"But this is what’s wrong with our bad culture."
Listen, it’s as simple as this: I will not take direction nor guff from any man with a pair of swinging balls dangling from the rear bumper of his pickup truck. Believe you me these offenders in plain sight are men. They drive trucks. Pickups. Nuts. Always men. Trucks on top of trucks round these parts. If you know not of what I speak, you are spared. Trust that I understand that existence is a flash and mad absurd. But I simply won’t take it. I won’t apologize. Try me. Wish you would. Please don’t. What are they even made of, anyway? The half-life on those nearly indestructible pendulums would make a martyred saint blush. To think that these drivers are neighbors, friends and family. Taxpayers. Grandchildren. Cringe. I’m chuffed that I’ve had to begin my account this way. My opening sequence is not necessarily by volition. I wish more often to be more eloquent. I apologize. Now that that’s settled, I will try to refrain from making blanket statements.
But this is what’s wrong with our bad culture. Yes, I am a liar, and a good one at that mostly for the right causes, rain or shine. Earlier today, while in the Dairy Queen drive-thru, where anything can happen, I was fixing to order cheeseburgers for the whole family, trying my damndest to eradicate in my fantasy the gas-guzzling monster in front of me with the hanging swinging atrocity, when a vagrant emerged from behind the menu. His large dark bum eyes were watery like great lakes at midnight, and from them I could ascertain that he was fixing to panhandle me gently when suddenly the manager entered the scene and demanded that he leave his property. “Better not start with me again,” threatened the manager, whose intervention one can say was a sight for sore eyes. One can say that the manager, who is underpaid and earned my respect, was saving face by attempting to improve the optics of his Dairy Queen, which, mind you, is located across the street from a one-star hotel whose brand-new aquamarine paintjob does squat to make my skin itch less. The vagabond turned to face his foil, slowly, and I heard him say, “The Devil has come down to you in great wrath,” then he left the property with a trash bag slung over his shoulder. I noticed, to my terrorized befuddlement, what appeared to be a piece tucked in the waistband behind his back. I’m certain it was such. It was only in that moment, when he disappeared, that I desired to gift the transient gunman all the loose change to my name. Not before.
And just as soon I felt relieved, indebted and outright disgusted with who I’d been and who I became. I ordered our cheeseburgers anyway, the same old way: lettuce, pickles and tomatoes. The sky was pure concentrated construction-site gray like the rent-free thoughts stretching my skull. My loose change was anything but loose, stuck to the bottom of the sticky drink holder slot in the center console of my vehicle which is paid off and bumped and bruised like any good old lemon. I can’t shake the feeling that I had done wrong. That I was violently wrong for having done nothing at all. That loosely, I hadn’t changed. And did nothing to change that. I was ill; I recovered. I’d lived this day before too many times to count. Given half of half an hour, I could leverage the power of mathematics to calculate precisely that sobering figure.
When I returned home and delivered the goods to my family—“Where’s the beef? Here it be!” I shouted like a cornball—I was for all of five minutes a hero. Which is to say, for all of five minutes I was a hero for life. My daughter ran up and hugged me. I spun her round and round. “Daddy gonna be particularly gassy tonight!” she said, she who turns eight this weekend, who’s sprouted up nearly to my chin, who dubs me “Daddy,” a song that increasingly convinces me that I can’t save her from what’s coming. She will be out there soon, God willing and Heaven forbid, with a mind and body of her own, and there will be much I hadn’t prepared her for. She isn’t perfect. But she’s hilarious, with her singing cartwheels and high-pitched burping and inherent hatred of dolls and right leg a quarter inch longer than her left. And she is ours for now. She is truly all I have. Truly, she is all I have. As such, it’s best not to read too much into it.
This is how you try to sleep at night. Repeating to yourself in mock-prayer that you are thankful that things aren’t worse. But you’ve peeked out the window blinds and seen past the live oaks, bluebonnets, grackles and June bugs—even Orion’s Belt—enough to know that things can shake out otherwise, in a snap, like they did for dear Aunt Liz who was happy and healthy one year and taken by cancer the next, or my buddy Pepperoni who was alive and breathing one day and by subsequent moonlight shot dead. All the things. So many things. Listen: Act or don’t act. There’s a middle ground there of sorts, although the lines are muddled and moving. To define and sort them requires philosophy, and muddled philosophy is the most potent kind. Let’s not even talk about religion or politics. Let’s leave our folks out of the picture. Let’s leave literature alone. Let us behave and rejoice. All I know is that I won’t stand for the corruptions I’ve made plenty clear.
I ought to come clean: I’ve been dishonest. Earlier, at Dairy Queen, our, shall I call him, Penurious Peregrinator, or rather, Pacifist Pardoner, did not tell the manager, “The Devil has come down to you in great wrath.” That’s what I wanted to hear him say. I wanted my strapped meanderer to quote Revelations out of context. Wanted desperately to corroborate it. Instead, what he really said was, “Fuck you.” Frigid, as it were, but be that is it may, the cold hard truth. As I’ve made plenty clear, I am a liar. I’m sorry. Now that that’s settled, there’s a time for poetry and a time for dirty talk. Few things are more shameful than silencing your wife’s inspired vulgarities in the privacy of your chambers. Let out all ye that needs letting out. If you are nasty, be sparing. If you love each other right, do not hold on too tight. Gentle. Learn to argue well. The middle ground is where it’s at. The middle ground is holier than no-man’s land. Believe that.
If you strive to be a hero for five minutes, you can be a hero for life. (That’s one big if, can I get an amen? Amen.) We know it doesn’t matter what the hero knows to be true. This, from a dude who plainly states he hates superhero movies on account of all the cookie-cutter spandex and villainy. Because he hasn’t genuinely bothered yet to take the scarce hour or so it’d take to listen to his daughter explain to him intelligently the intricacies of the multiverse. Converging, conflicting plot lines, all. We are in it all the way or not at all, so they say. When did kids get so brainy, anyway? If only he wouldn’t take himself so seriously, he might discover something in common. A beautiful connection. Something to dream about tomorrow, in the fog. Something to enjoy without hesitation. Without guilt. Another chance while it lasts—while it lasts—to hear his growing-up-too-quickly future sing to him in a language he can hardly understand but can listen to all the livelong day, for all that’s coming fast. The danger.
Could it be that someday, she will eventually be … The Danger?
“Angel,” I said to my daughter, “if you tell your daddy how particularly cool and smart he is for driving a not-truck in Texas, we’ll go catch the new Spider-Woman-Wonder-Man-whatchamacallit this evening as an early b-day present. Because we love you so much.” She, who had finished all her homework but had not yet cleaned her room per her mother’s marching orders, looked downright possessed in her excited embarrassment, my darling angel, smiling huge and eyes rolled back to a spectral white. And to think that was the third-silliest image to slap my eyeballs silly today. You had to be there. You just had to be there. Weird world. It’s only getting hotter. Boy, I tell you what.
Alex Z. Salinas is the author of three poetry collections and a book of stories, City Lights From the Upside Down (San Antonio Review Press), which was included in the National Book Critics Circle’s Critical Notes. His poetry collection Hispanic Sonnets (FlowerSong Press) is his latest book, with Trash Poems (Gnashing Teeth Publishing) forthcoming in 2023. Salinas holds an M.A. in English Literature and Language from St. Mary’s University, and lives in San Antonio, Texas.