Identity ’18: “The Visitor” by David Lloyd

*This piece is part of a story sequence title The Moving of Water, set in the mid-1960s in Utica, NY, grounded in the Welsh-American immigration experience. The full collection will be available September of 2018 through SUNY Press.


Mae Williams liked her days to be organized.  Nearing eighty, she couldn’t do as much for herself as she wanted, so she allowed others to help, mostly women from church.  In return, she’d babysit for them at no cost, as long as the parents brought the children to her apartment and picked them up. She rarely left the apartment – except to walk the one block to Bethesda Church. When her mother died at age eighty-nine, Mae moved from the house where she’d lived for forty years to the small Elm St. apartment, though the neighborhood wasn’t the best.

Most of her days revolved around church activities or occasional visitors arriving with her week’s groceries or prescriptions for arthritis and high blood pressure, or the few purchases needed to maintain her simple life – a radio she called her “wireless” that finally broke and no parts could be found to repair it, light bulbs when the existing ones burned out, tissues when one of the boxes left around the apartment had been emptied.

The apartment was simply organized, modeled on the little terrace house in Llanberis in Wales where she’d grown up – a front parlor, small dining room, tiny kitchen and pantry, and two bedrooms, one of which she used as a sewing room. In Llanberis, her mother had fretted about how the parlor might look to passersby peeking through the front curtained windows from the street – which is why during a period when her father was earning good wages in the slate mine, they bought a second-hand spinet and set it opposite the window, though none in the family could play it. They never allowed Mae to touch a key. But once, with both parents out of the house, she pressed a white key – and was surprised when it didn’t make a sound. She pressed a black key – no sound. Then she struck the white key hard and heard something – a dull reverberation from deep within.

***

Lewis Bowen always walked Mae to the eleven o’clock church service, and she enjoyed his company. Lately, though, she’d been worried about him – since his son had died in that overseas war, he hadn’t been himself. He looked shifty and skittish, as if he were hiding something. He’d stopped telling the jokes he used to try out on her – jokes Mae didn’t understand, though she always laughed after what she took to be the punch line. She wanted to tell Lewis something that might comfort him. But she never did, hesitant to upset the routine they’d established.

Every Sunday after the service Lewis would walk Mae back to her apartment before rejoining his family. She’d have a few hours to herself then, before one of the deacons or elders would drive her to a parishioner’s house for Sunday dinner. She knew they had organized a rotation so that no family would be too burdened – last week it was the Richards family, next week Mr. and Mrs. Parry. After dining with a succession of different families for eight or nine weeks, she’d find herself back at the first house. She hoped her hosts enjoyed her company.  She couldn’t talk about the politics of the city or the nation, or the new play at the Stanley, or modern books.  She made what conversation she could – about Llanberis in her youth, or stories about her aunt and uncle, and the fish-and-chips shop they kept in the village in the years when everyone spoke Welsh and went to chapel at least twice a week.

Mae was an only child, never married, so her experience was limited. Emigrating to America was the biggest thing ever to happen to her – she was nineteen, her mother thirty-nine, her father forty-one. She never owned a television – didn’t enjoy that thing always talking in people’s living rooms. She knew she repeated her stories, though no one except the youngest children ever pointed that out. Sometimes when the family hosting a Sunday dinner included teenagers, she would detect a smirk or a giggle at her expense. The father or mother would frown sternly – and the offending children would stare at their plates until finally released to the TV. She didn’t mind, not really, and she hoped they weren’t punished after she’d left. She’d been young once too, and knew that old people can seem like creatures from another world. There were, of course, stories that she didn’t tell. About drunk Uncle Robert deliberately making her mother cry during Christmas dinner when she was twelve. Or, worse, about Geraint bringing flowers the day he proposed, talking to her parents in the parlor, behind a shut door while Mae sat alone at the kitchen table.

After everyone had finished tea and dessert, Mae would be driven back to her apartment, when she’d have a few hours to prepare for babysitting – she only accepted children between the ages of seven and ten. If they were very young, they made Mae nervous – she was too old to chase them, and fearful that they might fall and hurt themselves. And if older than ten they might become bored and unhappy, staring out the window even when asked direct questions.  But children between seven and ten generally laughed when she laughed, did as they were told. And they liked card games, so they would help Mae set up a card table in her dining room with cookies and juice, and she and the children would play Pennies from Heaven, Old Maid, or Canasta until eight o’clock, when the parents would arrive. The only time she ever felt a bit annoyed was when parents were late. They’d apologize, and she’d insist that it didn’t matter. But she thought they should not presume that she had nothing to do of an evening except care for their children.

***

Mae opened the door to see Twm Kendrick, in tan trousers and white shirt, holding a black gun, finger on the trigger, the long muzzle pointed at Mae.

“A present for his ninth birthday,” the boy’s father said. “He’s been asking for a machine gun since he saw one on TV – what was it Twm? Four months ago?”

“Al Capone had it,” the boy put in.

“And now,” the father continued, “he won’t go anywhere without the ghastly thing. Do you mind? It doesn’t shoot bullets, and it won’t make any noise.”

Mae said she didn’t mind, if it was just a toy.

Mr. Kendrick laughed a little too loudly. Twm scowled. She could see his finger lightly flicking the trigger.

“Now, Twm,” Mr. Kendrick said, putting a hand on the boy’s head, “you must mind Miss Williams. Do exactly as she says. Sling the machine gun over your shoulder using the strap, as I showed you. You won’t lose it that way. And remember what we talked about: no pinching, no biting. Do you understand?”

Twm nodded. Mae noticed that the boy now aimed the muzzle at his father.

“Good. I’ll be back by eight.” Mr. Williams gave Twm a little push towards Mae. “I’m sure he’ll be no trouble.”

When Mr. Kendrick had left, Mae told Twm she would give him a tour of her apartment. She planned to finish in the kitchen, when she would offer bara brith with butter. She hoped he would then put his machine gun down, and they could start a card game.

“Here are my parents,” she told him, pointing to a framed portrait of a grim elderly couple, dressed in black. “I always begin my tour with them. When that photograph was taken they were younger than I am now. Can you imagine that? They were more old-fashioned even than me.”

“You can’t see that man’s mouth because of his mustache,” said Twm. “How did he eat?”

“Oh, like the rest of us,” Mae said. “Though he used his napkin more often.”

“Are they dead?” Twm asked.

“My father passed away twenty-eight years ago, bless him. My mother two years after that.”

Twm examined the photograph carefully. “They don’t look nice,” he said. “They look as if they don’t give presents.”

“Oh, no,” Mae replied. “They certainly … well they certainly were … nice in their way.”

Next to the photograph was a glass vase of small purple flowers. Twm slung the machine gun over his shoulder. “What are these?” he asked. He touched a petal.

“Primroses. A bouquet of primroses. Don’t they smell wonderful?”

Twm sniffed, and shrugged his shoulders. “Mother’s Day was last week.”

“They’re not for Mother’s Day, dear.”

“Then why?”

“Well, they’re pretty aren’t they?”

“But why?”

“They’re from a friend.”

“Did your boyfriend give them?”

Mae was startled by the question. “I was thinking we might play a card game tonight,” she said. “I love cards. Have you ever played Pennies from Heaven? Or Canasta?”

“Old Maid!” the boy shouted, a crafty look in his eyes. “I want to play Old Maid!”

“Certainly,” Mae said. “We could.”

“My dad says if you had a boyfriend, he’d be older than you and probably dead.”

“Oh, my goodness,” Mae said. She dropped onto the parlor couch.

“If you had a boyfriend, how come you didn’t marry him?”

Mae was staring at the vase of flowers.

After a quick glance at Mae, Twm grabbed the bouquet from the vase with both hands, and ran from the parlor.

“Twm!” Mae called from the couch. She saw a trail of water drops and a few primroses along the carpet, which she followed to her bedroom. A black muzzle poked out from under the bed.

“Twm,” Mae said, “I know that you’re hiding beneath the bed. You must come out.”

“I have a hostage,” he said. He thrust out the bouquet, gripped by the stems, and yanked it back under. “So don’t try anything funny.”

“Please give me the flowers,” Mae said. “They’re important to me.”

“Why?”

“We can set up a card table in the dining room,” she said, without much conviction.

“Why are the flowers important to you if you don’t have a boyfriend or he’s dead? Why aren’t they just flowers that don’t smell much?”

Mae walked back to the front parlor. She stared at the photograph of her parents and the empty vase. She sat on the couch, tugged a handkerchief from her sleeve and began to softly cry.

Twm appeared in the doorway, walked to the vase, and stuffed the bent, disheveled primroses back in. He spread them out, drooping and twisted.

“Good as new,” he said.

He aimed his machine gun at the photograph of Mae’s parents, and pressed the trigger. “Rat a tat a tat a tat,” he shouted. “Rat a tat a tat a tat a tat a tat.” He looked over at Mae.  “Stop crying,” he told her. “I didn’t kill the hostage. The hostage is OK, see?” He pointed his gun towards the primroses. “I killed the bad people.”

“I see.”

“I did that for you,” he said. “I felt sorry for you.”

Mae said nothing.

“I said, ‘I did that for you.’ Did you hear?”

“It’s too late,” she said.

“Why?”

Mae wiped her eyes one last time and slipped her handkerchief up her sleeve.

“Can I have something to eat?” Twm lowered the muzzle. “I’m hungry.”

“Hungry?” Mae sounded bewildered. “For food?”

“I’m starving. I’m always starving.”

“I have bara brith in the kitchen.”

“My Nain made that before she died. She was like you, skinny. Skinny as a rail my dad says. Do you have milk?”

“Yes.”

“OK.”

***

“I hope he wasn’t too much trouble,” Mr. Kendrick said when Mae opened the door.

“He’s certainly a hand full,” Mae said.

“Two hands,” he replied. “Sometimes three.”

Twm stood behind her, the machine gun slung on his shoulder, arms at his sides, staring straight ahead. “I’m not going home,” he announced.  “I’m staying with this old lady. She needs me.”

“Of course you’re coming home,” Mr. Kendrick said. “Your mother’s waiting in the car. We’re leaving right now. And don’t refer to Miss Williams that way. It’s rude. Now, what did you and Miss Williams do tonight? No pinching I hope. And of course, no biting.”

“First I had to kill bad people.”

“Certainly you did. Bad people sometimes need to be killed.” He winked at Mae. “What an imagination. Isn’t he something else? I only wish it could translate into decent grades at school. Or at least decent behavior.” He returned his attention to Twm. “After killing the bad people what did you do? Did you bury them? Did you have a funeral? Did you say a prayer?”

“No. We ate raisin bread, then played Old Maid. I won, she lost.”

“Did she? Did she indeed? Miss Williams, if you don’t mind me asking, is that true? You played a card game with Twm?”

Mae cleared her throat softly. “Yes, it’s true.”

“You have quite the way with children, Miss Williams,” he said, nodding his head in admiration. “I think Twm will want to visit with you again.”

***

In her bedroom, Mae removed from the closet the one elegant dress she owned – a flouncy, joyful purple, reaching almost to her ankles but hanging loosely over her humped shoulders and boney hips.  It was a dress she’d brought from Wales, lasting so long because she cared for it so well. She put on the dress and brushed her thin, gray hair with quick strokes. She fastened a string of pearls around her neck. She slipped on the shoes she’d worn to church that morning. In the bathroom she applied lipstick sparingly – one tube could last the better part of a year. The church women must have been surprised when lipstick appeared on her shopping list. They’d never seen her wear any in church – or on any occasion.

At nine o’clock the doorbell rang, as it always did.  And as always, Mae walked slowly to answer it, savoring each step. She opened the door to a familiar face – Geraint, with a bouquet of primroses, which she accepted with a bow of thanks. After she arranged them in a vase by her parents’ photograph, the two sat side by side on the couch and talked – in Welsh of course – about the village in which they both grew up.  They told each other stories. She spoke about her favorite cousin who’d died near the end of the First World War. He spoke about his parents, Ifor and Eluned, and the terrible years after his father lost his job because of the miners’ strike.  As he spoke, she admired his soft, brown curls, his earnest expression.  She never felt as if she were repeating her stories, and Geraint always seemed interested.

He’d end the visit the same way each time. “I must be going,” he’d say, glancing at his pocket watch – a watch she suspected he wore only for these visits. “I’ve kept you long enough.”

“Oh, dear me,” she’d say. “I feel as if you just arrived. But yes, it is late, isn’t it? Almost ten. How does time go by so quickly?”

“How indeed?” he’d reply, and then he’d stand.

She’d walk him to the door. In the hallway he’d turn and ask the two questions he always asked at the conclusion of his nightly visit.

“Why did you leave? Did you really have to leave?”

And she’d say, “Yes. I did, you know. I was only a girl. Just a village girl.”

“Oh no,” he would say. “You were far more than that.”

“I had to do what they told me to do. I had no choice. They didn’t give me a choice.”

And that’s when he’d look at her fully, openly.

“I had written it out you know, everything I wanted to say so I wouldn’t make a mistake. About the job at my uncle’s grocery on the high street. Everything. It was your mother who objected, more than your father. Your mother.”

She’d blush, feeling her face prickle.

“And if they had to leave, I wish they had let you stay,” Geraint would say next. “In the village with me. Or at least in Wales.”

“But you were happy enough,” Mae would say. “You married, didn’t you? You raised a family. You had a good life in the village.”

“Yes,” he’d say. And he’d say nothing for a moment. “I did marry. I had a family. But you know ….”

At that point she’d stop him. “Please,” she’d say, “we mustn’t. This has been such an agreeable visit.” She didn’t want the evening to turn sad. Not after such pleasant conversation.

That was all the urging he’d need. He’d smile, bow his head, and turn from her, walking down the hallway, disappearing as completely as if he’d never been there at all.


David Lloyd is the author of 10 books, including a novel, Over the Line (2013) and two fiction collections, Boys: Stories and a Novella (2004) and The Moving of the Water (forthcoming from SUNY Press, 2018). His three poetry collections are Warriors (Salt Publishing, 2012), The Gospel According to Frank (New American Press, 2009), and The Everyday Apocalypse (Three Conditions Press, 2002). His stories and poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Crab Orchard Review, Denver Quarterly, DoubleTake, and Stone Canoe. He directs the Creative Writing Program at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY.

Identity ’18: “The Divide” by Sara Alaica

I stared down at the six Barbie dolls lined up neatly on our plush orange carpet, their hair combed back, their dresses smoothed down flat against their legs, their eyes looking back up at me, unblinking. I was seven years old and my mother had asked me to pick one to include in her care package to Yugoslavia. The shampoos, soaps, and clothes would go to my aunt’s house in Belgrade, and the Barbie would go to my cousin Maja.

I’d like to say I picked the most beautiful doll to send, but instead I chose the Barbie that I thought I could live best without. They were mine. Why did I have to give them up? They should just get their own.

I didn’t understand that they were poor. We had stayed with them the summer before, like we had every year since I could remember, out in the hills of Belgrade’s suburbs, in the one-bedroom apartment given to my grandmother by the government for her husband’s military service. My family had flown into Paris, rented a car, and driven across Europe, stopping along the way to see the sights before winding through Slovenia’s mountains and emerging on the other side into Croatia. The parking lot outside the building was shaded with large, overhanging trees that dropped their rotting fruit onto the cars and onto the steps leading down to the entrance. Countless feet had squished them into the asphalt, and their acid had worn away the surface into a moonscape of craters and exposed rocks, rounded and smoothed by age.

The apartment was on the top floor of a building without an elevator, so we hiked our luggage up the four flights of stairs, slowly climbing from the darkness of the lower levels where I ran ahead to hit the lights, to the top floors where the sunlight from the glass skylight lit the way. Inside, the apartment opened into a small hallway leading to a kitchen with one room to the right and one to the left. We didn’t call them the living room and bedroom, but rather the big room and the small room, because both were used for sleeping at night and living during the day. They both had large, wall-to-wall cabinets where we stored all of our clothes, and each had two sets of couches that converted into beds.

At night the cool air stole through the open windows, bringing mosquitos, so Maja and I turned off the lights and killed as many of them as we could before climbing onto the pullout, crowding together under the blankets and laughing until we fell asleep. In the morning my aunt bought a loaf of bread and cut slices off for us to eat with butter and homemade jam. After breakfast we took the four flights down and spent the rest of the day outside, only climbing back up when we heard our names being called from the balcony or when we got tired of holding it in.

We climbed the rusted rocket-ship in the playground beside the building until our hands turned brown, then swung on the crossbar of the swing set that was missing its swings, and shook the chestnuts from the trees and cracked them open with rocks on the knobby curb to eat the sweet insides. We played with the day-old kittens born to the stray cats that lived in the bushes, then made secret hideaways among the brambles, choosing who was allowed in according to children’s rules that I don’t remember. We made friends with the roaming dogs, the mutts with short legs and outsize heads, tails larger than their bodies, which dug through the trash and were always friendly.

I compartmentalized that world away from my other one in Canada. I didn’t miss the things that I knew existed in that other place, across the ocean, because they belonged as little to Belgrade as did indoor shopping malls and smoothly-paved highways and nicely-planted front lawns. It wasn’t much different then going to school in English and coming home to Serbian. Only once do I remember compounding those worlds, playing with my friend from school on our driveway when she stopped our game to stare at me. What are you saying? She said, and I realized I had slipped so naturally into Serbian I hadn’t even noticed. When my sestra Maja, my first cousin and deepest friend, asked me to explain what life was like for me over there, I didn’t have the words in Serbian to explain the difference.

But she was always curious, and as we got older we sent each other long letters on white ruled paper, covered in drawings and sharing our lives as best we could. I sent her photos of my house and my friends, all packed up in big envelopes with a collage of stamps in the corner, and then waited desperately for a reply. I didn’t even need to write her name on the envelope, because she was the only one on the postman’s route to get mail from Canada, and he knew who to deliver it to.

When I was ten years old, after years of unsuccessful attempts, my parents finally got Maja a visa to visit us in Canada. Because of the war, the government thought her parents were a flight risk and refused their visas, so my aunt and uncle sent her as an unaccompanied minor. We went to the airport early and I craned my neck excitedly each time the frosted glass doors in the arrivals hall slid open to catch a glimpse of her. She came out with a stewardess, her name and photo in a plastic sleeve on a lanyard around her neck, her long hair ruffled from her first airplane flight. I hugged her tight and then we linked arms, talking and squealing until we got out to the parking lot and were sitting in the back seat of our big blue Dodge Caravan.

We drove past the cluster of airport hotels, Maja looking up at the top floors that scraped the sky, then out onto the broad four-lane road, past the sprawling shopping malls and gas stations surrounded by empty fields that had once been farms, and into the dense suburbs of cookie-cutter houses, their driveways dotted with one and a half cars and one and a half floors. When the van pulled into our driveway my mother clicked the garage door opener and the double doors swung upward to let us inside.

I took Maja up the stairs to my bedroom, painted pink with one side covered in rainbow wallpaper, and showed her the bunk bed she’d be sleeping on stacked against the wall covered in Care Bear sheets. We spent an afternoon in the playroom introducing her to all my toys, dividing up the dolls between the two of us so we each had a set of babies to care for. We took them outside into the backyard and played on the lawn under the plum tree, and when it got too hot we changed into our swimsuits and jumped through the sprinklers, shrieking at the cold.

In the morning, we poured cereal out of brightly colored boxes and drank two percent milk out of tall yellow glasses. We had just bought a video camera, and my parents let us use it to document our summer. If you had a VHS player you could push the bulky cassette into the slot until it swallowed it whole and watch as we washed the car in the driveway and threw soap at each other. You could go with us to the amusement park and buy Maja her first funnel cake, and then stand in line in the heat to ride the wooden roller coasters that we were finally tall enough to get on. You could visit Niagara Falls through a water-speckled view screen and take the tour behind the falls, the torrent of water cascading over the window of the rock like a set of liquid curtains.

We became closer after her visit to Canada. Our letters became more personal now that she had seen how I lived. I sent her letters detailing my deepest insecurities and dreams for the future, and when we saw each other again in Belgrade, I thought there was something new between us, an intimacy born between two people who fully understand each other.

She didn’t come back to Canada for another ten years, and by then my family had left the duplex I had grown up in for a bigger house in a housing development so new it was still surrounded on all sides by muddy fields. Her family had moved too, out of the apartment on the fourth floor and to a house on the north side of the city over the Pančevački bridge. Yugoslavia broke apart into nation states, Belgrade became part of Serbia & Montenegro, and then came into independence. My childhood in Yugoslavia dissolved into the fondness of a warm memory.

***

I miss the stray dogs, the rusted playground and the dilapidated concrete steps. I miss eating stale day-old bread, scooping out the mold from the homemade jam before being able to spread it. I miss holding in my pee for hours because I didn’t want to run up four flights of stairs, and I miss hot sleepless nights without air conditioners.

Maja’s married now and lives in a beautiful apartment made of glass to the west of the city in New Belgrade, with fish swimming lazily across her living room wall inside their six-foot long aquarium. I sit on her white couch and eat sandwiches made of pre-sliced bread from bags and watch American sitcoms on her flat-screen TV.

Remember your first trip to Canada? I say, I never asked you about it. 

What was it like for you? 

She pauses a moment before answering.

It was the first time I realized how little we actually had. 

I feel ashamed for missing the past, for wanting things here to stay the same while my other life moves forward into the future. She hadn’t lived in two worlds, neatly separated from each other by a language and an ocean—her trip to Canada had bled over into her life in Yugoslavia, staining it with its colors. It had made her lose the childhood we had shared together.

Afterward, I drive out to the old neighborhood and take the steps down to the building where Maja had lived as a child. The building had been sold and the new owner has repaved the steps, the edges sharp and crisp on my feet. I walk down from the parking lot and out around the building to the playground. It hasn’t changed much. The rocket is still there, now painted green, and the swings have gotten new seats. The concrete is still cracked in places, with tufts of grass and clover sneaking out over the edges, and the trees still hang their branches over the playground, their shade deeper and darker than before.

I try to see it as Maja had, after her first trip to Canada—disappointed with what she had, and jealous of that other life she saw. But I can’t. The memories of my childhood keep getting in the way, crowding my mind with songs and laughter and happiness. I sit down on the swing and let my legs hang down to the ground, rocking back and forth. I haven’t changed much from that little girl with the Barbie dolls. I hadn’t been able to see the poverty of my other world back then, and I still can’t.


Sara Alaica lives in New York City where she manages the website for Columbia University. She graduated with an MA in literature from the University of Toronto, and since then she has been writing stories inspired by her experiences living abroad in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and throughout the Balkans. Her writing has been featured in Vela, Cleaver, Spry, Switchback, and the Tishman Review, among others. She currently writes narrative nonfiction for my blog, saraalaica.com.

Identity ’18: “Secrets” by Luisa Kay Reyes

The lady had called back which could only mean good news. And being ever so eager to be the first to share with my mother the welcome news, I rushed into the bathroom even though my mother was in the midst of taking a bath, promptly informing her that the lady from Georgia had called back. While pouring some of the bathwater over her arm, my mother trembled, saying she wasn’t sure if she should return the call, leaving me bewildered at her lackluster reaction. “It would mean leaving Tuscaloosa” she told me. The significance of which I didn’t fully understand at the time.

For a while, the popular mindset held that our home state of “Alabama, the Beautiful” was pretty much a culturally barren wasteland. For us to leave our flagship university town for the hills of Habersham in the Northeast Georgia mountains, that were immortalized by the poet Sidney Lanier in his “Song of the Chattahoochee,” represented quite a cultural shift. The shift being that of coming from a college town to a part of the country that touched upon the hills of Appalachia.

With us being new to the area, our first residence was a single room in a rather cheap looking hotel. It was an inexpensive establishment run by a mormon lady who seemed to respect my mother very much, since she was one of the new teachers hired by the state of Georgia as part of their program to start teaching foreign languages from kindergarten on up. My brother was less impressed, however, as he confided in me periodically that he was giving my mother another week. If she didn’t find better living quarters for us by the end of those seven days, he’d take off and go live with our dad in Mexico.

***

I was in my sophomore year of high school and I soon learned that while the term “minority” in Alabama most often was used in reference to the African-American population, here, in the Northeast Georgia mountains, it was used to refer to the Mexicans and Laotians, since there were hardly any African-Americans in our large public high school that pretty much serviced the entire county. I wasn’t sure at first who the Laotians were, having never heard of Laos before, but we soon learned that Laos was a country in Southeast Asia bordering on Vietnam.

One time while we were driving around town and pulling up to a street corner, I saw a group of brown-skinned men huddling together and I assumed they were Laotian. I was puzzled, however, for I recognized the language that I heard them speaking through the car windows. And they were speaking Spanish. I was stunned.

“Why are those men speaking Spanish?” I asked my mother.

“Well, because they are Mexican” was her response.

I felt startled. But, I’m half-Mexican, I thought to myself. And we had lived in Mexico City until I was ten. Yet, try as I could to rack my brain, I couldn’t recall ever seeing anybody back in one of the most populous cities of Latin America who looked so much like the Laotians.

“I understand they come from the rural parts of Southern Mexico to work in the chicken factories” my mother expounded further. While I sat in the car trying to contain my urge to stare at the group of people huddled together, in disbelief.

In school, I knew that there were other Mexicans, but, somehow, my class schedule didn’t coincide with theirs. Come time for the lunch hour, I found myself at a loss for whom to sit and eat lunch with. For the cafeteria was rather large and everybody seemed to have a group that they instinctively knew they were automatically a part of for the partaking of the midday meal. The football players always sat together, sporting their team jerseys on a nearly daily basis, with the rest of the Caucasian student body divided along more socio-economic lines.

I was the new girl in school and knew not where to go. So, standing in line for my lunch, I fell in with a group of slender and petite Laotian girls. Feeling content that I had found somebody to eat with, we all sat and ate lunch together on a daily basis. With the conversation one day turning to a discussion of the various churches in town.

In my family, we had tried the local Methodist Church at first, but then settled in on one of the big Baptist Churches. The Laotian girls didn’t attend either one, with one of the girls explaining that she had visited the Presbyterian Church once. “But”, she added, after pausing for a moment with a pointed glance in my direction, she didn’t like it because “it is too white.” Too white? This comment took me most by surprise. In Church they always emphasized on how all humankind was a part of God’s creation, so I couldn’t understand why a particular Church was considered white.

With our lunch break ending before I could ask my Laotian lunchmate for more details, I asked my mother when I got home what she meant by saying the “Presbyterians were too white.”

“She’s right” was my mother’s response, leaving me to try and reason this latest revelation out on my own. For actually, the Methodist Church we had attended was primarily Caucasian, as well. With the students in my rather quiet and unresponsive Sunday School class coming from some of the more affluent families in the area. In fact, the congregational makeup of our Baptist Church could be considered primarily white, too. But, yet, the Presbyterian Church was the one receiving the moniker of being too white.

“Why?” I finally had to ask.

“Well, they are well-to-do white” was the explanation I finally received when I pressed my mother further. A detail which my classmates later corroborated. And, even though my mother was highly regarded as a teacher in the area, I noticed we never bothered to visit the too white Church.

***

My first class in the early mornings was chemistry. I struggled at first, but I soon found the subject intriguing when I started writing a research paper on Irène Joliot-Curie, the scientist daughter of the famous Marie Curie, learning some details throughout my readings about protons and electrons that my professor even said she was unaware of. The revelation fascinated me. While my chemistry grades soon improved with some extra tutoring on the part of my professor, the best student in the class, by far, was the Asian girl who received hundreds while the rest of the class bemoaned their test scores.

Consequently, one early morning, one of the Caucasian fellows in our class started trying to make some small talk with her about some Laotian food he’d tried over the weekend.  Food that included a lot of sticky rice and the marinated meat dish of larb. Even though I sat at a distance from her, the grimace on her face was clearly visible, indicating that she was most displeased. “That’s Laotian food” she explained. “I don’t know Laotian food, I only eat Chinese food.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot” the boy responded. The matter was dropped.

I soon learned that I wasn’t the only person from Alabama in one of my classes, a neat coincidence that both I and my classmate found interesting. My Alabama native classmate was also Asian, although not from Laos, and had run away from home when she was twelve. Although, she was now living in the Northeast Georgia mountains, she was thrilled to meet somebody from back home. Coming across as a studious classmate and well-behaved in class, I felt just a bit perplexed as to why she would be a runaway. It was part of her culture, she explained to me. When I asked my mother about it later, she told me she had read an article in the newspaper once about an Asian culture where the kids take off from home at the age of twelve.

It was curious. During my early childhood years while living in Mexico City,  people often commented on the promise of America with a dreamy look in their eyes. To hear them tell it, of the streets in the United States were lined with gold. Yet, here in the Northeast Georgia mountains, it seemed fortunate indeed if the streets were even lined with so much as small gravel stones. My mother commented one day as we drove past a house where one of my mother’s students lived, a house that included no indoor plumbing. “I had no idea such poverty existed in America.” It was an unforgettable moment for the three of us.

With the lack of financial resources being such a reality in the area, it would almost seem like hope was dead in such a place. However, the Appalachian culture of the Northeast Georgia mountains, did include with it one advantage: the people were rather good looking, as in classic Hollywood, movie star types of good looks. This fact hadn’t gone unnoticed by some of the modeling talent scouts, who had defied the geographic odds by finding their way to the remote “hills of Habersham”. Several of my young classmates were left to ponder whether or not they should drop out of school and take off for New York to become a fashion model.

A few of us focused on the more academic route of making it in the world beyond the mountains all around us, with one of the girls in my Geometry class announcing every day that she wanted to go to Harvard for college, a class which included a girl that was noticeably expecting and had to eat snacks all day long, as per her doctor’s instructions. Then, one day, the announcement was made in another one of my classes that one of the girls in our class had dropped out of high school at the age of fifteen to live in a trailer with a guy in North Carolina. Coming from a family that included five generations of teachers and professors on my mother’s side, I found it unfathomable that someone wouldn’t finish high school. Yet, “Don’t y’all do the same” was the warning our teachers repeated to all of us in earnest.

***

With long flowing dark hair, coupled with my dark eyes and thick dark eyebrows, I never made any attempts to disguise my Mexican heritage. Although, it didn’t take me long to pick up on the fact that it wasn’t something to be trumpeted from the stage of the school’s fairly full-sized theater. Yet, one day, I still know not how, the word got out. People were astonished, for to their eyes, I had more of an Italian look, since I also was a little bit fair of skin. Being so incredulous to discover that I was “one of them”, when I was walking along in the hallway in between classes with my textbooks in hand, one older boy started exclaiming “Luisa is Mexican! Luisa is Mexican!” for all to hear. I thought about what I could say to him, for truthfully, I still struggled with the concept that it was something regarded as shameful. Before I could come up with anything to say, a boy walking along next to him told him to be quiet. After all, “she’s actually smart,” he said. The issue was never brought up again, at least not in my presence.

I soon learned that I had fared well, however, for my brother informed us that when word got out in his middle school that he had Mexican heritage, he was spat upon.

It was all rather mind boggling. In Mexico City, we could take a brief walk to get to my ballet school, where we were taught classical ballet by one of the premier Mexican dancers who had performed in some of the most impressive theaters in Europe. We adored “Miss Yolanda” and studied in earnest for our ballet exams, administered by an examiner flown in from London as part of the Royal Academy of Dance. Here, in Habersham County, my mother would have to drive me nearly two hours each way to take me to my ballet lessons at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta. Teaching a full day of classes and then having to drive me to Atlanta for ballet, was a bit taxing at times. One afternoon, my mother begged me for permission to miss a day because she was simply too tired to make the drive. I understood, for even though we were just passengers, the two-hour trip each way wasn’t always easy on my brother and me, either.

***

Shortly, I became friends with the daughter of the owners of the local Chinese restaurant. She was very excited because she was up for the Chemistry award. In fact, we were both nominated for awards for the upcoming awards night, and she was debating whether or not she should smile. In China, she explained to me, it was considered childish and unprofessional to smile in that kind of a setting. Naturally, I felt that smiling would be perfectly understandable, especially since our high school was a large one and to be the recipient of one of the academic awards was quite significant.

As the evening approached for the awards night, my mother and my brother and I all dressed up nicely for the ceremony. To my delight, I received the Geometry award. My Chinese friend received a number of awards. With her face beaming, she went up to receive her awards every time her name was called. Yet, she most definitely did not grin from ear to ear, a fact which my mother remarked upon. I started to explain to my mother that she had debated whether or not to smile, but I knew my Chinese friend well enough to tell that while she wasn’t going wild with a big grin, just the fact that she was beaming with her closed lips curved upwards, represented a huge smile on her part.

One day, all of my Laotian friends were absent, except for one, and we got separated from each other in the lunch line. By then, I was excelling in our History of Western Civilization class, which in Georgia was a Freshman class, rendering me the lone sophomore, but making me a familiar face to my younger classmates. Somehow, they graciously invited me to sit and eat with them. The yearbook had come out and the ninth grader in front of me was looking through it to see which girl he was going to marry one day. We were all laughing back and forth when it suddenly dawned on me. I looked around and and I realized that I was sitting at one of the all-white tables. To my surprise, I felt unsure about how long that would last, but at the same time I couldn’t repress the feeling of pride that overwhelmed me at the realization of that fact. There was this unshakeable feeling that somehow I had arrived. I did also find myself wondering whether or not I should let them know that I was half-Mexican and maybe excuse myself. But we were all teasing the fellow in front of me over the girls he was picking out of the yearbook, that it didn’t seem like the appropriate time for such a statement to be made.

Later, I was sitting talking to another one of my Chinese friends. She was in a different section of chemistry than I was so when she made a reference to the Laotian girl who made the top grades in my section, I corrected her. “She’s Chinese” I said. “Not Laotian.”

“She’s actually Laotian” she corrected me. “She just feels that since she’s lighter she can pass for Chinese. She’s begged me not tell anybody.”

It was a proclamation which astonished me more than The Declaration of Independence. While my friend didn’t force me into promising not to reveal the secret of our Laotian Chemistry genius, I knew that it was something I wouldn’t share. For, here I was, harboring a similar secret of my own.


Luisa Kay Reyes has had pieces featured in The Raven Chronicles, Fire In Machines,  Windmill, Halcyon Days, Fellowship of the King, Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine, Route 7 Review, The Foliate Oak, The Eastern Iowa Review, and other literary magazines. Her piece, “Thank You”, was the winner of the April 2017 memoir contest of The Dead Mule School Of Southern Literature. Her Christmas poem was a first place winner in the 16th Annual Stark County District Library Poetry Contest. Additionally, her essay “My Border Crossing” has just been nominated for the Pushcart Prize by the Port Yonder Press.

Identity ’18: “What They Call Him” by Annie Dawid

They call him “Hot Chocolate,” my mixed-race son whom everyone assumes is adopted. Unlike Barack Obama, for example, Elijah does not look biracial; the crowd assumes he plays basketball—and very well at that—due to his African-American heritage. He never disappoints. In the 99% white Christian middle school from which he has just graduated, he was the fastest runner, highest scoring shooter, most charismatic boy there.

My son has no African-American background, however; his father is French, of Haitian, Congolese, Moroccan, and Cambodian descent. On my side, he is Jewish—Eastern and Western European all the way back—including a Holocaust survivor. My father was born in Berlin, 1913, fled to Shanghai in 1939, then left Mao’s Red Chinese government in 1949 for the United States. This pointedly detailed biography pinpoints the lack of any genetic basketball forebears whatsoever.

Elijah’s skill is all his own, his drive–the same. His absent father did not play sports, not even soccer in Marseilles, due to childhood asthma. From me, Elijah inherited intellect and good humor, but zero by way of athletics. My physical activity focused on ballet, then jazz, then Afro-Haitian dance classes in college, though I was never very good at any of them. A worker, a “tiller in the field,” as one teacher labeled me by way of compliment, but not gifted at dance. A chubby girl, I was the proverbial last-picked for kickball in elementary school, and team sports, as in junior or high school, never even crossed my teenage radar. I did not know what “varsity” meant until my son began his life as an athlete.

This trajectory into the world of highly competitive basketball has educated me in every possible way, predictable as well as unimaginable. I never attended a sports event of any kind until Elijah wanted to see the high school boys play our 2A season opener a few years back. Born in 1960 in New York City, a girl nurtured on “Hair,” Woodstock and “Fiddler on the Roof,” I never realized how much of America’s energy, money and time is invested in the various ways balls can enter baskets and goals, fly over nets, and slide across ice or fields in the form of pucks. Though I formerly saw myself as a sophisticated New Yorker, I now know how very little I knew.

Where was I, these 50 years and more, that I failed to recognize the greatest obsession of the American public? Overseas, you might ask? Mining ore underground? No. I resided in academia for much of my adult life, where the crowd I hung with—English Department-types, primarily—did not talk about buzzer beaters, ally-oops, double-triples, or like vocabulary.

Hot Chocolate liked his nickname, though it made me uneasy. As we have just moved to a more cosmopolitan world, where he won’t be the only person of color in school, nor the only Jew, this queasiness on my part might abate. Fulfilling stereotypes makes me uncomfortable. As a New York Jew who’s spent her adult life in very Gentile parts of the West, I know what it means when strangers make assumptions about me based on my religion, my birthplace, my nose.

In Spain, once, a museum guard pointed at me, not unkindly, saying, “¡Judia?” When I nodded, he did the same. “La nariz,” he said, indicating his own nose. This in a town that formerly housed 10,000 Jews, none since the Inquisition.

People see me, my olive skin, my generous proboscis, and make assumptions. Likewise, they observe my son — his long strong legs, his afro, his easy grace — and say, Basketball Player.

They don’t say orthodontist or statistician or another career that might follow from his decidedly scientific and mathematical bent in the classroom—again so unlike my own proclivities.

At night, Elijah watches videos on YouTube of young brown boys actively scouted by basketball professionals. Not just high schoolers, but some in middle school, and lately, even elementary. The wunderkinds on the court are always dark-skinned, though not every boy is from the traditional inner-city background, nor the product of a single mother, like Elijah.

I don’t belong in that group of single-mothers-of-Black-basketball prodigies and could never claim that pride of place exemplified in women like LeBron James’s mother, Gloria, who was 16 when she bore her son, a child who would defy every statistic of the demographic category into which he was born. Elijah’s demography is faculty brat, only—and spoiled—child, the youngest of his Jewish grandparents’ progeny, equipped with a prodigious college fund for post-graduate education, a direction all in my family expect him to take.

All invisible to the fan in the stands.

But will he follow his future there? At 14, of course he doesn’t know. At his first practice, the new coach matched him with the older brown boy on the JV for defense. I wondered about this—why, with only two brown boys in the combined JV and C teams with 22 kids all together, does a young white man with an Irish surname match Elijah with a boy I’ll call Jaden? Are they the best two players there? Or does he assume the boys will be comfortable together because they share a similar complexion? Alternatively, could he be shielding the other boys, mostly white but also Chinese, Indian-from-India, and a few of mixed race (a category in which Elijah officially belongs but is never recognized as such due to his appearance) from being guarded by a zealous black boy?

Assuming such blinkered race consciousness in the second decade of the 21st century may sound paranoid, but, as the daughter of a man who fled for his life from his native country solely because he was born a Jew, I judge with caution; others must prove themselves worthy of my trust.

My father, 5 feet tall and fragile by the end of his 87th year, divided human beings into “he who works with his head and he who works with his hands”—the latter category obviously inferior to the former. Handymen were respected and well paid but not admired. Not aspired to. He never opined specifically on professional athletes, though he did adore Jack Nicklaus. If Heinz were still alive, would he be disappointed in his youngest grandson, whose prenatally announced existence so thrilled him?

“A grandfather at 86!” he crowed, as if my late pregnancy, at 39, somehow attested to his own virility. “A child of the twenty-first century,” he called my son or daughter, celebrating such mixed-race status prior to Elijah’s birth.

A young man in Tientsin during the 1940s, Heinz had fallen in love with a Chinese woman, but both concluded it out of the question to marry, as they wanted children, and in that time and place, children of mixed race suffered, looked down upon by both groups who saw in the mélange evidence of traitorous behavior on the part of each parent. Eventually, Heinz came to America in 1949, where a child like Elijah was not only possible, but, on the cusp of the new millennium, fifty years later, longed for. Beloved.

My mother also bequeathed a college fund for my son. Elijah need not worry about affording the university of his choice. Yet adults felt free to say to me, “He’ll be able to get in on affirmative action!”

Basketball scholarships are what Elijah wants. This way he can stand with the other brown boys, ravenous for recognition, eager to earn it. The more I learn about basketball, the more complex it seems; the 32-page book of plays he is required to memorize before his first game, complete with notations and abbreviations on the margins, seemed to me similar to sheet music, a language I never learned, unable to master the time signature or play an instrument. Elijah possesses that gift too and might have mastered his horn had he chosen music, but he scorns band, labels it “girly,” in favor of sports.

In his new world of multihued teammates and competition, he can’t be Hot Chocolate anymore. The other teams have boys darker chocolate than he, offering the obvious lesson of context. Nor is he the best anymore—not the most talented, best looking, most able, most dedicated. On the opposing teams are hungry boys, for whom the basketball scholarship is the proverbial ticket out of poverty, a chance for mothers like Gloria James to prosper. LeBron’s story is not Elijah’s story though it is that narrative strangers conjure when they observe him playing.

Today, he said he was glad to be relieved of that possibility. “Everyone plays so hard here, Mom.” This afternoon, his team gained their first victory and suffered their first defeat, pre-season. In the huge city gym, parents black and white and of all intermediate shades and hues commingled, their common focus the every-colored boys on the paint, vying for the ball.


Annie Dawid teaches creative writing at the University College, University of Denver. She was professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, 1990-2006.
Annie won the 2016 International Rubery Award in fiction for her first book and the Music Prize from Knuthouse Press in Fiction. Other awards include the Dana Award in the Essay, the Orlando Flash Fiction Award, The New Rocky Mountain VoicesAward (drama) and the Northern Colorado Award in Creative Non-Fiction.
Most recent publications: Brilliant Flash Fiction, Tikkun, Windmill, and “Jonestown, Japantown,” in Joyland: San Francisco, and a poetry chapbook, Anatomie of the World, Finishing Line Press, 2017.
Forthcoming poems in Ache magazine, UK, print & online, fiction in Fictive Dream (UK) and Casket of Fictional Delights (UK).
Multiple websites feature her short works, including TubeFlash, RetreatWest,
Spelk, Octavius, Nowhere, WeSaidGoTravel, Structo, Fiction Attic Press and others.
Her three published volumes of fiction are:
York Ferry: A Novel, Cane Hill Press, 1993, second printing
Lily in the Desert: Stories, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2001
And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family, Litchfield Review Press, 2009

Identity ’18: “Unsolved” by Brandon French

I steal. I am a seventy-one-year-old retired FBI profiler – remember Duane Margo, the “Cookie Monster” who cut up and baked his victims on cookie sheets? – and I steal. Are you shocked by the incongruity? I began stealing as a child, nickels and dimes from my mother’s pocketbook, to buy milk shakes at the Rexall Drug Store two blocks from our apartment on the west side of Chicago. Milk shakes are a preference that would have interested me, by the way, if I were profiling myself. (Milk linked to mother linked to inadequate nurturing, which stimulates self-nurturing by way of stealing what is not readily given.)

My shoplifting came later, when I worked at my Uncle Edgar’s drug store in San Diego as a teenager. (Note to self: Rexall Drug store, Uncle Edgar’s drug store. Unconscious self-medicating of unfulfilled needs?) My uncle was a nervous man, even more nervous than my mother, his older sister, a woman prone to sudden moves and explosive outbursts. In retrospect, I suspect my uncle’s anxiety was accelerated by the advent of rapacious chains like Rite-Aid, Rexall, Thrifty and Walgreens, which were swallowing up the mom and poppers like grazing orcas. But what did I care? I stole from the drug store every afternoon, mostly make-up, nail polish, and cigarettes, at first Camels, then Marlboros (I loved the box), hiding them in my dust rag, which my uncle insisted I use whenever there were no customers in the store.

“Look busy, Reggie,” he barked. “Customers don’t like it when the workers are just lollygagging around.”

Lollygagging. He used a number of weird expressions like that. For Pete’s sake. Who was Pete? Mollycoddling. That’s what he said my mother did with me instead of making me ‘straighten up and fly right.’

Well, I certainly put that dust rag to good use.

He almost caught me once. I’d gone into the back of the store to unload my day’s booty into my purse, not realizing that he was already back there checking invoices. His nose twitched like a rabbit, which made his tiny trimmed mustache do the jitterbug. But he didn’t say anything, he just glared at me, his black eyes enlarged to owl size by his thick horn-rimmed glasses. I guess he didn’t want to upset my mother by firing me, when she was having a tough time recovering from the circumstances of her divorce. (Note to self: research statistical effects of divorce and uprooting on adolescents. Symptoms?)

I don’t remember stealing again until I was away at college in Los Angeles, living in a cramped Westwood apartment with my Chinese roommate Matilda. At that time I stole steaks and lamb chops from the supermarket. All I had to do was put my big, open straw satchel in the shopping cart and casually toss the meat into it. This happened by accident the first time, which gave me the idea. I had the same m.o. in graduate school at UC Davis, only with clothes, blouses and tee-shirts, parking my cart next to a rack of size smalls whenever I was in a department store.

I was very good at shoplifting, and didn’t really worry much about getting caught. If a store detective spotted me, I’d just say, ‘Oh my goodness, how did that happen? I guess it accidentally dropped into my carryall when I tossed it in the cart.’ But I never got caught. And afterward, I’d have a moment of intense relief and exhilaration, like inhaling the first cigarette of the day after going all night without one. (Note to self: Research neurological connection between drug highs and behavioral highs.)

All this ended when I entered the program at Quantico. I became haunted by scenarios of discovery and disgrace, and they drove me to clean up my act. For the next five decades, except for one slip (an exquisite $200 cream-colored blouse at Henry Bendel when I visited New York), I was a model citizen. Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs. (What a hoot that movie was, especially for us female profilers, although we pretended to poo-pooh it at the time. My cousins and nieces were all over me, wanting to know everything about the Bureau.) And then out of the blue last week, when I was having my annual gynecology check-up to make certain that all those unused parts hadn’t gotten into any mischief, I stole a magazine.

Food and Wine. The issue with the babkas on the cover. I wanted the recipe for chocolate babka.

Not for me, although I confess I had a moment of temptation. It was for my friend Stephanie and her wife Jill. Two skinnies. Not that I’ve ever had much of a weight problem myself. But retirement can be fattening if you don’t watch out. Back in the day, as part of my training, I tackled “The Yellow Brick Road,” a 6.1 mile run which won me a yellow brick and the admiration of the other trainees, most of whom had declined the optional challenge. Nowadays, though, with my arthritis and fibromyalgia, I’m pretty much reduced to the Yellow Brick limp. And of course, with the advent of increasingly precise and accurate DNA processing, CODIS, and vastly improved methods of data collection, not to mention the proliferation of surveillance cameras wherever you look, the whole game has changed.

But back to that stolen magazine. (Observe how quickly I steered away from the subject. Note to self: avoidance of guilt and shame, a primitive defense). This was a major regression, seemingly out of nowhere. I took off my new, navy blue Banana Republic blazer (which I hadn’t stolen, by the way) and hid the magazine in the folds, just as I would have done as a teenager. But I wasn’t as stealthy as I used to be, nor nearly as adept and graceful in my larceny. My jacket fell out of my grasp and spilled onto the floor directly in front of my ob/gyn and her assistant, partially revealing a corner of the magazine cover. Luckily, a second before they could bend down to help me, I scooped up the jacket and clutched it to my chest like a life preserver. Walking out into the fierce afternoon sun, I felt that still familiar cocktail of relief and exhilaration, as if I’d just snorted cocaine. My God, what was wrong with me? And after all this time!

The incident reawakened my passion for solving mysteries, that inexhaustible quest for answers. It also caused me to recollect what a psychiatrist had called me when I was in my twenties.

“Greedy little piggy,” he’d said, apparently not caring if he hurt my feelings. “Whatever Reggie wants, Reggie takes.” (Note to self: stream Hitchcock’s Marnie and review kleptomania.)

Michael, my last romance, had a different bone to pick with me. “Every time you ask me a question, I feel like you’re gathering data. Stop profiling me,” he’d shout. I honestly wasn’t aware of doing that until he pointed it out. Occupational hazard, I guess.

I was simply on a lifelong quest to understand the mysteries of human behavior, my own included. My house became overrun with books, psychology, neurology, child development, books about attachment and the lack of attunement, the formation and deformation of empathy. Journals about human sexuality, perversion, criminality and psychopathy. Books about specific sociopaths, including fifty copies of my own, Addicted to Evil (Simmons, Regina. Karnac, 1996) in which I argued that serial killing was an addictive behavior that shares the characteristics of all other addictions. (Well-reviewed by Michiko Kakutani, no less, as “a fresh twist” on the subject, and available in paperback on Amazon for $12.99, if you’re interested.)

After the publication, I was a sought-after speaker, especially for my stories about various psychopaths that my colleagues and I had profiled (“Mr. Potato Head”, the Arctic Icicle Killer, Freddy Friendly-Face, and, of course, “The Cookie Monster.”). That’s how I met Michael, my ex, as a matter of fact. He was a forensic psychologist who’d read my book and wanted it autographed.

But while I could explain how we created the profiles, and how they helped us track down the culprits, I had to admit that none of us could account for why they became killers, any more than I could explain why I’d become a thief. (Or an FBI profiler, for that matter.)

These are the questions I continue to ponder. Yes, I can reference the violent battles my parents waged, and my terror that they might kill each other. I can factor in my father’s alcoholism and my mother’s borderline personality. I can cite that I was an only child who had undoubtedly been spoiled, within the limited means of my parents, and that I became somewhat entitled in my expectations of life, like the much maligned millennials.  I can also recall the precocity that drove me to read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams when I was nine, and my fascination with Leopold and Loeb (“The Crime of the Century”} when I was eleven. (I wrote to Leopold, putting forth my theory that it was Dick Loeb and not he who was the psychopath. My mother was horrified when he wrote back, addressing me as ‘my very dear young lady,’ with ‘Joliet Prison’ as big as a black eye on the envelope.)

But the seminal event in my upbringing, I suspect, occurred one morning when I was four years old and jumped out of bed, knocking over a vaporizer shaped like a tea pot, which spilled a quart of boiling water onto my feet, causing first and second degree burns.

There was a blizzard that morning, one of those infamous Midwestern howlers that thrash the trees and pound the windows like angry gods. I was home from nursery school for the second day, sick with a cold. My father was taking care of me, as usual, while my mother was off teaching p.e. to grade schoolers, and apparently we were playing some kind of game. Then, for no reason I can recall, I jumped out of bed. The next thing I remember is my mother carrying me back and forth across the living room rug as we waited for the pediatrician to slog through the snow. I recall screaming in pain while she alternately comforted me and shouted at my father that it was all his fault!

In my father’s last letter to me before he died of leukemia, he referred to the incident and said he had inadvertently “done something” which frightened me. I did not ask him to elucidate (Why? Was I afraid to know?), and now, of course, it’s too late.

Fact: Whatever that ‘something’ he referred to was, I developed mysterious symptoms afterward, a persistent dry cough and chronic stomach aches, for which there was no physical cause. The pediatrician suggested that my parents consult a child psychiatrist, which in 1948 was a radical idea.

Fact: After the consultation with the psychiatrist, my mother filed for divorce. A month later, she changed her mind.

Fact: During that same year, my father began to drink heavily, and suffered a major heart attack. He survived the coronary but continued to drink to excess for the rest of his life.

Fact: Within days after we visited the psychiatrist, my nervous symptoms disappeared.

I suppose that my father’s profile is relevant. Younger son of two Russian immigrants who fled Odessa at the beginning of the last century, shrewd, suspicious, ‘People of the Book,’ who were ravenous for their sons’ educations although they themselves were illiterate, and fatally infected with the iconic American hunger for material success in the new world. My father graduated from law school but flunked the bar after announcing that he was a communist in 1924, a bad year for radicals. He subsequently followed his musician’s heart into opera, becoming a mediocre tenor in the Chicago Opera Company. Late to marry (age 40), he found work as a furniture salesman and occasional high holiday singer for various synagogues. But unlike his older brother, who became a successful insurance broker, my father’s income was spotty, and his jobs came and went.

Relationships? He was adored by his mother but found no favor with his taciturn, pragmatic father, who considered the manhood of someone who sang opera and wrote poetry suspect. This suspicion was reinforced by my father’s friendships with a number of homosexual men, although for people in show business, those associations were commonplace. The rest of my father’s friends were mostly Irishmen he met in bars, several of whom regularly helped him home on nights when he was too unsteady to walk by himself.

My father, as well as my mother, had a critical spirit. When they watched Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows each Saturday night and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sundays, they savaged the singers and dancers, shouting their insults at the small black and white screen like rowdy wrestling fans.

“Eeeeeeeee!” my father would shriek, imitating a pop singer’s flat note.

“Get off the stage!” my mother would shout at a dancer whose leg was not perfectly straight.

Nothing short of perfection was acceptable to my parents and that message was not lost on me. (Note to self: check out the impact of perfectionism on various deviant and rebellious behaviors.)

The honeymoon pictures of my parents in Florida seem characteristically romantic. She leans her tiny body against him flirtatiously and he feeds her an orange he has just plucked from a tree. But the images I remember are shouting matches, during which my mother would attempt to hit my father with heavy objects like the bakelite phone or the cast iron frying pan, and my inebriated father would roar with rage as he charged at her like a Miura bull.

My mother filed for divorce again when I was eleven, after my father crashed through the window of a liquor store with me in the car, and this time she did not relent. We left Chicago and moved to San Diego, where her brother, my Uncle Edgar, lived, and that’s how I ended up working in the drugstore.

I did well in college and graduated from UC San Diego summa cum laude with a degree in psychology. Afterward, I decided to visit my father in Chicago, perhaps seeking his approval for my academic success. My mother insisted that I only meet up with him in public places, and never in the little residential hotel where he had a room. When I asked her why, she said, “Because he’s a man.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, with considerable heat. “Tell me!” But my mother refused to elaborate.

I never learned what the child psychiatrist said to my parents that caused my mother to contemplate divorce, and without actual memories, I can only speculate about what happened on the day I was burned. It’s possible that whatever my father took from me, assuming he took anything at all, led me to believe that I could take whatever I wanted from others. It sounds like a reasonable etiology of my pilfering, does it not? In a self-helpy sort of way. Like Tom Harris’s indictment of the sadistic grandmother in Red Dragon, which is meant to “explain” why Francis Dolarhyde became a homicidal maniac. But my deviant behavior could just as well have been a reaction to a deficit on my mother’s part, a failure to protect me, or to love me without ambivalence, if love without ambivalence even exists. Either way – or both — insight is not enough. That’s where Freud’s psychoanalysis went wrong. There has to be a transformation in the brain which alters behavior, or you’re just another New Yorker couch cartoon.

News Flash: I am watching an interview with Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer who strangled at least 49 prostitutes, when the reporter asks, “Don’t you have any guilt for what you did? Aren’t you sorry?” Ridgway looks thoughtful, as if he is rummaging around in the basement for a cache of old socks. “You mean that caring thing?” he asks, frowning. “No, I don’t think I have that.” Charlie Manson said practically the same thing. “I was aware of being totally without conscience,” and “I can’t put my finger on when I became devoid of caring emotion.” Suddenly I realize something, which throughout all my years of compulsive navel gazing never occurred to me. I have no guilt or remorse about stealing. I suppose that’s a terrible thing to admit, but I want to be honest with you. It’s not that I’m without conscience. Good heavens, I still carry the pain of having accidentally stepped on a neighbor boy’s pet turtle when I was three. And there’s a whole Rose Parade of other regrets that I can’t shake off. But guilt for stealing? Not on the list. “No, I don’t think I have that.”

Boy howdy!

Anderson Cooper, whose brother Carter inexplicably jumped off a building when he was 23, said that we live in a world without why’s. Like him, I shall probably go to my grave without an answer that satisfies me, although I’ll continue to investigate, probably from force of habit, like Dr. Bernard Rieux in The Plague, because it’s my existential raison d’etre. Maybe I’m not even asking the right questions. This past Thursday, I stole two more magazines. I was on my third day of jury duty and had grown so restless and irritable that I either had to steal the two New Yorkers, or get a second packet of M&M’s from the vending machine. Yes, I know, it was only a couple of old magazines that I saved from the garbage collector, but that’s not the point. In any event, I’m hoping that I got whatever compels me out of my system, but who knows?

After all this time, the sum total of my wisdom is, who knows? Why, despite becoming an ardent pursuer of truth and justice, do I steal? Why does a firefighter start fires? Why did Duane Margo, whose beloved grandmother baked cookies to console him for the loss of his parents in a fire he probably set, become “The Cookie Monster” rather than an arsonist, or a fire fighter? For that matter, why didn’t he become a pastry chef?

You tell me.


Brandon French is the only daughter of an opera singer and a Spanish dancer, born in Chicago sometime after The Great Fire of 1871. She has been (variously) assistant editor of Modern Teen Magazine, a topless Pink Pussycat cocktail waitress (that’s another story!), an assistant professor of English at Yale, a published film scholar, playwright and screenwriter, director of development at Columbia Pictures Television, an award-winning advertising copywriter and creative director, a psychoanalyst in private practice, and a mother. Sixty-one of her stories have been accepted for publication by literary journals and anthologies, she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart, she was an award winner in the 2015 Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Short Story Contest, and she has a published collection of poetry entitled “Pie.”