Lago Escondido

Lago Escondido

The crisp September sky blazed with a blue so rich it was almost tactile, and Rosa was sure its weight would someday make it peel off from the heavens and fall to earth and smother them all, except that the trees, still green for a few more weeks at least, reached up and pushed back, keeping the sky up and the earth down and straining with all their might to keep the two apart.

Rosa leaned back and took in a deep breath, letting the air fill her lungs and push them against her ribs until it almost hurt. The smells were colors, greens and reds and browns, and the cool air the spirits that helped them flow.

The door behind her swung open and the kids came out. About an hour ago the three of them, two young men and a young lady, stumbled out of the woods and came running up to her as if they had never thought they’d see another human again. Rosa had needed to put on the Big Hat to calm them down. She didn’t know why it worked, but the Smokey the Bear hat was reassuring to campers and hikers. It let them know they were safe. The three of them settled down and told their story. Rosa took them into the cabin and let them have some crackers and coffee, and their confused sentences slowed down until they started to make sense.

“She wasn’t there when we woke up,” said the taller of the two men, the one called Chris.

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The Mechanical Bull at Dallas

The Mechanical Bull at Dallas

For a few weeks in the summer of ’96, a club out on Route 4 called Dallas was the center of the known universe, because Bill Newsome, the owner, bought a mechanical bull and set it up on the dance floor, and suddenly everyone from all around the county–white, black, rich, poor, whatever–came out to dance (sort of), eat (the wings were good), drink (as long as they only wanted beer or water), and especially ride the mechanical bull, which was free to ride after your second drink. In the low-ceiling building, really more of a hollowed-out cement slab, an incongruously magical space was made, built on novelty and boredom, that ended suddenly when the bull died and Bill Newsome decided he wasn’t going to replace it.

Kaukonen County was and still is mostly rural, but it was never country country. Most of the county’s space is given over to farms, but we weren’t farmers–those big farms were all taken care of by machines and migrants. We were mechanics, cashiers, or truckers. We weren’t country, we were industrial fringe, and our music was Springsteen and Mellencamp and ZZ Top. But somewhere along the way, for reasons that no-one could quite put their finger on, we all started talking slower, buying boots, collecting guns, and when our Toyota Corollas and VW Rabbits finally needed replacing we all replaced them with Chevy Silverados and Ford F-150s. Where when I was a kid we all looked down river to the city as our cultural reference point, now we all started to act and talk like we grew up on a ranch in Texas and didn’t know what a coffee latte even was.

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Toons and Little Worm

Toons and Little Worm

The way the story was passed down to me, when I was born I weighed four pounds seven ounces and was addicted to heroin. My mother gave birth in a crackhouse on Bedford, but it wasn’t clear if she went into labor while shooting up or if she just crawled into the first place she could find once her water broke. A junkie ran out and got a cop, and the fiends and chickenheads all cleared out while the ambulance crew tried to muscle in past them. I was in intensive care for the next year. My father visited once. On that day, in the hallway outside my room, he and my mother got into a screaming match that ended with her nearly clawing out his eye with a long fingernail. He said she was lucky he hadn’t brought his gun. Sometime later, a few days or maybe a few weeks, he was arrested for possession of crack and sent upstate for two years. During that time my mother lived with her mother in a walkup on Gates Avenue. My mother claimed to be a model and my grandmother described herself as a beautician. Neither one ever worked as far as anybody could tell, as models or hairdressers or anything. For a few of those years a man named Edwin lived with them. He was killed on Flatbush in a hail of bullets that made the front page of the New York Times.

When I was eighteen months old I weighed eleven pounds, and when I was two years old I weighed fifteen. By the time I was three my weight had crept up to twenty pounds, but only barely. My mother probably only weighed ninety pounds herself, and my grandmother maybe slightly less. It was hard to tell which was older; they both looked like old trees twisted by hard wind and rain. Of the two I was more afraid of my grandmother, whose face and body were gruesome with rage and hate. My mother wasn’t much different, but at times she could laugh like a little girl and show a hint of the beautiful woman she might have been in a different life. At least once before I was three my mother tried to sell me for drug money. The police said it got her about seventy-five dollars. Child Services took me back to my grandmother; my mother rejoined us soon after.

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Jesus Hidalgo

Jesus Hidalgo

The 341st slammed into Cosala about an hour before daybreak. I was in that first wave, ma’am, the one that took the forward batteries. Resistance was heavier than we expected but it was really only a matter of having patience and applying steady pressure on our part to crack the city open. By the end of the week major fighting was finished, and we set out on regular patrols to pacify the city, maintain order, and win hearts and minds.

I was in Bravo Company and at first we were given the commercial quarter to patrol. It wasn’t bad. The streets were really narrow and the buildings created steep canyons with limited sightlines. Any one of those thousands of windows could be home to a sniper and the first time I went out I’m sure I looked like I was about to throw up or wet myself. I definitely felt that way, ma’am. I’m from a little town, you see, so those city blocks were smaller than I think any house I’d lived in, and each one was filled with more people than my whole town.

But the commercial quarter was good. I got used to it. The people, you know, they just wanted to get back to their lives. It didn’t matter to them who was sitting in the government house: a local, an occupier, a horse, whatever, they had kids to feed, things to sell, lives to live, right? We kept the streets open and kept looters out, and they appreciated us. Me and some of the guys tried to speak to them in Spanish, and I think that helped a lot, too. I tried to pal around with Gooty–that’s Corporal Gutierrez, we called him Gooty–cause he spoke Spanish from growing up. A different Spanish from theirs, so sometimes they laughed at him, too, for getting things wrong. But little things like that, we made friends.

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The Minotaur

The Minotaur

In the early part of the twentieth century, Chinatown was entirely contained within twenty-four airless square blocks of South Square bounded on the east and west by Hidalgo and Harrison Streets, and north and south by Davidson Street and Washington Square South. In all four directions Chinatown stopped at the curb’s edge, so that the thoroughfares themselves remained wholly American, and for cars passing through or pedestrians on the far side of the street the buildings fronting the Chinese side were as impenetrable as medieval castle walls, and the asphalt as effective as any moat. To casual observers, the perfectly gridded streets that passed through Chinatown were almost invisible, hidden behind the lights and streamers and signs and commotion of that wall.

Racist zoning practices coupled with the immigrant instinct to huddle for safety conspired to quickly overcrowd the neighborhood, and so the buildings of Chinatown grew taller, and the apartments inside them were subdivided with an intensity that violated all of the city’s tenement laws but went unnoticed by city officials and unreported by Chinatown’s citizens.

This city-within-a-city was an amalgam of early industrial America and the waning Chinese empire that would later serve as a source of intoxicating nostalgia but which at the time was considered both a mystery and a nuisance. It was accepted as fact by children outside of Chinatown that the Chinese had even moved into the sewers and built small cave-like apartments just above and around the effluence. (In truth, many of Chinatown’s manhole covers were missing, but this was more the result of municipal neglect than anything else–the value of scrap metal in those days was such that manhole covers were stolen all over the city, even in the more genteel parts, but the city was quick to replace them.)

Within this community people lived and grew and married and died, and dramas large and small were seeded, flowered, and withered. The stories rarely if ever attracted notice beyond the imaginary boundaries of Chinatown, but with those twenty-four blocks the stories were common knowledge, the names and dates passed around like precious heirlooms, and the repercussions studied with exquisite scholarship.

Helen Fan was born in a fourth-floor apartment on Belgrano Street in 1894. She attended Public School 18 on Moreno Street, which still stands as Dr. Sun Yat Sen Elementary School; and the adjacent High School 9, which was torn down in the 1960s. Her parents worked at a shop on Belgrano Street, and she married a butcher from Santander Street and they moved into an apartment next door. This was the extent of her world, entirely contained in within a five minute walk.

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Bartolomeo

Bartolomeo

Bartolomeo Evangelio de Garzas y Torreo arrived in Cartagena after a journey across the sea that most men would have recalled as the adventure of a lifetime. Bartolomeo put it out of mind almost the moment he stepped on dry land, so that years later the entire chapter was covered thusly: “We sailed from Almeria on a Sunday and arrived in Cartagena before the start of Lent.”

The fortress city of Cartagena overflowed with the fabled riches of the New World. Gold dangled from every earlobe and around every neck. Even the rudest citizens seemed weighted down with jewels. The city’s taverns filled the night air with the sound of men spending fortunes on fleeting pleasure, and the churches glistened with the generosity of their shame.

Bartolomeo had been warned not to be seduced by the city. “What you see there is barely a taste of what lies at El Dorado.” In Cordoba he had met a man with an incredible tale, a man who had been captured by Indians and taken to their capital deep in the jungle. It was a city made entirely of gold, from the dizzying heights of its ziggurats to the earth beneath their feet. The man claimed to have lived there for years, to have married a pagan and sired four children before he became homesick and asked to returned to the white men on the coast. He returned to Spain, but along the way became overcome with regret. Now he was too old to return, and begged for help retrieving his lost family. “I wish for them to be brought her, to become Christians and live in the glory of His salvation.” In exchange he offered directions to the golden city.

Bartolomeo heard his tale and dismissed him at first, but the man’s sincerity touched him, and Bartolomeo took a little time to investigate his circumstances. Much of his story could be corroborated, and interviews with others who had gone to the New World convinced Bartolomeo that the old man’s claim were worth investigating. He offered to find the man’s pagan children, and the man gave him a detailed account of how to find the city of gold.

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Courage

Courage

Theodore Lewiston served two tours in Afghanistan, where he was awarded a Commendation Medal but more more importantly earned the respect and gratitude of his unit for fearlessly engaging camel spiders.

Returning home, Theodore found work as a security guard that from time to time required him to be big and scary, sometimes towards people who were bigger or scarier than he. Just as with the camel spiders, he showed a cool exterior while adrenaline surged through his veins, his not-insignificant fear hidden behind a cool gaze and steady voice.

Nobody ever asked him but he liked to imagine someone–a grandchild, perhaps–looking at his various citations and asking him about courage. What was the hardest thing you ever did? Or, “What was the most courageous?” Nobody would ever ask it that. “What was the scariest thing you ever did?”

He had a ready answer, one that would seem characteristically calm and cool but would reveal itself in time to be profound true, he thought.

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