Life’s Little Adventures

Posted on November 9, 2016

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FROM GNARLED OAK

With the County

by on Nov 7, 2016

Somewhat to my surprise I discovered those who worked for the county in which I used to live were not government employees but members of a private club. One joined this club by filling out an application, taking a test and going to interviews. Once one was accepted (because “a slot opened up”) one received an employee number. I filled out the application and took the test because I needed money. I soon discovered, however, that even though I’d been accepted and had been given an employee number I was not yet a full-fledged member. Newcomers were regarded with suspicion, if not totally ignored.

Insiders called their club “the county.” The term, as they used it, had occult overtones. When speaking to newcomers, or outsiders, they would repeat, “The county issues warrants on Wednesdays…” or “The county does not loan heavy equipment…” or “the county charges .423 on a base rate of assessed value…” as though some secret inner spirit—of which they were the tangible extensions—breathed through everything that they did.

The longer one had “been with the county” I learned, the more one absorbed the county mystique. (Club members never said “I work for the county,” they said “I’m with the county” or “I’ve been with the county sixteen years” as though describing a marriage.) As a club member absorbed the secrets that defined his or her specific activity he or she became the sole authority on how that activity was to be performed. Although manuals and operating procedures were posted here and there they often were outdated or had been superseded by an authority’s ingenuity or experience.

A slot opening at a higher level triggered a game of musical chairs as lower level club members filled newly opened slots. For months—or even years—after these promotions the new slot-fillers were obliged to pry secrets of their position from its former possessors (who, in turn, were doing the same from those they’d replaced, thus creating a chain of dependency that remained unbroken except in cases of death or someone leaving the area). When that happened the new possessor simply was told, “Well, figure something out” and he or she usually did, even if what she or he figured out was inefficient, costly or illegal.

Most of the long-standing club members lived in the county seat, a debris strewn old industrial town that had waned economically as the agricultural towns surrounding it prospered. Although nepotism was discouraged many of those holding administrative and clerical jobs had fathers, wives, cousins and children who were “with the county.” Because hardly anyone ever was fired and only occasionally did someone retire or take a better job somewhere else turnover was slight.

The county complex typified what the club was about. It was built during my last year with the county on several acres of land across the river from the old downtown. The administration building, surrounded by parking lots, was partially hidden by a brick wall. The offices all faced an inner compound allowing the club members to turn their backs on the outside world. From the passageways one could look into offices where club members moved among identically styled cubicles but one had to give a password to guards (called receptionists) to gain admittance to the sacred territory.

I “was with the county” again briefly on a work-for-hire contract a few years after I left. I remember stepping outside the administration building, my brown-bag lunch in hand, only to discover that were no benches, no grass, no trees, no walkways, no paths, only the brick wall and the black-topped parking lots. A small sign warned against trespassing through the paupers’ cemetery on the other side of the entrance road. Past it I could see thistles sloping towards a swale where a few poplars stood and a road that curled past what once had been the county hospital towards juvenile hall and the jail. A rabbit burst from cover, raced down the road and veered into the underbrush again.

When I returned to work a long-time club member told me I could have come inside to the break room and eaten my lunch there. I thanked her and told  “next time” I would. But “next time” never came.

Like the rabbit, I ran.

FROM THE BIRDS WE PILED LOOSELY #9, October 2016
MORE MEXICAN THAN MOLÈ
by Robert Joe Stout
Beto knows everybody in Nogales. Polleros. Bartenders. Deliverymen.
Prostitutes. Cops. Small-statured but muscular, with straight black hair and a
tiny chin so closely shaved it glistens in the antro’s revolving lights, he announces
rather than introduces “Roberto! Mi amigo! Màs mexicano que molè!”
I don’t feel more Mexican than mole but I acknowledge warnings that when Beto
gets drunk he gets violent, that Beto will try to sell me parts of Nogales that don’t
exist, that the last person to believe Beto was his mother and that was when he
was two years old.
Not only does Beto know everybody virtually everybody invites him—and me—
to join them. Hand slaps. Hugs. Tequila. Food. Cuban cigars. The introductions are
impossible to hear over the norteña music vibrating from stacked amplifiers but
Beto continues to make them: thin young men in tight-fitting suits who could be
cariacatures of Toulouse-Lactrec cariacatures; jocks in knee-length shorts; thick-
shouldered grayhairs with callused hands who look like plumbers but wear Rolex
watches. Amid them pony-tailed women in white baseball caps; middle-aged
doñas swishing ankle-length dresses as they dance. This is cellphone-, NAFTA-,
Cartel de Sinaloa-Mexico where as one wobbly-kneed hanger-on told me “the
legalized illegal flourishes.”
Beto is more specific. Cartel members, people smugglers, arms dealers need to
eat. They need cars. They need cellphones, computers, clothes. They spend; others
sell. Those who sell pay protection to keep selling. Those who deal pay protection
to keep dealing. Every hundred-dollar bill exchanged in Nogales has been used
for drugs, cars, bribes, medicine, bullets, tuition, prostitution: good and bad, legal
and illegal, all part of the same salad, inextricably mixed.
In the antro drug capos , lawyers, cooks, smugglers, travel agents, pozole, dance.
One is who one pretends not to be. The noise is deafening. Narco ballads so loud
one has to shout to be heard. One accepts it just as one accepts everything else
in Nogales where the legalized illegal flourishes. Where it’s all one salad, where
language is tumbled into Spanish-English-jive without clear demarcations. Where
Beto’s grin is less a grin than a grimace of defiance.
For that’s what the noise is about, the amped-to-the-max music, the harsh forced
laughter, the flinging of hundred-dollar bills across the table, the legal illegal. To
be alive in Nogales, to be drinking, dancing, shouting, whirled about under multi-
colored revolving lights, is to defy death. Death that is everywhere. It reverberates
through the music, shimmies across every smile. One wades through it in the
colonias populares, one sees it against the sunset as vultures silhouette blood-toned
clouds. Death at the hands of competing criminal bands, death at the hands of an
infected needle, a car out of control, a leaking tank of butane.
To drink, dance, be in the antro also is to defy—deny—what life would be like
without the antro: desert parched and arid, a discarded reptile skin, frightened
animals scurrying from burrow to burrow to feed on seeds and flies. Beto knows.
“The only thing I’m afraid of is morning!” he boasts, teeth gritted as he grins,
then grabs my arm. “Vente! You must meet this chamaca! She is from Coahuila.
The women of Coahuila are the most dangerous in Mexico!”
Anything to defy the reality of morning.

FROM THE BIRDS WE PILED LOOSELY #9, October 2016

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

by Robert Joe Stout

Hecklers waved “Go Home Beaners!” and “Illegals Are Criminals!” banners.

Texas State Police and National Guardsman reinforcing local law enforcement had

blocked access to the Capitol grounds, forcing the demonstrators to spread laterally

through the adjoining streets. Twice those opposing the “We Are Americans Too!”

congregation had sabotaged the sound system. Others shouted insults and waved

Confederate flags. Unable to get close enough to see the speakers or the mariachis,

elbowed, bumped and shoved by those arriving and those leaving, Yolanda Roma

grabbed her son’s shoulder.

“C’mon Jake, let’s get out of here!”

Dodging an arm-linked contingent of university students she stumbled against

the curb and had to grab a sign pole for support. Jake, though only twelve, was

more aggressive and knifed through a clot of banner wavers and gestured for

Yolanda to follow. Clutching the purse that had slipped off her shoulder she

stumbled forward, bumped into someone and felt them tumble against a travel

agency’s plate glass window.

“Ohmygod, I’m sorry!”

Translucent eyes blinked up at her from a tiny face bouqueted beneath white

hair. Thin, bony fingers groped for the walking stick beside her.

“Let me help you up. Are you all right?”

“I, I’m fine.”

“I’m so, so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“It couldn’t be helped.” The hand gripping the walking stick trembled as the

frail woman tried to regain her footing. Jake, who’d shoved back through the

crowd, grabbed her to keep her from again falling.

“Grací—”

The thanks caught in her throat as two men yanked Jake backwards, flung him

against the sidewalk and kicked him with cowboy boots.

“Fucking wetback! Leave her alone!”

Yolanda screamed and thrust herself in front of her son. One of the men spit,

then lurched forward as a walking stick cracked over his head. His companion

whirled, fist lifted to strike the assailant. He jerked backwards as the old woman

jabbed the walking stick at him.

“Make my day!” she cackled.

Arm around Jake, Yolanda wedged forward to be at the woman’s side. Half a

dozen university students crowded past to help defend her but the two ruffians,

cursing and glaring at those laughing at them, stomped off.

“Thank you, so much!” The old woman’s voice trembled but her smile was

angelic as she patted Yolanda’s hand, then confided:

“All my life I’ve wanted to do something dramatic like that.”

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