REVIEWS

[The Night Shifters is] a fascinating ride. The voice feels a lot like Neil Gaiman. This is a huge compliment in my mind, and one not to be taken lightly.” - Melinda VanLone Reviews

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mano Loco


When I was a kid, Phoenix had not expanded to the size it is today; my house was near the edge of town. The fields that stretched to the West and South of us were owned by farmers who grew cotton, and they irrigated their fields the same way the ancient Hohokam Indians did a thousand years ago, with a series of canals. Back then, most kids who lived in my area were Anglo, but some were Mexican American, and the Anglo kids who hung out with Latino kids heard some strange stories about a monster, the ghost of a woman who drowned children in canals. The Anglo kids mangled the Spanish name of this creature, they called her Mano Loco. Later I realized her name was probably La Llorona.

The story I heard was that Mano Loco liked to drown children, she was sort of a female boogeyman. If you wandered near the canals at night, she might come after you. The kids who talked about her did so with such dread, you couldn’t help wondering if it was all true.

And then my brother David saw her.

He was about twelve at the time. This was during the summer, and David declared he couldn’t stand to travel around with us on vacation any longer, he had stuff he wanted to do at home. My mother decided to give him the benefit of the doubt (partly because he was such poor company on those trips), so she asked an adult friend to look in on him regularly and gave him a food allowance. David actually took care of himself just fine, he only had one scare the whole time. This was the night in July when he and his friend Duane were setting off fireworks in the back yard.

These were small fireworks, not the kind that could blow your arm off, and they were both experienced at handling them. It was getting dark when they started, and David actually started to feel a little uneasy as the light died. We had an above-ground swimming pool, and by that time of year we always lost our battle to keep it clean. It had turned into a murky swamp, and David was beginning to wonder if he should just drain it and take it down. That was a lot of work, and he kept putting it off, so now it was horrible and even kind of scary at night. David didn’t want to be outside with that pool when it was dark.

But he wanted to set off a few more fireworks, and the arcadia door was just twenty steps away. Duane said he was ready to go in, and David told him he’d be right there, he just had a couple more he wanted to light. So Duane slid the glass door shut and David lit the last fireworks, thinking I'm outta here, because he was beginning to feel like something was watching him from the pool. In fact, as he turned to go in, he thought he saw a shadow there, like something might be hovering over the water.

David hurried to the arcadia door. Duane stood on the other side, looking at him through the glass, grinning. David tried to open the door, and that’s when he realized Duane had locked it. David wrenched at the door, pounded on it, called to be let in. Duane just laughed. And then he looked over David’s shoulder. All the humor drained out of his face, along with most of the color. David screamed for him to open the door, but Duane turned and ran, leaving David locked outside with something just behind him.

We had a locked gate at the side of the house. David broke the sound barrier getting to it. He doesn’t remember climbing it, he thinks he may have actually jumped over it. It was six feet high. He was moving so fast, he actually bumped into Duane in the driveway, even though Duane had a head start. The two of them ran across the street and crouched under a street light, watching the back gate.

Her head topped the gate, and she stared at them. "Mano Loco," choked Duane. (Yes, he actually choked it, just like in a comic book.) She looked like a dead woman, like someone who spent all her time rotting underwater. She pinned them in her glare for several seconds, and then she sank out of sight again.

They ran all the way to Duane’s house. It was two miles away, and they made it in record time. They spent the rest of the night there, and David stayed at Duane’s for every night afterward, until we came home again. The pool was drained shortly after that, and we never put it up again.

Years passed, and the cotton fields were sold to developers. Phoenix grew far to the West and the South, the canals were filled in. As the Hispanic community has grown here, Anglos have learned to pronounce more Spanish words, including the names of monsters like la Llorona. Some legends say she hangs around under trees, others repeat the legends about canals or other bodies of water. But no matter where she hangs out, she always kills children. That part of the story never changes. We don’t have many canals she can haunt anymore, but our summers get extremely hot, and swimming pools have proliferated here.

My brother and I are too old to see Mano Loco now, but children drown in Phoenix all the time, and many of these drownings seem suspicious to me. Plenty of other cities in the U.S. have just as many, if not more, swimming pools. Why do we have more children drowning than they do?

Maybe it’s bad luck. Maybe it’s inattention.

Maybe it’s an old monster. Maybe the Hohokam had a name for her, too. And if our civilization eventually dies out, maybe she’ll still be here, watching for the next wave of settlers, waiting for their children to wander near the canals.

I wonder what they’ll call her then.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dreams Are Infectious


I have proof positive that NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC warps young minds, causing kids to grow up to be explorers, adventurers, world travelers, and writers. When Stephen Bodio was a kid back in the fifties he opened a magazine and saw a photograph of a Kazakh nomad and his hunting eagle. It haunted and inspired him for decades until he finally got a chance to go to Mongolia and find those nomads. His adventure is recorded in his book, Eagle Dreams. On the cover is yet another photo of a Kazakh nomad and his hunting eagle, and that photo haunted me until I could track down this book.

Now I hope to do the same thing to you.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a hunting enthusiast. I’ve got nothing against people who hunt for food, it’s just that I don’t know a lot about the subject. I’ve got lots of other time-consuming hobbies, like rockhounding, hiking, and recipe-mangling, and there’s only so much time in a given day. Also, I am way too sentimental about animals, and if I had to actually kill the cows I so love to eat, I’d be relying on fish, eggs, and cheese to get my protein fix. It’s my love of birds that drew me to this book, from the tiny hummingbirds with the big attitude to the semi-fabled Harpy Eagles of Africa. Couple that with a picture of a nomad descended from Chingiz (Genghis) Khan with a gigantic Golden Eagle perched on his arm, and you’ve got my attention.

Bodio’s account of his journey is not a long one, though it took him decades to realize his dream. Like many adventurers, his path is oblique, almost accidental, and he ends up in Mongolia mostly because he maintained contacts with editors who could eventually send him there. It’s a story of persistence and resourcefulness – and courage as well, not because the nomads were a danger to him, but because he encounters unknown cultures, labyrinthine bureaucracies, and harsh living conditions. Once he manages to make the trip, he employs natural diplomacy, patience, and intelligence to win the trust of the nomads. He never brags about any of this; Bodio tells his story with self-deprecating humor. Neither does he bog the story down with too much terminology, it’s easy for non-birders (not to mention non-world travelers) to follow.

Bodio’s story packs a lot of good information into 216 pages, but more than anything else, the story inspired me. I’m not as resourceful as Stephen Bodio and probably not as brave, and I doubt I could win the respect and trust of Kazakh nomads who hunt with young eagles – though I might be able to amuse their wives by mangling a recipe or two. But I am a fellow traveler, and his account makes me want to venture out more, even if it’s just into the American Wilderness.

Take a good, hard look at the cover of this book. But be warned, it has unexpected side effects. May cause dreams.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Once More Unto The Breach


This time of year, my garden always turns into a jungle, and it’s my own fault. I know I’m living in the desert, I know 90% of my plants should be low-water use, and yet I keep designing areas that get too much water run-off. Well, no more, my friends! Or mostly no more. Hardly any. I’ve made up my mind, this is the year when the Big Shift begins. I’m keeping a few roses, but the rest are going bye-bye.

Don’t laugh – this is not going to be easy. You know that scene in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, where Malificent turns into a dragon and almost claws the prince to death? My roses treat me that way when I’m being nice to them, you can imagine what a fight they’re going to put up when I try to prune them out of existence.

A few of them will be given away to unsuspecting acquaintances. And a few of them are doing so badly, they’ll probably give up without drawing more than few pints of blood. I’m pretty sure this process will take three months this fall, and next year I’ll be getting rid of some more. I’d do it all at once if I had a crew of five men and a dump truck, but I’ve got one full-time worker (me) and one part-time (my poor, uncomplaining husband). Together, we’ll cut up rose canes, haul bricks away from raised beds, shovel out the extra soil, and shore up what’s left with stones, decreasing the bed sizes by two-thirds.

And what will go in their places? Rocks! Cacti! Weird desert shrubs! Peculiar garden sculpture! Sound boring? Not at all, I love the Martian weirdness of desert flora. I love how they stand up to the heat and the blazing sun, how some of them will burst into bloom in the worst part of the summer. And I admit, I love how they need so much less water and time (though some of them draw almost as much blood).

I guess every gardener passes through the early phase of trying to turn their garden climate into something it’s not. You can kid yourself into thinking you won’t pay serious consequences for it, until you’ve suffered through a few years of invasive grass and the yellow jackets who love to nest in it – not mention the mosquitos, ticks, fleas, weeds, white flies, and mildew.

Despite all that, my garden has actually been pretty healthy most of the time. If I had several hours a day to devote to it, it would be a more successful micro-climate. But this time of year, I need to take about ten rests a day when I’m out there hacking back the jungle. Those rests take at least fifteen minutes each and include multiple glasses of water and the A.C. turned down to 77 degrees F. Plus I have to use gallons of grass killer to keep the yard police from breathing down my neck, and that stuff is smelly and expensive.

So bye-bye roses (or most of you, anyway). Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still plant my flower seeds this fall. That’s the nifty thing about living in Phoenix; you can still have your cottage garden in the fall, winter, and spring. Veggies too, if you’re feeling intrepid. I won’t even miss those roses.

Assuming they don’t get rid of me before I get rid of them.

So wish me luck. I’m going to need it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hummificent The Magnificent


I’m not sure when it happened, I can’t even remember when I bought my first hummingbird feeder, but somehow I became the servant of a tiny, noisy, multicolored creature who loves sugar-water. By the time I moved into my current home (seven years ago), this mutual addiction was firmly established. I have two feeders now, and two Ruby Throats have battled over them for as long as I’ve been here. They may be the same fellows from the beginning, or they may be the offspring of the originals – it’s hard to tell. Hummingbird psychology is simple: battle fiercely for your territory, sip as much sugar-water as you can, and scold the lady who fills the feeders when she’s not moving fast enough.

One spring I was privileged to witness Hummy wars. Two Ruby-Throated males hovered like helicopters, scolded each other loudly, then dive-bombed the yard and swooped to new positions, about fifty feet up. They may have been trying too scare each other off, but it didn’t work. They still perform amazing aerial feats all year ‘round, but I haven’t seen the helicopter stunt in a while.

I like them best when they’re perching outside the living-room window, on an old tomato cage, staring in at me as if I were the entertaining oddity. This is why the sugar-water will always get refilled. This is why I remain the devoted servant of Hummificent The Magnificent.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

So, You think YOUR Day Job Is Tough


Before I came to work for my current employer, I worked for the Department of Corrections. I was an officer at a minimum security facility in the middle of town, an odd place that had been converted from an old motel. I think the place appealed to state officials because it didn’t require a lot of renovation in order to make it work as a minimum security facility. The lobby was converted into a control room, the guest rooms were fitted with metal bunks, and the perimeter was secured with a chain-link fence and razor wire.

This may not sound like a lot of security, but I promise you, getting in and out of that joint took effort, even if you weren’t an inmate – although a small percentage of inmates were allowed out on work crews. Since they were minimum security inmates who didn’t want to become maximum security inmates, those who were allowed out for work always came back. So you could say that the security features of the facility were both physical and psychological.

I confess, I spent many days wondering how I would break out if I were an inmate. I did this partly because I was bored out of my skull and partly because I desperately wanted out of that place every minute I was there. I was warned at the academy that inmates do time 24/7, officers do time in 8-hour chunks (16-hour if you do a double shift, but by that time you’re so light-headed you don’t know what time it is anyway). Correctional officers have a very high incident of alcohol and tobacco abuse, and a high rate of divorce.

Don’t get me wrong, my minimum-security women’s facility was no Sing-Sing. The inmates weren’t dangerous, at worst they were annoying. A lot of them were just plain odd. A few could have passed for men (and they spooked me just a tad), but most of them were petty thieves and check-bouncers -- although we did have one gal who tried to kill her husband (twice) and one who set her children on fire.

I think what gets to most correctional officers is 1.) long-term confinement with a large population of maladjusted people combined with 2.) the adversarial (and sometimes downright hostile) treatment of officers by the Department of Corrections. If you want to compare it to retail, you could say that not only are your “customers” from hell, but your boss is old Mr. Scratch, himself.

I liked my fellow officers very much, and as a writer I was fascinated with the inmates. If my current employer, a big-chain bookstore, goes out of business, I might consider working for the D.O.C. again. But I couldn’t do it for more than a couple of years. In order to illustrate why, let me tell you about one of the things that happened at that minimum-security facility. The incident itself will seem like a minor thing until I tell you why it spooked me.

Occasionally, inmates were punished for rule violations by having some of their privileges suspended. We had one gal who racked up a lot of those violations, an 18-year old who had given birth to 3 children by the time she went to prison. Suffice to say she did not have a lot of self-control. At one point she was confined to quarters for a week. This was a big problem for her, partly because she couldn’t socialize with her friends, but mostly because no smoking was permitted inside the rooms, and she dearly loved her cigs.

The no-smoking rule wasn’t just a matter of discipline. Those rooms were old, wood-frame construction, as dry as kindling. If one of them started on fire, there was a good chance the flames would spread rapidly. The rooms were arranged in a giant circle, we’re talking Ring of Fire, folks.

So this gal was confined, and it drove her nuts. She stood in the doorway of her room, hoping her friends would happen by (even though they weren’t supposed to be on that side of the yard) and sneaking cigarettes. I could have forgiven her for that, but when she saw me walking my rounds, she flicked her burning cigarette into the trashcan next to her bunk, which was right up against the wall of the room, next to the door.

First I foolishly tried to explain to her why she shouldn’t do that. But she refused to admit the incident had even happened, so I quickly abandoned that tactic and corralled the Alpha inmate for that room, a Latina who had been trying to recruit other inmates into a gang (without much luck). I told her what I had seen.

“Chances are,” I said, “The butt will go out and nothing will happen. But cigarette butts in ashcans have been known to smolder for hours and then burst into flames in the middle of the night. If that happens, you and your roomies will be trapped in a burning room, and that little fire extinguisher at the end of the row is the only thing they’ll have to fight the fire with.”

She got the idea fast. I told her to tell the other gal to smoke in the bathroom if she was going to sneak cigs and throw the butts in the toilet. She agreed that was a good idea. But afterward, I couldn’t help wondering – even if I had warded off disaster that particular day, could I be sure it wouldn’t happen again? Or even that someone wouldn’t set the joint ablaze on purpose? So I asked the Lieutenant on duty what our fire escape plan was. He told me that in the event of a fire, inmates and officers were all supposed to gather at the center of the facility and wait for the fire department to put the fire out.

Remember, this facility was built in a circle. Also remember, it’s old, and very, very dry.

Have you ever barbecued chicken? Just imagine us in the middle of that gigantic, raging fire. This is assuming we could stop the Human stampede for those razor-wired fences. This is assuming we wouldn’t be leading that Human stampede.

This is why I switched to my current job, ten years ago. Every time I think I’m having a bad day there, I think about what could have happened at that old motel that was turned into a prison. My very worst day at my current job is better than my very best day as a correctional officer.

But yes, if I had to, I could work that job again. I’m a lot tougher than I look. Probably a lot crazier too. If I ever work at a D.O.C. again, one of the first things I’ll do is find out what the fire-escape plan is.

Then I’ll pray like hell I never have to use it.