Thursday, July 10, 2014
[photo by Robb Hanks]
I am offering a sneak preview of my brand new novel Disposable Heroes. This standalone short story was first published in issue 5 of Botticelli Magazine back in May. Disposable Heroes is something of Sports/Mystery/Thriller/Love Story. The main character Gil Reyes has mistakenly thought to be the Soccer Super Star, Rolo Peña who has gone missing. When Gil is offered a handsome bribe to pose as the kidnapped star, he doesn’t shy away. He needs the money, and is intrigued by the challenge. For the first time, he feels like he’s making something out of his crummy life. He thrives on the cheers and sometimes even believes he’s Mamajauana’s big hero. Curiosity drives him to find out what happened to the real Rolo so Gil begins to pursue the missing player’s trail, all the while honoring his commitment to the crooked officials. When he meets Rolo’s girlfriend, Millie, at a charming beach town, Gil knows he’s doomed. He falls in love with her, and his conscience goes into a tailspin. Then he meets the real Rolo Peña and fireworks spew.
The Inner Stitches
Welcome to Mamajuana City. Bask in the belching fumes, tiny smog monsters, as cars shoehorn through lanes and the constant, horn-blare suggest the sound of vuvuzela marking the rush hour. By Avenida Lijares, crusty-nailed men whisk off orange vests and cruddy helmets. Stray dogs prowl the rubble-ridden streets.
At the foothills, they make the finest furniture: solid pine dressers, bookcases, and wicker chairs. The hills behind are dotted with mountain people trying to stitch a better life. They weave scarves and blankets then return to their squalor in the hills. They’re happy.
In the open market, a young mother slumps on a stool, breastfeeding her baby while shoppers buy mangoes and frijolitos. Scattered on the floor is a rainbow of fruit and nuts. Chunky women weigh bags of grain and rice. Flies buzz in harmony. This brings us to the sun-baked boy, stitching soccer balls. He sits Buddha-still on the dirt with bloodshot eyes, zeroing in on his rubber meal ticket, whisking tight loops with his needle through the ball between his knees. He’s got surgical precision. His lithe fingers belong to a gifted pianist, but his raw knuckles are crooked, two nails spliced.
Shattered huts, trash, and the stench of decay stretch languorously. While the boy takes a moment to rub his eyes, some punk snatches the ball, tucks it underarm and blazes off. He heads toward the hills. The boy jumps up, stutters two steps and slips on a mango rind— #%@*#. He wipes his soiled hand on his shirt, leaving behind smudge. Then he grabs a few more strips of rubber and stitches anew.
Across the street, spindly boys kick a tattered ball back and forth. They bully each other, their hardened eyes and bruised cheeks have the deft touch of fine patina. Blur of dirt, and dreams so near, make them squint and scramble. They push, shove, kick and cajole. They carry on until a purple wound splits the ashen sky. Rain pelts the earth with unbridled malice.
Two intrepid boys stay put while the rest rush for cover. A frazzled mother, clutching a tin frying pan, shouts indignantly from her unguarded window. She seizes a dishrag and wipes wet bangs from her hair. Her boy refuses to come home.
“Chucho,” the small boy screams.
“Chucho,” the small one shouts again. The ragamuffins, who haven’t had the chance to escape, loiter by the street and watch the showdown about to unfold.
“I got you Manito,” Chucho says, bouncing on his chicken legs, future warrior.
“Spread out,” Manito says to his invisible teammates.
Chucho crackles his knuckles and Manito pumps his legs, waist level. Chucho leaps, bringing his knees, kangaroo-high to his chest. They spit, snort, and kick dirt.
“You shoot first,” Manito says.
“No, you go,” Chucho rebukes.
And they size each other up, two dripping boys fringed with pride. Manito guards the goal, lets Chucho take the first crack. Chucho kicks the ball a yard over the goal line, scrawled in marker blue on the wall. Then he nails the second one into the right corner. Manito dives, cannot get a finger on it and the boys, huddled underneath the tree, cheer. Chucho pumps his fist and Manito staggers, punch-drunk. Manito wipes his chin and rubs his heartache.
Manito blocks the next kick, but misses the fourth, right between the legs and the kids howl, shattering the goalkeeper’s dignity. His blinking eyes, crackling into myriad pieces. He slaps his own cheek. Chucho teases, dribbling the ball between his mud-crusty inseams. The crouching Manito stumbles on the slick street. Chucho races to the ball, takes a wicked roundhouse kick. Manito stops the ball with the filthy tip of his toe, stares in wonder. They laugh it off, slapping hands. They blow raspberries at each other. Then Manito switches positions with his pal. Chucho takes over as goalie. He bends down as if ready to embark in strenuous prayer then leaps up. He wipes his soiled cheeks and chin, pulls snot from his nose and flicks at his jittery pal. Manito flinches each time Chucho snaps a flake of snot even though it merely melts into his fingernails. Manito dances around until he’s good and ready. He has more meat on his calves and hamstrings than his chicken-legged chum. There’s a vicious cut below his right knee, the sloshing rainwater makes it look like fruit punch.
He peers over at the tree where his cowering compadres huddle, protected from the pour. Manito grits his teeth, flaunting his bottom canines, shark tips. He fires the first shot for a goal then follows it up with another. To celebrate, he does a whirly dance, nearly breaks his neck. When he finds his balance, he wipes his dripping wet hands on his waterlogged shirt and shakes the rain from his floppy hair. Manito scores a fourth in a row and Chucho slumps off, rubbing blotchy eyes, but Manito yells,
“Send it back.” He fires again. Five goals. Chucho slinks off, head hanging, and Manito blasts into the unguarded goal. The kids stare in disbelief and horror. Manito goes into a frenzied spree and makes an obscene, loopy dance each time he pummels the wall. The wet thud of the ball, caroming off the wall makes a tortured plea. The stitches sheer and air slowly fizzles out.
Manito keeps firing. With each shot that smites off the wall instead of smashing through the bricks, Manito seems heart-broken. He kicks with fury, hard enough to cleanse his soul of whatever sin his pint-sized body may’ve committed. His sharp eyes narrow in reckless ardor and his mouth shrinks into a slimy rictus, not a speck of joy. He winds himself tighter and tighter until he snaps his last stitch, tumbling over as a deflated ball.
The sky sighs with relief, but seems to keep drizzling for the hell of it.
Sunday, July 6, 2014
Some of my happiest moments, on this so-called mudball, come from people watching. I get a slew of ideas for my writing this way, and it weans me off of my other favorite pastime, navel-gazing. As far as people watching goes, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Usually, I pick one or two interesting subjects and study their expressions, their gestures, their quirks. Consider me the progeny of a one-night stand between Margaret Meade and a patrol cop.
One thing I notice now is that I seldom get scoped back. My fellow mudballers seem to be too smitten with their iPhones to really care if their being admired. We have to update our “friends” about every last excruciating bit of minutia that whisks into our lives. Which reminds me, would you mind liking this blog post when you’re done? Anyway, it wasn’t long ago when that all-encompassing killjoy (iPhone) wasn’t even an embryo. Those were the days.
Back in 2001, when I spent the Summer in Prague, I was in people watching heaven. Sure there were plenty of great sites to see and I consumed the Vltava, the Dancing House (think of a modern, glass-walled Leaning Tower of Pisa),
the myriad bookshops, Charles Bridge, and so on, but, more than anything, I loved to plant myself in a café and study my fellow diners and coffee-swiggers. This is what I was born to do. I guess that makes me an armchair anthropologist. I’ve always been fascinated by how tablemates choose to position themselves in relation to the other, whether they dab their lips with their napkin or sleeve, whether or not they crunch their ice cubes, or if they have a greater affinity for making air quotes or bowing air violins.
In the middle of my first week in Prague, after a rigorous morning of navel-gazing, I cast my gaze outward. I absorbed the guests in the café. There was a svelte young man in a canary yellow shirt who kept smoothing the crease in his collar with his thumb. He seemed to be making a G clef pattern or else he was tracing an ampersand. He carried on jubilantly, for what seemed like a full epoch. So enamored was I by his finger-tracing, I didn’t realize I looped into my own table-scribbling. Fortunately, I had the cap to my pen covered. It would’ve been a crime to ruin such an exquisite tabletop.
Anyway, when I grew tired of the collar-massager, I snooped around for another muse. I saw a few possibilities, but I wasn’t sold on them. That’s when I noticed somebody had taken me for their own amusement. A young lady in a black hat was sketching me. And to think, I hadn’t even shaved that morning. I don’t know why I was unsettled at first. Maybe it was because I didn’t know how long my sketcher had been keeping her eye on me or maybe it was because I had lost the upper hand. I no longer had a monopoly on the people watching in the café, and, on top of that, a sketcher trumped an idle-gazer like me.
I wanted to be a good sport so I tried not to disturb her sketchscape. I sat as still as possible, and that didn’t work out so hot. It was hard to appear natural because my awareness of the sketcher, sketching me, precluded my ordinarily limber mind from being its regular self. The burden of wanting to seem natural made me more tense. Inner awareness can be a doozy. I got so flustered my foot became bouncy and then the table started rocking. You know that bumper sticker that says Don’t come a Knockin if you see this van’s a Rockin? Poor table.
My good friend, the sketcher, was in no better shape. By that point, she looked miffed by all this shaking. I almost wanted to get up and say timeout, you know how a speed demon does after he’s swiped second base and he asks the ump for his momentary reprieve to dust off his uniform. I wanted permission to do this all over again. I’m burdened and blessed with empathy, as you can probably tell. Because I thought I was disturbing the sketcher, I in turn, got more jittery. What the hell does one do in a spot like that? Emily Post never wrote anything on the etiquette for a café model asking for a do-over. Not to my knowledge.
Things got dicey until I found a new focal point. I spotted an old man folding his napkin. He folded with such love and authority as if he’d been a waiter and was reliving his past shifts. He approached each napkin afresh, without a shred of disdain. He almost seemed to relish the ritual, foreplay with myriad cloth lovers. I became so enamored by his meticulous and mollifying nature that I stopped bouncing the table. When I looked up, some while later, the sketcher offered me a pleased grin, a toothy ciao for now, maybe I’ll catch you strolling along the Vltava sometime. I stayed put even though I wanted to go over and kiss her hand, take a peek at her little brown pad.