- Robert L. Giron
This issue features
a review of work by Benjamin S. Grossberg,
a review of work by Joy Harjo,
a photograph by Katelyn McDonald,
a review of work by Mark Wish & Elizabeth Coffey, and
a short story by Seth Schindler.
Looking Out Copyright © 2022 by Katelyn McDonald.
About the Artist
Katelyn McDonald enjoys hiking and works as a nursing assistant.
Mark Wish and Elizabeth Coffey
Mark Wish and Elizabeth Coffey have put together a gem of a book titled Coolest American Stories 2022. Here we find many windows from which to look out of, but these stories piqued my interest.
In Pantera Rex by S. A. Cosby, we are enticed by a drug deal that has gone bad, while in Blue Martini by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett we follow a runaway wife who leaves her abusive husband who with time and through events finds her escape with the help of a “good” man. Then in Boss by John Jeffire we revisit the drug world with the main character’s life gone bad with its consequences hitting home. Fifth of July by Mary Taugher, for anti-gunners, is most disturbing as it neatly depicts the horrors of our current culture of guns and the fear we have of facing those who choose to live in the Wild-West mentality and carry even when not at the gun-shooting practice range. The visuals are hauntingly described in this story, such that I could visually see the crows lining the yard post a Fourth of July celebration.
These stories have a broad range and the craft with which they are written is such that the reader will want more.
Review by Robert L. Giron.
Coolest American Stories 2022 edited by Mark Wish and Elizabeth Coffey Copyright © 2022 by Coolest American Stories.
As I traveled back from El Paso to Washington, DC, I was mesmerized in flight by Joy Harjo's writing in this metaphysical book of poetry. Here Harjo gives us a profound calling of the Spirit, to see what is and what has happened towards reconciliation and self-discovery through words and acts of hope and love. Joy Harjo rings the bell of truth through compassion and witness, hoping that all can find their place. In a dance of song and jazz, she carries us through the history of the Land, in the hopes that we all can be cleansed and can start over again that one day: "We move with the lightness of being, and we will go Where there's a place for us." Review by Robert L. Giron. From Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: poems (Copyright © 2015 by Joy Harjo, W.W. Norton & Company).
Benjamin S. Grossberg
Benjamin S. Grossberg’s award-winning collection titled My Husband Would: poems offers the reader much to contemplate, not only about Grossberg’s life but about life in general.
In the opening poem In Medias Res, we leap into his life and to what may seem like the end:
…But the aftermath of a man may be
no more men.
but this is merely an opening into Grossberg’s life because as we trek through poems of life, we find another opening.
As any gay man will tell you, the gay life can be filled with both heavenly adventures as well as pitfalls as if Eurydice were still among us trying to get out. So, it’s not a shock that we have a poetic sketch of the perils and delights of the disco/club environment of love-ready hunks finding delight as well as the dangers of the life eloquently written about in the poem Heaven.
The Houston nightclub, long shut down, where
I once spent Friday nights
Someone shoots up Heaven,
both bars and the small
dance floor in the back.
But the patrons, all just
my memories now,
ethereal, wisps of smoke
and soul, don’t notice
or care. The bullets
spray through them
where they cluster at
the second bar, blurring
their bodies as they flirt
and throw back cocktails
that turn to vapor
in their mouths.
Heaven’s dance floor
is a sway of boys. It’s still
early nineties here,
so pastel disco lights flash
to “Strike it Up” and “100%
Pure Love.” Patrons dance
as only memories can,
pressing so close they pass
through each other
as the lips. When bullets glide
through them, their bodies
mingle at the entrance wounds.
Fridays, cover charge
is a canned good, a donation
for the local soup kitchen,
and booze, a pour of smoke
in a plastic cup, costs only
fifty cents till eleven.
On a night like this, sultry, with
boys lined up to enter, a can
of Kroger peas or hominy
in hand, the click
click click of an empty
magazine, his last, is lost
to disco. He throws down
the gun, its cold solidity,
and charges the crowd.
But the boys turn to mist
still laughing at their own jokes
and settle once he’s passed.
Spent, he collapses unnoticed
against and through
one of Heaven’s walls
and tumbles right out of it.
At the bar, one of the boys
drifts toward another
a few stools down, the swirl
of him blown back
by the movement.
All night, he’s been watching
a guy—Michael—who he
will continue to love
long after they’ve parted ways.
He’s just found the courage
to go up and say hello.
Anyone would be deceiving the reader if one did not admit the banquets of ripe men in the age of non-concern for diseases to the longing of body to body as if in spiritual extasy as portrayed in The Club, Houston as if “…desperate in its gratitude—/ Thank you, oh god thank you, yes.”
Suffice to say that no one is one dimensional and Grossberg’s poem Facing It does a fine job of telling us what many of us have experienced: that our family members see in us what we yet cannot see in ourselves but with time we catch up with them and see ourselves among the prisms of our dimensions.
In Pinnacle the understanding of love is studied, as if love is a form of math where numbers need to fit nicely into each other or at least co-exist, but the mind, what of the mind?
The mind wants not one—
but all, and simultaneously.
Herein, of course, lies the theory or complexity of math in the galaxy of love, should any of us ever manage to contain the math of its vastness.
In I Marry we see a man who is at peace with himself and with his world, yet there is a desire, one we all probably have, to foresee:
[A] man gets down
on one knee and raises
a small velvet box
into a wind that lifts it
from his fingers,
funneling it up
to the leaden sky.
because My Husband Would.
Review by Robert L. Giron, 2022.
My Husband Would: poems Copyright © 2020 by Benjamin S. Grossberg, published by University of Tampa Press. Heaven reprinted by permission.
Licking the Sacred Toad
A Finalist for the 2021 Gival Press Short Story Award
Roberto pulled the skewer of meat out of the fire, sniffed it, and grinned. “Today’s a good day to die. Write that down. It’s profound.”
“Is that an old Seri saying?” I asked, wiping sweat off my brow with the sleeve of my T-shirt.
I scooted back from our campfire along a rock-strewn wash, stretched out my aching legs, and reached for my canteen instead of my notebook. I took a sip of warm water, as I’d done often on our trek, especially when Roberto mentioned dying—every other minute it seemed. Waiting for a response, I offered him my canteen. He waved it away. With his machete, he chopped the meat into two big chunks and tossed one across the fire at me. I caught it and dropped it in my lap, hot grease seeping through my shorts.
“No, that’s what that other anthropologist told me all us Indians say. The macho ones, I suppose he meant. Apaches, Comanches and the like you see slaughtered on TV. Better write it down anyhow, for your book, so you can get it published. Then become famous and get laid by Indian-loving groupies. Sloppy seconds, anyway.”
The fire’s leaping flames lit up the Seri shaman’s brown face, his hooded eyes laughing at me as usual. Except for his deeply creased leathery face, it was hard to believe he was eighty-four. A third his age, I could barely keep up on our hike across the island. Tall, lean, and barefoot, Roberto glided over the rough terrain, weaving through the dense patchwork of barrel, pincushion, and jumping cholla cactus. I never saw him wince from the sharp jab of an agave spike or drink a drop of water on the arduous trek—stage one, I assumed, of our vision quest. A test of some kind? If so, I was failing miserably, muttering often, Why am I doing this?
I sniffed the charred slab. It didn’t smell any better than it looked, the odor triggering the memory of rotten Brussels sprouts my dad once grilled and forced me to eat. He’d just been diagnosed with heart problems and wanted the two of us to start eating healthier.
I set the meat on my knee. “I need to know what your people say.”
Roberto took a big bite and chewed slowly. “The Comcaac have nothing interesting to say about death . . . or life for that matter.”
“We’re not philosophers like those other Indians. Maybe we’d be wise like them if we knew where our next meal was coming from, and our home was on the range where the deer and buffalo roam.”
“I hear you. Been there myself.”
Roberto ran his fingers along the bumpy scar on his throat. “I doubt you have . . . visited hell or sat on death’s doorstep, except in books.”
“Maybe not, but I know it’s hard to think on an empty stomach, if that’s what you’re saying.”
Roberto spit out a long strip of gristle. It sizzled on the coals.
“We say this instead . . . roughly translated. ‘If you’re gonna die, be sure to do it on a stomach full of lizard meat.’ But I know that doesn’t sound as good, so forget I said it. If you want something that your readers are sure to love, try what the Ancient Ones always said on a quest: ‘Lick Otác, the ugly toad—and die!’ Heavy, isn’t it?”
“Ugly? I thought the Seri believe that the Sonoran Desert Toad is sacred, a god to them, like peyote is to the Huichol Indians.”
“No, more like what your people—xiix xepe iti quiih—would call the devil. Because if you’re not careful when you lick Otác, he might just eat you.”
“Can you translate what that Seri name for my people means? Sounds complicated.”
“It’s simple. But you probably don’t want to know. So, to be polite, from now on I’ll call your brothers and sisters the newer word we use that even an idiot can understand—Maricaana.”
I glanced past Roberto at the barren hills in the distance. What did he mean by Otác “eating me”? I sipped more water but hesitated to sink my teeth into the meat, praying it wasn’t the dead dog I’d seen lying for a week outside Roberto’s house in Desemboque. I’d been living there on the Sonoran mainland for the past year, collecting data for my dissertation. And hearing every night, as I struggled to fall asleep, my father’s words as he showed me his rough, scarred hands: “Whatever work you do, Davy, make sure it uses your brains, not your hands.”
What about your heart? I wish I’d asked him.
Roberto threw a pebble across the fire at me. “Stop staring at your dinner. Eat. Paaza can’t bite you anymore. Trust me, he’s much tastier than Otác, even if he stinks and doesn’t taste like chicken.”
I took a nibble. “It’s not half bad. Reminds me of veal, if not exactly milk fed.”
“But organic and free range, you’ll be happy to hear. If not exactly from a single source. Paaza will eat anything, dead or alive, so you never know what he’ll taste like, except he’s always tough. What my people like, since we’re tough too, get bored easily, and love surprises.”
I took a big bite, chewed, and chewed, unable to swallow the sinewy flesh. Gagging, I spit it out onto my lap.
Roberto wiped the grease dribbling down his chin. “Why do Maricaana always rush? Then wonder why they’re always choking to death. You have to eat paaza very, very slow, the way my people like to do everything. And not because we’re lazy, as you like to think. To enjoy what may just be our last bite of life. That’s something your readers would love to hear.”
“What I’d love to hear is where you got the idea for that fanny pack. Can I have a look?”
Roberto untied the purple plastic bag from his belt, walked around the fire, and dropped it in my lap, right on top of the paaza.
“Cool or not, it’s not my idea. Leonardo DiCaprio gave it to me a couple of years ago.”
I passed the bag back to him. “You’re kidding of course.”
“A Seri shaman—haaco cama—never kids.”
“Why on earth would a movie star ever come here?”
“Same reason you did.”
“It’s odd, that’s all,” I said, thinking his reason was probably not as strange as mine—to lick a toad.
“Odd, I agree. Like just about everything Maricaana do. If you really want to know, Leonardo gave it to me as a gift for teaching him the Seri Way of Knowledge. His words, not mine.”
“What are your words to describe the Seri Way of Knowledge?”
“I—the Comcaac—have no words for such things. But plenty to describe Maricaana who ask dumb questions. To live is good enough for us.”
“Is that what you’re going to teach me?”
“I have nothing to teach you, Davy, that you don’t already know in your heart is true.”
I closed my smoke-filled eyes. Davy? No one had called me that since I was a kid, and the only person who did then was my father.
“Okay, a much simpler question. What is pa . . . a . . . za?”
“Gila monster. A delicacy to the Comcaac. Like those Rocky Mountain oysters of yours I once ate in Tucson. Too bad nothing here’s got balls big enough to cut off, deep fry, and eat.”
“You’ve been to Tucson?”
“Studied there, at the University of Arizona.”
“I heard you’d been to college, the only Seri who has. What did you study?”
“That’s impressive. Their anthropology department is highly regarded.”
“Not by me. Dropped out after a year. All I heard was bullshit. The pampered white anthropologists’ take on us noble savages.”
“You’re right of course, at least back then when we were still biased, let our own worldview shape what we observed and wrote about. Now we let all Indigenous people speak for themselves.”
Roberto fastened the fanny pack to his belt, then crouched, the plastic bag dangling between his legs.
“If you haven’t noticed I’m one of them. Speaking for myself. Yet I’m not sure you’re listening. By the way, paaza is powerful medicine.”
Roberto laughed. “No, nothing like toad medicine. It’s just useful. Stick a piece of paaza—its brains particularly—on your forehead and your headache disappears in seconds. Another sexy thing your readers will eat up.”
Roberto walked to the pile of firewood we’d gathered. He picked through it, tossed aside some ocotillo sticks, selected several thick mesquite branches, and threw them into the campfire. Sparks flew everywhere.
I scooted farther back from the fire, bumping into a sharp rock. “Shit . . . give me a fuckin’ break! The sun’s down and it’s still over a hundred. We’re done cooking, why do we need more fire?”
Roberto sat on the ground next to me, his knee touching mine. “Don’t your people like to say better safe than sorry? Best not to be surprised later, when you’re asleep.”
“By who? No one lives on Tiburón Island anymore.”
“True—no humans. But there’s oot to worry about.”
“Let’s just say oot is a special kind of coyote that the Comcaac believe were once human.”
“Many Native American tribes have the same belief, the basis of their coyote-the-trickster myths.”
“Trickster or not, oot came from a different breed altogether—the Spanish conquistadors, who as you know were hardly human. No surprise then that the coyotes here are barbarians, mean as hell and unafraid of humans. Luckily they’re scared of fire. Go ahead and write all that down before you forget. Sexy, for sure, but also very important. To set the record straight, once and for all.”
“Which record would that be?”
“The only one that matters. The truth. So, don’t you dare say oot’s a myth. Because, trust me, I’ve run into a few and they’ll eat you alive.”
“Great. Something else to look forward to. Though I suppose if those man-eating coyotes get me, then I won’t have to worry about Otác eating me.”
I took my notebook out of my backpack. Sweat dripped off my nose onto the cover, smudging what I’d written in pencil, the title of my Ph.D. thesis, knowing it would likely change:
A Cross-Cultural Study of the Shamanic Use of Hallucinogens in the Americas,
with Special Emphasis on the Seri Indian Vision Quest and Sonoran Desert Toad Medicine
by David White
I opened the notebook to one of the many still-blank pages and wrote Is this guy jiving me?
Roberto smiled. “That was quick. Are you sure you got it all, and used my words, not yours?”
I tossed the notebook in my backpack, then took a long drink of water, the only water I’d brought along, despite knowing this was dangerous, if not suicidal, on a long trek across the Sonoran Desert in the middle of summer. Yet I had no choice. Roberto had agreed to guide me only if I agreed to bring just one canteen of water and absolutely no food. The food prohibition was not entirely surprising; I’d read that Seri seekers of visions customarily fasted. His list of the other prohibited items, however, seemed excessive or simply strange: a sleeping bag, extra clothing, flashlight, toothpaste, sunscreen, aspirin, guidebooks, and dumb gadgets, as he put it, meaning I assumed a smartphone.
He’d seen me using mine outside the village school in Desemboque one day when I was listening to some of my favorite sixties comfort tunes. They always remind me of my grandmother, who helped raise me and especially loved the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Procol Harum, and Dylan. I recall how good it felt to escape into “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “White Rabbit,“ and “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” But then how pissed I felt when “Mr. Tambourine Man” faded out about halfway through.
I knew why I’d disobeyed Roberto and taken along Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. But why had I stashed the smartphone in my backpack? If the internet connection on the mainland was intermittent at best, on Tiburón Island it would be nonexistent.
Roberto stood, then kicked my canteen over. Water spilled out. Dropping my piece of paaza in the dirt, I grabbed the canteen and screwed the cap back on.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I said, picking the meat out of the dirt and flinging it in the fire.
“Exactly what you asked me to do . . . guide you. Only fools waste the precious gifts they’ve been given. I’d save that water for when you’ll really need it. Stop obsessing over it.”
I wanted to tell him that I wouldn’t be obsessing if he’d let me bring more along. Instead, I said, “Did you know that Gila monsters are becoming endangered? Global warming, no doubt.”
“Paaza doesn’t mind global warming, and we don’t either. No wonder we also say, hot or cold, it’s all the same, the Comcaac will survive. Just give us what those cowboys of yours like to sing about . . . water, water, cool clear water. Better yet, an ice-cold Corona!”
Roberto pulled out a can of Corona from his fanny pack. He took a long swig, then handed the can to me, smiling. “Enjoy.”
The can was as hot as paaza, but I didn’t want to insult him. I took a drink of the skunky beer, then passed it back to him.
He raised the can, pointing it to the Sierra Seri, our destination. “To the success of your quest. May you find Otác. If not, then Jesus. Or whatever the fuck you’re searching for. Just remember what I told you when you first proposed this idea. You should stick to licking ice cream. And I’m no don Juan!”
Jesus wasn’t exactly what I searched for, and Roberto wasn’t quite the kind of wise man I’d hoped to find in Seriland—a counterpart to don Juan, the adept Yaqui Indian shaman made famous by Carlos Castaneda in his best seller The Teachings of Don Juan—A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Even if most anthropologists later labeled Dr. Castaneda a fraud, his book fiction, and don Juan, his spiritual mentor, imaginary, no one could deny Carlos was a great storyteller. He obviously loved his work. Had his heart in it. I envied him.
A couple of hours later, unable to sleep, I sat up and stared at the shaman snoring away. A reluctant teacher, Roberto was at least real, if a real piece of work. More wise-ass than wise man? Yet, he was all I had. The last of the Seri shamans, and the only Seri left who’d been on a vision quest. I of course wanted to believe what I’d been told in Desemboque: he was a master of toad medicine, the most dangerous of all shamanic practices.
Despite his flaws, something about the enigmatic man appealed to me, made me want to trust him. He said exactly what he believed, not what he thought I wanted to hear. And he intuited that my purpose for coming here, my search, was complicated.
I rolled over and rummaged through my backpack for my smartphone. Not finding it, I panicked, then remembered I’d hid it in a side pocket. I slipped the smartphone out and stared at the dark screen. Muttering, “What am I doing here?” I shoved it back in.
Feeling a chill, I stood and placed my hands over the campfire. It didn’t give off much heat, so I stuffed my hands in the deep pockets of my cargo shorts. Pacing around the dying fire, I squeezed the little wood carving I’d made in Desemboque a few weeks earlier.
I removed the carving and rubbed my cold fingers against its warm surface. The toad was crudely fashioned—unfinished, I wanted to believe—but I was proud of it.
One of the carvers in the village had given me a piece of ironwood, which I tried to shape with the simple hand tools they used to craft the mini-sculptures of the wildlife they once knew so intimately, when they lived off the land and sea. I marveled at their skill but was disheartened by the contradiction I saw between the beauty of their creations and the squalor of their village.
Stumbling over a rock, I almost dropped the carved toad in the embers. I took a deep breath, and it hit me: making it satisfied me more than anything else I’d done during my stay. No, my entire adult life.
A faint rustling sound came from the wash, and I jerked my head in that direction.
The unmistakable call, then the chorus, of a pack of coyotes echoed across the night air.
I scrambled around the coals, flailing in the dark for the woodpile.
“Fire . . . . Oot!”
Roberto raised his head. “Oot shmoot. Stop worrying. Those are just your garden-variety dumb coyotes.”
“How do you know?”
“Oot’s much smarter, a ninja in coyote clothing. He never gives himself away by howling. If he was going to say anything it would be banzai! Go back to sleep. Maybe then you can dream about the gift you’re going to give me when you find yourself. Let’s hope what you find is better than what I’ve seen in your eyes. And your gift is better than Leonardo’s crappy plastic bag.”
The following day we took our midday siesta in the shade of an enormous cordón, the tallest cactus in the world. This one must’ve been fifty feet high and three feet in diameter at its base, which was badly scarred.
Roberto grabbed his machete and I saw 713 tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand.
I pointed to the tattoo. “I didn’t know tattooing was a Seri custom, though I’ve read that girls used face paint as part of their puberty initiation rites.”
“The Ancient Ones were fond of tattooing, but it’s no longer a Comcaac custom.”
“What is your tattoo then?”
“A custom of some other people, part of their initiation rites . . . though puberty has nothing to do with it.”
“What does that number mean?”
“Google it on your dumb gadget when you get back home.”
Roberto tapped the point of the machete on the ground. “The Ancient Ones always stopped here on their quests to rest before climbing the Sierra Seri to the secret caves above the virgin spring we call Pazj Hax. The home of Otác, where he emerges every summer under the monsoon moon.”
“Can you repeat that spring’s name? I’m pretty good with foreign languages but yours is a bitch to understand.”
“Primitive and ape-like, you mean? What the Spanish called it and us. If that’s true, you’d think those monkeys could’ve spoken it easily.”
I removed my old Red Sox ’47 cap and fanned my face. The hat was smelly and frayed, the brim sweat stained, a high school graduation present from my dad—the last gift he’d give me.
“Why this spot?”
“To gain the strength needed to handle the power of Otác, you first must eat xaasj.” Roberto cut a couple of thin slices off one of the cardón’s scarred lower branches. He handed me a slice. “Chew only the soft inner part of xaasj and swallow the juice, like this.”
I watched him chew, then did the same. The juice was bitter but still palatable.
“What does it do?”
“Xaasj makes you feel good, that’s all. Quiet, yet with energy, what you’ll soon need.”
A few minutes later I felt a pleasant buzz. It’s a euphoriant, I thought, similar to cannabis, but with the subtle rush of coca leaf tea. I closed my eyes and went with it. When I opened them, Roberto was smiling at me. I looked past him at the relentless sun lighting up the hills we’d soon be climbing.
I thought I could make out the one that was our final destination, at the head of the box canyon where those secret caves were supposed to be. The villagers called it Toad Hill. “You’ll know it when you see it,” one told me. “It looks just like a toad!” As I stared at Toad Hill, I had to admit that it did bear a slight resemblance to the character Mr. Toad in my favorite book growing up—Wind in the Willows.
Maybe I’m just high, I thought. I’ll call it Toad Hall instead of Toad Hill. Giggling, I pictured the scene in the book of Ratty and Mole meeting Mr. Toad at his grand house.
Roberto turned, eyes widening. “What’s so funny?”
“Oh, nothing really. Just something funny I saw when I looked at where we’re headed. Toad Hill?”
“If you’re lucky you’ll see something there so funny it’ll make you want to cry. What’s in your heart, not your fucked-up head. People see only what they want to see. I think I know what you see. Do you?”
I reached for my canteen.
We hiked nonstop all afternoon, my legs getting heavier and heavier. So, I was glad to see Roberto finally stop.
“Look!” he said, indicating a pair of roadrunners pecking furiously at something on the ground, next to a prickly pear cactus.
“What are they doing?”
“Killing cocazni—a rattler.”
“Just hungry. Unlike you, zaap isn’t picky what he eats. Nothing’s safe in the desert. Remember that, as well as what the Ancient Ones believed: zaap brings you bad luck if he crosses your path or you stare at him too long. Better to look at the sky.”
Roberto turned to the south. I followed his eyes up to the dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
“Listen,” Roberto said. “It’s your lucky day.”
Roberto licked his lips. “Otác loves rain and change. Like the desert, he then comes to life, as you will when you die and change.”
“I don’t mind changing. Dying is another story.”
“Otác will change you if you let him, are unafraid to die. If you’re a brave warrior. Fearless. Or, if not, then a mensch.”
“You know Yiddish?” I asked, suspecting he did. He was fluent in Spanish and the only villager who spoke and read English well. I’d also heard him sprinkle into our conversations some Italian, French, Japanese, and other languages I couldn’t even identify.
Roberto pulled his long, jet-black ponytail over his shoulder and stroked it.
“Why not? I always liked the sound of that word, and the others I learned from Dr. Mintz, the only professor I ever respected. Always honest. Even better, funny as hell, with wild white hair like Einstein’s. He told me to quit college, that I was too smart to waste my time there. Be a mensch, he told me. Do something useful. Study welding.”
“Did you . . . and become a welder?”
Roberto nodded. “But a lousy one. Not my shtick.”
“What a coincidence! My dad was a ship welder at the Bath Iron Works in Maine, where I grew up.”
“I hope he was better or luckier than me. Wherever I went to weld I got canned, or worse. The first time, in Marseille, for accidentally burning and crippling another welder. Then I got fired from shipyards in England, Holland, Norway, South Korea, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Uruguay, along with a few shitholes like Naples I’d rather forget. And the final straw, back in the good ole USA. Houston. Where I worked on an offshore oil rig and did time for damaging it.”
“Jail? That seems excessive, considering what you did was accidental.”
“No, it was purely intentional. I torched the rig after the redneck crew boss—who thought I’d made the wrong career choice—told me, ‘Go back home where you belong, nigga!’ Still, you’d think I’d have learned my lesson in Marseille, or at least in Istanbul, where I welded the hull of a pistachio nut freighter that sank in the Bosporus on its maiden voyage. But no, this fool persisted, not listening to his heart, not pursuing his dream. Wandering instead, year after year from sea to sea and, in the end, lost in the wilderness that is your land of the free, home of the brave.”
I pulled my damp T-shirt away from my belly and fanned myself with my sweat-soaked cap. “I think I know where you’re coming from.”
Roberto tapped his tattooed knuckles. “Only if you also did ten years in the Texas state pen.”
“Sorry about that, it must’ve been rough. What was your dream?”
“To be in movies. I had my shot, after I got out of prison—but blew it.”
Roberto laughed, slapping his thigh. “How? That’s funny. In Blazing Saddles, I got the part of one of the Indian sidekicks to the Indian chief played by Mel Brooks. Do you remember the scene when he talks to the Black family in the wagon?”
“I do, it’s hilarious, my favorite one in the movie. He speaks Yiddish to them, then to the Indian by his side on horseback, who doesn’t respond.”
“In the rehearsal, when Mel turned to me and spoke Yiddish, I raised my arm, showing him my open palm, and said “How,” but in Yiddish. He fired me on the spot. Maybe because I mispronounced the word, and it sounded like a Yiddish curse. More likely I just pissed him off, didn’t remain silent like a good Indian.”
“A bad break for sure.”
“Not as bad as failing to get the part of the crying Indian in that Keep America Beautiful TV commercial. It would’ve made me rich and famous. Figures they’d give it to a phony Indian—a Sicilian no less! That lucky bastard Iron Eyes Cody even got one of those cool stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”
“I always hated that sappy, exploitative commercial. If I were Native, I’d be mad as hell too.”
“I wasn’t mad, just jealous. Cody was a better actor than me. Try as I might I couldn’t shed a tear at the audition. Perhaps because I couldn’t give a shit about keeping America beautiful, after gringos stole and raped it.”
“My dad was luckier than you. Frank followed his passion, if only in his spare time. Yard art, he called it. He made whimsical metal sculptures. Larger-than-life animals and weird creatures from found objects. When I was a kid, I was also good with my hands, and I’d help him in his workshop. My best childhood memories. I dreamed of following in his footsteps, becoming a welder or maybe sculptor. But he . . . . Never mind.”
I took a sip of water. My canteen was almost empty. “Nothing, it was long ago.”
Roberto squatted, his ass almost touching the ground. “Just as well. Your past is best forgotten if it’s anything like mine. And the future is unknowable, so there’s no point in thinking about that, either. Probably best not to think at all.”
I glanced at the prickly pear at the side of the trail. The roadrunners and the rattlesnake were gone.
“Fine for animals. But that doesn’t leave us humans with much to do.”
“Except to keep our eyes and ears open at all times, just like them.” Roberto smiled. “And our hands off those dumb gadgets Maricaana can’t seem to do without—even here in the wilderness. Pay attention, Davy. The path ahead may be full of surprises.”
The trail grew steeper as we neared the canyon’s head. As we climbed, mesquite, palo verde, and ironwood trees replaced the cardón, cholla, and organ pipe cactus. Yet with my thighs burning and stomach growling I had trouble focusing on the beauty all around me. Ahead on the trail, Roberto waved. He sat on a boulder. As I approached, I recognized it was one of several boulders forming a mound that tapered to its top, about twenty feet high.
“Sit, get a load off,” Roberto said, stretching his legs out over the edge, then groaning as he pulled his knees to his chest. “Time for a break. Don’t know about you, but I could use one.”
I sat next to Roberto. This was the first time on our trek I’d heard him complain. “What’s wrong . . . did you hurt yourself?”
“Just some old war wounds acting up. I wish I had another slice of xaasj. Did you happen to bring along any aspirin?” Roberto laughed.
“That’s about as funny as what we’re sitting on. It looks like a cairn, but on steroids. A man-made marker of some kind?”
“That it is.”
“Who the hell could’ve built such a thing out here? Those boulders weigh a ton. You’d need heavy equipment to move them.”
“The Ancient Ones, that’s who built it.”
“Why?” I asked, despite knowing how implausible that was. But then again, no less fantastical than some other things I’d already heard from him on the trek.
“A good question.”
“Cairns are used to give directions. This one blocks the path.”
“The Ancient Ones were saying that the path to Otác is very difficult, blocked by formidable obstacles, and not for everyone to follow. You can probably tell mine was no cakewalk. What about yours?”
I took a sip of water, then scanned the area around the cairn. On the south side, boulders stretched out as far as I could see, a nightmare to cross. The north side was a steep slope. Possibly negotiable, it still would be a major challenge, at least for me, exhausted, starving, and dying of thirst.
I turned and peered up at the mound. The boulders were too tall to scale. “Where do we go from here?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe now you’d like to lead.”
“Stop pulling my leg. You’ve been here before, know the way.”
“I have, which isn’t to say I now know the way.”
“Not that I believe you, but I’m beginning to worry about where you’re actually taking me.”
“I wouldn’t worry. We may have a hard time getting there. Just know that getting back will be much easier. That thought should give you some comfort. Yet I sense there’s more that’s bothering you.”
A small, banded lizard scuttled along a deep crevice of the boulder on which we sat. I leapt to my feet. A baby Gila monster? Roberto grabbed my wrist and pulled me back down. He gently lifted the lizard out of the crevice and placed it in his lap, then petted it.
Improbably, the lizard didn’t move as he stroked its back. “Are you also a lizard whisperer?”
“I’m much better with humans, even Maricaana,” he said, placing his other hand on my shoulder, then squeezing it. “This little one, haquiimet, does look like paaza, but he’s just a gecko and harmless. I’m surprised you can’t identify him.” Roberto smiled. “Haven’t you studied that guidebook you brought along?”
I looked away.
“Haquiimet thinks he needs to act big, like other small critters and people often do. Though if you stroke them enough, they all act like babies. He’s quite friendly.”
“Friendly to you maybe. I’ll keep my distance.”
“We like haquiimet for two reasons. He eats scorpions, and we eat him . . . when we’re starving.” Roberto punched my ribs playfully. “Hungry?”
“That’s so funny I forgot to laugh.”
“Can you remember the last time you did, when you weren’t stoned?”
I kicked a rock at my feet. “You asked what’s bothering me? After listening to you talk about all your travels and long stint in prison, I can’t help but wonder how you found the time to become a shaman . . . learn the healing rites, take quests, and master toad medicine.”
Roberto put the gecko on the ground. It crawled away, leaving a zigzag trail in the dirt.
“In the joint I learned a few shaman-like tricks. They helped me survive that darkest corner of the Maricaana world. But my higher healing education didn’t begin until this late bloomer returned here. The land no one wants, the home of the depressed, with half our kids now meth heads.”
“You sound disillusioned with your people. But your government is trying to help, the new houses they built for them in the village, the school, the clinic, and—”
“Those are gifts from the drug cartels. Our government. Still, I can’t blame our children. They have nothing to do today, to live for, with all the fish and sea turtles gone. I was lucky. One of the very few to escape.”
“Why then did you return?”
“I’d like to say it was to find myself. But it’s probably more that I like to suffer. Even if I—your typical Indian stoic—have a hard time showing it.”
“Typical is not the word I’d choose to describe you. I’ve never met anyone quite like you.”
“Come on, Davy, bet you have in your fieldwork. A Navajo shaman who introduced you to the wonders of peyote at a Native American Church meeting? A bad trip? I can’t promise this one will be any better. Only different.”
My parched throat tightened, recalling such a bad peyote trip. It not only made me throw up, endlessly, but almost throw in the academic towel for the nth time.
“That’s encouraging . . . I think.”
“You want encouraging? When I returned home, I discovered a most encouraging thing—a new, perhaps the best, way to suffer. Dealing with the likes of you! In my golden years I began to talk to anthropologists, shortly after I began to listen to the Ancient Ones. Talk about a trip! Much better than listening to that Mr. Tambourine Man, who you think is such hot shit, because he takes you on a trip upon his magic swirlin’ ship.”
He couldn’t have heard; I was wearing headphones that day!
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“My gurus. The Ancient Ones. My primary source for the kind of exotic stuff anthropologists like you will kill to hear and write about.”
“Who exactly are these Ancient Ones you keep mentioning? In the anthropological literature about Seri religion, the term Giant is often used to describe who I think you mean. A shaman’s spirit animal or helper, who he communes with when performing healing rites. Chanting, for example, to invoke their curative power.”
“Those rites were never my thing. Boring as hell and way too slow. Don’t you just hate Indian time? Chanting and spirit animals are best left to the pros—New Age hippies. And all magic is overrated. The Ancient Ones, who we call Xica Coosyatoj, are the Seri’s real ancestors. The missionaries, who tried to convert us and make us their slaves, used other words to describe them, such as heathen bastards and blood-thirsty cannibals. Yes, they were Giants. But I prefer the term superheroes.”
“Did they first appear to you on a vision quest where you used toad medicine?”
“They appeared out of nowhere late one night when I was drinking beer outside in my ramada. We shared a couple a six-packs and some nachos, and they became talkative. Now they visit often, beer or no beer, and share with me their little gems of knowledge. What Leonardo might’ve meant by the Seri Way of Knowledge. What others, who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a fanny pack, might call big turds of wisdom.”
I slowly slipped off my backpack. I needed time to process what he was saying. Had he chewed another slice of cardón? Yet, as crazy as he was beginning to sound, I knew that shamans in other cultures did claim to talk to their ancestors. The world of The Ancient Ones that Roberto experienced was similar to the Dreamtime of the Indigenous Australians.
“Can you give me an example of these big t— . . . little gems of knowledge?”
“I gave you one already. Lick Otác, and die.”
“I suspect . . . hope . . . you mean it mystically or metaphorically, in any case, not literally. Because licking the Sonoran Desert Toad might kill you! Dogs die all the time after putting one in their mouth. And I’ve heard of people who’ve gone crazy after just touching—"
“Cowards die a thousand deaths. The valiant taste of death but once.”
“Julius Caesar. You read Shakespeare?”
“His comedies mostly. I like them more than his tragedies. I admit I only skimmed his Julius Caesar, one of my least favorite plays in my forty-volume set of the Bard’s complete works. Thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow. Another gift.”
“How would she know you like the Bard?”
“Word must’ve got out I’m a fan of the classics. Someone must’ve seen me reading The Odyssey, or maybe On the Road. Give me a good old-fashioned epic hero’s quest, and I’m happy. Maybe by now you can tell, and that Don Quixote is my all-time favorite. I like my heroes to be unafraid to take risks and even fail, yet not take themselves too seriously.”
“Paltrow is your disciple too?”
“She wanted to be, but I rejected her.”
“Let’s just say she wasn’t seriously interested in finding herself. Gwyneth was only interested in finding a rare desert herb that she could use in one of her silly goop products, so she could call it one hundred percent Native. I refused to help Gwyneth or guide her on a vision quest—heecot coom. That reminds me, I want to give you something to read, in case you forget everything you learn on yours. Otác has a funny way of doing that to you.”
Roberto pulled out a thin leather-bound book from his fanny pack. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Have you read it?”
“Never. Thanks, that’s thoughtful of you.”
“It’s pretty lightweight stuff, as you’ll see. But something tells me perfect for you. Just do me a favor and read it later, when you’re back home. You’ll appreciate it much more then, after you’ve licked Otác.”
“Licking it scares me. As if you don’t know! I’ve read it’s much safer to smoke the toad’s dried glandular secretions. This way you avoid consuming its deadly toxins.”
“That’s a recreational drug, not the same. For wusses. Rich, spoiled Maricaana who believe urban legends. The Comcaac do it the only pure, natural way. The only way Xica Coosyatoj ever did it. Lick Otác’s smelly, slimy skin, warts, dirt, and all. And let him show you the truth of who you really are—or at least give you a good laugh or two!”
“Somehow I don’t find that funny.” I took a tiny sip of water, then shook the canteen. It was empty.
“Don’t worry. The only drink you’ll soon need is Otác, the gift that keeps on giving. Just wait and see.”
Thunder clapped directly above us, followed by a flash of lightning. A flock of pelicans appeared in formation, wing tips almost touching, one pelican trailing behind the rest.
I turned to Roberto. “I wonder what those pelicans are doing here, so far from the shore?”
“I’d wonder instead what you are doing here.”
“Believe me, I’ve done plenty of that.”
“And? I don’t yet know about you, but tósni, the pelicans, will be fine. They’re leaving Tiburón for the coast.”
“Odd, isn’t it, how there always seems to be one left behind, trying to catch up with the rest.”
Roberto nodded. “One of sixteen vestal virgins leaving for the coast.”
“A Whiter Shade of Pale! My favorite classic psychedelic song.”
“I’d sing it for you, but my singing is even worse than my welding.”
“You’re full of surprises.”
“I have another that’s even better. The kind of secret thing your readers will drool over. An ancient mystery, like the sphinx in Egypt. Or why Maricaana love horror movies and to have the shit scared out of them. Follow me.”
We climbed down the treacherous north slope below the mound. I was relieved to find it was a fairly short descent and surprised at what lay at its bottom: a wide sandy wash, lush and filled with a refreshing pungent scent. I stomped over some low bushes. A rabbit scampered away, the largest I’d ever seen. It stopped, turned, and stared at me. A twig stuck out the corner of its mouth. I did a double take; it seemed to be smiling!
“Are all the rabbits here so big and happy? Don’t tell me that’s the legendary jackalope.”
“Hardly. Just an antelope jackrabbit. You’re hallucinating. Those are ears, not horns.”
“Heat stroke, probably.”
”Hapxa may look ridiculous with those dumbo ears, but he’s no white rabbit. Needs no pill to make him larger. Hapxa feeds his belly, not his head. Knows how to live well while he can. He’ll be dead by next summer. This is no wonderland, and you’re not Alice. Did you come here to chase rabbits?”
I closed my eyes, hearing Grace Slick sing And if you go chasing rabbits.
Roberto broke off a leafy branch from one of the bushes and sniffed it. “This is what hapxa’s eating.” He stuck it under my nose. “Smell.”
“Fragrant. What is it?”
“Xeescl, desert lavender, even better in spring when in flower. Elixir of the gods. Ours anyway, those superheroes who taught us how to make a tea from it. A potion that will cure anything. The wood is very hard too. Good for a spear point when you need to kill something . . . someone. Take some home.”
“Thanks.” I pocketed a piece of the branch.
Roberto smiled, stroking his ponytail. “Sure to fix what’s wrong with you. Well, maybe not a meshugenah like you.”
We hiked in the wash for several minutes when we came upon a boojum, the tree that resembles an upside-down carrot.
Roberto laughed. “Cototaj! My favorite tree. Funny, isn’t she? Every time I see one, I can’t help but laugh.”
“Weird. I’ve seen boojums on hillsides on the mainland, but never in arroyos. And my ethnobotanist friend told me they’re not even found on Tiburón. Is this the secret thing you wanted to show me?”
Roberto shook his head. “Lewis Carroll might’ve thought the name hilarious, but the Ancient Ones got the last laugh when they brought and transplanted this one here.”
I touched the boojum’s prickly trunk. “From where?”
Roberto leaned his head back, looked at the sky, then at me, wiggling his eyebrows. “You shouldn’t have touched Cototaj. The Ancient Ones told me touching her brings very strong, foul-smelling winds.” He farted, then laughed.
“Time to start laughing, Davy . . . before it’s too late.”
We passed through a dense stand of mesquite trees on the other side of the wash. The first drops of rain fell on us as we emerged into a clearing as long and flat as a football field, with creosote bushes scattered across it. I grabbed some wet creosote leaves, held them to my nose and breathed in their sharp scent—the distinctive smell of the Sonoran Desert in the rain. Creosote, I knew, was most commonly found where the desert had been disturbed. And this land clearly had been altered.
We walked from one end of the field to the other. Along its center, long parallel ruts dented the ground. Obviously man-made, as were the dozens of old Coke bottles and rusty soda or beer cans littering the field. The cans appeared to predate the pop-top era.
“Remarkable, isn’t it?” Roberto said. “Perhaps not your strawberry fields forever, but still quite a trip.”
“Strawberry fields forever? You’re losing me again.”
“This was the dream home of Xica Coosyatoj, where they lived when they first came to Earth. Some might call them aliens. I prefer to call them the First Americans.”
I kicked a rusty can at my feet. “Right, I can tell by what they left behind.”
“Xica Coosyatoj weren’t into recycling. But that’s not my point in bringing you here. Focus instead on these lines on the ground. Their mystical meaning is only understandable from above. Long before the Spanish came, Xica Coosyatoj landed their flying saucers right here. They stayed a while in their adopted home, but didn’t like the place, they once told me. The god-awful desert climate and food, nasty rattlers, and scorpions. You’ve seen enough yourself to know it’s a shitty place to live.”
I studied the field. Someone surely had put some work into creating it. I thought I knew who and for what purpose. Here and there were shards of red glass. From reflectors.