Black Friday Random

I get away to do some work, hoping a bit of lesson planning will make things easier when I go back to school after the break.  This is always a lie and the friend who tells you this is not your friend.  My good intentions are short lived.  I have five short stories hoping to finish and the need – wrong word, crazed obsession to finish them weighs on my mind. There is a deadline only I don’t know what it is nor do I know who has set it.  Then I remember about this blog I have not touched in a while.  Here we are.      

My daughter finished a whole series of books a while ago and I’ve asked her to write the author a letter, explaining how much she enjoyed the books.  I say, “Sister, there are no great writers, only great rewriters.”  She gets it.  I write her an outline to preempt, “How do I start?”  This isn’t my first rodeo.

“Why do I have to write this?”

“Sister, writers like to know that others have liked their writing,” I say, as if having authority.

“How do you know?” she asks, destroying my authority.

I smile, not hurt.

“Just a hunch,” I say.

And I fully intend on writing without interruption only I have erred tremendously by believing I can accomplish much work at the local coffee shop.  Technically this is writing but not the “I-have-to-finish-this-story” writing.  Then I remember, or keep remembering like an interrupted, morse code on a loop, that today is Black Friday.  And if I forget, the people here won’t let me.     

The only person I connect (defined as holding my attention temporarily) with in the coffee shop is a tall white man in jeans and a blue flannel with a shaved head I gather is more a necessity than choice.  He’s got a book, I love books.  

“My brother!”

I see only the words “fallen brother” on the book cover.  So I do what anyone does these days to learn about another person without being social, I use the Internet.  I google fallen brother, analyze my choices, analyze the book cover now shoved into his armpit, clamped snug to pay for his Caffe Americano.  Actually, I don’t know what he ordered.  A find a match on Amazon.

The book is Fallen Brother in Blue: The Tragic Death of Police Officer Mark Stall.  I know nothing about the book other than what the brief summary gives me.  The man is now at a table, engaged in an act I rarely find myself in, sitting with a friend at a table and talking.  My friends are pens , notebooks and time.  I didn’t know coffee was this important, a necessary pitstop from Black Friday shopping.  But it’s not that, I know.  Coffee is a quiet mediator, forgotten and doomed to lukewarmness between folks as they talk about deals, as they talk about yesterday, as they talk about books left to lie on a table.  A woman walks by and her shirt is a depiction of Santa’s suit.  A man walks by and I swear he is one of my old drill instructors but I say nothing.  A guy walks in looking like Conor McGregor as if he’s just raided Wyatt Earp’s wardrobe.  Three teachers sit next to me at a long table.  They open up their planners and right away I gather they are more organized than I am, the first of many negative assumptions.  One is African-American.  I remember what a friend told me once, “I’m tired of hyphens.  Just call me American.”  I have the irrational desire of whipping out my planner from my bag just to let them know that I’m a teacher too and that I’m good and that and that and that rather than the guy at the end of the table with the beenie on, shaking his head in disbelief at overpriced coffee mugs.

I see bags of coffee labeled with loaded words like

Ethiopia

Kenya

Guatemala

Sumatra

Rwanda

Columbia,

failing to lure buyers, failing to tap into their “Let’s-make-the-world-better-by-buying coffee-instinct”; failing to lure buyers away from the Black Friday alerts on their phones. For a split second, I see the faces of my students but then I remember lyrics from a System of a Down song I haven’t heard in years:

“Advertising causes need

therapy, therapy

Advertising’s got you on the run

Every minute, every second,

buy, buy, buy, buy, buy.” 

I should have worked at home, amidst the chaos of my lovely family and a hot cup of cowboy coffee in my hand.  Next time.

 

 

 

 

 

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McCall – A Travelogue

We got to the cabin on the 24th of June and stayed for a week, we came back today.  While walking through a gift shop with overpriced souvenirs, I see a magnet that reads, “I teach for three reasons:  June, July and August.”  Very true, I think.  Vacations should afford moments and opportunities mostly absent from daily life.  For the kids, that included eating ice cream four days in a row.  First we went to Ice Cream Alley and then walked down by the marina, to sit on the grassy knoll in front of the lake.  The next day, after swimming for two hours in the hot evening, we took the kids to My Father’s Place where the kiddos enjoyed ice cream while my bride and I shared fries and a strawberry shake.  We were the family that all of a sudden broke out in arm wrestling competitions right there on the patio tables: Andres versus Gretna, Analise versus Lucia.  I abstained but I did watch as a gentleman and his wife enjoyed the competition as they ate burgers from their jacked up truck.

We went to the lake almost everyday.  We parents overthink things sometimes.  We did not rent jet skis, canoes or a pontoon boat like I thought we needed to have fun. We had the water, sand and mountains as our audience.  And for the kids, that was enough.  The littles (Lucia and Saraphina) played at the edge of the cold water and the shore with sand toys.  Every once in a while, Lucia with her life jacket and Phina with her floaties, dared deeper waters until fear kicked in, turning them back to shore.

I went deeper, did you see me?

I did!

Out of all the days we visited the lake, I did not see two kiddos closer than the olders (Andres and Analise), especially when they played baseball on the beach.  Their bases were plastic sand castle toys, their field, white sand, a wiffle ball and two snow ball throwing sticks turned baseball bats was all they needed to have fun.  And if they hit one into the water, it was a homer.  Andres and I played catch in the water with a white spongy ball which we purposed to throw just right to induce a diving catch and splash.  He jumped off my shoulders like a million times.  I swam out to the large orange buoys tied together by a steel cable.  I rested on one, hugging it, loitering  and enjoying the cold water, watching the general splendor of all sorts of watercraft, before stroking back to shore.  Later, I walked the girls out to the deeper waters.  They clung to me as I showed them there is nothing to fear.  Ordinarily, they would’ve been hesitant to do so.  However, you’d be amazed what a child would do for the promise of a special treat.  And if you guessed ice cream, you’d be right.

Gretna took pictures of the family when she wasn’t reading Jane Eyre.

You’ve read the book?

I’ve seen the movie.

What’s that screech about?

You really want me to tell you?

No.  Tell me nothing. 

And of course, a trip to the lake or beach would not be complete without the proverbial burying of dad in the sand which the kiddos did with gusto and, unfortunately for me, with the occasional, accidental sand storm across my face at the hands of Saraphina.

 

When we weren’t in the water, we were hiking through Ponderosa State Park.  During our first visit, we did the Lily Marsh Trail and during our second visit, we hiked the Huckleberry Trail.  On both hikes, we were blessed to come across deer as they foraged through the forest.  It was neat to see them up close and unconcerned with people walking through their digs.  Andres took point on our hikes and I brought up the rear, pleased at how my small platoon, especially my girls, displayed toughness and attacked the inclines as the enemy, that would be mosquitoes, ambushed us here and there.

Saraphina enjoys it all from the ergo on my back.  At Osprey Cliff Overlook we stop for water and the view.  As the Huckleberry Trail nears its end, Gretna challenges Andres and Analise to see who can run and get to the end first.  She tries over and over to run past Andres and Analise but they box her out, Analise pulls on the back of Gretna’s shirt to slow her down and uses it to boomerang past her mother.  Gretna laughs, the kids are competitive.  I see the end before they do.

There’s the end.  The van is up there. 

But the only one who hears me is Gretna, Andres and Analise are too far ahead.  Gretna runs to the van but the kiddos see her break for it.

Oh you!

I hear Andres say and him and Analise turn around and truck up the little hill.  Andres first, Analise second, Gretna last.

The cabin is where we had smores on the back deck with a fire and shifted into chill mode.  Watching movies, reading books, being lazy, catching naps, playing games.  Andres had the loft, the girls the small, long attic turned bedroom with the v shaped ceiling and queen beds with white, puffy comforters and blankets for my princesses.  Cars sighed past Lake Fork Road nearby.

In the morning, birds chirped a different language as I served up my coffee.  Something about the way a cabin in the woods improves breakfast.  We left this morning, sad to go but blessed by the trip.

Who had fun?

I say, reversing out of the driveway, gravel crunching beneath the tires.

I did!

Everyone yells and we head for home.

 

 

 

Harvey

For a time, my father carried around a little palm notebook, spiral bound at the top.  I can’t remember how old I was because memory is like a terrorist, extremely uncooperative with divulging exact details and facts.  If only we could waterboard our memories – to get them to talk, to clear up what we have wrong.

They were inseparable.  Him and the notebook and the notebook and him.  He studied from it all the time.  I mostly remember him holding it open in one hand as he ate dinner while the other, pinched a tortilla to scoop up some beans.  What he studied I wasn’t exactly sure but I sensed, as much as a child can, that it was important.  It had something to do with the end of handling guts and innards from disemboweled chickens at the Foster Farms chicken processing plant in Livingston.  He studied to do something else at the plant; something more that would give his wife and three children more.

Before and as he studied for this possible new position, my father didn’t have a proper uniform.  He wore whatever he had and, I’m assuming, something he did not mind getting dirty: jeans, old pants, a shirt; anything conducive to helping machines rip chickens apart.  There was a white hard hat, yellow ear plugs to drown out the machines inside the plant and knee high, black, rubber boots.  One day, all of that went away along with the spiral, palm notebook.  He now had a proper uniform: dark blue pants and a light blue shirt with a name patched and stitched on the left breast.  It read Harvey.

Dad

*

Everyone wanted a scooter during that time.  This was years ago.  None of this razor scooter stuff.  These were real scooters: big wheels and handlebars and a footboard strong enough to support a husky boy like me.  How he knew I wanted a scooter I couldn’t say.  However, I’m positive I employed subtle or not so subtle manipulating strategies used by children for millennia, hints dropped hoping he’d pick up:

Daddy, did you see so and so’s doll?  It’s nice isn’t it?

Daddy, I’m getting too big for this baseball bat.  And, these gloves are tight.  My hands can’t breathe!

Oh Daddy!  I’m having so much fun riding cousin’s scooter!

We drove across town in his 1985 red Ford Ranger to Kmart.  It was the Christmas season and I didn’t know why were going there at first.  Now, looking back, I have no idea why he would’ve asked me to go with him but he did.  Was he crazy?  I knew Kmart sold scooters because one day I showed him a green one I liked.  I also knew that my father was in the habit of putting things on layaway; a helpful alternative, alleviating any sense of being below the poverty line.

“We couldn’t be going there to get my scooter, could we?” I remember telling myself as we drove into the parking lot.  He circled round and found a spot quite a distance from the store’s entrance.

“Quedate aqui,” my father said.  “Ahorita vengo.”

I waited in the Ranger with my thoughts.

“This is the worse possible way to surprise somebody with a gift,” I thought.  “Why would he bring me with him to pick up my Christmas gift before Christmas?  Wasn’t he afraid I’d see it or suspect what he was up to?  And how was he going to unload it without me seeing?  What?  Was he going to put it in a garbage bag?”

Moments later, I felt something heavy fall into the truck’s bed.  It was a large brown box.  The empty back of it faced up.  Dad got in the Ranger.

“Vámonos,” he said.  We crossed Merced again, heading home.  Two blocks away from the house he says to me, “When you get inside, bring me out a garbage bag.”

*

I was supposed to be home at 10:00 p.m. but didn’t leave the house until midnight.  I was at Lisa’s house on M Street between Buena Vista and Yosemite Avenue, kicking back with other kids.  I was a 7th grader with no business being out that late.  Why he let me go I’ll never know.  Perhaps he trusted me when he shouldn’t have.  Perhaps he thought I would be responsible and disciplined enough to obey his command to be home by ten rather than do what I wanted to do.  Kids.  I left the party and walked through a residential area at night, headed toward a path leading into one of the fields of Rivera Jr. High.  Walking through this darkened field gave me cover and from it, I could see Buena Vista Drive, heavily lit and brightened by the high street lights.  Suddenly, the red Ford Ranger drove down the street, slowly.  My body dropped without knowing.  I watched, my face in the wet grass, as he prowled the streets like a lion.  I imagined him inside, cursing me in Spanish, frustrated with where I might be, worried even for my safety.  I knew what the morning would bring and I deserved it.  He drove toward M Street and disappeared behind the homes while I walked the other way, headed for home and fully aware that I was in trouble.  I ran through the school, reached R Street and ran into the black of Fahren’s Park, again, headed for the darkened Black Rascal path to keep me sheltered and invisible.  I ran the path, all the way until I reached Biscmark.  And then I walked, worked at catching my breath, and began testing out lies in my head.  I crossed Sacramento and prayed he wouldn’t be home.  I passed the corner house and eyed my house.  The Ranger wasn’t there.  I ran to my bedroom window and slid it open like my plan had always been.  I climbed inside, changed my clothes and pretended sleep.  The Ranger’s lights shot across my room like searchlights.  The engine died, a door opened and closed, keys rattled, the house door opened  then closed.  Down the hall he came.  My door opened and then the lights in my room came on.

“Me la vas a pagar en la mañana,” he said to me.

Boy did I.

*

If it was Saturday morning, sometimes I would wake up and my dad wouldn’t be there.  Coffee would be made but he’d be nowhere to be found.  Because we’d seen this before, we weren’t worried at all.  He would eventually return with one or two white bags full of Mexican bread from La Michoacana or somewhere else I can’t remember.  Or sometimes, he’d already be back, stirring his coffee, spoon clanking his mug, enjoying his “café con pan dulce” while reading the Sun-Star at the kitchen table.  I drank coffee young.  I never got any of it’ll stunt your growth stuff from him as I pulled up a chair, looking for a pumpkin empanada inside the bag.

*

I missed something like forty days of school in sixth grade.  A truant officer came to the house once during the I Love Lucy hour on TBS when I should’ve been at school, feeling way behind and out of place in a sixth grade GATE class.  I watched the truant officer from the peep hole.  Closer than that she never came.  He found out about my truancies and made it a point to come to school unannounced whenever he felt like it just to keep me on my toes.  I passed sixth grade.  And seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth.

*

Where M Street and Child’s kiss there are four apartments, two stacked on top of each other on the left and right.  The bottom one on the right.  That one.  I lived there.  One.  In front of the airport, V Street crossing Child’s, until it runs into dirt.  A house over there.  Two.  Castle Apartments in Atwater.  Three.  Sequoia Gardens near Pine Cone.  Four.  Seville Drive off Child’s when Alicia Reyes was just a field.  Five.  The country house off of Stretch.  Six.  An apartment off Canal Street, 18th or 19th Street, not sure, there was a church or something across the street.  Seven.  Juneau Court, eight.  We zig-zagged Merced trying on shelter the way a person tries on clothes, looking for the perfect fit, migrating and moving at every prospect of something better, something cheaper with more.  Never homeless, never unprotected from the elements, always a bed somewhere even if we shared it.

*

Once he thrashed a man for insulting my mother.  What are you gonna do?

*

A little goes a long way.  No motorcycles, no boats, no ATVs, no toys for him.  But if he could and when he could, he removed us from inside our walls and took us beyond any park entrance fee.  At Lake Yosemite, at about three or four in the afternoon when it’s windy and the water is high and choppy, that was the best time to jump off the pier or off the bridge into the dark, bluish water.  For a second, the water felt better than what Merced deserved.  He took me there.  Swimming across Barrett’s Cove gave me confidence as a swimmer.  He took me there too.  McConnell was fine, a wide river with a steep ravine, from there I jumped all day.  He took me there.  I couldn’t swim at Henderson Park, never tried, it was prohibited.  He took me there too and all the while, like everywhere, he stood near a barbecue like a sentry, guarding carne asada, chicken and hot dogs with a beer in his hand, checking and double checking everything was in order for us to eat whenever we took breaks from being kids.

*

“How far did you walk?” I might have asked him.

“Oooohh,” he would begin, as if you’d never believe what he was about to tell you and with that face only a Nicaraguan would know, “Hasta McKee!” he’d say, which was a long way by foot from Juneau near Loughborough Drive.

“Y de allí, I walked to Bear Creek y me vine por el Applegate y después, el path detrás Wal-Mart, cruce Olive y me regrese por el Black Rascal.”  I call it the Harvey Soza loop and he did this all the time after coming home from work.  He’d wear shorts probably shorter than I’d be comfortable wearing (he does have buff legs), black sneakers, white tube socks pulled all the way up and on top of his black curly hair, some random hat to keep the sun away.  He’d come back drenched with sweat and would guzzle down water like a wanderer finding a refreshing pool.  He returned tired but refreshed and energized by endorphins and numb to the pain in his knees or stiffness from his notorious back.

At the time, I might have thought, “What’s so neat about walking?  Why does my dad enjoy it so much?”  When I run, I get my answers.  I run with my father’s endurance for walking.  You don’t just run.  You think and run.  You figure things out and run.  You think about your family, your past, your future and you run.  It can’t be helped, it’s self-therapy.  And so, somehow I believe this is what my father experienced, therapeutic reflection and practicing endurance.

*

 A visiting professor asked us one day:

Where do you come from?

While others stared into space, I was three or four lines in talking about a man.  Not place or city or country.  But my father.  And then I thought about his machete, how I imagined him using it in Nicaragua, how he became one for his family, how he kept it under his bed as protection for his family and how it now lays underneath my bed.

Who would like to share?

So I went, but not far before what I admired about my father choked my voice and turned everyone’s head towards me.  I paused, composed myself and finished the little bit I had written.  I learned nothing is real until you say it, until you’ve infused it with life from your lips and others hear.

Months later, I waited for him in the parking lot of Geno’s Pizza in Livingston one afternoon.  He was about to start his shift.  I waited for him with a small stack of Sacramento Bee’s from October 2008.  I’d taken what I wrote that day in that college class and stayed with it.  I sent it to the Bee for publication as an article.  For one day, in the State newspaper, anyone could read about what I already knew about my father – that he was a good father, hard-working, sacrificing, heroic for making lemonade out of lemons.  Bright sunny day.  He reached the parking lot.  We talked a bit before I gave him the newspapers.  He took them and drove less than a block away to the plant.  I imagined him showing the article to his co-workers, telling everyone his son wrote with the same zeal Rudy Ruettiger’s father had when he proudly tells everyone at the steel plant over an intercom, “Hey guys, my son is going to Notre Dame!”

I wonder where those newspapers are now.  Probably under his bed where his machete used to lay.  Maybe he goes to them for assurance, for validation and proof of a beloved fatherhood.  A proof his children never doubt.