Racist Righteousness and a Double Standard of Carnage: Beirut in July

Imagine this (which requires a suspension of disbelief: that the power balance in the middle east is far more equal):

Lebanon, fed up with rockets sailing from Israel across its border and enraged at the fact that Israel is holding Lebanese prisoners, attacks Israel by land, sea, and air, decimating infrastructure, shutting down the economy, creating a humanitarian catastrophe, and slaughtering hundreds of civilians, including lots of little kids.

Not only that, but when criticized or questioned, the Lebanese leadership hustles out its best looking, sun-glassed generals and their spokespeople to cooly insist that the taking of the Lebanese prisoners was an act of war by Israel and now the wrath and carnage being unleashed is exclusively Israel’s fault and responsibility, smugly offering the presumption that Lebanese life is far more precious.

Ok, back to reality. Except some of this fantasy is real: Israel does hold Lebanese prisoners–hundreds if not thousands of them. And Israel does send rockets into Lebanon at a far higher rate than the reverse.

Oh, I can hear the indignant eruptions now: “But the prisoners that Israel holds are terrorists! The Israelis taken are brave young civic servants. And Israel only launches rockets in self-defense against these terrorists.”

But, actually a very large number of Lebanese (and Palestinian and Syrian and Jordanian) prisoners are administrative detainees–yes, that’s right, they’re caught up in bureaucracy and may have committed such nefarious charges as getting their work papers out of order. Many of them are also old men, women, and minors. And if we agree that it is true that Israel fires in self-defense, Israel also kills approximately twenty times as many people with their Uncle Sam-blessed precision artillery.

Oh, but it’s different, my critics will howl–Lebanon is a shell inhabited by the hefty and militant agency of Hezbollah. And what of Israel’s hosting of American interests, receipt of billions of dollars a year, nuclear technology, and all other imaginable weaponry? Perhaps Syria ought to invade Israel on the grounds that it is beholden to a nation that is now widely considered in the world as unpredictable and terroristic.

The precedent that the Israeli state has just set is shockingly racist and terrifying. The sudden and complete espousal of national (read:ethnic and religious) superiority is undeniable in their position and actions. They have spoken clearly and resoundingly and without a shred of shame: no number of innocent Arab lives are worth more than one (or three) Israeli.

And America looks on with a proverbially raised eyebrow–who knows, maybe at the end of the day we will even deliver a faux spanking, wag a finger (wink, wink). But for those who harbored any confusion as to why poor, repressed people in the middle east so often choose violence, such confusion should now have crumbled like a Beirut or Gazan bridge.

And now no one can get to the other side.

Out of the Blue (Story and Film)

This story that I published in Whestone Literary Journal a couple of years ago will soon be made as short feature by my old homie, filmmaker Isaac Lane. If you dig the story, check out the website for more information and the movie poster at

Out of the Blue


I didn’t need someone to talk to; I just wanted to assure myself that I could still behave coherently. Sometimes a long stretch alone on a highway can temporarily strip me of my sanity. I don’t even notice it until I stop to buy a cup of coffee, come up on an agricultural checkpoint, or get pulled over. Then my words come out all tangled and fast, my eyes suddenly feel wild inside my skull. So I stopped off—even though the needle hovered right between the E and the F on the gas gauge.

This time I had good reason for wanting to check myself. I’d spent the past thirteen hours rocketing through the blue and rouge evening and then the inky night, weeping and trying to talk myself both into and out of my action. I’d left Rachel face down on our thrift store couch. When I took off, over an hour had passed since she’d spoken to me, and the last words she did say were carefully crafted to do harm. You are the most selfish bastard ever born—I’m glad you’re not a father. To be honest, I’d acted more hurt than I actually felt. I always needed to pretend like I was injured—as if our horrid conflicts were still new enough to surprise and wound me. It was a way to distance myself from the fact that such ugly battles were actually old, as expected as dusk. After that hour of pleading with her to speak again and with an effort that almost collapsed me, I kicked through the front door and drove off a whole damn tank before making my first stop back in Arizona.

I climbed out of my rattling old pickup, stretched, and looked around. The black was pierced and spoiled by the security lights of the Texaco. A cowboy dozed in the cab of his new, cherry red truck, the engine running. A black dog with all its ribs poking out eyed me as he licked something off the cold concrete. To one side of the gas station was a tractor-trailer that pulled an interesting and enormous load: an entire house, replete with chimney, front and back doors, and even curtains; it seemed like it would be a great way to travel. Trash whirled around it with the icy gusts.

As I pumped fuel I squinted through the bug-splattered windshield at the atlas on the dash. Just southeast of El Paso. I turned and gazed south. I figured the vast spillage of yellow light must be Juarez. Mexico. It made me sad, but in a sweet way, and I watched it glint silently until the pump shut off.

The clerk was a large pear-shaped Mexican lady with a coffee stained nametag that read Carolina hanging a kilter from one cantaloupe breast. Her hair fell all stringy, and she sported two purple sandbags under her eyes and a bruise half-covered by chalky mascara. She stared past me, daydreaming, as I approached.

“Morning,” I said, as pleasantly as I could manage given the weight hanging inside of me like a slab of meat. Carolina slowly shifted her vision over to my face as if she was winding up a very distant fantasy. She uttered a barely audible hey. She punched the keys of the yellow register with a dull violence.

Next to the door a the gargantuan trucker (mesh hat, rumpled clothes, and ashy skin) that must have been pulling the house, stood rubbing a nickel hard and slow against a lotto ticket. When I smiled at him, he turned and wedged himself into one of the half size phone booths to continue with his one dollar prayer, as if he were doing something crude and private or as if I were some kind of pervert. I could hear his elbow knocking against the little wood wall of the booth as he scraped.

The door was glass, and as I went to push through it, I caught a full-length glimpse of myself. My eyes were as baggy as Carolina’s, my brown curls greasy and unfurling, defeated. I could feel the lengthy stubble on my cheeks, the thick layer of plaque on my teeth, and the residue of pollution and tears across my entire face. My sweatshirt was flecked with cigarette ash and barely contained the belly I swore that I would never have. Disgusted, I knocked the door aside and walked to the truck, deciding I was still too close to Southern California. My wheels spit gravel against the pump as I lurched away.

As consolation for my lack of company, I turned on the radio. I came across only an evangelical sermon and some kind of infomercial before a static-ridden rendition of an old Bob Seger tune invaded the cab. I turned up the volume until the song overtook the harsh whoosh of the wind pushing past the broken seals on my windows. The old Chevy was stretching toward eighty, wobbling and shuddering more with each mile per hour, which was dangerous in ordinary conditions—and I’d spotted flashes of slick here and there. I was daring disaster; I’d left the plane on which one desires, absolutely, to live. I’d reached somewhere beyond that; it wasn’t that I wanted to die precisely, but I was willing to chance it, to push the odds, as if to say maybe. Maybe I should. I felt a strange peace as I pushed the pedal lower. A suburb of Juarez appeared and vanished in a matter of a minute. I had the mad thought that perhaps I was hoarding the space of someone who wanted desperately to live. I could not tolerate another day of soul shredding sadness beside Rachel and yet I could not imagine a way to live with the guilt if I didn’t turn around. Cacti, road kill, and the long, barbed wire border zone streamed by in bumps and lines of dull green, gray, and silver.

Whereas hours earlier I cried, I was now staring dryly, entranced by the dance of the broken yellow line and glistening asphalt, so I almost didn’t see the man on the shoulder at all. I just sensed him peripherally as I flew past, was only sure enough of his existence to slow and glance in my rearview. But there he was, waving an arm and jogging after me, washed in the crimson of my taillights. Without thinking, I silenced the radio, braked onto the shoulder, and threw the truck in reverse to illuminate the darkness. I watched the man in my side mirror as he came near. He shuffled slowly, put his palm up against the glow of the reverse lights, and craned his neck about trying to see who his chauffeur would be. An ironic chuckle climbed up my throat—here this guy was suspicious of me. I let the truck fall into neutral, leaned over, and unlocked the passenger door.

The man had a broad, pockmarked brow and brawny shoulders. His neck was almost nonexistent. Short, spiky black hair glistened with the light rain that had been coming and going in the night. He was of Mexican blood, maybe thirty-five years old—roughly my own age. He wore only a tight, filthy white tee shirt on his upper body. He was still eyeing me with suspicion as he pulled the door halfway open. His voice quivered once when he spoke, whether from the intense chill or nerves, I didn’t know.

“Thanks for sto..stopping, man.”

I responded with a small nod and he continued, “fucking car went clear through the fence, down a ditch.”

“Well, get in,” I said, thinking of the thick gauge cable in the bed of the truck,
“we’ll go work on hauling her out.” But the man shook his head, now committing, hoisting himself up into the cab and pulling the door closed.

“No man, that car is fucked. Lost a wheel and everything. I may as well just leave it for now.” He folded his arms tightly, tucking hands deep into his armpits. It was clear now that he was shivering and I flipped the blower up to high. A somewhat rank but warm wave crested over us.

“Thanks, man. Hey, are you going straight on through Esperanza?” He threw a hopeful half grin across the cab at me, which looked a bit absurd on him—like a kid putting on eyes for his parents, pleading for a treat.

“Yeah, I suppose I’m going at least that far,” I told him and pushed the Chevy, griping, back into motion.

As the high sound of rubber on cold asphalt picked up again, I began to consider my action. I didn’t know if he was more of a danger to me, or me to him, but I suddenly felt anxious about having the company I thought I would enjoy. I reached toward the cigarettes in the center of the dash with what I realized was a sudden movement. The man started, lifting his large arms upward in a vaguely defensive position. His eyes flashed as if something had leapt up behind his gaze, ready. When he saw the Marlboros in my palm, he put his arms down slowly and smiled almost sheepishly, giving his eyes to me for just a second.

“Sorry, man…guess I’m shaky from that little wreck, you know?” I offered him a cigarette, which he took, and we both sat puffing in silence for a moment during which I finished my cigarette and the man smoked scarcely a third of his. I poked open the little triangle window at the front of the door and sent the butt into an explosive orange death against the highway. I decided that I would shake off what was no doubt a silly case of paranoia and engage my passenger. I thrust my hand across the cab.

“My name’s Jackson.” The man placed the smoke between his lips and then shook my hand. His grip was firm, callused, dry, and still chilled.

“Javier,” he replied, a little burst of smoke and two small pieces of ash lifting off into the air.

“Where were you headed?” I asked, shifting my vision between him and the road. For a moment, I wasn’t sure that I had been heard, but then Javier chuckled softly.

“I guess the same direction for a long time,” he said, his eyes only on the asphalt before us, “just hadn’t really been moving till tonight, you know?” I was pondering this, but I guess I took too long because Javier changed his mind, sat up straight, and sent his butt out the window. “Just east, man, just east.”

I felt frustrated with myself; although both responses were also true for me, I liked the first one more and he’d brushed it away. I tried to regain the opening.

“I think maybe I should have been moving in this direction for a long time, but I haven’t been. Maybe just in my head.” I tried to gauge Javier’s reaction to this. There was only a slow nod—as if to say yeah, I understand or ok, whatever, man I could not tell. I changed topics.

“Where you from?”

A hesitation. “Southwest….Arizona mostly. You?”

“Orange County,” I replied with an eye rolling tone. Javier laughed.

“Orange County! I thought all white boys from Orange County drove Lexus and Beemers and shit?”

The stereotype made me smile. “Guess I’m the odd one out.”

Javier patted the dash with tenderness. “Hey, I’m not saying this ain’t a fine ride itself, my friend.” We both laughed then and everything felt easier. I settled back into the seat and Javier asked for another smoke. We both lit up again, quickly, because the truck’s lighter never stayed hot for too long.

For a handful of minutes we rode in silence. I blew out hard, rushed clouds of smoke that would bank and flatten against the cracked window. Javier silently released slow, measured plumes that slipped perfectly into the thin slice of night bared by his window. I felt comfortable with him somehow; the few words that we’d shared and his easy presence had satisfied my desire for talk. I felt a bit surprised, then, when Javier said,

“So, why don’t you tell me why you’re out here with the armadillos tonight.”

I considered this for a moment. I wasn’t sure how much truth Javier expected to be dropped on him and how much he was just making conversation. But something in the tone of the question suggested that he wanted to know what I was really doing. I settled on a gruff, manly introduction to the truth.

“Had to get away from my wife. She was really dragging me down, you know? It’s like, once she settles into feeling scorned, I know there’s going to be a long stretch of shit ahead and I just couldn’t swing it this time.” I leaned forward and peered up at the star crowded slab of sky. “So I split.” Javier gave another slight nod. He seemed to be waiting for more information, but I was nervous about that. What else could I say without having to completely explain the sick, complex, and horrid nature of my marriage?

“You know, most guys just head to the bar on the corner or something when they ‘split.’” It was a statement, apparently free of irony or sarcasm, only meant to open me up further. I cleared my throat.

“Yeah. Well, you know, I guess I needed a little more space.” I didn’t like that I sounded evasive. “I sort of snapped this time, Javier. It wasn’t really such a conscious decision. See, things have just gotten unbearable.” I felt the size and weight of it welling up in me; my frustration grew with it and I sighed. How could I make a stranger understand all of this? And why? “It’s really complicated.”

“I’m sure.”

I took the last drag, which proved to be mostly filter, grimaced, and sent the butt out. “She’s just so fucking miserable all the time. I try so hard man, you can’t imagine. I take her out to eat at places she used to love, buy her shit, try and get her to open up. But it seems like most days just end with her silent. She won’t talk. Man, I can beg and plead and go fucking nuts and she won’t give me a goddam word.” I paused, but my head continued shaking. I was aware that I was on the edge of a rant. The familiar and sharp grief had taken me; I felt the wrinkles and furrows, which seemed nowadays to dominate my face, creasing.

“I’ve tried to get her into counseling, you know, and she agrees after a long fight about it and then the time comes and she just cancels. I mean, she was in some counseling right after. And it seemed like…” Here, I fell silent. I’d lost track of my words. The opportunity to vent had made me careless. I watched the road intensely and felt my fingers increase their pressure on the wheel. I glanced over at Javier. He was gazing toward me, not impatiently, but expectantly. His arms were folded and his eyes were soft. I blew out a long sigh and decided to commit.

“The thing is, we lost a kid.” I felt the weight of the words transfer—from my chest to the cab of the truck, into the world. Javier nodded once and turned his eyes forward, dropped them onto the highway again. I continued, fearing that if I didn’t then, I wouldn’t be able to. “She was born really fucked up. Umbilical cord all twisted up around her neck. She was paralyzed, brain damaged man, everything you could think of really.” A blazing, florescent gas station drew near on the north shoulder. I waited until it faded to a dull throb, as if we’d passed within earshot of a stranger. “She lived for two weeks. Sometimes I think that was the worst part.” I paused for a moment, then reached and lit another cigarette with my usual violence.

“Christ, that’d kill me,” Javier said evenly, “I’m real sorry, man.” There was no suggestion that he was going to say more. But the sound of his words felt real and empathetic, some shred of understanding in them. They rid me of my remaining hesitation and I launched forward, spilling it all.

“She made me promise I would never leave her.” I said it like it was an oath and, for so long, it had been. And I told Javier. Of holding Rachel down through sobs and screams and flailings to keep her from harming herself. Of the jealousy that surged forth when I had to interact with another woman—if only to buy a cup of coffee. Of the cold silences that lasted for days during which I stepped lightly around the apartment, swinging crazily between wanting to throw myself from the balcony, flee, or shake Rachel until some piece of who she used to be was jarred back into her. Of her thinly veiled threats of suicide if I were to slip off even for a week to visit friends or family. Of her refusal to try again for a child, the only thing I could imagine that might heal the terrible wound in her soul. Of her almost total hatred of sex. And of the few and far between moments in which the horror cleared, when Rachel seemed to refigure and rise from the ruins of herself and could smile, how that bitter fuel held me hoping and praying through more of the nightmarish storm that my life and love had become.

When I’d finished, the dawn was beginning to tease some cold colors into the horizon that we were aimed toward. The dying moon was half obscured behind one of the tatters of clouds, like a shy child peeking out from behind his mother’s skirts. Javier looked sleepy, his eyelids low. I once again began to regret my wild abandon in spilling all this for a person that I didn’t even know.

“So, are you going to turn around?” The question was an obvious one, but it struck me as if it came from out of nowhere.

“I don’t know. I guess I probably will.” It felt like a confession as I said it. We watched in silence as the dawn arose to spread its bleary light across the desert. The border zone still raced alongside us, looking as empty as if life itself had been prohibited between the two nations. Just when I thought my passenger must be dozing, Javier began to speak.

“Once I was riding with some guys from one town to another. I didn’t have any money for a bus and one of them was a buddy from a farm I worked at. He offered me a ride, so I took it.” Javier reached for a cigarette and gave me a look that asked for permission. I nodded impatiently, wanting to hear the story. He lit up and blew out two of his patient exhales before continuing. “Well, it turns out these dudes are carrying a half a kilo of crank. We get stopped and a couple of them start freaking out bad. Things got tense with the cop and one of these assholes pulls a gun.” Javier’s head was shaking as he recalled, a frown reaching across most of his wide face. “Goddam trooper gets hit twice and almost dies. They got us real fast with a roadblock.” He slid a glance over to see my reaction to this. I did my best to appear unfazed and sympathetic at once. “Well,” Javier sighed, “They put me in prison for a long time.”

I waited for what seemed like an appropriate amount of time.

“That seems pretty unjust to me,” I told him.

He chuckled ruefully. “Yeah. It did to me too.”

He gazed out the streaked window as we traveled a few miles in silence. Then he began to squint at a sign looming up on the shoulder. “Hey,” he said, his tone suddenly spiked with relief, “here we are.”

I saw Esperanza on the massive green sign and shifted over to the right lane, coasted down the off ramp. At the bottom, one sign pointed toward the border, another north, indicating a memorial to Texan Civil War heroes. We cruised into the arrangement of gas stations, cafes, and money transfer places. Javier told me he would get out in the parking lot of a small shopping center. Reluctantly, I rolled to a stop between two RVs.

“What are you going to do here?” I asked, wincing at my judgmental tone. Javier, however, just chuckled again.

“Oh, I have a cousin who works at the border here man, in Mexican immigration.” That struck me as strange, but I just nodded, figuring it wasn’t much worth questioning. I began to tell him goodbye, but Javier wasn’t making any move toward the door yet. He seemed to be thinking something out. Finally, he breathed deeply and turned to me. “Listen, Jackson…I wasn’t being totally honest about just going east.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m going home, man. Guerrero.” His black eyes were searching mine, asking a question that I didn’t grasp. I felt a kind of splinter in my mind. His gaze relented a bit and he looked off through the windshield, with what seemed to be a bit of the nervousness that he first approached me with.

“I have to ask you a favor. Do you have a knife in here?” A fearful reaction must have crossed my face, because Javier laughed and assured me he wasn’t going to slash my throat. I rummaged in the jumbled back of the cab. I came up with a rusty, small pair of wire clipping shears. He said that they would do and took them. Then he unrolled a bulge of cloth at the top of his pants—which proved to be a jumpsuit. He began to half snip and half tear above the elastic waistband, twisting from side to side to get at difficult angles. When he’d finished, Javier held the blue fabric in a crumpled ball in the air between us. His eyes flashed and he grinned. Then he smoothed it out on the seat. I read the white letters stenciled across.

Texas Bureau of Prisons

I blinked a few times as it registered. When it had, I found myself smiling. Javier was climbing out of the truck. He shut the door and ambled around the front end, turning his stocky torso and looking about easily but warily. He stopped at my window and I lowered it. He stuck his thick hand through.

“Wait a second,” I told him, then pulled off my battered sweatshirt and pushed it out. He nodded his appreciation and slipped it on, pulling the hood up and the drawstrings tight, arranging it over the ragged top of the now-pants. Then he extended his hand again. We held each other’s gaze and hand for several seconds.

“The best to you, brother,” Javier said.

“Thank you, Javier.”

He shuffled quickly away and vanished around one of the softly idling RVs.

For several minutes, I sat quietly. A few rays of sun escaped the cloud cover and danced on my windshield and my brow. Around me the little town was coming to life; I heard the rattle of a train of shopping carts in the parking lot behind me. An old woman and a small child appeared on the sidewalk holding hands, the child talking, the woman leaning downward, listening. A station wagon pulled in a few feet away. The driver pushed his baseball cap down over his eyes and reclined the seat, disappearing in rest. I started my truck and eased it into gear. Guilt, like lead in my gut, seemed to be slipping away. And the first bubbles of hope and a new, nervous, good kind of fear were rising through me. I could see Rachel stomping around the apartment, raising storms of dust motes, throwing pitches of my belongings into paper bags. Frenzied, she would strip away every trace of me that she could by tomorrow. And then she would believe that she hated me for a long time—maybe forever. I looked forward to when I would hold her sweetly and tightly in the back of my mind.

The underdog sunrays had carried out a true rebellion against the gray and the glare was harsh. But as I climbed the eastbound onramp, driving directly into it, I felt grateful.