Catcher in the Eye

Didn’t run the
Streets too
Much

My father and uncles
Had done all that in
The early days in Fillmore
And all I knew was that
They didn’t want that for me
And that if I got out of pocket
I’d get an ass whipping from
All of them

But when I did run the streets
It was broken field running,
Dodging and cutting
Away at angles in a spontaneous
No script scenario that I’d
Repeat over and over

Avoiding the eyeball
To eyeball but seeing
Clearly

I never got shot
Never shot anybody
Never drank a 40
But sipped (and slipped)
A lot

And when I
Did shoot, it was
A glance

A shot from the
Outside, the margin
The perimeter while
The others were in
Close range

But a glance, a
Catching of the eye,
A moment, a cloud
Uncovering something
In a split second was
Sufficient for me to be
Inside, in my own way

And I dealt with shit
On Muni and in the
Schools, getting pushed
And sometimes pushing
Back

But learning how
To maneuver

A game of cat and mouse
Chess
Checkers
Tic tack toe

(and bigger games)

And in this
City that created
Me, I still cut and
Stutter step and navigate
Its streets

A bystander
Standing by himself
(mostly)

A glance
A blink
A cut away

Wading into
The streets of
This city that
Created me

© 2019 Tony Robles

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Unity in Black and Brown

In the projects of North Beach
There was cement and curved
Spaces and concave enclaves
Where shadows gathered and voices
Echoed laughter, bouncing in and
Out of blind spots as the sun hit
At every imaginable angle

And swarms of dragonflies would
Descend from the sky and I didn’t
Know a dragonfly from a ladybug
And I saw them as flying spiders

And I was scared to
Walk out the door and
Into the swarm

But the sun hit
Me in the eyes

And there was Michael
Who was five or six years
Older who would say, hey,
Go steal this or that for me

He lived next door
And a few doors down
In the other direction
Was Eric, a white kid
With stained t-shirts who
Would pull fire alarms
And take off running

And the dragonflies turned
Into fireflies

And a Catholic priest
Would come in a station wagon
From time to time dropping
Off bags of donuts

And the nuns would smile at
Our black and brown and yellow
And white powdered sugar
Covered faces

(This was 1971)

And I lived in that
North Beach project with
My grandmother and uncle
And I got a way with
Too much

And I walked to
School, real slow
Up a big hill

I was daydreaming
Uphill not knowing
The possibility of a
Downhill future

And as I was taking
My sweet time going
Up that hill towards
Sarah B Cooper School

I’d hear a loud
Honk

I’d look and it was
My grandfather in his
Copper colored Buick

He wore dark shades
And a heavy working man’s
Jacket

In the passenger seat
Was his best friend Chris

A black man and a
Filipino man, both
Bus drivers

Both drinking
Cups of black
And brown coffee

Both knowing what
Uphill and downhill
Meant

Grandpa woukd roll
The window down and
Call out:. Hey boy,
Hurry your ass up
And get to school
Before I whip your
Ass

And I hurried my
Ass up that hill

While my grandpa
And Chris watched
From that Buick

Looking into
The future

(C) Tony Robles 2019

Corner man

Hey kid,
You’re getting your
Ass kicked out there

Keep your goddamned
Hands up, you keep
Dropping your left and
You’re getting nailed by
That overhand right!

You’re walking
Into those punches,
Quit fighting with
Your goddamned face!

You want to end up
Looking like a
Catcher’s mitt?

Don’t you realize
You’re beating
Yourself up?

Look, kid,
You’re getting
Nailed left and
Right with every
Shot in the book

You took 5 shots
Flush on the chin:

Shot #1: you ain’t shit
Shot #2: you never was shit
Shot #3: You never will be shit
Shot #4: you are shit
Shot #5: you’ll always be shit

Look, kid
We’re all full of shit,
You’re not the only one

But we’re early
In the fight

Put your mouthpiece
In but don’t be
Silent

Get out there
And fight like
Hell

Do it

And remember,
Kid

I love
Ya

© 2019 Tony Robles

From Hear

You hear
What I’m saying?

What’d
You say?

I hear ya

Within
Hearshot of
A hearing that
Broke my hear drum
circle

A hearing
I didn’t hear

And didn’t
Hear me

Yet I’m from
Hear

Where you
From, here?
Hear?

I didn’t hear
What you said

The only
Thing to
Hear is hear
Itself

Can you run
That by me
Again

I’m from
Hear

Loud and hear,
Hear?

From where?

Hear

This is getting complicated,
like ring around the rosie,
pocket full of bullshit

a game of hear’s on first

Hear?

There?

Where?

Here

Hear?

© 2019 Tony Robles

Efficacy

A technical
Sounding word
Affixed to the tongue
With the aftertaste of a
Postage stamp

Firing off synapses
Between terminals
Of positive and negative
In a field of gray

Falls from
Lip and slips
In quadrants of
Four

Eel
At the wheel
On the
Heels of something
Before lips
Turn corner
Forming ringlet then…Poof

The proof?
This word
Has two F’s
And two F’s
Are better than one

And the spoof of
Cold storage quarantined
Report cards that somehow
Turned F’s into A’s, B’s and
Sometimes C’s, turning
Efficacy into delicacy

a labiodental
fricative
Friction
of bottom lip
and top teeth
(or sometimes teef)

Not to be confused
With eccifacy
Which may or may not
Be a word

It sits on
Teeth, lips
Fastened
Ready to bite

From thought’s
Birth, idea’s
Breath

Never
For naught

Efficacy: a word
that means, you
know your shit

© 2018 Tony Robles

Moon Roof

Paul hangs upside down on his porch in Hendersonville, a short distance from the community of Bat Cave in North Carolina .  It is Thanksgiving Day and he is defying gravity, in mid-air (and flair) suspension with the elegance of a microchiroptera (The scientific name for bat if my online research is to be trusted)—or in Paul’s case, megachiroptera, given his 6 foot 3 stature– in a black and white movie dissolving into a tux-attired vampire.  However, he is not stuck but assuming a viewpoint, a pinprick—if you will—in the prevailing balloon, on whose course so many float.   So many things are stuck to the roof of one’s mouth; like a clutch that won’t shift, stuck in reverse or in a gear that grinds into itself until it is stripped of its power to do what it was intended.  Sometimes you can’t speak, the tongue isn’t in the right gear, isn’t lubricated with the right amount of knowledge, expertise, education or, at the very least, lucidity to allow a smooth transition, to change gears into the unknown.

“Why?” Paul asks

I sit, not knowing the answer (Not even knowing if i want to know)

“Why” Paul asks, “Didn’t God forgive Adam and just give him another chance?”

Being in apple country—Hendersonville, North Carolina, the 4th largest apple region in the state–one would assume the answer to this query would be common knowledge and perhaps it is among certain locals such as his landlord.  Hell if I know, i want to reply, but my tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth, perhaps a sun roof, maybe a skylight, yet it is stuck.  Why is it stuck?  Hell if i…

 

Paul poses these questions but they basically boil down to a single question…why?  Paul, a good-looking brother of the Arthur Prysock (Young Prysock) variety; tall, in his 70’s, in good shape except for a bad back he acquired lifting weights in the service–a deadlift in excess of 300 some-odd-pounds.

“At 20 you can lift weight like that, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. He has the aesthetic of a Roy Hamilton, or Lenny Welch—classic crooners of an era gone by, preserved on wax in Paul’s record collection.  On his living room table are magazines, pill bottles, wrappers, decorative holiday gift bags from holidays past that held goodies from his landlady who lives across the driveway demarcated by glorious Crepe Myrtle trees that have lost their deep red and purple hues in this time of year.  Paul, single, shorn of matrimony due to both natural and unnatural circumstances, lives in a single family home, brick and solid wood with a landlady who holds him in such high esteem that, in this year’s holiday goody bag, hung on the door knob, are holiday oven mitts, mints, a card wishing God’s blessings and various red and green accoutrements.

 

By the recliner a toy rifle sits on a chair.  It is solid and rust has built up; perhaps a toy from his youth in New Jersey.  I run my finger across the barrel and recall the way my father talked about the cowboy movies of his childhood: Red River, High Noon, Shane—Audie Murphy etc.  It is cold and the years have calcified; the elements settling upon it as it sits having survived the seasons.  A few feet away sits a small photo of Paul.  He is young, posing in his army uniform; a tall, good-looking, light skinned black brother.  Was it Germany?  In the background are barracks.  He looks like one of those singers whose baritone rises higher than an entire fleet of bombers on its best day.  Paul, looking like the light skinned brother in the group ‘The Main Ingredient’.  I can hear the words, the lyrics on an endless set of wings:  Everybody plays the fool…there’s no exception to the rule.  And Paul’s voice breaks through.  “Why?’ he asks.  Why.

 

Paul is my stepfather Pete’s older brother, separated by a couple years.  I am here from San Francisco on my yearly visit to my mother and Pete. There are 3 brothers in all, but Paul and Pete live in North Carolina, while, John, the oldest, lives in Florida. The three are sons of a New Jersey dentist and a school teacher who taught English literature.  Each holds a strong resemblance to their mother, a fair-skinned woman with whom i became acquainted in her later years.  I’ve seen pictures of her as a young woman, an exceptionally beautiful woman who elicits thoughts and images of the silver screen.  She had a soothing voice that could recall and recite—word for word–biblical passages and poetry–an ability that lent itself to her profession as an educator.  I can hear her voice say, well i declare when something struck her as odd or unusual.  A beautiful woman, looking like a starlet in a black and white photo that her sons cherish; part Lena Horne, part Clara Bow.  Well…i declare.

 

We drive through roads that twist, past a white A-framed church that was built in the late 1800’s by the Huntley family–whose family donated the land and subsequently, many decades later, ex-communicated one of the Huntley bloodline for asking too many questions regarding the biblical dictums communicated on Sunday Mornings. At the dinner table we join hands while Pete begins to say grace.  Paul sits to my left.  I reach for his hand.  I reach for his hand but get fingers.  Pete begins:

 

Gracious lord we thank thee for

These bounties of thy providence

And Pray these to sanctify and to

Nourish our bodies and God Bless

The hands that prepared it

In Jesus name…Amen

 

“Amen. That’s something i can say” says Paul as if enduring a 30 minute speech.

Pete pours wine for the guests, fussing over the position of people’s napkins and salad forks—where healthy amounts of turkey, stuffing and potatoes–the traditional—will decorate plates painted with holiday scenes—unleashed on this one day, to be sequestered in a wooden cabinet the rest of the year.  We eat. I look around. Outside the sliding glass windows are trees stripped of leaves. Beyond them are the Blue Ridge Mountains, dotted with houses and covered in earthy tones that radiate warmth despite the cold. My mother and stepfather’s home is large, with an upper level where my mother’s office sits, complete with certificates and degrees–Humanities, creative writing and Notary Public–on the wall. A comfortable house with rugs, lamps, candles, framed pictures of zebras and various cushions and pillows for one’s sitting comfort. A glass table lies low on the carpeted floor in the living room with several magazines, coasters and an array of remote controls. Rodin’s “The Thinker” sits hunched in silent thought with an intensity deftly sculpted, particularly in the back muscles. Pete picks up a sharp knife with a silver handle.

“Tony” he says, “Do you want white or dark meat?”

“Dark” I say

“You don’t like white?”

“I like it but dark tastes better”

“In more ways than one” Paul interjects, with a slight smirk.

“Let me guess Paul”, Pete says, “Your yellow ass wants dark meat?”

“Both” Paul answers, passing his plate.

Pete carves the turkey, his hands slightly trembling with each blade stroke. He passes the plate to Paul, then gently places the dark and white flesh of the seasonal fowl on Kate’s and my mother’s plate. Kate lives up the hill with Sadie, a dog that resembles a wolf. We sit and begin cutting, seemingly in unison. We begin to chew, also in unison. Paul examines his food, rearranges it.

“Why” Paul begins, “Do people believe in the story of Noah’s Ark?  Just think about it, Noah supposedly builds an ark and they got to get two of each kind of animal, within a 5 mile radius.  And, mind you, they only got a week to do it.  What I want to know is, how’d they get the polar bears in there?  Did they go to the North Pole?  That’s more than 5 miles away.  And I’m sure Noah, at 900 years of age didn’t have thermal underwear.” Paul leans back a bit, arms crossed–not tense–as if his arms were limbs embracing the shape of the wind.  I look at the position of his arms and think of a defensive boxing position, used by the late “Old Mongoose”, champion Archie Moore, known for both his pugilistic wisdom and wisdom of life.

I sit and listen and offer no answers.

“People just accept this” Paul continues, “But they never question what they’re told.

He’s got a point, i think to myself, conjuring images of polar bears and Eskimo pies. Pete listens while pouring a bit of wine.

“Pass the cranberry sauce” Pete says, adjusting his voice to the inevitable dialog/exchange.

Paul, not hearing the request, sprinkles salt on his turkey and mashed potatoes, despite high blood pressure.  He passes the salt to Pete.

“Your problem” says Pete, “Is you’re too judgmental”

“It’s not that I’m judgmental” Paul answers.  “It’s that I don’t swallow everything without questioning”

“You’re swallowing that wine”

“Yeah, and it isn’t sweet.  What kind of wine is this?

Flo, Pete’s wife begins to laugh between sips of wine.

“What’s so funny?” asks Pete.

Flo wipes her mouth with a napkin adorned with the splayed feathers of a turkey.

“When you said swallow, I thought about the swallows of Capistrano” said Flo, placing an elbow on the table. “

“What about them?” Paul asks

“When I was a little girl” explained Flo, “I was forbidden to enter my parent’s closet. My dad told me that if I went in the closet the swallows would get me. So I never went in that closet.”

“And you believed that?” asked Paul, chuckling

“I guess you can say I swallowed that story. It kept me out of that closet though.”
“Logic can answer only so much” said Pete, gesturing towards Paul. “There are certain things that cannot be explained through logic.  It’s not all about logic.”

“What is it about then?”

“It’s about humility, living by faith, by sight unseen but seen by the heart.  To be able to see without seeing, to be able to feel it and say, I’ve seen it.  “You see?”

​”Well” Paul says, “That ain’t my scene.  I need scenery that makes sense.”

“But you won’t allow yourself to see”

“I’ve seen all kinds of scenes, seen ’em all. I used to work at the airport up in Philly. I saw Yul Brynner, Tom Jones. Tom Jones got off the plane and a limo was waiting for him on the tarmac. This chick runs up out of nowhere and Tom Jones opens the door and she disappears. He must have slept with 10,000 women. Not a bad scene, until aids.”

Suddenly a wine glass is tipped over, leaving a map sized stain on the mauve table cloth.
“You’re a couple of pissed off apostles without a pot to epistle in” says Kate, laughing.  Kate is a friend of the family, wedged in between 2 would-be apostles.  Kate–with a tie-dyed shirt and necklace from a Himalayan trek from 30 years ago.

“Live and let live” says Kate, as Pete replenishes her wine.

“I love a woman who wears her wine” says Paul

“And I despise a man who whines”

Kate laughs while taking another sip of wine

“Go easy on that Martyrita”

“You mean Margarita

The plates are carved at, stabbed at and finally, the images emblazoned on their surfaces emerge.

“You know what I just can’t see?” Paul says.

“What’s that?” Pete replies, glancing at the pumpkin pie on the counter

“The animals…they only had one week to do it”

“Do what?”

“Get to the ark.  Aren’t you listening?”

“Are you still on Noah’s Ark?”

“Yes, but I ain’t never been on it. Noah was 900 years old and they had a 5 mile radius to get to the ark.  If you really look at it, i mean, use your brain, looking at it logically, you got to ask yourself, could this really have happened?”

 

The two brothers sit on opposite sides, separated by cranberry sauce, stuffing, potatoes, gravy–a bountiful bevy of Pilgrims Progress scooped, cut, carved, dismantled and, somehow, held together while instrumentals replete with woodwinds, violas, horns cuts through the contours and circumference of the house through the miracle of satellite TV, with an occasional interruption by Perry Como or Andy Williams for good measure, conjuring up sleigh rides, wreaths,  snowballs and frostbitten digits.  Pete thinks of the years that have squeaked by–seminary, the Peace Corps, marriage.  Paul remembers the army, feeling it in the expanse of his back when he sits.

“You were there to save lives” he says to Pete.  “We were there to take lives”.

Pete recalled that the Peace Corps were supposed to pay for his transportation back from North Africa–Mid 1960’s.

“I called them and reminded them that they were supposed to pay for my transportation.  All they said was, “We’re sorry, thank you for your service”—then they hung up.”

Paul shakes his head.

“Thank you for your service”, he says, “Now go to hell.”

 

Pete nearly clears his plate.  Other topics are brought up: The current president and his presidential brand of racism, hatred, buffoonery–in short, his overall base of operations.

“Who’s ready for pie?” Pete asks from across the counter.  “We got chocolate cake too”

“You know what I want?” Paul says

“What?  Chocolate cake?”

“No, to know why?”
“Oh Jesus, why what?”

“Why God didn’t give Adam one more chance?”

I look at the brothers.  For some reason I think of the first time I saw a North Carolina license plate.  The words: First in Flight under the license numbers.  For some reason I had misread it, thinking it was Fist in Flight.  Pete corrected me.

Pete cuts a slice of pumpkin pie, looks at Paul.

“You want whipped cream?’

 

Paul, at any given moment, has 10-15 cars in his driveway, his driveway a cordoned off portion of a 5 acre plot of land on which the house, which he rents, sits.  I ask myself, has Paul had more women than cars or more cars than women.  Has he left a woman for a car?  Do the qualities he looks for in cars resemble, or approximate, those which he applies to a prospective love interest? Or are his cars–vans, sedans, two-door, four-door, utility vehicles, etc. an extension of him, his versatility, his appreciation for the fruits of mechanical harvest whose technologies change but result in the same problems, a lighter wallet, whose check engine lights are now illuminated by way of computer technology?

“Why do you have so many cars?” I ask, walking past each, trying to see the differences, the nuances in shape, design, logo–to hear their voices, if possible.

“These aren’t just cars”, Paul says.  “Most of these they don’t make anymore, like this one”

Paul walks over to one of his several vans.

“This is a Nissan.  They don’t make it anymore.  They didn’t even have a name for it.  They just called it “Nissan Van”.  The engine is underneath near the steering wheel, not in front.  You could freeze ice cubes in that car, you could heat food by attaching a burner.  But it had a defect”

“A flaw in the design?”

“They recalled the vans.  They were able to fix the problem but they didn’t want to deal with further liability so they bought all the vans back and destroyed them.”

“Destroyed?”

“Crushed them to pieces—except this one”

 

 

Paul walks to the garage where a couple more cars sit.

“Check this one out, Tony”

It is a dark colored car, a 4 door. Looks a bit like the one I rode in to my best friend’s father’s funeral.

“It’s a Ford, a German Ford” Paul says.  “They make American cars in Europe but they’re better.  The companies figure that the people in America don’t know anything about cars but people in Europe–they know about cars”.  Paul opens the backdoor.

“Take a seat”

I sit.  The interior is dark leather, like a finely furnished home.  Paul points to a set of buttons.

“The seats recline all the way back”

I looked about the car’s interior.  It is elegant in the way that wine glasses are elegant.  I slowly sunk backward into a fully reclined position. If a woman were to give birth, this would be a befitting place for it.  I looked at a light in the car’s ceiling.  I make out the dim luminance of the late afternoon sky.

“It’s got a sun roof” i say.

“Moon roof” Paul answers as my eyes linger on a slice of sky.

 

We walk to Paul’s house, a short distance from his stable of automotive excellence.  All around are the contents of his life–prepackaged apple slices, donuts, cinnamon rolls, car parts and accessories, pill bottles, bills etc.  I come upon a quote, words tacked to a door attributed to Miles Davis:  Do not fear mistakes, there are none.  I head to the bathroom.  I walk through a room where perhaps one hundred issues of Car and Driver, Sports car, Road and Track, Buyer’s Guide, Motor Trend, Car and Stereo Review and other magazines sit in a rack.  I gaze at the magazines, so many.  So many makes of vehicles he has chosen.  So many things that make each unique: Their engineering successes, shortcomings.  If i need to know anything about cars, just ask me, Paul says.

 

Paul hangs upside down on a contraption that aligns his back.  His back has been the source of pain.  The contraption is one in which you lay flat on a board that is connected to metal and springs allowing you to lie upwards as if doing a headstand.  Paul explains that the position allows the discs and vertebrae to align properly; that there is fluid between the discs and if you lose fluid it causes intense pain.  He tells me he takes oxycodone for the pain but that people with substance about issues are getting a hold of it, causing what is known as the opioid crisis; causing non-addicts such as him difficulty in securing the medication.

“Don’t penalize me for what those addicts are doing” Paul says, looking upwards while his back realigns.  “I just felt something pop into place” he says, snapping back to an upward position.

“You know, when i was taking care of my mother, I’d have to carry her to bed, to go to the bathroom.  Sometimes I didn’t lift her correctly, you know, bending your knees first.  It’s like carrying dead weight. And I remember his mother’s voice, soothing, with a slight drawl; Well, I declare.  And the sky darkens above Paul’s house on 5 acres with a sweet landlady next door who likes the president.  And I can hear Paul ask: Why?  I look up at the light as it makes its way through the moon roof.

 

(c) Tony Robles 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Blood Will Remember: A Review of Veronica Montes’ short story collection, ‘Benedicta takes Wing’

“The brain forgets, but the blood will remember”

–Louis Untermeyer

The stories in Veronica Montes’ wonderful collection, “Benedicta Takes Wing and other stories” are rich with the fragrance and contours of memory, myth, metaphor and, ultimately, magic. These elements make up a constellation that collide—swimming, breathing and gliding towards the page, where they sit and eventually take wing from the heart. Never pedantic or preachy, Montes’ stories are centered on “The One’s that were lost”—a title of one of the 14 stories that make up this poignant collection—that can easily apply to memory, moments of heartache, laughter, contradictions—occupying the silences that Montes so aptly gives voice to. In the story “Beauty Queens”, a lola has just died and, in the ensuing feelings of emptiness, her life is summed up: You know, your lola was a beauty queen in the Philippines. In the backdrop is the legacy of colonialism that creeps to the forefront and its residual self-image that Filipinos live with. In response, a granddaughter strikes back at the rudeness of an ex-marine who has married into the family, whose words—syllable by syllable—taint the memory and desecrate the sacred.

Montes seek to–in this and other stories–unearth the complexities by asking a simple question: is that all? With a keen sense of nuance and of the sacred, Montes’ sensitivity in mining the layers of who we are comes through, gently sifting through those memories whose sharpness cuts yet shines through in the illumination of the poet’s eye.

In “The One’s that were Lost”, a young teen asserts that “All Filipinos have an obligation to dance and sing.” The dance of ancestral memory is rife with myth and images of sky, stars, moon and maiden; the keeper of the maps—our navigation of the subconscious as we search for meaning in our past and in our present.   In “Lamentation”, the story of the mother of Philippine hero Gabriela Silang is told in the form of folklore piercing the juxtapositions and contradictions of class and religion that promulgate inequality and injustice while professing the opposite. The one’s that were lost are oftentimes right under our noses and Montes fulfills her obligation as storyteller, breathing life into what is overlooked and forgotten. Montes, a Filipino-American raised in San Francisco and living in Daly City, deals with the loss of language, of memory, of our sense of identity, filling in the silences with a heart language swollen with emotion, bursting in a vision of what it means to be Filipino and Filipino-American.

Montes reconcile what is remembered and lost with grace, addressing difficult subjects: Sexual assault in “Benedicta Takes Wing”; intimacy and the pain of relationships in “Apollo and Junior grow up”; and cultural identity and hegemony in “The Photograph. One of my favorite stories in the collection, “Bernie Aragon Jr. Looks for Love”, is in homage to the generation of Filipino immigrants who worked in the fields and canneries, single men seeking love in a society that did not love them, who saw them as uneducated laborers, to be used and disposed of. This generation, in the words of the late poet Al Robles—planted the seeds of Manilatown long ago—and through their pain in seeking love, lived their lives never giving up on dreams in empty pockets bloated with dreams of love and perseverance steeped in humor and music—in all its joy and sadness.. This powerful collection of stories engenders color to that which has been left in the dimmest light, discarded and swallowed whole in the shadows. The timeless quality of this collection should allow it to flourish for a very long time.

The stories in this book are Filipino-centered yet it is human-centered, whose voice articulates what is means to be part of the human family. The words of Toni Morrison aptly describes the author’s fulfillment of her obligation as storyteller: “Once you take your own area, in your own soil, and dig deep into that—if you’re good enough at it—it’s available to everybody; you don’t have to direct it at a vague audience that you think is perhaps not yours.”