Fast Delivery

Photo by Paula Marafino Bernett

At exactly 3 p.m. on March 13, 1957, Carolos Gutierrez Menoyo directed the commando group into two cars and a red panel truck with the words Fast Delivery” painted on its sides. The Palace attack was about to begin.

Long before I visited Havana, Cuba in November 2014 and laid my body against the body of the red Fast Delivery truck pocked with bullet holes, displayed in the National Museum of the Revolution, a red truck had been the means of transport into the untracked wildernesses of my mind; it drove itself into multiple poems and fragments, excerpts of which are interspersed with the following text.

Nabokov said that in high art and pure science, detail is everything,” and by detail” he didn’t mean long, lingering descriptions, but the visual, analogical, evocative, or verbal flash that triggers an idea or a momentary insight in the reader’s mind.  

— Javier Marias, Table Talk, Threepenny Review, Fall 2014

The visual, analogical, evocative or verbal flash is a hive braiding, unbraiding, swarming and reconfiguring; it blinds, sharpens sight, hisses, fizzles out, emits showers of sparks, settles to ash:

: Is the reach of a child’s arm, withdrawn in the nick of time from the
reckless meander of a runaway red truck. The sound track has been stripped
away; as a ventriloquist who throws his voice into a dummy animates it, 
so the child’s fright animates my own.  

: Is the stab of light on the broken bottle I sidestepped on the sidewalk this 
morning, unrolling and rolling up behind me.

July 7, 2013:

Just outside the kitchen window a clothesline stood, a rectangular square of parallel ropes that rotated on an axis and made a slight mechanical squeak when turned, when wooden pins were pushed over the waist of little girl shorts, little girl underwear, t-shirts with unbudgeable stains.

Waftings of ill will, darkening moods, maternal protective wings turned to sharp blades slapped against the air. But in the nick of time comes a jolly-rumbling the little red truck, cozied with soft pillows and a flow of fresh air. On soft murmuring tires, a bit under-pressurized, it speeds silently away with the rescued little girl.

: Is a fathom underwater, the slow rise to avoid the bends; the hunched 
spine straightens as the surface is breached; blue tinctures with droplets 
of red; clad in a purple velvet robe, the child walks onto land.

A visitor can poke her finger into the bullet holes ripped by machine-gun fire in the side of the Fast Delivery truck parked in the National Museum of the Revolution in Havana.

May 12, 2012:

A red truck corners left and tips on two wheels. The siren blazes down the escaping road 
and cuts a diagonal through the body. One syllable at a time squeezes through the right 
cochlea and spirals into the soundproofed room.

: Is the smell of wet feathers on a slaughtered chicken lifted and lowered 
in boiling water three times, circa March 13, 1957, commingled with the
accelerating fast delivery of grief tumbled with rage, before it lifts into 
the grey mist of sorrow.

: Is the trick of erasing the slaughter scene in the basement with an eraser
steeped in the scent of spilled blood. The scene enlivens again, this time
poured through the ragged metal bullet holes into the interior of the truck.     

The ratchet of the newsreel stops; the still shot of the ten men killed inside the red Fast Delivery truck unrolls; a street child wheatpastes it on the inside of my mind.

: Is the flutter of torn scraps; fragments of what I said aloud waft toward 
the bottom of the chasm; poem in the bottle I dropped into the Lamoille River 
in Johnson, Vermont, 2001; downriver, the wrecked body of a red truck, 
its chipped bright paint.

How the slow fade of the pulse of the dying men resists the stillness and is audible beneath these words; how red blood darkens to black.

October 21, 2011:

The wonder of every something born of nothing materializes and dissolves away: 
A red truck with the lettering scrubbed off barrels into and out of view, 
leaving its afterimage, a wraith, to animate and populate with whatever you will.

The truck is crammed with misshapen blue, clear, and green-tinted glasses; some hold a jumble of numbers, others broken crayons; some will not spill under an infinite pour of liquid; one fills with tears tinctured with yellow dye, disguising them.

Only the first wave of assailants reached the palace. The second wave 
was caught in traffic and didn’t make it to their fateful destination.

: Is a cathedral with small spider cracks emanating from tiny holes in the stained 
glass clerestory. Once in a while, a droplet of blood squeezes through and splinters 
into the nave.

: Is the climb up the marble stairs in the Palace; the concavity worn into the stone 
by hundreds of footsteps; including Fulgencio Batista’s, who escaped assassination.

: Is the tender shifts and angles of my gaze, infinitely reproduced in facing mirrors; 
the red truck a tiny speck upended on the retina.

June 9, 2011:

From Brevity/Guilt:
Pumice. Blow away the dust. Pumice again. 
A twist of the thumb smudges primary colors to pastels,
but the red dot at the center is a cry.

: is tracking droplets of blood to find an injured dog, sideswiped by a red truck.

Is the hiss and coil of steam rising from the radiator of the crippled Fast Delivery truck as it staggers to a stop.

: is not finding the dog.

September 11, 2010:

From Foxing:

Again the red truck skids through the sealed door,
scarring parchment, mowing down half-lived hours.

: is seeping into the skin of the men who died in the Palace action:

Menelao Mora Morales, 52; Carlos Gutíerrez Menoyo (brother of Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo), 34; José Luis Gómez Wangüemert, 3;  José Briñas Garcia, 26; Ubaldo (Waldo) Diaz Fuentes, 28; Abelardo Rodriguez Mederos, 30 (driver of one of the cars); José Castellanos Valdes, (alias “Ventrecha”), 35; Evelio Prieto Guillaume, 33; Adolfo Delgado; Eduardo Panizo Bustos, 32; Pedro Esperon, 45; Reinaldo León Llera, 39;, Norberto Hernández Nodal, 45; Pedro Nulasco Monzón, 30; Pedro Tellez Valdes, 37; Mario Casañas Díaz, 28; Asterlo Enls Masa de Armas, 25; Gerardo Medina Candentey; Carlos Manuel Pérez Domingues, 45; Angel Salvador González González, 54; Adolfo Raúl Delgado Rodriguez, 29; Ramón Alraro Betancourt, 36;, Celestino Pacheco; Ormani Arenado; Eduardo Domingues Aguilar, 50; Pedro Zayden Rivera, 25; Luis Felipe Almeida Hernandez, 35; José Hernández.           

November 16, 2009:

When Grief Comes to You

When grief comes to you as a little red truck packed with explosives 
make the way smooth under its tires.

When grief comes to you as a little red truck pushed by a twig of a girl
packed with explosives you will at last know who you are.

When grief comes to you as a little red truck pushed by a twig of a girl
packed with explosives whiplashed by his death
your heart will be marked with a red X.

When grief comes to you as a little red truck pushed by a twig of a girl
whiplashed by his death risen like a ghost packed with explosives,
you will write your name on your own face a thousand times,
and erase it again.

When grief comes to you packed with explosives, make the way smooth
under its tires. You will at last know who you are,
your heart marked with a red X. You will write its name on your own face
a thousand times, and write it again.

 

Shame

"Alzheimer's Foundation of America Print Campaign" by Sabrina Fraley is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

It was one of the most shameful moments of my life. It is one that I will never forget and from which I will never recover.

***

For years, my father had been showing the signs of Alzheimer’s disease. The once brilliant mind and sharp wit had dimmed a bit, and it was getting harder and harder for him to keep things straight. Conversations with my father had always been powerful for me. He had the ability to follow my ramblings, ask probing questions with genuine interest, and give feedback or commentary that often made me think further on a certain issue. He was this way with most people, especially my friends, and we had a running joke that my friends had better not start a conversation with my dad unless they had plenty of time on their hands. But his ability to carry on such dialogue had become curtailed, and his short answers, or even silence, stood in great contrast to the talker most people knew. One Christmas, I gave him the gift of an outing each month—just the two of us—to a place of interest for the day. Our car rides, which had previously been packed with storytelling or ponderings about life, instead became filled with wordless spaces and repeated information from previous conversations. His disease was advancing.

It was about six years after my parents became aware of my father’s likely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s when they decided to move to Georgia to be closer to where my sister and I live. When they first learned of his disease, they had discussed what was likely to happen and decided to just handle whatever came their way. But after those years of slowly taking charge of his affairs—first the checkbook and the bills and then daily dressing and shaving—and months of calming his nightly hallucinations and heading off his neighborhood wanderings, my mother became exhausted. Unable to physically and emotionally handle the stress, and at seventy-five, no youngster herself, my mother decided she needed for him to live in a place where constant vigilance would be possible.

We must have toured half a dozen places within a thirty-mile radius. All lookedthe same, with long rivers of green carpet punctuated by maroon chairs and gilded lamps. All gave the same pitch: bingo, chair exercises, sharing time, and music and art classes. I wanted very badly to believe that my father could still engage in these activities and enjoy these activities. My mother, ever the optimist, talked up these features to him and emphasized all of the interesting ways he could engage with people in a new setting. Looking back, I don’t think my father actually understood that each of the places he toured was a potential new home for him, but he nodded politely and looked around.

Not until we actually moved my father into his place did I realize that for those on the “memory care” wing, such activities were a pipe dream, as they were unable to follow along. The facility, about a thirty-minute drive for me and for my mother, was fairly typical in having different stages of care, with a passcode-controlled elevator to the memory care unit. Both staff and family members knew the code but not the residents.

I don’t know how we ever got my father to agree to move in. On some level, he must have known how hard it was for my mother and could tell from her demeanor that it was something she really wanted. After more than forty years of marriage, he could likely still read her needs and characteristically followed her lead. Yet when we moved him in, he really didn’t know what he was doing there or why we had to leave without him.

My father was a smart guy, and he was curious about the world around him. He was a great listener, a practical joker, a writer, a World War II veteran, and, at times, a mind reader. He lived a full life that was in some ways selfish and in others incredibly giving. He’d hand-fed his own mother for months after she’d had a stroke, which took hours. And he was wickedly funny. The kind of funny where you laughed when you knew you shouldn’t. The kind of funny my mother called “bathroom humor” but that we kids just couldn’t help but try to emulate. So how was a smart and very funny guy—one who knew that he lived in a house with his wife and not in this room that people keep wandering into—ever going to get used to his new surroundings? Well, he wasn’t. But he took it with good manners that day.

My mother was the first to leave. I think she, after decades of being a mother, did what she always did with firsts: dropping him off in his new surroundings and telling herself that he would adapt. My sister and I stayed for a while, but with little to say, and knowing my father had to get used to his new place, we had to leave, too. I don’t know how it was for him those first few nights since I wasn’t there. Because of work, I didn’t go back for several days. When I did, I realized that there would be no getting used to his new surroundings. It would never feel like home, and the place was a prickly reminder that my father was forever unwell.

***

One day, a few months after we’d settled him into the facility, I left work in the afternoon and made the half-hour drive to his facility.

I arrived toward the end of the lunch hour and sat with him, watching him ever so slowly devour his favorite food—strawberry ice cream. That man loved his strawberry ice cream. He wouldn’t be rushed. And with his new set of dentures floating in his mouth, he couldn’t be rushed.

I tried to make conversation with the other residents sitting at my father’s table but soon realized that my father was one of the higher functioning persons there. He could still hold a conversation, albeit one that could have taken place decades earlier. For the most part, he knew I was his daughter, though he sometimes got me confused with other people. Once, he was convinced that he needed to leave to be in court. In retirement, he had volunteered as a court-appointed special advocate for children who had been abused, and he often had to attend hearings. I tried the reality tactic, which mostly doesn’t work with people with Alzheimer’s. And then told him it was Saturday, that court wouldn’t be in session over the weekend, which calmed him down.

But on this day, he knew it was his daughter visiting, and he was pleased to be eating his strawberry ice cream. After he finished, we took a stroll around the floor, and I took his lead in the conversation. I don’t remember what we talked about, though I know he didn’t talk much. He must have thought it was just another day like any other, and we were just hanging out together.Everything was fine until it came time for me to leave. I had to get back to work.

So I said my goodbyes to my father, punched in that code, and steered him away from the elevator as I didn’t want him to see me go. But my father, being the smart man he was, and not at all being used to his environment, steered himself right back to me, fully intending to get on that elevator with me. As I stood there, I saw him coming toward me, upset and confused. He just wanted to go with me, back to the life he had and the family he loved. And I let the elevator door close.

I’ll never forget the look on his face, and the shame and betrayal I felt at letting that door close. I went out to my car and sobbed for a long time, horrified at what I’d just done, but I knew that I wasn’t going to get back the father of my memory, the one who could have left with me. I cried and cried and apologized. I mourned the man I had lost and the daughter I had become.

***

There were several shocking and arguably worse experiences in the months that followed before he died. There were things I saw and felt that turned my world upside down, filled me with panic that I could not escape, and made me cry until my eyes were sore. But nothing could compare to what he must have gone through—a brilliant man stuck in a decaying mind and terrifying end to a wonderful life. In the decade that has passed, I’m not pained less by those experiences or by losing my father this way. But it has changed the way I interact with people who are aging, gradually losing the things we all take for granted. I like to think it has helped me be a bit more patient, a little more appreciative, and aware that my time, too, will come.

 

Eckleburg

Home through the Smoke: Recollections of the Butte County Camp Fire

By NASA (Joshua Stevens) - NASA Landsat 8 Operational Land Imager https://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/images/imagerecords/144000/144225/campfire_oli_2018312_crop_lrg.jpg ; https://landsat.visibleearth.nasa.gov//view.php?id=144225, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74269291

On Thursday, November 8, 2018, I went to the Good Earth store for lunch. I had just heard about the Butte County Camp Fire, slightly growing anxious as the sky filled with a sandstone haze. I got some coffee, coconut water, and a piece of pizza from the to-go station and went to the express lane. A man, dressed like he’d just got done with a mountain bike ride, covered in sweat, stood to my right, just out of line. He cut in front of me, and I said nothing, not sure if he was there before I had arrived in line. He then turned back and saw me and apologized. We exchanged niceties as he told he’d just got in from Sonoma from the train, that he was about to go for a ride.

He was the kind of person who, once finding they have an audience of any kind, cannot stop talking until it is absolutely necessary. He told me about how excited he was for his ride, that I looked like I was on lunch break, which I was. Then he started talking about the fire. He told me how he saw the smoke on the train and was terrified that Sonoma was going to get hit again.

“We went through so much up there,” he said, his eyes wide with too much enthusiasm.

I gave him nods, and let him speak, looking at the three lanes in express, waiting for an area to open so I could let myself free of his all too familiar and uncomforting company. He told me he was glad to read on the news that the fire was not here. He said he felt “bad to feel relief at the expense of another county.”

The cashier raised his hand. I left, but not before the sweating man said, “Well, they’re not paying you for therapy, so go ahead,” which puzzled me more than the rest of his thoughtless comments. I was glad to leave and walk back to work. Stepping outside into the midday air, smelling that torrential bonfire almost two hundred miles away, I wanted it to go away. Not the smoke, but the flames. I wanted the humidity to rise, the winds to slow their pace. I wanted the rains to come.

The Camp Fire was first spotted at 6:30 in the morning at a size of 10 acres. In a matter of a couple of hours, it increased to over 10,000 acres, heading south for Paradise. Paradise is now long gone along with much of Butte Canyon. It headed for the small foothill communities south of Paradise, towards Lake Oroville. Eighty-six people died in the fire and more than 150,000 acres of land was burned.

When I got home from work that day, the beginning of the fire, at around two in the afternoon, the smoke was so thick in the air that there was only a faint memory of blue in the sky. As I rode my bike home, I felt an unfamiliar heaviness in my chest. I sat down, drank some water, but was too nervous from the smoke in the air. I had to see as much of the sky for myself, thinking this may ground me with some sort of unknown understanding. I grabbed my binoculars and walked up the big hill behind our neighborhood.

The hill is called Tomahawk for the dead-end road on its ridge. The incline is so steep as to be comical. I can picture the Roadrunner zipping up the hill as Wile E Coyote tips over on his back as he takes a moment to breathe. I could feel the smoke entering my lungs with each breath. Once I reached the trail-head, I realized that I should have brought a bandana with me or something to cover my face, but had forgotten.

As I walked up the trail, I saw a flock of turkeys on the northwestern side of the hill, a decent area to take cover from the smoke. The juncos were fluttering around an old coyote bush, completely silent, as though the air had taken their voices. A Flicker, and then another, flew in front of me, their orange tails lit like embers as they laughed, flying north.

As I reached the top of the ridge, sitting on a large rock, talking to a friend in Phoenix, I looked out to the classic view above my home. Mount Tamalpais to the east, San Rafael and the East and South Bay to the south. I could see none of it. Only smoke. With my naked eye, I could not see the mountain, nor could I see the bay itself. All I saw was smoke. I took a couple photos, and then left.

Ever since the fires began in mid-summer, I began to fear for my home. I feared to walk up to Tomahawk’s ridge through charred grass, to walk down that asphalt road to my burnt home, to lose it like so many people across the West Coast have experienced through the decades in greater and greater rates. The home where I was born. I still fear this, with each fire season, the panic growing within me. But this is a reality for so many across the coast, and a fear that many of us hear as a kind of white noise to our daily experience.

Fires don’t care who we are. They want to burn. They move as they will. Nature does not care who is in her way. I wonder what do I do, as a citizen of this state with this ever-growing problem? Do we bide our time and pray for it not to hit us? And if that’s the case, what of our neighbors, those who help define this effulgent state?

The sun of California shines, but perhaps too bright these days. With the increase of rent around all of our metropolitan areas, the wealth gap and the homeless epidemic growing like the San Andreas fault opening across the California coast, the drying of our crops and large aqueducts increasing the impacts of climate change, it seems the heat has risen and will not falter for now. Even as some claim that California has finally returned from drought, this does not mean that the fires will reduce in number, but may instead increase due to a higher growth of grasses in the spring. We must remain cautious and gracious because wildfires very well could be just another staple of our new world.

##

Photo at the top of the page was taken by NASA. Photo caption: “On the morning of November 8, 2018, the Camp Fire erupted 90 miles (140 kilometers) north of Sacramento, California. By evening, the fast-moving fire had charred around 18,000 acres and remained zero percent contained, according to news reports. The Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 acquired this image on November 8, 2018, around 10:45 a.m. local time (06:45 Universal Time). The natural-color image was created using bands 4-3-2, along with shortwave infrared light to highlight the active fire. Officials are evacuating several towns, including Paradise. They have also closed several major highways.”