Friday, September 28, 2007

So Live

What is liberation?

Is it in food?
Protein
Lipid
Carbohydrate
Eating?

What is liberation?

Is it in a word?
The shelves of books
The playwright’s pen
Soundtrack recording
Music?

What is liberation?

Has it got a place?
Has it got a sound?
Has it got a movement?

What is liberation?

Is it only in living?
Passion
Spirit
Art
Is it Pasolini’s murder?

What is liberation?

Is it the coming of a season?
The falling of leaves
The burst of flowers
Drying grass
Frost?

What is liberation?

Is it in a city of millions?
The frowns of friends
Wondrous strange window displays
Highrise graffiti
Gridlock?

What is liberation?

Is it in a small town?
The faces of strangers
Familiar storefronts
Sidewalk graffiti
Traffic?

What is liberation?
Is liberation what is?
What is liberation?
Is liberation what is?
What is liberation?

Whose chains are these?
My courageous world’s
My culture’s hand
The family’s arm
Mine?

What is liberation?
When all cry
When all suffer
When all starve
When all die?

What is liberation?
When every god speaks
When every god lies
When every god laughs
At freedom.



Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fantasma


Photo: Diego Fernandes

I wrote this while listening to Anita Baker.


My dream of you floats

In that place between places

Where I am so comfortable,

So capable, so balanced.

Every note is always perfect,

Every brushstoke carries

The painting to completion.

I am a passenger

Inside the warmth of you,

Your embrace.

Under your touch

Paradise waits around

A turn in the road

Across a rainy sea,

Over there,

Just beyond a kiss.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

After Sundown

Waiting for evening

For after sundown

For dark lights

Star lights

Some strong sense of passing

Waiting.

Watching the sun cross over

Watching the sun pass by

Watching the sun fall

Fall closer to you

And where you dream

Remembering smells

Of you on your pillow

After sundown

Remembering to remember

Forgetting to forget

After sundown

Somewhere out east

Behind me

Under night shadow

Such scenes ache

To hold on to time

Rhythms hard shaking

Of mine as yours

And nothing mine

All

After sundown

But waiting hurts

Morning sun burns

That steam of shadow

Till after sundown.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Antique Store


This short story was originally written as an assignment for a writing class. Its genesis was a cross-country road trip taken by two of my sisters, a roommate and myself. It has gone through many versions and has never been accepted by a publisher except a tiny community newspaper that went out of business before it could be printed. With exceptions, I have received mostly favorable feedback. I still like it.

Tucumcari, when we visited it had an aura of Bagdad Cafe about it and, while it has an "active" side, I describe what I saw. The tumbleweed, the grass growing in the street and the antique store were really there. As for the rest, well, New Mexico is a Land of Enchantment.



* * *

Late afternoon is falling like a party ribbon across eastern New Mexico. The vivid color, sprayed onto the landscape by an overzealous sky, works no comfort on my malaise. A shoulder shrug, the sunset and its brilliant color give up trying to amuse me. A gusty wind is blowing from the east, a tired god trying to blow the flaming sun out. A tumbleweed hurries westward toward some unknown destination; little flurries of dust follow, trying to keep up. I wait, a lone traveler, for denouement, that I may take my final ride into the sunset. We are, the wind, the tumbleweed, and I, clich├ęs of the western desert.

But where are the villains, where are the Indians? The only Indian I had seen was a small boy with holes in the knees of his pants and a blue and green striped t-shirt, all generously dusted with the red and yellow desert dirt. He had been sitting outside the only building having an automobile parked in front, making, or attempting to make, some sort of play guitar from a cereal box, surveying stake and a box of rubber bands. When I stopped to watch his effort, he collected his nascent guitar pieces and vanished into a space between two buildings. The budding Stradivarius did not wish to be a tourist sideshow.

I am walking through Tucumcari, New Mexico, watching shadows stretch and waiting for climax so I can make my way into the sunset, but no one else is on the street. Tough desert grass and thistle have elbowed through the cracked pavement. Tucumcari’s main street is the back of a diseased hermit. Tucumcari is a leper. It lies dying in the desert, not from its disease, but neglect.

Tucumcari and other towns, like San Jon and Glenrio, found a kind of ecstasy in the great prosperity following World War II. These desert shrines astride Route 66 were visited by thousands of pilgrims making their way between Los Angeles and the District of Columbia. An end to their corpulent summer came when interstate 40 freed the way for non-stop travel from coast to coast. The travelers left Tucumcari and her sisters and old route 66 abandoned to the desert. So now, even the tumbleweed is trying to escape.

Off to my left, an electric bulb is glowing inside one of the few shops left to Tucumcari. The sun is not completely set but the shadows are almost strong enough to overwhelm the single bare bulb. It is in an antique shop situated at the corner of two overgrown streets. My attempt to enter is met by a muffled voice requesting me to come back tomorrow. Trying to ascertain if return is warranted, I press my face against the glass of the door. A face appears abruptly and repeats, “come back tomorrow.” Then a window shade, hand lettered, CLOSED, is pulled down and once again I am alone in Tucumcari. So I will return and the showdown will be tomorrow. High noon.

* * *

Cold morning in the desert was the same as it had been for thousands of years, probably. The sun spread its light across the Staked Plain like the breaking of a dam, probably. Nocturnal animals hid in their burrows or where ever they hide during the burn of day, probably. I do not know.

I dream on the shoulder of a naked giant. He crouches on a cliff above an inland sea. Near the rocks beneath us, Tucumcari swirls at the periphery of a maelstrom. Pieces keep breaking off the town and disappearing into the center. The giant begins to stand and from his shoulder I fall into the very center of the whirlpool. I am pulled beneath the surface and I can see the giant smile as his body transforms into the land and sky of New Mexico. I know by his smile he meant for me to fall. The only sound is the rushing of the wind.

* * *

It is noon. I am walking the deserted streets of Tucumcari. Gusts of wind and my feet scraping on broken pavements are the only sounds. It is noon, the sun, balanced on my head, is a giant olla overflowing with heat and light. I find myself on the Street of the Indian Boy, and he is again working on his project, only now, he has retreated to one of the covered wooden sidewalks. He is sitting cross-legged on a bench, trying to will the pieces together. Seeing me evidently embarrasses him, and once again he disappears between the buildings, this time leaving the pieces of his industry.

I can hear the music of a piano. The tune is ragtime, Scott Joplin, but it sounds slow. It is not distorted; rather, it sounds as if someone with perfect rhythm is playing at a deliberately reduced speed, the pace of a walking horse. I feel lighter stepping into the shade of a covered porch. Tucumcari can now support the weight of the sun. I am walking in time with the music, with my ears following the scent of each note to its source. The music is coming from the antique store.

My senses are peaking in the same stomach-surging inevitability of the sex act or an automobile crash. Slight nausea and the heightened awareness of an adrenaline surge are forcing my sensory antenna to full extension. Every fractional second fills with minute detail. An ancient hunter is ready for the kill; the gunfighter is ready for the draw.

In my peripheral vision I watch my image waver and flicker in the warped window glass of the antique store. I see through the sets of windows at the store’s corner to mountains beyond Tucumcari. Between that unknown territory and myself are black silhouettes within the store. One of the silhouettes is a head, the head of a woman moving within.

In an act of supreme nonchalance and vanity, I stop and check my reflected image. As I turn to face the window, a piece of broken glass in the street glints brightly in sunlight dazzling my eyes, a stage light. I find my audience in the glass. I take a small bow. Thank you, you are wonderful. Without conscious decision my focus shifts: my image, window display, black silhouettes within, twice filtered sky and desert beyond, my image.

My focus flicks from my reflection to an object, almost lost in the careful clutter of a fussy window display, an antique store memory startling like a flashbulb explosion. I am wading the river of Tucumcari’s history and in this slowly dwindling stream a bit of my own past is floating. As I look into the heart of my reflection in this antique store window, a private and exotic rhythm beats.

* * *

She is singing. A sea gull weeps about the sad power of love, the tragedy of nostalgia, of capture in the rough hands of the fate-song. She sings in a voice husky from cigarettes and age.

She is my cousin from the old country.

Her husband died many years before, but she still wears the black of widowhood. Around her square thin shoulders a soft black shawl is wound. Against her breast she fondles and caresses, with long fingers, a small guitar-like instrument. It has twelve strings and, in her affectionate hands, a sound like a small stream, tumbling and splashing down a European hillside. My seven-year-old mind is amazed so many sounds can come from only four fingers and thumb.

She is my cousin from the old country. She stills speaks with a strong accent, even though she immigrated to California as a fifteen-year-old bride and now she is an old woman. Her once jet-black hair is now silvery like weathered wood. She came to marry her cousin, twenty years her senior and a man she had never met. She became a farmer’s wife. She learned to do all the things someone married to the earth must do; she bore her husband’s children, she cleaned, she sewed, she knit, she killed and cleaned rabbits and chickens, and when her husband could not do it, she plowed.

I asked her once if she would show me how to kill and clean a rabbit, an activity she accomplished when I wasn’t present or by turning her back so I could not watch.

“No,” she said, “it is the work of women.”

And plucking chickens?

“That too.”

What is men’s work? She shrugged, “it is the work that men do.” But what is it that they do; I was insistent.

“If a man is a farmer, he plows; if he is a soldier, he shoots a gun; if he is a priest, he prays.”

Can a man play the guitar?

She thought a moment, then nodded. Sometimes, she said men love too much to play the guitar; that was bad. She would not teach me to play.

I would then try to trick her into admitting that a man hunting alone in the woods must know how to clean a rabbit, to pluck a bird.

No, she would shake her head, he would bring it home for his wife to clean.

But what if he did? It was my best seven-year-old manner.

“He should not do that,” she would state mildly, her green eyes not seeming to look at me, but through. Then she would light a cigarette, and holding it like a pipe, blow smoke in my face. Go away, she would demand, next time we will play cards.

But would she play the little guitar too? Yes, yes. Now go away.

Our meetings were brief and few. But always she managed to tell me something. Always she played the guitar, always an introduction to some new thing. Coffee with chicory, it’s bitter, I complained.

“Life is bitter, don’t waste it, drink it.”

Apricots straight from a tree, the sun still hot inside them, these are very sweet.

“Life is sweet, eat quickly or you will lose the juice.”

Teach me the guitar, I begged, then remembering my manners, please.

“Do you see how the guitar is shaped like a woman?” I nodded. “It is better to hold a woman shaped like a woman.”

One day she sang a song about a woman who suffered a disease. The woman in the song knew the disease would kill her. What disease does she have, I asked. (An elderly aunt had just died of cancer.)

“Nostalgia,” my cousin replied.

“What is nostalgia?” It sounded very bad.

“Love,” was the flatly stated answer. “Love like a lemon tree.”

I didn’t understand.

“Always you think love is something it is not.”

“Can you die of love?” the eight-year-old me asked incredulously.


For a moment, the lights in her eyes got bigger, then her husky voice said, “yes. Yes, boy. You can die of love.”

“When I am gone,” she smiled suddenly, “you may have the little guitar.”

* * *

Somehow, I am inside the antique store. I am asking about the music. The ragtime music is coming from a player piano. Why does it sound so slow?

Materializing from shadows that denied corners to the room an elderly woman, the shop owner, tells me the roll was made by a process that recorded the artist playing the piano by some arcane mechanical transcription. Some machines could actually record dynamics; you would need a special player. This particular piano was not capable of that. If I cared to check the roll when it was finished, she tells me patiently, I can actually find out who played for this particular cut.

Faded print on the edge of the stiff paper reveals that the artist performing on this specific roll was an S. Joplin; the tune was also written by S. Joplin. 1904. I am listening to Scott Joplin play his own music. His ghost fingers, fluttering over a keyboard in a western desert town, are winging their easy, graceful way across more than one hundred years.

My mind is still rolling in the mundane miracle of Scott Joplin’s piano playing, but I ask casually, how much she wants for the little guitar in the window. I look at the owner as I slip the piano roll into its box; I fit another into the piano. She is an older woman with iron-grey hair pulled tightly back and fastened in a neat chignon at the nape of her neck. There are heavy grooves above the mouth and around the eyes. It is not an old face, I think, it is an aged face, like cheese or wine. At present it is also a puzzled face.

“The guitar?” she looks toward the window. Perhaps she is puzzled by the abrupt change of focus.

“Yes, the one with the colored inlay around the sound hole; has a scratch on the neck?”

* * *

My cousin handed me the instrument, and I looked up at her slowly. “Are you going away?” I mumbled.

“I told you, when I was gone, you may have the guitar.”

“But you didn’t teach me to play; are you coming back?”

Her face seemed at a great height above me.

“God will teach you to play. That is how I learned.”

I threw the instrument from me and ran to sit in the family car. It was summer and the closed automobile must have been furnace hot, but I shivered. I was lost in an Antarctic storm. Someone had turned the summer heat off and opened a winter door to the polar winds.

The car door jerked open and the strong arm of maternal law yanked me from my freezer chest, and in the next moment a stinging blow landed on my cheek. “What the hell did you think you were doing?” The knifelike voice cut into an already deep wound. “Do you have any idea how much that instrument is worth? It came around the Horn. You had absolutely no right to throw it like that. I don’t know shy she wanted to give it to you anyway, you’d probably just break it; as it is, you put a huge scratch in the handle. Did you hear what I said, young man? That instrument is valuable, it came around the Horn!”

“It’s a neck, not a handle!” my boy soprano shrieked.

Another blow landed and I was promised a long stay in the automobile I had just been pulled from. My father would hear about this.

My grandmother arrived to second my mother’s low opinion of me and ask had she seen what I had done to the guitar-that-had-come-around-the-horn-that-was-incredibly-valuable wasn’t-another-in-the-world; his father really ought to talk to him; a long talk.

My cousin came slowly across the grass leaning on a black cane, her hair flashing in the summer sun like broken glass.

“I will talk to him,” she made it a demand.

My demons were banished to hell. The tormentors departed into the small house.

She looked at me a long time. Did I remember the shape of the guitar? What was it? What would happen if I had thrown a real woman like that? Did I know her neck would have been broken? She told me a story of a fisherman, who took his guitar to sea, and frustrated with what he called its bad temper, he had tossed it overboard and when he returned home, his wife drowned in the tide waiting for him.

“You mean she drowned because he threw his guitar in the water?” I asked in disbelief.

My cousin just shrugged.

* * *

“It’s not really in very good shape,” the storeowner pulled the guitar from its resting place. “The strings are gut and need to be replaced.” She held the instrument out to me. Without reaching for it, I asked the price again.

* * *

My cousin again offered me the guitar, but my anger at her leaving returned, and I climbed back into the car. She nodded slowly at me through the window then turned and disappeared into her house.

The last I saw of my cousin was the skirt of her long widow-black dress dragging up the shallow front steps, the light flashing on shiny material as it flicked over each tread, a silent valediction.

Later, I repented and asked my parents if I could have the guitar after all, but one or another of numerous relatives had taken, or sold it, along with the rest of my cousin’s belongings, and nostalgia became my disease.

* * *

“Why don’t you make me an offer?” the owner smiles, a coquette, and pretends to play the guitar. The southwest trader has found an item a customer cannot do without. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?”

I laughed, almost hysterically. Yes. Oh, yes.

“Thirty bucks,” I say, not hoping she will accept.

“Thirty bucks!!” she is rattled for moment, then begins an arduous few minutes of haggling in which we return to my original thirty dollars, and, because she says I am such a great haggler, takes off an additional five.

Handing her the money, she looks vaguely disturbed and offers to wrap it in some paper. My decline of the offer seems to bother her, so I quickly leave the antique store’s darkness for the heavy sun of the eroded empty street. Scott Joplin’s ‘Easy Winners’ follows me out the door.

Wandering through the streets, I talk and caress the voluptuous curves of the instrument. When I find a half rotten bench, I sit, still talking to the guitar. I tell about intervening years; I waltz and pirouette it on my lap.

I grow gradually less voluble and just begin examining its surface. It must have sat for a long while in the window of the antique store because my fingers are grimy from its accumulated dust. The guitar’s once glossy finish is entirely gone and the underlying wood looks grey and tired. The strings are so old and dry the sound they make is harsh and cracked, a voice hoarse with age. It is not an instrument that should ever be played again, or at least, only in pretend, like the storeowner had done.

A small paper sticker is attached to the back of the instrument near the rounded bottom, a tag with the price written in faded ink. Five dollars. I laugh and cry thinking about the price of modern medicine.

I am still laughing when the Indian boy comes out from between the buildings. Seeing me, he starts to return between them, but turns when I call.

I hold out the guitar. He smiles.

END