Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence. Jorge Luis Borges
California. December 1967.
When the woman smiled, the kindly old soul shrank back with a gasp and hid her face. I shifted on my feet until she was safely behind my shoulder, moving so quickly that the women’s plaster grin cracked for a split second. I looked steadily beyond her without blinking. My patience was growing thinner as I measured each tick of the large clock behind her desk. The clock was the only thing on the wall worth looking at, although it was nowhere as beautiful as the exquisite one whose machinery glided around under a glass dome, graceful as the wind on the frozen waters of a winter’s lake somewhere far from her. The quiet air of that imagined lake soothed my feverish mood as I waited for this inanely dressed woman to speak.
I knew that whatever she would say would be a bland as the dress she wore—a sheath, as was advertised in the stacks of useless magazine my father’s wife collected. As far as I was concerned, these sheathes were nothing more than cloth badly sewn into a paper bag. I felt the kindly old soul grimace as the glasses called cat’s eyes trembled with each word that cawed out of the woman’s mouth. I am so happy to welcome you to our school! You are the first colored student we shall have!
Her mouth smiled, but her eyes frowned. As sure as I knew today was Wednesday, I knew she was lying. And, according to the calendar hanging under the clock, its blue letters, red lines, and the flag of the United States of America leaning crookedly in the corner of glaringly bright white paper, it was Wednesday. Not that I needed a calendar to tell me what day today was. I had been marking off the days since the letter had arrived in the middle of the semester. We are pleased to inform you that your child has been selected to attend…
The margins of my diary soon filled with the symbols from Miss Marsha’s book, as I carefully recorded each card I had drawn on each day since the letter had come. The Three of swords. Heartbreaking News. The Five of Swords. Conflicts. Disagreements. The Seven of Swords. Deception. Lies. The Nine of Swords. Anxiety. Fear. Worry. The Ten of Swords. Loss. Painful endings. The Moon. Perilous times. Illusions. Danger. The Tower. Catastrophic change. Chaos. Upheaval. The Devil. Entrapment. A situation from which there is no escape. A road leading nowhere. But, foreboding at the cards had been, I was glad for their guidance, as I now could sit calmly and ignore this woman—whose soul was so parched dry, and whose heart lacked the knowledge which could have taught her that, in some cultures, baring one’s teeth was considered threatening.
Her squawks that were meant to pass for human words got caught in the window screen and squealed to be set free. I felt the kindly old soul peeking out from behind my shoulder, shaking her head in pity as each pitiful sound was ground to dust by the wind. The clock ticked along wearily on its treadmill. Today was Wednesday. I had been born on a Wednesday. Wednesday’s child is full of woe. But, today’s date was also the 20th. The last day of school before the Christmas holidays began. The day white people called Yule, but did not know the meaning of—the day when the Winter Solstice begins, the shortest day of the year, the day on which, as Papa Earl had taught me, the sun send light into the place of the ancients and lights up the dark night of the soul. We can draw light into dark times if we try, he had said as I sat straining through tears to see the waning moon. Now, in this sterile room of formica, lineoleum, and pea soup green walls, I wondered why the sun could not pierce the haze of disinfectant fumes that drifted in from the hallway.
Why had this woman closed the door? And what was she going on about? Why did she have only a few books on the steel shelves stacked along one wall? I watched out the corner of my eye as the kindly old soul perused the shelves, then turned and looked quizzically at me. Policies and Procedures for the Scholl Year 1967-1968. Supreme Court 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98L. Ed. 873 (1954), School District Integration Plan 1967-1968, Civil Right Act 1964 (28 U.S.Ca. 1447), School District Emergency Procedures 1967-1967, What to Do in Case of an Earthquake. I stifled a smile when the kindly old soul giggled at that last title and said, bend over and kiss your behind goodbye. Then I pondered why the only books on that shelf were laws and policies and procedures. Had I, I wondered, been sent to jail, instead of school today. Wednesday’s child is full of woe.
This was the first day, in my entire life, that I had not walked to school. Instead, I had boarded a bus whose driver waved frantically as he approached, urging me to jump on when he barely came to a stop. Papa Earl nodded quietly to me when the driver careened toward the curb. The saddest day of your future will be no worse than the happiest day of your past, if you want it to be, he said. I took the kindly old soul’s hand and boarded the bus and we looked back until all that was left of him was a vague shape, outlined by the smoke from his cigarette, glowing in the dust the bus churned up as it sped off.
The kindly old soul and I were the only riders. The driver bobbed his head nervously at me and watched in the rearview mirror as I carefully chose a seat in the very last row at the back. I knew he would not bother to turn around and see me sprinkle salt on the squeaky-clean aisle and across the leatherette seat, then made it my duty to not look out the window as the bus carried me across town on freeways so wide and long they seemed to have no purpose or destination.
The kindly old soul stared out the window until the glare of the sun on the tarmac made her head reel. Then she began to fidget. I put my arm around her and shook my head. Don’t look out there. Close your eyes. Think of trees. Be still. I waited for her to breathe calmly then began reciting the few lines of poetry I could remember to silence the din of the bus’s tumbling engine as its tires clawed tracks long as napalm trails into the places where once roamed rivers, wind and living life. You have taken the east from me/ you have taken the west from me/ you have taken the moon from me/ you have taken the sun from me. But these lines did nothing but start the kindly old soul to crying. I hugged her closer and whispered, Don’t look out there. Be still. Remember. Think of trees. This seemed to soothe her and when she turned away from the window and listened carefully to me. I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world. She sniffed back her tears and whispered, So, is it true, then? They tried to bury us? They didn’t know we were seeds? I smiled and said, Yes. It’s true. It has always been true. And it always will be. She laid her head on my shoulder, closed her eyes, sighed, and said, So be it then. Yes, I answered, so be it.
It was on the Wednesday before we were to go on a road trip that the letter arrived, announcing that I was to be sent to the brand-new facility that had been built to bring children from all over the County into some vision of what the letter had termed: “a step towards progress in race relations.” The argument that had ensued had been enough to start my nose to bleeding and my head to pounding again. My father had stated firmly he did not want me going to school so far from home. Don’t you see, he said, his eyes flaring with anxiety, what those people do when our children are sent to their schools?
But his wife insisted it was an honor I had been chosen to be the first child from our area to participate in the school desegregation plan. They won’t treat her bad—they must see some potential in her. Papa Earl reckoned that whatever potential I had would come out anywhere, since, as he put it, what’s for her shall surely not go past her. Ma Fannie had only said, come in the kitchen and let me make you some peppermint tea. When I shook my head and looked away, I could feel the hurt in her eyes and felt ashamed. Then, as the argument between my father and his wife escalated, I turned and left the room without anyone seeming to know I had gone.
I wondered what stroke of bad luck had caused them to choose me. I was about to finish primary school at the top of my class and Mr. Lopez had promised he would do all he could to get me into a debate club program for the summer. You’ve got something, he had told me, something sharp, something quick, something brave. You must shape it into something special. Even though I would be working with Ma Fannie on the evenings when the people she cleaned for required silver service for their dinner parties, Mr. Lopez said he could drive me to the debate club in the afternoon, and take she and I to work straightaway after it concluded.
Then the notice was sent around the school that the district was looking to choose children for the desegregation program. We had been assembled in the cafeteria to listen to the principal proudly read the announcement aloud. She admonished us to be on our best behavior when the district officials came to visit and remember that being bused 15, 20, or 30 miles away would give us opportunities we would never have the chance at ever again. Ever again, as if the mountains would crumble to the sea before the district ever noticed us again. She didn’t say that last bit, but that’s how I heard it. And, as I walked slowly while the rest of the children streamed excitedly around me, I wondered why the principal’s talk had not made me as giddy as them.
On the day of the school district officials’ visit, I made myself vomit and stayed home. For weeks, I overheard thrilled whispers between my father’s wife and her best friend, as they poured over the Sears and Penney’s catalogues. The kindly old soul slipped in and peeked over their shoulders, then hurried back to tell me they were choosing new clothes for me. I shrugged and asked her to help me lay pin a large piece of drawing paper onto the wall. For the rest of the evening, she and I drew our memories of the canyon, then let Papa Early come in and add a rendering of the things he remembered from his boyhood days in Ireland. Even though his rowan and birch trees stood taller than our manzanita and mesquite did, they blended in nicely, and we kept at the drawing until we finally heard the screen door slam. Then we took a moment to bask in the silence lifted its weary head to a moon that gazed down on our devastated area like a mother hen who realizes her chicks have been lost and has no notion as to where to begin looking for them.
Papa Earl rambled off to bed and the kindly old soul fell asleep before I could tell her the moon needed someone to talk to. I longed to go sit on the canyon ridge and chat with it while waiting for the bobcat to venture out for its evening stroll. Or to wander up to Miss Marsha’s and have her read my palm. Your head and heart line are long and strong. You think. You feel. And you do both at the same time. So, look. Listen. And remember. You are il Mago, a master of words. So that one day you may tell others of the things that are in their own hearts in a way that will make them think and wonder how those things came to be there. If old Golla Jack was still around, I could take a bag of sugar cubes over to him for Mawu and Lisa. The doll I had name after them snuggled close to the kindly old soul as I closed my eyes and remembered the tinkling sound of the bells in La Senora’s shop. I wondered if Mr. and Mrs. Chin were happy living in the home the County had built for all the old people whose stores and homes they had knocked down. I could not reckon how they would have space for their altar and incense in one of those places.
The moon waited for me to speak. In the sky, nobody is asleep. Nobody. Nobody. I felt ashamed to make the moon sky. But I had no choice. The truth was that what she was looking for was gone. Let there be a landscape of open eyes. It was no use searching and no use waiting. Gone were the coyotes, the bobcat, the jackrabbits, the frogs, the fish, the river, the willows, the aroma of sage rising up at night and dew in the morning. Let there be a landscape of open eyes and bitter wounds of fire. I looked up for a long time before I closed the curtains and was grateful for the tears that blurred my eyes. Forgive me, I whispered to the weeping moon, whose sorrow I could not bear. Another day we will watch the preserved butterflies rise from the dead. Then I forgave myself for saying these cruel things to the constant and patient moon by jumbling up the lines of mine and Mr. Lopez’s favorite poem. One day, another day, we will watch the sky fall from the eyes of cows, one day, another day, forgetfulness will not exist, one day, another day, we will fall down the stairs to eat the moist earth, one day, another day, we will wake to dream again.
Apparently, I was the only child chosen for the desegregation plan because the school officials had read my poetry in the district magazine. I remained steady and did not blink when Mr. Lopez shook his head and explained how his enthusiasm for my poetry had called attention to me. I only wanted you to be in the magazine. I never wanted this for you. Never. I am sorry. I will miss you.
You will not miss me. I’m not going.
Are you certain about that?
Yes. I am certain.
Well. Good. Now. Here. I’ve found a book I think you will like.
I retreated to my room with while my father argued with his wife about the letter. The kindly old soul looked up from her drawing, her head titled, waiting for an explanation of their bickering. I simply shook my head, gathered my diary, pens, and carved box, and searched for the new map of the city that my father had brought home one day, shaking his head, and muttering, How can anyone get to work on those freeways, all crossed up over each other, and everyone driving like bats out of Hell, you can’t see where to get on or come off, it is nothing less than vexation. I let the kindly old soul rest her chin on my shoulder and watch as I traced the route from our area to the new suburb with the new school that would house the experiment of progress in race relations. As my finger scanned what used to be an endless stretch of chaparral, she drew back with a gasp and said, But, that’s in the fire path! I shook my head and sighed. Yes. I know that. We know that. But it looks like they don’t know that. She frowned and said, Or…maybe…they just don’t care?
The sudden understanding of what she had said made my head reel. I peered at the map and realized that the new freeway cut right through the place where we had once seen fire leap the river and roar its way through the brush. We had been out collecting cactus apples, and carefully taking the older leaves to make nopales when the sound of pine cones bursting open in the distance alerted us to stand back from the edge of the mesa. My father’s silhouetted smile glowed against the flame and the joy in his voice was contagious. Hear that? That’s the news seeds coming forth! Every year when the fires come, they heat up the pine cones and burn the dirt clean so more trees will grow! And all we could do was laugh as the kindly old jumped up and danced happily in the shower of seeds that was soon falling harder than February rain.
My mind raced as I remembered that landscape. They had built the school in the fire path. They had destroyed those ancient pines. They had filled the rich burnt earth with concrete. They had forced the river underground and choked it with the mile-high piles of boulders they had ripped out of the skin of the mountains. I shuddered when I realized that these were the same kind of people who had murdered our canyon. And, it seemed, there were a lot of them. Everywhere. They were just one more battalion in this war that we were fighting. Lines from a poem Mr. Lopez had once recited to me flitted through my head and flowed out of my mouth. So shock I was to realized what we were witnessing that I jumbled them into a version that made sense to me: Homeland: a mutilated territory/who at night frightens the frog?/thunder of the storm/I hear your complaints/crack the skeletons in pairs/I hear what went.
My muttering caused the kindly old soul to draw back in horror and search for Miss Marsha’s carved box. She placed it in front of me and gently opened the lid as I continued to let poetry answer my questions. When the pains raged on the earth/it reared in the transient dawn/the earth shaken with knives/and, as before, the raptors/ the moon sleeps on the mounts/Death stacked and divided/the dream hides/ your knife divides heritage/the from the remote past/Time grows silent. The kindly old soul reached delicately into the box and lifted the tarot cards out. When she saw me shake my head, she put them back into their velvet pouch and raised her eyebrows as I took up old Golla Jack’s knife and began to slice pages of my diary into thin horizontal strips. Then she smiled and began handing me every red colored pencil. she could find until the lines I meticulously copied the new book Mr. Lopez had given me flowed like blood that I mixed to offer to the moon in hopes it would help her healed this forced sterilization of the land. As I wrote, I remembered something my father had said once whilst we were tending our vegetable patch: How can anything grow in this vexation?
How, indeed? And, who were these creatures who were vexing us so? I tried to distinguish the vague memory of their faces that the principal had displayed on the bulletin board outside her office. I found there was nothing worth remembering about them. They all looked the same, with their faces of unbaked bread dough and their lizard smiles. It was then I realized I could not refuse to take the bus along their freeway to what they called progress. I could not hide from them, shrink back from them, seek to avoid them. I had to walk straight into their midst and see them up close. I had to discover who they were, where they had come from, and where they were going. Once, I had believed I would be one of the seeds that would grow in the place where the buried me. Now, I understood I was one of the seeds that the fire path would send flying up into the sky, to land on the scorched earth and grow into a tree so tall that, long after I was gone, people might climb up into its branches and see, hear, feel, remember and know. See what I see. Hear what I hear. Feel what I feel. Remember what I remember. And, most of all, know what I know. That nothing can grow with all this vexation. And only we can still it.
The woman in the paper bag dress was still squawking. The kindly old soul had curled herself up on the steel shelves and were napping. I was thinking of moonbeams and butterflies and didn’t notice when the woman took off her cat-eye glasses and squealed: And, I’ve heard so much about you! They tell me you are a poet! Is that true? I kept my mind focused on the tears the moon had wept as I had packed my schoolbag the night before. You musn’t go. You promised you wouldn’t go. Don’t go.
I must to go.
But. They are dangerous. Don’t go.
I am not afraid of them.
But. What will you take for your journey?
I had longed to reach up and cradle the moon in my arms. For a while, we gazed at one another. Then I had held up the new book Mr. Lopez had given me. She gazed upon it and sighed.
A book? Only a book? Why not take Gu’s knife?
I smiled and shook my head.
No. That is what they will be expecting. Because they do not know: the pen is mightier than the sword.
The moon blinked hard then filled my heart with joy when she smiled.
And you are Il Mago—the magician—the master of words.
Yes. I am.
The radiance in her eyes sent light flowing through the darkness in my soul.
Then I shall watch over you as you go. But. Are you not afraid?
I smiled as the kindly old soul laughed, shook her head, and rushed to answer.
No. She is not afraid.
Then the moon nodded and closed her eyes to still her tears. I watched as she began to doze and whispered, No. I am not afraid.
I felt sorry for this woman in the paper bag dress. Surely, she was raising her blood pressure from the strain of trying so hard to be nice to me. I quietly searched her eyes and saw the emptiness in them squeezing the soul from her heart. I wondered where her blood had gone. Had it dried up, like a raisin in the sun? Had it been bleached to nothing by the glare off the relentless sun of the suburb where she existed? Had it stopped coursing in her veins, much in the same way her dreams had stopped running toward their destiny? How had she become so dead that she could sit stiffly for hours in this steel-beam, concrete place that had been slapped so hastily in the fire path that no seeds would burst from her when the season came?
Yes, ma’am, I said so quietly that I felt her shudder, I am a poet. Would you like a poem?
Something stirred in the room. I glanced over at the steel case. The kindly old soul lay in sweet repose, dreaming of the river. The something stirred again. I waited for it to show itself. But all I could see was the last flicker of the flame of youth in the paper bag dress woman’s pulse. I gazed for a while at her carefully manicured hands that had never known the delight of dirt under their nails, or the rush of a stream over their fingers, or the warm cadence of a kitten’s purring. The wedding band she wore sent cruel shards of brash light from its blood diamonds. I squinted and let them bounce around the room until they splattered against the walls like bugs on a windshield. Then the something stirred again as the woman’s smile carved more lines into her face and raised her voice another octave.
Oh, yes, please! Do you have one handy?
I nodded and took out the new book Mr. Lopez had given me. As I flipped through the pages, I said, Well, yes, ma’am, I do. But, if you will pardon me, ma’am, I do not have my own poems with me. They are at home in my diary. But, I do have the poems in this book—but, sorry, ma’am, they are in Spanish. But, with all due respect, ma’am, if you do not understand Spanish, I can translate one for you. Will that be all right, ma’am?
The kindly old soul roused and giggle at the astonished look on the woman’s face. Surely, it had raised her blood pressure again, so I waited for the it, and the redness that had invaded her face, to fade. The something surrounded her and she shifted in her chair, then picked up a letter opener and fiddled with it as she waited for me to begin. I kept my eye in it and remembered the moon’s lament: But. They are dangerous. Then I reminded myself that the pen is mightier than the sword and knew that I was safe when her voice weakly said, Why, yes, that would be wonderful.
Then I nodded and thought of Mr. Lopez as I began to read: Water hollows stone/wind scatters water/stone stops the wind/Each is another and no other/crossing and vanishing/through their empty names/water, stone, wind. When I finished, the something had left the room and the paper bag dress woman’s letter opener had clamored to the floor when her mouth dropped up then shut quickly, like a fish gasping for air in a net. The kindly old soul grinned widely and nodded at me when the woman’s stuttering voice belched from her throat.
My, my, my goodness? Where? Wh—? Wherever? Did a N-n-n-egro ch-child ever -l-learn to r-read like that?
I smiled at her until her breathing stilled. Well, with all due respect ma’am, where I live, there are a lot of people from Mexico. I’ve heard Spanish since I was born.
Is that so? I. See. And, this poem? Who wrote it?
Octavio Paz, ma’am—a Mexican poet.
Oh. I see. Well. Imagine that. I never knew Mexicans wrote poetry.
Yes, ma’am, they do indeed.
And. You. You write poetry.
Yes, ma’am, I do indeed.
Well. If I must say so, your stay at our school will be interesting indeed. She tried to draw herself up taller in her chair, but could not muster the strength to resume smiling. Well. Welcome to our school. Now. Go on down to the secretary’s office and she will take you to your classroom. I wish you the best here.
I took my time arranging my new book carefully in my bookbag. Then I fumbled around to make sure my pencil case was securely closed. The kindly old soul began to laugh as the woman’s face reddened again. She stared at me, but did not say another word. I felt the stride in her step slow down as I meticulously rearranged my composition books and pouch of rulers, erasers, compasses, and math geometry tools. Then I stood up, smiled at her again, and enjoyed the tremor that flittered over her mouth.
Thank you, ma’am.
The kindly old soul fell laughing off the steel shelves when I curtsied, then hurried to catch up with me as I backed carefully out of the room. As my hand touched the door handle, the paper bad dress woman’s voice suddenly spurted forth from her mouth.
That poet? What did you say his name was, again?
Octavio Paz, ma’am.
And he’s a Mexican?
Yes, ma’am, he is.
And, the poem? What does it mean? I, well, I didn’t, quite get it if you know what I mean.
Why, yes, ma’am, I do indeed know what you mean. But, with all due respect, ma’am, I suppose a poem can mean whatever you want it to mean, if you know what I mean, with all due respect, ma’am.
Yes. Well. Yes. Well. I suppose you might have a point there. Now. Run on down to the secretary. And best of luck here.
As we made our way down the slime green hallway, the kindly old soul and I leaned on one another, whispering to one another. We’ve seen one of them up close. One of them who does not know who Octavio Paz is. One of them who does not know that Mexicans wrote poetry. One of them who does not know colored children could understand Spanish. One of them who wears dresses that looked like paper bags. One of them who wears glasses shaped like a cat’s eyes. One of them who does not know what a simply poem meant. One of them who reaches for something, anything, that could become a weapon, when they realize we know something they don’t know. One of them whose blood dried up so long ago they cannot remember the warmth of the sun, the tenderness of the moon, the song of the river, or the stores the wind tells you when you’re listening.
The moon was right. They are dangerous. I couldn’t wait to get home and let her know there was no need to worry about me. Or any of us, for that matter. Yes. They are dangerous. But, the most danger they can do is to themselves. Anyone who cannot understand a poem is doomed to die without ever living. Now I understood why they waged war by plowing us under. The rhymes of the wind, the verses of the river, the lyrics of the leaves in the trees, the ballads of the rain, the stanzas of the air, and the epics of the land was something they could not understand. But we had nothing to fear. They would continue to try to bury us. But, as long as we had pens, we could stand against their swords. And, even if they denied us paper, we would not stop making poems, even if it meant writing them in blood across the moon, whose sanguine tears would fall and nourish us to stay strong until we won this war.
With much love and thanks to the poets quoted in this piece: Federico Garcia Lorca, Langston Hughes, Octavio Paz, Ramón López Velarde, Pablo Neruda, Salvador Novo, and the bards of ancient Ireland.
A Memoir of the Writing Life
If you think you are too small to make a difference, you have not spent the night with a mosquito.
California. Autumn 1967.
Miss Marsha told me I was a magician. The magician can take the air, the earth, the fire, the water, and make things right. That’s what the book says. I believe what the book says. I have been doing what the books says. I have put salt everywhere. There is some across the front step and some across the back. There is some on every windowsill. I put it on the sidewalk and on the place where the roads come together. I take salt with me everywhere and I leave it everywhere. And every time I throw it, I say: In this time, on this hour I fill this salt with ancient power,
with this salt a circle is made, to protect all within both night and day. No evil shall pass, no spirit shall see all whose in this circle be. So mote it be. It is very important to be sure to say: So mote it be. That’s the magic part. The mote. Salt is a very tiny thing. It is a mote of a thing. But it has more power than any of the machines.
I saw them take a machine over to the corn field across the road from the dairy. Dad says they are going to plow that field under. And he said the milk tastes funny now because the machines are spooking the cows. So I put the salt in front of the dairy last Sunday. Nobody was over there. Nobody saw me. Mr. Garcia came to talk to Dad on Monday. I heard him say something went wrong in the cornfield. The machine turned over and the man who was driving it got hurt.
I am sorry about that. I did not mean to hurt that man. I was feeling bad about it until Papa Earl said: Must have been the fé folk what did that. Then the kindly old soul just started to laugh and I remembered how you have to ask the fairies if you can do something before you do it. If you do not ask they will get vexed and do something to you. Like Ma Fannie says: ‘taint no coming back when the aziza done do you something. Miss Marsha called them the Zana. Mr. Garcia calls them the encantados. That is funny because where we live is called encanto. I think we have a lot of fairies here. And I think they like my magic. Now I do not feel so bad about that man getting hurt.
Let them plow us under. We are seeds. I see. I listen. I remember. I write. I am il Mago—the Magician.
Three is a magic number and three things happened all at once on Monday. The machine turned over, the man got hurt, and the dairy cows got spooked and broke down the fence. I was walking home from school and the cows were running every which way. Mr. Garcia was shouting to me. Quédate quieto—no te muevas! Stand still-do not move! I stopped and just stood there and the cows went around me and kept going until they got to the ridge of the canyon. There was nothing for them to do but stand there, so they did just that. And everyone came out to look at them but no one tried to make them go back to the dairy because scared cows are hard to move.
The kindly old soul thought this was the funniest thing she had ever seen. She was laughing so hard she had to just sit down and bend over and hold her stomach. I went and sat with her and used my schoolbooks to keep the sun from beating down so hard on my head. Hush! I kept telling her. You’re going to make me start laughing too. It was hard not to laugh at the white men who had shouted at the cows as they knocked down the fence that was around the corn field. That fence was meant to keep people out of the field while the machines were plowing it under. But I reckon they didn’t think about how the cows could just run right through it. They had made it out of some skinny little posts and some kind of something that looked like a fish net made out of plastic. The kids had fiddled with the net and it was easy for even the smallest boy to tear it. How those white men thought that fence was good for anything was beyond our comprehension. My father’s wife just shook her head and said: White folks don’t think nothing through a’tall, do they?
Everyone stood around for a while, talking about the cows. A few children went up and petted their noses. The cows didn’t seem afraid anymore and some started walking around and chewing on the dandelions. After a while the men who worked at the dairy came and stood around talking to everyone about the cows. No one had any dogs who could herd them so the only thing to do was wait until the cows were feeling lazy and use a few sticks to get them together and moving back to the dairy. Someone said something about how it was a shame that old man Golla Jack’s place had been knocked down, because the two horses he had would have come in handy to get the cows rounded up. When she heard this, the kindly old soul stopped laughing and sighed. I miss them. The horses. And old man Golla Jack too.
I put my arm around her and hugged her so she would not start crying. This was the first time she had laughed in such a long time that I didn’t want the joy to leave her so soon. But she was right—we missed them. His place had been one of the first that they tore down and no one ever knew what happened to the horses. But we all knew what had happened to old man Golla Jack. He had got into a big fuss with the white men from the County about a year before they kicked him out of his place. Dad said it was a disgrace that the County only wanted to give him a few thousand dollars for his four acres. That, everyone agreed, was only enough to pay for a year or two in a nursing home—a place old man Golla Jack said he’d never stay in anyway.
I reckoned he was about a hundred years old, because he wore clothes than Ma Fannie said nobody had worn since her granny’s days, and he didn’t have a tooth in his mouth or a hair on his head. But he still could ride just as fine as anyone. Every morning he’d take a saunter through the canyon on Lisa, while Mawu followed behind them. Someone had asked him what kind of name was Mawu for a horse—they reckoned it was old man Golla Jack’s toothless way of trying to say Maurice. He had just shook his head, kissed his teeth, and said, Y’all so ig’nant. Mawu mean Mawu-Lisa. That be a Afric name fo’ God. After that, no one, except me, asked him anything more about anything at all and just said behind his back he was a cantankerous old man. But one day, some years before, I had met him on a morning walk in the canyon and asked him if I could ride Mawu. He had grinned and told me, Sho, now you know what he name mean, don’t ya? I had looked very serious and said, Mawu is the African name for God. And from that day on I’d do my best to meet him once in a while to take a ride and listen to his stories of Africa.
My father’s wife always said: That old man is crazy as a bedbug—thinkin’ he come from Africa—and you gone go crazy listening to him. But, even though it was sometimes hard to catch all his words—not only because of his teeth, but because he talked what they called geechee—I did not go crazy listening to him. And, from what he told me, he most likely was from Africa. Because even though old man Golla Jack had been born on an island somewhere near the state of Georgia, he said a lot of words did sounded African. When we saw turtles lazing in the sun by the river, he said, See de coota dere. When Mister Jones’s wife had called him a crazy old man, he had shook his head, kissed his gums and said, Nah, tittuh, onliest mad oonuh be oonuh, ya daf’ ooman, oonuh. Enty? I like that last word that he usually ended his sentences with—enty? Isn’t it? and I used it whenever I could, but the only person who seemed to understand me was the kindly old soul.
And I liked to sit with old man Golla Jack in the shade while he let Mawu and Lisa nyam all the tender water shoots they could find along the river and listen to him tell tales of how the buckruh came at day clean and told his people they had to move off their island so a beach resort could be built. Dem krak teeth mighty bad on we, tell we they gwine mash up all a we wegitubble and ting. And dat be jus wot de do, enty? Come mash up e’ting, e’ting. And dunna give we but t’ree day ta gwine. Me I jus’ start a walk way when dey leave we in da city bus place. I jus’ start a walk way. Me no have nobody, ya see, enty? Me pa, me ma, me sistuh, all a dey gwine and lef’ me when I no bigger dan dat dere reed dere and ma granny she drop down on count a de vexation dem buckra bring. So how I gwine live in one room in dat city like dat? So I jus’ start a walk way and come to da railroad track and jump de train and ride and ride and when dat train come to da end, here I be, here in dis here place and dat be dat. Nah, now, I canna tell ya what time dat was, but I canna tell ya it be da Jap’nis man what say ta me, can ya handle horse and I say, sho’, I can handle horse, on count I be mighty full up a hungry in dem day, now, I dunna ken nothin’ bout no horse, but I learn quick, some dem round here say, he crazy and all dat, but how many a dem learn a handle horse? Now, ya see oonah, now, oonah can handle horse, see how Mawu like ya so well, ya got somethin’ dere in ya, oonah do. Oonah be lickle mo’ dan a lickle ting but oonah got somethin’ dere in ya. Mawu be part a Mawu-Lisa, dat be da God a Afric’, so my gran tell me, and she be from Afric’, enty, so she know a what she krak teet. Now, bumbye, Mawu and Lisa, dem dere, dey be so full a power come like dey bout ta run over e’vy livin’ ting so see wot dey do now, dey take one big snake and dey wrap it round dey world so de world dunna come ta piece. Dem dere Mawu and Lisa dey name mean soon come and let me tell oonah dis—when dem come dem come strong, ya hear? Now, ya canna call dem ta come—nah, ya canna—but ya can call dem friend—and da mighties’ a dem friend be Gu—him be da smitty, make de shoe for de horse and whatnot—but, here, listen good now—him know a make all ting a iron, so oonah need some a dem ding—knife, dem ting—oonah jus’ call on Gu and Gu fix oonah right up fine.
It was Gu’s knife that old man Golla Jack had in his hand when he came out on his porch to tell the County men he was not intending to go anywhere. The kindly old soul and I had hidden under one of the river willows and watched the white men tackle him as shouted: I dunna move fo’ no buckra no’ more! Downriver from us, Mawu and Lisa raised their heads and began to whimper when the white man dragged him off the porch and held him down as one of them slapped the eviction notice on the front door. Mawu and Lisa became agitated and whinnied as loudly as they could. But the white men made such a ruckus of throwing old man Cunnigham off his place that no one heard them except us, and before I could stop her, the kindly old soul got up and ran straight at the grieving horses.
Run! Go! she shouted. Run!
For a moment, Mawu and Lisa simply stared at her, blinking their eyes in pain from the hurt her words left in their heart. I did my best to be brave as Mawu looked at me, waiting for me to come to her and ease her sorrows. But I stood still and made sure not to cry when she finally understood there was nothing I could do to stop the white men from taking old man Golla Jack away. Then she turned and followed Lisa and before I could blink twice, all that was left of them was the dandelion dander they kicked up, drifting down around us like snow. The kindly old soul dropped down on the riverbank and hid her face in her hands as the car door of the white men slammed and locked. I scrambled up the ridge and followed their car for as long as I could, before the filthy gasoline exhaust fumes made me dizzy and my nose began to bleed. I stood still and stared at the back of old man Golla Jack’s hat—the only thing I could see of him in the car—until my eyes began to blur and nothing was left of him to me but a memory.
Maybe it is my fault. I should have put salt on old man Golla Jack’s porch. That would have stopped the white men from taking him away. It would have made their car stall. Or it would have made the tires go flat. Or something. I should have done that. And I should have said: In this time, on this hour I fill this salt with ancient power, with this salt a circle is made, to protect all within both night and day. No evil shall pass, no spirit shall see all whose in this circle be. So mote it be. It is very important to be sure to say: So mote it be.
That’s the magic part. The mote. Salt is a very tiny thing. It is a mote of a thing. And I am a mote of a thing too. A very tiny thing. A lickle ting, Golla Jack called me. Oonah be lickle mo’ dan a lickle ting but oonah got somethin’ dere in ya. And this knife of his—the knife he called on Gu to give him—it is a little thing, a tiny thing, a mote of a thing. The kind of knife that Dad calls a pen knife. What old man Golla Jack thought that knife could do against those white men is beyond me. It didn’t take more than a minute for them to take it from him and throw it away. But it was not lost, because I found it. Old Golla Jack would not want me to cry, so I didn’t cry. But my eyes burned when I saw it laying in the dirt of his vegetable garden that the white men tore out. The carrots for Mawu and Lisa had just sprung. They were sweet and tender and as we sat under the willow, the kindly old soul cried while I ate them.
Don’t worry, Luldja, do not be so sad, my friend. Let thing be. Let things fall. It is the way of things. Let them plow us under. Let them bury us. Little do they know. We are seeds. I am a mote of a thing, a very tiny thing, a lickle thing. But I have something in me. I see. I listen. I remember. I write. I have everything I need to make my way in this white man’s world. I am Il Mago—the Magician.
Miss Marsha would be happy to know I have put old man Golla Jack’s knife in the carved box she gave me. The more the white men come with their machines, the more things I put in the box—dandelions, mugworts, poppies, daisies, bugbane, bellflowers, honey bells, clovers, cow parsley, goldenrods—the flowers I press into the pages of the book with its carvings of moons, stars, suns and spells, the seeds I kept in pieces of tissue paper where I use the pen and ink Mister Chin gave me to write the names of every kind I can find. I now know the name for the doll La Senora gave me. I will call her Mawu-Lisa. Soon come. One day, something, will come soon to stop the moon from crying as it watches us sleep through another of the last nights of peace. One day, something will come soon to tell us how to win this war that no one knows when it started and no one knows when it will end. One day, something will come soon to stop the machines.
Or, maybe, one day, someone will soon come. Maybe it will be the spirits who hide under the ground, waiting until the white men to finish whatever it is they are doing, waiting to come back with Gu’s knife to cut away all they have done. Maybe it will be the fé folk, the azziza, the Zana, the fairies, who will come to take back what was took without their permission. Maybe it will be Mawu-Lisa. Or, maybe, it will be someone small, a tiny more of a thing, a lickle ting with something it it—maybe, someday, it will be me.
A Memoir of the Writing Life
In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.
California. September 1967.
It was far too hot to be tramping around in the heat—but we were. The kindly old soul loyally followed me from one board up storefront to the other while I struggled to contain the growing headache and nausea. The Boulevard’s old trees had been uprooted and tossed in wood chip machines and the sun glared down at us as if it was tired of seeing the blight that progress had brought to our neighborhood. I did not want to see it either. But I had no choice. My old diaries were full, my pens had run out of ink and I needed to replenish them. If I did write it down, all that I was seeing, all that I was hearing, and all that I would remember, would remain haunt my head and my heart forever.
My first diary and pens had come from a tiny shop attached to a tiny house, whose one window storefront was only 6 feet wide but was also 12 feet high and was fitted with shelves that displayed a fascinating assortment of treasures and oddities. Wondrously named El Emporio de la Madrugada—Emporium of the Dawn—it consisted of one long room whose walls were covered in collages made from flowers clipped from newspapers, magazines and wrapping paper, and whose merchandise was stocked in the most eccentric manner. There were barrels filled with random lengths and types of cloth, balls of yarn, miles of ribbon, and second-hand doll’s clothes. Small tables held unmatched miniature dinnerware, delicately etched, tiny, random pieces of colored glassware, snow globes, intricately painted little wooden toys and figurines, blown glass animals, rocks cut open to reveal the worlds of glittering colorful world hidden within them, and small items made of brass that ranged from candlesticks to dinner bells to boxes in all shapes. Scattered everywhere where bowls full of shimmering glass beads, carved and pearl buttons, and spools of mercerized thread.
But the most alluring part of the shop were the long glass display where dolls whose porcelain faces were painted in human hue had wide eyes that smiled at every child who pressed a nose against that glass to be nearer to them. Dressed in elegant clothing of velvet, lace and crinoline, the dolls sat in the midst of chess sets, backgammon boards, checkers, dominos, playing cards, stacks of brown paper covered sketch books, wooden boxes of pastels, charcoals, oil and water paints, colored pencils, gum erasers, black erasers, artist’s brushes, chisels, daub tips, bottles of ink, pen nibs, leather bound diaries with marbled embossed page edges, and so many other things that I imagined they were never bored.
The dolls were not for sale. According to the shop’s owner, a tiny woman with a very large name—Ana Maria de la Cerda y de Lara—they all had been in her family for four generations. La Senora Cer-la, as we called her, was happy to talk for hours–to anyone who would listen—about her family. The dolls, she proudly told us, had belonged to her 4th great grandmother, a valiant woman who had firmly held her ground when the Americans had overrun Mexico and claimed California for their own. All this place was my family’s hacienda, she declared, and it is my duty to remain here until the end. My father’s mother–whose own grand-father and husband’s grandfather had arrived in California three years after the Americans–did not recall any stories being passed down to her about a Spanish family named Cerda or Lara, or anything else La Senora said, for that matter. But no one ever questioned La Senora’s stories of vaqueros and senoritas who hid their faces behind lacquered fans and covered their heads in lace mantillas, and even though most of the old people agreed she was not quite all there in the head, the sincere nostalgia in her heart filled her shop with a welcoming warmth that kept up a lively business of visitors who not only listened attentively to her tales but always purchased a little something just to make sure her door stayed opened.
Every one of my diaries, pencil and pen sets had come from La Senora’s shop and on the Saturday mornings when my elders took me shopping along the Boulevard with them, I always managed to call in to her even if her shop was not on their route. So long as I did not lose any of the bundles and bags that carried their purchases, no one mined me slipping away to chat with her while they refreshed themselves with beer and lemonade. I was one of the few people La Senora let touch the dolls. Anytime I’d come to visit her, she would carefully remove one from the case and let it rest on my lap while she told me a tale of Spanish California. The kindly old soul enjoyed wandering around and quietly touching whatever took her fancy. Is that one a magpie, La Senora always asked me. When I’d assure her that nothing would float mysteriously out of the shop whilst we chatted, she’d simply smile and say, Ah, ok, well, then, have I ever told you of how la senorita Bandini threw herself from a balcony and into the arms of the man who would become her husband?
I knew that story and I also knew it was not true. Because Senorita Bandini’s husband was my fourth great-uncle. Of sorts. He was actually the cousin of my great-grandfather on my father’s side. My father’s mother did not have much nice to say about him. He hated Mexicans, Indians, Negroes and with people who he couldn’t get something from, was the most she’d ever said. The only reason his name was ever otherwise mentioned was to recount how my great grandfather had used the fact of his mother’s Negro blood infusing Johnson’s family line to his advantage. Even though the local newspapers described my great grandfather as a servant of Johnson’s uncle, the fact of the matter was that he was actually the son of Johnson’s uncle.
This served him well when he arrived in San Diego only a few years before Johnson died and his son was mortified to find he had a half-Negro cousin the same age of himself. Although no details were ever explained, it seems my great grandfather was given a pretty penny to keep up the lie of only sharing a last name with the allegedly illustrious family due to the institution of slavery.
But La Senora never seemed to notice my tawny skin color and she certainly did not speak to me of any intimate liaison of this self-professed Indian killers and Mexican haters, other than that of the marriage between himself and the most darling daughter of Bandini family. That romanticized coupling-for-profit situated them at the head of one of the largest landowning Spanish families of the County. La Senora insisted it could have easily been her own ancestors who married the upstart American, because while the Bandini’s were rich, the women of my family were beautiful. But beauty meant nothing to the American unless it could be turned into cold hard cash and came with thousands of acres of land. And so it was, that La Senora’s family drifted into poverty-ridden obscurity, leaving her no chance at finding a wealthy American husband, or even a poor formerly glorious Spanish one either.
The last mansion built in San Diego that sounded remotely Spanish was a whimsical thing called the Villa Montezuma, fashioned by an Englishman who claimed to have toured the royal courts as Europe as a musician. I never understood why someone associated with royalty would build a house in our area. But La Senora assured me that where we lived now had not always been a place of dusty streets, tiny houses, even tinier shops and fields of strawberries and tomatoes. Oh no, she sighed, when I was born, this was an elegant neighborhood indeed.
According to the things she claimed to have seen in her lifetime, La Senora must have been at least 100 years old. But my father’s mother, who had been born in 1892, did not recall ever seeing her, or even hearing of her family, until just after the stock market crash in 1929. How she had come here was a mystery to everyone old enough to remember the Saturday afternoon in 1933 when the doors of the Emporium of the Dawn had first opened. Some of the local Mexican elders had been the ones to decorate its front panels with its now crumbling talavera tile and lacquer the collages she had spent nearly a year composing on the walls.
Nothing about what she told people back then had anything at all to do with the glorious Spanish California hacienda days. Some elders recalled her talking about being an artist in Mexico City, whilst others said she had told them her family had fled Sonora after the Mexican Revolution. My father’s mother didn’t bother to try to figure any of it out. The poor woman is crazy as a loon, she said, but you must admit—she’s got some sort of talent. And talent La Senora did have. In addition to the collaged walls of her shops, her living quarters at the back were decorated with drawings, paintings, and even a mural painted on the cinder block walls of her garden-a ramshackle place where rose bushes were nutured by haphazard splays of salvia, lavender, anise hyssop, angelica, phlox, geraniums, nasturtiums, lilies, sage, yarrow and globe thistle. I reckon that’s where she got her name—Cerda—it means thistle in Spanish, my father’s mother said, as for the Lara bit, well, that’s the name of those Filipinos who live next door to her, so I guess she just took it on a whim and added it on.
Everything La Senora did seemed to be on a whim. Such as the time when she marched into the City Building Inspector’s office and warned the staff to never come around and assess her property again, because my family was here before yours could even spell the name of California. She also told them a long, rambling story about the black Queen Califia, for whom the state was named, and who thankfully was off somewhere in Istanbul, fighting on the side of the Moors, when the Spanish arrived in her kingdom.
This performance of hers resulted in a series of unfortunate events for the Senora, beginning with being held for observation in the County Hospital Psychiatric Ward, and ending with a notice of condemnation being slapped on the door of her shop. All this spontaneous activity happened around the same time as La Senora gifted me one of her dolls. She likes you, she had said, as she tenderly placed the doll in a basket lined with perfectly pieced doll-size quilts and handed it to me, along with a tiny trunk that contained all the doll’s earthly possessions. That had been on a Saturday, while my father and step-grandfather were drinking beer and playing dominoes in the shade of a tiny grove of peppers trees in the vacant lot where Mister Luzon had set up a little refreshment stand and several picnic benches for his customers. Once I am gone, you can read her the stories you write, La Senora had told me.
I had been hearing old people talk about leaving all my life, yet they always seemed to manage to stay. At least most of them did. There was the one time when old man Morris cussed everyone out and said he was leaving because he was sick of seeing all of us. And leave he did do. But, being the type of people we were, and being connected to other people like us all over the state, we soon found out he had simply moved up to LA and was sitting in his son’s house threatening to do the same again. Old Mister Morris was just what everyone called a cranky old fool, the kind of mean old man that everybody sees sitting around looking ugly for no reason other than they can, as my step-grandmother said. We all reckoned that sooner or later old folks who talked about leaving would either leave and still be heard from (or about), or they would never leave, and just sit around talking like that to get attention.
But, La Senora did leave. And not only her—and not just old people like her. Throughout the summer, different people from different City departments facilitated the leaving of a lot of people on the Boulevard. The first shop to be shut down was Mister Luzon’s refreshment stand. Beers were confiscated from him and from his customers who were sitting under the pepper trees. Citations for drinking in public were handed around. Mister Luzon himself was formally charged with a variety of health, alcohol licensing and food handling violations. The City health officials moved on to the Washington family’s fish place and that was the end of our being able to choose from the fresh catch on ice and drink their famous iced tea whilst waiting for them to fry it up. We were also robbed of melt in your mouth bar-b-q cooked in old oil drums, pickled pig’s feet preserved lovingly in kitchens, and deep-fried rolled tacos that sold ten for a dollar and could be had with boiled corn-on-the-cob smoothed in mayonnaise, grated cheese and powdered dried chiles.
The only Boulevard people who escaped the health inspectors for a while were the ones who peddled their wars from door-to-door. But, eventually, we were not able to get warm tamales first thing in the morning, ice pops made of whole crushed fruits in their own juices to sooth our parched throats in the afternoon, or pound cakes to accompany cups of tea in the evening. And once all the lumpia, enchilada, jambalaya, fried chicken, dried shrimp, fried pork rind, and roasted peanut, pumpkin and sunflower seed sellers had been put out of business, the only thing left to us to snack on were the brightly packaged imports with names like Lay’s Potato Chips, Ding Dongs, Eskimo Pies, Moon Pies, Razzles, Mike and Ikes, Cherryheads and Jujyfruits.
The people who had pushed carts that sold homemade ice cream in buckets sitting in a color full of ice were replaced by a place called Diary Queen that took over the lot where kids had strung old tires on ropes to swing from on the branches of some of the last oaks standing. The travelling hamburger and hot link sausage stand that moved each day to a different street corner was eliminated and in its place, the City gifted us with a strange, sterilized, air-conditioned place with a creepy big round-headed clown popping out of a box and grinning manically as it towered over the Boulevard.
Some shop keepers scrambled to get health department permits, food handling permits, zoning permission, reseller’s permits, business licenses, estimates for repairs to bring their shops up to code, and the money to re-establish themselves. But only one managed to do this—so that the only families that were not bulldozed out of business were one group of Syrians who had established four grocery stores and somehow managed—despite limited English skills and little knowledge of the City regulations—to navigate the bureaucracies that were housed behind darkly tinted doors downtown in the Civic Center complex—a shining new example of what was proudly known as brutalist architecture.
And brutal it was indeed. So much so that the fierceness of the late summer heat—worse in September, due to the long dry spell, temperatures into the 100s, and a wind called the Sant’ana—dogged me in downright savage manner. I stumbled along through the changing façade of crumbling Boulevard, searching in vain for the old stationary shop that had been run by people who were thought to have come from someplace ending in y—Germany, Hungary, or somewhere along those lines. It was nowhere to be found. The only place that might have diaries and writing sets for sale was Woolworth’s—and I was afraid to go in there because all I knew about that store was that white people would pour milkshakes over my head if I got too close to the lunch counter. The kindly old soul was wheezing and looked about to faint. I took her hand and led her to a patch of shade under the awning of the last Chinese herbal shop still standing. We sank to the pavement and did not speak about our permanent sorrow or our temporary weariness.
I closed my eyes and wished for drink from the water fountain. But it was across the street and the mid-day traffic was blaring against my headache. The kindly old soul laid her head on my shoulder and drifted into half-sleep. With our eyes closed, the noise of the street faded and soon all we heard was the tinkling of the wind chimes that hung in the doorway of the shop. A light, woodsy floral smell floated from the incense burners on the shop’s counter and somewhere in its depths, the trickle of water could be heard. It was, we knew, the tiny fountain that Chinese shop keepers kept alongside a statue of two golden dragons and scrolls painted with bamboo by a stream. So quietly soothing was all this that it took a moment for me to open my eyes when the shopkeeper spoke to me. What you do here? I made myself small and looked up, hoping he would not scold me too heavily, and cause the bile rising in my throat to go spewing across the shop’s entrance. I smiled weakly and said, Nothing. It’s just the heat. The shopkeeper stared at me for a moment then gestured for me to follow him inside.
It was the first time I had ever been in the Chinese herbal shop. The kindly old soul roused herself and followed me, then stood transfixed in the middle of the floor. All around us were extraordinarily beautiful things—carved pedestals on dark wood with tall blue and white vases resting on them, screens made of bamboo and rice paper, silk gowns that looked like kimonos draped on bamboo crosses, exquisitely embroidered with dragons and tigers and beautiful flowers. Behind the counter were rows of shelves up to the ceiling filled with glass jars of herbs. Boxes of incense were stacked mile-high on beautiful carved tables and in the back corner of the shop were couches piled high with yellow cushions on red velvet seats. Next to these was what looked like a small bar and behind it was a counter filled with porcelain teapots, tea cups and glass jars of tea.
The shop keeper led me to a couch and said, Sit. He then lit the flame under a bunsen burner, placed a kettle on it and sat opposite me on one of the couches. What, he said, you looking for? The kindly old soul stopped touching the silk kimono and smiled as the shopkeeper nodded when I said, A diary. And some pens to write in it. She moved out of his way—but stayed close, looking over his shoulder–as he got up and began rummaging behind his counter. The kettle began to boil and its whistle blended nicely with the sound of the fountain and the wind chimes. Close the burner, the shopkeeper called to me from some hidden space behind the counter. I turned off the flame and waited for the kettle’s whistle to fade. The shopkeeper popped his head up and said, What is diary? Book? I nodded and the kindly old soul smiled again when the shopkeeper emerged carrying a stack of diaries with embroidered silk covers. He sat them on the couch next to me and moved quickly to make the tea, mumbling as he did so.
My wife, she buy these, I tell her, for what you buy these, no customer for these, what these people know about writing, they don’t write, they talk, talk, talk, talk, loud, loud, loud, talk, talk, talk, all day, all night, all night, all day, talk, talk, talk, when you ever see them read book, I never see them read book, never see them write book neither, so why you buy these, no customer for these, I never see no American read nothing, nothing, not even newspaper, nothing, just read funny pages, ha, ha, ha, Popeye the Sailor Man, Whimpy, I pay you Tuesday for hamburger today, ha, ha, ha, and sales page, buy this, but that, on sale now, big bargain, buy this, but that, big bargain, talk, talk, talk, now, Mister Chin, you must move your shop, no permit, no health license, no quack medicine, talk, talk, talk, what mean quack medicine, I look like duck to you, no, I say, I not moving nowhere, this my shop, my father shop, my grandfather shop, this my family shop, we come here, we work hard, this our shop, no, I say, no, I not going nowhere, here come City with this paper, that paper, this paper, that paper, I say, how people who do not read, do not write, can make so much paper, paper, paper, paper, this paper, that paper, I do not care, I take paper, put my name on every piece, take money, big stack of money, give them paper, give them money, now they go away, good, good, good, stay away, stay away, stay away from me, this my shop, I not going nowhere, how your tea, you like, good, it good for you, Chinese tea, you know Chinese pen, Chinese ink, my wife, she buy that too, for what, I say, these people they do not write, they do not read, no customer for that, you know how long I wait to give these to someone, long time, long time, long time I wait, now, you come looking for book and pen, you finish tea, it good for you, then you take all this, take it, book, pen, ink, you look, you listen, you write, you write this, write Mr. Chin say he not going nowhere, this his shop, you write, OK?
No one ever found out where La Senora ended up. By the time I went back to look for her, the City had torn down the long narrow building that once housed her and La Emporio de la Madrugada. With it also came down all the other small shops on the Boulevard. They said it only took two days to knock down the whole block, but weeks to rip out the Senora’s garden. Two blocks over, incense still drifted from Mr. Chin’s herbal shop. But it was not enough to quell the stench of the factories that had swallowed up the streets around the Boulevard.
I kept visiting Mr. Chin, every week, for five years, until, one day, his wife handed me the last of the diaries and pens and smiled sadly. This just for you, just for you, my husband he say you special person, you special, you look, you listen, you write, he ask me, just before he go, he ask me, tell her, tell her, write this, say Mr. Chin he leave now, but he know you will remember him, always, always, always, you look, you listen, you remember, you write.
By the time I had filled the first page of the last of the diaries, the City had torn down Mr. Chin’s shop. But to this day, whenever I pass the place where it was stood, I hear the sound of the fountain, the kettle whistling, the wind in the chimes and the smell of the incense soothes the broken places in my heart where La Senora still whispers my family was here before yours could even spell the name of California and even though the doll she gave me eventually fell to pieces—it’s shiny black porcelain face cracked to bits by the tears both it and I shed each time the City people slapped notices on the doors of the shops—I know she, and Mister Chin, and all the shopkeepers, know I remember them, and that eases the sighs of the kindly old soul, who cannot bring herself to take walks with me, because every step she takes is away from all the old people who left, and unlike Mister Morris, we never were sent word about them, ever again, and nothing is left of them except fading letters in a child’s diary that has long since been lost to time, like the place we once knew, but will never be known, because no one reads in this place, no one looks, no one listens, no one remembers, no one–except me.