Adriana Gonzalez

I am ten years old and I am pacing around the bathroom with every faucet running water.

The shirt I am wearing hangs over my right shoulder because I have just cut out the collar with the pair of scissors my mother uses to curl Christmas ribbon. My toes bend and grab the bathroom mat with each step. If my throat would just stop closing and my stomach would just stop boiling, I would lay my face on the green, soft mat because I am tired and I have not slept.

There are two sinks with four handles running hard water. I am in front of the mirror and I can see a small face, a grey shirt, a pink, braided friendship bracelet on my left wrist and yet, I am swimming.

I am in my bathroom trying to touch down, to use those same scissors to cut out this charcoaled hole in my chest but I leave the water that’s running and the reflection I see to swim in a world where these things that I am feeling, and these moments that are happening, become quiet.

I swim in phthalo blue. I swim like a small frog through shaded foliage. I kick out and spin around pink coral, turquoise plankton illuminates me, and I consider if these various waves and trenches could be what heaven is like. But I am not a frog and this is not heaven.  My lungs will fill with forgotten blue water if I ever swim around pink coral. Bacteria and gas will mix around my hardening organs before I float. No one will know of me until it is too late. I will puddle.

I am ten years old and the United States Government has just indicted my father. I am ten years old and my father asks me to pray for him. I pray for air every night so he might stop sweating, and so that my mother will stop crying, and because my grandmother needs to wake up, now. I pray every night and I think about how my mother cries when she says my father will go away, and when she tells me my grandmother suffered an aneurism and how my father’s bus company is being charged for smuggling illegal aliens within the United States Border.

These are space words, space phrases that suspend and spark as they continue to push the boundaries of my imaginary page. I have no control over them, no understanding and so I pace around the bathroom every night. I pray for vibration so that I may breathe in this pink bathroom with the green mat and the locked brass doorknob, because my parents are in their room sleeping and the sinks have filled and begun to spill over.




I struggle between wanting and knowing how crucial it is to be aware of the world yet being extremely cynical about how individuals are portrayed in the news. I have difficulty trusting people and I question compulsively.  I otherwise avoid politics, topics of immigration, equal opportunity, underemployment, The American Dream, because my grandmother is dead and nothing I say, write, or scream can bring her back. I suppose her aneurism could have exploded later in her life—instead of her head puzzling into the corner of the sidewalk weeks after the indictment, it could have happened to her in the shower, while she was gardening, maybe as she boiled water for tea. I suppose she could have died in February, when rain is plenty in California, when the San Bernardino Mountains glow with snow. But she died during fire season.

I spent my entire childhood learning of fault lines and tectonic plates, how to effectively duck and cover if ever a displacing earthquake split the Golden State, but none of that prepared me for this. What do you do as a child when your mother nearly strangles herself with a telephone cord as pages and pages of multiple counts and superseding indictments pour out of the fax machine? How else can you escape besides swimming at night in your bathroom? What sort of god do you pray to when you are asked to pray for justice?




He describes it like a love affair. He says the sky carried white lines that morning and the night blooming jasmine stretched itself until dawn. In a California December, there is a king shrub that blooms: bougainvillea with white and red and pink petals. He noticed that this king shrub seduced night blooming jasmine, and saw these two perennials, the jasmine and bougainvillea dance together, slide in and out between each other with lines of pink in the sky behind them. He never realized that the bougainvillea carried thorns on its branches. My father saw the ninety-one freeway and the seventy-one freeway alit with white and red when his hands were behind his back, when his Miranda Rights were read, when he admired the jasmine’s ferocity towards morning.




My father owned one hundred and fifty charter buses. Each bus was purchased at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. He employed six hundred employees and operated in six western states. My father’s buses traveled around nineteen million miles a year and brought in thirty-three million dollars in ticket sales. My father was born in Mexico. My father was born in a kitchen of an adobe house and my grandmother gave birth to my father in her kitchen. There were no numbers; there was only the earth and the rooted trees and deep ravines that cracked.

My father owned one hundred and fifty charter buses and was the owner of a business that was worth forty million dollars and he was indicted by the United States Government on December tenth, two thousand and one, and charged for transporting illegal aliens within the United States Border. How do you escape fire season in California?

You don’t. You let the fire take the fields.




I was twelve years old when I walked dogs for two months so that I could afford to buy a new sweater. There was a sixth grade camp field trip, and we would be going to the mountains, and we were promised that there would be snow. I went door to door, explained to my neighbors that I was providing a dog walking service. Those who agreed handed me various colorful leashes despite the fact I brought my own.

I walked dogs for two months so that I could afford my mountain clothes. It was a secret from my parents—dog walking required me to leave my cul-de-sac and wander to gated communities, but my father was with the lawyers, my mother back at work.  I was twelve years old and I walked alone with colorful leashes gripped in my palms and I counted my steps up every driveway and along the sidewalks. Out of necessity, out of nervousness, I counted. I counted numbers, ones and twos and threes and then I would return the dogs and count the dollars in my pockets. I counted three dollars for every big dog, one dollar and fifty cents for every small dog and five dollars from the nice man, whose name I can’t remember, with a beagle named Thomas.

My father took me to the Lake Elsinore outlets when I asked him if we could buy a sweater for the mountains. And so he took me there, one afternoon, when he was not with his lawyers, when my mother was working, to buy a sweater.  I walked around the outlet, attracted to the walls of waterproof coats, and bright, sequined boots, but found myself at the clearance rack. I held the yellow tags in my hands, and read the prices in my head. In my head I read the numbers, I thought about what twenty percent off meant and how the additional ten dollars off at the register would bring down the total of my sweater to thirty-four dollars. I had fifty.

My father reached in his pocket and I said, I got it, Dad.




Not always, but definitely in my case, the traditional Hispanic household, backed by Catholicism, does not believe in anxiety or mental illness. My father was battling the most powerful country in the world, my grandmother was unmoving in a bed, and still, we continued. My nights alone in the bathroom, my fear and visions of death, my questions of god and faith including the ulcer I had given myself were never discussed. Instead, I prayed. I crossed myself and lined up relics on my nightstand. I picked at their sad faces, I held them to my heart, and I gave them alternate names begging them to make things normal again. I wanted them to aid in the normalcy of life before my questions went unanswered, before my grandmother stopped painting her nails and dying her hair. It saddens me that my devotion to myth, faith, and family has been fueled by the same traditions that urged me to be shameful of my body—that prevented me from ever attempting to decode the inner workings of my brain.




She tasted the color green and heard the spots on a giraffe in the doctor’s office and there was no mention of her last good day, or her last good thought, or about how her hair appeared red in the reflection of the helicopter window when they moved her to another hospital. There was a delay in the airlift, and talk of a stroke, and no health insurance because the business had dissolved.

I saw my grandmother with a thick, white wrap around her head in a room that smelled like melted latex. It was an aneurism, a word I believed to sound like bees. I imagined my grandmother shoving her head into a beehive and swelling with honey behind her eyes. I hoped she would wake with a crown that smelled of cinnamon, and fingernails as sweet as candy, and her hair as red as the carnations she tucked behind her ear.




I learned how to do laundry during my father’s sweat spells, and I learned about false charges. I went with him to his meetings and I learned about racial profiling. I learned about money laundering and conspiracy, and I learned how a man who sweats is not necessarily guilty.  My father was sweating because he was losing.

Mr. Rey was one of my father’s lawyers. I would listen to Mr. Rey talk about racial profiling, and money laundering and conspiracy, and pride. I learned that no matter how innocent my father was, no matter how absurd and inventive the allegations were against him, my father was Mexican. My father was fighting the most powerful country in the world. My father would not win. Mr. Rey told us about the gardener that trimmed his hedges, and his housekeeper that he drove to the bus stop some times. You see? Hiring and transporting. You see how easy it is to do this? Plead guilty. It was no big deal. If my father pled guilty, he would stop sweating. If my father pled guilty, the eight superseding indictments would dissolve like detergent.

Were you listening to that? My father asked. I hope you were listening to that. You don’t ever give up.  If you do nothing wrong, you don’t ever give up, do you hear me?




Greyhound Bus Lines owned a subsidiary named SITA. SITA owned fifty percent of a bus company called Crucero that operated out of Mexico and crossed into the United States at the Tijuana boarder. My father was urged by his friends at Greyhound to trade in Golden State stock for Crucero stock. This would expand his business. This would give him more land. He would be powerful.  It was never disclosed to my father that Crucero had avoided being indicted for transporting and harboring illegal aliens just before Greyhound proposed the arrangement. My father knew none of this until the United States Government had to disclose their evidence. There were field agent reports that showed how Greyhound distanced themselves from my father after asking him to step down as President, after bankrupting his company, after giving the government his bus terminals in exchange for asylum.  My father could not win because he was living in a country that feared terrorism. My father could not win because everyone else had something to gain. Greyhound erased the competition, wiped their hands clean of the subsidiary and the government made beautiful, imagistic, outer space fiction of a family, of a business, to ensure the American people that the United States borders were safe.

What a strange, fictitious world we live in that dilutes our very real stories.




My father was indicted in the state of Arizona.  He was arraigned eight times over four years. My father drove slow out in the desert, but I found some comfort in desert sunrises.

I asked him if he ever felt like bursting. I looked out the window and asked him if he ever noticed how the sky looked scratched.

He listened mostly. I thought of the car to be a shuttle and my father to be a stranger. I talked and talked in a way that was liberating. I thank the desert, the blueness of the mountains, and the vastness of the land that allowed me to purge. I told him how afraid I was to die—how certain I was that my grandmother plumped then sanded back into the earth. I told him that I thought he would leave us, and that my mother would lock herself in the bathroom forever and we would have to live off of spaghetti and peanut butter jelly sandwiches. And then I started to describe stars, space, and this color of blue that was neither dark nor light. I told him that I imagined this color blue to be a higher place in heaven. I wanted to float in it, to swim, kick out my legs, be a part of life without ever having to endure it.

My father said, You have to have faith that we will eventually see things from a different place. It’s not our time yet, and when it is, it will be.

And if we don’t, what difference will it make?

My father was shaded by shadows in the car. His hair was thinning. His arms were thin. The orange streetlights passed us and provided momentary sparks of gold. My father looked older to me. I looked down at my hands as they turned yellow, then black, yellow, then black. I thought about saying something, screaming out, but instead I imagined my hands melting under an Arizona sunrise.


Adriana Gonzalez lives, writes, and works in Seattle, Washington. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and her work has been featured in Hippocampus, Label me Latin, and Cactus Heart, among others. She hails from Corona, California.

An Interview with Deanne Stillman

twentynine palms coverDeanne Stillman is the author of four books, including Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History, and Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave. In 2013, Inlandia’s online literary journal published “The Lost Children of the Inland Empire”, an excerpt from Desert Reckoning. She teaches in the UC Riverside-Palm Desert MFA Low Residency Creative Writing Program.



Cati Porter: Much of your subject matter is inspired by the west — old and new, including the Inland Empire. What brought you to this region?

Deanne Stillman: I grew up in Ohio and had been wanting to escape for as long as I can remember. My father used to read the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “Eldorado,” to me when I was little. I would vanish into it, and later started to read Mary Austen, Willa Cather, Native American myths; Tony Hillerman was a professor of mine at UNM – an early trail guide. Also, I grew up around horses; my mother was an “exercise boy” at the racetrack, and that fueled my wanderlust. I was writing as a little girl as well, and knew I wanted to continue. Everything came together when I got out of Dodge, and, well, came to Dodge.


CP: In 2013, a year after Desert Reckoning was published, Inlandia brought you out to present for us at the Riverside Public Library, and it happened the same week the Christopher Dorner manhunt took place. What was that like?

DS: Strangely, Desert Reckoning – about a manhunt – merged with the Dorner manhunt as it was unfolding. One of the characters in my book, Rande Linville, lives in Big Bear, and had spotted Dorner’s burning truck during the search. He alerted cops, putting them on Dorner’s tail. Weirdly, Rande was planning to come to my talk that night, but his neighborhood was locked down as I was speaking! Remember the sirens? That was cops chasing Dorner. Also, the cabin where Dorner was killed was owned by some people from the Antelope Valley, where my book takes place. In the end, Dorner went out in a blaze of glory, like Donald Kueck, the hermit I wrote about. He had probably seen the coverage; I wrote about it for Rolling Stone and the manhunt became the template for other law enforcement agencies.


CP: Former Inlandia Literary Laureate Gayle Brandeis says of your work, “One of the greatest gifts of this book is how Deanne Stillman is able to open our hearts to people we might otherwise judge or dismiss.” How is it that you are able to paint such a complex portrait of the people you write about?

DS: Certain stories call me; they are place-based, generally, with the desert as a character. I’m sympatico with the people who live there, due to my riches-to-rags childhood which took my family from the right side of the tracks to the wrong side in about 24 hours. Suddenly we were persona non grata as far as certain relatives were concerned. I learned about America’s dirty little secret, class, at a young age. There were castaways, and I had become one.


CP: This is the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of  Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, about two girls killed by a Marine in Twentynine Palms after the Gulf War. What drove you to write this particular book?

DS: I was hiking in Joshua Tree National Park and afterwards, I stopped at a bar for a drink. I heard people gossiping about two girls who had been “sliced up by a Marine.” I asked about them and was told that they were “just some trash in town.” That hit me hard and I knew I would tell their story.


CP: Twentynine Palms was an LA Times “best book of the year” and bestseller, and Hunter Thompson called it “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer”.  It’s taught in many college literary nonfiction classes, yet remains controversial. Can you talk about that?

DS: The town depends on the Marines and tourism for income. In part, my book is about a Marine with a history of violence towards women, and the culture that aggravated his behavior. The murders of Mandi Scott and Rosalie Ortega happened on dollar-drink night, which was Marine payday, when violence spiked. Twentynine Palms, which I love by the way, is the portal into Joshua Tree National Park. Some town elders were concerned that my book would drive tourists away. But to this day, people tell me they have visited Twentynine Palms because they love the way I wrote about the desert.


CP: All of your work features heavy material — a mustang massacre, the killing of two girls, a hermit who digs his own grave and commits suicide by cop.   Does this affect your emotional well-being?

DS: Yes, it does. It’s one of the reasons my books take years to write. Sometimes I have to step away. Incidentally, people come to me with violent stories all of the time. I am generally not interested. There must be a way in for me, and most stories of crime are smaller than the sum of their parts. I simply cannot write those.


CP: Your book Mustang will soon be released on audio with an all-star cast: Anjelica Huston, Frances Fisher, John Densmore (the drummer in the Doors)…. What has the process been like, seeing your book move into an audio format, and, more importantly, did you get to meet Anjelica Huston?

DS: Well, the cast is an embarrassment of riches, and they sound great! Everyone is now involved in the wild horse campaign, and some were before Mustang came out, such as John Densmore. I met Anjelica Huston some time ago; she had optioned Twentynine Palms.


CP: You’re also an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, with credits going back to the 80s teen television show “Square Pegs” and a recent play, “Star Maps”, performed at the Ink Fest series at the Hudson Theatres in LA.   What other projects do you have on the horizon?

DS: My next book, with roots in Mustang, is Blood Brothers: The Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, which I’m writing for Simon and Schuster.

Listen to the Issues

Or listen to all the issues at once:

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 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.

Cynthia Covert

Elegy For Rufus, My Mentor And Friend

Gentle lord of the flowers, winter red, spring white,
Nurturing crops for market,
Toiling day and night.

Botanical cycles turn, those immortal keepers of time.
Age descends upon the Maestro,
Sounding its final chime.

The baton is passed.  Cycles proceed without end.
Russet hummingbirds circle the fountain.
You are missed my old friend.

Cynthia Covert is a longtime resident of Corona, California.  She is a horticulturist with an active garden design and consulting business.  Cynthia is also a cellist with the Corona Symphony Orchestra and the cello teacher for the string conservatory (Youth Symphony, Corona Symphony Conservatory Inland Empire, CA). Cynthia discovered creative writing in 2001 when she studied memoir writing at the UCR extension center and continues her work with local workshops such as Inlandia.

Cynthia is in Matt Nadelson’s workshop at the Corona Public Library.

Matt Nadelson

What is Poetry?

Upon hearing poems that don’t rhyme or follow a metrical pattern, new members of my writers’ workshop often ask me what poetry is then, if not meter and rhyme?

And this is a very good and fair question, one that deserves an answer.

Follow this link for the full essay, What is Poetry? by Matt Nadelson

Matthew Nadelson earned his BA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside and his MFA in Creative Writing from San Diego State University.  His poems and non fiction prose pieces have appeared in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Ars Medica, Avocet: A Journal of Nature Poems, Blue Collar Review, ByLine Magazine, Chiron Review, Connotation Press, Cliterature, The Inflectionist Review, Inlandia: A Literary Journey, JMMW, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and Whistling Shade, among other literary journals, and in the anthologies Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude and America Remembered, among others. His first poetry collection, American Spirit, was published in August 2011 by Finishing Line Press, and his second and third poetry collections are scheduled for publication in 2015 and 2016.

Elisha Holt


There is no immediacy.

The blood courses
in the cartilage of your ear.

Listen to the breath
of the prickly pear
the scent of its red
fruit. Listen
with the eyes of your tongue.

Snake scales undulate against sand.
Primrose, essence of serpentine.


Place a pebble within the mark of each fang.
Suck the heat in through your pores.
Stare directly into the sun.

Become a Mountain

of lizard bones
grinding itself into sand
the sockets of your
eyes blacken with ants
a dry wash
an expanse of vultures hopping
a carrion dance
your skull crawls to feathers
your hair rootless winds
into strands of a recluse’s web
braids into the nests of cliff swallows
a framework for mud and bird
saliva bones
each cell of your skin crumbling sprouts
tufts of crucifixion thorn
(a forest of crucifixion thorn)
your meat in the eye-glint of 10,000 coyotes
your sap flows into the blood of mesquite
your nectar moonflowers in the bellies of wasps
the saguaro is peeling back from its bones
the desert is
each crystal nerve of your spine
aware of its place
buffeting in the dust storm

Elisha Holt is a second year poet in Cal State University, San Bernardino’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He is a former farm hand, apiarist, forklift driver, dishwasher, and juvenile delinquent. His work has appeared in Apercus Quarterly, Inlandia: A Literary Journey, Badlands, as well as other places. This is his moment.

George Djuric

Le Bapteme de Solitude

Herman Ehrenberg (1816 – October 9, 1866) is the namesake of Ehrenberg, Arizona. A native of Germany, Ehrenberg joined the military volunteer unit the New Orleans and fought against Mexico in the Texas Revolution. He was one of few survivors of the Goliad Massacre. His memoirs of the Revolution were published in Germany in the 1840s and translated into English in the 20th century.

A theory held by historians Clarence Wharton and Natalie Ornish is that Ehrenberg was Jewish. This is based primarily on hearsay from Barry Goldwater, whose grandfather was a close friend of Ehrenberg.

About 5 miles east of North Shore, CA, lies Dos Palmas. It was one of the main stage stops on the Bradshaw trail, which ran from 1862 till the coming of the Southern Pacific railroad in 1876. Mysteries and legends have always surrounded Dos Palmas.

A letter from Dos Palmas Station from Nov. 1873 stated: ‘The son of old Chino Theodore from Yuma came to the station recently about dark, on foot, and nearly dead for water. He said he had left his father and a boy, out forty miles on the desert, without water and nearly dead for the want of it, having been without it for nearly three days when he left them twenty four hours before. Joe Dittier, the station keeper, and Hank Brown started the next morning with a team and plenty of water to find them. After going twenty-five miles they came upon the old man. He had found a cask of water that had been left by surveyors. One of the parties stayed with him, and the other went to look for the boy. After going fifteen miles he was discovered stretched out under a bush, naked and almost dead – his tongue being swollen and black, and blood running out of his nose and ears. He was brought to life after two hours of hard work, having been without water for five days and nights. Their three horses died. The old man said that if he had not lost his knife he would have cut his own throat and ended the misery.’

Herman Ehrenberg was murdered there on the night of Oct. 6th 1866 as he slept outside on a pallet. Legend has it that he was carrying $3,500.00 in gold from the La Paz gold fields in Arizona back to Los Angles. Newspapers reported that it was by Indians, but some have even come to believe that it may have been by the station keeper himself, Mr. Smith. He was buried the next day, close to the station.

When the Southern Pacific Railroad came through the Coachella Valley, from Yuma to Los Angles, they established a train stop called Dos Palmas. It was 260’ below level. When the Colorado River broke its levies, causing the floods of 1905 through 1907 which would eventually form today’s Salton Sea, the train station disappeared underneath its waters.

It is well documented that a family from Texas passed through Dos Palmas and while there, their baby died and was buried next to the grave of Herman Ehrenberg. The ‘baby white’ headstone was carved in 1906 and placed on the grave by thirty-year resident Frank Coffey, who had prospected the Chuckwalla Mountains and surrounding area since about 1885, and was also known as the mayor of Dos Palmas.

Seldom are legends of both desert treasure and sunken ships together. There is one place in the desert southwest where this phenomenon exists, due to a combination of naturally occurring geologic features and a series of historical events. The Salton Sea lies in a depression in the earth’s crust 227 feet below sea level. Marine fossils have been found that indicate the Sea was once a continuation of the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) extending through the Imperial Valley as far north as Palm Springs.

As the Colorado River, quite different now than it was hundreds of years ago, carved out the Grand Canyon, tons of silt and sediment were deposited at the mouth forming an enormous delta, which continued to increase in size until it separated the Imperial Valley from the Sea of Cortez. Prior to closing off this sea route it was possible for ships to sail north beyond where the Salton Sea is now.

Reports by emigrants, prospectors, and other travelers suggested an ancient ship lying in the desert sands, subsequently buried and uncovered by the blowing, shifting sands have persisted for many years. The now crumbling, torn out books about this golden opportunity were never written. A story appeared in The Los Angeles Star in its Nov. 12, 1870 edition that ‘Charley Clusker and a party started out again this morning to find the mythical ship upon the desert this side of Dos Palmas. Charley made the trip three or four weeks ago, but made the wrong chute and mired his wagon fifteen miles from Dos Palmas. He is satisfied from information he has received from the Indians that the ship is no myth. He is prepared with a good wagon, pack saddles, and planks to cross the sandy ground.’

The Star printed another story on Dec. 1 that ‘Charley Clusker and party returned from the desert yesterday, just as we were going to press. They had a hard time of it, but they have succeeded in their effort. He was without food or water, under a hot broiling sun for over twenty-four hours, and came near perishing. The ship has been found! with crosses and broken masts, mostly buried in the sand several miles from the nearest water. Charley returns to the desert today, to reap the fruition of his labors.

He was never heard from again.

Antonio de Fierro Blanco in his historical book, The Journey of the Flame, states that after filling his 50 ton ship with a sufficiently large fortune in pearls, Iturbe – the great coastal pilot sailing along the California Gulf Coast in 1615 exploring for the king and fishing for pearls on his own account – sailed on past San Felipe in search of the Colorado River mouth. Instead he found a ‘vast sea extending far inland (presumably the Imperial Valley). Assuming he had found the long sought Straits of Anian, the fabled passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, he sailed on and eventually went aground on a sandbar in a vain attempt to locate a continuation of the Straits. From the highest mountain he saw a vast body of water winding toward the northeast (the Colorado River), but he could not find the entrance.

On his return voyage to the south he could not find the narrow opening to the Vermillion Sea and again went aground. ‘They left their ship and its vast treasure of pearls upright as though sailing, but with its keel buried in sand,’ reports Fierro Blanco.

Salton Sea’s bright lights would quickly fade in the 1970s when the sea’s water level began rising from several years of heavy rains and increasing agricultural drainage. Shorefront homes, businesses, resorts, and marinas flooded several times until the water stabilized in 1980 after a series of conservation measures to reduce field run-off. However, for the many resort areas, it was too late. The salt and fertilizers of the run-off had accumulated to such a degree that they had reached toxic levels, which began a cycle of decay. As algae fed on the toxins, it created massive amounts of rotten smelling matter floating upon the surface of the lake and suffocated many of the fish. Within just a few years, the resorts had closed, the marinas were abandoned, and those who could afford to, had moved, leaving in their wake abandoned businesses and homes and scattered junk.

He can see a coyote as he trots toward him across the sand and through the underbrush, with a pace no coyote can keep up with. It looks like a coyote, but it is twice the ordinary size. Only God knows that for sure, but he thinks it is not a coyote. There are things that appear to be coyotes, but are not. If it is carrying something in its mouth then it is not a coyote, but I cannot see clearly, the speed blurs the image. He heard of a woman from El Centro. She was killed. It happened when he was a little boy. The woman, they said, used to turn into a female dog. And one night the dog went into the village to steal a chicken. The villager killed the dog with a shotgun, and at the very moment the dog died the woman died in her own hut.

He stands out into the sandy plain and stands awhile alone. Presently, he will either shiver and hurry back inside the gates, or he will go on standing there and let something very peculiar happen to him, something that everyone who lives there has undergone and which the French call le bapteme de solitude. It is a unique sensation, and it has nothing to do with loneliness, for loneliness presupposes memory. Here in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like the Fourth of July flares, even memory disappears – a strange, and by no means pleasant, process of reintegration begins inside him, and he has the choice of fighting against it, and insisting on remaining the person he has always been, or letting it take its course. For no one who has stayed in the desert for a while is quite the same as when he came.

Reliving Titian’s The Death of Actaeon, this man is dying, mauled by a ferocious yellowish-gray coyote who has already sunk its teeth into his waist and ripped open his flesh from hip to knee. The bloody viscera of the his thigh stands out in rust-colored contrast to the brown toga covering the rest of his body, and the sharp splash of red across his hip can be read as the exposed ridge of his pelvic bone. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.

As he reaches the point of great physical distress, he listens as the coroner pronounces him dead. He begins to hear an uneasy noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving rapidly through a long unlit tunnel. He finds himself outside his body but still in its physical vicinity, spots his corpse down there. From this vantage point he observes the autopsy while in a state of emotional upheaval.

Ultimately he gets a grip of this circumstance, glimpses the spirits of buddies and long lost relatives, reruns the highlights of his life to date, feels love floating around, then reaches the doors of perception leading into the afterlife.

The Other Side is right here among us, another dimension superimposed on our own world, some three feet above our version of ‘ground level.’ Its vibrational frequency is much higher than ours, which is why we don’t perceive it. People who have seen spirits invariably describe them as ‘floating above the ground.’ There is good reason for that – they are floating above our ground. On the ground level of The Other Side. We’re actually ghosts in their world, sharing the same space but unreal by comparison, since it is in the spirit world that all being are completely and fully alive.

The Death of Actaeon can also be seen as a very personal statement: a great artist’s final meditation on the power of art. Actaeon dies after an accidental vision of beauty, the crime of seeing the virgin goddess Diana at her bath. He is forced to experience deeply the terrible power of beautiful things, a power that can transform and destroy.

A large coyote spotted around Dos Palmas was killed Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2013, according to Salton City police, reports the Desert Sun. Residents of this tiny desert community were startled to see a humongous coyote roaming their neighborhood on Tuesday night. The animal was spotted near Main and Psiville around 9 p.m. Police arrived in the area just in time to see the coyote run into a ravine near Dos Palmas wash. A short pursuit ensued and police fired a warning shot to get the animal to return to the desert. Officials say the animal returned to the community, and due to its aggressive behavior, it was shot and killed.

But whose undimmed human consciousness is trapped inside the body of the coyote beast?

George Djuric published a critically acclaimed collection of short stories, a book read like the gospel by his Yugoslav peers, The Metaphysical Stories. Djuric is infatuated with the fictional alchemy that is thick as amber and capable of indelibly inscribing on the face of the 21st century literature. He lives in the desert near Palm Springs, California. Djuric is the winner of the 2014 Cardinal Sins Magazine’s Nonfiction Contest. His stories have been published in thirty plus literary journals and anthologies, from Hobart to Santa Clara Review, Taj Mahal to Los Angeles Review.

Juanita E. Mantz

A Shit Day


The day started out bad.  Like bad days always do, it got worse.

Ontario airport was where it started.  Ontario airport is the kind of airport no one wants to go to, in the middle of nowhere in Ontario, California about sixty miles from Los Angeles.

Ontario is known as the apex of the Inland Empire (the IE) which is like being called king turd on turd island.  The IE was where my parents had lived for years and where I grew up.  Growing up, our house was the notorious one where all the screaming and yelling came from, the bright red and blue lights of the police cars signaling our family’s dysfunction for our neighbors.

I had taken the week off from my attorney gig at a large law firm in San Francisco to see my dad who was sick.  My twin sister Jackie picked me up.  We fight sometimes, knock down drag out fights, but Jackie and I are close.  We are so close that we call each other wonder twins.  My mom said we had our own language as kids and that we read each other’s minds.

I decided that the only way to help my dad feel better was to get him some fish.

Some people think of fish and picture broiled sole or freshly grilled Halibut.  In my family, we like Long John’s Silvers.  Their fish is the ultimate in fast food processed crispy deliciousness and their fish basket comes with their deep fried hush puppy potatoes.

Food equals comfort in my family and the more fried the comfort the better.

We hit the Long John Silvers on Mountain in Ontario and picked up the fish.  Jackie and I walked up to my parent’s apartment in Mira Loma greasy bag of fish in hand.  Before I could ring the bell, my mom opened the door with a sullen sounding grunt.  My mom is not mysterious.  She wears her anger on her sleeve like most people wear their hearts.

“What took you so god damn long?” she said as she walked past me.   “Watch your dad.  I need a new cell phone.”   She left with a squeal of her car’s tires without looking back.

And there we were, my twin sister Jackie and I and my dad.  I gave my dad the fish.  He didn’t want to eat it.  He had lost so much weight that he looked like a little bird.  My dad used to be a big guy and now he was bone thin in his white t shirt.  I felt a rock in my chest and couldn’t breathe for a moment when I saw him.

And I made Dad eat the fish.  I admit it, I made him.  I am the oldest twin and Jackie and our younger sister Annie call me the bossy one and I call Jackie the fucked up middle child and Jackie and I call Annie the spoiled baby.

I admit I bossed him into it.  I said, “Dad eat the fish, you’ll feel better”.   He nodded.  My dad took one bite of the fish and started choking.

Jackie and I we looked at each other.   What the fuck are we going to do?  We communicated with looks, not saying anything.   We can read each other minds like I said.

Time stood still for a moment.  And my dad was choking.  It seemed as if he was choking to death and I thought to myself, he’s gonna die from that god damn piece of fish that I made him eat.

With just instinct guiding me, I ran outside and screamed into the air, “Help!, Help me someone!” and then out of nowhere help arrived.

A man came running from the golf course next door and mind you it’s a crappy unkempt 9 hole golf course.  The man had a UCR hat on.  The guy must have been in his sixties but was spry as hell for a senior.  He ran into the house like Superman.  Usually I would have been embarrassed for someone to see my parent’s messy house, but this time I was grateful.

Superman didn’t hesitate and grabbed my father out of the hospice bed and gave him the Heimlech maneuver and the piece of fried fish flew out and hit the wall.

And we all stood still for a moment.  Jackie, myself, my dad and old man Superman.  Superman disappeared before I could say thank you and my dad looked at me with his blue eyes and said with a grunt, “You almost killed me Jenny.”

Jackie and I laughed but I thought I almost killed him.  I did.  And I think that was the moment I realized that my dad was going to die.  I didn’t kill him with the fish but the cancer was going to take him.  It had to.  You don’t get that sick, you’re not on hospice unless you are going to die.  And even Superman can’t fix that.

A couple of hours later, my mom came home and my younger sister Annie came by with her kids Selena and Sophie.  I remember Selena, who was six, hugging my dad goodbye.  “Love you grandpa,” she said.  And Annie held Baby Sophie up to my dad for him to kiss and he nuzzled her fingers and smiled.  My dad was back to himself for a moment.

Annie left and it was me, my mom and Jackie sitting with my dad.  Really it was just me because my mom and Jackie were useless.  Jackie was texting and my mom was in bed reading one of her Harlequin romance novels.  Mom had always loved those stupid dime store romance novels.  Mom had a whole library of them and would let Jackie and I read them when we were in elementary school.  Dad built her bookshelves in the garage to house all of the white paperbacks.  Maybe right now the fantasies were comforting.

The bathing nurse arrived and my dad said he had to use the bathroom and the nurse took him to the bathroom.

Then I heard the bathing nurse scream.  “Help me, Help me!”

My dad died right there on the toilet, his pants around his ankles like fucking Elvis.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I found out later that a lot of people die on the toilet.  It’s because when you take a shit your blood pressure drops.  And his incompetent Medicare-provided bathing nurse didn’t know CPR.

There would be no angels singing.  There would be no beautiful Hallmark last breath kind of moment.  It would just be him on the toilet.  What a shitty way to die.

The rest was a rush like a Twilight Zone movie on fast forward.  Surreal and real at the same time.

I called 911 screaming, “Please help me, my father.  He’s not breathing.”

My voice didn’t sound like my own.  The paramedics got there in 3 minutes.  I timed it while crying, looking down at my watch hyperventilating outside in the cool Riverside air.

When the paramedics got there, they started CPR.  They didn’t seem hopeful.  After about five minutes, one of the male paramedics asked me, “Should we go on?”

That is when I knew I had to be the one to decide whether to let him go.  Was I going to let him go?  Could I do this?  I didn’t know.  Could I let my dad go? I kept asking myself.  What should I do?

As one paramedic’s fingers thumped into Dad’s chest and the other breathed into his mouth they asked me again, for the second time, “Should we go on?”

Dad looked like a bloated fish lying there.  And my mind flashed back to that fried fish from earlier.  That damn fish basket was haunting me.  I looked back down at my dad.  He wasn’t breathing- they were making him breathe but he wasn’t breathing.

And the paramedic looked at me for a third time and said, “Should we go on?”. I looked at my mom.  And my mom hugged me for the first time in my whole life, except maybe when I was a baby. She must have hugged me when I was a baby, right?
My mom and I moaned into each other’s arms while my twin sister Jackie sat outside against a tree texting.

Jackie was standing against a tree with that vacant house look she gets on her face like she’s not there.  Our dad was dying and she couldn’t help me.  My mom couldn’t help me.  What was I going to do?

“Should we go on?” the paramedics asked me again, for the fourth time.

Thoughts raced through my head.  I don’t fucking know.  I don’t want to do this.  Why do I have to do this?  Is it because I am the oldest? If you want to be technical, I am not  the oldest.  Jackie and I are twins.  I am a thirty-four year old lawyer.  I am also the high school drop-out in my family as my mom reminds me periodically.  My route to USC Law was a detour rather than a straight path after I royally fucked up high school.  This straight A student ditched and dozed her way through her senior year.  You see all that childhood chaos had to go somewhere.  I am like an ABC After School Special, one titled: “How to make it through a crazy childhood intact.”

And where the hell is Annie?  She always gets out of everything.  When Mom would go bat shit crazy when we were little Annie never got hit.  Annie always hid under the bed.  And now she’s not here. Annie was the baby who always got everything she wanted. Annie got the cherry apple bike, us twins got the yellow banana bikes and they called Jackie and I the banana bike twins, she got the white fur coat we got the dark brown fur coats.  Why did Annie get out of it?  Why was I stuck with this burden?  She was the lucky one.

And then one of the paramedics asked me again, for what must have been the fifth time, “Should we go on?”  They were going on.  One female paramedic was breathing into his mouth and the male paramedic was pumping his heart with his hands.  And my dad was just lying there.

And, I just remembered when I was little, Dad driving in his sixteen-wheeler listening to Johnny Cash on the 8 track smoking a Kent cigarette one hand on the wheel, his beer in a green foam sleeve.

I remembered everything.  I remembered going to Vegas with him when I was 22 in a Winnebago that broke down twenty miles from Vegas with him and my mom and Annie.

And we sat in the Winnebago all night until they towed us the next morning.  And I remembered Dad catching on fire from a Tiki torch when he got drunk at a family reunion. I was in my late twenties.

And I thought about the good times and the bad.  All the fighting and the cussing.  All that childhood chaos.  When he got drunk, Mom and him would fight like maniacs.  I grew up in a war zone of sorts, but there were good times.  I blamed him for everything, for all of the chaos and it wasn’t even all his fault.  Dad was a drunk, but Mom was crazy when she got angry.  Dad always said he couldn’t leave because he was afraid Mom would hurt us.  Maybe she would have, maybe she wouldn’t have, but we never found out because he stayed.  Dad was always there, even if he was drunk.  And a drunk dad was better than no dad at all.  Playing cards with us little girls on a Friday night when Mom had to work late at the restaurant.  Taking us to the Pomona Drive In on Saturday nights.  Making us breakfast every Sunday morning.  Pancakes with jelly inside or fried bologna and eggs.  Dad was always there.

The paramedic said the question again, “Should we go on?”

I took a deep breath and let go one word.


Juanita E. Mantz (“JEM”) grew up in Ontario, California with her two sisters, manic mother, and alcoholic father. After dropping out of high school at seventeen, Juanita took her GED and waitressed her way through UC Riverside and USC Law. After law school, Juanita worked at large law firms in Houston and San Francisco, but she moved back to the Inland Empire after her father died suddenly and found her bliss as a Deputy Public Defender in Riverside. Her stories have been published in The Acentos Review, East Jasmine Review and XO Jane. She is a four-time participant in VONA’s Summer Writing Workshop and is hard at work on her YA memoir, “My Inland Empire: Hometown Stories”. You can read her Life of JEM blog at

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.