Thursday, January 30, 2014

Poem: Betwixt


Diametric of a cardiac broomhead,
no lettuce in this, no rutabaga,
no osteothrombosis. Sometimes,
I wonder why we bother.

Jared walks the streets with a
spool of yellow string,
playing his life like a kite:
dentist, pawnshop, chowder hall,
cobbler. At the end of the
day, he retraces his route,
winding it all back.

Candace smiles,
stripe of snow in a ruby sandwich.
Jared, you marvel of a man.

Passersby freeze at the inequality,
this blatant mismatch,
tennis shoe, designer pumps,
insult to good sense.

 But they have no idea.

Deep in a grumble,
Jared scuffled the sands of
San Gregorio, following the
flight of a raven spied
Candace in a kaftan the
salmon of eastern
clouds at sunset.
A single loose thread,
trailing all the way down the cliff.

He ran to the base and
pulled, and pulled and pulled,
till she stood atop the
bread-dough bluff a
naked Aphrodite, holding the
last of the thread in her fist,
a capillary of fierce intent.

She scratched her number in
the hollow of a clamshell,
tied the thread to a
hole in the edge and
flung it over.

From the collection Fields of Satchmo

Hastings College
Hastings, Nebraska

Photo by MJV

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter 33: Snowblind

Buy the Kindle book at


I awake to Jasmina’s hieroglyphics. Matterhorn. Amethyst. Perhaps a wise man would paint it over, accelerate the process of forgetting. Problem being, it’s a work of art. To cover it would be a crime.

I take a shower next to a sea dragon mosaic, dry off next to a Mexican mask and a nude sketch. Fortunately, I have left enough clothing here over the months to assemble an outfit: blue jeans, a plaid shirt. I follow the sound of a British baritone to the studio, where Anna is listening to an audiobook mystery. Something in the kiln room distracts me: four oversized paintings, of a large white-haired man in a hospital bed, tubes and bandages attached to his face and arms. The British baritone goes silent. Anna stands in the passageway, next to a golden eagle, a smear of claydust on her neck.

“Oh!” I say. “Hi. I’m sorry.”

“For looking at my paintings? That’s sort of the point of painting them.”

“Sure. Is this your husband?”

“Yes. Dick.”

“How long has it…”

“Ten years.” She puts her hands on her hips and gives the paintings a fresh study. “People get a little freaked out by these. They feel a need to rationalize them, so they ask me about catharsis. ‘Was it therapeutic?’”

She stops to brush a cobweb from Dick’s face.

“So what do you tell them?”

Art is therapeutic. I’ve conducted a couple dozen seminars with just that in mind: cancer patients, troubled teens, inmates. But that’s not really the answer. Art is the way that I process the world. So when your husband is dying, you pick up a brush.”

I take another look at the faces of Dick and I feel better. “Thanks again for…”

“Okay, here’s the deal,” she says. “You need to stop thanking me. You’re wearing me out. But I will put you to work. I’ve got some junk in the backyard that needs to be hauled to the dump. Jasmina’s good at a lot of things, but she was never much for lifting heavy objects. But first, have some breakfast. I have a cormorant beak that needs adjusting.”


She heads for the studio but stops at the eagle to deliver a declaration. “She’s coming back, Paul. She’s out there somewhere, putting pieces together. But she will be back.”


I have inherited a family. Cecily’s lip took seven stitches. She refused medication, choosing instead to squeeze my hand whenever the pain hits a peak. Irma is asleep on my shoulder, her gums giving her snoring  an extra turbulence. The scrape on my forehead is superficial, but my arms ache from my superhuman endeavors. I am staring at a poster for something called a pap smear when I am interrupted by a Latina with lips that you could use as throw pillows. She motions for me to wake Irma. I give her a shake and she immediately covers her mouth. “Hello,” says Latina. “Mrs. Patterakis?” Irma mumbles back: “Yeth?” “I’m Dr. Salazar. I wanted to give you a quick update. Your husband has suffered a fairly serious concussion, so we do want to keep him overnight, but you should be able to pick him up tomorrow morning. He’ll continue to have headaches for a couple weeks. Oh, and he has a few contusions on his buttocks, as well, so sitting might be an issue.” Irma nods. “Take care,” says the doctor, and walks away. I put a hand to my forehead. “I am so sorry.” “Why?” says Irma. “I… manhandled your husband.” “Oh by Gaw!” says Cecily. “Ah you bugging gidding be? You burr awethub! You burr lige bugging Thupahwoman!” Irma looks away, her eyes filling with tears. “It wath like God wathn’t ready for Thal to go yet, tho he thent you to thave him.”

“No! Two babies were killed on that sleeper car. I will not believe that God would be that cruel. No predetermination. No supernatural intervention. Maybe Deism, maybe the Hobbesean view. A Creator sets the world into motion like balls on a billiard table. The rest is free will and dumb luck. But I will not have God killing babies!”

I seem to be standing. My family is staring at me. What the hell am I talking about?

“And you two really need to work on your enunciation!”
Cecily’s reaction comes in the form of a waltz: two giggles, one ow! two giggles, one ow! Irma is a storm of flapping and snorting. I sit down and join them until my abdomen aches.


            I’m having a hard time getting out of bed. The fake wood paneling is so familiar. I can’t stop staring at it.

“Yo, shleepyhead! You had better get down here and give me a hug.”

I scuttle around so my head hangs over the bedside. “Cheyenne? Already?”

“Yep. Drove all night. Thanksh to the inshomniac here.”

Justin sits at the fold-out table, looking proud but bleary. I perform several yoga positions in my effort to escape the overhang. I grab Cecily and hold on like we’re dangling from a parachute. “You are going to keep in touch with me, young lady.”

“Hey, you’re the one with no number. Addressh. Email. Et shetera.”

“Yeah. Okay. Soon as I get one of those.”

She smiles, as much as her stitches will allow. “I wazh thinking about the nexsht time I hear the phrase ‘train wreck.’ ‘Wow, that movie was a train wreck.’ Oh no it wazhn’t!” She kisses me on the cheek. “Thanksh for being Shuperwoman. Shweetie.”

“Anytime. Take care, honey.”

She and Justin leave the camper. I watch from the table as she heads for a payphone across the street. In the distance, I can see a set of barren mountains dusted with snow. A minute later, Justin raps on the door. “Hey! You want to ride up front with me?”

“You’re going to keep driving?”

“Sure! Don’t worry. I’ll know when to stop.”

I’m not buying it. Justin keeps rubbing his eyes, holding the wheel at arm’s length, trying to focus. As we cruise the center of Casper, I begin to think this is my last chance to get him off the road.

“Tell you what. I’ve got some spending cash. Let’s check in at a motel. I would love to get a shower.”

He casts me a sharp look, blonde curls piled up on his head like a young Jerry Lee Lewis. “Nonsense. I’m fine. I’m a Colorado kid, born with a steering wheel in my hands.

“Justin! I see how tired you are. How would your grandpa feel if the woman who saved his life perished in a fiery auto crash?”

He laughs and speaks to me through the rear-view mirror. “Don’t worry! I’ve got slumber indicators wired into my nervous system.”

I do not like the results I’m getting. I also don’t like the look of the stormclouds gathering on our northern horizon. Justin turns left onto Highway 20. We’re climbing a hill toward pine trees and snow. The last piece of civilization is a Motel 6.

“What if you took a shower with me?”

He glances in the rear-view, sea-green eyes rimmed with red.

“Yes. I actually said that. Now stop.”

Justin hits the brakes and pulls into the parking lot.

“You’re not a… Muslim, are you?”


I have recruited Molly for video duty, an all-ages club in San Jose. My bandmates are a little skittish about the young audience, but a number of pleasant circumstances swing in our favor. We’re opening for a high school band that has managed to pack the place, and the kids seem genuinely excited to see a “real” adult band.

Afterwards, we settle into the biergarten with some Finnish rockers. The guitarist compliments my snare work, which is just specific enough to seem sincere. Molly appears with my video camera and two ice-cold ales.

“Oh! You are too awesome.”

She smiles. “Yes I am. But I guess you noticed the problem with that table you saved me.”

“I believe I was directly behind Pamela. That’s all right – she’s our eye candy.”

Molly squeezes onto the bench next to a bass amp. “Speaking of disappearing, where did you go after the second song?”

“Ha! Bass pedal came completely off. I asked Pamela to stall for me, so she did the intros.”


“You don’t know the half of what goes on up there.”

I take a big swig of Bass ale. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was. “You seem more… girly than usual.”

She swings her pony tail. “Extensions.”

“No! How beautifully artificial of you.”

“Thanks. I’m trying to become more shallow. Hanging out with celebrities…”



“One news report does not…”

“Oh stop right there. You have found your true vocation, laddie. You were eloquent, you were smart – but without seeming smarmy. It was really turning me on. And you made that guy from the DEA look like a total jackass. Where did you get this? Where did this come from?”

She jabs at my ribs. I grab her hands.

“Seriously? You want to know?”


“Ever been tried as a heretic?”

“Not counting family Thanksgiving?”

“You are automatically guilty. They know all about your blasphemies, and their job is to guarantee your reservations in hell. To take away your wife, your family, every friend you’ve ever had – to wipe you from the face of the Earth. You, meanwhile, think that you have an actual chance, so you sit there for hours as a bunch of old white men who wouldn’t know their scrotums from Saskatchewan shovel on truckload after truckload of theological hate. Even for a purely rational being, who understands the bullshit soon after escaping it, it takes years, decades to scrape all that condemnation off your skin.”

Molly just looks at me. “Jesus. I guess I never really understood what they put you through.”

“Well. Here’s the good part. Shit like that makes you strong. By comparison, the court of public opinion is a breeze. This time, I know I’m right, and I’m operating in a county where much of the adult population indulges in the evil weed.”

“You go!”

“Also, it’s a damn good way to distract myself from other recent events.”

The Finnish guitarist pulls out an instrument in the shape of a crescent moon and heads for the entrance.

“How cool is that?” I say. “Let’s check ‘em out.”


I hope someday I get to see Wyoming, because right now it’s nothing but a white sheet. Even with four-wheel drive and snow tires, Justin’s truck is sliding around like a drunken skier. Every few minutes, a Wyoming-plated car passes at twice our speed. I suspect some native secret until I see three of them at various spots in the fields, being attended to by tow trucks and patrol cars.

My general anxiety is not being helped by last night’s dream. Justin and I were playing the game on a flat cart, the kind you see at a hardware store. In fact, we were in a hardware store, and the checkout lady was my mother. She aimed her scanner at my rear-end, but it wouldn’t read, so she got on the P.A. “Price check, aisle three, fornicators?” A young Mexican guy ran up to my mother with the amount, Justin handed her a credit card, and we rolled toward the doors. They slid open, and we disappeared in a flash of orange flames.

Sex. The game was sex. This was the reason my mother beat me, and yelled at me, and damned me to hell.

Justin stops the truck and sets the brake. “I gotta admit, this is one hell of a drive. I’ll be right back.”

He clambers onto the hood and hacks at the windshield with a plastic scraper. It’s not a complete job, but he has managed to open up a few peepholes. A few miles later, we’re greeted by the lights of a gas station. After a restroom stop, I find Justin scanning twenty-three varieties of motor oil.

“Look,” he says. “The guy says that this storm will pass in an hour or two. I was thinking maybe we could wait it out. Go in the back, take a nap. Maybe… play the game?”

He’s such a sweet kid, and he’s working so hard to get me home. There’s got to be a way of telling him without hurting his feelings. I start by giving him a kiss on the cheek.

“I’m awfully sorry, but I just got my period.”

His face deflates. “Oh. Well. Nothing we can do.”

I can’t stand that look. I spot something across the aisle.

“Maybe there’s something else we can do.” I hand him a jar of petroleum jelly. His face turns red, which is so cute I can’t stand it.

Photo by MJV

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Poem: The Aroma from Tacoma

The Aroma from Tacoma

In the dark still tick of his core,
a balance of evensong.

Licorice pull of canefire,
fields of charred stalk, clouds of black.

We love the ugly as well as
the sweet: five-year-old on an
aircraft carrier, breathing diesel.

At forty, he returns to his
only chosen town. The odor of the
paper mill takes him to tears.

Because it’s distinct.
Because it means something:
the failures are behind you,
it’s time to start over.

Challenger International

From the collection Fields of Satchmo

Photo by MJV

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter 32: Train Wreck

Buy the Kindle book at



I am perched on a footstool in the philosophy section, sorting through some new arrivals, when I hear a ruckus outside, followed by loud footsteps. I stand to find a man in quasi-military dress: black ballcap, boots, flak jacket. He holds a large black weapon with all manner of spidery attachments. I have only seen such a thing in really bad movies. My first thought is that the Christian Right has decided to take me out.

“Sir! Please stay where you are and put your hands on your head!”

Nope. The Christians would not be that polite. The clean-cut muscleface, mouth like a mail slot: pure cop. Two more muscleheads bang their way in. One of them turns and I see the letters on his shirt: DEA.

“Sir!” Mail-slot. “Is there anyone else in the store?”

I shake my head.

“Are you the proprietor?”


His partner comes over and gives me a pat-down that borders on molestation. The third guy paces the perimeter, waving his gun toward phantom cartels.

“Okay,” says molester. He’s Asian, broad-faced, his brows two perfectly trimmed hyphens. “We have reports that you have cannabis plants on the property. Please lead us to them, and please do so without making any sudden moves. Is that clear?”



I report to the dining car and find that I will be seated at a table with three strangers. If I were not so terribly hungry, I would turn right around. The waiter seats me next to a teenage girl plugged into some kind of music player. But the elderly folks across from me seem more than eager to talk. The lady smiles at me with perfect artificial teeth and says, “I’m Irma. This is my husband Sal.” “Hi. I’m Kelly.” The girl says “Cecily,” which surprises us all. Irma scans the menu and then gets back to me. “Where are you from, Kelly?” “Um, Montana.” “Oh! So you’re returning home?” “Yes, I was… visiting San Francisco.” Irma’s eyes light up. “Isn’t it a lovely city? We had so much fun. Of course, Sal saw it as one big lunch bucket.” Sal pats his belly. “Some of the best damn food I ever tasted.” I smile and give a little laugh. Perhaps this is survivable. They’re a talky couple. I will smile and say “gosh” and volunteer nothing about my shameless Muslim fraternizing. Why is it that I can drift into sin without even trying? It’s not fair. Sal and Irma are conferring on some technical matter, so I take a look outside. We’re on a long plain of high desert scrub, swales of snow like patches on a cow. A big plume of dust, a truck, perpendicular to the train. I grab onto Cecily, I grab onto the table.


I imagine the supervisor talking to the painter. “Gray. Grayer than gray. If someone arrives here in a depression, I want them to leave suicidal.”

That would explain the walls, at least. I’m a little fuzzy about my location, but I do know that the drive was a half-hour. The door clicks open and in comes Eva, her hair frazzled into a semi-Mohawk. The next character is a short, bald man whose suit matches the walls. I stand to accept Eva’s hug.

“Paulie! God, I am so sorry about this. This is Stan Gardner. He’s from the Marijuana Legalization Board. He’s taking up our case.”

I take Stan’s handshake and laugh. “No offense, but you don’t really look like a pothead.”

Stan is determined to stay serious. “Never touch the stuff. That’s kind of the point. It’s not about getting high. It’s about rights.”


We sit at a small table. Stan sorts his way through a sheaf of papers. “So let me get this straight,” he says. “They came in armed.”


“Did they point the weapons at you?”

“Not aimed, really. Brandished.”

“Searched you? Cuffed you?”

“Yes. Both.”

“Miranda rights.”


He checks the sheet on top. “Warrants check out. They confiscated all the plants.”

“Jesus. So excuse my language, Stan, but what the fuck?”

“Same old shit. The feds have been screwing with medical marijuana ever since our wise citizenry okayed it. Our little Green Enlightenment is threatening a lot of jobs at the War on Drugs, so every once in a while they stomp on a local grower. The difference in this case is the weaponry. I’m fairly certain they scared the shit out of you, and they also put your life in danger. Imagine if you had been holding a pricing gun.”

I like Stan. He talks like a non-lawyer.

He stuffs his papers into a worn-out satchel. “We’re getting you released right now. You will likely face a court date – in two to three months – and we will be there to help you with whatever bullshit charges they come up with. And here’s the really annoying part: you can’t go home. They’ve sealed off your store.” Stan folds his arms across his chest and gives me a long study. “Paul, you strike me as a very calm hellion. Would you be comfortable going public about this? Talking to some media?”

I place my hands on the table. “Just point me to a fucking microphone.”

It turns out that Stan knows how to smile.


My flight comes to a halt when my face hits the table. The sounds go on forever: squeals, explosions, shouts, percussion of flying objects. I touch my forehead and come away with blood. I turn carefully and find Cecily with a cut lip. She’s conscious. I whisper to her, only I’m shouting. “Get out of the train! Cecily! That exit, there!” I point to the red letters, two tables down. She nods and disappears. I find Irma on the floor, crouched on a scattering of smashed plates. I take her by an elbow and help her to her feet. The car is filled with similar scenes, people moving like zombies, food and silverware, ripped clothing. A moan, agitated chatter. Smoke. “Irma! Can you make it to the exit?” She nods. Her dentures are gone. I see flames. Irma stops at the stairs. “Sal! Where’s Sal?” Sal’s in his seat, head back, unconscious. I wave Irma off. “Don’t worry, I’ve got him.” There’s a redheaded man in the booth behind us, writhing. He’s gripping his leg, which is bent at an unnatural angle. I try not to look. “Help! Help here!” A black waiter, broad-shouldered, jogs over to carry him away. I give Sal a slap. “Sal!” Nothing. I can feel the waves of heat from the car in front of us. I’m choking. I have to do this. I grab Sal by an arm and a leg and slide him from the booth. He lands on the floor with a sloppy thud. I spin him around, put a hand under each arm and pull him through the refuse, then down the stairs, his poor old butt bouncing on each step. By the time we reach the exit my arms feel like rubber bands, so I lock my hands around his chest and fall backwards. We land in a pile and keep going, down the dusty soil of the embankment. I come to a stop in a tumbleweed. I can hear Irma bending over Sal, saying hopeful things. When I open my eyes, the engine and the truck are no longer there, just a pile of metal and rock, followed by two cars lying on their sides. The sky fills with black.

Photo by MJV

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Poem: Replay


Kyle finds the northwest tip of the
forty-eight and walks the beach.
An eagle traces the shoreline.
Lost in wings, Kyle stumbles on a
New York subway turnstile,
next to a sand dollar.
He slips it into the slot and walks through.

The sand rises, arrowing into the
ocean like the spine of a brontosaur.

The path is only three feet wide,
but Kyle ventures forward.
A black porpoise leaps from
the water, chittering. At two miles,
the beach fades from view.

An Orca swims past, daggers of
black and white. Kyle stumbles on a
pinball machine. His favorite.
Next to a sand dollar.
He slips it into the slot and plays.
He remembers the rhythm,
the moves, the tricks.
He feels lighter, younger.
He wears a cap, tight pants, cleats.

A light flashes red.
He hits the ball hard, up the
ramp, drops it into the slot.
The machine erupts with sound.
The ground shakes.

The spit is closing up; the
water rushes forward.
He turns to find a
fog-bound green,
a glove on his left hand.

The ring of a metal bat.
This is the flyball that
fell between him and the
shortstop, the one that
cost him the starting job.
The year they won the title.

Kyle charges forward,
yelling for the ball like
Luciano freakin’ Pavarotti.

First published by Challenger International

From the collection Fields of Satchmo

Photo by MJV 

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter 31: Mecca

Buy the Kindle book at



Interstate 101 is no place to be on a Return Sunday, so Molly takes the back way. My head is throbbing, which makes it easier to monitor my heart rate. We’re passing a farm with a long row of eucalyptus when Molly decides to talk.

“I feel responsible for this.”

“Hey, nobody forced me to take those Jello shots.”

“I pushed her too hard. I should have been more careful.”

“Oh nonsense. You only went forward when she forced the issue. Wherever she is, she’s not injuring herself, and that’s because of you. Nobody could predict a random convergence of words in an art gallery.”

She clicks her tongue. “Opus fucking Giovanni.”

This makes me laugh, which makes my headache worse.

“Regardless,” she says, then seems to lose her thought. She tries again. “Regardless, I am part of this disaster, and I intend to do whatever I can to help you with this.”

“Be a friend.”

She looks at me, then back at the road. “Are we friends?”

“We’re sharing a hangover. We’re both in love with Jasmina.”

“I’m not supposed to be…”

“Who can help being in love with Jasmina?”

Pause. Pause. “And I’m not implying that you’re a lesbian.”

Molly laughs, a single open-mouthed yap. “Thank you for that.”


Kumbra drives us away from the white city on a bridge so long that it must rest at an island before continuing on. When we arrive at his apartment, I find that I am almost too tired to walk. Kumbra tugs on a couch and turns it into a bed. Mama warned me about this kind of dark magic, but I am too tired to resist. When I open my eyes, the curtains are fat with light; I peek through them and see the white city across the water. Kumbra serves me a breakfast of eggs and a pastry he calls kwa-saunt. Afterwards, I take a shower and join him on a hike along the water. The trail forms a capital C, taking us to the end of a long jetty that looks back at Kumbra’s apartment. He puts a hand on my neck and rubs. It feels wonderful. “I hope you are feeling better,” he says. “You were very tired.” “Yes, I was. It’s been a long and puzzling journey.” “Where did you start?” he asks. “I’m not sure. There was a long trail through the giant trees, and then I had to cross the orange bridge.” Kumbra’s eyes grow wide. “You are a wonder.” A speedboat crosses the water in front of us, a father and son, yelling with glee. “This is an incredible spot,” I say. “I feel like we have walked into the middle of the water. Like Jesus.” Kumbra answers quietly. “I knew you would like it. I come here to clear my thoughts. But now, I have to get back.” We return along the jetty and pause at an island peppered with rocks and spindly-looking trees. “I am going to give you some money,” says Kumbra. “Did you notice the long brick building behind my apartment?” “Yes.” “It’s an international marketplace. Go there and buy some lunch – I recommend the Vietnamese place – and then walk to the very end. There you will see a store called Goodwill.” “Goodwill to men!” I say. “Exactly. And inexpensive clothing. Used clothing, but they clean everything. I want you to buy three outfits, and get something for all kinds of weather.” I’m so struck by his generosity that I can say only “Okay.” A tall white bird stands on one foot in the water, looking for food.


Exit Wonderland has been in a bit of an exile. With his girlfriend and her children moving into the household, Smeeed saw the need for a hideaway, and booted our equipment out of the garage so he could make some renovations. After a month without rehearsals, I march in with my bass drum to find a vastly different space. The cluttered shelves are gone, making room for large photo collages and a comfy futon sofa. The southwest corner plays host to a computer center, a wooden desk resembling the bridge of a spaceship. Most alarmingly, the rugs are utterly clean.

Smeeed comes in behind me and says, “Here, I’ll take that.”

“Oh you will, will you?” He takes my six-pack and sorts the bottles into a mini-fridge. “My God, man, do you realize what you’ve done?”

He gives me an amused look. “Not really.”

“You’ve created the ultimate man-cave. Complete with its own rock band. I have half a mind to call Sunset magazine and have them do a feature.”

“Why not Rolling Stone?”

We revert to our usual preparations. Smeeed sets up monitors and mic stands as I perform the endless back-and-forths of drum delivery. Once I’ve got all the parts, I begin the process of sorting them into a playable feng shui.

Smeeed folds out the keyboard stand, an X-wing affair. “Any news on missing persons?”

“Nope. Given that she’s an adult, and we’re not related, the powers that be cannot really force the issue. Never mind that she may not know who she is.”


“Yeah.” I set my ride cymbal into place and cap it with a wing nut. “I sometimes think this isn’t a brain thing. Maybe I was just here to give Jasmina her memory back. And now she’s on her merry way. Maybe I’m not that important to her.”


I wait for more. Smeeed checks the levels on his soundboard.

“That’s all? ‘Nope?’”

“Nope, you’re wrong. I’ve been around you two. I have observed the vibe. Something strong there, something gravitational. Same thing as me and my lady.”

“I think it’s hilarious that you call her ‘my lady.’”

“Considering the benefits, I’m willing to suffer the ridicule.”

The door swings open, followed by two dachsunds, straining at their leashes. “Don’t worry,” says Pamela. “Just giving them a tour of the yard before I lock them in the truck.”

“No more dachsunds?” I ask.

Smeeed waves a hand. “Clean rugs.”

Pamela pulls her charges toward the yard. Jasper nearly chokes himself, looking back at all that virgin territory.


The lights of the white city fill Kumbra’s window like a magic trick. He tells me this is San Francisco, which surprises me. Rev. Matterhorn always held up San Francisco as the modern Sodom. I used to picture a city of demons, flames licking at the sewer grates, sinners running down the streets, naked, killing people at random. I am equally dazzled by Kumbra’s television, which seems to contain a separate channel for every possible human desire. In the presence of such a device, how would a person get anything done at all? But the wait is long. Kumbra has the dinner shift, and though I try very hard, I am unable to stay awake. Deep into the night, I am roused by Kumbra’s hand on my shoulder. He looks tired, but he is still handsome. “Kelly, I am sorry to wake you, but I have news. Did you buy your clothes?” “Yes,” I say. “Good. Very good. I have something for you. Scoot your legs.” I shift to the side, and he lifts a suitcase onto the futon. “What’s that for?” Kumbra smiles. “It goes with this.” He hands me an envelope and turns on the lights. “What’s an Amtrak?” I say. He laughs. “You are, at this very moment, three blocks from the western hub of a train called the California Zephyr. This train will take you to Salt Lake City, after which another train will take you to Great Falls. And you will use this to feed yourself.” He hands me a wad of bills. I am barely awake and shocked. Kumbra gets up from the futon. “Now! To celebrate your voyage, I have purloined some fine swordfish from my restaurant, as well as some excellent Italian wine.” We eat and drink and laugh, but I don’t feel entirely comfortable. Eventually, with the help of the wine, it bursts out of me. “Why, Kumbra? Why have you done this for me?” He takes my hand and gives me a serious look. “An entire village labored and sacrificed to send me to the culinary academy, and to allow me to work in this paradise. I send them money, but it is never enough to express my gratitude. So when I meet a beautiful girl who wants to go home – and believe me, I know what it is to be homesick – perhaps I will help her, and perhaps in this way my debt will feel less burdensome. I give this gift freely, Kelly. Do me the favor of accepting it.” I am overwhelmed. I kiss Kumbra on the cheek. “I once had a friend named Jacob. He and I played a game that gave us much pleasure. I wonder… if you would play it with me?” Kumbra looks entirely amused. “Why would I ever say no?” “Good,” I say. “Come with me.”


After four hours of too many people and not enough space, I have discovered a sanctuary, a cafĂ© under the viewing car. I am closer to the rails, and I have my own window. We’re climbing long hills through a tunnel of trees. I spot a lone patch of snow, and a swingset – someone’s backyard! How odd that must be, having folks from all over the country careening past your fence. Kumbra knelt forward, his head to the floor. I thought he might be sick. “Kumbra?” He held up a hand and whispered something to a small rug. Then he lifted his head and smiled. “Sorry. I am not a devout man, but I promised my mother I would keep up with my prayers.” I snickered. “That’s a funny way to pray.” “Not at all,” he said. “But I do admit, it is often difficult to locate Mecca. I wonder if they make a GPS for that? Well! We had better get you going.” I was grateful for Kumbra’s chattiness, because I was trying to hide the fact that I was horrified. I shared a bed with a Muslim. If my mother ever found out… But Kumbra is so kind. Perhaps he is not really Muslim. Perhaps he is mistaken. I sip my coffee – coffee purchased with Muslim money – and I feel more confused than ever.

Photo by MJV

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter 30: Kumbra

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After a day of regular soakings, I have discovered a small shelter. The walls feature pictures of good-looking people who smile at me as if I have just handed them a plate of  cookies. I have also inherited half a peanut butter sandwich and some crackers. It’s hard to believe that people throw out such things. I feel much better, but I also feel like I should keep moving. I dig out a plastic bottle, fill it with water and am about to take off when I hear a far-off crashing. I follow the sound along a short path and come to a low stone wall. I am standing at the top of a cliff, and looking at a shoreline that I cannot quite believe. It’s as if someone cut a mountain in half and sent its sandy innards tumbling toward the ocean. I move to the left end of the wall and find something even more stunning: a white city, a million houses built on hills. Some of the houses are enormous, rising toward the sky in fantastic shapes: a triangle, a stack of cards, a fire hose. I know that Mama warned me about places like this, but I have already decided: the road back to Cloudburst begins in the white city.


I know that I am a pathetic figure, but I also know what I need. I step on to the sidewalk and rap on the glass. Javid looks up from his work and comes over to unlock the door.

“Hi Paul.”

“I know you’re closing, but… could I buy some popcorn?”

“No,” he says. “But you can have some popcorn. Butter?”


He fills a bucket, spends a long time at the butter-pump and grabs a handful of napkins.

“Thanks, Javid.”

“No prob. I… I miss her, too. Well – I better get back to work.”

He slaps me on the shoulder. It stays there like a Day-Glo handprint. I sit in my bed and squash handfuls into my mouth, parsing a late-night talk show for words of wisdom.


The sky has cleared out, but the light from the city obscures the stars. I descend the final hundred yards to the orange bridge, feeling like a knight approaching the dragon’s lair. The first tower rises forever, disappearing into the night sky. I am relieved to find that a person can, in fact, walk across to the white city. I pass beneath the tower without being eaten, and the giant cables slowly sink to my side. I begin to see dark silhouettes, shadows that have escaped their people. They gather at the railing and take turns leaping into the water far below. One of them turns and reaches out to me, an invitation. A black-haired angel appears on the cable and raises her arms, like a queen addressing her subjects. She speaks in a low, calm voice. “These are the shadows of people who were silly, and wasteful, and threw away their lives. Ignore them, and keep walking.” I turn toward the white city.


We’re playing a party in Sebastapol, in a funky little house on the edge of a vineyard. It’s actually two houses: an aging farmhouse and a slapped-together cottage that serves as the band room. Things with Exit Wonderland have gotten too serious, so we decide to play a bizarro set. We play the surf punk as a stoner reggae, the metal anthem as a disco song, the rockabilly as a polka. Some of the new versions sound better than the old – or perhaps we are just dazzled by our own ingenuity.

Afterward, we head outside to attack the remains of a pot-luck. Sitting at a picnic table, we watch the next band through a picture window. A hip-hop drummer is doing some amazing tricks on my hi-hat as his word-man conjures an impressive run of rhyme and invective. The bass player spends most of his time cracking up.

“They are fucking awesome!”

“And you’re fucking drunk!”

“Molly! What the hell are you doing here?”

The charmed smile. Always the charmed smile. I just want to attack that thing.

“I’m here as your personal assistant. It was great to hear your band.”

“I got news for ya. That wasn’t us.”

“You’ve been doing the Jello shots.”

“And the hash brownies. I am an equal-opportunity dessert consumer.”

“Good thing I brought the camper.”

“So you’re my designated driver?”

“After a good long sleep. The shrink is going to indulge, because the shrink is fucking worn out.”

Even in my altered state I can see the sadness in Molly’s eyes.

“Rough week?”

“Yeah. Lost a patient.”

“That’s too bad.”

“She just… disappeared.” She holds up a fist and opens it, like a magician vanishing a coin.

“You know, Molly? You’re a beautiful woman.”

The next smile falls more in the category of amused. “And you’re drunk.”

I raise a declamatory finger, but succeed only in upsetting our bench, sending us tumbling backward onto the grass. After a lengthy fit of laughter, I open my eyes to a sky that is absolutely crammed with stars. I feel certain that I am supposed to be sad about something, but I am grateful that I don’t remember.


The city is dazzling and terrifying all at once. The buildings scale the hills, and seem to be leaning on one another. I fear they will tumble down and crush me. I keep them at arm’s length by staying to the waterfront, and I take a nap on a park bench. When I awake, I steel myself and I wander onto a street lined with shops and restaurants. The air smells of seafood and candy, and the people chatter in a hundred languages. The crush almost feels comforting, but still I’m relieved when I burst into the broader spaces near the wharves. One of them features a row of colorful banners at its entrance: Pier 39. I walk the gray planks amid jewelry stores and ice cream parlors, and I discover a ride with painted horses circling round and round. Two brown girls are holding onto a white pony and screaming with glee as their mother snaps photos. But I hear something else, too – a howling and bellowing, like the sound of Reverend Matterhorn’s hounds. I take a corridor past a souvenir shop and come to a railing next to the water. Twenty feet away, a wooden island is teeming with oily-looking creatures, flopping around and barking their heads off. The scene is so silly that it sets me into a fit of giggling. “What’s so funny?” someone says, and I say, “Those goofy dogs!” I turn to find a man with lean features and skin as black as obsidian. His smile is blinding. “Those are not dogs, silly girl. They’re sea lions.” “Now what’s more likely to be in the water,” I say, “a dog or a lion?” He lets out a ringing laugh and says, “You make a good point.” He lights a cigarette and stands a little away from me so it won’t blow in my face. “Your skin is incredible,” I say. His face tightens, as if someone has blown smoke at him, but it passes. “You actually mean that, don’t you?” “Well of course!” I say. “Why would I say it if I didn’t mean it?” He chuckles and puts out the cigarette. “Skin is a touchy subject in this country.” “I also like the way you talk – it’s musical.” “Well thank you. I am from Kenya. I am told it’s a pleasing accent. My name is Kumbra.” He extends his hand. “I’m Kelly.” The exchange of names brings an awkward silence. The sea lions jump in the water, all at once. “Well!” I say. “What’s that about?” Kumbra says, “Perhaps they spotted a fish. So pardon me for being blunt, but you are much better-looking than our usual homeless clientele. What brings you here?” The question makes me a little sad. “I’m not really sure. I’m trying to get home to Montana. My mother’s probably worried about me.” Kumbra gives me an all-over look. “Listen, I just had some people from Oklahoma turn up their noses at my best prawns. What the hell does an Oklahoman know about something that comes from the sea? Wait right here.” A minute later, he returns and hands me a paper bag. “I tell you what. I get off in three hours. Let me take you out for a drink, and we’ll see what we can do to get you back to Montana. Please don’t stay here, though. Tell you what. See that tower up there?” “Oh! The firehose?” “Yes. Exactly. Take a nice, easy walk up there, eat your prawns, and perhaps by the time you get back I will be ready for you.” “Okay,” I say. “Thank you, Kumbra.” As I turn to go, Kumbra says, “You have incredible skin, also.” This makes me laugh.

Photo by MJV