The Baked Potato, Part 4: The Long Table

Miguel sat in the driver’s seat of the Windst-r off the Interstate in Sacramento, California, searching through his stack of pre-paid cards while the snow fell in the parking lot outside. There was a gas card, empty since Arizona. There was a card for a grocery store, used up outside Las Vegas. There were two $50 Visa cards, used up for both gas and groceries before they ever left Texas. The Mexican phone cards still had balances, but they could not provide food, gasoline, or heat to the family in the minivan. There was a little cash. Miguel counted it again, forty-two US dollars in crumpled ones and dog-eared fives. He had calculated the mileage to Reno from Sacramento. Taking into account the higher price of gas in California, the gas mileage of the Windst-r, and the quarter tank they had left right now, they might have just enough to reach their destination.

They were all exhausted. Miguel had been driving for twelve hours straight, since before they crossed the border into California, and he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. He couldn’t ask Cristina to drive; she was every bit as tired as he was. They needed to stop and rest, but it was too cold outside to turn off the Windst-r’s engine, and if they kept it running while they slept they would use up their precious gasoline. Also, Miguel knew that sleeping in the minivan would expose them to the danger of a policeman knocking on the window. He looked at the map spread out on his lap, the big Rand-McNally road atlas, measuring the grid key with his thumb and index finger, then walking the crude calipers across the page, marking out the distance. Sacramento was not quite one hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, an international border. They were within Customs and Border Protection territory, subject to being stopped and searched without a warrant.

Miguel looked at the last of the pre-paid cards in his hand. It was for one hundred dollars, a large amount. It was one of the gift cards that Cristina’s brother Gregorio had sent, one for the restaurant where Gregorio worked, and where Miguel hoped to take a job as a cook. They had not used any part of the card. Miguel compared the picture on the plastic card with the signage on the building in front of the Windst-r. They were the same. It was like a gift from heaven, that he had recognized the logo from the freeway, and turned around to go back to the exit, and found the restaurant. It was still open, even though it was after nine o’clock at night: Miguel had just seen a couple walk through the snow to the front door and go inside. The problem was, he didn’t entirely trust the gift card. They didn’t have any other money. One hundred dollars should be enough for all five of them to go inside, sit down in the warmth, have a good meal, and rest for a while, but if the card didn’t work for some reason, they would have no way to pay, and the police would be called.

Miguel sighed. The snowflakes splatted down on the windshield, coming harder now, swirling in front of the headlights, so thick that they almost blocked out the red neon lights on the face of the building. They could continue on down the road in the storm, risking an accident from slippery roads and low visibility, combined with exhaustion. Or they could turn off the minivan and try to sleep theough the night with only the towels to cover them, and hope they didn’t freeze to death. Or they could turn off the Windst-r and go inside, where it was warm and protected from the weather, and they could rest and get something to eat.

“Cristina, Laura,” Miguel said. “Wake up. Wake up Raul. Get the baby. We’re going inside.”

They moved in a line for the doors, Miguel gritting his teeth against the snow, Raul and Laura laughing with momentary delight as they kicked through the drifts with their feet. “Stop it now,” Cristina ordered with a mother’s instinct, correct to equate wet and cold with danger. “You’ll get your pants all wet.” Miguel opened the door to the restaurant and they passed through one at a time, the children wide-eyed, looking around them at the dim light, feeling the warmth, hearing the quiet blend of music and conversation, smelling the good smells of hot food from the kitchen. At the front of the restaurant a hostess in a black dress asked Miguel how many in his party, and he told her five. She led them to a booth. All of them sat down, the children fussing in the soft darkness, Miguel sighing as the soft seat cradled his behind, Christina occupied with the baby in the car seat. It felt so good to be sitting somewhere other than the Windst-r.

“I don’t know what to do,” a waitress complained in the side station. “They’ve already been sitting there for an hour. They haven’t even ordered anything!”

“They look really tired.” The other waitress made a stack of dirty plates to take back to the kitchen. “Even the kids look exhausted.”

“I have to study tonight,” the first waitress wailed. The second waitress shrugged. They both knew she wasn’t going to go home, or do any schoolwork. She wanted to go to the bar after work. Tony, the new waiter who was responsible for most of that week’s gossip on Facebook, had asked her for a drink.

“Sometimes people just need a place to sit down and rest and get warm,” the second waitress decided. “I guess you’ll just have to wait them out. Isn’t that baby cute?”

“I don’t care if it’s cute or not,” the first waitress complained, and looked out of the side station. “Oh my God.” She rolled her eyes. “They’re seating me another table. I told them to give all the tables to you.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, honey,” the second waitress shrugged. “I just got two more myself.”

The first waitress moaned, “Don’t they know it’s Friday night? Do they even care?” There was no way to tell if she was talking about the guests or the hostesses.

At their table, Miguel sat in a pleasant daze with a cup of hot coffee in his hands. Cristina drank water. Raul had apple juice, and so did the baby. Laura was drinking a Coke. They sat staring at the menu. Miguel was still afraid that the gift card might not work. If worst came to worst, he could still pay for the drinks with cash, but once they ordered food he would have to depend on the gift card. He couldn’t hold out much longer. The menu was full of glorious photos of giant burgers and French fries. There were salads with salmon, and loaves of sourdough bread filled with steaming soup. The children hadn’t had anything but convenience store food since they crossed the border, and they were growing more demanding. The waitress continued to walk by and stare at them with furious eyes. Miguel didn’t care. He was happy to sit and sip his coffee, and delay for as long as he could the moment when he would have to turn the key in the Windst-r again, and continue draining the minivan of their most precious resource, gasoline.

The waitress had another booth now, right beside theirs, and Miguel could hear her taking the order of the two women who sat there. He could see the back of the one, with close cropped and dyed hair that he thought was an awful look for a woman. She had large stones dangling from her ears. They looked like real pink topaz, mounted in white gold. Her partner across the table had immaculate nails the same color as her lipstick. Miguel caught Cristina admiring the woman’s blouse and gazing wistfully at her leather purse. These were rich American women.

“Give me a Cosmopolitan,” he heard the woman with her back to him say. “Do you have light cranberry juice? No? Ask the bartender to put just the smallest splash in then. Just a little pink. And only fresh lime juice. Ask him to squeeze the limes. Do you have skinny drinks?” Miguel couldn’t hear the mumbled reply the waitress made. “Never mind,” the woman told her. “What would you like, Sara? She’ll have the same thing. And bring us an order of the egg rolls, but without the onions. I’m allergic to onions. And a side of ranch.” The waitress left. The woman told her friend, “Let’s hope she gets the drinks right.”

The waitress delivered the two martinis to the women and then returned to Miguel’s table. He could see that she was determined to get the order this time, and he decided that he would have to give in. Cristina ordered salmon on a bed of greens. Laura ordered chicken tenders and fries. Miguel took a deep breath and ordered the T-bone steak, well done. He would share it with Raul. Adding up the prices in his head he knew that they were within the limit on the prepaid gift card.

The waitress went to put in their order. Miguel heard her in the side station, complaining to someone else. “He ordered a well done steak.” MIguel didn’t care. He knew that it was the job of the waitress to take care of them. As long as he possessed the gift card, she had no choice. Soon Miguel would be doing the same thing. He longed for the opportunity to join the waitress in the agonies of her profession. She should be grateful that she had a job, inside where it was warm, and a place to go when it was over. Someone should tell her that. Miguel smiled. Soon it would be him complaining about the same inconsequential things.

The waitress returned to the table beside theirs. The two women were unhappy. “Where’s our ranch?” The one with her back to them demanded.

“We don’t have any more,” the waitress replied. “I’m sorry.”

The other woman scoffed, “What do you mean, you don’t have any?” Miguel could see the expression on her face. It did not make her prettier. “What sort of restaurant runs out of ranch?”

The waitress stood her ground. “Someone forgot to order extra. There’s nothing I can do.”

The woman with her back to them demanded, “Can’t you make some?” The waitress shook her head. “Never mind. Just never mind,” the woman said, dismissing the waitress with a wave of her hand. The waitress walked away. “She’s the worst waitress I’ve ever had,” the woman opined. “Who runs out of ranch?”

“Seriously,” the other woman said. Miguel decided that he would make them ranch. Once he was working in the kitchen of a place like this, he would make them anything they wanted. He didn’t care about their manners. He just wanted the chance to work.

When Miguel’s steak came they were all amazed by the giant baked potato. Looking at the picture in the menu he hadn’t even wanted the baked potato. He had thought about ordering something else. He didn’t understand the American fascination with the tuber. It was a tasteless root, dug up from the ground. In the center of their table, though, it became something else. The waitress split it apart for Miguel, and they all saw the crispy, salted skin, and the steam boiling out from the soft flesh inside. THe waitress had a whole caddy of things for the potato. She asked Miguel what he wanted. He let her pile it all on there, soft butter to melt in the hot potato, sour cream, cheese, bacon, and sliced green onions. While Laura, Cristina, and Raul watched, Miguel motioned for the waitress to keep spooning out the condiments until her caddy was empty and the potato was piled high like a meal in itself. He had the gift card. He might as well pretend he was the American he wanted to be. When he had a job cooking in Gregorio’s restaurant he wouldn’t care, he would bake potatoes for people all day long.

In the side station the waitess complained, “Did you see that? He made me use the whole caddy on his potato. The whole thing! There wasn’t so much as a slice of onion left. They’ve been here for over three hours. And now he wants to pay with a gift card.”

The other waitress shook her head. “So what? It’s still part of the system, right? Some folks, that’s all they have.”

“Their tab is almost ninety bucks,” the waitress groaned. “There won’t even be enough left for a decent tip. I should’ve been gone three hours ago. Tony won’t wait for me.”

“I thought you had homework to do,” the second waitress reminded her.

“Grrrr,” the first waitress replied. She ran the gift card through the reader with a vicious swipe and waited, watching the screen. “There. It went through. Now I can get out of here.”

“Which one would you rather wait on,” the second waitress wondered, “them, or the women with the ranch?”

“Good grief,” the first waitress answered. She tucked her last check into the payment book for Miguel to sign. As she left the side station, she snarled, “I hate them all. I can’t wait to graduate and get a real job.”

 

 

 

 

 

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The Baked Potato, Part 3: If You’re Brown-Haired Near the Border, Better Have Your Papers in Order

Passing over the New Bridge to Brownsville was easy. Miguel just placed the Windst-r in the queue of traffic. Cristina even had time to get out of the minivan and shake her head at the damage he had done to the left rear bumper escaping their driveway. When they reached the front of the line Miguel showed his family’s passports to the customs agent and they were waved through. Miguel placed the wheels of the Windst-r on 77 and they drove North away from Mexico to Corpus Christi, then West on 37. They reached San Antonio at 2:00 in the morning and set out on Interstate 10 on their way to Nevada. The further they went from Matamoros, the Gulf Cartel, and the freeway overpass beside General Servando Canales Airport the better Miguel felt.

The children stayed quiet in the back seat, and even slept while the tires hissed over the highway. Towards morning Laura woke and yawned. She leaned forward from the back seat and put her lips close to Miguel’s ear. “Papi, I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Of course,” Miguel replied. He exited at the next opportunity. It would be good for all of them to stretch their legs and breathe some fresh air. He found a McDonald’s close to the exit and pulled the Windst-r into a parking space near the restaurant’s dumpster. Cristina carried Raul into the restaurant, and Laura carried the baby in his carseat. Miguel stood by the dumpster, removing the trash they had accumulated so far on the trip and placing it in the bin. He didn’t notice the Highway Patrol car pull up behind him until the officer flashed his lights and squawked the intercom at him, making him jump.

Miguel waited at the rear bumper for the officer to approach. The highway patrolman was young, with blonde hair, a slight moustache, and a rash of pimples on his forehead. He wore tall leather boots and his sidearm was very prominent on his hip. It looked like it could shoot an elephant.

“How’s it going today?” the patrolman asked. He was also chewing gum.

Bueno,” Miguel answered without thinking, and then changed it to “Fine.”

“That’s a private receptacle you’re dumping your trash into,” the officer observed. “For the business.” He jerked his arm over his shoulder at the McDonald’s.

“I’m sorry,” Miguel apologized. “It’s just a few items.”

“Uh-uh,” the officer shook his head. “No bueno.” He exaggerated the word. “You know you’ve got Mexican plates on that van?”

Cristina, Laura, Raul, and the baby had all come out of the McDonald’s. They stood in a semi-circle, watching Miguel standing helpless in front of the police cruiser.

“This your family?” the officer asked.

Miguel nodded. He was too afraid to speak. The officer leaned to the radio on his chest and spoke a few words, waited for a reply. Then he approached. His hand was close to the elephant-killing gun. “Would you mind opening up the back for me?”

Miguel felt paralyzed. “It’s just our things,” he mumbled.

“Any drugs in the minivan?” the officer asked.

“No,” Miguel tried to sound sure.

“Any of your family in the drug business?” the officer demanded. Miguel was shocked. Were the authorities watching them? Did they know about Carlos? Had they seen the horror dangling from the freeway overpass? Miguel shook his head slowly back and forth. The officer continued to stare. “Let’s see some paperwork. Driver’s license, registration, proof of insurance, passports.” Miguel tried to calm himself, tried to breathe deeply. It was still all right. He had all of those things. There was nothing illegal inside the Windst-r. He exchanged glances with Cristina, so grateful she’d made him procure all of those things.

A second police cruiser nudged into the parking lot, lights flashing. People moving into and out of the McDonalds began to stop and stare at the scene. Miguel had the paperwork in his hand. Maybe if he could get it into the officer’s hand, he could get them away before the second officer approached. The door on the second cruiser opened. Miguel thrust the papers into the officer’s hand. “Here.” Passports, Mexican driver’s license, registration, proof of insurance.

“I have this one.” Miguel showed the officer the copy of the I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker. It was on top of the stack of forms.

“I don’t care about that,” the officer snarled. “You think you deserve to come to this country and take a job away from an American worker? There aren’t enough jobs for people who are residents of this country, much less people like you.”

Miguel didn’t know what to say. It was too late to escape. The second officer approached. He was older, with gray in his beard. His face was stern. The first officer carried Miguel’s papers back to him and they spoke to one another. Cristina brought the children around so they stood with Miguel. The two policemen came back to stand beside Miguel at the Windst-r. “Open up the back, please,” the second officer ordered.

Cristina asked, “Don’t you have to have a warrant to search the vehicle?” Miguel was amazed that his wife would stand up to the policemen.

The second officer observed her. “Actually, no. I’m a US Customs and Border Protection agent. That’s why he called me. See the badge?” The officer showed Cristina his badge. It said CBP Border Patrol US Patrol Agent. “I have the authority to search vehicles or persons within one hundred miles of any International Border in the United States. We’re in Pecos County, seventy miles from the Rio Grande.”

“Be quiet,” Miguel told Cristina. “They can search the minivan if they want to. There’s nothing bad in there.”

“No,” Cristina told her husband. “We have done what we are supposed to do. We have rights.” She grabbed the papers from Miguel and thrust them into the second officer’s hands. “Look at them,” she demanded. “We have done nothing wrong.” Raul followed his mother’s lead, approaching the second officer with his yellow dump truck Transformer held out as a peace offering, encouraging the CBP Agent to accept the gift. The older officer with the gray in his beard bent over the sheaf of paperwork Cristina gave him, searching theough the individual pages and shaking his head.

“These don’t give you any extraordinary rights,” he told Cristina. “These are all just applications for citizenship that haven’t been granted. It’s good that you’ve filed them. The process is slow because there are thousands of people going through it, more every day.”

The younger officer snapped, “Are we going to search this vehicle or not?”

The CBP Agent flipped to the last page. “Wait a moment. Here we go.” He was holding Form I-131, Application for Travel. “This is the document you need.” Immediately Cristina darted her head in close to the officer, listening to what he had to say. “This document gives you what is called ‘advance parole,'” the officer told her. “Your passports give you the right to cross the border from Mexico. This document shows that you will be accepted back. That’s what we’re looking for.”

“Look at their minivan,” the younger officer sputtered. “It doesn’t look like they plan to go back to me.”

“That’s not a determination we’re required to make,” the older officer admonished him. “They have the right papers. I’m letting them go on their way.” Cristina squeezed MIguel’s arm.

Miguel felt his heart leap. Cristina was already bundling Laura and Raul back into the Windst-r. The officer handed Miguel their forms, passports, driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. “Just keep this one on top,” the CBP Agent told him. “You’ll be stopped again. There are checkpoints all the way through Arizona and New Mexico, especially on the Interstate. Don’t try to avoid them. Just show them your papers. You won’t have any trouble. Drive safe now.”

Miguel was in the driver’s seat, with his key in the ignition. He started the Windst-r’s engine. He released the emergency brake. MIguel rolled down his window and called out, “Good day to you.” The CBP Agent raised his hand as he walked back towards his cruiser. The younger officer stared after them as Miguel put the Windst-r in drive and pulled out of the parking lot. They were free again.

 

 

 

The Baked Potato, Part 2: The Gulf Cartel

The morning after Miguel told Cristina about Carlos and the heroina he woke up in their bed to find her staring at him in the dark. The baby lay quiet in his grandmother’s bassinet in the corner of the bedroom. It was early, with only a hint of the sunrise beginning to glow through the crack in the old counterpane (also his grandmother’s) which Cristina had cut into two parts and stitched into curtains to cover their bedroom window.

“Where did he get it?” Cristina asked in a soft voice, so as not to wake the baby. “Who gave it to him?” Miguel stiffened on his side of the bed. Cristina was wide awake. She had been awake for a long time. This was not going to be one of the mornings when she would giggle and tickle him until he took her in his arms. His wife was making plans.

“I don’t know,” Migueal answered. “I didn’t ask. He wouldn’t tell me anyway.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Cristina sighed. “They won’t let him go.”

“I know,” Miguel agreed. He stared hard at the ceiling.

“I think we should leave here,” Cristina told him.

Miguel felt his heart hammer in his chest. “What do you mean, leave here?” They had always lived in Matamoros. He had grown up in Matamoros, met Cristina in Matamoros, married her in the back yard of his grandmother’s house. His parents lived down the street. Her parents lived three blocks away.

“They won’t let us go, either,” Cristina told him.

“You don’t know that,” Miguel replied. Cristina did not answer him. She wrapped her hand around the gold cross hanging on her neck, and rolled over in the bed, so that she faced the bassinet standing on its folding legs in the corner.

Miguel asked, “Where would we go?” He knew that there was nowhere to hide from them in Tamaulipas, maybe nowhere to hide in all of Mexico.

“I am thinking of Gregorio,” Cristina answered.

Miguel bit his lip. “Gregorio? Your brother Gregorio, the one who lives in Reno, Nevada?”

“He will help us,” Cristina told her husband. She rolled back to face him, and he felt her put her arms around him. He hugged her back, and they lay together, holding on to one another, waiting for the rest of the morning to come through the crack in the curtain and wake the baby.

Together they decided that they would not pay for the services of a pollero. It was too dangerous. Instead Miguel suggested they contact a coyote, not as a guide, but to help expedite the process and tell them the steps they would need to take to cross forever from Tamaulipas to Texas. Cristina, who was wiser than he, and whose sole overriding purpose was the safety of her children, refused his plan. Her reasons were simple. The coyotes worked hand in hand with the cartels, and Cristina wanted, above all, to stay out of their grasp. Instead, she told Miguel that he must go to the immigration office and collect the necessary paperwork. They would take their time, as much as necessary. They would keep their plans to themselves, not telling their friends, not even telling their parents. They would save their money, and when they moved, they would cross the border legally, in their own vehicle, with no handlers to betray them.

So began a long year, in which Cristina’s nightly question to Miguel, once the children were asleep in their own bedroom, was “What have you done today to continue the plan?” The baby outgrew the bassinet and Miguel had to spend some of their savings to purchase a crib they would be unable to take with them.

One day they received a letter in the mail from Gregorio. It was a thick manila envelope. Inside was a short note wishing them good luck, and then “to help with your trip.” Miguel poured the envelope out on the table.

“Cristina, come look at this,” Miguel called. Inside the envelope were all sorts of plastic gift cards. Some were for gasoline. Some were for groceries. One was even for a restaurant. It said $100 on its plastic front.

“Do you see?” Cristina was laughing. “I told you Gregorio would help us. You must remember to call and activate all of these cards. Before we leave, not now. Make sure they all are bueno. Oh, Miguel, it’s going to happen! We’re going to escape, to start a new life!”

“Shh,” Miguel told her. “The children will hear you.”

Carlos visited often. Cristina did not welcome him, and did not let him hold the baby, but Miguel convinced her that shutting his brother out of their lives would only arouse the suspicions of those around them, and by association the suspicions of the other drug dealers. On his visits Laura and Raul were fascinated by Carlos’ new gold watch, and by his fancy stitched leather wallet. One evening he arrived wearing a beautiful pair of white ostrich-leather boots. After Carlos finished their meal of posole with pork and corn tortillas and left to go out for the evening, Laura, who wanted a new dress for school, asked her father, “Why does Uncle Carlos have so much money to buy nice things, when we have so little?”

Miguel felt his heart wrench. He couldn’t tell her about United States Customs and Immigration Services Form I-130 Petition for Alien Relative that Gregorio had to file through the Dallas Lockbox to try to get Cristina citizenship under F4-1 status, and that cost $420. He couldn’t tell her about USCIS Form I-140 Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker that Gregorio’s employer had to file, that cost $585, plus another $345 for EB-3 status that might within six to nine years grant Miguel a path to lawful permanent resident status as an “other worker” with no special skills but a willingness to do a job at a wage that no other US Citizen would be willing to accept. He couldn’t tell her about USCIS Form I-131 Application for Travel that they had to have to cross the border legally and drive in the United States, that cost $135 to file, or USCIS Form I-765 Application for Employment Authorization that cost $380. He couldn’t tell her about the pitiful few US dollars and the ZapTel prepaid telephone cards that he had stashed in the tequila box behind her mother’s wedding dress in the closet with the gift cards Gregorio had sent. He couldn’t tell her why he refused the cash that Carlos offered them every time his brother came for supper. He wanted to tell her how proud he was that he had just finished payment for her mother’s passport, and that when he had asked her for one of her school pictures it was for her own passport photo, not to keep in his threadbare wallet.

It was even harder to keep the secret as the time to leave approached, and they began to sell the possessions they could not take with them. When Miguel told Laura that a man was coming to take her bed and that she and Raul would have to sleep on the floor until they could buy another one, Laura finally exploded.

“Why can’t you get a good job like Uncle Carlos?” she yelled. “You always say that he is the foolish one, but I think it’s you who’s the foolish one. What am I supposed to tell my friends when they come over? It’s bad enough that I have to share a room with my brother. What am I supposed to say to them when they see that I sleep on a pallet on the floor? Why can’t you get a better job?” Laura burst into tears.

There was nothing Miguel could say. All he could do was stare down at the food on his plate.

“Laura,” Cristina snapped. “Come here right now.” She took Laura back to their bedroom while Raul sat stunned at the supper table, which was already sold and would be taken away the next day. When Laura came back she still had tear stains on her cheeks, but she was no longer angry with her father. Instead she threw her arms around him and hugged him as hard as she could, and whispered “Me’m siento papi” in his ear. Miguel patted her on the head and thought that maybe, just maybe it would be okay.

The next day it was not okay. The next day Carlos disappeared. The word came first from Miguel’s mother, calling him from home to see if he knew where his brother was.

Miguel asked, “Why would I know where he is?”

“He said that he had an important meeting yesterday. He seemed frightened,” Miguel’s mother told him. Miguel knew that she had her suspicions about what her other son was doing to earn money. It was hard not to have suspicions, with all the fancy clothes and the new car Carlos had purchased, a bright yellow Camaro.

“Don’t worry, Mama,” Miguel told her. “I’ll try to find him. I’m sure nothing has happened.” Miguel hung up the telephone, praying that the cartel would leave his parents alone. He called Cristina. “It’s time for us to have the garage sale,” he told her. “We must pack up the van.”

Cristina’s fingers flew to her mouth. “What’s happened?”

“Carlos is missing,” Miguel told her.

That day they pulled the children out of school. Cristina put their remaining possessions out on the lawn for the neighbors to poke through. Because it was  a weekday there were few shoppers. “Get whatever you can,” Miguel told her. “We can’t take any of it with us.” He was busy packing the minivan, collecting their paperwork, calling to activate the gift cards. As they ate their hurried supper that night, Laura pointed with a shaking finger at the small left-behind television on the kitchen counter. It was showing the news. A news truck near General Servando Canales Airport panned its cameras across a freeway overpass. Miguel jumped across the table to switch off the television, but it was too late. They all saw the headless bodies dangling from the bridge. Most of them were barefoot, but one wore a single bloodied white ostrich leather boot.

“Get into the Windstar,” Miguel ordered. As he was fastening the baby into the carseat, he saw a figure running up the street towards their house, a tall, skinny man wearing embroidered jeans, a red silk snap-button shirt and a cowboy hat. Miguel backed out of the driveway so fast that the left rear bumper of the Windstar struck the bricked-in mailbox. He had to pull foward and adjust the wheel. Then they were off, driving towards the New Bridge in the dark.

The Baked Potato, Part One: The Windst-r

This is a short story written in blog form. I have not lent my hand to short story writing in a long time, and I have never tried to write one as a blog. There will have to be some revising made as I go through the process. Kim gave me an idea, and it’s churning around in my head, churning enough to make butter. I think it’s one of those that can keep me going to the finish. It shouldn’t take me away from Malvada for too long, and I can justify it by saying that any creation is good creation. Let’s see how it turns out. It should be fun.

Without further ado: The Baked Potato

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

Miguel learned to read English from copies of The Brownsville Herald his father brought with him when he returned to their home in Matamoros every morning, another pedestrian crossing from Texas to Mexico on the New Bridge from his position as a night janitor at the newspaper. Miguel especially liked the comic-strips, and of these, Peanuts and Garfield were his favorites. So it was that the evocative phrase “It was a dark and stormy night” stuck with him for his entire life.

Tonight it was true. They sat, the whole family together, in a dark parking lot in the beige Ford minivan with the “a” missing from Windstar, the dent in the left rear bumper, and the license plate that said Tamaulipas, Mexico, incongruous identification in Sacramento, California. There was Miguel, his wife Cristina, their daughter Laura, their son Raul, and the baby in the car seat. There was only one more diaper for the baby. Miguel knew they had towels in amongst the personal belongings filling the back of the Windst-r. Cristina had insisted they bring a whole stack of towels, knowing they would come in handy. When Miguel argued that, between the towels and Raul’s toys, they were taking up too much space with things they could buy in their new home, Cristina refused to budge, giving him one of her famous scathing, dark-eyed looks at the thought that he would make his son leave his friends and not even allow him the comfort of his Transformers.

Sitting in the driver’s seat, Miguel smelled the baby’s uncleanliness in his nose and tried to think whether it would be better to use the last diaper or the towels. Finding a laundromat at night-the digital clock on the Windst-r’s dashboard said 9:12-was not a possibility. In the United States, even finding a dumpster had proven difficult. The generic trash bags they had filled with the other diapers, the plastic refuse of peanut butter crackers and Lunchables and the rest of the awful food they had been surviving on for the past three days, had begun to press up against the back seats and now even stretched out past the headrests into the small spaces his children had become accustomed to having as their own. Miguel worried that the thin bags might break and make the minivan even more acidic than it already was, make the tears run from the corners of Cristina’s exhausted dark-circled eyes, make the children begin to fight again. Anything that caused upset voices to rise inside the tiny world of the Windst-r had the potential to send all of them over the edge. Miguel knew the portable toilet the rest of them used for relief while holding a sheet up for privacy was full too.

There was nothing Miguel could do about the trash bags, the diapers, or the port-a-jane. The climate had turned to winter as they drove North. Outside the air was cold enough to bite, and Miguel’s primary goal was to keep as much warmth inside the Windst-r as he could, no matter how bad it smelled, because they had less than a quarter tank of gas and he couldn’t keep the engine running all night. Miguel turned now and asked Laura to find the towels. They could use them as blankets. He noticed that outside the minivan it had begun to snow. The big, wet flakes splatted on the windows, occupying Raul for a moment. The boy looked at the spots where the snowflakes landed, haloed by the dim yellow lights of the parking lot, then reached a chubby finger out to touch one, as though trying to capture the crystal shape that splatted down from the sky. The glass was too cold and Raul pulled his finger back. Miguel realized that his son had never seen snow before. Beside him Cristina slept, or pretended to sleep, and Miguel did not want to disturb her.

They had planned the journey for over a year. It began one afternoon in a garage just down the street from their home in Matamoros, where Miguel and his brother Carlos were being paid to make a garage door opener. Carlos took bicycle sprockets and 1-3/4 amp motors from old clothes dryers at the junkyard. Miguel welded the two pieces together and wired them to a three-position switch to change the polarity and the direction of the motor. Miguel had just finished oiling the chain on the “new” automatic garage door when Carlos pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket and showed it to his brother.

Miguel asked, “What is that?”

Carlos looked around the garage to make sure they were alone, grinned, and shuffled his feet. “Dinero,” he replied. Miguel peered at his brother as though Carlos was crazy. “Mucho dinero,” Carlos insisted, “Way better than making garage doors open and close.”

Miguel insisted. “What is it?” He needed to hear Carlos say the words, so he could chastise him. Carlos had always been the more impulsive of the brothers. He was better at finding ways to make money, and with three children Miguel was grateful to their uncle for any extra, legal income, but Miguel also knew that Carlos was impulsive, and incredibly stupid.

“Alquintran negro,” Carlos hissed, pushing the plastic package into Miguel’s hands.

Miguel felt the gummy, oily outside, the contents like sand, and threw the packet onto the garage floor. That evening he told Cristina.

 

 

Searching for Reno-Area Fiction Writers

The Silent and Brave revision page #232

I remember when Kim and I did our first trip to the Colorado Rockies. It was 1997 and we stayed at a timeshare at Keystone. I was struck by the beauty, especially of the forests, and by the high altitude climate. And that was where we both tried snowboarding for the first time. Eventually, of course, I moved to Breckenridge, and Kim followed me, and the rest is history. Anyway, my point is there was a time in my dream of moving to Colorado when I had this whole fantasy of putting together an inspired writing group. As time passed, and we actually lived there, I slipped back into my usual feeling that writers are a solitary, jealous lot, a group not given to helping one another out. This could just be my own insecurities, but now I find myself longing for the same thing again, a community, a group that can help with the difficulties of keeping motivated, judging work impartially, and meeting others in the writing and publishing field, which seems to be a must for publishing success.

This is what I think now: Why not? And why not me? I am good at organizing, gathering, getting people together, and getting them to see my vision. I am good at encouraging, good at reading, and good at writing. I am sure there are people in this area who are interested in the same thing. I want to find them. I know that I can google Reno writing groups, but I don’t know that I want to join someone else’s already established group. I think I want to start my own. So if you ever read this, and you’re interested in reading or writing new fiction, please drop a line in the comments section. I would love to meet you. We can talk beer and books. What could be better than that?

The Illusion of Order

The Silent and Brave revision: page #69

Dreams of literacy, fueled by beer and adrenaline (the body’s defense against alcohol) fracture my slumber. Why, I wonder, do we believe that order may be constructed out of chaos? All of us shall pass. Our bodies will stop healing themselves, our DNA will replicate incorrectly, our minds will descend into madness. On a larger scale, the earth will fall into the expanding sun, which will itself run out of bouncing electrons and extinguish one day. I heard yesterday that Stephen Hawking, who is way smarter than I am, guarantees a technological disaster that will destroy life on earth within the next 10,000 years. I got you, Stephen. I’m writing a book about it.

Still the dishes must be done, so that, laughing with one another,  we may eat off of them again. I do them now, listening to Miles Davis, thinking how many decried jazz as animalistic, without rules, encouraging nihilism, encouraging the rise of lesser minds.

I remember sitting in the hot tub at the foot of the mountains in Breckenridge, addled with THC, thinking that words are the greatest invention of human-kind. Communication. Art is the ability to relate our ideas and dreams to one another. It is the closest we come to sharing minds.

Within our words exists the necessity of order. It is how we fight entropy. For man is capable of both great and terrible things. Empire. Self-examination. Realization of a greater power. Though the world spins out of control, and tricks us into superstition, worse, into believing our own importance, still there is a greater soul, unselfish, that can guide us and shield us from horrors, and populate the stars, and keep the lights on. It exists in all of us, maddening sometimes, but necessary. It is all our job to hold it together, to fight the good fight, to learn to love, and to create the future.

 

A Writer’s Advice to Himself

The Silent and Brave Revision: page #67

As I dust off my mind and my iPad from the craziness of the holidays and begin to work again, I am experiencing conflicting emotions. The mental grind of the step I am on now–revising The Silent and Brave–is painful. My sleep is restless and run through by unfulfilled dreams. More than ever, I don’t know how I am ever going to break through the wall that exists between myself and my audience.

At the same time, I am consumed by excitement and ideas. Kim and I (and Bill) have done a tremendous amount of work on the sound booth, and so she is in a position where she has to get back to a regular rhythm of work again too. I think it is vital to have our lives around our dreams fixed and consistent, and they are. We just have to begin to work again. So that is something to be grateful for, that and each other.

When I sit down to work, it is difficult to get going. I feel mental constipation. Like life, the ideas are too confusing, the whole too big, the task too much. However, if I just sit down, and write a word, and then a paragraph, and then a page, I know I will get better. My strength and endurance will grow, my talent will smooth out, and it will become easier until the project is completed and something I can be proud of.

I think this is important advice for life as well as work. There will always be breaks, setbacks, complications. As human beings we will do silly things, bad things, things we can’t believe–but it is a wonderful thing to be able to put them behind us, and start again, and know that, unless we give up, we will never lose.

 

Agents’ Advice for Writers

Today, since I have begun to work again, and working means I should write a blog to get my mind and fingers flowing, I have decided to mention two pieces of advice I have seen in numerous places while submitting query letters. One is titled Writing 101 or something similar, and discusses the need to begin with a character who is in a comfortable situation, who then wants something or has conflict introduced to their lives, and so must take a physical or spiritual journey that changes their outlook and then returns them to a comfortable place. This is known as a story arc.

I don’t like this piece of advice. Not because it isn’t true. It really is story-telling 101. My problem with this piece of advice is that any story teller should already do this automatically. Otherwise they’re not really telling a story, right? So my question is, what kind of novels are these agents getting, that they think they need to put this sort of advice on their websites? And more importantly to me, why the heck aren’t they even bothering to read my novels? I have story arcs. I have story arcs all over the place, but I can’t even get my query letters through the door, past the “butt-sniffing stage.”

The second piece of advice is to not write prologues. Most books don’t need them, or so the wisdom goes, and it’s better for a writer to just begin at the beginning without the fancy labels. This piece of advice is better, although I do have a prologue (I wrote it before I read that advice) and so I have to figure out what to do with that. Actually, I have an author’s note, and a little poem, and then a prologue, and I have begun to think that maybe all of those paragraphs are just too much jumping around, and it leads to confusion in what should be a straightforward story. So the advice is correct for me, and I will have to work on it.

I would still like to change the advice a little bit. Last night I began to read A House for Mr. Biswas, by V. S. Naipaul, and it starts with a prologue. A wonderful prologue. A perfect beginning to the story. It introduces the character, tells us what he’s all about, and let’s us know that he is dying, but dying satisfied because of the struggles he has gone through and overcome in his life. At the same time it shows how fleeting and unimportant those struggles were, and what a farce the rules of life are. It’s a marvel of storytelling, and if I could write it I would have sold a million books already.

So here is my rule. Don’t write a prologue, unless you can write one as good as the prologue in A House for Mr. Biswas.

The Addiction of Writing

There are plenty of things to get addicted to in life. Some, like drugs, alcohol, and adrenaline, can be dangerous. Some, like shoes and cars, can be expensive. Some, like love, can only be answered with the help of another.

My addiction to writing is a bad one, but I think that makes it good. The addiction I would compare it to most is the addiction to exercise. If I don’t get up first thing in the morning and write, it doesn’t get done. Then I miss it for the whole day, wishing I’d done it, wondering why I didn’t, angry at the circumstances (often self-induced) that kept me from it. It’s not that I’m afraid I’m going to miss out on an idea and never have it again, because I don’t believe that’s the way it works. All good ideas come into the story in their time and place. It’s that, when I look back at the mass of pages I have produced in my life, I love them all. I am proud of them all. I can never have too many of them. They contain my innermost thoughts and feelings. They contain my creativity. They are what I have created and built in this life, rather than consumed.

The flip side of my addiction is that it is so easy to feed. Not that it seems that way. It is amazing the excuses I will come up with for not doing it. It’s so much easier to turn on Sportscenter, or open up a news page on the computer. Of course there are days when the car needs to go the shop, or when some other early morning business takes precedence over mine. On those days, I invariably say I will get to my writing later, and invariably, the day ends without me doing so.

All I have to do is sit down at the keyboard, open up my story, and start looking at it. The ideas will begin to flow. I will see a correction that’s needed here, or have an idea for there. It’s not difficult. (Even as I say that, I remember days that writing has physically exhausted me, and days that I have sat staring at the page while my brain seems to struggle beneath a layer of mud.) As long as I write, even a single word, the addiction is answered, and the day’s work is done. It doesn’t matter what else happens or doesn’t happen. That’s a good feeling, to have my raison d’être answered by nine o’clock in the morning.

Cleaning the Blender

I mentioned that I was having trouble with the chapter I am currently working in the second book of my fantasy series The Peaceful, Brave, and Just. (Like PB&J, no?) I have been hitting it hard this week, and today is the ninth day of work for me, although I did skip one blog entry.

I hate the idea of writer’s block. I like to imagine that I don’t experience it. My solution to avoid it is to draft copy in which I just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Whatever comes into my head, that is what I type, with the idea that I’ll go and clean it up later, many times, until the goodness comes out. Sort of like polishing copper.

The upshot of this is, I now have a complete chapter that’s thirty pages long. It needs to be about ten, and it will probably end up around seventeen when all is said and done. That’s great because in that thirty pages there has to be some gold. Of course, I have to dispose of the chaff. A lot of chaff.

Last night at work, while I was cleaning sticky strawberries off the blender, I had a revelation about what I need to do. See, in this chapter my character is climbing some stairs, thinking about how he’s arrived where he is, and wondering where he’s going to go next. Metaphorically, of course. I have him remembering past events in his life. The problem with that is a lot of what I typed out is in the form of flashbacks, and flashbacks are exposition, and exposition is boring.

Never fear, while I was cleaning the blender I came up with the solution that is going to help this story progress. That solution is this. I have my character remembering a conversation he had with two friends who are at the top of the stairs, and in this conversation he examines a decision about his future. What’s going to happen now, he’s going to climb to the top of the stairs, he’s going to visit with them, we’re going to have the actual conversation, and he’s going to tell them what happened in his memory that’s also pertinent to his decision. Then he’s going to make the decision. So instead of everything happening passively, it will happen actively. This makes it more interesting to the reader and also allows me the opportunity to communicate my ideas in conversation between characters, thereby removing a lot of boring exposition–hopefully twenty pages worth.

My point is, when something is slowing me down in writing, I don’t try to tackle it with the perfect solution. I make a mess, and then I think about ways to change my perspective that will help the story. Try it! It works. All you have to do is clean the blender.