Today in The Denver Post
Here’s a link to its digital counterpart.
Here’s a link to its digital counterpart.
Few people know that I grew up in Indonesia. As a writing exercise, I decided to reflect on some of my experiences in the jungles of Sumatra, specifically on my first encounter with a local lizard species.
Chevron put an oil camp in the center of a village previously unspoiled by Western advances except for Disney Princess shirts and dirty motorcycles. There they placed us, protected from friendly brown-skinned neighbors by fences and barbed wire and border guards armed with clubs and slingshots until the Bali Bombing when they upgraded to rifles.
It was always raining except the days they burned trash. Then the misted air filled with the green acids of plastic. Sometimes when it rained I would let out the cats. There was a gray sidewalk that wound around the house, kept dry by an extension of the roof and gutter. The cats, mewing softly, would scour the perimeter for shelter-seeking beetles. We didn’t have to watch them; the rain made an excellent cage.
At night, the windows went chak chak chak. Mom thought the villagers were tapping sticks against the glass.
My room takes some explaining. Our house was a one-story American imitation, but it had a porch that made an L across two sides, and this porch was enclosed, sealed by walls and long windows with metal bars that made a lattice instead of stripes. My room was created by partitioning some of the porch.
There were three doors in this room—one to the porch, one into the house, and the last led to the cement path and green furry grass. I had a strip of glass that peered outside and a strip of glass that looked into the living room. At night, I could look through the window at my parents watching television, like a forgotten child peering into a house, seeing how happy everyone is without them.
I made the discovery in the middle of the night. Lying in bed, two cats forming a ying-yang on the covers, woken by the purple-white call of lightning, I heard beyond the tah tah tah of rain the relentless sound of chak chak chak.
You have a reckless spirit when you are young with a theory and animal companions (even if they are selfish little cats). I crept to the window and peered into the wine-dark. Finding no one, I unlocked the door to the outer elements and pushed until the wood-rust cracked and the door swung open.
My impressions of this moment include the: wetslick air, the cascading wall of water, the creep of feet and paws, meows emitted by cats (meong meong in Bahasa), no one in sight but me, and still the sound of sticks.
I paused, the cats padding softly around me, and looked to the window. There, a thin, brown lizard emitted the sound: chak chak chak.
The lizard noticed us and leaped away, was caught by the cats, squirmed out its tail to distract them, and, dignity lost, escaped into the grass. Relieved, I closed the door, and as I fell into slumber, I return from the backwaters of memory to my home in Texas – a place far-flung from the fantasy of the jungle, but no stranger to mystery and the hug of humidity.
“During the day, the door remains unlocked—the lights flicked on by a sleepy department head and flicked off by a custodian whose back vac makes her a ghostbuster.”
“Mrs. Whittaker paused from grading papers to appreciate the room. The kids were engaged in what’s called Flexible Learning, working in what is called Flexible Groups, to accomplish Flexible Goals, based on a Flexible Curriculum.”
“When I wake, the cats are at the door—they want to slip into bed and lie in my warm vacancy.”
“I open the year with a joke. ‘My name is Mr. White, like the color of my [the students look expectantly toward my skin] walls.’ Cue enough laughter to sustain the joke next period.”
“Today, I had a rather innocent and ill-informed student inspect an atlas on the wall (one with only the boundaries of countries but no printed names), point to Cambodia, and say, ‘I think that’s South Koran.'”
“My classroom is a block like those you stack in first-grade.”
In 2019, New Territory is concentric circles of green grass cloistered by brick houses, brick walls, brick veins. The streets have pretty names like Whisper Ridge and Rippling Creek and Silver Lake, imagining a lost era of folkishness, only this is the knees of Houston and there never was whispering, rippling, or silver anything, only marshland turned to farmland turned to homeland.
The suburb wears a coat of trees which make the residents hostile when the government cuts them down, arguing that the trees have history, roots, are more than shadow-makers, but no one mentions that they were planted, full-grown, in the late nineties alongside the people. A militia of invisible gardeners marches through the parks, and when the trees are bare-limbed, none can tell if the leaves were individually picked or if it’s Late Winter.
An aerial photo in George Memorial Library shows a different New Territory.
My classroom is a block like those you stack in first-grade. Desks stand like lines of British soldiers, and students shout and throw rulers and text each other in a war of attention. My desk is the general’s tent—to the side of the parade grounds and barracks, capable at a moment’s notice to survey the ranks (all I have to do is lift my eyes from my screen to review a regiment using phones to redo eyelashes).
From this distance, it’s difficult to tell if a student is passing notes digitally or using a calculator to complete physics problems. With a war weary sigh, sans mustache, cigar, and epaulets, I rise from my command to remind the infantry that the assignment is due in five minutes.
Sometimes I’ll see a student staring out the window at the end of the hall. But what does she see out there that holds her attention? I know from experience there’s only a gray lot, cars, the track field, the tennis court—all yellow and hazy behind the dusty glass.
But I don’t think she’s looking at anything in particular.
Maybe it’s a mood she senses on the other side of the pane. Across the gold beer plains, coming from distant mountains.
A feeling she won’t find among white walls that slide into a maze of locked rooms and lockers. Halls guarded by ceiling cameras and attentive teachers.
Out there? Streets and side-streets. The brown roofs of suburbia. Highways weaving with the hills like little gray veins. And patches of trees binding shadow-flooded plains to the homes of coyotes.
Sometimes I know what she sees.
“Not having anything to do, or to stave off the heart attack forming in my chest (it turned out to be gas), or to hold off a walk to the gas station for cigarettes, or to creep away from the wife awhile, ornery ever since she noticed a carpet growing on her chin (it happens at this age), I turned on the light in the garage.”
“Look at the sympathy and bravery of the Wheelbarrow Queen. Look at the tattoos of endless scrolls that unfurl down her arms. These signs carry murderers and lovers, boring summers and drunken falls.”
“I will never forget it. Blue as the Kelley Blue Book, a proud white belt, dual headlights like plates on display and squinting taillights.”
“Leagues ahead, as if justification for the old man’s suffering, was a boat. How could refuge exist out here in the abandon? The red dust and crags. Would he find whale bone, and coral, and mermaid skulls, and impossible Lemuria?”
“Their hands are spiders on my scarf when I’m not looking. They pull the cornice in the back until my forehead is uncovered and I notice and hiss. They untie the knot by my right breast or pinch the cloth, leaving wrinkles.”