Some Thoughts on Forrest City

By P. E. Garcia

The first time I went to Forrest City, Arkansas, I was traveling to Memphis with my friend Penelope to see Elf Power. We stopped at a Taco Bell, and I distinctly remember feeling out of place, like we were in a foreign country, not just a mere hour or so away from our hometown of Little Rock. I was wearing a Sufjan Stevens shirt that simply said “Greetings from Michigan!” and the woman at the counter thought we were tourists.

It wasn’t unusual for us to feel so out-of-place, though. Penelope is trans, and I’m Latino, two things most folks don’t associate with the South. Yet as much as we felt we stood out in the relatively urban atmosphere of Little Rock, this was amplified in Forrest City—a town that prides itself on being “the Jewel of the Delta.”

It would be a stretch for me to pretend that I have an intimate relationship with Forrest City, but after that initial trip, the town became something of a ritual for me. On my way to Memphis or Nashville or somewhere else I would stop in Forrest City to remind myself of the Delta, and its history, and all the ugliness contained therein.

Forrest City is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former slave trader and Confederate general. He essentially founded the city, as it grew up from one of his campsites.

Forrest is well-known across the South, thanks to the numerous parks, schools and monuments that were named for him. He was widely praised for his military tactics during the Civil War, often referred to as “the Wizard of the Saddle.” After the war ended, it’s widely believed Forrest was also the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

He is also famous for a massacre. On April 12, 1864, Forrest’s troops captured Fort Pillow in northern Tennessee. Accounts vary widely, but one thing is clear: over 64% of Black Union soldiers in the dispute were killed—twice the number of their white counterparts. Some said that the river ran red with their blood for three miles; reports came back that unarmed, Black soldiers had been gunned down, drowned, and even burned to death.

Whether Forrest personally ordered Black Union soldiers to be massacred is unknown. However, a Confederate sergeant recalled the battle like this:

“The slaughter was awful—words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded Negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy, but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down.”

The Mississippi Delta, over a century later, continues to be a hotbed of violence, particularly for gender minorities and people of color. Forrest City itself is actually only a few hours away from Ferguson, Missouri, where unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson. Less than an hour away from Forrest City, Memphis police were caught on tape beating Duanna Johnson, a Black trans woman. Nine months after that video was released, Johnson was found dead of a single gunshot wound to the head.

Just on the outskirts of Forrest City, on March 8th, 2011, a Black trans woman named Marcel Tye was found dead on the side of the road. She had been shot in the head and dragged 300 feet by a car. St. Francis County Sherriff Bobby Mays insisted that Tye’s death wasn’t a hate crime—just an “ordinary murder,” because, he decided, the body was dragged by a car “accidentally.” Mays referred to Tye as being “a well-known cross dresser in the area.” The Sheriff’s website, which claims this murder is still being investigated, incorrectly refers to Tye as “he.”

Regardless of whatever ambiguities surround Forrest’s life, his legacy is one clearly marred by horrific racism and violence. As we begin to ask whether or not the symbols and heroes of the Confederacy and the Old South are still appropriate, I sadly concede that Nathan Bedford Forrest is a fitting talisman of the hideous prejudices and violence that continue to pervade the Delta region. 


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

RE Katz: The Shift


Awst Collection - P. E. Garcia

P.E. Garcia's Awst Collection in print. Hand sewn. Contains 11 pieces of new and previously published work.


The Shift

By RE Katz

When Eva introduces herself to you she will reach out and take your hand, and holding it there, tell you her name how old she is how many years she has been married who her daughter is and how many degrees Celsius it is outside. You will listen to her closely even if she slips into German or Russian. You will ignore her rotting gums and promise to pick up a jelly donut for her if she makes it to her father’s house and back with no problems. When he comes to pick her up you will pretend that she does not look ten years older than he does, and you will pet their sad little dog that burned its leg again walking through the firepit in the backyard. You will do these things in the morning before your shift is over, and you will drive home with the sunrise clobbering you through the spidering crack in your windshield. Breakfast is the last thing—world waking up and breakfast is the last thing you have to do before you sign out. Sliding down in their chairs, the powder blue ones with extra height to support their necks, they gape at you and shake one shriveled hand from the elbow. They never touch their food, and so their clothes hang off of them—collarbones white as chalk just above the neckline.

Even when it is not cold out the night will freeze you. Sitting in the same wonky chair that teeters between the first hall and the second, you catch your head as it falls forward or backward every hour. You will glimpse down one long hall and then the other, and the flickering light overhead will split your head twice in a night or else be blotted out completely for its frequency. When the sun pinks from the bottom of the windows and grabs you golden, you will find you have forgotten how to squint. This is third shift, and it is yours. Sometimes you have to take vitals, because in the past they have slipped into respiratory arrest without so much as gasping for air. Some of them scream and beat their chests for no reason at all, and their eyes bulge, but you have to look into those sick globes but past them and know it’s nothing. Sometimes they lash out, and it’s an awful lot of paperwork for a stray elbow in the throat; incidents will go unreported. You begin to flout protocol. At the end of six months, you will chart nothing but a hygiene assessment and whether or not there has been human contact that day.

The narcotics are chained inside the medicine cabinet, which is padlocked inside the office with the emergency panel on the door. You will distribute meds at the beginning and end of the overnight and they will sleep God-willing they will sleep in between. When the dented doors of the cabinet swing open, you will gag from the smell of the multivitamins nestled in a psychotropic cornucopia dealt in saving plastic cupfuls. In the morning you must count the dose twice, because you have now been awake for a very strange long time. Working third shift, you will learn to trade in daylight hours. You will not be able to shake the night. You will try to sleep early afternoon, shades all pulled. While the world spins and grinds, you will try to sleep and fail then self-medicate and then finally, when you seem to swim endlessly underwater, you will stop caring. You will roll through darkness and light like a possum in the road. Somnambulism starts in the eyes. Where eyelids no longer fall, colors are brighter; memory overcompensates for what you already know.

Federico is small for nineteen and a terrible hypochondriac. You will meet him in the early morning hours with a phantom fever, begging you to sift out a precious anti-inflammatory from his medicine drawer and all of a sudden you’re panning for fool’s gold together. You will send him moaning back to bed and threaten to withhold privileges for his rulebreaking, or else you will be human. You will take his temperature, reassure him that there has never been an outbreak of meningitis in the home, and walk him back to his room. Halfway through the door, you listen to him describe the pins in his toes and tell him the foot has just fallen asleep and you may even be so asinine as to add that he should be too. You will become so irritated that you actually read his file. There will be that moment when your eye snags on a landslide of infectious delusions. You will pry open the filing cabinet stashed in the dark office downstairs with the separate key, and you will begin to read everything.

Night after night windows become mirrors. Sometime around three or four every morning or two-thirty-four on the dot, you will freeze before the black glass and see your outlandish face. You will see the reflection of a ceiling lamp hover over the bitten off moon and you will smile. When insomniacs grin there is a moment you expect their teeth to break or burn out one by one like tiny bulbs of night blooming there. Your mind is fertile after dark, eyes are lantern sockets, and you don’t think anything that doesn’t think you back. You will find you have been stuck on yourself like some queer Narcissus for too long, because it is time to wake them and it hits you like a slap in the face. The gentle cooing tone never works, but for a while you will use it anyway. Then you will shout, stomp, lean right next to their burning dream heads and bark. “Get up” you will say, “get up it’s seven-thirty” or “come on, time to wake up now I don’t want to have to call Doctor”—the longest a doctor has stayed with the home so far is eight months. They will roll over, draw blankets; they will scowl, curse your name. They will resent you for opening the blinds, as if you—you who drink the night so that it curdles inside you—have brought the morning in to trash them. And it wastes you too. When you do sleep, you dream of nothing.

Janelle wears too much white powder on the right side of her face. The left side looks different, but it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t actually exist. You will help her dress in the morning, pulling on the one sleeve that never makes it to the shoulder. One time you do this she will probably tell you about the accident, but she will lay it out like summer camp or her mother’s antique store—placing objects but not their meaning. You will note that the damage affects her spatial recognition, her mood, her energy level. Early in the day she will appear carnivalesque with the blush and eyeliner smeared across one side and the amblyopia on the other, lifting her leg in time with the aerobics instructor on the TV screen. At commercial breaks come the fits and you must try hard not to stand on the left when you reprimand her or else you will disappear. They have been able to save the leg from obliteration but she hates the left arm so much she doesn’t even wash it anymore. In this way you will notice that she does not make it to the dining room unless you lead her, lining her up like a Rubik’s cube every step of the way. When she begins to eat her scrambled eggs sloppily with a cupped palm, you will reproach her for forgetting her table manners, or else you will reach across and press the haughty fork into her right hand. She will not thank you, but that’s okay, because when she speaks, her face breaks right down the center and you can almost hear it snap.

In the winter a shiver starts in your spine at the beginning of every shift, and it steals all of your energy. You will carry your long nights in the smallest muscles—a twitching lip, rhythmic but menacing: a symptom soloing above your cigarette. The home is a three-story building made of brick and cement, but it seems to shrink and swell with the weather. An inch of snow and the walls are closing in; a heat wave sends you following a white rabbit through the keyhole. On the night shift you are emblazoned in a world of darkness; everything comes to you like in the second after sneezing—a shimmering bony jab of pure white idea. Or the emergency exit is just hissing at you again. You will need to keep your body churning for hours, and so you will be insatiable. You will find nothing of interest in the shitty hypoglycemic pantry they keep on the main level. So plunging into the deep hollow just off of the laundry room, you will grope for two auxiliary refrigerators like lighthouses over grey sand. You will hear the scattering of cockroaches and earwigs, and draw some holy frozen pizza or leftover ice cream cake from the top shelf. Your dinner will slowly become a scrolling infomercial of dark suburban plenty, a plague of high fructose corn syrup and processed cheese. And cradling this drippy wonder in hand, you will hunch before a smoldering screen and thump another sterile five-year plan. Animal midnight crawls over you only so many times before you change.

Lance was eligible for an apartment in a nice neighborhood before he relapsed. They tell him that he sets fires because he is ungratified. He is ungratified and he has abnormalities in the levels of certain neurotransmitters including but not limited to norepinephrine and serotonin. He has decreased concentration of 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol in his cerebrospinal fluid. You will note that he has also been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. He has the best medications, but no real treatment plan. The last doctor decided that you are to help him deal with his mania by simulating a situation in which he might feel the impulse to burn something. You will drive him to the lot behind the local fire department and dumbly construct a pile of trash. You will not watch him, because then he is too aware of the farce for it to be therapeutic. You will disregard his euphoria, and you will extinguish the flames only when they have become harmful. You will find that this is very much like the way you must manage Lance. You will over time stand back and watch him cremate his life with a single wavering flame, and you will ask to be taken off of his case.

Disciplinary techniques are lost on the night staff. No one wants to do a restraint at three o’clock in the morning, no matter how belligerent, how flailing; you will block your face with your fists, and you will let them tire themselves out. You will be half a brain when they come at you. Your eyes will be burlap sacks, melted candles, shattered car windows with garbage bags duct-taped from the inside fluttering frantically in the wind. You catch them moving toward you in one dimension, and a sympathy fishes beneath your eyes. Seeing them lose themselves on third shift, seeing that sleepless violence, you will know in that instant that you are the same drowning creature. And you will wonder whose condition is the one too obscure, too far gone. You have been sleeping sitting up for six years. You turn in your keys and walk out through the rec room where they are celebrating Janelle’s twenty-fifth birthday, and with a silver tiara sliding over her right eyebrow, she turns to you and smiles. But you’re already out the door because you just can’t take what her face looks like.  

Published 4/22/15 by Awst Press. Check out Katz's Awst Press page or read more about her thoughts in her interview.


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City


Awst Collection - RE Katz

This print collection is hand sewn and contains 27 pages with three new works—a short story, a poem, and an essay of annotations. 

Dirty Work

By Gene Kwak

The quaver in your dad’s voice unkinks something in you. Something deep and coiled. It comes from the very bottom, from where your ankles feel like they’re made of water. You are not a crier; your father is less of one. Even through the crystal-clear sound of the latest phone technology—like your ears are pressed up against each other’s heads—he sounds distant, like he is talking to you from one corner of the room with the phone in the opposite corner. He says the Korean word for grandfather, instead of Dad or Father or Pop. He says, Grandfather is dead. He says, come home, come home now. 

You book a flight through Memphis because when flying to Omaha from Boston your only choices are connecting in Memphis or Milwaukee and you would rather have the smell of bad airport BBQ on your clothes than deal with the herd of coeds, UW-Madison or Marquette logos emblazoned across their asses, tromping around in mud-slushed Ugg boots. Or the indecisive old timers trying to figure out if they want to go kosher on this flight’s meal plan when the less than two-hour trip, at most, offers up those palm-sized, cellophane packets of peanuts and pretzels. 

It is while sitting in the boarding area adjacent to your actual boarding area that you get a call from your sister, Janey. Janey is two years your junior, just turned twenty-four, but has it all together: two-year marriage, kid on the way, adult bills. She tells you over the phone that there was a conflict. She uses the word conflict. She says Little Uncle, using the Korean words for Little Uncle on your father’s side (by marriage), has gotten into a fight with Dad. Has called Dad a motherfucker. In front of everyone. 

She says not to get upset. Janey says she wanted to tell you before you got there because she knew how you’d react. She knows that since you were a child you had a streak of anger that sometimes baffled people, mostly your mother and father. You were prone to minor flights of violence (a baseball bat to the shins of an umpire over a blown Little League call or a balled fist to the temple of a fellow child over a borrowed plaything) She is maybe also referring to the crescent shaped scar above your lip where you were once hit in the mouth by the very same Little Uncle when he and his family first visited the States from Busan, fifteen or sixteen years ago. You were a know-nothing ten year old packed ten-deep with the rest of your family in an Econo van on a twenty-plus hour drive from Omaha to Niagara Falls. Little Uncle snatched a fry out of your hand, and you unleashed a torrent of expletives that resulted in him backhanding you. You’ve been looking for a reason ever since. 

Janey says the adults were convened in Big Auntie’s living room, figuring out the logistics of Grandpa’s funeral, when mid-conversation, Little Uncle turned to Dad and said, Fuck you, waving a middle finger on each hand. Dad was taken aback, she says. A thing you never do is cuss out an elder, even if it is only by three years. A thing you especially never do is cuss out an elder Kwak in front of the other Kwaks, twenty-three in total, assembled in Big Auntie’s living room. Cousins, aunts, uncles, half-cousins, nieces and nephews of the sort that you meet maybe once every five years, and all look the same to you, even though you, yourself, are Korean. 

Janey says, you could’ve heard a dime drop on carpet. The manic antics of the under ten: the little ones running and shrieking, the older kids giving chase, the elders mostly sitting back in plush recliners, watching it all unfold, ground to a sudden halt. Big Uncle was busy feeding his fish, the tropical fish he pays hundreds for, and kept shaking the fish food, those fat white floating flakes, over the water while everyone else sat silent.  

I’ll call you back, you say, your voice choked in your throat. The neon of cheap Elvis memorabilia blinking off of your face. The dead-eyed, mile long stare of overworked mothers looking past you as they wheel around strollers the size of Mini Coopers. A middle-aged man is slumped beside you, a magazine tented over his face.

You go to wash your hands. You notice dirt packed under the half crescents of your nails, though who knows from how long ago; you’ve never minded getting your hands dirty. You get impatient about the whole wait (the drive, the flights, the gates), but know that this stasis is good for you. You want to call Little Uncle directly. You thumb the numbers. Dial all six, but wait until hitting the last digit once, twice. Three times. Finally you gather up the courage and just tap at it. It rings and rings and rings. You hang up. 

The thing you know, that you all know, is that Little Uncle is pissed for one reason: he had asked your father to help pay his way through college and your father had declined. 

He had declined because Little Uncle, Uncle Fuck You, had already been through the university system overseas, had held, for over seventeen years, a suit-and-tie job at a medium-sized corporation in Korea. A junior corporate position. 

But he and Auntie Junior came to the States about a decade and a half after your initial familial thrust. The first foray being you, as a newborn, your father and mother (both in their early twenties) and Big Auntie and Uncle who had just come over by way of Germany (by way of Korea), where she had worked as a nurse and he’d repaired plates on tanks. Dad was a champion studier, the type the whole family rallies around and wishes best of lucks to and stashes money in mattresses for. But they didn’t. Not only was there no money, there were barely any mattresses: sheets on the floor played the same. His dad, your grandpa, was a deadbeat you heard through hearsay, and offered nothing: his only hand-me-down a recessive gene for alcoholism and hairless knuckles.

So your father worked at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, paying for a wife and child on the flimsy TA salary, going without lunch to purchase cheap toys for his baby boy. This went on for two years then another three for his Ph.D. During the interim, your mother had your sister, Janey. These were lean years when Christmas meant donations from the Salvation Army and a weekly grocery budget was little more than twenty-five dollars. 

This reminds you, you need to eat. With the early flight time and the security line, you’ve gone hours without sustenance. You feel light-headed. You finger the crumpled money in your wallet, more than your family squirreled away for an entire month’s worth of food.    

After eating, you make your way back to your gate. A blonde woman in her late forties, a red and white ascot tied around her neck, calls your flight number. As you watch the old folks in their perpetual shorts shuffle through the gate, followed by the young parents with kids, followed by the businessmen with their hard-backed briefcases, there is a minor commotion. A large gentleman with tight, dark curls of hair and a bad Hawaiian print shirt is still stuck in stand-by and screaming obscenities at the ascotted attendant. He leaves her with a fuck you. Everyone else boards apologetically, without fanfare.  

An old family story: little Janey, no more than two at the time, had pawed at Big Auntie’s TV screen saying, po-do, po-do, the Korean word for grape, because your family couldn’t afford them. That you once knew that level of poverty feels distant, like a numb arm.  

Big Auntie was the only one who helped, with lodging in her basement, a job working register in her store, a convenience store she founded with a partner of African descent, who decided to fold and got bought out by Big Auntie and Uncle. Owning their own business being their goal. The nursing and tank repair was only the hard work to bide time. While Dad worked the register and hauled fifty-pound bags of rice, your childhood was spent poking bean sprouts out of the bottom holes of plastic garbage bins you washed them in. Peddling kimchi alongside mucuna pruriens. For this, Dad was always indebted to Big Auntie, but toward the others he was apprehensive. 

Although he was later able to make it: a tenured professor, the epitome of the American Dream, down to the three-car garage, picket fence, and two-point-five children (your baby brother, Chubbs, coming a decade after you), once he started to get comfortable, there came family asking for handouts, the first two fingers and thumb sizzle. 

Little Uncle, granted, worked long hours at an area Walmart. But the point, your Dad said to you, was they all did it when they got here. Everyone worked to the bone, to the marrow, to the center of themselves. Even people who are pretty well off in different countries come here, shuffling everything in their old homelands aside, wanting and wishing for the big dream. Not just to make it, but to make it big. They go to Harvard Square and rub the statue’s foot or dream of piney Stanford. Buy lotto tickets in bulk. And then they are upset or disillusioned when faced with more hours pushing carts in an empty warehouse chain. And so they ask for money from the one person they know who might have it. Because, that’s family. Family you can rely on. Only, that person has enough burdens to bear, foremost among them, his father’s funeral. 

Grandpa was always a saint to you, but you figured this to be more about patriarchal old way-isms and you being the oldest male to carry on the Kwak name in the forty-eight contiguous over any genuine you-and-him kinship. Grandpa, to his credit, took you to parks, bought you dollar candy, showed you how to angle pond rocks to get the maximum skip. Only years later did you learn that not only was he not helping out Dad financially, but also, apparently, Grandpa had another family on the side. This came to light when one of your younger cousins, Mihyun, tried to show him the how-to of the Internet and he got irate for reasons you young ones couldn’t understand. You later learned it was because he was trying to wish one of his other grandkids back in the homeland a happy birthday. 

Grandpa had this other family that your whole family, immediate and extended, knew about, still they brought him in when he got a dark spot in his lungs after being a forty-five year devotee of Esse cigarettes. He’d been quite content in a little apartment in Yongsan-gu, an older suburb of Seoul. Something about the knowing bustle of it. The familiarity. He’d come to the States once before, when you were seven, and he’d planned on staying, but after the infamous driving lesson that ended in him flipping a station wagon, ass-over-end, he was Thank you, Goodbye. 

A family consensus that the American healthcare system is superior to the one in Seoul set Grandpa up in a little trailer in the middle of downtown Omaha, where he raised chickens out behind in their own little coop. The trailer was adjacent to Big Auntie’s grocery store and Dad outfitted Grandpa’s digs, hand-built by Big Uncle, with orthopedic this, leather that, a big screen TV. Grandpa watched Korean dramas through a satellite dish that fuzzed out in hard rain and went for treatments at Creighton. Three years later he collapsed in the hospital, the catch-up to too many years of pack-a-day cigarette habits.

During the awkward wait at the baggage claim, you can’t imagine the eat-him-up feelings your dad must have about his own father’s death. The father that never gave him shit. That fathered another family. That he, Dad, still respected. Paid for. Right to the end. You wish you could magically take the onus off him. Take the burden on yourself. Tell him it is going to be okay. Rub his shoulders, chuck him under his chin.  

In the midst of strangers and their luggage, you well up. You blink the tears away, cough hard into your fist so no one notices you bent over, wiping at the edges of your eyes. But even you realize your tears are less about your grief or the loss of Grandpa, they are about your father. 

You know what you have to do: drive, first-thing, to Little Auntie’s house, knock on the door, and give Little Uncle three seconds before you start pounding the door with both fists only to find no one home. You’ll drive to Walmart next, screech into the handicapped parking space nearest the door, jump out of the car, wait a beat for the automatic sliding doors, and find Little Uncle stacking cans of spray cheese. You’ll violently grab him, screaming, No, Fuck you! your fists white, gripping his blue vest. I will unburden the world of you, you’ll scream in your bad Korean, meaning to say something like, I wish you didn’t exist or I’ll kill you. You’ll fling him to the floor, leaving him spit-flecked in the wake of your rage. A karmic backhand for old times. For your sake and your father’s sake. 

Because a thing you never do is disrespect the father of a man who loves his father. 

Family isn’t an open-hand. Family isn’t an ask, but a do. A doing. Like standing up for a man who would stand up on his own, but shouldn’t have to. Who has his own ideals about family and what it means to fork over when he’s tired of forking over, when the goddamned tines have been nubbed down from forking. Family is wanting to save him from this. Family is the dirty work if anything.

Published 5/7/15 with Awst Press. To see more of Gene's work, go here


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

RE Katz: The Shift

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City


Awst Collection - Gene Kwak

This collection in print is 32 pages, hand sewn, and will be available to ship after 5/7/15.

It contains two previously published stories and one new one.

Wars of Their Own

By Rudy Landeros

For weeks the horrible screams that burst from the dank cellar were ignored. After five long months, probably overwhelmed by the guilt of doing nothing, the neighbors finally notified the police. When she was pulled from her hell, the frail 15-year-old child bride was emaciated and near death. From her injuries it was evident that she had been tortured, her body covered with cuts, burns, and bruises. Several of her fingernails had been torn off, one of her ears had been mutilated and chunks of her black hair had been yanked out. This was her punishment. Her crime? She refused to be forced into prostitution by her in-laws.

When I arrived in Afghanistan in June 2011, this was only one of the many cases of brutality that sent shockwaves throughout the country and the rest of the world drawing the attention to the rampant and systemic violence against women and girls. The problem was so prevalent that a 2011 poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation determined that Afghanistan was the most dangerous place in the world for women. According to a United Nation report 87% of women had encountered at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage in their lifetime.

Common throughout the country was the disfigurement of a woman’s face by cutting off her nose, lips, and ears. This violence was not perpetrated by strangers, but by husbands and families who believed they had been dishonored. Worse yet were Honor Killings, by fathers and brothers who disapproved of a woman’s behavior, and the practice of Baad that required a family to give away a daughter as compensation to settle a dispute or crime. More abhorrent was forcing rape victims to marry the rapist or the prosecution of the victim for the offense of Zina (adultery). Even if they fled from the violence, many were caught and prosecuted for the moral crime of running away from home. For many women and girls the ultimate escape was self-immolation—setting themselves on fire to escape the brutality.

To address the violence in 2009, a law—the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW)—was adopted by Presidential Decree that criminalized various acts of violence against women, including child and forced marriages, forced self-immolation, Baad, rape, assaults, and 18 other acts of violence. However, several reports by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), found that the law was seldom used and that many of the cases were settled by mediation, which provided little justice for the women.

When I departed the United Nations Headquarters in New York—ready to make a difference in a brutal part of the world—my marching orders from the UN Police Division were to strengthen my unit’s working relationship with the UN’s Developmental Program (UNDP) and it’s Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA) Unit, which was the steward of over a half billion dollars contributed by the international community for the development of the Afghan national police. Because of the rampant violence against women and children, and my own experiences under a violent father, I knew empowering women was going to be one of my team’s key objectives. In some ways, I believed it was my chance to make up for the times I had failed to defend my mother and siblings against my father’s brutality so many years before.

One of the first things I did upon my arrival in Afghanistan was to hire A. Heather Coyne, a U.S. Army reservist who had already been in the country for two years. I was moved by her passion for police accountability, access to justice for women, and the need to improve the trust between the community and the police. Shortly thereafter, A. Heather and Tor, the first police adviser assigned to the team, developed our unit’s two pronged mission to assist Afghan women and to build the trust between the police and the community.

A. Heather, Tor and I had spent hours poring over dozens of applications from Afghan women applying for one National Professional Officer (NPO) position assigned to our unit. Our main focus was helping policewomen, and I desperately needed to hire a female. Since the overthrow of the Taliban Regime in 2001, a record number of Afghan women and girls were attending school, and many more were working outside of the home.  But there were still many people throughout the country who were adamantly against the interaction between the sexes absent a mahrammet, a male guardian. In some places this tradition severely restricted a woman’s access to education or training even if the student was a policewoman.

After A. Heather, Tor, and I reviewed the stack of resumes, we shortlisted five of the most qualified women and scheduled a full day to interview them. When Latifa hesitantly walked into the room, the expression on her face was as subdued as the black hijab that completely covered her hair, and the shapeless long black dress that hid her tall body. She was too timid, spoke too softly, and struggled to maintain eye contact when she answered questions. But when asked what needed to be done to make policewomen more productive members of the force she shot back: “Give them the same opportunities given to men!”

Because of her job as a legal adviser for the Ministry of Interior, Latifa knew firsthand what she was talking about. As the ministry that oversees the national police, many women worked there but only a few were assigned substantive positions. Most were relegated to serving tea, cleaning rooms and mending clothes. Even if a woman clawed her way to the top, like one female police general had done, they were often sidelined, discriminated against, harassed, and threatened. In the face of these threats many women quit, or like the general, they fled their own country out of fear for their lives. 

My impression of Latifa forever changed when she confidently described the measures she would take, not only to help policewomen but women in general.  It was obvious she had spent much of her life thinking about this issue.

As fate would have it, in June 2012, the Dutch Embassy in Kabul offered to earmark to my UNAMA Police Advisory Unit approximately $4.5 million dollars if we could submit to them a comprehensive proposal on how we intended to accomplish our goal to help women police and strengthen Community Policing. The meeting with the Dutch Embassy personnel exceeded my wildest expectations. The proposal, known as the Afghan Democratic Policing Project (ADPP), consisted of six components that focused on building the capacity of women police and strengthening the Community Policing model of law enforcement. Of all the components, my favorite was training, which brought together investigators from the Afghan Police’s Family Response Unit and doctors from hospitals in Kabul to develop a plan to help female and child victims of family violence and sexual abuse. The training sessions were taught in the Dari language by a group of dynamic and fearless Afghan women who had the skill of getting everyone, men and women alike, actively involved in the training.

In one training session I attended, several of the female police investigators and doctors defiantly held their ground in debates with male colleagues regarding an Afghan woman’s right to be treated with respect and dignity. As the debate raged, many of the women participants used excerpts from the Koran, the country’s constitution, and criminal law to dismantle their male colleagues’ argument that men have the right to do whatever they want with their women. A female police investigator used a case she had recently encountered to make her point: “Tell me where in the Koran or in the law does it say it is right to beat your pregnant wife to the point where it kills her unborn child? Tell me where it says it is okay to slice your wife’s tongue out and leave her to die?”

The room fell silent as she described the case of a 25-year-old man who brutally beat his 16-year-old wife and cut out a large portion of her tongue. The trauma had been so severe that the unborn near-term baby died from the beating. The investigator explained that her male police counterparts refused to arrest the husband or investigate the case until she and the victim’s father placed the dead fetus on the male colleague’s desk. “Is this right?” was her final question before she calmly sat down. As I listened to her and the other policewomen and female doctors in the class I couldn’t help but have a profound sense of respect and admiration for their bravery. The courage these women displayed reminded me of the times my mother endured brutal beatings, rather than allow her children to be harmed. Just as my father targeted those weakest around him, the Taliban actively targeted and killed women in these professions, these courageous women risked their lives by publicly arguing with their male colleagues for what they believed was right. But the happiness that filled my heart as I watched these women fight for their rights was overshadowed by what happened to Latifa one night:

The six masked men burst through the door and ordered everyone onto the floor. Armed with assault rifles they systematically ransacked the house. For two long and agonizing hours the gunmen terrorized Latifa, her husband and her in-laws. One by one they were each taken into a separate room and interrogated.  As they led her into the bedroom, Latifa feared the worst. Although they never touched her, the men, dressed in ankle length blouses and baggy trousers worn by the Taliban, repeatedly threatened to rape and kill her. Throughout the ordeal, she was warned the Afghan government would soon fall to the Taliban. And when it did what would she do then? To Latifa and her family it was obvious this was not a robbery, it was a warning meant to intimidate her. But it didn’t. The following day she went to work. 

During my two and a half years in Afghanistan, incidents like this happened a lot. More common were the anonymous night letters and phone calls that threatened Afghans with death if they continued to work for infidel organizations such as the UN, European Union, NATO and the various foreign embassies in the country. Many quit their jobs, but not Latifa, she refused to be bullied.  Up until my time in Afghanistan, I resented my mother for allowing herself to be bullied and beat by our father.  But watching Latifa carry on her fight to help women and children in the community while under the threat of violence made me see that my own mother fought not so much to protect herself, but rather to protect the ones in her care. What I’d seen as her weakness was actually the manifestation of her great strength. I began to come to terms with the fact that I was in no position to play savior.  That my contribution would come from empowering those in need, rather than believing that I could fight their battles for them.


Rudy Landeros, who was raised in East Austin, attended the University of Texas at Austin. Upon graduation he taught at AISD’s Govalle Elementary School. After teaching for three years, he switched careers and became an Austin police officer.  Rudy retired from the police department after 24½ at the rank of assistant chief. For the next eight years he worked as a Senior Police Adviser with the United Nations in Sierra Leone, West Africa and in Afghanistan. In 2013, Rudy retired and returned Austin where he now resides.

He is currently working on a memoir.


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

RE Katz: The Shift

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City

The Animals We Invent

By Donald Quist

Thursday, September 22, 2011—An hour after the arrest, phone calls from South Hartsville rush City Hall. These citizens have faced harassment, detention, and accusation because of a lie.

They want answers.

I introduce myself, “I’m the Public Information Officer. How may I help you?"

The callers protest. I listen quietly. I share their frustrations.

When they fall silent, tired and waiting for me to respond, I carefully recite the statement I’ve prepared: “We don’t want to dwell on this crime. This matter will be settled in court. It is not for us to judge, to condone, or condemn.”

Feeling dismissed, most people hang up their phone.

But one man does not relent.

He asks me, “Do you know how many times cops stopped me over this mess at Jack-Be-Nimble? How many times my son was stopped?”

“Our thoughts are with all those affected, truly. The city is also thankful for the tireless effort demonstrated by many members of our local law enforcement.”

In the weeks immediately following the fire and alleged theft at Jack-Be-Nimble, I heard of white officers storming through Southside accosting black men. City officials saw a surge in complaints about law enforcement and reports of misconduct, intimidation and verbal attacks. Downtown, in the vicinity of the crime, police increased patrols. Walking around unaccompanied by a white person often subjected me to questioning. Returning to my car after a late movie showing, a pair of officers approached me. One officer asked if I owned the vehicle. I said yes. He asked for my name and when I gave it to them the other cop smiled in recognition. He tapped his partner and said, “That’s the boy that writes for the Mayor.” They let me leave without having to show identification, and a mix of resentment, gratitude, and guilt, covered me like a heavy wool coat.

The man on the phone laughs. “They’ve gotten you, brother.”

“Excuse me?”

He asks, “Are you black?”

“What?”

“Aren’t you angry?”

“What do you want me to say, sir?”

“The city owes the black community an apology!”

“We will not apologize, sir.”

We?”

“I can’t apologize, sir.”

I hear a click in the receiver and then the dial tone. Pressing the handset harder to my ear, I listen to the airy pitch become a howl.

For Immediate Release:

911 Call Leads to Discovery of Robbery and Arson

Hartsville, SC—Wednesday evening, January 26th, 2011, Hartsville City Police and Fire Fighters received a 911 call for help at the 100 block of E. Carolina Avenue. When authorities arrived they saw smoke coming from Jack-Be-Nimble, a child’s clothing boutique. Police officers gained entry to the building where they discovered a fire and a person lying inside on the floor. They pulled the victim to safety and fire fighters contained the flames. The victim was transported to an area hospital and is being treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

Darlington County Sheriff’s Office Crime Scene Units were called to the location. At this time Hartsville City Police officials say two black male suspects entered the store shortly after dark, robbed and assaulted the victim, and then set fire to the building. 

“This is a blatant disregard for human life and property, and justice will be served,” said the Hartsville City Manager, “I have all the confidence that our city police officials will get to the bottom of this heinous act.” 

This crime is currently under investigation. If you have any information regarding this case you are asked to call the Hartsville City Police Department or your local law enforcement agency.

Chains

A coalition of local pastors working with friends and family of the victim, organized a prayer chain a few days after the crime. Over a thousand people lined up along Carolina Avenue, shoulder to shoulder, covering the two city blocks from Sixth Street to Fourth. State Senators, members of City Council, and the City Manager stood among those gathered. I had a spot near the intersection of Fourth Street and Carolina, five buildings down from the chard remains of Jack-Be-Nimble.

Preachers positioned themselves every few yards to lead their section of the chain in prayer. The ministers signaled each other. Heads bowed, dropping in a wave down the sidewalk. I lowered my chin to my chest, closed my eyes, and reached for the hands of the strangers to my right and left. The holy man nearest to me began to pray. He asked God for solidarity. He pleaded for swift justice and mercy for the souls responsible for such a heinous act.

While the pastor recited scripture I recalled the orange haze that shrouded the same block nights earlier. The light from the street lamps bounced off smoke bellowing from a blackened storefront. I remembered the smell of burning plastic tickling my throat. Fire fighters pushed back spectators and residents evacuated from the conjoined buildings. I inched closer, peering fearfully at emergency medical technicians kneeling around a pale body draped in a white sheet. The memory is mute. I can’t remember hearing anything over the sound of blood rushing to my skull.

Finally, the minister pleaded for Jesus’s intercession and said amen. I released my neighbor’s hands and wiped my sweaty palms on the sides of my pants. One of the strangers, a greying white woman, leaned in to hug me.

“Peace be with you,” she sighed into my ear.

“And also with you,” I replied.

She let me go. We smiled and nodded at one another, and then I turned away to walk home.

The line scattered. I moved with the groups heading east towards Third Street. Cutting between people and cars, I overhead someone say, “We’ll catch them. We’ll show those animals.”

I realized I hadn’t seen any other young black men in the prayer chain.

After I reached my house I sat on the front steps thinking about “those animals” and what made them less than human. A police cruiser rolled past. I quickly rose to my feet and went inside.

Renderings

I volunteered to distribute police sketches of three black men wanted for questioning. The posters described them as potential witnesses but many saw accomplices. Some of the shop owners downtown believed the men in these illustrations might have served as lookouts. Rumors spread. Some speculated at least five were involved in the attack on Jack-Be-Nimble.

People said, “They picked her place because they knew she would be in the store alone after dark. They had it all planned out, the animals."

I wondered if I had ever seen the faces on the poster skulking around the block? Maybe at the coffee shop I frequented. Did I ever see these men standing outside beneath the awning, sipping from steaming cups while considering the high-end kid’s clothing store next door and how much cash might be inside?

I spent time studying the police flyer. In the illustrations one man had neat shoulder-length dreadlocks. Another had a short fade. These two faces looked familiar, but I couldn’t identify them. The last man had more discernible features, sharp check bones and a wide jaw sloping forward to a pointed cleft chin. A tiny crucifix dangled from his left ear. He wore a baseball hat low over his forehead and his eyes vanished below the bill.

I imagined his hidden gaze staring into my home between cracks in the blinds and curtains. I often envisioned narrowed grayscale pupils floating over me when I lied in bed. His image surfaced in my dreams.

For many weeks I couldn’t stop searching the dark for the shark-like man in the fitted cap. And then one slow afternoon I entered the coffee shop beside the former Jack-Be-Nimble. The café looked empty except for a single barista standing behind the counter. She fiddled with the nozzles of an espresso machine, her back to the front door.

I approached the register and said hello. The barista turned around. She jumped.

Clutching her chest she said I had startled her. I apologized and gave my order.

Before preparing my drink she smiled and told me to, "Be careful. The boys they're looking for look a lot like you."

I glanced over at the police poster taped to the window of the front door.

I couldn't see my resemblance in the ashen faces.

Days later I stopped seeing images of the police drawings in places I felt vulnerable.

History

In October of 1994, while my mom attended a funeral, I spent time with my grandmother at the Wash Tub Laundry on Fifth Street in Hartsville. I had wanted to be outside riding bikes with my cousins instead of watching daytime soap operas on ceiling mounted televisions. My grandmother removed a load from one of the large dryers and dropped the warm clothes into a rolling laundry cart. She pushed the cart over to a clear table and ordered me to help her fold. While we worked she tried to explain the plotlines on the Young and the Restless.

“You see him, with the mustache?” she said raising her chin in the direction of the nearest screen. “That’s Victor Newman. He’s a handsome white man. Him and Chuck Norris on Walker, Texas Ranger.”

 I ran a finger over my smooth upper lip.

During commercial breaks, advertisements for the nightly news played clips of Susan Smith crying for the return of her children, “I just can’t express it enough, we just got to get them home. That’s just where they belong, with their momma and their daddy.”

I didn’t understand why I couldn’t play outdoors or how my freedom related to two missing children I had never met. I pleaded with my grandmother to let me leave the laundry mat. Again, she said no.

“It’s not safe for black boys to be riding around until they catch the man that took that white woman’s children or she confesses to having taken those kids out herself.”

“But I’m nine, Old Lady.”

“You think they care? Shit. They were putting children younger than you on slave ships. Ask your daddy, he’s from Ghana.”

“That was a long time ago.”

She stopped folding to remove a crumpled paper towel from the pocket of her ratty stretch pants. She pulled the Winston butt from her lips, tucked the cigarette and its fading embers into the wrinkled napkin and crushed it in her fist. A final wisp of smoke rose from between her fingers.

She leaned close to whisper to me, “It was only two decades ago, right down the road in Lamar, a hundred white folks showed up at a schoolhouse and turned over a bus full of black children. They didn’t care if they were kids. Black is black. Not a one of those people saw any real time in jail. They’re still out here, walking around. They never went anywhere, they still own everything, and who knows what they’ve raised their children to believe. They’ll treat you like a dog. Shit, a dog’s life may mean more to them.”

The Old Lady reached for the lighter and Winstons she kept in the breast pocket of her jean jacket. She lit a new cigarette, breathed deep and continued folding.

“White people get funny when they think their women are under attack. You ever hear of Rosewood?”

“No, Old Lady.”

“Cause they don’t want you to know. A town in Florida made up of freed slaves. One white girl claims a black man hurt her and the town is burned to the ground, people are hanged all strange fruit. They’re serious about their women.”

We continued folding in silence. We finished as the saxophone squeals of The Bold and The Beautiful theme song filled the laundry mat. I didn’t bother asking to go outside again.

For Immediate Release:

SLED Continues jack-be-nimble investigation

Hartsville, SC– The Hartsville Police department will turn over its examination into the assault and arson which occurred at Jack-Be-Nimble earlier this year. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division will continue the investigation with needed assistance from the Hartsville Police Department. The Hartsville Chamber of Commerce is still offering $25,000 to anyone who can provide information leading to the arrest of the two suspects involved.

Keys

The City Manager closed the door to our offices and locked it behind her. She sat in the chair across from my desk. Slouching down in the seat she stared up vacantly. Her eyes scanned the water-spotted ceiling tiles and the insect carcasses trapped between the sheaths of the florescent lights.

After a few silent seconds she sighed. “This is going to hurt our relationship with the black community,” she said.

A blinking cursor waited on my computer screen. I counted the expectant flashes unsure how to begin filling the white space.

Our relationship?” I said.

“The City and black people, yes.”

“Probably.” I punched down on the keys—For Immediate Release: HARTSVILLE MOVING FORWARD AFTER JACK-BE-NIMBLE ARREST.

She groaned. “The men the owner described for those sketches never existed. It’s like Susan Smith in Union. How are people expected to move forward together when stuff like this keeps happening?”

My pinky ricocheted off RETURN…was arrested and charged in connection to the assault and arson which occurred at Jack-Be-Nimble on January 26th, 2011…arrest was made by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED)…

“Did the profilers tell you when SLED will take her into custody?” I asked.

“No, they didn’t tell me when. Did you talk to the Mayor?”

“Yeah.” Hartsville’s Mayor issued a statement: ‘Despite the shock and anger, these events succeeded in helping to unite a community. This city witnessed outpourings of love, people banding together in their resolve to make our streets safer, and this is what we should focus on. My hope is we will continue to hold on to that commitment to our city because the only way we can move forward is together.’

The City Manager sat up in her seat. She watched me for a moment. “Are you mad?”

“Why?”

“You knew her.”

“I thought I did.”

“Do you still believe her? Even after everything SLED has on her?”

“Doesn’t matter if I believe her or not.”

“Not really, but do you?”

“I don’t know.”

The City Manager stood. She told me to finish the press release and have it ready to send out whenever SLED makes the arrest. Before the City Manager exited the room she asked, “Why did she have to say they were black?”

I typed, because America, because of its long history of violence towards people of color in response to perceived attacks on white femininity, because of Florida’s Rosewood Massacre in 1923, because she knew there would be many ready to believe her, people ready to be validated in their belief that people with my skin color are animals.

I held DELETE and shrugged.

Clues

In the weeks waiting for law enforcement to arrest the owner of Jack-Be-Nimble, I searched for earlier indications of her culpability. I tried to consolidate the person I knew with notes from the profiler's investigation. The image of the kind woman with the round face who ordered cheaper editions for me at the college bookstore was reshaped by "conclusive with self-inflicted wounds."  A person I chatted with regularly at Chamber of Commerce functions, a demure and devoted mother and wife who started her own business, a person whose persistent grin never revealed how much debt threatened to crush her and her family, transformed; reinvented in response to “an absence of DNA evidence” and failed polygraph tests.

Like animals, humans can become especially vicious if they feel trapped or afraid. Does she remain a victim, guilty or innocent, if not a victim of the crimes she says she has endured, then a victim of her own hopelessness? I began to understand there exists truth in what I see and what I do not see, and I had to acknowledge the limits of my perception. I began to accept I might never understand how she felt in that moment, real or imagined.

Thursday, September 22, 2011—The WPDE reporter watches her cameraman clip the tiny microphone to the lapel of my blazer. I’m thankful I didn’t wear a striped shirt this morning, but disappointed I didn’t have the foresight to shave.

The reporter smiles slyly, “The Mayor didn’t seem happy to see me in your office. He stamped out of here pretty fast. He doesn’t trust you to speak on the arrest?”

“He trusts me. He’s just curious why I’ve agreed to talk with you when we’ve already released a statement.”

The Mayor, the City Manager and the new Police Chief have all refused to appear on television. I have said yes, and the reporter doesn’t ask me why. Perhaps she worries I might consider the risk of embarrassment and change my mind. If she did ask, I’d answer honestly—I have something to say about refusing to be victimized by fear. I want to share what I’m learning about the capacity of grace, and the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting. Because if I wait for the pain I witness to be validated with an apology, resentment will tear into my body like sharp dirty fangs to snap my bones. If she asked, I’d tell the reporter the same thing I told the Mayor—my position includes relaying important messages to citizens, and the news camera offers me a venue to do my job better.

Instead, she asks me if I know what I’m going to say. I tell her I plan to repeat the sentiments expressed in the press release.

She smiles again. “You know I have to ask about your officers? There were a lot of complaints about their search for suspects and the way the former Police Chief handled things before he retired.”

“Some say he did too much, some say he did too little. I don’t know much about it, I wasn’t full-time yet.” The cameraman turns on the wireless transmitter and hands it to me. I fasten it to my belt. “We were very grateful to have Interim Chief Thompson serve us and now we have Chief Hudson who expresses a real commitment to community oriented policing. The City supports local law enforcement and the fine work done daily by so many of our officers.”

I repeat this once the camera comes on. My validation of area cops leads the six o’clock news and airs again at eleven. The Mayor texts me around midnight to say I did well.

The City Manager thanks me when I enter her office the following morning.

I approach her desk.

“I’m surprised to see you,” she says. “I thought you might want to quit after all the calls yesterday.”

“Nope.”

 She says I looked good on television. She liked what I said during the interview, about our responsibility as human beings: to seek compassion, to demand more than good enough and to celebrate sincere efforts to improve.

She reminds me there will be more calls today.

I tell her I know.

I turn to exit the room, and she says, “Sorry.”

Startled by the earnestness in her voice, I stop moving.

“Why are you apologizing? You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Yes, I know,” she says. “I just thought someone should say it.”


Donald Quist is a writer and editor living in Bangkok, Thailand. He is the author of the short story collection Let Me Make You a Sandwich. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Knee-Jerk, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and The Adroit Journal. He has written essays for Pithead Chapel, Numéro Cinq, and Slag Glass City. He has fiction forthcoming in J Journal, and nonfiction scheduled to appear at The Rumpus and in North American Review. He serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice. He earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find him online at iamdonaldquist.com.


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

RE Katz: The Shift

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City

 

Variations on a Theme

By David Olimpio

In my backyard, Dan made a rat-tail out of his pool towel and whipped it in the air, like Indiana Jones. Dan was my best friend and he always knew how to do things like that: He knew how to turn a towel into a rat-tail whip. He knew how to turn a ten-foot fence into a balancing beam. He knew how to turn a tree growing beside my house into a ladder, the roof into a launching pad. He knew how to get his BMX bike to fly from makeshift wooden ramps and concrete ledges. 

Dan knew how to make the suburbs as dangerous as possible. I think we each had a sense that the most dangerous things in the suburbs sometimes took place behind our own closed doors. That the safe places weren’t necessarily safe places at all.

We started off snapping our towels, just seeing who could make the loudest whipping noise. There beside the pool, we made up names for the different sounds we played: the Low, Hollow Pops and the Firecracker Snaps. Variations on a theme. They deserved a nomenclature and so we gave them one.

The first hit on skin was accidental. I was trying to get a certain kind of cracking sound—maybe it was Variation #3—and I got careless and whipped Dan on the arm.

“Sorry!” I said.

“No, that was awesome!” he said, and back-handed a brilliant, cracking whip-snap onto my bare stomach.

I felt an explosion of sting where the towel connected with my skin. It was a red alarm and it was a fire burn. It was the rash of sweat and the collapse of breath. I could hear and see an eternity of tiny things: Crystal water drops on blades of grass. The rumble of an asp crawling on the deck. I felt a rush of calm. I felt the pleasant clarity and focus of an addiction. 

I looked down at my stomach and watched the pink welt form and it seemed true and real. And yet, at the same time, insignificant. And so I laughed. We both did.

And with the warm, wet concrete underneath our pruned feet, the August sun on our exposed, SPF-free skin, a battle of rat-tail towel whips commenced between two boys who were ten if we were any age at all. No armor except for swim trunks. Just the growing number of red welts on our bodies, which we showed off to one-another, like medals. Proof of our toughness. For the things we each had learned to be tough against.

Not so much a fight as a training. Not so much a training as a game. Not so much a game as the most important thing we’d ever done, which was how all games were, then. 

And during one of the rounds, as I was parrying and whipping at the same time, I flicked my towel too high and accidentally landed a snap across Dan’s cheek. 

He remained still for a moment. Then he lifted his head and I could see that he was good.

And I wanted to show him that I would take anything he would take. That he wasn’t alone. That I was next to him no matter what. So I said, “Now do it to me: hit me in the face.”

It is always this way:  When your father leaves, each time (Variation #23). When your baby-sitter rapes you next to your O-scale train set. (Variation #105).  When your brother shoots himself in his bathtub and your dad calls you from there, out of his mind with grief (Variation #81). When your mother opens her eyes one final time and you aren’t there by her side to see it (Variation #62). When the only son or daughter you’ve ever had, the biggest most powerful hope you’ve ever known, only the size of a kumquat on a sound-wave screen, stops being after 15-weeks (Variation #47). The slow, familiar stab of loss. These things which are small against the backdrop of the world, but which are important and eternal to us and so we bring them to the people who have always been there. We bring them so they can experience them too, even when it hurts. We tell each other about them because they deserve nomenclatures.

Now do it to me.

The sudden, inevitable sting of loss. The strange calm that follows.

Now do it to me.

The people who brace and buttress us. Whom we follow, and who follow us, no matter what stupid shit we say or do.

Now do it to me.

The most important games we’ve ever played. The most important things we’ve ever done.

Published 3/7/15 by Awst Press

Find more of David's work here. See the announcement for his upcoming book here


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

RE Katz: The Shift

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City


Awst Collection - David Olimpio

This Awst collection includes three essays plus one poem with illustration. 

Parabolic Path, *Variations On A Theme, Storm of Calculations, Quick Ghosts

*Nominated for Pushcart Prize

Published 3/7/15

 

The digital version is e-reader friendly to all that who PDFs.



Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

By Susanna Childress

Last January, in the middle of a polar vortex, you gave birth to a baby. The snowstorm stacked itself four feet high and iced everyone in and did not quit, not truly, till April. This child would have been your third son, Jericho, a boy you cradled against you just once, already gone. That nurse with her bangs poofed up and her camera insisted you and Josh take photos with him, your faces splotchy and distended, your hands held together under his two-potatoes’ worth of weight. Were you supposed to smile? How do you take this kind of picture? Do you hold the dead baby near your face, or at your breast, or above your head as a sacrifice to the ways you never knew you could break, could crack right open? That whole white night cuffed to a storm, when a needle slid between the knuckles of your spine, when the doctor on duty named Cheshire palmed your cheek and said, “My sister lost twins. I was in Honduras.”

You, too, have encountered loss before. When you were sixteen, your friend Mirrika veered on a back road curve, overcorrected, crashed into an oncoming van. You were dateless, straight-A Jesus-girls. In your sleeping bags you talked so much about sex you’d wake in the morning mid-moan. Don’t die a virgin. Then she did, her whole body gone bust on an S-curve in Scottsburg, and the very next day your dad made you go back to cheerleading camp. His buddies had been killed around him every day in Vietnam and he’d picked himself up. He’d gone on. You vomited in the bathroom, the stall swinging its bright blue metal door. You tripped through the routine to a Prince song, the one about doing it with a minor, the one you’d practiced flicking your hips round and round to, pom-poms hissing. You refused to fly in the basket toss. End of the day, Coach let you sit in the corner and cry.

Almost twenty years later that’s all you remember about Mirrika’s death. Where’s her funeral? Where are the worn faces of her mother, or two brothers or sister, or her step-sister, cruelly injured in the wreck, or her step-dad, or anyone else from youth group? Where are the weeks afterward? You wrote a rotten poem or two in college—dying-a-virgin poems. You kept a picture of her in your room until you moved for grad school. You went on.

More recently, a four-year-old boy down the street was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a word that makes you see blast, the shriek and boom of a missile. A painful, lethal cancer. For two years you cooked meals and cried over the updates his dad wrote and prayed and pledged money to fundraisers and wore your Kids Can’t Fight Cancer Alone t-shirt—thousands of tiny names across your torso. Once you wheeled over a pan of sweet potato burritos in your son’s big red stroller because it was too hot to carry. And it’ll sound like hyperbole, the way sick kids get deified, but you don’t care because Zane really was a woodland creature alighted in boy-form: doe-eyed, gentle; after chemo, his curly black hair coming in gray and fuzzy as a cygnet’s. His dark skin paled, he faded, and still he said astounding things to his parents. Can you give Santa a message? Don’t bring me anything this year. Save the toys for someone else. I have so many. I have so much. All over town, people lined the streets with balloons and posters, made oversized Legos for the lawn as he left in a limo, waving, for Make-a-Wish. 

On Facebook, Mirrika’s mother friended you, asked for those poems, for any photos you had of her. It took you months to respond, your apology simmering like a weak broth: you hadn’t kept the poems, you told her, and you’re a new mom again, so you’re not sure when you can get to the photo albums buried—clearly you were not thinking about word choice—in the basement. You hadn’t opened those albums, hadn’t given them a thought, their covers freckled with green and black mold. Hadn’t unpacked them since the last move, Oklahoma to Michigan, or the one before that, Florida to Oklahoma. You’d outgrown that self two or three selves ago. 

Online, Mirrika’s mother commented on every single picture you posted, cooing at the cheongsam’s high collar on your wedding gown, your graduate degrees, your firstborn, and when she asked about your life, a vague kind of vertigo eased into your belly. Creeped out, you responded without vim. I miss Mirrika a lot. You lied. Things are going well. 

The day Zane died, one of your own sons smeared his room with feces during nap—third time in a month. You growled and gagged and wept and wept. You washed down the walls and wood bed frame and tossed out beshatted trains and the big stuffed elephant and even the pillows you’d sewn out of a tablecloth from your honeymoon in Vancouver. When you got the email, the one you knew would come, sometime soon, anytime now, you sat with your hands like craters in your lap. You wanted to cry. You waited for tears, but you’d used them all up on your own shit storm.

Words are supposed to do a little work, too. Or not-words. Or working-it-out-words, pressed-together-lyrically-for-a-later-date words. With Zane as with Mirrika, it’s not that you were immature and self-absorbed and intellectually distancing—though you were. You couldn’t have known, even if you’d wanted to, even if you tried to move from one Latinate root to another, hauling your tuckus from sympathy’s ‘with’ feeling to empathy’s ‘in’ feeling. It’s that you cannot know. Not until you’re in the midwife’s office, after the ultrasound, which you knew was fucked up because you’ve been through three of these—one of them to tell you Jericho would be a Jericho—and you understand what to look for immediately, right away, every time. Your ears hear the words, There’s no heartbeat. 

Then years for the rest of what she says to land. I’m so sorry. 

Another decade. He’s dead. 

And then you’re stuck in fast-forward, the squealing black line of tape, ejecting and retracting. Everyone speaks on a helium high. Everyone moves their bodies in the little jerks and flutters you should’ve been seeing on the sonogram’s grainy screen. We’ll head over to the birthing center and induce you and have you deliver him and is there anyone you need to call and also who will be able to take care of your other—your living—children and do you want an epidural and what have you named him and we’ll need to know what you want to do with the body and will you have a service? And then it’s you, there in the same wing you delivered your other—your living—children, your body surging and you bearing down, so familiar, so surreal, the nurse with her zealous Michigan accent purples the crook of your arm to get an IV in your impassable veins, Josh trying not to cry, Dr. Cheshire’s hands on your belly when she says, Let me be your sister tonight, and you can’t say anything so you nod and the baby edges down the canal and the baby enters the world and even after the nurse cleans him and puts him under the warming lamp and kisses him and hands him to you, he is cold and filmy and you look into his face and you think, This will end me. 

You couldn’t know, couldn’t imagine—someone could spell it out for you and you still wouldn’t know how to believe it: this moment is the thinnest puckering of grief. 

You’ll wear it at the back of your neck, a great mass of hair. Like ripe marrow through the thickest to the tips of your bones, in the coil of your intestines, like a colony of bacteria. It will cling to you, and you will cling to it, and it will become part of you, and nothing and everything will be the same and no one—no one—can do a thing in the world about it but sit with you. Let you be beyond hope. (You won’t find these words until April, when the monstrous snows cease.) Be silent or bawl beside you instead of saying the one hundred horrible things people say. At the memorial, a year later, five years after that: offer to clean your kitchen or shovel your driveway or watch your kids instead of, Let me know if there’s anything I can do, because you couldn’t come up with Mop the bathroom’s blue tiles if your life depended on it. Your life is depending on some strange things these days. You didn’t know, but it always has.

You want each person you encounter to sear like a blue flame, to be capable of the extravagant empathy you need, their esophagi turned inside out, their mountain ranges trembling, their own lives upended forever, but at the same time you don’t want anyone else, not anyone ever again, to know grief like you do. To see them stranded in this dark, twining pit. Many are. More will be. You can almost spot each other, sniff it out under whatever veneer is required to pick yourself up and go on. Your own dad, the twitching ache of his fingers. Hip, pocked with a bullet. 

Oh, you’ll say, not a word now but a hollowing out. My God, pressing your fingers against the sill of your face, I’m so sorry. And you’ll mean it.

Published 2/22/14 via Awst Press

Read more of Susanna's work here.


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

RE Katz: The Shift

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City


Awst Collection - Susanna Childress

This collection includes Upon Learning of Your Death After Ordering Sushi During A Raffle At Lakewood Lanes, My Sister Crosses The Gorge Of Self, When At Night Zane Says His Prayers, *Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting, Baby At The Back Of The Refrigerator. (Poetry, Creative Non-fiction)

 

The digital version is e-reader friendly to all that who PDFs.

*Nominated for Pushcart Prize

Published 2/22/15.

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What I Learned From Genital Cutting

By Diane Lefer

When I returned to the US in June from a project in Senegal, West Africa, the first thing a friend asked was, “Do they practice female genital mutilation?”

I thought at once of my Senegalese friends, who hate that when Americans talk about Africa they think only of atrocities. I could have given a little lecture about how right up into the 20th century, some doctors in the US and Britain performed clitoridectomies–yeah, surgically removing the clitoris–on infants, girls, and young women to discourage masturbation. Instead I calmly corrected her: “Genital cutting.”

See, almost twenty years ago, an African woman in Los Angeles had corrected me. “Please use neutral language,” she said. “People won’t change if you try to shame them, if they feel their culture is under attack. What do you want?” she asked. “To express outrage and feel good about yourself? Or to end the practice?”

Years later, I’m still repeating her questions in my head as a white ally of social justice movements here in the US. Because damn it! I am outraged. If anything, our culture needs more shame. Those FOX news commentators, bank CEO's, smug NY Times pundits, police department mouthpieces, those sold-to-the-highest-bidder elected officials–how do they look at themselves in the mirror? Bleeped-out invectives aside, what can I call them but "shameless"?

I want them to feel ashamed. I want them to feel dirty and hypocritical.

So I've been trying to figure this out, and what I figure is we've been using the wrong word. Because shame wells up from inside. It's the judgment we make on ourselves, not the stigma put on us by others. Slut-shaming, for example. Women subjected to public taunting, exposure, and insults have nothing to be ashamed of. You're backwards, barbaric, slutty, delusional, stupid? That's not shame. It's humiliation.

Another African woman in LA told me that to her, much worse than having been cut, was what happened when she gave birth in a Canadian hospital. Residents and nurses were called over to her bed where they gathered round, gaping at her vagina and expressing outrage, horror and disgust.

But to answer my friend's question: Cutting is no longer a cultural practice in Senegal. Not because of the intervention by international organizations, not because it was made illegal. Instead, one woman whose daughter died from the procedure said Let's protect the health of our daughters. Her message spread from village to village. She never said cutting is barbaric. She didn't address a taboo topic: women's sexual pleasure. Mothers and fathers joined her, saying we love our daughters and we now know they can die from cutting. People talked about good health and love. No one condemned the cultural tradition as barbaric. Women who had been cut or who'd had their daughters cut weren't criticized or blamed. No one was humiliated.

So, as it happened, I was thinking about the distinction between shame and humiliation when a black friend said she was uncomfortable with the way the survivors of the hate killing in the Emanuel AME Church were quick to forgive the killer. “Black people have never felt safe in this country,” she said. She wondered whether the forgiveness was sincere or meant only to placate whites.

My own first impulse was to rant about the cowardly limp-dicked jackboot-licking Fascist-piggy murdering deluded white-supremacist racist asswipe scumbag loser.

I don't want to manage my anger. Anger is a good thing. It makes you stand up straight. Most of the time the powerful don't hear you until you shout–about, for example, police killings of unarmed black men and women.

My gut doesn't want to forgive. But...

I do believe police are more likely to respect and abide by new policies if we respect them enough to recognize they should have a major role in writing them.

And I don't know what was in the hearts of the people whose family members and friends were slaughtered in that terrorist act in Charleston. But whether intended or not, forgiveness was a brilliant tactical choice. Instead of spewing invective and expressing fury at the killer and at racism, these survivors demonstrated moral and spiritual stature. With this unboastful grandeur, they didn't humiliate the white folks in South Carolina; they triggered enough shame to bring down the Confederate flag.

Whoop-de-doo.

It's just a symbol, the problems run deeper than that, blah blah blah. Not just that: the focus on the Stars and Bars means that in the rest of this enduringly racist country, those of us who never lived where the flag waved or decorated cars, trucks, and clothing can–as usual–put the white supremacist label on the South and Texas and exempt ourselves from blame.

That's only natural. Jeffrey Dahmer's father, after all, acknowledged yes, his son was a serial killer, and yes, he was a cannibal. But no, he was not a racist! Except for the sick and vicious subculture of those who are proud to trumpet their bigotry, the last thing anyone wants to be called is racist. Not the Southern gentlemen who always made a point of saying nigra instead of the other word, and not the residents of lilywhite neighborhoods in the North. Racist. Where's the neutral language for that?

How do you talk about white privilege to white folks who are poor, who've lost their homes and jobs, who are in prison or struggling, homeless back from Iraq or out on parole? Or who get branded with a pejorative that never became politically incorrect while their kids got to watch a popular children’s' TV show with its recurring comic shtick–the "Hillbilly Moment"–in which the show's stars portrayed rural stereotypes, acting stupid with their teeth blacked out?

And what could be more humiliating in this so-called land of opportunity than to be labeled a loser?

I don't know. Maybe get rid of all the label-words. Stick, instead, to stories and facts.

But the flag, my mind keeps circling back to that damn Confederate flag. What does it represent anyway? To many of us it stands for slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and, and, and—you get the picture. On the other hand, it's said to stand for heritage and honor and sacrifice. But does that even make sense? I think about Sherman waging total war on civilians as well as combatants, burning cities and crops while Union soldiers killed and pillaged, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake. Seems to me that the sight of the Stars and Bars would evoke devastation and defeat. Humiliation.

Humiliation festers, breeding resentment and rage. It feeds violent paranoia and delusions that the white Christian race is under imminent threat, that a black man in the White House is a harbinger of the End of Days. Then I think of the woman in Senegal who stopped genital cutting, and I wonder if maybe no one is as qualified to take down the flag as white Southerners. Not because they are shamed into it, but because they love their sons. Because they will stand together and say, Let's protect the mental health and well being of our sons.

***

Some ideas for white allies:

These days I try to stock up on interesting information, such as:

Hey, did you hear about the experiment they did at the National Bureau of Economic Research?  They responded to employment ads with resumés, half of which had names that sounded African American–Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones–and half with names–Emily Walsh and Greg Baker–that suggested the applications were white. It didn't matter how skilled the apparently Black applicants were on paper. The white-sounding names got many more callbacks. (As far as I know, no one's done the experiment with Maria Garcia and Jesus Sanchez.)

To collect facts about white privilege you can use instead of the catch-phrase, you could do worse than to hook up with Tim Wise and his essays like this one

But most important? When black folks or other people of color have something to say, especially when they are using some of those label-words? Shut up and listen. 


Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist living in Los Angeles with a gorgeous cat. She addresses political issues in her fiction, in the story collection, California Transit (Mary McCarthy Prize, Sarabande Books), and the novels, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty (Rainstorm Press) and Confessions of a Carnivore (Fomite Press). Her ongoing collaboration with Colombian exile Hector Aristizabal includes their nonfiction book, The Blessing Next to the Wound: A story of art, activism, and transformation; arts-based social justice workshops, most recently in Senegal; and the play Nightwind which has toured the US and more than 30 other countries as part of the worldwide campaign to end the practice of torture. She is currently facilitating writing workshops in English and Spanish for torture survivors rebuilding their lives in Southern California. Oral histories she's gathered from other survivors can be found here. For her ruminations on the challenges facing nonviolent movements in the US, please see this. Follow her at her website.


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

RE Katz: The Shift

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City