‘Mid Life by Stephen D. Gutierrez

……….Pandemonium hits my room the day the first Chicano ever wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. As in The Wizard of Oz during the tornado, everything whirls. Even the dog howls outside, celebrating like a stiff piñata going round and round, passing my window. The orange tree bears lemons in the backyard, uprooted and flying by, a yellow mess. Jesus Christ cackles on a broom trailing twelve monkeys in red vests, piloting rocket ships.

……….At the dais, the latest surprise for the prize sums up his feelings about being selected. “Totally blown away!” He just stands there for a second.

……….“All these great things are happening to me.”

……….“Great things are happening to Gerry.” A reporter takes notes in the front row of the large hall. He wears a fedora and gray slacks, like a reporter out of the forties. Gerry is beaming away, with the cameras flashing around him.

……….All this attention on Gerry Hidalgo? I was playing cards with him when the call came.

……….“It’s for you, Gerry,” I said, leaning across his wife at the poker table. My wife held a royal flush.

……….The toilet flushed. It gurgles at night when the moon shines through our window. I tossed and turned at the table and perspired. I wore pajamas with a monogrammed pocket. Loser. We’d see about that!

……….“I’m dealing a hand, Gerry. Keep it low.”

……….“My God, they’re serious,” he hissed. He cupped the mouthpiece with astonishment. Unaided by speaker phone, we could hear a Swede describing the value of Gerry’s work in accented English. He mentioned primal emotions and subtle understanding of the human condition, as it was newly understood after Gerry demolished the old notions.

………..“‘He tired very rapidly of the human condition, and began to speak most eloquently of the human mission.’” Thus spoke the Academy representative in prepping him for the full range of coverage he would receive.

………..“We will say that. Good, yes?”

………..“More, say more,” Gerry said. He was standing on the table with the phone twisted up to his face.

……..“I want you to tell them I’m flat out great. I’m a genius of the first rank.” He closed his eyes.

……….“Don’t confuse me with anybody else. There’s only one Gerry Hidalgo and honor him with a big parade in Stockholm. This is what I want.”

……….He began to enumerate very, very calculatedly. “I want piñatas hanging from the lamp posts. I want tamale vendors standing by steaming carts. I want the poor in abundance. I want firecrackers popping in the street. I want short-skirted mamacitas who dare to walk proudly in a major European capital and feel no awkwardness. I want the streets where I come from, those rude, crude streets alive on your main thoroughfare. I want a total transformation of downtown Stockholm. I want political freedom, on my terms. I want Swedish meatballs dipped in pico de gallo, and served up on gluten-free bread. I want the meaning of gluten-free made clear to me, and if you call me a dumb wetback I’m boycotting the ceremony. I’m going Brando on you. I am El Rey de Los Blondes for the duration of this invasion. In other words the King of Sweden is I. Your worst fears have come alive. The third world has made itself at home in your nation. Thanks for the prize, you’ll be hearing from my agent. I really, really love you, I do. This is a great honor! Bye, King of Sweden! Ciao!”

……….He rolled onto his back and kicked his feet up. “Oh, shit. This is so exciting, I think I’m going to cry.”

……….I turned to my neighbor, his wife, Carmen.

……….“Is he always like this?”

……….“Worse,” she said. “Want a tomato?” She produced a tomato in her hand. In her backyard, she gardens. He writes inside. We maintain civil relations. They live a block away from me, around the corner. They vote progressive. I tend to be moderate.

……….I sulk at the breakfast table, with my wife sitting across from me, spooning a grapefruit. “Why is life so fucked?” I ask her.

……….“What’s wrong with you? Did Gerry win the Nobel Prize or something?”

……….“He did get a call,” I say.

……….We join Carmen at the ceremony. He has never looked more handsome. He wears the traditional formal wear with confidence and ease. He makes the speech. In the footsteps of the quiet Southerner who penned a masterpiece to rival the Gettysburg Address in brevity, the experimental genius who toned it down enough to offer any attentive listener a glimmer of dark hope while the nukes ramped up, “I decline to accept the end of man,” Gerry keeps it short.

……….“Totally amazed,” he says. “Wow. I just can’t believe it. In summation, I think people are good.”

……….I groan. My wife slaps me, hard. “That’s your friend!”

……….“Was.”

……….“Since when?”

……….“Since a certain phone call immobilized me with its stark reminder of the injustice of life.”

……….“Syrian refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean and you’re worried about his relationship to the King of Sweden?”

……….“It’s unfair! I get to stamp my foot once!”

……….“Ouch!” The moon quivered in the window. But I caught it in my hand and ate it.

……….“Don’t kick me!” Butts adjust in the night. Under covers, bodies squirm and hands tug hard for the bulk of the blanket. Tongues loll. I stand at a dais in my bedroom, watching myself. I smile at the body next to me, grab that blanket just a little more! I deliver the truth on my slobbery side.

……….“North Africans and Arabs abused German women recently at a carnival in Cologne because they’re whores, German women, Western sluts, and you want me to start marching in favor of human rights for the end of Europe? I love Europe, I am Europe. I am America, we all are. Stinking liberal hypocrites.”

……….“You’re raving again.”

……….“Go to sleep the moon is tasty.”

……….“You’re taking too much blanket.”

……….“Shit.”

Gerry shoves me aside and reclaims the dais.

……….“People are better than good. They’re marvelous.” He gets a standing ovation.

……….“And beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,” rhapsodizes Gerry, “is existence. God’s whole creation is beyond the words we choose to name our sorrows. I bow to the King and Queen of Sweden.”

……….The only good thing about his speech is the sentence he lifted from my story, “To Name Our Sorrows,” which won me a $50.00 grant from the city of Hayward, California. He also stole my ease in public, fucking immigrant, my suavity and dark, smoldering looks. No, those are his. I have to admit: That’s all Gerry up there at the podium in Stockholm. I’m kind of proud of him. I’m sick of him already.

……….I’m forced to sit next to him on the plane ride home.

……….“That was great, Gerry. Just wonderful.” Buckling in, I elbow him sharply and apologize for my clumsiness.

……….“Sorry, Gerry. I didn’t mean to break your rib.” As we rise into the air, the movie starts. It’s Charleston Heston in The Ten Commandments starring Charles Heston looking brave and strong and only slightly wavering in virtue but a mensch, a complete mensch. He wears a yarmulke. After the Red Sea parts, he is elected president of the National Rifle Association to a cheering crowd. He’s standing in the Red Sea holding a rifle up.

Thou Shalt Provide Your Own Authorized Protection reads the first commandment flashing on the screen.

Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless You’re In The Mood reads the second one.

Thou Shall Not Covet reads the final granite tablet before a commercial break. I don’t believe I shall.

I parachute down. I land in the Garden of Eden.

……….“The garden to beat all gardens,” I say. I am whole. I am fine. I see a woman scampering in the bushes, and I catch up to her, my wife! We do wifely-husbandly things for a good hour like two graduate students neglecting to write a paper that is due in an hour.

……….“To be presented in seminar!” I bow, I cackle. I propose.

……….“Yes, please?”

……….“Why not!” I celebrate with a bottle of champagne.

……….I grow a beard. I grow a beer belly. I grow an attitude that precedes me like a bad, bad stink in a cartoon bubble. These are called “The Bad Years,” says a sign hanging over my head, a very crude wooden sign written in blood. I know better than to despair.

……….I watch the World Series. I root on the Dodgers. I invite Gerry over for chips. The two women in the room look lovely on the couch, pretending to like sports. “Why is he running like that?” We all laugh. Baseball is fun.

……….The next year, the Dodgers lose. I boo him at the fancy dais. I throw rotten tomatoes at him as the King of Sweden hangs the medal around his neck. I jeer, I hiss. Back on the plane, we discuss the situation.

……….“Pretty shitty, okay,” I say.

……….“You smell,” he says. He’s smiling like a Nobel Laureate, the motherfucker, so sure of himself in mid-air, in mid-life, at 30,000 feet above the earth at fifty-one years old. He’s younger than me! I take measures. I know what I need in order to free myself from all envy, spite and jealousy.

……….“Please?” I ask. “Pretty please?” I need a bath. I need to be washed clean of the spiritual grime that covers me.

……….“As you wish,” God says. He’s in charge of the garden. I step forward intrepidly. I hear gurgling waters. I let John the Baptist dip my head into a blood-soaked river that is rapidly clear, tumbling over rocks. I dry off with a towel bearing the initials of God’s only begotten son, J.C., and face. I take communion with a burp and hangover. I vow never to do that again! I get back to my life teaching English at a lively state university in a culturally rich cosmopolitan area with golden bridges leading to paradise and gray ones leading to hell. They end in post-industrial America, Oakland, California. I hear gunshots in the night. I don’t even live in Oakland. Just close enough to know the traumatized figures of my students hint at stories they don’t dare tell.

……….I tie off with a tie I wear to class because I am formal. What I inject into my ready veins is love. Gerry looks out the plane window, chewing gum. Across the aisle, our wives chat away, trading recipes. They like to cook. We like to wash dishes. We scrub toilets, too, and cheer their fundraising efforts for breast cancer. We are content couples without rancor. I know the peace that passes understanding, and has to do with low mortgage payments and a light teaching load. I am honestly, truly happy. I feel a bump. The plane makes a sharp descent.

……….“Happy to be home!” I walk into my kitchen and see a calendar with Jerry’s picture on it. He’s wearing the Nobel medal around his neck, and in his hand he’s lifting a copy of the best magazine he has been in, which is far better than any magazine I have been in, and it’s not even out yet, this issue devoted to Gerry Hidalgo. Then it’s out, it’s out everywhere, crowds following Gerry like in Beatlemania, Gerry ducking fans, cameras, reporter’s notepads.

……….“Fame.” I sit on my couch and brood. Gerry is standing in the corner lecturing Carmen, who is barely listening, adjusting her bra under her blouse, wiggling her shoulders the way women do, oblivious to her neighbors, her good friends, us. My wife is setting out mixed nuts on the coffee table, radiant.

……….“You guys want to go out for dinner later? I hear that new Thai place is pretty good.” Jerry and Carmen perk up, ready to go! She slips into her new, stylish jacket and Jerry into his sport coat, also stylish, kind of grungy, kind of not. My wife looks better than any of us. I glance at myself in a mirror on the way out: I don’t impress myself. I own bloodshot eyes from lack of sleep and no more than an average load of worry, anxiety, hate, anger, undisclosed trauma, drink, betrayal and triumph. Alas, I should be happy, but I’m not: my cheeks are gaunt like a wayward Catholic saint, with no holiness about me. A palpable halo of a sickly yellow hue is visible above my head, a crown of shame. Mingled with guilt, it spins crazily below an orange light in a dark, comforting room. Nothing has changed since the second grade except the emptiness I feel inside me. “Bless me, Father, for I haven’t believed in years. These are my needs.”

……….I spend a long time in the confessional drawing up a plan. I board the train in the morning full of faith, hope and love. “But the greatest of these…” I settle in for a nice ride. I open the newspaper. I read of a gruesome murder in the foothills. I scan an article on domestic violence. I note a rape in a college dorm. I see Wally the serial killer has been sentenced. I understand certain dictators have been emboldened to jeer at the United Nations podium, holding up the heads of opposition leaders. I take no solace from western leaders who orchestrate invasions of tiny, mismanaged countries for profitable democracy. I learn that the seas are getting warmer, and warmer, and uncooperative. I glance outside at a dreary urban landscape. I spy a homeless man stalking the aisle and bury my head behind the pages of the faithful daily with a global reach, old fashioned inky ads, intelligent letters, expert op-ed pages and informed editorials—all to make me feel better about it all. I sit for hours in my elbow-patched sport coat and slightly stained khakis while Gerry peddles churros at every stop, visible through a dirty window. “Goddamn Gerry won the Nobel Prize,” I say, “and him in a bilingual ed class yesterday. I got to get on the tamale wagon!” I send in a form readmitting me to the Latino community.

……….“I’ll trump that motherfucker,” I grin. “Write about rapists and shit.”

……….Gerry gets on board and sits next to me. “Don’t be jealous.”

……….“Fuck you, Gerardo. You were reading La Opinion yesterday while I was mastering the best weighty authors available at the public library. En inglés, cabrón.”

……….“¿Y qué? What of it? Big English shit!” God, it’s a fucking fistfight between two middle-aged Latinos on the San Francisco bound train with a transgender party crying for peace!

……….“Yeah, I hear you.” But I still punch him, hard.

……….“You’re too Latino. Get in step. Haven’t you seen the monkeys in red vests commandeering those cool rocket ships outside? They drop napalm over the Syrian badlands and kill migrants. It’s worldwide. Our only oasis is the West. I’m confused. Support consistency. Order. Tolerant values. You can do this without being a goddamn doormat for the world’s dirty feet, its unwashed minds.”

……….“Slow down there, big guy.”

……….“No, no, let the train carry us where it will. ‘Train kept a rollin’…’ Live the enlightenment bravely! Reason and virtue shall be our guides! The West is the best. The world is a mess and it’s not all our fault. Now is not the time to ignore evil or pretend it’s not there, liberals! ISIS is fucking real!” I push Gerry aside and work the aisle.

……….“ISIS is not going away! ISIS is at work! They burned a Jordanian in a cage. They beheaded a Japanese, a Norwegian. I can’t keep track! They raped an American woman, repeatedly, with the chief’s blessing. He took part! Oh, yes, he did. The grand mullah. Shula. The bearded dickhead with an actual college degree in theology, Islamic Studies. This kind of reminds me of the Inquisition, only they don’t give the infidels a chance. They’re not as smart, bearable, just or fair as our medieval monsters in cowls. They’re not as advanced as our torchbearers. They still believe in stoning, crucifixion, beheading, slavery, sexual subjugation of unbelievers, and an apocalyptic end where they triumph, and everybody else dies gruesomely or converts for a rapturous era, colored burqas on the runway in Milan, men in trim beards to greet multiple wives honorably, ‘Hello, my dear one, you make me wish there were five of you,’ and Western prophets flogged for calling time out. ‘This is no fun! My mind has turned to mush, my spirit to gruel, my sperm to joyless goo, my reverence for God to hate.’ I follow in His footsteps. I question duty and custom. I crack a joke now and then. I spread the Western spirit of holy irreverence.” I pause on the train and stare bug-eyed.

……….“They’re going to kill me, people! Long live the Christ! Who will speak to power? Who will damn tradition? Who will flout the rules? Who in God’s name will stand up and cry, ‘No more!’” I’m standing on my toes.

……….I’m crying to the heavens. I’m pleading with my maker. I’m hanging on to the leather loop overhead to keep my balance. I’m throwing my head back and shaking with the thunderous ride.

……….I’m opening my mouth that forms an oracular O, an O of grief and hope and pity and exultation for all of humanity. I’m swaying, and bucking, and channeling a voice I don’t recognize. I’m doomed. I’m crazy. I’m freer than I’ve ever been my whole life. I’m ripe for a sabbatical.

……….“I’m asking the Middle East to grow up, Islam to mature, the Christian West to keep rejecting the ragged Jew when he sounds plain silly. Ain’t no heaven coming tomorrow. Who needs it? He lived hope in his short time on earth. ‘People are good.’ As the Nobel Laureate Gerry Hidalgo wrote in his speech to the academy. God’s whole creation is beyond the words we choose to name our sorrows. Enjoy it. Use your minds. Engage your hearts. Stem your passions. Get on your knees. Pray, friends, pray. Make the sign of the cross. The boss. Suffer the loss. Religion stinks. I’m afraid it’s all we have. I know, I know, it’s not enough and it’s even laughable. Look up! ‘God is dead! We killed him.’ Yeah, not the big man in the sky, but the small one inside us. God is dead.” I collapse in my seat.

……….Nobody has looked up. Chins down, people text on the BART, the mass transit system in the San Francisco Bay Area, and forget God. There is no need to worry about a lie. There is no need to worry about anything but what is in our hands. My face is in my hands, sobbing. My life is in this car, moving. I am bound up with these people I don’t know. I can fix that. I decide to take off my clothes and walk down the aisle naked. God needs to see me.

……….So standing in the aisle purposefully, unbuttoning my shirt and getting to my pants, I change my mind about what God deserves. I keep my underwear on. I am not an exhibitionist, quite the opposite, one who needs to blend into our human community, our bodied mass differentiated by so little, like the heart, the head, the cock, the ass; the heart, the cunt, the eyes, the ass. “Strip down!” I make for the exit. People barely look up. One person smiles with understanding, a college age woman. I see myself moving along in the windows. I pass for an Indian fakir with a laptop strung over my shoulder, no leaving that behind, eh? I need to keep tabs on what is going on in the world. Revolution-wise, I’m on it.

……….I miss my stop. I keep on walking up the train.

……….There is a small group of people banding together in the next car similarly disposed, ready to get off at the newest addition to the line, the plain, ordinary stop called New Start. “Next stop New Start!” I hear each living moment presents a challenge to break open, and each citizen of New Start is daily tasked to remain free. I got this on the authority of the text in my hand. “Detraining at New Start isn’t advised without a collapse beforehand.”

……….“Done did that. I’m broken inside. Empty. Cleaned out.”

……….“You’re our man.”

……….“It can’t be me. I’m inadequate times three. New Start needs a greater entity. Love. Recognize that the face in front of you is yours, nobody else’s. Savagely mistreated, it craves understanding. It bears your features, your wounds, your hungers. It wears a stranger’s mask to keep you on guard, defensively. But the face that perturbs you isn’t fearful. It’s holy.”

……….“Even Islam’s?”

……….“Especially Islam’s. I’m trying my damn best. I’m putting a brave face on a complicated situation, reality—the curse of people more or less like me. I’m pumping new blood with an old heart to see it freshly. I’m making it work overtime until it busts open, my heart. It’s on the BART! I’m living in the loving present. If you say Zen I’m going to get extremely violent. ISIS is my… neighbor on the other side of the globe. Bomb them! Bomb them! Teach them basic manners. Spiritual hygiene. Not to cross that line in the sand that is that… line in the sand. Cross it! See the fool hanging from its beams still? It’s you if you’re lucky. Love hard. Hate less. Here comes my train, world. I’m on it!” Jesus, all this time I have been sitting on a BART bench at the station, texting! My wife snores.

Big news on our block, God. Gerry won first place at the county fair for a tomato soufflé, and his wife Carmen is drawing up the plans for a bigger garden with a hot tub in the corner. We’re invited! Gerry intends to give a gracious speech on opening night, and my wife and I have chosen designer bathing suits in advance, none of that naked Marin hot tub shit for us. So 70’s! We’re going to listen to Gerry attentively, sitting in folding chairs purchased at Kmart during graduate school, top notch, a real expense then, and nod appreciatively. In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the wholesome holy spirit descending on us.

Splash, splash. Look up and see the stars, fellah. They’re around you? Me, too! Isn’t it all too much? This life, these times? This big, black sky studded with stars, and our little blue planet? Doomed orb. Brave circle. The endless night. The vast, fathomless reaches. The spermatic jets of light. It makes me just want to go, cuckoo, cuckoo! And cry with laughter. Every morning, I want to reach for the alarm button with hope.


Stephen D. Gutierrez

Stephen D. Gutierrez

Stephen D. Gutierrez is the author of three books of stories and essays, which, taken together, he calls My Three-Volume BOXED Set, though they remain separately published. He won an American Book Award for his second in the trilogy, Live From Fresno y Los. As of this writing, he has work forthcoming in Waccamaw, Bluestem, The Los Angeles Review and Under the Gum Tree. He teaches at California State University East Bay.

Advertisements