Monday, April 30, 2012
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Saturday, April 28, 2012
Friday, April 27, 2012
“What’s your name?”
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
There was no sight of wild hogs, no sign that they ever passed by this pretty gap in the trees so they went back to the blind, Lamar watching carefully through the blind’s front slats while Edna played a game on her cell phone, colored light flashing off the screen in the dimness of their cover. Without turning his head Lamar said quietly, “You got that potato salad about perfect this time, Edna. I don’t think my mama could make potato salad that good.”
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Monday, April 23, 2012
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Away from home for three weeks, Saturday was a day for getting things back in order around the house. During the time away family members drove over a couple of times to spend a few days here in my absence, a good deal because they could check on things and give the place a look of occupancy for anyone looking over the fence. And surprise to me, I returned to find a near-full refrigerator and the place bedecked with fresh flowers and a few potted plants as well.
All that being well and good, there were a few domestic mysteries about what and where that had to be solved before everything was just where I like it. Where was the fountain pen washing machine? Where was the plant that used to be in the bedroom? What to do with all the fancy Italian gelato in the freezer? None of it major or cause for alarm, but merely a process of putting home in the order accustomed to. That aside another larger ‘task’ was on the settling-back-in list.
This place is about three inches from being out of room for anymore books, and already some areas require a careful tread to avoid knocking over a stack. That thought never entered my head during the time in Louisiana and I bought a little over ten books per week while there. Most of the backseat of the car was stacked with books on the drive home. On Saturday all the books got lined up for inventory with thought to where they might fit in among others.
It’s a job any book lover enjoys—pulling out books purchased recently and once more turning through the pages, reading random lines, breathing in the smell of old paper and ink, and enjoying all over again the first thrill of discovery on some dusty shelf. Books brought home from Baton Rouge and New Orleans are too many to list here, but that doesn’t mean I can’t share a few titles and points of interest along the book buying way.
Hard to ignore others, but here is a list of fifteen books that tickle the fancy this time around:
1. You Are Not I, a portrait of Paul Bowles by Millicent Dillon; several stories and novels by Bowles are familiar, and though I knew he lived for many years in Morocco, much of his life there is a mystery and I bought the book with an eye toward learning something about the writer and Morocco as well.
2. Boy on the Step, poems by Stanley Plum; this signed 1st paperback edition was a gift from my good friend and host in Baton Rouge, Raymond. Both the poet and this collection are unfamiliar to me, but the book is sitting at the top of my list of books to read.
3. When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka; hardback 1st edition picked up in New Orleans, a 2003 book about the US internment camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII. The writer’s latest book, about Japanese war brides (The Buddha in the Attic) is now making waves.
4. Isle of Joy by Don Winslow; unfamiliar paperback of an old 1996 book by a writer I have long liked.
5. Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters; admittedly, John Waters is someone many look at with trepidation, but his nuttiness has always given me belly laughs. Who else quits smoking because of the difficulty of childproof lighters and because butts on dessert plates are repulsive?
6. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, by Carlos Baker; a writer I want to know more about, and a book recommended by a friend.
7. Act One by Moss Hart; a 1959 1st edition of the well-known playwright’s novel about putting his plays together for Broadway. This book too was a gift from my friend, Raymond, one we both read in high school.
8. Embracing Defeat by John W.Dower; hardback of the 1999 book about Japan during its post-war period from 1945 to 1952. I have a paperback of this excellent book, one that covers every aspect of Japan’s defeat in WWII, and the country’s resurgence.
9. The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg; 1st edition of the 2008 memoir, third in a trilogy.
10. While England Sleeps by David Leavitt; 1st edition of a 1993 book that was recalled by its publisher and pulped in mass over legal discrepancies later resolved. This copy is one that escaped the pulp mill and replaces a paperback copy on my shelves.
11. Heart of the Journey, a 1985 novel by Greg Matthews; another book bought on recommendation.
12. Travels with Virginia Woolf, edited by Jan Morris; 1st edition by a writer I enjoy on occasion.
13. Me and My Baby View the Eclipse: Stories, by Lee Smith; 1st edition of a 1990 collection by a writer who makes me laugh out loud again and again.
14. The Final Solution by Michael Chabon; another 1st edition of a book I already had in paperback. In my opinion Michael Chabon could make a grocery list sing.
15. Journey of the Wind by Tomihiro Hoshino; a rare hardback edition of a 1988 book by one of my favorite Japanese painter-poets.
Saturday, April 21, 2012
There are any number of constants about the ocean and beach, sights that become familiar over time when they are the first sight upon waking in the morning. No question that I’ve become accustomed to it over the twenty-four months of living here, not an unexpected lapse into a regularity where one day at the beach becomes pretty much like another. But then, that’s not really true at all. Look hard enough and you'll find a handful of things that are new and different with each sunrise.
Being away for a stretch of days, in my case almost four weeks, is a reminder of the specialness that colors this spot on the edge of a continent. Surrounded by luggage, and a bag of groceries, exhausted, I fell into bed last night thinking I might sleep through Saturday, ocean and beach be damned. Didn’t quite work out that way and the light of a rising sun creeping up over the Atlantic pulled me from sleep. With hardly a pause I went outside, walked down to the beach stairs where the sight of everything about this place filled me up all over again. There again were the pelicans soaring a foot above the rolling crest of a wave, a track of sunlight jittering on blue-gray water, a sudden growth of wild grass and sea oats against the seawall, and nothing to distract the ear from the steady roar of surf. There it was all again, but with one or two small changes that made it all seem new again.
Driving from Baton Rouge back to Florida on Friday started out well but in the afternoon, a couple of hours into the Florida panhandle things got nasty. It was my luck to fall in behind a long line of cars creeping along behind a double-wide load that extended across the whole of the Interstate highway. Led by a state trooper and two pick up trucks all with flashing lights, trailed by another state trooper and two more flashing pick ups, there was no way around the wheeled leviathan for a distance of about 200 miles. Hard to tell what was being hauled such a distance, a giant piece of machinery of some sort. At times the speed increased and the highway became a dangerous gauntlet, a three-lane sandwich of cars all moving nose to tail at a high speed. Altogether possible it was a situation that would have given Mother Teresa road rage. I Finally got around the wide-hipped monster about eighty miles from home.
Friday, April 20, 2012
Friday is another long day on the road back to Florida. The time in Louisiana has been all that I hoped for—refreshing days and nights with good friends, cousins, incomparable food and the late night talk of catching up, remembering and laughing over pranks we played. There are a hundred things I'm sure will be missed in leaving Baton Rouge and its ocean of trees for the distant white sand and blue water of the Atlantic.
A fond goodbye to the patio and its redbirds, and to the splashing koi in their pond
Part of my Thursday preparations for the return to Florida included shopping for some goodies to take back for friends. Four pounds of crawfish tails on ice in the cooler, a few bags of Louisiana coffee with chicory and a box of pecan pralines for my friend with the sweet tooth.
Pralines are a traditional Louisiana sweet that folks here pronounce “praw-leen,” unlike the northern pronunciation of “pray-leen.” The origin of pralines includes various stories, probably as many as there are recipes for the sweet confection. One of the more widely-accepted versions begins in the home of a French diplomat. Legend has it that in the 1600s a chef in the diplomat’s kitchen created a sweet from almonds coated with a cooked syrupy sugar. This early confection eventually traveled with Frenchmen to their new colony on the banks of the Mississippi, a land where both sugar cane and nuts were cultivated in abundance. In local kitchens, Louisiana pecans were substituted for the more exotic almonds, cream was added to give the candy more body and a southern tradition was born.
Before the Civil War and Emancipation, selling pralines was a way of making a living for free women of color in New Orleans. The Daily Picayune offered a picturesque description of the pralinieres, or older black women, who sold pralines on the streets of the French Quarter. They were often seen selling their sweets on Canal Street near Bourbon and Royal streets, and also around Jackson Square in the shade of alleys adjacent to St Louis Cathedral. In the 1930s, Louisiana folklorist Lyle Saxon wrote in Gumbo Ya-Ya of praline sellers dressed in gingham and starched white aprons and head wraps, fanning their candies with palmetto leaves and calling out “Belles pralines!” to passersby.
Here is a simple recipe for trying your own hand at this traditional New Orleans specialty.
NEW ORLEANS PRALINES
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup light cream
1 ½ cups pecans, halved
2 tablespoons butter
Combine the brown sugar, granulated sugar and cream in a heavy 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture forms a thick syrup. Add pecans and butter and continue cooking over medium heat, stirring frequently until a small dollop of the mix will form into a ball in chilled water. Remove sauce pan to a heatproof surface and let cool for 10 minutes. Use a tablespoon to drop rounded balls of the mixture onto a sheet of wax paper or foil, leaving about 3 inches between each ball for pralines to spread. There should be enough for about 12 pralines. Allow to cool.
The magnolia, Louisiana’s state flower and one of the many blooms seen along Baton Rouge streets.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
For as long as he could remember Ronaldo had imagined himself a woman trapped in a man’s body. Though he admitted it to no one he often dreamed in lipstick and high heels, drifting through midnight fantasies of bubble bath and wifely duties, waking in the morning to a flat chest and hairy legs. He suffered the usual family pressures and Catholic shame for these secret reveries, but lived among people who would have no understanding of such repressed desires and would cast him out, a shunned pariah left to fight for his life in a cruel society of unfortunates and dangerous drug runners. And so he woke each morning, laid aside the marabou dreams and donned the masculine role expected of him.
Like many in his downtrodden neighborhood of Bogota, Ronaldo made his living as a drug mule, moving white powder from supplier to middleman, sometimes riding shotgun on longer trips to bring blocks of the drug from a jungle lab to a city warehouse. He had developed a catalog of gestures and postures to go along with the dangerous work, rough masculine movements and words that left none suspecting Ronaldo to be anything other than a rough customer.
On Friday morning, Ronaldo’s boss, Juan De Carlos “Cheeks” Otero picked him up at home explaining that they were heading up to the factory for a pick up, to bring the gun and tell his wife to expect him late.
Adoracion watched the men drive away. Turning back to the house she caught sight of a dainty woman’s handkerchief in the rutted street and bent to pick it up. She wondered where it had come from, never thinking that it was something that had fallen unnoticed from her husband’s pocket.
The handkerchief was in fact the single thing in Ronaldo’s daytime life that carried the nighttime fragrance of his dreams. It was a stolen touchstone he snatched up one day when he accompanied his wife into a downtown ladies store on the Avenida Jimenez, quickly stuffing the dainty square into his pocket while Adoracion and the store clerk whispered together over blouses. He kept it hidden from his wife, washing and drying it himself every few days, adding a spritz of La Vida. Countless times during the unpredictable and perilous days of hauling cocaine with savage men, Ronaldo slipped a hand in his pocket to grip his handkerchief, a feminine talisman against harm and ultimate arrest.
“Cheeks” was heading the car past the edge of Bogota when Ronaldo realized he didn’t have the handkerchief.
Four hours later the car’s side panels were loaded with cocaine as Ronaldo rounded a curve, “Cheeks” dozing in the seat beside him. The turn opened up to reveal a row of three uniformed officers standing in front of a barrier, rifles across their chests. Ronaldo’s foot slammed against the brakes, the roadbeaten old Mercedes jitterbugging to the verge. The sleeping “Cheeks” slammed forward, splitting an eye on the dashboard. From the rearview Ronaldo saw more officers and another barrier slide into place behind them.
By early evening Ronaldo was in a jail cell wondering about the chances of escape. From a small window high in the opposite wall he could see a grassless lot with other prisoners milling about, smoking cigarettes, throwing dice and playing samba on makeshift instruments. The lot was surrounded by a high fence that looked flimsy enough to push over with a hard rush.
Hearing a guard shout “Visitors!” the next morning, Ronaldo was surprised to see Adoracion walking through the door of his cell. She’d gotten a message late the night before from someone on the street telling her that her husband was being held at La Modelo Prison. Not knowing the reason or circumstances of her husband’s plight, she arrived with spare clothes, toiletries, a basket of food and a wad of cash given to her by the messenger. Asking no questions, she sat beside her husband on the filthy cot, sobbing, her eyes fastened on the ceiling mumbling prayers to heaven through dingy prison walls. When the shout came that time was up, a file of wives, girlfriends and sisters passed down the walkway headed out. As she stepped out of the cell, Ronaldo grabbed his wife’s arm, pulled her close and in a frightened whisper told Adoracion to return the next day with a set of women’s clothes in her bag. She looked at him with new eyes.
That night Ronaldo slowly shaved his legs, chest and arms, then paid careful attention to scraping away the rough beard on his face. With money funneled in by the messenger, he bought a long black wig and painted glue-on fingernails from a transvestite in the next cell. When the shouts and quarrels of 200 incarcerated men faded into troubled sleep, Ronaldo revived his dreams and began prancing the confines of his cell, a nighttime woman practicing the airs, pouts and moues he would employ to get past guards the next morning. At long last his true self would emerge, a woman with reddened lips confounding the men with guns on their hips. He fell asleep to dream of Hermès scarves.
Adoracion arrived with a cache of feminine items the next morning and watched while her smooth-skinned husband crammed himself into a brassiere, a blue dress open to the waist and a pair of white patent leather high heels a size too small. He applied a slash of red across fevered lips, clapping the black wig on his head and asking his wife to straighten and fluff the jailhouse angora into a Salma Hayek look. As she teased out the wig Ronaldo whispered, “Hurry! Hurry! Time is almost up. I never realized the time required to become a beautiful woman.”
As the women passed out of the cells shouting their goodbyes, Ronaldo pushed his wife out first, waiting a few beats before joining the line in a sinuous promenade. By the time he got to the first checkpoint his feet were killing him. It occurred to him that some adjustment in his step would be needed to manage four-inch heels in a size made for petites. He reached the outer gate in agony, trying to pass off a wobbly limp as girlish affectation. But the press of women around him served as camouflage and got him out to the street unnoticed. Tortured toes and scraped heels be damned, he lit out in double time for the bus station at the end of the street hoping to lose himself in the crowded depot.
Feminine wiles forgotten, Ronaldo staggered down the street in a grimace of patent leather pain, sure that his high heels were by then spotted with blood. Unfortunately, in the fear and excitement of escape he failed to remember that bus stations routinely have at least one policeman on station, scanning the crowd for perverts, skells and runaways. Bored with the ordinary assortment of travelers, the policeman this time was quickly drawn to the unshapely would-be maiden staggering along on shiny white shoes, frantic eyes signaling desperation.
In the next moment a motorbike pulled up to the curb at the station entrance. Seeing his chance, Ronaldo made a clumsy dash for the bike, hoping to jump on the back and speed away. In his haste he lost a shoe, and stopping to scoop up the precious footwear, the policeman stepped in to clamp a hand on Ronaldo’s neck. His hand come away holding a frazzled wig and Ronaldo made a last leap for the motorbike. But it was too late. He was caught and dragged away, wigless, his lipstick smeared, limping along in the policeman’s grip, his right pump left behind as a metaphor of freedom. Ronaldo’s brief dream-come-true melted away as the policeman shoved him roughly into the backseat of a patrol car.