Feature published in The New York Times – Sunday August 31, 2015.
This cat Fritzel was odd. She wasn’t pretty like Angel or Bon Bon, and she wasn’t smart either. Just one of those weird, piebald cats with personality issues. Maybe I didn’t like this cat so much. But once you have a cat, you keep it until it dies. When Fritzel was a kitten, she charged face-first into my dad’s knobby middle knuckle and half-blinded herself, turning one eye opalescent. That didn’t help her looks.
Fritzel often napped in a spiral beneath my mom’s painting chair. Late one afternoon, turpentine sloshed out of its jar onto her back, and she licked herself dry. She did the strangest of death dances, cruised sideways and backwardsall around the house with her tail stick-straight, frothing at the mouth and gurgling and grunting. Which was the end of Fritzel. So I know what turpentine can do, though I’m still guessing about its flavor.
Turpentine smells like Coca-Cola stripped of sweetness, with a dash of fiery death, and it’s the pervasive scent of my youth.
“Interpreter,” I announce, entering the examination room. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“Oh good, you’re here,” says Dr. Lichter, without looking up from the file in her lap. “We got through most of it, but find out what Mrs. Magaña wants to ask.”
I hang my purse on a hook beside the sharps disposal box. Mother and patient sit on folding chairs against the window, striped in sunlight leaking through the blinds.
“Cuál es su pregunta?” I ask her. Mrs. Magaña answers in Spanish and I transform her words into English, almost without thinking, without analyzing. I assume her voice and mannerisms. We speak in near unison.
“MAIL CONTAINS DRUG, YOUNG WOMEN SEIZED” reads an August 22, 1969 headline in the Milwaukee Journal. Below, in grainy black and white, floats Meridy Domnitz’s mug shot. At twenty, my mother looks more pathetic than criminal. Her frizzy hair has gone renegade from a sideways ponytail and she wears what appears to be a paisley kurta.
My mother never disguised the fact that, throughout my childhood, she made her living selling marijuana. I grew up listening to her spin vivid yarns while she rolled joints or counted cash, usually sprawled sideways on her king-sized bed. Customers would climb aboard the bed — nicknamed “the barge” — and linger for hours, enveloped in a miasma of smoke and stories.
I’ve heard my mother tell the story behind this article a hundred times, and I never tire of it. This was her first dalliance with the wrong side of the law; by the time she gave birth to me, nearly a decade later, the dealer persona was center stage.
If my mother were a comic book superhero, this would be her origin story.
I’m thrilled to have an essay in the gorgeous “Winter Reading” issue of Tin House, the sharpest journal in the west. This issue includes new work by the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin, Joy Williams, and Josh Weil, among other fine writers. I could not be more pleased.
I encourage you to pick up Tin House at your local (independent) bookstore, but you can also read my essay, “In Any Light, By Any Name,” online.
My essay about children in immigration court is live this morning, featuring original illustrations by artist Chris Koehler.
The courtroom smells of talcum powder. On this afternoon’s docket, we have thirty-four children. Thirty-four out of 35,000 or 57,000 or 90,000 kids who have crossed our borders without permission since last October, depending on which source you trust to make sense of what doesn’t.
Here’s Litseen’s video of a reading I gave at Inside Story Time, December 15, 2011. The story “Vacajun” appeared in Dark Sky Magazine.