Conducted by Erica L. Williams
I met Sanderia Faye years ago at the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s Summer Writers Workshop in Washington, DC in a class led by novelist Agymah Kamau. It’s where she first revised portions of the novel that would later become Mourner’s Bench.
Faye and I became close friends during our week-long residency and before departing she gifted me a wood-scented candle to aid creativity. Throughout the years the candle has served as fuel to my creative fire, a symbol of our connection as writers of color and the artistic community of our origin. Before our interview, I asked her about the candle and she said, “There was something about your personality. I thought this energy would project in your life.”
This gesture is typical of Faye. A person who is affable enough to create lasting connections from the briefest encounters. Someone who in spite of her success remains grounded in the humble beginnings of her Arkansas roots.(More …)
Bo sat up front with daddy. Julius rode in the back with me. The dirty rag tied around his arm looked black in the moonlight; all that blood mixing in with the dirt. It was too dark to see his eyes, but my memory was fresh. More than the shock of having been shot, his nonsensical words and vacant stare resulted from a different kind of trauma. To be sure, the bullet hole in his arm was a problem, but the scowling woman in the blue kerchief—the one standing on the edge of the crowd, curses leaking from her blood-red lips—she was our primary concern.
Daddy hit a bump. The car groaned, and so did Julius. I had my arms around him, but he was too heavy. Too big. He was practically lying in my lap, his damaged arm hanging lifeless at his side. He stank of vomit, and sweat; blood, and strong perfume. I imagined it rubbing off on me, the curse of the one who’d worn it, somehow seeping into my bones. I shivered, and tried to hold my oldest brother steady, but it was a battle I was going to lose. (More …)
I know the two girls are lying, so I invite them in. They’re leggy and slender with sharp little noses, teacup breasts, straight hair and pearlescent skin. If they had been a touch more professional, paid some attention to detail, I might have believed them and said sorry, I can’t help you. But now I’m curious.
“What did you say your name was?” I direct my question to the blonde, who so far has done the talking. Behind them a cardinal whistles in the big autumnal maple in my yard, red against gold against a clean blue wash of sky, a beautiful sight that even so does nothing for me.
“I told you already, it’s Vanessa.” She tilts her chin up at the ‘V’ and hisses the double-‘S’ through bared teeth. (More …)
The blue jay stole the baby straight out of the bird bath. Lorely wailed when she saw the little head bobbing in the jay’s grabby beak. The baby’s mouth was set into a silent ‘O’ of shock, its eyes fixed on Lorely. She raced after the bird calling, “Thief!” but the jay, muscular and confident, skimmed the tops of the sunflowers and disappeared within the feathery camouflage of the cedar tree.
After she yelled for her mother (no answer), her father (not home), and her older brother (didn’t care), Lorely began to climb the cedar, her bare feet finding prickly traction, her hands soon sticky with sap. She had just turned ten, and while she was too old for dolls, she was not too old to pretend she was a fairy or a monkey or a mother as long as she kept her fantasy a secret. When she was left alone in the garden (and everyone was glad to assume she was out there being happy and out of their hair), she put her hands in mud and made porridge, or she dug down in her mother’s best rose bed until she had a hole that smelled of death. There she made her mucky potions. Sometimes those potions involved making babies.(More …)
On the edge of a flowerbed in the University of Nebraska’s Yeutter Garden, a man in a chartreuse vest studies a map, flips through a three-ring binder containing photographs of plants, glances at the map again. Then he pulls from a rack what looks like a weirdly proportioned golf club or dental mirror. He drives the sharp end of the club into the ground on the outer edge of a clump of cranberry-pink blooms past their prime. When he steps back, I see that the plaque atop the stake bears names: “Heartleaf-Bergenia/Bergenia cordifolia.” I consider these words. Because the edges of the large, leathery leaves are rolled in, I can’t see if they’re heart-shaped. Bergenia. Probably the name of a botanist who studied this plant. Is that with a hard or soft g? If it’s the former, I’ll see reddish stems as assertively lifting the wilted blossoms above the leaves. But if it’s the latter, I’ll see the stems as gently supporting the blossoms. If I hadn’t known the name of this plant, I might have just glanced at the flowers and moved on, without noticing the leaves or stalks, without searching for the right name for the color of the petals, without considering the connections between the name and the named. (More …)
I. The Church
Uncle Dondey has died. For real this time.
We had grieved in advance of his passing thanks to my highly excitable aunt, or rather, one of my highly excitable aunts (a certain level of hysteria thrums in the veins of this generation of women in our family). My aunts, Magdalena and Rosalva, and my mother Dolores are three of Dondey’s five sisters. They live within shrieking distance of each other—two and a half miles at the most—though they do use the telephone to share and sigh over life’s latest woes and to leap frantically to conclusions.
When Dondey, suffering from emphysema and a medley of collateral ailments, asked for a priest, Magdalena assumed the worst and soon the family, spread across dozens of area codes and multiple time zones, wept at the dreaded news. It turned out though that it was confession he wanted—only that. Not last rites. Not yet.
But here we are a month later. We’ve come from the Florida panhandle, the Gulf coast of Texas, the Arizona desert and from up and down the West Coast from Orange County to grey Seattle. We’re gathered in front of the little white church just off Cesar Chavez Parkway in the Barrio Logan district of San Diego. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church sits below Interstate 5, which bisected the barrio when its cement pylons were erected in the early sixties. Later the community would rise up and claim a disputed piece of real estate beneath the freeway, planting grass and painting murals and calling it Chicano Park, though a Yahoo map still labels it Bay Bridge Park. It’s from this park that another series of pylons rise west across the water to the luxury condos of Coronado.
Here at Our Lady of Guadalupe, all but one of the regularly scheduled masses is given in Spanish. Today, our mass will be in English, because the Spanish in our family has dwindled to only the most basic and essential words, the most common, the stereotypical. We know food words and exclamatory words, we know name-calling and nasty anatomical words, we know words of greeting and goodbye.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is the church where my uncle was baptized, where he made his First Communion, and where he is welcomed back after all these years. In our large and far-flung family, there are among us lapsed Catholics, faux Catholics, part-time Catholics, half-hearted Catholics, hypocritical Catholics, hopelessly strayed-and-never-to-return Catholics (me) and unwilling Catholics (my daughters who were surreptitiously flicked with holy water in a do-it-yourself baptism by my mother). My uncle was a come-as-you-are Catholic, showing up for God even when the gleam in his eye or the grin pulling at his mouth suggested his mind might be elsewhere.
The April morning is sunny but brisk, and we’re almost cozy in our black clothes.
Dondey’s son, John, stands with the other pallbearers, their gloved white hands like those of mimes or magicians, but without the nimble gestures or amazing quicker-than-the eye tricks. Guests greet Barbara, Dondey’s partner of the last twenty years, and then make their way into the church. But we, the rest of the family—Dondey’s sisters, nieces, nephews, great nieces, great nephews—remain outside.
The funeral director is trying to organize us, to shepherd us into the church, but we are an unwieldy bunch that can’t be sorted out or winnowed down.
“Who’s the immediate family?” he asks.
“All of us,” someone says.
He looks at us, a minor mob, and shrugs. “Follow behind the casket,” he tells us. As if we would do otherwise.
Inside, every pew is filled. There are no hymns, just an organ playing church music as we deliver Uncle Dondey to the altar.
II. The Cemetery
At La Vista Cemetery, the sun is almost directly above us, pushing down on our shoulders, burning through the black of our clothes. Along one side of the knobby hill an honor guard stands at ease—quite at ease. They’re a ragged bunch with scraggly beards and graying ponytails under red berets, no crispness to their posture. Aging vatos in fatigues.
I hear my sister say, “Hey, I saw those viejos at another funeral.”
The vatos raise their rifles and blast out three rounds and the hollow plunk of shell casings on the hard grass is somehow more stirring than the crack of the gunfire.
Music plays from a boom box—Mexican love songs, Sin Ti and Voy a Apagar La Luz and then it switches to Suavecito. Who could forget that song? The soothing, yearning vocals, the whispery percussion, the easy la la lyrics. It was all so suavecito.
When the song came out in 1972, Dondey was tending bar at Big Al’s, his muscles flexing as he splashed tequila into shot glasses. He was a partier, a smooth dancer, a womanizer. He called women babes and chicks and made my feminist ears burn. He hunted deer and elk with special dispensation on the nearby res. He hooked large-mouth bass from a rusty boat on the Lower Otay. And Dondey cooked—simmered big pots of menudo, sizzled to perfect doneness carne asada, set albóndigas to bubble in homemade salsa. He cooked nearly to the end, coughing, absent his dentures, leaning on his aluminum walker and ever mindful of the handwritten note that Barbara taped above the stove: “Dondey, Do Not Cook Wearing Your Oxygen!”
When the last la la’s of the song fade, people start to leave. Rosalva, my eighty-six-year-old aunt wobbles across the grass on heels, a niece or nephew always within range should she topple in any direction. Later in the car, she complains about the uneven ground at cemeteries, the perils it poses to innocent mourners. “I was walking just like …” she pauses, searching for a proper analogy. “I was walking just like a little old lady,” she says.
I pat her knee. I watch her change out of her heels into soft black moccasins. The flesh on her tiny bird legs is crinkly as tissue paper and I wonder if there will be a sound if I touch her skin.
III. The VFW Hall
At the VFW Hall, we sit down to frijoles, arroz, chilequiles, chile verde, pollo asado (all the foods within our vocabulary), a gooey fruit salad, and a table full of sweets, including the donuts my uncle loved from the hole-in-the-wall shop on Euclid Avenue—a corner spattered with pigeon poop and pock-marked by bullets.
We eat until the food is gone, our black clothes suddenly tight. We talk until the lone mariachi croons the last of his songs, none of which was heard above our table chatter, some of it about Dondey, but the rest of it about ourselves, our hectic lives, our complaints and disorders, of impending hip replacements, cures for irregularity, prescriptions for insomnia. We’re exhausted and we push back our chairs.
My cousin John is silhouetted against the west-facing door, his black shirt, black pants, black jacket absorbing the mid-afternoon sun. He looks like the Mexican Mafia. “You look good,” I tell him. I mean it. He’s a bad-ass Chicano Blues Brother. He wears an Apolo Ohno soul patch on his chin. His waist-length hair is frayed at the ends. He could use a trim, a little conditioner. But no, that would ruin the effect.
We line up to have our picture taken with him before we exit. Some have to be on the road to L.A. or the Bay Area. Others will fly to destinations farther north or eastward. One cousin will stay an extra day and install a new shower fixture for my Aunt Rosalva. She wants the kind with pulsating pressure.
My aunts and my mother need to be driven home for naps. The VFW hall is nearly empty, but still we linger a bit, look around, afraid we have forgotten something. Then finally, slowly, we scatter.
It feels like coming home
only enhanced—like everything really is
easy, like the advertising illustrations:
housewife in heels, shawl-collared dress with
nipped-in waist and A-line skirt
dazzling beholders as she sweeps dust-
bunnies into a pan. The pan is beaded,
the broom bristles and handle and all
are beaded, even the dust-bunnies are beaded
(and shaped like starfish) (More …)
It’s windier than the day before but
they have the kite, a multi-color box
and he’s never flown a kite before,
only seen Charlie Brown frantically
running, even through a house, to
keep that diamond shape up and not
swooping down on him or tangling
everyone up in its line. And wonder
of wonders, this kite, labeled “easy
to fly,” goes up, stays up, pulls away
so they let out the string. It stays up!
The ocean crashes into the shore,
the kite crashes down unharmed; they
take it up again. Later that day, time
to go home: boy curls up under a blanket(More …)
rides the air currents looking for a fight
Soon enough he’s looping, aiming,
my son reading all the noises, which
coincidentally are the noises he makes
with his armory of nerf guns, the ones
James Bond would conceal in a jacket
or the long rifle/shotgun/machine guns.
Snoopy’s fallen afoul of the Red Baron—
M’aidez! Snoopy yelps. Good grief,(More …)
The Room with the Birds of Paradise Bedspread,
Lunchtime, 234 East 7th Street
An old Zenith TV sits bloated in the wall unit. Not baseball season, only
local channels can be caught with the glow-in-the-dark remote control buttons.
In the next cube over, from Left to Right: Erika, 18, prima ballerina, not yet
third-grade teacher; Andy, 8, kneeling with a soccer ball instead of an army rifle.
Next cubby down, Natalie, 3, sits on a white stepladder in her Minnie Mouse overalls, laughing like it is the only thing she knows how to do.
270°-180° (More …)
That we might walk back into each other’s lives
and not feel the pull
of sickness dragging us to this reality
we already knew, that’s all
I truly wanted last spring. The spring before—
morning after morning (More …)
In wintertime, they came. Swarms, at least
five at a time, out of the fields for the closeness
of our heat. We never saw them until after,
which often took weeks through measured
ways of living, surviving each day’s cold.
It wasn’t until the day we heard one for hours—
squeaking, scurrying, and then glue-stuck, so as not
to be—that we realized we didn’t understand
what was considered a death meant for humanity(More …)
1. Like my love life, L.A. is in a perpetual state of drought.
It’s a crime to water the lawn.
2. Rumors of coyotes overrun the neighborhood. (More …)
I want to pinpoint the moment it all went south.
1. My sister blames her ex’s bad genes.
Sometimes she blames the media.
2. When Anna was 12 we sat in the dark in Van Nuys,
watched Thelma & Louise self-ignite.
Brad Pitt’s the perfect man,
my niece said more than once.
Headstrong, even then. (More …)
I gyrate like Little Egypt in my haram pants and diaphanous veil.
The lessons with Fatima have paid off.
But it’s the minefield between the restaurant’s bar and the stage.
Barefoot, my limp is even more pronounced.
Last night I watched two cats humping.
One of them was mine. Like me, she’s been in an accident.
Like me, her bum leg makes her an easy target. (More …)
[i]denim lemonade \ˈde-nəm le-mə-ˈnād\ noun [origin unknown](1956)
1 : an extravagant, often loud spiel of determined work ethic, when in actuality little is being worked upon : PALAVER
2 : any beverage sipped while motivating denim lemonade, usually leading to insobriety (1) <Just one more denim lemonade wouldn’t hurt, would it?>
3 : any light emanating from a screen, often confused for godliness or splendor; SEE ALSO: EFFULGENCE, HALATION
4 : any wet putrescence such as froth, scum, mold, or similar rot due to neglect or lack of use
5: a shrine of post-modernity; also : a couch
6: a liquid scourge of insobriety, especially: inaction leading up to denim lemonade
6: something suggestive of a gaping maw <denim lemonade goes down my denim lemonade real easy>
usage see EDENTATE (More …)
Whatever happened to that used tanning bed? Its dimensions—a perfect fit for the bed of your work truck—feel divinely ordained. “free stuff” and only posted 41 minutes ago: Must pick up, will help with loading the plastic plug-in coffin of vanity, never minding that you live in a two-bedroom with a roommate ignorant of this whim, your tan plans of privacy buzzing purple-blue, upgrading from the roof of pigeon shits and fear of being caught naked, alone, oily, a dead fishskin on steaming tar, the type no one you know eats, picks it away and asks for an extra plate to set on. (More …)
It starts or ends with a fever, can’t
remember which, as the entire world
rusts about you, electric teeth walk in,
paired with a watery ark.
Then something is broken
that is usually not broken. (More …)
i have a stubborn mouth & i
have never been able to make myself
listen; nevermind the discipline it takes to
beat something enough & say you’ve taught it well
the forest called for my echoes and i
obliged, the small and landlocked thing i am (More …)
& suddenly the dense body that makes up
this land, my home, is a frightful fissure.
my eyes are the trusted wreck i navigate with,
like a drunk pilot tumbling through red eye
& from here, america looks like ten shades of the rotten terrain.
america is a black hole filled with the cities it’s (More …)
We thought we had all day to listen while Richard talked
about his anterior cruciate ligament as he did his transmission
knowingly as if he had some intimate experience other than that
one little crack after the jump shot He’d visualized a drumstick
celery snapped deep in a blanket wishbone and spoke (More …)
Once nothing plain being then descriptions
in different languages
then the illusion of illusion that nothing could
describe well enough
Some said they couldn’t say for sure
so translation began (More …)
Our moon falls up every night or seems to smaller the farther
Or maybe it’s only doing round-the-world as the earth’s yo-yo
The secular story is gravity and stasis and making the same face
at all times but everything’s true sooner or later Pick one yourself
A hole in a dark donut so big we can’t see edges so thirsty (More …)
Natalie De Paz
Alexis Rhone Fancher
She holds an MFA from Arizona State University, a MA from the University of Texas at Dallas, a BS in Accounting from the University of Arkansas. She is currently a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Texas where she was nominated for the University of North Texas Wingspan Presidential Award For Excellence.