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2022 San Diego Reader writing contest winners, part 2

Nonfiction, fiction, and poetry

There were a lot of tough moments that happened during Jake Peterson's time at the zoo.
There were a lot of tough moments that happened during Jake Peterson's time at the zoo.

First Place Winner

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Unexpected violence at the San Diego Zoo

When people found out I worked security at the world famous San Diego Zoo, they asked: “What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen?” It wasn’t until my last night of employment that I was able to give them a good story.

The zoo had just adopted a new deadly predator earlier that day...a lady saltwater crocodile. She was put with the male crocodile; they shared a tank and small sandy beach. My final shift, I was tasked with checking on them every hour to make sure nothing...wild happened. But nature was unkind that night.

It was late June. My shift started at 10 pm. Night had already strangled the sun into submission that sticky summer evening about an hour earlier. As I entered the office to gear up, there was a new face in a security uniform sitting in a chair near the door. It was a pretty face that belonged to a woman named Grace.

“Jake, you’re going to be training Grace here tonight. Show her the route and checkpoints,” my supervisor, Dave, instructed.

Her first night on the job, and my last.

I looked for a fully juiced radio...the only thing that stands between a terrible situation and backup.

“And we also have to check the reptile tank every hour,” he said. “We have to make sure no crocodile tears are shed tonight.”

Apparently, the female is the aggressor when these crocodiles cohabit a shared environment, and when the female has a mouth full of skull-crushing teeth, it gives a new meaning to the phrase: happy wife, happy life. So I snagged a flashlight and figured I should check out the new girl with the new girl in training first thing.

“I’ll take you down Monkey Trail and then we’ll go up by the gorillas and over to the crocs,” I said, trying to act cool, showing my firm grasp of the zoo grounds.

She flashed a perfect crooked-toothed grin.

When we got to the crocs tank, I shined the flashlight towards the small sandy area where I knew the monster reptiles liked to lounge.

“I see one,” I said. “Do you see another one anywhere?”

We both looked into the remote areas where I shined my light.

“I think I see something over there,” she said.

“Good enough for me. We’ll come back in an hour,” I replied. “If you can’t tell, I’m pretty much checked out of this place.”

Over the next sixty minutes before our second check, Grace and I zipped around the zoo on a golf cart. I told her exciting stories I had heard from past security guards about slippery animal escapes, hoping to get a small scare out of her.

“The old night shift guard told me one of the gorillas escaped around this time of night because a contractor left a small opening in their exhibit that day,” I said.

“No way!” she replied. What happened?”

“I guess the simian was just roaming around the zoo aimlessly. Probably getting into all sorts of cool shit he never knew existed. Maybe got some ice cream and popcorn. I hope he did, anyway.”

“I mean, did they have to shoot him or anything?” she asked, concerned.

“From what I heard, they just tranquilized him and locked him back up. Poor guy.”

There were a lot of tough moments that happened during my time at the zoo. Harambe, for one. One BIG one. One day, a couple of disheveled teenage boys noticed my security uniform, approached me, and asked if smoking was allowed at the zoo. I told them that it certainly was not. “Then why the fuck did you smoke Harambe?!” one snapped back. It was a clever joke that I couldn’t help but honestly laugh at. So I told them where the best hiding spots to smoke were.

“One of the elephants even hanged itself on the fence one night,” I said to Grace. “The next day, they put what looked like a circus tent around the scene and took some saws in there. You couldn’t see what they were doing, but you knew what was happening. It’s still eerie whenever I walk by. That’s why we have to do elephant checks throughout the night.”

Why was I telling this new trainee all this morbid shit?

Second check on the crocs. One was in the tank and one on the beach. They were behaving themselves and keeping their distance from one another...so far.

But not Grace and me. I was showing her all around the shops and food stands, telling her what you could get away with, because that’s what a good trainer does.

The night was heating up. I took her to Sabertooth Grill and poured us a couple of lemonades — on the house, of course.

“So why do you want to work security at the zoo?” I asked, taking large swigs from my cup.

“I just wanted to work here, doing anything,” she said. “It seems like such a fun place to work.”

“That’s pretty much how I felt too. I came here one day with some family and saw a security guard driving around, then thought, ‘I could do that gig.’ I applied a few days later and boom, here I am.”

“So is it awesome working here, or what?”

I smiled and thought about it for a moment. It was a cool and fun job on the surface, but the mystique quickly fizzles as the zoo shrinks into what feels like a little town of animal prison sadness. I didn’t want to tell Grace this, as she seemed so excited by the thought of working in such an exotic setting.

“Come on. I want you to meet a friend of mine,” I said. “He lives over in the Children’s Zoo.”

The keys on my duty belt jingled and the sounds of parrot squawking became intensely audible as we walked down a back path in the Children’s Zoo. Since Grace would be taking my spot on the security roster, it was imperative that she have a proper introduction to one of my good avian pals who I would be leaving behind.

Rio was a Yellow-headed Amazon parrot. He wasn’t from Brazil — Mexico, rather — but he acted like every night was Carnival, dancing and flapping those green and yellow wings of his. I spent a lot of time with Rio during night shifts, and on most days I worked, he would be the first animal I visited. We enjoyed deep conversations that went like this: “Hi, Rio.”

“Hi,” he would reply.

“Hi,” I said again.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

This would go on for about five to ten minutes until I resumed my duties. And it would happen a few times more on any given shift.

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“This is Rio,” I said to Grace.

“Hi Rio,” she said.

“Hi,” Rio responded.

“Be good to Rio when I’m gone,” I said. “He has family trauma.”

“Really?”

“No, but maybe.”

Time to check the crocs again. It was 3 am, the witching hour. When I shined my light in the tank I saw the male in the water. “There’s one,” I said. I shined the light on the beach, but nothing was there. “Where the hell is it?” I panned the stream of light on a concrete slab and noticed a dark oily substance all over the ground. “What the hell?” I studied and studied the substance with squinted eyes until I saw that it...was red. Ooooh, that’s blood! I looked around frantically and saw more blood, and more blood, and MORE blood. The blood was fucking everywhere! What’s going on?! Where’s the other crocodile? Is the one I saw in the tank dead? Is it that one’s blood? Whose blood is this? My eyes widened as I desperately tried to remain calm and collected. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. My final night on the job?! Having to train a new guard. Domestic crocodile violence to the highest degree. Murder?

“Grace, do you see the other croc anywhere? We need to find it.”

There was movement further down on the concrete slab and when I found it with my flashlight, there stood the other crocodile in her natural pushup position, like a crossfitter from hell. With her tongue dangling from a jawless head into a pool of her own blood. Her mangled face formed an unnatural, sinister smile as she gazed in our direction. I noticed a small piece of white meat on the ground a couple feet from her and realized...it was her detached jaw.

“Hooooly shit,” I said, consumed by disbelief.

Grace was gobsmacked. “What do we do?” she cried.

“You have to go in there and grab the jaw, like a rite of passage thing,” I joked, trying to cut the tension.

She looked at me, unamused.

I was told the male croc was the one we needed to be looking out for, but it was his actions that had led to such a gory crime scene.

Fumbling for the correct button on the radio, I called my supervisor and sternly told him he needed to get down there as soon as he could. When he saw the horror, he quickly urged us to go back to the office and call the reptile keepers. “Wake their asses out of bed if you have to,” he ordered.

The reptile keepers came in and pushed us out of the way. Grace and I watched from behind the glass as they harnessed the female from the enclosure.

“What do you think they’re going to do with her?” she asked me.

“Euthanasia, maybe. How the hell is she going to eat without a jaw?”

We looked on as the sun began its morning stretch. The birds began to play and sing, and the animals started waking up, not knowing what had happened in their little zoo town just hours prior.

We stood there in silence, blank faced, traumatized, unable not to think about what we had just witnessed. I turned to Grace and asked, “So, you still want to work here?”

— Jake Peterson

Blasons by Tommy L
Sagarmatha by Janice Alper

MARTY & ROSE

Distress meets mercy in West Mission Valley

You just couldn’t beat the river this time of day, Marty thought. An hour after the sun rose, it would peek out from behind the Honda dealership on the other side of Mission Valley and glint off the pools of water, here where the river bunched-up before easing into the Pacific. Marty sat high up, near the north overpass abutment, at the edge of a wide dirt patch. It had been a wet spring, bringing water to the river, but, as Marty peeked to the south, out from under the highway girders, he saw only blue sky today.

Bob Doublebower wrote “Marty & Rose”

Thirty or so other souls, alone and in groups, dissembled lives assembled, took up various sections of the dirt swath and its gently sloped embankment. An argument broke out somewhere to his left, and Marty turned to watch. Eddy, his neighbor from three tents over, was getting into it with some Mexican guy Marty had never seen before. People come and go. Eddy liked to call himself The Edge when his eyes got wilder than usual, for reasons known only to Eddy. They were loud, with lots of pointing, but it didn’t look like there was going to be a fight. Crap. Marty turned back to the river. He tried to focus. Holding the sides of his head helped. To be productive, today needed a Plan.

Around the end of rush hour, he’d hike up Morena with his sign under his arm and swing around the back of Jimmy’s Donut Hole right after the breakfast rush. If he timed it right, and the clean-up guy wasn’t a prick, he could catch the scraps en route to the dumpster, rather than after. A good day begins with a good breakfast. That done, he’d head further up Morena to Tecolote, and the 5 on-ramp. His spot. There’s a light there.

Marty had come to believe that the morning and afternoon rush hour were not good times for panhandling. Too many angry trucks with too many angry radios blaring. The drivers would glare at him out their side-windows, seeing him, in the moment, as the the proper target of the vitriol in which they stewed. The midday crowd was much better. People running errands, more laid back, picking up kids from soccer. More NPR and Kenny Loggins. They were the ones who rolled down their windows and smiled. He’d been a can-hauler in the past, but the recycling business wasn’t what it used to be.

Marty got up and walked back to his campsite. He didn’t have a tent. Didn’t need one, as far as he could see. The roadway overhead kept off the rain. What he did have, though, was a 12’ section of snow fence (thank you CalTrans) that made a neat, 3-sided space that he called home. Marty looked down at his earthly possessions. Time to stash. The trick to not getting ripped off was to make it all unnoticeable. Nothing shiny showing. Funny how people had a measure of respect for an unremarkable bedroll. That’s why he gave back the space blanket Social Services had given him. Too shiny. He rolled his camp stove, along with his impressive collection of butane lighters (yeah, he was that guy) in a dirty brown towel. His ragged checkerboard from the 99 cent store lay flat under his ground cloth. Time was he could beat most anyone here, but the checkers themselves, well, they’d gone missing a while back. Other things – utensils, a radio with no batteries, a beat-up Thomas Guide – likewise disappeared under his bedroll. Last of all, he took down from the snow fence a small framed photograph. The glass showed the streaks left by a dirty thumb wiping off the dust. The picture showed a woman and a young boy. This he looked at for a long moment, then wrapped it in his other tee shirt, and pushed it to the bottom of a nondescript backpack. Stashing didn’t take all that long, and the tires on the roadway above still didn’t have that 50 mph sound. Perfect time for today’s first beer. He looked around, suddenly self-conscious, then bent to rummage in that same backpack, coming up with a tall, silver can. Panhandling did provide some of life’s smaller pleasures.

But it wasn’t those 24 oz. Steele Reserves that lapped up the mortgage money, was it Marty? It wasn’t days on a bender that crashed the drywall business, was it? It was getting washed away in the turbulent currents of that Texas Hold-Em river. So many times. He’d gotten the bug, and the bug had gotten him.

He popped the top, closed his eyes, and took a long pull. When he opened his eyes, The Edge was standing beside them.

“You believe ‘dat sum’bitch? Come in here askin’ me if I wanna’ move downtown! Where? Where the hell downtown? What about my dog? What about my stuff?”

“Where was he from?” Marty asked. “City, County, or Jesus?”. He tried to remember ever seeing Eddy with a dog, and couldn’t.

“City, I think. Hell, how should I know? Why now? We h’ain’t seen them peckerheads for months! You seen downtown, lately?”

Marty offered the Edge a pull from the can, and said, “Dunno. Sea World season’s starting, I think. Maybe that’s it.” He nodded toward the apparatus outlined against the western horizon. “We’re on the way, maybe.”

The Edge narrowed his eyes as he handed back the can. “When’s the last roust you heard of?”

Marty wasn’t good at remembering things, and he sure didn’t want to start the day this way. Being upset in the morning could last all day. He had a Plan, he remembered, and yakking about city policy with The Edge wasn’t part of it.

“Jeez, man”. He peered into the can and wiggled it.

“I met an old woman with a parakeet a few weeks back said they been chased out up near the park. Didn’t say which park.”

Marty drank down half of what was left in the tallboy. Now, if he stayed quiet, maybe Eddy would leave. After about a minute, it worked. Soon enough, it came time to pick a sign, and head out. Veteran though he was, the well-worn “Homeless Vet” sign seemed to have less effect on the mid-day crowd. Couldn’t figure why. He picked instead his newer and crisper “God Bless You for the Help” sign, done in ecclesiastical purple and gold magic marker, on white. Magic, indeed.

So-armed, and his stuff stashed, he slicked back his hair and headed for Jimmy’s.


Not much could ruin Rose Candelero’s day. Her daughter’s 12th birthday was coming up, and it pushed aside all of life’s other little struggles. Like making the rent. Like the cable bill. Like having to take this extra work shift. She could have stewed, too, about no response yet from Celia’s dad, but she didn’t.

The bus dropped her off a block away from the Sanitation Dept.’s Hill Ave. station. This wasn’t trash day in Hill Avenue’s district. Something else was up. In the locker room, Rose sucked in her gut to get one more belt hole as she squeezed into her green workpants. Out in the back lot, a bus idled.

“Somethin’ goin’ on today?” Rose asked her supervisor. He had lined up his squad of ten in the briefing room. Instead of an answer, she got handed a clear plastic bag with a zipper. Oh crap. She’d seen this before – the haz-mat pack. White paper suit (well, it felt like paper), booties, facemask, and about a dozen pair of blue gloves. Gonna’ be messy. The squad sat down and waited.

Rose turned to Gabby. “Heard anything?’ Gabby usually knew stuff even before the supervisors. She had a knack for it.

“Nothin’ official, but I saw a 10-wheeler dump truck hauling a bobcat parked out on the street. We don’t get those rigs just every day.”

“Great. Sounds special”, Rose said in a tone as flat as a freeway, through 2 hairpins gripped in her teeth. She pulled her black hair back into a bun, then slumped back on the bench and waited.


Marty decided he would knock off early today. It had been a pretty good haul, so far. He counted $11 and 50 cents, three holy cards emblazoned with the Blessed Mother showering Her light on the world, and four copies of The Watchtower. Someone had also given him a book on spiritual healing, which he threw in the bushes. He didn’t read much, these days. Breakfast had stuck with him pretty well until now, but soon he’d be hungry again. He headed back to camp.

Marty didn’t think much of it when he saw Margaret with her yappy dog walking over on Buenos Street. He was still about a mile from the overpass. People wandered all the time. Then he saw Charlie and Gus. They’d been campers longer than he, and rarely left together, fearing for their stuff. Marty walked on a few more blocks, and the human trickle had become a small stream. Nobody made eye contact. The clang of a loading operation and the hum of a big diesel faintly ricocheted off the riverbank. Two young black guys in camo pants, vets most likely, pedaled by on rusty bikes. Marty started to worry, not sure why, and walked a little faster. Now every block had people on it. Some he knew, most he didn’t. Finally, about a block out, he saw Eddy. “Yo, Eddy, where you headed?” Marty yelled.

Eddy’s head snapped around, first left, then right, until he caught sight of Marty.

“They rousted us, man”, Eddy called back. His voice crackled with panic. “They came in around noon and said we had to go. Go where?” He emphasized the “where” To Marty, seeing was believing, so he hurried to the overpass, and scrambled down under the girders.

The dirt swath was bare.

Off to the west side, a big dump truck sat idling, while a little pissant bobcat scooped large black plastic bags into it. Sanitation workers from the City, about half a dozen of them, stood around talking to a few of the stragglers. A pile of white coveralls sat heaped off to the side.

Marty went numb. This had been his home for over a year. Could he still watch the river in the morning? Where was everybody going? Where was his snowfence? Where was his stuff, and …oh my God…, where was his backpack? He began to wander about aimlessly, getting more rattled, trying to put it all together. He saw a sanitation worker leave a group nearby and he walked up to her.

“Where’s my stuff?” be blurted out.

Rose turned and looked at him. This was not her first roust, and the human toll never sat well with her. But a job was a job.

“All personal belongings, except dangerous and contraband items, are in those bags being loaded over there”, said Rose, trying her best to sound like a paragraph in this morning’s directive. “You’ll have an opportunity to retrieve your belongings at the storage facility.”

Marty just stared at her, confused. “I don’t have a storage facility. Can’t I just go get my stuff off the truck? Shouldn’t be too hard to find, there’s a backpack, kinda tan, and a snowfence.” Of the fifty or so black bags in the dumptruck, Marty’s backpack, in one of them, did not stand out.

“I’m sorry, sir, you can’t do that. All those bags are in the custody of the Dept. of Sanitation, until we can check them over.” Of course, they weren’t, actually, but to have a crowd swarming over the truck did not sound like a good end to the day.

Rose had long since gotten used to getting yelled at, cursed at, and threatened during these operations, and it was at this point that it usually happened. But Marty just stood there. If he’d been able to make a move in any meaningful direction, he would have. None seemed meaningful. Instead, a feeling like rising water began building behind the bridge of his nose.

He didn’t yell. He spoke softly.

“The backpack …., I got a picture…” Long delay. “My boy...”

It had been a long day for Rose. She wanted nothing more than to clock out, go home, put Celia to bed, and smoke a bowl. Day done. But at that moment, something tiny began to yield inside her. Always she had stood firm in the face of the pleadings, the anger, and the lost looks, but it tired her.

“What boy”, she asked, although she really already knew.

Marty looked past her to the river beyond, no longer in the moment.

The yielding inside her edged closer to collapse. Rose shifted gears.

“We take all this stuff down to Hill Avenue. The idea is to sort through it, but that doesn’t always happen. If it’s not retrieved in seven days, we toss it.”

Marty came back to the conversation. What did that mean? Toss it? Toss it where? Where’s Hill Avenue? How far is that?

He said to Rose, “I only know the streets up around here. You know, where I’ been.”

Rose dug into her back pocket and handed Marty a motel voucher, good for a week.

“Here, take this. It’s for the Starland, over on Sherman. At least it’s a place to sleep ‘til you get your bedroll back.”

“There’s a backpack, too,” Marty called after Rose, as she turned and walked toward the crew bus.

He’d been to the Starland before. Nestled between a Speedee Oil Change and another similarly run-down motel, it had managed to stay on the City’s voucher list, that not being a particularly high bar to clear. He still had his sign, but the time of day for panhandling had passed. He started walking. Seven days, he kept saying to himself.

He trudged into the motel lobby as the sun set behind the sailboat masts of Shelter Island.

“Hi Hector,” he called, waving his voucher in the air.

Hector looked up from behind his thick glass enclosure.

“Hey, hom’, where you been? Long time.”

“Around... you know. No. 8 still available?” Marty asked. “Is the puke gone?”

“Yeah, yeah, man. That was gone weeks ago. The girl came in just this past Tuesday. We’re all good.”

Marty handed over the wrinkled voucher, and Hector slipped a key on a plastic fob under the glass.

“You be here all week, Marty?” Marty nodded and turned for the door. On the way out, he stopped and turned back.

“Hey Hector, you know where Hill Avenue is?

Hector frowned and slowly shook his head side to side. “New one on me, hom’.”

Marty remembered his Thomas Guide, but couldn’t remember where it was.


Rose Candelero slept a peaceful night, unlike some others after a roust. Sometimes she couldn’t shake the abuse she’d absorbed for a day or two. That guy, what was his name? Mike? Marty? Marty, that was it. She’d written his name on the voucher receipt. He looked so..wounded...so restrained in his misery. That thing that had bent within her, that tiny seed of empathy, had spread through her, and the reward had been a good night’s sleep. Today was her day off, and she had a party to plan.


Marty got back to work the next day, this time over on the southbound 5. A spot there had opened up. On his way back that afternoon, he ran into the camo vets on their bikes. Each balanced a big bag of cans.

“Nope. Heard’a Hill Avenue, but couldn’t say where the hell it is. What town’s it in?”

Marty had no answer for that, and walked on. Six days.


Celia Candelero came home from school early two days later. They’d let her go to help her mom set up for her party. She loved that kind of thing. There were steamers and balloons, and the table set for eight of her friends. She got to help make the tres leches cake.

But throughout the day, an undercurrent of sadness built within Rose. Sooner or later, Celia would ask, and Rose had no answer but the truth. Later, as the cake cooled on a rack, and the last of the namecards stood at their places, Celia asked, “Heard from daddy?”

Inside, Rose crumbled. But outside, she had to be strong.

“No, not yet, angel. Maybe he’s out of town.” O.K., maybe not the whole truth.

That evening, Rose thought for a long while about kids and daddies. About the bond and the need. And she thought about that unshakeable small kernel of love she still felt for Celia’s dad, and this confused her to no end.


Marty went about his usual days – Starland to Jimmy’s to the onramp and back to Starland, but, through it all, he felt like a ghost. He didn’t have his stuff, and that made him feel like half a person. But, worse, he didn’t have his picture, and that anchored him, as it had through a few of the really bad years. He didn’t walk, these days, as much as he drifted.

Early Saturday morning, five days after the roust, Hector banged on the door of No. 8.

“Hey, Marty. You got a call.”

Marty scrambled from bed, put on the one shoe he could find, and followed Hector to the office.

Marty gripped the phone like an unknown object. “Hello?”

“Marty? Marty, this is Rose, from back last Monday. I gave you the voucher. Remember?”

It began to come into focus. “Yeah. Yeah. Hi.”

“Marty, did you ever get your stuff? I still see that big pile of bags in our yard. Not many folks have showed up. You plannin’ on coming down?

“Yeah I plan to, but nobody I know knows where it is.”

“Well, I know. Hey, I’m busy today, but I’m off tomorrow. Why don’t you hang out at the Starland til about 10? Can you do that?”

“Sure.” Without further chit-chat, Rose hung up. Marty stared at the phone, then hung up and asked Hector for a rubber band. He wrapped this around his index finger to remind himself. 10 o'clock.

Next morning, Marty sat on his bed, rolling the rubber band off and on his finger. He heard the rattle of a car engine, then a knock. He crammed himself into Rose’s battered Corolla, and they headed south, past donut shops and diners he had never seen.

“We’re not really supposed to come in on Sundays, but I told my supe I had paperwork to catch up on,” Rose said to ease the awkward silence. Marty stared out the side window. Man, this is a big goddamn city.

Finally there, Rose rolled down the car window for the security guard. She didn’t say a word — she just pointed to the looming bag pile, and then to Marty. She parked next to a small side entrance, then said to Marty, “Wait here.”

She disappeared inside, then came out dressed in her haz-mat gear. The Dept. of Sanitation had its rules. Together they walked to the pile. It was now much bigger, owing to another roust just this past Thursday. Together they unstacked, shoved, lifted, threw, and kicked bags this way and that. Not all were open, but some were. Marty felt sure he’d know his when he saw it.

Two hours of this had cut a pretty good path into the middle of the pile. Marty worked like a man on a mission, but Rose began to wonder if this was all futile.

Then Marty saw something that gave his heart wings. Sticking out of a dusty, ripped trashbag, at the very bottom of the pile, he saw 4 inches of orange CalTrans snow fence.

They walked back to the Corolla. Rose had taken off her haz-mat suit and bundled it under her arm. Marty clutched to his chest a dirty tan backpack.

— Bob Doublebower

A Day of Bankers Hill by Akiko Russotto
La Jolla: A Seagulls Cry by Alexander Pesiri

THE AZIZA EXPERIENCE

I think I look more like a girl than a boy

There is this group that meets every other Saturday at Solana Beach. Kids involved come from lots of different places. Apparently, it all started when five kids who had gone to a music camp together decided to keep their music and friendship going, and as time went on, other kids and friends of other kids had gotten involved. Apparently, some of the members had discovered the group just as I had, accidentally. I learned that there was no age restriction. Anyone could participate The youngest member was nine years old and the oldest was twenty-six. There was nothing formal. You just showed up. Food was brought by the original five, and at the end of the evening, if you wanted to, you could toss some money into a hat to help pay for some of the cost.

Richard A. Schere’s piece, “The Aziza Experience,” is a fictional account based on a true event.

The first time I had discovered them, they were playing and singing all kinds of songs. Some were modern, rock, songs I often heard on the radio while driving. Others were softer, like love songs, and some were country and folksy. They were really into it, singing and playing with true enthusiasm. I noticed that, in addition to the guitars, one boy had a few drums he was banging on, one girl was playing a portable keyboard she had positioned on her lap, and another girl alternated between playing a mandolin and a banjo. They sounded terrific. The kids with instruments could really play, and the voices were powerful and harmonious. It was hard not get into the flow of what they were doing. I found myself feeling their joy and camaraderie, and much to my surprise, I soon found myself singing along with them.

I’ve always liked singing, and I have a pretty good voice. The trouble is my voice is sweet, high and alto, and, in light of all my other problems, I felt it best not to add my voice to the collection of things other kids could tease me about. What I mean is, I’m seventeen years old, but I look as if I’m twelve. I’m just about five feet tall, skinny as a stair post, hairless in the places where I’m supposed to be flowering, and as un-macho as a boy can look. I have long blond hair, brown eyes, and a not-so-bad freckled face that’s more sweet than handsome. When I look in the mirror, sometimes I think I look more like a girl than a boy. I never would have chosen to look like this. So I only sing when I am alone. However, I had no difficulty at all singing with these kids. I could sense that my age and size wouldn’t matter to them.

Every so often, one of the young adults, who played guitar and seemed to be a kind of leader, would point to someone. Then, that someone would begin to sing a song that I guess was one of his or her favorites, and the musicians would begin to play along. The person pointed to would be singing solo on the verses, although, if there was a chorus, everyone else would join in on that. I enjoyed listening to the solo singers. Most were girls, and all of them had beautiful voices. Almost all of them had beautiful faces. Some boys were chosen, too. Suddenly, I was pointed to.

I felt a jolt in my stomach. I was nervous, but I stood up, and began to sing my father’s favorite song. It was an Irish song, “Danny Boy.” The leader, I later learned his name was Josh, put down his guitar and took a harmonica out of his pocket. While another guitarist played the melody, Josh blew into the harmonica harmonizing with my singing. “Danny Boy” is a soft song, and so only Josh, the other guitarist, and I performed the tune. I thought I sounded pretty good and singing with the instruments was new to me and really cool.

Sometimes, it was just the musicians doing a selection. There was no singing, but there was occasional clapping if there was a steady beat to the music being played.

I had lost all sense of time, and, when we finally stopped, I looked at my watch and was shocked to discover that we’d been at it for three hours, and that was only counting the time since I had arrived. Everyone collected their things and went down to the beach. There was a large pit encircled by concrete, and some of the kids went to a van to bring wooden slats that would be fuel for a fire. Also being transported from different vans were lots of foods. I was told that, after the music, everyone hung around late into the evening and ate and just talked about things. I was invited to stay.

I love to be at the ocean at sunset time. I watch the sun sink into the water and hope that perhaps I’ll see the green flash everyone says sometimes comes as the sun disappears. In all my years, I’ve never ever seen the flash. I like to watch the sky change colors as the day fades on its way to becoming evening, especially the oranges and pinks. What I like best of all is to follow the ocean, itself, as its hues change from blue, to purple, to almost black, and then to silver.

I found myself involved in conversation with four kids. They were teens between fifteen and eighteen, or so I estimated. Two were girls and two were boys and they all knew each other and went to Torrey Pines High School. I told them I attended La Vista High School. We talked about our favorite music, about movies we had recently seen, and about our tentative plans for the future. Although everyone wanted to somehow keep their music going, the two boys were interested in science. Sam intended to study medicine and Jack was toying with becoming an engineer. One of the girls, Terri, hoped to become a singer or an actress, while the other, Marianne, hoped to become an artist, a writer, or a teacher.

Marianne was especially interesting to me. She was of average size and had a really hot body. She had very long dark, black hair, and very large blue eyes, and her face was very expressive. What I mean is you could get a message from her just by looking at her face. Marianne had a small pad and she was always penciling on it, even when she was talking. At the end of the evening, she had handed me a drawing.

Her drawing was a sketch of me. It was full body, and it was quite accurate. She had drawn me short, thin, and freckly, but I noticed that the expression she had drawn into my eyes made me seem serious, curious, and concerned all at once. I liked that part and wondered if that was how I really came across to others. The rest of me I didn’t like, although that wasn’t Marianne’s fault. I just don’t like how young and un-macho I look. Yet, I really liked the facial expression she had given me. I have taped her sketch onto the wall of my bedroom and I find that I keep looking at it. Anyway, I thanked her for the picture.

I had had a really good time and I thought that next time I came, perhaps I’d invite Aziza. Aziza is a girl I tutor. She is very thin and very tall. She works harder than any student I have ever known, but there is a reason for this. I think the best way to help you understand her is to show you a composition she wrote that I made a copy of because I was so powerfully moved by it:

American Kids and Me

A composition for English Class, Ms. Silber

By Aziza

My name is Aziza. English is my second language. My first language is Swahili. In Swahili, Aziza means the precious one. It can also mean the chosen one. Perhaps that is why I am here in America, learning in high school, and why most of those I knew and loved are departed. I will write about myself and about American kids. There are big, big differences.

American kids, they are very lucky. They are also very silly, and they have no idea about the real world. They have not seen their friends and relatives murdered before their eyes. They have not seen their homes blown up by explosives. They have not walked for miles and miles, exhausted, trying to escape the horrors, wondering if the next place would be worse than the place you are running from. They do not know what it is like to fear for your life. They do not understand how short life is, and how quickly anything can change.

American kids, they worry about boyfriends and girlfriends, about video games, about winning or losing ball sports, about being seen as tough or sexy, and about being invited to parties where they will drink or take drugs.

American kids, they do not appreciate that they can go to school for free. They do not work hard to learn. They do their homework as fast as they can, carelessly, just to get it done with. They do that so they can then go play, go board surf in the sea, go hanging out.

American kids, they want to buy everything. They want to buy clothes, and sneakers, and cell phones, and computers, and games, and food. They want to buy lots of food. They are eating something all of the time. Mostly they eat bad food. They eat bad food and they smoke cigarettes. They live in a country where they can have good health, and they do things to get bad health. It is not, I think, that they are stupid. They just don’t understand how things really are. They would go pet a tiger cub and then be surprised when their arm got bit off.

American kids, they are mostly white. They try to understand black kids like me. They can be generous and offer me some of their bad food. They try to understand black kids like me, but they cannot. They think I am too serious, too studious, and that I do not want to have fun.

It is not that I do not want to have fun. It is that day and night I am tormented by the horrors. I cannot forget them. I am so lucky to have gotten to here, to be given the chance to live a long life, to earn a good living. It is not that I do not want to have fun. It is that I must work very hard to learn all these things, from all of these new words. I have learned English language in just three years. I think I have learned it pretty okay. I read books, not just schoolbooks, one after the other, to learn more words, to know more things. It is not that I do not want to have fun. It is that I have been chosen by God to be the one to survive the horrors and to walk on new paths. I work hard for myself, but I work hard for all the families, brothers and sisters, who are departed. It is not that I do not want to have fun. It is that I always feel guilty when I try to have fun, when I try to relax. I hear the voices of the departed ones. They sting me like whips, and I feel I must stop not doing and work on.

I have had to learn how American kids learn, how to study stilly. When I need to plant idea-seeds in my head, I dance and sing the ideas over and over until they are rooted. American kids don’t learn like that.

I want to do well. I want to get the highest marks in everything. I want to take all the subjects. I want to go to college and become a nurse or a doctor. But, although I work very hard, I do not always get good grades. My grades are lower than my smartness. But I keep trying and working hard. I will always keep trying and working hard.

I cannot tell you how much I admire Aziza. She is on a mission. She never relaxes her effort. I decided I would try to help her have some R & R. I decided I would take her to the music group at Solana Beach. I was delighted that, when I asked her, she was eager to come.

I didn’t sleep all that well Friday night. I was too excited and maybe anxious, too. I couldn’t wait for Saturday to come so that I could take Aziza to the music group. I wanted so much for her to have a good time, and, for some reason, I felt it was my responsibility to make sure she did. I mean it really wasn’t my responsibility at all. Still, I felt as if it were. I tried to figure out why I had such a strong feeling about it. I guessed that one reason was that I have a lot of what Dr. Aimes, my therapist, calls “empathy.” I often find myself feeling what it is like to be other people, even other animals sometimes. I put myself in their place and imagine what it would be like. I used to think that I was just too sensitive and considered this trait of mine a weakness, but Dr. Aimes says that it’s really a strength because I can better understand people. Dr. Aimes says that empathy is an important social tool. I suppose it is, but sometimes I feel I have too much of it. Dr. Aimes also says that empathy is important for truly understanding deeper ideas. I don’t quite know what he means by that, at least not yet. Anyway, I certainly have empathy for Aziza. She’s been through so much and she works so hard. She deserves to have a good time. In fact, I sense she needs to have a good time. Still, why should I feel so strongly that it’s my responsibility?

I notice a lot of things and I write down the important things I notice. I had written in my Notices collection: Isn’t it interesting that you can sometimes feel something is so true when it makes no logical sense at all?

I began to wonder about the difference between like and love. I like Aziza very much. I also like Marianne very much, but in a different way. If you can like people very much in different ways, then can you love different people very much also in different ways? Is love the strongest like? Or is love a different kind of feeling? Maybe love is the strongest empathy? I also found myself wondering about whether you had to want to have sex with people you love. TV, movies and advertisements keep suggesting sex is part of love. Still, I love my mother and Dr. Aimes, and I loved my father, but I never would want to have sex with them. That idea really turns me off. Also, there are times, I must confess, that I fantasize about having sex with certain girls, if I were able, even though I don’t think I like them all that much. Sometimes, like actresses in movies, I don’t know them at all. It gets pretty confusing. Maybe I just need to get older. Maybe I just think about things too much.

I fell asleep again but awoke long before my alarm clock was set to go off. I dressed and left early. I left a note for my mother, although she knows I leave to do things on the weekend long before she wakes up. I drove to Einstein’s Bagels for a quick breakfast and a quick reading of the newspapers they keep in their store for customers to skim through with their coffee. Then, even though it was early, I drove to the school parking lot to wait for Aziza. To my surprise, she was already there, sitting on a bench, her bicycle chained to the fence, and her long legs balancing an oval brown leather case. I wondered what was inside. Aziza was dressed in all white, an all-white pull-over shirt and white shorts that ended at her knees. Even her sneakers were white. Against her ebony skin, her white clothes seemed an especially attractive and interesting contrast. For a moment, it seemed to me that her clothes were wearing her body. My mind does crazy things sometimes.

As soon as she recognized me, Aziza leaped up and began trotting over to the car, her eyes brightly aglow and her mouth forming that ivory smile that I love to see. I opened the door and she plopped inside. I had already rearranged my car seats. I’m so short that I keep my driver’s seat as far forward as possible. I even have a cushion to sit on to keep my vision clear and to look taller so that a policeman noticing what might appear to be a young kid driving would be less likely to stop me. But Aziza is as tall as I am short, and I had pushed the front passenger seat as far back as it would go. I found myself laughing aloud, for Aziza who was next to me was really behind me, and it was just funny. I imagined what it would look like to someone driving alongside. Aziza asked what I was laughing about, so I told her, and she started laughing with me. It was a good way to begin our trip together.

As we wound our way toward the 5, I asked Aziza what was in her case. She laughed and told me it was a surprise. We hit the 5 and cruised north, arriving at Solana Beach in less than a half-hour. I drove into the parking lot, found a space, jumped out, and ran to the other side of the car to open the door for Aziza. My attempt to be a “gentleman” failed, because Aziza had already opened the door and gotten out of the car. Of course, I wasn’t surprised, because Aziza is very independent and always does things for herself. I suppose she has always had to. We started walking toward the low tree area where we did our music. Josh was already there, and so were some others. They were setting up, organizing microphones and speakers. I introduced Aziza to Josh, who welcomed her warmly. I noticed that he had gazed at her leather case and had smiled. Perhaps he knew what was inside. Aziza was really happy. I could feel it. I caught her staring at the kids who were setting up drum sets. I associate African music with lots of percussion so I guessed that the drums were especially appealing to Aziza. She walked over to some of the drummers, introduced herself, and softly tapped on some of the drum parts, laughing as she did. Terri and Sam had arrived, so I took Aziza over to meet them. I learned that Marianne would be a little late because she had to do a chore for her grandmother.

Terri and Sam had brought some snack food with them, and so the four of us sat together on the grass talking and munching. Aziza asked them questions about themselves and they both seemed eager to respond. When asked about herself, Aziza talked about her present activities and hopes for the future. When asked about her past, as I would have expected, Aziza said very little. In response to Sam’s question, Aziza simply said, “I come from a part of the world where terrible things happen, things too sad to talk about. I am so happy to be in this country and to be with you today.” Then she asked Sam to play something on his guitar.

Sam played a traditional folk song, “Shenandoah.” He sang it with Terri, who harmonized in high voice while Sam sang and played the basic melody. They sounded really terrific together, and I told them so. Aziza didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. The delight in her eyes was obvious. I asked Sam if he knew anything about the song, and he informed me that Shenandoah was an American Indian chief.

More and more people began to arrive and join us, but Marianne had still not shown up. I found myself hoping she’d come soon. Marianne and I had been keeping in touch and she was becoming a really close friend, but somehow I sensed my feeling was about more than that. Marianne finally arrived.

Josh’s voice came through the speaker system and it announced the beginning of our music. Then, as was the custom, groups of kids began to perform as we took turns in clock-wise order. The music played was varied and pleasurable to hear. Many presentations were of folk music, but others, especially the younger teens, performed current standards and rock and roll. As was our custom, if you knew the song, you sang and/or played along. I could tell Aziza was really enjoying herself. Her eyes were aglow with pleasure and, even though she didn’t know the songs, she finger-drummed the rhythms on her knees. Jack and Terri did “Shenandoah.” They had performed it so well for Aziza and me that they had decided to redo it for the group. Marianne and I sang “Turn! Turn! Turn!” We had met and practiced this last Friday. Marianne played guitar, while I strummed chords on my ukulele. We sang in a harmony, just as Sam and Terri had, only I was the high voice and Marianne was the lower one. I still feel funny having a high voice, but I knew that Marianne and I sang well together, and I enjoyed our duet.

After a while, Josh began pointing to particular people to perform. At first, he pointed to those who did instrumentals without words. One fantastic presentation was by a college student, a guy, who played Chopin on his mandolin. Then, Josh pointed to Aziza. I was somewhat concerned about how Aziza would respond, but she didn’t bat an eyelash. She stood up, moved forward, and opened her brown leather case. Out of it she pulled a beautiful drum, larger on the top than on the bottom, that was made of a blond wood, and had intricate carvings on it. Josh had moved over to a microphone and announced, “For those of you who may not know, our new member is Aziza and what she is going to use is a most unusual drum that comes from Africa and is called ‘Djembe.’” He asked Aziza to hold it up, and she did, proudly. Then, placing it between her legs, she began to beat a rhythm.

It’s a little hard to describe exactly what happened. At first, Aziza began to beat a rhythm that was a fast one, two, three, followed by a slow three, four. What was especially interesting was that, even though she was playing a drum, the sounds she was producing were different from one another. I’ve heard different sounds from a Caribbean steel drum that has different bends in it so that you can play notes, but this drum had no bends, just a single stretch of material along the top. I couldn’t tell whether the different sounds were the result of the drum or the different ways Aziza was striking it. Some of the other drummers began to softly imitate Aziza’s rhythm. Then she began to sing.

It sounded like a high soprano wail, floating a beautiful, slow, sad melody. The words had to be African, but she produced a clicking sound as she sang them. There’s this thing about music. Even if you don’t know what the words of a song are saying, you can often feel what the song is about. As I listened, an image appeared in my mind. I pictured a beautiful blue-yellow bird flying in the sky, struggling with a broken wing. But then, an amazing thing occurred.

Suddenly, Aziza was not singing alone. Another voice, a strong baritone voice, could be heard in the distance. As I turned to look, I saw an immense black man walking slowly toward us. He was singing loudly and tears were filling his eyes and cheeks as he sang. He seemed to be seven feet tall and as wide as a truck. He walked over to Aziza, stood next to her, and continued to sing with her in a loud rich voice.

Then, he moved forward and began dancing. Aziza began to play her rhythm faster, and the man danced quickly, turning to the left and then to the right as he swayed and bent up and down. He motioned to Aziza to join him, and because the other drummers had picked up the change of rhythm, she did. It was an amazing sight: this giant of man who looked like a football player, weeping as he sang and danced, and Aziza, tall and thin, moving ever so gracefully as she also sang.

After a while, the two stopped singing. Then, shortly after, they stopped dancing. They stood together, hugged one another, and spoke softly in a different language.

We had all been deeply moved by the emotion and power of what had just happened, but none of us knew how to respond. I’m guessing we would have liked to applaud, but we weren’t sure if applauding would be disrespectful. So we just waited. As usual, Josh handled the situation. He walked over to Aziza and the man and spoke to them softly in English. Aziza returned to us, and the large man slowly walked back in the direction from which he had come. I was glad to see that he was now smiling broadly.

Josh motioned to Adelle, one of the super singers, and began to play a song, “From a Distance.” It is a song about how the world ought to be perceived, and, I thought, a good song to move on to after the Aziza experience. Adelle sang the words so beautifully that none of us joined in. Or, perhaps, we just needed a breather after all that explosion of emotion. Then, we resumed our more typical musical activity.

Aziza was very happy. She kept her drum between her long legs and beat the rhythms of the music being played. I had many questions about the song she had performed and about the man, but I chose not to bother her. I could learn about these things at another time.

As sunset neared, the group began to move to where we eat and mingle. Marianne, Terri, Aziza, Sam, Jack and I joined the others. Many of the members stopped to welcome Aziza, or to compliment her on her song, or to ask her about her drum. All of us were involved in mostly small talk. It was truly enjoyable. Marianne, who seems to know everybody, talked to others almost non-stop. I, as usual, was much quieter, but I really enjoyed being part of the crowd, feeling equal to everyone. Marianne, Terri and Aziza talked for a while among themselves, but, from what I overheard, there was no deep discussion. Josh made it a point to come over to us and to ask us to encourage Aziza to join us as often as she could. He asked if he could have a closer look at her drum. She took it out of her case for Josh to examine, and he studied it, expressing appreciation for how beautiful it was. He said that, at a more convenient time, he would like to know if the carvings had special significance.

The sea began to silver, as we got into our cars to drive home. Marianne told me to make sure I called her. She told Aziza she would like to know her better, and the others of our group said the same. Aziza, in response, nodded and smiled.

In the car, Aziza thanked me for taking her to the music. “This has been one of my most happy days in California,” she said. “It felt so good to listen, and then to sing my heart. It felt so good to hear my Djembe again and to dance with a brother.” And, when we finally arrived at the school parking lot, Aziza leaned over, placed my face in her hands, and kissed me on the forehead.

Her kiss felt warm and it stayed with me as I watched her trot over to her chained bicycle, her case under her arm. I waited until she started to pedal away. Then, I began my drive home. As I turned out of the school lot, I realized I was crying. I don’t like that I can cry so easily, but I do. It’s another thing I’m often ashamed of. I tried to figure out why I should be crying now.

I couldn’t think of a single reason.

— Richard A. Schere

Lavender Haze by Tina Castillo
The Sea at Sunset Cliffs by J.T. McKenna
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“I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons and I like twisting stories”
There were a lot of tough moments that happened during Jake Peterson's time at the zoo.
There were a lot of tough moments that happened during Jake Peterson's time at the zoo.

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CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Unexpected violence at the San Diego Zoo

When people found out I worked security at the world famous San Diego Zoo, they asked: “What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen?” It wasn’t until my last night of employment that I was able to give them a good story.

The zoo had just adopted a new deadly predator earlier that day...a lady saltwater crocodile. She was put with the male crocodile; they shared a tank and small sandy beach. My final shift, I was tasked with checking on them every hour to make sure nothing...wild happened. But nature was unkind that night.

It was late June. My shift started at 10 pm. Night had already strangled the sun into submission that sticky summer evening about an hour earlier. As I entered the office to gear up, there was a new face in a security uniform sitting in a chair near the door. It was a pretty face that belonged to a woman named Grace.

“Jake, you’re going to be training Grace here tonight. Show her the route and checkpoints,” my supervisor, Dave, instructed.

Her first night on the job, and my last.

I looked for a fully juiced radio...the only thing that stands between a terrible situation and backup.

“And we also have to check the reptile tank every hour,” he said. “We have to make sure no crocodile tears are shed tonight.”

Apparently, the female is the aggressor when these crocodiles cohabit a shared environment, and when the female has a mouth full of skull-crushing teeth, it gives a new meaning to the phrase: happy wife, happy life. So I snagged a flashlight and figured I should check out the new girl with the new girl in training first thing.

“I’ll take you down Monkey Trail and then we’ll go up by the gorillas and over to the crocs,” I said, trying to act cool, showing my firm grasp of the zoo grounds.

She flashed a perfect crooked-toothed grin.

When we got to the crocs tank, I shined the flashlight towards the small sandy area where I knew the monster reptiles liked to lounge.

“I see one,” I said. “Do you see another one anywhere?”

We both looked into the remote areas where I shined my light.

“I think I see something over there,” she said.

“Good enough for me. We’ll come back in an hour,” I replied. “If you can’t tell, I’m pretty much checked out of this place.”

Over the next sixty minutes before our second check, Grace and I zipped around the zoo on a golf cart. I told her exciting stories I had heard from past security guards about slippery animal escapes, hoping to get a small scare out of her.

“The old night shift guard told me one of the gorillas escaped around this time of night because a contractor left a small opening in their exhibit that day,” I said.

“No way!” she replied. What happened?”

“I guess the simian was just roaming around the zoo aimlessly. Probably getting into all sorts of cool shit he never knew existed. Maybe got some ice cream and popcorn. I hope he did, anyway.”

“I mean, did they have to shoot him or anything?” she asked, concerned.

“From what I heard, they just tranquilized him and locked him back up. Poor guy.”

There were a lot of tough moments that happened during my time at the zoo. Harambe, for one. One BIG one. One day, a couple of disheveled teenage boys noticed my security uniform, approached me, and asked if smoking was allowed at the zoo. I told them that it certainly was not. “Then why the fuck did you smoke Harambe?!” one snapped back. It was a clever joke that I couldn’t help but honestly laugh at. So I told them where the best hiding spots to smoke were.

“One of the elephants even hanged itself on the fence one night,” I said to Grace. “The next day, they put what looked like a circus tent around the scene and took some saws in there. You couldn’t see what they were doing, but you knew what was happening. It’s still eerie whenever I walk by. That’s why we have to do elephant checks throughout the night.”

Why was I telling this new trainee all this morbid shit?

Second check on the crocs. One was in the tank and one on the beach. They were behaving themselves and keeping their distance from one another...so far.

But not Grace and me. I was showing her all around the shops and food stands, telling her what you could get away with, because that’s what a good trainer does.

The night was heating up. I took her to Sabertooth Grill and poured us a couple of lemonades — on the house, of course.

“So why do you want to work security at the zoo?” I asked, taking large swigs from my cup.

“I just wanted to work here, doing anything,” she said. “It seems like such a fun place to work.”

“That’s pretty much how I felt too. I came here one day with some family and saw a security guard driving around, then thought, ‘I could do that gig.’ I applied a few days later and boom, here I am.”

“So is it awesome working here, or what?”

I smiled and thought about it for a moment. It was a cool and fun job on the surface, but the mystique quickly fizzles as the zoo shrinks into what feels like a little town of animal prison sadness. I didn’t want to tell Grace this, as she seemed so excited by the thought of working in such an exotic setting.

“Come on. I want you to meet a friend of mine,” I said. “He lives over in the Children’s Zoo.”

The keys on my duty belt jingled and the sounds of parrot squawking became intensely audible as we walked down a back path in the Children’s Zoo. Since Grace would be taking my spot on the security roster, it was imperative that she have a proper introduction to one of my good avian pals who I would be leaving behind.

Rio was a Yellow-headed Amazon parrot. He wasn’t from Brazil — Mexico, rather — but he acted like every night was Carnival, dancing and flapping those green and yellow wings of his. I spent a lot of time with Rio during night shifts, and on most days I worked, he would be the first animal I visited. We enjoyed deep conversations that went like this: “Hi, Rio.”

“Hi,” he would reply.

“Hi,” I said again.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

This would go on for about five to ten minutes until I resumed my duties. And it would happen a few times more on any given shift.

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“This is Rio,” I said to Grace.

“Hi Rio,” she said.

“Hi,” Rio responded.

“Be good to Rio when I’m gone,” I said. “He has family trauma.”

“Really?”

“No, but maybe.”

Time to check the crocs again. It was 3 am, the witching hour. When I shined my light in the tank I saw the male in the water. “There’s one,” I said. I shined the light on the beach, but nothing was there. “Where the hell is it?” I panned the stream of light on a concrete slab and noticed a dark oily substance all over the ground. “What the hell?” I studied and studied the substance with squinted eyes until I saw that it...was red. Ooooh, that’s blood! I looked around frantically and saw more blood, and more blood, and MORE blood. The blood was fucking everywhere! What’s going on?! Where’s the other crocodile? Is the one I saw in the tank dead? Is it that one’s blood? Whose blood is this? My eyes widened as I desperately tried to remain calm and collected. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. My final night on the job?! Having to train a new guard. Domestic crocodile violence to the highest degree. Murder?

“Grace, do you see the other croc anywhere? We need to find it.”

There was movement further down on the concrete slab and when I found it with my flashlight, there stood the other crocodile in her natural pushup position, like a crossfitter from hell. With her tongue dangling from a jawless head into a pool of her own blood. Her mangled face formed an unnatural, sinister smile as she gazed in our direction. I noticed a small piece of white meat on the ground a couple feet from her and realized...it was her detached jaw.

“Hooooly shit,” I said, consumed by disbelief.

Grace was gobsmacked. “What do we do?” she cried.

“You have to go in there and grab the jaw, like a rite of passage thing,” I joked, trying to cut the tension.

She looked at me, unamused.

I was told the male croc was the one we needed to be looking out for, but it was his actions that had led to such a gory crime scene.

Fumbling for the correct button on the radio, I called my supervisor and sternly told him he needed to get down there as soon as he could. When he saw the horror, he quickly urged us to go back to the office and call the reptile keepers. “Wake their asses out of bed if you have to,” he ordered.

The reptile keepers came in and pushed us out of the way. Grace and I watched from behind the glass as they harnessed the female from the enclosure.

“What do you think they’re going to do with her?” she asked me.

“Euthanasia, maybe. How the hell is she going to eat without a jaw?”

We looked on as the sun began its morning stretch. The birds began to play and sing, and the animals started waking up, not knowing what had happened in their little zoo town just hours prior.

We stood there in silence, blank faced, traumatized, unable not to think about what we had just witnessed. I turned to Grace and asked, “So, you still want to work here?”

— Jake Peterson

Blasons by Tommy L
Sagarmatha by Janice Alper

MARTY & ROSE

Distress meets mercy in West Mission Valley

You just couldn’t beat the river this time of day, Marty thought. An hour after the sun rose, it would peek out from behind the Honda dealership on the other side of Mission Valley and glint off the pools of water, here where the river bunched-up before easing into the Pacific. Marty sat high up, near the north overpass abutment, at the edge of a wide dirt patch. It had been a wet spring, bringing water to the river, but, as Marty peeked to the south, out from under the highway girders, he saw only blue sky today.

Bob Doublebower wrote “Marty & Rose”

Thirty or so other souls, alone and in groups, dissembled lives assembled, took up various sections of the dirt swath and its gently sloped embankment. An argument broke out somewhere to his left, and Marty turned to watch. Eddy, his neighbor from three tents over, was getting into it with some Mexican guy Marty had never seen before. People come and go. Eddy liked to call himself The Edge when his eyes got wilder than usual, for reasons known only to Eddy. They were loud, with lots of pointing, but it didn’t look like there was going to be a fight. Crap. Marty turned back to the river. He tried to focus. Holding the sides of his head helped. To be productive, today needed a Plan.

Around the end of rush hour, he’d hike up Morena with his sign under his arm and swing around the back of Jimmy’s Donut Hole right after the breakfast rush. If he timed it right, and the clean-up guy wasn’t a prick, he could catch the scraps en route to the dumpster, rather than after. A good day begins with a good breakfast. That done, he’d head further up Morena to Tecolote, and the 5 on-ramp. His spot. There’s a light there.

Marty had come to believe that the morning and afternoon rush hour were not good times for panhandling. Too many angry trucks with too many angry radios blaring. The drivers would glare at him out their side-windows, seeing him, in the moment, as the the proper target of the vitriol in which they stewed. The midday crowd was much better. People running errands, more laid back, picking up kids from soccer. More NPR and Kenny Loggins. They were the ones who rolled down their windows and smiled. He’d been a can-hauler in the past, but the recycling business wasn’t what it used to be.

Marty got up and walked back to his campsite. He didn’t have a tent. Didn’t need one, as far as he could see. The roadway overhead kept off the rain. What he did have, though, was a 12’ section of snow fence (thank you CalTrans) that made a neat, 3-sided space that he called home. Marty looked down at his earthly possessions. Time to stash. The trick to not getting ripped off was to make it all unnoticeable. Nothing shiny showing. Funny how people had a measure of respect for an unremarkable bedroll. That’s why he gave back the space blanket Social Services had given him. Too shiny. He rolled his camp stove, along with his impressive collection of butane lighters (yeah, he was that guy) in a dirty brown towel. His ragged checkerboard from the 99 cent store lay flat under his ground cloth. Time was he could beat most anyone here, but the checkers themselves, well, they’d gone missing a while back. Other things – utensils, a radio with no batteries, a beat-up Thomas Guide – likewise disappeared under his bedroll. Last of all, he took down from the snow fence a small framed photograph. The glass showed the streaks left by a dirty thumb wiping off the dust. The picture showed a woman and a young boy. This he looked at for a long moment, then wrapped it in his other tee shirt, and pushed it to the bottom of a nondescript backpack. Stashing didn’t take all that long, and the tires on the roadway above still didn’t have that 50 mph sound. Perfect time for today’s first beer. He looked around, suddenly self-conscious, then bent to rummage in that same backpack, coming up with a tall, silver can. Panhandling did provide some of life’s smaller pleasures.

But it wasn’t those 24 oz. Steele Reserves that lapped up the mortgage money, was it Marty? It wasn’t days on a bender that crashed the drywall business, was it? It was getting washed away in the turbulent currents of that Texas Hold-Em river. So many times. He’d gotten the bug, and the bug had gotten him.

He popped the top, closed his eyes, and took a long pull. When he opened his eyes, The Edge was standing beside them.

“You believe ‘dat sum’bitch? Come in here askin’ me if I wanna’ move downtown! Where? Where the hell downtown? What about my dog? What about my stuff?”

“Where was he from?” Marty asked. “City, County, or Jesus?”. He tried to remember ever seeing Eddy with a dog, and couldn’t.

“City, I think. Hell, how should I know? Why now? We h’ain’t seen them peckerheads for months! You seen downtown, lately?”

Marty offered the Edge a pull from the can, and said, “Dunno. Sea World season’s starting, I think. Maybe that’s it.” He nodded toward the apparatus outlined against the western horizon. “We’re on the way, maybe.”

The Edge narrowed his eyes as he handed back the can. “When’s the last roust you heard of?”

Marty wasn’t good at remembering things, and he sure didn’t want to start the day this way. Being upset in the morning could last all day. He had a Plan, he remembered, and yakking about city policy with The Edge wasn’t part of it.

“Jeez, man”. He peered into the can and wiggled it.

“I met an old woman with a parakeet a few weeks back said they been chased out up near the park. Didn’t say which park.”

Marty drank down half of what was left in the tallboy. Now, if he stayed quiet, maybe Eddy would leave. After about a minute, it worked. Soon enough, it came time to pick a sign, and head out. Veteran though he was, the well-worn “Homeless Vet” sign seemed to have less effect on the mid-day crowd. Couldn’t figure why. He picked instead his newer and crisper “God Bless You for the Help” sign, done in ecclesiastical purple and gold magic marker, on white. Magic, indeed.

So-armed, and his stuff stashed, he slicked back his hair and headed for Jimmy’s.


Not much could ruin Rose Candelero’s day. Her daughter’s 12th birthday was coming up, and it pushed aside all of life’s other little struggles. Like making the rent. Like the cable bill. Like having to take this extra work shift. She could have stewed, too, about no response yet from Celia’s dad, but she didn’t.

The bus dropped her off a block away from the Sanitation Dept.’s Hill Ave. station. This wasn’t trash day in Hill Avenue’s district. Something else was up. In the locker room, Rose sucked in her gut to get one more belt hole as she squeezed into her green workpants. Out in the back lot, a bus idled.

“Somethin’ goin’ on today?” Rose asked her supervisor. He had lined up his squad of ten in the briefing room. Instead of an answer, she got handed a clear plastic bag with a zipper. Oh crap. She’d seen this before – the haz-mat pack. White paper suit (well, it felt like paper), booties, facemask, and about a dozen pair of blue gloves. Gonna’ be messy. The squad sat down and waited.

Rose turned to Gabby. “Heard anything?’ Gabby usually knew stuff even before the supervisors. She had a knack for it.

“Nothin’ official, but I saw a 10-wheeler dump truck hauling a bobcat parked out on the street. We don’t get those rigs just every day.”

“Great. Sounds special”, Rose said in a tone as flat as a freeway, through 2 hairpins gripped in her teeth. She pulled her black hair back into a bun, then slumped back on the bench and waited.


Marty decided he would knock off early today. It had been a pretty good haul, so far. He counted $11 and 50 cents, three holy cards emblazoned with the Blessed Mother showering Her light on the world, and four copies of The Watchtower. Someone had also given him a book on spiritual healing, which he threw in the bushes. He didn’t read much, these days. Breakfast had stuck with him pretty well until now, but soon he’d be hungry again. He headed back to camp.

Marty didn’t think much of it when he saw Margaret with her yappy dog walking over on Buenos Street. He was still about a mile from the overpass. People wandered all the time. Then he saw Charlie and Gus. They’d been campers longer than he, and rarely left together, fearing for their stuff. Marty walked on a few more blocks, and the human trickle had become a small stream. Nobody made eye contact. The clang of a loading operation and the hum of a big diesel faintly ricocheted off the riverbank. Two young black guys in camo pants, vets most likely, pedaled by on rusty bikes. Marty started to worry, not sure why, and walked a little faster. Now every block had people on it. Some he knew, most he didn’t. Finally, about a block out, he saw Eddy. “Yo, Eddy, where you headed?” Marty yelled.

Eddy’s head snapped around, first left, then right, until he caught sight of Marty.

“They rousted us, man”, Eddy called back. His voice crackled with panic. “They came in around noon and said we had to go. Go where?” He emphasized the “where” To Marty, seeing was believing, so he hurried to the overpass, and scrambled down under the girders.

The dirt swath was bare.

Off to the west side, a big dump truck sat idling, while a little pissant bobcat scooped large black plastic bags into it. Sanitation workers from the City, about half a dozen of them, stood around talking to a few of the stragglers. A pile of white coveralls sat heaped off to the side.

Marty went numb. This had been his home for over a year. Could he still watch the river in the morning? Where was everybody going? Where was his snowfence? Where was his stuff, and …oh my God…, where was his backpack? He began to wander about aimlessly, getting more rattled, trying to put it all together. He saw a sanitation worker leave a group nearby and he walked up to her.

“Where’s my stuff?” be blurted out.

Rose turned and looked at him. This was not her first roust, and the human toll never sat well with her. But a job was a job.

“All personal belongings, except dangerous and contraband items, are in those bags being loaded over there”, said Rose, trying her best to sound like a paragraph in this morning’s directive. “You’ll have an opportunity to retrieve your belongings at the storage facility.”

Marty just stared at her, confused. “I don’t have a storage facility. Can’t I just go get my stuff off the truck? Shouldn’t be too hard to find, there’s a backpack, kinda tan, and a snowfence.” Of the fifty or so black bags in the dumptruck, Marty’s backpack, in one of them, did not stand out.

“I’m sorry, sir, you can’t do that. All those bags are in the custody of the Dept. of Sanitation, until we can check them over.” Of course, they weren’t, actually, but to have a crowd swarming over the truck did not sound like a good end to the day.

Rose had long since gotten used to getting yelled at, cursed at, and threatened during these operations, and it was at this point that it usually happened. But Marty just stood there. If he’d been able to make a move in any meaningful direction, he would have. None seemed meaningful. Instead, a feeling like rising water began building behind the bridge of his nose.

He didn’t yell. He spoke softly.

“The backpack …., I got a picture…” Long delay. “My boy...”

It had been a long day for Rose. She wanted nothing more than to clock out, go home, put Celia to bed, and smoke a bowl. Day done. But at that moment, something tiny began to yield inside her. Always she had stood firm in the face of the pleadings, the anger, and the lost looks, but it tired her.

“What boy”, she asked, although she really already knew.

Marty looked past her to the river beyond, no longer in the moment.

The yielding inside her edged closer to collapse. Rose shifted gears.

“We take all this stuff down to Hill Avenue. The idea is to sort through it, but that doesn’t always happen. If it’s not retrieved in seven days, we toss it.”

Marty came back to the conversation. What did that mean? Toss it? Toss it where? Where’s Hill Avenue? How far is that?

He said to Rose, “I only know the streets up around here. You know, where I’ been.”

Rose dug into her back pocket and handed Marty a motel voucher, good for a week.

“Here, take this. It’s for the Starland, over on Sherman. At least it’s a place to sleep ‘til you get your bedroll back.”

“There’s a backpack, too,” Marty called after Rose, as she turned and walked toward the crew bus.

He’d been to the Starland before. Nestled between a Speedee Oil Change and another similarly run-down motel, it had managed to stay on the City’s voucher list, that not being a particularly high bar to clear. He still had his sign, but the time of day for panhandling had passed. He started walking. Seven days, he kept saying to himself.

He trudged into the motel lobby as the sun set behind the sailboat masts of Shelter Island.

“Hi Hector,” he called, waving his voucher in the air.

Hector looked up from behind his thick glass enclosure.

“Hey, hom’, where you been? Long time.”

“Around... you know. No. 8 still available?” Marty asked. “Is the puke gone?”

“Yeah, yeah, man. That was gone weeks ago. The girl came in just this past Tuesday. We’re all good.”

Marty handed over the wrinkled voucher, and Hector slipped a key on a plastic fob under the glass.

“You be here all week, Marty?” Marty nodded and turned for the door. On the way out, he stopped and turned back.

“Hey Hector, you know where Hill Avenue is?

Hector frowned and slowly shook his head side to side. “New one on me, hom’.”

Marty remembered his Thomas Guide, but couldn’t remember where it was.


Rose Candelero slept a peaceful night, unlike some others after a roust. Sometimes she couldn’t shake the abuse she’d absorbed for a day or two. That guy, what was his name? Mike? Marty? Marty, that was it. She’d written his name on the voucher receipt. He looked so..wounded...so restrained in his misery. That thing that had bent within her, that tiny seed of empathy, had spread through her, and the reward had been a good night’s sleep. Today was her day off, and she had a party to plan.


Marty got back to work the next day, this time over on the southbound 5. A spot there had opened up. On his way back that afternoon, he ran into the camo vets on their bikes. Each balanced a big bag of cans.

“Nope. Heard’a Hill Avenue, but couldn’t say where the hell it is. What town’s it in?”

Marty had no answer for that, and walked on. Six days.


Celia Candelero came home from school early two days later. They’d let her go to help her mom set up for her party. She loved that kind of thing. There were steamers and balloons, and the table set for eight of her friends. She got to help make the tres leches cake.

But throughout the day, an undercurrent of sadness built within Rose. Sooner or later, Celia would ask, and Rose had no answer but the truth. Later, as the cake cooled on a rack, and the last of the namecards stood at their places, Celia asked, “Heard from daddy?”

Inside, Rose crumbled. But outside, she had to be strong.

“No, not yet, angel. Maybe he’s out of town.” O.K., maybe not the whole truth.

That evening, Rose thought for a long while about kids and daddies. About the bond and the need. And she thought about that unshakeable small kernel of love she still felt for Celia’s dad, and this confused her to no end.


Marty went about his usual days – Starland to Jimmy’s to the onramp and back to Starland, but, through it all, he felt like a ghost. He didn’t have his stuff, and that made him feel like half a person. But, worse, he didn’t have his picture, and that anchored him, as it had through a few of the really bad years. He didn’t walk, these days, as much as he drifted.

Early Saturday morning, five days after the roust, Hector banged on the door of No. 8.

“Hey, Marty. You got a call.”

Marty scrambled from bed, put on the one shoe he could find, and followed Hector to the office.

Marty gripped the phone like an unknown object. “Hello?”

“Marty? Marty, this is Rose, from back last Monday. I gave you the voucher. Remember?”

It began to come into focus. “Yeah. Yeah. Hi.”

“Marty, did you ever get your stuff? I still see that big pile of bags in our yard. Not many folks have showed up. You plannin’ on coming down?

“Yeah I plan to, but nobody I know knows where it is.”

“Well, I know. Hey, I’m busy today, but I’m off tomorrow. Why don’t you hang out at the Starland til about 10? Can you do that?”

“Sure.” Without further chit-chat, Rose hung up. Marty stared at the phone, then hung up and asked Hector for a rubber band. He wrapped this around his index finger to remind himself. 10 o'clock.

Next morning, Marty sat on his bed, rolling the rubber band off and on his finger. He heard the rattle of a car engine, then a knock. He crammed himself into Rose’s battered Corolla, and they headed south, past donut shops and diners he had never seen.

“We’re not really supposed to come in on Sundays, but I told my supe I had paperwork to catch up on,” Rose said to ease the awkward silence. Marty stared out the side window. Man, this is a big goddamn city.

Finally there, Rose rolled down the car window for the security guard. She didn’t say a word — she just pointed to the looming bag pile, and then to Marty. She parked next to a small side entrance, then said to Marty, “Wait here.”

She disappeared inside, then came out dressed in her haz-mat gear. The Dept. of Sanitation had its rules. Together they walked to the pile. It was now much bigger, owing to another roust just this past Thursday. Together they unstacked, shoved, lifted, threw, and kicked bags this way and that. Not all were open, but some were. Marty felt sure he’d know his when he saw it.

Two hours of this had cut a pretty good path into the middle of the pile. Marty worked like a man on a mission, but Rose began to wonder if this was all futile.

Then Marty saw something that gave his heart wings. Sticking out of a dusty, ripped trashbag, at the very bottom of the pile, he saw 4 inches of orange CalTrans snow fence.

They walked back to the Corolla. Rose had taken off her haz-mat suit and bundled it under her arm. Marty clutched to his chest a dirty tan backpack.

— Bob Doublebower

A Day of Bankers Hill by Akiko Russotto
La Jolla: A Seagulls Cry by Alexander Pesiri

THE AZIZA EXPERIENCE

I think I look more like a girl than a boy

There is this group that meets every other Saturday at Solana Beach. Kids involved come from lots of different places. Apparently, it all started when five kids who had gone to a music camp together decided to keep their music and friendship going, and as time went on, other kids and friends of other kids had gotten involved. Apparently, some of the members had discovered the group just as I had, accidentally. I learned that there was no age restriction. Anyone could participate The youngest member was nine years old and the oldest was twenty-six. There was nothing formal. You just showed up. Food was brought by the original five, and at the end of the evening, if you wanted to, you could toss some money into a hat to help pay for some of the cost.

Richard A. Schere’s piece, “The Aziza Experience,” is a fictional account based on a true event.

The first time I had discovered them, they were playing and singing all kinds of songs. Some were modern, rock, songs I often heard on the radio while driving. Others were softer, like love songs, and some were country and folksy. They were really into it, singing and playing with true enthusiasm. I noticed that, in addition to the guitars, one boy had a few drums he was banging on, one girl was playing a portable keyboard she had positioned on her lap, and another girl alternated between playing a mandolin and a banjo. They sounded terrific. The kids with instruments could really play, and the voices were powerful and harmonious. It was hard not get into the flow of what they were doing. I found myself feeling their joy and camaraderie, and much to my surprise, I soon found myself singing along with them.

I’ve always liked singing, and I have a pretty good voice. The trouble is my voice is sweet, high and alto, and, in light of all my other problems, I felt it best not to add my voice to the collection of things other kids could tease me about. What I mean is, I’m seventeen years old, but I look as if I’m twelve. I’m just about five feet tall, skinny as a stair post, hairless in the places where I’m supposed to be flowering, and as un-macho as a boy can look. I have long blond hair, brown eyes, and a not-so-bad freckled face that’s more sweet than handsome. When I look in the mirror, sometimes I think I look more like a girl than a boy. I never would have chosen to look like this. So I only sing when I am alone. However, I had no difficulty at all singing with these kids. I could sense that my age and size wouldn’t matter to them.

Every so often, one of the young adults, who played guitar and seemed to be a kind of leader, would point to someone. Then, that someone would begin to sing a song that I guess was one of his or her favorites, and the musicians would begin to play along. The person pointed to would be singing solo on the verses, although, if there was a chorus, everyone else would join in on that. I enjoyed listening to the solo singers. Most were girls, and all of them had beautiful voices. Almost all of them had beautiful faces. Some boys were chosen, too. Suddenly, I was pointed to.

I felt a jolt in my stomach. I was nervous, but I stood up, and began to sing my father’s favorite song. It was an Irish song, “Danny Boy.” The leader, I later learned his name was Josh, put down his guitar and took a harmonica out of his pocket. While another guitarist played the melody, Josh blew into the harmonica harmonizing with my singing. “Danny Boy” is a soft song, and so only Josh, the other guitarist, and I performed the tune. I thought I sounded pretty good and singing with the instruments was new to me and really cool.

Sometimes, it was just the musicians doing a selection. There was no singing, but there was occasional clapping if there was a steady beat to the music being played.

I had lost all sense of time, and, when we finally stopped, I looked at my watch and was shocked to discover that we’d been at it for three hours, and that was only counting the time since I had arrived. Everyone collected their things and went down to the beach. There was a large pit encircled by concrete, and some of the kids went to a van to bring wooden slats that would be fuel for a fire. Also being transported from different vans were lots of foods. I was told that, after the music, everyone hung around late into the evening and ate and just talked about things. I was invited to stay.

I love to be at the ocean at sunset time. I watch the sun sink into the water and hope that perhaps I’ll see the green flash everyone says sometimes comes as the sun disappears. In all my years, I’ve never ever seen the flash. I like to watch the sky change colors as the day fades on its way to becoming evening, especially the oranges and pinks. What I like best of all is to follow the ocean, itself, as its hues change from blue, to purple, to almost black, and then to silver.

I found myself involved in conversation with four kids. They were teens between fifteen and eighteen, or so I estimated. Two were girls and two were boys and they all knew each other and went to Torrey Pines High School. I told them I attended La Vista High School. We talked about our favorite music, about movies we had recently seen, and about our tentative plans for the future. Although everyone wanted to somehow keep their music going, the two boys were interested in science. Sam intended to study medicine and Jack was toying with becoming an engineer. One of the girls, Terri, hoped to become a singer or an actress, while the other, Marianne, hoped to become an artist, a writer, or a teacher.

Marianne was especially interesting to me. She was of average size and had a really hot body. She had very long dark, black hair, and very large blue eyes, and her face was very expressive. What I mean is you could get a message from her just by looking at her face. Marianne had a small pad and she was always penciling on it, even when she was talking. At the end of the evening, she had handed me a drawing.

Her drawing was a sketch of me. It was full body, and it was quite accurate. She had drawn me short, thin, and freckly, but I noticed that the expression she had drawn into my eyes made me seem serious, curious, and concerned all at once. I liked that part and wondered if that was how I really came across to others. The rest of me I didn’t like, although that wasn’t Marianne’s fault. I just don’t like how young and un-macho I look. Yet, I really liked the facial expression she had given me. I have taped her sketch onto the wall of my bedroom and I find that I keep looking at it. Anyway, I thanked her for the picture.

I had had a really good time and I thought that next time I came, perhaps I’d invite Aziza. Aziza is a girl I tutor. She is very thin and very tall. She works harder than any student I have ever known, but there is a reason for this. I think the best way to help you understand her is to show you a composition she wrote that I made a copy of because I was so powerfully moved by it:

American Kids and Me

A composition for English Class, Ms. Silber

By Aziza

My name is Aziza. English is my second language. My first language is Swahili. In Swahili, Aziza means the precious one. It can also mean the chosen one. Perhaps that is why I am here in America, learning in high school, and why most of those I knew and loved are departed. I will write about myself and about American kids. There are big, big differences.

American kids, they are very lucky. They are also very silly, and they have no idea about the real world. They have not seen their friends and relatives murdered before their eyes. They have not seen their homes blown up by explosives. They have not walked for miles and miles, exhausted, trying to escape the horrors, wondering if the next place would be worse than the place you are running from. They do not know what it is like to fear for your life. They do not understand how short life is, and how quickly anything can change.

American kids, they worry about boyfriends and girlfriends, about video games, about winning or losing ball sports, about being seen as tough or sexy, and about being invited to parties where they will drink or take drugs.

American kids, they do not appreciate that they can go to school for free. They do not work hard to learn. They do their homework as fast as they can, carelessly, just to get it done with. They do that so they can then go play, go board surf in the sea, go hanging out.

American kids, they want to buy everything. They want to buy clothes, and sneakers, and cell phones, and computers, and games, and food. They want to buy lots of food. They are eating something all of the time. Mostly they eat bad food. They eat bad food and they smoke cigarettes. They live in a country where they can have good health, and they do things to get bad health. It is not, I think, that they are stupid. They just don’t understand how things really are. They would go pet a tiger cub and then be surprised when their arm got bit off.

American kids, they are mostly white. They try to understand black kids like me. They can be generous and offer me some of their bad food. They try to understand black kids like me, but they cannot. They think I am too serious, too studious, and that I do not want to have fun.

It is not that I do not want to have fun. It is that day and night I am tormented by the horrors. I cannot forget them. I am so lucky to have gotten to here, to be given the chance to live a long life, to earn a good living. It is not that I do not want to have fun. It is that I must work very hard to learn all these things, from all of these new words. I have learned English language in just three years. I think I have learned it pretty okay. I read books, not just schoolbooks, one after the other, to learn more words, to know more things. It is not that I do not want to have fun. It is that I have been chosen by God to be the one to survive the horrors and to walk on new paths. I work hard for myself, but I work hard for all the families, brothers and sisters, who are departed. It is not that I do not want to have fun. It is that I always feel guilty when I try to have fun, when I try to relax. I hear the voices of the departed ones. They sting me like whips, and I feel I must stop not doing and work on.

I have had to learn how American kids learn, how to study stilly. When I need to plant idea-seeds in my head, I dance and sing the ideas over and over until they are rooted. American kids don’t learn like that.

I want to do well. I want to get the highest marks in everything. I want to take all the subjects. I want to go to college and become a nurse or a doctor. But, although I work very hard, I do not always get good grades. My grades are lower than my smartness. But I keep trying and working hard. I will always keep trying and working hard.

I cannot tell you how much I admire Aziza. She is on a mission. She never relaxes her effort. I decided I would try to help her have some R & R. I decided I would take her to the music group at Solana Beach. I was delighted that, when I asked her, she was eager to come.

I didn’t sleep all that well Friday night. I was too excited and maybe anxious, too. I couldn’t wait for Saturday to come so that I could take Aziza to the music group. I wanted so much for her to have a good time, and, for some reason, I felt it was my responsibility to make sure she did. I mean it really wasn’t my responsibility at all. Still, I felt as if it were. I tried to figure out why I had such a strong feeling about it. I guessed that one reason was that I have a lot of what Dr. Aimes, my therapist, calls “empathy.” I often find myself feeling what it is like to be other people, even other animals sometimes. I put myself in their place and imagine what it would be like. I used to think that I was just too sensitive and considered this trait of mine a weakness, but Dr. Aimes says that it’s really a strength because I can better understand people. Dr. Aimes says that empathy is an important social tool. I suppose it is, but sometimes I feel I have too much of it. Dr. Aimes also says that empathy is important for truly understanding deeper ideas. I don’t quite know what he means by that, at least not yet. Anyway, I certainly have empathy for Aziza. She’s been through so much and she works so hard. She deserves to have a good time. In fact, I sense she needs to have a good time. Still, why should I feel so strongly that it’s my responsibility?

I notice a lot of things and I write down the important things I notice. I had written in my Notices collection: Isn’t it interesting that you can sometimes feel something is so true when it makes no logical sense at all?

I began to wonder about the difference between like and love. I like Aziza very much. I also like Marianne very much, but in a different way. If you can like people very much in different ways, then can you love different people very much also in different ways? Is love the strongest like? Or is love a different kind of feeling? Maybe love is the strongest empathy? I also found myself wondering about whether you had to want to have sex with people you love. TV, movies and advertisements keep suggesting sex is part of love. Still, I love my mother and Dr. Aimes, and I loved my father, but I never would want to have sex with them. That idea really turns me off. Also, there are times, I must confess, that I fantasize about having sex with certain girls, if I were able, even though I don’t think I like them all that much. Sometimes, like actresses in movies, I don’t know them at all. It gets pretty confusing. Maybe I just need to get older. Maybe I just think about things too much.

I fell asleep again but awoke long before my alarm clock was set to go off. I dressed and left early. I left a note for my mother, although she knows I leave to do things on the weekend long before she wakes up. I drove to Einstein’s Bagels for a quick breakfast and a quick reading of the newspapers they keep in their store for customers to skim through with their coffee. Then, even though it was early, I drove to the school parking lot to wait for Aziza. To my surprise, she was already there, sitting on a bench, her bicycle chained to the fence, and her long legs balancing an oval brown leather case. I wondered what was inside. Aziza was dressed in all white, an all-white pull-over shirt and white shorts that ended at her knees. Even her sneakers were white. Against her ebony skin, her white clothes seemed an especially attractive and interesting contrast. For a moment, it seemed to me that her clothes were wearing her body. My mind does crazy things sometimes.

As soon as she recognized me, Aziza leaped up and began trotting over to the car, her eyes brightly aglow and her mouth forming that ivory smile that I love to see. I opened the door and she plopped inside. I had already rearranged my car seats. I’m so short that I keep my driver’s seat as far forward as possible. I even have a cushion to sit on to keep my vision clear and to look taller so that a policeman noticing what might appear to be a young kid driving would be less likely to stop me. But Aziza is as tall as I am short, and I had pushed the front passenger seat as far back as it would go. I found myself laughing aloud, for Aziza who was next to me was really behind me, and it was just funny. I imagined what it would look like to someone driving alongside. Aziza asked what I was laughing about, so I told her, and she started laughing with me. It was a good way to begin our trip together.

As we wound our way toward the 5, I asked Aziza what was in her case. She laughed and told me it was a surprise. We hit the 5 and cruised north, arriving at Solana Beach in less than a half-hour. I drove into the parking lot, found a space, jumped out, and ran to the other side of the car to open the door for Aziza. My attempt to be a “gentleman” failed, because Aziza had already opened the door and gotten out of the car. Of course, I wasn’t surprised, because Aziza is very independent and always does things for herself. I suppose she has always had to. We started walking toward the low tree area where we did our music. Josh was already there, and so were some others. They were setting up, organizing microphones and speakers. I introduced Aziza to Josh, who welcomed her warmly. I noticed that he had gazed at her leather case and had smiled. Perhaps he knew what was inside. Aziza was really happy. I could feel it. I caught her staring at the kids who were setting up drum sets. I associate African music with lots of percussion so I guessed that the drums were especially appealing to Aziza. She walked over to some of the drummers, introduced herself, and softly tapped on some of the drum parts, laughing as she did. Terri and Sam had arrived, so I took Aziza over to meet them. I learned that Marianne would be a little late because she had to do a chore for her grandmother.

Terri and Sam had brought some snack food with them, and so the four of us sat together on the grass talking and munching. Aziza asked them questions about themselves and they both seemed eager to respond. When asked about herself, Aziza talked about her present activities and hopes for the future. When asked about her past, as I would have expected, Aziza said very little. In response to Sam’s question, Aziza simply said, “I come from a part of the world where terrible things happen, things too sad to talk about. I am so happy to be in this country and to be with you today.” Then she asked Sam to play something on his guitar.

Sam played a traditional folk song, “Shenandoah.” He sang it with Terri, who harmonized in high voice while Sam sang and played the basic melody. They sounded really terrific together, and I told them so. Aziza didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. The delight in her eyes was obvious. I asked Sam if he knew anything about the song, and he informed me that Shenandoah was an American Indian chief.

More and more people began to arrive and join us, but Marianne had still not shown up. I found myself hoping she’d come soon. Marianne and I had been keeping in touch and she was becoming a really close friend, but somehow I sensed my feeling was about more than that. Marianne finally arrived.

Josh’s voice came through the speaker system and it announced the beginning of our music. Then, as was the custom, groups of kids began to perform as we took turns in clock-wise order. The music played was varied and pleasurable to hear. Many presentations were of folk music, but others, especially the younger teens, performed current standards and rock and roll. As was our custom, if you knew the song, you sang and/or played along. I could tell Aziza was really enjoying herself. Her eyes were aglow with pleasure and, even though she didn’t know the songs, she finger-drummed the rhythms on her knees. Jack and Terri did “Shenandoah.” They had performed it so well for Aziza and me that they had decided to redo it for the group. Marianne and I sang “Turn! Turn! Turn!” We had met and practiced this last Friday. Marianne played guitar, while I strummed chords on my ukulele. We sang in a harmony, just as Sam and Terri had, only I was the high voice and Marianne was the lower one. I still feel funny having a high voice, but I knew that Marianne and I sang well together, and I enjoyed our duet.

After a while, Josh began pointing to particular people to perform. At first, he pointed to those who did instrumentals without words. One fantastic presentation was by a college student, a guy, who played Chopin on his mandolin. Then, Josh pointed to Aziza. I was somewhat concerned about how Aziza would respond, but she didn’t bat an eyelash. She stood up, moved forward, and opened her brown leather case. Out of it she pulled a beautiful drum, larger on the top than on the bottom, that was made of a blond wood, and had intricate carvings on it. Josh had moved over to a microphone and announced, “For those of you who may not know, our new member is Aziza and what she is going to use is a most unusual drum that comes from Africa and is called ‘Djembe.’” He asked Aziza to hold it up, and she did, proudly. Then, placing it between her legs, she began to beat a rhythm.

It’s a little hard to describe exactly what happened. At first, Aziza began to beat a rhythm that was a fast one, two, three, followed by a slow three, four. What was especially interesting was that, even though she was playing a drum, the sounds she was producing were different from one another. I’ve heard different sounds from a Caribbean steel drum that has different bends in it so that you can play notes, but this drum had no bends, just a single stretch of material along the top. I couldn’t tell whether the different sounds were the result of the drum or the different ways Aziza was striking it. Some of the other drummers began to softly imitate Aziza’s rhythm. Then she began to sing.

It sounded like a high soprano wail, floating a beautiful, slow, sad melody. The words had to be African, but she produced a clicking sound as she sang them. There’s this thing about music. Even if you don’t know what the words of a song are saying, you can often feel what the song is about. As I listened, an image appeared in my mind. I pictured a beautiful blue-yellow bird flying in the sky, struggling with a broken wing. But then, an amazing thing occurred.

Suddenly, Aziza was not singing alone. Another voice, a strong baritone voice, could be heard in the distance. As I turned to look, I saw an immense black man walking slowly toward us. He was singing loudly and tears were filling his eyes and cheeks as he sang. He seemed to be seven feet tall and as wide as a truck. He walked over to Aziza, stood next to her, and continued to sing with her in a loud rich voice.

Then, he moved forward and began dancing. Aziza began to play her rhythm faster, and the man danced quickly, turning to the left and then to the right as he swayed and bent up and down. He motioned to Aziza to join him, and because the other drummers had picked up the change of rhythm, she did. It was an amazing sight: this giant of man who looked like a football player, weeping as he sang and danced, and Aziza, tall and thin, moving ever so gracefully as she also sang.

After a while, the two stopped singing. Then, shortly after, they stopped dancing. They stood together, hugged one another, and spoke softly in a different language.

We had all been deeply moved by the emotion and power of what had just happened, but none of us knew how to respond. I’m guessing we would have liked to applaud, but we weren’t sure if applauding would be disrespectful. So we just waited. As usual, Josh handled the situation. He walked over to Aziza and the man and spoke to them softly in English. Aziza returned to us, and the large man slowly walked back in the direction from which he had come. I was glad to see that he was now smiling broadly.

Josh motioned to Adelle, one of the super singers, and began to play a song, “From a Distance.” It is a song about how the world ought to be perceived, and, I thought, a good song to move on to after the Aziza experience. Adelle sang the words so beautifully that none of us joined in. Or, perhaps, we just needed a breather after all that explosion of emotion. Then, we resumed our more typical musical activity.

Aziza was very happy. She kept her drum between her long legs and beat the rhythms of the music being played. I had many questions about the song she had performed and about the man, but I chose not to bother her. I could learn about these things at another time.

As sunset neared, the group began to move to where we eat and mingle. Marianne, Terri, Aziza, Sam, Jack and I joined the others. Many of the members stopped to welcome Aziza, or to compliment her on her song, or to ask her about her drum. All of us were involved in mostly small talk. It was truly enjoyable. Marianne, who seems to know everybody, talked to others almost non-stop. I, as usual, was much quieter, but I really enjoyed being part of the crowd, feeling equal to everyone. Marianne, Terri and Aziza talked for a while among themselves, but, from what I overheard, there was no deep discussion. Josh made it a point to come over to us and to ask us to encourage Aziza to join us as often as she could. He asked if he could have a closer look at her drum. She took it out of her case for Josh to examine, and he studied it, expressing appreciation for how beautiful it was. He said that, at a more convenient time, he would like to know if the carvings had special significance.

The sea began to silver, as we got into our cars to drive home. Marianne told me to make sure I called her. She told Aziza she would like to know her better, and the others of our group said the same. Aziza, in response, nodded and smiled.

In the car, Aziza thanked me for taking her to the music. “This has been one of my most happy days in California,” she said. “It felt so good to listen, and then to sing my heart. It felt so good to hear my Djembe again and to dance with a brother.” And, when we finally arrived at the school parking lot, Aziza leaned over, placed my face in her hands, and kissed me on the forehead.

Her kiss felt warm and it stayed with me as I watched her trot over to her chained bicycle, her case under her arm. I waited until she started to pedal away. Then, I began my drive home. As I turned out of the school lot, I realized I was crying. I don’t like that I can cry so easily, but I do. It’s another thing I’m often ashamed of. I tried to figure out why I should be crying now.

I couldn’t think of a single reason.

— Richard A. Schere

Lavender Haze by Tina Castillo
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