Category Archives: Fiction


FICTION.DINNERby Dell Franklin

“I’m on my way,” Mel announces. “I’ll be there in half an hour.”

“Mel’s on his way, mom!” I announce, hanging up the phone, which mother has difficulty operating due to failing eyesight and arthritis.

“If he’s on his way, it means he’ll be here in two hours,” mother says from her plush rocker with a view. Mel lives 15 miles away in Long Beach. I have driven down 247 miles from a small beach town up north, where I live in a beach shack. Took me 4 ½ hours in my limping 20-year-old Toyota Tercel. It’s Saturday afternoon and my mother and I are going out to dinner with Mel, her companion, in San Pedro. He has already called four times to check on mother. Each time he’s asked if my sister, Jeannie, is coming over. I keep telling him she can’t make it because she’s busy with HER life, she being an involved citizen and college professor.

Mother has tubes in her nostrils from an oxygen tank. She’s still fragile from a near death battle with pneumonia. Jeannie and I need to organize her affairs and find a live-in caregiver. My sister has been driven nearly mad dealing with mother and Mel and is a bit miffed I have been up north and caught none of the stress. Now I am here to make myself useful. My sister lives in Palos Verdes with her retired husband who was a corporate executive. Their two boys are out of college with advanced degrees, and doing well in business. I drive a cab, am single, rent, play a lot of tennis, surf, read, drink.

“Jeannie should be here any minute,” mother comments.

“No, mom, she’ll be over tomorrow morning.”

“Oh yes. That’s right. But you’ll be here all week, won’t you, honey?”

“No, mom, I’ve got to get back to work tomorrow night.”

After a while I remove the twin tubes from her nostrils and turn off the oxygen tank. She has more color in her face. Jeannie calls and warns me not to let mother drive.

“You think I’m an idiot? She can hardly see, and she’s terrified of taking ten steps alone.”

“And don’t let her wear those red high heels.” She pauses when I don’t answer. “We’ve got to keep mother in a controlled environment.”

I hang up after telling my sister I’ll see her tomorrow. Mother is now reading the LA Times funnies. She used to read the entire paper and the New Yorker. She was a high school valedictorian and college honor student and educator who, in her eighties, took up Oriental painting and a short story class. I sit down across from her. She smiles at me. Her eyes suddenly come into focus and meet mine with the old yearning that could melt granite.

“I miss our going to the movies together,” she says. “And going to dinner afterwards and watching the people and talking about the movie, and books, and people. I miss you, honey.”

“I know. We’ll go again.”

“Jeannie doesn’t want me to. She doesn’t trust me.”

I don’t say anything. What can I say? I cease looking into her eyes. “The motha look,” my dad used to say, describing the way she looked at me—admiration, understanding, forgiveness, everything.


FICTION.DINNER.dancerMel shows up around 7, two hours after he said he’d be right over. His entrance, as always, is turbulent. He has a female Pomeranian that is demanding and spoiled. Mel has to make several trips from his car, toting packages for mother, toys for the dog. He needs a hip replacement and lurches along, his shoes never leaving the ground. I go out to help him with the strawberries, champagne, bananas, boiled chicken for the dog, shopping bags of food and sundries. He is in a huff about the dog darting into the street and getting run over.

Once settled in a chair beside mother, he asks how I’m doing at the bar I tended for 10 years, but which I haven’t worked in over a year, since I started hacking. I tell him business is good. He then leans toward me and whispers that mother had a stroke. The doctors say she did not have a stroke, but Mel knows everybody’s business better than they do. He once owned car dealerships and real estate, was a wheeler dealer, is well off. He’s been mother’s companion almost 25 years, and nearly cracked up when she was sick. He is a lifelong bachelor and claims my mother is the classiest lady he’s ever known. “So Jeannie’s on her way, coming to dinner, Rick?” he says. I tell him again that Jeannie can’t come and will be over tomorrow. Mother tells him I’ll be here all week. I tell them I’ve got to go back to work tomorrow while my black Lab, who is not allowed in the house for fear he’ll eat the Pomeranian, stares sadly at me through the sliding glass door on the patio.

“Your mother likes it when you come down,” Mel says. “She perks up. She’s never happier than when you come down for a visit.”

Tonight we are going to a swank establishment down on the harbor. I volunteer to drive, but Mel insists on taking his Lincoln Town Car. Mother wears a chic outfit and looks amazingly 10 years younger than her age while Mel has on a summer sports coat and silk shirt open at the throat. I wear thrift store shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. It doesn’t take mother long to get ready after their ritual champagne with strawberries, but then we must wait for Mel to break up the dog’s chicken into tiny bites and place it beside the bowl of bottled water. Then Mel dilly-dallies for what seems forever in the bathroom and mother’s room. I ask her what he’s doing and she says he dithers. There is no use saying anything to him, and when he finally emerges mom accuses him of taking half an hour, but he insists he was only five minutes. “Thirty minutes,” says mom.

Outside, I slacken my pace to a near crawl to stay abreast as we walk to Mel’s car. I help mother into the front seat and get in the back seat behind her. Mel’s head just does come up over the seat and steering wheel. The two little heads look like gourds. Mel flies down the hill just missing parked cars. But he knows the three-mile route. When he arrives at the harbor parking complex he slams into and bounces off a center divider on a turn, and just misses a pole.

“There’s no lighting down here,” he grouses after mother informs him he needs to fasten his seat belt, which he never does.

I don’t say a word. There’s no use saying anything to Mel about bouncing off center dividers and sending terrified pedestrians, dressed for Saturday night dinner in various restaurants, scurrying for cover. The Town car has amassed a few dents and smells of dog, like my heap. Mel makes a few turns around the vast lots searching for a disabled spot, finally settling for a spot that is a row of blue lines. Oh well.

I help mom out. It takes a while to corral and steer them up the walkway to the restaurant, which is comprised of two large banquet rooms between which are three adjoined sections for elegant dining with a view of the water and cargo stacks in LA harbor. Both of them have to go to the restroom, The hostess asks do I wish to wait for them up front, but no, I wish to be seated, and she leads me to a table at a window on the water. I pick up the menu, browse it, look at the water, then at the diners, and spot mother wandering into the restaurant, looking a bit catatonic. It is a good thing the hostess sat us in the front section. Mother is headed past the salad bar toward section two when I intercept and guide her to our table and sit her down across from me beside the window.

After mother is situated, Mel scuffs into the room. I get up to intercept him and lead him to our table, where he sits beside mother. They peer out at the water.

“There’s not many ships out there,” Mel says, concerned. “Last time we were here there were a million ships coming and going.”

“Maybe it’s 9/11,” mother says.

“We’ve been here since 9/11, Lilly,” Mel says.

“No we haven’t,” mother insists.

“Yes, we were here last month, Lilly.”

“No, we went to Sorrento’s. We’ve been to Madeo’s and the Four Seasons, but we haven’t been here for years, Mel.”

“Lilly, we were here last month,” he says, with patience.

They continue to joust while I gaze out the window at the placid water. It is July and still light out. A cargo ship cruises by like a mountain moving into view.

“What a lovely table,” mother says.

“There’s no traffic out there,” Mel says, tucking his napkin at his throat, studying the menu. “There’s got to be a reason for it. I’ll find out.”

The waiter alights. He is overweight, with wrinkled forehead and huge gaped teeth. He’s around 40 and his name tag reads, RAOUL.

“And how are WEEE tonight?”  He smiles at us like we are four year olds. A number of men in red coats and black pants and ties stand around or hustle about. They all have name tags. Both banquet rooms are packed with wedding parties. Salsa music filters into the crowded dining room to mix with the standard desultory Muzak. We each order a glass of wine. Meanwhile, mom and Mel go round and round trying to decide what to order. She asks me what I’m going to order and I tell her probably the prime rib. She asks Mel if the prime rib is good. Mel says they’re not “noted” for their prime rib. Everything is “okay.” This restaurant, though pricey, is known for its ambience, not the food. Mel, the ultimate authority on restaurants and food, has found ambience, but continues to complain about the lack of traffic in the harbor. There isn’t much to look at except the flat keys of stacked containers, cranes jutting above. Just glassy water and the occasional cargo ship headed in or out.

Raoul returns with our wine and mother surprises everybody by ordering the rack of lamb, but only after putting Raoul through an inquisition regarding sauces that might contribute to her cholesterol. Mel has the salmon special Raoul so tantalizingly described. I have the prime rib. I discourage them from going to the salad bar, and they order the soup de jour. Mel selects the red rose potatoes while mother and I have the baked. They begin eating bread while I go to the salad bar. When I return they are pointing to a Coast Guard ship.

“See,” mother says, “9/11. There was no Coast Guard here last time we were here.”

“The Coast Guard is always here,” Mel explains. “And the Harbor Patrol. This is the biggest port in the country.”

They joust a while about which port is the biggest in the country, naming New York, Seattle, etc., until the soup comes. They dig in. I eat my salad, which mother claims “looks very good.” I have the plate so full that food falls onto the white linen cloth. Whenever mother commented on how good the food on my father’s plate looked, he automatically gave it to her. I dish some over to mother. A cruise ship crawls by. Passengers line the railings drinking from champagne glasses and waving at people along the windows of the restaurant, and diners wave back, affecting enthusiasm. The ship is immense.

“I loved taking cruises with your father,” mother says.

“Soup’s not great,” Mel remarks.

“Rick, honey, I wonder where the ship is going. The one I took with your father went to Acapulco.”

“Probably goes to Mexico,” Mel tells her.

“Or Hawaii. We went there, too. We also went to Tahiti. A wonderful time. So beautiful. Such lovely people, the islanders.”

Mother smiles at me. Usually, when I come down here, if I can, I bring my on-again-off-again girl friend, Miranda. Though mother is fond of Miranda, she feels she’s not right for me. Three other serious flames over the years were brought home, and though mother adored them, too, they also were not right for me. When the eventual break-up with these fine ladies occurred, they all made it a point to visit my mother for lunches while going out of their way to avoid me. Mother loves Miranda. Miranda, after 16 years, is done with me. Mother does not know this.

Our food comes. When Mel sees our baked potatoes and then his own tiny red rose potatoes, he grabs Raoul by the arm and says he wants the baked too—go ahead and charge extra.

“Ok-eee, do-key!” Raoul simpers. “And would you like butter and sour cream on your potato, sir?”

“Yes, thank you, Raoul.”

When he waddles off, swishing his ass, mother says, “What an ugly man.”

The waiters at the restaurant always prepare a diner’s potato for them, but Mel will have none of that. Meanwhile, mother and I dig in. She claims her lamb is “pretty good.”

“So you’re staying a few days this time?” Mel says to me, not eating. “Your mother really likes it when you stay longer.”

“Going back tomorrow, Mel. I’ll be back in two weeks.”

“How’s the bar going?”


“Still making good tips?”

“Enough to live on.”

He is perking up. “Back when I owned my jazz nightclub, a beer and a shot cost fifty cents. What are they charging these days?”

“A draft and a shot’s about six bucks. The good stuff’ll run you up to ten.”

“Been in any good fights lately?”

“Nah.” I neglect to tell either of them that I quit the bar after hospitalizing a guy in a fight. “I tamed that dive.”

“I always liked the dives.”

“I like all bars, Mel.”

He smiles. “Yes, I like all bars, too.”

His baked potato comes. He has not touched his salmon. Mother and I are half finished. Mel methodically slathers his potato. When this potato is as he likes it, he prepares to stick a fork in it and somehow knocks it off the table onto the carpet. I rise to retrieve it, but Mel motions me away and flags down Raoul, who scurries over and picks up the potato and promises to bring another. Raoul is busy with a table of four well-dressed, middle-aged Latino couples two tables over. It is getting dark out. Mel watches us eat.

“So how’s the lamb?” he asks mother.

“Just a little dry, Mel, but fine.” She sips her wine.

“Everything should be perfect for what they charge,” Mel says. “So your prime rib’s pretty good, Rick?”

“Just fine, Mel.”

“I don’t eat much meat these days,” Mel admits.

“Mel’s lost weight, Rick. Doesn’t he look young for his age?”

I nod. Mel does look good—no more than 75. He has a shock of white hair and a ruddy, smooth complexion. He had been a handsome guy in his prime. Everybody who knows Mel, says mom, likes him. He is into everybody’s business, is generous, helpful; understands finances. A former Republican, he’s turned Democrat since meeting my mother, who is an Eleanor Roosevelt liberal.

His new potato comes, Mel again slathers it methodically. He has still not touched his salmon. I am done. I help mother finish her plate. Mel picks up his wine glass, discovers it’s empty, waves down Raoul, who is now a bit hurried and flustered, and asks for another glass of wine. Raoul snares the glass and huffs off. Mel finally starts to eat. A slow eater, he likes his fish and potato, but they’re “not great.” Mel eats out frequently. At his condo, he only cooks pasta with the special sauce he learned from his old country mother who lived to be 102.

He becomes restless when his wine does not come right away. “Where is that waiter?” He peers around, agitated, flags down another waiter who comes right over and listens to Mel tell him he wants another Chardonnay. The waiter flags down Raoul, who stares at our table and then has a hissy-snit, arguing with the man before heading off toward the bar in an angry gait.

Meanwhile, Mel is not going to take another bite until his wine arrives. Finally, the wine comes, but Raoul places it out of Mel’s reach. While Mel strains unsuccessfully for the glass, I move it within his reach, and he picks it up and takes a sip.

“Wine’s good,” he concedes. “Can’t ruin good wine.”

“I like a little chardonnay,” mother says, looking and sounding catatonic, and I cannot look at her. “So did your father.”

While Mel eats, my plate is taken away by a busboy. Mel asks this person, who is actually an adult named ESTEBAN, why there is so little traffic out in the harbor. Esteban, though smiling and nodding, has no idea what Mel is talking about. So he goes and finds Raoul and whispers in his ear, and Raoul comes over and asks Mel if he needs anything, but Mel does not want to be bothered at this point, is busy eating, so Raoul goes off haughtily and then suddenly changes moods to fawn over his big festive Latino table that seems to be celebrating somebody’s birthday. Now Esteban is talking to one of the managers, who comes over instantly and asks Mel if everything is okay. ARTURO. Mel asks Arturo why there is so little traffic in the harbor. Arturo, who doesn’t speak great English himself, goes and finds another manager who is also Mexican but speaks fluent English without accent, and Mel asks HIM why there is so little traffic in the harbor, but ALBERT, after pausing to seriously consider this daunting question, shrugs and admits he does not know why there is so little traffic in the harbor. As an after-though, before leaving, he suggests that there seems to be the same amount of traffic as usual.

“I told you so!” mother exclaims with righteous fervor, no longer catatonic.

Mel wipes his mouth with his linen napkin. He’s just about done. “Last time we were here there was a million ships out there,” he contends. “The Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol’ve been prowling all night long. Something’s wrong.”

“Oh baloney,” mother states, rolling her eyes at me.

Raoul materializes, girds up, half bows. “Are we all done?” he asks, oozing sweetness, for Mel is a notoriously huge tipper. “Everything okay?”

Mel nods, sits back, removes his napkin from his throat.

“And would we like a little dessert?”

“I’ll have the decaf,” mother says.

“I’ll have the same,” says Mel.

“Double Stoli on the rocks,” I tell Raoul, and he winks at me.

FICTION.DINNER4When the coffee and vodka come, Mel takes care of the bill. The dining room is clearing out and the evening has turned dark; we’ve been here for hours, it seems. I have to get them melon from the salad bar for a belated dessert. The melon, they claim, is the best part of the dinner. We finally rise to leave. Both of them scuff off to the restrooms. I wait on the sofa in the little alcove up front beside the fire place across from the hostess station. The wedding parties in both banquet rooms are becoming more boisterous, and joyful young people in beautiful gowns and tuxes mill around in the hallways. Mother finally comes out of the restroom and sits beside me. She takes my hand, smiling, looking around, drifts out of her catatonic state.

“Aren’t the Latin people handsome?” she says. “Your father and I, when he jumped the big leagues to play baseball in Mexico, and in Cuba, we loved it so. We didn’t see each other for over two years while he was in the war, and then he came home alive, and you were two years old, and he just adored you, and at night we danced in all the little cantinas and nightclubs after his games, and there was always music, and it was the happiest time of our lives.” She squeezes my hand. “The Latin people, they could not get over how blue your eyes were, and my eyes, and they wanted to reach out and touch us, and your father, he was so protective, so proud of us, he just beamed…I miss him so….”

My father put up with a lot and accomplished a lot and gave back more than his share and died a debilitating, excruciatingly painful death he did not deserve at too young an age. Mother, nursing him, remained stoic and brave, their love genuine and heroic.

Mel still has not come out of the restroom. We wait. Normally, no person takes longer in a restroom than mother, so it’s my duty to go in there and check on Mel.

He’s not in the restroom. I walk outside to see nobody in the Town Car. I enter one of the wedding parties; packed, hot, noisy salsa music, Latinos, living it up. I spot Mel talking to two middle-aged men in tuxes at a table. He’s drinking champagne. I walk over and stand beside Mel. The men smile at me; offer champagne, ask if I am his son. I tell them I am not. Evidently, one of these men bought a Jaguar at one of Mel’s dealerships twenty years ago. I see a bottle of Stoli and fill a used plastic cup to the brim and drink half of it, listen briefly to their conversation, then go outside to check on my mother. She is gone.

I enter the other wedding party and look around; packed, hot, noisy salsa music. Mother is dancing with a young Latino man. She, like dad was, is a great dancer. I finish my drink, find the bar, take out a wad of bills, point to my cup and tell a pretty girl bartender wearing a Tux shirt and tie to hit it with Stoli, and offer her a twenty. She tells me it’s an open bar so I ask her to keep pouring and stuff the bill in her snifter and turn to watch my mother dance. She’s become the life of the party, the Latinos clapping their hands and saluting her as she whirls in the red high heels dad bought her in Italy. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., and publishes his observations on sports, politics, and culture on his website,, where this article first appeared.


After a year in poor man’s Monterey he couldn’t tell if he was any happier or not. Gradually, he spent less time watching sunsets and more time watching the feral cats over by the dumpster. Photo by Stacey Warde

After a year in poor man’s Monterey he couldn’t tell if he was any happier or not. Gradually, he spent less time watching sunsets and more time watching the feral cats over by the dumpster. Photo by Stacey Warde

by Greg West

Sarah had called the town a poor man’s Monterey but Joe moved there anyway, thinking, “I’ll live in poor man’s Monterey and Sarah can live where she lives and we’ll both be happier.” He loaded his belongings into the back of his Ford Ranger and drove to the little town, bought a newspaper and answered an ad for a studio apartment at four-hundred a month, plus a fifty dollar deposit. The apartments weren’t good. They were a poor man’s apartments—a row of sickly blue huts out in front of a splintered two-story in the back.

Joe knocked on the office door. Inside he could hear the audio of a pornographic movie being turned down. Out in front of the sickly huts two police cars pulled up and a red-faced drunk was handcuffed while two red-faced women yelled at him from separate doorways. A skinny bearded man stood in another doorway with a can of beer. He had a tall cactus plant and a lawn chair on his porch. “Sarah’s right,” Joe thought. “It’s not Monterey, but it’s still nice, this town.”

A man came to the door and introduced himself as Yolo, the manager. He was a jittery, lisping man with no front teeth, a head of oily flaking hair, and a long purple nose seeded with enormous blackheads.

“It’s zero-t-tolerance here” he told Joe, leading him up the stairwell of the two-story, words whistling off his gums. “What I mean is, it’s strict. No drugs, no hookers, no dealing, and, and, if you’re a cop, you have to let us know, legally.”

Each stair was about to give, from unevenness or decay, but as Joe and Yolo reached the top, Joe knew he was going to take the place. Through a tangle of cable wires he could already see a bit of ocean and part of the massive volcanic rock the town was known for. He’d have to shut out the courtyard of weeds and jalopies below, and the pride of diseased cats over by the overflowing dumpster—and the noise—it was the middle of the day but people were home. Joe could smell marijuana smoke and hear dramatic debates coming from the units. A woman in a housecoat and slippers was weaving around the courtyard looking lost and distraught. Joe and Yolo stopped at a roll of carpet and some paint cans that were out on the walkway. They looked into the apartment that was for rent.

“This is it,” Yolo said to Joe. “And this here’s Ron. He’s the maintenance.”

Ron the maintenance man was at the top of a folding ladder, painting the ceiling a dark brown. The apartment was tiny—big enough for a bed and a table maybe, but Joe kept thinking about the walkway. He believed it was wide enough for a chair and maybe a TV tray. He saw himself sitting out there with a beer or a cup of coffee and watching sunsets through the cable wires. He could take his phone out there and call Sarah and tell her about his poor man’s view. If he could shut out that squalor below—the jalopies and the arguing and the flea-ridden cats—he’d have himself a little taste of affluence at four-hundred dollars a month.

Ron the maintenance man set his paint brush in a paint tray and climbed off the ladder. He was shirtless and pot-bellied and had a few strands of hair on each side of his head. His teeth worked a billowing Camel.

“Did you tell him about the no tolerance?” he asked Yolo.

Yolo moved his feet and looked away. “I told him. H-he said he’d abide.”

“And you told him no bullshit? No drugs? No sellin’ pussy, no grab-ass? You told him how strict it is here?”

“I told him,” said Yolo.

Ron tugged at jeans that were trying to slide off his assless trunk, and stepped over what looked like a puddle of dried paint but was in fact the dried blood of a man named Eldon Creel, who three days earlier had killed himself in Joe’s new apartment. Ron stopped near the doorway and the three men looked down at the hardened glossy pool.

“He was just another one of those guys,” Ron said. “That came and went. Grocery store, video store, he had his groceries and his videos and that was all he wanted. Never said nothing to no one. We figure he sat about right here…”

Ron dropped to the floor and sat against the wall. “…We figured he sat about here and said, ‘to hell with it,’ and went, ‘one…two…three…’”

Ron fitted two fingers under his chin, pulled a thumb-hammer.


Yolo jumped and shuddered. A flurry of flakes fell to his shoulders. “We gotta tell you,” he said to Joe. “By law, we have to tell you.”

Ron got to his feet, pulled up on his jeans, and began running the flat of his hand along a roughened section of door frame. He pulled out a pocketknife and stuck the point of it into the door frame then showed Joe and Yolo what he’d dug out. Against the silver of the blade it looked like chipped tooth on a dentist’s utensil.

“We’re still finding ‘em,” he said.

“Brain fragments,” said Yolo.

“Skull fragments,” Ron said. “We already got all the brains.”

“That-that’s what I mean,” said Yolo. “Sk-sk-skull fragments. W-we’re still finding ‘em. Everywhere.”

Joe unloaded his Ford Ranger and settled into the apartment and began a daily routine. In the mornings he’d walk down to the ocean and in the evenings he’d sit on his poor man’s balcony and eat TV dinners and watch sunsets. Or, if it was too foggy and there was a fight or arrest below, he’d watch that. The one time he’d called Sarah she’d hung up on him.

Once or twice a month he’d find one of Eldon Creel’s skull fragments in his wall or ceiling and pluck it out with scissors or nail clippers or whatever was around, and after a year in poor man’s Monterey he couldn’t tell if he was any happier or not. Gradually, he spent less time watching sunsets and more time watching the feral cats over by the dumpster. He’d sit out there until dark sometimes, watching them fight and fuck and hunt, and lick their matted coats in the prickling fog. §

Greg West lives in a hole-in-the-wall motel in Nevada where he writes in his spare time between jobs.

Black is beautiful

A young American lieutenant, his leg burned by an exploding Viet Cong white phosphorus booby trap, is treated by a medic.  1966.

A black medic treats a young American lieutenant, his leg burned by an exploding Viet Cong white phosphorus booby trap in Vietnam in 1966.

by Dell Franklin

Willie Green come into the 25th Army field hospital in Verona, Italy, and he green all right, he so country he don’t know it, he don’t know what to do, he don’t know what to do with himself, and he slow, Georgia slow, don’t wanna talk, and you can’t tell if he don’t wanna talk cuz he so shy, or he ashamed of bein’ slow and dumb.

Top-kick McCray can’t do nothin’ with this skinny kid, he ain’t but 18, and he all hands, got these big old hands, always wavin’ ‘em around, like he don’t know what to do with ‘em. They send him everywhere in the dispensary, and he useless, he go to mutterin’ you ask him do anything and mope in the corner like a dog been whupped up on with a switch.

McCray, he say Johnson, you got to look out after that poor dumb nigger, take him under your wing, like his big brother, or he ain’t gon make it, they send his sorry ass to goddam Nam in the infantry, fight Charlie.

I talk to my bud Thomas, tell him we got to take care of doofus Green, and Thomas mutter how he from south Philly and don’t like no country nigger, a country nigger from the south nothin’ but Uncle Tom slave bait, Whitey gon fuck him over big time and the dumb country nigger gon kiss his ass while he gettin’ fucked over, and I tell Thomas McCray want us to look out for Green so he don’t get his ass killed in Nam like the rest of us poor niggers.

By this time my good buds are gone—Ruffner, DeSimone, Mills, Lamb, Robbie. I been here longer than any of these troops and officers and doctors, they like me, Top-kick McCray got me runnin’ the shot room and emergency and sterilization rooms, got me a promotion to Spec.4 and damn near runnin’ the dispensary, cuz I know what to do, I surprise myself, knowin’ so much stuff, I can suture, I save a Colonel’s life when he have a heart attack, doctor Stein come in after I pound his chest and give him mouth-to-mouth, and say Johnson, you save his life, you ask questions and are prepared, we trust you with the lives of folks, which is most important. Yes.

I don’t try and teach Green the shot room stuff, cuz he too shaky with that needle. He ain’t no good behind the desk with sick folks and their records, so I take him to sterilization. We got suture kits, minor surgery kits, instruments. I pack and sterilize all kits and instruments in the big steel autoclave, hemostats, forceps, probes, scissors, clamps, I wrap ’em and put ’em in the cabinets in the emergency room, and when a doctor prepare to work on somebody, I do what the docs tell me to do, and if it real busy they tell me go ahead and suture up a dude, or wrap a plaster cast, or splint, or bandage folks, I’m good at it, like a pro. Oh yes.

Now Green, he listen but he don’t listen. He won’t look at you. He look down. I say, “Green, look at me. Don’t be lookin’ down like some whupped up nigger. I be your bud. Come on now.”

Thomas and me, we try and explain that hey, Green, you got you a boss gig here, but he mumble and mope, like he don’t care, like he got no life, and we ask him what he do on the outside and he mumble he a “bree-lay since he 12, and it take a while understand he mean a “brick layer,” work with his daddy and nine brothers, and you see why he got them big strong hands, he wiry from layin’ them bricks, he ain’t muscle-strong like me or lanky big like Thomas, but the dude got some powerful grip, and he got ants in his pants, he ain’t lazy, just confused, so first thing I do, I pick up a little wire probe, and I say, “Green, this here a probe. It don’t look like much, but it important, docs use it to dig poison out of folks, rub out cysts, like a knife got no point. Now it got to be sterilized, cuz if it ain’t and doc go gougin’ around in folks, they gon get a nasty infection and maybe croak, so we got to be careful sterilizing this probe, and all the other stuff in this room, it’s powerful important, most especially to the docs, and the docs, they God around here, Green. God!”

Thomas watchin’, arms folded in his whites, pens in his pocket, cuz he runnin’ the front desk and helpin’ me in the shot room, and he know how to handle himself, despite bein’ a stubborn, contrary ghetto nigger angry alla time, ain’t gon catch him smilin’ at Whitey ‘less he got a trick in store.

I show Green how to wrap a probe. Then I let him do it. He do it all wrong. I say, “Green, watch me do it, you got to pay attention, or you do it all wrong and piss off the docs!”

He make a face and grumble and walk out the sterilization room and go trampin’ around post. I guess he angry and hurt. I run his ass down and bring him back, tell him cool down. I tell him they gon get his ass killed in Nam he don’t shape up. Doin’ all this stuff ain’t that hard if y’all pay attention. So I lay the probe on the cotton wrapper and show him how to wrap it, and then I unwrap it and have Green wrap it, and he do so, like I show him, and I say, “Now Green, keep doin’ it the way I doin’ it, you gon be okay, my man.” He grin, sleepy-like, like he proud, he wrap a little old probe, big deal, yeh, but it a big deal to him, so now I show him how to wrap a forceps, and he do it right, and then I got him wrappin’ all the other instruments, and when he finished we lay ‘em in a row in the big steel autoclave tank, got levers and dials and gauges, and then I show him how to operate the autoclave.

I go step by step, then start over. Green do the first step, and we start over. Green do the first and second and third steps, and I see he getting’ a bit fretful, this is enough for now, I do the rest and get the autoclave workin’, so then I take him to the operating room for minor surgery and emergencies and show him the glass cabinets hold all the stuff doctors need—disposable syringes, needles, gloves, swabs, band-aids, compresses, thread, gauze, ointments, peroxide, soaps, instruments a doc use look in a guys’ ear, or up his nose, look up a guys’ ass, his throat, everything in the cabinets I show Green, and I say, “Green, you doin’ fine, you learnin’ MOLTO BENI, my man, now let’s go eat chow.”

This boy, he eat like he ain’t been fed before, and he stuff apples and oranges in his field jacket after we finish. We go back to the sterilization room, and I say, “Green, wrap me a hemostat.” He do it. Then we check the autoclave. Everything in it warm and sterilized. Then I got him wrappin’ instruments all afternoon and tell him what they used for. He get them all down, he learnin’ now, and when the dispensary close we go to chow and he eat seconds and then in the barracks I tell him he got to keep his area clean and neat, like me, not like Thomas. I learn that from McCray, who can’t stand a dirty troop, most especially a black troop, cuz McCray the cleanest nigger in the U.S. Army. Green nod, say okay, boss.

 “These Italians cool with us, they got nothin’ against us black folk, they don’t care if we peep at them white chicks, they ain’t gon lynch our asses. It ain’t like back home. These folks, they like to talk to us, like we mothafuckin’ human bein’s.”

Next day I say, “Green, run the first three steps of the autoclave.” He look at it. “Go on now.” He place all the wrapped instruments in the tank like I show him, nice and snug, and he do step one, step two, step three, and look at me. I show him the rest, real slow. We keep goin’, and Green go through all seven steps and got the autoclave hummin’. He stand back and listen to it workin’ up steam, cookin’ them instruments, and he got that little grin, and I say, “Green, you bad-ass, yessir, you a bad man with that autoclave machine.”

Thomas come by and I got Green wrappin’ suture kits and minor surgery kits. He goin’ at it like a pro. He ain’t dumb at all.

I say, “Green, the army give us niggers a chance to be somebody. Look at me. I’m a boss. Run the dispensary for the docs and top. Look at big ol’ south Philly nigger Thomas, he boss, too. Top-kick McCray, he boss of this outfit, tell officers what to do. We all bad-ass niggers in this white man’s army.”

“Sheee-it,” Thomas say, but he grinnin’, like he done a trick.

Green, he grin, like he one of us.

Next day I stand back and watch Green wrappin’, runnin’ the autoclave, stockin’ cabinets, he dustin’ and moppin’, without bein’ told like Thomas, and I tell captain doctor Stein, this new dude, he ready for a little on-the-job-training, so when Stein cut a sebaceous cyst out a GI’s neck, I got the gloves on and I swab and sponge up goo and blood, and when Stein say “forceps,” Green hand him the forceps. “Probe.” Green hand him the probe. Green hand him the scalpel cut the cyst open and ooze blood and pus. When doc done he let me suture the dude up like he taught me, and then I bandage the dude, and Green help me like I help doc. Green, he serious, likin’ this business, likin’ it big time.

Pretty soon McCray say, “Green lookin’ good, Johnson. You keep workin’ with that kid, cuz he takin’ your place.”

A week later Green don’t need me in sterilization or emergency. He askin’ docs Stein and Graves questions like crazy. He want know everything. I tell him keep askin’ questions, so he prepared for emergencies. Green, he walkin’ around like a pro now, so I figure, he got THAT down, now I got to teach him be a man.


Come pay day, me and Green and Thomas walk downtown on a Saturday afternoon. Me and Thomas dressed cool, but since Green got no proper threads, we get him some nice pants and shirt in the PX, and he wear the only shoes he own, army-issue low-quarters. We walk along the river to the Piazza Bra, by the ancient Coliseum been here since Roman days, been bombed by the USA durin’ the war. Everybody sittin’ at cafes outside and sippin’ vino or espresso or they paradin’ up and down arm in arm, and I explain to Green Italian customs and what they call ALFRESCO.

I tell him, “Green, these Italians cool with us, they got nothin’ against us black folk, they don’t care if we peep at them white chicks, they ain’t gon lynch our asses. It ain’t like back home. These folks, they like to talk to us, like we mothafuckin’ human bein’s.”

We mosey down to Piazza Erbe, little square where tourists snappin’ cameras at Romeo and Juliet balcony, and we find Bruno’s bar, where dudes from post millin’ around, waitin’ for the whores, so we sip some vino, sit at a table, chum with dudes from the air force base in Aviano. By and by the whores come, and Tom got his regular, Roselee, and he gone, and me and Green watch big blonde Carla come in, she got some fine tittiies and dye her hair cuz GIs like blondes, and she make a big fuss over me, ask why I don’t come around no more, and I tell her I got me an Italian sweetie in town, so then she glance at Green, and he starin’ at her real shy like, and I introduce them, and go off to the bar sit by myself, and soon Green gone with Carla.

I wait. Tom come back with Roselee. We wait for Green, and wait. He gone over an hour. Then when he come out they holdin’ hands, Green grinnin’, Carla grinnin’, noddin’ at me, and alla way back to post Green skippin’ along and say he got a steady woman, he say Carla say she like him and love him somethin’ powerful.

“Green,” I say, “Y’all got to watch out for whores. They don’t love no man. They love money. They love the U.S.A., where it rich, but they ain’t gon like no place a poor nigger live.”

He ain’t listenin’. He get back to post and take his night shower like I train him and next day he gone ‘til midnight, take his shower, and Monday morning he ready to go, waitin’ for me in the sterilization room. He follow me around like a puppy, little brother, friskin’, slappin’ at me with them big old hands. Now I can’t get rid of him. He even come to the gym and play buckets with me and Thomas and though he ain’t played much before he good right off with them hands and the ants in his pants, he everywhere at once, and he got big time hop.

In a month Green a bad-ass medic and a bad-ass bucket man. He growin’ and puttin’ on weight and eatin’ everything and seein’ Carla at night, which mean he getting’ it free. All right! My man.

One day docs Stein and Graves come up to me. Stein say, “Green, he is quite a medic, Paladin. I think he wants to operate next.”

“He has strange powers,” says Graves. “I’ve never seen such hands. Very deft, quite a touch, steady. He retains everything you tell him. He’s amazingly intelligent and a very nice kid.”

“He’s perhaps…an idiot savant,” says Stein. “You know what that is, Paladin?”

“No sir.”

“It’s a person with genius qualities who is backward in most other ways.”

“That sound like Willie Green.”

Stein look at me. He ain’t some dude hand out compliments. “Paladin,” he say. “You’ve done a good job of mentoring Willie. We are all very proud of both of you.” He point a finger at me. “Now you know what doctor Graves and I have been telling you—go to school on the GI bill when you get discharged, and follow up in the medical profession. You can be an excellent nurse. You will earn a good living, you can raise a family, and Paladin, you will be a helper of mankind. I want you to continue with this. Willie, too.”

“Okay, sir,” I say. Because these docs, they are God.

By this time I’m ready to leave the army and go home to my ghetto in Cleveland, Green runnin’ the whole damn dispensary. He givin’ shots, takin’ blood, runnin’ sterilization and emergency, work the front desk, he know how to suture and take an X-ray, he already promoted, and he engaged to Carla.

Night before I leave me and Thomas and Willie party, I already said good byes to my sweetie and friends in Verona I do black market business with, and Willie give me this little beret he buy downtown, hand-made, beautiful beret, he know I want it, and we soul shake and hug, and I say, “Willie Green, you my main man, I so proud of you, love brother.”

He so shy, he just look down and grin, and then he gone to the sterilization room, got work to do, and I leave post and Italy and the army and go home.

Doc Stein write me, cuz he keepin’ tabs on me, make sure I stay outta trouble, go to school. I do. He say Willie marry Carla and re-up. When Stein get discharged he write me from Chicago and say Willie back in the states goin’ to airborne school cuz he wanna be a paramedic, and I write Stein back, tell him I’m drivin’ an ambulance nights and goin’ to nursin’ school durin’ the day on the GI bill. I don’t hear from Stein for a while and then he call me on the phone one night and say Paladin, sit down, I got terrible news, Willie Green killed in Nam. I sit down. Stein, he don’t sound too good, and I ain’t hearin’ too good, but I guess Willie save a bunch-a lives and get a silver star and buried with honors. Shit, that don’t do me no good. I find that beret and wear it for a month. Then I put it in plastic and wear it on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, 4th of July, remember Willie Green. Ain’t nobody allowed to touch that beret, just me. My little brother. §

Dell Franklin is a writer living in Cayucos, Calif., and is the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice.

Rush hour traffic in Fresno


photo by Stacey Warde

by Greg West

“YOU THINK YOUR DICK’S MADE OF GOLD?!?!” Anne yells, bare heels pounding the triple-digit pavement, tears sizzling down veined face, half-smoked Benson & Hedges between trembling fingers, threadbare nightie she’s been in for days, crawling up old white thighs. She’d have kept coming too, if she hadn’t had to stop and cough. She was up to three packs a day.

At the stop sign he looks in the side mirror and sees her stooped and hacking. If he wants an image, here’s one. It’s rush hour and no one’s letting anyone on the road anyway.

The next time he looks in the mirror she’s on the curb, bent over, clutching her stomach, a safe distance away. The whole point in giving her a week had been to avoid something like this, give her time to vent and yell, purge and talk it out, on the phone mostly, with her best friend Kay Miller, the one who’d helped her conclude that he was an incurably selfish man, a coward, that he thought his dick was made of gold, that it wasn’t, and that he was going to fall on his face wherever he was running away to.

He’d given Anne a week and Anne had told him she’d come to terms with things. Anne had even thanked him.

Hearing his trunk shut in her driveway must have been what changed her mind. He had it in reverse when the front door had opened and she’d bolted out into what could have been her first sunlight in days, leaping off the porch and moving across the dead yard like a stalking panther, lips pressed grotesquely together, kicking and pounding his car, reiterating with each fist and heel, her and Kay Miller’s findings about him, mustering enough strength to leave a fist-sized depression in his hood.

Still no opening on the road, he glances in the mirror one last time, and seeing no sign of Anne, breathes and nudges into traffic. It’s bumper to bumper on this road west, this road taking him and his dick of gold away forever and when he tries to remember how he’d ended up in this smothering grid of hopelessness, or even how he’d ended up with Anne, he couldn’t. It would take an hour for him to clear the tentacles of Fresno and even after that there would be miles of dry beige dirtscape, but by dusk he’d be climbing lumpy hills that descended on the other side into cool moist coastal air.


Somehow Anne makes it to his window, and with the tears and sweat of a second wind rolling through week-old makeup, eyes pink with fear, beating the glass with forceful rabbit punches, she reminds him in the heat of that city: “YOUR DICK IS NOT MADE OF GOLD!!”  Forcing his way into traffic, horns blasting, tires chirping, Anne running alongside and punching, he looks at her through the crackled glass and yells: “I NEVER SAID IT WAS!!” §

Greg West lives in a hole-in-the-wall motel in Nevada where he writes in his spare time between jobs.

Culinary relativism: The last temptation of Greer

FICTION.Killerwhales_jumpingby January Anderson

“Aw, come on, Airy! Tell me the killer whale story? Please?”

“Again?” Ariel loosened her waitress apron and fell onto the couch, tossing her “Capn’s Catch” nametag on the coffee table. She rolled her eyes at 9-year-old Timmy, the neighbor’s kid who visited often. She’d just gotten off the graveyard shift—Timmy’s Saturday morning was her Friday night.

“For Pete’s sake, Timmy! You’ve heard it so many times you gotta know it by heart. Why don’t you tell it?”

“Okay, okay…um…” Timmy squirmed. “You know this guy, and he’s an abalone diver and…I forget. Pleeeeeeeeese, Ariel?” he pleaded.

“If I tell you again, you promise to go outside and pull weeds or something and let me sleep?”

Timmy agreed readily. Ariel sighed and began the tale that an abalone fisherman friend had told her years ago.

“Kenny is an abalone diver who’s been making a living at it since he was about 15. He learned from his father, who learned from his father. When Kenny goes to work, instead of wearing a jacket, he puts on a rubber suit connected to an air hose and basically pokes around the bottom of the ocean for snails—that’s what abs are, just big snails, but really good to eat.

“He’s been in the water with all kinds of things. Seals, dolphins, hammerheads, Great Whites, you name it. He’s seen a lot of killer whales and says they’re really, really smart—smarter than dolphins, maybe as smart as people. Orcas mostly eat fish, not people, even though they could, easy. Kenny says they just seem to have a rule not to eat humans.

“Well, one day, Kenny and Panama Pat had been diving out by Santa Cruz Island from Kenny’s boat, the Sally J. They were done for the day and crossing the channel to Santa Barbara. A ways from the boat a couple of killer whales surfaced, looked at them, and disappeared.

“Kenny and Panama waited for the whales to come back up again close to the boat because killer whales always do that, Kenny says. But instead, the whales surfaced further away.

“‘That’s weird,’ Panama said to Kenny. ‘Maybe they’re gonna go around and come up astern.’

“After a few minutes, the whales surfaced even farther out, looked back, and swam away from the Sally J as fast as Kenny and Panama had ever seen orcas go.

“‘Boy, that’s strange!’ Kenny said. ‘I’ve never seen killer whales act that way.’

“‘Yeah,’ Panama said. ‘They’re acting almost like they was guilty or something….’”


Greer Dettins thumbed the stiff plastic laminating on the menu and reviewed the list of hamburger variations. Cheeseburgers. Swiss cheese mushroom burgers. Onion burgers. Hamburgers with bacon, avocado and cheese. Hamburgers with nothing but a scrap of lettuce and a blood-like dab of ketchup.

Anymore, his stomach didn’t squelch at the barbarity of it, but his mind did. It made him, Greer thought, out of place, alien—a familiar feeling most days, but not the kind of thing you got used to. Sure as hell not in a place like this.

It had looked decent enough from the road, a 24-hour converted Denny’s called “Capn’s Catch,” on the freeway’s edge of a wind-bitten California waterfront town. Greer figured the half-dozen customers charging their hands on warm coffee mugs, settled in booths or elbow-propped at the counter, to be garbage workers, commercial fishermen, farmers. It was four o’clock in the morning.

With a businesslike weariness, he caught the waitress’s eye.

“What can I get you?” She leaned against the booth, pen and pad poised.

“The chef’s salad without the meat, cheese, or egg, double tomatoes and avocado. Oil and vinegar, whole wheat rolls, margarine, no butter.”

Her pen twaddled across the pad. “Sounds healthy. Juice to drink?” She nailed him levelly with eyes so blue it was like looking into sky. She was young, a few pounds crowding thin but not quite fat. No wedding ring, maybe five years younger than himself—and nearly pretty, he thought.

“Coffee, and not de-caf,” he said.

She raised her eyebrows.

“What?” Greer was annoyed.


“I’m not a health fanatic. I just don’t eat animals, that’s all.”

“S’fine with me,” the waitress shrugged as she left. Vaguely flattered, Greer felt himself blush. By the time she was back with the coffee, he’d willed the heat from his face. He avoided her eye while she leisurely appraised the stream as it poured into the cup.

“You look like a tired working guy in for a quick bite before heading home,” she ventured. “On this shift, you get so you can spot ‘em from the wierdos.”

“That’s me,” he mumbled, wishing he’d brought something to read. He grasped for the coffee. She wasn’t wrong—he was returning home from a month-long road tour of county fairs, and he was tired of hotels. He’d decided to drive straight through the night.

“What do you do?” she persisted.

“I’m an animal trainer. Reinforced behavior specialist. I train parrots.” He said the words dryly.

“Oh! Yeah.” She nodded, as if satisfied. “That’d give you a different perspective on things.”

“It does.” His tone was short. She lifted a brow in acknowledgment of the dismissal as she left. Greer frowned.

It was another five minutes before his salad was up. The waitress announced it by setting on the table a wire-handled holder of oil and vinegar and a saucer of sliced lemon.

“So what made you say that?” Greer asked, allowing a slim smile.

The waitress paused. “Say what?”

“That being an animal trainer would give me a different perspective.”

Mechanically inventorying the table’s contents, she answered, “Probably because you didn’t order the cheeseburger.”

“Of course I didn’t order a cheeseburger. I’m a vegetarian.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know that. You may think I’m nuts, but I can hear people thinking food. I can be back in the kitchen and hear some guy in booth seven thinking ‘pie.’ No kidding. I’m really good at hearing people think coffee. I thought I heard you thinking cheeseburger, but now I can see why…why not.”

Greer was intrigued. “Dogs can sense when their owners are thinking about going out. Must be the same kind of thing.”

The waitress was all business again. “Might be. Never thought of it that way.” She hurried off to return shortly with his salad.

“You know,” Greer said, leaning back as she set his dinner in front of him, “what you do for a living isn’t all that different from what my birds do.”

“And what’s that?”

“I run a little parrot circus with a macaw and a couple Amazons. We do shows at county fairs and schools, things like that. The birds aren’t pets—I think of them more as business partners. They’re the ones paying for this meal.”

“Smart birds?”

“They’re more intelligent than most people think. They can learn almost anything—how to water ski, paint pictures, drive cars, answer telephones, play basketball, ring bells, shoot cannons…you name it.”

“That’s one way to make a living.”

Greer’s eyes fixed on her face. He was enjoying himself. “One of the first things I teach them is how to retrieve. When they walk a ball or get in a scooter, it’s just a variation on retrieving. Like you retrieved this salad from over there.” He grinned. “And you did it for the same reason.”

“You mean me bringing you food is like a bird doing a trick?”

“They’re not tricks.” Greer bristled. “They’re behaviors. Kids at school assemblies always ask, ‘How does the bird do that trick?’ I tell them, ‘He sees the ball, he picks it up, puts it in the basket, and I give him a sunflower seed. It’s exactly the same thing as your dads when they go to work and get a paycheck.’”

The waitress regarded him solemnly. “That’s why you didn’t order a cheeseburger?”

Disconcerted, Greer dug into his breast pocket for the sunflower seeds he sprinkled on salads to boost the protein—seeds and nuts were vital to a human vegetarian diet, but few restaurant menus reflected it. He was about to say as much to the waitress, but she spoke first.

“Can I bring you anything else?”

“I think I’ve got everything,” he said. She smiled an “okay” and bustled off.

Halfway through his salad, Greer decided to ask for more bread and coffee after all. He was craning his head to spot the waitress when she rounded a corner and headed toward him with a steaming coffee pot and a basket of rolls.

Greer gasped. “That’s incredible! I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in a human.”

“No?” She stood with the coffee. “You know, I still could swear I heard you thinking cheeseburger when you first came in.”

“Kind of.” His fork pinned an avocado slice against a chunk of lettuce. “In my business, you come to hate the idea of people eating meat. Working with animals, I’ve come to realize there’s no difference between us and them. They fall in love, get their feelings hurt, feel happy or sad. They even blush when they’re embarrassed, but you can’t see it through their feathers or fur.

“And really, we only do a few things. We push—when you’re writing with your pen, you’re pushing it across a piece of paper. We pull. We walk, run, and retrieve. And that’s about it. Everything else is just a variation.”

He triumphantly lifted a fork-full of salad and planted it in his mouth, crunching loudly.

“I guess this means you’re only going to leave me a sunflower seed for a tip.” She laughed at her own cleverness.

Greer smiled in spite of himself and pointed his fork at her. “You remind me of an Australian shepherd-type dog I used to have. Orca. He was a mind reader with a sense of humor.”

“I know those dogs,” she said. “You named him Orca because he was black and white like a killer whale?”

Greer nodded, mouth full.

“We get killer whales along the coast here.” She pulled her order pad from her apron and tallied his check. “Commercial fishermen say they’re so smart it’s scary. One diver I know says he wants to be reincarnated as one. He says they’re ‘free spirits.’”

“‘Killer whale’ is a misnomer. It’s a myth that they eat humans. I figured you were smarter than that.” He popped a piece of roll into his mouth.

The waitress refilled his coffee cup.

“Mister,” she said sweetly, slipping the check on the table, “orcas eat whatever they want.”

Greer snorted good-naturedly at her retreating back. After he finished his meal, he turned the check over and unhurriedly counted out money from his pocket. He wrapped a couple of dollar bills around some sunflower seeds and, smiling, slid it beneath the plate. She wouldn’t find it until after he was gone.

He was pushing open the front door to leave when he heard her call him.

“Wait,” she said. She held a small paper bag, weighted at the bottom. “I think your old dog Orca would really want this.” She hesitated. “You said there’s no difference between us and them.” She put the bag in his hands and ushered him out the door. “Have a safe drive. Come back again.”

Greer lifted the bag in an awkward salute and walked to a dusty cargo van with “Paradise Parrot Circus” painted on the side. Feeling the waitress’ eyes burning a hole in his back, he drove away.

He’d gone a few miles before he pulled the van to the side of the coast highway. The broad hulk of the Pacific surged darkly in the west. The air was heavy with pre-dawn’s secret, poignant stillness.

After awhile, Greer looked at the bag on the seat. The rich smell wafting from it slammed memories into his gut like softballs. Summer afternoons and riding bikes. The Foster Freeze. Greer rolled down the window and gazed at the sea. The rich salt air infused his head. A hint of dawn made the ocean seem restless…ruthless…waiting….

He opened the bag and gingerly withdrew a cheeseburger with a pretty frill of lettuce and poppy-gold cheese at the corners. It was tucked into silky wax paper, the replica of a thousand cheeseburgers he’d gulped as a boy. Its warmth felt good in his hands.

The birds’ cages were covered and tucked among the circus equipment behind him. Their occupants, perhaps dozing, were silent in their isolation.

She was essentially correct, he knew. Killer whales ate whatever they damned well pleased.  And Orca would have wolfed this burger in a heartbeat and grinned from ear to ear.

Slowly, Greer brought the cheeseburger to his nose….

Five minutes later, gravel spurted from the van’s tires as it high-tailed away.


“Air-eee!” Timmy cajoled. “What happened next?”

Ariel had paused too long, smiling over sunflower seeds she’d fished from her apron pocket. She hoped the handsome customer who’d left them for her would be back, even if he was cranky. She popped one of the seeds in her mouth.

“You know exactly, Timmy. I’ve told you six million times.”

“Please?” Timmy sat straighter.

“Alright. So the killer whales were high-tailing away from the Sally J like the law was after ‘em. Panama said to Kenny, ‘They’re acting almost guilty, like they done something bad. Like they robbed a bank or something.’

“But Kenny and Panama saw a lot of strange things on the ocean, so by the time they got home they’d forgotten about it.”

Timmy’s eyes were bright. “Then what?”

“So, next day, Kenny saw a story in the paper about how a couple of empty kayaks were found floating off Santa Cruz Island the day before. A guy and his girlfriend were gone, no trace. The Coast Guard figured they’d been attacked by a Great White.

“But Kenny laughed at that theory. There wasn’t any mess, and sharks are so stupid they’ll bite anything—a chunk of Styrofoam, fiberglass, an oar. But killer whales are smart. And neither kayak was scratched, just one floating upside down. The only things gone were the people.

“Kenny said, ‘Something got ‘em alright, but it wasn’t any Great White. I bet it was those two killer whales me ‘n Panama saw lookin’ guilty that day. They tipped those people out of those kayaks and ate ‘em. They were bad boys.’”

As always, Ariel ended the tale with widened eyes and a “spooky” face.

Timmy shivered and grinned. He could hear that story a thousand times. §

January Anderson, a freelance writer and former New Times contributor, grew up in Morro Bay and now lives in Southern California where she writes, swims, and tries to corrupt vegans in her spare time.

Somebody’s Daughter

by Larry Narron

I walked down the long empty hall to my father’s room, thinking about the visions I’d had of him the night before, and all the other nights before, a specter haunting my dreams, covered in ashes, gray-eyed and wrinkled, hiccupping soot as he licked his lips and smiled at me, mumbling the unspeakable as he came closer, rising up at the foot of my bed. In the East, they call it the demon sitting on one’s chest. Those of the special talents, when they were close to the periphery of sleep would see them suddenly appearing, a little man made out of shadow, standing there at the foot of the bed, and when they saw him, they were paralyzed with fear. You literally can’t move, like when the mind wakes up far before the body, and the limbs—even the lungs—ignore all the body’s ordinary commands to move. The sense of powerlessness might be compared to drowning, I imagine.

Claire Standing, oil, 84 x 41, by David Settino Scott:

Claire Standing, oil, 84 x 41, by David Settino Scott:

Anyway, I wasn’t paralyzed now. I was walking down the hall to my father’s room, ready to face whatever I found in there.

I knocked on the door and let myself in. My father didn’t hear me approach. He was sitting on the far edge of his bed, facing away from me, watching TV, some History Channel show about flying saucers where they were interviewing pilots who said they’d seen them zipping over Europe during the Second World War—foo fighters, they called them.

The afternoon sunlight was coming in through the window directly behind the TV, the rays making what little white hair my father still had left on his head shimmer like the frail yet brilliant feathers of an ancient bird grown so thin that they had been loosened from the skin. He was like a weathered angel in the light, a shape that seemed to defy his nightly incarnations in my bedroom.

I noticed a little book about the rosary on his bedside pillow. I wondered when he’d decided to convert to Catholicism, or if he just suddenly found little religious trinkets comforting in the confusing, muddled landscape of old age. Maybe, in his mind, he’d always been a Catholic. My father tended to imagine things in order to fill in the gaps in memory that had been appearing with greater frequency and range in the years since he’d been admitted to this place. Oftentimes the made-up things were more real to him than the things that actually happened, the things he couldn’t remember had happened, or the things he refused to remember.

Hello? I said, trying to get my father’s attention. Mr. Wernick?

My father turned and smiled at me.  The pale blue cores of his eyes still shone through the foggy gray layer that had clouded over them both. Nurse Lucy, he said, flicking off the TV with the remote and tossing it onto the bed, we meet again. He stood and walked around the foot of the bed toward me. You look beautiful, my dear, as usual.

My father hugged me and I hugged him back the best I could. I was surprised by the warmth in his hands, his arms, his body, and I could tell that his body was not made out of shadow, but of flesh—a real man with blood in him that was still warm and flowing, wanting to pump to his heart for a little while longer, still. Even so, I didn’t understand how anything warm could be coming from him. The skin on his hands was spotty; it hung loose on his bones. Finally he let go and sat back down on the bed, facing me. I put my purse down on the floor and sat down on the chair across from him, against the wall.

And call me Sal, my father said. You know the drill.

I did know the drill—I’d been visiting him at least twice a month since he’d gotten sick. I looked out the open window behind my father on the far side of the room. Between the transparent white drapes that had been pulled aside, the hills of Fairfield were yellow, turning golden as the sun went down behind them. The green oaks lay scattered from each other in the golden hills. I wondered how anything could grow like that—alone, separated from all the others of its kind.

That’s a very pretty skirt you’re wearing, my father said, pointing and smiling. You look as beautiful as my wife did on her wedding day. Of course, she’s dead now, he added, still smiling.

I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Wernick.

He shrugged. Oh, that’s all right, he said. It’ll happen to all of us. I came to terms with that a long time ago—I was only seventeen. His smile faded. He folded his hands in his lap and looked down at his fingers for a moment. I couldn’t think of anything to say. But then he looked up.

Well, Nurse, he said, his smile reappearing mysteriously as he sat back down on the bed, you look just lovely, just like some of the girls from the war. There were so many beautiful girls in the war, he said. Have a seat.

Without any warning at all I lifted the hem of my skirt and moved my knee out so he could see the exposed tan flesh of my inner thigh. I pointed to the cigarette burns there, keeping my eyes locked on his.

He looked down at my thigh. There were a lot of beautiful girls in the war, he said again, this time with the remote and detached, ethereal monotone of someone talking in his sleep.

Mr. Wernick, I said, closing my legs and pulling my skirt back down over my knees, do you think we can try it again today? That is, if you’re comfortable?

He looked up suddenly. At that moment he had the appearance of someone trying to come to their senses after being shaken out of a deep sleep. Always comfortable, he said, and lay back down on the bed, closing his eyes. He pushed the rosary book to his side and laced his fingers together over his stomach. He let out a huge sigh. Kind of suits me, if you know what I mean.

Certainly, I said. Try to relax, Mr. Wernick.

He did try, and I proceeded to put him into a deep, deep sleep by reciting the little mantras we’d thought up together. I wasn’t sure if hypnosis would make him remember anything—it hadn’t so far—but I was desperate to keep trying, to do my best to help him recollect the past.  Perhaps it would require more than just showing him cigarette burns.

Once I’d gotten him into the trance I said, Tell me about your daughter. Tell me what you remember about Cynthia.

He shifted on the bed. His eyelids wrinkled and it seemed he really was trying to remember something. I looked at my father and was startled when I saw how old he looked; it seemed to occur to me suddenly and all at once. As he squeezed his already closed eyes even more tightly shut, his eyelids resembled the tightly twisted knots in the middles of ancient trees.

Somebody’s daughter, he said.

I waited. Yes? I said, when he wouldn’t go on.

Silence. Then he said, We’d taken a hill.

I didn’t understand. A hill? I tried to remember anything about a hill.

We’d taken a hill, he said again, and we were in the trees. The village was burning.  McCormick had already torched it, and whole place was on fire. We used to mow them all down, you see, without thinking one bit about it. At first it was just the enemy, of course. But then it wasn’t clear anymore who was the enemy. Nothing made any sense. We were so tired and it wasn’t clear. No sleep, the way you get after killing, what it does to you.

Silence. I waited for him to continue. Finally I had to ask him: What about somebody’s daughter? Whose daughter was she? We seemed to finally be getting to the point and I hoped he would finally face it.

My father sighed, his eyelids twisting up even more in the trance. I was in the trees, he said, walking between the flames. I could hear McCormick and the others calling me. I was still looking for survivors, anyone we could take as prisoners.

He stopped for a little while. I just sat there, looking at him. I didn’t know where he was going with this, but somehow I knew that, whatever he was going to tell me, it wouldn’t be fantasy; it wouldn’t be about the Rosary, our mantras, my assumed identity as Nurse Cindy.

I focused my attention on the pained look on my father’s face and I almost wanted to wake him up. I wanted to distract him from whatever it was he was in the process of trying to remember. I thought he might start crying. And besides, I wanted to bring him back to try getting him to talk about me. But I couldn’t speak, except to urge him to continue telling whatever story this was from the war.

The little girl, he said suddenly, walked right up to me through the burning trees. She was wearing this brown dress with little straps, but the straps had slipped off of her shoulders. The dress was coming off of her, peeling off, you could see quite a bit. The flames were going up on both sides of her, the smoke rising into the sky. I could see the huts of the village burning behind her. It was her village. I looked at the little girl and she looked at me, just standing there with her dress coming off. She had those dark eyes they all have. They just looked right inside me. But they weren’t studying me or anything. I looked back and tried to see inside her. I couldn’t. There were just these dark eyes that wouldn’t let up. He paused, let out a long heavy breath as if he hadn’t realized he’d been holding it in and needed to let it out now. But I remember, he said, thinking it was somebody’s daughter. She had to be, didn’t she? But she was all alone by herself and the village was burning, the heat making the sky quiver the way it does at airports when the planes are getting ready to take off on the runway. The girl…she had to have been only about six or seven. I remember how I raised my pistol and pointed it at her. I don’t know why, but she just stood there and kept looking at me like nothing had happened. She was somebody’s daughter, I kept telling myself. Where were her parents? Were they burning somewhere? Where’s your mommy and daddy? I said. But of course she just kept looking at me; she didn’t understand.  Finally, I lowered my pistol. I thought she might run away then, but she just went on with those eyes of hers. I remember thinking maybe I should take her with me, back to the others. We could find a medic or something. I remember how I thought I could get her out of there—I could save her life, if I really wanted to. But then I thought about how McCormick and the others would think I was crazy, how they’d tell me we couldn’t just take some little girl away with us. And I thought how it didn’t matter anyway, how her parents and whatever brothers and sisters she might have had were already burning. We’d killed everyone. Then, there was an awkward moment, I remember, when I tried hard to say something more. I really wanted so say something.  But I didn’t know what. Then I just turned on my heel and started walking back through the burning trees. I could feel the girl’s black eyes on the back of my head, burrowing, watching me retreat through the black smoke in the trees that started billowing up with the flames, covering everything.

My father stopped talking. He just lay there quietly, almost like he was sleeping. I watched the steady rise and fall of his chest beneath his shirt. Outside, between the window’s white curtains, the sun was going down beyond the hills, their gold flaming out into brilliant reds and oranges.  The gnarled trees darkened.

Nurse Cindy, my father abruptly said. Are you still there? He didn’t open his eyes. But he had asked me this strange question—if I was there. At that moment something strange dawned on me: I realized right then that he wasn’t in a trance at all, that he couldn’t be in a trance and ask me a question like that. He had merely pretended to be hypnotized, perhaps so he could tell me this story he wouldn’t want to express or even acknowledge while he was awake. Had he been faking the trance all these times I’d come to see him? I wasn’t sure. He hadn’t told me anything like this story until now.

I’m right here, Mr. Wernick, I assured him. The sound of my voice seemed to put him at ease.

Both of us were quiet for a long while. It was apparent my father wasn’t going to say anything more.

After a while, I said, When you hear the sound of the door closing, Mr. Wernick, you are going to wake up.

Supine on his bed, my father nodded in his fake hypnotized state. Okay, he said.

You can watch TV, I said, until you get tired. There’s something on about UFOs.  I won’t be here when you wake up.


I picked up my purse from the floor and stood. I was about to head for the door, but something told me I should stay. I just stood there and looked down at my father lying there on his bed, the sunset spilling through the window onto his bed. I thought I should say something, maybe about the burns, but I didn’t know what exactly. Finally I just reached over and picked up the rosary book and flipped through it. I knew it was filled with mantras I’d never want to familiarize myself with; it didn’t offer me the kinds of false memories I needed. I put it in his hands and his fingers closed over it firmly, his eyes still closed, his expression still unchanging. In that moment, he might as well have been lying in a coffin.

I turned and walked out the door, closing it softly behind me. The long white hall outside his room was still empty. I walked down the hall and into the lobby. Nurse Cindy, who’d let me in, whose name I shamelessly assumed during these visits to my father, was gone, but there was a receptionist behind the front desk. I didn’t look at her, didn’t sign out, just walked past her and out the door into the soft evening light. The dark sunlight was shining on the asphalt, making the shadows lengthen as I walked across the parking lot toward my car. A part of me wanted to go back, to ask him once more if he could at least try to remember me, what he did to me. But the truth was…I was scared. I was afraid that, if he did remember, and he said my name, I would look at him and wouldn’t be able to recognize him at all. It wouldn’t be my father there anymore, just someone made out of shadow, someone who could paralyze with a stare.

Having previously supported himself by sorting mail, spinning signs, and washing windows, Larry Narron (after graduation from UC Berkeley), now lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.  He can be reached at: This story originally appeared in Issue 50 of Palomar College’s literary journal, Bravura. It is republished with the author’s permission.

Going Native


by Larry Narron

Oscar stood on the curb in front of his school and waited for his mother’s boyfriend, Ted, to pick him up. It was a Friday in June, as well as his sixth birthday—Ms. Lindsey had even brought him a cupcake during recess, and he got to blow out the candle too—and he was looking forward to spending time with his father (who he was in the habit of calling by his first name, Randy) later that evening.

He glanced down at the two, blue plastered-together slivers of construction paper that he held in his hands, the edges still wet and sticky from his liberal use of the glue-stick. He was afraid of scissors, and so that morning Ms. Lindsey had stood behind him with her warm cigarette breath beside his cheek, and her long yellow hair almost tickling his neck as she held his hands against a cold and rusty left-handed pair barely held together by a single loose bolt and directed his nervous fingers to slowly cut the thick paper into the shape of a raindrop.

He’d written, in as even lines as he was capable of writing, a poem of his own authoring about raindrops with a purple Magic Marker® in his best handwriting which, he knew, wasn’t as good as some of the other kids in his class, especially the girls. But the poem itself was good. Of that he was certain. And he thought that Randy would think it was a good raindrop poem when he gave it to him later that evening.

Oscar had been waiting for a little more than an hour, and now not just the school but the sidewalk itself was nearly devoid of children, and the sun was sinking low on the horizon beyond the white range of endless houses in the west when Ted suddenly came sailing past him in the pickup. About forty feet beyond the place where Oscar stood, the truck jerked suddenly to the right and rolled up onto the curb with a screech of the tires. The truck stopped, then realigned, and Oscar could see Ted looking back over his shoulder through the dirty glass as he backed the truck up—slowly this time—parallel to the curb, stopping finally when he reached the place where Oscar stood.

Through the rolled-down passenger-side window Oscar could see Ted leaning over the seat, looking at him. Immediately he felt the rushing wave of whisky and beer and cigarettes squeeze out of the car and envelope him.

Almost didn’t see you there, buddy, Ted slurred. He took a long drag from the cigarette that had, until that moment, dangled somewhere out of view. The cigarette looked as if it had been smoked as much as it could be smoked, but as Ted sucked on it the thing glowed a weak red and flickered for a moment like a defiant, dying breath before dimming into nothing. He jerked the thing violently away from his mouth and turned his head and exhaled a huge cloud of smoke into the cab. He flicked the butt out the driver’s side window and turned back to Oscar. Happy birthday, bud. Hop in.

Oscar got in the truck and they pulled away from the school. The truck made a wide turn onto the boulevard that cut straight through the center of town. Ted glanced quickly at Oscar, turned his attention back to the road. Whatcha got there, bud?

Oscar looked down at the huge paper raindrop he was holding carefully with both hands on his lap. A raindrop poem, he said. Made it in class.

Ted shot him another glance, longer this time, his eyes narrowing as he stared for a good few seconds at the paper raindrop before turning his attention back to the road to discover in that instant that he’d veered off into the other lane. Up ahead, in the distance, the traffic was coming toward them. He pulled back into his own lane before Oscar had even noticed. No problem.

So the white man thinks he can make a poem about the rain now, hmm? Ted said, his face flushing slightly.  He shook his head and scoffed.

Oscar looked at him, confused.  He waited patiently for the explanation he knew would come if he just kept quiet.

The white man doesn’t know shit about the rain, Ted was saying. It sounded to Oscar as if he was saying it to himself as much as he was saying it to him. You’d have to be Indian to understand about the earth, to make a poem about it. Is that some shit they teach you in school?  Jesus Christ. Christopher Columbus Day and Pocahontas and her big cartoon tits, right? Sure they do. He laughed again, shaking his head. He cocked his head to the side and spit out the window.

Oscar was quiet for a moment. He looked down at the raindrop poem in his lap and started to feel sad. Then he remembered: But Randy, he said, turning to Ted, said that you’re not a real Indian. He said you just pretend it. Randy says Indians don’t have blond hair and blue eyes.  Randy said—

Fuck Randy, Ted cut him off, gripping the wheel with both hands. Randy knows an awful lot, doesn’t he?

The truck sailed through a red light without incident.

I mean, Ted said, quietly, Randy wouldsay something like that. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Know what I mean, bud? He turned to Oscar and smiled through his yellow teeth.  The smile dissolved as he turned his head to look back at the road. Hey, he said after a few minutes, Randy didn’t happen to give you the check your mom wanted? Did he, bud?

No, Oscar said, I haven’t even seen him yet.

An Indian goes into hiding

When they got home Oscar’s mother made him take a shower, even though he’d already taken one the day before. He was drying off when he heard the doorbell ring—barely distinguishable amidst the Enya music blasting on the other side of the bathroom door—and he knew it was Randy coming to see him for his birthday. Oscar quickly finished drying and hurried into his clothes. He opened the door and saw Ted crouched low to the ground in the middle of the living room. He crept low, staying below the window sills. Oscar glanced out the window to see if anyone was looking into the house. When he looked back at Ted, hunched in the corner, his eyes were open wide. Ted held a finger up to his lips and looked at Oscar.

Oscar, Ted whispered in the way Oscar knew people whispered when they were going to say something that was very important. Don’t say anything. It’s your dad, bud. Don’t tell him I’m here. Ted remained crouched as he turned and hurried across the living room and down the hall toward his mother’s bedroom. Oscar watched him go into the room and climb into the closet. He looked at Oscar and put his finger to his lips again as he slid the door slowly and quietly over himself, and disappeared inside.

Oscar turned away and ran through the living room and down the other hall that led to the front door of the house. His mother was standing in the doorway, facing away from him and blocking any view of Randy he otherwise might have been able to get. She was screaming and Randy was screaming. Enya was singing.

This is bullshit, Randy said. Come on, Meredith. You know that son of a bitch was living here less than two weeks after I moved out. You can’t expect me to believethat shit.

Oh, don’t you sound intelligent? Real smart, Randy. You figured it out. So I was cheating on you. Jesus Christ.

Does he have a job yet? Are you guys gonna get married or was he just planning on living off of my money for a few years before he bails out on you? He already bailed out on his kid, now he thinks he can raise mine.

Shut up, Randy. Just shut up.

He thinks he’s a goddamn Indian, Meredith. A fucking Indian. You realize you’re both totally fucking crazy, right? I hope you at least realize that. You’re fucking the medicine man. Great. So what’s Oscar gonna be when he grows up? A fucking shaman? Randy laughed the way he did when he thought that something was stupid.

Meredith screamed. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Just stop it.

Let me see my goddamn son.

From where he stood in the hallway Oscar could see his mother lift her hands from her hips and hug herself with her arms. She stood there.

It’s not Saturday.

It’s his birthday. I want to see him. Please.

It’s not Saturday, Randy.

Meredith. Please.

Oscar turned and ran back down the hall and through the living room. He ran up the stairs, leaping over every other step as he hurried to his bedroom. He went inside and got the raindrop poem from where he’d placed it on his pillow to let the glue dry. He closed the door behind him so that no one would hear him if he started crying. When he realized that he wasn’t going to cry, he grabbed the poem from his pillow and burst back out of his room and trotted back down the staircase to the living room, smiling.

Just as he reached the end of the hall where his mother was, she slammed the door shut on Randy. She locked it. She turned and looked startled when she saw Oscar standing there. A piece of paper was dangling from her left hand. Oscar looked and saw that it was the check she had kept asking him to get from Randy.

Is he gone yet? Oscar heard Ted calling from the closet in the bedroom behind him.

Meredith looked over Oscar’s head. Just hold on a second, Ted. I’ll be right there, honey.

She looked back at Oscar and smiled. What’s that you got there, Oscar? she said, pointing to the paper raindrop. You make that for me in school today?

Before he could even think how to answer his mother, her gaze dropped away from him and she studied the check in her hands.

Enya finished singing one song, began singing another.


After dinner that night, his mother had to leave to go to a meeting at the place where she worked. She told Oscar and Ted to have fun, that she would be back later that evening, and then she left.

Ted had been drinking since about an hour before they sat down to have dinner from one of the big bottles that he kept in the high-up kitchen cabinets. After a while he started talking in his Indian voice again (the way he did when he got very drunk), the voice of the Indians on old, black-and-white TV shows. At least that’s what Oscar thought that it sounded like. He couldn’t exactly place where he’d heard a voice like that before.

After his mom left, Ted made Oscar do the dishes, but afterward he was allowed to watch cartoons in the living room for a while. His mom said she didn’t let him watch the good cartoons like Ninja Turtles because they were too violent, but he was allowed to watch Captain Planet because it talked about taking care of Mother Earth. Ted left him alone and went out into the backyard for almost the whole cartoon.

Captain Planet was almost done saving the rainforest from the lumberjacks when Ted came back inside, looking stone-faced and serious. He stumbled into the living room. Oscar, he said, it is time you learned a great Indian secret. You will come to the backyard now. He took a giant swallow from the nearly emptied bottle dangling from his fist. Come to the sweat lodge. He motioned. I will show you the way.

Oscar turned off the TV and looked at him. He didn’t know what to say. He thought if he said something, it might be wrong.

Your birthday is a very special time in life, Ted was saying. It is time for the great ceremony.  The stones have already been heated. Come. Ted took another gulp from the bottle, turned and walked back outside.

Oscar was afraid of following Ted, but he was also afraid of what might happen if he didn’t follow, so he rose from the couch and followed Ted out into the deep purple evening. He stood next to his mother’s boyfriend in the middle of the backyard. The stars, partially obscured by the thickening clouds, shone only dimly in the sky. A cool breeze blew softly through the darkness, almost as if it wanted to pass unnoticed through the yard.

They approached the sweat lodge together. It was just a makeshift hut covered with a black tarp. Oscar could see a small piece of the tarp that covered the wall that faced them swaying in the wind, reflecting the moonlight, and he realized in that moment that it was covering the entrance. From what he could tell by the way the tarp flapped, the entrance was so small you would have to get down on your hands and knees to crawl through it. He wondered when Ted had finished building the thing; just yesterday morning it was only a pile of wood lying in the grass.

Ted prodded Oscar with the bottle. Get in, he said, and be careful of the stones.

Oscar turned and looked up at Ted. It occurred to him then that he did not know if he was more frightened of Ted or of the idea of trying to squeeze into the hole.

Get in, Ted said more firmly. The medicine men have always said that this must be done.  Medicine is the way to purify, to heal the body and the mind. And the soul. The white man must be purified. He finished what was left of the bottle and lobbed it off into the grass by the fence.

Oscar, realizing now that he had no choice whatsoever in the matter, got down on his hands and knees and crawled reluctantly toward the door of the sweat lodge. When he reached it he lifted the flap of tarp that covered the small entrance and immediately felt the heat rush over him.  The blinding steam billowed out through the door something desperate to get out, as if there were something in there it absolutely must escape from before…before what? Inside, deep in the steam near the ground, in the middle of the lodge, he could see the smooth round stones glowing red in the shallow pit, pulsing slowly like the ends of cigarettes. For a moment, Oscar thought he heard an animal growling somewhere in the darkness behind him. Then he realized it was Ted.

Get inside, he said.  You’re letting the heat out.

Oscar pushed himself all the way in, feeling the hot steam as it swallowed him. Yeah, swallowing him, that’s what it was doing. As he pulled his legs into the sweat lodge, the tarp that concealed the small entrance fell slack behind him. The steam made it so he couldn’t see very well, and it made his eyes water and swell and sting. Already he felt uncomfortable trying to breathe. He inhaled cautiously, but the steam made his throat swell anyway; it burned in his lungs, but exhaling was a relief, even though it almost hurt as much as breathing in. He kept his breaths short, realizing then that deep breaths would only make it more uncomfortable, more painful. He crawled through the darkness, scraping against the wall to avoid the stones, noting that the interior of the sweat lodge was also coated in plastic tarp that had been stapled to the wall in some places, was sagging in others, bubbling from the heat. Above him, the plastic also drooped and bubbled in the places where no staples held it to the ceiling. Even with the glow from the heated stones, he could barely see the ceiling and the walls of the sweat lodge’s insides because it was so obscured by the thickening steam that kept billowing up from the stones in the pit, and the blackness of the walls and the ceiling seemed to add an inky stain to the steam that hung in the room, darkening it more, threatening to turn it entirely black—the hot blackening breath of the mouth, the mouth that had swallowed him, the mouth that was hungry forever for heat and steam.

Clinging to the tarp, he crawled around the glowing stones and sat against the wall on the far side of the sweat lodge where he faced the entrance—no, where he faced the mouth of whatever grim beast whose jaws he had been foolish enough to crawl inside. He sat Indian style, the way he had learned last year in kindergarten, thinking that this was how Ted would want him to be sitting. The black plastic covering the wall behind him was damp and sticky from the hot steam.  It clung to his back, even through the fabric of his shirt, and stuck to it with the help of the sweat that was forming there beneath it, that he could feel dripping down to the top of his pants. He swallowed, his throat not just dry but burning now, he realized, swelling and aching from the steam. He looked over the glow of the stones toward the low, now-covered entrance on the opposite side of the lodge. The dim red light made the floor glow, illuminated the lowest parts of the walls as well, and the plastic section of tarp that hid the entrance. The plastic shimmered in the red glow as a breeze drifted through the backyard.

There was a rustling sound that came from beyond the flap that dangled over the sweat lodge’s entrance, the sound of animals—dogs, maybe—digging, rustling through the wet grass and the weeds. Ted’s face popped through the hole. Oscar could barely see the outline of it through the thickening steam, but its surface glowed a soft red because of the heated stones.

Boo, Ted yelled, and burst out laughing.  He choked suddenly, coughed and heaved, his breath warm and rank from the bottle, mixing into a sickening soup with the steam floating in the darkness.

Ted squeezed through the hole and seemed to grow larger in the darkness as he sat up in the small, cramped room, his legs gleaming red, his torso and his face now entirely enveloped in the darkness and the steam. His body blocked the door, a permanent eclipse. He sat Indian style. It is the Indian way, he said.

Oscar stared at him, terrified. Indian way? Where had he heard that before? Hadn’t Randy said something about the Indian way once? Or was that just a dream he’d had? He almost remembered something then, but not quite.

The ceremony is sacred to my people, Ted said slowly in his strange voice, spacing out the words and emphasizing each one as if it were a completed statement of its own. Now his whole face was a shadow, a face made out of shadow, a shadow that breathed forth steam. You must be purified for what your people have done to mine.

Oscar tried to move and found that he couldn’t. He felt paralyzed with fear, as if a spell had been cast upon him that meant to keep him there. His lungs filled with the hot air and it burned worse than he felt he could bear. He wanted out. He tried to keep his breathing slow and even, but it was now quickening beyond his control, and the pain from the heat only increased with it.  The gleaming started swimming in the darkness in front of his eyes, the darkness blinking in and out of frame in subtle flashes that continued to flicker and pulse. He could feel his chest pounding with pain. He could barely recognize the strange voice of his mother’s boyfriend now as his speech slowed down even more, the octaves plummeting lower than Oscar had ever heard before from him.

The rain, Ted said deeply, and Oscar remembered no more.


There was a time, a year ago maybe, even though it sometimes felt like more, when Ted wasn’t there, when Randy was still married to Meredith, and they weren’t screaming. Randy and his mom were still living together with Oscar in the old mobile home park on the other side of the city. This was when Randy was working all the time, trying to get enough money to buy the new house in the nice neighborhood with the cul-de-sacs. Oscar remembered there was this one time when so many days went by and he didn’t even get to see Randy once. Randy would come home late at night after Oscar had gone to bed. And he’d leave early in the morning before he woke up.   He told his mom and she just looked at him and sighed and said, Tell me about it. So Oscar started telling her and she started yelling and sent him to his room. But then, one night, Randy snuck quietly into his room and woke him from sleep. There were dark bags hanging under his eyes, which were puffy and red, the veins in them thick and swollen, bulging even. He told Oscar to come with him into the living room. Shh, Randy said. They had to be real quiet because Mom was sleeping. They sat down on the couch in the living room and watched TV with the sound turned down so low there was almost no sound at all. It was a show—an old black-and-white one—about cowboys and Indians. Randy whispered something about how the Indians always whispered to each other when they went out hunting, and how they hid in the fog that blanketed the hills and kept them invisible to the cowboys, and how their horses ran through the fog with their hoofs never touching the ground, silent as ghosts. Oscar watched the cowboys shooting all the Indians on TV, the Indians firing back with their bows and arrows to no avail, tumbling down in the long wet grass, gun smoke puffing from their punctured hearts.

He didn’t remember falling asleep. But it was still dark when he felt the hand that was shaking him. He found that he could only open his eyes halfway, but he realized that he hadn’t gone to his room, that he’d fallen asleep on the couch in the living room, and he looked up into the darkness and saw that it was Randy who was shaking him gently, whispering. Oscar, come on now. Remember, you said you wanted to go fishing. Oscar didn’t remember, but he grew suddenly excited at the idea of fishing so early in the morning and he wanted to go. He got up from the couch and walked in a daze to his room to get his jacket and his shoes. When he came back to the living room, he saw Randy bending down in the darkness, closing the latches on the tackle box slowly and carefully, so they wouldn’t click too loud. He handed Oscar the fishing poles to carry and they went silently out of the house into the chill of the nearly lightless early morning. They got in the truck and let it warm up for a while before backing slowly out of the driveway into street.  As they drove through the mobile home park, Oscar looked out the window and up into the foggy darkness in the sky. The stars were all behind the clouds.

Randy turned the truck around the corner. They were driving toward the back of the mobile home park—it wasn’t the normal way to leave. Oscar turned to his dad. Where are we going, Randy? Randy smiled. We’re going fishing. But Randy, Oscar complained, this isn’t the way out of the park. Randy looked at him and smiled. We’re going the Indian way. He turned back to the road and peered into the fog as he drove them toward the back end of the park. There was a tear in the chain-link fence just wide enough to drive the truck through. They went through the opening and drove slowly down the long alleyway lined on each side with broken-down trailers that sunk into the wet, disintegrating asphalt. Long wet weeds grew up out of the asphalt around the sagging trailers. Their windows were boarded up and their wavy metal sidings were pocked with rusty holes. This is where the Indians live, Randy said. And he pointed to the boards nailed over the windows. See? They’re in there, hiding from skinwalkers. Oscar turned and looked at his father, his eyebrows coming together as he frowned at him skeptically. Skinwalkers? What’s that? Yeah, Randy said, and paused for a moment before continuing. Witches, he said. Witches that look like people sometimes, wild animals others. See, they can change into anything. They live in the caves out there in the hills, in the mist, and they talk to the wolves, and the coyotes.  And when the coyotes and the wolves go somewhere to die, the skinwalkers take their skins and wear them. The hair of the wolves is where they get their magic from.

Is it good magic? Oscar wanted to know.

Oh no, Randy said. It’s a very bad kind of magic. It’s a dark and terrible power that they have.  And that’s why the Indians are hiding here. Randy pointed again to the trailers as they slowly neared the end of the alley. Oscar looked again at the holes on the metal siding of the trailers, wondered if the Indians were looking out at them through the holes as they drove past. It’s why they have to keep quiet, Randy said. It’s why they have to whisper. That’s why they call this place the Indian way. But what about the cowboys? Oscar said. Why don’t the cowboys shoot the skinwalkers with their guns? Randy shook his head. Bullets can’t hurt them, he said. Their magic protects them. Oscar continued staring out the window, watched the trailers that seemed almost to float by them in the darkness. Then suddenly they were out of the alley, and onto the open road. Oscar recognized the place where they were now as the truck sped up, descending the hill that went down toward the lake.


FICTION.GOING-NATIVE.skinwalkerThe skinwalker

Oscar awoke and found himself in the cave with the skinwalker. It was sitting opposite him, blocking the cave’s entrance, and the cave was full of its blooming breath that burned hot from within. It sat Indian style, its legs aglow from the heated stones, its face blurred by the dense shadows that seemed to collapse in on themselves inside the steam. He could not see the skinwalker’s eyes—only the thickening shadow where its face was—but he knew with a terrible intuitive certainty that it was looking at him, through him, as if it were determined on focusing on something buried deep inside his head. He thought he could see the shadows that hid its face warp into the shape of sinuous lips, and smile at him, but the rest of its expression was still obscured by its hot breath that hung nearly motionless in the darkness of the cave, loomed suspended above the orange glow of the stones, the stones of its spell-making.

Oscar’s throat was hot and dry. He tried to breathe in and felt pain. He was sweating all over, dripping, shaking with terror but unable even to fidget from his position on the floor of the cave; he was still sitting Indian style, and his legs were asleep beneath him.

Today you are no longer a boy, the skinwalker said in the voice of the Indians. Today you are a man.

Oscar suddenly became conscious of his tongue in his throat and managed a scream. He willed the feeling back into his legs, the strength to stand, but as he did so he nearly collapsed into the hot pit of stones. The skinwalker was startled. It flinched at Oscar’s scream and sudden movement. Oscar scurried in a panic around the stones, making for the tiny door of the cave it was blocking. He swung his small fists at the thing, screaming and coughing, and screaming.  His fists thudded uselessly against it. He was not hurting it but he realized had startled the thing, caught the skinwalker off guard, and it growled at him, made to get up, giving him just enough space to squeeze by it and throw himself through the black tarp that hung over the opening of the cave. He heaved himself forward, ripping through the black crinkly darkness. The plastic that covered the entrance gave way and tore under the force of his desperate, flailing fingers. He tumbled through the tarp and crashed down into the wet dirt and the weeds. Instantly he felt the ice-cold mud on his face and hands and arms. The air was cool on his face. The soft breeze touched him as if to comfort him, to remind him that he had escaped. He sucked in the cold and soothing air. He didn’t want to let it out again.

He felt a violent slapping on his back. The skinwalker, blinded by its breath, was trying to squeeze out of the cave. It struggled to get a hold on Oscar’s shirt.

Oscar shrieked and pulled away through the dirt, wanting to get as far away as possible as the thing tried to pull him back into the cave. He felt a tug, his shirt ripping—and he was free.

Get back here you little brat!

Oscar pushed himself to his feet. The skinwalker squeezed out of the cave, stood and lunged after him. It grabbed ahold of Oscar’s arm and yanked hard on it. Oscar screamed again, heard a sickening popping sound below his shoulder that was immediately followed by a sharp and unbearable pain. He gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. He pulled away, stumbled through the dark yard under the clouded stars, hugging his injured arm to his chest, trying his best not to cry from the throbbing pain, sending it rippling into his neck in waves that only seemed to grow bolder in their effort to crash mercilessly against the tender shores of his brain.  Inevitably, his head began to pound and ache.

The house was in front of him, he saw. He stumbled toward the sliding screen door that led back into the house. He went inside, into more darkness. He remembered then that his mother was out at a meeting. She still wasn’t back. She’d left him with Ted but he’d started talking in his Indian voice and drinking and had turned back into the skinwalker. He remembered his father had stopped by earlier, but then he had left, went back to sleep in his little apartment in another city. He fumbled for the light switch in the darkness, only succeeded in stumbling into a chair at the dining room table. He winced, let out a short, half-muted sob, decided to forget the chair and felt his way through the darkness to the living room. He managed to avoid slamming into the coffee table, found his way around it, collapsed on the couch. He pulled his arm into his chest and hugged it tight, feeling the endless waves of pain pulsing  through him as he prayed wordlessly for them to subside.

The skinwalker stepped in through the screen door, cursing. It went right for the cabinets in the kitchen and started throwing the doors open, looking for bottles. Finally it came back out—empty-handed. It stared at Oscar through the darkness for a moment, saying nothing.  Finally it walked over toward him and crouched down beside the coffee table. It reached for the bundle of sage leaves on the middle of the table, fumbled in its pocket with the other hand and pulled out a lighter. It held the flame up to the sage leaf and flicked it a few times before the sage caught fire. The skinwalker shook the sage back and forth until the little flame burned out.  Smoke rose through the darkness, spinning slow as it meandered toward the ceiling.

To clear the house of evil spirits, it said in its low and measured Indian voice, still waving the burning bundle of sage back and forth, the smoke now spreading outward through the air as it rose. Its voice choked on sobs. The spirits will leave us now. But sounded only half-convinced of itself.

Oscar clutched his arm and fought back tears, stared at the skinwalker kneeling beside him as it slowly waved the sage back and forth in the darkness. Oscar held his breath and watched it, and saw that it had started weeping softly over the edge of the coffee table.

He watched it for a long time like that.  Finally, when the sage had finally burned away, the skinwalker stood wordlessly. It looked down at Oscar for a moment. Then it turned and walked silently down the hall to his mother’s bedroom, went in, and shut the door softly behind it. §

Having previously supported himself by sorting mail, spinning signs, and washing windows, Larry Narron (after graduation from UC Berkeley), now lives and writes in Portland Oregon.  He can be reached at: