys
catering
health
outdoors
Reduce weight
science
stretch
training
business
cookbook
fashion
fitness
health
magazine
news
sports
Street fashion
travel
art
health
music
photography
sports
The recipe
tourism
travel
Fitness equipment
fitness
nutrition
Nutritious food
routine
training
video
video
Classic cars
evaluation
technique
transact
Classic cars
technique
transact
business
Fashion magazine
Fashion show
Female models
fitness
health
lifestyle
Small tools
The recipe
travel
animation
car
games
Motor car
movies
music
news
Science and technology
tutorial
catering
health
Lose weight
outdoors
Reduce weight
science
stretch
training
A bad girl
appetite
attitude
movies
rendezvous
sex
toys
business
fashion
fitness
health
lifestyle
news
Small tools
Street fashion
The recipe
travel
hygiene
industry
invest
markets
medical
Motor car
Real estate
technique
Fitness equipment
fitness
nutrition
Nutritious food
routine
training
video
Yoga
art
fashion
health
music
photography
sports
The recipe
tourism
travel
hygiene
industry
invest
markets
medical
Motor car
Real estate
technique
animation
car
games
Motor car
movies
music
news
Science and technology
tutorial
business
cookbook
fashion
fitness
health
magazine
news
sports
Street fashion
travel
Big data
business
Fashion show
fitness
health
lifestyle
Small tools
The recipe
A bad girl
Reduce weight
Street fashion
health
The recipe
Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
Classic cars
Classic cars
Fashion magazine
Small tools
The recipe
Motor car
Science and technology
Lose weight
Reduce weight
A bad girl
catering
outdoors
Reduce weight
science
stretch
training
Street fashion
The recipe
Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
Classic cars
evaluation
technique
transact
Classic cars
technique
transact
business
Fashion magazine
Fashion show
Female models
fitness
health
lifestyle
Small tools
The recipe
travel
animation
car
games
Motor car
movies
music
news
Science and technology
tutorial
catering
health
Lose weight
outdoors
Reduce weight
science
stretch
training
A bad girl
appetite
attitude
movies
rendezvous
sex

business
fashion
fitness
health
lifestyle
news
Small tools
Street fashion
The recipe
travel
hygiene
industry
invest
markets
medical
Motor car
Real estate
technique
Fitness equipment
fitness
nutrition
Nutritious food
routine
training
video
Yoga
art
fashion
health
music
photography
sports
The recipe
tourism
travel
hygiene
industry
invest
markets
medical
Motor car
Real estate
technique
animation
car
movies
music
news
Science and technology
tutorial
business
cookbook
fashion
fitness
health
magazine
news
sports
Street fashion
travel
Big data
business
Fashion show
fitness
health
lifestyle
Small tools
The recipe
A bad girl
appetite
attitude
movies
rendezvous
sex
toys
catering
health
outdoors
Reduce weight
science
stretch
training
business
cookbook
fashion
fitness
health
magazine </a
news
sports
Street fashion
travel
art
fashion
health
music
photography
sports
The recipe
tourism
travel
hygiene
invest
markets
medical
Motor car
Real estate
technique
animation
car
games
Motor car
movies
music
news </a
Science and technology
tutorial
business
Street fashion
Big data
Fashion show
Small tools
The recipe
A bad girl
Reduce weight
Street fashion
The recipe
Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
Classic cars
Classic cars
technique
transact
Fashion magazine
Fashion show
Female models
Small tools
The recipe
Motor car
Science and technology
Lose weight
Reduce weight
A bad girl
Small tools
Street fashion
The recipe
Motor car
Real estate </a
Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
The recipe
Motor car
Real estate
Motor car
Science and technology
Street fashion
Big data
Fashion show
Small tools </a
The recipe
A bad girl
Reduce weight
Street fashion
art
fashion
health
music
photography
sports
The recipe
tourism
travel
Fitness equipment
fitness
nutrition
Nutritious food </a
routine
training
video
Yoga
Classic cars
evaluation
technique
transact
Classic cars
technique
transact
business
Fashion magazine
Fashion show
Female models
fitness
health
lifestyle
Small tools
The recipe
travel
Motor car
Science and technology
Lose weight
Reduce weight
A bad girl
Reduce weight
business
cookbook
fashion
fitness
magazine
news
sports
Street fashion
travel
The recipe
Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
Classic cars
Classic cars
Fashion magazine
Fashion show
Female models
Small tools
The recipe
Motor car
Science and technology
Lose weight
Reduce weight </a
A bad girl
Small tools
Street fashion
The recipe
Motor car
Real estate
Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
The recipe
Real estate
Motor car
Science and technology
tutorial
Street fashion
Big data
Fashion show
Small tools
A bad girl
appetite
attitude
rendezvous
catering
catering
Reduce weight
training
business
cookbook
fashion
fitness
magazine
news
sports
Street fashion
travel
art
fashion
health
music
photography
sports
The recipe
tourism
travel
Fitness equipment
fitness
nutrition
Nutritious food
routine
training
video
Yoga
Classic cars
evaluation
technique
transact
Classic cars
technique
transact
business
Fashion magazine
Fashion show
Female models
fitness
health
lifestyle
Small tools
The recipe
travel
animation
car
games
Motor car
movies
music
news
Science and technology
tutorial
catering
health
Lose weight
outdoors
Reduce weight
science
stretch
training
A bad girl
appetite
attitude
movies
rendezvous
sex
toys
business
fashion
fitness
health
lifestyle
news
Small tools
Street fashion
The recipe
travel
hygiene
industry
invest
markets
medical
Motor car
Real estate
technique
Fitness equipment
fitness
nutrition
Nutritious food
routine
training
video
Yoga
art
fashion
health
music
photography
sports
The recipe
tourism
travel
hygiene
industry
markets
medical
Motor car
Real estate
technique
Fitness equipment
fitness
nutrition
Nutritious food
routine
training
video
Yoga
art
fashion
health
music
photography
sports
The recipe
tourism
travel
animation
car
games
Motor car
movies
music
news
Science and technology
tutorial
business
cookbook
fashion
fitness
health
magazine
news
sports
Street fashion
travel
Big data </a
business
Fashion show
fitness
health
lifestyle
Small tools
The recipe
A bad girl
appetite
attitude
movies
rendezvous
sex
toys
catering
health
Yoga
Classic cars
evaluation
technique
transact
Classic cars
technique
transact
business
Fashion magazine
Fashion show
Female models
fitness
health
lifestyle
Small tools
The recipe
travel
hygiene
markets
medical
Motor car
Real estate
animation
Motor car
Science and technology
tutorial
Street fashion
Big data
Fashion show
Small tools
The recipe
A bad girl
Reduce weight
Street fashion
Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
Classic cars
Classic cars
Fashion magazine
Fashion show
Female models
Small tools
The recipe
Motor car
Science and technology
catering
health
Lose weight
outdoors
Reduce weight
science
stretch
training
A bad girl
appetite
attitude
movies
rendezvous
sex
toys
business
fashion
fitness </a
health
lifestyle
news
Small tools
Street fashion
The recipe
travel
Motor car
Real estate
Fitness equipment
Nutritious food
hygiene
Motor car
Real estate
Motor car
Science and technology
Street fashion
Big data
Fashion show
Small tools
The recipe
A bad girl <
Reduce weight
Street fashion
Fitness equipment
fitness
nutrition
Nutritious food
routine
training
video
Yoga
art
fashion
health
music
photography
sports
The recipe
tourism
travel
hygiene
industry
invest
markets
medical
Motor car
Real estate
technique
animation
car
games
Motor car
movies
music
news
Science and technology
tutorial
business
cookbook
fashion
fitness
health
magazine
news
sports
Street fashion
travel
Big data
business
Fashion show
fitness
health
lifestyle
Small tools
The recipe
A bad girl
appetite
attitude
movies
rendezvous
sex
toys
catering
health
outdoors
Reduce weight
science
stretch
training
business
cookbook
fashion
fitness
health
magazine
news
sports
Street fashion
travel
art
fashion
health
music
photography
sports
The recipe
tourism
travel
Fitness equipment
routine
training
video
Yoga
Classic cars
evaluation
technique
transact
Classic cars
technique
transact
business
Fashion magazine
Fashion show
Female models
fitness
health
lifestyle
Small tools
The recipe
travel
animation
car
games
Motor car
movies
music
news
Science and technology
tutorial

It was the night of my dear friend Clara’s birthday party. I can’t quite remember if it was a momentous year–round number, the beginning of a new decade–but I do recall having party nerves and that I’d be going solo. I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time or, if I was, it wasn’t serious. Or maybe I was seeing Mark but he was out of town. None of these details matter, really. This essay is about me and how good I looked at Clara’s party.

During this time I’d been introduced to a man my cousin Daphne referred to as “The Genius.” She called him that because of his remarkable ability to transform. “The Genius” AKA Coleman was an African American man in his, mmm, I’d say late forties at the time, who chemically straightened Jewish girls’ hair. He probably also straightened the hair of women of other persuasions but my breadth of knowledge of his doings only went as far as my cousin Daphne, me, whomever might’ve been sitting in his beauty salon swivel seat when I’d arrive for my appointment, and anyone who’d show up as my final touches were being bestowed.

Actually, our relationship was deeper than that. This picture is bringing about a flood of memories and I’m remembering that Coleman and I would have many a heady conversation. He was a teacher for special needs children and did hair on the side. Hair had been his main career for many years but then, it would seem, he needed something that felt more meaningful. I can’t think of many things more meaningful than making a girl with unmanageable hair feel beautiful, but different strokes, am I right? So we’d talk about his teaching and a little bit about his family. We also tended to talk about controversial situations involving race. I can’t recall anything verbatim but I do know we tended to be on the same page. I worked in TV at the time and I’m pretty sure things came up about the lack of roles for African American actors and, if I’m not mistaken, whether or not Eddie Murphy meant to pick up that prostitute or if he was simply being a nice guy.

Alas, Coleman is no longer. In my life, I mean. As afar as I know he’s still alive. He ended up making a permanent move to Sacramento and I made a move to try to accept my natural curl. But during the time that Coleman was around, things, and my hair, went rather smoothly. Suddenly, I had control. Straight hair made me feel like my life was together. I felt pretty.

So the night of Clara’s party while I had, like I mentioned before, party nerves, and was rocking it solo, I knew my hair looked good. I mean look at it. It’s all straight and shiny. But not too straight… there’s still some body to it.

 



I guess that’s it. I know it’s kind of vain to pick a picture just because you think you look good, but trust me, these days if you get a picture of me, most of the time one or both of my eyes is closed, my hair is suffering from frizz, and what I mean as a knowing or smartass smirk comes off as looking bothered. Here I’m clearly enjoying myself. I’ve spent some time with good company, had a glass of wine or two, and celebrated a great friend. Sometimes it’s the small moments that need to be remembered.


The stories start right after Sunday lunch.

We are all crammed around our tiny kitchen table – me, my brother, my parents, my fraternal grandmother, and my maternal grandfather. The table only fits four, so my Dad is sitting on the office chair brought out from the living room and I am sitting on a small, red leather stool that’s usually in the hallway. I am wedged between my brother, my grandfather, and the dishwasher.

Our Sunday lunches – golden chicken soup, Wiener schnitzel with potatoes and cucumber salad, brownies – start late and end quickly. Toward the end of the meal the others know what is coming and they start to scramble towards the living room right after the last bite of dessert.

It is probably my position at first – too far from the door with no obvious escape route – that makes me the perfect audience for my grandfather’s stories. Later I feel too polite and too invested to get up and leave with the others.  

So I load the dishwasher and sit back on my little red stool and prepare myself for a long afternoon.

Most of the stories I already know by heart. There is the story about my great-grandfather who sold jewelry to patrons of a gentleman’s club and then bought back from the ladies who worked there.  Or the story about the time my grandfather hid in an attic for three months from the Nazis, living on water and beans while Budapest was being bombed. Or the time he took 25 orphan girls from Budapest to Romania on a cattle car right after the war by tricking other passengers into believing that they all had typhoid fever.

There are many, many stories about my grandmother, who walked for three days in November 1944 to the Austrian-Hungarian border on the way to Dachau Concentration Camp.  He talks about their life once the camp was liberated by the Americans. My grandfather made his way there on falsified Russian military papers to find my grandmother alive, working as a translator for the Dachau War Criminals Tribunal. There is the story about Maxi, the Peugeot 202 they bought after the war in Dachau for 60 Marks. About the BMW motorcycle they brought back to Budapest in a wooden crate and sold to buy furniture for the apartment where my little red stool is now my perch in the kitchen.

So many stories, they are hard to keep straight. Times, names, places change as he tells them the third or fourth or fifth time, but I am 14 and I don’t bother with the details or inconsistencies. After a while, it all seems like one big fairy tale – parts of it true, parts of it fantasy about a long-gone era and people, including my grandmother who died of cancer when my mom was 18. The questions I do have – like why did he prepare a hiding place for himself but not for my grandmother or how he knew that she was alive – seem too sensitive to ask.

My grandfather’s stories, his 28-page memoir and my grandmother’s brief description of the war tribunals make Dachau sound like a place where American soldiers hand out Hershey bars and nylon stockings.  My grandmother has detailed descriptions of how many cigarettes the SS officers – by then prisoners of war held by the Americans – received per week during the trials. But nothing about what she saw or went through before the liberating troops arrived.  There are no personal side notes, no observances, no reflections about the place and the time and her role in it.

For a long time I don’t really know what it all means and I am not really sure what to do with the stories. As I get older, leave home, and move to the U.S., I feel a vague sense of responsibility to remember what my grandfather told me. There are details that not even my mom knows about, as we find out after my grandfather’s death. I also have a sense that my life in some ways is turning out the way my grandmother would have liked hers to be – the American troops in Dachau did offer her and my grandfather a visa to come to America, but they returned to Budapest instead. It’s a decision that from what I know, my grandmother always regretted.  And now here I am, a U.S. citizen. I feel like this is more than coincidence; that something in my family’s history propelled me to be here.

Almost twenty years after those afternoons in the kitchen, when I first come across this photo on a website about Dachau, I am not even sure it is my grandmother sitting in front of the soldiers, wearing glasses. The pictures I’ve seen of her were taken during summer vacations with lakes and mountains in the background, not with a group of former SS soldiers. The picture was taken during the Malmedy Massacre trials in Dachau, where German soldiers were charged with the killing of 84 American prisoners of war. During the trial, my grandmother was a translator for the defense.

After I find the photo, I am taken aback by the fact that just by typing “Dachau” into Google I find something so personal, something that only existed in anecdotes told over coffee and brownies. The photo makes all of the stories and the people in them real. There she is, my grandmother, who survived Dachau, and who helped to put the bad guys away. It’s real; it’s on the Internet.

The photo also makes me ask whether I am living up to the people behind the stories; whether my story will be worthy of telling someday after a Sunday lunch. I am not really sure. And as much as it felt like a chore to be polite and to listen to my grandfather, looking at the picture I am relieved that I did, that in a way I was a witness to my family’s history – and to mine.

Basements, by nature, are dark and scary.

Searching for the light upon entering one can instantly become the most important thing in the world, your fingers nervous not to touch anything at all but the tiny plastic rectangular protuberance sticking out of the wall or the thin chain that hangs blindly a few steps in.

We hold our breaths no matter how many times we’ve descended the stairs that week to retrieve holiday decorations or to do our laundry; we are in the safety of our own locked homes, yet somehow there is always the possibility there’s a knife-wielding intruder or a hungry coyote taking a short breather under the stairs.

Or there’s the possibility that a face-sized spider has descended to face level, swaying gently in front of the chain you seek.

We wish someone would go into the basement for us every time.


There was a daylight basement on my family’s farm, meaning that the building the basement rested under was constructed into the side of a hill.

There were no windows in the basement.

Just a huge metal door facing a small sliver of woods.

This particular building was built in 1924 – one of the very first structures on the 1,200-acre farm – and the basement served as the farm’s first walk-in cooler, used for storing Boose apples until 1975.

After that, after the farm had expanded greatly and several drive-in electric coolers were built up over the hill, the basement was used for packing peaches and tomatoes into crates by my teenage aunts and uncles, readying shipments that were to head off to Cleveland.

And then after that, it was abandoned of manual labor and retired to being a dark, damp, fucking scary storage space for thousands of cardboard boxes my dad used intermittently at his next-door farm market.


My father often asked my brothers and me to retrieve boxes from “The Basement.”

His customers used the sturdy tops and bottoms to carry their groceries to their car, to their kitchen counters.

And every time we were asked to get boxes, I’d ask to stay back and sweep the backroom instead.

Or wrap lettuce heads.

Or take some scrap cardboard to the burn pile.

Or go see what needed refilling on the vegetable rack out front.

Because like any 10-year-old emotional boy who had two older brothers, I was freaked the fuck out by spiders.

And whenever I went to the basement to get my dad those boxes, I saw several real and imaginary spiders.

On the cement walls.

Skittering across the cement floor.

Chilling in the cement-meets-cement corners.

Some tiny.

Some average.

Some big enough to make you do a cursing, neck-slapping pogo dance that would go instantly viral on YouTube, possibly landing my father and me on a couple of overstuffed chairs on the Today Show.


In order to open up the basement door – which alone was the height of a school bus – I’d often hook the toe of my one sneaker under the handle and then bounce backward on the heel of the other.

A black and worn rubber flap was stapled above the door’s handle, hiding it or protecting it for a reason I never knew, making it hard for me to get my foot in there.

Now, if my father joined us on one of these box-retrieving missions, he’d haphazardly grab the handle and storm inside without concern, just trying to get back to the market because there were lettuce heads to trim, orders for restaurants to put together.

I’d follow behind him with my forearms over my head, grabbing the boxes nearest to the door.

“Just get in here and stop being such a wuss, for crying out loud,” he’d say.

“There’s spiders,” I’d respond, chucking a stack of banana boxes into the back of the running pickup.

(A tip when grabbing a stack of boxes that you honestly believe are the homes of dozens of arachnids, mice droppings and the devil herself: Cup your arms around the bottom box instead of sticking your fingers into its cutout handles. Disembodied fingers were instant bait for spiders in my mind, like hotdog bits for catfish.)

“For crying out loud,” my father would say. “Who cares? They’re not gonna get ya.”


Inside the farm’s basement, the floor measured 40′ x 60′.

I didn’t have to search for the light when I entered because I knew the switch was exactly four feet high on the interior left door frame.

Every time I entered I held my breath, ducked, and believed I would catch some terrible basement disease that would start with convulsions and end with a bout of uncontrollable self-mutilation through the wrong end of a rake.

Every time I exited I held my boxes high in front of me as a shield, and after chucking them into the bed of the pickup, I’d compulsively wipe my hands on my shorts.

Over 15 years, I was never once bitten by a spider.



The late-night June sky was exceptionally clear, rabid with wild stars. As I walked home from a Silverlake bar, I witnessed the usual constellations—Orion, Ursa Major. In addition, I spotted new, undiscovered formations. I named them all: Zardoz, Love Bullet, Moonlight’s Motel.

An elderly Hispanic man approached me. Rumpled white shirt, black Dickies. His face: a complex map of worry lines. There was a dog at his feet—a mish-mash of sheltie, collie, and pure innocence. The collarless canine trotted happily alongside the old man.

“Beautiful dog,” I said, as we met eye-to-eye.

The old man grunted, “Damn dog’s not mine. She’s been following me.” He kept walking. Never once looked at the animal. Just stared straight ahead, into the flash and burn of liquid diamond headlights streaming down Sunset Boulevard.

The dog remained by his side.

That dog was screwed, I realized. It was obvious the old man didn’t care for her. As soon as he reached his destination, he’d slam the door in her face, leaving her to wander the streets. She’d be roadkill before sunrise.

I called out to her. She glanced back. I got down on one knee, called again. She bolted for me, jumped into my arms. I carried her back to my place. The whole way there she was a furry bundle of tail wags, whimpers, shivers, and happy licks.

* * *

When I was four, I received my first dog: a part-collie, part German Shepard that my brother and I named Bandit. I loved that dog intensely. Not knowing how to fully express that love, I’d squeeze Bandit tight, as if all my love could be transferred through brute force. Those love sessions generally ended with Bandit biting me, and my parents rushing me to the doctor. But I didn’t care. I always went back for more. That’s how much I loved that dog. That’s how much I wanted that dog to love me.

As I grew older, I learned how to better express that love: fetch, long walks, feeding Bandit turkey straight from the Thanksgiving bird. Eventually, the dog died. My family had him cremated. That’s how much we loved Bandit. To this day, my father still has the dog’s ashes, and insists on being buried with them when he goes.

After graduating college, I left that loving, secure, pet-friendly environment to live in California. It was now fast-paced city life all the way: Playing in bands, partying till all hours, working lousy paying jobs, living in crappy apartments.

But once I found that dog on Sunset, I wanted to do whatever possible to become a stable pet owner. First off, I named the dog Venus, for the Goddess of Love.

I took her to the vet. Got her all her shots. The doctor gave her a clean bill of health. She was so adorable we couldn’t figure out why she’d been abandoned. Maybe she’d gotten lost. Maybe her owners were worried sick, trying to find her.

Over the next couple weeks, I posted flyers in dog parks, dog shelters, vet offices.

Even had a friend take this picture of the two of us.

I posted it on numerous pet-related Internet sites.

I didn’t receive one call from anyone claiming to own her. But I did receive tons of calls from people wanting to adopt her.

So I gave myself a goal.

For a month I’d work my ass off, either trying to find a place suitable for the two of us, or I’d offer Venus to the best home possible.

I poured through rental ads. Made tons of calls to the places I could afford. Landlords chatted up homes and apartments as if they were palatial estates, but in person amounted to little more than busted-up, beer-breathed accommodations, with weed-ravaged dirt yards.

I soon realized I didn’t have my shit together enough in the financial department to properly care for Venus. It broke my heart. Broke it into pieces tinier than those stars I’d witnessed in the late-night sky when I first discovered her.

Around that time, I received a call from a man in La Cañada—a suburban community at the base of the Angeles National Forest. The man said he’d seen an Internet ad for Venus. Said he had a family. A beautiful home and yard. Told me he’d like to adopt the dog.

I relayed the whole story. How I’d tried to find her master. How I’d even tried to make a home for her myself, all to no avail.

Listening to my sadness and frustration, the man said it was obvious that I loved Venus very much, and that if I’d allow his family to care for her, they’d do everything possible to honor that love.

The next day I packed Venus into my clunker Toyota, and headed up to La Cañada. The family, their home: Norman Rockwell updated. Made more posh, and heartwarming. Venus immediately took to the kids—a young boy and girl. They ran with Venus throughout the huge fenced-in backyard.

It was all so much. So much love. If Venus couldn’t stay with me, I realized, this was exactly where she needed to be.

The man handed over a wad of neatly folded bills. “Here. I’d like to pay you for what you’ve spent on vet bills.”

“That’s okay,” I said.

“Really,” he said. “It’s the least I can do.”

My love and pride didn’t want to take the cash. But the truth was I’d spent a good portion of rent money to care for Venus. I had no idea how to make up the difference. “Alright,” I said. “Thanks.” Then I added: “Mind if I say goodbye to her?”

“Not at all,” he said.

I gathered Venus into my arms, gave her a big hug. It wasn’t as huge and hurting as the hugs I used to give my childhood dog, Bandit. But the hug was enough to let her know that I loved her very much. And that I’d miss her dearly.

I’m at the airport, confident. I’ve never had vertigo in a plane before, so I’m not worried about jumping out of one.

Besides, my dad is jumping, too, and I don’t want to wimp out on him. Mom is here, too, documenting the whole thing in photos, so if I wimp out, there will be photographic evidence of my cowardice.

This is a photograph of being in love.

It’s a picture of a feeling in a moment.

It’s a record of a time when the whole world came alive.

I took it from inside a girl’s convertible.

You must always consider the following—

Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

It’s your duty, friends and brethren, to contort even the measliest of facts. Don’t tell the truth—conceal it. But, absolutely, amp it up if you can. And for crissakes make us laugh or make us cry. That’s not asking too much.

I figured I’d give it a whack. I took to it seriously. Too seriously? Perhaps. But history is serious business. And when I look at the photograph my heart flutters. It is, hands down, my favorite photograph ever. It’s also a somewhat uninteresting photo. Just two boys standing in a front yard in 1985. Arriving at this conclusion, my heart settles into a deep state of languor. Galaxies of dust awakened from adulthood inertia swirl about looking to settle again.

The photograph arouses memories: watching Telemundo and chomping on warm tortillas…Mr. Lechner’s stinky pigeon coop…the burned-out shack filled with saucy Polaroids and unopened packs of Garbage Pail Kids cards…games of Butts-Up against the church wall…Atari at the alcoholic’s house…the phantom Klansman that stood before my bed every night for weeks, robbing me of sleep…the failed repossession of my General Lee Big Wheel from the Mexicans on Helgessen Street that ended violently.

All of these memories are barely stories, hardly tellable. They’re sentimental soundbites, if anything.

Backstory can be interesting: I spent my youngest years in a small two-bedroom house in an unincorporated neighborhood on the outskirts of Palatine, a suburb nested on the northwestern edge of Chicagoland. Our house stood amongst homes of varying design and color, of all shapes and sizes, and no two alike; individuality by design was paramount in this neighborhood.

No two families were exactly alike, either. I can recall truckers and stock brokers, illegal immigrants and Vietnam vets, all living on the same stretch of asphalt.

My neighborhood sat kiddie-corner to a sprawling forest preserve. Forest preserves are the only access most suburbans have to wilderness. But, by and large, most stick to the bike trails that encircle the preserve, well-distanced from the sticks, casting the woodland an ambient backdrop.

But I grew up on Woodland Road, and Woodland Road was in the sticks. It did not suggest any of the tidy vinyl-streaked uniformity that one expects of a suburb proper.

This photograph was taken by my mother. It shows me and my childhood best friend caught doing whatever boys did in 1985. We’re both blond, ruddy-faced, and grubby, distinguishable only by height (I’m the shorter one). That kid and I did everything together. Where I ended and he began was simply a matter of physics.

We’re standing beside an odd V-shaped tree, a sort of Siamese pine. The lawn is plush and overrun, in desperate need of mowing. But no one nagged you about it. The driveway running alongside us looks like an accident, spilled gravel, and there’s construction debris piled up at the foot of it. Behind my best friend and me looms a towering wall of leafy green. This looks nothing like suburbia. This looks like Louisiana.

Of course, now everything’s changed. That great wood land across from my first house has since been leveled and supplanted with a bunch of ugly vinyl castles. Last I visited, baby trees had been planted on the front yards of these new homes, ensuring a partially shady future for what was once my unincorporated Eden. Even my house had been leveled.

The first story I ever knew:

I was riding the bus home from school one day. The bus turned onto Woodland Road and lumbered past my house, as usual. As the bus passed my house, heading toward my bus stop, the back end took a hop, propelling every kid into midair. We’d run over something. One of the sixth graders sitting in the back seat, nearest the emergency exit, pressed his sweaty finger to the window and called my name. Everyone looked out the back window and let out a collective gasp.

Patsy. My puppy. She was dead.

She lay in the road curled in a ball. It looked like she was asleep on the warm asphalt.

And that bitch of a bus driver had done it.

We had just gotten Patsy. The bus driver pulled up to the intersection of Helgessen Street and Woodland Road and let me off. I didn’t drop my bag and run screaming like kids do on TV. I didn’t abandon my backpack and sprint up to Patsy and drop to my knees, tiny fists clenched, and scream, “Why, God, why!” Instead, I ambled down Woodland Road toward my house, humiliated. Patsy wasn’t dying. She was dead.

The sun burned high and hard. My mother placed Patsy in a cardboard box and weaved the flaps shut and set the box beside our driveway.

It was a long afternoon. Neighborhood kids came by, one by one, ordered by parents to express condolences—but really to see a dead dog. I undid the flaps and opened the box and showed them Patsy, balled up tight, her eyes clamped shut, white teeth locked in one final gnarl, flies banking in on her. Early bird gets the worm.

Then we lamented. My neighborhood comrades told me they couldn’t believe what the bus driver did to Patsy. We turned our bus driver into a wicked succubus. Medusa. The Wicked Witch of the Northwest ‘Burbs.

I played the good guy for a while.

The Tragic Tale of Patsy Versus the School Bus. My first story. My only complete memory of Woodland Road.

If I wasn’t on that school bus there would be no story.

And the photograph, that’s life before story. An artifact of innocence, a snapshot of two dumb little kids getting dirty, exploring the woods, at war. Woodland Road is and never will be a street of dreams. It’s just a strip of asphalt that’s still there, even though my house, my friend, those woods, and my dog are not.

Childhood is but a dream.


“Collarbone” is not a word one expects a two-year-old to whisper in one’s ear in an underground, candlelit cavern. I blame myself. For not asking questions about what was down there. For exposing her to death at such an early age. For taking her down into the catacombs in the first place.

We are in Stefansdom in Vienna, the massive Romanesque and Gothic cathedral at the city’s drizzle-damp center.

Through the yawning arch, the carved columns support a soaring nave leading down to a massive baroque high altar, beside which hangs the Christ child with a three stemmed rose. The scene is framed and set aglow by candles burning to long dead saints, lit by the genuflecting living in the cold, damp air of sacred space.

Oh, but underneath.

Our tour guide rushes in exactly on time sporting a suit too small for him in the shoulders and the careless sandy blond hair of an academic. He has a strong Viennese accent – an outrageous accent hovering somewhere between an Inspector Poirot and a Jar-Jar Binks. He takes our money and leads our group of about 20 down into the bowels of the cathedral.

This is the point where some sort of mothering instinct should have kicked in – the kind where my brain sends the message, “Catacombs are where dead people reside. Huhn. Perhaps this is not child-appropriate.”

But, the truth is I was fascinated. I love dead people. I mean, not in the way that I would like to find one of their kind cuddled under my sheets, but I will admit to a moderate fascination with the other side. Not enough to turn me into a kohl-lined, Rob Zombie worshipping member of tribe ‘Emo’, but, you know, enough to take an occasional peek into the cadaver lab at university and to enjoy the movie “Blade.”

It starts light. We see tombs. Sarcophagi. It is a burial place for royalty and church leaders — the usual stuff one sees under such places. And then, he takes us into the chamber.

The word “collarbone” cuts through the chill of the room and I turn to see what my innocent little cherub is looking at. Behind bars, I see them: the remains of two souls long since passed. They are draped in cloth, which I can only guess must have qualified as garments at some point, but which now do little to hide their skeletal remains.

We move on from there.  Through the earthen tunnels of the lantern lit catacombs, we peek into the various rooms.

Everywhere, there are bones.

We are told that the remains of more than 11,000 people surround us – mostly bubonic plague victims from the 1700s. When the nearby graveyards were filled, the bodies were carted to the cathedral, where they were tossed akimbo into a mass grave deep underground — under the incense and the candles and the Christ child holding the three stemmed rose.

At some point, some of the monks who lived and worked at the church took it upon themselves to give the bodies a more respectable resting place. By then, the flesh was gone and the joints long since severed, so the monks set to work organizing the bones in a most logical way: femurs with femurs, clavicles with clavicles, skulls with skulls.

From a practical standpoint, this only makes sense. Certainly I wouldn’t want to be held responsible for the incorrect reconfiguration of nearly 11,000 pissed off souls.

Through the frigid catacombs we walk, peering into room after room stacked neatly with bones. We hug our own thinly veiled bones for warmth as we approach the pit where the monks had left off their task. Imagine a silo filled with bones. It has been capped off and has peepholes at the top for easy viewing. One by one, we approach it. Grimly, we stare into the dry soup.

I am torn between protecting my daughter from these sights and exposing her to the truth early on.  Handing her off to my husband — and thus my personal responsibility for her well-being — I fall behind the group. I want a picture, but pictures are not allowed.

And still…I want a picture.

I wait for the guide to disappear down the hall. I can see my breath in the lantern light. I am alone. Alone with dem dry bones. I point my camera into a small room, covered with iron bars. It’s dark in the room, and I have no idea what I’m even photographing.

A chill. A rush. Immediately, I am regretting my photo and am racing toward my husband and daughter at the back of the group.

Back out in open air, we huddle by a wall to review the picture I had stolen from underneath on my digital camera. The clatter of horse hooves echoes off the stone street as I find it. There, in the gray, is a dimly lit clutter of bones. These were not among the organized. The respected. These bones were not at peace.

A shudder took me over just as I threw my head back and laughed.

At the time, I could not have told you why I did this. There was something so deliciously terrifying about it all. In retrospect, I think this must be ingrained somewhere deep within – that perhaps these bones are at the center of the writer’s psyche. When we write, sometimes we return the bones to flesh. Sometimes we do the reverse, stripping as we go. Ultimately, we refuse to acknowledge they can be separated at all: the bones from the flesh; the cathedral and the catacombs; the sacred and the profane.

As writers, we peek into the pits, we excavate, we catalogue, we get to the core of our humanity…and if we do it right, we scare ourselves to death.

And we love every minute of it.

As for my daughter, well…if she doesn’t become a writer, there’s always therapy.


These are my grandparents, Grandma Sweetie and Papa Owen, standing on their porch in Inglewood, not eight blocks from the Forum, where they lived for thirty-odd years. Allegedly, a white picket fence once stood in front of the house. But as far back as I can remember, the white picket fence just sort of laid there. And it wasn’t white. For the last ten years or so, their house had no front door. Don’t ask me why. Just a screen. No lock. This is Inglewood we’re talking about! But nobody ever gave Sweetie and Owen trouble, and I’m pretty sure that had nothing to do with the fact that Papa Owen looked like a juice man for Santa’s mafia.

 

 

I don’t even know my grandmother’s real name. Everybody called her Sweetie—her family, the neighbors, the mailman. I’m pretty sure her mail said Sweetie. She may have looked like an old bag lady, she may have smelled like stale Old Golds and freezer-burned ham, but Sweetie had the soul of a swan. She was the loving driving force of our family, a tender locomotive, who drank twelve Hamms a day, popped Tums like Tic Tacs, and ate nothing (and I mean nothing) but Swanson frozen turkey dinners, scrupulously avoiding the peas and carrots. If Sweetie was a tender locomotive, Papa Owen was a runaway train. He was ten longshoremen trapped in a phone booth. He was fifteen Cossacks crashing a retirement banquet. Papa Owen had a little dance which he often performed on weekends, which led from the sofa to the bathroom. It was choreographed by Jerry Lewis and a fifth of bourbon, and went something like this: He would lift himself from the sofa, pirouette, trip over a chair, knock over a lamp, laugh, and fall flat on his face. He would then stand, stumble to the bathroom, and hurl the contents of his stomach into the sink. Encore performances would follow, in intervals, until he passed out.

My lifelong love affair with baths began at Sweetie and Owen’s house when I was just a runt. They had this metal contraption that looked like a vacuum cleaner that you could stick in the bathtub. It would shoot out jet streams of hot water. It amounted to a portable, low-maintenance Jacuzzi. I would sit in the tub for hours. Every so often Papa Owen would stumble headlong into the bathroom to finish his dance. He would say: “Feels good on your little pecker, don’t it?” Then he would say: “Aaaawoooolka. . .pfff. . .pff. . . eeeeeeeyaaaaaalka. . .pfff. . .pfff.”

It did feel good on my little pecker.

The photo you see here is technically the only photo I have left of Sweetie and Owen—the only photo anyone has left of the two of them together. But there’s another image of them which is indelibly burned into my mind’s eye, an image which is nothing less than my grandparents’ story. The third act, anyway. In this other image, the one that no longer exists outside my mind, Papa Owen is slumped at the kitchen table with Sweetie, who is wearing her customary nightgown (agoraphobic, she never got dressed or left the house). Her hair is the wasted gold of a burnt lawn. It got that way from cigarette smoke. Her eyes are downcast. Not from wounded vanity, but from what appears to be a long preoccupation with something doomed and oppressive. Her hands are hidden beneath the table. You get the feeling she’s wringing them under there.

Papa Owen is seated to her right with one elbow propped on the table, which appears to be the only thing holding him up. He looks waxy, slightly transparent, embalmed. He’s wearing a light blue shirt, which is too tight at the arm pits. The collar was probably stiff once. Yet, somehow, Owen manages to make it look like a white shirt with no collar at all. He wears, as always, his elfin beard, coarse and wiry. On top of his beard sits a handlebar mustache which, like Sweetie’s locks, is tobacco stained. His hair looks unkempt but upon closer inspection one notices that it’s in fact combed. His eyes are beady, blue-gray, and laughing. Not the impish laughing eyes of mischief, rather the pointed laughter of a small but hard to swallow defeat. Still, there’s an unmistakable glimmer of determination in those laughing eyes that is only enhanced by his smile which, though half obscured by beard and mustache, seems clearly to have dirty jokes leaking out the side of it.

Taken together, these two venerable, slumping personages strike a balance that is not symmetry.

The kitchen is murky, but lighted just well enough to discern Owen’s shadow, though not Sweetie’s. Behind them, fastened to the faded floral wall paper above their heads is a bulletin board. There’s all manner of cards and papers fixed willy-nilly to it, although looking at Owen and Sweetie and the general state of things, it’s hard to imagine the significance of these artifacts.

They’ve just finished dinner. Owen has cleaned his plate. Sweetie’s plate, pushed to the side, is still half full. The table is riddled with dirty platters, coffee cups, a disproportionate number of forks, and a sticky bottle of salad dressing. In the very center of the table, the dramatic center of the photograph itself, as though it were placed there like a statement, is a heaping bowl of spent chicken bones and gristle.

I think about this picture often, and from time to time I hold it in my hand. Recent years and a number of circumstances have allowed me to penetrate this photograph in greater depth, to identify nuances so subtle as to be invisible to the outsider. And the more I am able to distinguish within this picture, the more I am haunted by that damn bowl of chicken bones.

“The best models are those you’ve slept with,” was a line from one of her teachers that Ulli liked to repeat. ‘Happy New Year’ is what she called the picture, and you could buy it as a postcard in souvenir shops and book stores around West Berlin. This was 1988, when the city was still surrounded by Communism. The Wall was still intact. So were my dreams of becoming an actor. I was 22.

Ulli was the worst of friends, and we loved her. She forgot about my best friend Ollie, my ex-girlfriend Maike and me for months at a time, until she once again needed unpaid models for a photo shoot. Ulli smelled of Nivea lotion, her whole car smelled of it, as though she had rubbed it into the seats. She was a wet dream, tall, with long, shiny hair and pouty lips and padding in all the right places. But when she opened her mouth, her Rhineland drawl cracked the image. She was given to whines and complaints, and all of us listened. It was better to listen. The one time I contradicted her complaints, she took off on me. In front of the out-of-the-way movie theater where she had driven us.

Ulli’s assignments always involved nudity, and just to please her and be near her, I readily exposed all my flings and girlfriends to the needs of her camera. She smeared us with black paint and feathered us. She poured Blue Curacao over our heads. I faked sex or had sex in front of Ulli’s lens.

Ollie had once slept with her and said she was a screamer. He had also slept with Maike, when she hadn’t been my ex-girlfriend yet, and she was pregnant now, from him, from me, or from her new lawyer boyfriend. All viable possibilities. But she wanted me to accompany her to the abortion clinic.  Ulli knew all this, but there was an important deadline coming up, and she invited Ollie, pregnant Maike and me to pose together in the nude, and we did without a complaint.

One cold October afternoon, two weeks before the abortion, I abandoned two friends who had come to visit me in West Berlin, because Ulli called. She needed to take pictures and make some money. She needed me to come over, because her teacher and boyfriend had dumped her. I left my friends in a hurry and went over to Ulli’s apartment.

I knew what her call meant and I knew I might not have been the first one she called. I was hardly in the door when she grabbed me. Her face was wet, her nose running. Stroking her hair, I could feel the scar from the time her father had thrown her onto the bed, her head hitting the wall. Everyone knew this story about her dad in Düsseldorf, this one and many others.

“Why did he leave me?”

“I don’t know,” I said into her hair.

“He said I was immature,” she sobbed.

“No you’re not.”

She pulled me down onto the floor, took off my studded belt, wrestled the tight black pants off me. I had forgotten to bring condoms and worried. Ulli was promiscuous, AIDS was a possibility. And yet I didn’t protest when she sat down over me, stuffing me inside her the way you would stuff a croissant into your mouth after a long night out. Her eyes were red, her face puffy, but she was beautiful, and I wished to burn the image of naked Ulli into my brain. There was so much reality – it kept hitting my face, I could hardly see. And then she started screaming, and my ex-girlfriend Maike had been silent, always silent, and Ulli screamed as she was riding me. She screamed violently as though my body were a bag of knives.

I didn’t want to come too soon and had once read a story of a guy who was thinking of sledding in arctic forests to cool himself off. I imagined that sled, the cold, the frozen tracks in the deep snow, and that picture of the guy on his sled in the Nordic wilderness turned me on. So instead I thought of AIDS some more. Ulli screamed and I thought of going to get an AIDS test, which was free in a clinic half a mile away, and I imagined the grave face of the doctor who would give me the bad news. And it did cool me off, only not in the way I had hoped for.

Not to lose momentum and to show her what a great lover I was – after all, this was Ulli, wet dream Ulli, gorgeous, glamorous Ulli – I turned her around and thrust as hard as I could. I knew Ollie had never gotten over her, and I was already looking forward to telling him that yes, she was a screamer. It was a revelation, she seemed to really and ferociously enjoy herself. “I can’t anymore,” she finally said into the carpet.

The best, though, was the aftermath, the slightly awkward time we took to acknowledge what we had just done, with half-smiles and kisses. The resting on the carpet, her Rhineland drawl announcing that we needed to take those pictures. “The best models are those you’ve slept with,” Ulli said almost tenderly, and I grinned.

She told me not to get dressed and handed me two sparklers, which I was supposed to twirl around my butt. In front of a black background I lit them and twirled and burned myself and twirled some more. Then she gave me two sticks of Bengal sparklers, and their green flames shot up, thick smoke quickly filling the room. And I twirled again and Ulli’s shutter kept clicking and clacking away until the Bengal sparklers exploded, and the burning tips shot into the blue carpet and set it on fire.

Ulli dropped the camera and shrieked. I stood naked in all that smoke, staring at the smoldering carpet, and the still burning sticks in my hands. “Do something, do something,” Ulli shrieked and ran out of the room. I stomped with my heels on the carpet fire, then ran over to the window, opened it, and threw the lights down into the street. I stood naked by the window, two curious faces peeking out at me from a an apartment across the street, smoke escaping into the cold fall air. And for a strange moment – a moment in which Maike’s pregnancy, her cheating with Ollie, AIDS, Ulli’s teacher, my stinging feet, the smell of burned synthetics, Ulli’s screams from the kitchen, and my own future were whirling around me — I was happy.


This is Rock ‘n’ Roll, but not rock ‘n’ roll music. This is some heroin addict losing a thumbnail on a G string, Al Green on his knees, Sleepy John Estes alone beneath a streetlight screaming, “Aaahh’m just a pris’ner!” into a Coors Light bottleneck. This is Mick Jagger finally castrated and Marianne Faithfull juggling his balls and a chainsaw. And this is accordion. Just accordion played by a Zapotec girl in a night alley that has no business being this orange.

You should know this: My wife is asleep in a Oaxaca motel named for the swallows who shit there, and I have what looks like blood on my hands; that the motel has no A/C, and a hot plate where we cooked our dinner, and the blood on my hands is just chioggia beet and not blood. This is nothing like the church group accordion that the upper middle class men played (in lederhosen) when I was a child at Strawberry Fest in Long Grove, Illinois, when polka was still as exotic as whiskey. This is accordion that virtuoso Guy Klucevsek can only swallow with an avant garde sleeping pill and a Transylvanian whore.

I am in Oaxaca City and I have to take a picture of this girl and her accordion, and the red cup that has only one peso in it, and the kids up the street destroying a piñata and eating its sweet organs, the simple pleasures of balloon and lightsticks occupying the children in the Zócalo before they take their shifts behind tarps, bearing clay burros, and yellow scarves, and wool carpets for sale to the tourists.

My wife and I are in Oaxaca trying to find our place in the world again, aged after a year of dealing with our sick parents. We force ourselves to shed hesitancy and over-protectiveness, and all manner of adult things behind food carts steaming with pigs’ heads, girls’ fingers dancing over keys that were never mother-of-pearl. My wife sleeps and I walk, stop for this girl—motherless, pearl-less—and it’s all I can do to pull out my camera.

I’m hungry. For dinner tonight: only two passion fruits and a cherimoya, a sautéed beet, the chile relleno with salsa roja my wife and I split at the Mercado Benito Juarez, passing so many stalls where intestines hang like ribbons. We’ve slept little, listened to so much music. But nothing like this. This tiny voice perched as if on a water-lily, driven by some failing engine—a horsefly with too-wet wings, food for some larger animal with a poisonous tongue. This asthmatic accordion scoring its attempts to fly, right itself; the instrument itself failing, played-out after one too many cigarettes—dirty and ugly and struggling and beautiful. There’s a reason why Tom Waits has a pathos Celine Dion never will. That reason is this girl’s accordion and its emphysema.

It’s all I can do to say, “Foto?” and I feel immediately blasphemous for doing so. You should know this: my wife is asleep and she cried before sleeping. Something to do with the bald old woman selling green maracas. Something to do with her knowing, in likely dream, that her husband is interrupting a nightsong.

She doesn’t stop playing, but nods, her little sister running out of frame, standing beside me hugging my leg and the flash explodes. Only a few months earlier, this street saw the local teachers’ strike lead to violent protests, riots, cars set aflame, rocks hurled, barking guns, military intervention. I wonder where she played then. Now, only the firing of my camera, her little sister hanging on my forearm, reaching to see the photo, her feet off the ground. I’m glad it’s blurry.

On the outskirts of town the streets turn to dirt, three-wheeler moto-taxis, stray dogs and squatter camps in the valley before the mountains. The buildings here spew their exposed steel cables like industrial squid, the cisterns slanted on the roofs, holding, for now, their collected water. I begin to wonder when dark becomes too dark; what the accordion player’s name is. Because I’ll never know, I give her the name I’ve always wanted to give a daughter. This is the word I will wake my wife with.

Returning to town, the bustle has become a chug. The push-carts of ice cream and mezcal and flan in plastic cups return home, their bells feebly ringing. At the cathedral-tops, bells more obese announce the crooked arrival of something holy: music or midnight.

She is gone, but something of her endures—something beyond music and the instrument that acts as intermediary, beyond buttons and bellows and small fingers that can only press. In this accordion is translation. A language that can stave off, just as it ignites. In it is all music—the stuff my wife snores, the shitty Laura Branigan cassettes my mom kept in her car when she was well enough to drive, when Branigan was alive and sexy and rife with the lovely strength required to belt-out crappy songs.

I head for Hotel Las Golondrinas, something of clove and orange peel in the air. Tomorrow, we are going to Santa Maria del Tule, to the church grounds there to see the Montezuma Cypress whose trunk has the greatest circumference of any tree in the world.

My wife is sleeping, so I am quiet when I enter the room. I take a long pull from the ass-pocket of mezcal on my nightstand; the ass-pocket we bought at a market on the grounds of a different church. I need a sink, and its cold water. In the bathroom, I wash the beet from my hands, wonder what the accordion girl will have for breakfast tomorrow. I’m pulling for bananas and cream. I have no idea where she sleeps tonight, or where—if—she wakes up. Because I know there will be a fence around the trunk of that giant tree, because I’ll never know, I knife her name into the bathroom door.

My stepfather–who we’ll just call G.–sat across the dinner table from me. My mother sat to my left, silently pushing her food around the plate. I assumed this was because she’d discovered G.’s latest affair and was dealing with it in her usual silent denial. G. discussed what he’d be doing if it were his sophomore year in college instead of mine, Things I Would Have Done with Your Opportunities being a favorite topic of his. I’d only come to town to retrieve a few things I had left behind when I moved into my apartment, and I was eager to get back on the road as soon as possible.

It was early October, 1998. I was 19 years old.

G. was a Machiavellian bully of a parent, though one who preferred to intimidate psychologically rather than physically. My mother moved him in when I was six, and the ink was barely dry on her divorce decree before she married him. As the only boy in the house, I received the brunt of his attention. Everything was subject to scrutiny: my clothes, my taste in music, my prowess with girls, my lack of interest in team sports—all measured by some unspoken standard of masculinity I perpetually failed to live up to. That I earned a black belt in karate at sixteen made no substantial impression. I grew up in a state of quiet but pervasive fear, only finally escaping when I went off to college. I deliberately chose a university elsewhere in the state and came home infrequently.

Though not typically violent, G. hit me three times before I reached the age of 10. Once hard enough to make my gums bleed.

He largely ignored my little sister. This is the only reason she survived this period of our lives.

I finished my meal, but when I went to clear my plate my mother took it instead. “I’ll get this,” she said. “You just relax.”

Alarm bells went off in my head. Each family member was responsible for his/her dirty dishes, an inviolate rule for as long as I could remember.

She cleared not just my plate but the entire table, portioning the leftovers into Tupperware containers with astonishing economy of speed. G. sipped at his beer and made a show of appearing nonchalant. Some weird, nervous energy encoded his body language, and I found it vaguely threatening. Every lizard-brain instinct told me to flee, but before I could conjure an excuse my mother returned to her seat.

“There’s something we need to tell you,” G. said. “It’s about your father.”

My father? My father had become persona non grata years ago. During the divorce he battled viciously in court to avoid owing child support, a prolonged conflict which left my sister and I with smoking blast craters marring the landscape of our youth. When the courts decided against him, he abandoned his children in favor of his new wife.

“We’ve never been completely honest with you,” my stepfather continued. He stared me straight in the eyes, his poker face rapidly abandoning him. “But we think it’s time you know the truth. You’re not really his son. You’re mine.”

Mine.

The world fell away from me like a free-fall ride at an amusement park.

G. grinned as though he’d won a fucking prize.

My mother said nothing.

When I didn’t respond, G. kept talking: about his affair with my mother; about the anecdotal evidence that “proved” I was his biological son; how my various aunts and uncles had been aware for years. Something about how this would “free” me from the pain of the divorce.

I wasn’t really listening. I felt like a  freshly branded cow, a smoking MINE seared into my flesh. My heart beat against the ragged edges of broken feelings: betrayal, violation, confusion.

And so much anger. I wanted to glove my fists in the grinning bastard’s blood.

“I have to go,” I said, grabbing my leather jacket off the chair. No one tried to stop me.

Here’s where I lose the plot a bit. Everything was scattered, my head as big a jumble as a bag of Scrabble letters. I drove aimlessly, circling around the freeways, taking whatever off-ramp or side street presented itself. The city seemed both starkly real and yet grotesquely unreal, as though I’d stumbled into some Twilight Zone simulacrum of my life.

I stopped at payphones, attempting to get in touch with my friends, but it was Saturday and they were all out. I left them rambling, nonsensical messages.

Eventually, running low on gas and inertia, I found myself at the beach. The early autumn days were still running late, and the evening sun was just setting. I sat down on the sand to watch it, jacket pulled around me like a turtle shell. It was just another sunset, the exact same image I’d seen countless times, and yet so stunningly beautiful that for a moment I was able to forget about everything. One last explosion of color before the world finished turning to gray.

My crappy little 35MM Kodak was in my jacket pocket, and I snapped a few pictures.


Later I would pick myself up off the beach, drive back to school, and with the help of my friends, begin the process of reassembling myself, fearing for years afterward that crucial pieces were irretrievably lost.

I would not speak to any member of my family, save my sister, for months.

I would learn that G. had been threatening to leave my mother for his current mistress; she had hoped that allowing him to openly claim me as his offspring would prevent him from leaving her. But G. would move out before Christmas, and they would be divorced by springtime.

And before graduation, I would publicly–and cathartically–disown him.

But those events were in the future, still waiting to happen. For now I just sat there, alone on an empty shelf of beach, watching the sun slowly dive into the Pacific as bit by bit the earth carried me away from it.

Some might find it difficult to love a person who intentionally pees on your stuff.  Perfectly understandable.  And when that person is a cat, well, the answer seems clear.  Get a new cat.  But then she looks at you with those big eyes and curls up in your lap, purrs in your ear, and greets you at the door like a dog.  Unfair, really.  There is no defense for that.  So you think well, they all die sometime.  I’ll just wait it out.  My cat died yesterday.

3 Mattresses
1 Couch
6 Couch Cushions
2 Stuffed Chairs
2 Tables
1 Piano
Countless pieces of clothing
Unfathomable loads of laundry
My mother’s hand
Several boyfriends

These are the costs Freyja racked up over the course of her lifetime.  I leave out, of course, the expected cost of food, litter and veterinary care.  Those I signed up for in the first place.  My father asked me repeatedly over the last fifteen years why I hadn’t given her away to one of her several, if unlikely, fans.  My answer was always the same.

“She’s my responsibility.  I love her.  Well, most of the time anyway.  Would you give me away if I peed on the bed?”

I think he wanted to say yes.

I adopted Freyja when she was a spitting, yelling, grabbing, tiny ball of sparse hair which all stood up on end.  I could see her pink skin through it, wrinkly and soft.  My boyfriend at the time had said he’d wanted a cat.  A beautiful, sleek, cat esthetically pleasing to the eye is what he said.  He was an artist so this mattered to him.  There were other kittens there that were far more attractive but, as they cowered in the corners she reached through the bars of her cage and tapped me on the head.  She grabbed at my fingers and yelled at me quite insistently and this way she made the cut. I was convinced then, as now, that personality matters more than looks.  In the end he loved us both despite our looks, although not enough to keep us and when we eventually split up she landed in my lap rather than his.

It was all the same to me.  In her younger years she was a wonderful companion to my older, very mellow cat, Arthur.  Arthur loved her company.  He used to hang his tail down over a chair and flick it back and forth for her to chase.  He groomed her and taught her how to walk across the back of the couch, nibble off the end of my morning bagel and the first two years of her time with us were virtually problem free.  Then we moved.

Because I didn’t have a place of my own yet, my parents gracefully took my cats while I located an apartment in Boston. Arthur did well but Freyja hid and not under furniture or anyplace you might actually be able to touch her; she hid in the rafters on the ceiling.  It took me a while to get settled but she remained on high making actual human contact difficult.  When I finally did find a place my parents thoughtfully offered to meet me half way to deliver the cats.  We agreed on a date and just as I was preparing to go meet them I received this phone call.

“We’re having trouble catching Freyja.  We might not…wait; wait, here comes your mother.  She’s BLEEDING!  Today isn’t going to happen, we’re going to the hospital!”

From the background I heard, “I’ve got her, Tom!  Screw the hospital, drive, drive, drive!”

It seems like maybe we’d overstayed our welcome.

In Boston she became a different animal.  She continued hiding, became fearful of other people, stopped enjoying Arthur’s company and she started peeing on things.  This made me very popular with my new roommate but at the time I didn’t care so much.  The girl was Single White Female crazy so if Freyja wanted to pee on her dirty laundry, I was all for it.  Go ahead, Mama!  I had her vetted anyway to be sure there wasn’t a medical problem there.  But even after being treated for a UTI, she continued the behavior.  It seemed like she’d found a way to be heard in a way her constant yelling wasn’t producing.

Behaviorists will tell you the “inappropriate urination” comes from anxiety.  I get it.  Sometimes I get a full bladder right before I on stage, so sure, I buy that.  Explain then why it so often happened after an anxiety-causing event.  Example: Upon return from a time a way, perhaps a gig, we would rejoice in our reuniting with much talking, rubbing and lap sitting.  All would appear to be well and maybe the day after, as I retired for the night, I would smell something rotten in the state of my bed.  She hadn’t done it the entire time I was gone so how was I to interpret this now that I’d returned, supposedly having taken away the stressor?

A. I am the stressor, not my absence. Or…
B. She was exacting revenge for having been left.

Knowing my cat as I did, it seemed clear that B. was the correct and final answer.

In her old age and moderate blindness, she mellowed.  Maybe the world became less scary when seen through a milky, cataract haze.  She spent her final months happier than she had ever been.  Preparing to leave for Germany, I was in a quandary about what to do for her.  Do I leave her in my New York apartment and look for a sub leaser who might love and care for her or ask her to adjust once more to a new life, not to mention survive the transatlantic flight?  But luck smiled on us both in the form of a friend who was able to see her negatives for positives and offered to take her until I made it back stateside or the inevitable happened.

“She is not an easy animal, you know.”

“Who likes easy animals?”

“Doesn’t like other cats or dogs, most people.”

“I don’t like most people either.  She’ll fit in just fine.”

“She pees on things when she’s mad.”

“Wish I could.”

She adjusted to her new home and second mom perfectly.  A cat who had spent the last several years in the closet, literally, not figuratively to my knowledge, she was an equal opportunity hater, suddenly was sleeping out in the open on the couch mere feet from the other cat.  She seemed actually to enjoy his company!  She loved my friend to distraction and vice versa.  Freyja passed in the way most of us hope our pets will, asleep in her sunny spot on the window ledge.  She didn’t feel a thing and, I hope, she was dreaming about her favorite things as she went, love, sun, food, and peeing on the bed.

R.I.P Freyja
1994-2009

In photos from his youth he looked like a porcelain doll, a severely myopic puppet. When I knew him, he was in constant motion, a coiled spring: knee bouncing, fingers grasping and lighting cigarettes, eyes darting, lips moving and always talking sports. I couldn’t keep up with him though I knew I was smarter.

He was my mother’s only sibling, born when my grandmother was in her 40s, eventually becoming too much for her to care for. Back then my Uncle Billy had a sweeping range of unspecified mental issues (widely ignored by all around him), yet he possessed an eidetic memory for sports trivia. (Asperger’s Syndrome wouldn’t be recognized until 1944 and only officially named for Hans Asperger in 1981, a year after the good doctor’s death.) He was hyperactive, displayed attention deficit tendencies, was susceptible to stimulants and depressants alike. We merely called him Silly Billy, but not to his face. Billy was simply complicated.