Echoes on Carpet

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“Goodnight, little boy.  I love –”  I stopped, catching sight of the blank floor space against the wall, next to the closet in my room.  He wasn’t there, curled up into a crescent of silver and white atop a towel riddle with holes and tears.  Wolfgang was gone.

I was reaching for a lamp on an end table, when I started to tell him goodnight and that I love him – as I’d done for years.  I remained in that odd position – propped up on my left elbow, right arm stretched out towards the lamp – for what was probably just a few seconds, but felt like several minutes.  I wondered how long I could hold that position without dropping dead.

I finally shut off the lamp and laid back onto my trio of pillows.  Beneath a single sheet, clad in nothing but skin and body hair, I felt a stick of anxiety materialized in my throat.  I rattled off my usual stanza of prayers to all those who’ve gone before me, pleading for their protection and their strength.

I looked again at the spot on the floor where Wolfgang would camp out every night; that ragged towel – seemingly held together by strings – bunched up beneath him.

I don’t know why, but Wolfgang had a fetish for towels.  It may have come from his previous daddy, Tom*, my former friend and roommate, who carried the puppy around in a lunch cooler; an old purple beach towel of mine that he’d stuffed into it.  The towel provided some comfort to a tiny critter who would grow into a 20-pound monstrosity filled with eons of canine angst.

In early 2005, I lived and worked temporarily in Northeastern Oklahoma on a government project that was part of the contract my employer, an engineering company, had.  The area, bordering Kansas and Missouri, is a mostly toxic wasteland where soil and water had poisoned by decades of lead and zinc mining.  I stayed in a nice and recently-built hotel, along with a coworker and our supervisor.

For most of the time I was in Oklahoma, Wolfgang stayed with my parents.  But, for the month of May, I rented a car and drove all the way up there because I’d decided to take Wolfgang with me.  Some of the hotel staff came to like him.  The first time someone with the housekeeping staff heard him barking, she was certain I had a pitbull ensconced in the room.  There mere sound of his voice frightened her.  But she and a few others were mirthfully surprised to see how small he was.

That little thing can make that much noise?!

Yes, he can!

One night, as I sat at the desk in my hotel room, working on my laptop, I noticed Wolfgang exiting the bathroom with a small white towel in his mouth.  Because of his presence, I made a deal with management that no one was to enter the room, unless I was there also or in the event of an emergency.  Wolfgang’s bite matched his bark.  Consequently, I let bath towels pile up beneath the sink.

A few minutes later, I turned to Wolfgang and was startled to see that he’d removed every single used towel from beneath the sink and to a spot in front of a cabinet.  He lay in front of the pile, curled up like a hairy conch shell.  I laughed.

I keep trying to think of things like that, now that Wolfgang is gone.  It’s the same with my father.  Memories of him behaving like the lunatic he was – imitating Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine Jones” persona, threatening to tickly my mother – roll through my mind.  It eases the pain of losing both of them within a 5-month period.

Today is the first birthday I’ve marked without either of them.  It’s such a weird feeling.  How could this happen?  Why, in the name of all that’s great and wonderful in this world, did they pass away so close together?  Talk about timing!

Last month I finally decided to rummage again through the storage shed in the back yard; a dilapidated structure where my parents stuffed anything and everything they didn’t want or need in the house.  It also had doubled as a tool shed for the plethora of gardening equipment my father had accumulated over the years.  In the fall of 2014, I carted a few large pieces – a dead lawnmower, an antique weed eater, etc. – to the front yard for him.  I taped a cardboard sign with the words “FREE TO GOOD HOME” across the mess and left it all there for whomever.  It was gone before day’s end.

At the same time, I retrieved several boxes of old National Geographic magazines.  “These don’t belong out here,” I told my father.  Old Home & Garden magazines, maybe, but not National Geographic.  I hauled them all into my room and rearranged them, alongside my gallery of books.

But last month I found several other items – a few as old as those National Geographics, but more precious.  There was a box of handwritten journals by my paternal grandmother, Francisca.  A couple of other boxes contained stuff from my childhood: drawings, poems, stories.  Among the latter was a one dollar bill paper-clipped to a fragile slip of paper.  It was a note from me to my father; thanking him for being such a great daddy.  I was about 5 when I wrote that.  And he kept it!  As an only child, my parents were apt to keep as much about my childhood around as possible.  But that a simple, handwritten note dating to the late 1960s would retain a place amidst all of that material stunned me.

And yes, it also made me sad.  But I realized – more than ever before – how fortunate I was to have a father as incredible as mine.  It’s why I get angry now when I hear people say fathers don’t serve a purpose in this world.

Back in July I visited a weight-lifting gym in East Dallas with a close friend, Pete*, who’s a regular there.  It’s a tiny, no-frills joint carved into an aged shopping center; where free weights are the main source of muscle-building and men can work out shirtless.  After showering and changing back at his house, Pete and I had dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants near downtown.

At some point, the conversation turned to family, and – with my voice cracking – I emphasized how badly I missed my father.  I try not to get emotional in public.  Even during my dad’s memorial service in June, I managed to hold it together.  But, planted in a booth beneath dim lighting in the restaurant, I just couldn’t remain poised.  It must have been the margarita swirls.  I was already on my second one.

Pete knows how I feel.  He lost his own father 12 years ago.  Curiously, our fathers had grown up together in East Dallas neighborhoods now occupied by office buildings and overpriced condos.  “My father went to be with his mother,” Pete had told me that night on the phone.  I didn’t understand.  All of Pete’s grandparents were dead.  What was he trying to – aw shit!  I don’t know if there’s an etiquette rule for announcing the death of a loved one via telephone, and if there is, I could care less about it.

I still have trouble sitting in the easy chair near the fireplace where my dad used to sit while watching TV.  His urn resides quietly on the dirty white brick of the raised hearth.  I make it a point to touch it every day and tell my father I love him.  His mother had lived to age 97.  Why couldn’t he?  What is the proper time of year to die?  It seems we have rules for everything in our lives these days.  Meteorologists can track hurricanes with near-accuracy.  As soon as a massive quake struck northeastern Japan in March of 2011, scientists could determine how long it would be before tsunamis struck the Hawaiian Islands and the west coast of the U.S.  Why couldn’t the slew of doctors my father had seen over the years not tell me when his body would finally say, ‘To hell with this shit!’?

A few times over the past few months, Wolfgang would stare at that general area for the longest time.  I’d feel the pressure change in the house.  But it wasn’t a frightening sensation.  I knew my father was nearby.  He had said more than once he wanted to die in this house and not in a hospital, a menagerie of tubes pouring out of him like overgrown hairs.  If I did anything right, I feel it was that.  I was able to grant my father his most heartfelt wish.

There are so many echoes of him and Wolfgang around me, now that they’re both gone.  And the house is otherwise quiet.  I’ve never felt pain like this before.  But, on this 53rd birthday of mine, I’m not too distressed.  My heart and my mind are filled with the happiness of the lives they lead.  I couldn’t ask for more from either of them.

 

*Name changed.

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For the Love of Dogs

Wolfgang in March of 2004.  Behind those sweet, glassy eyes lay eons of canine evolution and aggression.

Wolfgang in March of 2004. Behind those sweet, glassy eyes lay eons of canine evolution and aggression.

I quietly strode towards the bedroom of my roommate, Tom*, merely expecting to find him asleep.  He had just experienced a heart-wrenching loss: putting his 11-year-old miniature schnauzer, Zane*, to sleep.  Surely, Tom was exhausted after a long road trip to and from the Northeast Texas town where he was born and raised; the same place where he’d raised Zane.

Zane and I bonded quickly when Tom and me agreed to pool our resources in May of 2002 and share a two-bedroom apartment.  I was working temporary gigs, and he had a courier job that left him feeling tired and uneasy.  After a car wreck and a major health scare in the fall of 2001, he had managed to put himself back together, while recuperating at his mother’s home back in that Northeast Texas town.  Zane’s presence, he told me, comforted him better than the medications he’d been prescribed and the alcohol he’d consume as an additive.

But, during the first week of August 2002, Tom had to return to his mother’s home to tend to a family crisis.  When he came back, I informed him that Zane was extremely ill.  I didn’t know what was wrong, but the shy little dog had shriveled up to the point where his ribs were visible.  Tom spent the next day in bed; holding Zane tightly.  He finally headed back to that Northeast Texas hamlet where Zane’s old veterinarian was also located.

Upon arriving at the veterinarian’s office, however, Zane suffered a catastrophic stroke…and never recovered.  “My little boy is gone,” Tom cried over the phone that evening from his mother’s house.

I cried with him.  So, while I was surprised to find Tom back at the apartment earlier than expected, I was even more surprised to see a tiny ball of silver and white fur crawling around on his bare chest.

On his way back to Dallas, Tom had stopped off in a town east of the city to visit a cousin.  In a purely spontaneous decision, he grabbed a newspaper and searched for a miniature schnauzer breeder.  He found one and purchased one of the eight-week-old puppies.  He named him Docker.  Where he came up with that I never knew.  But I renamed him Wolfgang a few months later.  That’s because he became my dog when Tom and I decided to go our separate ways in January 2003.

It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made; albeit an almost equally spontaneous move on my part.  In an uncertain time for me (I’d just started a new full-time job that felt insecure and I wanted desperately to move out of a complex that was going to hell), as well as for the nation (we were about to invade Iraq under false pretenses, and the economy remained fragile), taking custody of that dog stood out as a bright moment.  Tom left owing me some $700.  But I ended up with the dog.  I was ill-prepared to have a pet, yet I still felt I came out with the better bargain.

All of that came back to me Wednesday morning, as I carried Wolfgang’s quivering form into the veterinarian’s office.  He had gone into some kind of cardiac arrest episode…and never recovered.

Basic evolutionary tree of canines.

Basic evolutionary tree of canines.

Wolfgang’s veterinarian had diagnosed him with a heart murmur a couple of years ago, which explained his occasional coughing / hacking fits.  Earlier this year, though, he began experiencing seizure-like episodes.  One in early May terrified me: he literally fell over onto one side; a cartoonish action that was anything but funny.  An X-ray proved his heart had enlarged and was clamping down on his airway.  The seizures, the doctor explained, were actually moments where Wolfgang couldn’t breathe.  He put him on two heart medications that would be a daily ritual for the rest of the dog’s life.  That life ended sooner than I’d expected – or even wanted.

“I just lost my father,” I whispered to him last Monday night, the 24th.  “You can’t leave me also; not now.”

His behavior was actually quite normal this last weekend and into Monday, the 24th.  Yet, by Monday evening, I could tell he had trouble breathing and began to suspect the worst.  Then it seemed the air around me had thickened, and I sense my father was nearby.

I tried giving Wolfgang the two medicines the doctor had prescribed back in May.  I literally had to shove them into his mouth; a little mouth lined with razor-sharp projectiles, backed up by eons of canid ambivalence.  I always tried to retract my hand as quickly as possible, but each time he managed to scrape my fingers.  Then, on Monday, he did something he’d never done before: he actually impaled one of his dental daggers into my right forefinger.  Blood oozed immediately from the gash, as I hurtled the tiny white pills into his food dish and marched into the bathroom.  My entire right hand throbbed.  It still aches.  But I don’t care.  He was just a dog.  More importantly, he continually spit out those pills.  I’ve found bits of them around the den area.  It was his last act of wolf-infused defiance and stubbornness.  Perhaps he sensed they were of no use at the moment.  He was done and wanted to move on from here.  Are dogs really that sentient?  Do they possess the same level of emotional capacity as their human counterparts?

A variety of studies over the past two decades suggest yes; dogs truly are more emotionally and psychologically complex than we ever realized.

I still find it amazing how we humans become so attached to certain animals.  For me, it’s always been dogs.  As far back as I can remember, I’ve held a special fascination with the canines among us.  Cats and horses are undoubtedly beautiful.  But I’m allergic to felines (as a 2004 allergy test proved), and horses are too big and expensive.  I’m an all-around animal lover, but dogs secured a tight grip on my mind and in my heart.

I often joked that Wolfgang wasn’t really a miniature schnauzer; he was a previously unclassified species of canine – a miniature wolf.  The big mocha brown eyes, soft fur and floppy ears (especially the right one, which rarely stood up, lest he tilt his head back at a certain angle) were just aesthetic ruses.  The mere mention of his name incurred occasional chuckles.

“The name fits,” I told people.

Artist depiction of Eucyon davisi, considered the direct ancestor of modern dogs.

Artist depiction of Eucyon davisi, considered the direct ancestor of modern dogs.

Miniature schnauzers are among the 148 breeds of domesticated dog recognized by the American Kennel Club.  In addition, there are more than 150 other breeds of domesticated dog not officially acknowledged by the AKC, such as the Russo-European Laika, the Peruvian Inca Orchard, and the Prazsky Krysarik from Czechoslovakia, the world’s smallest dog.  Zoologists have also identified more than 100 species of wild canine, such as the South American bush dog, the Australian dingo, and the African basenji, the only dog that doesn’t bark.  It produces something of a yodeling sound.  Altogether, an estimated 10 billion dogs exist on planet Earth today.

Dogs boast an extensive and impressive lineage.  Canines have a longer and more diverse history than any other predatory carnivore, which allowed them to spread across the globe faster than fellow mammals.  They belong to the family of mammals called canidae and to the order of carnivora.  Zoologists believe all mammals descend from Creodonts, a group of small, meat-eating creatures that first appeared about 100 million years ago.  About 55 million years ago, during the Eocene Epoch, a more refined (but not much larger) carnivore, Miacis, arose in North America.  Miacis then evolved into Hesperocyon, or Hesperocyoninae – traditionally regarded as the direct ancestor of dogs – between 38 and 26 million years ago.  Hesperocyoninae generated 28 sub-species.   They were followed by Borophaginae, which produced 66 sub-species, and Caninae with 42.  One member of this latter group, a fox-sized animal called Eucyon, played the most critical role in canine evolution.

Arising in North America about 9 million years ago, Eucyon was omnivorous; a unique attribute that allowed it to survive longer than any of its predecessors and outlive even its contemporaries.  But Eucyon also had longer leg bones, especially the forelimbs, which increased its running efficiency and therefore, its ability to capture prey.  It had a shorter neck than most felines, another top predatory carnivore, which otherwise would have inhibited its ability to tear at flesh.  But Eucyon necks compensated for it with the nuchal ligament; a feature that permitted greater rotation of the entire neck column.

Adding to this was the extraordinary development of canine dentition (teeth) and the power of its jaw bones.  Together this allowed for actual bone-cracking of its prey.  The reason is obvious: inside animal bones is marrow, a rich source of protein.  Among all canine species the power of bone-cracking is no more evident than in the family of hyenas.  These wild African canines have been known to leave little evidence of a kill; they literally consume an entire animal.  Getting inside those bones with its mighty jaw strength helped canines retain their spot as top predators no matter where they migrated.

An artist’s rendition of the extinct Borophagus secundus canine from the late Miocene Epoch in North America displays the animal’s large dentition and low-angled skull that allowed it to engage in bone-crushing of its prey.  Courtesy Mauricio Antón.

An artist’s rendition of the extinct Borophagus secundus canine from the late Miocene Epoch in North America displays the animal’s large dentition and low-angled skull that allowed it to engage in bone-crushing of its prey. Courtesy Mauricio Antón.

Between 6 and 4 million years ago, Eucyon began migrating across what is now the Bering Strait into Asia.  There it developed into Canis lupus, the gray wolf.  Canis lupus then spread further throughout Asia, eventually making its way into Europe, Africa, and India.  It also evolved into both variations of itself and canines such as dholes and jackals.  About 800,000 years ago canis lupus began tracing its ancestors’ migratory paths back into North America where it continued evolving; again into other wolf species, but also into such animals as the arctic fox and the coyote.

Throughout the next several millennia, wolves continually metamorphosed into various breeds of dogs.  At some unknown point, they formed an alliance with humans.  How, when and why this occurred are among the top questions for zoologists.  It’s quite likely that a human somewhere along the way found an abandoned wolf puppy and, feeling empathy for the animal, kept it and managed to raise it.  It’s also likely that canines began following humans, realizing the two-legged beings had a knack for capturing and killing large prey.  When the humans moved on, the canines would descend upon the remains of whatever animal was left behind.  This, of course, would make dogs scavengers, instead of hunters.  But, in a brutal world of survival, that’s what was necessary.

It’s more probable, however, that all of these incidents took place a number of times, all over the world and over a number of years.  As with other animals, such as horses and bovines, canine evolution eventually fell in line with human evolution; that is, their domestication coincided with the development of more complex and wide-spread human societies.

Skull, cervical vertebrae and muscle structure of the extant Canis lupus (gray wolf).  The nuchal ligament allowed for greater movement of the head and neck.

Skull, cervical vertebrae and muscle structure of the extant Canis lupus (gray wolf). The nuchal ligament allowed for greater movement of the head and neck.

The close relationship humans generated with dogs means people began subjecting these animals to selective breeding, in which they were propagated for specific purposes.  Initially, dogs served two primary roles in their union with humans: hunting game and herding livestock.  Later, they were bred to be protectorates, guides, and, of course, companions.  Consequently, we now have a plethora of dog breeds.  No other animal displays such an extraordinary level of diversity in size, color and shape as canines.

Dogs’ sensibilities are extremely acute.  While their visual resolving powers are less efficient than humans, their eyes are more sensitive to light and movement.  Dogs can hear sounds four times farther away than humans and are able to locate the source of that sound in six-hundredths of a second.  Dogs’ olfactory capabilities are their most extraordinary attribute.  The average dog has over 200 million scent receptors in its nasal folds, compared to a human’s five million.

Dogs are certainly among the most intelligent of mammals; perhaps the smartest among non-primates.  Like humans, dogs appear to be sensitive to vocal inflections and emotional queues.  A study at the University of Lincoln, United Kingdom, that dogs “form abstract mental representations of positive and negative emotional states, and are not simply displaying learned behaviours when responding to the expressions of people and other dogs.”

The researchers presented 17 domesticated dogs with pairings of images and sounds conveying different combinations of positive and negative emotional expressions in both humans and dogs. The sources of sensory input – photos of facial expressions and audio clips of vocalizations (voices or barks) from unfamiliar subjects – were played simultaneously to the dogs, without any prior training.  Researcher noted the dogs spent more time looking at the facial expressions which matched the emotional state of the vocalization.

Another study in Hungary went further by conducting MRIs on 13 dogs – six border collies, five golden retrievers, a German shepherd and a Chinese crested.  The animals were trained to lie motionless during the procedures, although they were awake and unrestrained.  Researchers found that dogs processed words with the left hemisphere and processed pitch with the right hemisphere – just like humans.

We’ll never know when the bond between humans and dogs was established.  Whether they save our lives, protect our property, or provide simple companionship, dogs are an indelible part of the human existence.  For dog lovers such as myself, that relationship is indescribable.

Basic evolutionary tree of modern dogs from their wolf ancestors.

Basic evolutionary tree of modern dogs from their wolf ancestors.

* Name changed.

ASPCA

 

References:

Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives and Evolutionary History.”  Richard H. Tedford & Xiaoming Wang. Columbia University Press, 2008.

New Encyclopedia of the Dog.” Bruce Fogle, DVM. Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

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No Defense Here

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At some point in the late 1960s, a Mexican-American guy got arrested in Dallas for a series of robberies.  The incident garnered some media attention, but was pretty much a non-event.  Until someone at my father’s workplace mentioned it.

An older White man approached my father and said something to the effect that the police had arrested “your brother Rodriguez.”  He knew what the old man was talking about.  My father promptly reminded the man “my name isn’t Rodriguez, and that guy isn’t my brother.  Now shut your ass and leave me alone!”

The old man apparently was offended at my father’s brusque language and complained to the company owner, another old White (albeit Jewish) man who said something to the effect of, ‘What did you expect?’

My father often found himself in such uncomfortable situations; where some Hispanic individual would do something stupid and / or criminal enough to get media attention, and some non-Hispanics would assume my father was guilty by association.  It actually still happens.  A lot.  Just ask Black men when other Black men get arrested.  Or Hispanic men.  Or Native American men.  Even in this second decade of the 21st century, in a post-civil rights America, crime still often bears a Black, Brown or Red face.

That mess stormed into the public conscious last week when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump dismissed a 2005 conversation with an entertainment journalist as “locker room banter.”  With a monster hurricane having just ripped through the Caribbean and the U.S. east coast and the Zika virus still a threat to public health, this is what the American media and much of the American public has focused on: eleven-year-old verbiage from two old men trash-talking on a bus.

The dialogue hasn’t discouraged Trump who is roaring ahead with his campaign – undoubtedly one of the most bizarre in recent memory – even as one woman after another jumps forward to proclaim they’ve fallen victim to the type of actions the business tycoon describes in that brief snippet.

There’s no getting around it: what Trump said in that piece is deplorable, and his attempt at an apology is as sincere as a 13-dollar bill.  Even before then, I didn’t like him.  But, aside from the rancor bubbling over this mess, it’s amazing the number of men who are also publicly proclaiming their ardent respect for women and disdain for Trump.  Athletic coaches at the high school and college levels are gathering their young male acolytes to warn them that such talk about females will not be tolerated.

Personally, I don’t feel the need to refute Trump’s so-called “locker room banter.”  I don’t have a guilt complex over it and I’m not hopping up and down trying to convince any female within ten feet of me that I’d never talk that way about them.  And neither should any other man.

Since high school, I’ve spent time in men’s locker rooms and can say without wincing that I’ve never heard men talk like that about women.  Men say all sorts of stupid shit in locker rooms, but I cannot recall anything of that sort.  As a writer, I’m prone to listen in on other people’s conversations.  I’ve always wanted my characters to speak and behave as normal as possible, so they’ll be more realistic.  Yes, men do talk about sex in locker rooms.  (And, in other Earth-shattering news, the sun rises in the east.)  I’m certain women engage in similar talk, even though most won’t admit it.  Men also talk about body parts.  Mainly their own body parts.  Usually, though, we talk about work, home, family, cars, sports, our individual exercise routines – but never something so vile as sexually assaulting or molesting women.  I know some men have talked openly like that.  I’ve just never heard it.

But it’s not enough to point out that most men don’t talk in such a debasing manner about women.  It’s more important to realize that most men don’t act that way either.  The vast majority of men don’t harass and / or sexually assault women.  I know that contradicts feminist ideology, but it’s painfully true.  Men are much more likely to assault other men or even themselves than they are women.

Yet, while plenty of people like Trump think their wealth and power make them better than the rest of us, there are others who latch onto the Trumps of the world in the hopes of improving their own station in life.  Trump surely has no genuine respect for women overall, but a number of women swoon over men like him daily.  This is one thing that upsets most average men.  Women often claim they want a man who is honest and fair-minded.  But, as some men view it, women really just want a man with lots of money.  Even some of the most successful and well-educated women often still expect the men in their lives to earn more than them.  Why?  Just in case said woman decides she’s tired of working?  I don’t know.

Women, on the other hand, often say their lack of opportunities in life put them in a position where they’ve had to find men who have money, or at least a job that pays above minimum wage.  On average, women still earn less than men, but women are superseding men on the educational front.  If you break that down from a racial viewpoint, the gaps grow even larger.  Gender politics, like racial politics, is ugly, and no one wins the argument.

I’ve heard more than a few women engage in “locker room banter” – in public – in front of me and other men.  I’ve endured my share of harassment from both women and men.  It was never caught on video or audio.  And I rarely complained out loud about it.  I knew few would believe me, especially because I’m a man.  Therefore, I understand how some women feel about life in the work place during years gone by – long before the term “sexual harassment” was ever created.

Former Texas Governor Ann Richards once advised young women to complete their education and not depend on a man to take care of them; “when the Prince is middle aged with a pot belly and a wandering eye, you’ll be glad you have a degree and can support yourself if you have to.”  As expected, social and religious conservative across the state and the nation dumped their snarky bile on Richards; denouncing her as anti-family and anti-marriage.  Richards shrugged it off, even after losing her 1994 reelection bid.

Trump is in a class all his own – and I don’t mean that in a good way.  He’s harking back to those golden years gone by; when people didn’t have to be politically correct, especially White male people.  But, as part of that elite and much-reviled 1%, he obviously believes his wealth and power give him license to say and do whatever he wants.  Plenty of people in his social class possess such self-righteous haughtiness.  Despite all his money, Trump is still little more than a loud-mouthed bum.  He’s a disgrace to all men – White or not.

My paternal grandfather once said you can dress a donkey up in silk and satin, like a thoroughbred horse, but eventually it’ll start bucking and kicking like the animal it truly is.  Now, I don’t mean to disrespect donkeys by comparing them to Trump.  Talk about being disrespectful!  But I think you get the idea.

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Just Leave Them Alone

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) image of Hurricane Matthew moving towards Florida on October 6, 2016.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) image of Hurricane Matthew moving towards Florida on October 6, 2016.

People living along the U.S. Gulf Coast were accustomed to this.  A massive hurricane was headed their way, and they had been warned to evacuate further inland.  It’s the price one must pay for a home with a spectacular view.  They didn’t need too much encouragement to flee from the chaotic beachfront.  Barely a decade had passed since Hurricane Camille had plowed into the Alabama-Mississippi coastline with winds of roughly 190 mph (306 km/h).  Camille was only the second documented Category 5 storm to hit the United States.  It had set the standard by which all future tropical storm systems would be measured and – more importantly – by how coastal residents and government officials would respond.

It was September of 1979, and Hurricane Frederic loomed menacingly on the horizon.  What had begun as a tropical wave off the west coast of Africa at the end of August metamorphosed into a Category 4 behemoth, with 135 mph (215 km/h) winds, upon entering the Gulf of México.  The National Hurricane Center issued warnings for much of the U.S. Gulf Coast, and some 500,000 people – from East Texas to the Florida Keys – heeded that ominous call.  Utilizing a new and innovative weather system called Doppler Weather Radar, the NHC had deemed the Florida Panhandle as the most likely strike point.  Locals remembered Hurricane Eloise very well, so most took no chances.

Then, seemingly at the last moment (as hurricanes frequently do), Frederic shifted further westward and landed at Gulf Shores, Alabama.  As they trekked back to their boarded-up homes and businesses, wondering if criminals had taken advantage of their absence, some Florida Panhandle residents were irritated that they were forced to flee a hurricane that didn’t hit.  Wasn’t this new-fangled Doppler thing supposed to cure such uncertainty?  Regardless, many vowed to stay put the next time.

Much of this same drama played out last week, as Hurricane Matthew terrorized the Caribbean and then teased the southeastern U.S. by remaining mostly offshore.  At one point in its early life, Matthew reached the rare and dreaded Category 5 status; the first such tempest in the Caribbean since Felix in 2007.  Matthew finally made official landfall in South Carolina October 8 as a Category 1 storm and is now – as of this writing – a post-tropical cyclone.  With more than 1,000 fatalities directly attributed to it, Matthew’s financial damage will take a while to tally.  And, as always happens with these things, a proverbial “lessons learned” compendium will develop.

One lesson is how best to warn people living in vulnerable areas that they must leave.  As Matthew neared the U.S., literally millions of people, from Florida to North Carolina, were ordered to evacuate.  I don’t like the idea of forcing people to flee a coming storm or any natural disaster.  Hurricanes are one of the few calamities that can be tracked from far away.  It’s only fair to warn people of some pending disaster and help them avoid it, if we can.

Yet, if somebody wants to remain in place, I believe we should just leave them alone.  Governors and mayors should never issue a mandatory evacuation, but rather, a necessary one.  Necessary in that it would be in the best interest of residents to flee.  But people should be allowed to make decisions about their own welfare without harassment or input from others.  I recommend a ‘No Rescue’ policy.  If, for example, a hurricane is estimated to make landfall on a Friday, anyone still on the beachfront after midnight is on their own.  First responders would not be required to respond to a frightened citizen whose million-dollar condo is starting to flood.  Police officers, firefighters and military personnel shouldn’t risk their own lives to save just one dumbass (usually a man) who thought they were tough enough to handle 100 mph winds and 20-foot tidal surges.  Advances in automobile technology have given people a false sense of personal security; therefore, they may not drive too carefully.  Advances in meteorology have had the same deleterious effect.

Photographer Frankie Lucena captured this image of “red sprite bursts” above Hurricane Matthew, as the storm lingered between Colombia and Aruba on October 1.

Photographer Frankie Lucena captured this image of “red sprite bursts” above Hurricane Matthew, as the storm lingered between Colombia and Aruba on October 1.

In September of 1999, Hurricane Floyd headed straight for the Georgia-Florida area, prompting the governors of both states to issue that dreaded mandatory evacuation.  Some 4 million people heeded the warning and fled westward.  As usual, store shelves were emptied out, gas stations were drained, and highways became clogged with frightened coastal residents.  But then Floyd suddenly turned north and plowed into North Carolina’s Outer Banks, before marching up the East Coast.  It missed the Georgia-Florida line altogether, and many of those residents who had been ordered to leave got pissed.  With all of the advances in weather forecasting, they declared, you’d think meteorologists would know exactly where a hurricane will strike.  How pathetically arrogant.

But the public’s salacious desire to watch these disasters unfold is matched only by the media’s desire for high ratings.  As Matthew approached Florida, news outlets planted their reporters on beach fronts and empty streets to help viewers vicariously live the power of the wind and rain.  It’s almost comical watching someone holding onto a street sign or lamp post with one hand and a microphone in the other; adorned in the requisite rain coat and / or ball cap; describing how bad it is “out here” and stating the obvious: “conditions have deteriorated.”

Several years ago I watched the national news as a brutal series of wild fires ravaged Southern California.  People were angry they had to leave their million-dollar homes.  And, of course, media outlets dispatched their own people to show and maybe speak with locals packing up all they could and fleeing the area per the mandatory evacuation orders.  I recall seeing one angry man being led away from his house by some police officers; he had been reluctant to leave.  He looked into the camera and screamed about being forced to leave his home, while “the fucking media” were allowed to stay.  I empathized with him.  If he wanted to stay, he should have been allowed to do that.

After Hurricane Katrina tore into the Gulf Coast in August of 2005, thousands of people who didn’t evacuate subsequently refused to leave; despite the warning by then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin that the city “isn’t safe.”  A large swath of the region, from Southeastern Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle was in chaos, and no, it wasn’t safe.  But no area directly impacted by a natural disaster is safe in the aftermath.  Still, if people want to stay and protect their property, the government shouldn’t force them to leave anyway.

Harry R. Truman refused to leave his home on Mount St. Helen’s, despite its pending eruption in May of 1980.

Natural disasters have a unique way of putting humanity back in its place and making us realize we’re not its master.  On March 11, 1888, a massive blizzard rolled over the east coast of North America, killing more than 400 people and dropping as much as 55 inches of snow in some areas.  The storm practically paralyzed major metropolitan areas, such as Boston and New York City.  Most of the fatalities occurred among urbanites, while folks out in the country just considered it another really bad storm.  Human vanity reached a new level with the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912.  Branded as “unsinkable,” the massive vessel met its fate on its maiden voyage, courtesy of a wayward iceberg, taking more than 1,500 lives with it.

Saving people from themselves is not just virtually impossible; it’s impractical.  It’s also a waste of time and energy.  Give individuals the necessary information and a means to escape.  After that, just leave them alone.

Smoke from wildfires burning in Angeles National Forest filled the sky behind the Los Angeles skyline on June 20, 2016.  Image courtesy of Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP.

Smoke from wildfires burning in Angeles National Forest filled the sky behind the Los Angeles skyline on June 20, 2016. Image courtesy of Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP.

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Attack of the Clowns

I just want to be your friend.

I just want to be your friend.

As if coulrophobes don’t have enough to fear with Halloween fast approaching, circuses replacing animals with more clowns, and kids’ birthday parties always looming above the social calendar horizon, here comes this.  Law enforcement officials in several states have arrested twelve people for dressing up as clowns and threatening violence.  At first thought to be the product of some children’s paranoid imaginations, police realized it was dire when threats involving clown figures turned up on Facebook.  And, unless it’s on Facebook, you know it can’t be taken seriously.  But it was bad enough to prompt the city of Reading, Ohio to shut down all of its schools on September 23.  A number of people have reported being attacked by someone dressed as a clown since August.  At least one death has been attributed to the mayhem.

The hysteria reached Texas on September 23 when officials at a middle school in Corpus Christi announced they’d removed a seventh-grader for posting a violent clown threat on Facebook.  The devilish little imp stated that someone going by the name “Jax Da’Klown” planned to visit ten schools soon.  Just the name “Jax Da’Klown” should incite terror in most normal people, but such a person would probably be fully accepted in the rap / hip-hop community.

Like the infamous “Black Plague” that swept across Europe and Western Asia in the mid-14th century, these murderous charlatans are popping up in unsuspecting neighborhoods.  Wreaking havoc on the minds and bodies of ordinary citizens, there appears to be no immediate end to the contagion.  I’m concerned the horror won’t stop, even after Halloween comes and goes.  Once evil and stupidity punch holes into the human subconscious, they’re almost impossible to eliminate.

 

Image courtesy of “Poltergeist” (2015).

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Maids, Beauty Queens and Other Stupidities

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Recently, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – trying desperately, yet involuntarily to retain his title as “Asshole of the Year” – defended his previous criticisms of 1996 Miss Universe Alicia Machado.  The Venezuelan-born Machado apparently had gained too much weight at the height of her reign for Trump’s taste and subsequently referred to her as “Miss Piggy.”  He later also dubbed her “Miss Housekeeping,” an obvious reference to her ethnic heritage.  While millions of women across the U.S. (and I’m quite certain, across the globe) resent the “Miss Piggy” sleight, I focused on the “Miss Housekeeping” comment and thought, ‘Here we go again with the racial crap.’  Once more, Hispanic women are being dropped into the narrow categories of maid, housekeeper, etc. by (imagine this!) an old White male.

Trump has made racism and misogyny hallmarks of his campaign.  But this latest verbal assault against Machado struck me personally and harder than his previous idiotic statements.  As the son of a German-Mexican mother, I’ve heard more than a few stories of bigotry about the American workplace.  But, as someone who labored in the corporate world for more than a quarter century, I know that Hispanic women fit into more than the standard housekeeper / maid job role.  Regardless of race or ethnicity, women overall comprise roughly 57% of the American workforce; both full-time and part-time.  It’s the first time in U.S. labor history that more women than men are working.  Such a figure would have been incomprehensible a generation ago.

Not long after I was born in 1963, my father demanded that my mother stay home and raise me; thus becoming a traditional mother and housewife.  He was invoking the machismo persona of the average American male.  Few women worked after having a child in those days – or at least that’s what the general philosophy held.  In reality a number of women entered the workforce after having children, long before it became socially acceptable.  Many had no real choice.  My mother may have had a choice, but she refused to bow to pre-defined roles.  She had already gone against tradition by telling a Catholic priest shortly before my parents married that she didn’t plan to have a child every year, as the Holy Roman Empire dictated.  It upset the priest so badly that he told her maternal grandmother, a woman who had raised her and her three siblings after their mother died in 1940.  The grandmother, in turn, expressed her frustration to my mother who stood her ground.  Unless the Church was willing to finance her progeny, my mother absolutely would not have a child every time my father got an erection.  It’s a good thing.  My mother had enough trouble with me.  She had lost two pregnancies before I was born and another afterwards.  Considering some of the financial troubles my parents experienced later, it’s a good thing my mother returned to work in 1965, when I was 18 months old.  She retired in 2003 at age 70.

In reviewing contemporary TV shows, I believe there are about as many Hispanic characters now as there were fifty years ago; meaning they could probably all be counted on one hand.  Among the most popular today is “Modern Family,” featuring Colombian-born former model Sofia Vergara.  (Apparently there weren’t enough Hispanic actresses in Hollywood needing an acting job, so the show’s casting director yanked this nitwit from the gutter of foreign refuse to fill an otherwise blatantly stereotypical role.)

In 2003, NBC presented “Kingpin,” a series about (surprise!) a Mexican drug cartel family caught between the brutal worlds of narcotics trafficking and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.  I guess these conflicts were supposed to induce some sort of dramatic intoxication in the viewer.  Entertainment insiders noted the show presented a number of Hispanic performers; folks who normally wouldn’t find much long-term work in Hollywood apart from character clichés.  Those of us outside of that insulated fantasy factory – that is, those of us with a firm grip on reality – saw it for what it was: yet more Hispanics in formulaic characters.  The cacophony of anger was loud enough for NBC to cancel the series after just six episodes.  They claimed it was actually due to poor ratings.  As far as I can tell, industry outlets such as “Entertainment Tonight” didn’t spend much time highlighting the glaring racism in the series.  But I’m certain if a similar show about Blacks or Jews had come out, protests would be louder than the sound of Donald Trump dropping another wife.  Hell, when “Seinfeld” went off the air in 1998, it made national news!

This past June the USA Network premiered a show titled “Queen of the South.”  Such a name might make viewers assume it focuses on the antics of a cynically witty granddame-type in Georgia or South Carolina; an old gal who sips mint julips, dons “Gone with the Wind” regalia every December 20 and longs for the old days Negroes had to sit at the back of the bus.  That, of course, would be more than enough to get a show bounced of the air.  But “Queen of the South” revolves around a woman named Teresa who grew up poor and loveless in a Mexican slum and falls in love with (wait for it) a Mexican drug cartel leader.  When he’s killed, she flees to South Texas and becomes involved with someone from her past in an attempt to avenge her boyfriend’s murder.  That’s bad enough.  Yet it gets worse, as Teresa realizes the narcotics lifestyle is just too good to pass up and subsequently becomes a drug czarina in her own right.  It’s a quirky spin on the life and murderous legacy of Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. “The Cocaine Godmother.”  In fact, Blanco’s story is currently metamorphosing into a Hollywood biopic starring Jennifer Lopez who – like the late Michael Jackson – is gradually turning Whiter as she gets older.

Once again, though, Hispanics and illegal drugs are linked.  Actually Hispanics are still paired up with almost anything illegal: gang members, prostitutes, immigrants sneaking across the border and the like.  If going from maids and groundskeepers to drug cartel leaders is supposed to be an improvement, I’ll stick with the maid / groundskeeper type.  It’s sort of like this year’s elections: one has to choose between the lesser of two evils.

Looking through production credits for some of these shows, I’ve noticed none had Spanish surnames.  It’s obvious, then, from the initial concept down to the actual filming of the program, people of Northern European extraction are in control.  A good number of them are Jewish.  Therefore, I dare any of them to produce a television show displaying Jews (or any-Hispanic) as crooks.  Let’s see if it even gets past its debut episode.

close-up-of-hispanic-african-american_work

I’m pleased to see plenty of Blacks and Asians (many of them women) in non-traditional roles; business professionals and law enforcement characters who actually speak perfect English.  The same doesn’t hold true for Hispanics, or Native Americans for that matter.  We’re still the drug dealers, maids, groundskeepers and / or illiterate wetbacks who comprise the much-despised “Other” group of degenerates; people who are too lazy or stupid to get a decent education and find a legitimate career.  People Donald Trump wants to wall off and deport.

I don’t want to be around drug dealers or prostitutes either.  But that’s simply because I don’t belong to either of those groups.  Nor does anyone in my family and nor do most Hispanics.

We’re educated and career-driven.  We’re concerned about national security and the economy – just like any other citizen of this country.  Race and ethnicity are wedge issues that some people love to exploit.  We’re fully aware of the myriad stereotypes that plague us as a group; whether it’s on television or in political discourse.  We’re fully aware that Donald Trump is appealing to the traditional Republican base: older White men who watch in dismay as the world they thought only they would inherit slowly slips into the chaos of what the U.S. Constitution promised – freedom and equality for all.

Hispanic and other non-White women (or “women of color” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) are double minorities in this society because of two factors: their gender and their ethnicity.  Non-White women with college degrees, for example, often earn as much (or as little) as a White male with only a high school diploma.

Having grown up with a working mother – and seeing other Hispanic women struggling both to get educated and to maintain their jobs – I understand that the American entertainment machine and people like Donald Trump just can’t (or won’t) accept the truth.  Old prejudicial concepts are tough to eradicate.  But reality is reality.  And the reality I know is that beauty queens and housemaids aren’t the only roles where Hispanic women are allowed to exist.

 

Top image “Sonhos do carnaval” (Carnival dreams, 1955), courtesy Emiliano di Cavalcanti.

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Good Carla

city-danger-attack-violence

How could it still be so cold less than a month into spring?  Snow flurries had fallen the day before, and they’d made Carla nervous.  It reminded her of the dust cascading down from the blast last week.

Her heels clacked hard against the sidewalk.  They’d told her downtown could be so impersonal, and she was glad.  Hardly anyone noticed her.  She kept her arms wrapped her torso, as tight as she could get them, with the band of her purse intertwined.

A heavy hand suddenly grabbed her left shoulder.  It frightened her like nothing else; the mere thought of someone touching her.  But it also angered her.  She whirled around to see a husky, bearded man with wild eyes looking at her.  How dare you touch me, she screamed silently.  Her father had warned her about people like that.  “What?!” she snapped.

“You almost stepped right into traffic,” the man said.  That heavy hand gestured to the road.  His eyes went from wild to a normal-looking bright.

“Oh…wow,” Carla finally muttered.

“Didn’t mean to grab you like that,” said the man.

“No, no!  That’s okay.”  He wasn’t one of those people from the beige-colored building, but he looked friendly nonetheless.  Still, she remembered what her father had said: unless he knew who they were and had pointed them out to her, don’t trust them!  And say nothing to them, beyond ‘thank you’ or ‘hi.’

She continued walking, growing increasingly leery of fellow pedestrians.  When she strolled passed the federal building, she got the feeling someone was following her.  She always had that feeling.  It had started in grade school, when a gaggle of mean girls tormented her from the moment she arrived every morning until the moment she made it into her front yard.  Then her father taught her how to throw a punch.

“Just roll up your fist like this,” he’d explained one evening after dinner.

Her mother got mad.  “Teaching her to fight like an animal?!”

“No,” her father replied matter-of-factly, “teaching her to stand up for herself.”

One punch, one punch – right to the face.  And that’s what Carla did to one of those girls.  Just swung around and swiped her puny fist across the girl’s upper lip.  Not enough to bruise it or cause it to bleed, but sharp enough to startle her.  Startle both of them.

Yeah, somebody was following her.  But she knew, once she passed the federal building, she was near her next destination.  She slowed her gait and glanced around as much as her stiffened neck would allow.  She came to another intersection and stopped, seeing the traffic well in advance.  She didn’t want anyone grabbing her, or needing to grab her to save her from herself.

Damn this cold!  Spring, spring!  It’s supposed to be spring.  The wind hustled past her.  The cutting edge of it reminded her of the old house where she and her younger sister had grown up.  A breeze would roll through it, if both the front door and back doors were open at the same time.  It created a tunnel effect.  Carla and her sister and other kids from the neighborhood loved to stand in the middle area when sharp winds hurtled over and – with those doors open – through the house.

Her father liked it also and sometimes would stand with them and pretend the wind was too much for him; fake-slamming into the walls and onto the floor, yelling, “Help me!”

But they were the only ones.  Her mother hollered about the electricity bill and yelled about the childishness of it all.

“You’re all acting silly!” her mother groused.

“But, mama, we’re having fun,” Carla would say, trying to rationalize.

“Stop acting so stupid!”

If she only knew how bad that word hurt, Carla snarled into her pillow.  ‘Stupid.’  Her mother never liked to do things just for fun.  But her father was different.  He was whimsical and free-spirited.  He could actually make her mother laugh – at times.

She stopped at Elm and Pacific, the northeast corner, looking south towards the Indian deli – just as she’d been told.  She turned to her left and saw a woman slightly taller than her, wearing a police-style uniform with her hair pulled tightly back into corn rows.

Carla shuddered.  She glanced at the upper left side of woman’s torso and saw the name on the bronze-colored badge: Jamal.  Carla exhaled.

As the woman got closer, Carla began, “Are you – ?”

The woman silenced her with an upraised hand.

Oh yeah, she recalled.  No questions.  She felt embarrassed.

“They’ve found them, Carla,” the Jamal woman muttered.  “The police are there already.  Our man watched them.  You did take the bottles with you – right?”

“Yes – of course.  Into the dumpster on Turtle Creek – beside Cody’s.”

“Good.”  Jamal smiled reassuringly.

Carla grinned, but she was beaming deep inside.  Her father would be so proud.  With each step, she believed more and more her father had been right.  ‘Who says a low IQ means you’re too stupid to do anything?’

“You know where to go now, right?” Jamal asked.

“Yes, to the –”

Another upraised hand.  “As long as you know.”

“Yes.”

“Good.  We’ll see you later,” she added with a smile.  She wheeled around and hopped into the gray SUV – all so effortlessly and in a split second.

These people move and speak so fast, Carla mused with the same degree of wonder she’d had from the beginning.  Entering that beige-colored building two years ago had intimidated her like nothing else.  If her father hadn’t been with her, she would have screamed at the sight of the burly man and small woman with over-sized glasses at the front counter.  They were genuinely scary!  But the folks in the back were much different.  Much kinder and soft-spoken – a lot like her father.

“How long have you known these people, daddy?” she asked, gripping his left forearm.

“A long time,” he quietly replied.  “They’ve been good to us – to our entire family.  They’re good to everyone who’s good to them.  But you have to be good, too, you know.  Understand?”

“Yes, daddy.”

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Carla looked at her watch – 2:54 p.m. – and strolled to the huge electronics store further down on Elm.  She still couldn’t believe the number of people rushing about in downtown Dallas.

The training sessions had tested her ability to remain aloof and constrained in the midst of such human traffic.  The heavy noises had bothered her more than anything.  Enough to make the trainers question their selection.

But that’s when Carla’s mother (of all people) jumped into the mess – inherently jeopardizing the relationship they had with the group – and pulled her away for a few moments.

“Remember what I said about all those people?  Remember?”

“Yes,” Carla replied meekly after a few terrifying seconds.  Her mother – usually loud and intrusive – had vowed to stay in the background throughout the entire training procedure and let Carla’s father serve as liaison with the trainers.

“What was it I said?” her other queried.

“Just don’t talk to anybody.  And don’t stare.”

“Yes, exactly!”  Her mother smiled, which she rarely did.  “Good Carla.”

The second trial run made Carla realize she could truly remain aloof and discreet; allowing her to move unnoticed from point A to point B without interacting with somebody.  A third and fourth run solidified the group’s trust in her.

The snow flurries had stopped falling.  Carla entered the electronics store and ambled to the pre-paid cell phone rack.  Model A42997: it was almost hidden towards the back of the spindle.  Paying with cash, she hurried back outside and found a shadowy overhead.  Sticking her left forefinger into her purse allowed her to see the code embedded in the lavender fingernail polish: 990Y23L17.  She input that reference into the phone’s text box and waited.

“This is Paula,” answered the woman’s voice.

“This Ms. C496233.”  Oddly, remembering all those codes was easier than remembering which way was north and which was south.

“Hi, Carla,” Paula replied.  “How’s your hand?”

She knew she had the right person.  “It’s okay.”

“Good!”

Carla had been nervous about Paula at first.  But her father told her it was just another test.  “It’s just one of those things called a coincidence,” he said.

“A what?”

Paula had been the name of her kindergarten teacher; the one who said she was “too stupid to know day from night.”

“Paula, la pendeja,” her father had said one evening at home.

“¡Callarse!” her mother had shouted back.  (Shut up!)

Carla didn’t speak Spanish – then or now – and she certainly didn’t know why her father felt compelled to silence the teacher with a shotgun blast to the head late one Saturday night.  Sitting in the back seat of their old Buick, Carla became mesmerized by the sight of the brilliant neon lights slathered all over a part of town she’d never seen before.  “Stay down, girls,” her father ordered her and her younger sister, Andrea.

Carla peered above the rim of the window and was startled by the sight of a large group of women stumbling out of a building; all of them wearing very short dresses and skirts and very high-heeled shoes.

“There she is,” the girls heard their father mumble.  “Paula, la pendeja.”  They were parked across the street from the building.  He picked up what Carla later realized was a shotgun and pointed the tip out the window.  “Cover your ears, girls!”

They did as ordered.  But the loud boom still echoed through their heads and made them shriek.

The screaming from the crowd of women overwhelmed them instantly.

Carla’s father slowly pulled out of the parking lot and onto a street in the opposite direction.

“What happened, daddy?” Carla asked.

“Don’t worry about it.  You girls want some ice cream when we get home?”

“Yes!” the screamed in unison.  Carla glanced back and wondered what those words above the doorway to that building meant: B-E-E-R and D-A-N-C-I-N-G.

She still didn’t know what they meant.  But she wasn’t thinking about them now.  Paula on the phone instructed her where to go next.

“The furniture store two blocks down on Elm.  The one with the big clock hanging outside the front door.  Remember?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

The word ‘good’ meant so much to her.  It was actually everything.  It told her she was doing things right.  Outside the furniture store, she again found herself beneath some shade and stuck her right forefinger into her purse.  The code on the fingernail read, 990Y23L18.  Just one number different.  But the text didn’t produce another call on the phone.

Instead a picture displayed.

She recognized it: a large house; different from the other one.  It was the mayor’s house.  The last house had belonged to someone called an attorney.  “He’s a lawyer who works for the city,” her father had told her.  “He’s bad, too.  Like Paula, la pendeja.”

This person, the mayor, was another bad one, the people from the beige building had told her.  Once she got there, they said, her job was done.  Done for now.  If she handled this one right, they’d give her a bigger job.  Bigger jobs – done right – meant more clothes and more music.

She boarded the bus, number 359, at Elm and Akard.  It took her to the Bishop Arts section south of downtown where she found another deli; this one an Italian place.

The young woman in a blue coat met her at the doorway.  “Ms. C?”

“Ms. C496233,” Carla announced.

“Good!  I’m Brittany.  Let’s eat.”

They entered the deli and found a booth off to the side.  Brittany ordered for both of them.  They ate mostly in silence, before Brittany pulled a soft drink can out of her purse.  “Remember what this is?”

“Yes – soda.”

“Good.  Now, on to the house.”  Brittany followed Carla into the bathroom, and then they left the diner.

Carla got onto another bus at Zang and Bennett and arrived at the Arthur Court neighborhood; actually two blocks from it.  The residents of those monster houses didn’t want the buses coming too close to their gated estates, Carla’s father had told her.  She didn’t understand why.  “Everyone takes the bus!”

“Most everyone,” her father had corrected.

She still didn’t know what the problem was, but she couldn’t bother with it at the moment.  Brittany had put the soda can into a box and sealed it up.  Along with the mayor’s name and address, the letters ‘T-O B-E O-P-E-N-E-D B-Y A-D-D-R-E-S-S-E-E O-N-L-Y’ were printed in several spots around the front of the box.  Like so many sets of letters she’d seen, Carla didn’t know what they meant.  But, as instructed, she didn’t ask questions about them.  The drawing beside what her father had told her was the return address piqued her curiosity, though: a blue-tinted dome atop an otherwise flat-roofed building that had what appeared to be several columns lined up in front of it.  She didn’t recognize the name on that return address, Senator somebody.

“A senator is a very important person,” her father had told her.  “Not too important that we can’t get rid of them.”

“Okay,” Carla answered.  Her father always knew what he was talking about.  She barely trusted the people from the beige-colored building.  But, when her father said they were okay, she felt safe with them.  They always had to talk with him first – in private.

Carla arrived at the tiny building in front of a gigantic set of wrought-iron gates and handed the package to the little man wearing a police-type uniform inside.  He studied it for a minute or so and then said, “Oh, okay.”  He grabbed a clipboard from the desk behind him.  “Sign here,” he added, giving her a pen.

She signed the name, ‘M.S. Carl.’

“Say nothing else and do nothing else,” her father had ordered her.  “Absolutely nothing.  Do you understand me?”

“Of course, Daddy.”

“Thank you,” the little man in the little building grumbled.

“Thank you,” Carla responded brightly.  She could say that much – only that much.

That night, after her parents had treated Carla to dinner at her favorite restaurant, she spoke briefly with her sister and the latter’s two young children.

“Say nothing about what you’ve been doing,” her mother warned her – as usual.

Carla’s sister always tried to cull information from her; more than just, ‘How was school?’ or ‘What did you have for lunch today?’

Afterwards, Carla plopped down onto her favorite spot on a couch in the den, the family’s two corgis curling up on the floor nearby.

“Well, would you look at that,” her father muttered at the TV.

The local news was awash with terror.  A frazzled reporter stood outside, her stringy hair whipping uncontrollably in the wind.  Behind her Carla could see a small building and a set of gates that looked familiar.

“I’ve been there!” she suddenly said.

Her parents turned to her.  “Ay, Carla!” her mother scolded.

“What?”

“Don’t say anything!”

She looked at her father.

“No – don’t say anything,” he repeated.

“Oh – okay,” Carla finally said.  She hated when her mother snapped at her like that.  But what could she do?  She turned to the dogs.  They simultaneously rolled over, fighting for her ticklish fingers.

“…the explosion ripped through the house.  Officials say both the mayor and her personal assistant were present and critically injured.”

Carla glanced to the TV for a few seconds.  She recognized the reporter’s voice.  But she became too consumed with the dogs.

“Reports that they were killed have not been substantiated.  We need to emphasize: NOT substantiated.”

She heard her father sigh heavily, before he muttered – loud enough for her to hear – “Good Carla.”

The dogs were too important for anything else now.

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© 2016

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