Chipped Blue Paint

Mi abuela came to America wearing a tattered potato sack, holding my mother, swaddled in palm leaves, in her good right hand, her only one left. With what little money she had, plus a few good games of poker, she bought a dingy, one-bedroom apartment in the basement floor of a crumbling complex in Hialeah, then declared from then on she’d only know success in life, whatever the cost. That was when the arsenic green wallpaper peeled off and the cockroaches fled through the near clogged drainage pipes and the rats darted out through the broken air vents and the front door. That was when my mother first cried after being silent since birth.

When I was born, Abuela repainted the walls sky blue, because it was a more regal color than brackish plaster. When I was born, my mother had barely entered high school, and my father had barely entered prison for preying on students. When I was born, I was named “Paris” because I reminded Abuela of her home city, the one she refused to remember and yet couldn’t forget. When I was born, I saw the color blue. To me it was the sky and the apartment was the world. The cracks in the wall were lighting, the faded paint the clouds, the leaky pipes the whistling rain that made me giggle while my abuela patched up the chipped paint.

My mother went to school in faux-mink coats. I went to school with knock-off Gucci bags when mink went out of fashion because of the mink abuse involved. Abuela decorated us like Christmas trees in fake diamond earrings and fake ruby necklaces and fake emerald rings, even though we always lost the fake jewelry that still cost her a pretty penny from the electricity bill. Abuela got us finishing school lessons so we’d have the same manners as the pretty rich girls at the good private Catholic schools my mother had always been pressured to get into through academic merit. Abuela somehow got me into one of those private Catholic schools despite raising me atheist.

When I was fourteen, I asked her if this was what success looked like.

“No,” she conceded. “But it’s close enough.”

For now, she added in Spanish under her breath.

“What does true success look like?”

Abuela sighed and flipped on the vintage TV set without color to The Real Housewives of Orange County, pointing out the opulent, tacky furniture and the women in Louis Vuitton heels.

“That. That’s what it looks like.”

My mother said that after she graduated community college she’d show her mother what real success looked like. Then she gained her Associates Degree in Nursing from Miami Dade, and passed the Boards Exam with minimal studying. Her first week on the job, she overworked three nights, and almost died of a heart attack, having to recover at home for three months, her left foot partially paralyzed, still allowing her to walk but with a noticeable limp like she had sandbags sewed to her leg.

“Is this what success looks like, Mama?” I asked her the morning after.

My mother glared for a minute, then weakly laughed. “Yes, mija. This is our pinnacle! Blue walls! Cracked ceilings! All we’re good for!”

My mother wanted to one day buy a pretty white house in Coral Gables, a lakefront property covered in palm trees and grand oaks and nearby good free public schools where cocaine wasn’t hastily hidden in ziplock bags stuffed down the boys’ urinal. My mother didn’t want to wake up another day to a decaying Victorian dresser, or an antique wicker rocking chair that looked chewed through by giant moths. My mother didn’t want fancy fake diamond jewelry. My mother didn’t want to wake up and see the same blue walls so faded, they seemed clinical.

Abuela said my mother was going around gaining success all wrong, that fortune required a sturdy foundation. In her homeland, a four-bedroom house wasn’t bought after growing out of a one-bedroom. Walls were torn down with hammers, recycled, rebuilt into new rooms, into new floors, new ceilings. A family home grows out of a tiny hut like a papaya tree grows from a single seed. A blight passed over the land—one of poverty and ill-lead revolution—which tore down long standing orchards full of sweet fruit. But here a new grove would grow. Here a new grove would thrive.

“Now hand me that roller,” she said after the lecture. “The wall paint is chipping off again.”

If success was blue wall paint, then success meant a new washing machine, a new radio, a new vanity mirror—all things my abuela bought with her own savings, also known as the electricity bill. So, on my first Black Friday in community college, I bought a flat screen TV with what money I’d saved scooping ice cream at a local Baskin Robbins by our apartment. My grandmother couldn’t hold in her joy when she saw it, hugging me in a near death grip and sobbing into my shirt.

“Now we can watch TV in color like our neighbors!” she exclaimed.

“It’s just a TV,” my mother said after getting home from her shift.

“It’s a flat screen!” Abuela argued.

“A flat screen means nothing if we can’t pay our electricity bill again this month.”

That night, Abuela abuela and I watched Desperate Housewives for the first time in color. That night, I saw in gold and silver the true wonder and splendor the reality stars lived in. That night, I saw clearly the cracks in the walls, heard and felt the leak from the pipes hitting the plastic bowls beneath them, saw in detail the fading or chipped blue paint. The next day, we sold the flat screen to pay the electric bill. We went without a TV set after that because we’d thrown out the vintage and couldn’t afford a new one.

And a few months later, she passed. And the day she died, I asked her if she missed Cuba.

“No,” she said. “You can’t miss what you’ve chosen to forget.”

“Why don’t you want to remember?” I asked.

The rocking chair she sat in creaked against the rotting wood floor. A single droplet of water landed on her nose, like a little glass piercing, clear and still as she slowly sat back in her seat until the rocking chair rocked no more. She seemingly looked through me, straight through as though I were a window pane, to the blue walls behind me, chipped and fading again, to be refurbished tomorrow. She sighed.

“We’re building a new life here, mija. To remember would be to love, and I want to love what we made here instead.”

“What did we make here?” I asked.

She passed before she would say.

After the funeral, my mother repainted the walls of the apartment white to make way for a “fresh start,” for true success apart from what came before. She sold the old furniture and fixed the pipes herself. Half the money that went toward paying my tuition at Miami Dade now went toward paying the electricity bill.

“It’ll be tight right now, but it’ll all be for the best in the end,” she said. “Once you graduate and pass your board exams, we’ll finally have the life we always wanted, the success we always dreamed of.”

I didn’t argue, didn’t make a peep in response. Instead I listened to the silence of the pipes, felt the lack of cracks on the not-so-thunderous walls. Instead I stared at the whiteness of our tiny, one-bedroom apartment. The cheap paint was either fading or chipping. I could still see the sky blue underneath.

Erin Elise Art

A Tanka to Remember our Ancient City

For a period of seven years, I sang opera arias
floating on water wearing a giant dress made of umbrellas

I wasn’t aware of it at the time

We were not aware of what we were
doing when we waltzed upon
Rte. 355 at 4 in the morning.
Stepping lightly:







We couldn’t explain it to the man who swerved
to a halt and emerged
cursing at us from his beige VW Rabbit

Now I can explain it: we saw pavement as a way to tell time.

I’m trying to be more conscious
of what’s happening while it’s happening.
What are the facts? What are the questions?
What are the options?
And what does it mean?

Let me pause. Let me savor last Friday:

The Siamese cat
likes food wet. Sleater-Kinney
released a box set?
We could drive, but let’s waltz to
town. Every step cuneiform.

*The first two lines of this poem quote Dutch composer Laura Stavinoha.

Art by Edward Lee

Duplex Beginning with a Line by Marvin Bell

He saw himself as coal, on its way to glass,
thinning through a pane of time. Scarlatti

danced window-thin under fingers, lively
and crystalline in its sharp velocity—

the velocity of intense, crystalline light—
morning’s illusion of clarity

in a breath’s elusiveness while mourning.
He was a coal seam jacketed in rock,

the surrounding strata seeming seamless
despite sun pouring through a window

in glittering arpeggios sharp as glass.
Caught in a pane, he was passing though pain,

under diamond-forming pressure. Saw himself
though a looking glass, face speckled with coal.

Line 1 taken from the poem “Days of Superman,” in the collection Mars Being Red.

"Otherwise" Art by Edward Lee

Duplex Beginning with a Line by Edward Hirsch

At midnight the soul dreams of a small fire,
night balmy but body shivering

in the quivering atmosphere, heat and chill.
A keenness the soul perceives as black ice

sticks and burns in dry ice’s cold clarity,
a lone lucidity—a conflagration

whose biting flare cuts through the fog it creates
in deceptive, devouring radiance.

The soul circles, perceives this fire’s bitter want,
knowing the lie but fluttering, pale winged,

on pain of immolation, knows the lie
but senses an echo of its own hunger,

a mixed resonance of fullness and bareness
which cracks at midnight in sparks from a small fire.

Line 1 taken from “Poor Angels,” in the collection For the Sleepwalkers.

Note-taking While Reading “The Marvel Ciphers of the Gig Economy”

We know what kind of people we are–
musical or allergic,
sclerotic and/or criminal–

based upon the ads we are fed.
In the economy of the hypermobile

we can’t not internalize
what we might be prone to buy
if signaled to.

Last week we were contacted
by radio waves
three hundred billion light years away,

an incident many argued proves
that the desire to bloviate in the
conveyance of mere presence

knows no solar system’s
Meanwhile, a set of

copper wound strings shimmers
in an animated gif
with all that strings suggests:

dark matter, quarks,
celestial windings, an elegant
bridge of spruce and bone.

Fire and Ice

August is All You’re Allowed

It’s a log cabin I hole myself
up in Thoreau-style, my only neighbors
the pines, cedars, the black walnuts
littering the floor with their dense body
musty, bittersweet, thick
NPR calls it the un-walnut and
the black birds agree, knocking
the fat fruit from the canopy
embodying how thump is sounded out
by the mouth, tha-ump, tha-ump
it sinks through
the air like the winged
seed of a maple – samaras
they’re called, the word a gob of honey
slinking down the lip
of a mug, samaras, samaras, they evolved
to fly, to carry their seeds to sunnier more
hospitable places, to keep tucked in, tucked
away, tucked beneath the brush
where the white dotted fawns
lay spindle under spindle leg, quiet and
waiting. When you spot them, you stop.
You hold your breath.
You move on.

NOVUS Literary and
Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN