Frisco, North Carolina

This old mountain man
carries the weight of
a beard flecked white
by seasons

carries the weight
of experience
in a drift of calculated
cloud formations

can gather rain
stories and lightning
from branches

carries a wide
smile as his feet
dance the rhythm
of scarred stones and
stubble of wet grass

this mountain man
whose home is in
the hollow spaces
filled by echoes
is mindful of his knees

says he used
to ride a bike

I did too, I
say

Well, you’re
from Frisco, right?
he says

I didn’t think
i’d hear the word
“Frisco” in this place

and I do
remember the hills,
walking, riding a bike
trying to find my stride

which I finally
found

in the presence
of a mountain
man in North Carolina

Advertisements

Mabuhay in Blue Ridge

Writers from the mountains
All sitting in rows
Under a breath of
florescent

Didn’t know what
To expect

Would it be like
A church meeting
Or a get together of
The American Legion?

A lone brown boy
In a sea of white,
A sea of things
To see, to be
Seen

A woman sits
Nearby knitting what
Looks like a blanket

She glances
At me, smiles

Words are formed
By mouths
Curvaceous ridges
Of the heart

And the poets speak
About nature, the
President, the past,
Of high school love that
Lingered into now

A lone brown boy
In a mountain of white

(I’ve been there before)

And an old poet,
Mr. Bishop reads
His poem

Mr. Bishop, in
A white knit sport
Shirt with the look
Of a retired coach

Reads his poem about
The bonds of love, love
That warms the blood
About the heart

And he reads words
In different languages,
Words that bind us
Like a mountain quilt

Words in
Japanese
Yiddish
Hawaiian
Chinese
Nigerian
Spanish

Afterwards he
Heads to his car,
As he pulls out, I
Wave him down

He rolls down the
Window and I tell
Him I liked his poem

But you forgot a
Word, I say

Oh, he says

Yes, Mabuhay

He looks at me

It’s a Filipino word,
I say

How do you spell it,
He asks, pulling out
A note pad

And I say: M-A-B-U-H-A-Y

What does it
Mean, he asks

Live…Long live, I say

Mr. Bishop,
A man who has lived

Long

Mabuhay!

© 2019 Tony Robles

Opposition (For Adam)

Thoreau took walks
His boots sinking
in the silence of
solitude, becoming
one with nature

and this long haired
mountain man whose
teeth are stained with
a mountain smile asked if
i had worked with my hands

have you used
a saw? he asked

i saw one once, i said,
but didn’t use it for fear
I’d saw off something
I’d regret

But, i added,
i did work for a
plumbing company
once

i popped a toilet
off the floor in a
toil that ended badly

at least you
tried, he said

his shirt was home
To mountain dirt,
his eyes to mountain
sky

clearing branches
and leaves, can fix
just about anything
including the limbs
of trees

when things
break, don’t take
it personal, he says

if things were easy,
everybody would
be doing it

it’s good to do a
couple passthroughs
of your work

that’s where the
expression “Third
time’s a charm” comes
from, he said

those little weeds
that sprout from the
ground, the concrete

they’re rising up
“Through the Opposition”
he said, squatting close
to the ground

it shows how
strong nature is

Third times a charm,
better to be thorough

Thoreau

(c) 2019 Tony Robles

Go back where you came from

Go back where you came from (For BP)
By tony Robles

Go back to the mountain
Of your heart
Carved with your poem
Your story

Go back to the
Skin scarred
Soil of your name
Before the teachers
Mispronounced it

Go back to the
Strong smell of who
You are, lingering in
Pots and pans smouldering
In the fire that is you

Go back to when
Your words betrayed
Your throat in
A shadow of shame

And somebody
Else’s laughter

Go back and get it
Back, whatever it is
Or whatever it isn’t

Go back to your face

Will it
Recognize you?

Go back
Where you came from

Is it everywhere,
No where?

Go back

(C) 2019 Tony Robles

Tom in Turtledom

I was walking down a stretch of Greenville Highway in Hendersonville to mail several letters.  The letters were addressed to friends on an opposite coast. The humid air greeted me like an intruder looking to make fast friends, finding a home on my body, fitted a wee bit too snug leaving me to ask, do I know you?  It wore me like a second hand shirt from one of the many consignment shops within walking distance. Greenville Highway, more road than interstate that I am consigned to walk since I have no car.  I find the act of walking—as a poet once said, softly upon the earth—as an opening to a portal into the senses as we carve imprints upon it and, as does the poet, leave something for those who will trudge in our wake. Alongside the highway are cottages of cool grey with a red sign planted in the driveway’s gravel with an admonishment for those who would be careless: Drive like your kids live here.  The path brings me to a local artisan’s workshop—Terry’s Mountain wood art. The evidence of his trade—wood renderings of four legged creatures, tables, chairs, a hen house, a small tree donning blue bottles for branches and—not to be left out—what appeared to be an outhouse with a crescent moon carved into its door; an alluring and impressive offering on display for the passerby—via car or foot.  Up ahead, The Great American Hot Dog with Dollar tree a couple doors downa patriotic duty smothered in mustard, relish and other condiments while the Dollar Tree serves as a reminder that money doesn’t grow on trees but that a single dollar has purchasing power—everything from a cell phone case, super glue, stationary, toiletries, blue toilet bowl cleaner to lifesavers butter rum candy.

I just moved here, not even a week, but you always bring your past with you.  There are remembrances of home in the form of street signs.  One sign reads Golden Gate Street, another, Copper Penny. Copper Penny was a haunt I frequented where, on your birthday, you could get a dinner for a penny.  And Golden Gate—a iconic bridge that people, on occasion, stage the ending of their lives; also a street, the name of a theater and many other things iconic and personal.  Yes, that other coast, on the left side of the country.  I happen to be left handed but I am a bit ambidextrous—I write with my left, but use scissors and swing a tennis racquet with my right.  That other coast–It gave birth to my mother who now lives on this coast.

I keep walking.  I notice a group of people gathered—adults and teens. Something has grabbed their attention. Their eyes are fixed on the ground near a grassy area and parking lot near a small drug store. I approach and spot a lump of something.  It is a dull greenish color.  A lid to a trash can?  I slip on my glasses and realize it is a turtle, about a foot in length—not large certainly to a herpetologist or turtle expert—but large enough to me.

“Oh my” a woman says as the turtle snapped its jaws.

The woman appeared to be a worker from one of the businesses.  A couple of youngsters stood by, laughing.  A man stood close by, nearly hovering over the turtle, not in a threatening way, at least not from what I saw but what about the turtle?  Having lived in Florida for a short time, I recognized it as a snapping turtle.  I had actually caught one once but it was the size of a small rock. I’d submerged it in a bucket of water before releasing it in a nearby ditch.  I also remembered soft-shelled turtles, flat as grandpa’s ass, on those hot roads having trundled arduously up the sides of a creek and onto streets with noble names such as Tennyson, Galsworthy, and Disraeli, to be flattened by a family car or flatbed truck carrying tunes of top 40 radio stations. 

As I approached, the man, surveying the situation, came to a not-so complicated deducement: We need to get this turtle over there or else it’s gonna get ran over.  “Over there” was an area of thick grass and foliage—about 20s or so yards away–that would make for a much more salubrious habitat for said (or sad) turtle. 

“I care for wildlife” said the man.

He wore tan shorts to the knees, a white t-shirt and dark rimmed glasses.  He looked like a science teacher who spent most of his time outdoors.  In his early 60’s I thought.

“We need to get it over there” he said.  “Does anyone have a shovel?” 

Soon one of the women produced a shovel and a stick.                                                

“Now” said the man, “let’s see if we can move him.”

Move.  That’s what I’d recently done; 3000 some-odd miles; endless hours packing boxes and shipping them via the post office.  I got the bright idea that I’d take a train, cross-country.  Oh, the romance–All aboard–Seeing the country from sea to shining sea with echoes of Woody Guthrie lulling me to sleep.  But I barely slept, acquired a stomach virus in Denver from a dish of take-out Chinese mixed vegetables and had to negotiate and adjust to the capricious movements of the train and its quivers, vibrations, aftershocks, shifts—the equivalent of airplane turbulence on the rails—especially when using the toilet where hitting the bowl accurately is an absolute necessity.  With all that behind me I volunteered to help move the turtle.  How hard could it be, 20 yards, tops?  It sure wasn’t 3000 miles. 

The idea was straightforward.  The man explained that all we’d have to do is scoop up the turtle with the shovel and carry it to the lush area.  But he was having difficulty wedging the shovel underneath the turtle.  Given its top-heavy shape and low center of gravity, scooping it up would require timing and balance at the right angle.  I was being useful, witnessing the happenings on my camera phone, snapping shots from different angles, getting a selfie or two in while the man and turtle played out a David vs. Goliath, Ali-Frazier, Jason and the Argonauts battle. I then recalled the words my father uttered to me many years ago on many occasions, “Why don’t you cut the crap?”  I stuck the cellphone in my pocket.

This was a hard turtle to move.  As the shovel got close, the jaws would snap, attempting to bite into the shovel; jaws that had more snap than a punch press and certainly more than a pair of fingers regardless of beat or melody. Surely this toughness was gleaned from hard times and travails in turtledom, struggles I was not privy to. In the struggle to move it, it seemed to glare mockingly at not only the man, but me as well, as if to say, what a pair of weakies.

“I’ll give you a hand”, I said.

The man looked at me.  The turtle looked at me as if to say, Oh, you want some?

“Let me get that stick from you” I said.  I’ll use it to push the turtle onto the shovel.”

I took the stick, which resembled a broom handle.  I poked the turtle’s fleshy backside—a tail perhaps.  It was firm but had a slight give to it.  It didn’t take long for the turtle to identify the pain in the ass to its rear—me.  It deftly circled clockwise, attempting to face me.  Look me in the eye if you want to poke me.  Don’t be a coward…be a man, you…  I moved clockwise as well, attempting to maintain my rear position.  We turned and turned. To everything…turn…turn…turn.  Was this a turtle or a turntable?  If it was a turntable, then it felt like this little dance was going 45 rpm.  It was rather comical, like a game of Ring ‘round the Rosie with snapping jaws. 

“You know” I said, “This turtle would clearly have little to no problem getting to the center of a Tootsie Pop”.

“Yeah” Tom replied, chuckling

The man wedged the shovel under the turtle and lifted it.  I pushed the stick firmly but gently into its backside but we couldn’t maintain balance and the turtle landed on the grass, still close to the parking lot.  We again tried and again the turtle slid off like a scoop of ice cream from a cone. One more try—yes, the turtle is on the shovel, ok baby, stay there, let me just help guide you with the stick.  I’m not trying to hurt you, honest.  I think we got it.  The man is now moving towards the grassy area with a bounty he only wants to set free.

“Ok now” the man said, “you might think we’re trying to harm you but we’re trying to help.  Better this than meeting up with a car.”

The turtle continued to snap its jaws, perhaps trying to say something. 

Upon writing of this scenario, I did extensive research.  I grabbed my cellphone and looked up Snapping turtle.  Turns out that this kind of turtle can be very vicious when removed from water and, conversely, become docile when returned to water. Its scientific name: Chelydra Serpentina, the largest fresh water turtle in North Carolina.  These turtles are also eaten deep fried, in gumbo, soup and in “Turtle Sauce Piquante”.  However, on this day, we had no such culinary designs.

We were able to carry the turtle to the green area near a small body of water.  I asked the man his name.

“Tom” he said.

“I’m Tony” I replied.

I told Tom that I would write about this. Tom, who loves and cares for wildlife—it shows.  In a world where people are snapping over this and that, at one another, it’s good to know that there are those who have found their own rhythm, their own snap and will snap to it without hesitation—even when coming to the aid of a cranky turtle who lost its way just off the Greenville Highway in Hendersonville, North Carolina.  Pleasure meeting you in turtledom.

Hit Me Bruh!–Thoughts on The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Hit me with something real.  Hit me with what I am.  Hit me with my pent up rage.  Hit me with everything that’s been taken from you, me, us—our city.  Last black man, first black man, and all black men in between; hit me in the solar nexus, the crossroads, the migration, the displacement, the toxicity—I want it all, I want it all back.  Last Black Man in San Francisco, a pause in the sound of the heartbeat of two young black men, a pause that expands and captures the history of a people—the black community of San Francisco—in all its love and anger and brilliance and contradictions.  In a city that has betrayed its black community for all to see, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, through art and respect for what has come before—the foundation upon where we stand—sings a song of dignity of our black community—a dignity that is under attack without relent.

Remember your truth in the city of facades

As a born and raised San Franciscan, I see black faces every day in my city, faces that show the history of neglect, the forgotten faces, disrespected faces, faces paved over with scars—faces that have become a landmark of the city’s shame.  In the pause of chaos we see the toxicity of indifference that is so thick in the San Francisco air that one must wear a hazardous material suit to navigate it.  But I also, in the madness of the city, see in it—what my friend and activist David Woo describes as “Frisco humbleness”—a going with the flow and surviving without forgetting who you are and where you came from.  This movie comes with a big dose of “Frisco Humbleness”. 

In the backdrop of Hunters Point, at the movie’s outset, a community prophet/preacher warns: We were put through hell to be purified!  In the eyes of two young men, best friends—Jimmie and Mont (played by Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors)—the quest for purification begins.  The writer James Baldwin–who visited San Francisco in the early 60’s as part of a documentary and who immediately sensed its subtle yet toxic racism–wrote that if one can describe one’s environment, one can control it.  To describe it, one must pause and reclaim what is one’s own through new eyes—and what is to be reclaimed is community.  To pause when a white person appears out of nowhere and asks “What are you doing here?”  A pause containing the complexities of surviving a place that doesn’t want you, intent on stripping you of your dignity—if you are black—by its bureaucracies and systems whose very existence depends upon the disdain it holds towards you. 

The dignity and complexity of caring for a home that was lost, a brush, applying paint, adding color to what has been stripped, reclaiming a home, reclaiming a self, an identity; loving a house no longer yours so much that you know that the new occupants do not love it as you do, do not know it as you do, do not have the same respect for it as you and your family did.

“Our Sweat is soaked in the wood”

A pause in the mirror, in the drama of street corner conflicts and dramas that pull us down and build us up—giving birth to and destroying us—in postures and phrases and bullets and blessings and finally an embrace and tears and wails that never end—wet with the salty water of the bay which is in our blood.  “Hit me bruh!” one young black brother dares another.  Challenging one’s courage, one’s manhood—with voices that slash, cut—leaving scars that cover the scars inside, worn with honor as the streets are carved from under us.  Again, the preacher/prophet who sees the lurking powers of the toxic bay, the toxic cloud who warns: They got plans for us!   Why does renewal often bring with it a renewed sense of death?  As James Baldwin said, it is the report of the artist, and the report that only the artist can give that is, in the end, our only hope in showing anybody who makes it to this planet how to survive it.

The constant play, the drama acted out day after day, seen through the eyes of Mont, a playwright—acting it out in Hunters Point on a wooden plank, in a landscape where we all play our part in a drawn out tragedy that is the city of St. Francis.  Mont lives with his grandpa (Played by Danny Glover) who is blind.  They sit together—along with Jimmie—watching old mystery movies to which Mont describes the action—scene by scene.  In the small room he shares with Jimmie he sketches the people and places of his neighborhood, and is inspired to write a play about a young brother named Kofi.   Upon the tragic death of Kofi—who often gathered with other young men of the neighborhood—a  young man with the words “Life after Life” tattooed on his chest—the question the playwright poses is: What if Kofi could have shown all forms of himself?  Followed by the declaration: He was put into a box!

Kofi is one of many who live with the lingering and present trauma of eviction, displacement, environmental racism and a tech industry without accountability in a city whose continued hostility towards communities of color, the same communities that made the city great, manifests itself in laws that target poor people and result in the loss of community, a loss of spirit and dignity,  The complex lives, the traditions, the complexity of  black laughter and view of the world—unique to Frisco (yes Frisco)– gets erased without an afterthought in the most impersonal way which has become signature San Francisco.  From this place, they hop on a skateboard, or on Muni to Jimmie’s family home in the Fillmore—a home that the family lost—encountering a changing neighborhood that is less black.  He reoccupies the home and, for a time, brings it to life after the former occupants lost it in an estate battle.  In occupying the home, Jimmie and Mont bring their complexities and emotion and creativity in the most befitting of places—as rightful occupants.  Then, ultimately, there is the threat of police by a real estate agent intent on making a profit—who has tossed Jimmie’s possession’s onto the sidewalk–a scenario that is played out over in over in the city.

And there is still love, despite the toxicity of the city, one that doesn’t love you when, on a bus, a pair of transplants speak disparagingly of the city.  Jimmie, the young black man whose life is in the walls of the house that he believes his grandfather built, a house that he is trying to reclaim interrupts the pair and says, “Do you love it?  You don’t get to hate San Francisco unless you love it”, to which there is silence.

The Last black man In San Francisco was co-written by actor Jimmie Fails, who plays Jimmie in the movie.  Fails fails to rely on stereotypes, he fails to overlook complexity, he fails to overlook his elders, he fails to show disrespect to what came before him.  He succeeds, as does the cast, producers and writers, to create a film with much love and grace.

I can still hear the voice of Mike Marshall, singing his rendition of Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco. 

If you’re going to San Francisco

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

If you’re going to San Francisco

You’re gonna meet some gentle people there

Gentle…

The gentle people surely appear in this movie.  However, in real life, they are getting harder to come by in this city.

(Photo Credit: Paste Magazine)

© 2019 Tony Robles

Man in Demand

In the late 70’s I attended a small Christian school in central Florida called Agape School.  I’d never heard the word agape and the first time I said it, it came out wrong.  I mouthed it as it appeared–a word whose definition was a “wide open mouth, esp. with surprise or wonder.”  Unbeknownst to me, agape had another pronunciation and meaning.  I formed the word, mouth ajar–with wonder–and said: AH-GAH-PAY.  Florida was a culture shock.  I was a Filipino-Black kid from San Francisco who barely found his way to class—homeroom or any room—flinching at the ubiquitous barking of gym teachers, suffocating in the stifling odors rising from locker rooms permeating with the ever evolving glandular functions of post-pubescent boys in a terrarium of Junior High absurdity.  I was put on a plane and dispatched 3000 miles away to my mother in the sunshine state.  Florida was palm trees, orange juice, Disney World and golf courses—that’s what I was told. 

My father saw that my grades failed to rise above the C mark.  He foresaw for me a janitorial future and constantly tried to motivate me to improve my grades. This strategic motivation strategy included the imminent threat of a foot (Namely his) up my ass, indefinite restriction (IE: No TV, No playing ball etc.) and something he referred to as Military School.  “They’ll shape your ass up” he’d say as I analyzed my options in silence.  My mother had remarried.  I wrote her at the behest of my grandparents. She sent me birthday cards adorned with Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck that I discarded in search of legal tender.  She lived in a home with a new husband, a swimming pool and a room waiting for me.  I didn’t recall many moments being with my mother and father.  As far as I knew, their split had been amicable:  No hard feelings, right?

Florida—land of oranges.  When I arrived I expected orange bulbs to drop like hail.  Across the street was a house with orange trees in the front yard. Orange dotted the trees like shrunken suns.  The fragrance eventually seeped into me. Lawns spread in front and behind every house.  The sound of a sputtering mower always loomed.   My mother was glad to see me after so many years.  I had grown like a weed that needed yanking. “You’re gonna love it down here” she said.  “The weather’s hot but you’ll get used to it.  And you might see a roach or two.”   My 6 foot stepfather added, “They’re called palmetto bugs. They live in the palm trees. They’re harmless.’’ Palmetto sounded like a tropical bug spray.  I forgot about it when mom served a plate of red jello that had been elegantly shaped in a decorative mold–topped with a spoonful of whipped cream.

I had experiences with multi-legged creatures when I lived in the housing projects in San Francisco’s North Beach.  They would crawl on the walls and across the kitchen table. I prodded them with a knife towards the silver toaster. My eyes would watch them dash up the side of the silver monster. I’d flick them into the gaps where they would fall into the coils, popping and crackling before ejected upwards towards the heavenly yellow ceiling.  I wasn’t vicious or devious but when it came to roaches, I transformed.  Upon my landing in Florida I had images in my brain of Mickey Mouse, oranges and space rockets.  Roaches were the farthest thing from my mind.    

Before bed my mother kissed me goodnight.  I hadn’t seen her in a long time. I couldn’t see myself in her face but everybody else did.  She washed her face with Noxema and I liked the smell.  Her kiss was a blink, a small leaf landing in water. She exhaled a puff of air through her nostrils hitting my eyelids causing me to shut my eyes. I opened them and I saw myself in her face–for the first time. Mom turned off the light. The air was thick and sticky like wet cotton candy–the smell of orange trees and the symphonic drone of crickets that were seemingly stuck on the same tune.  I woke in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.  I opened the bedroom door and saw my stepfather—peeing. I was told that older men often peed in the middle of the night. I went back to bed.  The toilet flushed.  I got up again, turned on the light. 

I heard a buzz.  My eyes came into focus when I saw a dark object flying towards my face.  Before I could blink I realized it was a cockroach.  I flinched, attempting to shield my face but I was too slow, the roach flew square into cheek. My mother’s kiss was gentle, the roach’s was like a bottle cap.  I hit the light switch and dove under the covers. It was steaming hot.  There was silence then buzzing.  Was it the roach?  Or was it another type of bug?  Had I known about these flying cockroaches…palmetto bugs, I would have stayed in San Francisco.  I peeked from under the blankets, allowing myself a gulp of air but each time I did, the buzzing ensued.  I kept myself airtight under the blankets.  It was suffocating.

“Welcome to Florida” a voice said.  A raspy voice, the kind soothed with a cigarette.    

“Who are you talking to?” I asked

“Who do you think?”

I closed my eyes hoping that the voice was my imagination.

“Leave me alone’’ I said 

“What’s wrong, you afraid?  I thought you were tough, from the big city.  All those cockroaches in the toaster”

“How you know about that?”

“Ahhhhh…everybody knows.  Cockroach grapevine”.

Silence.  I began to think. I am under a blanket, hiding from a roach—a palmetto bug—that I must outweigh by more than a hundred pounds—not to mention my height advantage.  But in the area of wingspan, I was no match.  I was suffocating in my cowardice.  I felt like a worm–or worse–a maggot.  A 13 year old boy—on his way towards man or maggothood.  What kind of man was I going to be?

“Hey kid” the voice said.

“Yeah?

“Ever heard of Kafka?”

“Who?”

“Kafka!”

“No”

“Don’t worry, you will”

And with that I sweated myself to sleep. 

School was different. Unlike the large brick reinforced fortress of a school I attended in San Francisco, Agape School was situated in an office park. The building was a corrugated metal structure with a corporate facelift that suggested florescent lights, air conditioning and multi-stalled, air-freshened toilets fully stocked with toilet paper.  I was a dot in a sea of white; a lone Filipino and black kid among freckled, pimply, innocent, sinister and other variations of white faces—boys and girls—from elementary to high school age.  We began our days reciting the pledge of allegiance to the American and Christian flags.  Our principal, Mr. Collins, led us in prayer and bible scripture recital.  He was an animated guy who, had he gone into pharmaceutical sales or cruise ship hospitality, would have surely succeeded.  We wore uniforms—red, white and blue. Some wore red shirts, blue slacks, while others wore white shirts, blue slacks. Plaid skirts for girls.  The white shirt clashed with my skin which had, thanks to the burning Florida sun, darkened to the hue of burning sugar cane. 

I sat alone in the lunch room.  A few boys looked at me.  One approached.

“Where you from?”

“San Francisco?”

“Do you like snakes?”
“I’ve never seen one”

Kilmer was the class jokester.  He had a laugh smeared across his face until it became a sneer.  Brown hair hung damp on his head with a hint of a mustache struggling on his upper lip.

He produced a book, drawing it from his pocket like a comb or knife.  On the cover: The Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. 

“I got a rat snake” said Kilmer.  “And a corn snake, and a boa, and a black racer, and an indigo snake, and a—“

“What do they eat?” I asked

“Rabbits and mice.  They wrap around them and squeeeeezzzz them to death. Then they swallow ’em whole. It’s so cool. You wanna seem ’em sometime?”

“Yeah, I guess”

Snakes, I thought.  How would I react to one up close?  My duel with the flying cockroach was fresh in my mind.  If I hid from a roach, how would I deal with a hissing snake? 

“What’s your name?” asked Kilmer

“Anthony” I replied. 

Another boy walked over. His name was Johnstone. He was big. Over six feet.   He snatched the book of reptiles and amphibians from Kilmer’s hand.

“You and your snakes.  You’re nothing but a toad.  The only snake you have is a rubber one—dangling between your legs”

“Hey, give it” said Kilmer.

I wanted to laugh at the rubber snake remark but didn’t.  Kilmer seemed an oddball, but he was a nice oddball.  The bigger boy handed the book back to Kilmer.  He looked at me.

“You play football?” he asked

“Yeah, a little” I replied.

The boy had dark brown hair whose strands teased his eyelids. He rubbed his palm into his reddened eyes.

“We play during PE”

“Yeah” said Kilmer

Johnstone looked at me.  His eyes fell on my face as if looking into it and coming out the other side.

“What are you, Indian?” Johnstone asked.

“I’m Filipino and black”

“Filipino?  Never seen one of those before”

“Huh?”

Silence. Maybe I should have told him I was Indian.  But in the movies I always rooted for the cowboys.  I looked around and saw the glances.  Maybe they were wondering what I was too.  I began to feel like Cochise being pursued by those cowboys blasting everything in sight.  I felt a warm chill spread across my face.

“We play football in the afternoon.  If you wanna play…”

Johnstone walked off. 

“He’s an asshole” said Kilmer.  Thinks he’s some hotshot athlete. Hey, do you know what herpetology is?”

Kilmer opened his book again and we looked at snakes until lunch ended.

Upon consulting the encyclopedia, I learned that herpetology is the study of amphibians and reptiles.  The subject held my fascination when tossed in with a few things: 1) The story of Adam and Eve, 2) A TV movie I’d seen where a psychopathic scientist gives a serum to an unsuspecting man who gets transformed into a cobra and, 3) The stories I’d heard of pythons swallowing crocodiles whole.  I was fascinated by snake’s ability to shed its skin and the decorative yet complex patterns adorning on their bodies.  They, unlike us, had no pimples, dryness, or ashy residue that teens had to endure.  Perhaps I had a future in herpetology. 

I was under the blankets again.  It was cool—75 degrees.  A few minutes followed by the buzz, the voice.

“How was school?”

“It was ok”

“Did you meet snake boy?”

“Snake boy?”

“The kid with the reptile and amphibian book”

“How do you know about him?”

“I told you before, cockroach grapevine”

“Why don’t’ you go and fly to someone else’s house?”

“I like this house”

“Yeah, I know.  That’s the problem.  All you do is buzz around and keep me under the blankets. You’re quite inconsiderate and you’re ugly too”

“I’m a roach.  I’m supposed to be ugly”

I tried to ignore his presence.

“I can’t sleep”

“Try counting roaches”

“Count roaches?”

“Yes, instead of sheep.  Count all those roaches you tossed into the toaster.

I closed my eyes tight and thought of sheep.  Baaah…baaah.  They wouldn’t come.

“Did they ask you?” said the roach

“Who, what?”

“What you are?”

“What do you mean?”

“Black, white,yellow…turquoise?”

“Oh, you mean my nationality?”

“Did they think you were an Indian?”

“One did”

I’m starting to think that you have a little cockroach in you. In this Florida sun you’re as brown as me–a cockroach. That’s what I’m gonna call you—cockroach brown.  How ya like that?”

“I don’t!

“Ha ha ha!” the roach laughed, on his back, wiggling his little legs.

“What about you, you got a name?”

“Yeah, Metto”

“Metto? Bullshit.

I lie in silence as the crickets laughed.

I was in my room looking at the blue paint on the wall.  I’d caught a turtle that I’d kept in my desk.  I’d snuck it in without mom or my stepdad knowing. 
“Anthony…”

My stepfather walked in.  His afro had grown wide.  Wet spots announced themselves from under his arms.

“Are you gonna sit there all day?”

“There’s nothing to do, I’m bored.”

“Boredom…is a luxury”

He always had things for me to do; pulling weeds in the backyard, cleaning the swimming pool.  I was lazy in San Francisco.  The Florida heat didn’t make me any more energetic. I went to school but I procrastinated on assignments.  When he saw me he was always shaking his head.  He told me stories of when he was a young man.  He worked all kinds of jobs and in every job, he was the best: the best dishwasher, the best busboy, the best shoe shiner, the best…

The phone rang from the kitchen.  I heard my mother’s muffled voice. 

“Anthony! Mom called out.  “It’s your dad”.

I went to the phone, mounted on the wall near the kitchen counter.

“Hello”

“It’s me”

“I know”

“How come you don’t call?”

“Mom says long distance calls are expensive”

“She can afford it”

“I guess”

“Anyway, how’s school. You learnin’ anything?”

“It’s a Christian school”

“Christian?  They teaching you catechism?

“No, it’s not Catholic.  We say the pledge allegiance to the Christian flag”

“Christian flag?  What kinda goddamn school she sending you to?”

“It’s a good school, with nice kids.  One of them has snakes”

“You better stay away from them snakes. They liable to crawl up your ass”.

“Yes, dad”

“Any hurricanes, Mickey Mouse, palm trees?”

Dad’s voice grew fuzzy in the static of the phone.  His voice grew distant and tinny.

“No” I replied.  But they got roaches”

“What?”

“Roaches” I repeated, louder.

“You smokin’ a roach? What the hell is going on down there?

Dad’s voice grew louder, cutting through the static.

“I said, there are roaches down here”

“Smokin’ a roach?  Your mom’s got you smokin’ weed?”

“NO!”

“Don’t raise your voice to me or I’ll put my foot in your ass”

Dad’s voice rose. I had no doubt–being the omnipresent force in my life that he was–in his ability to somehow transport his size 7 1/2 shoe (With his foot in it), and insert said foot in my waiting and deserving ass.

Dad said something I couldn’t make out, perhaps speaking to someone close by.

“Put your damn mother on the phone!”

“But…”

“I said, put her on the damn phone!”

I called mom over and handed her the receiver.

Our principal Mr. Collins was a nice man.  He wore a red short sleeved shirt, blue clip tie and blue slacks. A small golden cross was pinned to his tie.  He gathered the young men of our school in monthly discussions on topics that would mold and shape us for the future.  Staying away from drugs and alcohol was stressed, naturally, as a path towards a Godly life.  One day he asked our group, all of us—hormones, sweaty armpits and all—what is love?  One of the boys, a limp haired blonde named Wilbur blurted out “Tammy!”  Laughter swelled in the room which Mr. Collins defused. 

“Ok, ok…we know Tammy”, said Mr. Collins.  “But I want us to think of love, what is it?”

I sat with my tongue melting into the roof of my mouth.  I’d never had a girlfriend but I liked the girl who sat at the cubicle next to mine, a blonde girl who always caught my glance—terrifying me.

“Young man” said Mr. Collins, gesturing at me.  “Can you tell me the definition of love?’

I looked around. Why was I always being put on the spot–first by a flying cockroach and now a guy in a red shirt and bad tie. 

“Love is, uh, I think it’s…”

The overhead florescent lights buzzed as my pimple faced schoolmates waited for me to say something foolish.

“Love is…” I said, “Being kind

One of the bigger boys rolled his eyes.  Another formed a weak fist and moved it in a lewd up and down motion.

“Ok, ok boys…knock it off” said Mr. Collins.  “It’s true.  In the bible it says that love is patient, love is kind, love holds no grudges.  It’s agape…from the Greek. It means God’s love.

He went on about love and the golden rule. I truly paid attention to what he said, sensing that it held some kind of value.  We were given a book called “Man in Demand.”  In it were practical things that young men should know: Table manners, good grooming, good posture, how to tuck in your shirt.  It included a useful equation that went something like this:

Food intake + no exercise= Weight Gained

Sufficient food intake + sufficient exercise= Weight maintained

Insufficient food intake + Sufficient exercise= Weight drained

I flipped the pages of “Man in Demand”.  I came to a page on grooming one’s hair. There was an illustration of properly groomed hair and unkempt hair. The unkempt hair looked like mine.  Why couldn’t I be a straight haired blonde boy?  Perhaps it was a question I could pose to my friend, Metto, the cockroach or, palmetto bug later in the evening.  Man in Demand–a book that was supposed to mold young men.  Some good stuff was in it.  And with a bit of herpetology tossed in, I learned that people, like snakes, can shed their skin.  Perhaps even a cockroach.

© 2019 Tony Robles