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“Losing My Religion,” by REM

There were the religion classes I was forced to attend in my Catholic high school.

Operation Desert Storm was a month old. I was a senior and attending protests against the war. I had lost my religion, literally, several years before. I used to read the Bible, to silently call to God for wishes, for rescue, until just before I met the junior high teacher who would become my lover.

I first discovered the Reverend Al Green’s rich, tenor voice where many others of my generation did: the Tiki lounge scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Half a lifetime later, the brassy intro to “Let’s Stay Together” brings me to the sparsely populated bar where Marcellus Wallace does business. In the interim years I have used Green’s 1972 classic album Let’s Stay Together to set the right mood at a party, unwind after a night at the bars and separate young women from their clothes. It’s never failed me in any of these endeavors.

Utility aside, Stay Together is a classic of 1970s soul. It seamlessly straddles two subgenres, uniting the ‘60s and the ‘70s. First, Memphis soul: The harder-edged sounds of the ‘60s synonymous with Stax Records.  Memphis was on the wane in 1972, increasingly eclipsed by the funk of soul stalwarts like James Brown and younger upstarts like Parliament. Second, Philly soul: The ascendant smooth sounds that would dominate the ‘70s before morphing into quiet storm and adult urban contemporary.

My truck was acting up, so I had to take the Greyhound bus to Vegas. I wasn’t too happy about this. For one, I would have to dish out some cash to heal whatever ailment (s) my truck was suffering from. And two, the haul to Vegas wasn’t for fun. No hanging out with old friends. No extra-spicy chicken fingers at Danny’s. No wine or whiskey. I was going to town to see my attorney where at the end of our meeting she would tell me that I was officially and financially screwed. Yay for me! How neat! Such a wonderful way to start off the New Year!

But this was on me. This is what happens when you make poor personal and professional decisions. So, I had to eat it. And I had to take the damn bus to get this delightful news. I haven’t taken the bus since my high school days, but I remember it being an ugly combination of dingy people, screaming babies, and the pungent stench of decaying homemade food. This bus ride would be no different. Right when I stepped on the bus, I was hit with smudged faces, pissed off babies, and rotting food.

I found a seat next to this girl whose name turned out to be Jessica. We chatted for a bit. She’d been living in Vegas only for a few months. A transplant from L.A. Vegas was a new start for her. L.A was a bust. She liked Vegas—was taken in by the buzzing neon, the dusty red stone of Red Rock Canyon.

I turned on my iPod that I got from Santa (thanks, Tori) and settled in as we cut through the pale tones of the desert. I moved to the desert in 1981 and was immediately smitten by its perfect silence, its hard dirt, the spiny joshua trees—spooky and beautiful—sprouting out of the ground in ancient desert shapes. I was born in L.A, but it was the desert that wired and built me. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Snow” filled my ears, the lyrics a timely narrative.

Come to decide that the things I tried

Were in my life just to get high on

When I sit alone come get a little known

But I need more than myself this time

The bus weaved over I-15 and my mind tumbled through the past year: leaving my house with two bags full of books and clothes knowing I wasn’t going to return to the woman that was living inside. Befriending a chihuahua named Duke that would sing on cue. Seeing a giant rainbow in Thousand Palms rising from behind the San Gorgonio Mountains. Being holed-up and depressed in a smoke-infested hotel room on Boulder Highway with a fridge full of beer and a large pepperoni pizza. A handful of poems I wrote for a dear friend whom I love from head to toe. Driving through the desert in the middle of the night with an eccentric 70 year-old man who goes to law school and rides his Triumph motorcycle through the desert between Lucerne Valley and Barstow. Not being able to sleep for weeks on end and having late night conversations with Zara Potts. “Get some sleep,” she’d type and send over the wire. Writing a telling song in Woodland, California, that would eerily predict my future. A reading I gave in Hollywood, meeting some great folk for the first time, and in the company of a beautiful woman. The time I was having dinner with a buddy in Vegas and some woman walked up to the table and said, “Excuse me. But are you Reno Romero? I’ve been reading your stuff for years. I’m a big fan of The Nervous Breakdown.” Sleeping in my truck for two days in Stockton while rain and bad thoughts pelted the windshield. A gay pride festival I went to with my friend Trish where the boys were far prettier than the girls. Dancing to Al Green with my aunt and cousin buzzing on cheap beer and howling into the night like a pack of wild dogs. The countless nights I thought about my grandmother and wished she was still around. Jogging on the cracked streets of Hesperia—my hometown—not believing I was back after all these years, but feeling a sense of peace in the jagged shadows of some joshua trees that graced a vacant lot.

I was talking to Megan DiLullo one morning and we talked about the past year. I told her that 2009 was a bad year—that I could never have imagined the unforeseen circumstances that rolled my way in heavy waves.

“I don’t know if it was so much a bad year,” she said, in her charming punk rock style. “But it was a hard year.”

A hard year.

She was right.

It was a hard year.

* * *

After my attorney gave me the predicted news, I headed back to my grandmother’s house. It was over. I signed the needed papers and was free. Free to roam. Free to stay put. Free to do whatever I wanted. I was both sad and relieved. I slipped the key in the lock, opened the door, and smelled my grandmother. Her scent hasn’t left the house. I walked into her room and looked at her bed. She died in her room among crucifixes, paintings of Jesus, family pictures, and some books I bought her. I stepped into her closet and brushed my hands over her clothes that we refuse to put in boxes. I tuned her guitar and played it long into the night.

The next morning I went for a jog, taking my old route. Hacienda to Nellis, Nellis to Russell, Russell to Mountain Vista and back down to Hacienda. Just like old times. After a five-star lunch that consisted of Jack In The Box’s dog food tacos and Vegas tap water, my aunt dropped me off at the bus station that was littered with action: two Hispanic dudes smoking a joint in the parking lot. A batch of disheveled Chinese tourists with swollen I-didn’t-get-any-sleep-last-night eyes guarding their luggage. A pissed off American with greasy dirt-blond hair making a scene because he missed his bus to Albuquerque. A pretty brunette staring at a wall of casinos in the distance. Some black dude dancing in front of the terminal dressed in a stained wife-beater and wearing shorts that sat just below his nuts. A young woman peppered with zits nervously smoking a cigarette and checking her cell phone.

And then to make things even more entertaining, the bus was running late. Not one hour, but two hours. Curses and moans filled the room. Faces were twisted and long. Some people walked up to the counter and bitched. The dude behind me—who reeked of booze and cigarettes—sat on the floor Indian-style and watched porn on his laptop. I looked down and saw two chicks eating each other out. Now, I realize there are a lot of men (and women for that matter) that enjoy watching girl-on-girl action, but I’m not one of them. I’d rather eat a trough of liver and onions and then mow fifty acres of crabgrass. I text a friend who’s a big fan of seeing girls fuck each other.

“In Vegas. The bus is late. Too bad you’re not here with me, vato. I’m watching two chicks munching each other.”

“Shut up! In person?” he immediately fired back.

“No. Sorry. On some asshole’s laptop.”

“Bummer.”

The bus finally arrived and as fate would have it, Mr. Porn sat next to me and cranked up the sticky show once again. I couldn’t do anything, but laugh to myself. What a crazy life, I thought. Truly crazy. Attorneys with bad, yet good news. Memories of men and women. Rainbows and rain. Poems and cheap beer. An unscripted future up ahead. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” came through the earphones as the bus passed Bell Mountain and dipped into the Mojave Narrows where years ago I used to catch snakes and scorpions and kissed Julie Newland on a warm desert night.

There’s a girl in New York City, calls herself the human trampoline

And sometimes when I’m falling, flying, tumbling in turmoil

Well, I say so this is what she means

She means we’re bouncing into Graceland

I got off the bus in Victorville and met a man that just got out of the prison that’s down the road on the outskirts of town. He was kind, was going back home to Seattle where he said he was going to stay out of trouble, do the right thing.

“Good luck out there, man,” I told him with sincerity and shook his hand.

“Hey, you too,” he said, and boarded his bus.


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.