Ploughshares first called me about editing this issue, it was a cool afternoon, thanks to an early fog rolling in from the San Francisco Bay, and I was in the garage working out with Gerardo G., a kickboxer and recent graduate in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley. He was pummeling me next to a bunch of cartons which contained remainders of my books. When I heard the cordless telephone ring, I gratefully pulled away from the massacre of my flesh to answer the call. I breathed into the phone, "Yeah, man . . ." The call was obviously long-distance, because the voice was polite and articulate. Almost everyone who calls me -- my brothers, usually, or ruddy-faced writers I know -- is impolite and rude. I heard the editor out and was happy not so much about his assignment, but for having a moment to reflect on the temporality of a quickly aging body. I needed rest. I needed three or four new lungs to keep up with my opponent, Gerardo, who is built like G.I. Joe, but many times larger, and who used to be
one bad dude when he ran with a gang in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. As for me, a failed professor with a hairline in massive retreat, I resemble Mrs. Butterworth, that beautiful breakfast helper spanked on a stack of pancakes. In short, I needed that call.
I agreed to put together an issue and left the theme up in the air for several weeks. I went about living and writing and nurturing a small garden of fog-dwarfed beefsteak tomatoes in the backyard. The next time I boxed with Gerardo, he had stern instructions from his girlfriend, a future elementary school teacher, not to hurt me. When asked why, she responded that I was the only Mexican-American children's writer in the country, and I needed to remain intact. Thus, Gerardo was now a piece of cake and, for me, a real confidence builder. I was doing the Mrs. Butterworth two-step shuffle when I got a second call from the editor of
Ploughshares, asking if I had arrived at a theme for the issue. Caught off-guard, I breathed heavily into the phone something about everyday evil and sexuality, in part because I remembered the two subjects as popular themes in Sunday homilies, and because I had some unfinished business with the Catholic faith.
Between the years 1985 and 1990, I had returned to the church with a vengeance. I won't explain exactly why I was brought to my knees, but I will provide evidence: for three years I went to Mass not once but twice a day; I moved my family to San Francisco so we could be close to the church that I loved, namely Old St. Mary; I considered joining
Opus Dei, a fundamentalist religious group; I sent my daughter to Catholic school with her hair cut like a novice nun; I joined a young-adult group; I lay on a wooden cross during a weekend retreat; I bought a used set of Catholic encyclopedias that I thought would set me straight (the language, however, was dull and so packed with hocus-pocus theories that I needed NoDoz to keep turning the pages). Thus, those five intense years in the Catholic faith resulted in a new set of friends, prayer, peculiar dreams, one therapist, three overseas adoptions, and two books:
Lesser Evils and
Home Course in Religion, both of which are now out of print and whose themes concern lust, faith, childhood, and disease -- a hodgepodge of reactions to my Catholic upbringing.
Ploughshares dutifully announced the theme I had proposed, but it ended up baffling editors and writers alike. In fact,
Ploughshares has since changed its editorial practices -- they no longer put together issues with themes in mind -- and I have a sneaking suspicion I'm to blame, because no one was certain what the heck I meant by everyday evil and sexuality.
By evil, I was thinking of those moments of wickedness that live inside us and occasionally surface and manifest themselves, not only in thought but also in ugly and deplorable actions. A case in point: I remember sitting with a bunch of guys in Fresno, and everyone was drunk or drugged or both. The coals of the barbecue had died down, along with the conversation. Attention was given over to a little girl, someone's daughter, as she played with a kitten only a few weeks old. A monstrous dog was in the rear of the disheveled yard, chained and barking, disturbing the peaceful quiet of the neighborhood. Against the orange porchlight, I knew these men were wicked beyond description. When the girl disappeared into the house, one guy got it into his head to feed the kitten to the dog, which he did. He picked it up without much thought, as he might a baseball mitt or Frisbee, giggled, staggered over to the chained dog, and held the kitten over its head until it was yapping and writhing and frothing. When the
guy let the kitten go, the men circled in a ring to watch the dog's manic destruction. Most everyone laughed when the girl reappeared and asked about the kitten. I wasn't so drunk that I didn't feel contempt for these people, if "people" is the right word. I left and drove around my hometown Fresno, a town where the worse you feel, the worse you're treated. And I was feeling pretty bad that night, and lay my head down with a godawful weight.
As for sexuality, I was thinking how, after our attention to sports, the media proclaims sex as America's most luxurious pastime, though, of course, we may see it as a brief grunt and a whimper in our own households. But the media has our attention. You would think from its display on the airwaves that in every dinky town across the country, east to west, north to south, people were screwing with marvelous and prolific abandon. Sexual messages are pervasive -- sometimes subtle, sometimes not, embodied in sundry vehicles, from the shape of perfume bottles to thong bikinis, one of the few articles of clothing with which a person could get the floss of a lifetime. Certainly we writers, I thought, might have something to say about the play of the media upon our senses.
I imagined receiving manuscripts with comic stories about sexuality -- humorous confessions about reckless eyeballing, for instance, or disturbingly open accounts of adultery. If sexual appetites don't bring on clouds of confusion and remorse, they must bring raunchy laughter, as when a
tejano friend told me about his first sexual encounter: When he opened his date's bare legs, he discovered a confetti-like flake of toilet paper stuck to her bottom. He asked me, rhetorically, if that sight stopped him, a nineteen-year-old, from yanking off his shitkickers and undoing his horse-stenciled leather belt. Not a chance. He said to me, "At least I knew my honey wiped."
In November, I began to get my first batches of manuscripts from the editors, and the business of selecting began. By then, with the issue now called "Everyday Seductions," I had abandoned the original themes and was searching for a more sordid and frightening peek at the underside of our broken and seedy world. As we know, happy literature has no history, and if literature is meant to remain, it has a better chance when it revels in a rough and ugly terrain. I was a camel looking for the kind of writing that is not so much sensational as it is honest, brutal, lonely, introspective, and, yes, comical. And while I did solicit from five writers, I intended from the get-go to give space to unsolicited manuscripts, thus allowing an open invitation. Readers will find familiar names, such as fiction writers Dagoberto Gilb and Susan Dodd and poets Kenneth Rosen and Martín Espada. However, there are surprises with every turned page. That will be your delight; mine is that my initial proposition took a curve,
and I arrived in a wholly unsuspected place, peopled with writers I didn't know or knew only from a distance. That is the beauty of editing an issue of
Ploughshares, assembling it for the sake of getting firsthand peeks.
And Gerardo, the Mexican kickboxer? He's in Georgia working on an advanced engineering degree. My gloves hang on a nail in the garage, and my mouthpiece is grinning in a top drawer. On some days, when the sun is out and I'm in my garage shadowboxing, I like to pretend that my threatening presence, my jab and body shot, the swiftness of my feet, ran Gerardo, my brown brother, out of town.