Beginnings

I landed in Belize in the afternoon, a half hour earlier than scheduled. I had plenty of time at the baggage claim and waltzed through customs with a bored nod from the officer who barely looked up from his smartphone.

On the curbside waiting for my ride, I checked Facebook and suddenly was struck by a gripping melancholy. My eyes blurred with a mixture of tears and sweat. It was 96 degrees and so humid it felt like swallowing the air was a source of hydration. Of course, that’s not how things work. When I finally got to my family’s house, I chugged two liters of water gasping for breath in between gulps.

It took two days of rest to recover from the sleepless nights of packing and farewell get-togethers that preceded my departure from Michigan. When I woke up on the second day, I lost no time stuffing my face with mangoes. No picked green and shipped halfway across the world business; just the elbow-dripping sweet-tart goodness you can only get in the tropics. Mango season hadn’t officially started but some trees (especially the hairy common mango) got an early start. Mangos are like tomatoes in that there are so many varieties, it’s hard to keep track.

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The next day I headed into downtown Belize City for a two-day QuickBooks training for my new job.

It was a Tuesday morning and I saw the city coming to life. Kids in their white, pressed school uniforms were shuffling to school; cars rocked in and out of potholes as they traversed the narrow streets, and a haphazard web of power lines zigzagged overhead. Some traditional Mennonite men were walking about in their signature straw hats and hand-sewn blue shirts and suspenders.

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I walked up and down Albert Street looking for my workshop like a kid lost on the first day of school. The new flats I’d bought a half size too small (it seemed like an ok idea at the time) began cutting into the back of my heel. I hadn’t gone far, but by the time I found the class I was limping.

In the following two days, I learned QuickBooks basics while inundated with a delicious variety of food—Belize’s famous Dario’s meat pies, boiled milk cake, Indian butter chicken (makhani)— all sorts of meals that, on the schedule, were listed as snacks.

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When I got home I told my family I wasn’t sure if I was there to learn QuickBooks, to be fattened up for the kill, or both. They assured me that food is a big part of Belizean professional culture especially in trainings and workshops. Until that day, my experience in Belize had been either as a youngster living isolated in the bush or as a visitor escaping the brutal Michigan winters.

By Thursday I found myself standing at the old cacao processing facility on Belize’s old Hershey cacao plantation, one of the sites that I would be managing soon. What was once as 1,200-acre cacao farm owned by Hershey in the early 80s is now in the rehab phase as a new owner acquired the space a few years ago.

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The structure of the old Hershey facility had the eerie feeling of a ghost town—a chocolate research lab abandoned in the 80s with computers to prove it.  An old basketball magazine from the late 90s further instated the time warp as it was the newest thing in the place. As for the farm, much of the cacao there was chopped down in the 90s to make way for the booming citrus industry.

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Today, just 400-acres of those Hershey-planted cacao trees remain on the estate. Even though they are being rehabbed after years of neglect, the acreage is still producing 150,000 pounds of wet cacao beans annually.

It took a while to soak it all in. I had just spent five years working on urban farms that were considered big if they were over an acre. Now, I was high in the mountains with my boss, an energetic and commanding woman who quickly earned my respect, an Agronomist who was so passionate about cacao you could see it in his retinas, the facility manager who was a soft-spoken man with long thick dreadlocks and a braided goatee, and a tall French intern with a blond man-bun from one of the world’s best known fine chocolate makers, Valrhona.

A lush green faded into a milky blue as the mountains rolled out around us on all sides. The familiar scent of fermenting cacao beans hit my nose. Huge drying decks fanned out in every direction, full of fermented beans drying out in the sun. I was led to the fermentation boxes where the company’s agronomist, facility manager and French intern all hovered over a large box of wet beans. The agronomist was deep in industry jargon—putrification, cut tests, surface mold, humidity, pod index, anaerobic—I did my best to keep up.

Like anything, cacao bean processing is a whole art form that determines the quality and flavor of the bean well before any chocolate maker sees the product. Remember, cacao is not chocolate. Chocolate is cacao processed (exquisitely roasted and pulverized) with sugar, or milk, or sometimes other additives.

I spent the day furiously taking notes on cacao processing. There’s a whole science to it that I still haven’t gotten down. But it wasn’t hard to grasp the basics; much of that I’d learned from growing cacao on my farm when I was a kid.

Cacao, which is the seeds of the cacao theobroma tree, is harvested by cutting the pods the from the trees, cracking them open, and extracting the white-filmy seeds. The seeds are them aggregated into fermentation boxes and set on a strict rotation schedule. After six or seven days (depending on the fermentation box size and post-harvest handling), the cacao is spread one layer deep on what are called drying decks (see photo). There they will stay for another one or two weeks depending on the weather, drying out. The drying process is tedious, and just like the fermentation process it determines the quality of the bean.   On rainy days, and with the high temperatures and humidity, the seeds sometime grow what is called surface mold, which is polished off with the friction of repetitive sweeps with a push broom.

After a rigorous lecture from the Agronomist, the Intern eventually sunk a thermometer into the box of wet beans and they covered the seeds with de-spined banana leaves and began the fermentation process for a new batch. Then we went and took a closer look at the drying decks.

The Agronomist performed a cut test to determine the quality of the beans being produced. The cut test is done by cutting 50 beans in half and inspecting the color inside and finding the percentage of good ferments. If they are a purple-ish hue, the beans are under fermented. If they are a dark brown or crumbly, they are over fermented. But if they are a chocolaty brown with deep furrows inside then they are just right. The Agronomist shook his head at the results and explained in many words why he believed that the beans were overall under fermented. So we decided to move from a 6-day fermentation cycle to a 7-8 day cycle.

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The next day we toured the farm and the Agronomist checked on trees marked for clonal selection, that is, trees with good production records that would be good candidates for use in grafting. I learned so much about grafting from the Agronomist, for instance, that grafting is a form of asexual propagation and a method of selecting the best genetic material for production. In grafting, contrary to my prior belief, the rootstock has nothing to do with the characteristics of the scion. The root stock only serves as an anchor for the clone. The clone is genetic material or “budwood” collected from select trees that outperform others. The Agronomist told me that all ruby red grapefruits are clones originating with one mother tree in Florida.

After we left the old Hershey’s plantation, we drove 3 hours south to the southernmost town in Belize, my hometown, Punta Gorda. It was the weekend of the Cacao Festival and my company invited me to probably one of the swankiest events of the year for the sleepy seaside town of PG. That night I had wine and chocolate for dinner.

The next morning at 4:30am, I made a dash to the bus terminal for a 6-hour ride up to the city to retrieve luggage that I had left at my family’s house while I had got an apartment. I returned to PG on Monday (memorial day in the U.S. and commonwealth day here in Belize). I secured an apartment in Punta Gorda at a lovely and quirky art gallery. Very fitting after coming from an artistic community in Detroit. One evening I sat with my landlords, (lifelong Belizeans that were friends with my dad), and we discussed the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. I knew I was home.

As I write this it’s 9PM and I am getting ready for bed. At 6:30am I will take a ride out into some remote Mayan villages to buy wet cacao beans from farmers. I’m enjoying the crickets outside, the banana leaves fluttering in the breeze. I can hear the sea crashing into the rocks at the shoreline. The sea has been rough for three weeks and there is no fish at the market. A well-known fisherman came into our office last week selling baked goods and offering to fix our printer. It took some restraint not to bow in respect for his hustle.

Why I Loved–and Left–Detroit

Detroit is a bad city. I mean, Michael Jackson bad. Urban Dictionary bad.

I love the country feel of the East side because it reminds me of home. I love the stylish realness of the West side because it reminds me what I left home to experience. I love being in a city full of black people where I can walk into a room, a bar or a party and not feel the heft of an entire race on my shoulders.

Detroit gave me a profound service that perhaps no other city could: it taught me that agriculture is cool and that black is beautiful. When I was 15 I left my family farm so that I could go to school and escape the fate of being a lowly subsistence farmer in the bush (I’m talking less than 10 acres).  In Belize, like many parts of the world, farming and farm work is mostly for peasants or the lower socio-economic class. Big old mega farm owners are hardly farmers compared to the small grower who tills the soil themselves. Large scale farmers are often lofty managers of managers of supervisors of farm workers.

Small scale/ subsistence farming—putting your hands in the soil—is just not a respected trade in most parts of the world. As much a I loved watching things grow as a child and teen, I knew I had to leave the small farm if I wanted to wear shoes or eat cheese more than one day out of the year. But despite the hard times, farming followed me around. Plants wouldn’t leave my head. The day I left Belize was the saddest day of my life. I was 15.

For four years I felt ruined. I stuck with my decision to live in the US and get an education because I believed it led to a better future. After I endured  all that pain, culture shock and homesickness, if you were to tell me that I would end up in agriculture in the end I would have felt defeated. It would have shaken my will to live.

But being in Detroit changed me. And then this happened: After 16 years in Michigan (seven of them in the city of Detroit) I moved back to my small farm in Belize.

Right now I am sitting in my room here in Belize City at my family’s house. It’s dry season here and everything is crispy hot. A few thirsty frogs are croaking in the empty drains under the window. Through the darkness I can hear people talking in the street, trying to get their kid to take a bucket bath.  The barking of dogs is so constant I hardly hear it anymore. The backs of my heels are on fire from walking around the city in new shoes. My tongue feels gritty from eating too much cashew fruit (more on that later).

Today was my first day of having an upper management job. Before this I worked contract to contract hoping ends would meet. After serving with AmeriCorps for two years, I scraped by with freelance writing work (mostly corporate puff pieces) and from selling goods grown on vacant lots I managed in the city of Detroit.

In 2012, I threw all my energy into a one-acre urban farm (about 14 city lots) operation for three years only to realize that unless you’re prepared to live in poverty, work for a nonprofit, live off of grants and/or are privileged enough to get periodical cash lump sums from your parents, then small-scale urban farming is not a realistic, sustainable source of income.

The reality is that the global food system is simply not set up in a way that allows for anyone to survive above the poverty line (especially in cities) by working off of anything less than ten acres of land. It’s just not.  One or two acres can feed a whole lot of people, but when it comes to income, rent, utilities, etc. that incredible value of fresh food doesn’t transfer into cash. Over the years I started looking at it like an overtime job with less than part-time pay. Not only do you gotta love it, you gotta be obsessed.

I am saying this because I put three years into trying to make it work; I mean, all in. By any standard I lived in poverty, making less than  $12,000 USD a year and that’s without subtracting taxes. But I grew up in poverty so I found a strange comfort in it and was able to make it work (or not work) for so long. I wrote some grants; that helped. But I don’t have any financial support system. If I fail, I fail. No parental subsidies.

I could be ironic and say I’m moving to a (so-called) third-world country to get out of poverty, but that would be irresponsible. It’s way more complex than that.

Living in Detroit did something magical for me. It exposed the cruel design of the American food system and beyond. Not only did I get exposure to the unjust systems in Detroit, but I got a hand in challenging it. Detroit made it okay to be me: a wild and strange bush girl with the reflexes of a single quash.

Detroit cured my bitterness about farming.  The city linked me with people whose faces lit up when I told them I grew up on a farm; people who openly admitted they wanted to farm. Good people, cool people, smart people, stylish people. My mind was blown. I didn’t know how to take it. At first it made me mad. My head raced with sharp thoughts, like: “What could these city slickers know about farming? If they really had to farm to live, they would hate it. It’s not cool, it’s not glamorous, these fools! If only they knew the suffering I endured in order to escape the farm life!”

But after five years of working with people who have made farming in the city a part of their life, I realized that if it’s done right, urban farming is a gallant act of social justice, community building and self-determination among many other spectacular things. Let me be clear: growing food in a city is a powerful thing to do. In the city, the moment you tear up even a patch of grass and put in kale, it’s an act of defiance and self-determination and absolutely no one on this earth can put a price on that. But in the current system we operate under, urban farming as a for-profit business is not a pathway out of poverty.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where food is not currency. Our food system has taught us that it’s an insult ask for $3 for a pound of carrots while it’s a status symbol to buy a shot-sized cup of coffee for $6. I know people who work tirelessly to change that. And they are doing it one heart and mind at a time. But that takes time.

The hard truth that I don’t want to even say out loud is that in the given current system, micro-farms cannot fully financially support the amount of people/energy it takes to run them without some sort of subsidy or what most would consider abject poverty or even  *gasp* slave labor. In the United States, large mega farms depend on subsidies as well. Clearly, this isn’t something we can work within the system to change. We have to find new models that involve taking money out of the equation and build trade/barter systems. That, too, takes time.

In the meantime, though, I’ve decided I can’t live so bare bones anymore. I also can’t do the corporate grind, hustling my life away for something I don’t believe in.  So I got a job managing a cacao supply chain company in my hometown in Belize. I’ll be working with a socially and environmentally driven for-profit company whose mission it is to support small farmers and develop a quality product and provide access to resources to scale up their cacao bean production and their income.

I’ll also be rehabbing my family property with my main goal being to revive our subsistence farm that will ultimately hammer down my cost of living so that the amount I make in cash is not a reflection of my quality of life. My experiences in Detroit helped clear the static so could hear the tropics, my birthplace, calling.

One thing Detroit is not, is tropical. To me, the winters became more frightening to live through than hurricanes.

Detroit, hopefully my mark on the city will live on in the farms I built and worked and supported with all of my energy. Hopefully my work will show in the perennials I planted, the grants I wrote, the dirt I dug and buried my heart into. Detroit became such a part of me that in a way, I haven’t really left.  When I lived in Detroit, that’s how I felt about Belize. Now that I live in Belize, that’s how I feel about Detroit. They say home is where the heart is, but I wonder: can the heart be in multiple places at once without being broken? I am starting to think the answer is yes.

Cashew fruit. Did you know the cashew nut hangs outside of a false
Cashew fruit. Did you know the cashew nut hangs outside of a false fruit? They smell like heaven and taste like sweet, fruity deliciousness aside from the stringent gritty after taste. Cashew Fruit should be The Body Shop’s next scent.

Stuff–What is it all?

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Moving.

You find yourself stuffing boxes with things like ratty old bedding, a rag rug you never finished (but plan to) or looking at a rusting metal ruler and thinking, Do I really need this? only to decide that the answer is yes.

No matter how few possessions I think I have, when it’s time to move, things seem to multiply. Things. Things! The question becomes, what exactly are these things and what are you willing to put yourself through to keep them?

I recently found the answer to that question. I spent long days and sleepless nights packing, took an 8-hour road trip to a shipping company and back, pulled out my hair deciding what to take and what to toss, and ultimately paid $1,000 USD to ship a bunch of things from Detroit to Belize. After much stress and decision fatigue, everything I own now fits in six cubic 18” boxes and a 166” linear inch luggage bag. What’s bad is I did the math and the contents of these packages are not worth more than $600, tops. Worse, when people ask me what I shipped, all I can say is, “stuff.”

Off the top of my head I can’t think of more than three things I stuffed into those packages. I wonder, if they were to get lost in transit, how much of that stuff would I actually miss? Last time I went abroad, the only things I missed were my yoga mat, my laptop, and my blender. So why didn’t I just pack those things, ditch the rest, and call it a move? Why would I spend precious time and money so that a bunch of forgettable stuff could follow me halfway across the globe?

I suspect it has something to do with emotional value. When the last box was totally full, I found myself trying to stuff a plastic, stained measuring cup in there and was upset when it didn’t fit. It certainly wasn’t the actual market value of the measuring cup that made me want to bring it with. It had to be something else. It was what that particular measuring cup meant to me after years of use. For me it held a warm familiarity and comfort. It’s hard to put a price on that.

Next time I make a big move I’ll be more cognizant of the comfort trap. I think as animals we have this ingrained desire to nest. My rusty rulers and unfinished rag rugs were like straws I picked to weave into my future nest. I would advise those making a big move to heavily consider the value of the things they are shipping and really get to the bottom of why they are clinging to any particular item. I would challenge everyone to look about their homes and evaluate their stuff. What is it and what would you do to keep it? As wait for my stuff to arrive at the sea port in Belize, I wonder how much of it I’ll miss, or if I’ll kick myself when open the boxes and say, Why on earth did I pack this?

In the meantime, I’ll be feasting on seasonal fruit: this time of year it’s bukut, and cashew apples (more on those later).

TIP: If you are moving internationally, ship barrels by land or sea. Yeah, it might take a couple weeks longer, but air freight is highway robbery. Do the research and get a shipping barrel and hang onto our life savings.

Stale, Hot Cheetos

Hot Cheetos. Stale Cheetos. Stale, hot Cheetos.

I was well known in the city as a food critic, but no one knew the intricacies of my daily routine. They didn’t know, for instance, that every evening I filled my sink with warm water, opened a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and set it at the edge of the sink basin to sit overnight. They didn’t know that every morning, after washing my face and making coffee, I poured those soggy red morsels into a small flower-printed bowl, plopped down at my desk, and savored them one by one. They never crunched under the weight of my bite but slowly curled around my teeth and the salt and oil within each piece wrung out onto my tongue. It was then that I knew the true meaning of bliss.

For ten years, this was my morning ritual and as a result, my left fingertips have become permanently red—a telltale tattoo exposing my once secret vice. That, and I have become paralyzed from the neck down. But what bothers me sometimes more than the paralysis is the way it happened. And still, wherever I go, no matter how many times I wash my hands, it looks as though I have just plowed through a bag of hot Cheetos. I mean, like, inhaled them.

The only reason I never got a telling red rim around my mouth is that I was (and still am) careful not to let the things touch my lips. I do this by placing each Cheeto on my tongue like a pill and then drawing it into my mouth.

Over time, the discoloration of my left hand became the cause for much social anxiety and, eventually, the accident. In public, I found myself frantically reaching for a drink to hold, or a pocket to jab my hand into—anything to draw attention away from my glaring fingers. If I were a construction worker or a surgeon, I might have had the small luxury of wearing gloves to work without scrutiny. But given that I was a freelance journalist and often had to meet with clients and conduct interviews, the Cheeto-red fingers left me in an unenviable position.

The beginning of the end was a writer’s networking event. I forgot to hide my left hand in my pocket when introducing myself to a potential client. He was the editor of a glossy publication known in the city for its grandiloquent features and culinary reviews. His suit fit so well that it seemed to be a second skin, moving exactly how he did. He was disarming with his bright smile and dark skin and whenever he moved, it was with intention. I had pitched stories to him over e-mail before but had yet to get a story in his magazine.

When he got a glimpse of my left hand I actually saw him flinch. He politely strode out of arms reach despite the apparent cleanness of my other hand.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” he said, and with a perfectly timed glance at his smartphone and a warm nod, he retreated one step before turning and gliding back into the crowd.

I stood still for some seconds afterwards, my head reeling. His reaction was worse than rude. It was polite. It was my rock bottom: My Cheeto-stained fingers had joined the ranks of disfigurements and political land mines that people ignore in the name of comfort.

The encounter set into motion a near tragic series of events. I still blame that editor for my globular condition. Here is how it happened:

I left the mixer shortly after in a sudden panic. Something had to change. I was weighing my options. Would skin bleaching cream work? I had already tried Clorox and it only left me with wrinkled, scaly fingers that for two days looked diseased.

Keep in mind that the stain on my fingers, now bright red, was a gradual disfigurement. It took almost seven years before I realized what was happening. It started with a slight discoloration that I chalked up to the need for more exfoliation. With my hectic unpredictable schedule, I put off taking pumice to my fingers.

About a year after I first noticed the yellowing of my left index finger, I was at a restaurant with white linens and I noticed my left fingers had an orange hue in contrast with the bright whiteness of the cloth. The first thing that came to mind, again, was that I needed a manicure. Again, I shrugged it off, placing my left hand out of sight whenever possible. Again, my schedule crumpled my manicure plans. A year later, when I signed a contract for a big project, my eyes fell on my hands against the white paper and I was aghast. My fingertips had the thick red color of one who had just groped through a family-sized bag of Cheetos and neglected to wash their hands.

I left the office and went directly to the nail salon. The manicurist there stung me with a disapproving look, but didn’t say anything. She immediately plunged my left hand in a bowl of warm, soapy water. What followed was the second worst moment of my life. The manicurist scrubbed and scrubbed, getting more violent with each pass of the pumice. And with each swipe, she wrinkled her forehead at the stubborn unfading redness that had become the white side of my fingers and spread all the way into the dark skin on top of my hand. She continued like this for four whole minutes—I counted them off on the digital clock on the wall. By the end she was rough and careless with my hand, treating it with the same regard as a gritty potato being prepped for a pot. It was then that the full gravity of the situation clenched me at my core.

My heart started beating like I’d just climbed a flight of stairs, and a seedy prickle washed over my skin. Sweat beaded on my forehead so that I felt a chill on my face when the fan passed me in its rotation. My lips felt dry and my tongue was thick and out of place between the roof and floor of my mouth. To quell panic I made a point of noticing small details about the place—the sky-blue color of the walls, the way strips of paint curled from a darkened spot on the ceiling, the whirr of the fans blowing the odor of acetone into circles in the enclosed salon. A sick ache started in my stomach and radiated out. I swallowed and a rush of thin saliva poured from under my tongue, the kind that pre-empts vomit.

In the distance I heard a voice. “It won’t come off.” The manicurist was breathing heavily from her efforts and looking on in what could only be described as disgust. I looked down at my limp hand, irritated to a new level of redness and covered with patches of white suds. I could hardly hear anything but it was as though my vision improved. Everything seemed still and clear; bright and sterile—like a gleaming incision instrument made of surgical steel.

“Ma’am?” The raised voice of the manicurist came to me as a jolt that rocked me from my trance. Immediately I was back in myself, all senses restored.

“It’s a stain?” I asked with the tone of one asking about the weather. But the feeling of horror persisted.

She let my hand flop onto the rolled out towel and without reply started on my other hand with much less force.

I rolled my left hand over the towel to remove the suds and soaked in the full details of the damage. The once white pads of my first two fingers and thumb were discolored the unmistakable red of hot Cheetos. My index finger was the reddest, as if I had pressed it into a swab drenched in red ink. But the pads of my fingertips were not what triggered the disgust. Had that redness been the only mark it may have been passable as some form of artistry or at least neat rounds of misplaced ink—a clean alternative to the greasy, cheap truth. But the red fingertips bled out into a messy, botched pattern that faded into a skanky yellow orange. The color condensed in the natural creases of the joints near my fingertips, and it looked like a satellite image of a yellowing watershed.

I left the salon after opting out of any nail color; just a clear, inconspicuous coating of polish.

I went home and finished an interview I had scheduled. Afterwards, I met a friend for drinks at happy hour. I quietly worried. That night I poured bleach on a dish sponge and scrubbed until my fingers were raw and, consequently, even more red and angry than before.

Some may be surprised to hear that despite my angst, I did not alter my morning routine. I bought a box of latex gloves with the intention of using them while enjoying my stale, hot Cheetos. And one morning I did try. But the smell of the latex so near my nose offset the delicious rapture of the spicy, cheesy goodness of the snack. I had only eaten two pieces before I took off the glove and never tried using one it again.

On the mornings after the manicure I continued my regular ritual, at this point involuntary, all the while abrading myself with a slow,  grating reproach.

But it wasn’t for another four months, when I was snubbed by the editor, that I felt the full shame of my condition.

I left the mixer and drove directly to my house where I made a dash to the Cheeto cupboard and pulled the contents onto the counter below with broad sweeps of my arm. I then got a garbage bag and threw the packs into it by the handful. I moved fast and with intention. I watched each pouch fall into the dark mouth of the garbage bag and hit the thin plastic with a delicious crunch that only chip bags can make. The sound ignited something in my tongue and I fought the urge to eat a final, ceremonial bag—or ten. I took the crunching garbage bag outside and walked it down the street to my neighbor’s trashcan four houses down. It was dark out and no one saw.

When I got back the house I almost walked to the cupboard for a bag. I almost filled the sink with hot water. But instead I busied myself with a new task—packing. I would drive away to Bluestone State Park and spend a night camping in the Appalachians before visiting a cousin in Washington DC. I spent all night packing and re-packing various belongings. I left well before sunrise fearing the Cheeto-less morning that approached.

By the time the sun came up I was well outside of the city with blue mountains unfurling around me on all sides. At first I felt a surge of energy, bright and buoyant. The world seemed washed clean and I along with it. The sun shone bright by 8am and I could see miles into the distance. It wasn’t until 11 that I started thinking about food. By then I had entered the park and was ascending the peak to my campsite. It seemed that it had rained the night before and the dirt road was slick. The tires of my SUV reacted to the wet clay mud like flash frozen ice. While my vehicle may have been ready to take on the situation, I was not. And so this happened:

The road wound around the mountain in sharp, narrow maneuvers. The car fishtailed despite my creeping speed. I steered carefully, both hands gripping the wheel, my whole body tense. Then, the car hit a hole in the road and heaved forward with a thud. I became stiff as a board. To my right was a green wall of ferns, on the other side, sky. The sudden movement sent loose objects in the front to the car sliding back. Then, I heard it: the musical crunch of a Cheetos bag.

To an untrained ear, the sound may have gone unnoticed, especially given the treacherous circumstances, but it hooked my attention from the road. I looked over in the direction of the sound and there it was: on the floor of the passengers side near the mat was a crushed and wrinkled Cheetos bag. The deflated way it folded into itself signaled the likelihood of its emptiness. I glanced back up at the road and saw a sharp turn coming up where the road disappeared completely around the mountainside. A short metal rail was all that stood between me and the gaping chasm between the mountains.

I slowed until I was merely rolling forward with the weight of the car, coasting to buy time before the turn. Then, I leaned as far right as I could while keeping the windshield view in sight. I stretched my right arm down and felt for the bag. When I didn’t feel it I glanced quickly down to see the exact spot and saw that my hand was just inches out of reach of its current position. I divided my attention between the road and the bag in frantic up and down glances. I saw the road, rocking in the windshield from the sway of the car, then the still, orange-red constellation that was the Cheetos bag. On my last glance at the road I saw another hole just ahead and braced myself for the backlash as I took another look down at the bag, this time leaning all the way down to pinch the bag between my fingers. The car hit the hole with a dull thud that threw my body back towards the seat. I nearly bit my tongue with the jolt. Again, gravity rearranged loose items in the car. I opened my eyes and saw one single Cheeto had escaped from the wrinkled bag. Then, I lost all control. I abandoned the steering wheel and so chose to abandon my life for one single and stale hot Cheeto.

Before I felt any indication of the fall, I used my right hand to place the single Cheeto, which was not much better than a kernel of corn, onto my tongue and then into my mouth and then between my teeth where I bit down and tasted the oily salt and cheese power seasoninHot cheeto fingersg. The Cheeto was so stale that instead of breaking, it wedged itself into the contours of my teeth like a dental mold.

I shut my eyes and experienced the falling sensation, then the violent way gravity smashed my body against the seat belt. There was a ringing in my ears after the first impact. I felt warm and opened and shut my mouth while breathing in, taking in every last flavor of that one stale, hot Cheeto.

Short Wave

The year, 1996. The time, universal.
 Somewhere, far back-a-bush, “Mmm Bopp” squeaked out of a short wave radio into the humid night. The radio sat in a corner of a thatch hut, on a knock-an’-stan’-up table, its antenna broken crudely and splinted back together with a thick coating of flimsy scotch tape and an emery board. In the other corner, a  pile of coals smoldered in the rusted lid of an old cookie tin releasing thick white whips of pungent smoke. The coals were bits of coconut husks mixed with chunks of white oleander bark, creating a lightly poisonous air that drove off the mosquitoes.

It is now 24 hours universal time and you are listening to the billboard top-forty on The Voice of America. Coming up, ‘The World Hour.’”
 Using the tuning knob, he SCANNED the airways very intently….there must be something on the short wave worth listening to at 2400 hours.
“Next on BBC radio news: will Butros Butros Ghali serve a second term?”

“Will Butros Butros Gahli get a second name?” Jan grumbled at the radio as he got up to re-light his pipe. The matches were damp from the humid air. As soon as he struck them against the side of the box, the red sulfer tip crumbled off. It took ten matches before one sparked up.

Everything was damp. It was the beginning of the rain season, and frogs clucked away in the half-empty rain drum outside, their croaks echoed, competing with the radio for his attention. “Butros Butros Butros—,” Jan grumbled, tuning out the frogs until they became a constant hum in the background. The short wave was an auditory window to the world he had escaped from years ago.

Jan grew up in a middle class suburb of Detroit Michigan. His parents were strict Catholics, and when he was a teenager he worked at the neighborhood country club and hung coats. It was the early 60’s and he was in a band. The summer he turned eighteen he spent most of his time in his friend Peter’s loft, watching him build sculptures out of wax and barbed wire as they both split a joint. Then his parents threatened to take away his allowance so he applied to college. After college they threatened to take away his allowance so he cut his hair, which was, at the time, down to his shoulders. He spent three days working on a resume and on the fourth day he did acid. Again. He rubbed the wall of Peters loft and said, “They can’t keep me in here!” Peter agreed as he stared at the Tiffany lamp.

On the sixth day he packed a bag full of necessities (those which he thought were necessities at the time) and bought a bus ticket to Mexico. Days got warmer, his hair got longer. Again. His allowance got shorter, until one day, he found himself in a Guatemalan Prison, and it no longer came at all. Peter was the one who bailed him out.

“You’ve got to snap out of this you bloody wanker.” Peter scolded over the phone to a newly released Jan.

I did.” Jan said. “I’m out!” He wasn’t speaking about the Guatemalan prison.

“I’m worried about you,” Peter said.

“I’m worried about you,” Jan replied. He was eyeing the taco stand outside the phone booth.

Peter still got an allowance, but no one called it that anymore. His parents were just showing their support. There was no need to bring it up.

Jan never saw Peter again.

Years had passed since his traveling days. Now Jan spoke to his short wave on the quiet nights and the loud ones humming with calls from creatures of the night. His favorite was BBC. He liked their approach to world news. His second favorite was Radio Sweden; thier science shows. The Voice of America (VOA) seemed to sound a lot like the V.O. the Hanson brothers, but if nothing else, it made him smile.

It got fuzzy sometimes when the splinted antenna was temperamental. Jan ignored the static. It seemed that every evening on Radio Sweden, reports of groundbreaking studies linked something new to cancer. Last week was fluoride; tonight it was those new cellular phones.

Funny, he thought, how he had spent half his life away from all of these cancerous things yet still managed to develop the disease. “Wherever you go in the world you can’t escape the sun,” He laughed when the town doctor told him. Not that it was the sun that Jan had been running from.

When I first met Jan I was working at a corner store on the outskirts of St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. Once a month he came into town, making a spectacle of himself: a forty-something white man in a faded Hawaiian shirt and patched flared jeans, his sun streaked hair snarled into a bun at his neck. Jan never hesitated to shake a hand or crack joke. Everyone in the town knew him; no one disliked him. He had become a part of the landscape: “Crazy Jan.”

He came into my store one day, looking to buy some tape and two emery boards. I asked him why, so he told me. I suggested a long piece of wire, explaining how it might help the radio signal.

The next time he came into my corner store, about a week later, he didn’t buy anything. He tinkered around the small shop, touching things, looking at them up close, mumbling.

I asked him if he wanted some tea. He said yes. We sat on the cement slab out back under the canopy of yellow bell vines and drank lemongrass tea. We talked until the sun was low and Jan started fidgeting, saying he had to catch the last bus into the bush before dark.

I never saw his place, only heard about it. We talked about why we were there, that island in the tropics so far from our original homes, our families. The tourists called us ex-pats—but how you be an ex if you never were? We talked about how we would go to Panama one day; Buy a boat and chart our way around the Atlantic. Neither of us did one thing to make that a reality.

Sometimes weeks went by and I didn’t see Jan. When he did emerge from the bush, he looked wild eyed and ragged. He was talking about how he broke out of the wall; something about Peter who never did.

I saw him walking around in circles in the marketplace looking for a Muscovy duck. A rebel duck, he said. That’s what he wanted.

Eventually, he stumbled into the store and slumped onto a stool, looking spent.

 

“They’ll put me away,” he said. “That’s all they wanted to do with me.”

 

“Who are they?” I asked. The sunlight prismed through my crystals in the window.

 

He cast me look of disgust, like I should know. “They said lithium would help. But it kills you. It gives you cancer. Cancer!” He shouted. He lurched forward. I stepped back and he retracted into a small crumpled man on the stool, his head in his hands.

 

“I tried it,” I said.

 

“What?” He looked up.

 

“Lithium. I tried it. It didn’t work, I mean, I didn’t feel any better, just a different type of bad.”

 

“How do you—on the bad days what do you do?”

 

“The crystals help.” I said. “It’s light therapy. You have to sun your crystals. You should try it.”

 

Jan stood up rubbing his face and shakig his head, “The crystals can’t save you Sharla. It’s all in your head.”

 

He walked through the door and into the town shouting it. “The crystals can’t save you!”

 

About six weeks later, a man from the bush village came into my store trying to sell me a short wave radio with a broken antenna held together with wire. I bought it. Waiting tensely for him to leave, locked the door, then I wrecked the store. I threw my crystals in a bag and dropped them in the latrine out back.

 

I tossed myself in the heap of overturned trinkets and junk and cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, I my face was marked pink from being pressed into a pile of objects. I immediately remembered where I put the crystals and ran outside with a long stick to fish them out, scum, feces and all. I spent all day washing them and rocking back and forth, talking to myself. I chose this over the drugs. No one had to see.

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The Storm

A pony-drawn hearse rolled up for my father. He was still alive but very sick and surely would not survive the storm.
There were murmurs of a great storm roaring our way over the hills and gaining power. The murmurs grew and spilled out into great worries and the worries turned to terror. We didn’t even board up the windows of our house because it was futile: this was the storm that would end my life and the lives of my parents.

At first there was a small rain shower and it blew over. But we could see clouds jelling up,  inky on the horizon.

We sat down in unusual places about the shack—on jutting rocks and firewood stumps—and our stomachs grew tight and sour with worry. We wondered what death was going to feel like and how, exactly, each of us would die.

We decided that my father would die first. Probably as soon as the first winds hit. We commented on how well crafted his coffin was and how he would have loved the little horse that drew the hearse carriage. He was alive, but we spoke about him as if he were dead. We all would be soon, anyway. The frilly grey hearse-pulling pony fluffed at our compliments. I quietly wondered if she knew she was going to die in the storm.

As the day drew onward, we became more certain of our enclosing doom. The deep, primal fear of death was crippling. All we could do was sit facing the grayest horizon intensely watching for signs of the approaching storm. We didn’t eat, but we drank lots of water and felt the weight of eternal sadness. We talked about the things we’d never done but had always wanted to do. We talked about how silly all of our philosophies were because, after all, no one really knew what would happen after the storm came; after we died–who knew?

Then we fell silent and I tried with all of my might not to think about how it would happen to me. Would it be the beam supporting the gutter? Would it be that heavy stone bookend on the shelf or maybe a tree branch outside or the board on the swing rope? Maybe it would be one of the thin, sharp sheets of zinc that made up the roof? Would it be my head that was smashed first? Would I feel pain? If so, how much and for how long?

Suddenly there was a loud, piercing clap of thunder and we all heaved from our cores and looked again at the sky for signs of the storm. Clouds were moving in fast. At first they were just puffy gray rainclouds sprinting across the sky.
But I was the first to see it. The real beginning of the end. Clouds the color of coal that no one had ever seen before. The first ones were moving so fast they looked like foreboding inky tumbleweeds. I cried out when I saw them and we all huddled together in dread and awe. So this was the end of days. The storm about which no one would ever live to tell.

The black clouds kept flying in, some round; some thin and wispy like celestial spiders warning of the nearness of doom.

Then the rain began to fall. It rained very hard and all of us were so worried that we were getting sicker and weaker and we sat and watched the rain as we suffered fear of death. The suffering grew to a point where we agreed that the faster the storm came, the better.

Still, the frightening ink clouds kept coming, some bigger than others. The feeling I got from the sight of these clouds pricked at my skin. It dried up my mouth no matter how much water I drank and it shook every single joint in my body. Just looking at the sky and seeing the cloud-spiders jabbed at my bladder and slackened my sphincters so that I was terrorized, a horrifying type of pain beforehand unknown to me.

My head felt light and hollow. Thoughts started to echo. Death was breathing down my neck and would enter my body at any moment. Soon our house would be splintered into toothpicks. Our bodies, shredded waste on a floodplain.

I could endure the pain, I told myself. I had not choice, really. None of us did. None of us wanted to suffer, but it was too late. I secretly hoped it would be the beam supporting the gutter: one crack and it all would be over. How could I welcome the very thing we all dread the most? Death, the event we reject with an instinctual fierceness? This fierce will to live once radiated from an ancient place between our ears: survival at all costs. Survive and procreate so that the race will survive. That was the survivor’s creed.

But this storm. This storm to end all storms. It was different than a catastrophic hurricane. Rumor of its ultimate destruction came from the inside out and not the other way around. The storm itself was communicating with our bones. It was waking some primeval senses stored away for long ages of creation; a primal code lodged in our existence: long before we flopped out of the ocean we knew about this storm.

The black clouds started rolling out faster, a grim light blurred the lines of night and day. It washed over everything with a thick, sickening gloss. But the hearse looked peaceful. I lay on the kitchen’s earth floor. I could no longer stand. It had been so long since we first heard of the storm: One day running the expanse of my entire life and pinching me from all I that seemed to matter before.

It got to the point where my spine could barely support my body. More clouds. This was the end. None of us has any doubts. We stopped talking. We didn’t even say goodbye. We just knew it was time.

The sadness I felt was too profound to express, it ripped at my guts and my throat and far beyond my physical body it endured into my soul, into the far reaches of my psyche, it stuck like tar into unidentified places and planes of existence. We could not even moan or shout in agony because by now we were completely paralyzed in fear. Even the hearse-drawing pony drooped her head and fell to her forelegs and all of a sudden, a great wind whipped the jungle.

Outside, branches thrashed violently. Birds cried and rain rang and the sounds swirled together and comforting, and comforting, almost like a blanket, that which I had feared was draped over me. So I relaxed and let go and found relief even in the pain because it would end: just an infinitesimal flash like the rest of my life.

I was a limp heap, soaking in the energy of the storm and welcoming everything it brought.
Then after some time, I noticed that the wind was dying down. Now, just the sound of the rain pittter-patter on the zinc lulled me to a calmer place. The black clouds were not getting any bigger. In fact, most of the sky was gray again. Twitching and delirious, I turned my head slightly to the side, feeling my cheek grind into the sandy floor.

Suddenly, I remembered something. It was such a vivid recollection that I started at its appearance in my head. I could almost hear my father’s voice as he told me, detail by detail, how he had once survived a vicious storm as a child. How could I have forgotten this story!

“I was a child,” he had said as I sat on his knee listening, “So I didn’t notice anything unusual except the rain. There was so much rain! It rained for days and weeks. It never stopped once. That is the worst part about these storms: The never-ending rain. We had to cook eggs on a metal plate held with a dishcloth over the candle. But it was not so bad. It was so long ago that I cannot remember each detail, but I remember the rain, and that it was not so bad.”

Immediately, I regained strength to raise to my feet and walked over and looked outside and the black clouds and the terror had vanished. I looked at the rain and it was steadily falling. But the wind was not much harder than a seasonal storm. It was then that it occurred to me to look around and I realized I was not alone. We all were still there. We got off of the floor and looked outside and felt a bit ashamed. We felt tricked and informed all at once.

It was a wonderfully frightening moment of shock, and, while I cringe at this confession, disappointment. So there was no storm to end all storms?  The worst thing would be the rain? And we were so embarrassed.

The first thing to do was change out of our soiled clothes. The fear had driven soft waste from out bodies.

And now it was me who had to gather firewood in the rain even though we knew it was never going to burn and we’d be splashing endless kerosene into a smoky fire into the deep recesses of the evening.

My father would complain of hunger and we all were so hungry and our clothing reeked and I shouted at the sky in a heated blast of anger. I hotly hoped the black clouds would reappear, big ones this time. I wanted the storm my primitive coding had promised.

Then, after wrestling with firewood and as the rain kept pouring forth the hours, I went to see if my father was awake. I wanted to tell him that I remembered. I remembered everything he told me, about the rain and the not-so-bad.

But when I looked for him he was gone and so were the enchanting pony and the beautiful, well-crafted coffin. They left just at the beginning of the rainstorm. When we were too struck with horror, the pony galloped away.

Still weak, I smiled.

~MF