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May 2023

El Poder Diabólico del Idioma Extranjero
Damian Dressick

The airport in Bogota is nowhere you want to be. There are, of course, worse airports out of which to be flying. Airports with notorious crosswinds. Airports hours of traffic from the metro areas they serve. Airports without air conditioning or potable water. Airports with fourteen-dollar beers. But here you are, hours to kill before your flight.

Your attempt to order coffee and a chicken empanada from a patisserie in the international terminal has gotten you no closer to your intended meal than a fly-specked croissant and warm lemonade offered by an unsmiling food service worker. You are about to give up and accept the proffered food, but you are suddenly overcome with the need to respond. Perhaps it is the elevation, maybe it's hunger, who can say? At any rate, something compels you to press the issue. You open your mouth, intending to offer a mild rebuke, or more realistically an apology that you have failed to make yourself understood. Likely you desire to explain how you have failed to apprehend the nuances of the language, that your limited vocabulary or accent is surely to blame for any confusion. Instead, to your surprise what comes out of your mouth, in flawless and very loud high-country Colombian Spanish is something to the effect of, "Listen shithead, if I wanted fucking breakfast food, I would have asked for fucking breakfast food."

 

No one is more shocked than you. Well, unless you count the onlookers in the airport, the people behind you en la fila, the sad-eyed counterman himself and perhaps most importantly the forty-something mustachioed gentleman whose dark uniform, shining badge and wary expression, not to mention gleaming black revolver, clearly identify him as a member of el areopuerto's policia especiale.

 

"Señor," he asks of you, "¿Hay algún problema?”

 

Although he makes this inquiry in Spanish, it is the universal language of cop that necessitates the more urgent translation. What this agent of law enforcement obviously means is: "Is there something so much the matter with you that I have to spend the rest of my morning taking your boisterous lunatic ass to jail?"

 

You back away from the police officer a half step. Raise your arms in a U shape as if to signal a successful extra point in American football. You start turning your empty palms out. You want no misunderstandings about weapons. It is imperative you de-escalate this situation. You want to explain that everything is cool. Everything is just fine, thank you. You won't be making any more trouble today, perhaps not ever. Instead, as your left hand moves seemingly of its own accord your fist closes—all but your index finger which you notice now points directly at the police officer.

 

Un facista!" you shout. "Aqui. ¡Aqui en este aeropuerto, es un facista! ¡Miren todos!"

 

Unsurprisingly, this action has done little to reassure the officer that you are not a threat, not a problem urgently needing to be dealt with. Of course, you're likely not the first extranjero in the Bogota airport to be artificially stimulated into bad choices. At any rate, he draws his pistol, radios for backup.

 

In minutes—this is Bogota, remember—a dozen heavily-armed men appear out of nowhere with the intention of surrounding you. You are not high on cocaine. You are not even high on Advil. You weigh informing the swarming police that you may be the victim of demonic possession. After considering how this might play out long enough for an officer near the Claro kiosk to activate the laser sighting on his rifle, you decide you would be better off with everyone involved concluding you are merely high on cocaine.

 

You review your Columbian itinerary for clues to this philological conundrum. The architectural tour of the walled city of Cartagena des Indias surely cannot be to blame. The cooking classes in Medellin? No via. Cursed jungle trek from Minca to Ciudad Perdida to gaze on the sacred, forbidden idols? ¿Quien sabe?

 

But watching the body-armor stilted movements of la policia, transfixed by the glimmer of the fluorescent lights off their riot shields, you realize contemplating the genesis of this linguistic phenomena may not be the best place to expend your limited time or energies.

 

Gathering every scintilla of effort you can manage, you squeak out in barely audible English, a hint of a whisper. "I am so sorry. I have no idea what's happening."

 

No one, of course, can hear a word you say over the din of the airport, the chatter of the crowd, the hiss of a nearby espresso machine. An officer cautiously leans in, lowers his machine pistol, cups his ear.

 

"¿Como?" he asks. "¿Que dijiste?"

 

Callate!" shouts el Jefe de Seguridad del Aeropuerto.

 

From the whirr of the escalator to the barks of the drug sniffing dogs, everything in the El Dorado International Airport seems to pause.

 

Finally having the undivided attention of all, you are desperate to proclaim your innocence. Tell of you own bafflement. But rather than the measured declamation of blamelessness you intend, you begin to shout about the dire and immediate need for LA REVOLUTIÓN! As dozens of la policia especiale flank you like an opposing army, you channel Simon Bolivar, channel Che Guevara, channel a young, prelapsarian Fidel Castro.

 

A gathering crowd—initially having assembled for the sheer entertainment of seeing some American maniac hauled off to his just desserts—swells like a broken wrist. Skeptical at first, la gente begin to nod as you tick off injustice after injustice. In time they are chanting “¡Si, es verdad!” at your every utterance. “¡Las corporaciones están destruyendo el mundo!” you tell la gente. “¡El planeta está jodido!” you shout to the rafters. “¡Nosotros tenemos que luchar contra los bastardos!”

 

The police are significantly less interested in your hackneyed exhortations about social and ecological justice than in maintaining order in the International Terminal of El Dorado airport. When you raise a closed fist skyward and suggest marching on La Capital, a billy club comes down hard across your parietal bone, dropping you to the patterned terrazzo floor. Stainless steel handcuffs bite into your wrists. Your involuntarily recitation of Zapata should give way to imitating a silence-embracing Buddhist saint. But it’s too late. The crowd’s fury has taken on a life of its own. A riot has erupted on Concourse A.

 

As you are led off to a holding cell in customs, looters smash displays, molest luggage, turn duty free upside down. Chairs splinter shopfront windows. Luggage fires swell at baggage claim.

 

Days later you come to yourself again, emerald canopy of jungle towering above you, prison break little more than a memory. The high, white peaks of the Andes soar in the distance. A dozen camouflaged men encircle you clutching weapons, mostly automatic. A grizzled veteran pushes a topographical map into your outstretched hand. Although your espanol diabólico has deserted you as rapidly—as inexplicably—as it came, it seems to have endured long enough for you to assume command of the scraggly remnants of this anti-capitalist militia. You raise your rifle skyward, gesture a move to the east. Your men follow you, pushing deeper into la jungla.

Bio

Damian Dressick is the author of the novel 40 Patchtown (Bottom Dog Press) and the flash collection Fables of the Deconstruction (CLASH Books). His writing has appeared in more than seventy literary journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s New Micro, Electric Literature, Post Road, New Orleans Review, Cleaver, CutBank, Smokelong Quarterly, and New World Writing. A Blue Mountain Residency Fellow, Dressick is the winner of the Harriette Arnow Award and the Jesse Stuart Prize. He co-hosts WANA: LIVE!, a (largely) virtual reading series that brings some of the best Appalachian writers to the world. Damian also serves as Editor-in-Chief for the journal Appalachian Lit.

To My 8th Grade Typing Teacher

By Paul Hostovsky

Because I am a writer who can’t write                                  

in longhand, and because my fingers                                    

are always itching for the keyboard, my silent

piano, and because writing, for me, has always been

more like making music anyway

than having anything to say,

 

I am writing to say thank you, Miss Statchel,

wherever you are, for teaching me how to type in the 8th grade,

back when I was a cross between

a suppurating pimple with sensory organs on it

and a stomach lurching queasily down a junior

high school hallway. You saved my life,

 

which sounds hyperbolic, I know, but hey,

as the bumper sticker says, Art Saves Lives,

and I think I can safely say

that typing is the one skill I learned in junior high

that has stood me in good stead, a phrase

that’s been around since the 15th century,

which is an etymological factoid as useless

as all the facts and dates and definitions

 

we memorized in junior high. But I remember

your classroom, Miss Statchel, a manual typewriter bolted

to every desk, and Linda Farrell sitting demurely

in the desk next to mine. I might have

fallen in love with her if I didn’t

fall in love with typing first: a quirky, QWERTY

love of all the letters, and all the words,

with lots of touching with all my fingers,

except the thumbs–the right thumb making space

while the fingers made time with the letters,

 

the left thumb hovering over everything, looking on. I wonder

about that left thumb, why its fate is to be forever

left out, left over, like a maiden aunt, perhaps a little

like you, Miss Statchel, lonely, rigid, watchful, chaperoning

the fingers as they make love to the letters

and the words–yet never joining in the joy of the consummation.

Bio

Paul Hostovsky's poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net Awards, the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, and the Comstock Review's Muriel Craft Bailey Award. He has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer's Almanac, and The Georgia Poetry Circuit. He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter.

Website: paulhostovsky.com

In a Glass Garden

By Elizabeth Whitney

            I was in a generic mall in suburban New Jersey when Bill first called me with the news that his liver was failing. I remember exactly where I was standing, by the faux gourmet hamburger and wine bar. Of course, he didn’t put it quite that succinctly when he told me what was happening. Instead, he let small bits and pieces of information out like a barely loosened, squeaky balloon, and I understood vaguely that he’d had some blood work done and things were not looking good.

            “I have to stop drinking,” he said, “or at least really cut back. Or maybe just take a long break, so my liver can heal.”

            I didn’t know much about alcohol use disorder at that time. Bill was in his early forties and it seemed impossible for a person that young to experience liver failure, but then again, I was incredibly naïve. Even though the information was right in front of me, it would still be many years before I dared to say it out loud. It’s an impossible thing to name someone else’s addiction, and when they won’t name it, you are left floundering in a nebulous space of confusion and gaslighting.

            He stopped drinking on his own. He refused to go to rehab or accept any kind of help. Instead, he made a chart to meter his alcohol intake, and reduced his drinks each day so that he wouldn’t suffer from withdrawal. His resolve was impressive.

            Just like I remember where I was standing in that mall in New Jersey when he told me his liver was failing, I remember where we were sitting when he told me he was going to start drinking, again. Facing each other on the weathered lawn chairs by the pool in Florida, he casually mentioned picking up a bottle of red later that day at the store. It was a sunny, September day, which is somehow always the kind of beautiful day where you get the worst news.

            “Just a glass of wine,” he assured me, “I just want to be able to enjoy a glass of wine with everyone at dinner.”

  “What about your liver?” I asked, incredulously, my mouth hanging open.

            “My liver values are normal again,” he said, and looked at me like I had asked him if he was planning to take a rocket to the moon tomorrow. “Don’t make a big deal out of it, meow” he shook his head while using our childhood nickname, “I don’t need everyone judging me.”


           That was one of his tag lines, that we were judging him. It was part of the gaslighting, and his way of avoiding accountability. I knew that, and I also knew that I would have gone along with anything to keep my brother.

            “I’m not judging you,” I tried to assure him, “it’s just that you are doing so well, and I love having you present.”

            “And I love being present,” he tried to assure me, back, “Don’t worry, all will be well.”

 

 

            Bill was a beautiful, complicated, witchy spirit. He loved cats, gardening, and social justice, and he was an immensely talented glass artist.

            There is a thriving community of artists who work with glass in the Pacific Northwest, and some might argue that Portland is the epicenter, which is why he chose to apprentice here. The community includes everything from massive studios with ovens that take four days to heat, to independent artisans like Bill.

            His shop is in his garage, heated only by a wood stove. He has a small but high-quality lamp torch, and an oven that he built himself. I write this description in the present tense because it’s all still there. The oxygen and propane tanks, the torch, the safety goggles, the long, slender pieces of glass in every imaginable color—they’re all there, waiting for his hands to pick them up, to heat them, and shape them into something new and beautiful.

            He tried out various artisanal trades. He learned metal work with gold and silver jewelry and made drums from animal hides. Bill always had a gift for working with his hands. As children we took pottery classes at a local community center, and while I struggled to keep the lump of clay balanced on the wheel, his pots resembled actual pots.

            It made sense that he would settle into glasswork. It allowed him the total focus and individual work space that he needed to thrive. Though my parents often wished he would find a “real” job, he managed to create a successful business with his glasswork, and it paid the monthly basics of life. I could never imagine Bill going to work in any sort of 9 to 5 way. He was at his best when he could set his own schedule, and he was such a passionate and talented maker of so many things that he needed the freedom to work at an artist’s pace.

            He started out making cups and glasses. As I write this, I’m looking up at a window shelf lined with a series of small goblets in blues and golds. His repertoire expanded to include adult toys. For many years his business, Molten Sand Productions, was sustained solely by bespoke adult toys. He also made smoking paraphernalia, which was contracted to various distributors. He had a head for business, and before alcohol took over his life he was a thriving entrepreneur and a strong negotiator.


           I remember the first time I noticed his hands shaking, because it was while I watched him blow glass. We were both wearing safety goggles in his shop, seated on the tall stools that reached the height of his workbench. As he held the piece he was working on, I could see a slight trembling in his hands.


           “You okay, meow?” I asked, tentatively, “It looks like your hands are shaking a little bit.”

  “Yeah,” he responded, evasively, “I think I just had too much coffee on an empty stomach.”

            That’s the thing about gaslighting. You begin to doubt your own eyes, as I did every time I watched Bill’s hands shake more and more with even the slightest tasks.

            I don’t remember exactly when he quit working in his shop. It happened gradually, much like the way that addiction creeps in. One visit I just realized he wasn’t working anymore. We went into the shop to hang out and listen to music, but the work bench was quiet.

            But the glass is still out there in the shop, in its raw forms. And it’s in here, too, in its new forms. This whole house is a museum full of his artistry, and when I feel sad I walk around and pick up various pieces of beauty and hold them for a while.

 

 

            My favorite glass pieces Bill made were glass pendants, or pendulums. These he mostly gave as gifts to family and friends. My mother and I wear ours around our necks. Mine, with a swirling rainbow inside, is on a silver chain, and hers, a blue heart, is on a velvet string.

            The pendulums are meant to be multi-purpose. They are beautiful ornaments, and they are also divining tools. If you let the pendulum hang  just a few inches above your open palm, or above an object, it will at first be still. But, after a few seconds, there is a natural rotational force that begins to move it in a circle. This is a positive, or affirmative energy. When the pendulum shirts directions and swings in a line back and forth, this is a negative energy, or a counter indicator.

            I have used my pendulums as a meditative tool for decades. When I have a big decision to make, or a question about something, I sit with my pendulum and see whether it swings in a circle or a line.  The idea is that the pendulum picks up on a combination of my energy, and whatever guiding energy is around me. The way to attract positive guiding energy is to treat it like a meditation. Ultimately, the pendulum allows you to connect with your own intuition.

            Now, I use my pendulum to talk to Bill. Sometimes I don’t even talk, I just let it swing in a wide circle and I connect with his energy.

 

            Bill lived in his house in Portland for twenty years. One of his nicknames was Farmer Bill. He loved cultivating plants and had extensive knowledge about herbs. His entire yard was dedicated to green space. One of the wonders of Portland’s climate is how many things can grow here. There are two large fig trees in Bill’s yard. Someone tried to climb one to pick the figs and part of the trunk split, so we used supports to hold it together in hopes that it will heal and grow back. This tree, and this yard, are my touchstones for healing, and repairing the fractures in my life caused by his death.

            Despite the injury to the trunk, the fig trees in the yard bear plenty of fruit in the summer and even now in fall there are still figs left. The first time I had fresh figs was here at Bill’s house, and now I go in the mornings and pick figs for breakfast.

            Every time I visited, Bill and I wandered around the yard together and he showed me the new things he was growing. There were a variety of types of mint, including the standard mint, lemon mint, and even chocolate mint. Sage grows easily here, and we made tea from the leaves. I love the fresh, earthy, and musty smell of crushed sage leaves between my hands. Across the front of the yard, bordering the sidewalk was a row of raspberry bushes. It’s common to find berry bushes growing wild all over the city, and Bill had a sign in English and Spanish welcoming people from the neighborhood to pick blackberries from his community garden.

            Bill grew papalo, a piquant Mexican herb that is a sister plant to cilantro. His cherry tomatillos–also known as ground cherries or pineapple tomatillos sprouted in various garden beds, and we would wrap one in a papalo leaf and eat it in one bite. The contrasting flavors of fresh greens with the tart explosion of the tomatillo would be an excellent addition to any vegan sushi menu.

            In the backyard, Bill grew pole beans. There was a hammock on the porch, just next to the beans, where I liked to relax, look up at the sky, listen to the wind, and eat beans right from the vines. When it became legal to grow your own cannabis he began cultivating two strains, Frank’s Gift and Charlotte’s Web. He bought a machine that allowed him to synthesize the harvested buds and oil, and he made balms, tinctures, and chapsticks that he gave away as gifts. He also made tinctures from herbs in the yard and in the wild, and would often go on foraging trips to the forest with friends to pick yarrow. The tinctures were presented to me in small, blue, glass bottles labeled by year. A few drops in warm water were soothing for any stomach ache or just a hard day.

             As Bill’s alcohol use increased, the garden suffered. The cannabis plants began to dominate everything. The pole beans wilted, the raspberry bushes died, and even the fig trees seemed to mourn the loss of companionship from biodiversity around them. My brother Ed, who has been coming to the house to take care of things and also loves gardening, has begun the process of restoring this special place. This morning, I walked to the backyard to appreciate the garden beds he is rejuvenating, and as the Pacific Northwest wind whipped around me, I noticed new green sprouts everywhere.

            When we scattered Bill’s ashes in the backyard at his memorial last fall, we played a song that he loved, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.” I feel Bill’s presence everywhere in this garden. I am not religious in any traditional sense, but I do believe in science, and I know that organic matter never dies, it only takes new forms.

  As Bill would say, Blessed Be, and all will be well.

 

 

 

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning's hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry;

I am not there. I did not die.

 

–Mary Elizabeth Frye

Bio

Elizabeth Whitney is an Associate Professor at the City University of New York. Her work is published in Text and Performance Quarterly, and Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies.

Find her on Substack at FarmerBill and Instagram @Cornmeal Grit. www.elizabethjwhitney.com

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