School and Shadow

(An excerpt from The Passion of la Niña Milagros: Growing Up in the Violence of El Salvador)


Getting to school was an adventure for my big brothers and sisters. The dirt road passed through isolated coffee plantations with no people anywhere around, and no electric light. You had to walk right by the cemetery, so parents with a little money would let their kids smoke a cigarette to fend off the Siguanaba. This was a supernatural woman of great beauty who could drive you mad or make you lose your way.  She was usually seen from behind, a woman with long, shining black hair, dressed in a flimsy white slip—but if she turned her head you’d see she had the face of a skull!

Fortunately, by the time I was ready for first grade we had moved to a newly populated neighborhood in the hills outside the capital, where the government established a new school.  They bought a former chicken ranch with an ancient henhouse made of weathered boards and rusty chicken-wire mesh to keep the pullets from escaping. Workers put up partitions and fashioned eight tiny classrooms with a couple of narrow corridors and a large patio in front.  

This new school was only a dozen blocks from our house, and a great joy for everyone—especially Mamá.  My next older brother, Alfredo, started first grade there. Even now I remember how my mother herded him to school by pitching rocks at him.  He didn’t like to sit in class, so Mamá followed him down the road, tossing stones at him for a few blocks so that he would get going and stay on course.  He was so scatterbrained that sometimes people stopped him to point out that he was wearing his shoes on the wrong feet. Well, the problem may not have been absent-mindedness so much as the novelty of wearing shoes at all!

I started school early, perhaps because of a calcium deficiency.  All the little children would begin first grade when their first milk tooth fell out.  Mine fell out when I was six and not seven years old, like everyone else. Also, I was very small for my age, and rather scared of school.  But the joy of my brothers and sisters was contagious, and I was very curious to know what school was.

Indeed, I was very content at the school that happened to be mine.  It didn’t matter that chicks and hens had been raised there before me. I didn’t mind the rough floor of dirt and concrete or the corrugated tin roof which, when it rained, kept you from hearing what your teachers were saying.  While it’s true that the teachers abused us, any change in our lives was a reason for joy: surely anything would be better!

In school it was all laughter—and sometimes tears.  Why? Usually because of some punishment that had been inflicted upon our bodies at home the night before.  At times our parents were in a bad mood, and in their anger or frustration they would take out their ire upon their children.  The next day, in our pain and frustration, we didn’t want anybody near us.

Of course, the teachers would contribute their share to our woe. Teachers threatened to set fire to your hair if you came to school unkempt, so I tried to be well dressed.  Of course, I had only my little momo—a sleeveless playsuit with a faded pattern of tiny flowers. I carried water and played in this costume every day, too.  My siblings made fun of me because instead of sleeping in it I insisted on changing into a ragged old dress of my mother’s. Each morning I shook out my momo and made sure my hair was tidy. Every Sunday, Mamá would braid my hair, and I tried to wash my outfit once a month.  

We children were subject to many forms of punishment. A teacher might humiliate you in front of others by throwing your notebook at your feet.  Or she might bestow un coscorrón—a rabbit punch to the head—or else lift your skirt and whack you with a yardstick. Sometimes at eleven in the morning she’d put you out in the sun underneath the bell they rang for recess.  For an hour or two you’d have to stand there sweltering in the sun, balancing your desk on top of your head. Other times, the teacher might give you una carrera de mico—a “monkey race,” rubbing her two thumbs up the sides of your head so that a few hairs might be ripped out.  Or she might say, “Quieres ver a Dios?”  (Do you want to see God?) Then she would use her thumbs to lift you up by the temples, again ripping out a few hairs.  They would do this to boys and girls alike, even the little kids. Only at adolescence did they stop, when we got too big and rebellious.  And, of course, the teachers threatened to expel us if we told our parents any of this.

Our teachers were from well-to-do families, very superior to all of us.  They always made it clear that we would never attain their high-class status.  Throughout our childhood they nurtured in us the idea that we were beings who must be completely subservient to anyone who would guide us on the road to knowledge.  This was confirmed by Mamá, who had only been to school for six months in her whole life; and by Papá, who said of the teacher, “she’s your second mother.” In this way they confirmed that it would be stupid for us to refuse the teacher’s crazy whims, such as cleaning her desk, running to carry her briefcase, and doing other ridiculous things.  

There are people who leave very deep footprints on your life, difficult to efface. One of these was my first grade teacher, Señorita Marina—I will never forget her name.  She was a tall, slender woman with a stylish bubble hairdo. On my very first day of school she smacked me very hard on the back. She told me to move a bench, but I was so little that I could barely drag it, and I inadvertently bumped into her desk. Another time, Marina decided to punish us all because, unbeknownst to the class, two boys had stood in the doorway, looking her over like vagabonds.  This had filled her with shame. She made us stretch out our hands with the palms down, and whacked us on the knuckles with a ruler. She did this to thirty-five children, although only two had offended her. But she was very fair-minded and punished the lot of us, giving several blows to each one.

Sometimes I got in trouble despite my best efforts. Part of my problem was that things would happen and I wouldn’t understand why.  Maybe I was just unsuspecting. Here’s an example: Señorita Marina picked three of us children to be her servants, perhaps by chance or perhaps because we were the poorest and most neglected of her students.  She would arrive quite early in the morning, and desire us to fetch her breakfast.

One day when we little servants arrived she sent us back out to bring her a cup of milk and some bread with an egg.  We had to walk perhaps seven blocks to get her breakfast, and so naturally we missed class. Señorita Marina may have forgotten about us that day, or maybe we came back more quickly than she expected.  Our hands full, we backed through the little wooden door into the classroom. Suddenly we discovered that our teacher had no hair! She suffered from alopecia—a malady that causes people to lose their hair and eyelashes and eyebrows.  Even then I understood that it was an illness. All her life Marina had been impeccable in her toilette, but the three of us kids saw her without her wig, and that cost us her hatred. She angrily chewed us out, saying that the door was closed and we needed to knock.  But how were we to knock, with our hands full of her breakfast? “Sorry! Sorry!” we said, overcome with shame. We put down her breakfast and fled.

We often wondered whether school was a good thing or not.  On the one hand, we were the laughingstock of other schools because we were the poorest.  But on the other hand, there were classmates who walked three miles to get there—and even though class began at seven-thirty in the morning, they were punctual.  We figured that you had to learn to read, even if you could only read badly, so that later in life people couldn’t take advantage of you.

In first grade I had a fifteen-year-old classmate named Lucía.  She was a simple young woman, a bit strange; much lighter in color than me.  You could tell at a glance that she was from the countryside because she wore two long braids in her hair and always came barefoot, with dusty, calloused feet. She wore the typical peasant dress—a loose white blouse with a bit of elastic in the short sleeves, and a long black skirt made of commercial cloth.  Of course, Lucía was much bigger than the rest of us: she was fifteen and we were only six or seven. Her parents hadn’t sent her to school because they had cows that needed to be herded to pasture.

Just as her family exploited her, so did the teacher.  Señorita Marina saw in Lucía a person who could be useful to her.  When we were halfway through the school year she appropriated the girl to be her personal servant. Marina sent me home with Lucía to gather up her possessions.  I knew the house—a humble cabin on a very beautiful little ranchito—because I was very nosy, and Lucía was very special.  We left the school at eight o’clock in the morning, forded the river Acelhuate, and then traversed it once again with her possessions balanced in a couple of small bundles on our heads.  We didn’t get back until eleven-thirty—that’s how far away her house was.

Instead of helping the girl, the teacher administered one more wound. Once she had Lucía in her power, Marina restricted the girl to her house in the capital and only permitted her to go out once a month.  This was how all the domestic servants were treated at that time. As for our friend Lucía, she never studied again—she couldn’t even finish first grade. How are we supposed to get ahead if we can’t study?  Poor Lucía hadn’t even learned to read or write before the teacher took her away.


One thing above all remains etched in my memory.  It happened in second grade, which must have been the year 1972.  One day at noon we little kids came out of school, and there in the dusty road near the bakery were the bodies of three young men.  All were youngsters that everybody knew, who came every week to deliver the flour used to make bread. They always took the same route, and that day they had been murdered at point-blank range.  

The dirt road was narrow and the delivery truck very wide, thus we all had to squeeze alongside it in order to pass. The police hadn’t arrived, nobody had come. No mothers were with us; they were all working and almost never brought their children to school or picked them up. You’d walk to school with a neighbor, or with a brother or sister.  And so we children made a circle right up close around the bodies. Somebody older, maybe one of my siblings, should have told me not to look.

One body was splayed in the dirt at the bottom of the bakery steps. A second body lay next to the delivery truck, and another underneath it.  We saw the boys’ faces in the dirt, their blood spattered in the dust, and we said to one another, “They killed them!” These bleeding bodies, cast onto the ground amid white splotches of scattered flour, were the first of so many corpses I was to see.  

Wow, how hard life is!  I stood there looking. We just stood there, a clump of us—my brothers and sisters and neighbor kids—maybe ten or fifteen minutes, just looking at the bodies. As a little child, despite the violence that I had witnessed in my own family, it was shocking to see the bloody bodies of the three young men.  They were hard workers, youths not so much older than we were, covered in dust from the rutted dirt road. I dreamed of this scene near my house for about a year: the faces of the murdered boys in that steaming noontime, and the way your body writhes when no longer directed by your brain.

For us this was the beginning of the time of violence.  I don’t remember the date, but I do remember the heat, the dust, the noonday sun and the crowd of us little kids from the school.  Sometimes I talk with my family about it and they clam up, especially people of my generation, because we like to pretend that such carnage only happens in films.  But when you have seen these things with your own eyes, and your ears have heard the sound of a bullet striking flesh, a machete slicing into a human body—these are things that you can’t so easily forget.  

We kids walked those dirt roads every single day.  That day we stood in the road, all huddled together, and for us it was…  How can I express it?

Okay, now as an old woman I can articulate it:  This violence was something profoundly disrespectful. They didn’t harm those youths in some middle-class district.  No, they had to come to our impoverished neighborhood and murder them exactly at the hour when children were coming out from school.  It seemed that they did it precisely so that we kids would see what would happen. They did it consciously, to terrorize the next generation.

Before they ever reached our district, the killers had to pass through an upper-middle class neighborhood.  But such things never happened there amid the pretty homes, the big houses with a garage, people who were employed. Murderers also passed through our narrow dirt streets to dispose of the bodies of people they had killed elsewhere. Perhaps they liked our poverty-stricken, outlying district because all the streets ended up overlooking the river. They tossed their victims down the cliffs so the current would carry them away. The bodies of murdered people always turned up downstream at a place called las Tres Cruces, after three crossings of the river.  

As time went on we’d watch killers come and go, but nobody said anything.  Sometimes I’m sad, because I wonder: Why couldn’t we talk about these things?  Why did we have to keep silent when we all knew who had done the evil deed? Everyone knew it was the army—sometimes we’d even see uniformed soldiers disposing of bodies.  We knew that the people with money were behind it.

The incident at the bakery was widely reported on radio and television.  They said that the youths belonged to a union, which was prohibited in those days—so they had to pay the price.  I had never known what a unionist was; my family unfortunately never had the connections to get work in a private company. Later, they taught us in school about unions and unionists, and then we realized that they were workers who wanted to struggle for their rights.

Who made these boys pay the price? Well, the only people who didn’t like unions at that time were those in the government of Arturo Armando Molina, the PCN (National Conciliation Party).  Its slogan was “Vote for the little hands,” and to this day their symbol is two hands clasped. Those hands were stained by the blood of many people who never agreed with what was happening in the country.  

A paramilitary death squad formed, the Shadow of Death. They gagged you, beat you, tortured you, and if this was not enough, then they killed you.  As time went on, people took advantage of the situation to get back at neighbors they were quarreling with. All you’d have to do is talk loudly about someone, maybe saying that a certain man belonged to the green party, the PDC (Christian Democratic Party), and the Shadow of Death would come at night and murder the whole family.

As a young child I came to understand all this—what the symbol of the little hands meant.  I will always remember this, and remember all the people who have never told their stories. I believe that the perpetrators thought us so stupid that we would never know who had murdered the young men at the bakery.  I believe the weight of these deaths will always be on their conscience.

And so the delivery boys were dead. Their corpses had not fallen naturally into the road, and we were not going to touch them, either. What could we children have done?  Mamá had always told us not to look at dead people, lest we get traumatized. After maybe twenty minutes my older sister said, “Let’s go, monkeys—Mamá must be waiting for us.”  And we went running home with the news. But Mamá had already heard, and the curious were coming out to see.

A new era began the moment the bakery boys were murdered.  Big changes began to take place, things that my mind never could have conceived of. Only later did we realize that a huge wave of violence was approaching.  A diaspora began, of everyone who had the means to leave our little country.




Milagros and Rita have been collaborating on this memoir for several years, and as chapters are completed they are posted to the website Rita Moran is an active CCSF ESL Instructor. Milagros Vela is a dear friend and a former CCSF student. Milagros uses a pseudonym, to protect her identity.


What Do Stars Look Like in the Middle of the Ocean BY JENNIFER BARONE

What Do Stars Look Like in the Middle of the Ocean


what do the waves feel like

are they calm, placid without wind

or violent as you charge

through swelling, white caps

between past and future

making you seasick

but not enough to turn back


only love can make us sail the open sea

never knowing what lies ahead

trusting what is on the other side

might be better than where we left

what we do not know

better than the desperation of war



what does the middle of the ocean feel like

where waves meet, crashing into each other

a known desolation into an unknown isolation


is there a silence so dark

you can hear your desires blaze

across the sky and fall into the sea

can you see a million of them

in a vastness that makes you feel

so small

so alone

only stars can hear your prayers



Jennifer Barone is the author of Saporoso, Poems of Italian Food & Love (Feather Press), host of the monthly WordParty Poetry & Jazz Series ( and winner of the Poets Eleven contest for North Beach where she resides. Visit: for more.


I couldn’t take it anymore

Walking by sad, homeless people,

barely looking at them

as I passed them by.

I wanted to be better than that

so I decided on a simple outreach plan:

I would give them granola bars.

Using my instincts,  

I chose the people to approach.

I thought that my gift to them was the granola bar,

but right away I learned the truth:


It’s not about the granola bar.


No matter how hungry a person was,  

what mattered more than the bar was

my looking into their eyes

and that I wasn’t telling them

to be someone more,

to go somewhere else.

I was smiling and gentle

and, in return, no matter how deep their agony,

no matter how far back

they had to travel to me

from their psychotic wanderings,

they were there for me with friendly eyes

and polite “pleases” and “thank yous”

and “your compassion means a lot.”


One man clung to the granola bar

as though it were a gift from heaven

in a life where he owns nothing — but despair.

Yet even so…


It’s not about the granola bar.


Our real connection became clear

when tears swelled up in his eyes

because, although he had asked nothing of me,

I came to him when he had long forgotten

what it was like for someone to see him.


Giving of ourselves may seem like a little thing

but it isn’t, in fact, a little thing

but a big forever thing

that can change how a person feels about the world

and, very importantly, how he feels about his own worth.


Those simple gestures are selfish in a way

because each time I left in awe

of how kindness survives

inside worn-out, ignored people.

Kindness waiting for a reason to glow.


It’s not about the granola bar.

It’s about talking with a person and not at a person.

It’s about giving him a moment of not being judged.

It’s about letting his humanity shine through

to light his smile that brightens both our worlds.


Vivian (Sinick) Imperiale was a CCSF student and later worked at a now defunct position: Behavioral Sciences Reader. Poetry plays a therapeutic role in her life, allowing her to better understand herself and process emotions around life events.


That Face


He was one of the honest ones, and there never have been enough of those. “The truth will set me free, but it won’t get me laid,” I once overheard him say. He was standing with a small group of us at the back bar in Gabbie’s in West Hollywood, where we waited for one of the criminally-beautiful, and shirtless, straight bartenders to bring us our drinks. The truth will set me free, but it won’t get me laid. He was right, of course. At that point in his life, few would have anything to do with him, and even a few of those few, if not all of them, probably ended up wondering whether their time with him had been a mistake. We were careful weren’t we? Memories—especially those we are just walking away from—are often blurred by our longing to repeat them and just as often by our desire to forget them. 

I didn’t know him well. I was a distant relation, a mere friend of a friend of a friend. Mine were but a pair of what one of his close friends called the “six knees of separation” that made us all kin of one kind or another. I would run in to him from time to time, at the drug store or grocery store, or at a party, where on most of these occasions I would find him in a corner looking out at the crowd over the rim of his Negroni, the only cocktail I ever saw him drink. He never looked lonely or out of place. He never struck me as a wallflower. Instead, he looked as if he wanted to be there, watching the room and the crowd, taking it all in and storing it away for future use, like a spy or novelist.

I first saw him at the Lost & Found, a dance bar in Washington, D.C. This would have been in 1979, the year My Sharona hit number one and murdered disco, starting our beloved disco divas—and many of us—on a downward spiral straight to obscurity. Still, we carried on. The soundtrack may have changed but our story remained the same. We still went to the bars in search of love, but if all we ended up with was a night of dancing, poppers and—fingers crossed—sex, that would have been enough to get us through until the next weekend. 

Before the post-Stonewall cruise ship on which we had been so happily sailing struck an iceberg, leaving us all racing for the lifeboats, I would sometimes see him at the Club Baths on O Street. In later years on a different coast, I would see him in the sex clubs that sprang up when the bathhouses were shut down. I would see him in the gym, that place we migrated to in one giant herd to make the outside of us look indestructible, no matter what was going on with the inside of us. 

I’m not certain he ever knew my name. If he did he never called me by it. We were never properly introduced, he and I. As certain of that as I am, he might have thought we had been at one time or another. Or maybe he just didn’t think it was necessary, since we had those friends of friends of friends in common and had often ended up in the same places, with the same people, and were therefore in that way intimate with one another and didn’t need a formal introduction when an informal one was obviously sufficient. 

When I turned the page of the newspaper this morning and saw his name, the memory of my first sight of him that had been over the years sliding further away rushed back into the realm of the living, like the soul of a recently deceased who wasn’t quite ready, or appropriately dressed, for the pearly gates, and would, thank you very much, come back at a later time.

For some of us who lived in the suburbs, most of Washington, D.C. was unknown to us, particularly if our father was one of those white people who hated black people. My father was one of those white people. 

I, on the other hand, loved black people for the fact that they were everything I was not. I loved the black men and women I watched every Saturday afternoon on Soul Train, an hour of devotion that was more my idea of Church than any house of God could ever have been. The only non-black dancer was an Asian woman with straight black hair that fell to below her waist. In later years, I would have called her fabulous, but in the late-1970s I had not yet learned how useful and important that word would become. 

In my late-elementary school days, we were taken on the occasional field trip into D.C., to visit the museums, my face pressed against the cold glass of the bus as we crossed over the Potomac River into what to me was something akin to ancient Rome or Greece, since most of the federal government buildings—pointed out to us by the teachers—had been built to mimic the architecture of the past civilizations we had spent so many hours in the classroom studying. I have often wondered if there were other boys on that bus who, like I, imagined our entrance into D.C. as exhilarating as Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra entering Rome.

In the museums our teachers made certain to hurry us past the paintings and sculptures that had any amount of exposed flesh, which of course were the very ones I wanted to stop and stare at. I was especially drawn to the paintings with barely-dressed or naked men and the statues with exposed male genitalia that created within me a desire I couldn’t begin to understand, but knew instinctively I would die for if need be.  

Later, out of school and old enough to drive, but still too young to get into the bars, my forays into D.C. became not to the museums but to the porn shops on 14th Street, where age didn’t matter and I could buy a pack of cigarettes and, for $3.99, a shrink-wrapped package of three magazines with page after page of naked men. These were not the naked men I had seen in the pages of Playgirl (stolen from the drug store by slipping them into a newspaper) whose cocks, though lovely and enticing, were for the most part soft, and whose asses, again lovely and enticing, were just a pair of sometimes smooth and sometimes hairy cheeks with no hint of that heavenly terrain in between. 

Back in my car, I would race home with a cigarette hanging between my lips and a hand on top of the package in the passenger seat, stroking the plastic, wondering what it would be like to have an actual man sitting next to me, my hand between his legs and his between mine. I couldn’t wait to get home where I would lock myself in my bedroom, drop my pants and underwear and rip open the package and look at the pages filled with photographs of naked men having sex, the photo spreads laid out like story boards, simple and to the point: kissing on one page, sucking on the next, fucking on the next, and ending at the moment of truth on the next with a pool of cum in a navel or sprayed into a patch of hair between the pectorals or—and this was the best of them all—shot directly onto a stretched out tongue, a pair of eyes looking up into the camera as if it were me they were hungry for. 

It was at this age, barely sixteen, when the wanting to be touched by a man and the wanting to touch one was so intense, so vital it hurt. It hurt more than a stomachache, more than a sore throat, more than a freshly broken bone. It hurt with a pain I would not come to truly understand until decades later when I was in my fifties and knew that I could never have the beautiful young boys who were forever in my line of vision. This was not the pain of heartbreak; that I came to understand at an all too early age. No, this late-in-life pain was something much worse: pure and simple rejection. 

Yes, there were boys my own age I wanted who were also growing hair in strange places and emitting body smells that were as intriguing as they were repulsive. The difference between the boys and the men in the magazines, though, was that the boys were obtainable. I could touch them, and did. Not all of them, but a few here and there who were, like me, curious and more than willing to swear not to tell. But it was a man I wanted, not a boy. It was my teachers at school, a couple of my neighbors, even my father and one of my uncles I thought of most when I masturbated. And don’t think for a moment I was the only teenage boy who had these fantasies. Not all those stories we hear about grown men taking advantage of innocent teenage boys are true. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Still, it’s always easier to believe the ones we want to be telling the truth rather than the ones who are actually telling it. 

Eventually, I became a man, or at least an eighteen-year-old boy, which made me legal enough to drink beer and to know how to get a fake ID so I could be “legal” enough to drink liquor. I could, finally, walk into the bars in Dupont Circle and the Lost & Found, and the bathhouse, where the bodies were real, not frozen in paintings and sculptures as they were in the museums or in the porn magazines. The men in the bars and bathhouse were alive, pulsing and beating and sweating and bleeding with emotion and sex. I could get close enough to smell them. All that remained was to touch them, taste them, possess them, and, yes, love them. 

Which bar I would go to depended on what night of the week I was going out. If it were an after-work weekday outing it would be happy hour at Rascals in Dupont Circle, followed by dinner at the Chesapeake House on 9th Street, N.W., just a few blocks from the F.B.I headquarters, which in 1972 officially became the J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building, named after the infamous homosexual F.B.I. director. 

There were other bars to go to for happy hour, but it was the clientele at Rascals that appealed to me. I was drawn to men in suits and ties more than I was to men in jeans and T-shirts, and it was the former more than the latter who tended to visit Rascals. Of course, what it came down to in the end was who was paying attention to me, regardless of what he was wearing. The fantasy, though, was important, the suit and tie representing success, meaning they had money. That these suit-and-tiers could be up to their balls in debt was something I never thought of. Debt was my parent’s most talked about problem, but was something I had yet to experience for myself. Some of the men wore wedding bands. Others no doubt had them stashed in pockets. These men—the handsome ones, anyway—intrigued me. I longed to know what they looked like out of the suits and ties (and socks and underwear) and found myself envying their wives the way I had envied the wife of my seventh-grade math teacher: she got to see him naked every day of her life. 

What the food at the Chesapeake House lacked in quality was more than made up for by the nude go-go boys who danced along the bar that ran opposite a row of tables in the center of the restaurant and a parallel row of booths against a wall. The dancers had thin, lithe bodies that were neck-to-navel hairless. By the end of their thirty-minute shifts they glistened with sweat, like featherweight prizefighters after ten rounds, except that their faces—every one of them a rival of Ganymede—were without bruises and blood. The hair below the navel and on the legs—and presumably between the buttocks if hair grew there—was matted against skin that was pale as milk on one or two of the boys or tanned to a soft brown—except for the Speedo outline—on one or two of the others. 

Theirs was not a striptease act. They hopped on the stage naked, danced naked, and hopped off the stage naked, clutching ones and fives and tens and twenties, and the occasional fifty or hundred, in their fists. For bigger tips they would squat in front of a patron and shake their cock and balls, much to the delight of the patrons at the bar, who were mostly men old enough to be my grandfather. They would stare at the genitals in motion in front of them as if they were being hypnotized, sometimes with a smile, sometimes not; sometimes while they continued to eat, not caring that the odds were high that a pubic hair would fall into their chicken Kiev or grilled salmon. There were signs posted on the walls that read, “Touching the Dancers is Strictly Forbidden,” followed by some municipal code number, but these signs went largely ignored. Testicles were taken hold of and pulled, cocks squeezed and stroked, a finger or two would disappear behind a scrotum, only to reappear and sniffed. I never witnessed an arrest, but did on occasion see a slap on the wrist by a waiter or bartender, usually accompanied by a wink. 

Happy hour and dinner with dancing naked boys was a welcomed mid-week respite from my hum-drum existence as an accounts payable clerk, but it was nothing compared to Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons at the Lost & Found. 

It was a thirty-minute drive from my parent’s house to the Lost & Found.  I shared the house with a younger sister and brother. My parents and another younger brother lived in an apartment in a neighboring city where my mother was the apartment complex’s resident manager and my father the complex’s maintenance man. I continued to live in my childhood home because my job didn’t pay enough to afford me my own apartment. I barely managed to pay my car payment and insurance. There were times when I couldn’t afford gas and had to either stay at home or not eat. Most of the time, I chose not to eat. 

On any given Friday or Saturday night I would manage to scrounge up a semblance of dinner from what I could find in the refrigerator and eat in front of the television. My sister was usually there with me, nibbling on crackers, sipping a glass of white wine and chain smoking. I rarely saw my brother. He spent most of his time in his room in the basement, drinking six packs of beer purchased with the money he made from his pawning our father’s tools or fishing equipment he pilfered from the shed in the back yard. I didn’t have much in my room in terms of possessions, but I installed a deadbolt lock on the door nonetheless. 

After dinner, I would shave, shower, brush my teeth and spend an hour or more trying on clothes while dancing in front of the mirror with Donna Summer or Chic on the record player. I wouldn’t leave my house until eleven o’clock. No one in their right mind got to the Lost & Found before eleven-thirty. 

There was a three-dollar cover charge to get into the Lost & Found on Friday and Saturday nights. In exchange I got a ticket good for one cocktail. There were many nights when that one drink would have to last me an entire evening since I didn’t have the cash to buy another and hadn’t been lucky enough to meet someone who offered to buy me a drink. By the end of these nights, my beloved Tom Collins had no resemblance whatsoever to a cocktail and barely passed as sweetened ice water. The cherry at the bottom of the glass looked as lonely as I felt. 

It was a Friday night when I first saw That Face at the Lost & Found. I was standing in line, waiting my turn with the one who manned the door in that claustrophobic anteroom just outside the bar’s main room, when That Face burst in from outside and fell directly into the arms of the man standing in line behind me. He and the man fell to the floor. They had fallen in such way that That Face lay across the stranger’s lap like Jesus just down from the cross. It took a few moments for those of who had witnessed his dramatic entrance to understand what had happened and to react accordingly: to go to him and ask. In a loud whisper and to no one in particular, That Face said, “I was mugged! No! I was held up! At gunpoint!” I could see by the looks on the faces around me and from the doubt I felt within myself that none of us were quite certain if we believed him. Some no doubt doubted him because of how he seemed to be confused about whether he had been mugged or held up at gunpoint. Others, myself one of them, refused to believe him simply because we couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to hurt someone so beautiful. 

The End






Edisol Wayne Dotson is the author of “Behold the Man: The Hype and Selling of Male Beauty in Media and Culture.” His fiction has appeared in “Forum” and his nonfiction and poetry have appeared in “Art & Understanding.”



How do you deal with emotions? I swallow them. Let them sink deep into my gut until they ferment and seep into my subconscious, becoming quips and jokes to stave off any other pesky feelings that might arise. Just bottle them right up. They probably won’t bubble over at an inconvenient or inappropriate moment. Probably. Like a placid lake, my surface is calm and undisturbed, but every so often a body floats to the top, fucking up the picturesque landscape for anyone who witnesses it. Every practice has its shortcomings. Besides, if you think about it, what good are emotions anyway? I mean, who really needs to understand themselves?

        The term “too soon” is not one uttered often in my immediate circle, both with friends and family. My mother is the exception to this. She is like most normal people, dealing with her issues in the healthy, open kind of way. I wouldn’t say that I actively seek out others that share my personal philosophy. If anything, people like me tend to gravitate toward each other, finding a likeness in one another that is both a relief and a pleasure, sharing in a mutually irreverent existence in close proximity. These types of friendships are built on the understanding that, while both people possess feelings, neither one will ever want to discuss them. Without this obligatory constraint most friendships require, it becomes easier to simply enjoy the company.

However, this character flaw is not always easily achieved. Sometimes something so staggering happens that you become susceptible to these “natural” emotional tendencies. They shake the foundation of your very being, and make it almost impossible to laugh off. Almost. But, if I’m being honest, even these moments aren’t exempt from my sarcastic inclinations.


        Have you ever owned a Nissan? I haven’t. Neither has anyone else in my family. I don’t know if this is because Nissan is just a shittier version of a Toyota or Honda, or because it’s the make of car that killed my brother. Probably the latter. But let’s not completely discount the issue of product quality.

“Killer Nissan” is what we call them now. Not in an angry way, more as a subtle nod to the event that shattered our household and tested the character and strength of our collective beings, as well as my father’s preferred method of dealing with grief. It’s hard to imagine any philosophical notion holding up to the kind blunt force trauma my family was hit with, let alone a philosophy wrapped in the guise of not having emotions. I was five at the time and had yet to develop my model of coping, but from what I’ve been told I was already well on my way to being a chip off the ol’ block in the personality department.

        The effects of Rory’s death are vast, and have in some way or another bled into every aspect of my current life. I’ve dealt with issues of rage and violence, insecurity and overwhelming stubbornness that bordered on self-destructive. This is not merely from my own sense of loss, but also from having to witness the breakdown of my family and the lingering repercussions, as subdued as they are, that persist today in our endeavor to hold together. On a seemingly everyday basis I am reminded that I once had a brother. Every time someone new enters into my life (peer, co-worker, random interaction with stranger) general conversation dictates that I must answer for what happened.

“Do you have any siblings,” asks everyone you ever meet.

        I have discovered there are two ways to answer this question, each having its discernable structure of discourse. One, I tell the person that I have a brother and am eventually forced to confide that he is no longer living. This is usually followed by a look of embarrassment or whatever face passes for empathy from the other person and an “I’m so sorry”. That’s all right, I tell them, he feels much better about it now. Or two, I tell them I’m an only child, setting myself up to have my personal qualities attributed to growing up without a peer. I choose the second option most days. And while this is done out of a desire to make my life easier, it’s more to let others off the hook from a conversation they didn’t sign up for. People who lay their shit on unsuspecting victims cross a line of decorum in my opinion. Nobody deserves that. Although, I do reserve the right to change my mind on this stance if someone is truly worthy of shaming. After all, there’s nothing quite like dead kid ammo.

        Over the years my father’s humor has returned and made it possible to reference Rory’s death in the context of a joke. However, to this day there are reminders that remain off limits. Certain movies or songs that my brother loved risk breaking through my father’s mended, but still considerable ramparts. Talking about the event itself, the details, isn’t an option. The fact that it happened is enough. As an adult I’ve toyed with the idea of broaching this subject with my mother, and she would likely be willing to have that conversation, but I’m not. I’m not looking to analyze why I am the way I am or how his death altered the person I have become, especially at the expense of my mother having to relive the night her and my father had to watch their little boy leave this world. What am I, an asshole? I have an imagination and a good enough grasp on the depths of love a parent has for their child to know that I don’t want to know any more than I already do. We move forward with the hopeful, but not too hopeful, expectations of a brighter future to help diminish the shadow of Rory’s death that continually recedes into our past. Laughter is the sound of healing, even when the joke isn’t really funny. Especially then.

        In a way, Rory’s death has created a barrier in me. One on which I stand atop, looking down on every instant in life through a lens of pessimism, searching for the irony that will feed my now inherent need to take the piss out of everything. Other people’s disbelief in how shitty the world can be only validates this practice. And while it could be said that this outlook is depressing or negative or counterproductive, I would argue that it is the most pragmatic of approaches. Murphy’s Law suggests anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. So why not be prepared for the worst? At least then I have time to craft the perfect joke. All of this isn’t to say that I don’t have feelings. I’m just as susceptible to disappointment and sadness as the next sap. I just prefer to curl it inward until the pain in my stomach becomes so dense that it swallows me whole and I can disappear forever. And when that ultimately doesn’t happen I suck it up and try to put a bitter, funny twist on my misery and parade it around for everyone to see. I beat it down with public ridicule. This ideology served me well through most of my adolescent life, and has continued throughout my adult life, for the most part, as well. The one exception coming, not surprisingly, in the form of another premature passing.


        Jared had already survived one round of cancer by the age of twenty-four. When it decided to come back for a second go at his insides, more aggressively and more widespread this time, it came to win. And win it did. He was twenty-eight years old when he died.

        The suddenness of Jared’s death was no joke. He had been in the hospital for less than a week when his brother, also my longtime friend, Derek, called and told me his condition. I made plans with their mother to come visit him the next day. It had been about a month since I had spoken to Jared. He refused all social media, going so far as to state that he would die before going on Facebook, so if there wasn’t a phone call, there was nothing. His stubbornness to accept aspects of social normalcy was a hallmark of his personality. He wanted to be disconnected from the majority of the world, so he chose his council and kept them close. I always respected that about him. We only lived sixty miles away from each other, but in the rigors of everyday life: working, relationships, laziness, we had unintentionally neglected each other. This would have been instantly forgiven on both sides. I say “would have” because we never spoke again. He died the night before I was supposed to see him. His stepfather called early in the morning to tell me the news and let me know that the services would be held sometime later in the week. When we hung up, I laid back down on my bed, pulled the covers over my face and fell apart as quietly as I could. This was the first of many times in the week to come that my code of emotional deadening failed me. There’s nothing witty to say about this. Well, give me a minute. Maybe I’ll think of something.

        If there is one thing that should be made clear about keeping your emotions in check, it is to abstain from or minimize the amount of situations where you risk losing your shit. In the case of Jared’s funeral, I didn’t really have much of a choice. Similar to my emotions, the natural drift in life that separates a person’s true friends from friends of proximity seems to also be crippled under the weight of shared tragedy. I had never witnessed any of our old friends cry before, and instead of feeling comforted or relieved, I felt an even greater sense of resistance and anger. My own tears came steadily before the ceremony, and could simply not be contained in the least as I embraced Jared’s mother, a woman I had come to love as my own family, for the first time since her son’s death. After this, my old friends thought it was only appropriate to view the body, and despite what anyone will ever tell you about this experience, it will never fully equal the sheer absurdity and grotesqueness of witnessing such a convention with your own eyes. As our group of strong young men looked down at Jared, the sniffles and heavy breathing amplified and everybody took it in, except for me. One glance was enough for me to realize I didn’t want to be there.

        “He looks good,” one or many of them said.

        This was a lie, because he didn’t look good. He looked fucking dead. Like a wax figure with a layer of make-up covering it’s sculpted face. A façade covering a façade. The willingness to accept that body as Jared stunned me, and made me feel like I was losing my mind. This was the joke, the only funny thing I remember from the entire day. I suppose that this ritual serves some sort of cathartic purpose, but in my eyes it’s an exercise in self-indulgence, a way to show everyone else how sad you can get. Really let it flow for the audience. I left the group and went back to my seat. I knew how I felt. That was enough for me.

        It took me a long time to allow myself to smile when I thought about Jared. I remembered how much we laughed and the enjoyment we got out of being together, but enacting those emotions was not allowed. And that was fine. In the absence of the right emotion, no emotion is second best. I remember his lightheartedness, his sly wit, the faces he made for any scenario. I remember our conversations, how his conservativism annoyed me, and how he would rile me up just to do it. I remember his stubbornness. He was my best friend.

        A few years after his death I officially granted myself permission to laugh when I thought about him. Something happened, an ironic wink sent down from above, if you believe in that sort of thing. And if not, a piece of cosmic perfection applied at the most inexplicable moment. Apparently, sometime after his passing Jared had altered his opinion regarding social media, or at least, a grieving family member had altered it for him. As I looked on the email inviting me to become friends with my dead best friend on Facebook, I cracked a smile and accepted his invitation, knowing the joke wouldn’t have been lost on him.

        In the years since his brother’s passing, Derek has finished school and has moved up to San Francisco and begun his career in construction management. Our relationship has always been strong, and it remains that way even now. Similar to my experience, his loss has altered the course of his life and how he chooses to live it. As it should. And like me he seems to have chosen the path of burying his feelings deep within himself. When we get together we hardly ever mention Jared. This isn’t a conscious decision, it’s just the way it is. On rare occasions, and under the influence of enough liquor, this unspoken rule falls flat and he talks about his brother. Sometimes in sadness, and others in celebratory revelry. On those nights I mostly listen. I like hearing about Jared from another person who loved him. I also think it’s a good sign for Derek. Maybe he’s not completely sunk. Maybe he can still crawl out of the emotional bog that I perpetually find myself in. Or, maybe he just needs more time and practice in how to turn his feelings into anything other than what they are. Either way, I’ll be here to help him out.


        Maybe I’m just a coward, but even if this is the case I can’t find the harm in it. As long as I am able to recognize the moods and emotions of others, my ineptitude when it comes to sharing my feelings shouldn’t mean anything. Why should I burden anyone? Misery loves company, am I right? Well, I don’t know about that. I’ve always thought that my misery just wants to be left alone, the cave in which it dwells is damp and ill-lit, a perfect place to hide from the prying eyes of other people looking to forge a connection in pain. Why must we suffer together? No thanks. I’m all good on that.

        I remain resolved in my course of action, but as time goes on and my focus shift away from myself and more toward the family I have begun, I find that I am increasingly in uncharted territory. I am unwillingly inclined to bouts of overwhelming joy as well as crippling fear of what might happen at any given moment. I look at my daughter, Lilly, and imagine her future. And then I remember what life gave me and I get angry at the thought of her having to go through the hardships that life inevitably hits you with, like a goddamn Nissan. I can’t look down on her existence the same way I do toward everything else, because she deserves better. But that thought is a crack in the walls that defends me from the intrusion of unwelcomed emotions. After years of negotiating the terms in which I view this world and the inhabitants that occupy it, in an effort to stay in control, how is it possible to remain wholly the same when you are no longer invested in self-preservation above all else? You can’t, and that’s the rub. I fashioned my world and the ways I interact with it based on my experiences thus far, only to bring a child into that same world and be told that everything I created was horseshit. It’s not that I have been reformed or changed my tact in any way. I still abide by the old methods that got me here, and it is still effective. But whatever confidence I once had in this is now gone, scared away by the always looming thought of the worst case scenario. Of Rory. Of Jared.

        My fears grow with my hopes, both I keep to myself, within myself. To voice these would be to give them weight, creating a context for them to fall and crush me. No, I think I’ll play it cool. When other parents I meet talk about the strides their children are making, I’ll beam with pride and sardonically praise the most mundane or absurd skill my daughter possesses. Yeah, Lilly just learned to shove her whole fist in her mouth. It’s quite impressive. And like that, I will have catapulted myself back onto my perch high above the world, glimpsing from afar, once again, the ridiculousness of it all. At least, that’s what I’ll tell myself.



NOTE FROM SEAN: I am a recent UC Berkeley English graduate that enjoys creating stories that are fun, odd, and engaging.