Pandemia Mine

earwig

The Spanish word is beautiful and mysterious: pandemia. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit full blast and as we head into the first month of lockdown, the fear and stridency being rolled out is like a new marketing campaign for Zero Coke. Lungs stop working, wear a mask don’t wear a mask, your children might infect you. This particular drug is effective—but wait—five days later the messaging does a 180 and tells us this same drug will kill you.

I don’t pray often, but I do pray that writers of novels and TV refrain from writing about COVID-19. It would be like movies about 9/11. No thanks. We lived through it. We took this particular drama straight.

Into the COVID-19 mess come the earwigs, behaving like bit actors in a cheap movie. Earwigs are insects on average a half-inch long, with pincers capable of giving a bite more irritable than painful. The Spanish name for them is tijerilla. Legend has it that they like to burrow into your ear and drive you mad. It’s only a legend. But then you dig a little deeper and find anecdotal accounts that say it’s true. Then you find an earwig crawling on your neck and you wonder if you’re going to be one of those exceptions to the rule.

Years before, we might have seen one or two earwigs in the house. No big deal.

This year there are thousands. They swarm the walls of our porch and crawl in hordes across the cement floor of the patio. Then they find their way into the house, where they lurk under a crumpled napkin, under a cloth potholder. They even took to crawling inside my Mr. Coffee and if I neglected to clean the filter from the day before I’d find them lying on the grounds as though they were on a black sand beach.

Sophy says, “We have to do something?”

“But what?”

“Martine kills them with his vacuum cleaner.”

That night I stalk the walls and floor of the patio, making a racket as I hoover them up by the thousands, sucking them into a water vac filled with poisonous bleach. I go back and forth, using just the hose, trailing it over their bodies. I’m my own pandemia. The earwigs resemble a rush-hour crowd in Times Square. Sometimes I step on one. Then its fellows cluster around and consume the squished body. In minutes all that remains is black dust.

After an hour their number is reduced to stragglers. Even then they are plentiful. When I trail my hose over these stragglers I count 800 in less than a minute.

My evening routine becomes watching COVID-19 news for an hour or two and then killing earwigs in the dark.

Before I go to bed I leave traps for them; plates with a mixture of pancake syrup, vegetable oil, and salt. While I sleep the earwigs are drawn to this mixture by the hundred and die in the goo. Problem is, in the morning, if I release my dogs before I dispose of the plates, my hounds gobble up the sweet oil and salt, earwigs and all.

The whole thing is disgusting.

from a work in progress Fort Rosarito

The Case of the Violent Virgin

 

One of my favorite books back in the early 80s was Gun In Cheek, a collection compiled by Bill Pronzini of the biggest sins against prose by the early pulp and paperback original writers. Like this:

“If her eyes were like baseballs, her breasts took you from sporting goods to something like ripe cantaloupes.”

The Case of the Violent Virgin

Michael Avallone

 

Strangers in A Strange Land: Immigrant Stories

 

Here’s a video promo I made for an anthology I appeared in, titled Strangers in a Strange Land: Immigrant Stories. I contributed a section from my Mexican noir novel TJ99. The book was edited by Katherine Tomlinson and Chris Rhatigan, and was published by All Due Respect.

I like making these video promos. It’s easier than you might think, using a free service called Powtoons.

Here’s a description of the book, which is available in paper and as an e-book:

Strangers in a Strange Land: Immigrant Stories is an anthology that explores immigration in poems, essays, and short stories by a diverse collection of authors who offer their own experiences, observations, and speculations.

From searing poetry drawn from a Native American perspective to essays chronicling the marginalization of LGBT people, to the crime fiction of new Americans and writers whose ancestors were brought to the country in bondage, Strangers in a Strange Land examines the intersection of hope and despair that defines the immigrant experience.

Belly

 

My book-length memoir of moving to Mexico will be published by Cowboy Jamboree Press December 2020. Titled Uppercut, this one is close to my heart. The book contains a lot of observed detail and experiences that helped give authenticity to my Mexican noir novels.

Here’s an excerpt from Uppercut:

 

The first morning in Tijuana I’m the first one up. I get our dog Kuma on a leash and walk the several blocks to the OXXO. Snagging a cup of coffee, I’m button-holed by a bloated Guatemalan smelling of freshly-swigged tequila. I listen to his fractured stories of border violence and can’t figure if he’s telling me TJ is perilous or no more dangerous than any other big city. But he liked Kuma and called him, “… my Japanese girl.”

Back at the house, everyone is now awake. Sophy stood in the bedroom doorway watching her daughter Maria get dressed.

I heard a burst of Spanish from Sophy and recognized one word, “panza” which means “belly.”

Maria hung her head and to another question in Spanish answered, “Si.”

Sophy turned to me and said, “She’s pregnant again.”

I looked at Maria and wondered how I hadn’t caught it right away. The baby bump is obvious on her slender frame.

Sophy does a slow burn. She shuts the bedroom door on me and from outside I hear her lambasting Maria.

Later I learn Maria is five months pregnant. The Mexican father acknowledges the baby is his, but that’s as far it goes. He wants nothing to do with Maria or the kid. A life that was hard just got a lot harder.

Later we all pile into the car to get breakfast. We drive to a crowded street-side stand selling goat tacos. Sophy was in shock, most likely wondering where the extra money was going to come from to raise another child. This would also complicate Maria’s hopes for a visa. It’s Sophy’s dream to have her whole family together in the U.S. When we’re driving around Sylmar, Sophy will point out houses with big back yards, talking about vegetable gardens, a patio for dance parties, and how a big yard is, “…good for a child’s emotional health.” When she talks like this I can imagine what Sophy is seeing in her mind’s eye—grandchildren romping around, her sons and daughter in the house, big meals, and games of loteria in the evening.

We finish our street tacos and gather in a clump on the sidewalk. Maria stands there, shoulders slumped, her belly straining her blue T-shirt. She’s barely spoken since her dressing down from Sophy.

Sophy takes Miguel and Amber by the hand. She kneels on the sidewalk in front of Maria. Sophy places their hands on Maria’s belly and says, “You’re going to have a brother.”

Both kids smile.

Sophy kisses Maria’s belly and says, “Give your brother a kiss.’

Both kids lean in and kiss Maria’s belly.

Sophy says to me, “It’s not the baby’s fault. We have to welcome him into the world.”

 

Swell

 

One of my favorite books back in the early 80s was Gun In Cheek, a collection compiled by Bill Pronzini of the biggest sins against prose by the early pulp and paperback original writers. Like this:

Several women were looking at themselves in the mirrored panels, inserted the entire width of the dance floor, and one of them in shimmering green which displayed a lot of tanned shoulders, and considerably more underneath the shoulders where they begin to swell out and mean something if you like them that way, stopped in front of the table.

The Feather Cloak Murders by Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet

Da 5 Bloods

I caught Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods after a week of huge anticipation. In my eyes, it was a misfire. On the nose dialogue, too many subplots, too many coincidences, tonal inconsistencies, and a weird depiction of time – these men would be in their 70s and here they were lugging backpacks of gold through the jungle.

The film should have been set in the Reagan era with the subtext that nothing changes. Delroy Lindo was great but in too many scenes it felt like he’d walked into a different film. He was cranked up to ten while the other actors were idling at 5. I’d love to know what others think. It’s scoring in the 90s on Rotten Tomatoes, but I wonder if Spike’s getting a pass because of the turmoil we find ourselves in.

I respect Spike Lee and was knocked out by Do the Right Thing. Unfortunately, Da 5 Bloods got under my skin as a really badly thought out film. There are lots of changes I would have made.

The major one would be to set it in the Reagan era – he was the original one who said: “Make America Great.” Delroy Lindo wouldn’t have a son. He’d be a recent widower – his wife kept him grounded and with her death the past has come back to haunt him big time.

The guy who had the affair with the Vietnamese woman wouldn’t have a daughter – he’d have a Vietnamese son – and that son would be the one who guided them in country.

I’d scrap the French girl and her buddies looking for mines.

All of the directorial asides would be scrapped (Apocalyse Now, Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and all of the cultural jokes would be made by the characters, not the director, the way the characters joked about Rambo and Chuck Norris. It’s better when the characters are adding humor, instead of the director.

Then, the very end, there would be a sole black character driving the gold in a battered delivery van through Oakland, to give the gold to the Black Panthers, with a comment about the war not being over. I would have made tons of other changes but those are some of them.

It was unusual for me to be lying in bed at night, rewriting a film that I’d watched that evening. That’s what happened to me with Da 5 Bloods.

Twist

outsiderart

The Sunday morning subway ride to work. There was a Spanish family sitting in front of me, heading for the beach. The wife and husband were sitting together. She was young and had a sweet smile; in profile her tongue flicked in Spanish. The husband was older. His hands were up near the braid of her hair. They seemed to be twirling her hair with the love an older, heavier man feels when he’s successful in love with a younger woman.

My mind played out scenes of hard work and lonely days for the man that surprisingly led to love. But I soon saw this wasn’t so obviously so. His hands, close to her braid, were twirling and unwrapping a piece of hard candy that he popped into his mouth.

Later, as the candy pushed out his cheek, his nervous hands played with the bra stretched across her back.

She jerked her body and said, “Stop it!”

Two stops further she held her head between her knees as though she was going to be sick.

 

From my book, Breakfast Special (available on Amazon)

My Way

23-zona.metropolitana.hospicio.cabañas

We were at a backyard barbecue in Tijuana. Father’s Day. I’d never seen it celebrated this way – with lots of families getting together in appreciation of their fathers. Growing up white in the suburbs, we gave dad a card if he was lucky; maybe my mom cooked him a special meal – if she did it didn’t register on me.

Sophy and I, and Denisse and the kids were the first ones to arrive. I made a Squirt and tequila and sat in the concrete backyard, playing with the dogs. Eventually the yard filled, the grill was fired up and the family DJ got out the karaoke mic. Everyone had to sing and the mic was passed around the table. I was fourth in line. Up to then it had been all Spanish songs. Part of me was nervous and part of me was itching to sing.

When they handed me the mic I asked for “Always on My Mind.” No luck. “House of the Rising Sun?” Nope. I flailed around, trying to think of a song to sing and blurted out, “My Way. Frank Sinatra.”

The melody started and the lyrics appeared on the screen. I started to sing, and instead of keeping it light, I found myself hurtling down into the song. It’s a bombastic song, but for me, at that moment, all of its lines of triumph – of having seen things through, having few regrets – were to me declarations of failure. I almost started to tear up. I thought of my son refusing to talk to me, hanging up when I called, emailing me that he threw the book I’d bought him in the trash. It seemed the height of failure to crow “I did it my way” in the face of such failure.

By the last verse of the song, instead of looking down at the table, I felt like I was peering into a deep pit.

I must have kept my feelings hidden. At the end of the song there was lots of applause and Sophy’s aunt leaned over and said in Spanish, “You sing that better than Frank Sinatra.”

But inside I was a wreck.

June 2015

PLUNGE now published

Plunge.jpg

My Caribbean noir novella PLUNGE has just been published by Endeavour Media in the UK.

Turner’s a reckless travel journalist. His ex-wife Sally is an overprotective agoraphobe with an intense fear of flying. When their eight-year-old son is kidnapped in the Dominican Republic, Turner and Sally have to rely on each other in ways they never managed when they were married. When the true viciousness of the kidnappers’ plan is revealed, Turner and Sally have to tap the most violent sides of their natures to save their child.

Order HERE.

Masking Tape

masking tape

Synchronicity. A phenomenon where an event in the outside world coincides meaningfully with a psychological state of mind.

One weird synchronous incident occurred when I was in my 20s, when I was temporarily crashing with my parents in Massachusetts.

I was sitting in the living room reading a detective novel. The character of the detective was at home with his wife. As I was reading I heard my parents talking:

Dad: Do you know where the masking tape is?

Mom: I don’t have time to look for masking tape.

Dad: Don’t get so angry.

Mom: It’s around somewhere, packed up.

Dad: Uh huh. It’s around somewhere.

Listening to them, I realized that I wasn’t paying attention to what I had been reading. I skipped back a paragraph and read:

“Masking tape,” he said. “I know we’ve got some of it somewhere.”

“The end drawer,” she said. “With the fuses, batteries, flashlight, hammer, screwdriver, pliers, Scotch tape, rubber bands, Elmer’s Glue, candles, Band-Aids, old corks, paint brushes, a can of

All right, all right,” he laughed. “I promise to straighten it out and I will.”

Waking Up

marden

We woke at 2:30 am in order to drive Sophy to the California/Mexico border, so she could take a van to LA and sort out Ashley’s paperwork. It’s the final touches to gaining full legal custody of our teenage granddaughter.

Before even getting dressed I put on the coffee. When I went back into the bedroom I saw Sophy sitting on the bed, in a brown sweater, the blanket wrapped around her legs.

“Man, I said. “You are a beautiful woman.”

She smiled and that made her look even more beautiful.

In the car minutes later, with Sophy and her daughter Denisse, I listened to Denisse speak Spanish to her mother and marveled at the sound of her voice. In general, Denisse is soft-spoken. But this was something else. It was the sound of a person who would not knowingly or willingly hurt another being.

Then, I stared out the window at all the sights along the pre-dawn road. I usually make this drive in bright sunlight. Now it was shadow after shadow, with the perspective between buildings telescoping back into darkness, like tunnels leading into black mystery.

It was three hours to sun-up and the day was looking to have some magic in it.