By Stephen D. Gutierrez
The turkey was almost done and our guest was almost here and the house looked warm and cozy and everything was going superbly for our best Thanksgiving dinner ever, everything timed perfectly, my son Ben helping out, Jackie a star in the kitchen, me an adroit helper, the music on, the news off, the day cheerful and honest, a bright fall day in the San Francisco Bay Area, with enough gray to make the leaves stand out autumnally, and smoke in the air from a neighbor’s chimney when I stepped outside to get air. I did this often because inside I worried and fretted and battled anxiety, a looming sense of dread, of unavoidable catastrophe. I took my calming pill and walked around the block and saw neighbors strolling post-prandially, perhaps, the early eaters, and jovially, everybody happy and thankful.
All this unfolded around me so splendidly and movingly and authentically American, so naturally and kindly, not a worry in the air, only that wisp of smoke, I should have taken off my shirt and pretended I was an Indian coming out of the suburban bushes ready to partake of the national feast. I’m Indian enough! I can play both sides! I chuckled and stayed busy and still, I felt it, a pain in my chest.
So I decided to check my blood pressure. Next thing you know Jackie’s on the phone, calmly, with me sitting outside, calmly, giving the numbers and the symptoms to the right people. “It’s 170 over 100.” Next thing you know I’m in the hospital because of the chest pain, which wasn’t severe but persistent enough to concern me, obviously, and I’m still unfazed but a little upset that I just fucked up Thanksgiving dinner.
“I fucked it up, didn’t I?” I told Jackie.
“No, don’t be silly. Ben’s home with Jim. They’re talking at the kitchen table having a good time.”
“Is the bird out?” I’m hooked up to the EKG machine after another blood pressure check, which proved worse, but nobody seems too concerned. I’ve got the wires stuck to me and the machine is producing a graph of my ticker and the RN’s are pros and the hospital is well lit and Jackie is sitting next to me attentively and I said bye to Ben earlier without a hint of major perturbation but with a dose of love, and it’s not a bad place to die, really. “You know where everything is, right? Our papers, our important stuff.”
“Oh, shut up,” Jackie said. “They just want you in because of your chest, otherwise they would’ve just prescribed some medicine for the weekend to get your blood pressure down.”
“Think I’ll be able to go home in time for the turkey?”
“This usually takes a long time,” the RN behind the machine said honestly. He gave me a meaningful look. Like, Buddy, just relax.
He smiled. And I almost broke into tears. I was so fucking tender.
“What are you so anxious about?” he asked. I had intimated as much.
“Yeah, that. It tipped me over. I’m on the floor of the Democratic Convention wearing a big Independent sign just screaming and blathering and blubbering and finger-pointing and looking up in the auditorium and seeing the Klan sitting in the second tier, watching me in their hooded arrogance come apart. I make a speech on capitalism and democracy but it just comes out in Spanish even though I don’t speak Spanish and the migra busts in and hauls me away to some unspeakable internment camp. I don’t want to go on, man. Do you get me?”
“You got an imagination, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I write, I scribble. I’m kind of torn up about it all.”
“I see that, friend.” He patted my hand, a chubby guy with Southern roots evident in the slightest of drawls, a tattoo on his meaty bicep obscured by his medical blouse, a kind face with a light beard, greenish eyes, and sweetness in his every move.
“It’s gonna be all right, man,” he said. “Let’s get you out of here and set up in the next room. The doctor is coming to see you and you better behave.”
I let him lead me to a nearby room to await results after an imperative chest x-ray and blood test.
“Better call Ben and tell them to start eating.”
“I’ll wait here with you,” Jackie said. “Everything’s fine.”
And we waited.
We waited so long but it wasn’t so bad, not nearly as long as the time we waited for Jackie, another time, another problem, a goddamn gallstone that nearly knocked her over in pain until the doctor arrived and medicated her. We muttered pleas for the head doctor to show up and release me. Meantime, things happened. I got a chest X-ray that showed the cross I wear on the daily, so I had to get it redone, and I got my blood drawn and my blood pressure monitored and talked to a lot of medics who begin to blur, all of them kind and professional, not an indifferent or off-putting one among them.
And it was California. Jeez, every nation represented on earth in some capacity, all to help me. “This place works!” I thought.
And it wasn’t the California I grew up in, not close. That one was white, with some Mexicans doing this and that, mostly that, and some black folks doing a little bit more in the this and that department, and I slight them both, unintentionally, because professionals and workers and mid-level employees in all fields came from both principal minority groups, and when I say Mexicans I mean Mexican-Americans, of course, as well as Mexican nationals working the fields and wherever they could get in and earn a living. And Asians played a role, mostly Japanese-Americans in my part of L.A., but Chinese, a few Koreans, a few Filipinos (I’m sure I’m forgetting somebody; sorry) – they all lived in Southern California then, but in smaller numbers compared to the whites around them.
And now I was in Northern California but the changes represented the state, not a region. I saw many people from all over the world around me. European ancestry was fairly represented, but not predominant in the faces. Whites didn’t define the workplace, let alone the leadership.
And the alt-right hated this change in demographics. They wanted it to be mainly white again.
And it wasn’t going to happen. And they scared me in their fury.
And depressed me. And sent me over the edge into the hospital.
And I counted the new arrivals in my home state and wondered when they got here, how, and whether they felt threatened in the current climate. I seemed to be the lone paranoid man missing out on Thanksgiving dinner because of deep fears of madness in the air, of hate unleashed, of chaos triumphing. I know good chaos and I know bad chaos and the worst loomed ahead in my overheated mind.
And I saw new faces, faces from the Middle East and the Mediterranean and the different parts of Asia and of Africa, too, and Central America. I beheld a California utterly changed, and the same. English came out of all mouths, and when the thick accent of Africa spilled out of the lips of the lithe immigrant orderly who cleaned my room after I knocked my damn tray over, spilling juice and crackers all over the floor, it was music, not dissonance that reached my ears, and we talked and bullshitted, and he was lovely and kind.
And I don’t exaggerate or sentimentalize. Everybody worked together. It was a well run hospital staffed by ultra competent and intelligent people, from the bottom up, I would say, keeping in mind that “the bottom” is just a convenient label that comes to mind automatically but doesn’t mean much, at least not to me. I come from the bottom, my people, working people all the way. I yammer at a university nowadays but don’t take myself too seriously, seriously.
This new California crew impressed me. Everybody knew what they were doing at Eden Memorial, and took pride in it. On the question of language, I did note a few mejicano janitors conducting their business in Spanish, very professional in their comportment and bearing, and if that isn’t eternal California, I don’t claim there’s one. Give up the myths of the laid-back state and the gnarly waves and the Hollywood stars and the goofy trends and all the rest. If there ain’t two Mexican janitors in the building, we’re on Mars instead. That goes back to my childhood.
I got my x-rays back and they looked good and my blood tests ran fine and my blood pressure did run up to 204 over 100-and-something (yikes!) but fell after I went into my deep yoga meditative trance right there on the bed with the iron rails in full hospital sight for all the passing patients and infirm to heal by. It dropped to an acceptable level and already it was getting late (I got in there around 3:00) and just because doctors are thorough types unlike poets who throw commas and dashes randomly on the page and laugh madly for the big paycheck coming in, and imaginative prose writers who do the same with impunity and gluttonous disregard for the exactness required of any right activity–just because doctors know their craft better than I ever knew mine they demanded another EKG, and what could I do but bare my chest and say, “Stick me, doctor, let’s get the machine pumping!”
I sat still on the edge of the bed as they charted my ticker’s progress or retrogression.
And Jackie stayed by me, patiently, but by and by I shooed her away. Ben called, and I’d be here for a while yet, and the bird was past steaming but still waiting to be eaten warmly with the meat so tender and juicy (apologies, vegans and vegetarians: I eat meat, but I don’t salt it anymore!) and the sides not yet cold and the agreeable guest ready to admit hunger even with his high WASP patrician training that would never say so directly. He would never make anybody ill at ease. Such was his upbringing, what they used to call breeding. Which he would toss out in a second and laugh about, and demonstrate instead its universal applicability, bringing out by his actions the best in people. There are princes found at the bottom and the top, and squeezed in between, and radiant princesses from all walks of life. And Hazard happens to be one of them. He is a good egg all around, to use the clubby speech of his immediate forebears.
So sing I the virtues of Hazard! If I can’t include a high WASP patrician college chum of Jackie’s in my medley of ethnicities and nationalities and just plain people making up the state I live in (he’s originally from back east, a New Englander, as denoted), I have accomplished nothing. I sat and brooded on the blank wall when she left me alone to go feast and make merry with Ben and Hazard. I was happy for them all.
I spent Thanksgiving evening watching The Last Waltz on public television on its fortieth anniversary. I had never seen it before, so got a real treat. I sat up in bed from 9:30 to 12:30 enjoying it. Jackie had come and gone again, sneaking in a slice of pumpkin pie that went down tastily. It was my second piece of the night. I had eaten a decent turkey dinner courtesy of the hospital cafeteria as soon as I got settled into my swank, grayly appointed monitored quarters on the second floor. I made myself comfortable and was not lonely, but alone. I crashed at 12:30 a.m. after clicking the TV off. I sat up at 4:00 a.m. when the nurse hooked me up again for the proper recording of my vitals. Everything looked good. I’m all right. I got discharged mid-afternoon with a new health regimen prescribed by a fine cardiologist, Dr. Lee.
“Where are you from?” he asked, shocking me.
“Los Angeles,” I said.
“Oh.” He stood at the foot of the bed. Jackie sat next to him in a visitor’s chair as he lectured me, very patiently, very knowledgeably.
“Just do as I’ve told you and I think I won’t see you here for another thirty years.”
“That’s it? I only got thirty more?”
“Or less.” Over his head on the big TV screen showing a nature show shot in the Maine woods in autumn, a moose lifted his head out of the river, shook its antlers dry, and bent its lips up in a grin. I swear this world is magical.
Trump can’t stop me. Bannon can’t kill me. The hate can’t slow me.
I got wheeled out of the hospital in my civilian clothes, of course, a bit rumpled but fresh enough. Jeans and a rich red and yellow flannel shirt that reminds me of the pomegranate tree outside my grandparent’s house in Montebello, down there in Southern California where I grew up. Fall. The colors. I thought of those two fine people and their immaculate barrio lot with a beautifully kept, two bedroom home near what had once been a brick yard, a major California supplier of bricks that used Mexican labor to amass a fortune and build up California, Simons Bricks. They planted a wonderful garden and sat out in the sunlight in the spring and summer and shooed the flies away and worried about nothing when it came to government. They had made it here with their parents, my great-grandparents who I never met, as children, and met and married, like my other grandparents in L.A. They had worked hard and thrived and bolstered the economy and trusted the United States government to take care of them, always, as long as they did right.
They did right. They came legally in another age, but got persecuted nonetheless for being different, for being Mexicans, for being Indians, for being brown; for not being purely European, at least in appearance, though some looked very European and some less so, etc., etc. – an extended Mexican family. They heard hateful things and got shamed in myriad blunt and piercing ways, and still believed in the goodness of the American government, that it would never let them down, that it would always protect them, that it was a bastion of sanity against the cruelty and murderous lawlessness they had seen as children in Mexico and heard enough about since to shudder when they heard the words, “Mexican government.”
“What government? You got the money, you got the law on your side. You got the power, you got the say in everything. Here, at least they respect the little people like us. We got our rights like them. Nobody can harass us for no reason. This is America, los estados unidos. This is why we came here. Government for the people, by the people. The rule of law.”
I stood up in the sunshine outside the hospital with much on my mind. This country felt threatening for the first time in my life. My government posed a menace against me and my kind, down the line, after the wetbacks had been taken care of. Call me paranoid. Call me hallucinatory. Call me prescient. Call me anything but dumb. I think my noodle is fair. I think the air is bad.
I got in my car. I drove home with Jackie at my side. I turned on the radio. I caught the latest news report. I turned it off. I couldn’t take it anymore, any of it, for a while. The lies, the outright fabrications tweeted out by our President-elect, the sudden cheapening of the presidency, the madness of an unbalanced man at the nuclear helm, the cowardice of the acquiescent Republican party, the silence of the churches and the synagogues and the mosques, the unreal acceptance of the unreal fact that a reality show TV star occupied the oval office, a man with no political experience, nothing to prepare him for the intricacies of diplomacy, of running a fucking country semi-competently.
My heart began to pound in my chest again, but I breathed out with relief when an old lady with a gray-haired black poodle crossed in front of us at a stop sign and beamed at us. She wore a tattered brown coat and bright red galoshes and walked with a hunch behind her dog, who trotted insouciantly, nose in the air, just like an aging poodle should. She topped it all off with a Make America Great Again hat. I smiled back at her.
“Let’s get home and make dinner,” I said. “I’m hungry.”
“Me, too,” Jackie said. “I love you.”
And my heart beat strong. And I knew nothing could scare me today, nothing.
And nothing could defeat our country that we love, the one that permits this expression and requires it, that revels in artistic madness and spiritual boldness, that loves to love because it’s right and calls America the greatest country on earth because it shelters the weird, the deformed, the strange, the unholy holy singular genius in us all, you and me and everybody else wounded and hurt and sorrowful and strong in our weakness, our holy, holy weakness, our sacred vulnerability, our irreducible humanity. No force could level this worthwhile America but our own cowardice. Fight on.
Stephen Gutierrez has published essays in many fine magazines and newspapers, including Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Santa Monica Review, Third Coast, Alaska Quarterly Review, Catamaran Literary Reader, ZYZZYVA, The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. He is a current Best of the Net and Pushcart Nominee for work that appeared in Waccamaw and Under the Gum Tree. He has published three books and won an American Book Award for his second, Live from Fresno y Los. He lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.