Michael J. Orlich

San Bernardino Streets


I come from the west.

You have to start somewhere.

I can see straight

down this road

for miles, but not today.

The arroyo is big, empty.

A woman picks.

Walls of comfort have gaps.

Across the tracks, the Meridian.

Arroyo Valley hawks circle

the stadium.


Tacos Mexican (what other kind?),

Rico Taco, Taco Grinch, Taco Central, Tacos L, Taco Bender.

Across the great river

of north and southbound lanes,

the smog corner, the fun corner.

Quick pawn. Fame liquor.

Dollar king, dollar tree, dollar general,

all Smart and Final.

Crossing Waterman.  I don’t know, Jack-

Is there a way out-of-the-Box?

The road is rising.


Milk dairy. Crazy Frank’s.

Auto spa, center, zone.

Universal Tires and Unified Baptists—

let them introduce you to the way.

Gina’s thrift, Charlie’s cars, Dale’s TV, Sam’s something.

Pain’s corner. Wayne’s RV storage. The House of Plywood.

Pepper tree restaurant.

Sam’s bargains. Gina’s thrift store again.

Maybe it moved already.

Sam and Gina seem to get around. (Or was it Gino?)


Welcome to High-land.

Sterling Street—still waiting for gold.

D&D furniture. The next sign explains.

Debt and Depression.

Three towers point the way—

open spaces, climbing.

Mobile homes—still.


Eternal fire is burning.

The police stand watching.

The churches sit on Church Avenue:

First United Methodist (must have beat the Baptists).

Saint Adelaide’s.  A graceful spire.

A proud tower.  A gilded arch

against the mountain peak—

San Bernardino looms large.

Straight ahead. Above the orange blossoms.

A marker laid down.

A city laid out.

A street laid straight.  Again?

You have to start somewhere.



E Street

The SBX (its name

almost exciting

for a bus) says

“out of service”—

seeming sadly wise

despite its shiny

red paint and CNG

and dedicated lanes

and high capacity

(for emptiness) in this

broad valley of open

urban spaces.


The sign

red and square

arched and gold

says 15¢ hamburgers

and a many-zeroed number sold,

but none for sale

here and now—

for what prophet

remembers his home

when profit calls?


But burgers endure

at burger-market and -mania

the little Gus

the In-’N-Out-backed

Harley man, he too riding

shiny red, without

the empty seats.


Other tarnished temples

remain and retain

or try to recall

an uncertain sanctity

of short school days

sleek, long cars

fresh, sweet citrus

and sixty-six—

remembered now by

the family service center

the Asian seafood market

NAPA’s omnipresent parts

trucks and taquerias

the Indian-band ballpark

Christ, the scientist

and other vacancies,

a shrined (or coffined) carousel.


Above it all

in sparkling steel and glass

a block or two off Easy Street—

the Center of Justice.



I travel south, the way of waters

fleeing down from the mountains,

the old Arrowhead pointing the way,

where water brought healing and hype,

where drought is bottled

and shipped for sale;


to the center of town,

the hallowed and the hollow,

with its Wienerschnitzels and wigs,

that center of dismantling

where it’s legal to pick-a-part,

with bail bonds and bótanicas

for those who suffer.


The left promises to deliver

as trucks back up to

endless bays without water,

which is pumped from the ground

toward the sea it will not reach,

ions exchanged for its TCE.


Roofing tiles sit stacked, silent.

Golf greens fly flags and flowers

in mourning.

Drab green fencing

seeks to hide the horror

so fresh, foreign, familiar.


The road goes on

watered by tears,

and ends in a Little Hill

in the place of remembering.

Michael Orlich began writing poetry in 2011.  Since then, he has hosted a small monthly poetry group in his home in Reche Canyon, in Colton. He has lived in the IE since 2008 and works at Loma Linda University as a preventive medicine physician and researcher in nutritional epidemiology.

David Stone

Love Lines for Your Valentine

Still need to write your Valentine? Use lines from a local poet.

Someone seeking clarification about another’s romantic intent and who enjoys the use of lowercase letters like e. e. cummings might appreciate a line from Cindy Rinne’s “Another Park Poem.” Inspired by a walk in Riverside’s Fairmont Park, Rinne wrote, “did you try to carve the bark/ leave a heart…” Rinne lives in Redlands. Her next work is titled “Quiet Lantern.”

Courageous individuals who are willing to be vulnerable might use lines from Cati Porter’s poem “Clearly.” “Look at me/ and tell me that you want me, that you want to heart/ the distance and that you cannot in the object see/ a flaw, and though I am (flawed) I am for you, and/ there is a small tight thought that is wound in me,/ that knowing that you love, a lightning, a lightning/ on the inside: so that you see; so that you know.” Porter lives in Riverside. Her latest book “My Skies of Small Horses” comes out this month.

Seasoned lovers may like to use lines from “Litany” from Claremont poet Lucia Galloway’s latest chapbook “The Garlic Peelers:” “O love, what is your wish?/ We’ve half again as much to say as we have said./ Set down the goblet, and the carmine wine/ sheets down its sides to pool in the bowl./ Let’s drink our words instead of hoarding them.”

Sweethearts who remind you of characters from the The Big Bang Theory should appreciate lines from Marsha Schuh’s “You and Me in Binary.” Appropriately published in the computer textbook Schuh co-wrote with Stanford Rowe, Schuh imagines a world based on four, considers the dominance of the decimal in our world and closes her poem with pondering the numerical effects of becoming a couple: “Then we unlearn it all /learn to speak binary,/ a better way,/ two as opposed to eight or ten,/ the most significant bit,/ the least significant bit/ one-two, on-off, you-we,/ binary.” Schuh resides in Ontario.

Lovers in a more ambiguous relationship may resonate with lines from the Palm Springs poet and writer Ruth Nolan. In her forthcoming book, “Ruby Mountain,” she writes, “shouldn’t I pretend you did it for love/ shouldn’t I believe it was a mistake/ shouldn’t I wonder why not/ shouldn’t I wonder why. . . .”

Those pained may appreciate the words of the title persona in Nikia Chaney’s “Sis Fuss.” The poem “Syllogizing Sis Fuss” closes: “we all hurt. And if we all/ hurt then we all hurt/ each other and the next.” Chaney lives in Rialto.

Jennifer and Chad Sweeney from Redlands are a couple, who are both accomplished poets. Jennifer provides profundity and striking imagery in her book “Salt Memory.” She writes, “As water poured into the heart flows out the palms, so does love return, as thirst, as satiation—the shape the lost ocean has carved onto the salt brick desert.”

With characteristic quirky humor in his book “White Martini for the Apocalypse,” Chad writes, “It was love./ She taught me to drive her bulldozer./ I taught her to forge my signature!”

In earthier lines from his poem “Effects,” first published in Caliban, Chad writes, “The best sex in the world happens during conjugal visits. I’ve gotten myself into prison twice, just to have it. That’s why I’m calling. Happy Valentine’s Day!” Chad Sweeney teaches creative writing at Cal State San Bernardino.

The longing and transformative power of love comes through in the closing lines of Judy Kronenfeld’s “Listen” from her forthcoming collection, “Bird Flying Through the Banquet,” 
“Let your eyes rest/ on my face. Arrest me/ in turn. I will burst/ from the seed/ of myself.” Kronenfeld is professor emerita from UCR.

Ontario poet Tim Hatch gives words to the desire to comfort one’s dearest when he or she is gone: “Scatter my memory where my memories are sweetest. Gulls cry, salt breeze carries me away. When you’re there you can breathe deep, take me inside and remember.”

For a wider array of classic poems to use for Valentine’s Day, search the Poetry Foundation’s website for “Poems for Valentines” or the poets.org site for “love poems.”

We’re Still Here by Joan Koerper and Marja Anderson

“We’re still here,” announced Paakuma Tawinat, member of the San Manuel Mission Indian Band of the Serrano Nation, to the standing-room-only crowd at the Wrightwood Historical Museum on November 6, 2015. Accompanied only by his gourd rattle, Tawinat opened his presentation in Serrano tradition, singing a melodic song honoring the Big Horn Sheep, sacred to his tribe.

In an entertaining, informative, and interactive demonstration, Tawinat shared the history, culture, and current status of the Serrano Nation whose territory once covered 10,156 square miles of the San Bernardino Mountains, the Banning Pass, and the Cajon Pass. Now, Serrano territory is reduced to 1.5 square miles: the San Manuel Indian Reservation.

When the Spanish arrived in Southern California, 30,000 Serrano called their territory home and spoke the language. Only 200 closely related Serrano remain. Tawinat’s distinguished elder cousin, Ernest Siva, is one of only two remaining Serrano speakers. Determined efforts are being made to recapture the language and teach it to new generations. Classes in the Serrano language are even being offered at Cal State San Bernardino.

Tawinat’s ancestors survived forced conversion, slavery, disease, loss of identity, the “War of Extermination” declared by California’s first Governor, and deployment of Serrano children to Indian Schools dedicated to the motto, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” His godmother was one of the last Serrano to attend the Indian School at St. Boniface in Banning.

The Serrano once flourished on over 300 local abundant foods: plants and animals of the mountains and valleys in large territories they shared with neighboring tribes, such as the Cahuilla. Under Spanish and American rule they died of starvation.

Traditionally, the Serrano made full use of their environmental resources building round dwellings from flexible wood poles, palm fronds, and willows, which they left behind to be absorbed back into the land. Clothing was made from yucca and plant fibers. Established trade routes were used to both augment and sell goods with other nations.

Musical instruments were formed from natural elements. Flutes were carved from hollowed-out wood and reeds, while acorn seeds filled gourd and deer hoof rattles. Drums were not part of the Serrano repertoire. Traditionally, the Serrano also excelled in basket making. The audience was invited to peruse sandals, baskets, musical instruments, and other Serrano wares on display.

Tawinat highlighted how knowledge of the changing seasons was critical to his ancestor’s survival. These lessons were passed along, in part, through Bird Songs, Big Horn Sheep stories, and Flood Stories.

The Serrano had, and have, a rich social and spiritual life believing in a higher power, shamanistic healing, an afterlife, coming of age rituals, and death rituals. Music, gambling, and stories are enjoyed by all ages.

Strict rules covering marriage are in place thus, in the past, most were arranged. Tawinat’s grandmother, Martha Manuel Chacon, was the last Serrano woman to enter into an arranged marriage.

“It is done,” Tawinat concluded in his native language, the traditional closing of a Serrano gathering.

The meeting may have concluded, but the Serrano Nation is, as Tawinat announced, “still here,” succeeding. Serrano ancestors live on in their descendants and in the land itself. Purposefully overturned grinding stones lie under oak trees anticipating the return of the people who used them. Artifacts mark the sites of villages, and clumps of Datura plants still wait for the shamans who once harvested them. And if you listen carefully you can hear the voices of the People, intoning sacred Big Horn Sheep Songs, riding the winds up the Cajon Pass to a strong and healthy future.

Postscript for this post: Marja Anderson joined me in penning this article. Marja has a Masters in Anthropology from UCR and has conducted fieldwork in Hong Kong and Malaysia.

This article was first published in the Mountaineer Progress newspaper on November 12, 2015. Unfortunately, due to editorial oversight, the hardcopy version published that day contained innumerable errors and repetitions. The newspaper admitted to the mistakes in the following weekly edition and made the necessary corrections for the online version of the paper.

She Cultivates Ancient Wisdom by Joan Koerper

She cultivates ancient wisdom: Inland author’s work points to agriculture in natural harmony.

When author and archaeologist Anabel Ford traveled the world with her family, retreating to their Wrightwood cabin beginning in 1960, she could only dream that her fascination with Meso-American and Maya prehistory would lead to great discoveries. It did.

In 1983, Ford and her team uncovered the ancient Maya city of El Pilar, which had lain dormant for more than 1,000 years.

Ford’s book, The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands,” co-authored with Ronald Nigh, a professor at the Centro Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social in Chiapas, Mexico, published in June, is the result of 44 years of excavation and research into El Pilar’s domestic architecture, gardens and traditional forest crops.

“I set out to answer fundamental questions,” Ford said. “How did the Maya successfully establish a flourishing civilization in the Mesoamerican tropics? Would their strategies for survival be an alternative for us today?”

The findings counter the longheld assumption that the collapse of the Maya civilization was due to overpopulation and deforestation.

“There was no extensive deforestation in the past,” the authors contend. The forest gardens have been productive for 8,000 years. When crisis stuck, the Maya left their cities and took refuge in their life-giving forest gardens.

Simply put, a forest garden is an unplowed, tree-dominated agricultural field sustaining biodiversity and animal habitats and producing a wide range of plants that meet human needs: shelter, food, and medicine.

The forest garden is part of the traditional Maya land management system known as the Milpa Cycle. Cultivated year-round, up to 90 percent of plants in the Maya forest garden are useful.

Gardeners maintain it with local resources such as organic material, household compost and manure, which enrich the soil and productivity.

Intercropping, or cultivating two or more regional vegetables at the same time, is core to the Milpa system. The Maya annually rotate small plots of vegetable crops and plant short-term perennial shrubs and trees in stages.

Present-day Maya farmers practice slash and burn, a tradition the Serrano and Cahuilla Indians of the San Bernardino Mountains once included in their land management efforts.

Ford’s research reveals a carefully human-orchestrated, complex, dynamic, symbiotic, and integral relationship with the tropical woodlands that has consistently nurtured the Maya.

This led Ford, director of UC Santa Barbara’s Meso-American Research Center, to champion sustainable cultivation, indigenous ecology and farming methods used in the Maya forest garden. It also shaped her vision for the future of El Pilar, which straddles Belize and Guatemala.

She helped form the Maya Forest Garden Network, connecting forest gardeners whose knowledge and approach to gardening can be traced to ancient times.

Ford, who earned her doctorate at UC Santa Barbara in 1981, also built an international interdisciplinary team including local villagers, scientists, university students and government administrators who are working to rescue the rain forest, curtail looting, and recover the cultural heritage of the Maya forest region. Ford transformed El Pilar into a living museum and research center: the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna. Several thousand tourists a year step back in time under the forest canopy and observe the gardens and wildlife of El Pilar. Ford continues her hands-on work at El Pilar and travels worldwide to promote the wisdom of indigenous conservation and the living future of the Maya forest. Still, somehow, she finds time to spend at the family home in Wrightwood, continually inspired by the forest she first explored as a child.

The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands

By Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. Left Coast Press, 2015.

Learn more about El Pilar.

This article was published in the Press-Enterprise, Jan 3, 2016; Section: Life; Page Z2

On Dr. Clifford Trafzer’s A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe by Ruth Nolan

The story of Willie Boy, a love struck young Southern Paiute-Chemehuevi man who murdered for love and eluded the San Bernardino sheriff’s posse for days, is a true and timeless and living story, one that’s colored the storied inland southern California landscape where it occurred in late Sept.- early Oct, 1909.

It’s a tragic story of young, forbidden love that reaches “Romeo and Juliet” proportions and whose tellings and re-tellings in the decades since—through books, articles, theater productions, and film, told largely by Anglos—have continued to evolve across the cultural and geographic divides that comprise the Inland Empire and Mojave Desert as well as the Anglo-European worlds of the early 20th century and the ancient culture of our region’s Native Americans.

Now, a compelling and exciting new book about the Willie Boy incident, “A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe,” published this year by Indigenous Confluences Press, has risen on the horizon, written collaboratively by Dr. Clifford Trafzer, distinguished history professor at UCR who was appointed Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian History in 2007, along with members of the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians in eastern Riverside county, who are descendants of the family members involved in the Willie Boy incident.

“The Willie Boy incident in 1909, which played out across the national media, was a watershed event in the history of the members of the Southern Paiute-Chemehuevi tribe who lived at Oasis of Mara (now 29 Palms Oasis) at the time,” says Trafzer, who presented a lecture at the UCR-Palm Desert campus this past October 5, to discuss his new book. “A Chemehuevi Song” is, he says, a song in itself, a song which began for him when he came to participate in tribal activities with members from the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians in 1997, and has continued to emerge as he’s worked with tribal members to this day.

The book, while giving Native accounts of the heretofore highly disputed story of Willie Boy—especially the claim made by the San Bernardino sheriff’s posse in 1909 about Willie—also sheds light on how the incident forever and radically changed the lives of the extended family members and other Chemehuevi living at 29 Palms in 1909, as well as shaping the lives of their descendants to this day. In fact, the Oct 5 lecture was attended by many members of the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians who worked with Trafzer to complete their book and who also spoke at the lecture, including elder Joe Mike Benitez, Dean Mike, and Jennifer Mike.

More than anything, according to Trafzer and Chemehuevi contributors, “A Chemehuevi Song” stands as a testament to the power of perseverance of this small, nomadic band of Native people, who have been largely marginalized by European settlers, other Native groups, and until now, their stories have been largely overlooked. The book reveals how members of this Southern Paiute band have survived the past two centuries without rights to their Mojave Desert homeland, or any self-governing rights, and in fact were largely “forgotten” until the creation of the 29 Palms Reservation in 1974. Since then, the tribe has formed its own tribal government and now a thriving gaming industry.

Trafzer worked with the Chemehuevi for more than 10 years, gathering stories from the tribe and other Chemehuevi across the Mojave that demonstrate how they’ve survived using sacred songs and other cultural practices to persevere with strength and independence, in spite of great odds, including the tragic and family-shattering Willie Boy incident.

By focusing on individual and family stories, “Chemehuevi Song” offers a new structure for how tribal histories can be presented and shared, and also, critically, offers firsthand indigenous accounts of the events surrounding the Willie Boy tragedy as well as how this crucial event has impacted tribal lives, even to this day, and strong evidence presented by the tribe as well as by other historians and other Native leaders in recent years has presented strong evidence that Willie Boy got away, escaping the posse not through suicide but on foot, and lived for many years afterwards in remote parts of the desert.

“A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe,” is a compelling and necessary read for all who are interested in Inland Empire/desert regional literature, as well as those with an interest in our region’s American Indian history and cultures and their emerging, strong voice in shaping the literature here. For this powerful new publication brings together a chorus of voices, present and past, to tell the story of the tribe’s persistent efforts to gain recognition, independence, and also to tell their own stories of their history and landmark cultural events.

This is more than a book. This is a song, comprised of many voices, a song that rings out powerfully as it’s sung across the land.

A Journey Into the Mojave Desert’s Old Woman Mountains by Ruth Nolan

There are stories in books, and there are stories in words, and there are stories embedded in the landscape itself. Such are the stories found in the Old Woman Mountains, a “sky island” mountain range rising from the low desert floor to as high as 5,300 feet in a remote area of eastern San Bernardino County known as the Heart of the Mojave, accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicle.

There’s the story of the Old Woman Meteorite, the largest meteorite ever found in the United States, which was found here in 1938. There are stories of miners and ranchers, and stories of the desert’s Native American shamans—holy men—praying for visions inside caves, whose ceilings and walls they painted with ochre designs and carved with petroglyphs. There are stories of the fight to stop a nuclear waste site from being built in neighboring Ward Valley back in the 1990’s, which spills from the alluvial fans of the Old Woman Mountains. This is a deeply storied landscape.

And the stories of the Old Woman Mountains continue to unfold, to this day. One such story is one I am part of. It’s a story of the blessing and dedication ceremony that took place this past May 23, on an unseasonably cool and cloud-graced afternoon, where several dozen adults and children representing several desert and other Native American tribes, educators, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) personnel, local ranchers, Sierra Club volunteers, and members of the desert advocacy and protection group, the Native American Land Conservancy, gathered for a ceremony to dedicate and bless the restoration project at the Old Woman Mountains Preserve, sponsored by the NALC.

On that day, those who gathered in the Old Woman Mountains in the Heart of the Mojave watched as Anza-Cahuilla tribal member Michael Madrigal and Agua Caliente Tribal Specialist and member Sean Milanovich cut the ribbon across the new entrance gate to the 2,500 acre preserve, which was acquired by the NALC—formed in 1998—as part of the group’s long-term efforts to protect and preserve Native American traditional cultural properties, as well as to pass along what NALC Executive Director Kurt Russo calls, “the spirit of place” to both native and non-native members.

On that day, those who gathered, including members of the desert’s Cahuilla and Chemehuevi tribes, as well as members of the Lummi tribe from the Seattle area, grew silent as Madrigal and Milanovich gathered everyone in a circle, at the base of an area of sacred rocks protected by a newly-erected protective fence, and began to perform desert Indian bird songs, using traditional gourd rattles to keep time as a line of dancers standing in front of them followed their lead.

As Madrigal and Milanovich sang, gourd rattles firmly and purposefully in hand, and the dancers followed along, a fat hummingbird appeared above their heads, looking down on those gathered around, before buzzing away. Then, high above, circling into the clouds, two turkey vultures rose above our heads, seemingly drawn into the power and beauty of the bird songs, which have been sung by bird singers here and across the California deserts for centuries by Native Americans who have lived and spent time here in the Old Woman Mountains and beyond, living purposefully and sustainably with the diversity of resources the desert has long provided them.

“It has been a great honor to take part in the dedication project at the Old Woman Mountains Preserve,” says Madrigal. “I feel we came to honor the long-standing relationship between this sacred place and indigenous peoples of the region. The life-giving and healing spirit of the Old Woman Mountains Preserve welcomed us—as we prayed and sang in recognition and thanks for the opportunity to reconnect ourselves with the sacredness of this place where countless generations have come to give thanks, to pray, and to seek greater vision.”

The NALC acquired the Preserve in 2002, with the intent of protecting and preserving this critical Native usage area, as well as providing cultural sustenance and continuity to promote cross-cultural understanding of the value and significance of Native American sacred lands. In addition to opening the Preserve to hikers and visitors, who can use beautiful new kiosks to guide them, the NALC has also created the Learning Landscapes program, which brings Native youth, elders and families to spend time at the preserve, so that the stories long told here can continue to unfold.

According to Russo, the NALC was able to complete the project with a $376,000 grant from the California State Parks Off Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division grant program, and more than $100,000 from the Bureau of Land Management. Members of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and private landowners also participated in the project. “It was a great collaboration,” Russo said.

As the vehicle I rode in left the preserve for the rugged four-hour journey home after the Old Woman Mountains Preserve blessing ceremony and dedication of the Old Woman Mountains Preserve, I looked to the sky once again. Three huge, red-tailed hawks, the biggest I’ve ever seen, rose into the sky from one of the range’s many peaks, circled above our caravan of SUV’s, looking down on us, then disappeared again into the heart of the range.

Literature in Idyllwild by Jean Waggoner

The words of a good story jump off the page to charm, cajole, reason and wrestle with the human imagination. They carry us away, while anchoring us more profoundly to our world. In summer, libraries entice young readers with prizes for significant amounts of any kind of reading, as adults, too, search for new flights of brainy experience.

Riverside readers live in one of the largest counties in the country. When joined with San Bernardino as the Inland Empire (Inlandia, as some of us prefer), our locality is about as big as the state of Rhode Island. We have plenty of places to go and things to see, as well as a huge library system to draw upon for reading, listening and viewing material. Nonetheless, those of us in the county’s rural parts, like Idyllwild, don’t have easy access to a good book store without driving some distance, or as Mount San Jacinto’s people say, “going off the hill.”

Sure, there’s online shopping, but what can a literary-book or CD-gifting auntie do at two O’clock on a Wednesday afternoon to get a birthday present mailed to a thirteen-year-old in the county seat by Friday, when no such virtual store delivery has arrived?

Idyllwild readers know how to find good reading material, of course. Our library offerings include used book sales and several of the town’s thrift and “junk-tique” shops carry old books. The Nature Center or Forest Service offer selected new books on topics of outdoor interest, including publications by Inlandia members Myra Dutton and Sally Hedberg.

For Mackenzie, who turned thirteen on July 10th, this auntie broke from tradition and selected writing, instead of reading materials: a journal and a booklet of flowery sticky-notes from Idyllwild Gift Shop (whose proprietor has often posted Inlandia workshop fliers on her bulletin board). Tactile and old tech, the gifts brought back teen memories, a spiritual link from one generation to another.

The shopping excursion also elicited some community appreciation of what we do have in Idyllwild. We’ve got organizations that promote the arts in our schools, often drawing on retiree talent. In the literary arts, we have theater, writing and book club groups. The Idyllwild Arts campus, a fine arts high school, also offers summer classes for kids and adults.

Although we have no literary laureate who writes specifically about our mountains, quite a few published writers work or vacation here, and luminaries like Ann Rice have stayed awhile, somewhat incognito, among us. Local stories have been collected, showcased and archived by our highly acclaimed Idyllwild Historical Society and Idyllwild writers continue to add local color to literary writing. The literary climate is alive and well, here!

Sadly, long-time Idyllwild resident Myra Dutton will no longer serve as co-leader of our Idyllwild Inlandia Writing Workshop, after this summer. We understand, and we value the gifts she has inspired us with, including her “daughter of the plains’ meditation” on the Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World, which she shared in this beautiful poem:

Riding the Sacred

I have heard the secrets here,

felt the breath and beat of wind

across the grass-maned prairie,

and I climb on the back of this Earth,

as if I had journeyed centuries before,

her wild hair twined in my hand.

Inland Area Influences Poems of Hard Truths: Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers by Joan Koerper

Award-winning books are often birthed in pieces, over several years in different locations. During the 10 years that poet Jon Sebba lived in Redlands and commuted to work in Riverside and San Bernardino, he confronted his ghosts of war by writing. In 2013, poems he penned in the shadows of the San Gorgonio Mountains helped earn him the title of Poet of the Year by the Utah State Poetry Society for his book, Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers.

Rising from his young soldier’s soul, Sebba’s poems record, reflect, and meditate on the images, sounds, and psychological realities of war. They offer an indelible expression of the invisible scars Sebba has carried with him since he witnessed his friend, Yossi Levi, killed in the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War: “that a man you knew for weeks who died in a war of only six days / can be mourned for 45 years and counting.” And he gives voice to those caught in battle who can no longer speak for themselves.

His poems are authentic: embodying truths he refuses to couch, hide, or deny. As Dr. Rob Carney writes in the preface: “The power of these poems is that they don’t explain. They present.”

After witnessing a man severely beaten in front of his family, and learning an inquiry into the incident was to occur, Sebba writes: “Too late for that Palestinian farmer / in ripped, blood-splattered pajamas. / Too late for me, still carrying / invisible scars all these years.”

The first 25 poems in the collection focus directly on the 1967 Six-Day War. Twenty-one poems speak to “Others’ Wars”: WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. During a phone interview, Sebba explained, “I included poems about other wars, and other conflicts or situations, that I was driven to write because they were about things that bothered me.”

I met Jon Sebba when we were members of the Redlands Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). He was one of two men who broke the gender barrier, joining the group when males were allowed membership. He quickly started a play reading group for the Branch. For four years, being part of that group was my favorite monthly activity.

I also was a member of a writer’s support group he hosted, one of the multitude of writer’s groups he has either anchored, or participated in, wherever he has lived. When he moved, we lost touch. Recently, I located him in relation to a book I’m writing about a former center of intellectual, literary, and creative activity for women in Redlands where he took part in a community program I organized and produced.

Born and raised in South Africa, Sebba left after high school to live in Israel. He studied geology, among other subjects and held various jobs. When the Six-Day War broke out he was mobilized as a reservist and fought in Jerusalem while his wife and 3-month-old son huddled in a bomb shelter a few miles behind the front lines. Transformed by the experience of random death, he committed to the belief that war should be avoided. “We didn’t know / that every rifle bullet / manufactured for the army / is intended for some mother’s child / But, by God, we do now,” he writes.

Sebba immigrated to the United States in 1968. He studied civil engineering, became a specialist in water-resources engineering, eventually working in six states. He welcomed another son into the family, and later divorced and re-married. For five years he was also an adjunct instructor in the engineering department at Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah until he retired. He and his wife now balance their time between Utah and Arizona.

Writing and being able to share his poems with others has been deeply therapeutic, says Sebba. In turn, his poems are therapeutic to others.

In demand as a speaker, he relates, “I often focus on writing as a way to work through trauma. And I always offer to connect with veterans. I want to help. And because family members are sharing stories with me after [readings and] speaking engagements, I’ve grown more aware of the trauma and stress the family goes through because they’ve been left behind.”

In 2013, The Gallery Theatre in Ogden, Utah produced a play he wrote. From November to June each year he teaches poetry at a low security prison in Tucson, Arizona. He is also organizing a program to work with veterans in Arizona using writing as therapy. And Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers is a text used in a Social Justice class at Salt Lake Community College.

Sebba’s current writing projects tackle another volatile subject: apartheid. He has written a second play, and is working on a novel, both based on people he knew while growing up in South Africa. And, of course, another book of poems about the effects of war is taking shape. “If I can help others through my experience, and writing, it is both satisfying and fulfilling,” he shared.

Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers is available at Amazon.com.

Jon Sebba can be reached at: yossi.yasser.soldiers@gmail.com.

This column was published in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, May 24, 2015; Section: Life; Page Z2 & Z5.

Andreé Robinson-Neal

Homegoing Day

“Taste this,” Nancy ordered as she shoved a spoonful of macaroni salad in Jamal’s mouth. “Is it enough tuna? You know how Bertram and them like it with a lot of tuna.”

She put her other hand on her hip. “Lord knows they never lift a finger to buy a single can but they sure want to tell you how to make it.”

Jamal licked mayonnaise from the corners of his mouth. He had come for the rest of his glass of sweet tea from dinner and instead found himself wrangled by his mom in a kitchen full of burbling pots and pans.

“You know, Daddy loved daffodils. I bet he’d be disappointed to see how the cold did them this year,” Nancy said as she turned back to the little window over the sink and squinted into the dark. It was only 4 a.m. but her potato salad needed just a few more ingredients. She had so much to do.

Jamal scratched his neck. “Ma, why are you cooking? Auntie Stella said–”

“Boy, you know Stella can’t cook. Besides, everybody’s gonna be looking for my potato salad.” She whipped the big spoon around the silver bowl until it sang.

Jamal watched, hypnotized by the rhythm of her wrist.


“So what?”

She stopped stirring and looked at him over the tops of her glasses. “The macaroni salad?”

“Oh! Yeah, it’s great. But what is all this?” Jamal asked as he waved a hand across the kitchen. “You should be resting.”

“What in the world do I have to rest for? Daddy would be cross if I didn’t feed these people right, today of all days.”

Jamal tiptoed to the refrigerator and opened the door. He had put his glass at the back of the first shelf, which was now filled with rainbow gelatin molds. He checked behind each one and sighed; he surveyed the kitchen again and spied his now-empty glass as it sat on a pile of dirty dishes.

“Boy, shut that ice box before you let all the cold air out.”

Jamal walked to the sink, rinsed the glass, and filled it with tap water. “Ice boxes went the way of the dinosaur, Ma. What you have there is an energy-efficient piece of 21st century technology.” He paused to savor a swallow of water and grimaced. He had become accustomed to his filtered city water; distance and time had changed many of the old country homestead’s flavors in the five years since he had left home. Jamal Washington was on his way up the ladder of success and the timing of this particular family issue could not have been worse. He thought there was nothing left for him in the neighborhood and shook the thought away quickly; his family was there and that certainly was more than nothing.

He watched his mother as she dolloped mayonnaise and mustard on top of the perfectly-cubed potatoes in her shiny bowl. “Anyway, like I said, you need to rest. Besides, nobody’s gonna want any kind of salad for breakfast. I think Uncle Bud is getting something catered in.”

Nancy stirred the seasonings into the potato salad. “You know you want some of this good cookin’,” she teased. “Go look in the stove.”

Jamal turned on the oven light, cursed under his breath when it did not come on, and gently cracked the door to peer inside. “Ma, one of the first thing’s I’ll do when I get back is buy you a stove. This thing is so old, Methuselah’s momma probably baked the first loaf of bread in it.”

Nancy stopped stirring and frowned. “Boy, watch your language. Besides, nobody asked you to buy me a stove. Daddy had that put in here when he bought me this house. Now look in there like I said,” she admonished.

Nancy’s egg and bacon casseroles were heavenly and Jamal felt the water rise in his mouth. He shut the oven. “Uncle Bud’s gonna be mad. There’s enough casserole for 20 people in there, and I think he already paid.”

“You wanna clean this for me?” She had left a big dollop of salad on her stirring spoon and Jamal chewed his bottom lip as he took it. “Do I look like I care if Bud paid for anything? Nobody asked me what I wanted.” Nancy fussed as she ripped a gossamer piece of plastic wrap from the tattered box on the counter and covered the bowl of potato salad. “Don’t nobody want that old dried up diner food he bought.”

Jamal bucked his eyes at her and she shrugged.

“That’s what Bud always gets for family gatherings. Calls himself catering. That’s not catering,” she mumbled as she stacked the trays with olives, cheese, and salami to make room in the already-packed refrigerator and slid the potato salad bowl between savory macaroni salad and glistening Ambrosia.

Jamal looked at the spoon. No one made potato salad like his mother. She had shared a few of her precious recipes with him before he had moved away but her versions always came out better. He smiled at her and asked, “Why must you be so contrary, Ma?”

Nancy turned down the flame beneath her pressure cooker and moved across to the sink to pour water off the hardboiled eggs. As she tilted the steaming pot she said, “I need to keep busy.”

“It’s four in the morning, Ma. Ain’t that much busy in the world.”

“You didn’t say that when Daddy caught you sneaking back in the house that time you and Jimmy called yourselves clubbing all night. Y’all got real busy when he was ready to put you on punishment.” Nancy lifted the edge of her apron and pretended to tap dance. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the two of you think up lies so quick.”

Jamal laughed at his mother and the memory. He had been 18 and it felt like a lifetime ago when his dad had threatened to take his head off his shoulders if he ever disrespected the house by staying out past midnight ever again. He wondered who would chastise him now that his dad was dead.

“Jamal?” Nancy looked at him again over the tops of her glasses. “You all right?”

“I’m good, Ma,” he answered as casually as he could and fingered a foil-covered mound on the corner of the table. “Might there be cornbread rolls under here?”

Nancy beamed. “Of course.” Jamal peeled back a corner and carefully removed two rolls; Nancy always stacked them in a spiral and the ones he chose would not ruin the pattern. “Don’t you mess up my pattern, boy,” she chided out of habit.

“Tsk! You know I got it,” Jamal sucked his teeth and handed her a roll. “I know you got some warm butter. Let’s do this.” He found an empty bar stool; the rest were covered with trays of crackers and bowls filled with freshly-washed fruit.

Mother and son stood next to each other and savored the grainy rolls. Nancy wiped crumb-covered fingertips on her apron with a sigh. “I sure miss Daddy.”

“I know, Ma,” Jamal replied; he had no idea since this was his first experience with death but placing an arm around her shoulder, he tried to hug the sadness from his mother’s face. “Say, why don’t you go put your feet up? I’ll wash dishes right quick.”

“Thank you, son,” her voice trembled. She turned away to wipe a tear and Jamal looked out the window. “Jamal? You heard from Jimmy? Do you think he’ll be here?”

He frowned. “I don’t know, Ma. You know I went looking for him when I first got here. I gave a message to one of his associates,” he spat the word. “He knows, Ma. That’s all I can tell you.”

“You’re a good boy, Jamal,” Nancy said gently. She peered through the window into the yard. “At least the azaleas did well. You know Daddy loved azaleas.”

Jamal sank his hands into the sudsy water. “I know, Ma,” he offered with a smile, “I know.”


Bud’s grin spanned his fleshy face. “Come on in, Willy!” He bellowed around the cigar tucked wetly in the corner of his mouth and pawed the mortician into the house.

“Nancy! Willy’s here!”

“I’m back here!”


“It’s William.”

Bud gripped the other man’s shoulder and lowered his voice. “Willy, William, whatever.

Look, man, lemme talk to you.” Bud and William had been in high school together; it was no mystery as to who bullied whom. “You know my sister don’t have a lot of assets. I hope you gave her a square deal on this funeral.”

William stiffened “I need to speak to Mrs. Washington.” He stepped around Bud and followed his nose to the kitchen. “Nancy,” he said as took her hand and placed another of his business cards in it.

“Thank you, William.” Nancy juggled the card from hand to hand as she wiped each against her apron. “Just look at you: ‘Whipper Funeral Services’–I bet you made your father proud.”

William had taken over the family business right after college and continued as the seventh generation of Whippers in charge of final arrangements for most of the town.

She tucked the card in an apron pocket.

“Please,” she moved a tray of deviled eggs off a bar stool, “have a seat.”

“Thank you,” his eyes moved over plates of chicken, bowls of fruit, and assorted cakes and pies scattered across every tabletop, chair, and stool in the kitchen.”My but you’ve been busy,” he commented as Nancy handed him a biscuit and his stomach growled appreciatively. “Thank you; you make the best biscuits.”

She winked. “I always make a few extra just for you when we have socials at the church.”

He finished the biscuit in two bites and then looked her in the eye. “Are we all ready for today?”

“Doesn’t it look like it?” Nancy waved her hand around the kitchen and laughed. “Daddy would be happy, I think.”

William cleared his throat. “You mentioned that you wanted James as a pallbearer.”

“Where are my manners?” Nancy walked to a cabinet and opened the door, revealing rows of neatly arranged mugs. “Would you like some coffee? I just made a fresh pot.”

He shook his head.

“Everything all right up in here?” Bud asked as he shambled in, took a biscuit from a tray on the stool next to where William stood, and shoved it in his mouth. “You need any help, Nancy?”

“Bud! Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she said, handing him a napkin. “You are nothin’ but a big child. Get out–William and I have business, and it’s none of yours.”

He took two more biscuits and smiled. “Okay, okay. I just want to make sure Willy’s taking care of you right.”

“Bud, I hear the doorbell. It might be your catered breakfast.” He dashed from the kitchen as Nancy moved the tray of biscuits from the stool to the last clear place on the counter,beside the coffee pot, and then sat down.”I’m not sure James will be able to serve as a pallbearer,” she answered with a sigh.

“Right now we have Bud, Jamal, his friend Sam and three of Calvin’s lodge mates,”

William said gently. “We’ll be fine if James can’t make it.”

“I’m sure he’ll be along. You sure you don’t want any coffee?” William shook his head again. “Well,” Nancy sighed. “I guess this is it, huh?”

He held her hand gently; it was the first thing he learned how to do as a mortician.”We’ll take good care of Calvin.” He paused as he thought about how much fun he used to have with Nancy, Bud, and Calvin when they were kids and played in each other’s backyards.”Your husband was a very good man, Nancy.”

She smiled and wiped a tear. “You are a good man, William.”

“I’m glad you think so, Nancy.” He dropped his professional veneer for a moment as his own tears fell. He pulled a handkerchief from his inner pocket, blew his nose loudly, and said, “You always looked out for me, you know, with Bud when we were in school.”

She nodded. “Bud really likes you; that’s why he messes with you.” She commented as they walked to the kitchen door. “Thank you for everything, William. Is there anything else you need from me? Daddy did a good job putting his things in order but I don’t want to forget anything.”

“I have everything,” he answered. “The car will be here by 9:30 to carry you to the church and the viewing will start at 10.”

Nancy walked him to the door, said good-bye and closed the door behind him. Turning around, she stepped backwards as Stella had walked right up behind her.

“Here, honey,” her sister-in-law cooed. “I made you a plate.” She had pulled together a plate of fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, grits, bacon, and sage sausage from Bud’s order.

“That’s okay, Stella. You know I’m not a fan of diner food.” Nancy swallowed a laugh as Bud scowled. Now Bud, I’m not sayin’ anything you didn’t already know,” she said, giggling. She turned to Odessa, Jamal, Cora-Lynn, Stella, and several other relatives. “There’s a casserole on the sideboard.” Everyone except Bud hurried into the kitchen.

Bud snorted. “Don’t nobody like your old-fashioned breakfast casserole. It’s nothin’ but leftovers anyway.”

“Why you lyin’, Bud?” Their older sister, Odessa, fussed as she returned with a heaping plate, a half-eaten biscuit on top. “Everybody loves Nancy’s casserole. Hers was the only one Mamma would eat.” She perched on the arm of a chair, swallowed the rest of the biscuit in one bite and continued talking. “And she hated that diner stuff you always get,” she added, licking her fingers

“I know that’s right!” Cora-Lynn, their youngest sister, piped up, sitting down on the chair beside Odessa. “And even if Nancy put every leftover in the house in her casserole, I bet it would be more moist than that cardboard you bought.” The two sisters erupted with laughter.

“Look, you all finish up and don’t make a mess in here!” Nancy ordered. “I’m going to get dressed. The car will be here soon and we need to be right. This is Daddy’s day.”

The other women stopped laughing and Cora-Lynn wiped tears from her eyes as Nancy walked toward the stairway.

Bud stepped to the table to pull the aluminum foil covers back over the food he had purchased. He picked up the plate he had left on the arm of his chair and bit into a slice of bacon that crackled across the silence.

“That bacon is so old, Aunt Jemima cooked it!” Odessa joked and the sisters broke into laughter again as Bud frowned.

“I know that’s right,” Nancy added and laughed despite herself as she started up the stairs.


Bud smacked Justin in the back of his head as he sank his ample butt into the last free chair in the living room. “How you gonna sit up in my sister’s house –”

“Don’t you mean ‘my lodge brother’s house’?” Justin shot back.

“Justin Spirts, don’t you start with me.” Bud shook his hand in the other man’s face. “How you gonna sit up in here and talk about my nephew like that? Jimmy’s got a few issues, but you got no right!”

Justin snorted. “Jimmy’s got more than issues. He’s out there on that stuff and you know it. That’s why he wasn’t at his daddy’s funeral.”

“He was, too. I saw him in the back of the church,” Odessa said. “Nancy said he walked to the cemetery from there.” She winked at Justin. “And the boy does have issues.”

Bud hefted his frame from the chair and stood up. “Odessa, you would take Spirts’ side anyway.”

They stopped talking as Nancy walked into the room. “What are y’all on about over here?”

“Bud was messin’ with Justin about–”

“Nothin’,” Bud interrupted. “We was just jaw-jackin’.”He knew Nancy would be angry if Odessa shared that they had been talking about Jimmy and his habits. “You know how Justin and the rest of those stuffy lodge boys are. I was tryin’ to get him to show me the handshake.

“Uh-hm,” Nancy looked him up and down. She suspected they had been talking about her oldest son but let it go; it was the wrong day for family to be at odds. She smiled.”How about James?” she said.”He was telling me how well he’s doing these days.”

“What’s he doing?” Odessa asked. She was always ready for something to gossip about.

“He’s working at one of those can and bottle recycle places. Some kinda manager or something.”

“Managin’ to sell cans and bottles to get them drugs, more like,” Justin snickered, balancing a forkful of potato salad. Bud elbowed Justin’s hand and the salad plopped on the edge of the plate.

Nancy frowned at them.”From the sounds of things, he’s doing better. You know that recession hit young men like him awful hard.”

“That only happened to people who were actually working, Ma,” Jamal added, slipping past her with a plate full of cookies, cake slices, and a large piece of sweet potato pie.

She swatted at him and he dodged her hand.”Where is he anyway? I didn’t even get to talk with him.”

“Don’t you speak about your brother that way, young man. Anyway, I made him a plate since he had to go. Can you believe they have him scheduled to work this afternoon?”

She crossed her arms tightly and hugged her elbows.”On the day of his Daddy’s funeral and they wouldn’t let him off. He had to be there,” she leaned around Jamal to look at the mantel clock, “at 3 so I gave him car fare.”

Sighs of disgust filled the room. Nancy looked at them in surprise. “What’s wrong with all of you?”

“Ma, Jimmy didn’t need car fare,” Jamal answered. “He’s not a manager. He hustled you.”

Nancy blinked. “Don’t talk that way about James. Don’t let me hear any of you talking that way. Daddy wouldn’t approve.”She frowned, turned, marched into the dining room, and smiled at the Reverend and William, who were deep in discussion.

Odessa shoved a last spoonful of the Ambrosia into her mouth. She swallowed, looked toward Nancy in the next room and whispered, “She might not think so but Calvin knew all about James. And no, he didn’t approve.” She looked at Bud and Justin and gave them both a dagger-eyed stare. “You two know how she is about that boy. Now leave it alone. Today isn’t about James, anyway.” She turned toward Jamal, who was sitting in the corner, and asked, “Jamal, is that your mamma’s lemon cake you got there? I gotta get me some of that before it’s gone!” She licked her fork, and clutching her plate, stood up, and left in search of another of her favorite desserts.

Nancy shook her head, wanting to block her son’s words about Jamal from her mind as she joined William and the Reverend as they stood near the punch bowl. William wiped the last of his chocolate cake from the corners of his mouth, and stood up straight.

“Nancy, how are you?” William asked. “I haven’t seen you sit still since everyone arrived back here from the cemetery. Have you eaten?”

She waved him off. “I can’t eat a bite just now, but I’m all right. I hope you’re both enjoying the food.”

Reverend Jones, Nancy’s sister Stella’s husband, shook his head. “Of course. You know I did.” He leaned in. “When you gonna teach your sister to cook like this?”

Nancy tapped him lightly on the arm. “Stella’s gonna get you for making fun of her cooking!”

“Ma. I need to talk to you.” Jamal stood by her side, touching her elbow.

“Not now, Jamal.”

“It’s important.”

She turned, saw the frown on his face, then looked past him and saw a police officer stood in the front doorway.

“It’s about Jimmy, Ma.”

Jamal took Nancy by the arm and guided her through the groups of family and friends, all quietly pushing food around their half-eaten plates.

“Mrs. Washington, I am so sorry to disturb you but there’s been an incident involving your son, James. I’m going to need you to come with me to the hospital.”

Nancy shrugged Jamal’s hand away and replied, “Officer, I don’t know if you are aware but we are celebrating my husband’s home-going today. Now why don’t you just rest yourself there — Bud, move over so the officer can sit down — and let me make you a plate. There’s plenty as you can see. I know James is fine. I gave him car fare to get to work just about a half-hour ago, so what is this all about?”

The officer touched the edge of his cap.”Thank you, ma’am but no. I can’t give you any additional information here and need you to come with me to the hospital. Your other son–Jamal?–said he would drive you.”

Nancy wiped her palms down the front of her apron and reaching around, untied the knot at the back.

“Cora-Lynn,” Nancy said, “get my purse from upstairs, would you? Stella, I didn’t say thank you when I was in the dining room so please give my thanks to your husband for the message today. I know Daddy would have been very happy. Bud, you leave Justin alone while I’m gone and Justin, be sure to tell the brothers how much I appreciate all they did. I’ll bring something nice around to the lodge next week as snacks for the meeting. And Odessa, make sure everybody gets some of this food to take home, especially the Reverend and William. And make sure Bertram doesn’t take all of the macaroni salad — tell him to leave some for other folks.”

Nancy glanced in the mirror next to the door and patted down a stray hair.

“I want that kitchen empty when I get back,” she continued. “But save some of those oxtails. I want to freeze them for James because they’re his favorite.”

As Nancy and Jamal followed the officer down the porch steps, Stella called out,

“Should I make you a plate too, Nancy?”

“No, that’s all right, Stella,” Nancy replied. “This is Daddy’s day. I’ll find something when we get back.” Nancy turned to the officer. “We’re going to the hospital?”

He nodded.

“Well,” she paused by her potted flowers next to the bottom step and grabbed a handful of daffodils and pansies.”If James has been hurt or something, I’m sure some flowers will brighten up his room. Don’t you think, Jamal?”

Jamal glanced at the officer, who shook his head slightly. “Sure, Ma. I’m sure that will be fine.”

“Of course it will.” Nancy gave Jamal and the officer a shaky smile as they walked toward the curb where Jamal’s rental car was parked. Turning to Jamal as he opened the car door, Nancy asked, “Did I tell you how much Daddy loved daffodils?”

“Yes, Ma,” Jamal said, “you sure did.”

“Homegoing Day” is part of the Pure Slush anthology, Feast, published in three parts: “Homegoing Day,” “A Visit from the Mortician,” and “After the Service”.

Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction www.starvingactivist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant. She reads more than she sleeps.

Andreé Robinson-Neal is a member of Andrea Fingerson’s Creative Writing Workshop at the Feldheym Library in San Bernardino.

liz gonzález

Excerpt from the novel-in-progress Tell Her She’s Lovely. This excerpt is set in 1974 in the mythical town Muscat twenty minutes east of San Bernardino.

Chapter 2: Cabaret

Mama sings in an off key vibrato to the voiceless muzak on her car radio, “I want some red roses for a blue lady.”

“Can’t we at least listen to the actual sappy song?” I reach to change the station, and she slaps my hand. “Ow, that stings!”

“Leave it alone. This music relaxes me.”

It’s Halloween night, a school night. We’re pulling away from Baker’s Drive Thru, my favorite place to eat. Mama got me a cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake as a guilt gift. Whenever she feels bad about letting me down, which is a lot lately, Mama buys me something. I call it a guilt gift. Tonight she feels bad about dumping me off at Minerva’s in South M so I won’t be home alone. Mama is going to an adult costume party at her divorced girlfriend’s house in San Bernardino. Nat-the-Brat is already at her best friend Kathy’s kid party, and then she’ll spend the night at Grandma’s.

Mama is dressed like Liza Minnelli in the movie Cabaret. Under her camel wool coat, she’s wearing a satin black halter-top that shows way too much skin and satin black shorts. She never would allow me to dress so sexy, and I wouldn’t if I could: embarrassing. At least she wore pantyhose instead of stockings and garters. Just like Minnelli, she put on false eyelashes and thick black eyeliner and pasted a Dippity-Do curl beside each ear. Mama tucked her hair under the bowler hat she found at Goodwill to look like she has a bob. She’s much prettier than Liza Minnelli and will probably have the best costume at the party, but I keep those thoughts to myself. I don’t want to encourage her to keep dressing like this.

“Will there be other ladies as old as you at the party?” I chomp into my burger, letting ketchup and thousand island sauce drip down my chin. She hates when I eat like this.

“Old? I’m only 33.” Without taking her eyes off the road, Mama shoots her right hand into the food bag between us, pulls out a napkin, and jams it into my hand. “Most of the women going to the party are my age. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Good, otherwise people might think you’re a chaperone.” I want to make her feel bad. I’m the teen. I should be going to a costume party, not my mother.

“Don’t start, Rachel.”

I rip another chunk from the burger with my molars.

“You’re going to make a mess, girl.” Mama’s grip tightens on the steering wheel and her lips purse. A cheesy instrumental version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” comes on the radio. I change the station to KCAL. This time Mama doesn’t stop me. Of all the Rolling Stones’ songs, downer “Angie” is on. KCAL played it all the time when my father first left. I sang it so much I know the sad lyrics by heart: “With no loving in our souls and no money in our coats, you can’t say we’re satisfied.” I turn the dial back to the muzak station.

“There’s a cute telephone table on clearance at Sears. I can get an extra 10% off with my employee discount.”

“Telephone table? For what?”

“I’m putting a phone with your own number in your bedroom. You and Natalie can have privacy when you talk to your friends.” She watches my face, expecting me to get excited.

“I’d rather have a mother who acts like a mother.” I’m too mad to tell her that I really want her to spend Halloween at home with me.

Mama lets out a deep sigh. “Let’s not fight. You’re going to have fun with your friends.” She picks up my shake and takes a sip. “I thought you’d be happy to get a break from me.”

“Break? Even when you’re home you’re not there. You’re always too busy drinking, cooking, cleaning, scolding me and Nat, and doing whatever you do when you lock yourself in your bedroom.”

“You know I’ve had a hard time since your father left. And you have everything you need: a roof over your head, a bed, food, and don’t forget the cute clothes I buy you.”

“Everything except a mother.”

She stops the car at the stop sign on Eucalyptus and Rialto Avenues and stays quiet. A mother crosses in the crosswalk in front of us, holding her little kid’s hand. The kid is dressed in a cat costume, skipping with joy. I wonder if Mama thinks about the fun we used to have when she and my father took Nat and me trick or treating. The mother and kid step onto the corner and Mama presses on the gas and looks at me with a big, fake smile. “Watch, you’ll have so much fun you’ll wish I went out every night.”

“Can I have three dollars for a pizza?” I’m tired of her rejecting me and am going to milk her for as many guilt gifts as I can get.

“Sure. And I’ll give you extra money for sodas.”

“I’m having fun already.” I stuff a handful of fries in my mouth, smearing ketchup on my hand. The corner of her mouth twitches, but she keeps her eyes on the road and gently nudges another napkin into my hand.


Minerva and Chris are sitting on a bench beneath the porch light in front of Minerva’s house. They both stand up when we pull into the driveway. Minerva is buttoned up in her navy blue pea coat. She has on the purple beret she knitted, and her wild black hair look like plant roots growing out of it. Chris is the opposite. No matter that it’s cloudy and cold and that she’s skinny as a taquito, she’s always hot. She claims it’s her “Mississippi Queen” blood; she’s always finding a way to compare herself to that song. Her royal blue velvet blazer is open, showing her tank top underneath. Thank God it’s not the one that says “Itty Bitty Titty Committee.” Mama would say something stupid, like she should cover up.

Chris and Minerva leave the big orange bowl full of candy for trick or treaters on the bench and run to Mama’s side of the car to meet her. She rolls down her window and they introduce themselves to each other. I grab my backpack and duffle bag from the back seat and rush around the car so I can pull them away from Mama. It’s bad enough I have a single mother who goes to parties, but mine has to wear a slutty costume, too.

“Bye,” I say, now standing between Minerva and Chris.

“I’m sorry I didn’t think to get you two a burger when we went to Baker’s,” Mama says.

“Thank you, but I have plenty of food,” Minerva says.

“Well you girls better get inside before you catch a cold.”

“Mama, they’re not little kids.”

“Nice meeting you,” Chris says.

“Yes, nice to meet you,” Minerva says. “Have a good time at your party.” They each take one of my bags and head for the side of the garage.

“Later.” I step backwards before she can kiss me goodbye.

“Rachel, come here.” Mama curls her pointer finger.


“My kiss?”

“Okay.” I trudge back to the car and lean in the window. I aim for her cheek, but she smacks me on the lips. I hope Chris and Minerva didn’t see. “I told you I’m too old for the lips.”

“What? I can’t hear you.” Mama rolls up the window and pulls away.


“Your mama sure is pretty. And cool. You never told us she drives a Duster.” Chris says when I join them on the walkway beside the garage.

“It’s hard to be excited about the car since my father stuck her with the payments.”

“Well, your mother is beautiful,” Minerva says.

“She looks better when she’s not dressed like a hooker,” I say.

Chris gasps. “Don’t talk like that about your mama.”

“You should appreciate her,” Minerva says.

“Can we please change the subject?” If I wasn’t so ashamed, I would tell them about Mama’s drinking and night clubbing so they’d understand why she pisses me off.

Minerva opens the door on the side of the garage.

“She has the coolest chick pad,” Chris smiles like we’re entering Disneyland.

“We’re not chicks; we’re young women.” Minerva scolds. “What am I going to do with you?”

This is the first time Chris and I are visiting Minerva’s house and the first time the three of us are spending the night together. Minerva and I haven’t been to Chris’s house yet, either. We’ve only been to my house to eat lunch on school days.

Last May, for her fourteenth birthday, Minerva’s father and brothers turned the garage into a bedroom and added a bathroom with a shower.

“This is twice the size of my bedroom,” I say, a little jealous. “Do your brothers ever walk in on you?”

“I have house door locks on the entrances from the kitchen and the outside,” Minerva says with a proud smile.

“It’s like you have your own apartment,” Chris says.

“I know.” Minerva takes in a deep, satisfied breath.

I wish I had a big room of my own with a lock to keep out Nat-the-Brat. But everything in my room would be new and modern, like a picture I saw in the Sears Catalog.

Minerva’s furniture is old, bulky, and scratched. A wooden desk from the forties or fifties takes up one corner of the room. A gooseneck lamp sits on top of her desk, along with her typewriter and neat stacks schoolbooks and English and math papers. A tall, wide bookcase that matches the desk, filled with books, stands against the wall behind the desk.

We have one skinny bookcase at home, with a set of encyclopedias my parents bought from a salesman who came to our door, a heavy dictionary, a Catholic Bible we never read, and Mama’s Reader’s Digest condensed novels. I could finish one of those novels in a day. It isn’t a whole bookcase, either. There’s a cupboard at the bottom where Mama stores holiday decorations. Grandma doesn’t even have a bookcase. She keeps her Catholic Bible, the only book she owns, on her bed stand.

I scan the titles on Minerva’s shelves. There are books about history, art, science, Mexico, South America, books with poems, and pamphlets. I pull out a pamphlet with an orange cover.

“Cool, Cesar Chavez’s face on a cluster of grapes.” I’m excited to show Minerva that I recognize him. She’s taught me and Chris a lot about him and the United Farm Workers Union in the past two months. I put back the pamphlet and pull out a book about Mexico written in Spanish. I understand only a few words.

“Have you read all of these? It’s like a library. Where did you get so many books?” I ask Minerva who’s stepped beside me.

“It will take me years to read all of them, but I’ve read about thirty percent. Most are my father’s or were my mother’s, some from when they went to Valley.”

“Do you know how to read in Spanish?”

“Yeah, do you?”

Chicana Minerva will be disappointed in me, but I tell her the truth anyway. I know only a little Spanish, like how to count up to twenty, ask for the bathroom, order basic foods at a restaurant, like beans and chicken, and give basic greetings, like good morning and good to meet you. When we were little, Grandma told my parents not to teach me and Nat Spanish so we wouldn’t get put in a Spanish only school where they teach girls to be housekeepers. The biggest drag is I feel left out when people speak Spanish around me, like I’m not Mexican enough.

“That happened to a lot of kids our age. It’s because of segregation.” Minerva sighs. “The trouble our gente is put through.”

“Yeah, segregation. I didn’t know there was a word for it.” I’m relieved Minerva doesn’t think I’m stupid or worst, “a sell-out Hispanic” as she calls Mexican Americans who want to be white. I want to be smart like her. “Can I borrow one of your books sometime?”

“I would love it. None of my friends from junior high were interested. You can borrow any of them except these.” She runs her fingertips over the edges of the poetry pamphlets. “They’re one of a kind. My father won’t let them leave the house.”

“Poetry is too hard anyway. I’d rather start with something fun and easy.”

“Not this poetry. You’ll like it. I’ll read it to you some time.”

I leave Minerva at her bookshelves and check out the rest of her bedroom. It looks like a Chicano nerd-hippie lives here. A Janis Joplin poster is tacked on the door to the house. Orange and white paper fliers with large black print and cool, artistic drawings of Aztec pyramids and cars announcing Chicano and Raza dances, parties, and outdoor band happenings are taped on the walls on both sides of the front window. Spider plants spill from her homemade macramé hangars dangling from the ceiling. Bunk beds are stacked in a corner on the other side of the room from the desk. An India style mustard-yellow tapestry with a maroon swirly pattern covers each bed.

“Ga-roovy.” Chris dives backward into the royal purple beanbag across from the bunk beds. “This is where I’m sleeping.” She unbuckles her sandals and drops them on the floor.

Minerva puts a record on the small stereo unit sitting on top of an orange crate next to the bunk beds. A song I haven’t heard in a while plays—Mexican music, like a slow cha-cha, but rock music too, with an organ, cowbell, and rock guitar.

“They’re taking too long to sing,” Chris complains.

“There’s no singing,” Minerva says. “This is a Latin Jazz song, El Chicano’s version of ‘Viva Tirado’ by Gerald Wilson.”

“You know all the cool music scoop.” I cha-cha over to a dainty antique wooden table to check out the things on top.

Arranged on a yellowing white doily are a Pee Chee sized black and white picture in a lacy gold frame, an unlit votive candle in a cobalt blue glass holder, like the ones at church, on one side of the frame, a gold crucifix on the other, and a sugar skull and glazed donut, both grayed with dust, on a clear glass saucer. The picture had been taken at a studio, like the one in White Front where Mama had me and Nat take pictures when we were little. A girl about 17, wearing a floral pattern dress with a swirly skirt and a skinny belt wrapped tight around her tiny waist, stands sideways with one arm on her hip. Her eyes are smiling, and she’s looking directly into the camera.

“That’s my mom.” Minerva lifts the frame and holds it close to my face.

“She’s pretty. She could be your twin sister,” I say.

“Thanks.” Minerva kisses the photo and sets it back down.

Chris points at the plate. “The skull is creepy, and that donut needs to be thrown out.”

“Shut-up,” I say. “It’s about her mother. Have some heart.”

“Chris,” Minerva speaks in her slow, patient teacher-voice. “It’s like the Dia de Los Muertos altars in Mexico I told you about, remember? Donuts were my mom’s favorite snack.”

“Yeah, I remember. Dia de Los Muertos means Day of the Dead. The day after Halloween, y’all call back your dead loved ones with their favorite food and other goodies.” Chris says it like a Kindergartner who has memorized a story.

“Not exactly but close enough.”

Chris turns her nose toward the ceiling. “Will you please put the skull away while I’m here? It scares me.”

Minerva opens the little drawer beneath the tabletop and carefully places the candy skull inside and closes it. “There. Happy?”

“Yes mam,” Chris says in a thick drawl. “Time to smoke pot. There’s too much tension in this chick, I mean, young woman’s pad.”


“If you were a slut, what’s the first thing you’d notice?” Chris giggles, holding Alice Cooper’s Love it to Death album cover over Minerva’s and my faces. We have the house to ourselves. Minerva’s brothers are at a party, and her father is spending the night at his girlfriend’s. We’re in the living room, lying on our backs beside each other on the brown and orange shag carpet that looks and feels like calico cat fur. The kids stopped ringing the doorbell for candy about an hour ago. Since then, Minerva has taught us how to roll a joint and smoke it down to the roach.

Minerva says most people don’t get high the first time they try pot, but Chris and I are buzzing like the fluorescent overhead lights at school. We’ve been examining Minerva’s and her brothers’ rock album covers and eating the left over candy. Incense smoke rises in long curls from a small, bell-shaped gold burner on the coffee table. Brilliant Corners, one of Minerva’s father’s Thelonious Monk records, is playing on the stereo. Minerva says we have to learn about jazz and blues in order to appreciate rock music. At first, it sounded like the musicians played the piano and horns off key and offbeat, but after hearing one song, I got into it.

I take the Alice Cooper album cover from Chris and hold it close to my eyes. “All I see are the band members posing sexy in their skin-tight pants. What are you talking about?”

“His penis,” Minerva mumbles; a ball of Bazooka bubble gum bulges out of her right cheek. She taps the slug-like thing in the crotch of a band-member’s pants.

“Penis,” Chris cracks up. “Is that how y’all call it here in California?”

“Dick. Weenie. Pee pee. Thing. I never called it a peeee…” I crack up, and then we all spazz out on the carpet.

“Hey now,” a guy’s voice startles us. Standing in the entryway are Minerva’s brothers—identical twins so cute it hurts to look at them. If we were in Hollywood, they would be models, rock stars, movie stars, or all three combined. They resemble Minerva, but their eyes are bigger and darker, like chocolate drops. And their hair is tamed. They dress so cool. One brother has on an unbuttoned fleece-lined Levi’s jacket, an untucked brown and teal blue plaid flannel shirt, Levi’s 501’s, and dark brown suede waffle stompers. His hair is pulled back in a ponytail. The other one is wearing an unbuttoned black pea coat, a tucked-in black t-shirt, black cords, and black Converse. His hair is shoulder length and loose.

I will never see guys this cute and cool again in my whole life.

Chris and I scramble to standing. We comb our hair with our fingers and straighten our clothes.

“Relax. They’re just my brothers,” Minerva says, taking her time getting up.

“You having seizures? Should we call an ambulance?” chuckles the ponytail brother. He nudges loose hair brother with his elbow and chuckles some more. “I think Minnie got electrocuted.”

“Minnie?” Chris cracks up so hard she coughs.

I glance at Minerva and crack up, too. “Your hair looks like a tumbleweed thrashed by the Santa Anas.”

Minerva rolls her eyes at us. Then she checks herself out in the mirror in the entryway and lets out a huge throw up of laughter. The three of us spazz out again. The brothers grin and shake their heads at us.

When we finally calm down, Minerva introduces us. Ponytail brother’s name is Mike and loose hair brother’s name is Matt. If it weren’t for their different hairstyles and clothes, I couldn’t tell them apart. They look nothing like the little boys missing their front teeth and covered with mud in the picture hanging in the hallway.

“Nuh. Nuh. Nice to meet…” My buzz and their cuteness have frozen my tongue.

“Matt made the fliers hanging on my wall,” Minerva says.

I want to say that the drawings are really good, but all I can get out is, “C…c…cool.”

“Why you home so early?” Minerva asks.

“The neighbors called the cops, complaining the band was too loud,” Matt says.

“Looks like the party is here,” Mike says. His voice is louder, deeper than Matt’s. “We need some rock.” He puts on a record. A song I’ve never heard before starts with a drumstick tapping a cymbal.

“Grand Funk. ‘Inside Looking Out.’” Mike’s voice gets teacherish like Minerva’s. “This song alone is better than everything they’ve put out since We’re an American Band. You know this is an Animals’ song? These guys do it better though.”

In order not to say or do something stupid, I avoid eye contact with brothers and stare at the stereo and bob my head. The longer the song plays, the funkier it gets. I would dance if the brothers weren’t here.

They take off their jackets and hang them on the coat rack in the entryway. Matt sits on the brown couch, and Mike plops down on their dad’s brown Naugahyde Lazy Boy. It hits me that the living room is all brown without any pretty decorations because it’s the father’s and brothers’ bach pad.

“You college boys have classes too-morrow?” Chris pours on her sassy Southern accent.

Mike explains that they arranged their schedules at Valley College so they have mornings and all Fridays off to help their dad with his business: The AzTech Electric Company.

Matt stays quiet and taps the drum rhythm of the song on the coffee table. I figure he’s the shy, sensitive artist type, which makes him even cuter.

Mike pulls a clear glass tube contraption from the cupboard in the end table beside him. Chris and I turn to Minerva.

“It’s a bong. For smoking pot,” she says. She looks at her brothers. “Their first time getting high.”

“Newbies.” Mike smiles and I swear his face glows. “Want to try? The high is more intense than a joint.”

“Sure,” Chris says.

I nod yes. I’d rather come down from the high I already have, but I want them to think I’m cool.

Minerva sits beside Matt and calls us over. Chris curls up on Minerva’s other side. I sit cross legged on the carpet, on the opposite end of the coffee table, as far from Mike and Matt as possible, so they can’t tell how nervous they make me. Mike takes the bong to the kitchen sink and pours water in it. At the same time, Matt steps over to the coat rack in the entryway. I watch him from the corner of my eye. He’s slender but solid, not skinny. His forearms have strong, ropey muscles, like he could lift me with one arm. He pulls a baggie full of pot, plump as a burrito, out of one of his coat pockets. He passes me on his way back to his seat, and my heart pumps loud in my ears. Mike kicks back in the Lazy Boy, and Matt packs the small silver bowl sticking out of the bong.

Matt’s hands are tanned cinnamon brown and muscular: working hands. His fingernails are clipped short and clean. Not like my father, whose fingernails were always chipped and dirty.

Minerva tells Mike and Matt to get high first so Chris and I can see how they use the bong. When it’s Minerva’s turn, she explains to us how to suck the smoke in deep without coughing, hold it in our lungs before taking our mouths off the end of the bong, and exhale long and slow.

Chris handles the bong like she’s used it for years. When it’s my turn, I suck in the smoke and choke. “I’m alright,” I say, embarrassed. I gulp some water and try again.

This time I hack like I have whooping cough.

Matt suggests we take a break. My mouth is dry and tastes like a dead animal. I stand to get water in the kitchen, but the heels on my boots stay stuck in the carpet. I scream in my head, ready to flip out. Then I remember to breathe. I take off my boots and tiptoe in my socks.

“I got the crunchies real bad,” says Chris. “How ‘bout some of your down home health nut cooking Minnie.” Chris cracks up, and I hear her body land on the carpet.

“Munchies, not crunchies,” Minerva laughs.

While filling my glass with water from the faucet, I think about Mama for the first time all night. I feel bad for getting high, like I’m betraying her. Then I picture her dancing in her costume at the party, laughing with strange men. Fuck her.

“Have you heard a Cheech and Chong record, Rachel?” Matt snaps me out of my thoughts. I didn’t hear him walk in. He’s close enough for me to reach out and touch his cheek with my fingertips. I want him to kiss me, for my first kiss to be from him. My hand that’s holding the glass trembles. Calm down, I tell myself. After what seems like an hour, I finally say, “No.”

“You’re going to like this.” Matt heads to the stereo.

Alone in the kitchen, I swish the water in my mouth until the dead animal taste disappears. When I return to my spot on the carpet, everyone is munching Minerva’s homemade tortilla chips and salsa. I lie on my back, close my eyes, and listen to Cheech and Chong do a trippy skit about Jesus in Mexico.

Next thing I know, Minerva is shaking my shoulder, saying it’s midnight and we have to go to bed. At first I don’t know where I am. Then I look across the coffee table and see Mike and Matt smiling at me. I smile back, sure that any chance of them thinking I’m cool is ruined.

I get up and follow Chris and Minerva.

“Good night,” Matt says.

“Sleep tight,” Mike chuckles.

I turn back to see if Matt has a special smile for me, but he’s already walking down the hallway with his back to me.

liz gonzález, a fourth generation Southern Californian, grew up in San Bernardino County. Her poetry, fiction, and memoirs have appeared in numerous literary journals, periodicals, and anthologies. Three of her poems are forthcoming in Wide Awake: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. She recently received an Irvine Fellowship at the Lucas Artists Residency Program, Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, California. Currently, liz lives in Long Beach, California. She works as a writing consultant and teaches creative writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. For more info. www.lizgonzalez.com