An Interview With Pete KJ
November 15, 2019
Black Volta came out on October 17 and quickly climbed into Amazon’s Top 50 African American Literary Fiction titles, where it has remained for nearly all of its first month, peaking at #25 and achieving the designation of #1 New Release six evenings in a row. Not bad for a self-published title! As of this morning it was sitting at #43.
Reviews are rolling in and are favorable. You can read some of them here.
Back in 2018, I got the book under contract with a conventional publisher. Trouble began immediately when they asked me to change the title to River of My Return. “Okay,” I said. As we moved into 2019, they began jacking me around with editor changes and schedule delays. “No way,” I said, and bought the rights back.
The first thing I did on regaining control was restore the title to Black Volta. It felt wonderful. That’s what the book is called and must be called.
I think I’m now a confirmed self-publisher. Being with a conventional imprint does have its perks, however. Before I ditched the would-be issuers of Black Volta, I participated in an interview with their publicity team. Here’s a transcript of that discussion:
If you were allowed to only make five statements about Black Volta’s theme or message, what would you want readers and listeners to remember most?
(1) Black Volta is a multicultural novel that examines the impacts of scarcity and patriarchy on personal identity.
(2) Much of the world’s population suffers under the belief of “there is never enough.”
(3) There is such a thing as real scarcity, and it impacts a person’s whole life, even if the condition is overcome. There is also a different thing called perceived scarcity, and it too has insidious and severe impacts on personal wellbeing.
(4) In the capitalist society (i.e., in the world we live in), interpersonal relationships can devolve into business arrangements which adhere to the barter-and-exchange rules of the marketplace.
(5) This book is my love letter to Ghana. It comes well after my first novel The Coins, which is also Ghana-centric, and my nonfiction writings on Ghana which appear in my travel memoirs. Perhaps with this novel I am finally done writing about Ghana—but never say never!
Can you expand on these points?
To examine the impacts of scarcity and patriarchy on personal identity, the intersecting stories of two diverse protagonists are juxtaposed. One is Carlos Mario, an affluent, middle-aged retired Puerto Rican who has scant peace of mind due to guilt over secrets in his past. The other is Liz, who was born into harsh poverty in Ghana and is now a successful career woman in the USA. She retains heavy personal baggage of her own, and continues to live under an ominous cloud of perceived scarcity.
The idea of “never enough” can take many forms: never enough money, never enough material things, never enough time, spiritual peace, etc. People can also feel like they, themselves, are never enough, and forever in need of fixing and improving themselves so that they can fit into the world and measure up to what others expect of them. After exiting young childhood, individuals can encounter difficulty in feeling good, deep down, about who they already are. To roll with the world as it is, be who you are, and flow in the middle of the river is not a common life MO. More common is for everything to become an endless struggle toward some ambiguous end goal. It was Alan Watts who said, “We miss the point all along. Life was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing, and dance, while the music was being played,”—not angle for a crash of cymbals at the end.
The condition of real scarcity can be life-scarring and cause people to do things such as hoard, live in fear, and live in separation from others, long after the condition of real scarcity is overcome. In developed nations, despite all the material wealth, many people still perceive themselves as existing in a condition of scarcity (perceived scarcity). The “Top 1%” see themselves as severely lacking in comparison to the “Top 0.1%”, and so on.
It can be difficult to achieve love in such a capitalist environment, what with all the competition for resources which are perceived as being finite and insufficient. Many cultures dispense with the charades and regard marriages as contractual from the outset. I think in the USA and in other western societies we like to believe we have moved beyond that. We prefer the more sentimental notion that romantic partnerships are based solely on love. This can be a delusion.
Why did you write this novel? Is there a “back” story?
My need to write about Ghana goes to the core of why I began to seriously write fiction in 2010. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana from 1989 to 1991, and it was a game-changing experience that fundamentally altered my life. I went on to work as a corporate engineer for fifteen years in the USA, Puerto Rico, and India, but I kept going back to Ghana whenever I could, and remained deeply in love with and affected by it. I just couldn’t shake it.
My first novel, The Coins, was of course about Ghana. I went on to write other novels of various types, but by late 2016 I felt I had more I needed to say concerning Ghana. Thus I found myself boarding a plane to Accra to go on a writing trip.
I didn’t know what I was going to write about in terms of plot, at first. I knew I wanted to write about scarcity, both real and perceived. I also knew I needed to go and be in a place where real scarcity actually existed, or had existed in the past. So I went back to Ghana.
Black Volta is the result. Now I feel that I have finally written the book I’ve been trying to write ever since I embarked on my journey as a novelist.
How is your novel different than others in the market? What needs does your book address that makes it a must for someone to buy?
My novel is a hybrid of two established and much sought after types: (1) Those written by foreigners about living in Africa, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (a book that made me cry three times), and (2) Novels such as those by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which are written from the point of view of a native-born African who has lived outside the continent for significant periods (another good example is Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions). I realize it is presumptuous of me to claim I can write from an African’s diasporic insider perspective, but I believe my long term experience on the ground in Ghana, and the relationships I have maintained over three decades in an out of Africa, give me some degree of chops.
What is the most controversial aspect of your novel?
Probably the depiction of what I will call, for lack of a better term, “reverse racism”: Blacks (specifically Africans) being racist toward whites as well as toward Africans of other backgrounds. This often goes by the name “tribalism,” and is often regarded as being confined to African-on-African. The fact that some Africans see themselves as a superior race, with white people functioning as little more than objects to be consumed and exploited in the course of their economic ascension, will be eye-opening, jarring, and angering to some people. So will the softer version: the fact that some immigrants, including Africans, come to the USA and marry primarily for economic gain and/or to get USA public assistance checks to fund their personal and business projects back in Africa.
Also controversial might be my villain. I believe every novel needs a villain, and in this novel the villain is scarcity-patriarchy, embodied by Mumma. She is a product of her environment; she was born in a remote village in northern Ghana and it is not a wholly rosy depiction. Some Ghanaians and others will take offense to some of the portrayals of patriarchal village culture. I took care to depict Mumma as Mumma the individual and not make her a stand-in for her whole culture. Also, I chose to make her tribe (Brigaare) and her village (Kantugha) fictitious, unlike everything else in the book, which is about real people and real places. I did this because I am not qualified to speak to the internal intricacies of any particular one of Ghana’s dozens of tribes, and would feel wrong in pointing an accusatory finger at any specific named place or group. I decided to keep that part somewhat ambiguous.
There may be some controversy about a white male author purporting to write authentically from an insider-African view, particularly that of an African woman. To this I say, “Hell with it!” If Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gets to have white male Anglo characters in her novels, and write from within their perspectives, I get to have black female Africans in mine and do the same, dammit!
What are some specific problems/challenges facing your readership that your book can help solve?
My novel can help solve the problem many people have of being fairly ignorant about Africa, about what life is like in Africa, and of harboring romantic, sentimental, and stereotypical (often racist) views. My book is an authentic depiction of “how it is” in Ghana, as of 2016 at least, and “how it has been” since 1989. And the book is about people and culture, not animals.
I know international settings are not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people highly resent them, or only want them served up in the form of made-up fantasy worlds. This book is not for these people. This book contains quite a sweep, shifting from Ghana to Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos. It is a different kind of book in that respect and not for everyone.
Again, my overriding theme is patriarchy/scarcity/relationship-commerce…everywhere in the world. It doesn’t matter where you go, you’re going to find it: be it Pittsburgh, Ghana, Puerto Rico, or Vietnam.
What’s up with all the shoes in the novel?
My working title during the first draft, until it became Black Volta, was Zapatos (Spanish for ‘shoes’). Shoes are a motif and an image throughout the book, feeding into the scarcity thing. Shoes meant (and still mean) far more in Africa than they do in the USA. To me, Liz and Carlos’s different attitudes toward shoes speak volumes. For Liz there is no such thing as having enough shoes, having been scarred in childhood by owning only one pair of humiliating loafers. For Carlos, shoes are something you put on your feet to pad them off the ground; one pair plus a backup does the trick. Some peaceful characters in Ghana are barefoot out of necessity, others are miserable in spiky heels. Shoes are part of the Bungalow 39 scenario as well; when Carlos chooses to steal the girl’s sandals, he knows he is taking something special and valuable.
What one question do you most often get asked when people meet you/learn about what you do?
“What do you do besides write?” (i.e., “What is your real job?”)
October 15, 2019
There is an underground former elementary school in Artesia, in south-central New Mexico. It was built in the early 1960s to double as a fallout shelter for the town’s population of about 2,000. Its lid served as the playground—and still does, to the above-ground school now adjacent. The town has since grown about tenfold, and is currently booming as a bedroom community for the nearby oil and gas mecca of Carlsbad, 35 miles away.
Boom or no, Artesia is a mellow and relaxing place; one of the reasons my friend Marissa moved here from Seattle this past year to continue her practice as a dentist.
“New Mexico, who knew?” she likes to say.
Who knew? I didn’t, and now I do, and I’ll be back. Aside from enjoying some of the best gorditas on either side of the border at Los Agaves (“This place is legit,” concluded Tony, Marissa’s dentist colleague, after the waiter delivered the plates), I found plenty other things to enjoy in the Artesian environs. Top of the list for me, of course, are the nearby Sacramento Mountains. Crowning the range is prominent Sierra Blanca, a beautiful volcanic peak that pokes several thousand above anything around it.
It has a gorgeous cirque on its northeast face, and a ski resort farther along on that flank. Ski Apache, one of North America’s southernmost ski places, is operated by the Mescalero Apache nation. Sierra Blanca itself sits on tribal land and requires tribal permission to climb. Wikipedia documents the peak’s height at 19 feet shy of 12,000, but that doesn’t stop the Mescaleros from labeling it as 12,005 on their lovely ski resort map. Age ain’t nothing but a number; what about elevation?
You have to visit Sierra Blanca in winter, of course, to see the blanca. But another nearby attraction stays mesmerizingly blanca 365 days a year. This is White Sands National Monument, located in the basin a few dozen miles southeast of Sierra Blanca.
It’s not to be missed! With 275 square miles of rolling white, it is the world’s largest gypsum dune field. And this sand is clean and cool; perfect for walking in bare feet all year round since it doesn’t heat up like silica-based sands do. I found it impossible not to immerse my hands, my feet, my whole body in it! After soaking in this sand it just falls away, leaving you feeling cleaner than before. In fact it feels like it has medicinal qualities.
I recommend visiting White Sands in the later afternoon, and staying for sunset, as this is when the light plays on the dunes most enchantingly (the place stayed open until 9:00 pm on the day we visited).
As we were leaving, many cars were arriving to catch the rise of the full moon.
September 15, 2019
“They nabbed us!” said my son Baraka, as we arrived back in our old neighborhood in Istanbul.
We’d just been detained by the police while trying to board the subway, following an all-day bus ride from Izmir. The officer seized our passports, amiably, and held us for several minutes while he ran us through some checks.
“That’s what I get for downloading the PKK Manifesto,” Baraka added, laughing.
The night before, from our groovy room in Izmir where we’d lived most of a week, Baraka had accessed some documents of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK. Founded in 1978 to counter the oppression of ethnic Kurds and the oppressiveness of capitalism, the PKK has been in an armed conflict with the Turkish state since 1984. No longer seeking an independent communist Kurdish state, the PKK continues to push for equal rights and Kurdish autonomy within Turkey. No longer Marxist-Leninist, it is grounded in principles of socialism, direct democracy, ecology, and gender equality.
“I like what it says about women,” I said.
According to Abdullah Öcalan, longtime leader and founder of the PKK, “A country can’t be free unless the women are free.” As such, as central tenet in the PKK’s manifesto is to break longtime religious and tribal rules which subjugate and violently oppress women, customs which are present in Kurdish culture and the region at large. “Moreover, the need to reverse the role of man is of revolutionary importance,” he has said.
From prison, Öcalan remains a vocal and prolific author. The CIA helped to arrest him in Nairobi in 1999, and he was extradited to Turkey and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life in prison when Turkey abolished the death penalty as part of its efforts to gain EU admission. For most of the 2000s, Öcalan was the sole resident-convict at İmralı, a prison island in the south Marmara Sea. Some additional prisoners have been moved there in the past decade.
İmralı, which Pliny the Elder called Besbicus, got its present name when admiral Emir Ali captured the island for the Ottoman Empire in 1308. Up until 1913 it had several villages and monasteries and over a thousand residents, all Greek, who fished, made wine, and grew onions which they sold in Istanbul. Then came the Greek genocide of 1914-1922, followed by the 1923 population exchanges between Greece and Turkey which sought to cleanse their citizenries of Muslims and Orthodox Christians, respectively. The island was pretty much uninhabited in 1935 when the prison was started.
For a short time, İmralı was home to American writer, actor, and film director Billy Hayes of Midnight Express fame. Billy got caught trying to smuggle four and a half pounds of hashish out of Turkey in 1971, and was serving a 30-year sentence when he was transferred to İmralı in July of 1975. One night that October he commandeered a rowboat, made it to the Sea of Marmara’s southern shore, blended with locals, and crossed into Greece. He got back to the States and wrote a book about his experiences, which was turned into a 1978 Hollywood film directed by Alan Parker from an Oliver Stone screenplay (for which Oliver received an Academy Award). Resourceful Billy, transformed a big bust into a big break!
I digress (I guess that was the point).
“Nah, that policeman was just intrigued by your looks,” I told Baraka, rhetorically.
Tall, half-African, with a mop of dreadlocks, my son didn’t look like a typical Turk or a typical tourist. I, on the other hand, frequently had people come up to me and rattle off in Turkish.
My son doesn’t look much like an African migrant either, but that possibility was probably a factor in us being stopped.
In Izmir we lived smack dab in a neighborhood of transient Africans. This made sense, since the Greek Island of Lesbos, one of the busiest European ports of entry for migrants in recent years, is just off the coast. Sometimes we heard siren blurbs and cop-radio voices down in the street in the middle of the night, and we assumed it was people being rounded up.
Incidentally, migrant transit to Lesbos kicked up while we were there. It had reduced to a relative trickle in 2016, after the EU pledged more than $6 billion to Turkey to accommodate migrants and tighten its border patrols. Just last week, President Tayyip Erdogan made noises about allowing high numbers of migrants to flow once again, should the EU not provide additional money or should it dismiss his plans to extend Turkish influence into (Kurdish) northern Syria.
August 15, 2019
“You can go ahead of me,” I said to the pretty woman who was standing behind me and Baraka at the metro ticket machine in Istanbul, although I didn’t think she spoke English. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“What do you want to do?” she asked.
“I need to add lyra to my card.”
“But you don’t have to pay to ride today. Or tomorrow. All is free,” she said.
“Aha, fiesta days!” I told her. “Thank you very much.”
Baraka and Pete ride again! The protagonists of The Year We Roamed: A Father-and-Son Trip Around the World are still at it, more than ten years later. We’d flown in the night before and were on our way to a village in the hills south of Izmir, where Baraka has a math monastery to attend. He’d found the place last spring while googling summer math programs. His plan is to spend a couple weeks sleeping in a tent, eating three good meals, and taking math classes with world-renown gurus each day—his idea of summer fun—and my plan is…well I don’t know what it is. Baraka invited me to come so I said, “Sure!”
It was a bright, beautiful morning in Istanbul, and we were heading to the main bus station to board an all-day ride to Izmir. And once again I had not done adequate homework prior to visiting an Islamic country, and stumbled upon holidays I hadn’t known were happening. But unlike last time (an infamous incident in Indonesia), I had committed no gaffes as yet, and we were even enjoying fringe benefits: free metro rides.
“I can blog about this holiday that is going on, whatever it is,” I told Baraka later that day as we traveled to Izmir. My monthly blog post was due soon and I’d been thinking of writing about Izmir, which was known as Smyrna in times hundreds of years BC. But blogging about these fiesta days seemed like a better idea. “Provided Wikipedia is working,” I added. “I think it might be blocked in Turkey.”
“Wikipedia is blocked in Turkey?”
“It might be.” I explained that I hadn’t been able to get on it the night before, when we got to our room in Istanbul. On the plane ride over I’d finally watched “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”—probably the last baby boomer on Earth to see this movie—and wanted to research some information about the film. But when we got to our hotel, its Wikipedia page repeatedly failed to load.
We reached Izmir and checked into some cozy digs on the waterfront.
“Yup Baba, Wikipedia is blocked in Turkey,” Baraka said. “Along with Microsoft OneNote and Dropbox.”
“I know!” He clicked some more keys on his laptop and informed me that Wikipedia was blocked a couple years back, when President Erdogan became offended by an article describing Turkey’s relationship with the Islamic State, among other facts. So: no Wikipedia in Turkey. Or OneNote. Or Dropbox.
And it really does suck. As this world becomes less and less free, I’m really feeling it. There are getting to be more and more wonderful places that I cannot live in for extended periods, because I don’t feel comfortable being deprived of basic things such as information. Information is kind of important, and I need it for my writing. Also, I am currently working on an audiobook with an actress and we share our files via Dropbox. I can’t do that either, while here.
So there you have it: as an author, I cannot live and work in Turkey. I guess that’s how the government wants it.
I reminded myself to increase my annual financial contribution to Wikipedia, and I also thought, So what am I going to blog about this month? I didn’t feel like researching a new Islamic holiday without beginning at the beginning, which for me is Wikipedia.
Incidentally, Turkey is currently having a five-day national holiday known as the Sacrifice Feast (well, it finished on the 14th). I’m sure there are some very good stories and other interesting cultural information associated with this holiday, which you will not be hearing about from me.
Instead I’ll reach into my vault and tell a story from 2015, when my daughter and I inadvertently, ignorantly, and inexcusably stumbled upon another well-known Islamic festival, this time in Indonesia.
The Cooking Class
By our third day in Malang we had made our pre-dawn visit to the Bromo volcano complex (for which we had to depart at midnight) and had fun visiting various locales around our neighborhood including Dunkin’ Donuts.
The local bird market and flower market were particularly interesting. Also entirely groovy was the labyrinthine lobby of the art museum qua five-star Hotel Tugu Malang. Might I add there was this place nearby that offered very good one-hour full body massages by blind masseurs (who had very strong hands) for $2.26. I went twice.
Adding to this rich atmosphere was the fact that we were in the land of Islam. Minarets of mosques surrounded our rooftop enclave, and from them gorgeous calls to prayer were issued throughout the day. I particularly loved the predawn calls. I am always up at this time anyway, and the powerful mixture of melodic calling all around was amazingly beautiful and intoxicating and just seemed to grow in power and intensity each morning.
I thought about what Nia and I should do with our remaining Malang days. We had no dearth of options; our backpacker hotel had a colorful chalkboard listing all kinds of great activities.
One of the choices on offer was a cooking class. This seemed like a good idea. I’d done something similar while traveling with my son in China some years ago and we’d had a total blast. Here in Malang we were to go shopping at the local market with someone, and then go home with them and cook up a feast in their “minimalist kitchen.” Just the ticket, I decided.
“We are interested in taking your cooking class,” I said to Ira, a beautiful young woman in a burgundy hijab who was working at the front desk.
A ripple ran across her face. “I’ll look into it. I’ll speak with the chef.” She paused, then smiled. “It will probably be possible. The only thing is that tomorrow is Hilal.”
“A Muslim festival,” she said. “So maybe—”
“Maybe not the best day for a cooking class,” I said, interrupting her. “Well, that’s okay. We’re not in a hurry. We can do it the day after tomorrow, or the day after that.”
Later that morning Ira came to me with a grin, and informed me we were all set for the cooking class for the following morning.
By 9:00 am, June 18th, we set off for the market. Our party consisted of me and Nia, Ira, our chef whose name was Mega, and a guy who worked at our hotel named Andhika.
Our planned menu contained six dishes, so we had quite a number of items to buy. Some of the most important ones were shaved coconut and the meats (beef and chicken). We also bought a bunch of bayam (spinach), onions and garlic, some tofu, and tempe, a delicious soybean cake.
Toting our loaded plastic shopping bags, we began to walk to Mega’s house. “So, what festival are you having today?” I asked Andhika as we stood at a crosswalk.
“First day of Ramadan,” he replied.
Oh CRAP! I thought, nearly crumpling to the pavement. Oh jeez. Oh god. I cannot believe I did this!
“I am sorry,” I said as my mortification intensified. “I didn’t know, I didn’t know Ramadan was starting…”
“You are familiar with our Ramadan?” Andhika asked.
“Yes,” I sighed.
What should I do?! I thought. My mind whirled. We were walking again. Our ingredients were bought. Three people had committed themselves to doing this with us through the morning. Which would be worse: going through with it, or calling it off?
I had no excuse for my error. I should have known. Coming to a Muslim country, I should have done at least the bare minimum of homework and checked where we were at on the religious calendar.
In my defense, it’s not like Ramadan comes at a set time each year. The month-long period of dawn to dusk fasting occupies the ninth month of the Islamic calendar which, unlike the Gregorian calendar, goes by moon cycle. When the crescent waning moon is sighted in the night sky, the old month ends and the new month begins. As such, there are twelve months in the Islamic year and a total of 354 days. Over the past decade I’d lost track of when Ramadan happened and stopped thinking about it much.
Should have checked, should have checked, I berated myself as Nia and I walked along to go cook a scrumptious meal with three other people who would not be eating anything or even drinking any water until 5:15 pm that evening.
This month of fasting is compulsory for adult Muslims, though there are exceptions (ill, pregnant, breastfeeding, very elderly, etc.). It is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and has been in place since the year 622, when Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina and received the first revelation of the Quran.
As we walked, I eyed our hosts and considered my options, neither of which seemed any good.
But Mega, Ira, and Andhika all appeared to be in great spirits. They were smiling and chatting, asking questions of Nia, cheerful and clearly more than ready to do this.
Then I thought back on my previous experiences living with Islam, during earlier stages of my life, times which had been filled with graciousness and generosity. Ramadan, I knew, was a time of fasting yes, but moreover it was a special period of spiritual reflection, cleansing of the soul, and focus on central Islamic tenets such as kindness and charity.
I decided to go through with the cooking class. And to not ignore what I had done: to express my awareness of my error, and then not dwell on it. Have fun with these people and not feel bad about it.
Things got better when we reached Mega’s house and got busy peeling onions, potatoes, and garlic and plucking spinach leaves. Then we dove into the cooking.
“Always garlic, always onion,” Mega chuckled whenever we began to assemble a new concoction in the blender.
Nia for her part had fun pounding the beef cubes in to flat rectangles. All the while we talked and laughed and discussed all kinds of things.
Within two hours the kitchen smelled glorious. I stood at the stove and stirred the fried diced potatoes into the pan of spicy paste we had prepared, the final step in sambal kentang.
“My favorite,” Andhika said, coming up to stand next to me. He gazed longingly into the pan. I wrapped my free arm around him and buried my face into his shoulder. We laughed.
“Only five more hours to go,” he added. “Aeee.”
July 16, 2019
I remember the first time I earned a dollar. I was about six years old, and my dad told me that if I pulled a garbage can full of weeds, he would pay me a dollar. I don’t remember pulling the weeds, but I remember receiving the dollar: its texture, its smell, and especially a feeling of power and liberation. “Hey! If I do x, I will earn y!”
Jimmy Carter, who turns 95 on October 1st, has similar feelings of gratitude to his father for educating him, early on, on principles of commerce and earning. In his memoir, An Hour Before Daylight, he writes how his father paid him the standard child’s wage of 25 cents per full day of work on the farm. This went up to a more adult wage once he could plow a mule. His father also encouraged him find ways to earn extra money. So from the age of five, Jimmy became something of a fixture on the streets (or street, rather; there’s pretty much only one) of Plains, Georgia, selling boiled peanuts.
When the nuts began to mature on the vines, Jimmy would take his wagon to a field and pull up a load of them. He’d pick the peanuts off, wash them, and soak them in salty water overnight. The next morning he’d boil them for half an hour, fill them into paper bags at a half pound each, and either walk the railroad tracks the three miles to town or ride his bike. He’d usually sell out by noon, and head home with about a dollar in change in his pocket. A dollar, in 1930! His peanut business lasted well into the summer, just like my weed pulling opportunity.
What’s more, through his boiled peanut work Jimmy got an education in the world which he wouldn’t have received otherwise. He heard a lot foul language and sexually explicit jokes while making his rounds, along with gossip detailing the transgressions of various locals. By the age of seven he knew how much a black or a white prostitute cost in Albany, which of his fellow citizens went there, and what type they favored. When a lynching occurred, Jimmy learned about it via the guarded conversations around the filling station, and could make a pretty good guess who the murderers were.
Lynchings increased dramatically during Jimmy’s childhood, quadrupling in 1933 over 1932 levels. This was the Depression, and competition for jobs was intense—including the jobs previously performed only by blacks. “No Jobs for Niggers Until Every White Man Has a Job” was the slogan of one Atlanta-based organization.
Jimmy had boiled peanuts to get started; I had my garbage can of weeds. From there I continued on to many business pursuits and never really let up. I mowed neighbors’ lawns, got a paper route as soon as The Seattle Times would let me, and got a job washing dishes as soon as I could lie that I was 15 years old. One of my favorite gigs was when a buddy and I donned parkas, gloves, and ski hats, and went to collect golf balls in the sticker bushes of a deep ravine at a nearby country club. It was fun, like an Easter egg hunt! Then we took the oft-hit-only-once balls to the municipal golf course, where we sold them like hotcakes to people on the fairways, and came home with over $40. This was 1978, so it would be more than $160 now.
Like Jimmy, I also got valuable world exposure through working. Within a year of washing dishes I had moved out of the kitchen and donned slacks, a white shirt, and a black vest, and was waiting tables in the red carpet walled, black vinyl booth dining room. It was a restaurant and lounge, with the lounge being far more popular than the restaurant. I learned a lot by spending so much time around all the intensely loyal, intensely heavy drinking regulars. These were people who favored scotch rocks, vodka sevens, white Russians, and lots and lots of cigarettes.
When I began waiting tables I was too young to serve drinks. I could take orders, but the bartender had to carry the drinks to the tables. I remember one summer evening. The air conditioner was busted, and we had fan in the dining room, blowing air across a bucket of ice. I went to a lady’s table and asked her for her drink order. She must have been about forty, and had auburn hair and a husky cigarette voice. As she fanned her bosom with her menu, she looked up at me and said, “I’ll have a slow screw.”
And at sixteen I understood, that she wanted sloe gin with orange juice. I didn’t ask her if she wanted it comfortable against the wall.
Play in the Rain
June 14, 2019
“Wow, you look really happy in this picture,” I told my friend Dewey.
He was showing me photos of a vacation he took recently to Ohio and Michigan. In the picture, he is bicycling in the rain on an island out in Lake Erie. He’s got his arms on the handlebars, and a massive beautiful smile on his face.
“That’s because when I was growing up in Saigon, I wasn’t allowed to play outside when it was raining,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“My parents told me if I played in the rain, I would lose my arms.”
“Wow. What was that about?”
“It had to do with pollution,” he said. “We weren’t allowed to play in the rain.”
I thought about what a bummer that would have been for me, growing up in Seattle. And I thought of some of the rules I grew up with, and believed, and followed. I didn’t swallow my gum because it would stick to my lungs. I didn’t cross my eyes (very much) because they would get stuck that way. I didn’t go swimming (actually, I don’t think I was allowed to go swimming) with a full stomach. I crossed my fingers in front of my chest for good luck, and behind my back while telling a lie. I still do some of this stuff.
I doubt Dewey actually believed he’d lose his arms in the rain. I’m curious what other aphorisms people around the world grow up with, and want to know more! Please email me if you have a good one.
I know now that in Turkey it’s okay to swallow your gum. Just don’t chew gum late at night, lest it turn into rotting putrid flesh. While you’re at it, in Turkey (and many other places), do not trim your fingernails or toenails after dark. Bad things might happen. Be relaxed and carefree on Friday the 13th in Spain; just watch out on Tuesday the 13th. This has something to do with martes, or Mars, the god of war.
When it is sunny and rainy at the same time in Kenya, a rhinoceros is being born. Whistling indoors leads to financial problems in Russia, but this can be counteracted if a bird shits on your car.
When I asked Maria, my Venezuelan language teacher (who lives in Peru) for one, she responded, “Al mal tiempo, buena cara:” You have to look on the bright side.
I find it interesting and lovely, the power and richness these stories have on our lives. Not playing in the rain while growing up in Saigon results in a huge smile on my friend’s face, and outspread arms, as he rides a bike on an island in Lake Erie. As for me, I think I’m not always aware of the power these stories retain. I still sort-of-instinctively hold my breath while driving through tunnels (unless it’s the dreary 1.5-mile Eisenhower tunnels in Colorado, in which I try to think of a song to sing). And I’m pretty a rigid adherent to the apple a day thing. Actually I make it half an apple a day because apples aren’t all that cheap—not the good ones anyway. I like to cut up half an apple a day into really thin slices to savor while on my way to the gym, and wrap the other half in plastic for the next day.
This morning I noticed I was out of apples. So off to my neighborhood Safeway I went. Fujis were on sale; I bought five.
On my way to the car, I saw a gleaming penny lying on the sidewalk in the sunshine.
Did I pick it up? Of course I did!
Touring the Base Camp
May 13, 2019
I’m now almost halfway through a 55-date speakgin tour, following the release of Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range. It’s quite the blast. This past month I’ve spoken to full rooms at several REIs where, being a Seattle native, I feel like I’ve come full circle (next up: Fort Collins REI tomorrow). I’ve had lovely events all up and down the Front Range at other gear shops, libraries, senior centers, a brewery, not to mention the venerable Tattered Cover Bookstore’s flagship store on Colfax.
Tattered Cover was fun, but it was just as much fun to go up to Nederland on a snowy night last Thursday and speak with the people who filled up the meeting room of the community library there.
It’s wonderful to get to talk to so many people about hiking, and to share in the collective enthusiasm! My events are classes essentially, not really about pushing the book, and I get excited just putting my Powerpoint slides together. I find myself practically salivating to get back on the trails! What a gift it was, to get to do all these amazing hikes. And now, after exploring the mountains, I get to explore all the communities. This is more than icing in the cake.
Having said that, something very cool happened a couple weeks ago regarding the book. I received a visit from my longtime friend, the author and food expert Cynthia Nims, (that was the coolest part), and Cynthia accompanied me to a talk I was giving at the Boulder West Senior Center. After a gourmet lunch of bento boxes on Pearl Street, prior to walking over to the venue, Cynthia and I stopped in at the Boulder Bookstore. And what do you know, Base Camp Denver was at #4 on their bestseller wall! What a thrill, not only for it to be there, but for it to beat out Michelle Obama in the rankings!
This turned out to be fleeting. I stopped in again a few days ago, only to find that Michelle had overtaken me. However, I’m pretty sure this is because my book sold out and hers didn’t. It’s hard for a book to be on a bestseller wall if the store doesn’t have copies of it to sell.
In other news, Daniel Anthony Carey and I are very pleased to announce that the audio version of my acclaimed second novel, The Maple Leaf, is finished and available now on Audible. It arrives in time for the novel’s fifth birthday. It was a trip for both Dan and me to create this, and we invite you to take the journey as well.
I’ve really been getting into audiobooks lately! My local library has an immense selection available for download, and nowadays I always have a book on my iPod to delve into while running, driving, or cleaning house. My favorite recent listen is My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, performed by Adepero Oduye. Utterly marvelous, both the writing and the performance!
April 11, 2019
Several Wednesdays ago, I knew it was the day. It was a sunny day, with enough previous days of snowmelt to expose one of my favorite, and one of the least known, local foothills hikes (Nugget Hill). When I got to the trail’s two-car parking area on the side of the road in Lefthand Canyon, a white Jeep was there. “Ah, I won’t be entirely alone,” I said.
But I was. All through the ascent past old mines to a stunning promontory with a view of snow-caked Indian Peaks, I did not see the soul or souls who belonged to the Jeep. Then, on the way down through a notch, I became surprised when an unaccompanied black dog bounded through the woods and disappeared downhill over the curvature. Not long after that, I found a trail-runner dude named Ty sitting alongside the trail.
“Well, there you are,” I said. Ty confirmed he was the white Jeep.
“Another person in the know,” he said to me.
“And I knew today was the day!”
“Yes!” said Ty. “All the southern exposure. And then with the weather coming in tonight, we made a good call.” He added that he lives in Gold Hill, a nearby rustic hilltop old mining town.
We talked and walked together for a bit, before he sped up in his trail-runners. “I better go,” he said. “I have a two-year-old at home coming up from his nap soon.”
“Watch out for juvenile mountain lions!” I called jokingly.
“That was a kitten!” he called back. We were referring to an incident on Horsetooth Mountain the month before, when a trail runner got attacked by a starving young mountain lion that had lost its mother. The runner had to strangle the cat.
Curiously, Ty was just reaching his Jeep as I came down the final stretch of trail qua old mining wagon road. I watched him inspect the significant deer dent in the front-left of my car.
“I just want you to know,” I said as I passed him in his driver’s seat. “I didn’t hit the deer. The poor deer hit me.” I told him the story of a night drive last October, coming home from a hike, when in a blur a gray form rushed at me and did a flip over my hood, shattering my windshield with its hoof. I fixed the glass of course, but decided to leave the rest as-is. It’s a 14 year old car and it runs fine.
“I went back to make sure it was a deer, not a person!” I added.
“I hit a coyote recently,” said Ty. “At a high speed. And when I went back it was still alive, but its back was broken. So I decided I’d better kill it, since I know how to do that. I didn’t want it to suffer more, or have to deal with a mountain lion. I got out my knife and went to it.”
“Did it struggle?”
Ty folded his arms and leaned out his window. “It tried, at first. I used a log to pin its head down. And then the most amazing thing happened. It seemed to understand what I was about to do, and once it did, it completely gave up and lay still. Its eyes went blank and it lay there, calm and waiting. It was if it was grateful, and thanking me, for what I was about to do.”
“Wow,” I said. “You felt its gratitude. And that it agreed.”
Ty looked into my face. “Yes. It agreed. I felt that. As I made the cut, I was crying.”
“Something that happens,” I said, thinking of my deer. “It wasn’t its fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”
“Wow,” I said. “Thank you for telling me the story.”
And we shook hands and went our ways.
Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range is out, and selling well! We had the official launch party at the Boulder Bookstore last Thursday night, amid wine and bacon-wrapped dates and laughter.
Please know that you are helping the environment a little if you buy the book, because I donate all of my after-tax royalties to environmental groups. So far it’s all gone to The Nature Conservancy, which does great work here in Colorado, not to mention all over the world.
Earlier in the week I went on Denver’s Channel 2 morning news and plugged it. And I have begun my speaking tour, giving dozens of hiking talks all up and down the Front Range over the next three months.
March 11, 2019
“And what about you? What’s your ancestry?” I asked the old man sitting next to me.
I was at my friend Ingrid’s dining table, on a snowy Saturday afternoon last November, eating split pea soup with ham and barley. Ingrid had also sliced up some Honeycrisp apples real thin and brought out her Swedish cheese. She and I were having a little get-together, before I headed off on an extended trip to Mexico, and she’d invited her boyfriend to join us (Ingrid is in her eighties; her gentleman is in his nineties).
“Basque,” the old man said. “From New Spain. I am a descendant of Juan de Oñate.”
“Who was he?” I asked.
“One of the first Spanish explorers to cross the Rio Grande into New Mexico,” he said. “At present-day El Paso. He gave the city its name.”
Interesting, I thought, as I reached into my pocket for my green notebook paper to jot the name down. I was going to El Paso in two days’ time. I had a feeling there was a story here.
“I’ll read up on him,” I said.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out it is not an entirely wonderful story.
Juan de Oñate was born in 1550 or 1552 in Zacatecas, to wealthy Basque colonists. Being of the elite crowd, he was able to marry a granddaughter of Hernán Cortés. Then, in 1595, the viceroy tasked Oñate with exploring, colonizing, and Catholicizing New Mexico. Which he did. He went on to become its first colonial governor.
That’s not what Oñate is most famous for, however. In 1598, Oñate’s expedition forded the river near El Paso and made its way up the Rio Grande, engaging with Native American groups along the way. Meanwhile, at the large pueblo of Acoma (about 60 miles west of present-day Albuquerque), the cacique and spiritual leader Zutacapan was getting concerned about the goals of this expedition. Rumor had it that Oñate and Co. intended to relocate his people to a new village and put them into forced labor on an encomienda. Thus, Zutacapan prepared his warriors for resistance.
In the winter of 1598, Oñate sent his nephew, Juan, to meet with Zutacapan. Juan arrived at Acoma on December 4th along with a party of 16 men, and demanded food and shelter. This request was denied. Acoma’s provisions were limited, and earmarked to get the pueblo through the winter. Juan and his men then reportedly went on a rampage, invading and sacking homes. Zutacapan’s warriors, who had been prepared for something like this, fought back. As a result, twelve Spaniards ended up dead, including Juan.
Enraged, Oñate ordered a different nephew, Vicente, to lead about 70 men to Acoma in retaliation. The ensuing battle took place over three days in January of 1599. The Acomans resisted, but were no match for the Spanish cannon which was fired from a nearby mesa. Once the pueblo was lit on fire, the Spaniards were able to storm it and kill about 500 men and 300 women and children, and also capture about 500 prisoners.
Oñate himself presided over the trial and punishment of prisoners. He sentenced men and women over the age of twelve to 20-year terms of penal servitude in Franciscan missions and homes of Spanish colonists. More notoriously, he ordered men over the age of twenty to get a foot cut off. Several dozen Acoman men reportedly received this fate (and two Hopis lost one hand each).
“Ew,” I said.
That’s apparently what King Phillip III thought too, when he finally found out about it. It took a while, but Oñate was eventually recalled to Mexico City, where he was convicted of cruelty, immorality, and false reporting. In 1614 he was banished from the New World for life.
“Yay,” I said, clicking on some other links.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out that, despite this dude’s bad behavior, he is revered to a degree in New Mexico. The town of Las Cruces has an Oñate High School, and there’s and Oñate Elementary in Gallup. Downtown Española sports a Paseo Oñate (Oñate Street), where a festival honoring him is held each year. And in 1991, the town of Alcalde installed a statue of him.
All this commemoration has met with a healthy amount of protest and resistance, unsurprisingly, not least from present-day Acomans (whose pueblo is still going strong 60 miles west of Albuquerque). And the public’s general disapproval seems be getting stronger each year. As in the case of Confederate cenotaphs, many people feel it is time to dismantle the monuments dedicated to Spanish “conquistadors.”
A curious incident occurred in Alcalde in 1998. It was shortly before the town was to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Oñate’s arrival in New Mexico. In the night, vandal-protesters sawed off the statue’s left foot, and left and a note that read, Fair is fair.
The sculptor was brought back to recast and reattach the foot. But the seam is ever visible.
“Nice,” I said. “But what’s this?” I clicked on a different link that read: El Paso Erects Enormous Man-On-Horse Statue, Ducks Controversy.
Turns out that in the 1990s, while the fracas was building over the Alcalde statue, El Paso was contracting to get an Oñate statue of its own. And this one was going to be huge: more thirty feet tall, cast in bronze; one of the biggest statues of this type in the state of Texas. City officials originally liked the idea, not least because it celebrated a man who not only named their town but also purportedly threw the first Thanksgiving party with Native Americans, 20 years before the Pilgrims.
The $2 million statue took nine years to make, and it was finally bolted into place at the entrance to El Paso’s airport in 2006—amid much controversy.
“I’ll have to go see that thing,” I said, and closed my laptop lid.
A few days later, I dragged my El Paso buddy Ignacio out to the airport to check out the Oñate statue. Here are some observations:
*It is indeed massive. And blue.
*One of its most notable features, to the casual street-level observer, is the horse’s balls.
*I think it’s fortunate for the City of El Paso’s maintenance budget that the statue is so huge. The guy on the horse is up there so high that night raiders would need quite a ladder, and quite a saw, to sever either of its feet.
The Little Mermaid of Copenhagen would be envious of this statue, considering how many times she’s been decapitated.
Curiously (or not), there is no mention of Oñate anywhere on or near the statue. A plaque simply dubs it, The Equestrian.
And what became of Juan de Oñate, you ask?
He did what any other well-connected aristocrat would do, and does. After getting banished to Spain, he got himself appointed (by King Phillip III, no less) as head of all of the mining inspectors in Spain. He died in luxury in 1626.
In other news, my REI dates are set! I will be giving classes at all seven of REI’s stores along the Front Range this spring and summer, encouraging people to get out hiking and talking up some dazzling trails. This is in support of my new book, Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes In Colorado’s Front Range.
Come out to one of these, or to another of my dozens of events! You can click the links below to get free registration at the REI ones, where spaces are limited but plentiful.
REI Greenwood Village: March 28, 6:30 to 8:00 pm.
REI Westminster: April 16, 6:30 to 8:00 pm.
REI Colorado Springs: May 1, 6:30 to 8:00 pm.
Also, I’ll be on Fox 31 Denver (Local TV, Channel 2) at 8:45 am on April 2, for an in-studio segment marking the official release of the book.
February 11, 2019
Greetings from Monterrey, Mexico.
Last year I decided to take some substantial time and get to know my neighbor. One of the greatest things about writing, I think, is that you can do it anywhere; in fact I think it works out better if you do. So I’ve spent nearly half of this past year living in Mexico, roaming the length and breadth of this gorgeous, gracious country by bus and train in two 2.5-month trips.
It was important to me to do this overland, for reasons of kinship and continuity. For each trip, I started by backing out of my driveway in Colorado. I drove a mere ten hours to El Paso, left my car at my friends’ house, and migrated across a bridge over the Rio Grande with my duffel bag slung over my shoulder.
Each time, I walked into the center of Ciudad Juarez, found a 1A city bus, took it out to the bus terminal, and boarded the next deluxe Omnibus de Mexico to the wonderful (and chilly) city of Chihuahua. And I went from there.
Nobody does this, by the way. The first time I walked across that bridge into Mexico, it took me a while to find the office to pay $30 for my visitor card so that I’d be legal for up to 180 days. I had to ask around. The office is down a side street and across a parking lot. When I finally got there, there was no line at the window. I was their only guest.
I didn’t plan either trip much. Rather I’ve kept it spontaneous and followed with my whims (and, ahem, spent less money than if I’d stayed home in Colorado). The first journey saw me almost to the border with Guatemala; on this second trip I’ve kept my slow roam mostly of the delectable cold-arid northern regions. Whenever I get to a place I particularly like, such as Monterrey, I stay for a week or two and live life. These places are shown as yellow dots on the map above.
What conclusions can I draw, if any, from my time here?
I feel like up to this point I’ve roamed the world not realizing that one of my true loves lived right next door the whole time. Mexico is one of my favorite countries in the world. Easy. Hands-down. Without question. Why? For all the reasons. All of them. To explain it would take many blog posts. In summary, it’s just everything. It’s an awesome, awesome country to live in and travel in.
When I entered Mexico the second time this past November, it felt particularly wonderful to walk across that bridge. I knew what to do, and that I’d be welcomed at that visa window. I also knew I’d probably be the only one at the window (and was).
I wish I felt the same about going back!
Right now I’m in Monterrey, and tomorrow morning I have a 58-dollar flight back to Ciudad Juarez and the border, where I will attempt to migrate into “my” country. Will the USA let me in? I need to get home; I have a book launch coming up, taxes to pay, etc.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Right now I don’t want to think about it. I just want to bask in the wonderful memories and the soothing effects of the time I’ve spent here, all the character, kindness, culture, healthy food, stunning geography and so many other things that I’ve experienced and loved while living here. I’ll soak up my last night (for now), and be comforted by the fact that Mexico is here, and I can migrate anytime I want.
I don’t even need a plane reservation. I can just back my car out of my driveway and come.
How it Went:
It’s the next day and my border crossing concerns were quite misplaced. Taxi dude dropped me at the bridge in Ciudad Juarez, I gave him my last pesos and then paid my fifty cents bridge fare (I’d had two quarters stashed in a certain place in my bag these past three months for just that purpose!), went through the turnstile, and walked across the bridge to El Paso in a sparse crowd of people getting on with their lives. A uniformed lady at the other end politely asked me for a document, then told me to go ahead as soon as she saw the cover of my passport. In the near-empty immigration hall I paused to scan my passport on a machine, paused again at a desk where a guy said, “Bring anything over?” and then “Have a nice day.” That was it. The whole thing took about eight minutes, seven of which were spent walking across the bridge.
Relaunching The Leaf
January 11, 2019
Five years ago I published my second novel, The Maple Leaf. It came fairly soon on the heels of my first. In fact I was surprised how rapidly it spilled out.
Such was not the case with the cover! I agonized over it, tried different things. This was back in the days when I didn’t understand I needed a professional designer.
Now, thanks to Sue Campbell Book Design, I think we finally got it right. As part of the “re-branding” effort prior to the release of my hiking guide, I am relaunching Leaf in its shiny new package. Also upgraded is the e-book version, which is value-priced at these stores. And Daniel Anthony Carey is currently recording the audiobook, which should be out by the novel’s fifth birthday in May.
Here’s an excerpt:
Shirley laid her underpants on the floor of her bedroom and placed a foot in each leg hole. As she reached to pull them up, the land line rang out in the kitchen. “Christ on a cracker!” she said through heaving breaths. Whoever it was, they were going to have to leave a message. The phone continued to ring as she pulled the waist elastic into position and arranged her thigh areas.
Out in the kitchen, the caller ID said it was her sister. Lanie was probably calling about something to do with the family reunion on Sunday. Why had Shirley agreed to host that darn thing? The whole idea of it made her tired.
Fortunately Fredrik and Greger would be here with their families. She could get Wendy to position herself in the east hallway throughout the event to prevent anyone from going there, and also get Aimee and Ursula to take turns standing guard on the stairs to make sure no one went down there either.
She called Elaine back.
“Hi Lanie. Sorry I missed your call. I was outside speaking with the gardener.”
“You have a gardener?”
“Not for long, not this one anyway,” said Shirley. “I need to find a replacement. For the amount of money we’re paying, he’s just not cutting the mustard. Anyway, I see you called?”
“Yes. Um, Vincent is here and he can’t wait to see you. He really wants you to meet his kids. Um, he asked me to ask you if it would be okay if he and his kids spent the night at your house after the reunion. He said he wants to avoid the Sunday ferry traffic, and he also wants to visit a friend on the island on Monday.”
“He says she’s a waitress he used to work with who lives in Langley now. Anyway, um, do you think it would be okay?”
“I guess so.”
“Okay!” said Lanie. “I’ll tell him. Are you sure it’s all right?”
Shirley’s mind went into an unpleasant whirl. “It’s all right, except I need to be at the animal hospital first thing in the morning.”
“So they’ll have to get up early and leave when I leave.”
“Okay,” said Lanie. “I’ll tell him.”
“Is he going to have a car? Or will he be borrowing one of yours?”
“He rented a car.”
Shirley’s mind spun in more discomfort. “I can put them downstairs. Except…”
“Fred and Greger will be leaving that afternoon. It will be difficult for me to get down there and change the sheets. Can you have them bring sleeping bags to put down on top of my beds?”
“I don’t see why not! I have some sleeping bags he can borrow,” said Lanie.
Shirley cringed. Why hadn’t she just said no? The line had gone silent, and it was Lanie who spoke next.
“Okay then! See you Sunday.”
“Okay Lanie. Golly, I’ll probably be all worn out by Sunday night, after having had the kids and their families all weekend, and then hosting the reunion.”
“Fred is making General Tso’s Chicken?”
“Yes indeedy. He’s bringing the ingredients and doing it all himself. And Knute of course will put some smoked salmon out.”
“Great! See you on Sunday. One o’clock, right?”
“Yes, the reunion is from one o’clock to three forty-five.”
Vincent rinsed his lunch plate in Lanie’s kitchen sink. Same old sink, same old kitchen. He sighed in relief. So far the visit had gone okay. Kwame was watching TV in the living room, and Adwoa was ensconced in a book somewhere, and there were only five days left to go. It looked like he was going to make it through this.
Too bad Dolores had gone out of town for these same exact two weeks! Then he and the kids could have spent a few nights with her, and given Lanie a break. But Dolores and her brood had gone to Pennsylvania for the annual Moffat family pig roast.
Vincent listened to Lanie’s voice behind him as she began to speak on the phone with Aunt Shirley. As he listened, his eyes widened. He swallowed hard and gripped the edges of the sink. Sleeping bags? When Lanie hung up, he manufactured a grin onto his face and turned to face her.
“Shirley said it was okay,” said Lanie.
“Great!” he said. “It will be so nice to get to spend some time with her again.”
“She wants you to bring sleeping bags.”
Vincent kept his mouth shut and nodded.
“Fred and Greger will have just left with their families, and Shirley said it would be difficult for her to get down the stairs and change the sheets.”
“No problem. We’ll bring sleeping bags,” said Vincent. “Hey, this is going to be fun! I’ve really missed Aunt Shirley. I’ve hardly ever seen her since I was a kid.” He reached into the fridge for a Coke, cracked it open, and turned to face his mom again. “She took good care of me when I was little. She was always so warm and funny. I really appreciated her.”
“She says you’ll need to leave first thing in the morning,” said Lanie. “She has to go somewhere.”
Vincent kept his grin going. His cheeks ached. “No problem,” he said. “We’ll be off first thing. I just wanted to avoid the Sunday night ferry traffic was all. More than that, I wanted to spend some time with Aunt Shirley.”
He took a sip of Coke and swallowed hard.
“So tell her we’re on!”
Vincent awoke in the late afternoon coolness of his parents’ basement. “Four days left,” he breathed. “I can do this.”
Things had continued to go okay, but Lanie’s nerves were clearly beginning to fray. She was speaking louder and saying more and more cutting and abrasive things. Fortunately they’d exhausted the topic of the fact that Vincent didn’t work and, as Lanie concluded, “ Liz had to bring in the income!” At least he and the kids were spending the next night at Aunt Shirley’s. This would give Lanie a break.
Lanie had acted extremely disturbed after Kwame peed in his sleeping bag the other night, announcing it to the whole world and ordering him to carry the bag outside and hang it on the line. “Okay Kwame, now go and get it!” she’d commanded later in the day, as if this was a punishment she wanted to put on display. And Kwame had dutifully gone out to the line, pulled the sleeping bag over his shoulders, and brought it back in.
Vincent sighed and stared at the white speckled squares of basement drop ceiling.
Wait, he thought. What was this? Something didn’t seem right. Was that clinking he heard, of silverware upstairs? And voices? Why would they be eating dinner without him?
When he came upstairs he found Kwame and Adwoa seated at the kitchen table, along with their cousin Rex and Grandpa. Each had a plate with a piece of lettuce topped with a scoop of cottage cheese and some peach slices. Lanie stood at the counter and cut into a tray of lasagna she’d pulled from the oven.
“Why didn’t you call me?” Vincent asked as he came in and sat down.
“I thought I’d let you rest,” said Lanie. “Do you want some lasagna?”
“Okay.” He didn’t like the sound of her voice.
“Then come and serve yourself. I don’t know how much you want.” Lanie continued to dole out portions to the kids, but took care to serve her husband first.
“More butter,” Grandpa said, staring into his plate and waving a piece of bread in the air. Lanie went to the fridge for butter.
Vincent put some lasagna on a plate, squirted hot sauce over it, and rejoined the table. He grinned and winked at his children. “Guess what we’ll be eating tomorrow night?” he asked them.
“I need to tell you,” said Lanie as she unwrapped the new stick of butter. “Aunt Shirley called to say you can’t sleep on her beds since Kwame wet his bed the other night. Her beds are new. So if you still want to stay at her house, you’ll have to sleep in the yard.”
Vincent closed his eyes.
When he reopened them, it was to Kwame spooning cottage cheese into his mouth with a blank expression. Adwoa sat with her hands in her lap and looked out the entryway windows. Vincent shifted his eyes to his nephew, Rex, who had covered his mouth with one hand and was grinning.
“Sleep in the yard,” was all Vincent could get to come out of his mouth.
“And she says the dew is pretty heavy,” said Lanie. “So you should probably bring a tent.”
“Because her beds are new.”
“Yes, and I told her that I completely understood. I’d say the same thing if my beds were new.”
Vincent closed his eyes again. Oh Lanie, please tell me you are not doing this.
With his eyes closed, the years flew away. He was back in Mrs. Van Cleef’s first grade class at Maple Leaf Elementary School, in 1971. There he sat at his desk, in a puddle of warm pee as it noisily dripped to the floor. Panic stricken, he looked over at Leslie Schroeder, who stared at him and raised her hand to cover her grinning mouth. And then came the roar of laughter from the classroom.
“Lanie!” Grandpa was yelling now. “Jesus! Will you cut it out with that? Any child psychiatrist will tell you that this matter should be discussed only in private, and only between the adult and the child!”
Vincent gathered his breath and opened his eyes. “Okay. So. How is it that Aunt Shirley knows about this?”
“I told her!” said Lanie. “Shirley called today to ask if you were still planning to stay at her house. When I said ‘yes’ she said, ‘You sound tired.’ And I told her yes I was! On top of everything I’ve had to deal with, Kwame wet his bed! And then Shirley told me you’ll have to sleep outside. After all, her beds are new. She cannot have pee on them!”
“Lanie! For crying out loud!” shouted Grandpa.
Kwame stared at his plate and chewed slowly. Adwoa kept her hands in her lap and sat still. Rex pivoted in his chair, with his hand over his smiling mouth, and looked out the doorway.
“And her husband backed her up!” Lanie continued. “I could hear Knute yelling in the background, ‘No way! No way can they stay here!’ And I told her I fully understood. After all, I would feel the same way if my beds were new.”
“Oh Jesus,” said Grandpa.
Vincent looked at Lanie. “So you are going to defend this woman while she denigrates your son and your grandchildren.”
“Defend her?” Lanie shrugged. “My sister can do what she wants.”
“Yes! And so can you, can’t you? You can even volunteer to be her public mouthpiece! In front of your own grandchildren, and—” Vincent felt the lasagna up in his throat and couldn’t finish his sentence. He swallowed, and eyed Adwoa, who glanced at him and then back out the window. “Well,” he added, “We can all hear you loud and clear, Mom. Thanks for delivering their messages.”
“I’m not defending them!” said Lanie. “I’m just saying that I agree with Shirley and Knute that—”
“Come off it. You know what this is about. My children may not sleep in her house. Others may, but not mine.”
“You mean her grandchildren?” said Lanie. “Of course they can. And as far as I know they don’t pee in her new beds!”
“Lanie!” shouted Grandpa.
“And Rex, perhaps,” said Vincent, motioning to his nephew. “Rex would probably be allowed to sleep in Aunt Shirley’s house. Perhaps even on sheets.”
“Are you saying Shirley is a racist?” asked Lanie, her voice rising in pitch. “She is not a racist! She had a black person over to her house once for dinner and you know it!”
“Lanie, drop it,” said Grandpa.
“I will,” said Lanie, her voice shrill and quaking. “But first I have one more thing to say. The reason I told Shirley that Kwame wet his bed was that she called to ask if you were still planning to sleep at her house. And when I answered yes she said, ‘You sound tired,’ and I said, ‘Yes. I am STRESSED OUT.’”
Silence fell over the table.
Vincent drew a breath. “Sorry we are stressing you out.”
He looked at his children. Their faces stared back.
“Let’s go, guys,” he said. He rose from the table. As he walked away, he heard his children put down their forks follow.
Downstairs, while stuffing belongings into suitcases, Vincent tried to process what had just happened.
And what the fuck? What had Lanie and Shirley just called us?
“Ruff ruff!” he barked, testing out their newfound identities.
As he grabbed his shirts and stuffed them in a bag, Adwoa wrapped her arms around him in a sideways hug. Kwame got very busy putting his shorts and tee shirts into his little rolling carry-on. Thank goodness they’d come to Seattle with a plan ‘b’. They could go and stay with buddy Frank.
Out in the driveway, as Vincent prepared to pull away, Lanie approached the window. Reluctantly, he rolled it down.
“These are Kwame’s socks,” she said, handing them through.
“Thanks,” he replied. “Hope you get less stressed out.”
“Are you still going to Aunt Shirley’s? Are you going to rent a tent?”
Vincent coughed and looked straight ahead.
Then he laughed.
“Oh yes,” he said. “We are going. They will see us. They will definitely see us.”