Friday, October 22, 2021

Gus Corral Celebrates Día de Muertos


Flo's 2021 Altar - A Work in Progress

Día de Muertos is a big deal at our house.  Each year, Flo creates an elaborate and unique altar, different from any previous altar, which takes several days to build.  She orders a special cake from a baker friend, and when we're not isolated because of a pandemic, she hosts a family dinner that anchors the celebrating with touches of nostalgia, sadness, and joy of remembrances.  My contributions are minimal but I've come to appreciate Flo's efforts to preserve and enhance a tradition that once was little-known and often misunderstood by the non-Latino world.   Times have changed since the days, a few decades ago, when an altar for the deceased was an odd and unusual symbol that many thought was part of a Halloween custom.  She was one of a handful of artists and other cultural warriors who "revealed" the Day of the Dead to the non-Hispanic population of Colorado, and who helped preserve the tradition with dignity, respect, and love.

As part of this year's Día de Muertos, I'm participating in an event with a Day of the Dead theme.  Here's a poster for that event. (Note: Denver time for this event is 6:00 PM.) 



And, also in the spirit of Día de Muertos, I present Chapter 13 of my 2016 novel My Bad: A Mile High Noir.

_________________________________

I’m dead and buried
Somebody said that I was lost


Corrine arranged the final sugar calavera on her altar. The red skull had “Gus” written across it’s forehead in black letters. It joined a dozen other skulls, life-size to miniature, Katrina figurines, muertos, and mementos of dead people we knew or wanted to know – parents, uncles, aunts, abuelos, friends, coworkers, and our own heroes. Corrine included photographs and trinkets that were supposed to remind us of something about the particular person’s personality. That explained the unopened cigarette packs, empty candy bar wrappers, laminated cover of People magazine, and several other things that looked more like litter than altar decorations.

Corrine strategically set up a glossy of Ricardo Montalban and Katy Jurado, the “all-time” Mexican actors according to her. Max contributed a signed photo of Chavela Vargas, Frida Kahlo’s girlfriend and idolized singer who had died recently at age ninety-three. After much nagging from Corrine to “do something for Day of the Dead,” I placed a magazine pic of Freddy Fender on the altar. She clicked her teeth and shook her head.

“Is the policewoman coming to dinner after all?” she said. “Be nice if I could plan for the number of guests.”

I had no doubt that a dozen uninvited guests could drop in and they would end up fed to complete satisfaction. Corrine cooked enough food for her annual día de los muertos dinner to feed all the soldiers on one of Pancho Villa’s troop trains. The feast had great-party status among her circle of friends. For the meal she rolled out platter after platter of enchiladas and tamales, and bowl after bowl of posole, green chile, arroz, and beans. The table included stacks of tortillas (maiz and harina,) side dishes of roasted jalapeños, olives, chile güeritos, chile serranos, lemons and limes, walnuts and almonds, pink and white sea salt, oregano, onion, and cilantro. Bottles of beer, wine, tequila – the liquor usually carried skull labels – and a jug or two of fruit-infused water and Mexican hot chocolate. Pan de muerto, dead bread, of course.

The diners brought dishes, too. The one dish that Max boasted about was her fideo and there was always a bowl of the Mexican pasta, with tomato sauce and onions, on the table. Corrine’s dining table quickly maxed out and the guests followed a trail of serving dishes back to the kitchen if they wanted to sample everything. When we finished the main courses, desserts took center stage. Pies, empanadas, cakes, cookies, chocolate covered pretzels, Jell-O, leftover Halloween candy, biscochitos. All to honor the dead.

“I can’t say yet. I told you, she doesn’t know if she has to work. That’s all I got.”

Corrine didn’t exactly approve of my ongoing relationship with the policewoman, as Corrine called her. Nothing surprising about that.

She set the time for the party at 4:00 p.m. That gave the guests about an hour and a half of talking, drinking, and remembering before she began serving. The late afternoon start also meant that she had time to visit our parents’ graves in the Crown Hill Cemetery, where she left a vase of flowers, a few cookies for my father’s sweet tooth, and a shot of tequila in a paper cup for my mother.

“Luis is coming, right?”

“Yeah, he’s for sure. When I gave him your invitation he went on about how no one used to know what Day of the Dead was all about, and now it’s practically as popular as Christmas.”

“Wh-a-a-t? Mexicans knew about it. Mom always put up a little altar when we were kids. What’s the lawyer talking about?”

“I think he meant in general. You know Móntez. He’s always going back to the days when things were different. He’s more and more like an old man every week.”

“I hope when I’m his age I’m as sharp as he is.”

“His mind’s okay, I think. His body, not so much.”

“Happens to us all.”

She rushed to the kitchen and her food. I went downstairs to my cave in the basement.

I called Ana.

“What’s up?”

“Still at the office,” she said. “But with a little luck I’ll get out of here in time for your sister’s dinner. Around six, you said?”

“Be better at five-thirty, even earlier if possible. We’ll be almost done eating by six.”

“Okay. I’ll do what I can.”

“Be nice to see you.”

“If I don’t make it, we can get together later, right? You coming over?”

“I think so.” I hadn’t figured out what our relationship was all about, other than we were both having a good time. She rushed through the next few seconds and hung up before I said much more. Our relationship, or whatever we had, was stuck on fast forward.

By the time Móntez arrived for the dinner I’d popped open and finished a couple of Mexican beers. My taste for booze was slowly returning. He sat down next to me on Corrine’s couch where we listened to her homemade mix of Mexican oldies, watched a silent TV game show on her big screen, and munched nachos.

“I need to talk to you,” he said. “It’s about the Contreras thing.”

I hadn’t heard that name for a few months. After her heart attack in our office and the official conclusion that she died of natural causes, Luis and I passively let her case close. I didn’t think there was anything we could do to find out more about what she’d experienced, and nothing came of the investigation into the Westwood arson. Other than Ana and Luis, no one knew what I’d seen in the house before the fire.

My own investigation of María Contreras had hit the pause button. I looked into her background again, and learned a little more about Valdez. Nothing new. As a last step before I shut the file for the final time, I figured out where she actually lived. Her driver’s license address was a dead end and the fake address she gave Luis stalled me for about an hour before I dug up her real address online. It wasn’t that hard. I scoped out her house for three days, off and on, but I didn’t see anyone enter or leave. Finally, I visited María’s home late one night. Very late. I used some tricks I’d picked up in prison to open her back door and spent about twenty minutes looking for anything that might explain what she had going on in her life that involved Luis or me. The place felt damp and smelled musty. I hurried my search because of the uncomfortable feeling the place wrapped around me. I took a folder of papers related to the import business, a key that looked out of place in the folder, a few business cards from artisan shops and distributors in Mexico, and the insurance policy for Sam’s bar. The visit wasn’t a complete waste of time, but we didn’t end up with any more of an explanation.

“The police and the fire investigators know the fire was intentionally set, and a few think someone died in the house, maybe more than one person. But there’s no evidence, no proof. Nothing verifiable, at least.”

“I know all that, Luis. What’s new?”

“How’d you like to take a quick trip to Mexico? A vacation, more or less?”

I stopped in mid-dip of a tortilla chip into a dish of salsa.

I made a wild guess. “La Paz?”

“I got a call from the cop that María Contreras talked to about Sam’s death down there. Apparently she contacted him just before she disappeared. She gave him my name and number.”

“This cop has news?”

“His name’s Fulgencio Batista.”

“Where do I know that name?”

“The original was the dictator of Cuba before Castro threw him off the island.”

“Sounds phony.”

“Maybe his father was an anti-communist. Maybe he had a sense of humor, seeing as how the family already had the last name. Maybe it’s just a name. I don’t know.”

“Whatever. You sure he’s a cop?”

“I checked up on him. Talked with some of the local feds who work with the Mexican police. According to them, Mr. Batista is part of the Policía Federal Ministerial, the PFM. What we used to call Federales. He was pulled in on the case because Sam was a U.S. citizen and his death involved what looked like pirates, maybe drug-smuggling. They wanted a high profile cop to work the case.”

“He team up with U.S. cops?”

“He has. That one fed that interrogated you when you were arrested. Collins? From the DEA?”

“I remember him. Hard ass. Big ego.”

“That’s the guy. I’ve run into him a few more times. We developed a certain level of trust, especially after the way your case turned out. Anyhow, Collins said that Batista has been involved in dozens of high-profile arrests. And I mean involved. He once was captured by some cartel guys. They tortured him for a couple of hours before he managed to escape. He killed four of the gangsters getting away.”

“Sounds like he can take care of himself.”

“That same cartel has issued a death notice for him, and a five hundred thousand dollar reward.”

“He must be doing something right.”

I sauntered to the kitchen and dug out two more beers from the ice chest set up in the corner. I asked Corrine if she needed any help. She shook a large serving spoon at me and uttered a Mexican curse, which I took to mean she didn’t require my assistance right then. When I got back to the couch the nachos were finished.

“All this action from a run-of-the-mill case. What Batista want? They finally figure out what happened to Sam? They find a body?”

“Something like that.”

I waited.

“The case is cold. Almost four years and no developments. But Batista called me because he was trying to find my client, María. He had news for her that he thought she would want to know.”

“So something did turn up?”

“Yeah.” He waited one beat. “They found the guide that Sam hired for his fishing trip.”

“After all this time? I thought he was dead, too.”

“Exactly.” He nodded his head. “Batista said he turned up about a month ago in a sweep of drug traffickers off the Southern Baja coast. The guide, a certain Francisco Paco Abarca, was arrested when officers in the PFM and a dozen Mexican marines captured four fishing boats heading north that were empty of any fish but were well-stocked with kilos of heroin. Needless to say, Batista was a little surprised that Abarca was alive.”

The doorbell rang.

“Hold that thought, Luis.”

I opened the door to more guests. It was close to five-thirty so I figured Corrine was ready to start serving. There was no denying that I was hungry.

“Let’s eat,” I said to Luis. “Then you can finish telling me why I should go to Mexico and have a heart-to-heart with Fulgencio Batista.”

Later.

__________________________

Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction. His latest is Angels in the Wind.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Chicanonautica: My Life as the Father of Chicano Science Fiction

by Ernest Hogan

It started out as a joke--the Father of Chicano Science Fiction. Yeah, I can go with it. Kinda describes me, kinda funny. It lets gente know that I don’t take things too seriously. Then, like a lot of things in my life, it took on a life of its own. Maybe it’s getting out of hand.


It ain’t so pinche dignified, but then neither am I. “Father” fits me. “Progenitor” sounds too pretentious. Just call me Papí Hogan.

What was once a fun and silly label has become a role I have to play in this bizarre stage of our civilization. There actually are duties that come with it.


Like Stan Lee said, “With great powers come great responsibilities.” Or was that the Bible? Marvel is becoming such a bigass chingadera these days . . .


As if publishing three novels and a whole lotta stories wasn’t enough for a born in East LA to accomplish.


This column is one way I can do my part, give back to the community, as some folks like to say. I can offer my opinions and experiences, for what they’re worth. It’s a non paying gig, but I do get to hijack it for self-promotion whenever I want to. And people seem to think what I have to say makes me worth hiring me (yes, for money) to do things like teach a master class in writing at UC Riverside.

Also through it, my publisher found me, which made it pay.


It also led to my judging the Somos en escrito Extra-Fiction Contest. (The deadline has come and gone, so it’s too late to send in an entry, so you’ll have to wait for next year.) I’m now waiting for them to send me the finalists, that I’ll be reading on my phone soon, while running around, making a living, and otherwise surviving in the not-quite post-COVID-19 world.


As El Papí, I try to keep up with what’s going on in the sci-fi, fantasy, and otherwise fantastical world of Latinoid culture. And it’s not easy these days. More of La Gente are getting published, and a lot of it is within my jurisdiction. I don’t have the money or time to buy and read it all, even though I know I’d enjoy sifting through it all.


It’s a good thing. The problem is--as I’ve learned in my nearly half-century literary career--getting published is one thing, getting through to an audience who will appreciate it is another.


And I’m not even getting near the whole issue of making money . . .


Yup, amigxes, getting your work published in one or more of the various forms that are available in these modern times isn’t enough. You have to make connections with the people who are willing to read, and are able to enjoy them. This has been a long, hard guerrilla campaign, because the New York-centered, Anglophone publishing tends to look at anything Latin/Hispo/whatever as a specialty item that won’t make them money. Maybe we’ll sell a few copies to barrio intellectuals, but aren’t they kinda rare, and those people don’t speak English, much less read, don’t they?

 


So we have to break that barrier (a HUI!HUI!HUI! To Silvia Morena-Garica who’s been making headway in this arena). Self-promotion and publicity is the name of the game here. We have to do what we can to educate a lot of people who already think they’re pretty damn smart, so we have to be sneaky, smart, and even entertaining.


So when I have a new story in one anthology (Speculative Fiction For Dreamers) and another coming soon (El Provenir, Ya!), I have to go out and tell the world. I end up rushing home from my job with the Phoenix Public Library to log in late for a Zoom party, doing interviews, both written and on video, and whatever else I can manage. My Hispanic/Latinx Heritage month has been crazy.


Sometimes I make a fool of myself. Stay tuned. I’ll be making announcements and posting links.


If we can just become profitable without becoming another corporate product.


Ernest Hogan wrote High Aztech, Cortez on Jupiter, and Smoking Mirror Blues, and is working on another novel that is already out of control.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Finding Illumination Through the Dark

Review: Yolanda Nava. Through the Dark. The Woodlands TX: Cafe con Leche Press, 2021. isbn 281-465-0119   cafeconlechebooks.com

Michael Sedano

I am the caregiver half of a couple living with Alzheimer’s Dementia, so it’s not unusual that my reading habits now include material on grief, suffering, healing, caregiving, and my life’s single ambition focuses upon outliving my wife, because she can’t make it on her own. I don't need divine intervention to realize that every day.

Another fact of prolonged illness is inescapable: you need help. 



Here’s where books enter the Rx; good ones show you how to help, and illustrate ways to ask for help. Friends and familia read to glean ideas how to help their own afflicted souls. Not every book is useful, in the sense of “literature as equipment for living,” so choosing what to invest a few hours reading focuses on what fits one’s own situation. The more dire it feels, the more you need to read.

 

Yolanda Nava’s Through the Dark shares one woman’s experience with a rare disease that brought her an NDE --near-death experience-- that resulted in her going blind.  NDE fill volumes of investigations, but that's not an element for this story.


Most clearly, Yolanda Nava’s addressing how a person survives life-altering change by letting you watch how crisis after crisis stretched her spirit to desperation. For readers, Nava exemplifies how you are going to make it through your own shit.

 

Books like Nava’s take on the responsibility of “literature as equipment for living.” They all have some usefulness. Not all fit well. The “self-help” genre arrives with one strike against it. Cynics and scoffers will always find something to complain about, a typo on page one, for example, or a tawdry revelation about Nava’s most helpful healing experience on the very last page of Through the Dark. Mostly what threatens some readers’ use of Through the Dark is the book’s religious bent derived from Christian Science philosophies. It’s authorial noise, but the book’s most interesting stance. 

 

The author triangulates illness and healing between medicine, her flesh, and her spirit. Medicine works on flesh, leaving the mind part of illness for personal healing. Succor isn’t enough. What a writer-patient has to cure is Spirit, Soul, Duende, something outside the immediate circumstance. That’s not “God,” but the author’s upbrings in a religious home leads her to find reference points in hieratic poetry. She doesn’t limit herself to Christian avenues, those provide a foundation but her intellect and body lead her to other traditions to heal more than the flesh that went blind. At the end, she writes, “To this day, I maintain that my recovery and my ability to thrive is a result of spiritual mind treatment and damn good medicine.”


I add healing through journaling is wonderful therapy and is responsible for this book.

 

Yolanda Nava gets sick, nearly dies, and emerges profoundly disabled: blind. Getting sick and living with blindness is only part of the story. This is also a story of a crappy marriage and divorce. Through the Dark relates how Nava’s third marriage crumbles in the worst way. Pendejo splits the day his wife’s health totally collapses. In sickness and health all the days of my life, que no?

 

“Leaving me now is not Christian”, Nava tells her Afrikaner louse. That pulls him back into the house, only to launch Nava into a horror story life. As the woman’s health deteriorates, she begins suspecting the man of poisoning her food. Women around her reinforce the paranoia, a warning from her herbalist, a friend finds trip hazards, finds rat poison stored in the pantry next to comestibles. The blind Nava has really wonderful female friend companions. She finds a social agency that finds Nava a paid live-in assistant who causes her own problems, supervision issues, something more to go wrong. A disabled household needs fewer complications, not added crap. But blind people need human prostheses for eyes.

 

Through the Dark is a book the disabled community can use. “The disabled community” consists in a sizeable population of souls who keep to themselves, by dint of condition, ambulatory stress, and other factors. The plague, peor.

 

“The disabled community” consists also in vendors of services, and familia standing by, hearing stories laden with what-if helplessness, wondering how to help? Or wondering why that ungrateful blind woman has sharp words for kindness? It’s in the book.

 

Some people aren’t going to see themselves in this book. Nava has good health insurance and resourcefulness of la primera clase. She has savings and resources, and would have had more if that pig of a husband had not beaten the economic crap out of his blind wife during divorce negotiations. That’s noise. How much money does a woman have? How much is she you willing to spend to be cured?

 

Residential programs like the “boot camp” for blind people to acquire skills to get on the bus and continue living in the economy cost big money. When she goes for a meditation cure in a Zen monastery in the Carmel hills, a close friend pays her own way in order to guide Nava. Caregiving denies the woman her own enjoyment. Helping costs. 

 

Seeking a miracle in 2017, Nava and a friend pilgrimage to a healer in Brazilia where the recuperating blind woman focuses her three life’s goals: Cure her blindness; Eliminate any impediments to her highest purpose; To be able to love a man unconditionally, and to be loved unconditionally in return.

 

Don’t let the authorial noise of money intrude upon the usefulness of the story. Two sides of a person fall ill. Darn good medicine and insurance cure the author’s flesh. She sees her blindness in a metaphorical view. The body grows ill, the Spirit, the Soul, the Mind with it. Through the Dark offers an understanding of what one does to cure the Soul-Mind underneath illness. That man she married, that was a Soul disease not just poor judgment. Did living with him so poison her flesh that it caused her illness?

 

Thing about disease, it doesn’t happen in isolation. Yolanda Nava’s eyes and illness uniquely affected her, it’s a rare condition. You’re not going to get sick like she did. You’ll get your own illness. You’ll have this in common with this book: Life goes on without any consideration for Nava not having time for all that crap. She needs a job. She has to restart her life. That means meetings, interviews, travel, using the training and skills that got her this far. 

 

The rest of the way—however many good years you have left-- doesn’t change one bit because you have a disability. It’s just one more obstacle to being you. In the end, the darkness evaporates and you hear voices. It's not the voice of angels or some diety offering guidance. That voice is yourself experiencing yourself.  


I'm not sure if that's significantly profound or a "in the beginning" kind of tautology. But it gives a reader a lot to grapple with, empathizing with Yolanda Nava, and dealing with their own stuff.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Reflections on Publishing My Twelfth Book, "How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories"

 

By Daniel A. Olivas

Almost 25 years ago, I started writing fiction. My first published short story appeared in the literary journal RiverSedge in 1998. In 2000, a small, now-defunct press based in Pennsylvania published my first book, The Courtship of María Rivera Peña: A Novella. I was 41 years old, married, the father of an 11-year-old boy, and well-established in my legal career with the California Attorney General’s office. That book is now out print, but it served as the foundation for ten more books—fiction, nonfiction, poetry—including two I edited. And in writing those books, I honed my storytelling skills which, in recent years, spawned a new life in playwriting.

Now a twelfth book is on the horizon. I am a man in his early sixties facing retirement in a few years. Luckily, I am still married to my law school sweetheart as we are about to celebrate 35 years of marriage. And our son is now 31, a grown many with a career and a rich life on his own. My father was called back last September, but my mother is still running circles around her grandkids and great-grandkids.

On February 1, 2022, the University of Nevada Press will publish my latest book, How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories. If you are a reviewer who is on NetGalley, I invite you to read the galleys.

How did this new book come to be? During the pandemic and in the wake of my father’s death, I set upon the task of reviewing almost 25 years’ worth of my short stories that had been published in various collections or as parts of novels. Our strange times seemed to call for this type of introspection and examination. I found that many of my narratives fell within the world of magic, fairy tales, fables, and dystopian futures.

This review also revealed that many of my fictions confronted—either directly or obliquely—questions of morality, justice, and self-determination while being deeply steeped in Chicano and Mexican culture. I decided to choose my favorite tales from the many scores of stories that populated my published works. I added to the mix two recent stories—one dystopian, the other magical—both of which confront the last administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. The result is How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories.

We are now setting up book appearances to help bring this new book out into the world. The book launch will be at the venerable Vroman’s Bookstore on February 3, and I will be making an appearance at Skylight Books on February 26. I will also be a guest author at the Tucson Festival of Books on March 12 and 13. Other readings are being planned including one at Tía Chucha’s in spring. I hope you will be able to attend one of them. I am updating my events page as I get confirmations.

If you are a writer who has birthed at least one book, you know about the nightmares: your book gets published and when you open a copy, the pages are blank or they are in complete disarray with pages missing and words filled with typos. I am currently having those nightmares.

But no matter. I am blessed that a wonderful press has agreed to publish my work. I will do everything I can to bring it into the world with all of my energy, hard work, and love. I hope you will come along for the ride.




Friday, October 15, 2021

Cafecito Con, the New Podcast Celebrates Womanhood at All Stages

Melinda Palacio 

Cafecito. The drink that says ‘let me share some words of wisdom with a comadre.’ At least, that’s what it says for Delila Vasquez and Rosa Martin Munoz, two women who have started the podcast, Cafecito Con. The format is simple, yet brilliant, a conversation about womanhood for women by women. Delila, 57, and Rosa, 31 developed the podcast idea in July. The show is live on a Thursday and a replay can be heard the following week on YouTube. Delila was excited to bring in a younger woman who could be her daughter, to cohost the show. The two teamed up to create a space for women to navigate the world of womanhood and to give each other tips for achieving their goals, dreams, and a strong sense of self. The topics of casual conversation cover the issues of Who Are You, Why Do You Do What You Do, Who Are Your Influences, and What Are the Symbols of Your Faith? The questions allow for the sharing of a cup of love and the stories of Latina women and how they navigate life. 


Delila has held many jobs in education and within the Catholic Church. One of her prior jobs was the Executive Director of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders. I first met Delila through Reyna Grande, when she helped one year with the International Latino Book and Author Festival in Los Angeles. In fact, Reyna Grande is this week’s guest. Listeners around the globe can hear the podcast on YouTube next week. After sampling some of the previous shows, I was impressed by the passion that Delila and Rosa bring to the table. They speak to all of their guests as if they were old friends or familia. 


Both Delila and Rosa put so much thought into the show, it’s refreshing to hear. The format allows women to share the essence of what makes them unique, allowing a wonderful exchange that I’m sure helps listeners grow. Women need to hear from different women at different stages of their lives to help them “build joy” as one of the guests mentioned. 


While their logo may be a high heel inside a coffee cup, the program is really about the different shoes women inhabit. Rather than think about hats or occupation, the shoe stands for how women express their comfort, needs, and wishes in the different spaces they inhabit. I was very impressed with the interaction between Delila, Rosa, and Reyna. I’m excited to hear more shows. The current formula is an audio conversation on the Clubhouse App. Reruns can be found on their Facebook page by pressing watch video and on YouTube. The co-hosts call themselves an intergenerational duo and there’s something magical about dynamics of their age differences. While the two are at different points in their lives, they are equally passionate about learning how to be the best form of themselves. They both want to reclaim a space to celebrate womanhood. Take a listen to this informative and inspirational podcast. 

Thursday, October 14, 2021

New Fiction: Into the Canyon

                  by Daniel Cano                                                 

                   "and the truth is that all veterans pay with their lives. Some pay all at once, while others pay over a lifetime." (Jim Storm)                                                                                          

The spirit of the canyon 

        He drove from his home in Los Angeles to Fresno, turned east, and headed up Highway 180 into the Sierras. At 6,000 feet, he entered the pines, spotted the ranger station, and pulled alongside to pay the park entrance fee. The last thing he heard before lowering the radio’s volume was Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces had invaded Kuwait.

     She greeted him. “Good afternoon, sir.” Pretty, he thought, and young for a ranger. She said, “If you’re 65 or older….”

     “No, not quite," he said, "still got a few years to go.”

     “Are you a veteran?”

     “I am.”

     “Veterans can purchase permanent passes, good for as long as the park is here.”

     “Really. Been coming up for years and nobody’s ever told me. Thank you.”

     “Just doing my job.” She smiled and handed him the park material, newsletter and map.

     Cautiously, he slid into the line of cars heading into the forest, his radio nothing but static. There would be no more contact with the outside world for four days.

     As a college professor, he needed to keep up on the news, whether he liked it or not, and usually he didn’t, too depressing, and now, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. had supported Saddam during his war with Iran in the 1980s. Old Saddam had fallen out of favor with Washington, the Iraqi leader owing the Yankee government billions of dollars in unpaid loans to fight his war, and here was, at it again.

     The saber rattling in Washington had already started. Many in this administration were hawks and wanted war, to show the president was no wimp. The 55,000 dead Americans in Vietnam teaching nobody anything, and Eisenhower’s prediction of the U.S. military industrial complex now a reality.

     He reached the dead end, and looked south towards Sequoia and the Giant Forest. No cars coming. He turned north, onto the winding two-lane asphalt road, into the thick pines, slow going for the next hour, up and down, thousand-foot cliffs in some places. Only hardened campers made the long, hazardous drive to the canyon floor, twisting and turning around curves and bends all the way down to the river.

     In 1960, the first time he visited Sequoia, he was a twelve-year-old Boy Scout. His friends and he, mostly Chicano kids from the L.A. suburbs, had spent seven days at Camp Wolverton, four days in the backcountry, on foot. They humped their supplies on wooden pack frames they built in their parents’ garages. Pack mules carried the food and cooking equipment, a precursor for what awaited most of them a few years later when they received their invitations from the draft board.

       As he drove deeper into the forest, he recalled the mountains outside Duc Pho, in Vietnam’s central highlands, the morning a sniper got Joe Sanderson, a kid from Kentucky who always made everyone laugh with his Gomer Pyle act. They’d covered him with a plastic poncho and waited for the medivac. Sanderson wouldn’t be the last guy in the squad killed. In the Rear, they smoked a lot of weed and drank bottles of whiskey to blunt the savage images.

     He kept his eyes on the road, maneuvering the curves down into the canyon. He slipped his favorite CD into the player, the Buffalo Springfield taking him right back to the 70s, when he first started camping in the Canyon with Beverly, his wife, and high school sweetheart, when music, love, and revolution were in the air, the pungent odor of the good herb everywhere and young, long-haired campers visited each other’s sites and shared coffee, beer, and tall tales of life on the road. He never mentioned the war.

                                                                                    

The roar of the falls

     The kids were still in diapers when the young couple first brought them into the canyon. Once they grew strong enough, they’d hike past Road’s End, make a nine-mile round trip trek to Mist Falls, explore the meadows, river, and creeks then start back before the forest turned dark. For a couple of days after, they’d rest, hang around the campsite or swim in the cold, swift water of the mighty King’s.

     He lost Beverly to cancer in ’82, and he barely pulled out of his nosedive, blaming himself for her having to take the worst of his long silences and rejection of reality. He never remarried. Fellow vets taught him to cope. With family help, he guided his children through their teenage years, and watched them blossom into young adults. Occasionally, as a family, they’d still come to the canyon. His daughter preferred taking the grandkids to Knotts Berry Farm, Disneyland, and Magic Mountain, the long drive into the canyon a hardship, but he continued making the trip each year, alone, same ritual, year after year.  

     He’d come here to make difficult decisions, like the time he decided to forego a lucrative job and remain in the classroom, or when he chose not to remarry, even though he and the woman were a perfect match and the kids adored her. Something about the sounds of the river and breeze rustling the tree tops spoke to him more clearly and succinctly than family, friends, or therapists ever could. The wilderness cleared his mind, and the reality of surviving, just like in the war, on life’s bare necessities, gave him perspective.

     He drove across the bridge, the river raging beneath. He pulled into the Sheep Creek, the first campground--tradition. It was a Sunday afternoon, so he wasn’t surprised to find his favorite campsites empty. Most weekend campers vacated by 2:00 P.M. He pulled into spot number 47, under the shade of the pines and cedars, where he could hear the river, a short, five-minute walk away.

     He placed his tent beneath the thick branches of a redwood, even though he’d sleep on a comfortable air mattress in the back of his Ford Explorer. It wasn't a campsite without a tent. As he unloaded the rest of his equipment, he noticed two women, late thirties, early forties, and three children in the next campsite. One woman was striking, thin, short blonde hair and a serious expression on her face. She wore camouflage fatigues and a green t-shirt. The other had silver hair, shoulder length. She had a tanned, plain face, too young for graying hair, bright blue eyes and a large, friendly smile. She wore tight shorts and fitted blouse, her body firm and athletic.

     The campsite on the other side of him was vacant, but he knew within a few days it would be taken. His usual practice, he walked to the river and knelt on one knee beside a fallen tree that had been in the same spot for thirty years. He whispered, “Well, Beverly, here I am again, another year.”

     It had rained more than usual this past winter, rare for California. The river was high, angry, and loud. He listened to the different sounds created as it tumbled past rocks, boulders, and fallen tree trunks. The more he listened, the more he heard a symphony, nature’s harmonics, mingling with the sound of the wind.

     He walked along the bank. He recognized gullies and rivulets, offshoots of the main river, an island, a fallen pine used as a footbridge, and huge boulders his kids had loved climbing in their adolescent years. After an hour, he returned to camp.

     In the canyon, evening came early. Instead of the lighting his Coleman stove, he took his hatchet and split wood to start a fire. He dropped the heavy metal grill attached to the pit over the fire and took a small sauce pan from a cardboard box and placed it on the grill.

     He opened a can of beef stew and a can of corn, poured them into the saucepan and stirred. When it all came to a boil, he moved the pot to the side of the grill and let it cool. He placed two slices of bread onto the grill and let them toast. He took a spoon from the bag of utensils, wrapped a cloth around the hot saucepan handle and ate.

     After he finished, he sat back and observed his surroundings. He recalled the times his kids had run up and down the road, Beverly’s voice warning them to watch for cars, the memories no longer painful, more matter-of-fact, like companions.

     He picked up the empty saucepan and dirty spoon, walked up a hill to a metal basin attached to the outside of the bathroom wall and washed them. He moved back down the hill, darkness closing in, lights shining in the other campsites.

     He cleared the top of the heavy wood table, organized his camping gear, and placed the food in a metal bear container. Back at the table, he reached for his cup that said, “Best Grandpa in the World.”  

     He poured about two shots of Seagram’s with a spot of water. The first drink was always the best. He swirled the liquid in his mouth and swallowed slowly, feeling the alcohol rise to tickle the nerve-endings, euphoria.

     He sat back and looked up into the shadows and stars overhead. He thought about the night Pete Saldana killed two VC, only to learn the next morning they were village women carrying jugs of water on bamboo poles. He’d always remember the look of surprise on the one woman’s face.  The captain reported them as two enemy KIA because they wore dark pajamas.

     Like erasing writing from a whiteboard, he wiped away the image. He’d already dealt with guilt or pain. He was beyond that. It was just too soon to ponder the other side. Afterall, that was one reason for camping. The outdoors always helped him remember.

     Among his group of basketball-buddies, other Vietnam vets and college educated like himself, he was of the opinion that remembering helped with the healing, and trying to forget was useless. That was just hiding the pain, like after Beverly’s funeral when he disappeared for a month.

     “You forget long enough,” said one of his veteran buddies, “you forget forever.”

     Even in those early days when his kids laughed and fired-up marshmallows in the campfire, they saw a beautiful glowing fire and heard the sounds of crackling wood. He saw muzzle flashes, sparks from grenades, and heard the cracks from M-16s and AKs. During the rare times summer rain fell in the forest and thunder roared in the canyon, he heard full-on battles and remembered exactly what the drops sounded like striking his plastic poncho.

     He finished his drink and placed the cup on the picnic table, grasped his shaving kit, soap, toothbrush, towel, and made his way back up the hill to the bathroom to wash. He returned to the fire, doused it with water from a plastic bucket, and with an entrenching tool, he tossed dirt over smoldering embers. He climbed into the back of the Explorer, dropped onto the thick mattress and waited for sleep, which came quickly, unlike home, where he struggled with the night.

                                                                                 

When the river speaks

     He woke early, the sun still hiding behind the tall canyon walls. He split a few logs, put them into the firepit, and got a good fire going to warm him. He poured water into the same small saucepan from the night before—keeping it simple. He placed the small metal pot, its bottom burned, at the edge of the grill. The flames rose, darkening the sides of the pan.

     He put two teaspoons of instant coffee into a cup, poured in the hot water, and watched it bubble. He took a milk carton from the ice chest and dropped a little into his coffee until the black liquid turned light brown. He spilled in exactly one spoonful of sugar and stirred. He first sip raced through his body. Yellow rays shone through the trees.

     By the time he was on his second cup, he heard commotion from the campsite next to him. The youngest child, a girl about five, was crying. The blonde woman, a bandana tied around her hair, tried consoling the child. No good. The other children, a boy and a girl, hollering, ran around the campsite chasing each other. They scaled a large bolder. The silver-haired woman, calmly, herded the kids to the picnic table, sat them down, and gave them each a bowl of cereal, the kids arguing over who got to read the back of the cereal box.

     She nodded at him when she saw him watching. He smiled and raised his coffee cup. She returned his smile.

     Once the kids had settled down, the silver-haired woman walked towards him. She stopped at the edge of his campsite. He said good morning to her. She returned the greeting and told him she envied his quiet. He said his children were grown, his daughter with her own toddlers. "I started early."

     “Lucky you,” she answered. “I started late. I should have been like you.” She laughed.

     “It goes by fast, enjoy it.”

     They let the words linger.

     Instinctively, he offered her a cup of coffee, and a little quiet. Surprising him, she asked if he’d wait, give her a few minutes.

     When she returned, she said, “My friend said she’d watch the kids. I can use the escape.”

     He opened a folding chair for her. He wasn’t sure what to say as he made her coffee. “It isn’t Starbuck’s, but I enjoy it, the simplicity, you know,” he said. “It’s the reason I’m here.”

     She took the cup from him and thanked him.

     The words came easily.

     She and the other woman were friends since high school. They lived in Redondo Beach and had gone to Redondo High. Her friend’s husband encouraged the two of them to take the kids, get away for a few days, and rest. “Not so sure we’re getting much rest, though.” 

     They both laughed.

     When she laughed, wrinkles formed at the corners of her eyes and mouth, brightening her blue eyes. She had full eyebrows and long lashes, smooth, clear skin and no makeup.

     She told him the boy was her son, twelve. She finalized her divorce five years after her son was born. He wanted to ask why she divorced but knew better. As if reading his thoughts, she offered, “He wasn’t the marrying type, even in his 30s, I still had hope. He couldn’t settle down. Anyway, I figured this little outing would give my son and me some quality time.”

     “I married young,” he said. “My daughter has two little ones. My son just finished college.” He didn’t wait for her to ask. He said, “My wife died a few years back after a bout with cancer.”

     “My god, I’m so sorry,” she uttered.

     “It’s been a long time.” He sighed. “I won’t lie. It was hard at first, but I managed.”

     The morning air was still. He could hear voices, slight echoes, coming from the other campsites.

     She was direct. “My ex-husband never wanted to be tied down. In the early days, he’d call from Montana, or Wyoming, or some interesting place telling me he wanted to make it work. I believed him. I’d take him back. Then, he’d take off again, with guys or girls, it didn’t matter. He told me I needed to accept him as he was. He comes from money, always spending it on one project or another, never on us. He’s gone through most of his inheritance, but when his parents die, he’ll come into a whole lot more.”

     “So, I guess we’ve both had our challenges.”

     She laughed. “Like the proverbial roller coaster.”

     “Where’s your ex now?”

     “Alaska, last I heard. Either way, he’s out of the picture. He writes my son on occasion, promises to visit but never does, unless he needs something from me, if you know what I mean. He still tries to beg. I learned the hard way.”

     “Tough, uh?”

     She looked over her shoulder to her campsite. “Hey, maybe we can talk tonight when things quiet down.” She looked at the thick tome on his picnic table. “Anthology of English Literature…looks like some intense reading.”

     He smiled, “I call it my heavy-lifting. I teach college.”

     “A professor?”

     “Not the khaki-tweed type. Please call me Ray. Yeah, come by if you’re up to it.”

     “We’ll see how it pans out. I’m Marion.”

     They both stood and shook hands.

                                                                                   

A different voice 

.
     The night moved in fast. Once he finished his dinner, washed dishes, and cleaned up the table, he walked to the bathroom and gave himself a sponge bath. He settled in under a lantern and read the anthology, trying to figure how he would make Henry James’ story, “The Real Thing,” interesting to today’s students, who struggled with James’ language and ideas. The story was about illusion and reality, and which was the real thing.

     He recalled reading a study where baby birds were trained to accept food from wooden beaks rather than their mother’s beaks. In the experiment, the baby birds knew the wooden beaks carried more food than the mothers’, so the baby birds rejected their mother’s food and relied solely on food from the wooden beaks. They accepted illusion over reality.

     By 9:00 PM, Ray sat at the table reading. He saw the shine of a flashlight coming through the narrow footpath leading to his campsite. Marion stepped out of the darkness into the light of his fire, her face bright, and friendly. “I’m back.”

     Normally, he liked his solitude. He avoided strangers, playing host, and having to think of something intelligent or entertaining to say. As a teacher, words were his tools, and like any laborer, he tired of his job and needed to put away all the tools, but not tonight.

     “Hello, welcome,” he answered. “Get the kids to bed alright?”

     “Yeah, yeah. Hey, I really hope I’m not bothering you. I mean I see you’ve got your book open and all.”    

     He pointed to a folding chair near the table. “Just reading a story I haven’t read in years. You’re actually giving me some down time.”

     “That’s good, right?”

     “It is.”

     “Can I ask how you prepare, like, I mean, is there a process you follow? Good teachers make it look so easy.”

     He could tell she was genuinely interested.  “It’s a good question. Most jobs, I’d guess, you pretty much follow a manual, or a system that’s already prescribed. I research then read a story many, many times. I try not to lecture but listen to the students.”

     She chuckled, “Oh right, tell me about it. I could write insurance policies blindfolded.” She reached for the anthology. “Do you mind?”

     “No, no. Be my guest.”

     “’The Real Thing,’ Henry James.” Her eyes settled on the words, “A painter is sketching a woman who wants to work as his model. She and her husband are from the upper classes and think they are perfect for his painting, a portrait of a royal couple. They’ve fallen on hard times and need money. In this scene, the narrator, an illustrator, is sketching her with a pencil, kind of trying her out.”

     Marion shifted the book so the lantern’s light brightened the page. Surrounded by darkness, she read, her voice falling into a slow, steady rhythm, stopping at each punctuation mark. She came to the passage, “’She sat with great intensity, giving the whole of her mind to it, and was capable of remaining for an hour almost as motionless as if she were before a photographer’s lens.’”

     When she stopped reading, Ray said. “Go on, please.”

     Trance-like, Marion continued reading, her soft voice rising, an echo in the night. “’I could see she had been photographed often, but somehow the very habit that made her good for that purpose unfitted her for mine.’” Marion turned her blue eyes towards Ray who remained silent, his lips barely touching. He saw a look of consternation cross her tan face.

     “Marion,” he said, “Are you alright?”

     She blinked. “Yeah, I, uh, think so. Should I keep going?”

     Her voice made the words breathe and gave Ray an entirely different take on the story. “Yeah, please.”

     She read, “’At first, I was extremely pleased with her lady-like air…. But after a few times, I began to find her insurmountably stiff; doing what I would with it, my drawing looked like a photograph or a copy of a photograph.”

     Marion’s voice lilted in the air. The fire in the background crackled. Her eyes met Ray’s. Tears welled. “Is that me,” she asked, “the woman in the story, artificial?”

     Her question stumped him. All he could answer was, “That’s all of us, the woman and the man.”

     “I don’t understand.”

     He spoke slowly. “Well, it’s like we go through life always searching for who we really are, not who people say we are, or who we think we are. Maybe illusion is more powerful than reality.”

     An hour passed. As the fire dimmed, she rose from the chair and sat next to him at the table, her arms and thighs lightly touching his. She felt nice. As they talked about the story and about their lives and the people in them, she slid down and sat on the ground, leaning her shoulders into his legs, for support.  

     Their dialogue was interspersed with brief silences. She raised her eyes and looked deeply into his. He returned the gaze. The fire illuminated her face below her nose, brightening her full lips. They stayed that way, talking and listening until the last embers of the fire died.

     She rose, the constellations lighting the night. She said, as they both stood looking at each other, “The couple in the story, they were royalty, the real thing, but the artist couldn’t capture it, them. Then, the cleaning woman comes in to model, and he turns her into a princess.”

     Ray thought for a moment, and answered, “That’s right. The real thing.”

     They stood but feet apart. Marion said, “Oh, it’s late. I should be getting back.” She placed both hands in his. Their fingers fit neatly together. She moved closer to him, her eyes on his. They remained that way for a moment, quiet. She offered a quick hug, and she thanked him for a beautiful evening. He did the same.

     She turned on the flashlight and made her way back to her campsite. She called in a low voice, as if asking a question, “I will see you tomorrow?”

     He smiled.

     The next morning, he woke early, before the sun rose and broke camp, making sure he left the site as clean as he had found it. Few campers stirred as he drove up the road, alongside the river, and out of the canyon.