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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Visitors

We were the lucky ones. Our house—the Gashouse—didn’t have wheels, it didn’t move, it stayed in one place, and it had heat, a stove, running water, a toilet. My father had a steady job. Everyone knew we were the lucky ones—everyone knew we’d made it. In Michoacan, my father’s family (sisters, brothers, cousins) spread the word about my father’s good fortunes. There was a rumor that we were rich, that my father made so much money that my mother didn’t have to work, that I had my own car, that we lived in a mini American mansion. The rumor was somewhat true: my mother didn’t have to work, but only because my younger sister was mentally ill, and my mother had to care for her; I had my own car, yes, but I bought it with my own money, money I made after school, and during the summer, when the white kids in school went to Idaho and Montana and Disneyland.

Every year a new group of refugees would arrive in the middle of the night to ask for my rich father's generosity. They would come in June and leave in November. My rich father never said no. Although our mini-American mansion only had two rooms, a family of 6 or 7 would stay with us, disrupting whatever sense of normalcy we’d developed over the winter months. They would sleep in the living-room and, against every protest, in my room. The house was abuzz from 3:30 to 6:45 in the morning when the last guest would go off to work the tomato or the garlic fields of Southern Monterey County. The Gashouse would loose its familiar gas smell for a few hours while the women prepared the mole and roll the burritos which they stuffed in thermoses and lunch-bags.

One visitor I remember clearly because he slept in my room on a couple of extended stays. His name was Miguel, and he snored, smelled, and stuttered when he spoke. He had a clock which kept me up all night with its tick-tick-tick-tick. I was used to the mice in the stove, the snoring, the smells, but I couldn’t stand the tick-ticking of the clock.

I could never understand why my father couldn’t say no to our visitors. Perhaps he wanted them to keep thinking that he had what he hadn’t--I'm sure they didn't think this for long. Maybe he was just being kind. My mother and I resented them all. I dreamt of stuffing a shoe in Miguel’s throat every night around 1 a.m., after I had tried in vain to sleep amidst the thunderous snoring and the hammering of the clock. I ended by smashing his clock to bits and blaming my little brother, Art, who could barely pick up his bottle, much less smash a well-made American clock to bits.

Miguel was killed in a car accident one winter while driving back to Mexico. All my hate and resentment turned into despair and sadness. I wish I hadn’t broken his clock. I wish I had talked to him about his dreams, maybe I could write about them, or use them in a lecture.  He did tell me once that he wanted to marry a gringa so that he could get his citizenship papers. 

Something on the news about immigration reform got me thinking about the visitors today...I think it was a gringa voicing her concerns about the guys who hang around Home Depot. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Old Immigrants

My father will be 59 this fall. He’s been working the fields of the central California coast for 40 years. He lost his job last year, and has been collecting unemployment for a number of months. If anyone deserves unemployment “benefits” it’s him, so I never asked him about looking for work or encouraged him to do so. I figured that a guy who’s worked 7 days a week, every week, of every month, of every year for the past 39 years, deserves to rest, at least before regretting never having enjoyed life in America at least one year. But his unemployment is running out. This, together with the fact that he’s driving my mother absolutely bonkers, motivated him to ask his old boss for a job—a guy who swore he would get my father work whenever he wanted it and who just happens to have a new crew working the fields in King City. His old boss, a devout Christian who doesn’t miss an opportunity to preach charity and good will and the magic of Jesus, didn’t hesitate to tell my father that he was too old to work, that if he were 15 years younger, then he might be exploitable, but not at 59! My father said fine, and resigned himself to despair and the memories of a different sort of discrimination. I called him and told him that we should get a lawyer and sue their asses for age-discrimination. What for, he said, they’ll deny it and say that they just don’t need men right now. Would a Christian lie? I asked. Surely, if questioned about his reasons for not hiring you, someone who believes in the Resurrection would tell the truth. My father, who usually doesn’t say much, didn’t say much. “Umm,” he said, “I’ll go ask Rusty if he has work for me.” Rusty is a guy he worked for when we lived in the Gashouse…I have my doubts about my father’s future in the business. Old immigrants are expendable.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Haunting

After a few years of living with my grandmother my father built us our own house on the banks of a river which ran red as blood most of the year (it was red because of the clay). A small 10 foot-wide road ran in front of the house, into and through town, and continued on into the mountains and then on and on north until it reached the heart of Mexico itself.  This road was used by the revolutionary soldiers during the war—my grandfather’s uncle, I.S., was an ally of the cause, so it was a "friendly" road during those days. As the soldiers headed into the hearland, into war and possibly death, they would bury their belongings on the side of the road, in small holes on the ground or in the hollows of trees, or behind fences. Sometimes they owned gold or money, which they stashed on their way to fight, in hopes, I think, of coming back; most didn’t. 

My uncle, who lived next door to our new house, found a sack full of gold pieces next to his fence. This made him a rich man. When my father was building our house, he dug up some pottery. Those helping him stood around it and asked him to break it and see what was inside. But they jinxed the deal before they cracked it by making elaborate plans with the riches they still hadn't seen--it was a well known fact that you should never spend a dead man's treasure before you have it in your hands. When they cracked it, there was a lump of clay inside. My father threw the broken pot into a trench and poured cement over it. Someone told him that this was a bad idea, since the spirit which guards the pot was sure to continue guarding it, which meant that our house would be haunted. My father has never believed in ghosts. He has no religion. 

We moved into the house before my father finished it. He had to return to the States to work, so he left it without windows (just boards) or locks on the doors (thicker boards) and no electricity (candles) running water or toilets—we had an outhouse. One night, as we lay in bed (I slept with my mother when my father was gone…with ghosts and the spirits of dead soldiers around, why would anyone sleep alone?), and as my mother finished her prayers a light appeared on the hallway. It slowly climbed the hallway wall until it stood suspended halfway between the floor and the ceiling. We looked behind us, as someone might have been shining the light from outside…but we had no windows, and the boards which covered the window-space were tight and nothing was coming from outside. We turned to the light and it loomed there, now with bright sparkling stars in its center, now with colorful boarders, purple, I think, which vibrated. I held on to my mother hoping the entity would not attack or swallow us whole. My mother prayed hard, since, as a good catholic, she has to believe in ghosts.  After a few minutes, the light crawled down the wall and sunk into the floor like a melting ice cube. Then it was gone.

I don’t trust my memory on this one. I think that the constant retelling of the story added details that were never there--I just don't know which details are ornamental and which are real. My mother says she remembers it clearly, and blames my father for throwing that pot into the foundation. We had a conversation not too long ago about getting some money together to dig the thing out and rid ourselves of the spirit which guards the pot, and many pots like it up and down that road and all about the banks of the red river. I was joking about it; my mother was writing things down. But I know there’s not enough money for that, though—or enough determination. Besides, why invest in ghost-eradication in a place which will never be our home...not again, anyway. No one is going back there alive, I know that for certain. It’s too late. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On Death and Poodles

The irrigation pipe is aluminum, about 12 feet long, with a smaller, 2 foot pipe sticking out of it atop of which is stuck a sprinkler head. These pipes are connected each to each for hundreds or thousands of feet, depending on the size of the field. My job—my father’s job—was to disconnect these pipes one at a time, move them about 20 feet away from their original spot, on a parallel line, and reconnect each pipe again. This requires walking through 2 feet of mud, or 3 feet of whatever plant is stuck to the ground, in cold, heat, wind, and hunger. Sometimes the pipes are still filled with water; sometimes animals will crawl inside and die; sometimes they’re empty, so the wind whips them about.  One of the guys who walked ahead of me was whipped about by the wind which forced him to tilt his pipe upwards, juggling it he stumbled backward, and in the process hit an electric wire which fried him on the spot.

The big local news on television that night revolved around a woman whose dog had been eaten by another dog; the former was a poodle, the latter a stray dog. The dog was caught and killed. The woman, white hair trembling in the wind, cried and begged the public to look after their dogs, lest they kill or be killed in this horrible, violent, world. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Death and Ducks

The ancient philosopher Anaximander said: “Whatever has come into existence must also pass away with necessity.” It’s the necessity of passing away which is hard to grasp—especially when we’re used to presence. But death is shocking, and discombobulating, and noisy, and it disturbs the permanence that presence promises.

I remember my first death: a friend of my mother died when I was 9. She took me to the burial, to a town called Villa Mendoza (where my mother was born). Before they put my mother’s friend into the ground, they dug up the woman’s mother, who had been dead some 10 or 15 years. A group of men lifted the broken up coffin from the earth and placed it next to the grave. It was rusty, and the glass was broken, it was muddy on all sides. I didn’t want to look inside, but I did. The skeleton of the woman was fully dressed in a dirty white dress. She had long hair. Her jaw was gone. She was partially submerged in a rust-colored water. They put her daughter in the hole and then the mother on top of her. Two coffins in the same grave…to save money. My second death came much later, when my grandfather died. He was 91. We expected it—I was old enough to know that his passing away was necessary. And after that many more deaths. Too many to count. Each with its own distance. Each with its own denial.

My father took a bus down there for my grandfather’s funeral. He was gone for a few weeks. In the meantime, I learned Algebra and shot my sister in the arse with a .22 caliber rifle. The Sheriff came and asked for the gun. I told him it was an accident, that I was shooting at ducks in the nearby reservoir and one of the bullets ricochet off the water and went looking for my sister, who at that very moment was bending over to pick up a shinny thing on the ground. I wasn’t arrested, but it was close. The doctors who took the bullet out said that if she’d been standing upright or been a little bit shorter I would’ve killed her. I expected my father to unleash the hounds of hell when he returned from burying his father. I told him as soon as he walked in the door, to save me the agony of waiting for the fury. He just asked how my sister was. I said she was fine. I didn’t understand where he was—I do now, but only from this far-away space that projects back a belated empathy and a voiceless compassion. I hover over the rest of their experience in this way.

Monday, March 8, 2010

More Tales from the Gashouse

Somehow I had a room to myself. It lacked insulation, so it was cold and damp. It had blue walls and a window that didn’t close—the screen was gone. My parents slept in the livingroom/bedroom with my sister and my brother on the foot of the bed. Because of the cold, I used to sleep with my clothes on. This saved time in the mornings—I didn’t have to get dressed to go to school, and I was warm. I spent the evenings in my room, thinking about how cool I wasn’t, thinking about the girls I crushed on at school, thinking about the money I didn’t have—regretting everything I had said that day to everyone. I lived in the immediate past.

Since we lived in a ranch in the middle of nowhere, I had to go into town to hang out with my friends. This involved buying beer and drinking under a bridge by the town’s golf course. We drank and talked about what we didn’t have and how we would get it; we drank and plotted strong armed robberies that never took place; we drank and designed our future custom cars; we drank and predicted the best ways to die—we paid no mind to the reality of death, only to its possibility…we were children. After our drinking and our planning and plotting, I would go home and wait for the event. My father, it seems, was tired of his marginal existence and the only way he could express his marginality was through violent rejections of his present condition. He was a black-hole of rage and desperation, sucking everything into his center, luring everything and everyone into his event-horizon where we stood mesmerized, afraid, with no choice but to fall head-first into the clamorous darkness of his soul breaking. I would wait for these events—which happened often. I anticipated them and held my breath. But I had to be there, or else they wouldn’t happen. I had to be there, you see, because they had to happen. The happenings unraveled always in the kitchen, next to the stove, by the flimsy kitchen table, and the chocolate-brown refrigerator.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Epiphany

When I was 12 my father seized me up, pulled on my arms, kicked my foot with his foot, poked me in the belly with his index finger, and concluded that I was fit to contribute to the well-being of the family. He looked me in the eyes and told me in a loud, angry, voice, that he would no longer clothe me. If I wanted to dress sharp, look good, or just stay warm, I’d had to buy my own shit.

I worked with him in the fields from then on—until I left for college when almost 18. I worked in the summers, starting in mid-June and going ‘till mid-August. Whatever money I made I kept. It usually wasn’t much. The first check was $80 dollars—for the whole summer. I made it by tying rubber-bands over cauliflower leaves—a practice meant to protect the cauliflower head from some harm or other. I wasn’t fast enough to make more than a couple of dollars a day. I bought a pair of pants (Levis’-$24), two T-shirts (plain-$20), a pair of shoes (Addidas—$30), and a necklace that I wear to this day, for which I put my last $6 as a down-payment. When I was fourteen I got a permit to work after school. I would hurry home and put on my boots, meet my father’s mayordomo outside the house and do as he said. This paid a bit more: about $25 a day.

When I was 17 I knew my father’s work. I knew what I needed to do and I did it well. But it was hell. On a warm summer morning in 1992, as I finished moving a heavy aluminum pipe up a green carrot hill, I looked over to my father, who did the same thing some 50 feet away, and yelled: “I don’t’ want to do this anymore!” He didn’t hear me, but I heard me. It was the first time I’d heard anything for years. I shook the mud off my boots and went for the next pipe. But I had a sense that I had made a decision and, for the first time that summer, I was really fucking happy.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tales from the Gashouse 2

A mechanic welding a piece of steel to a tractor started a brush fire that sped toward the house. I saw it from the step, where I sat staring into the giant eucalyptus trees which hovered above us like gods. I was looking at a nest at the very top of the one closest to me, where a giant bird had once lived. Someone shot it in the chest with a .22 caliber rifle while it perched in its nest a summer before. It was a beautiful bird. I found it dead in the grass and fed it to my dog.

The fire sped quickly. I grabbed a hose and confronted it. The mechanic ran after it with a jacket, swinging it wildly, hitting the fire over the head, hoping to knock it out and stop it from burning us all to hell. My fear was that the fire would get to the propane tank, which sat two dozen feet from the front steps of the house. I poured water on the tank, hoping to get it ready for what might come. I turned my attention to the fire which slithered towards it, as if looking for a fight. I poured water on its head while the mechanic kicked dirt in its eyes and hit it with his jacket. It died.

The mechanic thanked me and walked back on the black earth to what he was doing before. I went back to my step and thought about the explosion that I had just prevented.

It was a Sunday afternoon. My father had fallen asleep on the sofa. He’d been drinking and watching soccer. My mother, pregnant with her fourth, was knitting on the bed. She came out because she smelled smoke.

“What’s the smell?”

“The mechanic burned the grass.”

“Well at least the fire didn’t make it to the tank.”


Smoke hovered over the patch of black earth. It didn’t rise too far into the atmosphere. I was happy something had happened.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Gashouse

In exchange for housing, my father would put in a 24 hour work day, taking naps here and there throughout the night. The specifics were these: from 5:00 a.m. to 6 p.m. he would work in the fields, moving pipe, digging ditches, unplugging sprinklers with a wrench (mice would get stuck in the pipes and the water would force them out in pieces through the sprinkler head), driving tractors, weeding, and the rest. He’d come home and eat, drink a twelve-pack or two, and fall asleep on the couch until 10:00 p.m., at which time he'd go turn on water pumps, check on reservoirs levels, and chase deer away from the crop with a .22 caliber rifle or a flare gun. He’d do this 3 or 4 times a night…every night.

The housing he got in exchange was criminal. When we first arrived in San Lucas, CA., we were put up in a small trailer that smelled like rotting flesh in the summer and wet dog in the winter. Later, in the fall of 1985, we moved to "the house where I grew up." This was an old decrepit house which stood in the middle of hundreds of acres of farmland. It was immediately surrounded by giant Eucalyptus trees which rocked and swayed during earthquakes and perfumed the air with the smell of medicine and Spring. They encroached on our entire existence, like guardians or annoying animals. Inside, the house was painted a light blue, had thin, worn out brown carpeting, and a yellow kitchen. The bathroom was small and cramped and the linoleum floor was peeling off. There were holes everywhere: rats and mice would watch me pee while eating popcorn with their friends. When I sat on the toilet, they sat on the edge of the sink and stare right into my eyes. They walked on my face when I slept; and when I woke up, they’d jump out of my shoes. At night, they’d play in the stove and it sounded like a million mice typing Shakespearean plays. They damaged the stove and the pipes and the house smelled like gas for years. My mother left a window open to let the fumes out. But the gas was in my palette when I drank milk or ate donuts; if I didn’t smell gas, then something was wrong. No one ever complained, because that wasn’t our style, but my headaches and my asthma went away when I got to college. My sister, who was born in 1989, has severe mental handicaps...who knows why. My father used to smoke in the house and no one ever pointed out the obvious—I guess there were things more explosive than gas in those days--especially when my father was around. I got used to the sound, the smell, the sights, and the vertigo of that house—I got used to its symbolism and its danger, to its weather and its geography; but I never got used to the gas—it was the smell of death or some unknown disturbance.

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