Tag: Nonfiction

Nonfiction — “Chee Chuk”

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.

Nonfiction — “Blood Sucking Worms”

My father had many stories about monsters and his favorite were the Blood Sucking Worms. The story went like this: Three children (three of us) would be lost in the woods (why we were in the woods was never explained – we lived in the city) and fall asleep beside an old oak. In the morning, one of our number would be missing, usually Zach, the youngest.

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Nonfiction — “New Territory for Old Slavery”

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.

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Nonfiction — “Teaching Tapas”

(One)

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.

(Two)

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.

Carl Sagan on Books

François Boucher. Madame de Pompadour. 1756, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Literacy is one of the great tools of civilization. Etymology is one aspect of this tool. Your ability to read my writing—another. The moral imagination invoked is a third. Unfortunately, writing is a recent invention—we’re still getting used to it. As Sagan notes in The Demon-Haunted World (335):

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

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Nonfiction — “The Elemental Darkness”

My philosophy is a lone night, with the wife far-flung on the couch watching videos about tape worms. I’ve gone to bed early, and the rain is caught by the tree canopy, except for a black fall from the roof that taps the cement. In the dark it could be the crackle of fire. My philosophy is my beating heart compared to her’s. I can only imagine she still lives, eyes fixed on the doctor’s spool, trapped by elemental darkness.

Nonfiction — “Honest Seafood”

My sister will not eat seafood. She is a brown-haired, brown-eyed girl, all inherited from my mother, and she is picky, an inheritance from no one. Or perhaps a suspicious ancestor—maybe the caveman who ate the poisoned mushroom?

We (the boys) are wide, sandy, blue-eyed beasts. We’ll eat anything, be it a bagel or small dog. It’s that cavalier attitude Mom rewarded with meals that stretched the definition of food. She was not the best cook, and sometimes pizza would be recast as “lumps,” or toast as “carcinogens with a side of yeast.” Nor was she the most honest about ingredients. She wanted us to eat, after all.

So, Sis found herself in a constant state of seafood consumption. She’d eat tacos and realize afterward: “These were fish tacos!” She’d eat red beans and rice to discover soggy shrimp.

My poor sister. She’s had more sushi than a sushi chef.

Nonfiction — “Snakes and Spiders”

When I wake, the cats are at the door—they want to slip into bed and lie in my warm vacancy. One is black with a teacup on her chest, the other gray as elephant’s breath with muted stripes. In the darkness, I fumble against their fur, locating rump, scruff, finally head, and I pet what I can find until they roll over and expose their tummies—a trap.

Under the bluing shade of early morning they are furry dead spiders.

Cats aren’t the only parasite squirming in the bedwaters. My wife, snorting like the Union Pacific, snakes her cold fingers and toes toward me, seeking flickers of heat like sausages over a campfire.

Shower. Toothpaste. Size 40 pants instead of last year’s 38. An XLT button-down that’s starting to hug. The cats follow me to the living room as I pick up a satchel and keys. Jenny lets me pet her back. She has a funny habit of bursting forward when my hand reaches her tail, to circle around for another run.

Remy sits on the couch, feet tucked under his chest like a chicken in a coop. I think of saying goodbye to the snoring pile of hair in the other room, but my wife doesn’t work until 9.

Still, what if I never see her again?

I open the door and step into a world devoid of Julie and Jenny and Remy and the little routines of morning before the light.

Nonfiction — “Starry White”

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. But now it’s noticeable, the harsh white of the room, a combination of paint and the clinical spray of ceiling bulbs. We are as illuminated and shadowless as models in a photoshoot, sans forgiveness.

There is one window: a square portal on the door. When I sit at my desk, I can see “Starry Night” through it, one of the Van Gogh prints distributed through the school. There’s an apocryphal story of how he painted that landscape in a sanatorium. Unable to see the city from his window, he imagined it in his hand. It gets me wishing they’d let us paint our madness on the canvas of our walls. Why let filth color us? Scuffs, gum, “fuck school” in blue pen, a poster of an iguana saying “character is who you are when no one is watching.” Let swirling blacks, blues, and yellows, stars and cities and black towers roil down the hall, drowning disquiet and sterility of asepsis.

Nonfiction — “5:58 am in Stafford, TX”

Two minutes to six and I can’t ignore the heavy drops of rain tapping my car like a full set of fingers on a keyboard or God beating out a tune in a rhythm I’d have to be God to understand. These are taps I find more distracting then the velvet snores of my wife two minutes to midnight. This morning I am sleepless in Stafford. Last night I was sleepless, too, maybe because grading and lesson planning has me taking caffeine pills at 7 pm. Or maybe it’s an anxiety leftover from Hurricane Harvey. We all seem to be shivering these days at every storm-sign. Fall’s coming. Fall’s here? Difficult to tell away from the screen of my phone and the expedited flings of a google search (Google: the best way to bing). Nor can I look to the skies or stars. Man peers down at the glowing milk of phones while the Milky Way hides behind fog and musk and must and smog. Houston doesn’t do Fall right. We don’t have the crooning red leaves swirling in ancient tempos or the yellow-orange bracken littering the floor like tossed invitations to some garbageborn small town venue. Houston is slimy year-round, the glitter dulled by knees of moss and Jurassic greens. Maybe the sunsets are a little more red when you’re stuck in traffic, but how do you find the beauty when avoiding the Wheels and Winds and Waters? Now Houston rain isn’t fingers—it’s gray cement pouring against windshields. You can never really escape it, nor the feeling you’re slowly falling out of love.