The boy stares into the wake as the keelboat churns slowly up the river, the twin motors groaning in the current. An endless green canopy stretches away on every side, clouds of birds erupting from the trees as the boat passes. He watches the Captain’s broad back as he turns the wheel against the water. Mama sits slouched against the hull, eyes tightly closed, her lovely caramel complexion tinged with green. Most of the other passengers are in a similar state, having spent the past two days vomiting over the side. But the boy does not mind it. It is an adventure. This group will begin the Great Experiment, God’s new country. The boy is proud that of all the Wayfarers, Father chose him to paint the sign that will hang at the entrance for all to see. PEOPLES TEMPLE AGRICULTURAL PROJECT. He will make Father proud.
I got off work early and arrived around midnight. The leaden sky was pregnant with snow, the cold air stinging my lungs. Uncle John had pulled strings with the nursing staff to extend visiting hours, since Grandma had always been a night owl. I entered through the ER and made my way through the dim hallways, glancing through open doors at the shadowed figures recumbent in hospital beds amidst the low drone of electronics, waiting. Waiting to be released, waiting for the test results, for a second opinion.
When I saw Grandma’s face I knew what she was waiting for.
The itching was almost unbearable. The starched Arrow shirt chafed against the new irizumi tattoos that covered Takahashi from waist to collarbone, the final stage of a five year initiation into the Sumiyoshi-Kai family of Yakuza. The thought of his four thousand years of Samurai lineage did little to relieve his discomfort, and he longed for his uncle Kenji-san to arrive so he could order a drink.
As though summoned by the thought, Kenji-san parted the noren in the doorway. The hostess chirped a greeting, showed him to the back booth where his nephew sat waiting.
Kenji took a seat, his face wooden. “I notice you did not get up when I came in, nor did you bow.”
“My uncle will remember that we are now equals in the brotherhood. Honorifics are reserved for the oyabun.”
Kenji-san laughed and slapped the table. “You see? I knew you’d be a natural.”
Valentine’s Day was a Sunday that first year, I remember. The cat marked the occasion by presenting us with three headless voles left on the doormat. We didn’t think anything of it, since some cats are like that. It’s in all the books. But the next holiday, St. Patrick’s, he presented us with a brace of cleanly eviscerated rabbits. On Easter, it was an enormous gopher, its skin neatly flensed as though by a surgeon. This continued every successive holiday, the prizes on the doormat ever larger, ever more gruesome. This is why we spend every holiday out of town.
The healer stood over the bed, enshrouded in smoke from the bronze brazier he dangled over the prostrate king. Erwald lay on his royal bed of heather, wracked with fever and calling out in a strange tongue none could understand.
Garth leaned in the doorway, his face a placid mask that betrayed none of the dismay he felt. Erwald, the warrior king who swept all before him, the mighty lord to whom Garth had sworn his fealty, now laid low like a newborn child. And from what cause? Even the healer could not say, speaking only in mysteries and platitudes.
In the night, Erwald had awakened from his dreams, grabbed Garth by the arm and described his vision: a castle of ice, rounded like a hill. People in strange garb of astonishing brightness strode unarmed, arms swinging as they chattered in their odd tongue.
After the king slipped back into unconsciousness, Garth sat and wondered if this madness would pass or if he should take measures into his own hands.
The only reason he agreed to meet me, he said, was that his life was over. Estoy muerto pero no me acuesto, was how he put it. I am dead but I won’t lie down.
I sat on a bench in the Bosque de Chapultepec, just outside the castle, the location texted to my phone an hour before. I wondered what he would look like, scanned the faces in the crowd over the fold of my newspaper. The hot air was greasy with the smoke of the food trucks parked in a long row by the gate. Volkswagen taxis rattled down the cobbles, engines braying like geese as they tore around the corners.
And then he was sitting on the bench next to me. He set down a paper bag between us, got up and was gone.
In the bag was a motel key. The next meeting, face to face.
This story is based on a documentary written by the great Charles Bowden.
In an anonymous motel room on the U.S./Mexico border, a Ciudad Juárez hitman speaks. He has killed hundreds of people and is an expert in torture and kidnapping. He was simultaneously on the payroll of the Mexican drug cartels and a commander of the Chihuahua State Police. There is currently a $250,000 contract on his life and he lives as a fugitive, though he has never been charged with a crime in any country. With his face obscured by a black mesh hood, he tells his story to the camera inside the very motel room he once used to hold and torture kidnapped victims. Aided only by a magic marker and notepad, which he uses to illustrate and diagram his words, the sicario describes, in astounding detail, his life of crime, murder, abduction and torture.
Once I ate cites whole
every step a rending tear, tight jaws around fabric of flesh
a whited glare sluicing strangers’ faces dry of all but haste
the every flavor quick forgotten, ground to ash
harvests of cabbage grown from small seed watered
all the dry summer only to be hacked from October mud
throat-slit stems jutting until covered by December snow
joined by memory to the put-up cellar slaw-jars
opened at table for ungrateful mouths.
Once unnamed, inevitable days
foaled in red sky-spew of cloud and fresh smoke
alike as stones, potatoes, cornstalks, hairs in a comb
show the road below the hill knifing open the sky
a grain sack rip slow-leaking possibility,
or the journey that pours it out all at once,
a kicked bucket of milk whiting the barn floor
in the instant before it drains away
through gaps between the boards
Reposted from October 2015 with a new photograph
April showers, they say. It had not stopped raining since December. It might slack off some, drop to a drizzle, but then it would start back up stronger than ever. The ground was all thick mud where it wasn’t standing water, the trees bending with the weight of their swollen branches. I figured Pa was all right over in Vicksburg, though how he’d ever cross back over a mile-wide river I didn’t know. Probably get a boat somewhere.
I stood inside the barn, patching up the old skiff. Better safe than sorry. I could see the river through the trees.
On April 22, 1927, the Great Flood overran Greenville, Mississippi. Downtown Greenville was covered in ten feet of water. For 60 miles to the east and 90 miles to the south of the Mounds Landing break, the Delta became a turbulent, churning inland sea, leaving tens of thousands of people stranded on rooftops and clinging to trees. It was the worst natural disaster in American history.
Sunday morning all us survivors meet at The Grand Canyon Cafe. Ah Su takes good care of us. It was her uncle opened the place back in 1942. Route 66 was just a two-lane road, though it did reach all the way to Chicago even then. At first it was strict Chinese, but Flagstaff used to be a working town. Working men need breakfast. They put in a flat top griddle and bought a waffle iron and since then it’s been bacon and eggs cooking alongside chicken chow mein.
Ah Su must be near ninety, but she still puts in a long day sitting on the high stool next to the cash register while her daughter and grandsons make the food, wait the tables and wash the dishes. The place does a good business, simple as it is. Ah Su has known all of us since we were boys needing booster seats in the green booths. That leather is cracked and faded now, like our faces and backs.
The old man we knew as Boy Griggs still comes in. He’s a penniless hobo, but Ah Su takes soda bottles in trade for his breakfast. Nobody knows where he finds glass bottles, since it’s all cans and plastic these days.
The Grand Canyon Cafe is located on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Wong family owned and operated it from 1943 to 2016. It recently was sold to a pair of local brewers who vow to maintain the tradition, but we all know it won’t be the same. The finger of time moves inexorably forward.
Espen Berg had no friends to speak of, no family. Her life was lived in a series of small circles. The market, the pharmacy, the church. Even the friendliest townspeople ignored her, having been repelled by her disfigured face and violent silence. She died unmourned, her body discovered by chance when Pastor Ølveg stopped in to see why she had missed Sunday services.
In the Oslo airport, I came upon Ølveg at the bar. No longer a pastor and quite drunk, he told me the story of Espen Berg. As a beautiful young girl, she had fallen in love with a Nazi soldier and given him a child. They lived amidst public disapproval as man and wife until 1944, when the young man was killed in an air raid. When the Nazis burned the city to the ground in February, 1945, Espen was unable to rescue her daughter, try as she might.
In 1945, Hitler ordered a scorched earth policy in Norway to ensure nothing would be left for the Soviet forces who were pushing his forces westward in Northern Norway. German troops were ordered to burn and destroy everything they could. As a result, almost every building in Norway’s vast northern area from Finnmark to Hammerfest in the west was put to the torch.