Why Is The Blood Brown?

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

 

After getting home from school, I put my lunchbox and homework on the kitchen table and went into the bathroom to pee. Next to the toilet was something new: a blue box with the word “KOTEX” on it. The top of the box was open and inside were long white pads. I peed on them a little and the top ones swelled.

I went to my room and made a fort out of my blankets and nightstand. Later, my mom stood in my bedroom doorway and asked, “Why’d you pee on the box next to the toilet?”

“I wanted to know what’d happen.”

“Today your sister became a woman and she needs those. Don’t pee on them.” She left.

The next morning, I found one of the pads wrapped in toilet paper in the bathroom trashcan. I opened it. The inside of the pad was stained brown. I wrapped it in more toilet paper, put it in my jacket pocket, and went to school. Before class began I showed my teacher, Mr Collins, the inside of the pad and asked “What is this brown stuff?”

After school let out, my mom was waiting for me outside of my classroom. When home, we sat at the kitchen table and she tried to explain what the brown stuff was. I don’t remember everything about what she said other than being left with the lingering question: Why is the blood brown on the pad?

After dinner, I asked my sister why her blood on the pad was brown. She pointed to a scab on my elbow and said, “Blood turns brown when it dries.” We went into the bathroom and she pulled the scab off my elbow. Red blood droplets formed. She pressed a white pad against my elbow and the red blood soaked into it. She rolled it up in toilet paper, gave it to me, and said “Check it tomorrow.”

In the morning, I opened it. The blood was brown like my sister’s.

Intimacy

Allen and Jessica said awful things to each other before getting in the car. The dry July air wisped into the open car windows and brushed across Allen’s face. He wanted to smile.

After driving on the freeway for a while, Allen realized he was picking at a gray thread attached to the car door. He didn’t want to argue in the car because there was nowhere for him to pace. He picked at the gray thread for a few more miles.

Jessica stared out the window. The drive to her mom’s house was familiar: the yellow and white freeway daisies, dents in the guardrails, low flying sea gulls.

The silence in the car was broken when Alan said, “I’ve been peeing with the door open for years and now it’s a problem?”

Jessica opened her window a little to let the rest of the silence out of the car. She said, “And for years I’ve asked you to pee with the door closed.”

Allen ran his fingers along the door handle, searching for the gray thread once again.  Finding it, he pulled on the thread until it broke off, and then dropped it to the floor. The sadness from arguing with Jessica began to fade away and the memory of her smile from last year’s church carnival made him laugh. He said, “You remember last year’s church carnival when you wore the jester’s hat and we played with the kids?”

“So.” She uncrossed her arms and relaxed into the seat.

Allen said, “I’ll always remember your smile from that day.”

She poked him in the side and said, “We had fun,” and smiled.

Lost in the Garden

Uncle Ezra sat expressionless in a frayed nylon lawn chair next to his yellowed herb garden. Cigarette butts fell out of the full pie tin ashtray and onto the table as he stubbed out a cigarette.

I sat between Ma and Papa on a shaded bench under the overgrown fig tree. The dew-drying spring morning heat smelled of damp dirt. In my boredom I squirmed side to side, like a wild spirit weighed down by a wet lose-weave blanket.

Uncle Ezra’s coughing fit broke the silence. He gasped to catch his breath, stood up and leaned against the wall with both hands to sturdy himself. I too gasped for air.

“You okay?” Ma asked him.

Uncle Ezra didn’t say anything as he turned to face us. He unbuttoned his shirt and shoved his clenched fists into his pockets and inhaled, deep and deliberate. I too inhaled, deep and deliberate. Our chests barreled and tense with the damp atoms of decomposing fig leaves.

Pasta al Forno

#RecipeStory

Serves: 6

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 1 hour

 

2 lbs penne pasta

2 T olive oil

4 large cloves garlic, chopped

2-16 oz cans whole tomatoes

4 Roma tomatoes, chopped

¼ cup fresh basil, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

2 cups mozzarella cheese, grated

4 eggs

2 T fresh oregano, chopped

 

  1. In a large saucepan, Ma heated the olive oil on medium heat and added the garlic. While the garlic softened, Ma showed Papa my second grade art project: A hand-drawn picture of a hairy Bigfoot holding his dick, peeing on a rock. They whispered to each other, and then Papa yelled at me, “Don’t do it again.” My eyes began to sting from the garlic’s fragrant punch.

  2. Ma added the chopped and whole cans of tomatoes, juice and all, into the saucepan. And then turned the flame to low. As the tomatoes and garlic simmered for 30 minutes, Papa yelled things like, “You upset your mother,” “The principal and teachers don’t like you anymore,” and “Who taught you that, your cousin?”

  3. Ma added the basil to the tomatoes and mixed it in. Papa grabbed me by the arm and forced me into my dinner table seat—next to the wall, under a plate-sized painting of Pope John Paul II. Ma moved the saucepan off heat and kept an eye on me and Papa’s temper.

  4. She brought a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and added the pasta and cooked it al dente. The whole time Papa yelled at Ma and my sisters. He said they walked around the house in their underwear too much and it’s causing me to draw bad pictures.

  5. Ma’s hands were shaking as she turned the oven dial to 375 and as she drained the pasta. They continued to shake while she coated the inside of a large, deep baking dish with olive oil. I too began to shake.

  6. Papa’s yelling got louder. Ma added the pasta, tomato sauce, chopped peppers and onions, cheese, eggs, and oregano to the oiled baking dish and mixed everything together. She slammed the oven door closed after sliding the baking dish onto the middle rack, and yelled back, “Maybe he found the dirty magazines you keep in the garage.”

  7. For the hour while the pasta baked, Papa sat silent in his chair smoking and watching TV. Ma scrubbed the kitchen counters and swept the floor. The picture of Bigfoot holding his dick while peeing on a rock was on the dinner table, right in front of me.

  8. Ma took the pasta out of the oven and let it cool. She put the Bigfoot picture on top of the refrigerator. We sat at the table and ate. No one spoke. After dinner, Ma washed the dishes, Papa went back to sitting in his chair to smoke and watch TV. I sat under the table and flicked breadcrumbs at him.

Ghost Story

The moving truck had left and I was alone in the kitchen of my new home. I opened a cupboard and began tearing decades old shelving paper out. I heard glass break on the floor behind me. I turned around to see a glass pitcher on the floor, whole and unbroken.

Out of nowhere, Martha appeared in the kitchen entry. She looked like my uncle’s ghost, but more yellowed. She said, “Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you.”

“I know,” I said. “I’ve seen my uncle’s ghost for years. ”

“Oh, so you touched the ground where he died?”

“Yes. My uncle shot himself in the head in my grandparents’ garage when I was five. None of the kids were allowed in the garage after that. I did sneak in once and saw a big stain on the floor next to the washing machine. I knelt down and touched it. After that day, my uncle appeared to me every time I visited my grandparents’ house. I called out to him a few times, but he never looked my way or said anything. Where did you die?”

Martha said, “In front of the cupboards, where you were tearing out the shelving paper. He left me for her. I raised three kids in this house, alone. I helped them make science projects on a table we had right here.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I had to do it all by myself. And President Kennedy was about to get us involved in a war with Russia over Cuba. The kids were so scared. Matthew finally came home on a Saturday and said we should divorce. He had a ‘For Sale’ sign in his hand. I went to check on the kids playing in the backyard and when I came back inside he stabbed me in the stomach with a kitchen knife. I screamed and held my stomach. I saw my kids come inside and then I blacked out. After that, all I remember is floating above my body as my husband hurried the kids out and then came back to put a hammer in my hand. Matthew told the kids I tried to kill him. He told the same story to the sheriff, but added because of the divorce.”

“Did he go to jail?”

“I don’t know. But I did see my oldest daughter a while ago. She was beautiful and had kids with her. They stood right outside the kitchen window, looking in.” Martha put her hand on the windowpane.

I heard a car pull up in front of the house. Through the front window I saw my sister Linda walking up the driveway. When I opened the door, she said, “Hey bro,” and poked me in the chubby part of my belly as she walked past. “Here to see the house.”

She hurriedly went room to room and at one point I heard her shout from another room, “Nice place.”

“There’s a ghost living in this house,” I blurted.

“Who’s living with you?” Linda said as she opened and closed closet doors.

“Nothing. Forget it.”

“You’re so weird. I thought you’d grow out of it.” She jingled her car keys in her hand, kissed me on the cheek and headed for the door, “Catch ya’ later, alligator.”

“See ya’, sis.”

“No. Say it.” She smiled, jingled her keys in my face and poked me in the belly.

“Okay, in awhile crocodile. Happy?”

She hurried to her car and hollered, “Congratulations! Someday you’ll get married and have a reason to own a home. Just kiddin’. Love ya’.” She blew me a kiss and drove off.

 

It was getting close to dinnertime, and I wanted to fiddle around with some woodcarving tools I found in my toolbox before I ate. I took them out, placing them on the workbench on the back porch. In the vice grip I tightened a piece of hard, cracked wood. With my left hand, I grasped a chisel, and in my right hand, a hammer.

I struck the head of the chisel with the hammer and it slipped off the wood and cut into my stomach, just below my belly button. I felt warm blood run down my belly, and also a sharp pain deep in my stomach. Blood dribbled, then started to flow when I tugged on the chisel. I fell to the ground and gasped. As I crawled towards the backdoor, everything became fuzzy and heavy. Through the kitchen window overlooking the back porch, I could see Martha looking out at me. I reached my hand out and she did the same.

 

After I died, I glided around the backyard. On the day the new family moved into the house, I leaned against the wall outside the open kitchen window, and talked to Martha. She said, “It’s nice to have kids here again. No offense.”

I said, “None taken.”

One of the kids ran out of the house and across the back porch. The little boy stopped and stared at me.

Not wanting to frighten him, I stood still until the boy approached me. I glided closer to him, squatted down, and said, “Do I frighten you?”

The boy looked me up and down, and said, “Not really. What’s your name?”

I steadied myself, and answered, “I’m Scott. I used to live here until I died on the back porch. What’s your name?”

“Timmy. We moved here from Canada for my dad’s work. When I grow up, I want to drive a bulldozer or be a pirate.”

I laughed and said, “A pirate?”

“Yeah, I want to travel the world on a ship and have gold.”

“That sounds like fun, Timmy.” I sat down on the ground and crossed my wrinkled legs, and he did the same.

The boy’s father yelled out the kitchen window, “Timmy, come in. Mom’s making hot chocolate for us.”

Timmy stood up, and before running inside asked me, “Do you live here?”

I got back on my knee, steadied myself, and said, “Yep. I live right here in the backyard.”

Timmy ran inside and let the door slam behind him. I glided to the kitchen window to get a glimpse of the family. I saw the boy take a seat at the table, and Martha leaning against the kitchen counter. She smiled as the family drank hot chocolate.

“Lost in the Garden”: getting started

Yesterday I raved about the first paragraph of Grace Paley’s story, “A Conversation with My Father.” I envied at how Paley is able to make me keep reading.

Today, I work on the first paragraph of my own story, “Lost in the Garden.” I’ll read and reread it many times. If it bores me after a while, then I’ll get rid of it.

But for now, the paragraph provides me with enough to keep writing.

“My sisters and I called Uncle Joey ‘Uncle Crazy’ because he used to offer us cigarettes when we were kids. I must have been nine when he told me to hold his lit cigarette before he jumped into a neighbor’s yard to pick a pomegranate from their tree. When he came back over the fence, he told me, ‘Keep the smoke.’ He turned from me and lit another one.”

 

Write Every. Single. Day.

Writers love reading. It’s through reading that we see how to begin and end stories, string words together to create an image, and make readers turn the page.

Before I write the beginning of any story, I reread Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father” because the first paragraph is my favorite story beginning.

“My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs any more. It still floods his head with brainy light. But it won’t let his legs carry the weight of his body around the house. Despite my metaphors, this muscle failure is not due to his old heart, he says, but to a potassium shortage. Sitting on one pillow, leaning on three, he offers last-minute advice and makes a request.”

Paley could have just written “His heart is equally old…” but instead added “that bloody motor” to paint a more vivid picture. And the sentence, “It still floods his head with brainy light” seems unnecessary, but instead adds a clear sense of the father’s character. The last few words, “…he offers last-minute advice and makes a request”, leave me wondering about a dying father’s advice and request. I often marvel at an author’s ability to turn words into a reader’s tears. Envy is the sin of every writer.

Write Every. Single. Day.

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My plan is to write. Every. Single. Day.

I’ll begin today with some secrets, lies, and confessions. Consider them a cross between a bio and a literary sex tape:

My father had a pet pig named Franco when he was a kid in Italy.

When I was six I was afraid the Devil would kill me in my sleep, so I slept with a Bible and a cross made out of a dried palm tree fronds. That went on for two years.

Ever since watching the movie E.T., I’ve had a recurring dream that I jump off a curb on my bike and end up flying high in the sky.

When I was in 3rd grade, a girl poked me in my ribs with a sharp pencil during math section. I bled through my light blue t-shirt. Ms. Alexander made Jeannie apologize, and benched her during recess and lunch for two days. All because I told Jeannie I had rib cancer.

I was the only kid on my block to climb Bird Turd Mountain without using a rope. Mike dared me to do it, and so I did. He tried to climb the mountain without rope after me, but slipped and fell to the bottom. That’s how he broke his arm. He told everyone that I pushed him because he reached the top before me.

I gave Scott, my 3rd grade friend, the Playboy magazine that I found under the Festividad bridge. He told his mom how he got it, and we weren’t allowed to play together anymore.

I had a crush on Mrs. Collier, my 5th grade teacher. I pretended not to understand math so I could stay after school with her for tutoring.

I rolled a car tire in front of Patrick as he raced his bike down a hill, pedaling towards the jump ramp. I felt bad for hurting him, and shame when the older boys called me a dick.

Three of my poems were published in my junior high school literary journal. One of the poems was plagiarized from a Styx song, “I’m Okay”, because it described how I was feeling in a way I couldn’t.

I had only 5 absences throughout high school—1 was unexcused.

My cousin, Johnny, and I collected reward money for a lost cat, even though we never found it. We told the upset owner that we saw the cat and it was dead in the street.  We walked with her to a dark oil spot in the street by the corner stop sign. We said the oil spot was blood, and someone must have thrown the cat in the trash.  She gave Johnny and I each $5 for telling her the sad news. A few days after receiving the reward money for the lost cat, I gave it back. The upset owner thanked me for my honesty, and never again waved at me as she drove past.

I quit biting my fingernails and smoking cigarettes on April 3, 2006.

During a lesson on comma usage I jokingly told the students that I was one of four “Comma Experts” in the world recognized by the Modern Language Association. A few students believed me and I never told them the truth.

“Orientation” by Cosimo Giovine

Robert led me to meet the other new hires. We passed through a labyrinth of narrow cubicles, office chatter humming around us. From behind, the seat of his pants sagged like a diaper and and his toupee resembled wet hay.

Upon entering the conference room I took a seat next to a woman who picked vigorously at her cuticles, ignoring the tiny blood droplets that had formed. The other new hire was sitting up straight, his face pale and full of chin, dark hair slick with gel and combed precisely from left to right. The cuticle-picking woman looked up, made eye contact with me, and smiled. Her teeth were white, too white–no doubt from excessive treatments. She said, “Hi,” and the man simply nodded, keeping his head down, eyes fixed on a few employee forms staring up at him.

Robert hurried to the far end of the conference table to retrieve my new employee packet from a box labeled “New Employee’s Forms.” The dark wood tabletop of the conference table glistened and reflected the other two new hires’ faces. From where I sat, their reflections appeared to be grotesque, features twisted and hair hideously spiked, as if on fire. The room got cooler. In that room, quiet as it was, I wanted to speak, let the others know that I too was nervous and unsure of my future. I didn’t want to work as an “administrative assistant.” Like the other MBA graduates, I took what I could get. Like my classmates, my diploma was filed away in a box in a closet next to the loan consolidation forms.

As Robert set a packet before me, he whispered, “Read over these two forms and sign the bottom.” With the tip of a black pen, he pointed to the section of the form titled “Annual Compensation.” He said, “Initial next to the dollar figure.” From the corner of my eye, I saw the other two hires straining to decipher my annual salary and not look obvious about it. Perhaps, the knowledge that they made more or less than me would bring them some comfort—superiority or inferiority was the rule of the new world I was about to enter.

Robert stood across from me, gazed at his watch, and then yawned. On the tabletop, his reflection seemed to have more of a funhouse mirror look to it. The reflection made his eyes seem narrowly spaced, and his mouth stretched wide open, as if in a silent scream. “Just to let you know, this coming up Friday will be my last day. I know you three interviewed with me, and took the job based on the impression that you’ll be working for me. My replacement will be Janie Cortez, the HR Manager. She should be here any moment to introduce herself.”

He stood motionless and quiet, with his arms crossed in front of his chest. Robert started to fidget with the pen in his shirt pocket. My sigh was loud enough that the man and woman looked over at me. In those moments, I questioned my decision to take the job. I was going to be a member of a “support team,” responsible for answering phones, typing offer letters, taking minutes in meetings, and cover phones at breaks.

My thoughts were interrupted when Janie entered the room and said “Good morning” in a low toned yet jovial voice. When I glanced up at her, she immediately made eye contact with me and said, “You must be Frank?”

I said, “Yes, I am,” stuttering on the Y for a moment.

Janie perked up and said, “Don’t be nervous, we’ll get through this together. We’re a team, right? Let’s get to know one another.” She sat next to the man.

After a moment of Janie introducing herself to the two others, I learned their names: Michael and Bertha. They both had recently moved to L.A. from Des Moines and Kansas City, respectively. We all sat at the table quietly as Janie opened her planner. She removed a piece of paper from the front pocket, unfolded and then placed it on the table in front of her. Running her palm over the paper, she tried to iron out the creases. She read from the paper, “I’d like to take a moment and welcome you to the Ameritron Human Resources team. You are going to be part of a team whose goal is to provide excellent service to the company.” Her voice began to crack as she continued, “Although Robert will be leaving his position, I will do my utmost to provide you with premier leadership, resources to perform a stellar job, and a clear vision.” She looked up from the prepared statement and asked, “At this time, what questions do you have?”
I squirmed in my chair, as Robert paced in the small floor space he had staked out. Bertha asked, “Will our jobs be the same as Robert described?”

“Yes.” Janie answered as she unwrapped and placed a yellow throat lozenge on her tongue.

I struggled not to stare at Janie’s reflection on the tabletop. I didn’t want my first impression to be that I didn’t pay attention when she spoke. But I was dying to see how hideous her reflection looked. As she focused on Bertha for a moment, I quickly glanced at her reflection. Each glance allowed me to assemble the refracted images in my mind until what was formed resembled a pieced together face: hair line stitched to her forehead, eyes crudely set into her eye sockets, mouth stapled to her lower face, cheek bones arranged sloppily.

I sat quietly and observed. The Michael and Bertha were struggling to form an intelligent, business-like inquiry of our new boss. The reflections on the tabletop were motionless. Each face warped in the silence.

Janie broke the awkward moment by saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll have fun.” Robert sat down next to me and Janie smiled at him. She repeated, “We’ll have fun.” I wasn’t so sure.

*Original publication at Web Del Sol

Vatican City, Las Vegas

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Vatican City, Las Vegas
Story by F. Rex; art by T. Wolfinger; edits by C. Giovine.
Burbank, CA: ICCC Media Inc., 2006

Reviewer: Cosimo Giovine, December 4, 2007

There are very few revolutionary expressions anymore. But when one comes along, I jump at the chance to support the effort. So recently, when editing the graphic novel, Vatican City, Las Vegas, I worked with the graphic novelist, Fred Rex, to balance the comedic yuks and complex conversation in a text that explores all that’s rebellious, righteous and repugnant. Although not the revolutionary expression of the day, it’s a revolutionary expression that ultimately exposes humanity’s sores.

The characters in Vatican City, Las Vegas are embodiments of once revolutionary ideas. Yet when coaxed into captivity through the lure of material excess, they rattle their mortal cages and eventually dissolve. For Thomas Carlyle, the once celebrated Victorian writer and main character, disintegrates into nothing. His love for the virginal Mona unrequited. His need for a saving drink unmet. His revolutionary ideas perish unrealized.

Once the fires of revolution become self-consuming, damnation follows. For the patron pilgrims of Vatican City, Las Vegas, damnation begins with the hunger for material acquisition and ends with the acquisition of their souls. For Carlyle, his damnation begins and ends in an unconscious state, choking on the remains of his once revolutionary rhetoric. So passeth the author in a city that hath no need of the sun. Blot his name out of the Book of Life.

Get your copy of Vatican City, Las Vegas at Amazon

*Original post: Clark College Library Book Reviews