Nuestro Grupo: A Vignetted World


By Max Cheney

Johnston Emphasis: A Writer’s Angle: Fear & Loathing Under American Capitalism & Imperialism


This writing comes from my time studying in Oaxaca, Mexico...with certain characters.  During these four months, our group (nuestro grupo) was stationed in the city, which shares the same name as the Mexican state. 


We also traveled north to the mountains, south to the beaches, and east to Guatemala.  We didn’t go west.  The University of Redlands must have sensed trouble over there. 


The eleven of us took Spanish language classes every day of the week.  Twice during that week we took part in a separate class dealing with tourism & globalization.  This venture was taught, in English, by Pat, nuestra maestra who miraculously constructed our trip.  The remaining half of our semester credits were left up to us to complete individually. I took it upon my silly self to use this space for writing…




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Director of Latin American Studies; Professor of Women’s Studies & Sociology



We call her Pat.  The teachers at our language school call her Patricia.  But you can call her the PZA.  From the Wu-Tang Clan there are, of course, the GZA and the RZA.  From my clan there is the DZA, also known as my dad.  And now, there is the PZA. 


On our arrival in Oaxaca, Pat revealed to me her philosophy in five words.  I counted them up and was impressed.  Then she uttered in so many other words that if I publish them she’d break my ten fingers.


“Not my fingers,” I begged.


“All right then,” she clasped her fingers together and shot me a sloppy grin, “I’m glad our eyes are seeing each other on this.  Cause you know, you’re going need those fingers in class when I give you to the count of three to come up with a better answer.” 


“And what happens after three?” I asked like a sheep. 


“Well,” I got the look, “there are plenty of bones in the body that aren’t used for counting.”



Next to my menacing fear of Pat stands my bewilderment.   


Like it is nothing, she can take hold of a 2+2 question and make the answer come out a turkey sandwich. I don’t claim to know how she works, but I suspect that cold cuts are only one of the tricks up her many sleeves. I do claim to know that she works for the University of Redlands, but beyond that I am totally in the dark as to the banner she is waving.


In short: The PZA doesn’t need to answer to anyone but herself, even when the answer is obviously four.  Pat knows this, and lapses into her alter ego whenever she has had enough of you.



Obviously, Pat is a tough figure to size up.  One reason for this is that she doesn’t part with her milk money easily.  In fact, she cherishes her paycheck like most people cherish their left hand.  What is not as obvious is that Pat is right-handed, and waves it around emphatically when making a point: “I wouldn’t give you bullies the space & time of day without the persuasion of this little piece of paper,” she taunts us, gripping her paycheck in that revered left hand.


She tells it like it is, and we love her for it. 


“Tell it like it is,” we request of her.  And she does.


Whether this is heps us to the versatility of her hands or the “merely adequate” size of her salary, we listen.  But we also respond:


“I feel like you get paid an appropriate amount,” Caitlin came back in Pat’s direction one day. 


That day happens to be the one we all saw Caitlin last.  It must be a coincidence, though.  I just can’t convince myself that the PZA disappears students for fun. But all real evidence points to this: conviction is growing cheaper every dozen days.  And that isn’t as fast as peoples are vanishing, so watch your mouth around the PZA and watch your life insurance mature.



The PZA dreams of being one of America’s Most Wanted. 


“In what sense?” I had the nerve to ask her. 


She put on her eye goggles and went at me in a dialed tone.


“Well, how many senses do you got?” 


I knew I was in for something, but kept on anyway. 


“Five…I think.” 


She smirked. 


“Get another 20 and you got yourself a quarter.”

Pat reckons that America is past its prime. 


“You don’t say,” I responded. 


But she does say. She owns subversive sentiments on the subject, and refuses to get sentimental about it. 


“I refuse!” 


After she refuses she elaborates. 


Guatemala, Cuba, Vietnam…do you see a pattern here?” 


I hadn’t been listening, let alone seeing any patterns, and was snapped back into place by a rubber band shot at me by the PZA. 


Her rubber band demanded respect.


“Are you paying attention?! Cause I’ll only repeat myself four times.  Now, shut up.” 


“I wasn’t saying anything thou—” 





Pat tells us that she is pushing 50, but we tell her that 50 ain’t doing a good job of pushing back. A week of rough hiking in the mountains showed our group no signs of her slowing.  Pat actually hates signs.  “I’m using the word hate here, Max.”


When Pat uses words I use my ears.  But neither of us feels used afterwards. 


“Speak for yourself, Max.”


“What do you mean?” 


“Tell me you haven’t been talking with me so often because you’re writing a book about my life.” 


“Okay, I’m not.” 


“That’s a lie, Max.  I can see it painted all over your clown face. And be sure to quote me on that in your book.  By the way, do you have a title yet?” 


“Pat, I’m telling you, I am not writing a book about you.” 


“Here’s an idea: How to Use Someone for Personal Gain, by Max Smith.” 


“That’s not my name.”





Pat is convinced that vitamins are a conspiracy, but still takes them…with a grudge. 


“I take them with water, too.” 


I needed to know more.


“So who is to blame, Pat? The CIA, FBI?” 


“No.  There’s no agency or bureau behind this, Max.  It’s the vitamins themselves fuelling this lie.”


“I should be weary of the ones I take, then?” 


“Call it what you like, Max. I only know that they aren’t to be trusted.”

I wouldn’t advise calling Pat paranoid, or even calling her after dark.  She values her privacy. 


“It’s not just a seven-letter word to me, you know?” 


“How many letters does it have then, Pat?” 


“Don’t be such a smartass…no one knows that.”  



The PZA does know her astronomy.  There aren’t many objects flying in the sky that she couldn’t identify in 15 seconds flat. Sitting together in the Zocalo one afternoon after class, she proved it.


“All right, so-called PZA.  Let’s see what you got.  What is…that?!


I shot my finger toward the Mexican sky.


“That’s a plane, Max.”

“Not bad.  How about…that?!”


She gave me a troubled look.


“That’s the same plane.”

“Okay, good.  You’re paying attention.  But there is no way you’re getting three in a row.…that?!”

I knew I finally had her.

“Are you pointing at me, Max?”

“Hah!  No answer this time, huh?”



Questions & Answers, Questions & Answers.  Turn on your radio!  Tune up your radio!” I screamed at Pat one day.


“What are you yelling about, Max?”


“You know Hockey, right Pat?”




I told you before: I don’t watch sports.”

No, the Johnston band.”


“There is a band of Johnston hockey players?”

“No!  Ben and Jerm, remember?  You gave one of the opening speeches at their graduation last year.”


“I’m no good with names, or years really.  So stop jabbering about your Nutcracker on Ice and leave me be…Bull Fight just came on my IPod.


Stunned, I gawked as she skipped away, singing: “There’s been talk, going around the street! God, I love this track!”


The PZA abides.



If Pat were Catholic she would be a Liberation Theologist.  But she’s not, so instead she is a Vibration Theologist.


“A Good Vibration Theologist, actually, Max.”

On Sunday mornings Pat isn’t found in church, but in her living room, jiving and singing to The Beach Boys. She feels closer to her dogs, Bongo and Gypsy, because of it.

“They love when I do my Brian Wilson. They jump around and bark the good bark. It’s canine music to my ears.”

Pat can’t get enough of Pet Sounds.  She prides herself as more of a Beach Girl than a Beatle.


“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.  Who cares? Let’s go fucking surfing…right now.”

The PZA’s priorities are straight, breaking, and narrow.


Pat’s gig down here is foolproof: she is researching tourism.  Everything our group does in and around Oaxaca is candy for her academic brain.

“I’m not complaining, Max.”

And she better not be, because my tuition money is paying for part of her trip.


“Do you have to be so forward, Max?”

“Well, I’m not walking backwards, if that’s what you’re asking.  All I’m saying is that you have done well for yourself.”

“All right, I’ll accept that.”

“You better, because my money—”





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Johnston: Political & Economic Development in Latin America



Paulo is a Brazilian born in American clothing.  That is, he sometimes lives in Venezuela on the United Nation’s bill and always boasts of his ability to travel to Cuba.


His cigarette smoking reminds historians of Stalin’s pact with the Nazis, in that a healthy relationship with tobacco cannot last.


Luckily for his lungs, Paulo ain’t into history.  His interest in politics & economics is very real, though. 


The moral of his introduction is to learn that Paulo is a neoliberalist like Charles Manson was a humanist. 



Paulo is firm in denying any relation between goats and his goatee.  He stipulated that I emphasize this point clearly in the writing of Nuestro Grupo. 


“I never thought there was any connection P.  You mentioned it.” 


Yeah, I mentioned it.  I mentioned it because I heard through the Oaxacan grapevine that you hone a nasty penchant for wordplay, you thin-lipped pheasant.”


Jesus.  I’ve never been accused of confusing a person’s goatee with a goat, and I sure as hell have never been called a thin-lipped pheasant.  What even is a pheasant? 


“It’s you!” Paulo enlightened me. 


“How did you hear my inner-monologue?!” 


“You were moving your thin, pheasant lips, that’s how, you, you—.” 


I ran out of the room before Manson or Stalin joined in on the berating.



Playing soccer across the Mexican town, I was impressed by Paulo’s agility. 


“Agility, Max.  That’s a-g-i—.” 


“I know how to spell it.”


“Just making sure…pheasant!” 


He cried the last word and then ran out of the room himself.


Paulo has taught me that talk of pheasants gets people on the move.



To wrap Paulo up best, tranquilize him and then tape till you drop.  These two things are crucial, because he is strong, stronger than any wrapping paper that you’re likely to find. 


I tried to wrap him up one night while he was sleeping, but did not get far.  I was set on mailing him to Alaska, but was out of tranquilizers…


“What the fuck?!  Max?! What are you doing?!” 


“It was a joke, Paulo.”


“Smothering me with, what is this, wrapping paper in the middle of the night?!  How did you get in here anyway?!” 


“I can’t remember. But wouldn’t that have been funny if you woke up in fucking Alaska?  What would you have done?  Ha!” 




Paulo doesn’t relate to my sense of humor.



You can tell Paulo that his name begins with a P, but he is more likely to do the jig than listen to you.  “I’ve always seen myself as more of a dancer than a linguist.”  He is a good dancer, but I am suspicious of his words, since he usually puts them together very well. 


“You’re telling me you’re not a linguist, Paulo?” 


“Max, I could tell you that the earth is round or that Bob Saget is a comic genius of our time, but it just doesn’t have that same appeal, that same flavor, as the dance floor.” 


It’s always a Full House in the mind of Paulo. 


Paulo really listens to music when it’s playing, and will let you in on this point in the main event of a heart to heart.


“You hear that?!  Yeah!!”  He looks to the stereo and bounces his head. 


“Paulo, nothing is playing.”


“I know.  I was talking about my heart.” 

He treasures his organs, and is uneasy about donation. 


“I mean, I’ll give some blood here and a pocket full of change there, but the idea of a Barry Manilow or an Alexander Haig walking around with my shit just rubs me the wrong way, you know?  Kind of like this...” 


He demonstrates by massaging his own arm.


Sure Paulo, I know.



Paulo takes himself seriously.  He also takes cream in his coffee.  And it’s usually when caffeine has hold of him that he hops around like a bunny, threatening anyone who thinks he’s joking around.


“When I get in bunny-mode I get a little aggressive, that’s all.” 


The next warning goes out to the reader: if Paulo invites you to a café, bring a pocket full of baby carrots with you to keep him subdued. 


“God, Max.  Can’t I have a more appealing alter-ego than a rabbit?”


“It’s a bunny actually, Paulo, but thanks for asking.” 


Thanks for asking?”


“You see Paulo, just like a bunny you don’t know how to say you’re welcome when thanked.” 


Even with the luck of his feet Paulo was victim to my reason in this case.



Paulo would be a man of few words if he didn’t talk so much. 


“I need a lot more than a few to get what I’m meaning across.”   


Even while using many, Paulo chooses his words carefully. 


“If by carefully you mean out of a hat, then you’re right on, Max.”  


I finally knew why Paulo was always carrying with him a sombrero full of paper scraps. 


“You didn’t know what that was for?” 


“I just thought you were always looking to play charades.”



Paulo knows that great ideas cannot come all the time, but is confused why they can’t come more often. It’s not that he hasn’t had one or two great ones himself.  He just wants that number multiplied by 10 or so.  “That’s like, 10 or 20!” 


I had a great idea to play games with him.


“Maybe you could invent a machine that multiplies ideas for you.” 


But his mind was already playing games with itself.


“No, Max.  I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves.” 


He latched onto my arm and sparked a light bulb in his head. 


“I’ve got it, George!”


“I’m Max.” 


“We can invent a machine that multiplies numbers!” 


“Like a calculator?” 


“George, you genius!  You have a name for it already?!”



Paulo has been rockin’ the Oaxacan streets like a hurricane.  But the damage he leaves behind is more desirable than anything. “I leave people wanting more, that’s for sure.”
There is plenty of Paulo to go around, but around & around may be too much.  “I’m not a fucking carnival ride.”


But you do have to pay for his company.  Time is money in his world, and if you find yourself a part of it you better be giving him one or the other.


“And time isn’t an easy thing to give.  So that doesn’t leave us much of a choice, does it Paulo?”

I’m not listening.”


He stuck his hand out in front me.


“Are you serious?” I asked.

“What do you mean, am I serious?  Of course I am.  You were just writing about it, remember?”

I reached into my pocket and felt only my house key.


“I’m a little short right now, Paulo.”

“Don’t give me that shit.  You’re the tallest one in the group!”



Paulo, along with Alejandro, is learning the language of the Zapotecs, a people native to these Oaxacan parts.

“That’s #4 on my list!”

He is already fluent in English, Spanish and Portuguese.  Or so he says he is.

“Don’t knock my list just because it’s nicer than yours, Max.”


“Don’t worry, Paulo. The only knockin’ I’m doing is on heaven’s door.  And all I want on my list when I get there is a nice looking #2.”


“I didn’t think you were a heaven and hell kind of a guy.”

“Oh, I’m not.  I just want to display the phrase #2 to the dude at the gate.”



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Johnston: International Public Health; Art of Expression



Kiva jumps around all day to prove the naysayers wrong.  “What naysayers?” I ask.  You know,” she accuses me, before jumping out of the room.


She’s often ambiguous, and is proud of it.  Her pride is full of prejudice, but the kind of prejudice that would set even Jane Austin straight.

She’d call herself a novelist if she wrote novels.  Instead, she calls herself Kiva, not because she writes Kivas, but because she likes the sound of it.  “It’s got a nice, cha-cha beat, don’t you think?”


Whatever you say Kiva.  And whatever you say Kiva, is right.  Just ask her. She wouldn’t call herself confident and cocky as much as she would cocky and confident.  “It comes with the territory,” she says, motioning to the ground around us.  I look around and look confused.  She jumps on my looks every chance she gets.  “Don’t look confused Max, it doesn’t come with your territory.”



Kiva is experiencing Mexico to its fullest.  Her gas tank is far from empty and not exploding anytime soon.

But in the event of fires, Kiva rains down from the sky to tell everyone to chill out.  No matter how hard the heat tries to win her senses over, Kiva keeps her cool by wording her way through the flames that draw near.  Later, and with her ass out of the kitchen, she draws pictures of her heroic acts to add to the experience.  The only thing that takes away is the Lord, and Kiva is fine with that, as long as that Lord doesn’t start any fires that she isn’t given first crack at.


Kiva prefers wearing solid colors, but when playing pool will throw a fit if she is not stripes. 

Even though she is no shark or hustler, do not bet on whether or not she can take a chunk out of your leg in one bite. She’s a biter, and has the teethes to prove it.  “Check these babies out!” she screams and smiles real big for all to see.



Kiva draws stars because the five points remind her of her home, New York.  There are five points that once described her best, but going to school in California and studying abroad in Oaxaca has changed more than her time-zone.  It is better then just to listen.


So I did, and heard this:


“I like to read more than write, but write more than read.”


I told her I should read her her rights after a statement like that.  She said she’d write to the governor if I did.


Kiva is the youngest on our trip, and won’t divulge her age without a fight, or at least a guessing game. 


“The number lays somewhere between a baker’s dozen and the letters in the alphabet.” 


“That doesn’t give me much to work with, Kiva.” 


“Sure it does.  You can be a cook or a pre-school teacher.”



When feeling particularly saucy, Kiva wraps a towel around her head to keep people on their toes as to the color of her hair. 


“Have you ever been called a towelhead?” I needed to know. 


“Do you think you’re funny, Max?”


I was set to respond, but she wasn’t finished.


“That was a rhetorical question, but I still want an answer from you in exactly as many seconds as you have years.” 


I followed her directions, counting to what I thought was 20. 


“Well, I—,” was cut off.


“Stop!  You’re older than that…okay, go!” 


“Yeah, I guess I’m funny.”


“You guess wrong, funnyman!” 


I told Kiva that she was funny. 


“Flattery won’t make you any funnier, Max.”



“Max, you’re lucky.”



“Almost all of the letters in your name are found in the word Mexico.”


“So what?”


“Well, after being told all my life that there is no I in team, it’s hard reconciling that there is one in Kiva, especially when it’s the only letter I share with Mexico.”


“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Kiva.  You share more with Mexico than the letter I.”


Thanks, Max.  You’re always there for me, whether I’m hung up on global poverty or the letters in my name.”


“I help where I can, Kiva. Just remember whose name practically is Mexico.”


“I can’t believe you, Max!”


“Just joking!”



Kiva has been known to get the fear. 


“They’re trying to kill me!”


When she gets like this I pull out my copy of Catch 22 and deal with her as Dobbs would.


“Who is, Kiva?  And don’t tell me them.”


“The U.S. government, that’s who!  I thought I’d be safe in Mexico!”


“They’re trying to kill everyone, not just you.”

“What difference does that make?!  No, this is all wrong.  I’ll be lucky to live out the week.”

There is just no calming Kiva.



When Kiva broke her toe in Puerto Escondido I smothered her with perspective:

“It’s better than a broken heart.”

I won’t spell out what she said to that, because she was in a lot of pain.  I’ll just write that she wasn’t calmed.


“You’re fucking right I wasn’t calmed.  First I have to deal with the hurt of a broken bone and then you expect me to fidget with your trite comfort?”


“I’m sorry, Kiva.  I was trying to help.”

“Well, I suppose you did take my mind off of my toe for a moment.”


“So you forgive me?!”

Relieved, I stepped towards her for a hug.

“Oww!!  Max, you stepped on my toe!  Ahh!!”  She looked down.  “It’s already swollen again!  Owww!!!”


I had to think fast.

“It’s better than a swollen ego, Kiva.”


Kiva does her best in comforting me when I dwell on home. 

California just seems so far away.”

“Max, you know that I’m from New York.  So you also know that I’ve been experiencing what you’re feeling since before you were born…or, uh, at least the last couple of years.”


I didn’t pick up on her curious exaggeration.

“So how do you deal with it then, Kiva?”


“Well, the recipe for it is this, Max…”


I was at full attention, so to speak.

“First you throw in two cups of flour. Then, along with three eggs, pour in a tall glass of water.  This is where you’re going to have to do some serious work, because—.”


“Wait.  What are you telling me, Kiva?”


“I’m giving you advice on how to bake a cake.”




“That’s what you asked for, wasn’t it?”



Again, she does her best.





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Johnston: International Public Health with an emphasis in Pre-Med



Paras may not have been born in America, or be crazy about apple pie, or play baseball, or…wait a minute.


“You call yourself an American, Paras?” 


“No, I call myself Paras.  And what makes you more American than me?” 


She had a point, so I panicked and did some pointing of my own, to the sky behind her. 


“What’s that?!”  I started to move for the door, but she wasn’t falling for it. 


“Never mind.”  She looked at me squarely.  “You’re about as American as they come.” 


She was on to me, and I was only digging myself deeper… 


“Just because Kurt Cobain said to come as you are doesn’t mean that you can fancy whatever kind of pie you please, Paras.” 


“Max, what are you on, lithium?!” 


I wasn’t, but might as well have been.  My nationalism had never developed, and Paras showed me that Oaxaca was no place to start.



Paras is not part of the Wu-Tang Clan like the PZA, but she wishes she was. Cash rules everything around her, and all she wants is a piece of the action. 

I knew that would prove difficult.


“Paras, the Wu already has a PZA, so who would you be?  No, no, no. It couldn’t work.”


But like all aspiring members of the Wu-Tang Clan (myself included), Paras was determined.


“I don’t have to go the GZA and DZA route with my name.  I was thinking: Sparkalicious P, or 2 Crude, or Cap Poppa.”


I was far from convinced.


“Paras, it ain’t an easy life.  You got to be able to rhyme Socrates with philosophies and hypotheses at the start of a song and the drop of a hat.  Can you do that?”

“Drop my hat?”


“This is what I mean, Paras. You’re more Pet Smart that Street Smart.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, okay.  Can you tell me what time it is on the street right now?”


She perked up.

“Yeah!  It’s half-past four.”

Sparkalicious P may have a tight name, but she isn’t made for the rap game, I fear.

“But you’re also afraid of butterflies, Max.”

“So!  Who isn’t?”

“The PZA, for one.
  Cause she’s hhhaaarrrrddd like a criminal.”

“Paras, don’t quote Method Man, and don’t rub it in my face that I’m not as hard as the PZA, okay?!”

“Hey Max, what’s that behind you?”

“What is it?”

A butterfly!”



I raced away screaming harder than most would have.


Paras was once told that her name sounds like a French city. 


“It doesn’t matter to me,” she looked this person back into their eyes, “that you can turn water into wine or make an Eiffel Tower come out of a rabbit’s hat.  I know what my name is.  But you’re right, it does sound like Marseille.”



She tells me that her favorite flower is a fern. 


“That’s not a flower, Paras.” 


“Who are you, the secret police of vegetation?!” 


“No, it’s just not—.”


“Here’s a secret for you, Max: take your knowledge of petals & pollen & subtlety and go sell it to the government!” 


I felt wronged.  Just because my favorite flower wasn’t a fern didn’t make me a crook.

Paras wasn’t having it:


“Oh, so you’re not a crook?!  I bet next you’re gonna tell me that you didn’t vote for Nixon!”

“That was before I was alive!”

A likable story.”

Do you mean a likely story?”


“Shut your mouth, tricky dick.”


I walked away crushed.



Paras’ interests range from medicine to language to cooking.  They lay all over the place, but she has never driven that range of interest to embrace golfing. 


“I just haven’t been able to find any outfits goofy enough to start up the habit.” 


“That’s a stereotype, Paras.” 


“You’re dead wrong, Max. If anything, the stereotype is that women can find anything while shopping.” 


Well, at least I wasn’t dead meat.



Paras is not in the habit of developing habits.  She doesn’t even develop her pictures.  “They belong in the camera.” 


And the habits that do court Paras do it out of necessity more than anything.

“I breath every day.”



One way to make Paras upset is by pushing the wrong button.  In Mexico City she did not take kindly to my pressing ‘3’ instead of ‘2’ on the elevator at our hotel. 


“What the hell is going through your mind, Max?!  What floor do you think I live on?!”


I apologized.  She rocked on:


“Max, in this world of robotics and artificial intelligence do you think you can afford to be pulling shit like that?  Soon you’ll be as disposable as my dog’s diapers?”


“Your dog wears diapers?”



“Paras, you really remind me of this woman I knew who I traveled with through Latin America.  Let’s see…she was born in Iran, very tan, speaks four languages and is learning her fifth, has a slight fear of dogs and water—”


“Max, wait.  I hope you haven’t wasted the last 15 seconds of my life babbling about how I remind you of myself.”

“Don’t be silly, Paras.  Someone can’t remind another person of that same person.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  So who are you describing, then?”

“You, of course! You know Paras, you remind me of someone I knew who didn’t think before they spoke.”

“Ah, Max!  You’re driving me crazy!”


“That reminds me of—”


“Shut up!”



As contrary as that last example may lead 1 2 believe, Paras and I don’t need to both be wearing Chuck Taylor’s in order to maturely Converse. 

When we rap we bring our A-Z game every time, just to cover all our bases.


“What bases am I covering, Max?  And more importantly: who gave you license to employ such a painful cliché in writing about me?”

“Paras, I was saying that you and I are capable of more than miscommunication and argument.”

“Well that’s where you went wrong, wasn’t it Max?  How about this for communication: the next time you write about me covering some base, take the paper you’re using, crumple it up, and choke on it.”


Paras gave me 110% of her anger on that one.



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Sociology Major & Spanish Minor



When she isn’t being offed by the PZA, Caitlin leads a normal life.  But not a quiet one.  At our first class meeting Caitlin said that in Oaxaca she wants to find something to “spark” her passion, but she obviously has been sparked in some way already.  Her frantic movements & bursts of noise are both endearing and cause for violent laughter.


I see in her a sensitivity that I relate to.

Sensitivity will buy you a lot this day and age, but no matter the day of the week or the years you’ve endured, it won’t think twice about kicking you to the curb and scoffing at your plea for cab fare. To put it sensitively, it works in mysteriously cruel ways.  Caitlin knows this, and would put her money where her mouth was if she could track either down. 



Caitlin surprises me more & more every day.  Usually it’s on my way to school, where she’ll jump out from behind a turn and scream in my face.  But other times it is with her attractive nature.  And she doesn’t have magnets in her pockets, so it must be due to something special, something that I can’t put my finger on. 


“I don’t care how many compliments you dish out, don’t touch me.”


Don’t worry Caitlin, I said that I can’t put my finger on it.



At Redlands, Caitlin finds herself in a sorority.  I asked if she ever pondered finding her way out, and her response told me no.  “No.”  She likes the company, and is not scared to put her stock into it.  Although I myself would never join a sorority, I respect her choice.



Caitlin’s hair doesn’t reach her waist, but that doesn’t mean that her life is a waste and will never reach great heights. 


“Don’t even allude to that, Max.  I’m going straight to the top!” 


She was so sure.  I wasn’t.


“What if we all move underground, Caitlin?” 


“That won’t happen, Max. God, you’re so negative.  I’m surprised you’re not already underground with that attitude…six feet under the ground.”

She doesn’t know that I plan to be cremated, but Caitlin isn’t one for details. 


“I’m not two for them either!” 


Caitlin just is not a number person.  They put her off so much that she keeps track of her age by letters in the alphabet. 


“I just turned U the other week.” 


“That’s great, Caitlin, very reassuring.  So what happens when you turn 27?” 


“There you go again, Max. Jesus!”



Caitlin won’t look into the future unless she is getting paid to. 


“How’s that, Caitlin?”


“That’s Madame Caitlin to you.  Now, put your money on the table.” 


“I don’t have any money on me.” 


“I foresee someone getting angry with you in the near future.” 


“What are you talking about?” 


“Goddammit, Max!”



Caitlin’s Spanish has gotten very good.


“I wish I could say the same about your English, Max.”

“What do you mean?”

Has gotten very good?  What are you, in sixth grade?”

Caitlin is much nicer to me when speaking in Spanish.

“No es verdad, Maximiliano, y tu lo sabes.”


No matter the language, Caitlin gives me a time that should never be described as soft.


“How should it be described then, Mr. Smart Guy?”


“I’d say you give me a hard time.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  I’d probably use the word soft more to describe you.”


“God, Caitlin.  Can you let up a little?”

“No.  But I can let you down, numbnuts.”


It was the first time in my adult life that I had been called numbnuts…and it hurt.


“Ah, did that hurt, Max?”

“Yeah, a little.”

“They can’t hurt if they’re numb, can they, Sherlock?”


She got me, yet again.



But it is important to note that not all of our interactions end in name-calling. 


“Yeah they do, Shit for Brains!”


“You’re not writing this tale Caitlin, I am!”


“Whatever you say, Cattle Tongue.”


“Did you just call me, Cattle Tongue?”


“You heard me, Champagne Crotch.”


At least she can get original.



And speaking of champagne, Caitlin is not shy to kick back a few on a night out in Oaxaca.  She is 21 years of age, but doesn’t need to be in order to drink in this country.


“I don’t have to be anything I don’t want to be,” she will announce with a twang at the end of a long night.

And I don’t dare tell her otherwise.  I’m too young.



Caitlin hasn’t wasted any time adopting herself into Latin American culture. 


“Sometimes the adoption process takes sooo long.  So I thought I’d do it myself, minus the paperwork.”


She ingratiates herself to people quicker than she drops it like it’s hot.  And for those of us ingratiated, we know that is fast work.


Caitlin’s key to unlocking Mexican hearts is gold and fits most doors.

“I carry it with me wherever I go.” 

The rest of the group has tried to make copies, but the man at the key shop is so sweet on Caitlin that he won’t do it without her permission.


“Caitlin!” we scream in unison.  “Give us the key…or at least tell it to us!”

“Are you all ready for the storybook ending?”

“Yes!” we scream on.


“It’s inside of each one of you.”




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Johnston: Examining Economics from the Cultural Perspective of Latin America (Emphasis in the Spanish Language)



The first thing Bri will tell you is that she is light on her feet.  And when it’s not light out her feet are next to tell you to stop making so much noise, that they are trying to sleep.  Light looms large in Bri’s life, larger than her feet are willing to admit. 


The raw fact is that all parts of Bri’s body have a mind and sleep schedule of their own, and the rest of us are just rooks in this lethargic game of hers.



Bri is not a cheese, or a piece of meat.  She identifies with vegetarians, but at the same time is suspicious of their politics. “What is identity, anyway?”


She was getting philosophical on me, but I had been concentrating more on my hamburger.  I tried to answer still. 


“Well, I think of it like this.” 


After many moments of silence and many bites of burger…


“Yeah, like what, Max?”


“That’s all, just like that.”


I may not impress Bri with my identity politics, but I’m not out to impress…only to dress.  And she knows this. 


“Yeah, Max is usually dressed when he gets to school.” 


And proud of it.


Bri looks at her pride as one of her fiercest attributes.  “Look at it with me Max.  Pretty nice, huh?” 


I wasn’t sure of what we were looking at, but knew that I couldn’t afford to appear timid. “Yeah…it’s, it’s really nice Bri.”


Bri has heard the word timid before.  Or has seen it, on a billboard that caught the corner of her eye.  It wouldn’t let her peeper go without a fight, and Bri was more than game.  She won that scuffle and has never been timid since.


Bri hates the caste system as much as she does wearing casts for broken bones.  “Both are so goddamn constraining and make showering almost impossible.” 


Right on.


For Bri, holidays are an opportunity to catch up on sleep.  “I can’t remember the last Christmas I was awake for.”  And it’s not that she isn’t traditional.  “I guess I’m not too traditional.”  Maybe it is.  But she never contradicts herself.  “It’d be hard to find someone more traditional that I am.”  Maybe sometimes.


Bri wears sunglasses for her eyes.  “They aren’t for my feet.”  On her feet she wears shoes.  And she doesn’t need to make public that they’re not for her eyes. 


Her philosophy may appear both simple & nonsensical, but it isn’t, because it is.


When a problem confronts her, Bri rubs two sticks together for good luck.  I don’t pretend to know why, but it is funny as hell to witness.


“This is no joke, Max.” 


“Why the sticks, though?” 


“Why not the sticks?  That’s the better question.” 


“Well, whatever.  Good luck with that, Bri.” 


“I don’t need your blessing.  That’s what the sticks are for wise guy.” 



Bri wouldn’t call what she did at the beach “fainting” as much as “losing her breath & vision before falling to the ground.”


Fainting is such a backward expression.”


Whatever she calls it, I was shook up.


“Don’t be such a baby, Max.”

“Bri, I had to catch you, for Christ’s sake.”


“No, you did it for my sake. And will you get over it.  I’m awake now aren’t I?”


Bri looks at the world like at the Pope looks at a Basquiat painting.  Either that or how a Basquiat painting looks at the Pope.



If you want to hear Bri rant, mention the story of Rumpelstilskin. 


“What did you just write, Max?”




“No, don’t get me started on that.”


“No, go ahead.  That’s why I wrote it.”


She went ahead.

“I can barely stand having my hair past my shoulders.  Why is it that in most cultures women are required to have long hair in order to appear and feel beautiful?  And how is it at all appropriate to promote to children the idea that women are effectively held captive in the world and are helpless to any action until their male rescuer arrives to conquer the scene?  And who throws a shoe, honestly?”


“Bri, I was very much with you until that last one.  I think that was a line from the movie Austin Powers.”

“Max, you’re no man of mystery.  I see right through you.  Are you trying to tell me that Mike Myers didn’t intend that movie to reach its audience as a feminist critique of Rumpelstilskin?”


“As cool as of an idea as that sounds Bri, no.  I don’t think so.”

“Well ain’t that a bitch.”



The semester before our Oaxacan adventure Bri was studying in Bolivia.  She had a head start on the Latin American game, and it shows.  She works her magic throughout Mexico with more Grace than Will, & any magicians I know.


“Do you actually know any magicians, Max?”


“I don’t think so.”

“Well thanks for the compliment, then.”

Bri’s sarcasm is smooth also.

“You’re not being sarcastic in writing that, are you Max?”

“I’m never sarcastic, Bri.”




In a Oaxacan café Bri asked about Nuestro Grupo.


“How’s it coming along?”

Not bad.”

So has anything wild gone on in it lately?”

If I remember right, the last thing that happened was you calling me a bastard.”

“Wild!  What did you do to deserve that?”

“I think I alluded to how sarcastic you are.”


“You bastard!”


It’s a Sid Vicious cycle, this story, but nothing beats a semester-long holiday in the sun.



When I made it known to Bri that the term “Fear and Loathing” best spells out my disposition, she advocated that I travel to Las Vegas or to hop on a Campaign Trail.

“Because there’s lots of it there?” I asked.

“No, because it’s away from me!”


Bri’s atavistic paranoia may even outstrip my own. 


“Did you see what God just did to Hunter Thompson last year, Max?”

“God didn’t do it Bri, he did it to himself.”


No hired nostalgia or addled sensationalism is required here to write that the man was an exceptional writer.  Some owe him more than others.




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Johnston: Creativity: Designing Costumes and Teaching Spanish



Jo, Jo, Jo.  I just wrote it three times and am still not satisfied.  It rolls off the tongue just as well as the pen.  And it’s also the name of my sister, so I don’t lack practice in pronouncing it.


Jo is no stranger to pronouncement.  When she has something on her mind she’ll look straight into a mirror and check it out, before giving it the confronting of a lifetime. 


She won’t stand for drama, or sit around for it either. 


The last time she sat still for more than five minutes the rights to her life story were sold to a Mexican telenovella.  She screamed & screamed, but rights are rights, and bad television is bad television.


Jo likes to work with her hands, and has serious doubts about people who don’t.  She threw her doubt onto me with a hypothetical question:


“Are you telling me you’d turn your back—even for a second—on a person who works with their feet, Max?” 


It was far too hypothetical for me.


“I don’t know Jo, I haven’t really thought about the distinction, I guess.” 


“That’s your problem Max, you don’t think.  And you’d rather use your feet to kick a soccer ball around the block than build that block with your hands.”


My hands and feet had no idea what she was talking about.


But her obsession with hands looks sound compared to her collection of Three’s Company action figures.  Her favorite is Suzanne Somers. 


“I really respect her.”


I don’t dare tell Jo that I’ve never seen the show, and wouldn’t even if she dared me to.



Jo has never been one or two to take dares, or tell the truth.  I still feel betrayed in recently hearing that Jo isn’t even her real name. 


What are people supposed to believe these days? 


It’s a question Jo asks herself when she isn’t playing Truth or Dare.  The answer appears like the Virgin of Guadalupe, but it doesn’t move her religiosity except to make her think to herself, “Goddamn are we lost.”


And I couldn’t agree more. If I did the Virgin might appear & tell me to do it less, because it’s becoming tired, my stinking agreeable game. 


Jo won’t call me agreeable until I agree to join her in the Revolution.  I’m holding out until she tells me what kind.



Even when she is caught wearing bland colors Jo is a bold woman.  One time during a sobriety test she told the cop to walk a straight line. She also said to hop on one foot and move like a peacock.  Luckily, Jo clarifies later, this was only a daydream. 


“But it happened at night,” she keeps on with the clarity.


No, Jo may be a precise one, but she isn’t crazy.  She does, however, have a name for each one of her fingers. 


“What are they, Jo?”


“Well, that would defeat the purpose of naming them, wouldn’t it?” 


Really?  What’s the purpose?” 


“Well, do you have names for your fingers?” 




“Hah!  Exactly.” 


Jo and I weren’t on the same page on that one, or even the same book. 



Jo & I played volleyball on the beach in Puerto Escondido.

“Max, you’re not trying to allude to us having some sort of fling, are you?”

“No!  I was writing about volleyball.”

“Good.  Cause I know you have a girlfriend, and I don’t think my reputation could handle a story of my hooking up with someone like you.”

Someone like me?”

Don’t make me out to be the bad girl. I’m good looking, there’s no arguing it.”

“Of course, but I wish you would be more sensitive.”


“Sorry, Max, but sensitive isn’t my middle name, it’s Lanchi.  It’s Vietnamese for orchid.  What’s yours?” 



“Ah, that makes sense. That’s Vietnamese for dunce.”



I must have come across Jo at a peculiar time, because she is usually humble.


“I’m as modest as a mouse.”


Whatever her mood, never cross Jo.

“Only tell it to me straight, because the one thing as sincere as my modesty is my knowledge of karate.”


“But you use it only in self-defense, right Jo?”

“And the same goes for my modesty.  So please, do not get aggressive.”

Of course not, Jo.”

Oh, of course not.  Like you know everything, and my advice is worthless to you?”

“Jo, what are you, doing your Joe Pesci impression?  I’m telling you what you want to hear.”

It was the last thing I was able to tell anyone for a week, because I got kicked in the mouth. 



Jo believes herself to be a victim of the modern age.  But like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, she is all talk.  If Jo is not using her laptop all night then she is out shopping all day. She’s a victim, all right.


“You’re a victim like Alexander De Large was cured, Jo.”

“Max, with all of your pop culture references, I’m not curious if you’re a victim…I know you’re one.  I’m more curious about whether you get off on it or not.  And I think the answer is yes.”

“Did Phil Hartman inspire you to say that from his grave, you filthy old soomka?”

Jo may be brave, but I’m in-courage-able.



I am betting that Jo is in competition with Caitlin to see who can more often produce the loudest noises in all of Oaxaca. But I’m not actually placing any bets, because it would only serve as encouragement.  With these two women being the only other students in my Spanish class every morning, I am never in danger of falling asleep.


“I keep you on your toes at least, Max…Ahhh!!!!”


“Don’t do that,” I let out my best Doc Daneeka.

But no matter what I say, Jo always brings the noise.

“I do Chuck D proud.”

“Well anybody who knows anything knows that, Jo.”



Seven days out of the week Jo can be found watching the movie The Big Lebowski. 


“You don’t ever give yourself a day off from it Jo, to rest?”


She put on her hairnet.

“What’s this bullshit?!  What’s this day of rest shit?!  I don’t give a fuck!  It don’t matter, to Jo.”


Jesus, Jo. Are you sure you don’t need a break?”


She changed into her pacifist cap.


“Fuck it, Max.  Let’s go bowling.”


Just because she likes the movie doesn’t make her a sap.




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Johnston: The Art of Service



Aaron is postmodern, but only to a 98.6 degree.  That is, his dream is to write about modern life in the Washington Post. 


When he dreams his eyes get big.  When his eyes get big there is no stopping him from searching out a kid in a candy store to tell all about his future column.


He’s always looking for something.  And something can mean a lot in Aaron’s world, especially when his body temperature determines his interpretation of truth and difference.


But Aaron doesn’t mind the ambiguity of his trek.  He views life as a crapshoot just like he views his Saturday morning cartoons. 


No matter the day of the week, Aaron is on track.



The thing I love best about Aaron is that he knows his shit stinks.  We shared a room on all of our excursions away from Oaxaca City, so he knows mine does as well.  But not many do these days, while still many go about doing their business.  “There’s nothing complex about it,” he says, “no critical analysis is needed here.”


But don’t be fooled, he is no fool.  He does not shy away from hard thinking.  He calls on all people who do it softly to do us all a favor and flush their pretense down the toilet.  


I’m with him, but not in the bathroom.



Aaron doesn’t need the help of a calculator in order to count up all the times he has had a knife pulled on him. And he doesn’t want one either.  And he doesn’t want it either. 


“I fucking hate math.”


He’d rather be held up for his IPod than have to sit through an hour of calculus.  It’s a sensitive Area, but his mom had to threaten him with a knife each morning to get him to school for 1st period math. 


“Teresa?!  No way.” 


“Yes way, Ted!  I mean, Max.  And trust me, she is scarier with a blade than those Oaxacan punks.”



Aaron is a dreamer.


“I had one the other night. I was roaming around and I saw this poster of myself reading Moby Dick.” 


I was so confused I thought I was dreaming. 


“So let me make this clear, Aaron.  On the poster was an image of you with the words Moby Dick, or it was a picture of you reading the book?”


“It’s not important, Max.”


Aaron is laid back when it comes to clarification.


He continued. 


“Just know that it was lit up by a streetlamp named Desire, that was orange, definitely not in black & white.”


Aaron has obscure & aging cultural references coming out of his ears. 


“I’m going to a specialist about it, actually.  I have an appointment with Dr. Quinn next week.”

But Aaron doesn’t bow down to everything that science (or Dr. Quinn) tells him.  With his Irish skin, he wears sunscreen even when indoors.  “Who says UV rays can’t go through walls?  That’s all I’m asking.” 


And it was all he was asking, because I haven’t heard him ask a question since.



I asked Aaron if he considered himself abstract. 


“I’m no more abstract than a sack of potatoes.” 


I wasn’t sure how abstract that was, but pretended like I did. 


“That’s pretty abstract, huh?” 


“You can’t fool me, Max. You abstracted that reply from your ass, didn’t you?” 


I nodded.  “I guess I did.” 


“Now that is fucking abstract!”



“All right, Aaron, I got a good one.”


“A good what?”


“Just listen.  If your life were a puzzle, how many pieces would it have?” 


“You would ask that question, Max.” 


“I would, and I did.”


“Well…ha!  Probably a piece for each year I’ve been alive.” 


I counted them up.


“Only 21 pieces?  That doesn’t sound like a tough puzzle.” 


“It hasn’t been a tough life.”



Aaron doesn’t need to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez to know that history has a nasty way of repeating itself.  This current era of America he has read about elsewhere all before. 


“Keeping people poor isn’t the way to do things.” 


And he’s on to something.


“I’m on to more than something, Max.  You may be a Republican stooge, but here in the real world, things aren’t so simple.”


“I’m no Republican!” 


“Your name is Cheney, isn’t it?” 


“Yeah, and yours is Mayer.  That doesn’t mean you’re a goddamn hot dog.” 


Now I was on to something.



Aaron has taken an interest in religion.


“And I’ve never taken communion without knowing what I was doing, unlike your dumb, atheist ass, Max.”


He was referring to a tragic tale of years past in which a priest spoke bad words at me after I had upset his process.


“Hey, give me a break. I’m a child of divorce.”

“You’re an American Psycho, that’s what you are.”


“I resent that, Aaron.” I paused.  “I’d rather you not speak of my nationality.”


“Whatever God created you is kicking themselves in the ass right now, that’s all I know.”

“Don’t assume that, Aaron.”

“Oh boy, here comes the atheism.  Assume what, Max?”

“That the God who created me has an ass.”



Aaron has never smoked a cigarette in his life.  Call it social conditioning or call it a tobacco-free worldview, and Aaron will call you exactly right.  He’s never caught on to the attraction and likely never will.

“Maybe I had smoke blown in my grill as a child, I don’t know.  I’m not Freud, and I’m not about to share a cigarette with my mom or anyone else to find out.”



The last time Aaron saw a ghost he asked for its autograph.

“Do you know how much that would go for on the ghost market, Max?!”


I didn’t.


“Aaron, did you see this ghost when we were in the mountains?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?!  Did you see it also?  Ah, fuck.  You didn’t get its autograph too, did you?!”

“No, jackass, will you listen to me. That ghost you saw…it was me.”




“I was on my way to the bathroom and you shoved a pen into my hands.”


“That can’t be.  Then why were you so hard to see?”

“Well, it was the middle of the night. And I think your eyes were closed.”


He looked bothered, but only momentarily.


“So what’s this, then?”


He pulled out a napkin and handed it to me.  I noted how illegible it was.


I wrote that, Aaron.”


“Shit. Did you really?”


“Yeah.  Sorry.” I handed it back.


He looked at it and then at me.


“Couldn’t you have done a better job?”

“It was the middle of the night!”



Aaron doesn’t need to be directed by Sergio Leone to know that he feels lucky.  No one in our group has to be given a script in order to act out the greatness of this trip. 


Aaron is no actor anyway, and never wants to be.  He keeps it real.


“If fakerosity were a word, good luck in trying to pin it on my tail.”


Aaron won’t put up with nonsense.

“Or put downs, either.  People need to check their insecurities at the door and then lose the return ticket.”

He speaks the truth, and is the wiser for it.


“Have you ever fantasized about being a wise-guy, Max?”

“You mean, like in the mob?”


I don’t know man, not really.”

“You’re so lame.  So you’re saying that you wouldn’t want to be Pacino in The Godfather, or Dinero in Once Upon a Time in the West, or—?”


“That’s what I’m saying Aaron.”

“Or James Gandolfini from The Sopranos, or Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, or—?”


“No, Aaron!  I just suspect the idea is more romantic than the reality, you know?”


“Or Schemp from The Three Stooges?”





“Still no, Aaron.”

And aren’t you part Sicilian?”




“What a lame-ass you are!”

“Being lame may be not organized Aaron, but at least it’s no crime.”



“What are you most proud of, Aaron?”

“Well, you just said it: my name.”

“You’re proud of your name?”


“Max, listen.  If you compiled a list of first names and ranked them alphabetically, who would be on top?”


“Oh, I see what you’re—”





“And don’t you forget it, just because you’re some average asshole in the middle.”


“I won’t, Aaron.”

“That’s Aaron with two A’s!”




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Latin American Studies Major



Alej has been everywhere, man.  Whether walking the line, falling into a ring of fire, or landing himself in Folsom Prison, he always has the cash to get bailed out.  It’s usually in June that he confides the most.  During other months he has a harder time opening up. 


“They just need to get a better rhythm before I give them my life story.  But I’m going to Jackson to see a therapist named Porter about it.”



When Alej puts words together, they always make a sound, and usually find their mark.  They’re scavengers.  Like vultures, they have wings, and like vultures performing ballet, they have eloquence. 


“I’m not getting the vulture references, Max.” 


“Don’t worry Alej, that’s just your bird-like mind playing tricks on you.  What I’m saying makes perfect sense.”

Alej has been suspicious of my analogies ever since the first day we met, when I likened our handshake to a bright, Shanghai morning. 


“Is it nice there?” was the first question he ever asked me. 


“No, I’ve never been.”


He didn’t catch the reference then, and neither did I for that matter.  But what does matter is that, even though I never caught it, I act like I never dropped it. 


“You know what I’m saying, Alej?” 


“Do I ever?” 


He might not know what I’m saying, but he always hears me. 


“Right, Alej?” 


“What’s that?”


The truth is: Alejandro and I communicate to each other like white does with fried rice.


Alej drinks mescal like water... 


“It’s pretty much the same process: through the mouth.”



“All right, Max.  If you were a pair of boxer briefs, which brand you would be?”


“Hah!  That’s a fun question.  Okay, give me a second.” 


“You can have a second, even thirds.  But don’t even think about walking out of this room without giving me an informed answer.” 


“Alej, we’re outside.”


“Exactly.  Don’t think about it.”

Whether inside or outside, Alej’s history with the Spanish language is as long as a giraffe’s neck. 


“Have you ever measured a giraffe’s neck, Max?” 




“So how the hell can you compare it to my Spanish?!” 


“I was just trying to make the point that you—.” 


“Oh, I’ve heard this all before.  Let me guess. You were trying to make the point that roses are red and violets are blue.  I see.  Well I got news for you: I wouldn’t describe sugar as sweet and I wouldn’t ever measure you.”


Alej’s two least favorite things are dogs and corporations.

“All they do is bite people on the ass.”


I disagreed.


“Mine can be incredibly loving and enjoyable.”


“Wait!  You own corporations?!”


“No, my dogs.”


“And what about your corporations?”

“I don’t run any corporations, Alej.”


It didn’t matter to him.


“Well, all I know is that the next time McDonald’s or any other untrained mutt shits in my house, I’m kicking its ass out onto the street.”



On a quiet night, Alej livens things up.  He’s no stranger to loud music, and noise complaints are no stranger to him.

“Fuck the police!” Alej protests.


“Listen, Ice Cube. It’s not the cops who are disturbed; it’s your neighbors who got a beef.”


“Perfect!  Tell em’ to come over.  We need more meat for the grill.”


At the end of the night, Alej will pump down the volume and reflect on the night’s happenings.

“Remember that time when I said fuck the police!?”



Alejandro was born in Uruguay, but his Oaxacan wall is decorated with photos of American celebrities. Regardless, he doesn’t idolize them.

“I’m no idolater.”

He’s no idolater.

“And I’d rather get punched in the stomach by Mike Tyson than sit through two minutes of American Idol.”  He grabs his stomach with one hand and points to his wall with the other.  “There’s Mike.”


“Well, I can agree with you on one thing, Alej: I’d rather have my ear bitten off than watch that horrible show.  Or clubbed in the knee, even.”

His eyes lit up.

“I’ve got Tanya and her boy up here somewhere.”



Alej has perfected a stand up routine where all he does is laugh crazily.

“I think it’s hilarious.  And everyone who has seen it has been so moved that they leave the room.”


“That’s great, Alej.”

“Yeah, I know.  Shall I do it?”

“Why not?”


After a couple of minutes…


“So you weren’t kidding, Alej.  You’re just going to stand there, huh?”


He peered at me.


He really cracks himself up.




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Government Major



I was counting on there being an adjective rhyming with Justine that would introduce her in grand style. But chlorine and Dentyne aren’t the words a grand should buy you these days, so the introduction is as such.


Justine has never concerned herself with rhyming, but will tell people that they look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book.  She’s been slapped around once or twice, but is usually the one doing the slapping. And even with rosy cheeks, she is more of a blue fish than a red one.



She feels as though her life up to this point has been one long road trip. 


“There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t used a road.” 


I wasn’t about to argue with that one.  Justine didn’t need me to argue to continue. 


“Think about it: a road trip doesn’t have to mean that you go to one place and then travel to another, driving & camping.  That’s so close-minded.” 


Just like I wasn’t sure where she was going with that, I don’t know where I was going with this.



At different points in the day, Justine will take the sun into her account. I watch her do it from a distance.


“Justine’s log, sundate Zarch Flee Flaun.  El sol is on the move again, but as usual, it is not quick enough to outrun my trained eye.  Time, I fear, will never stop.”


I inquire after a safe amount of time has set:


“So you’re keen on the sun, eh?”


“I admire its shape.”


“What’s going through your mind each time you catalog its—”


“Hold on a second, Max.”  She raises her fist to her mouth.  “Justine’s log, sundate Brow Cloke Gnu.  El sol is preparing itself for sleep.  Seconds from now this part of the mundo will only be able to conceptualize that yellow thing in the sky, oh so high, like a lullaby.”

“That’s from Napolean Dynamite, that last part, right?” 


Her eyes were closed. 



She was asleep.  And there was no waking her. 


As had become habit with Justine, I questioned her later about our last meeting.


“You didn’t know, Max?  When the sun sleeps, I sleep.  There are no two ways about it.” 


I was intrigued.


“So when—”


“Max!  I said that there aren’t two ways about it.  That means there is just one, and I just said it, so we’re done. Christ, you’re pushy.”



I may be pushy, but I have heard some label Justine a pusher.

“How do you respond to those accusing you of dealing drugs, Justine?”


“Max, I’d ask you where you get your information if I didn’t know already. You tell those junkies down on Paradise that the more they talk the more they pay.”


I was shocked.


“So you do sell drugs?”

“Well aren’t you a smart one.  Max, I don’t talk to people like you in order to have my meaning caught.  All you need to do is deliver a message.  Now, go.”


To make clear, Justine does not sell heroin, or any other drug.  The only type of junky she ever deals with is one addicted to funk.

“Tell me you’re down with Parliament, Max.”

“Yeah, actually.  My dad was way into them.”

“Less talking, Max, and more funking!” 

She turns up the music and starts knocking my hip with hers.

“Give it up or turnit loose, Max!”

She is down with James Brown as well.


Justine is no funky drummer, or a player of any other instrument.

“There is little time for making music when you are a sex machine…Good God!”


I had never seen her act like this before.


“Move over, Max!  Justine’s got a brand new bag!  Can I get some help?!  Max, don’t just stand there, clap your hands!”



Justine believes that the kitchen is no place for women.  But she also believes it’s no place for men. 


“Who will do the cooking then, Justine?” 


“That’s for dog to decide.” 


“You mean, God?” 


“No, dog.  I wouldn’t trust any other species with my food.” 


I thought I loved both food and my dogs, but Justine showed me the true meaning of love.



Justine hasn’t been in love as much as she has been around it. 


“What does it mean to be in love, anyway?  I guess I never got the goddamn memo on that one.” 


“Not many really have, Justine.” 


“Don’t give me that condescending bullshit, Max, Mr. ‘Ooh, I’m in love.’ Give me a break.”


I didn’t know what to say, other than that I loved her like a sister.



“What is your favorite color, Justine?” 


After a long pause, she was ready. 


“I don’t play favorites, Max.  Just the idea of valuing one thing over another is so colorless to me.”  She looks around.  “In other words, I would have admired the latest Star Wars much more had it been in black & white.” 


“Doesn’t that contradict what you first said?” 


“You know Max, you’re probably my least favorite person.” 


“And I’m in color.”

Justine would be more drawn towards theory if it were scientifically backed. 


“It wouldn’t be theory then, Justine.” 


“This is exactly what I’m talking about.  Do you have any proof to back up that claim?” 


Justine is theoretical like a fox. 


“I don’t know, Justine.  I just throw shit out there.” 


“Yeah, I can tell.  Would you not throw it over here, cause it really smells.” 


She’s got a nose like a fox as well.



Each Oaxacan morning, Justine ties her shoelaces with her eyes closed. She’s that good, and is overwhelmed by it.  Walking around later with her eyes open, she glances down to admire her handiwork. 


“Goddamn you’re tied well!” 


These outbursts lack what the rest of the Velcro-strapping world would call context, so Justine is doomed to receiving many suspicious glances. 


“They’re just jealous,” she informs me. 


Thanks for the information, Justine.



Justine plants her concerns in the garden, along with her succulents.  I asked what worries her most and she pulled out a bag of fertilizer. 


“I hardly have time to deal with them myself, Max.  Why would I share them with you?” 


“Why not make the time?”

“And why not bust a rhyme?  Max, I don’t see your point.”

I guess my concern wasn’t planted well enough.



“All right, Max.  Someone’s got a gun to your head and tells you that you got 15 minutes to explain the history of the world.  What would you say?”


Justine is always coming up with wild gun-to-your-head scenarios.


“And before you ask, Max, the gun is a .357 Magnum and your head is the one I’m looking at right now.”


I took a breath.


“Well, I suppose I’d begin with Pre-historic life and try to make my way to human creation myths.”

“Max, there is a fucking gun pressed against your temple, and you suppose that’s what you’re going say?”


“Sorry, Justine.  I guess I have a hard time taking this seriously.”

“Well…does this help?”


It wasn’t before I knew it, but right when I knew it, that Justine pulled out a large gun and pointed it at my face.

“Justine!  What are you—?”


“Max, before you ask, this is a .357 Magnum and I am aiming it at your head. Now I suppose I will start your time over.  15 minutes. Tell me about those creation myths.”

I was so scared I couldn’t move, or speak.


She sensed it.

“All right, Max, I’ll tell you what: If you guess what number I am thinking of right now, we will call it even.”

I couldn’t believe what was happening, but had no time not to. 


“Have you seen Bill & Ted?” I asked meekly.


“Does it have to do with the history of the world?”


“Then of course I have!”

Was I being tricked?

“Clock’s ticking, Max.”


She loaded the gun.

“Justine, please.”

“That’s not a number, Max.”

She put her finger on the trigger, and I went for it:



“What did you say, Max?!”


“69, dude!”

She lowered the gun.




If Justine were a male chicken, she would be El Pollo Loco, because she is fucking crazy.  When people tell her that she has a few screws loose, she tells them to go to a hardware store and buy a drill.

“And do what with it?” they ask her.

“I don’t know, order some chicken & mashed potatoes, see if the drill cares.”

She is crazy, but her logic is impenetrable: the drill would not mind if it were used for ordering fast food.


Justine traces her uncanny logic to her childhood.


“I spent a lot of time counting trees in my backyard.”

“How many were there?”

“Oh, none.  We lived in an apartment.”

The logician strikes again.



Her logic throws strikes at the bowling alley as well.  In Justine’s world, tossing the ball down the lane is like a religious experience.

“I’m not parting any sea, but I almost feel as though God is tapping my shoulder.”

“Justine, that wasn’t God.” 



“It was a man from the next lane asking you to move.  I watched you.  After your strike you closed your eyes and moved over in front of him.  Your arms were reaching for the sky.”


She looked relieved.


“Oh, well that explains why God said to me, ‘If you move it, I can bowl.’ I thought it was some sort of Field of Dreams shit at first, but I guess that wouldn’t make sense, would it?”

I shook my head. 


“But not a lot does.”