Breaking out of Jail

old telephone with dial

LPW NEWS FLASH: Found out today that I won second place in the Browning Society Dramatic Monologue Competition for my piece, “Drive to Denny’s.” Award ceremony will be held in San Francisco on March 10. I’m advised to wear a hat and “dress smart.” Let me know if you can join me!

The damn phone was ringing again. She hated those telemarketers.

The landline was only good for calls from health enrollment plans, or calls for someone named Philip Martin. Lots of calls. “Is he there? Are you a relative? Do you know how we can reach him?” For two weeks, different agencies kept inquiring if he were available. She told them to strike her phone number from their list. They didn’t.

Callers wanted to talk to this Martin idiot who must’ve been delinquent on his bills or owed child support all over town. She wanted to put an end to it, unplug the phone jack and let it dangle. Problem solved, right? It was one of those ancient-looking phones with a dial. She liked old things, had picked it up at a garage sale. It worked fine.
The phone kept ringing. She couldn’t believe it. She’d call up the phone company to complain; maybe she’d get them to lower her bill, not force her to have this landline as part of the whole Internet package.

Her next thought was to throw the phone into the garbage. She’d pay for the landline all right, only stop that damn ringing because things were difficult enough; bad enough that her son was in jail for possession of meth and was sure to do time. Her only son, the boy she’d given birth to in her own home, the boy who had placed his ear against a stereo speaker and fallen asleep listening to music, who’d stayed awake at night memorizing the flags and coins of different countries, and who’d won a black belt in karate. But there was always a question in the corner of his eyes, a discomfort she could never reach. He carried distance around his waist like a life preserver.

After his father had died, Charles had shattered into pieces. His father had meant everything to him, an actor and a director who had never known his own dad. George had improvised what it meant to raise a son, but in the end, improvisation hadn’t been nearly enough, a student of the work of Gurdjieff’s, a man who’d spent time with the Sarmoung Brotherhood in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Northern Afghanistan and later met up with some dude named Ouspensky who was a kind of public relations man from a distance. Gurdjieff had explained how people were always in a state of walking sleep. “Which life is real,” he asked as they stretched out in bed. “this one, or the one when we’re sleeping?”

His favorite past time had been in discussing Gurdjieff’s theories, giving professorial lectures to whomever would listen. Their circle of friends dwindled as his collection of esoteric books increased. On the weekends, he trolled local bookstores for defunct international publishers.

The day after he died, he’d come to her bed and made love to her one last time. She felt him. He was obese.

An old friend of Charles had come knocking on her door over the weekend to tell her that her son was in jail. “He wanted me to call you,” he said, a man with a beard who apologized for disturbing her on a Saturday morning. “All my friends call me when they get into trouble.” She thanked him and took down his phone number. Each time the phone rang, she thought it was her son, but it was only a call for Philip Martin.

She viewed her son’s charges and mug shots online. There were deep shadows beneath his eyes. Janeen pictured him sitting behind bars. The County operator had told her that if he were sentenced for less than a year, he’d been in the County, if not, housed in Oregon prison for some nameless time that pulled her down like an iron weight. She waited for his call.

The phone rang once again. “A deep voice with a slight echo spoke to her. “Who is this?”

“Me. Philip.”

“Who the hell are you? You know I’d appreciate if you’d pay your damn bills.” She unplugged the phone jack, but the voice kept talking. She banged the receiver, and tried to shake lose something that was still working within the phone, something that was causing this aberration.

“I’m a friend. A good friend.”

“People have been calling me for weeks now looking for you. You sound like a dead beat. How’d you get my number?”

“Do me a favor. Just press star.”

“Look, mister. This is a bad joke. I don’t even know how you’re talking to me.”

“Press it twice.” His voice was quieter now. “You’ve got to hurry or we’ll lose the connection.”

She didn’t know what else to do, upset after weeks of worry, her sisters living too far away to offer more than well-meaning support. She was tired of pacing from the kitchen to the living room and looking at the clock as if time meant anything more than annoying ticks. “Okay.” She pressed star and threw down the receiver that sent its double-A batteries rolling along the compressed wood flooring as she fell to the couch letting loose a flood of sobs that she’d been holding back all week.

“That’s okay. We’ll do this together.”

Janeen looked up from the couch and wiped her face with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. Standing in front of her entertainment center with its TV screen guarding her CDs and shelves of Lakshmi and Asherah statuettes that she’d picked up over the years at flea markets, was her husband, George, a lot thinner, but it was George all right, a bald man with piercing green eyes and a prominent nose that bespoke of his Russian heritage.

“I don’t understand.”

“Janeen, I’m so glad to see you.” She wasn’t so sure if she was glad to see him. “Aren’t you going to give me a hug or something?”

“How can this be you?”

“You always were the skeptic,” he said, sitting down next to her on the green sofa. She moved over to make room for him. “I know this is a lot to take in, but remember how I used to talk about quantum consciousness?” How could she forget?

“When we die,” he said, “the energy of our consciousness gets recycled back into a different body.”

“How come you’re in the same one? Your last one didn’t hold up too well.”

“So you’d recognize me,” he said. “I did this for you. For both of you.”

George got down to business. He said that the phone was a device he was using on a temporary basis as a way to teleport himself from where his quantum information resided, a places of microtubules. “Like your backup device,” he said. “Sort of.” Anyway, he was there to help break their son out of prison. And as soon as he said that, both he and Janeen were standing in front of the Columbia County Jail, a squat building of yellow concrete with two pine trees growing at either end of a parking lot. There was a stream running along one side, almost overflowing from the spring rain. George had a big smile on his face and held the telephone receiver from Janeen’s house. He explained that all they had to do was to call the jail’s central number.

“And then what?”

“That will open the doors. Don’t worry. Not all the doors. Just his. We’re on the same frequency. Gee, it will be great to see him again, play another game of dominoes.”

“You can’t,” she said. He looked at her like a hurt animal.“This is your son. And he’ll never learn anything if you walk him out of that jail. I won’t let you do that.”

“You can’t make me do anything.”

“Listen to me. I’m your wife, god dammit. At least I used to be.”

She wrestled the receiver from his hands and threw it with her best windup pitch into the stream where it evaporated with a loud hiss.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said.

“You don’t belong here anymore. You never did.” She walked away into the Columbia Jail. As long as she was in Oregon, she’d go and visit her son.

The next month, she received a very large bill from the telephone company.

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The Golem from Hadassa-Word Press

New book out soon!

The Golem

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The Color of Coffee

Bernice wondered what color to paint her toenails, being that it was sandal weather and time for her feet to reveal themselves to the larger world and to prospective dating partners. There were so many colors, reds and pinks were her favorites. Forget about those navy blues and blacks that young girls seemed to like; she thought it was a color that was too heavy to ride upon the insignificant weight of a finger or toenail. She thought a person should reserve black for funerals, unsuitable for making appearances on a young girl’s hands, just like Vaneeta’s in her Sophomore English class, and certainly unsuitable for a white woman in her forties.

During the school year, Bernice only wore clear. She didn’t want to distract her students from their discussion of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Emily Dickinson. Transcendentalists like Bernice took their colors seriously. She had taken months to figure out the right swatches for her living room. She’d loved the mountains outside and the southwest sunsets, decided to paint the walls light browns and deep purples. But it was summer now and her nails were bright red.

She was sitting in her first home since her divorce a year ago; she had a mortgage, her name on the dotted line, and each time she sat down on the couch to watch TV, she congratulated herself on her sense of color coordination. Looking out on the patio, she felt like she was in the mountains, not in a town house facing out on a major highway with a dozen or so more units being built behind her.

She’d even begun dating and was going to meet Jeffrey at the Starbucks close to the university in just under two hours. This was their first date. She and Jeffrey had been corresponding. Neither of them had photos. She didn’t want her ex to know she was dating, even though he’d probably never know, let alone care. Jeans for sure and maybe her red top. Red  communicated strength and vitality and the shirt matched her nails. She swung her bag over her shoulder and walked outside, excited that her life was taking a new turn.

She drove to the coffee shop and parked, five minutes early, fiddled in her car listening to music, going through text messages although she’d scrolled through them at least ten times already this morning. She wondered what she was going to say, but remembered how easy it’d been exchanging messages about their jobs, traveling, music.

Jeffrey played the piano and worked at the local radio station. He said he was getting a photo to post, and she shouldn’t worry; he wasn’t a monster. He’d be wearing a green shirt and a Diamondbacks cap.  She walked into the store and saw a man sitting to her right near the windows. She saw the shirt, the cap. He was African-American, light-skinned, the color of coffee. She swallowed, moved herself forward, and shook his hand.

“Hi, I’m Bernice.”
“Jeffrey,” he said. “Can I buy you a cup?”
“Yes, thank you.” She felt her head nod.
He almost tripped over his chair. “What can I get you?”
“Grande latte.” She hadn’t even sat down.
“Good to meet you, Bernice.” He smiled. “Be right back.”
She looked at her nails and then focused on Jeffrey standing there and waiting to order.

Links to my work

Sketchbook Project

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The Half & Half

Earl’s Half & Half was located at the border between Louisiana and Arkansas. The liquor half was in the state of Louisiana, and the grocery half, in Arkansas. Customers joked that you could go from one state to another in less time than it took to sign your name.

The store had started out as a coffee bar, a place for truckers to buy their morning cup. Earl’s customer’s kept asking for more—gum, chips, cigarettes, magazines, then canned goods, fried chicken wings, pizza, and of course, sodas to wash it all down. Earl nursed the bottom-line until his big day came: he was able to afford a liquor license.

Since Hentsbury was a dry county, everyone driving there to Arkansas, stopped to get beer. The place was a goldmine. Sales helped put their girls through college. But five years ago, Earl had come down with a rare blood disease. Rae-Ann stood by his side and watched him sicken and die.

The girls had already moved away. We became her family. And there were always other people passing through—people from Wildlife and Fisheries checking on stands of loblolly, hunters and fisherman, nephews and grandnieces on holiday visits. She worked weekends, didn’t want to be in the house with reminders of Earl: the leather recliner in the living room where he sat watching TV, or looking at the framed photographs over the fireplace with his arm draped around her like a fox stole.

After Earl’s death, we insisted that she go away with us for a girlfriend weekend (we won’t take no for an answer). We rented a cabin in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Whenever she passed by a mirror, she seemed embarrassed by what she saw: an attractive woman who could’ve passed for ten years younger than her actual fifty-three, a fringe of bangs and shoulder-length hair that she dyed a light cocoa, her body plump but not out-of-shape, still able to fill out a pair of jeans with dignity.

They’d met in high school. Earl had been a member of the football team. She’d sat next to him in Biology. I heard her talk about Earl on our walks home.

When he graduated and began to run the front desk of his father’s storage facility, he proposed. They bought a house on a main road leading into town. After the girls were born, she decided to open a day care. She put a large blue sign in her yard with a picture of Tinker Bell touching a sparkling wand to the words Day Care, and ran an advertisement for a few weekends in the Penny Saver.

For years she ran her business out of the house, set up a screened area on the back porch where the babies could play in the summer. When her girls got older, every so often they watched the babies so she could head over to the Half & Half and lend Earl a hand. But after twenty years of running the day care, it seemed like she always had a cold or sore throat, catching whatever the toddlers had. Plus, snacks were getting more expensive and she didn’t think she could raise her rates to cover costs. By the time Earl had been diagnosed, she’d closed the daycare; she’d converted the patio into a greenhouse for tuberous begonias with glossy green leaves and waxy orange and pink blossoms.

We’d mailed her condolence cards that she’d arranged on the fireplace mantel, brought by baskets of fruit, and a book of daily prayers. I brought her a kitten to keep her company. She’d named it Whiskers, an orange and white tabby that liked to hide behind the kitchen curtains and attack her feet every time she walked by. “You scamp,” she’d pick him up by the fur of his neck and scratch the white fur on his belly. “What am I going to do with you?” She always did the same thing—gave him a hug and placed him back on the ground until Whiskers was distracted by a crumb on the kitchen floor, or by some fly that had gotten past the screen door.

The older girl was in Atlanta. She told Rae-Ann that she had an extra room. “Just think about it, Mom. Please. You can move in.” As tempting as the offer was, Rae-Ann didn’t want to weigh down her daughter who’d just gotten married.

Each morning she felt her way through the darkness, colder in the winter months especially after an ice storm, slipped on her work shoes before throwing on the light. A few people relieved her around lunch and after the first mill shift in the evening, the same people who had worked for Earl, like Janice who was getting close to retirement age and wanting to spend more time with her husband who’d been diagnosed with diabetes. Confidentially, Janice had told Rae-Ann that the doctor said her husband had to stop drinking a pint every day, and if he didn’t, he’d probably end up with a liver problem in addition to everything else that was wrong with him. Rae-Ann only told me, because I was her best friend.

People trusted Rae-Ann. She knew about the pastor’s wife, Eudora Franklin. For some reason, Eudora had blurted out how she had become pregnant with their fifth child, and never told her husband. He was pastor of The Living River. “You have to understand, it’s not like I wanted to do that,” and bit her lower lip looking down at the display of Slim-Jims and raising her eyes back to Rae-Ann again.

Earl had never liked Dwayne McCullor who came into the store every Friday to load up on several cases for the weekend. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t like him, but told Rae-Ann over dinner, “He’s not put together right. Can’t put my finger on it.”

Jeff Corkle’s dad was getting milk and orange juice from the freezer and talking about car parts. His friend was having problems with his starter and wanted to know where to get it fixed. A small TV on the counter was tuned to the Weather Channel with news of a cold front moving in by afternoon.

He looked like any one of the mill workers, broad shouldered, wearing a wind-breaker and a Razor Backs cap. But it was his eyes that were strange. Rae-Ann watched. Now he was walking down Aisle 3 and heading back her way. A stream of morning sunlight shone on cellophane packages of whole wheat bread. He picked up a can of Vienna sausage with a pop-up aluminum top and placed it inside his shopping basket. “That’s it. Except for this.” He handed her his thermos, battered from years of use. “Fill ‘er up. I drink this stuff by the gallon.” She turned on the spigot of the coffee pot and kept her finger on the spout. “Also a pack of Marlboros,” he said.

Rae-Ann rang up his bill at the cash register; he stood there shifting from one foot to the other; his eyes darted back and forth as though they were having muscle spasms, almost like he was on the verge of a fit. Then he opened his wallet and said, “How much do I owe you?” It was a few minutes before eight o’clock in the morning. Rae-Ann looked at the TV screen above the cash register. The broadcaster was still talking about weather—some artic plunge.

“Ever try one of these?” Rae-Ann pointed to a pack of tobacco-less cigarettes. His eyes started spinning in his head. “You feeling okay?” she asked.

He rested his beer on the counter. “He screwed me.”

Rae-Ann swept his change into his palm. She didn’t know what else to say. “Thanks, Dwayne. Have a good day,” which is when it happened. Dwayne took out a pistol and started shooting. Everywhere. We’re not sure that he meant to hit Rae-Ann, but he did.

Her daughters asked me if I wanted to take home a few of her begonias. They were in bloom with heavy pink blossoms. The girls found a small cardboard box from amongst her things and told me to pick out whichever ones I wanted. Whiskers jumped into my lap. “I don’t suspect that you’ll be wanting to take the cat home?”

They looked at each other. The cat began to purr. “No,” they said.

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Learning to Walk

  1. I sat in the li-roo-roo and rubbed my step-outs against the bumps of the rug until they got warm. It had been cold in the walls, the sound of much tallers waving their feelers. I stopped the music box played a song my ears felt them smiling. Rubbed my piggies my bottom rolled  reached toward the sound they made. Everything sounded. My piggies stuck in a darker place where the froggy peed when the lights went out. The person who held me close rubbed there. She made the rug warm. The rug bumps are stuck together and scratchy against my step-outs. I pressed a bump with my biggest and the fuzz jumped bigly. Knees head toward a sitting place hold on to a smooth swelling and push up.  Another sitting place across the li-roo-roo to the happy froggy when it pees and goes hissy. I am on two step-outs. Light comes on with feelers and watch across the floor to the other sitting place. The clock goes tick-tock.  My feet listen. Almost can yes.
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Mr. Hot Spot

girl on phoneHe couldn’t get the fertilizer stink out of his nostrils. The sacks he delivered were made from liquid raw sewage brewed locally in Bakersfield. The odor seeped into his clothing and scalp. Even his dog Beast ran away from him.

By the end of the summer, he’d figure another way to pay for community college. What girl would want to go out with him smelling the way he did, especially someone like Jenny Thurmond?

Once he got home, his sister was in the kitchen. She sliced several lemons. “Try washing with them.”

He thought she was a witch in metal braces. “You have to be kidding.” Still, Dan was desperate enough to try anything. In the shower, he squeezed lemon juice on a sudsy cloth. It stung his skin. He scrubbed. The water was steamy. He scrubbed again and rinsed. Then he put on his clothes. She sat on the living room couch reading a fashion magazine. At sixteen, she was three years his junior. Her hair was tied back with a purple scrunchie, a mark of the Purple Ponytails, the all-girl band that played at her high school.

Rhonda sniffed her brother. “Better. You don’t stink!”

“Hey, Rhonda.”

“Hay is for horses.”

“Quit it. Do you know a girl named Jenny? Jenny Thurmond?”

She picked up a guitar magazine and admired the new Gibsons. “Where’d you meet her?”

“On my delivery route.”

“Oh, great.” She got another magazine and rubbed perfume from a pull-out page onto her wrist. “Jenny’s in my Spanish class. We sit next to each other.”

“You’re lying.”

“Really? I happen to know that Jenny volunteers at the animal shelter. And you’d make a great pair. You both smell.”

“Actually, she did tell me that… I mean that she volunteers. I met her at Millie’s restaurant. Told me she’d lunch with her mother for the first time in years.”

She always rankled when she heard that word. Their own mother had died when Rhonda was two. Afterward, she and Dan had sat in bed for months reading comic books. Rhonda couldn’t remember anything about her, except the way she smelled. She held up a picture of a model wearing jeans with a white cut-off blouse and high boots. “D’you think this would look good on me?”

“How the fuck am I supposed to know…Look, I was wondering…”

“Or do you like this one better?” She held up another page, one of a vampire, actually a girl twirling around in a black lined cape. “It would look better lined in purple. That would be hot for the Ponytails.”

“Zip it up. D’you have Jenny’s phone number? Her email?”

“I don’t know. Maybe if you played drums in my band this weekend. Gerry has the flu.”

“You want me to play in a girl band?”

“And what’s so bad about that? You used to play with me all the time.”

It was one of the big events of the school year. The Fire Chief was going to hand out awards for an essay contest. Tables were set up outside the auditorium where local vendors were selling stuff; the PTA was pushing bowls of Five-Alarm Chile and slices of Red Hot Red Velvet Cake. She promised to hand over Jenny’s info afterward.

Being that it was such a big event, the Ponytails decided to dye their hair purple for the evening. Dan was glad to find out that the drum kit was set up behind orange plexiglass where he could hide. But he’d made one mistake: a few days before the show, he’d joked with Rhonda about wearing a purple ponytail. Leave it to her. She showed up with a clip-on extension and insisted that if he didn’t wear it, all bets were off.

Saturday afternoon, the auditorium was packed. The principal asked everyone to raise their hand if they were sitting next to an open seat. It was time for the Purple Ponytails to play their song, Little Mr. Hot Spot. Rhonda introduced the band. “We have a special guest tonight. Take a bow; it’s my brother, Dan.”

Dan stood up in his purple ponytail and recognized Jenny Thurmond sitting in the front row. Everyone laughed.

The principal got up and asked the audience to give the Purple Ponytails a hand. “Aren’t they great folks? Let’s hope Little Mr. Hot Spot doesn’t show up in our homes. He’d burn down the whole place. Isn’t that right girls?” The band members waved and gave their purple ponytails another shake before going off stage. Dan knew the song was written for the guitar player’s ex-boyfriend who had dumped her for an incoming freshman. He followed them off stage with his honorary ponytail. “And now I’d like to introduce Fire Chief Dennis Williams who is here today to announce the award for the best essay in the Mr. Hot Spot contest. Mr. Williams, will you please join me on stage.”

A silver-haired African American man in a dark blue suit with brass buttons and the whitest shirt Dan had ever seen stood up not too far from where Dan’s father was sitting. The Fire Chief made his way to the microphone, his sleeves adorned in gold braids and a silver badge pinned to his jacket. He wore a white cap with the same braid trim. Anyhow, the Chief flashed a Colgate-white smile and shook the principal’s hand while a reporter from the Bakersfield Citizen kneeled below the stage and took photographs.

“Thank you, Principal Dealey. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, grandmothers and grandfathers; all you teachers and families who have come out today to celebrate Fire Safety month. Since we began this project five years ago, we’ve cut down on the number of fires by twenty-five percent. What does that mean? That means more lives saved and more homes protected. You look like a group who understands what steps to take when there’s a fire—very large ones.” Everyone laughed. “But before you leave today, I’d like you to take a look at our special display of fire extinguishers and fire alarms—think about adding another level of safety to your home, that is, if you haven’t already. Now I am honored to announce the winner of the Mr. Hot Spot contest.” Everyone leaned slightly forward. Chief Williams tore open an envelope. “The winner is…Jenny Thurmond.”

Dan stood backstage with the band where Rhonda was trying to style his hair with the purple ponytail.

“Quit it, Rhonda. You’re bothering me.”

“Let’s give this little lady a hand. On behalf of the Bakersfield Fire Department, I’d like to award you one hundred dollars and hope you can use it to further your education.”

He handed Jenny a check. She stepped up to the microphone, eyes stuck on her paper and read about a German shepherd named Brad who’d rescued his owner from a house fire.

“We need a Brad in our department,” said Chief Williams who shook her hand and invited everyone to climb into the No. 1 fire truck that was parked outside the school. “Don’t forget to stop by the PTA tables for a slice of that Red Hot Red Velvet Cake. It’s going fast.”

On their way out of the auditorium, people stopped to tell Jenny how much they appreciated her story and wished her good luck. They heard how she loved animals, such a shame about all those endangered species of birds fluttering to the ground and dying every day, and how they enjoyed visiting the zoo in San Diego. Had she ever been there? No? She had to go. Maybe her mother and father could take her during summer vacation. They had wonderful exhibits. What a busy girl she was and good luck again.

Rhonda watched from the back of the auditorium. Her brother was drifting away from her. Maybe she’d give him the wrong phone number, but sooner or later…And how could someone who worked in an animal shelter also be pretty? One was bad enough.

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Sketchbook Project

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Down Payment, Redwood City

Women’s March, Oakland, CA, January 21, 2017

A drug dealer, M, helped us with the down payment of our house. He was one of my husband’s oldest friends. They’d grown up together in Redwood City.

M’s dad was MIA or at least he never showed his face at home. But his mom was around. She hailed from a family of lace-curtain Boston Irish, a misfit who’d spent most of her life signing in and out of mental institutions, but found enough time to school her son in the three tenets: the first one was: it’s not what you know but who you know, and steered M toward getting a job at the local golf course as a caddy, allowing him to hob-nob with any man who could afford the price of membership.

M’s mother also insisted upon his getting a good education because important people didn’t like to associate with dunces, and lastly, that he should never, ever give up on the project of getting filthy rich.

She began to teach him things only women learn early in life: how to ingratiate himself to people without groveling, to hand out birthday cards to the town’s elite, a gesture that would allow him to stand-out from the riff-raff, and do whatever else it took to cultivate favor, a rule he used in reaching out to my husband, who was the lead in every high school drama production, but dimly viewed by the administration for his refusal to pledge allegiance during the Vietnam War, an act that brought him to M’s attention.

“Man, you get all the girls.”

“True,” he said, not disagreeing with his new friend. They took time to share a cigarette. “Hear you work at the golf course? Guys standing around and hitting cow turds all day.”

“There on weekends. Say, d’you know Mrs. Romano from drama?”

Mrs. Romano, the music teacher, had originally come to Redwood City from the East Coast after a long and successful piano concert career. She had important contacts. Shortly afterward, M began mowing her lawn and  the Chamber of Commerce offered him a scholarship after he’d graduated from high school.

For a kid with M’s education, dealing drugs was a natural.

He started out with the usual stuff, building a clientele on football fields and in gym lockers, uppers, downers, red pills, blue pills, pills from his mother’s cabinet, no one too sure what they would do, except they had an equal chance to find out. A contact from the golf club recognized M’s promise and tipped him off to bigger things: LSD, heroin, coke, and by the time I was introduced to M, he asked me where I shopped for my underwear, which I thought was rude, and told him Walmart, just to be a smart ass.

He owned one of the first cellphones always stepping outside to “do business.” Trips followed to Paris, London. He developed an international clientele, and in time, became an insomniac and often called my husband at night.

“What’s up man?”

“Nothing much.” He was convinced the mob was after him.

“Crazy. They’re not coming tonight. Bug off. Get some sleep.” My husband was glad he’d taken the route to a menial job and didn’t have to worry about anyone running after him, except maybe a bill collector.

Toward the end of our marriage, M’s mother died from an overdose of drugs. M had a brain aneurysm after years of not sleeping.

“I own the house,” my husband told me when we divorced.

“How do you figure?” I’d been paying all the big bills for years, including child care.

“M gave me the down payment for the house. He was my friend. You had nothing to do with it. All about my connections.”

“Go fuck yourself,” I said.

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Almost, Eddie Palmieri in the Bronx

salsa dancers


First-timers who enter my dance studio look past a wall of mirrors and expect to see Arthur Murray standing in a striped bow-tie, but all they get is me wearing my 501s and a black turtleneck, a helluva lot shorter than Mr. Murray, which is why I started to teach in the first place.

More than one choreographer used to tell me, “Al, you’re a great dancer.” If I were such a great dancer why couldn’t I get a part?

“It’s because I’m too short, isn’t it?”

Choreographers handed me off to producers who did another two-step: “We love you, Al, but we can’t use you right now. I’ll be in touch. Promise.”

I believed there was someone out there who could appreciate real talent; all I had to do was to make that connection although everyone in my family thought I wanted to dance because I was gay, stubborn, and full of myself. Actually, only two out of the three were true.

I washed dishes, waited on tables, made calls for some loser trying to sell his jalopies to the rent-a-car business, while I dreamed about taking more classes at the Hunts Point Palace, weekends danced  to the music of Eddie Palmieri, who hooked up his truck around Third Avenue and Southern Boulevard and let the salsa roll before anyone knew it was salsa. At that moment, it was just a bunch of musicians who stood on the back of a flat bed, speakers wired to the railings with cords that looked like they’d been borrowed from someone’s brother-in-law that morning, sweat beading off their foreheads, people dancing around in a cloud of cigarette smoke; hips, feet, and arms, causing such a commotion, you could see the truck bounce up and down in the soft black summer tar of the street. I was beautiful then; a Red Sea of people opened  up as I danced toward the truck, leaping over garbage cans and police barricades in time to the music.

No one discovered me that or any other evening. But I had this cousin who kept his eyes trained on everyone’s business. “Alberto,” he said to me one afternoon. “You ain’t looking too good, brother. Don’t see your two feet dancing.”

My feet were busy at La Isla Cuchifrito where crowds piled in every night for take-out. I’d moved up from waiter to being the host where I handed out menus and passed orders back to the kitchen.

“There’s a storefront,” he said to me, looking around to make sure that no one could overhear his big tip.

Claro. They’re all boarded up.”

“No,  your oportunidad,” he said. My cousin had a lisp. He was taller than I and sprayed my hair with his saliva. “You can rent the place. Build your studio.”

Turned out that my cousin owned the storefront. I paid rent during the first two years until I could buy him out, installed hardwood over the vinyl flooring of what had been an old shoe store; once I tore down the shelving, the back room became the place for lessons, rented out the front for parties, anniversaries, birthdays, even a small wedding where the bride was expecting.

Over the years, those parties helped to build my business.

These days, people who come to Alberto’s Dance Studio have heard about  Eddie Palmieri and his boys smoking their hot stuff here on the dance floor before leaving for their first national tour; they step into the front room, lean up against the back wall and watch feet move on the dance floor. All those high and stacked heels, oxfords, flats from McCann’s, and super-clean white sneakers.

People keep watching before they sign up: seniors, single moms, and neighbors. They come to learn how to dance, but while they’re holding on tight to each other, they find something else.





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The Slippery Slope

Screen Shot 2017-01-18 at 9.52.52 AMI’m climbing halfway up the side of a slippery glass mountain, which is one of many I must ascend before approaching a volcanic range that lingers on the horizon. Luckily for me, I’m carrying a tube of Superglue in my backpack and squirted some on the bottom of my Evolv Shaman climbing shoes that Janeen had outfitted me with earlier in the day. The game is like a capsule that envelops me in four dimensions: past, present, future, and whatever else heads my way.

I reach into the backpack every so often for another pump of Superglue. My shoes are sliding and there’s nothing to hold onto except for an orange and brownish looking branch that is extruded in my direction. I wonder if it’s Janeen or Lord Grunion trying to fuck with my mind. I don’t have time to find out. I hear a terrible squeak as I slide down the glass-facing side of a mountain, grab ahold of the extended pole, and it turns into the beak of some pelican-looking bird that plops me inside its pouch and we take off.


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Rabbet Joints: Avatar Continua

IMG_1348When I was married, I’d sat at my desk for four months waiting to be transferred to another department, and because none of my superiors exactly knew when that was going to happen and since I no longer belonged to them as a resource who could be counted upon as a full-time equivalent, the best they could do was to ignore me. The truth of the matter is that no one gave a good triplicate form what I did during the day, and this, more than the fact that I had no work to do, came close to corrupting my spirit. I became a desk. Not a real desk, but a piece of furniture quiet with drawers that I retreated into where no one could give me the latest gossip about which department was being dismembered or who was on the cut list. I counted the number of push-pins in my stationary tray and arranged my paper clips so that they faced in the same direction. Sometimes I worked on my computer, but I’d been through the tutorials so many times before that I chose to turn on the screen saver and remain inside my desk. I’ve always been a person who likes to know how things are made.

Rabbet joints are common enough but it’s the fit between two planes of wood that’s crucial—for example, if the wood was originally sanded with several grades of paper, and whether the glue was allowed to set. A handle of one drawer was missing. The handle of another was coming loose, its screw revealed spirals of pink paint.

Links to my work

Sketchbook Project

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