The West |

Deimos and Phobos

by Fortunato Salazar

edited by Lisa Locascio

My mother is getting riled up and people are starting to notice. We’re in line at the Pink’s on La Brea, same as every Thursday afternoon, not much of a line, not much traffic on the sidewalk. The woman who approached us doesn’t want anything to do with us. She’s collecting for a sting operation. I don’t know what kind of sting operation, that’s the problem, she wants our money, our donation, but she’s mumbling, I can’t understand her. Or not so much mumbling as not speaking up enough to make herself heard above the street. She approaches my mother first as if she knows that my mother is my mother. The woman mumbles something to my mother and my mother doesn’t answer. My mother has lost the power of speech. The woman turns to me and repeats whatever it is that she mumbled to my mother. “Mumbling so that I can’t be understood, I’m soliciting donations for a sting operation.” Every morning my mother sits me at the kitchen table and utters a sentence. She has the power, she has the sentence. I move forward from the sentence until she checks her phone and calls me to a halt. “I’m not drowning, my whole life lies ahead of me” is a sentence. “Ich kann nicht mehr” is a sentence. Has been a sentence more than once. I spin out until my mother taps me on the shoulder. Sometimes a gentle tap, a friendly mother-son gesture, sometimes the kitchen table shatters, glass goes flying everywhere, I sweep up the glass. The daily morning Aufsatz. I calmly ask the woman to explain, rather than explain to her about my mother. I know my mother and I can tell she’s tensing up. “I’m not the first person you would choose to intervene by stepping in and pacifying.” I’d swear the woman is making an extra effort not to be heard. She’s mumbling something about when we reach the counter, when we pay, when we shell out for our hot dogs, it’s all fine except that the woman has taken an instant dislike to me. Usually it works the other way, people take an instant liking, then it goes downhill. But I’m being reasonable, gently pressing for an explanation, calmly and reasonably, the problem is that the woman doesn’t like me and she’s right up in my face. Once I was waiting in line with my mother at Pink’s and a guy came along on crutches and he got into an argument with another guy in line and the argument had nothing to do with vehicles or parking or traffic citations and yet the guy with crutches hobbled over to the vehicles parked along the sidewalk and started in on windshields with one crutch. I visualize the hammock on my balcony. The woman is tempting me and a thing you learn right away is that it’s almost always a mistake to say “end of conversation.” The woman wants nothing more than for me to say “end of conversation.” She’s reaching for the part of me that would take the bait. “I am reading a touchstone of the canon in translation, I am being sold a bill of goods.” My mother vehemently held to the position that translation is poison. She got into some seriously heated arguments about translation, a few of them with me. She hasn’t lost the power of her choler. I sometimes think that my mother is so near to anger all the time because she refuses to countenance the translation of her speech into silence. I appease my mother by reading on my phone, vowing never in translation. All I want is to be left alone to appease my mother, uphold my vow, go back into my phone, and the woman recognizes this, she sniffs it out, and she’s right up in my face. All I really need to know is what sting operation, sting operation for what, but the woman won’t part with this one crucial fact. I could swear she mumbles something about “illegal additives.” In the not-so-distant past she was asked to tone it down and she succeeded in tempting someone into saying “end of conversation.” And she’s reading me as susceptible to being tempted. She’s imagining that we’ve both been through the wringer. At some point she was thrown out of a parking lot or barred from signing in; she hasn’t gotten past that point, her voice betrays this fact. She went back and signed in and sat quietly, raging on the inside, listening and not listening. My mother never learned to drive but she understood the logic of maintaining an explosion. “I’m operating a motor vehicle, I’m maintaining an explosion.” I took a swing at Donovan, who used to be my mother’s chiropractor. From all the hours I put in reading on my phone I built into my left arm some serious force. I escaped from my mother by reading at the gym, my phone propped on the elliptical. My mother is hanging over my shoulder. In group, people left and did not come back. People went downhill overnight and there’s a phrase for it, they will never come back, they’re trucking firewood in Sylmar, yesterday they were drinking coffee in the sunshine and brainstorming a set extension, and it happened overnight, or as the phrase goes, a sweet phrase, it happened in one Flem Snopes. Sometimes my mother would smash a candlestick into the netting of the screen door. Her standards were high and she had a great deal of leeway under sections §33190, §48222, and §48415 of the California Education Code. Now I can see that she’s becoming agitated. Her face is flushed, her lips drawn down. She’s being drawn in by the woman’s provocation. Being drawn in…one day you’re a set designer and you have a lover named Arthur and you’re sentimentally decorating random locations in the Warner Brothers jungle with pushpins that have his name on them…and the next you’re living with your sister-in-law in Sylmar…it happens that fast, not that I would ever use the word “agitated” to describe my mother, but it’s the word they use, where I sign her back in. “I’ve lost the power of speech and I’m composing an Aufsatz in my head.” My mother glares at the woman but the woman, you can tell at a glance, is all about not backing down. Evidently she’s made an arrangement with the management of Pink’s and is entitled to solicit brazenly; “brazenly” is the word my mother would choose. “I’ve made an arrangement with the management at Pink’s and am entitled to solicit brazenly.” I dropped Donovan with one punch. I used to see him around afterward, always with a sleepy look from grinding his teeth at night. My mother went through a phase of leading me out into the back yard. The next morning she’d challenge me with a line about shivering. Never the same line, always about gods, men, and horses. That was when she was on her John Stuart Mill kick. John Stuart Mill and spines on the inside of a skull. John Stuart Mill and honey used as a preservative. The sentence itself was provocation. John Stuart Mill and streetcar transfers. For not getting the shivering right I was given the same sentence thirty days in a row, variations on the sentence. And dragged out into the back yard and made to recite. Now the smell of roasting meat is wafting from my phone. The hierarchy of gods, men, and horses. I’d bet you could find a street cart within a half mile that is selling horsemeat. To men. The first time my mother took me to Pink’s I went up and down the line, kicking strangers in the shin. I imagine having a child of my own and chaining her to an Aufsatz which would begin with a provocation about being barred from Pink’s for life. Women getting right up in my face, it’s a tough one if they press my buttons. The woman is freaking me out with her voice which is a whisker away from the volume necessary to convey an explanation. The technique they drill you in is to steer clear while at the same time visualizing with clarity and concreteness. A face is right up in your face and you must do the work to visualize your cherished hammock. Donovan used to nap in that hammock before my mother handed him his pink slip. The argument next door that you can almost hear but not quite is the one that will do you in. Obviously the woman has flipped through the same book. The one that ends with the set designer delivering firewood in the only bright red truck in Sylmar. My mother got hung up on what it meant to shiver. John Stuart Mill and crimson raindrops from a clear sky. I wasn’t apprehending shivering, I kept disappointing. At the end of every week I was rewarded with a day off from the Aufsatz. For not apprehending, my mother withheld the reward. You stand in line and eventually you expect to reach the counter. What’s going on inside my mother’s head, in there among the spines, the spines inside my mother’s bookish head, as she observes the woman fuming, the woman wooing me into declaring “end of conversation”? Is my mother enjoying this? My duty is to entertain her. If only I’d borrowed a crutch when I signed her out. A windshield is a shield for wind. I feel like saying to the woman something infuriating that would make my mother chuckle, if only she still could chuckle. Let’s tangle? But I’m the peacemaker. Sometimes I feel like a peacemaker Bruce Banner, a Bruce Banner who is triggered into exploding into a behemoth of a peacemaker, wouldn’t that entertain my mother, she bought me this shirt. I can’t just be a basic soldier of a peacemaker, I’m the behemoth. Won’t the receptionist be surprised when I sign my mother back in and I’m dressed in tatters. I used to have a serious anger management problem back before I transformed myself into Bruce Banner. I guess I should just disappear into my phone, except no doubt that would be interpreted as “end of conversation.” And then the fun begins, the woman has a bulked-up husband, she calls for reinforcements, there are Thai establishments nearby that specialize in weaponizing crutches, I mean above and beyond their potential to fracture a shield; the husband is bulked up because he feels the need to be the equal of his spouse; he’s on a crutch because he was pushed. Sometimes I’m distracted by wondering what my mother would say if she had the power of speech. I miss the word “cross.” I hardly ever hear anyone use the word “cross” like my mother did. For a whole month she was cross because I failed to shiver adequately. The woman so badly wants me to cross a line that I can hear it in the unsteadiness of her voice. I feel sorry for her husband who was talked into soliciting out-of-towners on some other corner, same basic business model, huge portions at affordable prices. The woman will whip out her phone, the full authority of the management of Pink’s behind her. Her husband will hear the unsteadiness in her voice. He recognizes that unsteadiness. He can’t say “end of conversation” to his own spouse. The one time that he said “end of conversation” to his spouse, she called in reinforcements. He’ll show up at the confrontation with his blood already boiling, enraged at his own powerlessness. I never felt closer to my mother than when we were waiting in line at Pink’s and I got into a conversation with a stranger about parking violations. I used the word “incensed.” At the time, my mother still had the power of speech. The stranger didn’t know the meaning of “incensed.” I answered “pissed as hell” and my mother chimed in with “full of smoke.” Like we’d rehearsed. It felt like we were presenting a united front, doing our part for the definition of “incensed.” The week before my mother lost her power of speech, she kept saying that she smelled burning oil, automobile oil. That did cause me to shiver. At the end of thirty days I gave up. I told my mother that obviously I would never understand what it meant to shiver. The next morning I went to feed the turtle, my turtle, and he was gone, his cage empty. And I said, Mother, do you have any idea where John Stuart Mill might be? She didn’t answer, it was morning and she tended to be especially cross in the morning. One of the beauties of Pink’s is that it’s on a northwest corner, so that in the afternoon, late afternoon when the sun beats down, the line is in the shade, the festive line with its out-of-towners who have never been to Pink’s, and now they’re witnessing a confrontation, or at least a tense moment. The woman has lost control of her intake of breath. I have an out-of-the-blue impulse to counter with the word Unsterblichkeit. The woman won’t know the meaning of Unsterblichkeit and I’ll answer that it’s the name of a hit single from the 1970s. “Aber leider nicht die lange Version.” There are people who live to hear those words “end of conversation,” just as there are people who live to hear a made-up A-side thrown in their face, and in a language that will baffle them. Translation again: “I am being taunted in a language that I know and don’t know.” The woman in exasperation at her husband used to flee up the block to, it’s a hotel now, but it was a youth hostel. She’d play stripes and spots with out-of-towners. An adversary challenged her to name the capital of Quebec. Shattering a windshield with a pool cue would take some skill. I look around me and I believe that all along the line, sympathies are on my side. I need to keep on making sound decisions. I gave in to temptation once and only once, when Donovan and my mother fell into a heated argument about Imelda Marcos. Forever the peacemaker, I intervened, visualizing the flashcard with the word “defuse” on one side. On the other side was the opposite of defusing. Donovan walked with a limp because he’d unwisely left his vehicle to confront another motorist. When he put his foot down, it didn’t bear his weight, was how he described his career-ending injury. Loaning my mother his scrapbook from the Philippines was a show of trust. As soon as I said “end of conversation” he wanted it back. He hobbled up the stairwell and unwisely rang the bell. I was forever telling John Stuart Mill: a man has to make his peace with a doorbell. John Stuart Mill would get so excited that he almost clambered over the fence around his pen, but the height had been thought out, he could never quite make it over. My mother didn’t miss a beat, came back the next day, John Stuart Mill gone, laid down another sentence about shivering. Eventually I handed in an Aufsatz about Bruce Banner, and my mother said, Enough of this. In another moment the woman who is in my face will raise her hand, line up her shot, poke me in the chest. Instantly the festive hubbub will cease and the Pink’s surveillance camera will pivot on its mast and my next move will decide my future. The first thing they tell you when you sign your name on the board is that it’s not a chess match. The woman has forgotten this intelligent advice as well as the flashcard that depicts a burning car. On one side of the card it says “I am reading on my phone and I haven’t lost the power of speech, but I don’t remember what this word means, this word that has to do with roasting meat on spits.” On the other side you’re sailing down the freeway with your husband and your shrieking kids and you notice up ahead black smoke billowing, thick black smoke, the traffic slows way down because on the shoulder is a huge black SUV, engulfed in flames, no one around, just the burning car. As you slowly pass the SUV you can actually feel the heat from the flames inside your car, even though the AC is on and all the windows are up: this heat is what you’re supposed to imagine with clarity and proactively avoid, the sweet phrase, imagine and avoid. I’m the one who’s doing the avoiding. I have confidence that I’ll react appropriately when the woman jabs me and the whole line flinches. The line will witness. Shielding my mother, I’ll be acclaimed for my composure and my self-restraint, I will earn a sentence. My mother will return me to the table and serve up the sentence. What has Ryan Lochte done, what are Ryan Lochte’s accomplishments? A dog is named after Ryan Lochte. One afternoon Ryan Lochte bantered at the counter and impressed the authors of the menu with his manly banter. It will forever dog the woman who is right up in my face that she failed to goad me into saying “end of conversation.” Temptation stared me in the face and I resisted, and I’ll walk away, but that won’t be the end. Some people wait a year and then they wait in line for, it must be hours. They reach the counter and then they say they’ll have the Ryan Lochte. One day they’ll reach the counter and the Ryan Lochte will be no more. I will have displaced Ryan Lochte. Where the Ryan Lochte once was will be the little smiley face that my mother favors me with when I amuse her. The woman will go back to signing in on the board. I’ll go back to the kitchen table and my mother will reward me with a sentence, start me off: “I am deciding between dogs on a menu and one of them has the name of an idiomatic phrase for keeping calm while being goaded.”