Showing posts with label 21st Century non-fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 21st Century non-fiction. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Excerpt from Betty’s Child: a memoir, by Donald R. Dempsey, and Review: “Saving Benji” (Chapter 12)

Donny and Chip. Terry, Donny, and Chip (Donny's lap)
(Webmaster’s note: previously, Donny [author] and friends Rupe and Tommy pulled off a rather ballsy heist of returnable-for-cash soda/pop bottles from a gang of bikers. After waiting for the heat to subside, the kids are now on their way to Kroger’s to cash in on their spoils. Donny’s little dog, the ever-faithful Benji, accompanies the merry band of juvenile thieves. A review of Betty's Child: a memoir [available on Amazon] follows the excerpt.)

This was a shitload of bottles. Rupe was standing guard on the first three carts we’d hauled to the back of the Kroger, and Tommy and I had barely managed to get the rest of our treasure in the last two we were trudging along with now. So far we’d dropped three bottles. Their shattered remains lay in the roads behind us as a testament of our passage, along with the echoes of Tommy’s vehement cursing. Tommy told us those broken bottles had our names on them, every time one shattered against the concrete.
My Negro buddy was an extreme penny pincher until he actually had the cash in his pocket. Tommy would probably be a collector for Candy one day. He could be persuasive when it came to getting money out of you, whether you owed it to him or not. He was definitely worse if you owed him. So far, he’d never paid back a dime he’d ever borrowed from me, but never forgot to get back a single penny on the rare occasions he had to float me a quick loan. If he’d stay in school, he could be one hell of a tax guy, I imagined.
Crossing Second Avenue was tricky, due to traffic and the greater risk of a cop catching sight of us with stolen—we’d call them borrowed, if we got busted—shopping carts and more pop bottles than a… Well, than a house full of Harley bikers could go through in a month. These were more bottles than we’d ever brought in before, way more. My end of the payback was going to push my stash of hidden funds to well past fifty bucks. I was practically rich.
I was glad we’d left Rupe back at the Kroger. Tommy wouldn’t stop riding him about not going out on our little missions anymore. Rupe had stayed true to his word. He was done stealing, and Tommy could pound sand. I had to admire Rupe for standing up. He wasn’t talking back to Tommy, but Rupe wasn’t giving in, either. He just shook his head and said he was done every time Tommy brought the subject up.
It wasn’t that Rupe wasn’t getting on my nerves a little, too. He’d kept on griping about getting the bottles out of his dad’s garage until I’d almost lost it on him. I’d been for taking them in a little at a time, but Rupe wanted them all out as soon as possible. He was afraid his dad would find them and figure out what we’d been doing. Knowing that was possible didn’t make Rupe’s constant bitching any easier to take.
But when Tommy had started pushing to exchange the bottles, too, claiming he needed the money, I gave in. I needed to keep those two apart. Rupe was a coward, but even he had his limits. I didn’t want him popping off to Tommy, getting something started that he couldn’t finish, and I couldn’t delay. Tommy was taking our friend’s decision to cut out as some kind of betrayal, making it a personal thing.
It’s going to be an interesting school year, I realized. Tommy kept guys off our backs. It went without saying that he wouldn’t protect Rupe any longer. In fact, I was pretty sure Tommy would probably send some grief Rupe’s way, as sore as he was. I would have to do my best to help my more hapless friend any way I could. How? The last thing I needed was to relive those dreadful days I’d spent running home after school every day, dodging enemies, and ducking fights.
I waited for a lull in the traffic and darted off  the curb. “Stay close, boy,” I told Benji, but I didn’t need to remind him. He kept right on my heels all the way across, with Tommy just behind him. Some asshole in a long, expensive-looking sedan beeped at us. Tommy flipped him off and told him where to go, so we were cracking up as we reached the other side of the road and the nearest parking lot of the Kroger.
Benji was with me because I was afraid to leave him alone after the row with Tony and Betty. That dude really hated me, and I couldn’t depend on my mother to protect my dog if her Italian hump buddy decided to be mean to him. It was a rare thing if she actually stood up for her children, much less a dog. It was making my life more difficult, constantly worrying about that Dago, but I didn’t have a good plan for dealing with him. Yet, I promised myself.
Thinking about Tony got me to thinking about my brothers. Dwelling on them made me feel guilty. I was old enough to take off when shit got hairy, but they weren’t. Maybe that’s why Terry keeps sneaking down to the apartment playground on his Big Wheel? I wondered. Could be the kid was learning to avoid Betty already.
The baby was taking all this especially hard, clinging to me more and crying if he spotted me trying to leave. Lately, he’d taken to sleeping on my mattress instead of in his own room. The baby was crowding me when I tried to sleep, but I didn’t mind. Benji complained more than I did, grumbling and huffing during the night. Sometimes I’d wait until the little guy fell asleep and then carry him off to his own room, but lately he’d been waking up and coming right back to bed with me. Just this morning I’d woken up with one of his feet practically in my mouth and pee from his diaper leaking onto my mattress.
As we veered around to the rear of the store, the paved lot sloped downward, and we had to strain to keep the carts from getting away from us. Tommy laughed when he noticed me struggling, but I was concentrating too hard to say anything back. He would kill me if I lost control and wasted any more money. Or take the losses out of your end, I told myself. But I wasn’t sure he’d think of something like that, or be able to calculate the deductions.
“Hey, lay off Rupe, okay?” I asked him as we reached the area where the pavement evened out.
Tommy snorted. “Fuck Rupe, that daddy he’s so afraid of, and his sexy little mom. And fuck you, too, you start taking his side and not mine.”
“I’m not taking any side,” I told him. “I’m just trying to keep you two from getting into it. Just let it go. We’re supposed to be friends.”
“Fuck that. Friends don’t cut out on one another.” He wasn’t just annoyed at this split. Tommy was really pissed off. This is going to get ugly, I realized. “I’ll tell you something else. We get that money, and we cut it in half. He wants out, he’s out. You like the kid so much, you give him half your shit. But it’s a two-way split today, baby.”
That wasn’t fair. Tommy was just using his irritation over Rupe wanting out to take money from him.
And from me! I couldn’t think of anything safe to say. Tommy couldn’t count very well, but he was an expert at the one-for-you-and-one-for-me dividing of money. My worst fear was that Rupe might speak up when Tommy informed him of his underhanded scheme. Are you kidding? I asked myself. I figured that was a pretty stupid concern; Rupe would keep his mouth shut and get this over with, relieved to let Tommy get one over on him and be rid of the guy.
Rupe was sitting against the concrete steps as we rattled up, but he stood to greet us. Benji trotted over and started sniffing at him, and he even let Rupe pet him without showing his teeth. Maybe he feels sorry for him, too.
“I’ll go get Freddie,” Rupe announced as we arrived, eager to be away from Tommy and have this deal done.
“Yeah, you do that,” Tommy grumbled.
Rupe banged on the large metal door until Freddie finally opened it. Freddie was a middle-aged dude who ran shipping and receiving. He had tufts of hair above both ears and a missing front tooth.
Freddie was always asking Rupe about his mom. She shopped at this store, getting the perv revved up about once a week or so.
“That’s a load,” Freddie mumbled around his tooth, leaning on the rail and surveying our goods from the top step.
“Yeah, it is,” I agreed.
I wasn’t about to offer anything more. One of the most intricate tricks of the art of lying was not lying when you didn’t have to. Until he asked where and how we’d come up with so many bottles, I wasn’t about to tell him. I had a good story ready for when he did ask.
Freddie surprised me. “Totaled them up yet?” was his only question.
“You always do that,” I reminded him. And you never give us a nickel more than we bring in, and dock us for chipped bottles, I wanted to say, but didn’t. “You’ve never trusted us to count them before.”
“Yeah, but this is a lot of bottles, and I’ve got a truck to unload.”
He pointed at a trailer docked in one of the bays, as if we thought he might be lying. Freddie thought a moment, scratching at the wisps of hair above his right ear. I didn’t think he had much longer to be scratching any hair at all. He looked like Larry from the Three Stooges.
Thinking about that reminded me of the wisecrack I’d used on Betty, and that reminded me of my brothers being home without me.
“C’mon, man,” Tommy grumbled. “I got shit to do.”
Freddie ignored him. “Tell you what,” he finally said. “Sort them for me, and I’ll count them out. Stand all the loose bottles up here divided by size.” He pointed to the top of the steps. “Put all the full cartons at the bottom of the steps, also divided by size. And make sure they’re full and not partials. 
Bang on the door when you’re done, and I’ll come add ‘em up.”
“Shit!” Tommy cursed as Freddie left, the heavy metal door thudding shut in his wake.
Bitching wasn’t going to get anything done. I told Tommy to start setting aside the cartons while Rupe tossed me the loose bottles. Rupe and I got into a pretty cool rhythm. He was flipping them up as I set them down, keeping it challenging for me. We were grinning and making a game of it. I wasn’t going to drop a single one. Unless Rupe throws one too fast, I thought, wanting him to try it. “You clowns drop shit, and it comes out your ass,” Tommy told us. Rupe ignored him but slowed his pace.
I should have caught on. Later that day, I kicked myself more than once for missing the clues. There were telltale signs something was up. For one, Freddie never had us sort anything before. He’d always pushed our carts into the nearest bay and had a stock boy unload them. For another, there wasn’t a peep coming out of that trailer he was supposed to be unloading. There was no forklift banging in and out of it or pallet jack bumping around. In fact, there weren’t even footsteps echoing off the walls in that trailer.
And the biggest clue of all? “Hey, Rupe?” I called out as the thought occurred to me.
Rupe was bent over in the last of our carts. We were nearly finished. Tommy was already done sorting cartons and was sitting on the steps having a smoke. Benji was sitting close to him, but watching me at my work.
“Freddie didn’t ask about your mom,” I told him.
Rupe tossed me another bottle, and I bobbled it due to my lack of concentration. We both glanced at Tommy, who thankfully had his back to us. “Good.” Rupe’s response was curt. We were all tense. “I don’t need that snaggle-toothed freak worrying about her anyways.”
“Yeah, but he always asks about your mom,” I mused.
Then we heard the Harleys, and everyone exploded into action. Everyone except me, that is. A pair of bikes came thundering at us from either side of the back of the store. Rupe ran right past the ones between us and the way toward home, his limp barely discernible as he churned for freedom, arms pumping wildly. One of the bikers spun around and gunned the throttle. Rupe wasn’t going to reach the street before that dude had him.
Tommy dropped his cigarette and bolted straight across the lot, leapt as high as he could and grabbed the top of the tall concrete divider between the store and the backyards of some houses on the other side of the wall. He hooked his foot on the top of the wall and flipped himself over, leaving behind only a pick that fell out of his hair before he completely vanished. One of the bikers roared on toward the street, meaning to head him off and catch him. That dude might as well have been chasing dandelion fuzz in a tornado.
I stood in place, only moving enough to get my dog to climb the steps and stay closer to me. One of the bikers stopped right at the base of the stairs, shutting off his engine and removing his gloves. He looked up at me, but I stayed calm, thinking things through. I did pretty well under pressure, even when I was scared. Naturally, I wanted to flee, but where was I going to run? I wasn’t about to risk my dog getting run over, and they were on bikes while I was on foot. I decided to stay where I was.
The guy near the steps had a receded hairline with dark curly hair, striking blue eyes, and a square jaw. He was clean-shaven, which made him look younger than he probably was. He had a deep scar near the cleft of his chin that only added to his rugged appeal. He was the kind of guy my mother swooned over but never figured out how to get noticed by. I thought the guy looked like some kind of movie star, like Marlon Brando in that biker movie.
The other dude who was still here was big as a grizzly, with bare arms so hairy you could hardly see the tattoos beneath his fur. He was bearded, but when he pulled off his German-looking spiked helmet, he was bald as a newborn baby. His bike was a chopper, with an extended rake attached to the front wheel and a real high sissy bar off the seat. The big bastard glared at me with open contempt. He flipped down his kick stand and rocked his bike backward into a balanced, parked position.
Freddie cracked open the door and peeked out, but he slammed it shut again when he saw me on his landing. I heard him turn the lock. Nobody spoke, and it wasn’t long before one of the dudes came back, hauling Rupe by the back of his shirt. My friend looked like a kitten being carried by the scruff of the neck. The biker puttered along, half-carrying Rupe with one strong arm while the kid stumbled, tears in his eyes.
We still didn’t say a word. In the distance, the only Harley still running faded in and out of hearing, but eventually grew loud and constant. I sat down next to my dog and waited, with my heart pounding and the guy at the base of the steps still eyeing me. He wasn’t as big as the others, and he didn’t look that old. He was wearing an army green bandana that he readjusted on his head, and I was positive I’d seen him before. But where?
Rupe was still sobbing when the last of the bikers came back empty-handed. He had shoulder-length, rust-colored hair, and a drooping mustache. He wasn’t wearing any protective gear on his head or face, and he looked sheepish as he explained, “I couldn’t catch him. That nigger runs like a nigger.”
Then it hit me: these guys had noticed they’d been ripped off and warned the nearest stores to alert them if anyone hauled in a massive amount of bottles. Freddie must have called them. If I hadn’t been so close to pissing myself, I might have screamed out loud. You are so stupid! I yelled in my head. I was a dunce for not recognizing this. Still, there was no reason to drag Rupe down with me.
“He didn’t do anything,” I told the guy holding Rupe. His parents would flip on him. All I had to worry about was Betty. And the four bad asses surrounding you, I reminded myself. “He’s just helping us haul the bottles. You don’t have any beef with him.”
“I think we’ll be the ones to say who we have a beef with and who we don’t, you little asshole,” the bear growled at me, swinging his bulk off the bike and standing. He wore a jean jacket with the sleeves cut off. Harley Davidson wings proudly covered the back of his denim vest. His arms were kind of flabby, but they were bigger around than my legs.
Maybe your waist. “You don’t tell anybody shit.”
“Easy, Chick,” the guy nearest me warned.
Sweet Jesus! The grizzly’s name is Chick! What kind of shit was that? “I’m just saying, if you’re going to have the fuzz after you for beating on children, you might as well make sure you’re smacking around the ones who deserve it,” I offered.
The guy holding Rupe started looking around like there might be a cop nearby. “Hey, I didn’t hit the kid,” he muttered, letting him go. Rupe stumbled back a few steps, unsure if he should try to run again. “You ain’t hurt, are you, kid? Nicky, I swear to God, man. I didn’t hit the kid.”
“Don’t sweat it,” the guy close to me told him. He tugged his bandana a bit lower on his forehead and smiled at me. He had an okay smile for a biker. “That was pretty good, kid.”
“That was the truth. I stole from you, not him,” I said.
“So you fucking admit it!” Chick growled.
“Why should I believe you, kid?” Nicky asked. “I already know you’re a thief. Why not assume you’re a liar too?”
I shrugged. “I am a liar, but I’m not lying right now. He couldn’t tell you jack shit about your garage, but I can. I can tell you about the spare bike parts, the old tires, the can of Jack Daniel’s bottles, the old calendar of naked chicks”—careful with that chick word, dumbass—“and how the floor near the back of the building stays a little wet. I can tell you this because I was in there and he wasn’t. You saw the way his ass ran. You think a kid as slow as him would climb into a garage with all you dudes just a few feet away? What chance would he have of getting away? If I’d of took off when you guys showed up, you wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of catching me. I’m telling you… I stole your shit, not limpy over there.”
“If you could have got away, why’d you stay?” Nicky asked me, just like I’d hoped he would.
I pointed at my dog. “I couldn’t climb the wall with him along, and I’m not going to risk him getting run over by one of you or getting hit by a car trying to cross these busy streets.”
“That’s not going to matter much when I kick the little fucker to death,” said Chick. That was my biggest fear, that they’d come at me and Benji would bite. I didn’t want them to hurt my dog. Chick tapped a chain he had wrapped around the back of his seat. “Or bash his head in with this.”
“So you stole all this by yourself?” Nicky asked me. I didn’t answer. “I asked you a question, kid,” he said, his tone not mean but serious. I didn’t want to throw Tommy under the bus, but Rupe’s ass was on the line. I shook my head. “The black kid help you?” I nodded. He’d said black kid and not nigger. 
I took that as a good sign. “Anybody else?”
“Yeah, a guy named Mike Collins who lives over on Sunset,” I threw in. And I hope one of you break his legs. God, I was good at this.
Nicky rubbed at a leather wristband, musing. I could see some kind of Japanese symbol burned into the leather, and maybe a name. But he eventually said, “Go on, kid, scram.” My buddy stared at him like he’d told him to strip and dance a tango instead of leave.
Rupe looked to me, and I nodded. “Go on, I’ll be all right.”
And I would be. If Nicky was letting Rupe go, he’d bought my story, and would buy more. Nicky was in charge, and he wasn’t stupid. If he was letting Rupe go, he wasn’t going to hurt me. Rupe had seen them, and would be a witness if anything serious went down. After a last glance at me, Rupe trotted off, looking back more than once before he went around the corner and I lost sight of him. I was hoping he was smart enough not to go after any cops.
Nicky was smart. A lot smarter than I’d first thought. “You probably think you’re going to get off free and clear, huh, kid?” Nicky asked. Well, yeah, but you weren’t supposed to know that. “I got news for you, boy.” Oh shit. “Just ‘cause I let your friend slide doesn’t mean you got away with shit. I’ve seen you around, and I’m going to introduce you to an underage friend of mine in the not-too-distant future.” Nicky smiled again, and this time there was nothing nice about it. “Think about that on your way home.”
“And I’m still going to kick your fucking dog,” promised Chick.
Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. Nicky pushed his bike back a little and waved his arm in an invitation for me to leave. “Be seeing ya, kid,” he told me. And there was that smile again. “Real soon.” Think think think think. Chick moved closer to the stairs, moving into position to possibly hurt my dog. He had big boots with metal studs and leather straps. It was crunch time. Either start crying or say something, I told myself.
“Come on, kid, get moving,” Nicky said soberly.
“How about a deal?”
“You got nothing to deal with, kid,” Nicky returned. “We’ve got the bottles, and we’re going to get the money for them—and you’re going to get an ass-whipping.” Nicky leaned out a bit and spit on the Kroger’s pavement. “End of story.”
“We don’t know you from Adam, boy,” added Chick. “Now come on down here.”
Then I remembered something.
“Your friend Harry knows my mother.”
“How does your mom know Harry?” Nicky asked, taking the bait.
“He took her to some picnic you guys had out at the fairgrounds just before school let out,” I explained. Keep them talking. Get them involved in your problems, I heard Betty telling me.
They all laughed. One of the guys sitting back said, “If she was with Harry she must be a real winner. Dirty Harry only fucks porkers.”
Nicky wasn’t laughing as hard as the others. “You sure your mom was with Harry, kid? Harry isn’t exactly a mom kind of guy.”
“Harry’s not even a guy, he’s more dog than man,” the other biker said. They all laughed again.
I remembered Harry fairly clearly. He had a gut and bad pock marks on his cheeks and neck, with a bulbous nose full of more craters than the moon. He wasn’t an easy dude to look at, and he’d scared the living shit out of my brothers.
“She’s screwed around with way worse than him,” I informed them.
“What’s your mom’s name, kid?” Nicky asked.
“Betty.” Just saying it made me feel dirty. I knew they would remember her.
“Hey, yeah,” Nicky said, snapping his fingers. “She was with that tub you were wrestling around with, Chick. What was her name?”
Nicky kept struggling to remember, so I filled him in: “Ruby.” Saying her name was worse than uttering Betty’s, but at least I wasn’t related to her.
“Yeah! Ruby!” the redhead crowed. They were losing it now, and Chick dropped his head, chagrined.
I didn’t know if I was helping myself or writing my own death warrant. “You were with her in the back of that little pickup and the camper broke loose!” Even Chick cracked a grin. “You got to remember her!”
“I fucking remember!” Chick yelled at him, and that had them all laughing hysterically.
Nicky wiped tears from his eyes. Behind me, Freddie poked his head out again, but shut and locked the door after a quick look-see.
“I guess that’s a little something, kid. You got a fucked-up mother. But why should I listen to your deal?”
“Because you helped me out this summer, and the Chinese believe you’re responsible for someone when you save them,” I explained, almost hating myself for using Tony’s line.
“I helped you out? When?”
My goose was cooked if my memory had failed me. “You were jogging by when I was in a fight.
Your buddy wiped my face and told me to keep my dukes up.”
Nicky opened his mouth slightly and nodded. “I remember. But that wasn’t a fight, kid. You got blasted, and I didn’t save you from anything.”
“You helped me,” I pleaded.
Nicky shook his head. “Not enough. Got anything else?”
This was my last hope. I glanced at Nicky’s forearm. He had an Army tattoo very similar to my stepdad’s. “You were in Nam. So was my dad. Well, not my dad, but my brothers’ dad. My stepdad.”
“How do you know I was in Nam?” I had his attention now. I had everyone’s attention.
“Your tattoo.”
“Your dad had a tattoo like this?” He held out his arm and touched his ink.
“Not exactly.” I explained the differences as best I could.
“Airborne,” Chick pronounced, and Nicky nodded.
“What happened to your dad?” Nicky asked.
“His helicopter got shot down, and they sent him home with multiple shrapnel wounds. He had a medal shaped like a purple heart, and he was nominated for a star of some kind, but I don’t know if he ever got it.” All of that was true. I could tell my story fit what they knew about my stepdad’s tattoo. “I have a picture and a letter he wrote me. I’ll show you if you want.” That was true, too.
“Where’s your dad now, kid?” Nicky asked.
“He split.” I swallowed.
Terrance had been good to me. I had memories of Christmas with lots of toys, of playing with him and wrestling on the bed when he’d wake me up in the morning. But those good times had been long ago and were hard to recall.
“He was hooked on drugs when he came back, and my mother had been fucking around a lot. They couldn’t work it out. He split.”
Nicky was rubbing that wrist band again. He got off his bike and stooped down, snapping his fingers and motioning for Benji to come down. I nearly shit myself when my dog scrambled down the concrete steps and let a stranger rub on him. “You a good mutt?” he asked my dog.
“You were in Nam, right?” I asked.
“We all were,” Chick told me. His voice had changed. It wasn’t quite as gruff. “You don’t ride with us unless you were in country.”
“Okay, kid, we’ll listen to your deal, but no promises,” Nicky said, rubbing behind my dog’s ears.
Great, they’ll kill me and keep my dog. “That much we owe, but for your dad, not your stealing little ass.”
I was taking anything I could get. “I was thinking I could pay you back. If you give me a break, that is.”
“And how would you do that?” asked Nicky.
“I could come by once a month and haul your bottles here, only instead of keeping the money, I’ll bring it back to you.”
“Like we could trust you,” Chick muttered.
“Test me. Count the bottles if you want. I ever short you and you can still have my ass whipped.”
“Your ass already is whipped, junior,” Chick promised.
“Hold on, Chick, I kind of like that proposition. In a way, we’d be doing our part to raise the kid right. 
You know, teaching him something.” Nicky gave me the grin I’d seen earlier, the smile that had given me hope. “Only it’ll be every two weeks, kid. And you don’t miss. And you do it alone.”
“You bring a nigger around our place again, and I’ll whip your ass, fuzz or no,” the redhead who’d let Rupe go told me. There was that black-and-white thing again. Maybe Tommy was right, and there was more going down against blacks than I was aware of.
“Easy, Monroe,” Nicky said. “You do this alone, kid. You understand?” I nodded. “This is between you and us. Nobody else is involved, or else we end our deal and see what happens after. You in with that?” Oh, I was in. I was most definitely in. I nodded again, trying to stay cool and not let them see how relieved I was. “Good.”
“What’s your name, kid?” Nicky asked.
I almost lied but thought better of it. I was skating on ice that started melting an hour ago. “Donny.”
“Well, Donny, I’m going to give you a free piece of advice.” He pulled his gloves back on. Benji realized the petting session was over and hopped up a couple of steps closer to me. “You seem like a smart kid, so take this for what you will. When you steal from the Kroger, they have to call the police.
They have to follow the law. Follow rules.” He let me soak that up, watching me closely. “But when you steal from the street, there’s a whole different set of laws to be leery of.”
“The law of the jungle,” Chick chimed in, like we were in school and he was proud to know the answer to a teacher’s question.
Nicky laughed. “He’s right. You steal from somebody, or step on them any old way, and you better know what they’re capable of.” His face hardened. “What they’re willing to do in return.”
I nodded because he looked like he wanted some kind of response from me. “Okay,” I said. “And thanks for giving me a break.”
He threw a leg over his bike, getting saddled up to leave. “Donny, the next time I go to court, you’re pleading my case. Stay in school and think hard on being a lawyer. You’re already a thief, so the transition should be pretty smooth.”
I was thinking that I’d pulled off one of the greatest escapes in the history of mankind when Chick said, “I’m still going to slap you one and kick your dog.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant it or not. I looked to Nicky, and he only shrugged. “Sorry, kid. He’s too big for me to tell what to do.”
“Lay off, Chick,” Monroe urged. “Let the kid and his dog go home.”
“You need to shut up before I wipe my ass with a wad of that red hair,” Chick warned.
“Sorry, buddy,” Monroe told me, sighing. “Like Nicky said, he’s just too big to fuck around with.”
Part of me was sure Chick was only messing with me, trying to give me a good scare. You hope. But another part was truly terrified that he was going to hurt my dog. “I thought we had a deal,” I said directly to Chick.
“Only for the bottles, boy,” he said. “I still owe you for sneaking around my place.”
“Just take your medicine, kid. It won’t be that bad,” the biker whose name I’d yet to learn said.
“Take it easy, Chick. They’re both kind of small. You might kill one of them.”
Okay, now I was pretty sure they were fucking with me. I held up my fingers and made the play gun out of my hand. “Hey, Chick, can you do this?” I asked him.
He scowled at me. God, I was praying this wasn’t a huge mistake. “Why the fuck would I want to?”
“Please, just do it. Trust me, you’ll like this. If you don’t, you can hit me twice as much as you were going to.”
“Go on, tough guy,” Monroe urged.
“What are you afraid of?” the other guy asked. “Go on. Do it.” Nicky was watching me as Chick hesitantly obliged. “Now point your gun at the dog,” I instructed. Chick made a face, but slowly did as I’d asked. Benji saw him and stood expectantly, tail wagging. Come on, old buddy. Save my ass. 
“Now say bang.”
Chick didn’t follow instructions very well. Instead of bang, he made a noise like a shotgun going off, jerking his hand like his fingers had a recoil he could barely control. Still, Benji fell over right on cue, like he’d been laid to waste. The hair covering his eyes even made it look even better, since they could hardly see that the dog was still watching Chick.
Our act cracked them up, and as menacing as Chick tried to appear, he kind of looked like a little kid when his fat head was split by one of the biggest grins I’d ever seen.


Available on Amazon

Betty’s Child: a memoir (available on Amazon) is copyright © 2013 by Donald R. Dempsey. All rights reserved. No part of this post may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of the author and publisher.

This excerpt has been posted with the permission of the author and his publisher.

First Dream of Things edition, February 2013

Published by Dream of Things, Downers Grove, Illinois USA

Originally published by Donald R. Dempsey in 2009.


Review of Betty’s Child: a memoir

Highly Recommended! Five stars.

I just finished reading this book, and I’m speechless in the face of this terrific writer. Donald Dempsey opens an artery and spills his childhood trauma onto the page. It is a delicate dance between detail and emotion when one writes a memoir about childhood abuse, and Dempsey dances like a pro.
While Dempsey offers some graphic detail, it is accompanied by the emotion felt by 12-year-old Donny—no gratuitous BS. Every detail is absolutely necessary for the progression of his life during this time.
Readers will be shocked by Betty (the author’s mother) and her atrocious behavior, and, yet, there seems to be a part of Donny/Donald who loved and still loves her. At best, his mother was a neglectful parent, at worst an abusive mother who invited abusive men into her life, and, yet, the author offers glimpses of her humanity.
Never have I read such a wonderful characterization of an animal (the author’s dog Benji) in which the animal was not the main focus of the book (like in Marley & Me). Dempsey also creates rich characterizations of his brothers Terry and Chip (who were only six and three at the time).
Never have I experienced such seesaw emotions when reading a memoir: horror, laughter, and sadness.
This book may not be for everyone; if one is seeking a fast, action packed narrative, this isn’t it. It’s long (438 pages), with lots of interior pain and emotion.
This book DESERVES to be a best seller, and I have a feeling that the literary community will be hearing from Donny/Donald Dempsey again.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ghostly Encounters (by Vesna Ilievska)


“No, I don’t do demons,” he said, and took a sip of his drink. “That’s a completely different thing.”

“Really?” I thought. “Is he for real?” I looked at Kevin and Sarah, in hope that they might be thinking the same thing. But, no, my classmates remained cool as ice and awkwardly professional, so I had to fight off the urge to laugh and looked at his name tag again. “B. Lenga--Manager,” it said.

Meet Bill Lenga

Bill was in charge of our on-campus pub and the food and supplies the whole campus was getting. He always wore glasses, a baby blue button up shirt, his name tag and a welcoming smile, like he had been in his line of work for ages. But Bill was a man of many talents, to say the least, which I why we chose him for our final documentary project, as part of our Non-fiction Production course. He was also a judge in his town, but after work each day he took on the job of a ghost hunter. And it was on our first meeting when he emphasized the difference between ghosts and demons. “Demons are evil spirits that don’t come from Earth nor have ever lived here, and in general they are much scarier and more powerful. Ghosts, on the other hand, are just lost souls who used to be humans at one point. They are rarely mean and can in no way harm you.”

“Ahhhhh…,” we nodded. “So, have you always been into ghosts?”

The answer was shocking. It turned out Bill used to be a man of facts and data, a top scientist back in his day, working for the army in Vietnam, where he had his 1st near-death experience. He came back and a couple of months later, after a terrible car accident, his life was hanging on a thread again. Ever since, he had developed some sort of sensibility towards what people call “paranormal” phenomena, and realized that he loved helping all sorts of beings out, both humans and ghosts. And the moment he said that, I knew we were going to have a lot of fun with this video.

Next, we asked him to talk about his personal life and how this “ghost correspondence” affected it.

“Well, everyone close to me knows that I am serious about this, and that I love doing it. I go on holidays with my wife where part of the trip is an organized ghost tour. We meet with other couples in haunted inns, for example, and see whether anything happens. In fact, I am so serious that the International Ghost Hunters Organization has even officially accredited me as a paranormal investigator.” He flashed this license and took another sip.

I must admit I was amazed. I couldn’t wait for the outcome of the project.

Two days later, we met up with him on “an expedition” in Phoenix, New York, and we were not disappointed at all. We were going to explore Sarah’s house, who thought that there might be something more in her basement other than what her and her family were seeing. At this point, however, I found Mr. Lenga as intriguing as the possibility of finding a ghost in the house, maybe even more.

Imagine this timid and welcoming guy, armed with military pants, a Ghostbusters t-shirt, a Wiccan crystal, a couple of weird looking gadgets which resembled Star Trek tricoders and to top it off, a small bottle of holy water. Pure j-o-y and excitement came over me! “This is definitely why I came to the States,” I thought.

The house was quite normal and cute. The basement, on the other hand, wasn’t! It had all the elements required to do some ghost-busting…low ceiling, not much lighting, things hanging from the top, and three pairs of cat eyes staring at us. Yes, Pandori, Duma, and Sheena simply loved the place. It almost looked as if they admired this 1800’s structure as much we did.

There was no lighting coming from outside, no cracks or windows, nothing that would disrupt the feeling that you might have entered a completely new dimension inside that basement. Being the camera person on the crew, I had to take some time and inspect the place. I freaked out when I saw the stuffed raccoon, which apparently came with the place, but besides that, the only thing that worried me was the lighting. The whole basement had only three light bulbs illuminating it, and no power sockets where we could hook up our reflectors.

Nevertheless, we were ready to proceed and Bill even notified any potential ghosts out there by saying something like: “Dear spirit, we mean you no harm, please welcome us into your humble abode and let us communicate with you.”

My eyebrows almost rocketed out of my face.

“You see,” Bill continued, “to be able to sense a ghost, you need to make sure it knows you are friendly and be open to the experience. If you don’t believe it’s possible, you won’t see it, you won’t feel it. It’s as simple as that.”

He got his tricoder gadget out and started searching for our invisible host. It gave out a random spike or two, but nothing … three minutes, five minutes, eight minutes of nothing. Hope was gone and so was the blood in my shoulder muscles.

Bill put his gadgets down and headed for the entrance of the basement. We were baffled and disappointed, especially Sarah. Luckily, though, the camera was still on because at one point, both Sarah and Bill got goose bumps and shared a very intense look. I knew something was up and the tricoder confirmed it.

It seemed that we had finally grabbed our ghost’s attention, so Bill got the crystal out and started asking it questions. Apparently, the ghost was supposed to answer them by redirecting Bill’s mind power to make the crystal move. Yes-and-no questions only. I held my breath and my camera as I tried to observe the whole process and tackled the insufficient lighting. The image was dark and grainy, it would flash every 10 seconds or so, while my shoulder ... well, it felt as if it was no longer a part of my body. But at that moment the bloody crystal started moving, so there was no time to rest or complain. In fact, the crystal was moving so much so that there was no way Bill could have been cheating.

“Wait. What the …??! Just breathe,” I thought. I was flabbergasted and so was Kevin, who was, by the way, holding the boom mike. We continued our séance with the ghost for about 35 minutes more and then Sarah took over. I remember her asking whether the visions she had as a child of her imaginary friend were actually the ghost we were chatting with right then. The crystal started swinging like crazy and I thought of my imaginary friend, who, I was pretty sure, at least in my case, was all inside my head.

From this point on, things continued quite normally: editing until early in the morning, previews for our professor and peers, follow up interviews with Bill, getting some background footage etc.

“I’m worried about the lighting: I didn’t do a good job,” I said to Mr. Scott right after the first screening of our draft.

“Why?” he inquired.

“No matter how much I adjusted the settings it would keep flashing … look!” I slowed the video down and showed him.

He crossed his hands and leaned back. He asked for our tape and disappeared, which actually meant that he took it to Master Control to have it analyzed. The guys there were in change of all the equipment and technology at the Park School of Communications, so if anyone knew what was wrong with the camera, it would be them.

Some 15 minutes later, Mr. Scott came back and informed us that we would have to go back to the location again, but this time with a different camera. Evidently, no one had an explanation about the flashes. The camera was new and the sensors were working smoothly so the professionals were just as confused as we were. Oh boy, like we didn’t have things to do.

So, we went back, filmed the sequence again. Bill had a family obligation, so he couldn’t make it, and it seemed that our ghost had arrangements to keep everything still, except the camera image, where the flashes continued showing up. Finally, we got back with the tape and then we had to beg the guys at Master Control to allow us to film the analysis of the second tape, which is a process where they put the tape in a special kind of recorder that analyzes the image and compares it to the camera settings. Surprisingly, the effects on the footage were exactly the same as before and once again they couldn’t explain it. According to them, something was up with the lights sensors, interrupting them, some weird electromagnetic energy. Hearing that, for a moment there, it felt as if I was caught in a Scooby Doo episode, and the Mystery Machine would appear out of nowhere to take us to our new adventure right after we solved this case and exposed the ghost. But, since this was not a feasible scenario for the analyst, he was very careful not to say anything ambiguous and tried to keep the explanation as scientific as possible. This was not what we were looking for as such statements weren’t helping our story, but we didn’t feel the need to ask him to stop as we took the joy out of seeing him confused and sweating the answers out.

At one point I put the camera down and gave out a sigh. This seemed to have got the tech guy’s attention, so he said in an apologetic voice:

“Oh come on, you don’t really believe demons caused these flashes.”

“No, definitely not demons,” we said and smiled at each other, and thought of the unusual knowledge we had gained during our spring semester at Ithaca College.


Vesna Ilievska is a fourth year student at Ss Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, Macedonia. She spent a year at Ithaca College in New York.

“Ghostly Encounters” is copyright 2010 by Vesna Ilievska and may not be republished or reposted without the author's permission.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Loving Lethal (by Zorica Petkoska)

Author Zorica Petkoska reading her fiction at Café Magor, Skopje, Macedonia

Let me speak tales of letters and words, small things, yet so great. Oh, but don’t let me speak of letters and words, because I will speak for days and torture you to the point you will wish you were illiterate. Yet, let me speak a little, let me lay down at your feet--how lasciviously I have longed for languages for so long. Let me tell you how “the tip of the tongue takes a trip to touch the teeth” or how words can woo a woman. Let me wallow in words and lust for letters and linger a bit more to listen or read.

Words have reigned my world since birth. I was the only two-year-old who could speak all the letters of the alphabet faultlessly, and thus I became the kid in my street who was being sent constantly to the supermarket, as I was the only one who could pronounce the “r” in “Partner,” the popular cigarette brand back then. And while all other children sang and danced in front of a video camera, I used to stand still, serious, and I would solemnly recite something or make a strangely odd speech for my age. And while all mothers told bedtime stories to their children, I went on and on for hours following my mother through the house, inventing fairy tales as I spoke and she was my half-interested audience. At night, my little sister was the rude audience who would fall sleep in the middle of the story, but I kept talking on and on, although I knew she was asleep. And who could blame her when my stories were endless and I talked until there was no strength left in my voice to continue? But, let me now continue from sound to sign.

When I was five, a teacher started giving us classes and, of course, as in every primer in the country, we started with the letters M and A, so that we could form the most essential word in our childhood: “MAMA.” I came home greatly disappointed stating that knowing just two letters won’t help me read. By 10:00 p.m. that same night I went to my mom and read her a passage from my primer. She grabbed it from my hands in disbelief. Then she gave me a newspaper and asked me to read out loud for her. I did. Without a mistake. I don’t remember much of this, but she says she marvels at it until this day. I can only guess that my animalistic hunger for letters and language manifested as an instinct of ferociousness and I as a small word-thirsty beast.

So, when I managed to devour this wonderful alphabet, for years I led a life of reading books under my desk while in class, reading half of the book on my way back from the library and randomly bumping into people, trees and lampposts, reading until my parents had to come in and forcefully tear the book from my hands, rhyming and coming up with a poem while tying my shoelaces and then forgetting to go to school, and rhyming in my thoughts and walking past the school, forgetting to go inside and then bashfully turning around and coming back to it. The only difference today is that I bump considerably less into lampposts.

You would be wrong to think that one language was enough to quench my insatiable language thirst. I read fairy tales in Serbian at only seven, holding books larger and heavier than me and hunting for the words I didn’t understand by bothering each of my parents. Then I started rambling through the English language at eight, without knowledge of the Latin alphabet, and managed to learn something after all. After learning the alphabet I managed to learn so much of the language that I was the most hated pupil in history: English teachers had nothing to teach me and they hated my guts.

Then came eight years of French. Oh, let me tell you about French. Of how I still enjoy forming French gerunds more than eating honey and how “en sachant” (1) holds more sweetness for me, than the ragged, ravaged and overused “je t’aime.” Because I love knowledge more than love itself, because I love the sound. And then how I translated texts in class ad hoc, and when asked how did I know the words I answered: “I don’t. I feel this should be translated like this” and looked calmly at the professor’s perplexed expression, because the translation was invariably strangely correct.

In high school, I started digging through the relics of Latin and there was my mysterious translation theory again, I didn’t look up words, I FELT them. So, my professor pushed me and pushed me until I agreed to go to a national competition in Latin and went on to become that year’s national winner. I remember every echo of every step I stepped on, slowly and bewildered, as if sleepwalking, to receive the award. And there were many steps indeed, for

I was sitting at the back of the amphitheatre, not hoping for anything at all. Every day I step into A3 at the “Blaže Koneski” Faculty of Philology; I remember the sound of those steps and the silence they pierced. I never knew it would be there that I would take the most important exams in my life for years to come, and that there my steps will echo again in the silence, while first year students scribble their answers, frightened. Eventually, a dead language wasn’t the death to my longing for languages.

At this point, it would be appropriate to bring up my one and unhappy love. German. Oh, let me tell you now, how hot, salty and bitter were my tears, how ashamed I was for being unable to hold them although I was supposed to be this grown up, independent student of English language beginning her life alone in Skopje, this big ugly capital. I shed these tears in front of the German language library after hunting for the professors for a month and eventually being told that I was not allowed to take up German as my minor due to a lack of basic knowledge of the language. “Darf ich (2),” I muttered, and “ich, du, er, sie, es, wir…” time after time, bent over the computer screen, trying to learn the language on my own. Every time they said “jetz gleich” on the German television, I would chime happily to my sister that that meant “coming now” and “see, I am beginning to understand,” but it was the hope of an infatuated fool, I have realized by now. However, compulsive eaters eat whatever they find in the fridge, so in the same fashion I took up Italian--previous knowledge: not required.

I studied two years of Italian, putting minimum effort in it and basically building on to the remnants of my Latin.

Language and love must not be separated. They share the same beginning letter.

And for me, Italian shared the same first letter with “indifference.” It is like trying to get over someone you love by randomly going out with the first boy you meet. It never works.

After easily completing two years of Italian with maximum grades and obtaining first level of proficiency, I naturally stopped there and focused on the first language I chose to love and cherish, the language I chose to study at the University and make it my companion for lifetime: English. Having read this far (and hopefully still awake, unlike my sister) you can assume how much I enjoy this language, its words, its sounds. I engaged myself in mastering to say “what” with a glottal stop, Cockney accent. Then repeated “love” numerous times to grasp that particular pronunciation with which the Liverpool waiters finished their questions (“Anything I can do for you, love?”). And much more. I think in English! And yet, for an insatiable beast like me, even the thousands pages of the Oxford English Dictionary are just a meal and too much is never enough.

Next thing I know I was frantically learning to write “kokeshi” (the Japanese word for “a doll”) and I went on to lament the almost nonexistent use of “ai shi teru (3),” picturing the phrase enslaved between the thick covers of a dictionary. This project failed, or shall I rather say it is postponed, since I never give up on a language I find a reason to love.

The reasons to love a language are many and varied. Sometimes it is just the language itself, the country and its language or you love a person and instantly fall in love with their tongue. My interest for Finnish became with the love for the country, but my love, my lust, my longing for it was crowned by the love for a person. The way his lips produced this sweetness is now a matter of blind worship to me. The hunt for Macedonian and Finnish words with the same roots is my obsession.

And I have vowed to my language thirst and my letter hunger that I will learn all of these for as long as I live. And I have vowed to my heart and my tongue that my very first language, my lovely lovely Macedonian, will never suffer because of that, because I can love beyond common sense and normal proportions. And I am still keeping those vows as I dig up words like “чемер (4)” and “скрб (5)” and nourish them and breathe them life. And I will carve the ancient alphabet glagolitza on my skin and carve all other languages in my brain. They are all now carved deep into my heart.

Oh, why have you let me tell tales of translations and texts? And speak of languages and letters, words and woe? As if years ago, people are dazed and blank, others have fallen asleep halfway and I go on, sleepless, exhausted, insane.

In fact, I should have just read you a poem:


Flowing like honey,
Melting as chocolate.
Slowly and sweetly.
Sometimes chaotic,
sometimes folded neatly.
Hard and sharp,
rising like fjords.
Wild mountains,
mellow meadows,
In all colours and blackness.
I am a master
and a servant, both.
To you.
You sweetest, cruelest,
my drug and truth.
My fiction.
Music, wind, friction.
This heart and lips
can love beyond common sense,
beyond safe prescribed quantities.
I nibble you delightfully,
my foreign god,
My language.

1. (French) translation: by knowing

2. (German) translation: May I?

3. (Japanese) translation: I love you.

4. (Macedonian) translation: woe, anguish

5. (Macedonian) translation: grief, sorrow

Zorica Petkoska graduated in 2010 from Ss Cyril and Methodius University, Skopje, Macedonia. She majored in English translation.

"Loving Lethal" is copyright 2010, by Zorica Petkoska, and may not be reposted or republished with the author's permission.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cemetery Pet (by Vera Sotirovska)


I remember my long walk to the village cemetery even though it happened ten years ago when I was twelve.

My entire skin was itching, starting from my elbows and spreading through my palms into every finger, for I had unknowingly touched poison ivy while making my flower bouquet.

There it was, the cemetery before me and I on the foothill of what then seemed a mountain, a barren hill where the graves spread like squares. The hill was catching the sunset and up upon that silent hill, there I was standing with my burning hand holding the bunch of flowers.

Up the hill was yellow and down was grey, but somehow they seemed akin.

The graves lacked proportion, I thought, thinking how scattered they must have looked once seen from above. Scattered squares of cement tombs all grey, all the same, not a single one different.

I’ve got up to the very first grave and I looked for a name, but the grave must have been too old for I was unable to make out its name. The grave was split in half, filled with small cracks intersecting its surface like a wrinkled face of an old woman. Then I thought nothing is forever, not even death. This piece of cement has sustained death.

First, you waste the flesh and then the bones crumble and crumble into a powdery mixture of bone dust, as the very last bit of yourself gets sucked into the beneath of the beneath…Then how many ‘beneaths’ are there in the total of six feet under, layer after layer of soil?

I remember watching them and picturing the underground, contemplating what was behind those sealed doors.

Death is as much part of life as life is part of death just creeping on the other side of the door.

Dare I say the name?

As I stood there at the wider end and they on the other, my shadow fell on the square, molding a human shape out of the cement block.

The shadow twitched, for my body trembled.

Then from one of the cracks of the square a little greenish head protruded. Dark skin enveloped the head of the creature, it appeared wrinkled and unexposed to light creeping from the dwellings of the un-living. The head was out but much of the body was still in, for the only thing I could see was the furrowed skin and the listless eyes that were looking at mine.

Soon the head shook in an attempt to rise to the surface, pushing its whole body upwards; it was escaping the barren black womb…Another coming, a newborn from the body of a dead mother.

Was it a living dead…?

No, it was just a small turtle making its way up, above ground.

Now as I look and remember pensively at this spot of friendship, I recall the lines of the song "Pet Sematary," by The Ramones:
I don’t wanna be buried in a pet sematary
I don’t wanna live my life again…
The turtle must have come from middle earth, for it has blurred the boundaries between being in a pet cemetery and living off the cemeteries like a cemetery pet.

It started to rain and I never reached my grandmother’s grave, it was there with all the others, so I ran…I ran back.

When I arrived at the house, I remembered that I had left the flowers on someone else’s grave.

Death had unnamed them.

My feet, still heavy, hands itching.


Vera Sotirovska graduated (2010) from Ss Cyril and Methodius university in Skopje, Macedonia, where she majored in Pedagogy.

"Cemetery Pet" is copyright 2010 by Vera Sotirovska and may not be republished or reposted without permission of the author.

Lyrics of "Pet Sematary" are from The Ramones' album Brain Drain.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Epiphany and Not Following Through (Yet?) (by Daniela Atanasova)


My first day in the United States. After a long trans-Atlantic flight, the only memories of which are my half-dried tears, a dreadful headache and the German girl who sat next to me and never spoke a word, I land in the Washington D.C. airport. Or was it Philadelphia? I no longer remember. I pass the dreaded Immigration and officially enter the US. “Rally-Durham,” cries the nice man who takes my suitcase at check-in.

Finally, I arrive. It’s sunny and I have a feeling that it is going to be a good year. The journey itself presaged it: four connecting flights and no problem whatsoever. I find Vlaho, my Croatian friend, who is nervously trying to find a taxi. We spend the night in a motel, eat crappy American food bought from a gas station near by, and in the morning head for the university.

The cab driver, an Indian with poor English and a big smile, has heard about Croatia and Macedonia and we talk about Yugoslavia. A pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, in the end he only gets a meager tip from Vlaho as we are still not well informed about the tip “policy” in the States.

We call home from the Study Abroad Office and then Amanda, our advisor, takes us to our new homes. Mine is an apartment on Alexander Street. I still don’t know who my roommate is, but I like the place. My family has always lived in no more than two rooms, and I shared two rooms with three roommates while at university in Skopje, so the thought of having a whole apartment, even if I do share a bedroom with a flat mate, is exciting. Next, I roam around campus with my new French friend, Agnès, who is also one of the Visiting Internationals. I soon meet the rest of them; they come from Germany, France and Taiwan. The following day Amanda takes us all shopping at Target. First encounter with those large supermarkets where you can buy virtually everything you could think of. Buying the things I need without worrying too much about money is fun. But in general, shopping in such huge places tires me, it takes me ages to make a choice and in the end I feel strangely downcast.

Orientation week passes like a dream: nice people, beautiful places, lots of food and information, and all the American things to do. During one of the social events, students grumble about the new ACES (the computer system of the university). I tell them that they should not complain; in my school such a system would be considered science fiction. They look at me in a weird way. What they didn’t know is that instead of an electronic record, in Macedonia we have little “index books’ in which all the courses we take and all the grades we get are entered. The grade needs to be entered by the professor after the exam results are published, and this, of course, involves a special trip to the professor’s office and sometimes waiting for hours on end. Then, at the beginning and end of each semester we have to report our courses to the Student Affairs Office, and again queue for hours in a stuffy room, hoping that the administrator behind the counter will not be in a bad mood. Not to mention filling a form for every exam taken, as well as endless other forms which clutter the Student Affairs Office, our lives and this essay…

Classes start and I get busy. There is a lot to read, but I am not discouraged. My professor of Cultural Anthropology says that after this class our whole understanding of the world is going to change. Adam Smith and Marx are on the reading list, and many other economic theorists. Most of the readings are about political philosophy and economy; the topics include the division of labour in society, the beginnings of capitalism, the working class…I begin to learn about the principles behind our present world order, which I always found far from ideal and essentially unjust. I am getting even more acutely aware of the inequalities in the world, while studying at a rich university that has all the amenities and conveniences you could ever wish for. I enjoy my almost limitless food points and share them with friends who have a smaller food plan. We sometimes jokingly bless George Soros for providing our dinner. I love the Gothic towers of West Campus and the super-modern library (though I prefer the highest tower with large windows for a studying place over the brand new futuristic basement floor), but most of all I love the walk home: the big trees, the beautiful lawns and gardens and the pretty houses all of which lodge some or other important office for the university.

Often it all seems unreal. Organized to the point of irritation. You go to the library to scan a document, and of course you have the scanning directions on the Desktop. There is a bus that takes you to classes, or brings you back home, for free, even though it would take you no more than 15 minutes to walk there. And the wonderful Safe Rides! If you are stuck in the library late at night after the buses have stopped running, you call them and they come with their shiny white vans and give you a ride home, again free of charge. I felt so grateful each time they came to pick me up. Of course, students pay for most of these services through their tuition. But I have a scholarship that covers all my expenses, so sometimes I wonder: what am I doing here? In a positive way, of course. When I tell my European friends what my monthly living expenses in Macedonia are, not more than 200 dollars, they laugh. And yet, I find myself thinking: people, this is not reality!

But what is reality? At that time reality for me was my way of life in Macedonia, with less money, but not a bad life really. And yet my reality in Macedonia is different from the reality of other Macedonians, because I come from a lower middle-class family, if such classifications can be made. There are people who live better and people who live worse, economically speaking, as everywhere in the world. Is the reality of starving people in Ethiopia more real than the reality of beggars in Atlanta, Georgia, or even more real than the reality of the children of millionaires studying at Duke? I don’t know. The problem is that people get so embedded in their own realities that they forget other realities exist. And that the realities are so drastically different from each other.

It was a bit of a blow to see so many poor people in wealthy America. The disparities in a country which is well-to-do in general are even more drastic and striking. When I went to the Martin Luther King museum in Atlanta, I was moved by the greatness of the man and his idea, and then saddened to see so many beggars right outside of the museum trying to sell you something worthless, or just asking for change. All of them belonging to the same race for whose advancement he fought his battle. And then, one of my closest friends at Duke was Tim, whose mother was homeless. He was at Duke on a scholarship, still bruised by the memories of the times when he and his mom lived on food stamps, or of the many foster homes he had lived in. In the second semester his mom had found a place to stay so he went to visit her, and to meet up with his younger brother, who had just been adopted by a very religious Protestant family. He never told us in detail how he moved from being homeless to enrolling a university and then transferring to Duke. It seemed pretty amazing to me, but he didn’t want to talk about his past very much.

Sometimes, I felt bad for the pizza deliverer and the janitor lady because they had to serve me. The system was no good.

The real crisis came when I saw Slumdog Millionaire, the movie that had won the Oscar that year. The grey Sunday afternoon started ordinarily enough. We decided to leave the library to go to the movies, even though the pile of unfinished homework lay heavily on our consciences, as always. We jumped into Sam’s car and found our way to a small cinema in downtown Durham. From the beginning the movie generated a strong reaction within me. Strangely enough, it infuriated me. I was angry at the director for turning the plight of the slum children in India into an unrealistically romantic success story. I was angry at the Western audiences who might be disturbed by the scenes of the life in the slums in the beginning, but would go home comforted with the happy ending, singing the tunes of the Bollywood-style closing dance theme. “None of those children is ever going to become a millionaire, nor get near to the famous TV show, and that’s the real problem!” I screamed silently.

From Slumdog Millionaire

We shared our thoughts after the movie was over. Tim thought it was primarily a love story. The others agreed with me over the importance of the social themes. And yet, I was unable to convey all the intensity of what I felt to them. Of course they realized the gravity of the issue. It was the unfortunate downside of capitalism, I believe Vlaho thought. I had had many debates about capitalism with him, as I went through the process of unveiling its foundations and its crimes in the anthropology course. He, as a historian who was reading about the atrocities of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, reacted differently to my rant about equality for all. It was simply not possible, he said. Capitalism might not be the best imaginable system, but it is the best possible one, he triumphantly concluded in one occasion. Sam understood my concern better. He had gone through enough of poverty in his childhood and adolescence to never wish to go back to that state of affairs. His transferring to Duke was due only to his own ingeniousness and hard work, although he had never gone to high school and received formal education. Once there, he was not going to let pass the opportunity. He was going to play by the rules of the system in order to earn lots of money, and then he would outsmart it and change it, always helping the ones in need. So, he had a plan in place, and hence was not as terribly disturbed by the movie as I was.

Sam contributed a new perspective to my unsettled thoughts about Slumdog Millionaire. Sure, the story was sugarcoated in order to become a blockbuster, but that had enabled its message to reach wide audiences all around the world. If the movie provoked such reactions as the one I had, it was doing a pretty good job making people aware of how poorly and unfairly organized our world was. Still, I remained restless. One question after another emerged in my mind. I thought about all the professors teaching at Duke and the brilliant ideas they dedicated their lives to. It was all wonderful, but how could they remain calm and doing what they did while knowing that there were people in the world who might never have enough food and safe drinking water, let alone get educated and learn even a bit of all the knowledge being produced? What’s the point of building a career and achieving personal success when millions lived in such poor conditions, not because they had deserved it, but because the system didn’t let them do better?

On a more personal level, how could I dream of going to graduate school and spending my life studying literature, or cultures, or whatever, knowing what I know and not doing anything to change the situation? Wasn’t pursuing one’s chosen profession and thus not being full-time dedicated to helping others selfish?

Yes, people were often closed in their selfish little worlds, full of “important priorities,” I thought. Perhaps many started out idealistic, but then submitted to the pressures and demands of earning a living and providing for their families, and left behind good intentions about changing the world order. When I was sixteen, I read in a book which was very influential for my development that when choosing what to do, people should follow their strongest impulse and choose the activity that they are uniquely capable of, that few people could do better. The problem always is about discovering what one is uniquely capable of, and what one’s strongest impulse is. At the time of the “Slumdog Millionaire crisis” I debated between my two impulses: my undefined love of literature and studying in general, and my wish to help the poor and make the world more “just.” I finally reached a decision that the second impulse was the more important one, if not necessarily the stronger. I reasoned that in an ideal world, it would be okay to indulge in research work and lofty ideas, but the situation being as it was, it was paramount to take action.

But the future was still blurry and elusive. How exactly should I go about taking action? I started lamenting the fact that I had chosen to study English instead of economy. Had I studied economy, I would have had the necessary theoretical background to come up with a ground-breaking theory that would improve the system, make a real large-scale contribution. My ambitions were obviously far from modest. I promised myself to do research over the summer and find a postgraduate program to attend or some organization that I could become involved in. But then, maybe I should change my focus and think more locally? Concrete help given directly to people, or supporting organizations who work in those areas, can also make a difference.

One night on the bus, while I was going home from the library, the boy sitting next to me was talking to the driver (all the bus drivers were really nice, funny people). From the conversation I concluded that he was one of “the rich kids,” but had a rather different view of his future after graduation. He told the driver that he was planning to do “Teach for America” for some time and then probably work for a non-profit. “Teach for America” is a state program which encourages young people to teach in public schools with small budgets and big problems. At the goodbye dinner that we, Visiting Internationals, had with our advisor, the Dean of the Study Abroad Office, she expressed consternation at the fact that apparently a high margin of the university’s graduates got a job with “Teach for America” after finishing college, instead of going into some more remunerative field. Her point of view was that since their parents had made such a huge investment in having them study at Duke, the least they could do is try to earn a lot of money. Of course, I didn’t think much of her point of view, and was happy that the university managed to make some of the students aware of the plight of the less fortunate. There were many such examples. Bryan, for example, was going to spend the summer helping in a hospital in Kenya. So there were probably ways and ways to be useful for others, and yet do what you like best.

I need not say that all those thoughts did not come to any final conclusion, nor did I make a specific plan. As spring arrived, the intensity of my dilemmas started to fade and I was enchanted by the beautiful Duke surroundings. In spite of all the reading I had to do, I found time to enjoy friends and even find new ones. The America I had been critical towards finally won me over. At least that part of America that was the bubble I was living in…not real, or how real…I don’t know.

One year since my return from “the land of opportunities and contradictions,” I am no closer to finding my personal way to deal with the problem of poverty nor do I have a much clearer picture of what I want to become in life. However, it seems more and more probable that I am not going to go the strictly altruistic way and fulfill my resolutions made at Duke. It was somehow easier to have a wider perspective and to be more aware of world issues while in the US…Macedonia is still too enclosed in its own “reality,” and I lack insight and determination to undertake a great reforming endeavour. But I guess helping others is not actually as complicated as I present it to be. Small acts count and whatever one’s primary occupation is, it is important to sustain a personal integrity and never get too carried away and forget about the parallel realities of people who are doing their best to survive.

We are all living in one world, and a world in which chance is a powerful force. The place and conditions you were born in, and all the opportunities you have had are not necessarily your personal merit. But the faults of the system and all the aspects that could be improved are your responsibility.

Don’t forsake it (note to myself).

Daniela Atanasova is a fourth-year student of English language and literature at Ss Cyril and Methodius university in Skopje, Macedonia.

"Epiphany and Not Following Through (Yet?)" is copyright 2010 by Daniela Atanasova and may not be republished or reposted without permission of the author.


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