living with ghosts

I’ve been participating in a writing group for the spring semester and it’s been going pretty well now. I was pretty loose with the group though I wanted to be clear with everyone early on in communicating my hopes we would not be a writing group but rather we would be more rigorous and approach the work as a writing workshop. The distinction is important to me. And we lost a few writers along the way because of the distinction I’m afraid.

But I think it is important for me to know when I need to be back in a workshop type atmosphere and of course I use workshop or the MFA model of work shopping with my students in creative writing–and I do wish I could implement more of the workshop model from composition but the logistic never seem to work out– but it is quite another thing to have “my” work in writing group. To have my work or my stories “work shopped”. I do try and stay objective about my own work and the whole experience has been about opening up my work to those around me a bit more other than anonymous editors. But the issue lately for me has been less about the form and more about the content. Funny because I always preach the most important part of writing is dealing with form. My pedagogy and theory concerning writing and the teaching of writing is all about structure and brush strokes. But this last workshop reminded me of the problems with opening up work to others. Just sitting in a room where everyone is discussing my family–talking about my Lolo–and the persona I’ve created in my work is difficult. The therapy aspect of writing comes out I guess. And dealing with those ghosts has been a problem in my personal life and the work I do as a writer makes it all spill over into the professional. Makes me have to deal with fictional relationships within stories and within scenes but also somewhat makes me deal with those ghosts from the past and the family. Funny that I tell my students in ethnic lit that past voices and texts are so important for the individual to create a sense of identity and most of the time I am fighting those past voices and text—yes texts because the family writes me letters from time to time—and part of my survival technique has been to suppress those voices and stay focused on the present—focus on not ‘how it was’ but rather ‘how it is’. This way I have learned to endure and stay strong but again it is difficult to when you are sitting in a room discussing characters and actions based on actual folks from the old neighborhood. And I imagine most writers consider this idea of what is real and what is created and the distinctions and the limitations. I need the real world Lolo to reach further into the fictive space or the fictive world of Huerfano County/Pueblo County of my youth. I know how important those real paper are in finding those ghosts/wraiths that are also created in the stories. I rely on them to talk to me and inform me of line and trajectory for these little stories. So as much as I hate them and fight at them I realize how important they are to my work. Even those I am completely lost too.

And maybe it is all due to me rereading Maxine Hong Kingston and re-viewing old interviews of her for my ethnic lit course. In “No Name Woman” she writes of her real and imagined aunt: My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her.

Carlos for example. A man I have no idea as to his life or his thought process. A man who only exists in picture and story from the Abuelita and from other relatives and their lost voices. I think I only met the guy once but I return to him almost every other night or so at my desk trying to get him down. The work trying to give life to him–turning the ghost into flesh and blood on the page. I look at his picture and try to recreate those old stories. It’ll be odd for me when the group reads some Carlos stories and speak of him.


revision–carlos’ unexplained sighting

Been a while since I had a breakthrough in what I’m working on. But this one has been flat for a while and finally stole some inspiration from old Bradbury stories I’ve been rereading while I should be doing work.

Carlos’ Unexplained Sighting

That night the old man drains beer and rum and RC Cola down at SLV Bowl, just outside of Hooper, Colorado. He drinks that night over his young wife and he drinks over his lack of dollar bills.

From the highway, the passing headlights burn at his face and eyes, fill the cab of his truckito with shadows and wrong thoughts. The night skies remind Carlos of dark grey, snowy roads though the heat rises off the two lane flat top. Headlights pinch between passing cars, when his own engine, like his own breathing, coughs and hiccups and then recovers before finally dying. The road is still and flat but he manages to coast in the engine’s compression and as he works the choke he has to pull onto the shoulder of sand and broken gravel. It all cracks under his bald tires.

            In its middle age the truckito has failed him but he refuses to believe it initially. Just some dirt in the fuel line or maybe he has miscalculated the level of gasoline, maybe a short circuit with the battery or distributor points, maybe the plug connections. Something he could cure before not too long, he thinks. But turning off the lights and trying at the starter again and again brings no result and he waits for the smell of gasoline from the flooded carburetor. Eventually he opens the truckito up to the night and lets himself out onto the sand and chipped gravel. He finds his semi-automatic pistola.

            The warm air surprises him and dizzies him. The headache hits the whiskers on his beard so he curses the night and the truckito and the reasons for his own drinking. He watches headlights passing and his eyes sting with water and ache in the harsh luminescence of the starry night sky. His eyes squint more and more and his eyes begin to ache deep down into his brain. Beside the dead truckito he stands with his head bent listening to the engine and there was no sound.

            Indecisively seeking assistance, he waves the gun at passing cars and truckitos with no luck and then he begins to pace and walk up the road and then back down the road refusing to leave his car for dead. Soon there is no sign of light around him and the shadows of the highway and of the night press inward and he walks around his truck again and again seemingly lost before lifting at his hood and searching for wires and connection that may have gone wrong. He awkwardly holds the metal weapon in his armpit as he works and his hands begin to ache as well as his eyes and his ankles even in high boots begin to throb as he steps.

            Who’n the hell are you? he thinks into the black emptiness around him. Not a busted coil or a distributor, he thinks. Who’n the hell are you to do this to me?

            He pulls his pistola and leans on the fender. He kicks at his boots and then unlaces them and then frees his aching feet. Drains the last of his bottle hidden away in his coveralls. He switches on the headlights to see what they reveal on the empty shoulder and he eyes a small rail fence. Even in his drunkenness he knows the highway as the lifeblood of the valley. No one passes up a broken down truckito. No one would leave a working man down and out. Soon a Compadre or a farm worker would be passing by and stop to give a push or a tow with a strap chain. He never thinks how a man with a gun and drinking from a wine bottle wearing no shoes would look to passers-by. A man carrying a pistola to fight the spirits that may come. But no one comes along and fifteen minutes turn to thirty and one farm truck slows but never stops and Carlos is too drunk to wave it down—too drunk to stand at one point and crumbles down past the tire well and then finally against the old bald tire. In many years, he will remember being alone under such a dark San Luis sky.

That was when the flames flew in. He wants to believe they are imagined or sad hallucinations from his drinking. He feels the heat on his face and along the seams of his pants. The stars plunge down where the moonlight meets the horizon and from the blue glimmer of starlight. The flame and spark gives rise to gooseflesh in him thought long dead since he was a small boy in New Mexico. He feels spooked and begins to sweat and struggle in his drunkenness. Struggles to his feet and then struggles for air to breathe. His legs ache and his bare socked feet begin to burn beneath him.

There had been so many times in his youth where he was out walking and lost in nights like this. Nights where your eyes deceive or your head loses its sense. Told stories as a boy of La Virgen de Guadalupe appearing to lost travelers and filling lost souls with her beauty and her love. Bullshit stories. Indigenous legends of portals and doorways out of this world the Abuelitos talked as they sat around with sweetened coffee and Compadres. Deaths in los campos and cattle left mutilated he thought only to scare little mocosos. That is all bullshit like the rest of the pinche churches rules and regulations concerning life, he thinks. Carlos had learned at an early age to stay away from such superstitions—to think and measure and work. But the Blanca Massif, the great mountain to the east, looms above him as the flames come in that night abruptly and he picks himself up to escape. To run and leave that lonely truckito and his tools. To walk ahead to the nearest home he can find.

He admits to himself he is terrified and must escape to the sand and gravel of the shoulder littered with beer bottles flung up from limitless amounts of traffic waves and then across the blacktop towards the great Sand Dunes. But those flames decide to follow and seem to be gliding above him, hovering over his truckito and then above him as if La Virgen had become attracted to his wretched self. With his eyes burning and his feet aching from walking barefooted he runs and stutter steps in the red and white light above him. At that moment he wants La Virgen so bad it overwhelms him. I will have her, Carlos thinks. He fires several rounds into the fire. She is mine. I will take her.

The bright burst of his weapon flashes in the night sky. He looks up and the metal flashes again and again and a minute later the bright light lands around the viejito and engulfs arms and then his legs settling around him. Carlos hasn’t run in years and, though his joints ache and his limbs burn, he sets them free to run. He empties his pistola of all cartridges and staggers and then stutter steps. Falls to one knee and then recovers. His eyes shut and then open to the flames and their heat. Lungs filling with the smoke and ash as he coughs and gags. The old man vanishes into the fire. There is no direction or highway for the old man only the flames and burning to his skin. He grits his teeth and hollers as loud as he can. In the center of the flame is where the man drowns in his past. Sinks into memories growing up like moss inside of his worst thoughts and angers.

High strange flashes and visitation occur in the darkening sky around him. The sounds of the sweet mother advising the twelve year old Carlos, Don’t be a lost soul like your old man, Mihijo. Before the first day of his Catholic schooling, as he stands in white collared shirt and corduroy pants that is the uniform for boys, the father, Ignacio Montoya, telling the boy, You should be in coveralls and working in the damn fields. Then the father slapping at the boy’s chin and mouth, more pushing the boy back onto his heels of his church shoes and clothes. The sounds and views from the boys’ study room of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception; the corner window overlooking a lawn, and a sunken lane between pine and spruce trees out to a low stone wall that surrounds the place. And beyond the school’s wall, the trees giving way to narrow gates onto the llano opening up to the horizon where mountains between road and sky meet with a band of brown road.

Flashes of the Compadre Benito who only thinks of play and wine. We can get to the wine Carlos, he whispers before being caught and cracked by Sister Manuela. Father John catching the boys lighting a cigarillo before sending them home. The chaw he keeps in his mouth before the second service and then after the third service chomping naively at a larger piece. As he walks home he feels light-headed and dizzy, unstable reaching for the side of buildings to balance himself when he finds the old woman Rodriguez’ flower bed just blocks from home to fertilize. His stomach churning and his legs striding towards the back outhouse.

Synaptic lighting flashing on his father’s pipe as he scratches at his whiskers lecturing the boy on how a man must make a living working God’s land in 1908—the year Carlos, along with his brother Lalo took the train to San Luis from their home in Mora, New Mexico. The father’s voice denying him to continue in school. His mother’s sullen face turning him away to his Grandmother at age fifteen. The father tearing down the unpaved driveway after a half hug and present of an old pocket knife. The rain on his face as his Tio fishes in a rainstorm before leaving the boy to his Grandfather. The Compadre Julian who leaves for war duty only to write letters and die without record or notice to the family. The Abuelito’s hacking furniture and cabinets for the wood furnace in the middle of a late winter New Mexico storm.

Crackling transport of thoughts on the disapproving looks from his own face as his brothers and some of his Compadres from work camp days move on to steady work—out to Southern Colorado to the coal mines and steel mills of Huerfano County. We never were brothers if you drive off, Lalito, Carlos screams in memory. The look to his first wife’s face as he slaps and punches her down behind the bed in their first home in Belen, New Mexico just months later. The afternoon his hand slaps his youngest boy so hard he has to be ridden out to the hospital in Alamosa and how the man drains his bottle in between parked cars as he waits for the boy to be stitched up.

The afternoon his oldest boy runs into the mountains as Carlos chases after. Carlos’ second wife Theresa and her frantic tears during love-making after leaving her family in New Mexico to be with Carlos in 1915. The voice of the Compadre Luis who leaves in 1917 to find work at the Steel Mill in Huerfano County because the two can’t agree on how best to fertilize their crop—Luis insists they spend more money on machinery but Carlos insists they work as he is taught in New Mexico. The men are lost to one another after the incident.

The highway disappearing into Horseshoe Lake after the flood of 29. The smell of the no-named woman of who gave Carlos his daughter only to die of la viruela in the winter of 32. The day he sends his only daughter to live with his mother who swears the man will burn if he doesn’t do right by his oldest girl Tranquilena.

            The smell of rain on the afternoon his wife Theresa dies in her bed to la gripe, leaving him three young boys and an infant daughter. The infant, Tranquilena, he sends out to live with his mother in Mora leaving the boys to stay on the farm. The snow and wind off of the Penitente Peaks that follow in 1936 after the second wife passes during childbirth. The first buyout offer comes from the Brow Farming Company.

The joy in the mirror after meeting Josefina Marquez who wears a red dress when they meet at the Stampede Street Festival. Drinking and sitting alongside the woman with a table filled with Compadres at one of the tri-county potato growers’ tents. The pride Carlos feels fathering three more boys with the Marquez daughter before she passes on. The harsh light of the doctor coming to the home and telling Carlos in his own kitchen his wife has ‘the cancer’ at the same time he tells Carlos the woman is pregnant with his latest child. Months later Josefina dies giving birth.

The fire burning as the last wife Felipa the afternoon she knows she has a newly built house with a brand new Frigidaire and woodstove. All she knows is that her new husband comes home each night and comes home at the end of each week with a paycheck. That is when the nagging begins, her voice droning through the walls to Carlos’ inner ear to which he can only respond: Dammit, Mujer! No more children! 

These voices of time and wind and change form the heat covering his body. He squirms out of his coveralls and then his long underwear he wears no matter the month or the season. He throws off his flannel and then his undershirt until only bare skin protects him from the heat and the humidity of the night air. He leaps over heavy fence wire that stabs at his forearms and then his thighs. His skin aches as burned leather as the garbage from the incinerator in the many work sites of his memory. The old man feels his body vanishing from the storm of heat.

He crosses a stream and then comes to a clearing, the flames still the color of mercurochrome and blinding silver. The old man gasps tired but keeping pace. And, finally, after lurching and stumbling, he collapses in a ditch south of Alamosa surrendering his consciousness to the valley floor that surrounds him.

And it isn’t until the grey light of morning, when whetto Deputies and their flashlights find the burned up 36 Chevy half ton with New Mexico plates and the blackened primer colored panels. Tires only burnt rubber and stains to the single lane flat blacktop. Then the old man passed out and sleeping with no shoes or pants. The clothes nowhere to be found, perhaps thrown. No signs of burns or melted flesh. There is no sign of his wallet, the empty bottle or his pistola. The men are quick to laugh at such a sight. Hello? they tell him as they slowly wake him. Anybody home?

La Virgen, are the first words they hear him mutter.

spring break and chicago bookstore massacre

Spent some time during my Spring Break vacation riding trains to Chicago and searching out some book stores. And it helped to remind me of all the hours I’ve spent hanging out in used bookstores and comic book stores in the various places I’ve lived–Oregon, Colorado and now Illinois. I have such a love of bookstores and god searching through them.

In Fort Collins I remember walking across town to Halley’s Comics instead of focusing on my engineering studies. Had to walk too because I had no car. Same thing in Colorado walking to Bollinger’s Cards and Magazines in the old neighborhood. Something about finding free time to loiter and read and discover new titles and even new genres—graphic novels to science fiction novels. And I do enjoy small bookstores more than libraries—though I see the importance of libraries. But in my life I spend more time discovering in bookstores than libraries.

But this week I discovered Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago. An incredible selection of underground zines and independent titles. Also found Bookworks Records and CD’s. Here I found yet another copy of Frank Water’s Book of the Hopi—a book I’ve read several times and love finding different editions that include pictures and this one includes photographs I’ve not seen before. Also the cover is much more unique than the newer edition on my shelf. A beautiful 6 dollar find.

And, yes, I guess I could’ve found the book with a tedious online search at my desk and I do love my Think Pad but I’d rather run around streets of Chicago on my time off not knowing what I’m looking for.

Months back I remember reading an article about the massacre of bookstores that was coming because of the e-book reader revolution. The article went on to liken the future of bookstores as being very similar to what happened to record stores after the iPod revolution—a 75% collapse of stores according to the Labor Department. And I guess this is the cost of progress but I have to say the downloading of a song or a text does not compare to the sacredness of an outing and a find like I experienced the other day. Couldn’t help but notice the closing of the Borders Books locations too. One of the first places D took me in Chicago. And of course my whole sense of theory and pedagogy concerning writing and the teaching of writing has to do with reading and the strict study of form. So the loss of bookstores is just progress we’ll have to get used to, I guess. Something else to endure as we find other places to discover zines and less dominant voices.