Big Ant Little Ant

I first felt it as I lie in bed. It was a slight tingle on my wrist. I woke—having been in a half-sleep stupor—to find an ant crawling up my hand and onto my wrist. I watched the ant as it crawled the circumference of my wrist before settling in one spot. In the last couple of months there has been an influx of ants in my house in Western North Carolina. My house is not a palace by any means; it is a mobile home made for 1-2 people. Outside is a yard with trees, squirrels, light bugs and the melodious sounds of leaf blowers and lawnmowers in spring and summer. When darkness hits, the sounds of cicadas and crickets overtake the landscape, their sounds like outer space signals emitting from trees, bushes, and ten thousand hidden places.

This new environment was a welcome change from San Francisco where I lived most of my life, where rents were insane—among the highest in the country—which lead to a severe eviction crisis leaving hundreds, thousands living in fear of an eviction notice which was just another version of a wanted poster where what was wanted was the floor under your feet—and the rug, if you were fortunate enough to have one. I knew a guy who paid 2000.00 a month to sleep in a walk-in closet. Problem was that there was no room to walk. With real estate speculators crawling about like termites leaving a rash of homeless in their wake, I fled. I had a better chance of fighting off ants than landlords so I looked on my mobile home with its low monthly lot fee as a refuge. Rather than get turned down trying to rent a walk-in closet, I walked away from my city—a 3000 plus mile walk.

“What’s your name?” a voice squeaked

“What?”I asked

I looked at my wrist. It was the little ant. It stood up like a little man.

“My name is Anthony,” I said. “They call me “Ant” for short.”

The ant looked at me for a moment then lie on its back, as if on a beach.

“You’re the ugliest ant I’ve ever seen.” The ant said.

“You ain’t nothin’ to look at either.” I replied

“How much you pay for this trailer?” the ant asked.

“I paid 5000 dollars for this mobile home,” I replied. “It’s not a trailer.

The ant snickered while continuing to rest on my wrist.

“This is a trailer park you’re living in.” The ant said with a wave of its little ant hand.

“It’s a mobile home community.” I responded, bringing my wrist and the ant mere inches from my eyes.

I rubbed my forefinger and thumb together.

“I know what you’re thinking.” The ant said, turning over on its Ant abdomen.

“What’s that?”

“You’re thinking I can rub this little ant out of existence.”

“Yeah, somethin’ like that.” I replied.

I looked at the ant. It moved its little ant arms. It was still on my wrist.

“Why are you on my wrist?” I asked

“I want to make sure you still have a pulse.”

The ant was little but it wasn’t that little as far as ants go. As a kid I had been a bit of a sadist, drowning ants in hot water in my great-grandmother’s pill bottles (Rest in peace). The ant on my wrist looked to be half of the size of a small paper clip. It had fallen asleep. I could hear its faint ant snoring. I could squash it but maybe I shouldn’t; maybe I should let it be—to make

amends for my past transgressions towards the species. But I too was a little ant. I was named after my Uncle Anthony. We were known as Big Ant and Little Ant. Big Ant still lives in San Francisco. He calls me on the phone. Sometimes I pick up, sometimes I let it ring. As I’ve gotten older I seem to have acquired an aversion to phone calls. They seem to be an intrusion on my privacy. I shouldn’t feel that way but working for an insurance company for 7 years answering phones will alter your perception of the sound of a ringing phone.

I fall asleep, wake. I look at my wrist. The ant is gone. I look around my house. I’ve been here only a year. I hadn’t thought much about wildlife or nature prior to my relocating. But when I arrived a few local critters approached me in kind of a welcoming committee. A fluffy squirrel with a bushy tail flew through the air as if launched from the blowhole of a whale. It landed a few feet away from my screen door.

“Are you going to invite me in?” the squirrel asked.

“Do I know you?”

“Don’t you know a squirrel when you see one?”

I looked at the squirrel. Its eyes looked like blueberries.

“I guess you’re a squirrel.” I said.

And with its squirrel claws it touched its mouth, blowing, making a high pitched whistling sound that caused a thick branch to fall from the tree standing close by, landing on the roof. A few creatures appeared—a bird with a sharp red crown landed on a bush followed by something resembling a ground hog. We stood together taking in the atmosphere for a while. Soon it was all quiet. It seemed that the cars passing on the nearby Greenville Highway had even disappeared.

“What about that noise I hear at night?”I asked.

“What noise?” the ground hog look-alike asked.

“I don’t know, kinda sounds like a lot of small flying saucers.

“Oh, those are cicadas.” said the squirrel. “They only come around at night. They think they’re aristocrats.”

“I see.” I said.

“By the way,” the bird said. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Anthony. People call me ant.”

The squirrel and others chuckled.

“There’s plenty of those around.” said the squirrel.

“Plenty of what?”

“Never mind.” the squirrel said, its head twitching every which way before leaping into a bush and onto a tree. Then the ground hog and bird disappeared.

Damn these ants are big, I thought as I was at the kitchen sink washing dishes. A large ant was crawling across the countertop with a grain of rice on its back. Another ant crawling on the countertop stopped.

“Hey partner,” the ant said. “You got any more rice. Or maybe a sugar cube?”

As I was about to answer, the annoying ringtone of my cell phone went off. I look at the cell phone screen. It reads: Big Ant.


“What’s happening baby boy?”

“I’m ok. How you doin’ uncle Ant?”

“Well, you know, getting’ older. This prostate thing got me running to the toilet at every commercial break.”

“You go to the doctor?

“Yeah, they gave me some pills. But anyway, how you doin’ baby boy? You run into the KKK down there?”

“Not yet. But I’ve been running into ants. There’s a lot of them down here. One of them stopped by; made itself right at home.”

“You kiddin’?”

“I’m serious.”

There was a pause on the phone. I looked at the countertop. More ants, a whole line of them traveling upwards and downwards as if on a mission.

“Ant, you still there?”

“Yeah Uncle Ant.”

“I gotta go. Another bathroom run. You take care of yourself down there. Watch out for the KKK, confederate flags and the republican army.”

“I will Uncle Ant.

“Love you baby boy.”

I’m still holding the phone to my ear. I hear rustling sounds. My uncle hasn’t shut his phone off. I hear his voice as he walks to the bathroom, the phone picking up everything. Maybe I should hang up, I think. If I listen, is it sort of an invasion of privacy? I hear my uncle’s voice.

“Oh shit!” Son of a bitch! Damn!”

I hear water splashing. He’s peeing, a good thing. But is the pee hitting the bowl, the wall—the floor? I push the off button on my phone and slip it into my pocket. I look at the kitchen counter. A lone ant is there.

“Sounds like your uncle is pissed off.” the ant says followed by a high-pitched ant laugh.

Stealing rice grains from me is one thing but making fun of my uncle is another. I pick up the ant and hold it between my forefinger and thumb.

“Wait, you’re the ant that I talked to the other night, the one on my wrist.”

The ant looked at me from between my fingers.

“No shit. Damn right it was me. I had you under awrist…heh, heh heh.”

“Wise ass ant, huh?”

I squeezed my thumb and forefinger together. I’ll squash this smart assed ant, I thought. I squeezed, hard. But my fingers slowly separated. The ant had pushed them apart as if bench pressing a barbell.

“Heh heh heh.” The ant laughed.

I put the ant down on the kitchen counter. It crawled over to a grain of rice, lifted it onto its back, gave me the finger and lugged it away.

Over the next couple of months, the ant grew in size; from several inches to a foot. It spent days inside my house while I was at work at the public library. I came home one evening to find the ant on my couch. It had grown to what looked to be 3 feet.

“How was your day?” the ant asked.

“The usual.” I replied, taking off my jacket.

I opened the refrigerator.

“What happened to all the food?” I asked

I looked at the ant who shrugged his little ant shoulders then burped. I looked at the cupboard. Little ants were crawling up the side, each carrying a crumb of something. I walked over, ready to smash my palm into their microscopic caravan. I stopped when my phone rang. I picked up.


“Can I speak to Ant?” a voice asked.

“This is Ant speaking.” I said

“No, not you”. The voice answered. “The real ant.”

I looked at the ant on the couch.

“For you.” I said, handing the phone over.

The ant took the phone and with an ant voice that sounded as if it were being spoken through a tin can said, “No, that’s not what I ordered. I wanted an extra large with pepperoni, sausage and mushrooms.”

The ant then put his ant hand over the receiver and looked at me.

“What’s your credit card number?”

I couldn’t believe it. The ant was ordering pizza and putting it on my credit card.

“I sure am hungry.” The ant said, handing the phone back to me.

I looked at it, speechless.

I sat in my porch looking out at the trees. The welcome committee squirrel scurried down a tree and scrambled over.

“What’s wrong?” the squirrel asked.

“Do I look depressed?”

“You don’t look happy”

“It’s the ant. He’s living with me now. He started off small now he’s grown to over 3 feet. He’s eating everything. He’s ordering take-out food and has ant buddies leaving the house a mess.”

“What’cha gonna do?”

“What can I do?”

The squirrel twitched its nose and stood in a frozen position for several minutes, contemplating. His pose looked a bit like Rodin’s The Thinker while, at the same time, resembling a dog taking a crap.

“Maybe you should get some ant baits, you know, the ones that they sell at the hardware store.”

“You mean poison?”

“Yeah, the ants eat ‘em and they go to sleep…for good.”

“Good idea.”

I bought the baits. They were quite small, designed for small ants. How they’d work on a large ant was another story. I bought a large bagful. I came home. The ant was out doing ant things I supposed. I ordered an extra large pizza. The pizza arrived and I sprinkled ant bait on it like parmesan cheese. I placed the pizza on the coffee table in the living room and waited for the ant to arrive.

An hour went by. No ant. I left the bait laced pizza and went out for a walk. I passed rows of trees and took in the sweet air. I looked at each tree; those standing alone and in clusters. I thought of the air I breathed and how the trees made it possible. And then, for the first time in my

life, I said thank you—to the trees and to whoever created the trees. I thought of the creatures; those insects, the bees that pollinate. I thought of the ants that…

Ants were workers, weren’t they? They had jobs. They had communities. They needed to eat just like me. I thought of the ants I had killed. I’d killed them as a kid, drowning them in boiling water and, from time to time, putting them in the refrigerator freezer and watching them freeze like statues.

I rushed back home. I needed to get to that pizza before the ant did. I didn’t want it to die. I ran fast until I reached the door panting. Outside was the squirrel, the bird and the groundhog.

“What are you doing here?” I asked

“We heard a noise, a high pitched scream from your house.” said the groundhog.


“We thought maybe you were in trouble.” said the bird.

I opened the door and saw the ant. It lie on the floor next to the box of pizza, half of which had been eaten.

“You actually did it?” the squirrel asked.

“Did what?”

“Used ant bait.”

“Yeah, just like you told me to.”

The ant was on its back; its legs pointing upwards towards the ceiling.

“Man, I was kidding about that!” cried the squirrel.

I looked at the squirrel. We stood over the ant as if it was a crime scene. The squirrel, bird and ground hog walked out the door.

“Where you going?” I asked.

They didn’t answer.

I looked down at the ant. The pizza sat cold in the box. I sat on the couch thinking. I looked out the window. The sky began to darken. My house was silent. I listened for the sounds of the night, the cicadas and crickets. No sounds. I looked out the window. Maybe I’d see a light bug but not a light flickered. I sat thinking of what I’d done and what I’d do next. I sat alone in the darkness when the phone rang. It rang several times before I picked up.

“Hello?” I said.

“Ant, hey Ant!” A voice called out.

It was my uncle Ant—Big Ant. I felt a little less alone.

(c) 2022 Tony Robles


Statin Doll


Jonny Cascasan lie in his bed, the once fluffy pillow given to him by his ex retaining the indentation of his rather large head like a misshapen marshmallow. Jonny didn’t like being alone. He missed Maria’s lips, her smell, her hair, her snore, her…quiche. She claimed it was the only thing she knew how to cook. He looked at the pillow. It was covered in make-believe dragonflies that looked real. Maria’s quiche was the closest thing he had to high class cooking; the recipe coming from the torn page of a magazine in the bathroom of the café where she worked. Seems like it’d been a year since Maria left and now Jonny’s cuisine consisted of oatmeal and all those things he used to avoid—low fat, low sodium edibles—along with veggies. No more donuts; no more quiche, no more Maria. Now he’s on team solo. These days he cheats occasionally by indulging in a hunk of beef jerky. He was tearing open a package of Tear Jerky with his teeth—in the cellophane casing with the slogan: Jerky so tough it’ll grow hair on your tongue–when the phone rang.


“What’s up Caucasian?”


The receiver slips from Jonny’s hand. The cord dangles down the side of the bed like a noose. The burgundy receiver lands on the rug in a fetal position knocking over several bottles of medication like bowling pins. He picks it up like a dripping fish.

            “Yeah?” He says.

            “Still droppin’ the phone like you dropped the ball, huh?”

Inky Black’s voice comes in clear. He’s the only one that calls this early.

            “What’s happening, Inky?”

            “Just got back from Tai Chi.”

            “I thought you were giving that shit up.”

            “Man, ain’t no givin’ nothin’ up,” Inky replied, his voice vibrating through the receiver.              

            “I’m more limber than I’ve ever been. You need to try it.”

Inky black, a man with brown skin who Jonny had known since high school; loved to eat squid cooked in its ink. He’d get it all over his fingers and hands. Claimed he was using all that squid ink to write a novel. The nickname stuck.  Jonny looked at his belly in his tight fitting shirt. The curve of it an arc rising and dipping like one of those hills the cable cars trudged up, climbing halfway to the stars, bells clanging, tourists gawking. I need to lose a few pounds, Jonny thought. Maria would lay her hands on his stomach like a crystal ball then rest her head on it. When she left, she left a dent that stayed.

“Tai Chi makes me feel younger. I tossed my Viagra prescription in the trash.” Inky bragged as if he were keeping score with the world.

Inky—a self-improvement guru who talked less about basketball nowadays and more about health, mostly if it involved CBD or THC—that stuff you’d pick up at the neighborhood pot club. Jonny admired him for wanting to improve himself. He and Inky went a long way back—high school days.  It began with some good-natured trash talk that stuck with Jonny for years. Jonny had dreams of playing basketball—the NBA.

            “But you too short, Caucasian,” Inky would say. “You five foot 3 and nothing but bones.”

And Jonny, rolling his eyes would correct him for the thousandth time.

            “How many times I got to tell you, my name ain’t Caucasian, it’s Cascasan!

But everybody got it wrong; teachers, counselors, priests and the loudest of all, Coach Guaco who everyone called Guacamole behind his back. On occasion someone would pronounce it Cat-Scan, which was closer to being correct than Caucasian. But Jonny never unheard Coach Guaco mispronouncing it for the world to hear:

            “Cah…Cah…Caulk…Caucasian!” he’d call out across the court. “Put some mayo on those passes!”

Jonny hated mayonnaise, he preferred mustard. Between that and being called Caucasian all the time, Jonny figured it was just a shit sandwich he’d have to eat. So instead of the Filipino name he’d been born with, Cascasan, he became Caucasian, or Jonny Caucasian. 

            “Jonny, come out with me today. Let’s get a few beers at the Buddha Bar.”

            “I thought you were health conscious.”

            “I am but, you know how it is. Some things you can’t give up.”

Jonny knew about giving things up. He looked at his hands. Gnarled at the knuckles–gout.  How many things would he have to sacrifice on account of it?  Pork, fish—everything he loved. You only live once, people told him, but he didn’t want to die from an early heart attack. He was disciplined. For a good while it was oatmeal and celery sticks. He was motivated by a scenario he’d played a thousand times in his head. He saw himself walking to the bathroom and, as he unzipped his fly, he heaved and fell forward; his head submerged in the toilet while his heart fought to keep beating.

            “Come on, get out of the house,” Inky said. “You need to get your mind off that woman.”

            “I know.”

            “You hear from her?”

            “No. I think she split to be a sous chef.”

            “A Sioux chef? I didn’t know the chick was an Indian.

            “A sous chef, brother—not a Sioux Indian”


Maria, the woman whose head left a permanent dent in his belly after all those nights; hot, heated, heavy nights—a heat created by body and kitchen, heart and stove.  She rested her head on his belly as if it were the most comfortable pillow from the factory.

            “Mataba.” She said.

            “What’s that mean? Jonny asked as they lie in bed.

            “You didn’t learn to speak Filipino?” she asked. It was more a statement than question.

            “No, I didn’t. My mom and dad wanted me to speak English only. They thought it would make me some sort of American dream. Anyway, what does it mean?”

            “Mah-tah-bah,” Maria said slowly, moving her middle and index fingers, walking the word up the round moon of his belly like a pair of tiny spacemen legs.  “It means fat.”

Jonny looked at Maria’s shapely figure. Her legs were light brown, tannish, like one of those expensive coffee drinks. And sometimes a pinkish spot would appear near here calf for whatever reason. He would rub that spot and Maria would scrunch her shoulders upward and moan.

            Jonny had met Maria a year ago. He worked at a life insurance brokerage downtown. He wasn’t an agent. He was too lazy to study for a license so he became a case manager which was basically a marriage between a receptionist and data entry clerk.  Jonny knew how to type. Basketball was his dream but his father forced him to take typing in high school out of practicality.  There he was the starting guard on the varsity basketball team who everybody called Jonny Caucasian, in a room with 15 or so girls.  On the court people paid attention to him, scoring and assisting, leading the team to more wins than losses. In typing class he was out of place. There was a silent competition between the students whose volume was turned up by the drone of piston-like keys. Joe was the only male in the class which initially elicited snickers from the girls. But they paid him no mind. He was on their court now. It was as if he were a fly that somehow flown in and landed on a key—namely F.

Jonny was overwhelmed by the noise of the typewriter keys. It felt like a metallic rain hitting his spine, his ears, his brain to the extent that he couldn’t think. He could shoot 3 pointers with hundreds watching, yelling from the stands but the tinkling of a few typewriter keys turned him into a guy walking a tightrope with one leg and eyes covered with a blindfold.  During tests he was slow and inaccurate. They only word he managed to type in its entirety was his last name which wasn’t his last name: Caucasian.  When the instructor, Ms. Dinkmeister checked his work, she noted the misspelling, chuckling, you wish.  At least she noticed, he thought.  Mrs. Dinkmeister with the old-fashioned glasses attached to a chain and a last name that sounded like it came out of a 1950’s sitcom.  So many years of classes; for her this was a rerun. Joe was so slow that he thought he might as well be typing with his toes.

In the class was a girl, half Filipino and half Mexican. She saw that Jonny was struggling and offered to help. She drew a diagram of typewriter keys on a piece of paper.

            “Practice on this,” She said. “You’ll get better.

She demonstrated by poking the drawn keys on the paper with her index fingers.

Jonny took the page and his fingers danced across it for weeks. The keys on the typewriters in the class didn’t have letters or numbers. At least on the paper given to him by Carmen, he could see the letters so he had half a chance. His typing got better—a whopping 10 words a minute—to which Ms. Dinkmeister responded by writing Good Job! in red ink across the top.  His typing improved. One day he typed Carmen a letter expressing his thanks and if she’d like to go out to a movie.  But when he went to deliver the letter she was gone.  What happened to Carmen? Jonny asked.  Ms. Dinkmeister looked at Jonny through those funny glasses and said, “She moved.”  She dropped her head and went back to marking papers with that red pen. How could he be so accurate on the basketball court and be so completely inept at typing? A grand total of 10 words a minute. How hard could it be, he asked himself.  He looked at Carmen’s empty seat, typewriter sitting like a gravestone.  He looked at the paper in his hands covered in red marks as if someone had bled on them. He crumpled it into a ball and tossed it; the paper ball travelling an upward arc banking off the wall near the light switch before landing in the waste basket. 

            He remembered the day Maria walked up to him. It was 40 pounds ago. He always stopped at the little café at lunch—Roger’s cafe. Roger was an old Chinese guy who had 3 or 4 things on the menu: fried chicken, chicken chow mein, chicken strips and donuts.  The old man liked basketball and would show the games on the big screen mounted near the ceiling close to the window with the neon donut sign.  The foot traffic never stopped at Roger’s with people grabbing donuts and coffee to wash down their lottery tickets.

            “What you like?” she asked. She was Roger’s height but had the no nonsense voice of someone you’d look up to.  Her loose-fitting shirt had flowers that looked like paint splashes while her snug fitting slacks accentuated the firmness of leg, thigh. 

            “I’ll take the chicken—“Jonny began.

            “Hey!” Maria said, her head turning sharply towards the door. “Put the coke and sprite back!”

2 men in their late 20’s stood near the cold drink refrigerators. They wore heavy sweatshirts. Jonny had seen them before hanging out, washing their fried chicken down with a donut or vice-versa.

            “I aint got no soda, mama,” the white one with the stringy beard said.

Maria walked over and stuck her hand in the man’s jacket pocket.

            “Oh yeah, then what do you call this?” Maria asked, pulling out a can of sprite as if she were removing a gun. The other guy, the black one, pulled the coca cola from his pocket and handed it to Maria. Maria grabbed both men by the earlobes and pulled them to the cash register.

“Let’s have it.” she said, putting her hand out.

Both men rummaged their pockets, the sound of change jingling.

            Jonny was taken by her assertiveness—her balls—if one could call it that. He fell in love. Those donuts and Maria’s voice soon took on the shape of love. He began visiting the shop during Maria’s breaks, sharing plain donuts and coffee. Plain donuts slowly turned into plain old fashioned which progressed to old fashioned glaze; from that they dove into French donuts—glazed or chocolate and Jonny realized that the connection was real when they ventured into jelly donut territory, a territory claimed by a poke of Maria’s forefinger into his belly. Jonny felt desired, not that he was bad looking; but he was told often he was handsome in an English bulldog kind of way that he didn’t take as a compliment.  But Maria’s finger poked his belly leaving behind a small dent the size of a dime—the cost of a donut hole—was something that he, over time grew accustomed to.  One afternoon during one of their get-togethers over donuts, Maria pulled out a hunting knife, one of those big one’s you’d see in the movies with the hero using it to cut off tree bark in some jungle. She drew it out of her pocket and spun it in her hand before pulling out the blade and slicing the jelly donut in half.

            “I like you.” She said, lifting the piece of donut and placing it in Jonny’s mouth.

            One afternoon Jonny and Maria sat at the café when Roger began flipping the channels on the wide screen with his remote that resembled a granola bar; covered with a layer of donut crumbs.

            “Warriors and Lakers?” Jonny said, his eyes zooming in on the screen.

Roger was trying to find the right channel but the video signal got scrambled, dropping in and out.

            “Put the game on, pop,” a customer sitting nearby said, the baseball cap on his head tilting to the left.

The TV adjusted itself and Roger continued to flip through the channels.

            “Keep it there!” I want to see this!” Maria cried out as Roger landed on a random channel.

Jonny and Roger—everyone in the café—looked at Maria who eyed the screen.

            “Turn up the volume.” Maria said to Roger as if he were her employee. He fumbled with the remote which Maria snatched from him, jacking up the sound.  All eyes in the café fell on the screen.

            “I like this show.” Maria said, stroking Jonny’s belly.

On the screen are 2 men cooking in some kind of competition.

            “Is this a competition between cooks?” Jonny asked.

            “Hell no,”Maria answered. “Chefs.”

Maria followed this with a gentle: Shhhhh

The 2 chefs are scrambling to make a dish from a mystery basket of ingredients. They both pull fish from the baskets—large fish with ugly heads followed by vegetables Jonny had never seen before.

            “That’s tarragon,” Maria said. “They use it in soups and stews.”

Jonny bit into his plain old fashioned, sitting next to Maria watching the chefs chop and slice and boil.  Jonny watched as well as the other customers. His eyes dropped to the table and the large knife sitting next to the donut. He gave Maria a sideways glance before lifting his eyes to the chefs on the big screen mounted near the ceiling. 

            The next several months were blissful. Maria would come to Jonny’s apartment on Acton Street. A potted plant that never grew began to sprout when Maria began watering it. The large pot was one Jonny had gotten from Chinatown and as much as he watered and poked the soil, the little plant refused to grow.

            “You need to have a touch.” Maria said.

Soon, Maria began investing her half step above minimum wage earnings on cookbooks. 

            “Maybe I could go to chef’s school.” she’d say as she transformed Jonny’s barren kitchen into a culinary fiefdom all her own. 

And Jonny loved it. She made Filipino dishes he grew up eating—pancit, adobo, nilaga—but she also made other things like pasta in Bolognese sauce, veal Marsala and chicken fricassee; and one night for dessert, Bananas Foster—which Maria pronounced Banana Forester. Jonny would dutifully wash the dishes and after an evening of television and pots and pans having been stirred, frantic lovemaking ensued. Hot and tender, their bodies tossed about, intertwined in a heated frenzy that caused the very walls to drip with sweat. Maria’s nails dug into his back and her tongue flicked across his ear like a rosebud bringing about his collapse. They both caught their breaths, giggled and fell into a deep sleep.

            Jonny sat at his desk at the insurance company. He disliked the overhead fluorescent lights that cast a milky glow on everything. The phones were busy, especially with applicants from the east coast, 3 hours ahead. The phone lights blinked with incoming calls.

            “Hello, Rely-a-quote insurance, Jonny speaking, how may I help you?”

            “Is this Caucasian?”
            “Actually, it’s Cascasan.”
            “What kind of name is that?”
            “It’s Filipino”

A pause filled the gaps between coasts.

            “Oh,’ The voice said, “I thought you’d be…”
            “Caucasian?” Jonny asked, finishing the client’s thought.

            “Uh, yes…no offense”

            “I  kinda am.” Jonny chuckled followed by nervous east/west coast silence.

            “Uh, ok,” The man said. “Did you get my colonoscopy report?”

Jonny checked the computer screen.

            “What is your name, sir?”

            “Canape, Jonny Canape.”

            “It hasn’t arrived yet, Mr. Canape.”

            “Ok then, I’ll light a fire under my Doctor.” 

            “Appreciate it.”

Jonny thought about the pending applications stacked on his desk like an all you can eat pancake house. All those folks wanting life insurance; all those medical appointments he’d scheduled to check blood pressure, blood sugar and liver functions. Jonny thought about his own weight. He was heavier than he’d ever been. He’d gained 15 pounds in a few months, in just about the time Maria had turned his kitchen into her own cooking show, stocking it with a small library of cookbooks.  As time went one he watched less basketball and more cooking shows with Maria. One night, after a cooking show they made love. Maria straddled him and he lie on his back taking in the soft brown hair tousled on her head, her red lips parted, her pinkish tongue sweet, set to strike. He turned his head towards the kitchen, his eyes lifting towards the ceiling where a squiggly, serpent-like shape was affixed.  Jonny realized that it was a solitary pasta noodle that Maria had tossed upward to test if it was cooked. The movement of her hips became more frantic. With a fist she pounded into Jonny’s chest.

“I’m…I’m–!” she exclaimed.

The bed shook and soon Maria’s head was on Jonny’s chest, as if listening for its heart story. Jonny looked at the kitchen ceiling again. The noodle was gone. 

            “Caucasian, what’s happening brother?”

Inky black wore a black kung fu uniform with matching black slippers he’d gotten from a tourist shop in Chinatown. Jonny watched him as he walked across Portsmouth Square approaching him. Jonny had known Inky for 25 years. They played basketball at George Washington High. Inky was an inch or two taller than Jonny but Jonny had longer arms.  He always cited that as a reason his defensive game was better. Inky looked good, young for his 45 years; he wasn’t a dark black man; his skin was coffee colored with a good dose of cream. He was called Inky not only for his love of squid cooked in its natural ink, but because in high school he’d spilled a bottle of black ink on the homeroom teacher’s desk. The girls held crushes on him.

            “Inky, you’re the only one who could drag me out of bed on an early Saturday morning.”

Surrounding them were a gathering of about 20 or so Chinese elders.

            “You know them?” Jonny asked, pointing with his thumb.

            “They’re part of the Tai Chi class,” Inky said, bending down touching his toes. 

            “I’m impressed,” Jonny said, eyes dropping on Inky.  “I haven’t seen my toes since high school, forget touching them.”

The old folks began to bend and turn, rotating their hips in circular motions.  Jonny followed the slow moving limbs of Inky and the elders. Their form was graceful; arms moving in arcs, circles, pushing outward, pulling inward; arms in patterns of moon and sky.

            “Pretty soon you’ll be back to your normal weight.” Inky said, reaching upwards as if trying to block a 3 pointer.

Jonny reached up with both hands, stretching as far up as he could. In the sky was a faint moon. Jonny felt that if he could reach high enough he could grab it like a basketball and slam dunk in into a celestial hoop. He then saw himself on the court 25 years and 40 or so pounds ago. Inky had the ball dribbling upcourt. Jonny was open, he had a lane. All he needed was the ball as the seconds ticked away. They were down by one point with 3 seconds left. He saw the ball come at him. He jumped, reaching for it but in a flash another pair of hands appeared and snatched the ball meant for his hands. He had taken his eye off the ball for a split second. He had seen her in the stands. He thought it was her—Carmen from typing class. Hadn’t she moved? He missed the ball and with it the team missed advancing to the Tournament of Champions (TOC). Day  turned to night. A darkness took a hold of the gymnasium and when it was over and he was alone with nothing but his hands still searching for that illusive ball.

Joe reached up then slowly lowered his arms to his sides trying to mimic the Tai Chi moves.  He then felt dizzy, a funny sensation entering his chest as if wanting to rob him of air. Jonny stopped moving and placed his hands on his chest.

            “What you doin’, the pledge of allegiance?” Inky asked, slapping Jonny’s shoulder.

            “I don’t know, I feel weird.”

            “Well, sit down a minute, catch your breath.”

Inky walked Jonny to an empty bench where a pair of pigeons was poking around. He sat and watched Inky do his tai chi moves with the Chinese elders as if her were travelling through water, sky, air and into space. Their movements calmed him as he watched.  Jonny saw his doctor 3 days later—bad news. His cholesterol was in the high 300’s and he had a mild case of gout.  A stress test showed his heart wasn’t in the best of shape. A minute on the treadmill felt like an hour. What happened to my basketball legs? He asked himself. The doctor applauded the fact that Jonny had never smoked but issued a warning—make lifestyle changes, now—starting with diet and exercise.  Jonny looked at his profile in a window as he walked out of the doctor’s office.  In the reflection he looked as he always did, a few extra pounds. At least I’m not obese he thought as he headed home. 

            Jonny came out of the Doctor’s visit with doctor’s warnings pulsing in his ears along with a prescription for blood pressure and cholesterol medications—statins the doctor called them.  Jonny had heard about statin drugs, they were supposed to keep the cholesterol under control. But he also heard about the side effects—body aches, short term memory loss and the inability to get an erection. He thought about his uncle Roly, who at 85 had a wife 40 years his junior and proclaimed, while planting up squash in the yard: I can still fuck! The man never took medication outside of an aspirin his entire life. What would Uncle Roly think of him now? A few days later Inky called.

            “Caucasian, how’s about you and me go down to the pork chop house in Chinatown for some clams and black bean sauce?”

            “I’d love to, my brother,” Jonny replied. “But my doctor got me on oatmeal overdrive. Got to get my cholesterol down.”

            “Aw, come on brother. Some clams and black bean sauce ain’t gonna kill you.”

Joe loved clams with black bean sauce. There was nothing on the Pork Chop House menu that he didn’t like. His father used to take him there. He’d watch him eat a plate of pig nose with a side order of Chinese sausage. The remnants stayed in his father’s veins. He wanted to join Inky but the feeling that clutched at his chest continued to clutch at his brain so he gave Inky 2 words he never before gave him: I’ll pass.

Joe didn’t mention the prescription meds to Inky. He didn’t want to talk about it. How many times had he been in a café to hear a pair of middle aged guys comparing notes about their medications—how many pills they take and for what ailment—milligrams, all that stuff. It was bad enough having to cut back on food. Why make his meds a conversational piece?

            Joe was back at work at the Relia-quote. His phone line buzzed and flickered. 

            “Rely-a-quote, this is Jonny, how may I help you?”

            “Hello Mataba.” A sweet voice said.

            “I don’t’ want to be mataba anymore.” Joe replied, adjusting his telephone headset that had a habit of slipping.

            “I’ll cook for you tonight.”

            “Oh yeah, what are you going to cook?”

            “You’ll see. And I’m going to be a chef.”

            “You already are.”

            “A real chef.” Maria replied. 

            “Maybe I should cut down on—“Joe began.

Walking towards Jonny was his boss Mr. Rudnick. Most of Jonny’s coworkers disliked Rudnick, they thought he was testy. But Jonny liked Rudnick’s directness; he told you what he wanted; didn’t get lost in a haze of vagueness.

            “I gotta go. See you tonight, babe.” Jonny said quickly before disconnecting the call.

Rudnick approached Jonny’s desk. He was a big man—as in wide—with gray hair and small intense eyes of a warthog. Some of the black folks in the company would intentionally mispronounce his name turning Rudnick into Redneck but making it a point to get Jonny’s name right. Jonny figured that since he’d become Caucasian through mispronunciation of his name, that he and Rudnick/Redneck had something in common.

            “Jonny,” Said Rudnick. “Did that colonoscopy report come in?”

            “Which one?” Jonny asked.

            “That fellow in Scottsdale, George McGibbney. He’s up my ass. He leaves voicemails every hour.”

            “I talked to him. He said he got on his doctor’s case about it; said the underwriter should be getting it soon.”


Rudnick looked around. Other case managers were at their desks staring down their computer monitors. Nearby, a desk sat empty; it’s only occupant a half jar of multicolored jelly beans and a stack of file folders.

            “You doin’ ok, Jonny?” Rudnick asked.

            “I’m ok.”

            “You know, folks around here talk behind my back. Redneck this and redneck that. But you’re a pretty straight forward guy, Jonny.  We never had a problem. I appreciate your hard work. Anyway, would you like to go to lunch—on me?

            Jonny was surprised at Rudnick’s offer.  They never socialized outside of work-related matters. 

            “The Chinese place down the block.” Rudnick said. “I love their fried rice.”

            “I appreciate it but I can’t.” Joe said. “I’m having lunch with my girlfriend.”

Rudnick ran his hand over his tie, looked away from Jonny then back again.

            “Oh, ok, no problem; some other time then.” Rudnick replied.

Jonny was taken by the look on Rudnick’s face. His eyes held a disappointment he couldn’t hide.  But there was no lunch date with Maria But how would it look, having lunch with Rudnick—the boss? He looked at his hands—gout in the beginning stages. How did that happen?  He grabbed his coat and put it on; the sound of pills in bottles rattling as he headed to the elevator.  He left the building for lunch in search of a salad. 

            The kitchen at Jonny’s apartment was a blanket of warmth with pots speaking to one another in a symphony of sizzles and pops seeking out gastronomical harmony.  The kitchen smells crept upon Joe, aromas transforming into a trail of vapor at which end was a finger poking his shoulder, reminding him of the deliciousness that awaited him and of the medications that lie in wait.  On his mid-sized TV the warriors were playing the Lakers. He watched the Warriors sprint down the court. He watched Curry, waiting for a 3 pointer that always seemed to float through space. But the smell of food took his attention away from the action.  The cooking smelled good but he thought about his cholesterol, his medications.  He needed to cut down on fattening food. He took a pill bottle from his pocket. The name of the medication: Atorvastatin. Such names, he thought; who could pronounce them? With humans walking the earth who confused his name Cascasan with Caucasian and Rudnick with Redneck, it was a wonder how anybody knew anything at all. 

            “It is ready, honey.” Maria said, inching up to Jonny.

            “Oh, ok.” Jonny replied, shoving the pill bottle into his pocket.

            “What is that?” Maria asked.

            “Nothing,” Joe replied quickly, “Just some allergy pills.”

            “Allergy?  I never hear you sneeze.” Replied Maria.

            “I sneeze when you’re sleeping,” Jonny said. “I fart too.”    

Maria playfully slapped Jonny on the back of the head then walked to the stove.

            “Time to eat,” Maria declared. “No more basketball.”

Maria grabbed Jonny’s wrist and pulled him upward like a child.  Maria was a thin woman but she pulled Jonny to his feet as if lifting a fish from water.  Jonny plopped onto the kitchen chair.

Maria opened the oven door and pulled out a yellow puffy thing in a glass dish. Maria wore 2 oven mitts that were puffy like boxing gloves.  She placed the dish in front of Jonny. It was so yellow, so puffy, so inviting. I poked at it with my index finger.

            “Don’t do that!” Maria snapped, swatting my hand away as if it were an overgrown mosquito. 

Maria cut into the quiche with the hunting knife she pulled out at the donut shop.

            “Eat!” she commanded as she placed a hunk of quiche on Jonny’s place like a slice of lemon merengue pie.

The quiche was hot. The cheese and mushrooms seared the roof of his mouth. With each bite he thought about his love for Maria but also cholesterol number; that eggs would only increase that number on the cholesterol scoreboard, perhaps ascending into record digits. 

            “It’s good you are eating, that you appreciate my cooking,” Maria said. “I dreamed of being a chef but my brothers made fun of me when I was young. They would tell me my cooking was shit, that I couldn’t boil water.  But I can cook. I learn from books.” Maria said, sitting across from Jonny, pointing at the stack of cook books on the coffee table next to the couch.  The quiche began cooling in his mouth. It was very tasty. Joe felt as if he were eating the food of higher Gods in a high class establishment and not his 1 room apartment with the temperamental toilet that on occasion refused to flush. With his mouth half full he reached over and touched Maria’s hand.

            “Baby, I love your cooking but do you think you could…maybe…cook something different once in a while?”
            “Like what?” Maria asked, putting down her fork.

            “I don’t know, kim chee maybe.”

            “I’m not Korean.”Maria laughed.

            “You’re not French either and you make Quiche.”

            “For your information, quiche is German. Do you not like it?”

            “I love it.” Joe said, stroking her arm as if it were cat fur.  “It’s just that it’s so…fattening.

            “Fattening?  What about those donuts and chow mein you eat?”

Maria pushed Joe’s hand away. She yanked Joe’s plate away and carried the quiche to the sink.

            “Fattening, huh?” Maria snapped. “Here’s your fattening food you ungrateful—“

Maria picked up the glass dish and dumped the yellow glob of quivering quiche into the trash.

For the rest of the evening Joe’s apologies bounced off the wall and somersaulted off his belly and onto the floor. They slept. When he woke, Maria was gone.

            A few weeks went by. It was Sunday morning. The phone rang. Joe opened his eyes. It was 11:00

            “Caucasian!” the voice called out.

It was Inky Black.

            “Get out of that bed, brother. I know your old lady done split but you can’t under the covers all day.”

            “I know, I know.”

            “You need to get out. Let the air blow the stink off you. Meet me in Chinatown; we’ll do some Tai Chi.

Joe’s insides already felt twisted and contorted; it was as if his guts were doing Tai Chi already. Joe hung up the phone; didn’t say goodbye or anything. It was the first time he’d ever hung up on Inky.  Joe embarked on his steel cut oatmeal diet.  He didn’t like it at first. He thought it tasted like grape nuts boiled in water minus the taste. He missed Maria’s cooking, her kiss but she was gone—no trace, no nothing. He’d gone to her house over in the South of Market Area, an old flat with 3 units. Filipino families lived in the units. Joe knocked on the door. An old Filipino manong answered the door from across the hall. Joe smiled when he saw that the man was wearing a loose fitting Golden State Warriors tank top.

            “I’m looking for Maria.” Joe said to the old man.

The manong looked at Joe. Joe felt the warm air of his unit. It was as if it were the collective breath of all who lived there. He knew the smell—chicken adobo—something he couldn’t eat anymore. Inside the house he heard the voice of a child with a whining voice.

            “I don’t want to eat this. I don’t like it!”

Joe looked at the old man.

            “Have you seen Maria?” he asked.

            “No more!” the man said, shaking his head, closing the door.

            “Wait, did she move?” Joe asked.

            “Gone already.” The old man said, closing the door, leaving Joe with the smell of adobo.

            Joe walked around as if he’d forgotten the layout of the city. So many different places; high end bars and shops aimed at high earning tech workers.  He kept walking until he was close to Roger’s café—where he and Maria had met. When Joe arrived at the café he saw that the glass door had been boarded up. The front window had been shattered leaving a gaping wound dripping with glass shards.

            “What happened?” Joe asked Roger.

            “Somebody break in overnight.” Roger replied. “They take the TV.”

Roger pointed to the ceiling. Joe looked at the space where the TV once hung. He looked at the few customers sitting around chewing on donuts like forlorn goats. 

            “Fuckers take the TV. Now I have to buy new one.” Roger said, shaking his head. 

Joe looked at the donuts inside the glass case; all glaze and jelly and chocolate. He thought about his cholesterol and ordered a decaf. He sat and thought about Maria. A few chairs away was a man holding a plastic knife, his lips wet with coffee, the brown drops dribbling down his chin as he dozed with his eyes half open. A young man in a flannel shirt walked through the door. He looked around then approached the counter.

            “Can I get a cup of coffee?” the man asked.

            “Over there.” Roger answered, pointing at the glass coffee pots at the edge of the counter. 

            “Do you have 2 percent milk? The man asked.

            “No 2 percent, only cow milk.” Roger replied, his white paper hat looking like a paper airplane that just landed on his head.

            “But I want 2 percent.” The man insisted.

            “You get all fat or you get nothing!” Roger snapped prompting the young man to leave.

            “Mudda packa.” Roger snapped.

Joe sipped his coffee. The man who’d been sleeping a few tables away woke up. He opened and shut his eyes several times, as if not knowing where he was.  He took the plastic knife and sawed into his old fashioned donut.  Joe sat and looked towards the ceiling as if the big screen were still there. 

            Joe took the bus home. He put his key into the keyhole but the door was open. He pushed it wide and looked both ways as if he was on a busy crosswalk but instead of a car, he was thinking burglar or worse. Why was the door unlocked? He asked himself. He was always good about locking things before leaving the house—turning lights off if they weren’t being used—habits that lingered since childhood.  Joe looked around. On the coffee table was a stack of cookbooks. On the top of the stack was a book titled, All About Quiche.  He looked at the window near his bed. It was shattered with bits of glass resembling hail.  He heard a noise that sounded like static followed by music.  A gust of wind hit him and he became dizzy.  The only other time he felt that lightheaded was when he was doing Tai Chi with Inky that day at Portsmouth Square.  The wind grew stronger, blowing through the broken glass. It took a hold of him; it lifted the cover of the cookbook and knocked it to the floor He felt a gust of wind swirl around him, pulling him down in his kitchen chair. He sat with a thump as if pushed down. The kitchen, the entire apartment was swallowed in darkness.  He looked around, unable to move from the chair.  And then a light blared, crashing from the ceiling, a light that sputtered like a flash of lightening. Joe looked up and saw a wide screen TV mounted on the ceiling. Now all the lights in the kitchen were on. He looked up at the TV and saw her face. It was Maria. He watched as she made her quiche.  He felt the kitchen’s warmth overcome him. The smell of quiche was in his pores. 

            “My brothers told me I couldn’t cook, that I could not be a chef. They knew nothing of their sister. I am a chef now.”

Maria looked into Joe’s eyes. He felt a jolt of wind poke at his side. In front of him was a plate of steaming quiche. Next to it was Maria’s knife, the one she used at the donut shot. It emitted a glint that seemed to smile.

            “Now eat!” Maria ordered.

Joe stabbed into the quiche with his fork. As he chewed, the phone rang. He didn’t pick it up. He knew it was probably Inky Black who would say those two words that stuck to him: Hey Caucasian!

An Incremental Journey (Caught in an Elevator with Viktor Shklovsky)

I got a call from Hosterman–tenant at the Glover Hotel. Damn elevator is out again, he says. It has gotten unbearable. Manager says it needs a goddamned part.

“I can’t go to buy groceries, I can’t walk my dog; I’m missing doctor’s appointments.”

Hosterman lives on the 7th floor, has COPD, hip problems.

“That’s just part of the problem” he continues.  “The building manager doesn’t give a damn.  Nothing works in this place.” 

Hosterman’s a nice guy, one of those guys who looks mean until you talk to him–like that old pro wrestler Baron Von Raschke—that tall guy with the bald head, green teeth and hairy chest–stomping his feet across the ring in rain boots giving a heil Hitler salute to a chorus of boos—and booze.

He asks me to come down to the Glover to talk to the building manager about the elevator.  It wouldn’t be my first trip to the Glover—also known as The Glove—a residential hotel on 6th Street, the city’s skid row.  An old building built in the Jack Dempsey days, made of brick and covered with a fire escape facade partially covered in rust and pigeon shit.  The word Glover was fading, having been painted long ago with the R almost completely faded leaving the word Glove.  From a distance it looks a bit like the book depository where Oswald—for those who believe the lone gunman theory—sat perched, waiting while the grassy knoll crowd sat in the greenness of a sunny Dallas afternoon waiting for the fireworks to begin.

Hosterman had a host of problems.  Part of the problem was his working many years at state and county fairs.  He assembled and disassembled roller coasters, putting a strain on his body.  He knew the parts of roller coasters, with the ability to assemble them with his eyes closed. Then his spine began to curve like those tracks and the pain surged through his body in straight lines and loops. He finally stopped working, getting permanent disability, sitting it out on skid row, looking out of his 7th floor window, his view partially blocked by a billboard that read: God loves you.

I get him on the phone. His voice sounds distant.  In the background is his dog Oboe, a source of companionship and bickering.

“How long has the elevator been out?” I ask

“Aw jeeze, so long I can’t keep track” Hosterman answers

“Did you complain to the manager?”

“The manager?  He’s more like a mangler.  He wouldn’t know an elevator from a coffee pot.  But I can’t get downstairs to talk to him and he doesn’t answer his phone.”

I hear a bark, followed by more barking.

“Hold on” Hosterman says. I hear his voice, somewhat muffled:

“Damnit Oboe, will you get off my back!”


“I know, I know!  You think I’m stupid?”

“Keep it up and I’ll flush your kibble down the toilet!”


“Oh yeah?   Well you fix the fuckin’ elevator then!”


Hosterman comes back.

“Well, anyway, I really need your help.  Lots of tenants can’t get out because of the elevator.  Part of me wants to punch that damn building manager but I have a pinched nerve.  Can you drop by?”

“Yes, I can” I reply

“When?” Hosterman asks

“Tomorrow afternoon.”


“But you need to put in a complaint with the manager.”

“I tried that.  It’s the same blah blah blah.  I got a note on my door saying it’s going to take time to get the elevator fixed.  It’s the damn part he says.  They have to order it.  It’s some rare part that needs to be custom made by some elevator company.”

“Which company?”

“Some outfit called Shklovsky Elevator.”

I jot in my calendar: See Hosterman at the Glover tomorrow afternoon.

I shuffle through my paperwork—intake forms—phone numbers notes scribbled on scraps of paper.  My stack of notes is stained with soy sauce from a take-out sushi lunch—the stain spread in the shape of an insignificant island on the fringes of the earth.   I am an SRO tenant organizer which to me is filled with irony.  I am an organizer yet I am barely able to organize my socks. I guess what I have is empathy and the ability to listen to others’ problems without seeming bored.  But often I am.  The phone rings incessantly with calls from SRO tenants—single room occupancy—about harassment from neighbors, leaky faucets, roaches, non-working showers, toilets that won’t flush etc. 

Once I was called by a tenant at the Mission Hotel, the biggest SRO hotel in the city. 

“Hey, you need to come quick, there’s a creature in my sink” the tenant said.

“A creature, what kind of creature?” I asked

“I don’t know, but it’s in my sink and I don’t know what to do.”

“Sit tight, I’ll be there.” I said

“I’m in unit 402.” He said, then hung up.

I signed in with the unfriendly desk clerk then went up to the 4th floor.  The door was partially open.  I walked in.

“It’s over there.” the man said, pointing to the sink in the corner.

I walked to the sink, one of those old fashioned types. 

“Do you see it?” the man asked

“See what?” I answered

“The two eyes” He said

“Where?” I asked

“In the gap.”

I looked into the grating, the opening in the sink under the faucet. Yes, I saw two spots that looked like eyes. 

“You know” I began, “I can see where you think you see two eyes, but from what I can see, seeing with the two eyes that I possess, what you think are two eyes are actually two water spots.  Come and look.”

“The man came and leaned down.  He looked at the two water spots then looked at me.”

“Did you see that!” the man cried


“It winked!” he yelled, backing up towards the corner.

“It’s only shadows” I said.  “When you move to the left, it looks like its winking, see?”

We both move our heads to the left in unison, slow as if performing Tai Chi.  We did this for a few minutes.

“Look man” he said, “I’m not crazy…I mean, I thought that was some kind of animal in there.”

“I understand” I said, raising my hands as if in surrender.  “I would have thought the same thing.  You were right to call me.”

I shook the man’s hand and left.  I shook my head as I went down the elevator and out the front door.  SRO Hotels—also known as poor people housing.

Part of me was—I suppose—being led into this kind of work by some invisible hand guiding me, not pushing, but inching me along.  I’d worked other jobs that fell flat. I thought I’d give plumbing a try, getting a job as a drain cleaning specialist.  The problem was that I wasn’t good with my hands. I was dispatched to Marin County to unclog a few drains in a spacious house.  I got there and was told by the homeowner that the water wouldn’t go down.  So I climbed up to the vent stack on the roof.

I found that leaves had fallen through the stack, causing a partial obstruction in air flow, causing the water to back up.  I cleared it and decided to run the snake one more time for good measure.  It was disastrous.  The snake hit a T-joint, made a sharp turn, travelled partially upward and came out through the toilet.  I heard the shattering of porcelain and the owner’s cold scream, Stop, stop! 

I scurried off the roof to find the toilet in shambles. I spent a good part of the day searching for a replacement toilet; the owner insisting that it be the original color, Mexican Sand.  After much driving I found the Mexican sand toilet, installed it and took the broken one as a souvenir. I dropped it off at the plumbing company where my boss laughed in my face.  Next time I saw the bowl it was in the driveway filled with soil with a lone sunflower reaching for the heavens.  I decided that that was one toilet flush too many.

I bounced around as a temp for a while before ending up at a life insurance company.  I helped process applications, following up on applicant’s medical records etc.  But it wore me down—starting at 7am, fielding calls from the east coast and the requirement of making 70 outbound calls a day.  I came to hate the telephone.  I eventually got fired, tired of demanding life insurance agents, their anti-depression medication induced smiles and plastic faces beaming under the glow of florescent lights. Even the bagels they gave out once a week began acquire a fake taste. After 7 years I was let go in less than 7 minutes.  I walked out of the office for the last time.

I walked with nowhere to go. I found myself on 6th Street walking past places that I ignored on my way to other places.  I felt like the long lost salmon heading home. I looked at the faces around me. People seemed familiar.  They weren’t outfitted with an imposed cleanliness or dignity; no anti-depressant masking.  They were the people I had seen all my life; only I hadn’t seen them lately, being under the florescent glow of that office.  They were out here, only they were older, sleeping or selling their last belongings on sidewalks–displaying styles long since out of style, half-filled bottles of cologne, record albums riddled with scratches or warped by the elements–on flattened cardboard, or if lucky, worn down rugs.  And when there was nothing to sell and cardboard remained, it was sold as a biodegradable yoga mat to the affluent who flew into the neighborhood with messianic missions whose tableaus sought iconic meanings through poses while the locals tried to maintain their smiles.  I continued walking and stopped in front of a pawn shop and looked at the jewelry and musical instruments waiting for a sound.  It was on the ground floor in front of the Glover Hotel.

Next day I got to the Glover.  It was a gloomy day, a pigeon colored sky loomed.  In front of the hotel was a van with the words Shklovsky Elevator company written on the side.  I enter the hotel. I approach the desk clerk.

“ID please”

The clerk is a black woman behind a mesh wire screen.  There is a small space to slip an ID through.

“I’m here to see the manager.”

“Manager ain’t here”

“When will he be available?”

“Hell if I know.”

I slip my ID under the small space as if slipping a cracker to a bird.

“I’m gonna go up to see Hosterman.” I say

I sign the guest book and slip it into the space.

“Elevator still out?” I ask

“You ever heard of stairs?”

I shove the pen under the mesh screen and walk down the dimly lit hall.

I walk towards the stairs past the elevator when I hear the elevator door open.  I look.  Inside is a bald man. He looks strangely like the wrestler George The Animal Steele.  The elevator looks different, as if it had been replaced.

I walk closer.  The man stands before a three legged chopping block.  In one hand he holds a cleaver; in the other is a fish. The man looks at me.  He does not smile.

“Come inside.” He says

“No, I’ll take the stairs” I answer

“Stairs no work” he answers, “Come…come.” He says.

I walk inside the elevator.  The door eases shut.

“Who are you?” I ask

“Viktor” the man answers.

“Are you the elevator attendant?”

“Yes, part time.”

“Is the elevator working?” I ask “This elevator doesn’t look familiar.”

“Perhaps it is you that is not familiar” he answers.

I look around the at the elevator walls.  Fish entrails, scales, tails and fins are strewn about.  I look at Viktor who is now scaling a big fish.

“What kind of fish is that?” I ask

“Good big fish” he answers, finally smiling.

“Look, I need to go to the 7th floor” I say, looking for the elevator buttons.

Viktor raises his cleaver and chops the head off the fish in one clean blow.  He puts the fish head in his pocket. 

“Press button” he says.

The elevator panel is not familiar either.  Instead of buttons there is a human eye, a nose, a pair of lips, a piece of sushi, a human toe, an ice cube and a bed bug.

“None of this looks familiar” I say.  “What kind of crazy elevator is this?”

“What is familiar?” Viktor replies. “It is elevator…goes up…down.”

“And sideways” I suppose


“I thought this elevator would be fixed.  It doesn’t look like an elevator at all. It looks like a fish market. What happened to the elevator company who was supposed have the part, to fix it.”

“I am elevator company” replied Viktor.  “Shklovsky Elevator and Seafood Company.”

He smiled then chopped the head off another fish.

“Push button” he says

“Which one?” I ask

“Any button”

I look at the buttons.  The sushi button looks interesting.

“I like sushi” I say, looking at Viktor.

“Yes, yes…I know” he replies.  “Push button”

I push the sushi button and the door eases partially open.  Viktor gives it a kick and the door widens.  I step into what looks like an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet.

“I will return in a while”

“Wait, when are you going—“, I begin as the door shuts.

I walk around a rather large room, dimly lit.  On the wall are the words: Mount Wasabi Sushi Buffet.  Around me are tables filled with familiar sushi, some are floating on small boats in a scaled down version of a Venice canal. 

“Eat, eat!” A voice calls out. “Eat to overflowing!”

I don’t see a face. I look around.  The voice is coming from above, from large speakers like in a concert.  It sounds like that goddamned part-time elevator attendant.

There is sushi everywhere.  I walk around not knowing where to begin. I grab a plate.  I stack the sushi high, a small mountain—tuna, eel, urchin, squid; there’s even whale!  I take my plate to a table and sit down.  I mix some soy sauce and wasabi.  I take a pair of chopsticks and lift a piece of eel to my mouth.  I could die here and feel good about myself, I think.  I place the sushi in my mouth and chew.  It tastes like nothing. I spit it out.  I look at it. It’s fake sushi!  That plastic sushi you see in the display windows of Japanese restaurants.

“Ha ha ha ha ha!” I hear from the speakers above.

“Hey Shklovsky” I say, “That’s pretty goddamned funny.  You’re in the elevator chopping the heads off fish and the only thing you can offer me is fake sushi?”

“Is it not familiar?” the voice answers. “Can you not taste it?”

“Yeah, I can taste it alright; it tastes like the fossilized remains of a dead cat.”

To this he laughs again: Ha ha ha ha ha!

“Can you just get me out of here?”

I see the elevator door appear near the head of the fake sushi buffet. The door opens.  I enter.

Shklovsky raises his cleaver, chops the head off another smiling fish.

I’m back in the elevator.

“Look Shklovsky” I say, “I know you’re having a ball but I have to see Hosterman.  Can you just get me to the 7th floor?”

“Push button” Shklovsky answers, this time pulling a fish out of his ear.

“Oh god” I say

I look to the panel and push the ice cube.

“Cube ice” Shklovsky says, “Good choice”

The elevator door opens.   I look out.  It looks like a desert. 
            “Hey Shklovsky, this is the wrong floor.  I ain’t going out there.”

Shklovsky takes a fish—a bigger one this time—whacks me in the back of the head and plants a firm kick into my ass, causing me to lurch forward.

“Go, go…explore! He says as the elevator door closes.

I look around.  The sun is beating down and it is hot, very hot; sand all over, a roller coaster of sand with peaks and dips.  I hear music in the distance. It is a mariachi band 100 or so yards away.  I see the musicians approach, closer and closer.  I begin to get very thirsty.

“Hermano” I say to the guitar player, “Agua por favor?”

“Oh, you want some water?” he says

“You speak English?”


“Where am I?” I ask

“In Mexico”

I look around; nothing but sand.

The guitarist pulls out a bottle, hands it to me.  I put it to my lips, tilt it.  Sand comes out. I cough and spit.

“Are you crazy? I yell.  “This is sand!”

“Well” The guitarist says, “The border is 100 miles that way.  If you leave now you might get to the river in 2 days.”

I look that the other musicians, they point that way in unison.  I stand in the sun for a few minutes.  I pour all of the sand out of the bottle.  I am sweating and my throat feels like cracked leaves.

“Shklovsky!” I yell

The mariachi band departs—leaving me with 12 bottles of sand.

The elevator drops down from the sky like in some bad outer space movie.  The door opens.  I see Shklovsky’s smiling face.

“Water, Shklovsky, I need water” I cry

He picks up a steel bucket and hands it to me.  It tastes vaguely of fish but I don’t care.  Shklovsky continues to chop fish. He cleans them and drops them into the steel bucket.

I look at Shklovsky, grateful for the water but, at the same time wanting to kill him.  I want to take that cleaver and do a fish job on him.  The cleaver is on the chopping block as he reaches for another fish. 

“If you’re going to do it” he says, “Do it.  If you are not, then push button.”

I look at the panel.  The bedbug or the eye?

I thrust my finger into the eye, at which Shklovsky lets out a scream.

“Wrong button, wrong button!” he cries out. “Push bedbug, bedbug!”

“This is the weirdest elevator I’ve ever been on.  Is it fixed, did they get the part?”

“I am part” Shlovsky says.

I push the bedbug and the door opens.  I walk out.  I hear a dog.  It’s the 7th floor.  I see Hosterman’s room, the door is open partially.  I approach.

“Hey, good to see a familiar face” Hosterman says, approaching with a limp. “Those stairs are a bitch.”

“Yeah, I know” I reply, “But I can use the exercise.

I sit on a lawn chair at the foot of Hosterman’s bed.  His dog Oboe comes over, tail fluttering, licks my hand. 

“We need to write a letter to the building owner” I say. I can help you with it. 

We sit and exchange ideas about what to write.

“I need a few things from the store. I can’t get down those stairs with my bad leg.” Hosterman says.

“No problem” I answer.  I’ll take the elevator down and get a few things for you.” I say

“The elevator don’t work”

“Oh, that’s right” I say.  “I’ll take the stairs.”

“It’s gonna take then forever to get the part” he says.

“Yeah, familiar story” I answer

I reach into my pocket for a pen.  I feel something cold and slimy.  I pull it out.  It is a fish head smiling.

            “What on God’s earth?” Hosterman says.

            “Long story” I answer.

We sit in his small room writing a letter as the light comes through, partially blocked by the billboard that reads: God Loves you

© Tony Robles   2021

Books Have Feelings (Dedicated to the late Sanford Chandler)

“How vain it is to sit down and write when you have not stood up to live”
—Henry David Thoreau

I sit at my desk at work and think about a man named Sanford Chandler. He was my homeroom teacher in high school. I remember sitting in homeroom at George Washington High School, half-dozing, when he said, “Books have feelings.” I didn’t think much of it at the time. I didn’t read many books, didn’t have the patience to read—short stories, novels, the newspaper or the back of a soup can. Mr. Chandler saw something in me that I didn’t see—a writer. He’d urge me to write. “Write what?” I’d ask myself. I’d sit at the desk half-dozing /half-waiting for something to happen.

I’m still at a desk waiting, far removed from high school. The best writing I have done always happens during work hours, that is, someone else’s hours. I remember the hours I spent at a desk working at a life insurance company in San Francisco. My job was answering the phone, starting at 7am. My attention would wane and I’d begin writing poems and short stories. I wrote quite a bit, about my father, work and whatever seemed poignant at the moment. I would feel freedom in those moments—freedom from florescent lights, freedom from faxes, copiers, toner. I would be on a roll, as it were, writing what I thought were good, even great, poems. I’d jot it all in longhand (I can’t do it on a keyboard), getting it off my back, my chest—the injustice or my perceived injustice of the world around me. Then it would happen, the phone would ring. The words I’d carved onto the page would cry in unison, “don’t leave us…stay and dream and swim in this miracle, this thick stew of words that will provide spiritual nourishment for the masses—masses of people you will never meet.”

I’d put down my pen, adjust my headset and utter the profound: “Good morning…this is Deny-a-Quote Insurance Services…Tony speaking…how may I assist you?” The person on the other end would inquire about the status of his (or her) colonoscopy report or some other. There is poetry in this, I’d say to myself. I’d assure the client that there was nothing more important to me—poetry or short stories, or anything else—than obtaining his (or her) colonoscopy report (and the poems that lay in it) and that I was bending over—in earnest—forwards, backwards and every which way—to obtain that report. Afterwards I’d go back to my poem or short story. It would come back to me—sometimes.

But it was not always fun and games. I recall being sent by a temp agency to a large office of a multinational corporation. I was to file documents, provide office support and occasionally make coffee. I mostly filed, stapled and punched holes into reams of paper. I spent long periods of time sitting and pretending to work, filling jars with paperclips and thumbtacks, trying to guess the number of paperclips, thumbtacks or anything else my mind could conjure. I would inevitably begin writing poems. Just as I’d begin a poem, my supervisor would dream up a task for me and I’d have to leave my incomplete poem on the desk or stuff it in my pocket. One day I was working on a poem to send to a literary journal for consideration. I was having trouble writing the poem—writing anything—for I was in the throes of self-doubt—badgering myself with daily doses of: you don’t have what it takes…you ain’t shit, etc.

My supervisor came in one day and informed, “I have a little project for you.” She led me into the back storage room. Boxes were stacked high, filled with folders, papers, jars, Christmas tree lights, coffee mugs—everything befitting a multinational corporate office. After groping through the sea of boxes, we came upon a set of golf clubs. “Bring those over here,” I was told. I lugged the clubs to a corner. The supervisor handed me a small brush. “I need you,” she explained, “To brush the grass and dirt off these clubs, then go over it with a rag and polish.” She explained that the general manager had an important golf game coming up and that the clubs needed sparkle. I sank to the floor, shook my head, and buffed with much corporate vigor.

I sit and write this while at my most recent job. After a few years of working as a security guard, I now work as a door attendant at a high-end apartment complex. I open doors for people who appear able to open doors by themselves—yet I perform this function—as well as arranging dry cleaning, maid, limousine, and taxi service. I look out the window and hear the ravens call out in their mocking laughter. I see the leaves falling from trees with feet that seem to run across the pavement and think of the beautiful way Bienvenido Santos wrote of such moments—how the trees show their golden leaves, proud like, in twilight. These beautiful things are living poems; poems that live through interruption and minutia, giving rise to feelings that float in memory, memory that the writer Joy Harjo describes as a “delta in the skin.”

I recently came upon an article in the local newspaper about my high school homeroom teacher Mr. Chandler. When I was a student, he presided over what was known as the speech team. The team was comprised of all grade levels and competed with other schools in debating, prose and poetry, and extemporaneous speaking (one of my teammates was Alec Mapa, a Filipino kid who went on to fame in M Butterfly, as well as appearing in TV shows such as Seinfeld and Desperate Housewives). Mr. Chandler convinced me to compete in OPP—Original prose and poetry. I wrote revolutionary poems such as “A letter to Malcolm X” and “America”—both heavily influenced by Gil Scott Heron and my Uncle Anthony.

The article in the local paper showed a spry 80 year old Sanford Chandler walking outdoors, as he has done for years. The article reported that Mr. Chandler has walked roughly 25,000 miles—the equivalent of traveling from SF to NY and back many times. I smiled and remembered what he said to a student he saw bending a book backwards, cracking the spine. “Don’t do that,” Mr. Chandler said. “Why not?” asked the student. Mr. Chandler leaned forward in his seat. “Because books have feelings,” he answered.

I sit at my desk at work. My back is bent at a slight angle. I think of Mr. Chandler’s words. I think of books and feelings. I think of writers who’ve inspired me, like Toshio Mori. His story “The Woman who makes swell doughnuts” contains the sweet symphony of silence in an elderly woman’s house—a depot from the crazy world outside. Or Bienvenido Santos’ “Scent of Apples”—who brings us the fragrance of the Filipino heart in exile—from a small farm in Michigan. I rise from my chair ready to feel the feelings of a book, to kick that door open and walk 25,000 miles.

Then the phone rings.

Derby Jacket

What’s that I see on the thrift store rack?  Is it a Derby jacket?  I work at a thrift store where I am surrounded by fashions of yesteryear and sometimes yesterday.  I was never a slave to fashion. I was a slave, became a slave, but my attire was of little concern. I was always uneasy in nice clothes. Nice clothes were uncomfortable, ill-fitting in feel even if well-fitted. I recall my father taking me to a department store to buy clothes for school. He chose the clothes. Any input from me as to the contents of my haberdashery were dashed with my father’s imposed fashion sense consisting of shirts and slacks appropriate for a middle aged man. It was a fashion sense that made little sense. I didn’t care about fashion but I didn’t want to walk around looking like a middle aged man before my time. I was given a large bag of clothing that I didn’t want to wear. The fitting room experience was bleak with fluorescent lights, a narrow mirror and me in my underwear–narrow ass and all–with every birthmark, crevice and area lacking muscle development amplified with the unsaid message: Put some damn clothes on. 

I had a cousin who was older and had the sense to have fashion sense. Members Only jackets were becoming popular and it seemed everyone was wearing them. I went to the department store with him (Coincidentally, the same department store my father dragged me to procure middle aged man clothing).  The Members Only jackets cost 30 dollars which to me, a recent high school graduate with no job, seemed a lot of money.  Those Members Only jackets came in several colors: black, tan, gray, brown and blue—not patriotic colors but colors I’d grown accustomed to, especially black and blue. My cousin took much time donning the jackets, striking stoic, serious and carefree poses that, had he decided to shed his clothing, could launch him into an underwear modeling career. Somehow he looked rather dapper under the fluorescent lights. He finally decided on black while I looked at my reflection in the mirror–face showing the arrival of a mustache and the departure of pimples. All of this happened long before a poet uncle whose fashion sense consisted of torn jeans and sandals introduced me to Henry David Thoreau who posed the following: It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.

Which brings me to the subject of the sacred Derby Jacket. The Derby Jacket was a Members Only of sorts.  Where Members Only attracted the nightclub crowd with its thin fabric and glossy, pseudo leather sheen, the Derby jacket was working class. Its fabric was rougher, resembling a bomber jacket, its lining a sort of insulation for the skin, blood and bone of the Frisco born. It seemed like everyone wore one in my school in San Francisco. Kids from other schools wore them too. It was an identifier of sorts. It identified you as being from San Francisco. Most of the kids I saw wearing them were Chinese. I thought they were some sort of Chinese gang jacket but, in reality, kids of every color wore them. It was as if the jacket were a multicultural badge and you became a member of a San Francisco, or Frisco bloodline when that jacket hit your skin: black, Chinese, Filipino, Irish, Italian, Samoan–or combinations thereof–all combined in a nondescript, rather plain looking jacket. I pestered my father to buy me one, “Dad, can I have a Derby Jacket?” He looked at me and said, “A dirty jacket…what the hell you want with a dirty jacket? You better think about wearing a clean jacket. How you expect to get a girlfriend if you wearing a dirty jacket?” From that moment onward, I associated the jacket as one that Chinese kids wore and, since I wasn’t Chinese, I didn’t bother pestering my father about that dirty…Derby Jacket again.

Some of the Chinese kids were bad.  At the time a movie had come out called Kung Fu Mama, the story of a bad ass lady who doled out beatings—of mostly men. I’d seen the mothers of these Chinese kids.  It was as if they’d stepped out of the screen. They played Four Square, punching a red rubber ball with fists and open palm strikes that seemed like a school yard kung fu movie. I attempted the same Four Square moves but ended up punching and slapping at air and, occasionally, my own face in a red rubber ball slapstick routine not worthy of a Derby Jacket fart in the Richmond District winds. One day I was playing in the school yard shooting baskets—something I wasn’t totally inept at. I remember being good at free throws. I’d be at the free throw line letting them go: swish. I hit those shots consistently because they were free; nobody defending me with their stupid lanky arms flailing with stupid hands attached, impeding my shot.  One day I was on a roll, sinking 10 straight when a stray ball bounced towards me hitting me in the ass, ruining my streak.

“Hey slave!” a voice rang out.  “Get the ball!”

Walking towards me were 2 older Chinese boys–Stevie Yip and Johnny Yap. Stevie and Johnny went to Junior High School, making sporadic appearances. Stevie’s face had a permanent sneer, a twist at the lips suggesting he had chewed on lemon rinds.  He was tall, taller than my dad, while Johnny was short–my height–with a bowl haircut and lips twisted in a half smile/half frown that suggested he’d chewed on lemon rinds dipped in a bit of sugar. Stevie Yip and Johnny Yap, AKA Yip and Yap–the deadly duo of the George Peabody School yard wearing Derby jackets.

At the thrift store my eyes scan the lining of the Derby Jacket.  It is an intricate map. On the outside it is made of canvas material but the lining is gold with abstract, paisley-like designs that you could lose yourself in. The detail in the design is complicated, with the look of a network of blood cells and dendrites, splashes of an unseen world under the skin that have navigated to form the outward skin that is the jacket. The label at the neck has a stitched image of the Golden Gate Bridge and the words Derby in lower case letters. My duties at the thrift store include making sure that pieces of clothing are hung properly, that none slip from their hangers and onto the floor. I must appear to be busy at all times, wiping the counter, picking up fallen pieces of clothing, placing misplaced items in the proper shelves. I am mindful of my boss, also roving the aisles. I watch for his head of gray hair the way a swimmer watches out for a shark’s fin. There’s something tragic about a piece of clothing that has fallen off a hanger–as if shot.  It happens quickly like an oily fish slipping though a hand.  A shirt or pair of pants hits the floor and people step around or onto its fabric without notice. I pick up those pieces and place them onto their hangers to restore some sort of dignity to the fabric and, to a lesser degree, the hands in some other country that produced it. 

I never expected to find a Derby Jacket in a thrift store 3000 miles away in North Carolina.  I was ruffling through coats as if record albums, sliding each on the cool rack when I came across the jacket.  I’d always wanted a Derby jacket.  What the hell was it doing here?  The jacket is rather plain, an ordinary blue with pockets and a zipper—not unlike other jackets.  But the blue of this jacket is dingy, as if left out in the elements, hanging on an outside hanger through untold seasons. The arms of the jacket hang at the sides but seem to want to move, to swing, to gesture.  I think of the word Derby, two syllables with the ability to stretch into the past. My initial introduction to Derbys was not jackets at all but roller skates.  Roller Derby was big at the time and I’d watch on Saturday mornings.  The local Roller Derby squad was the Bay Bombers. The skaters would circle a track, each jockeying for position in the dizzying objective of knocking the opposing team’s skater on their ass. It was like professional wrestling on roller skates with elbows thrown and bodies slammed and flung over the guard rail—moving in endless circles.

I saw kids wearing Derby Jackets and they too were jockeying for position to see who could out tough who.  It became a second skin, in black, brown, blue, gray and tan; proof that you were homegrown with the ability to fight your way through a wall of opposition as well as out of a paper bag but not a Derby Jacket.  A Derby Jacket was slept in; it hugged your body when you woke, you showered in it, fought in it, made out in it, sat in the back of the bus in it, got high in it while concealing your fear in its pockets in the form of fists.  I never had a Derby Jacket. I wanted one.  I wasn’t tough enough. Even if the jacket were given to me, it would reject my body. If I attempted to put it on, it would struggle to free itself of me.

I have a reoccurring dream.  I am in a school yard and a bigger boy is pushing me around.  He starts swinging on me, lefts and rights from down home—like Jack Dempsey returned from the grave. In the dream I am eluding his blows, leaning back, ducking in a beautiful display of defense.  But when I try to fire back, my arms are weighed down as if I am carrying 20 lb. dumbbells in each hand. On the roof of the school are several ravens perched in icy stillness, their beaks twitching, making sounds. I duck and lean away from the punches, unable to lift my hands. I wake in a clinch of twisted sheets.

In the thrift store I feel like I am in a Roller Derby jockeying for position among the shoppers roving the aisles in search of a hidden treasure, which I’ve found in the Derby jacket.  I’ll tuck it away somewhere so no one buys it.  Maybe I can stuff it in a suitcase.  I take the jacket from its hanger and make a sharp left, turning my body away from other shoppers in my path on my way to the luggage section. I turn the corner approaching the suitcases when I come upon my boss, jolting me upward.

“Nice jacket” he says, “Is it yours?”

“Uh, what?” I answer, my stomach tightening

“The jacket, is it yours?”

“No, it fell to the floor…just picked it up” I say, nervously, thinking the question odd.  He looks at me, not suspiciously but I feel guilty, as if I am holding a bag of weed.

I bring the jacket back to the rack where I found it.

In the school yard Yip approaches.

“Get the ball, slave”

I look at him. He has on a black Derby Jacket. He has thick pinkish lips covering a set of freckled teeth. I look at his Derby Jacket. It is dirty. Maybe my father was right about the dirty jacket. Yip coughs up a wad of spit and lets it fly. The wad’s trajectory is thrown off by a jolt of breeze, nearly hitting Yap who was wearing a blue Derby jacket.

“Hey, watch it!” snaps Yap, annoyed.

“Oh, sorry” says Yip, looking at Yap, then at me.

“Hey, you got trouble hearing?” says Yip.  “Get the ball…slave!”

I stand frozen.  I can’t thaw out. The Derby jacket moves closer.

“You know who I am?” Yip asks, moving within inches of me.

“Uh, yeah” I answer. “You’re Yap and he’s…”

A hand thrust into my chest, knocking me backwards.

“I’m Yip…he’s Yap!  Get it right…slave!

The other kids in the schoolyard went about playing ball, oblivious to my predicament.  The San Francisco fog eased by, aloof in its slow drag towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

“I don’t think he’s listening” says Yap.

They both proceeded to push me across the yard, taking turns.  When Yip pushed, he roared Yip! When Yap pushed, he roared Yap!  It was a sort of Ying and Yang nightmare but luckily for me both of their names contained one syllable each making it easy to remember. They pushed me from one end of the schoolyard to the other until I came to the basketball at my feet.

“Get the ball…slave…said Yip.

I bend down to the concrete with the flattened pieces of gum. I pick up the ball and throw it over their heads then bounces over the fence.

Yip and Yap look at me, shocked.

“Go get the ball motherfucker…” I say, not believing it myself.

At that moment I’d wished that I was the basketball flying away in that nice arc, bouncing my way out of the schoolyard, over the heads of Yip and Yap and whoever else happened close by. But the ball comes back, someone on the other side of the fence flinging it back towards us.

I saw a fist come in my direction. It was from Yip, the black of his jacket a blur. I moved my head backwards, leaning away causing him to miss. He threw another shot, this time, the left, which grazed my ear. Then Yap rushed towards me with a flying kick towards my midsection that missed.  In the frenzy I thought that these guys hadn’t paid much attention to Kung Fu Mama they way they were missing. We were breathing heavily. Yip and Yap rushed towards me throwing wild punches, hitting me in the body and head. I grabbed Yip’s Derby Jacket. I heard a tear at the pocket. His face became a flame as he fired more blows at me.  I covered up, going down under the barrage.  Finally they stopped.  I looked up at them.  They were 2 blurry figures like those birds in my dream.

“This slave ripped my fuckin’ jacket”? Yip says, his face wrung with anger.

“You gonna cry?” Yap laughs as I look up at them.  I wasn’t hurt.  I’d taken it. It wasn’t the end of the world. Yip and Yap finally left.  I didn’t cry, I went home.

I look at the Derby Jacket that I have found in a thrift store some 3000 miles away from San Francisco 40 years later. How did it get here? I have found it, or perhaps, it has found me. I take the Blue Derby Jacket off the rack. Hey, don’t I know you? It seems to ask as I hold it up to the fluorescent light. I slip into it. It is in good condition. I look into the mirror. A voice says, this jacket is you, man, you earned it. I strike a few poses.  To answer my boss’ question, is that jacket yours?  Yes, it’s mine. The years pass by in my reflection. It is more than a jacket. I stick my hands into its pockets making fists, clutching onto memories that are mine, holding tight. No holes or tears in the fabric can make me let go. That jacket is me. But still, I’m no slave to fashion.

© 2020 Tony Robles

The Derby Has Landed

My Derby jacket arrived in the mail a few days ago.  I guess you can say it arrived after a 56 year journey.  I came home and found it in my mailbox wrapped tightly in a box.  I am Frisco born and bred but live in North Carolina.  When I think of the word Derby, a few things come to mind.  When I was a kid there was a brand of underwear called Derby.  I wore them all the time.  Kids at school used to cap on each other saying things like, “You got dukey stains in yo’ draws.”  I used to wonder how anybody would know if this were true or not.  And why would anyone want to know such a thing?  The other Derby involved horseracing.  My grandfather loved playing the horses and would watch the Kentucky Derby.  As a kid I watched the roller derby on channel 2, a kind of professional wrestling in roller skates.  But the derby that eluded me was the jacket called Derby–the Derby jacket.  Some important events in my life involved Derby jackets such as when I sold magazine subscriptions and mood rings to raise money for Roosevelt Jr. High School.  We were paid for our efforts in candy or other items.  I remember getting a string of jawbreakers as my reward for selling those magazine subscriptions.  That string of jawbreakers was long, like a boa constrictor and I was walking happily along with that big cellophane string of jawbreakers–resembling a tapeworm–when a guy wearing a Derby jacket snuck up from behind me and took a hold of the string of jawbreakers.  He yanked and I pulled in opposite directions a ridiculous tug of war reminding me of a scene I’d once seen as a kid at a petting zoo. A kindly woman wearing a shawl, large sunglasses and a straw hat–more appropriate for a Bahama’s beach stroll–was engaging in what seemed to be a sort of farm animal swoon walk. A goat approached from behind and took a mouthful of that fuzzy shawl and pulled. Amidst screaming, a tugging battle ensued with the woman showing incredible strength, extricating the precious shawl from the jaws of the goat. In her backwards momentum she fell on her ass with a mighty thud and kicking up swirls of petting zoo dust. My Derby Jacket adversary was no goat, our scenario ending with the jawbreaker bandit breaking off a bunch of the jawbreakers I’d earned and stuffing them in the pocket of his derby jacket like dollar bills .  I didn’t punch the guy (I should have), didn’t break his jaw. Perhaps the jawbreaker accomplished that when he put it in his mouth.  Perhaps he ended up becoming a dentist pulling–not jawbreakers–but teeth for a living.  Where ever he is, he probably still has that Derby Jacket.

Of course when I hit George Washington High School there were lots of guys wearing Derby Jackets.  I remember one guy, he was in my homeroom.  He was out cutting class near the football field.  I said, what’s up?  We started talking.  There was a tree nearby.  He walked towards it and leaped in the air, turning 360 degrees kicking the branch.  It was like something out of a kung fu movie during a matinee at the St. Francis Theater on Market Street. It was such a beautiful kick that it made the air pop.  He wore a black Derby jacket.  And I’d see all kinds of guys wearing Derby jackets–studious guys, guys that got into trouble, guys who cut class, guys with girlfriends, guys without girlfriends, guys who snuck on Muni and so on.  I never had a Derby jacket.  I don’t know why I never had one.  Maybe I didn’t feel worthy of having one.  

As the years went by it seemed to me that a Derby jacket was something you earned.  In order to really wear it you had to know the taste, the heart, the spirit of the streets of Frisco. You had to whip some ass and you had to know what it was like to get your ass whipped. You had to keep some of that Frisco fog in your Derby Jacket pocket because that fog was like the burning of sage, it was survival, it was healing, cleansing–it is who you are.  I spent my life trying to find myself in the Frisco fog and eventually I did. I became a poet and my poetry, my song is the song of Frisco that lives in me.  After 55 years in Frisco I moved to Western North Carolina in 2019.  The only thing I wanted upon leaving the city was a Derby Jacket.  After 56 years of searching for Frisco, searching for my voice, my song, my skin, I found it in a Derby Jacket that was sent to me by Derby of San Francisco. I knew it had to be earned and this message is one of thanks to Frisco for giving me poetry and to Derby for sending me that jacket.  I’ll wear it like a second skin.

Thrift Store Writing Residence

I was listening to a radio news program reporting the country’s staggering number of positive Covid-19 cases.  The positive cases are on the rise with record numbers of infections; numbers that are shattered by higher numbers on a daily basis. With the holiday season approaching, the public is urged to avoid travel and gatherings—including Thanksgiving dinners—that assemblage of family and friends where political opinions are spilled like gravy on that uncle’s tie, rarely ending up in a food or fistfight where wisdom is spewed in double and triple helpings. The radio report included information on the numbers of positive Covid-19 cases among workers in a meat processing plant in South Dakota. The infection rate in the plant was so high that it became the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis in the state. The report indicated that the plant manager took bets on how many workers would test positive for Covid-19. Many workers have fallen ill, died. The family of a worker who lost his life has filed suit against the plant. I never gave much thought to meat processing plants outside of movies such as Rocky where the protagonist slugs away at sides of beef as part of his training regimen; not to mention the great heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who, in reality, worked in the slaughterhouses before achieving the ultimate in boxing laurels.  But there is a divide between where something comes from and how it is presented to the world—IE: marketed.  The great poet Jorge Argueta wrote of this disconnect in his children’s book, A movie in my pillow, in the way mangoes and chickens were different in the US as opposed to his native El Salvador.

                Here mangoes

                Come in cans

                In El Salvador

                They grew on trees

                Here chickens come

                In plastic bags

                Over there

                They slept beside me

President Trump signed an executive order months ago to keep the plants open during the crisis impacting thousands of what are now deemed essential workers on the frontlines with no options and no place to hide.

I live in North Carolina in an area known for apples and mountains. The poet Carl Sandburg called this part of North Carolina home in his later years. His home is a stone’s toss away from mine in Flat Rock. A committee entrusted to preserving his legacy selects an annual writer in residence at the Carl Sandburg Home Historic site. The home sits atop green green slopes and overlooks a serene body of water where visitors take meditative walks in what is known as Connemara, the place that Carl Sandburg produced poetry, along with the biography of Abraham Lincoln. During guided tours of the home, one is taken by the fact that the home has been maintained closely to the way Sandburg left it, inhabited by his library of books, desk, typewriter and household items–brick-a-brac–that would be considered treasures by those who scour thrift stores in search of such things. I applied for the residency and was selected. I was flattered. Next to being a saintly looking white-haired old man, Sandburg was a socialist who wrote about workers, the slaughterhouses, prostitution, unfulfilled dreams—centered in Chicago—the city that he described as the “City of the big shoulders.”  Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I did not live in the Sandburg Home farmhouse as is the norm for Sandburg Writers in Residence. I envisioned sleeping in the wood framed farmhouse with the aroma of coffee in the morning and the odor of goat shit wafting from the nearby goat farm that was lovingly started by Sandburg’s beloved wife Paula. My writing residence commenced remotely, minus the smell of goat droppings, morning coffee and native plants.  I conducted 3 writing workshops for the community and conducted myself as a community poet, involving myself in the life of the community as best I could during the pandemic.

Carl Sandburg is referred to as the poet of the people. In researching his life, I found his poetry to speak to the workers, the forgotten—those left out of the capitalist equation or at the bottom rung. I have, in the last few years, begun to refer to myself as The People’s Poet, but for different reasons than Carl Sandburg. I assert I am The People’s Poet because I write for and about people. This would be different had the focus of my poetry and writing been dogs or cats; then I would have assumed the title of the canine or feline poet.  Had my writing been focused on apes, I would be the primate poet; marsupials, the marsupial poet and so on. 

My month’s long writer’s residence at the Carl Sandburg home came to an end. Truth be told, I thought, for a brief moment that I was hot shit. However, my shit temperature dropped when I was stopped by a local cop for looking suspicious during an evening walk—that ambiguous description phoned in by a vigilant and concerned community member no doubt. I soon needed to get a real job. Writing is fine but I needed to invest in new underwear—among other things–as the elastic on my present pairs were sagging. I found employment at a thrift store, forgoing an opportunity to work at a supermarket deli. I didn’t want to smell like potato salad and fried chicken and instead opted to smell like musty old clothes, second hand knick-knacks and occasional treasures.  I became a cashier, something I’d always dreaded given my ineptitude with numbers. Thank the gods of modern day cashiering that the register calculates change. I assumed my duties with a smile concealed by facial covering. 

I observe that the clothes on racks appear to want to escape, slipping off hangers, slithering and falling to the floor. Some falls are not so graceful, such as a pair of pants—size 50 waist—that fall with a thud reminiscent of the legendary wrestler Haystacks Calhoun, who, donning overalls, landed on the mat, all 601 pounds of him, shaking not only the ring but our small black and white TV sets at home.  As I preside over my thrift store fiefdom, I see a woman.  I recognize her as one of the staff members of the Carl Sandburg home that selected me as Writer in Residence.  I somehow feel shame; shame that I am working as a thrift store cashier. I’m a writer, shouldn’t I be writing my stories behind a mahogany desk wearing a silk robe and snacking on bits of Melba toast?  The woman wore a facial covering but I recognized the auburn locks falling from her head flecked with silver as well as her green eyes. It was her minus the Park Service attire.

I need to hide, I think.  I can’t let her see me at the register.  I am a writer.  I could avoid her by ducking into the clothes rack, underneath the pants and jackets that would provide cover.  I slide underneath a cluster of jackets. 

“What do you want?” a voice asks.

It is a middle aged man with an ample middle.  He is playing some sort of game on his cell phone.

“What are you doing here?” I ask

“What do you think? The man replies, his voice muffled under a mask.  “I’m hiding from my wife.”

“You ever been married?”


“Get the hell outta here.”

I leave the man in the oasis of his used clothes bunker.

I look to my right towards the bedroom domestics section; lots of comforters, sheets and blankets; a good hiding place. I approach but there is a kindly white haired man reading the tag on a blanket.  He holds the tag close to his eyes, so close that if it was any closer he’d be able to inhale the small print through his nose. I’m tempted to bring him a used magnifying glass as he is taking forever. Move old man, I think. He finally walks away, leaving the blanket behind. He turns to me, winks and disappears into the household aisle. A dead ringer for Carl Sandburg, I think. 

I slide between 2 thick quilts.  I could lie low here for a while unnoticed.  It feels warm and fuzzy, like back in the womb.  Then I ask myself, how do I know what the womb feels like?  I breathe and smell the pungent stench of my breath beneath the mask.  I stand there for several minutes.  Suddenly I feel something moving towards me–a hand.  It gropes closer towards my crotch. I flinch. The quilts part and the florescent lights hit my eyes.  I see a pair of green eyes.

“Tony, is that you?” the voice says.

“Yes it is” I reply, a writer, an essential worker with nowhere to hide.

© 2020 Tony Robles

Lord of the Files

By Tony Robles

I was trying to write poems. I hardly knew what a poem was yet I was writing poetry, or what I thought poetry to be. I was a file clerk at a university with a reputation for producing poets, artists, revolutionaries; as well as accountants, nurses, teachers, hotel and restaurant professionals and yes, file clerks. I ended up at this university because it was destined, the beaten path, a prescribed map of sorts. I was one of many who attended high school in San Francisco. The sequence was: 1. High school followed by 2. City College followed by 3. A transfer to San Francisco State. City College was a way station, populated by students we knew from high school. We shared the halls and stairs and classrooms with each other but there was a change. There was a glint of importance in those waxed floors as we marched our way to class with a new found seriousness and striving absent from high school. Upon approaching ex-high school brethren in the hall, a polite nod was offered. Of course there were those who didn’t want to remember the high school experience at all and bypassed the nod altogether.

I’d landed the file clerk job while a student at San Francisco State University in the Foundation office–a squat building covered by specks of candy colored rock. It was separated from the other buildings and departments on campus. It had large windows where one could see the glow of fluorescent lights. It looked like a place off-limits to students unless the students were delivering something; the kind of place where coffee oozed from non-disposable cups, paired with saucers lifted to waiting lips on faces attached to bodies sitting in chairs with cushions of neutral colors.

The office needed a part time file clerk. Perfect for me as I was attending classes in the Broadcasting Department. How difficult could being a file clerk be? You had to know the alphabet and, having been indoctrinated in local schools, I knew my ABC’s. No less important was my steady diet of canned foods at home, which included alphabet soup that would surely be of help in this important office endeavor. I surmised that this job would be easy–cushy as they say. I arrived on my first day. The file room was in the rear of an office staffed with accountants. The file room was in the path of the bathroom. My work area would be a waystation enroute to performing intimate bodily functions; a quasi-sacred space where my co-workers would come to spill their secrets–entrusting intimate information to a lowly file clerk. But the job at hand, filing in alphabetical order–how hard could it be?

I was a fairly decent speller. I would have never competed in a spelling bee but I knew the difference between their, they’re and there. For some reason I had trouble with the word restaurant, spelling it restauraunt. However, I did know the difference between desert and dessert. I recall my stepfather, a learned man issuing me a challenge when I was in Jr. High School. He had attended a private college and kept all of his papers. Those papers tended to have a large “A” affixed to the top. In flipping through his old test papers, we came upon one that had a D+ printed at the top. An aberration, he said. You can’t be perfect all the time. “Do you know your alphabet?” he asked me while sipping warm jello from a cup (A favorite treat of his as he was too impatient to wait for the jello to solidify in the fridge). Do I know the alphabet?  

What kind of silly assed question was that?

“Yeah, i know my alphabet.” I answered, “Just like I know the nose on my face.” “Ok, if you know your alphabet” he said, “What’s the 14th letter?” “The 14th letter of what?” I asked.  

“Do I have to repeat it?”


“Uh is not the answer.”

I began counting on my fingers

“Don’t cheat”

I counted internally. My stepfather then did something that will live in the annals of my limited memory. He began reciting the alphabet–backwards. His recitation was so fast that it sounded like a record played backwards at the wrong speed. I couldn’t believe it. It was part babble, part speaking in tongues that i, on occasion, heard on Sundays at the Church of Christ. It sounded something like this: Z–Y….blobbablabbledaddble zeegrofromolgulattoppa blebblio lakaphocomma B-A! I was amazed. If I could only climb the highest palm tree and shout that across the ocean I could wake up my ancestors in the Philippines who would respond with the question: Do you know what the 14th letter is?

The file room is in disarray. The file clerk that I replaced was an aspiring comedian. I assumed she spent more time writing comedy bits than filing but perhaps that too was a form of filing. But I learned valuable lessons such as names beginning with Mc or Mac are essentially the same, that Mac is an abbreviated form of Mc. There were lots of forms to be filed, mostly invoices. I placed files in large metal cabinets. There was a file container that looked like an accordion., I pushed it in and pulled it out, pretending that I had some kind of musical gene but all I got was a faceful of dust. I was one in a long line of file clerks that had occupied this space, this way station en route to the bathroom. I was the king of the Manila folder. However, there were hazards; papercuts, leaving more knicks than shaving. I got cut by everything; envelopes, folders, papers of all sizes and thicknesses. I soon developed a thick skin and became immune to the cuts. I remember one such cut, on my index finger. I searched for a bandage when the phone rang.


“Who’s this?”
“Your step dad.”

“Oh, hi. What do you want?”

“To ask you something.?

“What’s the 14th letter of the alphabet?”

I couldn’t believe his impeccable timing. Here I am in the middle of a possible medical emergency and he calls asking me a question he knows I don’t have the answer to. I usually have time to get into his shit but that time is not now. I paused then hung up. No bandages anywhere so I sucked on my index finger. I tried to write a poem but the only thing I got on the page was a drop of blood. I sat surrounded by file cabinets and stacks of files on the table. I feel them growing with the desire to swallow me. They said that J. Edgar Hoover had files on everybody, that’s how he stayed FBI director for so long. I’d never rise to that level. I’m not white, short, dumpy or possess an affinity for donning women’s clothing. However, I am fond of the alphabet, thanks to my stepfather. I sit in my filedom of ever-growing stacks of file folders. The phone rings. My stepfather? I inhale deeply and for the first time blurt out the alphabet: Z-Y sibbleskrheiolshrieslkmg iorgtuvdlknsoiub ofksdkfleil B-A!

Faster than a record played backwards.

(c) 2020 Tony Robles