Words You Leave Behind
You orchestrate the day’s first win the night before by setting the alarm clock for 0445. (Military time making more sense in a sequential sort of way.) It blares rudely, and you only have marginal difficulty navigating your aching feet to the cold floor. 0445 is fifteen minutes before the sweetest earthly hour for sleep. And had your mind drifted unconscious beyond that ethereal hour, it would have taken a bucket of ice water and a mariachi band to fully rouse you.
0445 is a win you swallow bitterly. You accomplish this feat five, sometimes six days a week but ever since a cologne-saturated self-help guru affirmed that it’s okay to cheat in America, you make your first tally for simply getting out of bed. Most evenings you review the tallies to remind yourself how special you are, except when you’re certain, beyond any doubt, that you experienced more losses than wins for a given day, and then you ignore the tallies altogether and start a new page for the next day with 0445 already marked as a win. If you don’t wake it means you’re dead, and you needn’t worry about tallies. This is what the guru told you to do, and you want to emulate the guru.
Your alarm clock is an alarm clock, nothing more. Additional wisdom from the guru. You check your Facebook on the living-room couch where your phone is charging, having enjoyed an eight-hour reprieve from your oily hands. 13 Likes, 3 Hearts, and 1 Laughing Face from Tio Roberto who thinks everything you write is an inside joke between him and you (even a haiku about rigor mortis). You sit thumbing the screen for so long, you miss the opportunity for breakfast. Fortunately, you prepped lunch the night before in a plastic baggie, so it’s a wash, and you make neither a positive nor negative tally.
Everyone at work is Hispanic, but you’re the only American. The illegals and new immigrants from Mehico and Guatemala and El Salvador all glower at you, their nonverbal language saying, What the fuck’s your excuse? Wondering how you could be born here and you’re not a cop or a teacher or an insurance agent, or anything other than lead janitor at a middle school. Your family is from Mexico City and your skin is nearly Caucasian. They hold that against you. The only accent you have is when you speak Spanish, and it’s American. They hold this against you, also, refusing conversation in both languages. Their insolence tips your body’s PH scale, turning your blood acidic. It’s okay, you say, channeling the guru. This isn’t what I do. I write poetry and clean on the side. Not the opposite. One day my words will inspire. One day my words will influence. I’ve already got 400 friends on Facebook; I don’t need any more anyways.
During lunchtime, fat little Pedro Luis grovels outside the janitor’s workshop. His piss yellow shirt, stained with bleach, looks like it’s hiding pillows underneath. There was a time, not even that long ago, when the poor kids had six-packs and the affluent were corpulent the same way this buttery Pedro Luis is. Only, those rich kids ate like prize fighters, whereas Pedro Luis is woozy outside the workshop from his parents not affording a breakfast other than a spoonful of arroz rojo, which: who the fuck wants to eat rice at 0700 before missing the bus and waddling their fat ass 2.3 miles down a busted sidewalk to make homeroom by 0800?
You don’t notice Pedro Luis knocking because you’re on your phone trying to be the next Whitman. But then his shallow, dyspneic voice bleats, “Primo, open up!” And there he is in his bleached shirt and frayed, blue sweatpants.
“Heeeey, my little amigo! Que pasa?”
“Tengo hambre, Primo.”
You step outside with your lunch baggie and dole a spare bologna sandwich and granola bar like it’s Halloween for hypoglycemic kids. He pays you with a heart-melting smile. One of his molars is missing and you’re not sure if it should be. You try and remember what age sixth grade is and if that’s out of the baby-tooth phase or not. You chat about his good grades and try to cheer him up about the bullying, but then he realizes the time and scampers away, trailing crumbs back to the classroom. He’ll wear that shirt another 4 days, and then on Friday, only on Friday when kids are alert enough to notice these sorts of things, he will wear something different. You know this because he’s told you. When he’s gone, the resounding sense of perspective goes with him, and you’re free to bitch about your life again.
Your phone buzzes, and since it’s invariably more often in your hands than in your pocket, you watch in real-time as an email alert invades the top half of the screen, like something hacked and unrequested. It’s not spam this email, but a long-awaited yet still startling reply from an obscure literary journal. Some highbrow periodical about transgender cats, or weeping evergreen trees, or sentient hotels built during the Depression. Or some other necessary niche to make this publication distinct from the thousands of other similar journals and magazines. The thousand other which are read evidently by someone. Someone who wasn’t quite satiated by the week’s New Yorker and who then pointed—at random— to a list of magazines and said, “That one. I wanna read from The Itchy Vagina Quarterly.” You submitted your best poem in the hopes of starting small and building your repertoire accordingly, but wait, no, the email politely informs that your work of genius, written in A-negative blood, doesn’t quite suit the theme this month, and they’re going with a poem about a black man with passionately blue eyes who is concerned his soul is that of a white man. They wish you the best of luck placing your piece elsewhere.
It’s okay, you think. “No problem,” you say out loud. I’ve got 400 Facebook friends. I’ll influence, inspire and embolden 390 more people than that half-assed undergraduate journal would reach. Still, with this in mind, you draw out your little notebook and etch a single line in the day’s loss column. Somehow, your hands—and your attention—then find their way connected once again to the internet where three people have commented on the poem you shared. One is your mother. One is a friend you make a sport of ignoring. The third is Tio Roberto who managed to find humor in a poem about a California tent city catching fire.
“It’s okay,” you say aloud. “It’s fine,” you say, also, suppressing a malaise of identity. “They just don’t understand me.”
A year goes by and you learn to eat your rejections with indifference. They’re now too numerous to hold any power over you. Like something commonplace, it’s not that you’re sick of it, it’s just the established norm. You’ve stopped noticing, stopped caring. Not about writing, not about poetry, which you have to keep doing, have to keep pushing out of your mind the way your bowels do movements. No, you stopped caring about literary acceptance. You try to think of something the guru said that might explain your new mindset but nothing comes. No bumper sticker or catchphrase about growing comfortable with failure. Maybe it’s unexplored territory, so you jot that down as the impetus for your next poem. Comfortable failure. Success at this point might be frightening.
With literary rejection mastered, it’s human rejection that troubles you now. It didn’t before but now it does, like a sliding scale of disappointment from your personal to professional life; impossible to balance both at once. A new young janitor has joined your crew. He’s boisterous and white, he ejaculates Spanish learned from Taco Bell commercials, and for some confounding reason, the other janitors absolutely adore him. Him, the outright gringo. You want to despise him, but there is something contagious to his personality. Maybe it’s his omnipresent grin, impervious to the worst of weather and the shittiest of assignments. Maybe it’s his usage of the hyper-formal “Usted” when addressing you directly, or his skillful whistle-production of classic movie soundtracks. Mainly he just seems happy to be here. Happy to be employed. It makes you wonder what the fuck is going on out there in the real world for a white boy to be so pleased to don overalls and mop up after food fights. Regardless, his stealing of your subordinate kin’s approval is a social conundrum you’ve yet to fully reconcile.
Fat little Pedro Luis was out in the rain over summer and was struck by puberty. Now he’s a beanpole. His fellow classmates seemed to develop more languidly. They chase him around the yard for no other reason than to ostracize the ungainly, once-fat boy who wears rubber flip-flops that go for about 3 bucks a pair at Walmart. He tells you one day over tuna-fish sandwiches—which are neither his nor your favorite, but it was all you had—that his parents promised to buy him shoes again when they’re confident he has stopped growing. Tuna and mayo smack his gums and there is a conspicuous eggplant sprouting under his left eye. You muse if kids his age are even capable of throwing the right cross or hook that produced this protruding shiner. You then note quietly his bony feet are roughly the same length of your own, and the following school day—which is a Monday—when you proffer a pair of old New Balances you use to mow the lawn, his face lights up like you just offered a kidney transplant to his dying mother, which is probably also a true story because this kid’s life is the antithesis of an idyllic childhood. He saunters off gleefully and you write a poem about a bedridden mother.
(The poem gets rejected and another year goes by.)
The guru you love so much tells his followers to “Take a chance on today!” This is the year the young century becomes an adult. It can now vote. It can buy a shotgun, smoke a cigar and legally drop out of school.
~Proud of 2000 for coming so far
But still can’t trust him with my car—
—is a space-filling quip in your latest poem. It sounds suspiciously like country music, but it’s probably your best line.
In this two-thousand-and-eighteenth year of our Lord, you avow to find an audience. Or at least some friends. It’s the breakroom that pushes you over. Charges your anger level to that of staunch determination. You listen outside the door to raucous laughter and enter with a smile, desperate for acceptance. Trace whispers of “El Jefe” fizzle across the room as, by your mere presence, the joyous laughter and rhythmic table-clapping transmute into stale coughs and sounds of chewing. Blank eyes bore into you. Amidst the eyes is your new Caucasian employee, whom you suspect as the instigator of all this amusement with his animated stories and recycled jokes from last night’s Comedy Central. He nods politely and no sooner than the door latching behind you upon exiting does a cacophony of exclusive fun and laughter pervade the breakroom once more.
Pedro Luis is fat again. He brings by textbooks defaced by condiments: ketchup, mayo, mustard and worse, you suspect, and he requests cleaning supplies in that polite undeniable way that fat, skinny, fat-again near-orphans entreat upon others. You’re still steaming from the ambiguous breakroom rejection but manage to at least make them legible. Apparently, after they were snatched from his desk, he had to ransom the books by performing something similar to the Truffle Shuffle from Goonies.
“Muchas gracias, Primo. Big test Friday,” he says, bounding for the library in the same grass-stained sneakers you gifted last year.
“No problema,” you say dispassionately, logging onto your phone to measure self-worth by counting comments.
Months blink by, and you find yourself arriving late for your first public reading. The slot you chose is 21:30. A strangely austere order involved for a coffee shop recital. Saliva abandons you as you stumble to the microphone. This is your moment. Planned after the breakroom and dormant on the calendar the entire school year. Finally, you will be accepted. At last, you will be heard. These are your people, spectacled and fashionably grousy. They’re here because—like you—they too dream of an audience to inspire with their written word. To impress these people, you wear a tieless blazer and dark chinos.
You introduce yourself, adjusting the microphone. Most are on their phones or struggling with somnolent eyelids. A few pinch-faced spectators in the front row notice your skin is darker than theirs and so they straighten up with open, receptive expression, overtly proud of the added diversity. Ready to cram in the face of anyone who asks that they have a new Hispanic guy at their poetry slam, agog to prove that they are doing their part to punctuate human differences.
“This poem is called ‘Guru Says,’” you say, finally leveling the mic to an appropriate height.
You recite from memory to emphasize your seriousness to the craft. Your commitment to the art. When it’s over the receival is forced and disingenuous. For a room of creative owls, their feedback is clicheic and painfully passive. No one is impolite; these people wouldn’t know how. Smalltalk commences and most seem intimidated by you. They see through the blazer to the janitor overalls you’ll never escape. These people are friendly but would never be your friend. Worse, they lack the courage to help you grow. They are intellectual and completely immune from your meager influence. Despite the smiles and airy compliments, the quiet, albeit awkward breakroom has never felt so inviting.
You mark 100 tallies in the Loss Column of your notebook for believing your voice could ever carry weight in this world. You of seven billion? You contemplate this in the workshop while your crew of troublemakers sets up collapsible chairs for some unknown school event.
As you sit and sulk, scanning and noting the fabricated joy and success of your Facebook friends, a soft familiar rapping interrupts your brooding. You yank the door open viciously and Pedro Luis stands meekly on the other side. He’s about your height now but still nothing more than a timid youth, dejected and unsure of his role on earth. His hair is wet and combed back. He’s wearing a loose-fitting guayabera tucked into slacks and cradling a plate of homemade tamales wrapped in foil. The aroma reminds you of your abuela.
“Primo?” he says reluctantly, sensing your wrath.
Your eyes wobble around in their sockets; unable to focus on his stupid little face. And then, for no other reason than his wrinkled button-up shirt and his groomed hair, you unload on him.
“What. what—what—what? What the fuck is it this time?”
His head lowers like a scolded dog and it pleases you.
Never before have you been more vulnerable than Pedro Luis, and here, at your lowest, he comes to share food and not the reverse. His pants pressed and hair made-up like his stupid probably-illegal parents have finally gotten their shit together.
You berate him further: “You need socks or a belt this time—or-or someone to tie your tie? How ‘bout a scholarship or a new car or a book-and-movie deal about your sad, pathetic life, huh? Everyone else seems to be advancing at such supersonic speed, why not fat-ass little Pedro Luis? Someone get this needy kid an internship at NASA—he deserves it ‘cause he was bullied.”
Pedro Luis takes it. All of it. Eyes low, lips quivering, still holding the tamales like an offering. Your angst or even your words are not fully understood, but if this is what you need of him, then he’ll be your punching bag.
You want to hit him because he’s so pathetic and words won’t suffice. The only thing holding you back is a guaranteed prison-yard death sentence for assaulting a helpless child. You say, “I’m not your cousin—so get the fuck out of here, Pedro Luis. You seem to have enough food today. You don’t need anything from me.” You slam the door in his glum brown face. Later in the day, you overhear two of your guys in amazement about the plate of “perfectly good tamales” they found in the trash.
You spend the evening alone in self-reflection and in the morning, you’re not so murderously indignant. You feel remorseful. So what if no one listens to you? So what if you were born in cultural limbo and have trouble making friends? It’s not excuse enough to act the way you did. But all you wanted was an audience. You wanted to inspire, embolden and influence. It’s not a hard ask in 2018, when a sleek personal podium fits in a palm, branded backside with the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. The problem is too many people are capable of the success you crave. When having a lascivious, hammy booty or acting a clown will grant you overnight sensation, how do you make anything stick? Metaphors lost in a sea of platitudes and absurdities. How is your voice heard then?
You don’t know. But you deign to work on your craft. Write poetry for the simple pleasure of it. The glory will come, or it won’t, but it needn’t stop you. And you mustn’t allow it to be a rubric of self-worth.
A week goes by without a Pedro sighting. “Good,” you say as a form of amelioration. “Save me two-fifty a week on bologna sandwiches.”
But it’s not just Pedro Luis, many faces are absent.
“Where is everyone?” you ask Armando, your most approachable worker.
“Last week. Eight-grade graduation,” he says in heavy accent.
You run the numbers and it checks out. Pedro Luis has graduated. He will start high school in a few months. That conversation was the last you’ll ever have with him.
A week later when the seventh and sixth-grade brats have left for summer too, and the place is a war zone of snapped pencils and crumpled papers, you’re left to clean up after them. Empty the garbage, scrub the graffiti and mop the halls. Mopping. You enjoy mopping; there’s something soothing about undulating the threads, spreading the water like painting on canvas. A poem is forming in your mind, something uplifting. This one might reach people, might make a difference in someone’s life.
As you traverse the abandoned hallways you notice a double-spaced list of names pinned to a corkboard. Names of natural-born winners and future tyrants. Names like Jack Bush, Jennifer Warner, John Parker. But standing out amongst these names is one you recognize, even though the hyphen is missing and it’s eleven syllables long.
Pedro Luis Ramos Gonzalez Jr.
And above this list, stenciled in glittery lettering, is a simple yet informative title.
2018 8th Grade Honor Roll
From Seattle but residing in Virginia, Benjamin Inks served 3 years in the army before becoming irrevocably enamored with literature. Now he wants nothing more than to read good books, drink good whiskey, and hang out with his pet pug, Bella. He still rocks a flip phone and enjoys seeking/pondering the sinew of human emotion. You can read 3 additional stories of his online at Adelaide Magazine, Creepypasta, and Licton Springs Review.