Fish Bones

I’d lost my voice.  I wasn’t certain if I’d actually possessed it.  A voice–the movement and vibration of molecules melding into a unique sound with timbre, resonance, pitch—all blending in unison.  There are, however, obstructions in the throat that impact one’s ability to impart one’s vocal prowess—hoarseness, a sore throat or the unfortunate occurrence of having something “go down the wrong pipe” while eating.  There is nothing that stifles resonance or vocal tone than a hacking cough.  As a child I was told by my grandma to be careful not to swallow fish bones.  She would cook fish and rice, big, thick, juicy pieces of fish with orange flesh beneath charred skin.  I would shove the fish into my mouth, the crispy skin crackling like leaves in a smoldering fire.  Then—on the way down–I would feel it, a puncture, a sharp piercing in the complex inner workings of my throat.  There it was—a fishhook down the gullet—my bone to pick.  Of course grandma had a remedy: eat a spoonful of rice to wash it down.

There are other obstructions to one’s voice that keep it from taking shape in the physical, molecular and other ubiquitous worlds. For many, it is an imposed silence that builds over time.  A silence is resembling a wax build up, however, this wax inhabiting the throat is made of the phlegm of uncertainty, timidity, tentativeness—to name a few.  This imposition is often carried out by other individuals or institutions that are not interested in the uniqueness of voice or perspective but rather in the carrying out the dictum in an ever moving charge towards hegemony—the aspiration to sound like everyone else, with no variation. 

I am reminded of when I studied broadcasting.  My ambition was to become a radio DJ.  To me, there was no higher calling. I was a young man in search of a voice. I thought that speaking over the radio to thousands of faceless faces would give me a voice, would give me some sort of recognition.  I would practice my diction and my pronunciation of words.  I would repeat the call letters of our college radio station as if it were a religious scripture.

KCSF…90.0 Cable FM in San Francisco.

I had gotten ahold of a record album from a well-known broadcasting school.  The record instructed on how to be a proficient announcer.  It warned against lazy mouth and to be mindful of regional dialects.  All words had to be pronounced clearly and exercises were given to help improve one’s announcing ability.  Among such vocal exercises were tongue twisters:

Peter piper picked a peck of

Pickled peppers

And

Betty Botter

Bought a bit of butter

I had trouble with the Betty Botter tongue-twister, mistaking Boner for Botter (Unintentionally, of course).  But as I progressed, it seemed to me that I was speaking like other people on radio.  I’d landed a job as an announcer.  I was quickly becoming the vocal equivalent of Kraft American Cheese.  Soon I didn’t recognize my own voice and I barely heard what came out of my mouth—news, weather reports, etc.  I was given radio station slogan cards to read at various times. I deluded myself into believing that repeating radio station “liner cards” and running off meandering muses of a wide but limited variety was somehow profound.  I sought the advice of a morning drive time radio DJ I my city on how I could improve.  He said, in order to improve my sound, I should take a bag of marbles and, one by one, insert them in my mouth while sounding out various words.  He advised that when I “You’ve lost all your marbles” you’ll know you’ve arrived. The reality was that I was a failed DJ–someone highly insecure of his thoughts, his voice but did not fail to realize that I was saying, essentially, nothing. My voice was lost. 

The wax build up in the throat that I mentioned earlier seems to migrate, by osmosis or some other mode, to the ears of others.  To lose your voice or not be recognized as possessing one is to speak with lips aflutter minus the marriage of sound.  In other words, you are not heard.  It is to question if you have a voice.  For some it is to be marked, chosen as if by a higher power, to be cut off at mid-sentence continually, interrupted or responded to with silence and mouths ajar (or agape) if a word or sentence should manage to escape from your lips. 

There are a myriad of ways in which one is denied his or her voice.  What I have described is the subtle approach with the harshest of this variety being the perpetual purgatory of “shut up, listen and learn” or just plain, “Shut the fuck up”, regardless of how asinine or absurd the issuance of words from whomever you are forced to listen to happens to be.  However, there are harsher realities for some in terms of presenting their unique voice to the world: imprisonment, death, ostracization, torture—very big fish bones to swallow.

In terms of the writer, the voice is the life’s blood, the DNA, the bell that rings into an increasingly tone deaf world.  As writers we lay claim to our own voice and the timbre of its uniqueness.  We seek out clarity in the feelings and experiences we wish to convey.  In order to find, or gain one’s voice, one must oftentimes be denied of it or lose it completely.  In this way we come to respect it, cherish it—to tune it and replenish it.  We come to recognize the voices of others and, in that recognition, our own voice becomes clearer, more acute.  To earn one’s voice you have to fight for it.  There will be fish bones but, as grandma says, wash them down with some rice.  You’ll find clarity, you’ll finally be able to say what only you can; articulate only what you can when the time is truly right.  When your voice comes, you’ll know.  Use it well.  Watch out for fish bones.

© 2019 Tony Robles

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In my Country

How are you my friend?”  

Marco picked up a broom from the supply cabinet.  His eyes drank the light of a partially open door down the hall.  He’d been in the basement since eight a.m. clearing out trash, mountains of it.  Much of it was paper that had been piling up for the last several months.  This is a goddamn fire hazard, the maintenance supervisor said.  Marco was the new guy, just hired three weeks ago.  He was given the coveted job of cleaning out the basement.  His hair was covered in gray dust, making him appear old.  The bristly mustache hanging above his lip, turning downwards at the corners, remained its brilliant black.
 
Marco hurried towards the door.  He wanted to breathe the sun. 
“Hey Marco!”
Marco stopped, turning away from the light.
“Yes my friend”
People knew his name.  They sung it.  It traveled like an arrow. 
“Marco, I need you to clear out room 403”
Mr. Franklin was the maintenance supervisor.  He had a policeman’s head and the body of a journeyman plumber.  He carried a leather bound notebook containing work orders.  Marco turned completely around. He followed Mr. Franklin.
 
“The guy in 403 died a couple days ago.  I need you to go and clear out the room.  Bag and tag the stuff in the unit”
“Who died”
“Willie…you know…older black guy”
Mr. Franklin handed Marco a key.  Marco tried to remember the man.  There were many older black men in the residential hotel. 
“What happened?”
“He was lying on the couch and died. It was three days before anybody noticed.  The guy in unit next to him got this bad nasal problem…couldn’t smell a damn thing.  A health worker found him when she came to visit”.
Marco shook his head and whispered something to himself.  His thoughts were back home.  He thought of his grandmother and how she walked, her steps heavy on the ground, leaving stories that the rains couldn’t wash away.
“I go upstairs”
 
Marco came to the bottom of the staircase.  He distrusted elevators.  He climbed the stairs, walking over each step like a stone in a river.  He listened to the sounds.  Each step had a different sound—squeaks, moans—muffled notes in a building made of parts long obsolete.  He heard someone call his name as he ascended the stairs.  He stopped.  He looked down and saw a small circle of people gathered around a bald woman in a black robe.  She gently tapped a metal gong.  The sound made Marco stand still for a moment, as if he were being transported: His heart taking the form of those things that had been hollowed out, cavernous and holding every sound, even the sounds that one could not hear but feel.  Marco had felt empty and collected all the unsaid words and suspicious glances of others —suspicion of his mother tongue and his immigration status– but also ambivalence of those who only saw him and people like him as subservient, entitled to treat an immigrant like him any way they pleased.  All those sounds he kept inside waiting for the chance to free them. He finally reached the top of the staircase.  403 was at the far end of the hall.  Marco walked, his keys jingling at his side. 
 
In my country I walk in the mountains.  I listen to the birds.  They tell me if rain is coming.  When the soldiers come, I hide.  Sometimes I sneak away to the mountains and look at the sky.  It is big.  I feel like I could swim in it like water.  I see every color in the sky and I close my eyes and sleep.  The gunfire is loud; I wake and see only red like the flowers in my grandmother’s hands.  I run so fast that I feel like my legs are running away from my body.  Sometimes I feel like I have no legs, only eyes that see the beauty and the sadness of my country.  Sometimes my eyes only see red mountains.
 

He put the key in the lock.  It was stubborn.  It clicked.  He opened the door.
“Hello?”
Marco stepped inside.  The air was warm with maple and cigarettes.  A kitchen table sat with jars and cups with burned on stains. 
“Who is it?”
Marco saw the figure of a man sitting on a couch partially covered in shadows.  It was a black man with grayish hair and a bright beard. 
“I’m maintenance.  They send me to clean.  They tell me the man who live here die”.
“Man, do I look dead to you?
“No”
“You damn right I ain’t dead. I been living here for 20 years.  Now get out of my room!”
“I’m sorry”
 
Marco went downstairs to the maintenance office.  The door was shut.  Mr. Franklin was on the phone, gesturing with his hands.  Marco waved but Mr. Franklin didn’t look at him.  Mr. Franklin hung up the phone and motioned Marco to enter. 
“I’m real busy right now”
Marco looked at the stack of papers on the desk.  He felt small.
“There’s a man in the room”
“What room?”
“403”
“Who is he?”
“I don’t know.  He’s sitting on the couch”
“Tell him to get out. We need to get that room clean for the new tenant”
Marco went back upstairs, this time trotting.  He opened the door.
“You back for another visit?”
The man was standing now.  He peered out the window at the expanse of a large brick building with faded advertisements. 
“You have to leave, my friend”
The man looked at Marco for a moment then sank into the couch.
“They been telling me to leave all my life.  Ain’t got no place to go…”
Marco watched the man lay back on the couch, struggling to lift his legs.  A table with flimsy legs stood next to the couch.  On it was a procession of pill bottles with faded expiration dates.  Marco walked over to the man, leaned over.
“I help you”   
Marco lifted the man’s legs and gently lay them atop a pillow at the ankles.  The man craned his neck, searching for a comfortable spot.  Marco looked at the pictures on another table, wrinkled black and white photos of young faces.  Another picture showed a man in a suit on a stage, a dancer perhaps.  The man looked at Marco through squinting eyes.  He took a hold of Marco’s wrist. 
“What’s your name, son?”
“I’m maintenance…I”
“No, no…your name?”
“My name is Marco”
“Where are you from?”
“My country?”
“Yeah”
“El Salvador”
“Do you miss your home?”
Marco did not answer.  He took the man’s hand in his own and lay it gently at his side.
“Can you get me a cup of water?”
 
In my country I live close to the river.  I used to walk with my brother to the sound of the river. We would run with the river and the sound would cool our faces and we would swim with the fish.  My brother, he was older.  He loved to sing…his voice was like the river.  I would listen and his songs flew like birds over the hills and trees.  We would laugh, and he would chase me like the wind.  Then the sounds of the guns came and the water no longer sang but stayed still in the color of the dead. 
 

Marco found a glass in the sink. He rinsed and filled it.  He saw a roach on the wall, climbing like a man scaling a mountain.  Marco saw a plant, green with reddish leaves.  He pressed his fingers into the dirt.  It was dry and went under his fingernails. He poured water on the dirt and placed it on a windowsill.  He brought the glass to the man.

“Thank you son”

Marco’s eyes fell on the picture of the man in a suit on a stage.  He saw the man’s legs move and suddenly there was applause.  He looked to the window and saw a bird’s flapping wings.
“I used to dance when I was young.  I danced all over.  I tapped, you know about tapping, right?  I danced all over the country…down south and out west.  I had women, lord how I had ‘em.  My daughter, she grown.  She’s a teacher somewhere down south. Let me get another sip of water”.
Marco raised the glass to the man’s lips.  The man took the glass and drained it.
“My mother saw me running by the river one day.  We were poor, real poor.  She said my legs would take me places one day.  Now my legs give me nothing but problems”.
The man sighed and looked up at the ceiling.  Marco reached over and massaged the man’s legs. 
 

In my country…

 
The man felt renewed.  He smiled then stood. He danced.  Marco sat and watched the man tap and bend and jump high until he reached the sky.  Soon the man was the man in the picture, young again.  Marco clapped as the man danced across the room.  The man danced until it became dark. He sank back into the couch, gray hair and old bones.  He closed his eyes and fell asleep.
 
Marco covered the man with a blanket.  He opened the window and placed a glass of water on the sill.  He lit a candle and placed it next to the glass.  He looked out at a bird perched on a nearby sill.  He filled the plastic bags with old clothes, pill bottles, papers, and garbage.  He cleaned the bathroom and kitchen.  He took the plastic bags to the basement storage room.  He brought the apartment key back to the maintenance office. 
“You finished with that room?” Mr. Franklin asked.
“Yes, I finish” Marco answered, handing back the key.
Marco put on his jacket and walked to the door.  He opened it.  The light washed over him.  He thought about the man in the picture and about his grandmother back home.  He looked out into the empty street.  It was like a river.  He walked and listened to the night, his legs taking him somewhere.
 
 
 
© 2009 Tony Robles
 
 
 

Ashes

San Francisco, what did you do with the ashes?  Who did you dispatch to separate ash from kin?  No, I do not refer to the ashes falling from the end of a cigarette.  There are ashes, remains of homes, apartments that burned like the anger whose remnants linger all over the city–the remains of walls and staircases that mix with stone and twisted pieces of metal that contort like gnarled limbs and perhaps figurines or toys that a child once played with that ended up in an expanse of rubble that is blinding as it cuts into the depths of our spirits and flesh.  But what did you do with the ashes, the ashes of the mother of one of your many houseless people?  You took them, 10 years ago—remember?  Where are they?  Did you handle them with respect?  Did you look to see that they were ashes or did you mistake it for cat litter?  Please, just tell us where they are, tell the son who held them–to remember and honor his mother–when there was so much he wanted to forget but couldn’t.  I’m sure you didn’t mean to separate those ashes from the son, those ashes that, along with memory, were the only things that he possessed.  We all make mistakes, right?  What truck came by and took them?  What officer stood witness?  Did you scatter those ashes?  Did you take them to a secluded area and offer, at the very least, some peace?  We’re they released to the wind, carried to a place where a mother can find rest, where her spirit can be free?  Did you look at the ashes when you took them or did you assume it was trash?  Did you look upon the family who possessed those ashes as trash?  Did you take for granted that all they had was trash?  Pictures, tents, keepsakes,  bibles, scraps of paper, needles, candles, prayers—all those things that bring joy and pain that we hold on to because the world is getting colder and it doesn’t matter if you have your mother’s ashes—its trash and it’s getting dumped just like a senior’s metal walker.  Perhaps the intent is to turn all to ash—the memory of the city and its people.  The Filipino-American writer Bienvenido Santos wrote that to not have memories is to die. Perhaps the point is to strip every ounce of dignity from a person who happens to be houseless, poor, disabled—mentally and/or physically.  Somehow it seems that SF takes a perverse joy in stripping away the dignity of people.  And, in its aloofness and false sophistication lives on the notion that it is somehow enlightened.  But where are the ashes?  What did you do with them?  We trust those you have deemed worthy of looking out for our well-being.  They would never betray that.  You wouldn’t take the ashes of a deceased person and discard it was if it were trash, San Francisco.  Would you?

© 2019 Tony Robles

Oscar, Me and Aiiieeeee!

Recently I was asked to read poetry at a Filipino American History commemoration at the public library in the Bay Area town of Hercules.  Also invited to speak was poet, historian, educator and friend, Oscar Penaranda. I have known Oscar for many years and have much respect for him as a writer of great depth and humor.  He has been a positive influence on my life.  He was a close friend of my uncle, the late poet Al Robles of Manilatown and the I-Hotel and, after my uncle’s passing, honored him by starting an exchange trip called “The Al Robles Express”. The mission of the Al Robles Express was to bring Filipino Americans who had never been to the Philippines to the motherland, to connect with their cultural roots.  Al Robles had never travelled to the Philippines but his work was centered on the cultural identity of Filipinos and, prior to his unexpected death in 2009, a trip was planned for him to visit the motherland for the first time. It was through the Al Robles Express that I was to make my first journey to the Philippines in 2015, a trip that was life changing and continues to influence and shape my life as a poet.  Oscar, it can be said, is a man of specificity and details.  But in details, I do not refer to superfluous accounting of the minutia that spreads as freely as volcanic ash but in the details that provide a glimpse in to the connections of why one—or a community, specifically ours—behaves as it does.

 

Never one to be sucked in by the superficial, Oscar always delves below the surface.  In this sense, he is an explorer, donning his goggles of historian, teacher and poet to mine into the past and to present the evidence, the story, the patterns and, eventually, the glimpse into the future and its possibilities.  He presents us in our dignity, insisting that we do not speak or communicate in dialects but languages.  He has delved into our deep structure as Filipinos, exposing—for example–how our concept of Utang Na Loob—debt of gratitude–has been bastardized or corrupted to fit the colonizer’s concepts and capitalist notions whereby our relations to each other become predatory, or, at the very least, self-serving—using guilt to minimize or betray our true cultural selves in an indigenous sense. 

 

I had not known, early on, that Oscar was contributing author to Aiieeeee! Nor I had known the extent of his history at SF State College in the fight for ethnic studies.  I had read Oscar’s books, “Full Deck: Jokers Playing” and “Seasons by the Bay”, poetry and short story collections. I’d come across Aiieeeee! In a Goodwill store back in the late 90’s.  It was in immaculate condition.  I think I bought it for a dollar.  Upon glancing over the pages, I came across Oscar’s name and his story, “Dark Fiesta”.  I also came across other names: Frank Chin, Lawson Inada, Toshio Mori, Wakako Yamauchi and others.  I wasn’t familiar with any of them.  I put the book on a shelf and there it sat.  It moved from shelf to box, surviving multiple moves, relationships and changes of jobs.  I took another glimpse of it at one point and noticed that a thick layer of dust had formed on the cover.  I wiped it and dropped it back into the box, where it would remain.

 

Aiieeeee! When I first saw the title, I thought, what the fuck is an Aiieeeee?  I formed the word in my throat.  I thought it was perhaps a sound associated with constipation.  How many times had I entered a public restroom and heard some poor soul straining on the pot, crying out for relief from his maker to put him out of his state of misery—temporary but seeming like a lifetime?    I was later to learn that it was the sound was a cry, a grito, that was heard in martial arts movies.  The implication was that this, somehow, was the only voice that Asians had and that there were more sounds, more voices that begged—no, demanded—to be heard.  The faces of the authors in Aiieeeee! looked like the guys in my neighborhood, that is, a group of ghetto ass Chinese and Japanese guys who referred to each other as “blood” and could throw down and fight in the street.  I saw these guys in the playground, playing ball, smoking and doing whatever.  I had no idea what their history was, had no idea what they learned in Chinese School (If they went to Chinese school at all).  All I knew was that they sold my father bricks of fire crackers and that several went off in my hand.  The result was the feeling that someone had taken a gun and shot off 3 of my fingers—one by one.

 

But I saw guys like that when I looked at the faces of Inada, Chin, Wong and Chan.  One day I went to the playground to play basketball.  One of the Aiieeeee look-alikes happened to be the recreation monitor, responsible for dispersing basketballs, kickballs, tetherballs etc.  He was also a default babysitter, dealing with the requisite idiocy that comes with dealing with pre-teenaged boys.  Somehow, during my basketball game, the monitor and I exchanged words.  And somehow, one of the words that made its way out of my mouth was: chink.  What made me say it, I don’t remember, but it was directed towards the monitor, who was probably in his mid-twenties.  In response, he grabbed ahold of my trapezius (Not very well developed) muscle and squeezed, reminiscent of Mr. Spock on Star Trek.  However, unlike Spock’s vice grip, the monitor’s grip did not send me off into the world of the unconscious but did, however, cause much pain. 

 

I left, red-faced and teary eyed.  I went home and told my dad.  My 2 uncles were there.  I told them my account of events.  They left.  My heart grew a sort of shield of courage.  I had dispatched the commandos to whip that Chinese dude’s ass.  My dad and uncles would surely shove that basketball, tetherball—the whole sporting good shop—up his ass.  30 minutes or so went by.  My father and uncles returned.  My father approached me.  “Did you call that guy a chink?” he asked.  My tongue refused to move.  I looked at the floor.  “What you lookin’ at the floor for?” he asked.  “Answer me!”

“Yes” I said, softly.

“That Chinese dude was right to whip your ass”, my uncle said.

My dad pulled me by the earlobe and took me into the other room.  As I recall, he took off his belt and caused me to make much noise.  If memory serves me correctly (as well as my neighbors’ accounts of the audible histrionics), the sounds I made sounded like this:  Aiieeeee!   Aiieeeee!  Aiieeeee!  Each lash of my father’s thick belt sounded like blows I’d heard in Kung Fu movies—specifically Enter the Dragon and Kung Fu Mama.  The only thing missing was a pair of Kung Fu slippers.  Afterwards I cried myself to sleep, my Goodwill copy of Aiieeeee! and its thick dusty cover decades away.

 

Oscar Penaranda had recently contacted me, via the miracle of social media, and asked me if I had a copy of Aiieeeee!  He said that he’d been looking for a copy everywhere but couldn’t find one.  I told him I’d had a copy but it was covered in dust and that, if it was anywhere, it was in my storage unit in Alameda.  Another poet, with whom I recently travelled to the Philippines as part of the “Al Robles Express” journey had said that the criticism that white critics levied upon Filipino American literature was that it was, it seemed, inchoate.  The poet mispronounced “inchoate”, using a hard “ch”, as when you pronounce the word lechon.  Oscar corrected the poet with the correct pronunciation with an affected tone of, what we all recognized as intellectual bullshit.  But the point was that, somehow, the literature that our community or communities produced was not fully developed or in its infancy.  But our pain, our trials, our heartbreak, sorrows and joys were fully developed.  So, the consensus in that moment was that those who described our literature as “inchoate” were full of shit.  This was surely the sentiments of those who conceived Aiieeeee in the first play. 

 

At the library in Hercules, Oscar and I were in fine form.  Oscar read poems and clarified that our people speak languages, not dialects.  He spoke on the Philippine-American war, a history that many Americans (and Filipinos) know nothing or very little about.

 

At the program’s conclusion, I browsed the library and came upon a small shop that sold books.  As my eyes scanned the mystery and romance sections, they fell upon a book with a black, white and yellow cover.  I pulled it from the shelf.  It was a copy of Aiieeeee! in near mint condition.  I flipped the pages and came upon “Dark Fiesta”, Oscar’s story.  I bought the book and gave it to him.  I am going to ask him to loan me the book so I can finally read his and other stories that I have neglected to read.  I can say that I have, in other collections, read “The Woman who makes Swell Doughnuts” by Toshio Mori, perhaps the most beautiful short story I have ever read.  And Sam Tagatac’s “The New Anak”, a merging of poetry and filmmaking, made me wonder if I was reading a poem, a movie or both.  And Lawson Fusao Inada’s essay “The Real Inada”, written about his uncle, from his collection “Drawing the Line” inspired me to write “The Real Anthony” an essay about my own uncle and namesake.  And of course, Wakako Yamauchi’s gentle yet powerful probe into the soul of the dreams of the lonely and lost.

 

If and when Oscar decides to let me borrow his copy of Aiieeeee! I will make sure that no dust collects on the cover or pages.  The stories within it might be old but they are reborn when encountered by new eyes.

 

© 2019 Tony Robles

 

 

 

 

Snake Whisperer By Florence Mayberry (My mom :))

It was 10:30 p.m. the night before Mother’s Day. I was getting ready to prepare for bed and as I crossed the pathway that led to my bedroom I noted a long brown cord- like something lying across the threshold and part way up the door jamb. Knowing that there shouldn’t be a cord there, I proceeded with caution when I saw the head move. I backed away slightly and yelled to my husband,

“Pete, “there’s a snake on the floor in front of the bedroom.”

“What?” says Pete, half awake and barely hearing my shout through the headphones connected to the T.V. that were wrapped around his head from ear to ear.

“What are you saying?” He says, slowly elevating himself from the lounge chair in which he had been sitting.

 “There’s a snake in the bedroom” I said, as I pointed to the presence of the serpentine creature.

“On the carpet,” I repeated and kept pointing to the floor in front of me “

“Get me a bucket and a stiff piece of cardboard,” he commanded, finally aware of the immediacy of the situation.

I gave him the mop bucket from the laundry room and headed upstairs to my office for some cardboard, but could only find the limp remains of last year’s desk calendar—which I proceeded to grab and ferry down the stairs while Pete yelled

“Hurry up.”

Pete meanwhile was attempting to contain our unwelcome visitor within the bucket while shoving the flimsy but large desk calendar underneath the container. It didn’t work because in our haste we failed to realize that the bucket had a recessed spout so out comes the snake and rears its head at Pete. In Pete’s haste to re-contain it, he slips on the carpet. Pete goes one way and the snake goes the other way—right to the worst possible place—in the corner, in back of our chest freezer. At that point, as Pete regained his stance, we realized we were screwed. We needed assistance. But who could we call at 10:30 p.m.? No agencies would send anyone out at that time of night, and our next door neighbor was vacationing in Florida and I certainly didn’t want to sleep with a snake of unknown variety loose in the house. That left only one option—the Bat Cave Volunteer Fire Dept. They had rescued us in the past when our car got stuck coming home on an icy mountain road last winter. With the fire chief being a Christian man and a friend, surely he wouldn’t want us to be held hostage in our own home and would take pity on us and dispatch someone with more “snake catching” ability than we possessed to help us to extract the compact yet wily viper that Pete had pre-determined–non-evidence-based– could possibly be a baby rattlesnake although he didn’t see any rattles. It was then that we thought of our neighbor and firefighter, Rob who lives across the ‘holler’.

About fifteen minutes later, Rob arrived with his tools and a makeshift wire hanger as a “snake-catching” instrument, accompanied unexpectedly by his wife Jennifer, also a firefighter. Jennifer smiled as she entered our living room and that one gesture brought me a level of peace.   

“It’s over there in back of the freezer” both Pete and I said in unison.

After a cursory flash of both the sides and back of the freezer with his powerful flashlight, and me doing the same with my less than adequate flashlight just to appear to be helpful, Rob announced the snake had probably gone into the bottom of the freezer through an opening in the back; Jennifer agreed.  So, without hesitation, Rob took out a screwdriver and removed the faceplate to gain access to the freezer’s mechanism while Pete fumbled to unplug the unit. The decision paid off. Within minutes Rob had located the snake and was able to determine it was a Rat Snake that would bite, although was not venomous. Meanwhile, we took a few minutes to discuss the game-plan for the next step which was to coax out the snake.

Jennifer took the lead.  “I’ll do it “she said, to Rob, and began donning a long heavy glove. As I already stated, it was only hours until Mother’s Day and Jennifer was on all fours, peering through the small opening for eyeshot of the snake. After locating it and offering a few gentle words of encouragement directed toward the reptile, Jennifer signaled she had a hold of it and proceeded to pull it out as Rob looked on—no need for the makeshift wire hanger. Once the snake had been secured, Jennifer held it up for us to see before taking it out and releasing it back into nature.

“Jennifer, you’re my hero” was all I could say.

A mere hour before the Mother’s Day holiday began, I watched Jennifer, wife, mother of three, midwife, and firefighter demonstrate what it means to be a mother. Not only can she deliver a baby, and fight a fire, but apparently she is also a snake whisperer as well.

Thank you Jennifer and Rob for responding to our frantic late-night plea for help in what was a most inconvenient hour.  

For that we honor you both.

(c) 2019 Florence Mayberry

The Fragrance of Missmelled Words

I was always fascinated with words.  I was fascinated with the way words sang, the way they could shape ideas and inform us—for better or worse. But there is also a tendency for words—or more aptly—for those of us who use words in abundance to say very little.  For instance, some phrases have been so overused as to render their meanings meaningless. 

“How was your weekend?” is one such phrase.  I have worked in my share of offices where this question popped up with frequency.  We all—with the exception of the sadists (Of whom there were plenty)—dreaded returning to work, to the dreaded phones.  My poor hands, callused by the phone’s rough surface, my ears, just as calloused after being chewed out by many, including one Mr. Sandinsky out in some Midwest town.  This place of employment was an insurance company and the good Mr. Sandinsky was rather perturbed at my inability to secure his colonoscopy report.  I pleaded his patience, declaring—via another overused and rather meaningless phrase—“We’re bending over backwards trying to get it.”

“How was your weekend?”  This question always seemed a feeble attempt at establishing a buffer between the reality of being at a job we hated and the weekend we barely enjoyed.  Add to that, the person asking “How was your weekend?” neither cared about your or your weekend.  This person is acutely aware of your disdain for the job and the asking, “How was your weekend?” is a way of rubbing your face in the fact that the weekend is no longer here.  If the person asking is acutely unaware of your disdain for your job, this person is likely a manager and is fulfilling, as is incumbent in a manager, his or her mandate in being as oblivious to the employees around him or her as possible.  However, there is consolation in the fact that there are florescent lights to bask underneath should you desire to catch a few rays in lieu of an actual beach or park.

There are as many misused words as there are misused people.  Another such word is revitalization or renewal.  This word is used to justify razing communities and with it the memory of communities and lives that have been part of a particular area (which, in this day and age, means almost everywhere).  Revitalization suggests that the thing being revitalized or proposed to be revitalized, lacks energy, and also suggests that it was never vital to begin with.  But revitalization is just another word, a marketing term filled with promise, conjuring images of newness and forward thinking but, in reality, the vision lacks longevity because it lacks vision; its vision, if any, is hatched in marketing classes and think tanks, cloaked in words that hold the odor of air freshener concocted in laboratories and the like.  However, it seems that regardless of how much renewal and revitalization is proposed and implemented, someone ultimately comes out on the short end with the lingering smell of empty words.

Another empty phrase that has permeated our daily communication is “No worries”.  This phrase is often accompanied by a gratuitous chipperness that suggests all is well on all fronts.  When it is uttered it is said with a contrived sincerity and with its overuse, suggests that it is not given much thought when used. Such thoughtlessness gives us plenty to worry about.  The phrase itself is a crutch phrase, one that sounds snappy and perky but it reality is—to use the words of my beloved Grandmother—flatter than piss on a plate. 

Yet another phrase I have heard with increasing frequency at office meetings, political gatherings and other locales one that is directed as a response to a question.  It goes like this, a question is asked and the response is as follows: that’s a great question, thanks for asking”.  The sincerity of this phrase is often cloaked with insincerity.  It seems, to my ears at least, that what is really mean is, “Why the hell did you have to ask that (fill in the blank) question?

I suppose what I am opposed to is contrived language or contrived words.  Contrived words spring from the well of contrived emotions.  This is the language of bureaucrats whose real mission is to deceive and disempower (So they can maintain their jobs).  Contrived words turn into contrived emotions and this creates contrived people. 

Not to sound completely bitchy, but—I am on a roll here—there is yet another word that needs to be exposed for its overuse and diminished meaning: Fierce.  People describe themselves and others as fierce but when I see/hear said people, they have the ferocity of a goldfish; an overestimation of the self by those who are oversaturated by their opinions of themselves and grandiose notions of others who are not deserving of having such an adjective attached to them.  To quote my grandmother once again, “Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back”. 

There are misspelled words and missmelled words.  It is a good idea to catch them when they present themselves.  I can smell them now: How was your weekend?

© 2019 Tony Robles

Father as Editor

In many ways fathers are like editors.  We grow up and they dictate our actions, our thoughts.  If we are fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) enough to have our fathers present, we know, particularly as young men, the role of editor that the father plays or fulfills.  Editors in both film and the written word are entrusted with cutting things out.  I can hear the voices of fathers who have taken the helm and done due diligence in this area:

Hey, cut it out!

Cut the bullshit!

Cut the crap!

Cut the nonsense!

The whole purpose is to engender within the child an ability to self-edit.  That is, shut up without being told.  Crying and whining is a child’s roar.  It is the way they articulate, with requisite animated gestures and copious amounts of blubbering, their frustration or the fact that they are simply pain in the ass spoiled brats.  “Stop that crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” was my father’s standard response to my crying.  Before I became an adult, I thought his response was unique, original.  I learned otherwise, that almost all fathers used it because it was quick and handy, like a belt, a leather shoe or slipper; or perhaps its wide use reflected the lack of imagination of said fathers as they, likely, were unable to come up with anything better. 

I was a talkative child.  My father told me that I sounded like a duck—quack, quack, quack.  He attempted to combat my unbridled babbling by dispatching me to perform some chore or other, such as cleaning the toilet.  Perhaps, in hindsight, he was trying to teach me a lesson, as the toilet had an even bigger mouth than I, the only difference being that there was a lid on the toilet.  My father, in a further attempt to shut me up, tried—on occasion—bribery.  “Look, kid” he’d say, “I’ll give you a quarter if you can be quiet for an hour.”  I don’t believe I earned much, being unable to zip it.  “Don’t give me any of your lip” was another one of his favorites, not original, but it gave a clear representation of what he was trying to communicate. 

There were times that I truly needed to be edited, such as when mouthing off to grandma.  A good editing was a good smack across the top (or side) of my big head, and perhaps accompanied by a good kick in the ass.  There was no talking, no negotiating, no time out—only lights out.  The knowledge that your father could kick off in your ass was ever present—a clear and present danger—that I understood, that fell in line with the fact that I couldn’t be allowed to get away with too much.  I needed a good editing.  My father provided that.  Sometimes in school I would compare editing stories with my schoolmates:

“Hey, did your dad edit you?

“Yeah, with a belt, what about you?”

“With an extension cord”

“Damn”

“Yeah, and he was in a good mood”

“Wow”

“He’s a great editor”

“Yeah, ok”

This was back before the term toxic masculinity came into vogue, and certainly before botoxic femininity—not to mention “smash the patriarchy”. I was more familiar with plateriarchy with my father communicating to me that I better finish all the food on my plate or I’d get knocked upside my head. I didn’t understand it at the time, however, seeing as he had 3 children to support, a job that he didn’t quite enjoy–not to mention bleeding gums and a persistent case of athlete’s foot–he had plenty on his plate and didn’t have time for miscellaneous bullshit. Our fathers, at least the ones I was exposed to, were not chatty.  They didn’t take 10 minutes to order a cup of coffee nor did their voices omit an overwhelmingly nasal quality so prevalent today.  They did not talk out of their noses nor did they talk out of their ass.  I suppose what this boils down to is the lesson: when to talk and when to shut up.

This is a valuable lesson as the tongue is, reportedly, the strongest muscle in the human body.  Our fathers were men of few words.  You never really knew what they were thinking.  There was Mr. Kwok, my elementary schoolmate Jason’s dad who seemed to communicate entirely by grunting.  He often wore a robe while sequestered in his bedroom.  He opened the door during one of my visits and I was overcome with the odor of Vicks Vapor Rub. This dark rimmed glasses were rather crooked and somewhat fogged.  On one occasion he did emerge from his room to prepare a fried egg sandwich for us.  His hands were quite nimble as he beat the eggs for several minutes.  Somehow the sounds of the egg beating seemed to articulate all he couldn’t say.  He plopped the eggs on the bread and sat and watched us eat.

He just looked at us.  I felt rather uncomfortable eating his food while he sat in that rather musty bathrobe, his breathing audible, not grunting but sounding like a combination purr and squeaky door.  I looked at Mr. Kwok’s face, it was a tired clock set with cobwebs and a pair of eyes that looked like 2 drops of ink covered in a thin film.  He looked at me.  Looking back on it, he was editing as he pondered my face.  He saw the goofy kid that was me and what I was likely to become in 20 years—one of those guys working a nowhere job, drinking, perhaps in jail or worse.  In looking back at his face I saw a face that could easily be adapted to a horror movie, without the aid of make-up.  In short, Jerome’s father got up and returned to his Vicks Vapor Rub suite but not before giving me a look that said, Jerome better stop hanging out with this loser

There were other fathers I remember while growing up.  Some grunted, others mumbled, some stumbled while others had a perpetual look, a frown or an expression that suggested a state of chronic constipation.  The great comic George Carlin once said that if hell exists, it’s loaded with fathers.  Nonetheless I see, with hindsight, that those fathers were editors who got us to shut up when appropriate.  They imposed silence at the appropriate times. 

In finding ones voice, it is necessary to find the fill-in-the-blank silences that bring so much to writing, so much to creativity.  The writer Charles Bukowski, whose father was a notorious editor—his editing tool of choice a razor strop—called these silences the “area of pause”.  To find this area, for many, is a lifelong quest.  For the writer it is an absolute necessity.  Call it toxic masculinity but it was what  I, and many others needed at the time, along with an egg sandwich and the smell of Vicks Vapor Rub.

© 2019 Tony Robles