A Field to Mow

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Ira Witmer drove the green John Deere tractor past the “FOR SALE” sign and into the field where his friend Daniel Mellinger used to grow corn, tobacco, and alfalfa.  Ira had to mow this field, all ten acres, and he was not happy about it, not one bit.  Dan Mellinger had been a good Christian farmer; their families had gone to the Rock Mill Mennonite Church together.  Now Mellinger was dead, his kids scattered to the wind.  Mellinger’s old wife Ruth was losing her memory in the Mennonite home, and the farm was up for sale.  Mellinger was only ten years older than Ira, and here was Ira, who should be retired already, mowing a field of weeds that should be growing corn.

This was a beautiful piece of land, sitting on a ridge along the south side of Long Lane, which followed an old Indian trail from the Susquehanna River.   There were about fifty acres, starting at Long Lane and stretching down a rambling hill into old woods, where Blossom Creek ran through.  The view from this field took your breath away.  It was what Ira’s boss, Abe Stehman the realtor, called “prime real estate.”

Stehman had phoned Ira this morning and told him to be sure and finish mowing the place before five o’clock, at which time he was going to show the property to some “real important people from out of town.” Ira said sure, of course.  He needed this job.  His wife had broken her hip the Christmas before, and the hip replacement surgery cost tens of thousands of dollars.  Ira’s kids weren’t being much help.  Three had kids and problems of their own.  Thank God Medicare took care of most of the bills, even though Ira hated taking money from the government, which he was pretty sure was in league with the Devil.

Ira was sixty-four years old, and today he was feeling it.  It was a tricky ten acres, with some rock outcroppings and lots of groundhog mounds.  Mowing it would take all day, he was pretty sure.  That’s why he was starting early.  The sun was just rising over the hills to the east.

Ira took his time mowing the first round.  The weeds were so high he couldn’t see the rocks or the groundhog holes.  He didn’t want to start the day breaking a blade or an axle, so he went slow, watching ahead, then back, as wet clumps of chewed-up weeds plopped out behind the mower, like little green piles of horse shit.

Going down on the right, he went close to the hedgerow — a line of tulip poplars, sweet gums, locusts, and sumacs, poking above an old broken-down fence and thick brambles and honeysuckle vines that made it all one hairy mess. Dan Mellinger had let the place go in his final years; too bad his sons hadn’t stepped in to take care of the farm.

The weeds Ira was cutting were also a mess: pigweed, lamb’s quarters, Queen Ann’s Lace, alfalfa, clover, foxtail, and the odd stalk of corn or wheat coming up from old seed.

At the bottom of the field, in the shade of the trees by the creek bed, the dirt got soggy; Ira kept his speed up so he wouldn’t sink in and get stuck. Coming back up the other side, he cut close to the property line, where a new electric fence separated the old Mellinger place from the next farm over, where the corn stood up to the top of his tractor tires.

As he got up close to the top of the hill again, Ira scowled at the new houses popping up along Long Lane to the east. They were ugly one-story things with aluminum siding, asphalt rooftops and skinny trees in front on new-planted lawns.  Ugly as sin, Ira thought.

It was a sin, turning this beautiful farmland into tract housing. Ira remembered thirty years ago, driving Long Lane all the way and not seeing one new house, just the beautiful old two-story brick farmhouses, the clean white barns, the rolling fields and woodlands.  It seemed like a dream; now it was all city folk moving here, to what was fast becoming a suburb of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Ira felt sick as he remembered selling his own farm. He just couldn’t afford to keep going, the way everything kept getting more expensive.  The guy who bought Ira’s place turned around and subdivided it into ten-acre lots for rich folks to build little mansions.  Ira couldn’t bear to drive by there any more.  The house where he’d raised his kids was gone, as was the barn.  It burned him like mad to remember the buyer promising, “Oh, I think I’ll keep the place just like it is,” then next thing Ira knew, they were bulldozing the barn he’d worked so hard to keep painted and fixed.

The jolt of his tractor tire dipping steeply into a groundhog hole, then out again rocked Ira and brought him back to his current job, mowing the Mellinger farm; but quickly his mind wandered again, remembering the first time his dad told him to drive the old Allis Chalmers tractor for a hay wagon, one hot August day fifty years ago.  Then fourteen, Ira was nervous behind the wheel, trying to work the stiff stick shift.  Six or eight local boys were helping pull dried hay bales off the hayfield and throw them up onto the wagon.  A thunderstorm was coming and Dad said, “Hurry up, Ira, it’s fixin’ to rain.”  Ira tried to hurry, and he hit a groundhog hole, dumping half the load of hay back onto the meadow.  Guys were tumbling onto the ground with the bales.  It was almost funny, and nobody got hurt, but Dad was mad as hell and made Ira get off the tractor and help throw the bales back onto the wagon.  That day the rain came in fast and half the load got soaked and ruined.  It was Ira’s fault, and nobody let him forget it, either.  Later his dad gave him a whipping behind the barn, with a switch from the apple tree.  Dad made him drop his pants and he screamed as the switch cut into his bare behind.  It wasn’t fair because it was only his second time driving the tractor.  But Dad was always right, and the Bible said honor thy father and thy mother, and spare the rod and spoil the child.  After that Ira looked out for groundhog holes when he was on the tractor, and he shot the fat suckers with a .22 rifle every chance he got.

Ira was about a third done when he saw Stehman’s Cadillac Escalade pulled off on a tilt by the side of the road.  Short, fat, pale-faced Abe Stehman was standing, hands on hips, looking at what Ira had done.  A faint wind tugged at his plaid suit pant and jacket, and blew a shock of gray hair over his mottled skull.

Ira pulled up close and cut the throttle.  Stehman always looked so strange in the sunlight, like he had been in a tobacco cellar all his life.

Stehman’s face looked angry as hell. Ira knew right away he was in trouble.  He tried to lighten the mood, talking like an Amishman: “What can I do you for, Mr. Stehman?”

Stehman wasn’t amused: “Were you over at Chestnut Hill apartments yesterday?”

“Sure. Remember, you told me to empty the dehumidifiers in the basement where you keep the extra furniture.”

“Did you lock the door when you left?” It seemed like Stehman’s watery eyes were trying to burn a hole through Ira’s skull, but their milky blue just looked sick in the bright sunlight.

Ira said, “I always lock the door, you know that. Why, what happened?”

“Somebody – probably some kids – got in there and made a total mess of the place.”

“What’d they do?”

“Cut up all the armchairs and sofas, busted the mirrors, smashed the dehumidifiers, spray-painted filthy words on the walls, and flooded the whole place by leaving a faucet running.

“Dang,” said Ira. “I told you we need better locks on those doors.”

“I don’t think it was locked,” said Stehman. “I’ve been over there half a dozen times when the doors from the first-floor laundry room were left unlocked.”

“That wasn’t me.”

“Who else has the key, Ira?”

“You, your boy….”

“My son is not a boy. He’s a fine young man.  I trust him. He would never leave that door open.”

“I’ve seen him over there visiting one of the girls. I even caught the two of them down there one afternoon, smoking something, half-naked….”

Stehman’s face reddened and his eyes bugged halfway out of his head. “You’re lying to cover your own butt.  I should fire you right here and now.”

Ira wanted to say, Go ahead, you evil old money-grubber, but he knew how hard it would be to find another job at his age.  Besides, he loved riding the tractor under the sun.  So he kept his mouth shut, while his guts burned with black fire.

Stehman said, “I’m gonna give you one more chance. If you finish this field by five, maybe I’ll keep you on.  Otherwise, you’re out of here.”

Ira managed: “I’ll do it, Mr. Stehman.”

“Good. And don’t you ever accuse my boy again, especially to cover your own damned behind.”

Ira started up the tractor and pulled back towards the field of weeds. He imagined drawing a bead on Stehman’s head with a .22, like he was a big fat groundhog standing up on his burrow.

At noon Ira stopped his tractor under a tree by the hedgerow and sat down with a sandwich his wife had packed for him. Bless her heart, she’d given him ham and cheese, his favorite.  He closed his eyes for a moment in silent prayer, thanking God for his wife, even though they hadn’t made love for twelve years or more.  The sandwich and the smell of fresh-cut weeds and the music of locusts and the cold iced tea gave him a moment of peace, and he felt lucky.

Ira was feeling pretty good as he swung back up onto the tractor. The shadows of the hedgerow trees crept slowly over the field as Ira mowed.

Only an acre of weeds remained when Ira heard a loud bang, like a deer rifle shot against sheet steel. He’d hit a rock.

Ira idled the tractor and swung down off his seat. He examined the field behind him and sure enough, about twenty feet back, there it was – an outcropping of limestone half-covered by weeds, with fresh white scrape marks where the mower had hit.

Next to the mower Ira knelt and craned his head around to peer into the darkness. The two mower blades, usually sticking straight out from each other, now swung uselessly together.

“Damn,” whispered Ira.

* *  *

Ira walked to the Mellinger barn, where Stehman had an old land-line phone. They used the barn to store extra lumber, bed frames and such. (Ira didn’t have one of those new-fangled cell phones.  He’d read somewhere they give you tumors in the head.  Ira didn’t need that.)

“Stehman Realty. May I help you?”

“Yes, is Mr. Stehman there?”

“Who’s calling?”

“This is Ira Witmer.”

“And what is this regarding?”

“I have a little emergency.”

“Just a moment, please.”

Ira picked at a hangnail. It started bleeding.

“What is it now, Ira?”

Ira had trouble talking. “Uh, I’m still here at the Mellinger place, and I’ve hit a rock.  The mower blades are screwed up pretty bad.  I’m gonna have to take it in to Kendig’s.”

Stehman was quiet, then: “Can’t you fix it yourself?”

“I don’t think so. It’s gonna take power tools.”

“Have you tried fixing it?”

“Mr. Stehman, the blades are knocked sideways and the nut that holds them on is burred pretty bad. I don’t see….”

“Ira, you hit the rock, you fix the damn mower, and you get that damn field mowed by five, or you’re fired. Got that?”  The phone banged down and the line went silent.

Ira found a big wrench in the tool shed next to the barn.  It was a little rusted, but it was all he had.

He walked back towards the tractor in the middle of the field. The hot afternoon sun burned on his neck.  Now he was in for it.  He would just have to fix the damn mower.  That was all there was to it.

At the mower, Ira took a deep breath, lay down on his back, and slid underneath, into the cool darkness with the thick green smell.

Taking the wrench, he fit it over the nut holding the two blades to the pinion. Wouldn’t budge.  Holding the wrench head firm around the nut, he planted one foot against the outer rim of the mower and strained.  It wouldn’t move.  Harder he pushed and his eyes bugged out.  He felt like his head was going to explode.

He let up a second and set his jaw, then tightened his knuckles around the handle of the wrench and pushed, down with his foot and up with his arm, as hard as he could. His arm trembled.

A picture of the basement, full of ruined furniture, the sofas slashed and stuffing all over the place.

Stehman’s son Rudy, pulling up his pants, and the girl grabbing her shirt to cover her naked tits.

Suddenly Ira’s hands were pushing through into nothing and his knuckles punched hard on the inside rim of the mower. The wrench had slipped.

“God damn it.” Ira rubbed both hands.  It hurt like hell.  In the half-light he could see his knuckles bleeding, weed pulp in the scrape wounds.

Stehman’s bleary eyes, squinting up in the sun, accusing.

Ira grabbed the wrench and tightened it around the nut. He pushed, and pushed harder.  He put both feet against the rim and pushed, arching up, his body one tool pushing, hanging over the ground like a powerful spring.

What happened next, Ira saw like he was watching a movie on his son’s TV. The wrench slipped again and his arm shot forward and the mower blades swung around and caught him right between the eyes.  There was a blinding light, like the flashbulbs they used for wedding pictures, and everything was black and humming, vibrating, like an airplane he’d gone up in once, then Ira was up in the air, looking down.  He saw the mower with his two feet sticking out from underneath.  He knew that he was dead, or dying, but nothing mattered now.  Nothing mattered.  He was free.

* *  *

Abe Stehman met the New York people at the Lancaster County airport with a limousine that cost him a hundred dollars an hour.   The whole family had flown down in their private plane just to see the Mellinger place.  These days, with the tight economy, it was hard enough to find people who could afford to buy ten acres, let alone a whole fifty-acre farm, with enough money left over to build a dream home.

Well, for them it was a dream, but for Abe Stehman, it was survival. He’d sunk all his money into a big development north of Lancaster, and it had turned to shit.  Costs had run triple because environmentalists had sued about the way he was messing up a woodland, and then he’d had so much trouble finding homebuyers that he’d had to file for Chapter 11.  Now his son was fighting drug charges – the police had busted him with a pound of marijuana in the trunk of his car.  Of course Dad must pay the legal fees.

Abe Stehman had to sell the Mellinger place, or he was fucked. These people from New York were his last hope.  Everything was riding on this deal.

The New York family’s last name was Russian, and Stehman had practiced pronouncing it as he drove to the airport. Makshinoff.  Makshinoff.  Makshinoff.  Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Makshinoff.

The man looked to be about fifty, with salt-and-pepper hair, a tired face, and eyes that looked dead inside. He wore a black turtleneck and black trousers. Stehman flashed on something he’d heard about a lot of Russian mafia in New York.  He hoped this man wasn’t one of them, but then he banished the thought from his mind and shook the hand warmly.  “Nice to meet you, Mr. Makshinoff.  And this must be Mrs. Makshinoff.”

The pretty, blue-eyed wife couldn’t have been older than thirty. They had two kids with them, a boy about eight and a girl about six.  The wife shook his hand; the kids ignored it.  The wife said nothing.

They drove for a while in silence. Mr. Makshinoff’s English was heavily accented, although the wife spoke to the kids in better English, and the kids spoke like Americans when they whined for a bathroom.  Stehman stopped at a mini-market in New Danville to buy the kids ice cream and let them use the bathroom.  In the parking lot, he pointed out the nice view of distant farms.  “It’s even nicer, where we’re going.”

“Oh, it’s beautiful,” said the wife, smiling sweetly. Her husband gave a tense flicker of his cheek muscles.

When they pulled up at the Mellinger place, Stehman said, “Welcome to heaven on earth.” He opened the back door of the limousine for the wife and kids with a theatrical flourish and waved his arm to accentuate the view.  The place would sell itself, he was sure of it.

The Makshinoffs stood together looking around. The husband squinted at the small houses Mellinger had just built to the east on Long Lane, as if to say, What kind of a fucking neighborhood is this? The couple spoke quietly in Russian for a moment.  Then Stehman said, “Let me take you down the hill a little.  Wait ‘til you see the creek and the woods.”

As they mounted the small rise, following the tractor tracks, Stehman was saying, “The old house and barn can be torn down, of course.”

When they reached the rounded top of the meadow, Stehman saw the tractor, motionless by a wide patch of unmowed weeds. His heart sank.  Damn him, Ira Witmer had flaked out.

The wife was looking around at the view. Stehman’s hopes rose.  She said, “It’s so beautiful.  And quiet.”

Meanwhile, the boy had run down to the tractor. He stared at the mower and said, “Mommy!  There’s a man and he’s not moving!”

Stehman walked quickly down the hill toward the tractor. Damn him, Ira was probably still trying to fix the mower, the incompetent asshole.

Stehman saw the trouser legs and work boots. They weren’t moving.  Stehman felt his lungs collapsing into his stomach.  “Ira?”

No answer. The boy looked at Stehman, then back down at Ira’s feet.

“Ira?”

By now the Makshinoffs had reached the scene, holding hands with the little girl. All three stood looking at Ira’s feet.  The father said something to his wife in Russian; the woman took the little boy and girl back up the hill, towards the car.

The Russian looked at Stehman and knelt, feeling Ira’s feet. “Cold.  He’s dead,” said Makshinoff.  “Maybe one hour, more.”

Stehman didn’t want to touch the body. It was bad enough that a potential customer was finding death where he hoped to raise his family; now he started imagining lawsuits.

Meanwhile Makshinoff was pulling on Ira’s feet.  A hairy, unnaturally white stomach slid into view, revealed as the shirt was rumpled up by the dragging, then Abe saw the shirt stained dark.  Was that blood?  Yes, Ira’s face was caked with blood.  It looked as if a big machete had cut him right on the bridge of the nose.  There was so much blood.

Stehman felt the surge in his guts; he mumbled an excuse, turned and started running, but he stumbled and fell. On his hands and knees in the clotted clumps of freshly-mowed weeds, he lost his lunch:  a turkey and bacon club sandwich with pickled corn.  He looked up and saw Mrs. Makshinoff and the kids up the hill, watching him.  The woman took her kids’ hands and led them back to the limousine.

After he cleaned up, Stehman called 911 on his cell phone.  Mr. Makshinoff said he and his family wanted to get back to the airport, but Stehman needed to stay for the ambulance and coroner, so he sent them back in the limousine.

The ambulance came first, then the sheriff, then the coroner.  The sheriff said it was obviously an accident; he’d known Stehman for years, even let Stehman go once when he had a little fender-bender after a New Years Eve party.

The sun had gotten low on the horizon by the time they finished checking everything. The ambulance took Ira’s body.  Stehman watched the taillights blink out of sight over the hill, then stood there in the field of the old Mellinger place as crickets started chirping in the hedgerow.

He’d been a farmer’s son, Stehman had, and he missed the way things used to be. It was weird, but now he didn’t care that Ira had probably queered the Makshinoff deal.  He felt sorry about Ira and he felt sorry about pushing him too hard and he felt sorry for Ira’s wife.  He felt sorry that he was selling the best farmland in the world for tract housing and luxury homes.  He felt like a worthless piece of shit, and he wanted a drink.

He walked slowly up the hill, not hearing the crickets, not seeing the sunset behind him, as he called for a taxi.

The last of the sun dipped orange behind the hills, touching the gray mackerel clouds with wavetops of fuscia. Choruses of crickets rose with the call of a mockingbird, then the hoot of an owl.  No cars passed on the road for many minutes.

Above the tractor in the hollow, above the weeds still standing tall, above the clover and the Queen Anne’s Lace and the alfalfa and the pigweed, fireflies rose in the honeysuckle air of early dusk.

THE END

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My “Top Ten” predictions for the Trump presidency

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The people have spoken.  Or, at least, the electoral college has spoken, on the basis of the popular vote state by state.  Or, at least, that’s what we’ve been told.  (Investigative journalist Greg Palast argues — persuasively, I think — that the election was stolen by Republicans; see * below.)

So now we have President-Elect Donald J. Trump.  Groper in Chief.  Liar Extraordinaire. Poster child for the KKK.  Defendant in more than 3,500 civil lawsuits, and accused of raping at least one minor.  Vladimir Putin’s best buddy in the West.  Verbal and sexual abuser of women.  Inspiration for Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.  Cheerleader for political violence. Lacking in humility, patience, civility, kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity of spirit, basic human decency, and the requisite character, experience or temperament to be Commander-In-Chief.  And yet, here we are.

I won’t try to compete with the pundits currently explaining why and how Trump became our president-elect in spite of all the indications it could never happen.  Instead, I’m going to do a little prognosticating.

I feel around 75% confident of my predictions, on the basis of my track record:

  • In the early 1970s, I told anyone who would listen that we should be recycling and composting on a large scale.  Now, many states and large U.S. cities have extensive recycling and composting programs.  In the city of Seattle and the state of Connecticut, recycling is mandatory.
  • During the run-up to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, I told anyone who would listen that “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was a huge mistake, and that weapons of mass destruction would never be found.  It was a huge mistake, as even Donald Trump admits, and WMDs were never found.
  • In February 2012, John Deasy — Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District — proposed eliminating LAUSD’s adult education education program.  I predicted in a post on this blog (see “LAUSD’s Dark Lord…”) that Deasy’s attempt to eliminate adult education would be his “bridge too far,” and would lead to his demise.  That prediction proved true.

I have also made wrong predictions:  for example, I predicted on Nov. 7 that Hillary Clinton would be our 45th President.  Oh, well.

Anyway, keeping  in mind that my predictions are only correct 75% of the time, here are my “Top Ten” predictions for the Trump presidency:

  1. “The Trump Wall” will never be completed, nor will it ever accomplish its stated goal of keeping illegal immigrants out of the USA.  If that project is even started, it will be a huge waste of resources.  Just look at China’s Great Wall.  It’s an impressive achievement and a great tourist attraction, but it took 1,700 years to build, and cost around $360 billion.  So many workers died because of hardships involved in its construction (at least one million) that it has been called “the longest cemetery on earth.”  What’s worse, the Great Wall did not serve its intended purpose.  Genghis Khan’s Mongol invaders easily went around it in 1211 A.D. and ruled China for more than 200 years. Trump’s “Great Mexican Wall” — if he pushes forward with it — will be an exercise in futility, and a “yuge” drain on our national budget, because (let’s get real) Mexico will never pay for it.
  2. His oft-stated campaign promise to ban Muslims will never happen, especially because — on the day of this writing (Nov. 10, 2016) — a statement regarding that ban was removed from Trump’s campaign website.
  3. Trump proposes banning the Environmental Protection Agency.  He just might succeed in doing that. I predict that he will hasten the disastrous effects of global warming by promoting the use of oil, gas and especially coal.
  4. His policies regarding refugees — especially from Syria — will increase terrorism as he fans the fires of hatred for the U.S.A. (He has proposed barring Syrian refugees and kicking out any who are already here.)
  5. His plan to deport all undocumented immigrants (almost 11 million) living in the United States will face opposition from many sides, and will prove far too costly and problematic to be implemented.
  6. Foreign relations:  he will improve our relationship with Russia, but damage our standing with many other countries, especially Mexico, our allies in Western Europe, and China, whom he has threatened with a trade war and with more aggressive U.S. naval presence in the South China Sea.
  7. By starting trade wars, he will ruin the U.S. economy. We will go through another “George W. Bush-style” recession.
  8. He will greatly increase the national debt by cutting taxes — especially for the very rich — while increasing military spending (and building his wall), and by eroding the tax base with his damage to the economy.
  9. The resulting turmoil from economic ruin and “bad blood” between hostile groups (especially white racists vs. minorities, Christians vs. Muslims, and rural “alt-right” conservatives vs. urban progressives)  — made worse by Trump’s fanning the flames of existing hatreds — will cause widespread civil disturbances, including riots and destruction in major cities.  (At the time of this writing, we are already seeing many demonstrations — some violent — in major U.S. cities.)  We will see martial law, with National Guard troops on the streets.  Militia groups, especially white supremacists and anti-government “Oathkeepers,” will try to take over sections of the country, creating a situation similar to Afghanistan, dominated by local warlords.  To refocus our national energy in this time of crisis, watch for Trump to provoke an actual war with China.
  10. At the end of Trump’s presidency — which could well result in impeachment** for a variety of offenses, especially perjury (he does play fast and loose with the truth) — the U.S.A. will be a burned-out shell of its former greatness.  I predict that Trump will damage our nation worse than George W. Bush on many levels — especially in social, economic, and environmental areas.  His supporters will of course blame progressives for his failures.  In spite of all this, the great people of this nation will rebuild it from the ashes of the Trump presidency.

In the end, there could be a saving grace in the fact that usually when Trump opens his mouth, he’s lying.  (http://www.politicususa.com/2016/03/31/ninety-one-percent-donald-trump-false.html) Maybe he will reneg on 91% of his campaign promises!  That could be a good thing.

All that being said, here are some areas where I think Trump’s proposals offer promise:

  • Infrastructure improvement.  He has promised to budget a trillion dollars to rebuild roads, bridges, etc.  This is much-needed and long overdue, and it can help create many well-paying jobs.  (As long as Trump doesn’t declare national bankruptcy and refuse to pay, as he has often done with his construction projects, for example in Atlantic City.)
  • Building a more constructive relationship with Russia.  This could prevent World War III.  (Except with China — see above.)
  • Not telling ISIS our plans.  I agree with Trump that we are very stupid to tell ISIS weeks or months beforehand where we’re going to attack them next.

President Obama and Hillary Clinton have both made magnanimous gestures towards our new president-elect — Obama spent 90 minutes with him in the White House today (Nov. 10); but many share my fear that Trump has opened a Pandora’s box of hate, racism, xenophobia, and jingoistic arrogance that threatens not only the fragile bonds holding our communities together, but also our international alliances and trade relationships.  Let us hope that I am wrong in my more dire predictions.

Let’s hope Trump really will make America great again.  However my guts tell me that if he does make America great again, it will only be after almost destroying it first.

Let us pray that cooler heads prevail.

*My paranoid side suspects that the final election results were rigged by Republican Party operatives (through a variety of methods), and by Russian hackers who manipulated final vote counts in key states.  However, I’m philosophically opposed to conspiratorial thinking, and I have no proof.  If enough readers ask, I might write a separate post laying out my case for Election 2016 being stolen, but for the time being I recommend following Greg Palast, who has investigated election fraud extensively, and who does think this election was at least partly rigged:

http://www.gregpalast.com/

I also highly recommend this recent email from Greg Palast, in which he argues that the 2016 election was stolen before even one vote was counted:

http://us4.campaign-archive1.com/?u=33e4ec877eed6a43863a4a92e&id=3a5e219073

** Re:  impeachment — http://www.aol.com/article/news/2016/11/11/a-professor-who-called-trumps-presidency-now-says-it-wont-last/21604240/

A final thought:  In his victory speech, Trump broke with long-standing tradition and neglected to say something that is customary in victory speeches.  I will say it for him now:

May God bless the United States of America.

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An open letter to world leaders in this time of crisis

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama meet during the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China on September 5, 2016

I am writing out of grave concern for the future of our planet. At this time – October 28, 2016 – tensions between the USA and Russia are at their highest point since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, prompting CNN.com to proclaim in a headline, “Russia, US move past Cold War to unpredictable conflict.”  Meanwhile, China has claimed the entire South China Sea as its own territorial waters, building military bases on rock outcroppings to cement its claim. Nationalistic fervor seems to keep rising, both in China – where China’s new assertiveness seems to enjoy popular support – and in Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin enjoys high approval ratings with his annexation of Crimea and his increasingly defiant and belligerent attitude towards the West.

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail in the USA, Hillary Clinton has promised to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently announced plans to begin an assault on Raqqa, the capital city of the so-called Islamic State, which happens to be in – Syria! This seems to me kind of crazy, on two levels.  First, strategically, don’t military operations benefit from some element of surprise?  Second – and more importantly – isn’t Syria an ally of Russia, and isn’t it kind of unwise for U.S. and its allies to be invading Syrian territory, or establishing no-fly zones there?  Especially with a Russian fleet off the Syrian coast and Russian aircraft bombing Syrian targets with monotonous frequency?

How many major wars have started with relatively minor incursions or incidents? And as everyone knows — with nuclear and biological weapons in the mix — our next major war could be our last.

I pray that all world leaders, especially those of Russia, China, and the USA — will take a step back from the abyss, breathe deeply, and think clearly. Do you want to be responsible for provoking a global conflict that could very well be the end of civilization as we know it?

Nationalistic fervor – often known as jingoism – is fairly easy to arouse, given humans’ propensity to “root for the home team;” but in our current world, the “home team” happens to be planet Earth. With the Internet, with international trade, travel and migration, and with weapons of mass destruction that wreak havoc to the entire world, nationalistic concerns have become increasingly irrelevant, and the survival and well-being of our planet, and of the human race as a whole, must be of paramount concern.  World leaders must understand that the “national interests” of every country must include the global interests of planet Earth – its ecosystem, and all its people.

In this time of heated tensions between the world’s superpowers, let us pray that cooler heads will prevail. Rather than being hot-headed and cold-hearted, may our leaders – and all of us – be cool-headed and warm-hearted.

Our survival, and our children’s future, depends on it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

With this cleansing rain

img_4854With this cleansing rain, let a new phase begin.  The rain is washing away the grit and piss and wrappers, pulling all the poisons from our air.  Let us all breathe deep and let go all the shit that kept us suffering.

Let our hearts be light in this new sunlight breaking through the clouds, and let that rainbow remind us of the beauty in every heart in every nation.

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The sunlight can lift from our hearts that terrible sadness.

We can forgive ourselves for everything.

We can feel and heal the terrible depths of despair and walk anew on the green hills of our new beginnings – blessed by this rain, that falls from the heavens for free.

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Beyond all the shrewd calculations, the plots for retribution and the stratagems for obscene gain from exploiting our fellows, a child’s heart beats in us still with endless hope that our earth can be a paradise, and human beings can be humane – or at least reasonable – and reason might approve this new beginning.

So rest, humanity!  Sleep in the peace of this rain, and soon awaken in the dawn of our new beginning: leaf tips sparkling, flowers bowed, hearts refreshed and arms reaching up in joy as the new, clean air brings cool refreshment to our lungs.

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Let us walk out, you and I, in this sparkling morning.  The earth has been reborn, and now we begin again.

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Posted in Photos, mostly, Poems, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The night when everything changed

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My .357 magnum Smith and Wesson revolver with a Pachmyr combat grip

 

One warm summer evening in 1984, I was working on my computer when I heard what sounded like a series of shotgun blasts – BOOM! BOOM!  BOOM!  BOOM! – that kept coming from the alley behind our apartment building in Santa Monica, California, where my wife and I were renting our first apartment:  a rent-controlled two-bedroom on 17th Street, across from a cemetery, and down the street from Santa Monica College.  The neighborhood was populated mainly by working-class or unemployed Latinos and blacks, along with some unemployed or low-income whites (including myself, at the time making $8 an hour teaching in a small private ESL school).  It also had a lot of gang graffiti, and gang activity.  More on that later.

 

My computer was a portable Kaypro with a CP/M operating system and two 540-K floppy drives. On it, I was working on the first chapters of a spy novel that I was co-writing with Gerry Keston, an elderly British gentleman who told me he had been an assassin for Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force Intelligence (RAF Intelligence, or “A.I.”).  The novel was set after World War II, and it was a white-knuckle thriller about hunting down and killing German scientists who had been dispersed throughout the Middle East under the auspices of ODESSA.

I was on Chapter 3, where our fictionalized protagonist, Jason Reece, is being trained for his first mission, when I heard the “BOOM! BOOM!  BOOM!” coming from the alley.  It sounded like somebody was firing off a shotgun; but the blasts kept coming, and I thought, That couldn’t be a shotgun, because shotguns only hold a maximum of maybe eight or ten rounds (I knew this because I owned a Mossberg shotgun and was very into guns), and so far I’d heard at least a dozen blasts.  I figured it must be a car with no muffler and only one or two cylinders working.  It was around 11:30 PM, and whoever was making all that noise was being very inconsiderate.  My wife (who worked at a bank and had to be up at 7:00 am) was in bed.  Being kind of a George Zimmerman type at the time, I grabbed a .22-calibre automatic pistol, shoved it in my pocket, and went outside to investigate.

As you’re probably thinking, and as I now realize, this was this kind of stupid, in a neighborhood with at least two street gangs vying for dominance: the Santa Monica 20th Street boys, and the V-13 (“V” for Venice).  Since we moved into our apartment, the following events had transpired:

  1. Gang members had harassed my wife and me as we stopped at a local convenience store. One of the guys sitting on the wall nearby said, “I like your girlfriend.”
  2. Gang members had carved “SM” on the roof of my car with a knife.
  3. A small-calibre bullet or pellet had made a hole in our living room’s picture window.
  4. A young man on a bicycle had been shot numerous times in front of our apartment.
  5. Up the street, a gang member had been gunned to death in the parking lot of a strip mall.

In light of all the above, I had started buying guns: the small .22 automatic pistol; the above-mentioned Mossberg shotgun; a Ruger 10/22 rifle; and a Smith and Wesson Model.357 magnum revolver with Pachmyr combat grips (see photo above).  When I showed my guns to a visiting friend, who was a devotee of meditation and Indian philosophy, he said, “You know, John, the tragedy here is that you will probably never get to use any of these guns, except for target practice.”

Well, I’d had some target practice, driving with friends up to Soledad Canyon to shoot bottles and cans from our trash (this was before L.A. started its citywide recycling program). One time, when a couple of buddies and I were taking our guns to my car, our neighbor Francisco Lewis – a friendly black dude who lived on a first-floor apartment under us – saw us with the guns and said, “What’s up?”

I said, “We’re gonna shoot up some cans.”

He said, “Like, Mexi-cans? Afri-cans?  Puerto Ri-cans?  Jamai-cans?”

I laughed. Francisco was a laid-back fellow who was at the time on welfare.  His daily routine consisted mainly of smoking weed, drinking wine, and scoring some coke when he had a little extra cash.  One time when we were kicking back in his apartment, he told me about trouble with gang members who hung out in the alley behind his apartment; his rear windows faced the alley.  He was a sweet, mellow guy who rolled the best joints.  His best friend Marvin, who was disabled with kidney problems, lived next door.  The night before, Francisco had told me that Marvin wanted to talk to me about something.

I went to Marvin’s apartment, where Marvin showed me an old 9-shot .22 revolver. It was tarnished, but clean, with a wooden handle.  I said, “Nice.”

Marvin said, “You want it?”

“How much?”

“Fifty dollars.”

“I don’t have the cash right now, maybe next week.”

“OK, but it might be gone by then.”

Francisco and Marvin’s .22 revolver played a key role that fateful night, when I slipped my .22 automatic pistol into my jacket pocket and went down the concrete stairs from our second-floor balcony to the small courtyard and headed back towards the alley so I could have a word with Mr. Boom-Boom-Boom. At the courtyard gate, who should be coming out of the alley, through but Francisco, who looked very pissed.

I said, “What’s up?”

He muttered something about an asshole in the alley; he was obviously in a bad mood and didn’t want to talk about it.

With some trepidation, I went out through the gate into the alley, where the “BOOM! BOOM!  BOOM!” was still boom-boom-booming.

In the middle of the alley sat an old gray Toyota that needed paint. The engine was running.  Obviously the car was having problems, both with the muffler and with the engine.

In the driver’s seat sat a Latino guy I vaguely recognized from a house two doors up 17th Street, a ramshackle bungalow from which much trouble had originated.  They had a pit bull that sometimes got out and almost bit passers-by.  The couple who lived there –a Chicano Vietnam veteran and his Mexican immigrant wife – had several sons in their twenties who had reputedly been in and out of prison.  From our second-floor window, I could sometimes see one of the sons in the backyard lifting weights, without a shirt and showing lots of tattoos, like he was in a prison yard.  The man in the Toyota kind of looked like that guy.  Another son, who had a big scar across the bridge of his nose, had once threatened me when I called police and Animal Control after the pit bull got loose and chased a little girl on roller skates.  After the police left, he came up to me and said, “You’re real brave when the cops are here, but sometime when they’re not, we’ll get you.”

Anyway, the driver of the Toyota was sitting behind the wheel, window open, giving me a mad-dog stare. If I had been in prison, I would have known better than to talk to this guy, but I had never been in prison, so I said, “Excuse me, it’s after 11:30 and my wife is trying to sleep.”

He stepped out of the car and got right up into my face. He said, “What’d you say?”

“I said, it’s after 11:30 and my wife is trying to sleep.”

“So?”

“Your car is very loud.”

“What’re you gonna do about it?”

“I guess I’ll just have to call the police.”

What happened next, I’ve only been able to figure out by doing some research after the fact, because after everything went black, I kind of regained consciousness, covered with blood, standing next to Francisco at the door to our apartment. My Chinese wife opened the door in her bathrobe, looking at me in shock.  “Oh my God.  What happened?”

“I’m not sure.” Trying to remember, I got only blurred images of me on my hands and knees on dirty pavement, looking for my glasses, my .22 pistol there also, me grabbing the pistol, facing a small circle of young gang members with the pistol in my hand, one of them with a sharp nose saying, “We don’t like having a gun in our face,” and me saying, “Then stay back, because I can’t see too well and if you get too close, I’m gonna shoot you.”  Then my memory faded out again.

My wife took me into the bathroom and I saw my face covered with blood, my white polo shirt covered with blood. I smiled and said, “I guess I’m not going to work tomorrow.”

She made a face and told me to take off the shirt. She wiped the blood off my face, neck and chest.  Apparently all the blood was coming from a huge gash on the left side of my mouth, where I’d obviously been hit.

There was a knock on the door. A cop in black.  An Officer Steiner, of Santa Monica P.D., asked:  “Are you the person who was assaulted?”

“Yes.”

“Could you come with me please?”

“Sure.”

My wife gave me a clean shirt and followed us down to the alley. There two police cars, facing each other, had their flashers and spotlights on, illuminating the trash-strewn, graffiti-scarred alley with its abandoned cars, makeshift fences and battered gates.  In the spotlights, between the cop cars, the guy who hit me was handcuffed and squatting between two officers.

Officer Steiner indicated the squatting guys and said, “Is this who assaulted you?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to arrest him?”

“Sure, arrest him.”

“No, do you want to arrest him?  We can’t arrest him.  We can only hold him. You would have to place him under citizen’s arrest.”

“I don’t understand.”

Officer Steiner took me aside, with my wife listening closely: “This is a misdemeanor assault, which means the injuries are minor, and it was not witnessed by a police officer, so you would have to make a citizen’s arrest.  You have to go over there and say to that guy, ‘I hereby place you under arrest for assaulting me.’  But if you do that, understand that he’ll be out of jail tomorrow morning with like fifty dollars bail.  Is that what you want to do?”

My wife said, “No. Forget it.”

I stood there with my brains all mushed up and not knowing what to do.

Officer Steiner said, “So you want to forget it?”

I said, “I’m having trouble thinking. I think I have a concussion.”

He clenched his jaw muscles, as if it had been a long night for him already: “I’ve seen about ten people this week who were much worse off than you.”

My wife said, “Forget it. Let’s go.”  She was pulling my hand.

I went with her. She took me to Emergency at St. John’s Hospital, where I got thirty-three stitches in the left side of my mouth.  An X-ray showed a fracture to my temporomandibular joint (TMJ).  A plastic surgeon wired my jaw shut.  For six weeks, I would have to get all my food through a straw.

Back in our apartment, the next day, I did some research with our neighbors. (My jaw was wired shut, so I could only ask questions with my teeth clenched.)  Our neighbor on the second floor, a UCLA doctoral student named Ed Schumacher, told me that he witnessed the assault from his second-floor window.  He’d heard the “BOOM-BOOM-BOOM” and looked out to see me talking to the Toyota driver, who suddenly swung at me with something in his hand and I went down like a rock.  Ed said the guy was bending over, and it looked like he was going to hurt me some more when Ed yelled from his window, “Don’t do that!  I’m calling the police.”  Ed told me the guy looked around like he didn’t know where the voice was coming from, so he got into his car and drove a short distance, then the BOOM-BOOM-BOOM stopped.  Ed called “911.”  I was still on the ground when Ed left the window to make the 911 call.

Francisco told me he looked out his window – apparently a few minutes later – and he saw me getting to my feet, surrounded by five or six teenage gang members, like a wounded bear encircled by a pack of wolves. He saw the gun in my hand, and the gang members staying back, but one of them was coming around behind me.  Francisco said he grabbed an axe handle and ran out into the alley, where the gang member behind me was climbing onto the hood of an abandoned car to jump onto my back.  Francisco knocked that guy off the car with his axe handle, right around the time the police cars came screaming down the alley with sirens blaring and flashers flashing.  The gang members scattered.

From all I can gather, Francisco Davis and Ed Schumacher very possibly saved my life. They were like my guardian angels.  This is one of numerous instances during my life in which people I scarcely knew stepped in and made all the difference.  I kind of owe my life to them – the human angels of this world.  In reading the news, even the most jaded cynic must confess that there are many of these human beings who act bravely and selflessly to help their fellow human beings, or animals, or society, or the planet as a whole.  The cynics might call them fools.  I call them heroes.

In my sixty-four years, I have personally met too many heroes to count. But in this, an account of my life so far, I’ll tell you about as many of these unsung heroes as I can remember and as many as I have time to tell about.  These people are my role models, and – I truly believe – our hope for the future of the human race.  In my own flawed, and sometimes stupid and arrogant way, I’ve tried to follow in their footsteps and even be a role model for others.  As you will see, this effort has been met with mixed results.

A day or two after the assault, I was taking our trash into the alley when I saw a guy who looked just like my attacker. Blood rushed to my head, and I hurried back to our apartment, where I got out my Smith and Wesson .357 magnum revolver with Pachmyr grips and loaded it up with hollow-point bullets.  One of those bullets could splatter my attacker’s brains all over the graffiti-scarred wall behind his head.  I figured I’d use all six bullets and wait for the police to arrive.

Then I closed my eyes and started thinking. During the previous thirteen years of my life, I had done a lot of meditation and yoga, and a lot of praying.  I decided to pray.  In my mind’s eye, I imagined what would happen if I went out and shot the guy.  I would go to prison.  My wife would be alone in the world, possibly subject to retribution from the guy’s friends, who were probably gang members.  My entire family would be shocked and traumatized.  My friends who meditated and followed peaceful ways would be terribly disappointed.  Perhaps worst of all, I would have a very bad time in prison, especially since this guy probably had friends and possibly family members there, as well.

I put down the gun. I packed it away.  Within two months, my wife and I had moved out of the neighborhood and started a new chapter in our lives.

In retrospect, this was a wise decision.

Posted in Autobiographical | 1 Comment

ALMA ZULEIMA AND MR. PARKER

A short story by John Mears

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The day Alma Zuleima first went to clean Mr. Parker’s condominium, the sun burned over Palm Springs as it had when her group crossed the Arizona desert with the coyote. Waves of heat poured down from the mountains and shimmered up from the street like some mysterious water, and she wished she’d brought a bottle of water, but she’d forgotten.

The bus had dropped her off at the corner of South Palm Canyon Drive and Calle La Verne.  She walked in the smothering heat, past green lawns in front of stucco walls hiding condominiums, to the address on a little street called Puebla, the name of a city where two Mexican Federales had raped her cousin Estela.  She wondered if that was bad luck, the street being named Puebla.  She remembered a warning from a bruja in Los Angeles, to be careful in August.  Maybe Mr. Parker was a bad man who would rape her, too; but fresh in her mind also were the words of her favorite housekeeping customer, Mrs. Nelson, who owned the restaurant where this Mr. Parker had his fish dinner, alone, every Friday night.  Mrs. Nelson had said that Mr. Parker was a good man, a kind man, a generous man, who was patient with the servers and left big tips.  Mr. Parker always ate dinner alone, Mrs. Nelson had said.  He was probably single and lonely.  Mr. Parker had fish every Friday night.  He was probably Catholic.  Alma Zuleima was a born-again Christian; her brother, a storefront minister at a storefront Pentecostal church in Los Angeles, said Catholics could not be saved until they renounced the Pope and accepted Jesus into their hearts without the Holy Sacraments, but Alma Zuleima didn’t think that Catholics were necessarily bad people.

The iron gate to Mr. Parker’s condominium walkway screeched as Eva Zuleima opened the latch and let herself in.  Old rust bubbled up from underneath the flaking black paint on top of the gate’s grill.  On the phone, Mr. Parker had said something about a gate, but with her poor English she wasn’t sure.  Not wanting to embarrass herself, she had said, “Yes, okay” to everything.

She walked the final steps to the door and checked her watch.  She was one minute early.  She said a few Hail Mary’s in Spanish, even though she had herself renounced Catholicism when her brother held her hand and prayed with her and made her a born-again Christian.  She reminded herself that her father was dying of bone cancer in San Salvador and her mother would need every dollar she could get for the funeral and coyote fees to bring the rest of the family to California.

She pushed the plastic button of the doorbell, which was surrounded by corroded brass.  She heard no sound, but immediately the door opened and a balding, white-haired man with a gentle face opened the door.  Seeing Alma Zuleima, he smiled and said, “You must be Alma Zuleima.”

She noticed that the left half of his chin was missing a big chunk, as if somebody had taken a bite out of his jaw, so his smile was lopsided. Cancer, she thought.

She pushed her cheeks up in her best smile and said, “Yes,” trying not to look at the left side of his face, where some of the skin looked like melted plastic.

Mr. Parker extended his hand.  “I’m Bob Parker.  Please come in.”  He hissed a little when he spoke, because of the way the left side of his mouth twisted down where the part of his chin was missing.

She shook his hand and walked in.  Cold air blasted her neck from an air-conditioning vent over her head.  The cold air made the hair on her neck stand up.  She stepped past a dining room table into a living room with bright-colored flower paintings on the wall, lots of yellow and orange colors, and big silk flowers – pink and purple – on the white sofa and love seat.  It smelled of dried eucalyptus and cigarette smoke.  Thankfully, there was no smell of alcohol.  Growing up with a father who loved his bottle more than his family, she had learned to smell the Devil’s poison a mile away.

Mr. Parker was saying something about the weather being hot. Alma Zuleima nodded and said, “Very hot.”  He asked something she didn’t understand.  It sounded like, “What do you like to think?”  When she hesitated, he signaled with his hand, lifting an imaginary drink, and said, “You want a drink?  Ice tea?  Ice water?”

She said, “Si… yes, please.”

“Ice tea, or ice water?”

“Water, please.”

“Ice, or no ice?”

“No ice.”

He opened a plastic gallon bottle of water and filled a pink plastic glass to the top.  She sipped it while he showed her around.  There was a common pool in the back where two shockingly white families were sunbathing on white lounge chairs.  One of the mothers, very fat, was white as a Kleenex on her stomach while her back was bright pink.  She was scolding one of her children in the pool.  Roses and other flowers bloomed all around the pool and the grass was green and thick.

Alma Zuleima remembered the big old brick apartment building where she had lived in Los Angeles, with its ground-down dirt lawn; the only flowers were tired red geraniums crammed against the wall like a cholo being arrested by the police.

She watched the kids playing and wondered if she would ever have children herself. Two years earlier, she had been a nanny for a divorced lady in Beverly Hills, and she’d taken care of two kids: one boy who was three and one girl who was six.  The girl was a monster, but the boy stole her heart.  He called Alma Zuleima “Amma Zooma.”  When the mother was drinking and talking bad, Alma Zuleima often thought of running back to El Salvador with the boy.  Even now, she thought about him when she couldn’t sleep in her little bedroom in her aunt’s house trailer, and dreamed of holding him close to her as she drifted off.

Mr. Parker’s laundry area was in the garage, just off the kitchen.  He was telling her that he wanted her to wash his clothes.  It was very hot in the garage, and there was an old silver Mercedes with dust on the hood.  He said something she couldn’t understand, motioning to the car and chuckling.

There were two bedrooms.  The guest bedroom had two small beds and a computer on a desk.  Handwritten papers lay about and there were lines of black letters on the white computer screen.

The master bedroom had a giant bed and a high ceiling and mirrors on one side.  She wondered if Mr. Parker slept alone, this man with his half-eaten chin. He was very thin, not handsome, with a long beak nose and a sharp Adam’s apple, but his twisted mouth and what was left of his chin were soft and kind.  As he told her about the condo, she couldn’t understand most of the words, but she could tell he was being nice with her.  Sometimes he would make some joke in English that she didn’t understand; he would half-chuckle at his own joke, and she would manage a smile.

She looked at their reflections in the large bedroom mirror.  She stood short and fat next to Mr. Parker, but she thought she wasn’t bad-looking for a woman of thirty-nine.  Her skin was dark next to his, like café con leche in a white ceramic cup.

Mr. Parker was looking at her in the mirror, and she thought from his face that he liked her, but she kept a straight face and said, “Ok, I think eighty dollars a day.”

He said, “That’s fine.  Can you come every Monday?”

* * *

For the next three Mondays, Alma Zuleima came to Mr. Parker’s condo at nine o’clock sharp and left at three. She always arrived early, because of the bus schedule, and waited outside in the heat until her little Samsung cell phone said it was nine on the dot.  She dusted, vacuumed, washed his clothes and sheets and towels, mopped his kitchen floor, took out the trash, scrubbed the black-green fungus off the shower tiles, and cleaned inside his refrigerator.  She wiped the kitchen counters, light brown tile with white grout, and she scrubbed the grout with an old toothbrush.  She got up on a chair and scrubbed the top of the refrigerator.  From the dust and grit, she guessed that it hadn’t been cleaned in years, but at least it wasn’t covered with congealed grease and oil, like in some kitchens where they fried a lot.

Mr. Parker fixed her lunch every Monday.  The first Monday it was a turkey sandwich with bacon, lettuce and tomato.  The second Monday it was a ham sandwich with mustard and pickle.  On the third Monday, it was a roast beef sandwich with avocado.  All of them were delicious.

While she worked, Mr. Parker sat at his computer and worked, typing or shuffling papers.  She never asked what he was doing.  Sometimes he would go out the back door to the patio and smoke a cigarette.  Other times he would go for a swim with a towel draped over his arm, his skinny legs and torso sharply white in the dark condo.

The fourth Monday he made grilled cheese sandwiches, then sat and ate lunch with her, smiling a lot, which made her nervous.  He asked if she wanted jalapenos with her sandwich, and showed her a jar of jalapenos.  She shook her head.  “No, thank you.”

He said, “You don’t like jalapenos?”

She said, “No, thank you.”

He said, “I bought them just for you.”

“Thank you.  Too hot.”

He made a face of surprise.  “Too hot?  I thought people from Mexico liked hot food.”

She felt her face turning red.  “My from no is Mexico.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  Guatemala?”  He said it with a hard “G.”

“No,” she smiled.  “My from is El Salvador.”

He said, “You’re from El Salvador.”

“Yes.”

His face and manner changed.  “I used to be an English teacher.  Can you do something for me?”

“Something?”

“Yes, can you say this:  ‘I’m from El Salvador.'”

“You from is El Salvador?”

“No.”  He slowed down his words and gestured with his hands. “I…” (pointing to himself) “…want you…” (pointing to her) “…to say…” (pointing to his mouth) “…I’m from El Salvador.”

She repeated it.  He grabbed a pencil and a note pad from a kitchen drawer and made a little diagram showing subject and verb.  It was an English lesson. It was time for her to clean his bedroom, but he was teaching her “I am a woman” and “You are a man” and “I am hungry” and “It is two o’clock.”

She felt nervous that it really was two already and she hadn’t even started cleaning his bedroom.  Then the doorbell rang.

Mr. Parker peeked – warily, she thought – through the Venetian blinds and said, “It’s my son.” For a moment she had a funny feeling as if they’d been doing something bad.  She got up and took her plastic bucket with rags and spray bottles towards the bedroom.  He was opening the door.  She didn’t want to see the son, or the son to see her.

From the bedroom, she heard the two men talking at the doorway. The son’s voice was loud and sharp, as if he was trying to dominate the conversation.  The son used the word “Mom” several times.  Maybe there was a fight between the parents and the son was in the middle.

A few minutes later, the door slammed shut and there was silence.  Alma came out of the bedroom and saw Mr. Parker standing there at the closed door.  His head looked heavy on his thin neck.

She said, “Is okay, your son?”

“No.  He’s always like that.”

* *  *

For the next few weeks Mr. Parker was quieter than before, and he didn’t sit with her at lunch, but he seemed to be looking at her in a different way that made her more and more uncomfortable.  Then on the eighth Monday – it was now early October – at lunchtime Mr. Parker said, “Are you hungry?”

She wasn’t sure until he made a hand signal for “eat.” She felt confused because he hadn’t made her the customary sandwich.  He opened the door to the garage and motioned.  She followed him.

He was pushing the button to open garage door, which raised slowly, creaking and whining, finally settling overhead with a thump and a groan.  The old Mercedes looked newer in the sunlight; the dust was gone from the hood. He had washed it.  For her?  Was this a date?

He opened the Mercedes’s passenger door for her. The smell of old leather and cigarettes filled her nose as she settled in the passenger’s seat.

He drove them to Mrs. Nelson’s restaurant, “The Ancient Mariner,” where she had worked as a dishwasher and chopped vegetables for seventeen months.  It was where Mrs. Nelson had told her about Mr. Parker, whom Alma Zuleima had never met because she was always in the kitchen washing dishes or chopping vegetables.

In front, the restaurant had a big, faded painted wood carving of an old English sailor holding up the sign, with a white seagull on his shoulder. It was cool and dark inside.  She had only walked in the front door like this one time — when she was first applying for the job; normally she’d come in through the back door to the kitchen, past the trash dumpsters.

Mrs. Nelson wasn’t there.  Alma Zuleima was glad.  A blonde girl showed them to a corner table.  A Mexican boy brought them ice water.  Nobody seemed to be noticing this old man with a weird jaw who was taking his housekeeper out to a nice restaurant for lunch.

When the waiter came, Mr. Parker said something to him quietly.  The waiter, a dark Latino, brought a big bouquet of flowers and set them on the table in front of Alma Zuleima.

Alma looked at the flowers and all the air went out of her body. They were beautiful:  red roses, yellow chrysanthemums, white calla lilies, blue irises.  Mr. Parker said, “They’re for you.”

She said, “Thank you.”

He smiled.  “You’re welcome.”

He moved his hand towards hers, but stopped himself and pulled his hand back.

The waiter gave them both menus. Everything on the menu was in English.  She looked at the menu with a blank stare.  The waiter said, in Spanish, “Te gustan las hamburguesas?” (You like hamburgers?)

She nodded.

The waiter explained in Spanish that, even though this was a seafood restaurant, the seafood wasn’t very fresh, so he couldn’t recommend it.  She ordered a hamburger.

“Salad?”

“Yes, okay.”

The waiter took Mr. Parker’s order – “The sole fillet, please” – and left.

He looked at her again.  “Alma, you know I live alone.”

She wasn’t sure what that meant, so she nodded.

He said, “I’ve been alone for… almost five years.”

She said, “You alone five years.”

“Yes.”  He smiled.  “You’re a good student.”

“Thank you.”

He thought for a moment and said, “I’m tired of being alone.  I know I look funny…” He motioned to his strange jaw.  “I know I’m old, and you’re young, but – I want you to marry me.”

She said, “Marry?”

“Yes.”  He pulled from his pocket a little black box.  He gave it to her.  “Open it.”

She opened it.  Inside was a small diamond ring.  Her throat hurt and she couldn’t say anything.  Instead blood rushed to her face and she almost started crying.  She remembered her sister’s wedding in the Pentecostal church in Los Angeles.  She remembered her own wedding in a small Catholic church in Chalatenango, El Salvador.  She remembered the way her husband had changed, the drunken beatings and the brutal sex, the humiliation of the divorce and why she’d had to come to California.  It all poured out and she couldn’t think or even feel anything except sorry that her life had turned out so badly.  Accepting Jesus had felt like this, too, but she wasn’t accepting Mr. Parker.  He was an old man who smoked cigarettes and looked like he’d had cancer and his son was horrible and she wasn’t going through another divorce.

She felt his hand on hers and opened her eyes.  His touch wasn’t cold or warm… it was just a touch.  He looked worried.  “You okay?”

She said, “Si, yes, okay.”

“Good.  You don’t have to answer now.  You can think about it.”

“Think about it.”

“Good.  You think about it.”

She thought for a moment, then gave him back the ring.

He smiled sadly, and put the ring back in his pocket.  “That’s OK,” he said.  “You can think about it some more.  I realize this whole thing must seem kind of weird to you.”

She didn’t understand what he was saying. She was just surprised that he wasn’t angry.  He almost seemed happy, which she didn’t understand.

He drove her back to the condo, and she finished cleaning his bedroom and the master bath.  At three o’clock she was headed to the door with her purse when he came to the door and said, “Can I give you a ride home?”

“A right home?”

“A ride. In my car.  So you don’t have to go on the bus.”

“No, I like walk. Is OK.”

He smiled his strange-mouth smile. “Correction.  You should say, ‘No, I like to walk.’  Or, ‘I like walking.’  Anyway you don’t say ‘Is OK.’  You say,  ‘It’s OK.’”  He gave the lesson as if he was the happiest man in the world doing his favorite thing ever, teaching her English.

She smiled. “It’s OK.”

“Good,” he said. “Remember, in English you need the subject and the verb.  Remember that.  Subject and verb.”

“Thank you, teacher,” she said, and smiled. “Thank you very much.”

His face exploded in the biggest smile she had ever seen him make. “Bye, now.  See you next Monday.”

“See you next Monday.”

As she rode the bus back to her room in her aunt’s house trailer at the Horizon Mobile Village, she watched the bare-rock mountains above Palm Springs slide past with the afternoon sun baking their sides, thinking.  If she married him, she could live in that nice condominium.  But the smell of cigarettes?  And the cold hands of an old man on her naked body?  On the other hand, she would get a green card, and could presumably help her family much more than she was currently doing, with small checks every two months.  She could also think more realistically about going back to finish high school and maybe study nursing, which was her dream — to be a nurse in a white uniform, helping people get better.  With Mr. Parker getting older, she could practice on him.  A lot of nursing jobs were for taking care of old people, her cousin had told her.

Then she started to wonder about Mr. Parker.  If he had really wanted to marry her, and if he really loved her, he would have insisted on giving her a ride, like a real man, with at least a little machismo.  He had no machismo.  And he was old, and he looked so strange.

But she hated machismo.  She hated pushy men.  Her husband had been pushy, and rough.  Mr. Parker was the opposite.

Anyway, maybe he hadn’t insisted on giving her a ride because he was busy, or maybe just too shy, or maybe he thought she needed time alone to think. Anyway, she was glad she had time to think about it now.  And the more she thought about it, the gladder she was that he hadn’t offered her a ride. A weird joy rose inside her stomach.  Mr. Parker had given her something better than the ring, or a ride to her rented room in a trailer park.  He had let her make up her own mind.  He had set her free.

The End

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Freedom and Independence

IMG_6844 - CopyOn Independence Day, we in the USA celebrate our country’s independence from England, and the freedoms we enjoy as U.S. citizens & residents. We like to say we’re the “greatest country in the world,” and that we have more freedom than the people of any other country.  However, there are many kinds of freedom and independence; freedom from want; freedom from debt; freedom from addiction, bad habits and/or compulsive behaviors; freedom from mental illness and toxic relationships; freedom from ignorance, from superstition, and from religions that teach false, limiting or pathogenic ideas. I think it’s fair to say that many “Americans,” in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” are – in one way or another – slaves or indentured servants to someone or something.

I am addicted to computer games – one of my favorite and least embarrassing in a list of what could be reasonably be called “bad habits and/or compulsive behaviors.” Many people I know have at least one of the following monkeys on their backs: debt; addiction to Facebook, junk food, cigarettes, or gambling; schizophrenia; and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

One of the most newsworthy and talked-about problems facing the USA now is opiate addiction. It’s hard to get hard statistics on addiction, but according to the National Center for Health Statistics, deaths from overdoses on prescription opioid pain relievers in the USA tripled between 2001 and 2014, from around 6,000 in 2001 to around 18,000 in 2014.  Heroin overdoses during almost the same time span – 2001 to 2013 – quadrupled from around 2,000 in 2001 to around 8,000 in 2013.   (See graphic, below.)

CDC WONDER Data for Website_02-04-15.pptx

Consider the most recent reports about student loan debt:

Credit card debt is also a huge problem.  A headline on thestreet.com (March 2016) reads:  “Credit Card Debt Is at Dangerous Levels.”  The sub-headline says:  “U.S. consumers are compiling credit card debt far faster than they can pay it down….”  According to the Federal Reserve, revolving debt was $935.6 billion in December 2015, up 5.1% from December 2014, even though interest rates went up on average from 11.9% to 12.1% during the same period.

This means that average households owe almost $7,900 on their credit cards.  The U.S. hasn’t seen this much credit card debt since the run-up to crash of 2008.  According to Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of credit statistics and analysis site CardHub,  “There comes a point at which credit card debt becomes unsustainable, whether due to an increase in unemployment and the corresponding decline in income levels or because the cost of interest on rising balances grows to the point that even minimum payments are no longer feasible,” Papadimitriou says. (More here:  https://www.thestreet.com/story/13505178/1/credit-card-debt-is-at-dangerous-levels.html.)
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke out against financial slavery in his Four Freedoms speech (technically the 1941 State of the Union address) on January 6, 1941, when he proposed four freedoms that people “everywhere in the world” ought to have:
  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of worship
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

Current government programs and fiscal policy in the USA do not seem to be addressing #3.  Perhaps pressure from “Democratic Socialist” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders will change that.

Posted in Essays, Political, Uncategorized | Leave a comment