Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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Hidden Place


Shiflett’s suspenseful and provocative literary debut, set in Chicago and Puerto Escondido, a small Mexican beach town 150 miles south of Acapulco.

$14.95 $11.21

Excerpt from Hidden Place

Chapter 1: Paradise

I stood knee-deep in the foamy surf, shading my eyes and looking out over Escondido Bay for any sign of a dorsal fin. A strong riptide pulled on my ankles, burying my feet in sand. Up and down the glistening beach along the overgrown weedy foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains, Norte Americano “hippies”—so called by the Mexicans—bodysurfed, riding monster waves toward shore. Mila bounded past me in her green paisley bikini, skip-running and splashing straight ahead for a swim. Then, just as a wave was about to wipe the pug-nose-cute off her face, she knifed into the curling wall of water. Her blond head reappeared bobbing and floating on the surface.

“Come on, Roman!” she yelled over the thundering breakers. “It’s like bath water!”

“Didn’t you see Jaws?” I yelled back. “I don’t plan on being on the short end of any Great White’s feeding frenzy.”

A huge wave blindsided Mila and knocked her somersaulting underwater. Her head popped up again, and she whipped her long tangled hair out of her eyes.

“You big baby! I’ll protect you!”

“Yeah, right,” I muttered. I may have been on the greyhound side of lean, but I also come fully equipped with broad shoulders and a nine-inch height advantage on Mila. I took a few hesitant steps. Somewhere in the sea, I heard a shark ringing a dinner bell. The undulating tropical heat helped me to make up my mind. Come and get it, I thought, then ran full blast ahead and dove underwater. Reaching bottom, I kicked off the sandy floor and shot into the air.

“Man, that feeeeeeeels good!” I said. A couple of yards away, Mila was staring at me with an intent dreamy look.

“What?” I asked.

“Your eyes,” Mila said, moving closer. “They’re so blue against the water. And the way your hair looks so dark and your curls fall around your face. You are so incredibly handsome.”

“Oh yeah?” I batted my eyelashes. “How’d you get so lucky?”

Since 3 a.m., when we’d rolled out of bed in our one-bedroom apartment in Chicago and argued about first dibs on the bathroom, we’d been bickering tit for tat. By dawn, the Jefferson Park bus had dropped us off at O’Hare Airport. After we’d checked our backpacks at the Mexicana Airlines counter, passed without a hitch through a metal-detector test, and realized that our K 16 gate assignment must have been at the very end of an endless corridor, Mila was raising her voice—”Roman, will you quit rushing me! You are such a pain in the . . .”

A connecting flight in Acapulco and a dozen petty arguments later, we arrived in Puerto Escondido on a small prop plane that chased goats off the dirt runway.

Same as many other North American college students on semester break, we had come to Mexico to soak up some rays and vegetate in Escondido—a small rural town, good-bang-for-your-tourist-buck, 300 kilometers southeast of Acapulco. Six days of fun in the sun to look forward to, or so I thought. Here, Chicago’s arctic cold, stress of finals, and media hype over the upcoming presidential primary elections belonged to a different planet. The bicentennial—not a good year for Gerry Ford, I’m afraid.

* * *

Waves rocked us, and sea gulls circled and swooped overhead in the rich clear sky. Mila wrapped her legs around my hips and her twiglike arms around my neck, kissing me long and hard. Recognizing one of her 180-degree mood swings, I cradled her ass in my hands. Sultry and mean, she said, “Fuck me.”

I forgot all about sharks. “Here? Now?”

“Yeah, fuck me.”

Up on the beach, one of several bronzed sunbathers rolled onto her stomach. Out past the lighthouse that towered straight as a candlestick on the promontory at the tip of the bay, a fishing boat, a hazy speck near the ocean’s horizon, faded in and out of sight.

Mila must have sensed I was game. She smiled coyly in a way that would break any man’s heart, and said, “Well, maybe not right here—in salt water. Wouldn’t be healthy.” She combed her fingers back through my hair, all dreamy again. “Soon . . . I need you inside me.” She licked the length of my neck, running the sharp edge of her teeth lightly over my flesh, giving me goose bumps. In the secret recesses of my cut-offs, an awakening hard-on reared its head. Mila squeezed me even tighter between her legs and began to rhythmically grind her pelvis up and down against my cock. A gull dive-bombed into the water, snagged a small fish in its beak, and swallowed it whole. Time and sound stood still. Everything so simple. Why can’t it always be like this? Why all the bullshit?

A few hours of swimming, sunbathing, and decompressing into vacation mode later, the sun had lowered into the blazing contentment of early evening.

“Been out here a long time,” I said, lifting my cheek off a stars-and-stripes beach towel spread on the sand. “Better get back to camp.”

Mila ran her fingers across my shoulder blades. “Oooo, you’re red all right.”

We flapped the sand out of our towels and slung them over our necks. A small territorial crab darted about us as if to show who was boss. I was looking out over the sunbeamed ocean, waiting for Mila to slip on her flip-flops, when I saw something happen that should have warned me of what would come to pass during our little stay in paradise. This short skinny Mexican, about my age, shirtless and wearing gray pants cut off mid-calf, came easy-as-you-please down the beach, leaving a trail of perfect footprints along the wet edge of the surf. Suddenly, a pony-tailed gringo—bulky as a moose, with a neck about as big around as another man’s waist—jumped up from his towel maybe twenty feet to the right of us toward the water, sprinted at the muchacho, and took him down with a flying tackle. Before I knew it, the white dude was on top, pummeling the other guy’s face with his fists. My own cheek flinched in sympathy.

“Where’s my nine thousand pesos, Jorge?” the gringo yelled.

“No hay!” the one called Jorge said, trying to throw punches and push his enemy off of him at the same time.

Mila grabbed my wrist and must not have realized how tight she was squeezing. I couldn’t take my eyes off the fight. Blood was on the line. I realized without looking that the other sunbathers had stopped whatever they were doing.

“Great,” I heard one woman tell another. “Just what I came to Mexico for.”

A few of the guys hopped up from their towels and ambled over for a ringside view. From his shorts, big guy pulled a pocketknife, flicked his wrist to open a mean-looking blade, and put the tip of it within an inch of Jorge’s throat. Nothing like a little incentive to make a man drop his hands and stop struggling.

Everything in my vision was bleached out, unreal, static. The last gasp of a wave washed through Jorge’s black hair. From beyond the line of palm trees and the trailer park just off the beach where Mila and I were camping, a restaurant jukebox in town played a Spanish version of “The Night Chicago Died.”

“Whoa!” I heard myself saying. As I started forward, Mila yanked back on my arm.

“Roman, don’t you dare!”

I suppose I should claim I was driven by an altruistic impulse that comes from being a Presbyterian minister’s kid, but the truth is I’ve just got a bad habit of sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong.

“Someone’s got to break it up,” I said, prying Mila’s fingers off me. Already moving, I threaded my way through what had grown into a dozen or so longhaired gawkers.

“Roman, if you go over there I swear I will never speak to you again!”

I stopped beside the imposing gringo, squatted down level with him, and didn’t have the slightest idea what to say.

“No hay, no hay,” Jorge whimpered.

“No hay, my ass!” the gringo yelled. “Where is it?”

Jorge glanced at me with so much pleading terror I caught myself thinking, Glad it’s not me. One of his eyes was swelling shut into a nasty shiner. Keeping my voice lowered in a conversational I’m-OK-you’re-OK tone, I told my fellow gringo, “You don’t want to do this. He probably fucked you over big-time and you’re mad.”

“No probably about it!” Moose said without taking his eyes off Jorge. “Two weeks ago he walks up to me on the street in Acapulco, talking about how he’s hungry. I buy him dinner and let him stay in my hotel room. Morning comes and he’s long gone with my money belt. One in a million I’d ever see him again. You’re looking at one sorry-ass, about-to-die motherfucker.”

“You don’t want to do this,” I said again.

“The hell I don’t!” To show he meant business, the white guy lowered the blade-tip against the soft spot on Jorge’s trachea and punctured the skin. Blood trickled, pooled, and then slithered down the side of his neck. Jorge seemed to be trying to flatten out and press himself into the sand—a futile effort, but also one that was far less dangerous than swallowing.

“You want to rot in some Mexican jail for the rest of your life? You’re mad. Think about what you’re doing. It’s not worth it.”

I played the silence. Water lapped up to my feet, then receded. One of the guys close behind me said, “Listen to him, man.” Then another voice, “I’m going for the cops.”

“Fuck that noise,” someone said with a cowboy twang. “Beaners need to learn they can’t mess with us.”

An asshole, I thought. That’s all we need. Then another cowboy twang behind me, “Jay, butt out. We’re a long ways from Oklahoma. For once in your damn life, don’t go lookin’ to start . . .”

“Otto, you know as well as I do that the sorry som’bitch did something to deserve it. Ain’t a beaner alive ain’t out to dick gringo.”

I was hearing all of this without turning around, when the next thing I knew, someone as tall and lanky as me knelt down on the other side of the combatants. His thin-lipped grin, partially hidden by shoulder-length stringy hair the color of dishwater, suggested that he played by his own set of rules.

“Go ahead. Fuckin’ cut out his gizzard. You know he’s got it coming.”

I figured he must be the one called Jay. Under the circumstances, his nonchalance threw me for a loop.

I told the aggrieved Norte Americano, “Put the knife down.”

“Slice and dice,” Jay said folksy-like. He leaned closer to Moose. “Kill him.”

I looked over at Jay, thinking, What’s your fucking problem? He stared back at me, that grin turning as slippery as it was crooked. He and I went into an angel-devil routine, fighting for Moose’s conscience.

“Don’t do it.”

“Stick him good.”

“Use your head.”

“He fuckin’ asked for it.”


“Do it!”

Didn’t the big guy have sense enough to care about witnesses? Not by the looks of the subtle tick in his clenched jaw. Jorge stared off into space, no longer whimpering. I figured him for a classic example of the mind escaping even when the body can’t.

From somewhere behind me, Mila yelled, “Roman, get away from there!”

I thought about lunging at gringo and wrapping him up long enough for Jorge to make his getaway. Then I’d hope to God that for those who belong to the brotherhood of tourists, one slit throat wasn’t as good as another. Poised on the brink of playing hero, I heard someone down the beach yell, “Policía! Do not move!”

Looking up, I saw a couple of blue-uniformed policemen, both sporting mustaches, running toward us. They must have seen the goings-on from what I would later learn was the station up on a hill in town.

“Cops,” I said.

Jay and I got up quickly and faded into the crowd, while the gringo tossed the knife away like he couldn’t understand how it had found its way into his hand in the first place. One of the cops yelled in heavily accented English again, “Do not move!”

I distinctly remember that my first impression of the man I would come to know as Roberto Sánchez was that the harsh glaring reflection in the lenses of his mirror shades bore no resemblance to the day itself. Close behind him, his partner had his hand at the ready to draw a pistol from a hip-holster.

“OK, OK,” Moose said, and slowly stood up just as Sánchez reached him. Without any hope of escape, he offered no resistance when his arm was twisted behind his back and a handcuff slapped on his wrist. Jorge, taking advantage of his new lease on life, jumped to his feet, pointed accusingly at his adversary, and started screaming in Spanish what must have been his side of the story. He dabbed at the small wound on his throat, then held his bloodied fingers out as proof that he was indeed the victim.

“Cállate!” Sánchez yelled. Then to his partner, “Espósalo! Cuff him!”

In a matter of seconds, Jorge, too, was handcuffed. The identical sobering, loser expression on both prisoners said it all: Busted. Sánchez rescued the knife from the surf for evidence and snapped the blade shut.

“Usted está detenido,” he told Jorge. Then to the gringo, “You are under arrest.”

Fingernails dug into my arm, and without looking I knew that they belonged to Mila.

“Hey, the gringo’s the one that got ripped off,” Jay called out.

Sánchez let his partner and the prisoners go ahead of him up the beach toward town. Then with arms akimbo in a puffed-up macho pose that exaggerated his medium build, he took a slow, deliberate sweeping glance over the crowd like he was making a mental note of everyone there. His dark, challenging face with its broad nose, high cheekbones, and look of withering confidence was shaded more Indian than Latino.

“I am Roberto Sánchez,” he told one and all, “Jefe de Policía. The men I arrested will tell me why they do this.”

“And pay you off,” Jay mumbled.

“What was that, muchacho?” Sánchez abruptly moved a few steps forward, cutting in two the space between him and Jay.

“Maybe you wish to join your friends?”

Jay must have thought better than to open his mouth again. Sánchez kept his eyes on him, giving him ample opportunity to change his mind. Then he smiled, a gold cap on one of his front teeth. “Welcome to Mexico,” he told everyone. “I no like knives on my beach. Have a nice day.”

We all watched the Jefe saunter boldly away down his beach. When he was more than twice the distance needed to be out of earshot, the bravest among us shared profound comments.


“Dude isn’t playing.”

“Beaner pigs,” Jay said, “they’re all on the take!”

Mila hit me in the chest with her fist. “Scared me half to death, you jerk! What am I supposed to do in the middle of Mexico if you get yourself killed? And for what? A thief?”

“You can say that again,” Jay said. “Fuckin’ beaner ripped that gringo off sure as shit.” I did my best to ignore him.

“Relax,” I told Mila. She simmered, obviously tempted to punch me again.

A guy with buffed muscles and sun-bleached hair came over to Jay and said, “You’re one big dick, ya know that? Always got to make bad into worse.”

“Aww, Otto. Don’t go gettin’ all mad,” Jay said. “Just havin’ a little fun. Wanted to see if I could make the Mex shit his drawers.”

“Could have fooled me,” I said.

“I fool a lot of people,” Jay replied. That grin of his made me bristle inside, but I tried not to give him the satisfaction of letting it show.

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right. No hard feelings, I hope.”

I looked into Jay’s sizing-me-up brown eyes. With his long tapered face and smooth chin, I admit there was an oily sex appeal about him.

“Jay, one of these days you’re going to start somethin’ you can’t stop,” Otto drawled. It seemed like every move Otto made flexed a different set of muscles.

“What goes around, comes around,” Jay replied. “You never know when they might have to find that out the hard way.”

“Who’s they?” I asked.

Jay looked at me like it was high time I wised up. “Fuckin’ beaners! Who else?”

“Just think about how the hell we’re going to get home stone broke, OK?” Otto said.

Others joined us, gathering around the impressions made in the wet sand by Jorge and Moose. No one stepped on them, like we were all afraid of contaminating the crime scene, until a wave lapped over and dissolved the evidence.

“Man, what the hell was that all about?” asked a guy with a scattering of freckles across his burnt cheeks.

“Something about getting ripped off,” said a dude with his head covered in a blue kerchief tied in the fashion of a pirate.

“It’s a drag.” This from a small gringa who looked like she belonged in junior high. “There’s been bad vibes from the locals ever since I got here a week ago.”

“Really,” said another hippie, and, “Really,” someone else echoed.

“Hell, yes!” Jay said. “I talked to a gringo yesterday told me his backpack got stolen from his campsite while he was gone for a swim. Happened in broad daylight! Finds it on the beach, clothes scattered all over the place, wallet empty. Adios traveler’s checks. Fuckin’ locals want us to spend our money and vamoose. If they can steal it before we spend it, that’s fine, too. Then there’s always the federales. They sure didn’t mind helping themselves to our cash.”

“Well, if you had dumped the damn ashtray out the window like I told you to before we drove up to that roadblock, they wouldn’t have had any excuse to bust us,” Otto said.

“Three measly seeds,” Jay said. “I’m tellin’ you, they planted them so they could shake us down to our last centavo.”

“What happened?” Mila asked.

Jay looked her over. “Long story. Let’s just say I don’t much trust these taco-breath fuckers. It’s time us gringos took out a can of whup-ass.”

“A can of whup-ass,” Mila giggled. “That’s a good one.” The way she smiled at Jay made me feel like I wasn’t even there.

“Come by our campsite sometime, señorita, and I’ll teach you some more good ones free of charge.”

“Teach them to me, huh?” Mila said.

“Yes, ma’am. It’d be a pleasure.”

I played it cool, adjusting my towel so that it hung evenly from my neck. People began to move on, no one interested in rumbling with the Mexicans.

“Let’s go,” I said, tugging on Mila’s elbow for us to head back to our campsite.

“See ya later,” Mila singsonged at Jay. I swear she would flirt with a eunuch just to prove she could give him a hard-on.

All Jay’s talk about Mexicans ripping off gringos had put a whisper in my ear. Pretty dumb leaving our wallets at camp. I expected the worst.


A moment, please. Let’s talk about how I process trauma. Let’s start with when I was five. Either one of my two older sisters or I would sometimes accidentally leave the backyard gate cracked open. Quick as you please, Penny, our red dachshund, would squirt through to freedom and haul ass on those stunted legs up and down Oriole Street. She’d whip by you just beyond your grasp, only to do a wide, banking-with-her-whole-body turn in a neighbor’s yard and come at you for another pass.

One breezy autumn day, I’m watching her through the screen door, taking a sip off a sweaty tumbler of chocolate milk. Faster than a speeding sausage, she rips up and down the block and cuts back and forth across Oriole like there’s some kind of method in her madness. On the other side of the street, she goes into a banking turn around the O’Conners’s front yard, and just as she starts to tear back my way, I see the car. It’s one of those big jobs—blue with fins on the back—and it’s coming a little too fast for what’s acceptable on a side street in a neighborhood full of kids. For some reason I’m like this detached observer. There’s the screech, then the dull solid thud as Penny, not quite clearing the chrome bumper, gets hit and spins 360 degrees. Everything goes quiet, like the whole world’s listening, and then there’s Penny’s desperate, high-pitched yelping. She keeps on running with her back broken, dragging her collapsed hind legs. She makes it to our curb, rolls onto the lawn on her side, tries to right herself with a couple of spasmodic flops, then gets quiet and lies still. I press my nose against the screen for a closer view, but I can’t say I’m upset, just very, very attentive. It hasn’t occurred to me to run out to Penny, like I’m still waiting for a punch from reality that can’t seem to find me. The driver—he’s got one of those Richard Nixon five o’clock shadows—looks out his window at Penny as if to say oops. Then he glances around, doesn’t see any witnesses, stutter-steps the gas pedal, and drives off.

Celia and Dawn must have heard the yelping, because they race downstairs from their bedrooms to the door, take one look out the screen, and start bawling. Dawn fumbles with the door handle, but my mother’s not far behind and yells at us, “Stay put!” She’s one of those dark, green-eyed beauties who can still give guys whiplash when she walks by. She goes flying out the door to see how badly Penny’s hurt. Usually, my sisters and I—only three years apart in the pecking order—do nothing but fight; but right then I’m trying to act adult, telling them everything’s OK. I think I even give Dawn—the oldest and by divine right the bully of our happy trio—a consoling pat on the shoulder, but both of my sisters are so upset they can’t even see me. They keep bawling, stepping away from the screen only to be drawn back to it. Neighbors come from their modest brick houses: old Mr. Eiserson, who once used a broom to help my mother shoo a robin out of our house; Mrs. O’Conner, who always rang a bell when she wanted her kids to come in from playing; Tony, the grease-monkey high school boy whose hands were usually black from working on his car. I don’t see any of my friends; they must all be off playing in the park a block away. Dad’s at Saint James Church, doing whatever it is ministers do on a weekday. The grownups, including Tony, huddle around my mother kneeling over Penny, everyone staring and Mr. Eiserson shaking his head sadly. Penny dies.

Not happy enough for you?

Fast-forward three and a half months to the day before Valentine’s Day. I’m at kindergarten. Miss Caffey hands out pieces of folded pink construction paper for us kids to make our mothers a valentine. She talks to us in a syrupy voice and is a dead ringer for Mrs. Santa Claus. When you’re bad (anything from running in the classroom to talking out of turn), she sends you to the corner to read The Rules. They’re written on a posterboard that’s propped up on an easel. None of us can read, but to please Miss Caffey we mouth words and point at each one until she thinks we’re sufficiently versed in them and ready to retake our places among the law-abiding kindergarten population.

We all love Miss Caffey.

Anyway, I’m at one of the tables with some other kids, I’ve got my piece of folded construction paper, and I grab the red Crayola out of the box before anyone else can get it. I draw a heart on the cover, then jazz it up with an arrow. At 3:15, I start home across the playground with my valentine clutched in my hand. I get a great idea. I’ll think of something to say in the card, something real important so that my mom knows how much I love her, and I’ll have one of my sisters write it for me.

When I get home, I recruit Celia for the job. I tell her what I want to say and Celia, all too eager to show off her first grade writing skills, goes right to work with a pencil at the dining room table.

The big day arrives. I’m the last one downstairs for breakfast. Everyone else is already at the kitchen table. I slip onto my stool next to Mom. There’s a plate of fried eggs and toast cooling in front of me. Beaming, I present her with the card.

“Ooooo, pretty!” Mom says, then flashes the card at my dad at the other end of the table and at Dawn and Celia across from me.

“Pretty!” Dad chimes in. My sisters are too busy eating to take much notice. I can hardly contain myself.

“Open it, Mom!”

It takes her a moment to decipher Celia’s bad spelling, but then she smiles bittersweet, like she’s so touched she’s about to cry. Instead, she reaches over and gives me a hug.

“I wrote it for him,” Celia says, probably expecting a piece of the glory.

Mom passes the card to Dad. He’s real tall and looks like JFK, except my father’s hair is darker than the president’s. When I see Kennedy on TV, I get the two men mixed up. Dad reads the inscription, gets this reflective sad expression, and says, “Son, we’ll get another dog.”

His concerned tone piques Dawn’s interest. She grabs the card from him, takes one look at the inscription, and says, “That’s stupid.” Then to Celia—”And you misspelled dead.”

“No, I didn’t!” Celia says defensively.

“You’re the one who’s stupid!” I tell Dawn.

“Hey,” Dad jumps in. “It’s Valentine’s Day. None of that.”

I reach across the table, snatch the card out of Dawn’s hand, and open it to make sure the words haven’t magically changed overnight. Nope. Everything’s fine. It reads:

Penny is ded

End of story? This ain’t no Disney. We get a new puppy—a half-cocker-spaniel-half-mutt. The pet store owner tells us it’s a girl, so we name it Honey. A few days later, we figure out that Honey’s really a he, but the name sticks. Honey likes to grab my mom’s used Kotexes that are neatly wrapped in toilet paper out of the bathroom trashcan. He goes and finds someone and drops the bloody gift at his or her feet. Then he stands there wagging his tail as if he’s done something nifty and deserves a reward. Honey’s odd habit never amounted to that big of a problem, except for a couple of times when my parents were entertaining company.

So much for Honey. Meanwhile, Dad becomes active in the nonviolent civil rights movement. No one, and I mean no one, is talking national holiday when it comes to Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. “Treat everyone equal” isn’t such a difficult concept for a seven-year-old boy to grasp, but for other people, well, it’s a little harder. Dad starts taking trips all over the country. Add a pinch of jail time for civil disobedience in Albany, Georgia, to a teaspoon full of freedom marches in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, and before you know it, people in Saint James’ congregation are saying, Uh-uh, Reverend Pearson. You stay home where you belong.

“It’s not just the ones that hate you that make you tired,” my father told me years later. “It’s the ones that know better but won’t take a stand.”

There’s no immediate drastic change in my life as a result of my parents’ “liberal” politics. By the time I reach the fifth grade, I’m obsessed with baseball, Celia is falling in love with the piano, and Dawn is bumping up against puberty, fighting with Mom and Dad about how high she’s allowed to “rat” her hair, or whether or not she can wear black nylons. Then one day, a kid on the playground calls me a “nigger lover” during recess. He’s one of these big, miserable bully types who spends a lot of time cooling his heels in the principal’s office for sassing his teacher. I haul off and give him a fat lip—not because he insulted me, but because he thinks he insulted me.

A few weeks later, the phone rings, and I answer it in the kitchen. A woman’s voice is tense, commanding, and vaguely familiar.

“Let me speak to your mother.”

Strangely, I want to please this voice.

“Moooooom!” By the time she comes up from the laundry room in the basement, I’m already back to playing with my electric road-race set in the living room. I can hear her through the dining room, a doorway, and over the whine of my racecar zipping around a small oval track.

“What? . . . Oh, is that so. Well, let me tell . . . My family can live wherever we damn well . . . You get out of the neighborhood! Who is this?”

I hear the slam of the receiver just as I push my thumb down a little too hard on the speed control, and the racecar wipes out on a curve.

“Who was it, Mom?” I call out.

“A sick person!”

Mom sounds angry at me, so I let it drop and listen to her tramping down the basement stairs. I pick up my racecar, fit its pin back into the track’s groove, and press my thumb on the speed button again. As the car accelerates to a steady, whining rhythm around and around the oval, I keep hearing that vaguely familiar voice in my mind.

Dad holds out until the end of the school year. Then he says fuck you and resigns from Saint James. OK, those aren’t his exact words, but don’t let that long black robe fool you. He’s thinking fuck you. Dad takes a job as a fundraiser for a community theater organization, and we move from the far northwest side of Chicago into Lincoln Park, a neighborhood on the near-north side.

I adjust to living in a gray stone Victorian house that’s in good shape except for the leaky roof, rusted-out plumbing, faulty electrical work, busted furnace, and rotten window sashes. By the time high school rolls around, Dawn chooses to go to a public school outside our district, Celia is lucky enough to get into a private school on a scholarship, and me, well, the shit hits the fan across the country with school integration plans just as I turn fourteen. I end up at Waller, a mostly black and Latino public high school that’s also fourteen percent white. Martin Luther King’s barely cold in the grave. Black kids are so pissed off about everything from A to Z, they don’t give a damn what my father or any other honky did during the civil rights movement. In four years, I’ve gone from giving a kid a fat lip for calling me a nigger lover to having members of the Cobra Stones and Latin Kings routinely shake me down for “chump change.”

I survive high school without any scars—the kind that show, anyway—and minus the white guilt. Then I get a burr up my ass about how I’ve got to figure out what I want to do with my life, and I end up at Everett College, located just north of downtown on Lake Shore Drive. It’s an alternative Arts and Communications school of several hundred students that thumbs its nose at more traditional institutions of higher education. There, I rub shoulders with the young, the hip, and the restless.

One day I’m in my ceramics class, throwing a pot on a wheel. Seated at several other wheels around me, students are hunched over lumps of clay at various stages of transformation. I can feel the heat from the huge gas kiln not far away in the corner of the double-story room. I’ve already “centered” the spinning wet clay, and I’m oh-so-carefully squeezing my fingers against both sides of an elastic mud wall. The pot begins to grow, taking on a wide, pregnant belly shape. If I let the clay get too dry, my fingers will rip the wall apart; apply too much water, the whole thing collapses. Suddenly, in the middle of all that concentration, I hear a woman’s commanding voice somewhere deep in the instant-replay of my mind. Let me speak to your mother. And then it clicks. A stretch of the imagination after all those years? I swear I put the voice together with the face. It’s Miss Caffey, my kindergarten teacher. Too unrealistic? OK, then someone just like her. And as the pot, guided by the steady pressure of my hands, nears completion, I think, Dad broke one hell of a rule.