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Authors: Peter Nathaniel Malae

What We Are

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WHAT WE ARE

WHAT WE ARE

PETER NATHANIEL MALAE

Copyright © 2010 by Peter Nathaniel Malae

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 or [email protected]

“Imagine,” Words and Music by John Lennon copyright © 1971 (Renewed 1999) LENONO MUSIC. All Rights Controlled and Administered by EMI BLACKWOOD MUSIC INC.
All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Used by Permission.

Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America

ISBN: 978-0-8021-9799-3 (e-book)

Grove Press
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
841 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

Distributed by Publishers Group West
www.groveatlantic.com

Alas it is delusion all.
The future robs us from afar,
nor can we be what we recall,
nor dare we look on what we are
.

—
Byron

Contents

1. I Try to Figure Out My American Life

2. The Teenage Boys Are Shooting Blanks

3. I Can See Through the Fuzziness

4. Spring Buds

5. You Think of Good Things When in Chains

6. They've Got New Machines Now

7. I Needed to Stay Out of the Pit of Solitude

8. Here Was Prison

9. This One Is Clean and Uncalligraphied

10. I Am Dreaming About the Loss of Blood

11. The Cell Pops

12. I'm in the House

13. I Know What I'm Talking About

14. Today We Break from Custom

15. I Somehow Keep My Balance

16. I Troop Up the Steps

17. I Make My Break Backward

18. No One Says a Word

19. When We Still Had Hope

20. Just for the Record, I've Always Believed

21. The Interview Commences with a Mickey Mouse Nightlight

22. I Arrive

23. We Relax

24. We're Driving with Bling-Making Intent

25. And So the Days Pass

26. My Uncle Is Waiting

27. The Judge Is the Son of Another Nation

28. I Know This Whole Thing Sickens You

29. All The Talk

30. I Decide This Fine Morning

31. The Battle for Tillman

32. At Work I Have Nothing to Do

33. I Get Back in the Swing of Things

34. We're Coasting Down

35. I Wake Up

36. The Tup Tup Tup Tup Tup

37. Of Course

38. I Feel Some Kind of Liberty

39. Nowhere to Go

40. The End of the Day

Acknowledgments

WHAT WE ARE

1
I Try to Figure out My American Life

I
TRY TO FIGURE OUT
my American life on a lightless corner of a four-stop-sign intersection in a rainstorm, 3:42
A.M.
, Friday. I could go forward, backward, right, left; it doesn't matter. I have nowhere to go, really, but around the city, and have wandered along on foot all night.

I dropped into a dive bar called Blinky's Can't Say Lounge for a drink and a Johnny Cash tune on the juke, ducked past the flashing neon signs of the Blue Noodle Cabaret Club to watch the beautiful Maxine do acrobatic flips on the pole, smiled my way to a table surrounded by fake bamboo and ceramic dragons and ate kimchi and kalbi and poke sashimi and drank Hite beer and Japanese sake in a Korean-owned sushi bar called Ga Bo Ja, hustled down the aisles of a twenty-four-hour Longs Drugs and bought candy and condoms and a discount umbrella with Pokémon dancing on the latex, and am now peering up beyond the BBs of rain to the mad gray mass of clouds above, not in wonderment or gratitude or even some momentary bout of depression, not in any poor man's version of self-condemnation, neither contentment nor elation nor anything within that emotional range, but in a strange kind of nothingness that sat somewhere
between my head and my heart and had bothered me for much of the day, like a facial tick you're conscious of but that won't go away.

I sit down on the curb and try to chill a bit; no melodrama in this empty hollow of the city. The rain morphs into silver glitter. It looks like the mist of a late-night horror flic on the tube, the haze of a northernmost California lumberjack town. The sheen on the street is oily smooth, black like the shine of leather, slick like a duck's wet back on the pond. I can see the streetlights flickering past Lawrence Expressway and through the little borough of Cupertino and shrinking into dots at De Anza College.

I'm big and brown enough not to have problems on the streets that I don't create myself. I could be Mexican or Brazilian or Creole or Persian or mulatto or Afghan, or of darker Mediterranean blood, like Sicilian, Moroccan, Greek, or maybe Serb, and I'm tough to peg with this black and logoless beanie on my head pulled down to the brow, the stalker's knee-length jacket, blue jeans, and slippers. People can't figure me out on sight and I'm not sure I could either in a first-ever mirror shot.

What I am, by blood anyway, is half Samoan—I'm certain of that—and half American white, which means (if it means anything) that my mother is of your typically mixed brew of Euro descent: English, Irish, Pennsylvania Dutch, Italian, and a smattering of French.

My father used to take my sister and me to the Samoan churches up at Hunter's Point, a fifty-minute drive from our house in San Jo. This was just before he left for the islands, when my folks were staking cultural claims on their children, like Soviets and Americans planting flags on the moon. I remember one funeral, a big gala affair. Five days long with hordes of big silent men in black polyester ie lavalavas standing stoic and strong, their mitts crossed just under their bellies. I remember the acreage of carnations and roses in the aisles, right out of a
Godfather
movie. Whenever someone with your own last name would die, you had the responsibility to prepare your cousin
or uncle or sister-in-law for the outer realm with the Good Lord. I remember wondering who would send me or my sister off sixty years in the future, if the event would die out first. If Samoans would even be around.

I always felt alone in those churches. I knew that the kids my age and the parents who paid me any attention thought I was diluted, watered down by my mother, too much white blood, an
afakasi
, a half one. Certain things you can't reverse, and genetic inheritance is one of them. I couldn't do much anyway, except be a follower, which I wasn't about to do, even then. I only knew rudimentary greetings like
Talofa, fa'a fe mai oi
? and bad words like
ufa kefe
, and any time I'd hear some elocutory wisdom kicked off in formal Samoan by a visiting high-talking chief
matai
, his deep, husky, oracular Polynesian voice somehow gentle in its tone, the pews full of three-hundred-pound ladies cooling themselves with woven palm fans, bone-thick youngsters leaning against the walls in red sweaters with red hoods and red picks and red bandannas stuck to their wild black wiry 'fros, my mind would go to my mother, the one person who was more outside this scene than me. The pure foreigner, slight 140-pound white woman from the Northern California suburb of Campbell, California, lost in the unknowable zone of natives. But she was already long gone by then, had bugged out.

My sister, a year older, looked Samoan as a girl, still does now as a woman. She even got a Samoan name, Tali. I remember her making fun of me: “Paul! Paul! What a white name!” She used to blend right into those occasions. I remember thinking the obvious back then: They like her because she looks like them. Deep down, and maybe not that deep, we're all phrenologists who fear the albino chimp. How much of Tali's simple and predictable personality developed in response to their acceptance? Because she had a group to claim in her formative years, and vice versa? At twelve she was wearing T-shirts that read
PROUD TO BE SAMOAN
, and I always felt
embarrassed at her obviousness. How she could wear something like that around our mother, who had entered those churches with the restless yet timid face of a dog seeing the doors of the vet.

Being a half-breed must be part of my problem. When I applied to college out of high school, I didn't know what to fill in under the category of race. Long distance from American Samoa, my father said over the phone, “Mark Polynesian,” but I couldn't. Neither could I mark white. I just left the damned thing blank. And that's exactly how I felt about it: blank. Still do, actually, don't care either way. By now I know that every culture in the world is equally beautiful, equally ugly. The few years of college I could stand convinced me of that. The few years of prison, too. In either place I was an English major with lots of reading time, lots of watching time.

I quit the daydreaming. I see him spot me from a bus stop across the street, posted up like a light pole. His hightops are out of the 1980s, Velcro straps around the ankle, big Nike swoosh on the tongue. He's got a hood pulled up over his head, and I can't find his eyes until he pulls it back and shakes his pointy head in the sprinkling rain. The red and green hair stands out on the ends like a dandelion. From the shoulders up, he looks like a miniature Christmas tree. He looks off and then back at me. He's on his way over and I don't move. The distance doesn't matter; I know what I see way before he reaches me: another suburban zombie on crystal meth.

He's violently itching one hand and then violently switching to the other. He's gonna rip through his own damned hand, insane. Sort of sad. Not even within five yards he says, “Wassup, brother? Wassup, brother? Wassup?”

I say, still not moving, “Wassup, man.”

He looks around again. I shake my head. I've never used the shit, but I've known more than my share of cranksters. Suburb, city, high hills, country, plains, it's just standard American protocol to see, know, love but never trust your average tweeker. These cats'll steal
from their own mothers, and even if you know one who won't, he's still looking over his shoulder like he already did. Always peeking out blinds, hiding behind dumpsters, hanging up the phone in the middle of a conversation. Hooked on an injection of paranoia. He can't even lie down in the familiarity of his own bed, close himself off from the world, and trust the blackness behind his eyelids.

I say, “You want something, dog?”

He hunches his shoulders, plays the mendicant. “Can you help me with some cash? I'm dying over here, brother, I'm dying.”

He's husky-necked, sufficiently fat in the cheeks. Early into his journey to the pit. He smiles humbly and has all his teeth. Cauliflower ears, former high school wrestler. A car drives by and he whips around and then back again. In the glare of a struggling moon, his eyes are spinning like a top, but he's focusing the best he can to press the sincerity of the issue.

“Come on, bro,” I say. “You ain't dying.”

“I'm dying, brother.”

“Yeah, dying for a fuckin' fix.”

“No no no no.” He grabs his balls, as if he's forgotten they were there. He thinks I said
fixed
. “No, no, brother. It's okay. I'm all there, man. Right there, that's right, all there. Everything's cool, brother.”

BOOK: What We Are
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