Posts Tagged 'poverty'


gaping maw

He’s taken my money and killed himself. This is what I have to ask myself. I mean, I can imagine the earth opening up, gaping mouth and hungry for vengance and taking him down to the steaming pits of hell. I can definitely imagine that, and I can definitely more or less agree with that plan, what with all that greed and all that theft and all of those people, people like you and me, just left out in the cold, holding the bag, while he’s been sucked down into those bowels. But what I can’t understand is where the money went. Do they use money in hell? What currency? What exchange rate? Do they extend credit? Because what I don’t understand is why the man would kill himself after he got all the money. I can readily understand suicide for someone who’s too poor, too sick, too miserable, too pained to tolerate the hand they’ve been dealt, but when billionaires kill themselves, you’ve just got to ask a few questions. I mean, they wouldn’t be billionaires in the first place if they’d had any scruples, am I right? So how does it happen that scruples develop after they’ve taken everything but the very shirt off of my back and where the hell is my mother’s money? That’s all I want to know. Maybe he’s not really dead. Maybe he and Bill and Bernie and whoever else lives on their privately-owned island paradise somewhere, paying for their exile with her retirement funds. 

Then again, maybe he really is dead. He could be dead. So I ask again, where is the money? And then again, maybe he didn’t really kill himself. Maybe the machine killed him, the machine that makes the money happen, makes millionaires into billionaires (billion is the new million, had you heard?), then eats their heads.

Maybe he didn’t kill himself. Maybe his head exploded from trying to do the accounts, from trying to account for, be accountable for, the transfer of wealth from the gullible middle class into his own stainless steel glass and white leather penthouse apartment that he’s had replicated in several major cities worldwide so he never feels like he’s away from home. Because he’s pretty fearful of being away from home. Remember when he was little and he used to wet his bed until the psychiatrist recommended the electric matress pad that gave him a shock every time he did it? But not until he asked for them, because he was going away to summer camp and the summer he was seven, every kid in Potlatch Village knew he was a bed wetter and a thumb sucker too and they made his life a living hell. So much so that he told Dr. Stangard that he’d either have to use the electroshock system or give up on ever getting into a decent college. Dr. Stangard wrote a prescription for nerves and ordered the electric pad, which was delivered three weeks before camp started. It only took 4 days.

Then again, maybe he did kill himself. Maybe that early bedwetting was an indicator of deep sensitivity that he’d learned to suppress using electroshock and assorted prescription drugs and he was so out of touch with his feelings that he could screw anyone, even his own parents and sister, without feeling much of anything. And maybe when he went to rehab, like he did last December, they cleaned out his system and all those feelings came rushing back and overwhelmed him and he had feelings again for the first time since he was seven years old. Poor little guy. And maybe if he hadn’t turned on himself, he might’ve turn on us, like some of them did, mowing down an entire tribe of CEOs and investment bankers. And maybe we should be grateful that he didn’t. Bless his heart, we will miss him, won’t we?

Zola runs

After one hour. One hour. Not a talkative child, not really, but after one hour of riding in the high nest of a truly big semi cab, the girl starts to talk to the man behind the wheel. Ever been behind the wheel? Lot  of things to hear, and that high seat, looking out over the great highways, it’s a map, it’s a history. That driver, old-ish at 50 from driving hundred of thousands of miles, he’s like the pope, or a grand wizard, looking down on people like ants, and the girl is an ant. The man behind the wheel starts feeling himself to be a spiritual advisor. Life is the road. The road is life. He says stuff like that. So she starts to talk, and he listens in his big head Wizard of Oz way until he realizes no, this kid and her kid, that he picked up on a black road in a deep night, they’d really need to be far away from here.

This is where not too much can be said, or folks who are still here might suffer, might find sudden bad luck visited upon then. Even still, even now we can say that the girl brought her belly and her secrets with her on the road between Abilene and Padre, thanks to the big rig driver who was not the wizard of Oz, who set her off a little bit away from where she’d been going, back toward family who were willing not just to hide but to twist her secrets to keep the family looking right into the eyes of God.

Here is where time challenges some of what we know, because the woman, the child, the birth, the release of life into the open space – they push us uncomfortably toward the primitive, the unsanitary.

Zola labors

She refused a cigarette and did not want to sit down.

“I have been jealous before, don’t think I haven’t. This just isn’t it.” She said. She paced and the light in the room was hard and white. She was soft and brown. Soft and brown and angry, in more trouble than she knew. Too young, this girl. Odds were against her, if you want to know the truth.

“Tell us again why you shot him,” said the younger man, who might have been good looking if it weren’t for the bad skin and that expression. A flat expression, flat like a sidewalk, that gave nothing back. Zola stopped pacing and smoking for a minute to look at him. She had the cigarette hanging out of her mouth, like she’d practiced when she was learning how to smoke, and it was burning her eyes. She wiped them dry, and put the cigarette out.

“Going to tell you again that I didn’t shoot him. You got a hearing problem?” She said and she looked at him and dared him to tell her fuck-all. She rubbed her big belly and said she needed to sit down before she went into labor. The younger man looked away, sudden discomfort marking his face, adding to the acne scars and he looked too young to be hard like a sidewalk. She felt sorry for him, with that bad skin, maybe he might not be such a bad guy if…

The older man interrupted this line of thought with a sudden hard bang on the table. Hey, she thinks, suddenly energized by loud noises at this late stage of her pregnancy, these two are playing good cop/bad cop with me. The fog and the hormones cleared like a rough weather front all of a sudden and she played her one and only card. Childbirth. Clutching the belly, she crouched suddenly down and commenced a good primitive wail, like she’d learned in that Lamaze class her social worker had been taking her to. She leaned, she wailed, she tried to pee herself but couldn’t quite manage it. Bubba one and two couldn’t tell, though; she’d scared them already with that first round of deep breathing.

Zola prayed to the gods of delivery to spare her from an actual early labor, and they were listening. She was out of the hard tile room with the sharp white light and into the warm unconditional arms of her social worker and a maternity ward, where she spent the next three weeks as a ward of the state, eating good and with blankets, stuffed animals, and unlimited cable TV. They cut off her cigarettes, but this was better than jail and interrogation, she figured, and when she did finally give birth to that hairy little girl, she was happy to see the pink skin and the long newborn fingers, and all in all, she was glad she scared holy crap out of a couple of redneck cops if it led to this cadillac delivery, all nice and clean like she’s a lady with full medical coverage and a husband somewhere waiting in the hallway to come in after all is birthed and bathed and settled to pretty rights.

On more than one occasion in the life of Zola Gorgon, she’d fallen into a hormonal trance that convinced her that all was well and safe and easy. On more than one occasion, she’d snapped out of it in time to avoid permanent damage. This was one of those times.


Mothers, daughters, sisters – a Christmas story


I had a happy rooster once. He was bright and loud and disappeared one mid-winter day just before Christmas. This was long enough ago that when I look at my legs in my memory they are thin, with pale fine hair on light brown skin. Kid legs. I can see my kid legs and they are not here any more. I still have the tin tree ornament nena gave me to replace the happy rooster, though.

The vatos who inhabited my sister’s dreams in seventh grade dressed better than I did. Their hair was shiny, remember that, hita? My sister (who is actually my daughter but we didn’t tell her yet) kept pictures of all the boys she loved for about a year, and then she stopped. When you marry a bad boy, it’s better not to look back, is the way I always heard it. But later, when we are all comfortable again and certain things have been forgotten, we can get out the box of pictures. For years, she kept them in a cigar box, but she moved them into a metal dental tool box she got when she was dating that crazy periodontist. Hector Altamirano, moved here with his family from Mexico City when Hector was 6; his mom cleaned houses in a damn good neighborhood, got Hector the grades to get into the right schools, and next thing you know it’s rinse and spit and a piece of prime real estate in the Silver Lace neighborhood. When Hector and Zola broke up, she moved to San Antonio and opened an office as an investment banker. She knew as much as anyone else, was how she figured it.

One day when Zola was still too little to talk about family, she and I were lying together on the porch in front of my mother’s house. We had our heads together and we were looking inside of a wooden box with metal hinges. Inside the box was a mouse. The mouse was small, probably immature, with tiny white paws and smooth brown fur. We were lying on our stomachs, cracking the box open enough to let some light in. The mouse inside looked out, sneezed and trembled, wrung his mouse hands together. I think he’s praying, said Zola. No, I said, too logical and mature at 19 to let even a mouse have prayers. Is too, said Zola, and then she started to cry. Big baby tears. The hinged door fell open, baby Zola ran screaming and crying into the house. I followed her, and the mouse’s prayers were immediately answered.

At Christmas time, we alternated between Christmas trees, glitter, chunks of coal and runaway hysteria. Nena knew the importance of light in wintertime, especially in cold winters when nothing is enough. Especially in winters when we are moving from one secret place to another, and there is never enough to put deposits on all the utilities. Moving is damn expensive, really hard on the poor, but we are the ones who have to do it most often. Sometimes we played the midnight mover, packed our bags and left with rent owing. I can’t say I knew what else to do.

If you take a cold five year old, dress her in yellow pajamas, the kind with the feet in and printed ducks and geese all over, then wrap her in a sleeping bag in a cold room with an unlit fire, then you sneak out while she is sleeping and buy a fire log at the mini mart with the three dollars in change that you had been saving in a pickle jar, then you light the fire and wake the little girl up and she sees the old artificial tree with the scrubby plastic ornaments in the firelight at midnight and you tell her santa has come at last, she believes you, and you believe too, for a little while, until the child is asleep again, and you are holding her against your chest for warmth. For her, for you, for Christmas.


Naches, bendiciónes


She’s like a piece of peach pie. Or like a peace pipe, fragrant and sweet with a bite in the air around her. Mafiala is my daughter. She was born to the mob and I took her away when I gave her that name. Mafia-la. A-la. O-la-la. She is my daughter, not yours. When I am a just a little girl myself I am with the gang, the gang of hostile idiots, the gang of hostile takeovers. They make me pregnant and then pull my wings out like I am a butterfly, a butterfly made for torture and fun. Problem is, of course, I am not a butterfly, I am not Mariposa, no, more like Kali, more like Cain than Abel and in my religion, vengeance is mine, vengaza es mio, like my grand-dad always said. He’s from Naches, blessings, bendiciónes, as far away from Lubbock as you can be and still be in Texas is the best thing about Naches, he would say. My old jewish grand-dad, who snapped one day years ago and ran away to India. He ran away to India and learned to play the sitar, to charm the snakes, the politicians, the incubi and succubi of public life in an old old country. He ran naked with the Indian dogs and fakirs, he washed in the Ganges. When it was time for the revolution he led elephants through the city, pounding their dinner plate feet into the ancient street, pounding flat, each sensitive searching trunk like a big angry eye looking for corruption, for forgetfulness, the unforgivable elephant sin.

Mafiala is my daughter, my sensitive child, the child who came to me through rape or incest or maybe it was both. I did not have my pedigree, you see, my where-did-you-come-from, my you-look-just-like-your-daddy credentials. Who knows? One day I am nothing, the next day I am a big belly sitting in Dunkin Donuts looking for someone to come claim me and give me a place to have this baby girl so I can go to school somewhere and be in the witness protection program or something. That might work, I think and I rub my 15-year-old belly and sing a song, half Yiddish half Spanish to the little gypsy princess who will be my baby, sister, and mother all in one.

Katalpa is a tree that grew there in Naches. I almost named my daughter Katalpa, until I realized on the morning I went into labor that really I’d been working for the Texas mafia, on my back, since I was 9 years old and I decided between screams and murderous plans that I would claim the name for my own. Mafia, la mafia, mafiala, my girl, my home, my road away from these criminal bastards.

You want to know the truth – you get good treatment when you’re carrying a baby, until the baby is born and they take her away to be with some more fit parents. O-la-la, my Mafiala. That didn’t happen, you know. I’m reading the paperwork, they say you can wait to sign it later, and I walk out to the baby room where all the newborns are lined up together, with little name tags at their feet.

My baby, Baby Girl Gorgon, does not have a first name yet. I see them standing in front of her, leaning their light blond heads together. Prospective daddy turns his face toward prospective mommy, he looks up and right through me, blue eyes cold and vacant. He doesn’t recognize me, old blue eyes, he’s just another moral bastard with a secret life waiting to adopt a baby that he’d let die if he didn’t own it. They turn away and step out, probably to get some coffee. I asked the nurse for some lime jello. When she goes to get it for me, I take Mafiala and leave.

She and I grew up together in a small town that was hurricane prone and unloved, where no one would notice us and that suited me just fine. I learned how to sew and how to play the piano. Mafiala learned how to dance and how to tell stories in the firelight in the long summer evenings. She sang songs like she was dressed in red velvet and I always wondered where she heard them, torch songs, leaning against my piano and making smoky eyes at me and Jimmy. Jimmy didn’t come along until Mafiala was almost 10, and by that time I was 25 and ready to think about skin and sex and juice and forgiveness. But a lot of things came before that time, and a lot of things came after, too.

Before a big storm can destroy everything in its path, certain things have to happen, or have to not happen. For example, in a strong walled city in an ancient port town, there has always been a history of reinforcement, of respect for storm and wind. There are traditions and times of restoration, these come with storytelling, firelight, dancing and god. Here we’ve reduced it to a Disney story, a feature film, the three little piggies, the big bad wolf. The big bad wolf cannot blow down a house that is cared for. If you want to destroy a city, first thing to do is ignore it. Let it get run down around the edges. Keep it hungry. Then let the winds blow. The winds blow, the children sing stormy weather, the elders sing hallelujah, the dogs drown on their rooftops, and the rich thank god that their insurance is paid up. After the storm, they rebuild. A new day has dawned. Hallelujah, amen.


 The dark red pores of the worn leather chair looked wet, looked like blood soaking in, looked like red wine ruining an otherwise perfectly easy white grape evening. The cowboy was chewing, the cowboy was chewing and his cheek was distended with tobacco and spit. Dana, Danalynn, Delaney Marie, depending on when you asked her, what age what incarnation, shuddered and considered the implications of spilled wine, drunken cowboys, and her mother coming home in the middle of what might be described as a another bad judgment phase of her life. Delaney, Laney, Dana Marie, my little Marybell, I am so disappointed in you, mama would say. Laney wiped up the spilled wine, emptied the ashtrays, and put mama to bed. Cowboy too, if she had to.

But Ma, guess what I got in my hand? Laney would say and would hold out a wad of tobacco, a wad of wrong living, a wad of judgment that her mother would chew on for months in the informal group that passed for therapy after the money was all gone.

Ma, what I got in my hand is the future, Laney would say. She’d been doing this since she was little, since the first time Laney realized that the moving, the dance, the constant changing from place to place  all meant something about loneliness and terror, the loneliness and terror of her young mom. Laney held her mother’s fear in her hand like a sphere, a round smooth ball of palm-warmed glass. There was peace and rest in mama’s fear, a vocabulary of calming that she spooned into mama’s mouth like warm milk to a kitten’s mew.

Laney had a cat once, a little cat who lived under the front steps of a trailer house down the street. Little cat had kittens, even though she was barely grown herself. Laney crawled under the steps with a can of food bank tuna, which was greasy and smelled of diesel oil, but little cat went for it and came with her, kittens and all, in a box with an old cotton dish cloth. She quickly became a tame kitty with babies that tore at her adolescent nipples and sucked her thin and dry, even with all the canned tuna Laney could divert from their own weekly supply. Laney personally hated food bank tuna and even the smell of it made her gag, but there were things she would do for baby cat that she was not willing to do for herself.

The kittens grew into cats and ate like cats and ate and ate until their belly skin was tight and round. Laney realized that each little mouth was going to generate more little mouths and that her own regenerative capacities as regards tuna would probably not be able to keep up with demand. About that time, mama packed their bags, taking Laney and little cat but leaving the kittens, the furniture and the cowboy all lying in tobacco spit and tuna juice, and they moved someplace clean and new.

The clean new place was small, in a biggish city that started with a vowel. Layney was pretty sure the name of the city was an Indian name, a first peoples name, and she got out her book about first people and the story her first daddy had told her about his people, we are from this people and that, all the way back to the turtle clan and the very first people of all. She imagined herself riding on the turtle’s back for hundreds of years, never being bored at all. Turtle time is very different than people time, she can hear her father’s voice telling her in the voice of his people, his old turtle clan. She thinks the name of her first father is George, but this is not something she can talk to mama about, even on the best days, even when there is no stinking cowboy buying the beer and helping ma lose her job again.

When she was liittle, Laney thought, didn’t they go to the zoo sometimes? She thought they went to the zoo when she was young, and at the zoo her favorite time of day was when the zookeepers brought out the different kinds of food for each different kind of animal. Hay, pellets, seeds, mangoes, beef, smelt, lettuce, tiny mice with pink eyes. Everybody eats something, mama said, and gave her some pellets to feed to the ducks. The ducks fought and bit each other. Laney preferred the flamingos, standing steady on their backward elbows, and the otters, who made every bite look like a fantastic joke, no matter who they were eating.

In the imaginary jungle where Laney wandered at night after sleep took her out of the very small place, the cowboy lived far away, and the animals who shook and rattled her sleeping cage were drawn broad, some of them even in crayon with little glitter bits filling in the details where she wasn’t exactly sure how a rhino’s tusk should be drawn. The imaginary jungle did not have a smell, not at all like the zoo or the apartment with the burned carpet and the molding beer smell, or the motel with the scented dispenser that shot springtime freshness out into the room automatically every twenty minutes. Laney lay in bed some nights, listening to the scent dispenser release like clockwork, a springtime disinfectant bouquet that sat in the back of her throat. Mama came home late, smelling like smoke, roulette nerves and fried food, and that mixed in with the springtime and tobacco spit memory. Those smells made Laney think of luck and the cowboy. The cowboy had liked to play the lottery, punching in Laney’s special numbers, telling her Laney, you’re a winner, you’ll see. You’ll see.

Monastery on Minor and Pine

buddhist sunset

When I ring the bell at the red iron gate, Li Po crosses the dining hall on soft cotton feet. Brown robes brush cracked linoleum; she smiles and allows me in. I enter, smell incense and silence, read the songs hanging in red and gold scrolls where someone has translated no selfishness no greed. We bow welcome, Amitaba, and around her Cheshire smile the peeling paint fades in the shadowed hallway. 

 Big Gwoli warms my meal in the microwave, prayer beads click as I eat. We light incense, eat oranges; my hands are sticky with juice, and I wash them in the kitchen where mice dance unworried on the kharmic wheel and the countertops. 

 Through the classroom floor we hear chanting, bells chime Amitaba for compassion, Amitaba for Guan Yin. My hands are covered with chalk dust, hair smells of smoke and sweet herbs. I set aside lessons, ask my students to read The Cat in the Hat instead. Little Gwoli laughs, startled at the sounds of sense and no sense. I see that Heng Sheung has the scars of repentance burnt into her arms, onto her bare scalp, and I wonder what is the desire she battles with white coals, how strong is the will that lives in this crumbled brown building. Across the street, the nodding junkies disfigure the bodhisattva spirits of the city no less than she with her bracelet and crown of guilt. 

 In the classroom, voices stagger drunk outside the windows, clatter against the chanting below, rattle the cage of detachment. The afternoon light catches dust and smoke; Heng Sheung is transformed into a lighted mind vivid with struggle, English rhythms and hard edges ache in her jaw, leaving dharma in a heap behind Dr. Seuss. Later, when pleasure has hardened to guilt, she will rock on her knees in prayer, calling Amitaba for compassion, Amitaba for Guan Yin. 

cat in hatAs I leave, I close the red iron gate behind me; undetached, unrepentant, I sing us Amitaba for compassion, Amitaba for Guan Yin, Amitaba for the sweet madness of the wheel dance that shakes the belly of every Buddha who has ever laughed in exile.


© 1993 Teresa Phillips. May not be used without permission.




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