INLANDIA LITERARY JOURNEYS: Writing helped family pursue justice

o5hej0-b88676034z.120160411110922000gh0fr950.10A mother’s worst nightmare became my reality. The midnight phone call from a sheriff’s deputy waking me with horrible news: My son, Mark, had been “in a collision and he did not survive.”

The rest is a huge blur. My adult son was the victim of a hit-and-run crime, and he was unable to defend himself. His voice was silenced. It became our family responsibility to ensure that Mark’s voice would be heard.

During the criminal trial, we were offered the opportunity to address the judge by writing a victim impact statement. It allowed us to tell the court about the effects, the impacts of Mark’s death and the damage the offender had caused.

We read our statements out loud during the sentencing hearing.

I held a large photo of Mark to put a real face on a judicial case number. Like Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” I wanted to scream, but I remained calm. Mark’s voice resonated through me, through his father, his son, his brother and his aunt. We spoke for him.

Victims are seldom called to testify in court, and if they do testify, they must respond to narrow, specific questions.

But the California Constitution allows victims to present written and oral statements. These statements are often the victims’ only opportunity to participate in the criminal justice process, or to confront the offenders who have harmed them.

These are testimonials about how a crime has affected them. They generally are included in the presentencing report presented to the judge and are allowed during the sentencing process.

When a victim is deceased, as in our Mark’s case, the relatives have the right to be heard. A judge may use information from these statements to help determine an offender’s sentence.

I welcomed the opportunity to articulate to the judge how my son’s death was a horrible loss to our family. And I was able to list prior offenses committed by the offender that had been stricken by the judge during a pretrial hearing.

I also helped Mark’s 12-year old son, Paul, write a statement about how the loss of his father affected him. His Uncle Leonard read Paul’s statement at the trial.

There are benefits to writing an effective statement. Fairness and justice for your loved one is the main goal. It could be your best shot at persuading the judge. Like writing in a journal, the reflection process and the act of writing down your thoughts about the crime’s impacts help with emotional healing.

Indeed, it improved my satisfaction with the criminal justice system, especially when the jury ruled in favor of the people of California, as they did in our case.

The Riverside Main Library has stacks of volumes in the 800-section that may help those unsure of how to write a statement. For example, Beth Kephart’s “Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir” and Brandon Royal’s “The Little Red Writing Book” are full of advice and recommendations.

When your case goes to trial, be prepared for the bad memories to be relived all over again. Attend all court hearings, especially the trial. It demonstrates that the victim is loved and supported. Keep notes of the proceedings and visit the Superior Court website frequently to review the minutes and other documents regarding the case.


Inlandia Institute president Frances J. Vasquez writes about the importance of victim statements

Frances J. Vasquez

Remembering Anne Frank

For many of us Gentiles, our introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust often begins with reading The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne’s parents presented her with a red-checked diary for her thirteenth birthday on June 12, 1942. Anne was enjoying a relatively normal life for a Jewish girl in occupied Amsterdam. She lived with her mother, father, and sister, and attended school like others her age. But less than a month later, their lives changed forever. Anne and her family went into hiding in the “secret annex” of her father’s warehouse and office building. During the two-years of their oppressive hiding period, eight people stayed indoors twenty-four hours a day. The Frank family’s love of literature helped sustain them until they were arrested by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps.

World War II was raging. Nazi Germany had invaded the Netherlands. Life was dangerous for Jews. This is the context in which Anne wrote. She became a prolific writer while in hiding. The pen was her best friend. The teenager aspired to be a journalist and to become a famous writer after the war. She documented her two years in hiding in her world famous diary and wrote, “one day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews!” Anne also expressed herself in short stories, fables, and other creative endeavors. Writing helped Anne cope with the emotional and physical rigors of living in confinement. She channeled her fears and tension into written descriptions of daily events with wit, humor, compassion, and candor.

I purchased a copy of Anne Frank’s Tales from the Secret Annex during a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. This edition was first published in London in 2010 by Halban Publishers, Ltd. The book includes some of Anne’s personal reminiscences, daydreams, and essays. It also features her fanciful fables and short stories. One of the essays, “Do You Remember?” describes Anne’s wistful memories of school days at the Jewish Lyceum. She writes about “many a delightful hour talking about school, teachers, adventures, and boys. Back when our lives were still normal, everything was so wonderful.” Anne remained hopeful of returning to school as she recounted other memories prefaced by “Do you remember?”

Indeed, in the best interests of human dignity, we remember Anne and her writing, and the horrific genocide that resulted in the death of millions of European Jews by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust of World War II. This Wednesday, January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Resolution, designated by the United Nations General Assembly on November 1, 2005 declares that member nations “honor the memory of Holocaust victims, and encourages the development of educational programs about Holocaust history to help prevent future acts of genocide. It rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an event and condemns all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief.”

Why January 27? On this date in 1945 the largest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated. Lamentably, only 21 days earlier, Anne’s mother, Edith Frank-Hollander, perished at Auschwitz. Anne and her sister, Margot Frank, died in the Bergensen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp less than two months later in March 1945. Their father, Otto Frank, survived Auschwitz and was the only “secret annex” inhabitant to outlive the hell of war to carry on his work with vision and tenacity.

After reading and publishing his beloved daughter’s diary, Otto Frank redirected his heartache and sorrow to tell her story. He dedicated the rest of his long life to work on combating discrimination and prejudice: human dignity and rights for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, and religion. Since the first publication of Anne’s diary in 1947, over 40 million copies have been published in 70 languages. In 1960, the hiding place was converted into a museum. It is one of the world’s most visited museums. Otto Frank posited, “to build a future you have to know the past.” When I visited the Anne Frank House in June 2015, the long lines of people coiled for blocks. I didn’t mind. A visit to the Frank’s secret annex was a significant pilgrimage.

Anne was an extraordinary girl whose maturity and wisdom is evident in her writing. In Tales from the Secret Annex her fables and short stories exhibit creative optimism and hope as she transports to other realms. “The Wise Old Gnome,” “The Guardian Angel,” and “Blurry the Explorer” are a few of numerous examples of Anne’s ability to see good prevail over evil and sorrow. The enduring interest and inspiration of Anne Frank’s writing reflect the continued relevance of the topics she expressed in her diary. While there is no happy ending to Anne’s life, her writing is her enduring legacy. The words of one girl made an indelible difference. Anne fulfilled her dream to become a famous author. Brava, Anne Frank! Her memory continues to inspire awe in new generations of readers.


Frances J. Vasquez is president of the Inlandia Institute board and a member of Inlandia’s Riverside writing workshop.

For more literary journeys, visit the Inlandia Literary Journeys Blog or the Inlandia Institute.

Books Illuminate the Days of the Dead by Frances J. Vasquez

In “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” writer-poet Octavio Paz said, “The opposition between life and death was not so absolute to the ancient Mexicans as it is to us.

“Life extended into death, and vice versa. Death was not the natural end of life but one phase of an infinite cycle.”

That view is never clearer than during festivities for Days of the Dead, or Días de los Muertos, when the spirits of our departed loved ones come alive in joyful celebration.

Rituals surrounding the holiday have been practiced by indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica for thousands of years. They believe that the souls of the dead have divine permission to return to earth each year to visit their relatives. Offerings of flowers and food are set out to welcome them. It is a time for feasting and reunion – not a somber occasion.

Celebrations are held on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, for deceased children; and Nov. 2, All Souls Day, in honor of deceased adults.

The relatively recent phenomenon of Day of the Dead in the United States illustrates the power of cultural traditions as opportunities for people to exchange ideas and learn from each other.

The Riverside Public Library offers interesting, authoritative books about the tradition. I recommend “Día de Muertos en México – Oaxaca,” by Mary J. Andrade, and “Fiesta: Days of the Dead & Other Mexican Festivals,” by Chloë Sayer.

Both books are beautifully illustrated. Andrade’s is bilingual and Sayer’s is in English.

Death for the indigenous of Mexico signified a stage in a constant cycle, not an end of life. Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures kept skulls as trophies and displayed them to honor the dead. The skulls symbolize death and rebirth. In Mexico, the deceased are honored at cemeteries, homes and businesses through elaborate altars displaying offerings of candles, incense, photos, memorabilia, favorite foods, beverages, and flowers (particularly cempasuchitl, or golden marigolds).

Why marigolds? According to legend, during the Aztec travels in Mesoamerica, the ruler Tenoch led the Nahua tribe in search of a place to settle. Many people died during the arduous journey. The travelers stopped to pray to the sun god for flowers to honor the places where their loved ones perished. A day later the fields were covered with beautiful golden cempasuchitl. The ancestors adorned the graves with this flower, hence the traditional flower of the dead.

Legendary Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada used calacas, or “skeletal” images, as political and social satire – making fun of the aristocracy during the repressive Porfirio Diaz presidency. Posada’s caricatures in Mexico’s newspapers sent direct messages that even the illiterate could understand: the disdain for the corrupt regime. His illustrations successfully molded public opinion against Diaz, and served as the “face” of the Mexican Revolution. Posada’s calacas are favorite images in U.S. Day of the Dead memorabilia.

UNESCO declared the city of Oaxaca in 1987 as part of the cultural heritage for mankind, and in 2003, UNESCO recognized Day of the Dead celebrations as part of the intangible cultural heritage of world humanity. A dream came true for me last year when I traveled to Oaxaca for the weeklong Day of the Dead festivities where the meaning of the indigenous beliefs are kept intact.

According to Andrade, the author, “The new gods have yet to displace ancient ones.” It’s the season in which bright magenta and golden orange flowers cover the expansive fields like a fine cape.

The Central Valleys of Mexico are sprinkled with rural towns imbued in tradition and culture. I visited several Zapoteca and Mixteca quasi-ceremonial centers: Teotitlán del Valle, Etla, Mitla, Ocotlán, Tlacolula, San Martin de Tilcajete, and Zaachila where the land is infused with history, legend and folklore.

Subtle variations in the festivities reflect each town’s particular cultural character. Everyone anxiously awaits this short but substantive season when aromas stimulate one’s senses to reflect on those who have departed physically, and share in famous Oaxacan delicacies: mole, bread, tamales, chocolate, mezcal. The capital city of Oaxaca is the jewel of the valleys whose architectural design is a colonial monument.

Residents hold colorful processions through the streets featuring large puppet figures. Elaborate altars are installed everywhere: homes, businesses, hotels, restaurants and cemeteries.

The Inland area’s premier Day of the Dead festival will be held 3-10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, in downtown Riverside on Market Street between University Avenue and 12th Street. The family-friendly celebration will highlight a procession of Aztec danzas to invite the spirits to dance and rejoice during this symbolic annual reunion. Of special interest are the family and community altars along 10th Street from Market Street to the Ysmael R. Villegas Medal of Honor Monument.

Visitors to the community altar are invited to write down the names of departed loved ones and include satirical, brief poems in the form of epitaphs, or humorous anecdotes about the deceased. Admission is free.

For more information, visit www.riversideca.gov/museum/day-of-the-dead.asp.


Frances J. Vasquez is president of the Inlandia Institute board and a member of Inlandia’s Riverside writing workshop.

For more literary journeys, go to inlandiainstitute.org.

Inlandia Founder Remembered by Cati Porter

No one could ever say “no” to Marion Mitchell-Wilson.

After I began attending Inlandia events in late 2007, Marion invited me for coffee. Before my cup was empty, I had agreed to become a member of Inlandia’s Advisory Council.

Smiling, thoughtful and almost always full of energy, Marion had a way of making you want to help with her projects. And you never regretted it.

Marion, founding director of the Inlandia Institute, died a week ago after a long battle with breast cancer.

I never envisioned an Inlandia without Marion. Occasionally she would say things like, “Cati, when I retire,” but I couldn’t think past the here and now.

Even after she officially “retired” in 2012 to work on getting well, she continued to be present for me, whispering suggestions and offering solutions, serving as Inlandia’s institutional memory.

Many of us have fond memories of Marion, and how she got us involved in promoting the Inland area’s literary life. We’ll share a few thoughts here from several Inlandia board members and local writers.

FRANCES J. VASQUEZ

Marion Mitchell-Wilson cared passionately about many things and all things Inlandia: the people, their stories, and the literary expression of our regional voices. Multi-talented, she was a wonderful gourmet cook who loved to share her bounty and her kindness with others.

One Friday, I helped Marion with preparations for an Inlandia member reception being held the next day. Her amazing menu included a favorite recipe for asparagus spears roasted with orange slices in lemon-infused olive oil and orange vinaigrette. And, a reconstructed whole poached salmon with cream cheese, cucumber sauces, and other delicacies.

During several hours of washing, peeling, and slicing fruits and vegetables, I spilled water on the kitchen floor. I asked for paper towels or rags to wipe the floor with. Marion, in her efficient way, quickly turned to a drawer and handed me a large cloth towel. I bent over to wipe the spills when Marion stopped me. “No, Frances. Don’t bend. Skate like this.”

Marion tossed the towel on the floor, stepped onto it with both feet and skated gracefully around her kitchen floor. We both laughed heartily and continued with the food preparations.

ELIO PALACIOS

I met Marion at last year’s Advisory Council workshop. My first impression was how unassuming she was considering the part she had played in creating and shaping Inlandia. And her love of and dedication to Inlandia was also very apparent as was her knowledge and wisdom.

KAREN RAE KRAUT

Marion and I met in 1990 when the California Humanities Council sponsored a series of public programs on the theme of “Place” and its effect on how we experience our lives. How’s that for foreshadowing?

Our expanding group of interested people went on to receive a grant from the Humanities Council to locally sponsor the American Renaissance Chautauqua, which resulted in the formation of a non-profit organization called the Inland Empire Educational Foundation. IEEF (rhymes with leaf), as we fondly called it, sponsored reading and discussion groups and public programs for the next five years.

Marion was an important part of all these free programs, and her vision and common sense contributed greatly to their success.

ELLEN ESTILAI

It was impossible to be part of the Riverside arts and culture scene and not know Marion Mitchell-Wilson, but I really got to know her after she invited me to a meeting with Malcolm Margolin at the Riverside Main Library to talk about the literary landscape of what we would eventually come to know as Inlandia.

That meeting helped lay the groundwork for Heyday’s book, “Inlandia: A Literary Journey through California’s Inland Empire.”

When the anthology was published, no one in the community wanted that journey to end. Marion was the engine that drove the bus, and she cajoled and sweet-talked fellow travelers into hopping on.

In 2007, I retired from the Riverside Arts Council to devote more time to writing. I was hoping for a respite from meetings and committees, but Marion was having none of that. She told me she wanted me to serve on the advisory council of a new organization, the Inlandia Institute.

“It’s just a few meetings a year,” she assured me. When I demurred, she said, “There will be liquid facilitation.”

I’ve now been in for eight years, as a council member and board member, but also as a writer. Luckily for me, the Inlandia Institute emerged just as I was learning to be a writer. I cannot imagine writing without Inlandia’s support. Like many others in this unique literary community, I am indebted to Marion for her vision, strength, and yes, occasional liquid facilitation.

ENDOWMENT

When Marion first learned the cancer had returned and was terminal, she met privately with Inlandia board members and staff, sharing her one big wish: that an endowment be founded in her name, so she could ensure the future of the organization.

In keeping with Marion’s wishes, the family is requesting donations in lieu of flowers.

Contributions can be made via PayPal, using donations@inlandiainstitute.org, through CrowdRise and by mailing a check to the Inlandia Institute, 4178 Chestnut St., Riverside, Ca., 92501.

And save these dates: Aug 28 for a memorial service at the California Citrus State Historic Park, and Sept 18 for a special endowment kickoff party in Marion’s honor at the Riverside Art Museum.

E.J. Jones

Cheating


          It was early Saturday and my son, Wesley was already at the park with his friends.  Like everyone around Blythe, he started his October mornings when it was still cool, before the desert heat set in.  Tanya, my wife, was in her garden doing the same.  The house was all mine.  I picked up the paper grinning about having the morning to myself.  No honey-do’s, just me and twenty-four hours till the next football game.

          Yesterday’s mail was on the counter next to the coffee machine.  Under a refinancing mortgage flyer, there was a letter with Georgia on the return address.  I didn’t dare touch it, but nudged the flyer away with my coffee cup.  I hoped the letter was either a mistake or a bad joke because up until then I was having a good day.

It’s weird how things jump in my head.  A bad pass interference call will make me remember I left a fountain pen in my favorite shirt.  My home address written in my mother’s hand reminded me I’d hid a bottle of good bourbon in the garage two years ago.  It was a gift from my boss, and I could give a million reasons why I’d kept it, but the truth was that Ten High was good liquor.  I was taught to never throw things like that away.

Staring at the envelope made me sweat, so I dumped my coffee and poured me some of Tanya’s grapefruit juice.  I didn’t want to touch the letter, but poked at it with a spatula like it was something that might bite.  After flipping it like a pancake, I saw red lipstick where the ‘V’ sealed it shut.  I knew those lips; I’d wiped the same imprint from my forehead and cheek a hundred times as a kid.  Momma was big on kisses before school.

The juice didn’t help my sweat or the cotton in my mouth, and I figured I better do something before Tanya came in asking questions.  It was dumb, I know, but I went to get the bourbon.  Tanya nodded as I walked by.  I hadn’t had a drink without her for more than fifteen years.

The bottle was in my tool box, somewhere Wes would never be without me, and somewhere Tanya’d only be if I died.  It was a bonus from winning the company football pool, close to six-hundred dollars that went mostly to a BMX bike and pearl earrings.  I bought socks and underwear for myself because you can never really have enough.  My regional manager, Keith had tossed a lump of rubber-banded twenties on my desk and put the bourbon down next to the money.  Enjoy it, you lucky bastard was written on a post-it stuck to the bottle.  Keith was a good guy, but he was the dummy that bet Seattle every year.  Him giving me the bottle made me realize no one at work really knew me.  I thought about giving it away, but only real friends deserve quality and Tanya was my best friend.

I sat on my tool box and rested the bottle horizontal across my knee, whacking it on the ass a few times.  I’d never liked the smell of liquor and took a swig without putting it to my nose.  The heat in my stomach gave me courage I didn’t really have, and I went back for the letter.

Tanya barely looked up at me on my way back inside, so I hid behind a bush to watch her.  Turning over top soil and clearing weeds was what she loved most next to me.  She dug into the ground hard, stabbing into it like she’d been wronged.  And then real gentle she spread fresh soil around her marigolds like she was putting on a band aid.

Her braided hair was away from her face and wrapped inside my old UC Riverside cap.  We always joked that her two years there plus my two made us an educated couple.  Standing there with the bottle in my hand was stupid because if Tanya saw me peeking around the bush at her, she’d have known something was wrong, even at a glance.  I loved watching her though, especially if she didn’t know I was looking.  Whenever she felt she was alone, her beauty was effortless, coincidental.  Hell, maybe even accidental.  I was never smooth with women, but when I saw her at The Getaway, the campus bar, nursing a Jack and coke with that all alone look, I had to talk to her.  We both had a few more drinks, and I asked if we could do it again sometime.  She leaned towards me and put her hand over mine, her smooth dark skin covering my pale knuckles.  “I don’t think that would be a very good idea.”  I couldn’t accept her saying no; I was hooked.  Tanya claims she didn’t know it, but I’m sure she did.

It was hard a first:  black guys looked at her like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’  White girls glaring at me asking, “Why would you even do that?”  Not Georgia bad, but it did start fights.  We’d worked through a lot.

Seeing Tanya in her garden made me want to get on my knees beside her, bury the letter unopened, spray it with weed killer and wait to see if something beautiful would grow.  If I’d had the courage to pick up the letter earlier, I might have done just that.  But she’d smell the bourbon now.  Her nose was a good as mine.  There was a fight coming, but I didn’t want to have it just then.

Our house was a modest three bedroom, most in Blythe are.  Wes’ room is closest to the front door, but he’d never seen me take a drink and I aimed for him to never have to.  The master bedroom was at the end of the hall, but it seemed a long ways off.  The office was in between and the coolest anyway.  His and her desks were pushed up against the walls.  I sat the bottle on the floor next to mine in case I decided to try and hide it if Tanya came in.  When the silver blade slit the crease in the envelope, I saw sweat beads racing down my temple in the reflection.

The letter was only one page.  I turned it over and the back was white, blank.  If there were words that could make up for sixteen years of silence, I knew damn well they couldn’t fit on a single page.  The very first word was, Son, and it was the worst word to start with.  I dropped the letter in my lap and took a good swig.

My parents never called me, Son.  Hey You, maybe.  Boy, I heard several times, but not a word that tied us together as family.  Not since I showed up with Tanya and a wedding ring on my finger.

The third line said my father was alive, but doctors couldn’t say for how long.  I don’t understand why, but I sympathized, a lot.  I knew he was afraid to die.  And neither one of us faced our fears very well.

There was a big ink splotch in the L of We Love You.  The pen bled ink while they wondered whether love was the right word.  Momma wrote it, but I knew my father was looking over her shoulder, dictating.  She’d stopped, and then looked at him for approval.  Who knows how long before he answered.  I took my time, too, had a few drinks before reading on.

If you want to see him, it will have to be soon.  The words were supposed to be an invitation. Leaving the front door open was as far as he was willing to go.  I wasn’t sure how far I’d go.  I put the letter and the bourbon in my lap.  Looking at them, I couldn’t tell which was worse.

*

          “Hun?”  Tanya’s voice was still outside, but close.  “You didn’t turn on the AC.”
One of the things I’d hated most about drinking heavy was that time slipped.  Heat had invaded the house, and I was sure it was almost afternoon, but it felt like only minutes had passed.  I hadn’t moved except to lift the bottle to my mouth. She was beating the dirt off her sneakers before coming inside, something neither one of us could get Wes to do regularly.  I didn’t run, but I wanted to.

“You in there, Babe?”

I took one more good swig and capped the bottle; not much could have made the situation better and nothing could have made it any worse.  Tanya stared at me from the doorway, her arms pressed against the arches like she was bracing for an earthquake.

“What happened?”

She was asking whether she should hug or kill me.  I blinked and she’d covered the ten feet from the doorway to my side.  She snatched the bottle when I didn’t answer.

“My fathers dying,” I said, pointing to the letter.  “Wants to see me.”

“We’ll send a card.”

Tanya had a way of closing herself off when things got bad.  It was how she coped with her father’s drinking.  Everything about her became rigid, stone.  Nothing could penetrate and hurt her then.  She’s a good cop because of it, but I swear I don’t know her when she gets like that.  She knew she was hurting me.

“I’m going.”

“Bye.”

There was no hesitation in her response, just a reaction, concrete bouncing back a rubber ball.  She walked out with the bottle, and I heard her pour the rest in the toilet, flushing it twice, and then running water inside and pouring that out.  Without the liquor, it was just a bottle.  We both knew that.

“He’s my father,” I said when she came back.

“I’m your wife.”

I couldn’t explain what I was feeling.  She saw the confusion in my face, sighed and left.  I didn’t tell her that I was thinking about taking Wes with me.  That was for the best; she’d have handcuffed him to the frame of the house.

Looking out the office window, across Seventh Street to the hard and hilly dirt where Wes practices his bike jumps, I saw the melon fields, honey-dew.  I tried to think about something else, but couldn’t get away from the smell of alcohol on my own breath.  The tiny skeleton-like trees beyond the melon fields made me think about sitting on my porch in Georgia, listening to my father.  Funny how things pop up, huh?

You know that Nigra round over there got a piano in his house?  People nowadays rather pay a monkey a quarter what they should pay a real man to do for fifty cents.  My father was never happier than when he had someone to blame for something he’d done.  He never kept any job very long, and the reason was always the same:  Niggers.  I loved him, but he was an average man.  He couldn’t accept it and spent half his time pretending he was rich, and the other half making damn sure everyone knew he wasn’t as poor as a nigger.  It made him drink.  And drinking made him mean.  I’d never told Tanya, but until high school when I got a job and saw how easy is was to keep it, I blamed them, too.

When I walked into the kitchen, there was an empty Jack Daniels bottle on the counter, probably a gift to Tanya from someone who didn’t know any better.  I couldn’t imagine where she’d hid it, but I knew she’d been faithful and hadn’t drunk hers.

“What are you thinking?” Tanya said softly, rolling a baby tomato around the salad in front of her.  She didn’t look at me, and I knew that meant she was giving me a chance to apologize for breaking our sacred vow.

“No brain cells left?”

I tried to walk out, but something hit me in my back.  Not a big something, but an attention getter.  If it wasn’t her wedding ring, it was a hell of a bluff.  I stopped dead in my tracks.

“You don’t like it, I know, but I’ve got an obligation to–”

“You made a promise!” she screamed.  “And you have an obligation to me, to Wes!”

I couldn’t get past not seeing my father before he died.  I saw how much it hurt him when his father passed, saw how hard he drank and how it never helped.  I owed him that much.

“I just wanna see him, okay?”

“Not okay.  No drinking without one another,” Tanya said.  “No Georgia…remember?”

“I know what I said, but try and understand.”

“Every mile of that three-thousand on the way back, I cried, and you promised.  You swore.”

My father’d called Tanya things we never repeated.  Tanya’d never been to the South, and I’d convinced her it wouldn’t be that bad; she believed me and wasn’t ready for it.  The trip back from Georgia was rough.  We didn’t really talk until the car overheated near Blythe, eight miles into California.  In the seventy-two hours we waited for a new radiator, we went from being a zebra-couple to just Warren and Tanya:  steak eaters, iced tea drinkers, good tippers, two polite and quiet people, that’s all.  People stopped staring and started waving.  The Gas Company and the city police were both hiring.  We dropped out after the semester ended and moved.  Blythe seemed like a good place, and we both needed someplace good.

I wasn’t sure what else to say, so I told her what I thought was the truth. “He’s still my Daddy.  I love him.”

“He’s not worth it!”

For some reason, probably the alcohol, hopefully the alcohol, I turned and looked at her, hard.  Everyone in my family knew how to look down at black people.  The Hughes glare, my father called it; he said I had it better than most.  I leaned my head back, so she had to look up into my nose, gave her an ugly sideways frown.  Her eyes grew wide with pain.

“Don’t…look at me like that.”

I was wrong, but I was mad.  And drunk.  “Look at you how?”

“Like you just noticed what color I am.”

I’d broken through the wall her father and the hoodlums she arrested couldn’t get through.  I’d hurt her with her defense up.  My backbone went limp and all I saw was the floor.  Tanya disappeared.  It didn’t matter if I’d looked how she said.  I’d hurt her.  If I could have, I would have swallowed a match and burned from the inside out.  Shame hurts, and I was as ashamed as I’d ever been from what I’d done.  But I still wanted to believe that my father felt my kind of shame, not the shame forced onto you by other people, the shame that makes you sorry, makes you change.

Blythe isn’t an easy place to hide.  Anybody can be found with a few phone calls and a description of what they drive, so I made the forty mile drive to Parker, Arizona.  Keith sent me there two years ago to oversee the construction of a gas line.  The crew always talked about a local bar called Bruce’s, and that regulars could bring in their own bottle.  It was down the street from Quicker Liquor on the corner of Choctaw and Main.  Funny how things come back.

The clerk at Quicker Liquor was a fat bald man, the kind you see buying alcohol, not selling it.  I found what I was looking for and put it on the counter.

“Good choice,” he said.  He held up the bottle like he was asking for an invite then slipped it into a brown bag.  “Occasion?”

“Reunion of sorts.”

“Ahhh, catching up on old times, huh?  Good memories, good times.”  His voice was scratchy from smoking, but I could tell he loved to talk.  I grabbed the bottle and walked out.

Bruce’s wouldn’t let me in with the bottle, but someone at the bar gestured to go around back.  Five people, three old couches, one big cactus and a steel barrel bonfire was all it was.  But it looked like a place cops tolerated rather than disturbed.  I sat down on an empty couch and made the mistake of pulling my expensive bottle from the brown bag.  It drew the attention of an old Indian woman, a mustache above her lip and what looked like a five-O’clock shadow.

“White man,” she said, pointing.  “Give Crazy Lucy some.  You drink on my land, you pay tax!”  Drinkers like to talk, but drunks like to be left alone.  I was surprised this drunk didn’t know the rules.  “All of this,” Lucy said holding her arms up and spinning around, “is mine.  Mine!”  She held out a Styrofoam cup.  I looked at a man and a woman sharing a cigarette for what to do, but they minded their business.  After I poured her about three fingers, she gave a toothless grin and danced away.  It reminded me of my father’s drunken dance and how at times, he was good.

*

          I don’t remember driving home, but I woke up parked in front of my house.  It scared me to think that driving drunk was something I couldn’t unlearn, a stain.  The moon’s glow lit a brown-bearded face peeking into my car window.

“You okay?”  It was Juan from next door.  He had a dog leash in one hand and a cigarillo in the other, an average night for him.  “Want me to get Tanya?”

I shook no, and he walked away.  The alcohol was wearing off, and my back was killing me.  I couldn’t have gone back to sleep in the car, not without another bottle.  I had to face Tanya.

The porch light was out, and I got the feeling I wasn’t welcome because at night it always glows.  The house was pitch-black, but Tanya wasn’t asleep.  She snores something awful, and the only sound was the big oscillating fan rattling the blinds in the living room.

I checked on Wes.  He was asleep, but he’d left his TV on again.  I’d told him about the electric bill as many times as Tanya’d told him about washing and not just rinsing the dishes, but I smiled turning it off.  He was a good kid.  I tip-toed in the bedroom.

“If you start drinking heavy, I’ll divorce you.  I swear to God!”

Tanya’s father was Jack Daniels man before he died.  She hated being close to him.  Even in the hospital right before the end, she said she could still smell it on him.  In the dark, Tanya probably saw her father, not me.  Since we’d been together we only drank with one another, and never too much, wine at a friend’s party, a beer a piece watching the Super-bowl.  It kept both of us sober.  We called it ‘really small group therapy’.

I sat on the bed and used my feet to peel my shoes off, hoping the silence would last.  But cheating’s cheating.  I didn’t blame her for being mad.

“Say something.”

I was facing the wall, and she came up behind me and hugged me tight.  The shame I was carrying was too heavy, and I had to let it go.

“In junior high I was suspended for throwing a rock.”

“What?”

“Her name was Kenya.”  Tanya didn’t stop hugging when she heard the name, but I felt her grip loosen.  “I didn’t know it was a girl.  I just saw black.  Daddy’d been saying all week how it wasn’t right…integrating my school…”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Walking home I couldn’t think about anything else but how I’d done wrong.  Mama always told me to never hit a girl.  But Daddy was so happy.  Waited for me on the steps with a bottle in one hand and two small Dixie cups in the other.  Held out the bottle to me and said, ‘Well, spank that som’ bitch.  You drinking wit’ me or not.’  I hit the bottle; he laughed.  I hit it again, and he laughed harder.  We sat on paint cans by the garage and got drunk.”

“Warren, I’m not sure this–”

“And then he was good…for a while.  Kept a job almost a year.  We played catch in front of the house.  He kissed Mama before breakfast and after dinner.  He told me he loved me all the time.  ‘Proud’ he said, ‘damn proud.’  It ain’t right, but a lot of stuff ain’t right.”

Tanya was still hugging, but I could tell she didn’t know what to do.  I turned around, looked her in the eye and rubbed her cheek with my hand.  “I know I made a promise,” I said.  “But I’m making another one right now.  Two days and I’m coming back.”

She kissed me soft, and I felt her relax in my arms.  “You better.”

“I will, Darling.  This city, this house…this is home.”