“Walmart of the World”

This is another of my sporadic posts dedicated to the little city we’ll soon be leaving.  

It happens that our county is largely agricultural, specifically in the way of orchards that produce apples and stone fruits (eg. peaches, cherries) and vineyards that support a growing wine region.  We also have a lot of dairies, though they don’t typically employ many migrant workers.

Our city’s Super Walmart is the nearest for a great number of big farms in our county.

“Walmart of the World”

In the summer, on occasional Saturdays, the local Super Walmart

becomes a kind of United Nations

when the pickers are allowed to do their shopping.

 

They’re brought in on buses of dubious ancestry,

decrepit except for the obfuscating paint,

a habit of hiding that carries over into many aspects of the riders’ lives.

 

The men shuffle off in a spot far from the front doors with their perky greeters lying in

wait.

Maybe it’s to make it easier to park the bus

but probably it’s because the owner tells the driver to do it.

Put it somewhere where it won’t draw so much attention.

(Remind them of their place—outside the day in, day out of your

average American Walmart shopper.)

 

Subtext is everything when you’re living the migrant life.

 

The superstore hires additional security for summer Saturdays.

They shadow the pickers up and down the air-conditioned aisles.

Sometimes there’s a sheriff’s car or two parked in the fire zone

for added insurance.

 

Nothing says welcome like the immediate suspicion that you’re going to steal something.

 

Of course, they aren’t welcome at all.  Why would they be?

They do the brutal work few American workers would withstand.

They live in conditions not fit for livestock.

They’re treated like pariahs by the people in the communities who benefit from the

profits

those big farms pull in.

 

They shop in our Walmart and we sneer at them.

 

I listen to the gentle rain of their Jamaican patois.

I enjoy their laughter, wonder what they’re saying.

There’s something big and lively in their manner.  They make me smile.

 

They aren’t here to entertain me.

 

The workers from Central and South America are more circumspect and furtive,

as if they deserve the extra security.

In fact, I think they’re just afraid of being suspected.

 

I remember one young man years ago at our local June street festival

smiling tentatively and indicating with his camera

that he wanted a picture with my mother and me,

who were eating fair food at a plastic table in the sun.

He sat with us, and I dredged up my high school Spanish

enough to ask him where he was from.

He smiled nervously as if he didn’t understand what I’d said

and fled soon after.

 

I often wonder if he sent that photo home.

What did his loved ones think of him sitting

with the withered, unhappy old woman

and her awkward daughter who asked impertinent questions?

 

I hope he told them we were friends.

I hope he said in his letter that he was welcome here.

November Questions

This is another in a sporadic series of posts dedicated to memorializing our Lockport life before we move away.

November Questions

There is nothing romantic about early November in Lockport.

The air is wet and cold.

Houses huddle together under a ditchwater sky,

and Clinton’s Ditch gets drained until there’s nothing but

the dregs—brown, brackish, like what an ugly lung would hawk up.

Punctuating this poisonous stew are shopping carts and stolen bicycles.

We play a game of counting, seeing who can spot the most,

a kind of blue-collar, rustbelt bingo.

It passes the time.

We wonder:

Why does the bicycle thief drown his plunder instead of selling them?

Is there some secret thrill to shoving a Schwinn off the High Street Bridge?

And then there are the children who gather at the edges

to watch the corpses of their dreams fished out of the muck.

What innocence is lost when the pink Huffy is uncovered,

its plastic pennants streaming algae from the handlebars,

white-walls dulled to the grey of institutional underwear,

the banana seat diseased, the horn swollen and burst like a pustule?

These are November questions.

And then there is the further mystery of

who pushed the Dollar General cart three miles so that she could dump it here?

What was in it that wouldn’t fit on the bus?

And why the waste?

In this city, there’s a bounty on every functional cart.

Store managers wait

Like anxious sea widows to find out which and how many

will be returned home to them

when they’re finally brought up dripping from the slimy stew.

Against the rusted steel skyline, beneath the bare bones of winter trees,

the graveyard of November slowly empties.

Someday it will be spring again, when the canal will fill

with water and the indiscriminate killing will resume.

For now, we return home, curiosity unfulfilled, awaiting the less gentle

season to come.

Ode to “Ghetto Gas”

We’re moving in a couple of months from the little city with all the big city problems where we’ve lived for more than eighteen years to a rural/suburban island–literally–vastly different from this place we’ve called home.

Lately, I’ve had the urge to commemorate our experiences here, to leave some little legacy of our lives when we were a part of this place.  It’s weird to eulogize something that isn’t dead.

To that end, I’m going to ramble now and again about various experiences that make living here unique.

Ode to “Ghetto Gas”

She weighs maybe eighty-five pounds.

Grey-haired, stooped and cackling, eyes jazzed with crack magic,

an urban witch on the prowl,

she shuffles her sneakered feet on the diagonal,

holding up all four lanes of traffic at the intersection

where unsurprising stabbings happen.

It’s daylight, but even with a high sun this spot is shadowed

by the graffiti on the dumpster

and the filth in the gutter—

Ho-ho wrappers, broken bottles, a forlorn garage sale sign

fading to obscurity.

Everything is for sale here,

but it’s mostly dreams that get scratched away with every

swipe of a dirty penny,

holding up the line with wizened grip as she

waits for sevens—sevens—sevens.

What would she do with $1000 a week?

The next guy in line cradles an inevitable six-pack.

He stinks of unwashed clothes and cigarette smoke.

Toothless, he mouths the tired litany of the disenfranchised.

The cashier rolls her eyes at the food stamps: She’s eighteen and

already hardened to the realities.

“You can’t use those for beer.”

She doesn’t make the rules, doesn’t legislate dubious ethicalities.

He grumbles, something obscene and anatomically unlikely,

and then pays with change painstakingly fumbled

against the counter.

A dime chimes on the dirty floor.

Outside at the only payphone left in the city,

another desperate soul slurs into the greasy receiver.

The view is of a cracked concrete lot where something

Once stood.

Now it’s mostly home to weeds and trash and the occasional rat.

No one stays long.

We gas up, go on, pray that no one holds the place up while we’re there.

We pay at the pump and remind ourselves that next time we’ll get gas at

the nice family-owned place out by the strip mall.

We pretend that these people aren’t just like us,

that this sad mecca for the homeless and oppressed isn’t a half-mile

from where we have an only tenuous grasp on prosperity.

It could be you, the cracked glass door suggests.

It could be you or you or you.

There’s no margin in judgment.

Let[’s] go.

 

What the Federal Government and Sexual Predators Have in Common

I’ve been followed home by strangers a handful of times in my life.

(Once, I followed a stranger out into the middle of nowhere, but that’s a story about a different kind of stupidity.)

I’d like to go all Ian Fleming on you and talk about espionage, and in one case, I guess I could kind of do that.  But really, these stories aren’t all that exciting.

Still, I did glean one interesting observation from both instances, which is this:  Sexual predators and the federal government have more in common than you might think.

[I’ll pause here to let you insert your own joke about congressional aides.]

Sometime around 1995, Newark, Delaware, became the stalking ground for a sexual predator who, in the parlance of criminal profilers, was in the escalation phase of his development.  First, we heard about a guy in a long trench coat flashing unsuspecting women of all ages.  Then we heard that a man with a similar description had been seen following female pedestrians down the quieter side streets in his white sports car.

In one instance, he exposed himself in the vehicle to the pedestrian and tried to entice her into the car.  He was unsuccessful in that case.  Whether or not his failure was what led to his next step, we’ll probably never know, but he started following female drivers in his own car, presumably with the idea of accosting them at their homes.

It was winter and cold; there was a dusting of snow and the roads were icy.  I was driving home from the university one night when I noticed a white sports car in my rearview.

I admired the car because I’m the daughter of a mechanic, and I like sports cars, especially hot-looking ones like the Trans-Am behind me.  Then I recalled the news item about the sex stalker and decided to keep my eyes on the road and the rearview.

I wasn’t entirely sure the guy was following me, but to be safe, I pulled into the strip mall next to my apartment complex, preferring not to lead him to my apartment if I could avoid it.  I parked as close as I could to the SuperFresh that anchored one end of the plaza and ducked inside.  I bought milk and wandered around like I was planning a six course meal.  When I finally decided to pay and leave, I hovered in the big windows near the doors, searching the lot.

I didn’t see a white car, so I risked heading back out to my own.  I drove down to the end farthest from the grocery store and closest to my apartment complex and looked at every car along the way.  Then I turned at the end of the lot and came back the length of the plaza and made for the exit.

He was lying in wait, idling at the bottom of the big truck loading ramp.  I slammed on the brakes, nose-on in the T-bone position, and tried to make out his face in the glare of my high beams.

He shot out of the loading dock, jumped the curb at the exit, and made a squealing right up the winding, suburban road that made up the outer loop of my neighborhood.  I followed him, trying to get close enough to see his license plate, but he was going fast, much faster than was safe on those slippery, curving roads.

At one point, as he gave his brakes a nominal tap at a stop sign, I got close enough to see that his rear plate was obscured with mud or paint.  Then he shot ahead of me, took a left with a wild fishtail, and disappeared.

I gave up the chase but didn’t go right home, instead turning down a dead-end cul-de-sac and maneuvering so that my car faced out.  I sat there with the engine on, lights off, waiting for him to appear again.  I don’t know what I thought I’d do—engage him in a game of ice-road chicken?  Anyway, I took the long way around, eyes looking everywhere for a white Trans-Am, afraid that he was waiting up in the park across from my apartment building, scared that he’d discover where I lived.

I never saw the white car again, nor, to my knowledge, did they ever catch the guy.  A year later, there were a series of home invasion sexual assaults, one of which ended in murder.  I don’t know if that was the same guy, but I do know it made me keenly aware of how vulnerable a young woman alone on the road could be.

It also made me pretty paranoid as a driver, but honestly, I would have had to have been completely oblivious to not notice the blue Ford Explorer with obscured plates that followed me from the high school where I teach to my home thirty miles away for three days in February 2003.

For one thing, they weren’t trying to hide the tail.  They kept a precision distance between their front bumper and my rear one on the highways; they took the same checkerboard route my father had taught me for shaving a few minutes off my drive once I hit my small city’s limits.  They parked on the wrong side (a no-parking snow zone) of the road facing the wrong direction three doors down from my house.

On that first night, the city cops cruised them four times before they stopped, rolled down their respective windows, had a little confab, and disappeared, never to be seen again for the next seventy-two hours or so.

At the same time I picked up a federal tail, I noted three interesting things.

One:  The motion-detector security lights on my garage had stopped working.  A brief investigation revealed that someone at least six feet tall and wearing big-ass boots had stood in the snow beneath them and unscrewed the light bulbs just enough to prevent them from touching the power contacts inside the fixtures.  My husband got out the stepladder and screwed them back in.

Two:  Giant boot prints tramped into the snow around the entirety of my foundation suggested that someone had been snooping in our windows.  I hope they enjoyed the view of cat hair, unread magazines, and stacks of clothes in various stages of the laundry process.  (From September through June, my house looks like a well-behaved tornado has been invited to live with us.)

Three:  Someone was tapping my phone.  Now, I know that the government can listen in on my phone calls without me ever being the wiser.  I also know that they can tap the phone line physically from the pole outside in such a way that it causes hissing and popping on the line.  I know this (now) because I asked a friend who happens to have some experience doing illicit surveillance.

What all of this ham-fisted Dick Tracying told me is that these guys wanted me to know that they had their eye on me.

Since the only thing I do in the winter is go to work, come home, grade papers, and watch television, and the only person I call on a regular basis is my mother, this had to be the world’s most boring assignment for these agents.  (I’m sure they learned a lot about my mother’s psychosomatic illnesses and the latest thing my father had done to tick her off.)

And before you ask, no, I never did find out why these apparent government agents were following me home and tapping my phone.  I considered requesting to see my file under the Freedom of Information Act, even filled out the online form, and then my eyes caught the very small print at the bottom of the page, which indicates, FYI, that by the very act of asking to see my file, said file will become more interesting to them.

This makes sense if you think about it.  Who typically asks to see such government files but other law enforcement agencies and the kind of employers who hire mercenaries independent contractors?  Surely someone whose security clearance is under investigation is going to be of interest to a government law enforcement agency.  I get that.

What I don’t get is why Jane Average Citizen can’t see her own file without also pinging someone’s radar.

Anyway…

The best that I can guess is that I’d caught the government’s attention when I’d participated in Amnesty International’s card-sending campaign in the summer of 2002.  The idea behind the annual campaign is to send greeting cards to prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in countries where the treatment of said prisoners might be suspect.  The theory is not that the prisoner himself or herself will ever see the card.  It’s the warden or superintendent of the prison who’s the real target of the campaign.  If he sees that Jane Smith has gotten four hundred cards from all over the United States and the western world, he might think twice about disappearing her.  These cards say:  Someone cares that Jane exists.  Someone is watching you, Mr. Warden.  I don’t know if it works or not, but it’s the kind of passive resistance I favor in my activism.

Sadly, there are often too many prisoners to choose from, and typically I’d use some method to select to whom I’d send my greetings.  In 2002, I chose to send cards to people who’d been imprisoned either for being identified as LGBTQ or for speaking out on behalf of LGBTQ people in their respective countries.  In this case, I sent cards to places including Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Jordan, Syria…  Many of which happened to be on the top ten list of Al-Qaeda hotspots at the time.  I didn’t even think about that.  I was just trying to do some good in the big, bad world.

But apparently that shocking behavior plus my environmental activism plus my weekly (polite, website-generated form) letters to President Bush, asking him to stop the war in Afghanistan and not start one in Iraq was enough to get me labelled a domestic terrorist.  God bless the Patriot Act!

So the moral of this rather long story is simple:  If you don’t want to be targeted by your government, keep your big mouth shut.

Oops, sorry.  That was my mother’s moral of the story.

The moral of the story is that sometimes the government and a sexual predator can behave almost identically, down to the obscured plates and the obvious tail.

I have a feeling I’m going to be watching the rearview a lot more in the next four years, now that our president is an actual sexual predator and my convenient analogy has become frighteningly literal.  That possibility didn’t stop me from participating in this year’s Amnesty International Write for Rights campaign, and I hope it won’t stop you either.

Love trumps hate.  Fear cannot conquer love.  We are stronger together than we ever will be apart.  To quote my favorite Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

“Vixen” is now available in Creepy Campfire Quarterly #1

I’m pleased to announce that “Vixen,” a good, old-fashioned horror-in-the-woods affair, is featured in EMP Publishing’s new quarterly horror anthology, Creepy Campfire Quarterly.

Described as horror stories for grown-ups, CCQ offers horror, extreme horror, and science-fiction/fantasy aimed at a mature market.  “Vixen” is the first story in the anthology, and I am honored to share the book with an extraordinary number of truly excellent modern horror writers.

I hope you’ll take a look at Creepy Campfire Quarterly #1.  It’s available on Amazon for Kindle and in print.

On a personal note, Jen Word, CCQ’s amazing editor, was an absolute joy to work with:  thoughtful, patient, enthusiastic, and welcoming.  I couldn’t have asked for a better experience!

 

 

Sunthwart and Gruelbane return!

If you’re interested in reading the rousing conclusion to the first episode of The Improbable Adventures of Sunthwart and Gruelbane, you can look here.

Keep your eyes on this site! My original short horror story, “Vixen,” is coming out on Wednesday, 20 January, as the lead story in Creepy Campfire Quarterly #1.  I’ll have links and information for you on the twentieth.

Until then, I hope you continue to enjoy adventuring with our hapless adolescent anti-heroes!

Introducing Sunthwart and Gruelbane!

I’m pleased to at long last launch the promised original content:

The Improbable Adventures of Sunthwart and Gruelbane.

Follow the adventures of two hapless adolescent anti-heroes through the pitfalls of puberty in Arkenwald, a fantasy village where the Sagas of Icelanders meet Conan the Barbarian in a cage match to the death!

(Um, sorry. I got a bit carried away there.  Too many Gor books in my impressionable youth.)

Sunthwart, who carries an umbrella as his weapon, and Gruelbane, who wields a fierce ladle, stumble upon misadventures stolen borrowed adapted from a wide variety of sources I read in my own misspent, geeky youth.

The plan is to publish each episode in two parts, one part every two weeks. I’ve already completed eight episodes, so there is literally month’s-worth of content to be had here.

I hope you enjoy getting to know our heroes as much as I’ll enjoy sharing their adventures with you.