George T. Mormann

Cancún

I woke up in a less familiar Mexico. The Mexico I knew was contained to storefronts like those on W. 18th; taquerias and cantinas with a neon cactus glowing through frostbitten windows. Midwestern brick is painted adobe tan and depicts street-side exhibitions of Azteca deco and bucolic murals of the Tex-Mex fringes, where cactus shadows are swallowed by the desert come dusk. It’s synonymous with the borderlands, but where we landed, it was just an afterthought. The sober American vista, as far reaching as it is, cannot be glanced at, cannot to size up like a thumb raised to the moon. Palm trees bend toward the sunrise along La Zona Hotelera. Our taxi delivers us to a Riviera with so many likenesses of suburban decadence — Outback Steakhouse, Margaritavilles, Señor Frog’s — las casas del Bud Light. Cancún, crown of the Yucatán, a foreigner’s comfortable respite from true Mexico.

Skip coffee, head to the pool bar for a tequila sunrise. I look into the windows of the resort, peek in on brunch crowd, and watch them — those families from Bakersfield and right-outside-Cleveland — eat chilaquiles and french toast. Behind me there are men moving stones, building a bigger patio. Their hammers clang in unison with forks tolling against mimosa flutes in the dining room. I see tourists’ lips flicker and gape all the while hearing the slang of my coworkers back in the states. This week, I’ve traded in my steel-toed boots for a pair of flip-flops, but still turn to join the workers as they pause to look to the beach as a lambently draped figure dips her foot in the sea.

By bus we travel inland to Chichen Itza. Cancun '12It rains on the way there, but our guide Arturo is compelled to assure everyone aboard that the dripping in the vents above us is from the air conditioning. He offers us Gatorade at two US dollars each, and asks us not to crap in the rear lavatory. Solamente numero uno.

I fell asleep and woke up to the same scenery — a freshly watered span of trees swaying up and down like they were fanning the bus across the freeway. The water, whether it was truly rain or just a/c condensation, cooled my scalp as it brought with it a stream of chilled air. Arturo was describing the earth of the Yucatán before I fell asleep. How thin yet rich the soil is, how the plant life flourishes because of it, how impassable the untouched jungle is. Now he’s telling us about the ancient city, Tulum. The Spaniards could only write about the city from their ships. That was some six-hundred years ago… from our resort it’s a two hour drive.

The skies cleared as we entered the gates of Chichen Itza. The path leading to the site is a winding flea market of native bric-a-brac and novelties; tables of sugar skulls and Mayan calendars fashioned into magnets and analog clocks and printed onto tie-dye tee shirts. The peddlers compete with Arturo for our attention. Regalos de Maya, Come take look, Cheapah than K-Mart! Sellers run up to us and offer real wooden masks, insisting that any tourist tap it to prove to us all how wooden it is. One Mayan dollar, they’ll say. That’s forty dollars to you, Arturo says. Even the descendants of the Mayans themselves, the Nativos, approach us with handfuls of embroidered hankies for twenty pesos each.

Arturo instructs our group to clap towards the steps of the Temple Kukulkan, and when we do, a moan begets from the peak of the temple. To breathe life into the temple is to revive it from centuries of silence, and there are fewer simple joys than to hear our own echo. Within this temple is a smaller temple, Arturo said. Here, the Mayans had defeated an enemy, and to honor their victory had built an even bigger temple over their enemy’s. Eventually, the Spanish arrived and you know how the story goes, but they kept the temple, adopting it in their language, El Castillo. Today, a fence surrounds the entire site. Property of the Mexican Government — ticket prices vary.

Conquerors are conquered. Subjugation invites revolution. Profiteers live forever, enshrining so many legacies onto the façades of coffee mugs, of which I bought two.

 

Originally published July 12, 2013.

Masculine Insecurity and the Half-Loaf: an Introspection

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 About four years ago, an ex and I were perusing the bread aisle of a new grocery store. It also happened to be a former job, where I stocked shelves in the middle of the night. She wanted to check out the store. Despite the popularity of the place, working there had spoiled my intrigue faster than a yogurt’s shelf life. Grudgingly, I took her there, and we meandered the aisles, ooh-ing and awe-ing at all of the exotic and international offerings that we’ll never buy, but appreciated the accessibility nonetheless. At least we knew where we could buy whole-grain soba noodles.

 It wasn’t the unnecessarily large selection of ramen noodles that peaked my interest, nor was it the yogurt wall, which spanned thirty-two feet and featured yogurts of Greek, Icelandic, Australian, German, and Danimals persuasions, plus wherever Yoplait comes from. It was the discovery of the half-loaf, sold by Butternut. Plain white bread, pre-sliced, bleached, and only half the quantity. What especially intrigued me was the price of this miniature loaf, which retailed for fifty cents more than the traditional whole loaf.

 “Who in the hell would pay more for half the bread?” I asked.

 The ex thought the little loaf was cute. A lady who happened to be in the bread aisle piped up, and offered me her opinion on the matter.

 “It’s for lonely sonsa-bitches who ain’t got nobody to go home to. When you a loser, you gotta pay mo for yo bread. But you two ain’t got dat problem, so ya’ll save money buying bread for each otha.” She chuckled, and walked away.

 I peered into the lady’s shopping cart and, interestingly, she had left the aisle without picking up any bread.

 Why an insignificant occurrence lives on in the recesses of my mind is a question for the Universe, because I can’t answer it. I could go for days, weeks, posting detailed accounts of odd interactions I’ve had with strangers. I certainly don’t dwell on these encounters ceaselessly, nor do I rehearse what I should have said, reliving the situation in perpetuity. In this case, I don’t even remember what I said to the lady. Her words, however, had settled somewhere in my brain, a place where nonsense that bears the slightest hint of a truth I may have never considered, crystallizes in the depths of my psyche. It goes dormant, forgotten, until it suddenly awakes one evening, triggered by the most peculiar thing.

 Late last night, I walked around a mostly empty grocery store, one hour prior to closing. I had hot dogs in the fridge, at home. I wanted tomatoes. Also, I wanted Milano hot dog buns.

 To my chagrin, the grocery store didn’t sell Milano buns, but I happened upon this brand that sold specialty breads, in half-loaves. I picked out a squishy loaf of potato bread, and proceeded to the register. In front of me was a man, still in his work uniform, buying two microwaveable individual servings of fettuccine alfredo and a single slice of French silk pie, packaged from the store bakery. For some absurd reason that I am not psychoanalytically fluent enough to explain, I thought of what that lady said four years ago. Who is this lonely man sustaining himself on Michelina’s ninety-nine cent frozen dinners, and a five dollar slice of pie? But alas, who am I to judge? I am the sordid soul who is buying the dreaded half-loaf of bread. I only chose it because it’s been so long since I’ve had potato bread — I think it was my grandmother who turned me onto the stuff. Why is that woman’s disdain ingrained in my head? Perhaps I am suffering some sort of subconscious shame. Perhaps this woman reaffirmed my self-worth, telling me and an ex-girlfriend that we would never suffer having to pay more for less, and buy only for ourselves. And here I am, tossing a half-loaf on the register’s conveyor belt, reminded of a stranger who reentered my mind like a prophet, and a girl who broke up with me. A cobweb in the barn of my mind of interconnected people, their significance, their words, and tonight I walked right into it.

 Admittedly, I considered stuffing the half-loaf behind the gum display, or squeezing it between the placeholders for the weekly gossip columns and National Enquirers. I even thought of offering it to the seemingly lonesome gentleman in front of me. According to my subconscious prejudice, and the conclusion of his lifestyle reached solely from the few items he bought, he needed this half-loaf more than I did.

 My existential crisis diffused as soon as my items were ringing up. Diffused not because this is the stupidest thing to enter my mind in at least a week, but due to the cashier asking me if I had an ax. Seriously, he asked me if I had an ax. I told him no, and thought it wise not to follow with a “why do you ask?” He went on talking about wearing camouflage and hiding in a local park. I smiled, nodded, and made a mental note to not visit that park anytime in the near future, or ever.

 A google search of “the psychology of purchasing half-loaves” bore no relevant results. I take it the bitter lady was no academic. However, it led me to a food forum in which a person complained, back in 2008, that half-loaves weren’t available in the U.S., which forced him to buy a full loaf, and throw out a portion of it. Many users in the comments thread suggested that the self-described “singleton” freeze the uneaten half of a full loaf before it spoils, or to use the less fresh slices for French toast, or make bread crumbs from them. The user who posted the question lamented that frozen bread, once thawed, doesn’t taste the same, so he resorts to disposing of it. Until now, I thought such conversations happened only among mothers gathered in bleachers during their kids’ soccer games. I exited the forum, disgusted that the “singleton” carelessly wastes food because freezing it affects the softness, and made no apology for it. Maybe that lady in the bread aisle was right about some of us who buy half-loaves after all.

Doc’s Lake

Doc's Lake

 I caught the biggest bluegill in the county from this lake. She was eleven inches, and for my catch I won a $25 gift card to the local bait shop. I put her in my bait can and Dad drove me into town to enter her in the contest, but first, we stopped at Grandma’s house, to show her the fish. At the bait shop, the owner’s wife measured the bluegill. Dad and I returned to the lake to release the trophy panfish. The following weekend, Dad almost surpassed my catch, reeling in a nine inch bluegill. No one in the area could beat it, and my name was announced on the AM outdoorsman radio hour.

 The wholesomeness of my youth was had at the edge of that very dock. I caught my first largemouth bass there. I used to catch bullfrogs and painted turtles, too, when the fish retreated from the afternoon heat. I’d collect the skulls of small animals that met their demise by the shoreline, clean them, and decorate my aquariums with the bones. Those lily pads around the dock serve as a crypt for so many fishing lures I bought at K-Mart with Christmas money. One evening, I fell out of the boat, and Dad nicknamed me Splash.

 Doc, who lives there, got his name not because he owned a lake with a dock, but for his PhD in chemistry. He and his wife never had kids, so Dad and his brothers were the woodsy roustabouts who shared their adolescent years there, catching snapping turtles and bullhead on the weekends. They were city boys then, recent transplants to the country, relishing the expanse of an unmarred Earth. What’s so grand about Doc’s lake is how it never changed as the rural roads morphed into suburbia. Not even the locals could tell you how to get to this pristine woodland, and I’ll never disclose its whereabouts. It’s a secret, even if I’m not welcome there anymore.

 Had to be at least fifteen years ago. Fourth of July weekend, Dad took me and my sister out there for the first time. We met Doc and his wife, Helen. As Dad and them wax nostalgic, I was transfixed not only with the view of the lake from their dining room window, but the aquarium in their house too. The open water had me dizzy with ideas of what I might catch. The highlight of the afternoon was Dad and my sister taking the row boat out. They didn’t realize the plug was open and almost sank. I didn’t catch anything that day, but couldn’t wait to return the next weekend I’d spend with Dad. If I recall, visitation was every other Sunday.

 Over time, I grew close to Doc and Helen. When I expressed interest in golfing, Doc gave me a set of clubs for my lessons. Once I got my drivers license, I’d go to the public course and golf alone, tuning my swing with every wood and iron in the bag. I haven’t golfed in about four years, or when I moved to Chicago.

 Our visits to the lake dwindled when I began to work more. I’d say the last time Dad and I fished there was at least seven years ago. The fish weren’t biting as much, and most of the catches were bait fish that had been tossed in the lake by a careless fisherman, probably a relative. They flourished in the lake and I’d say they screwed up the ecosystem, out-competing the bass and bluegill fry. When the fish we wanted to bite wouldn’t bite, we’d take the boat out and hunt turtles. By “hunt” I mean we’d simply net them and take pictures of our haul before releasing them back into the lake. I’d lean over the bow of the row boat, extend the net towards the waters surface, and Dad would quietly row towards the log where a group of turtles were basking. One day we caught six turtles. We lined them up on the sandbar and took a photograph of them as they scurried back into the water. I think part of the reason we caught them was to watch them run free at the end of the day. It was oddly cathartic. When they disappeared, we’d leave, and in time, we never returned.

 Today, I happen to be President of the cemetery where my ancestors are buried. It’s a furtive drive from the lake, and being Father’s Day weekend, my head was full of nostalgia. I decided to return, if only for another moment to watch my reflection in the steady ripple of the lake.

 Helen passed away a few years ago, but I was almost certain Doc would still be there. He is. I drove through the wooded path, nervous as to who might greet me. I know my Dad’s relatives still fish and duck hunt there, but they wrote me off after Dad’s wake, disappearing faster than exes and estranged friends. I wanted to be alone, but if not, I hoped for a warm welcome. The garage was open, and Doc’s John Deere Gator was parked inside.

 I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. Like old times, I simply walked down the hill towards the lake. The sandbar is completely overgrown with weeds now, and the lily pads are bigger than I remember. The mating pair of swans, a fixture like the derelict pontoon boat tied to the dock, are still around, their brilliant white feathers never tainted by the murky water. The dock was rickety when I stepped onto it. I didn’t make it to the tip of the dock before I heard the rumble of Doc’s Gator enter the dissonance of birds chirping and fish gulping bugs at the surface.

 He moseyed down the hill and stopped on the overgrowth of the sandbar. He asked who I am. I reminded him. He asked how Dad and I are, and when I reminded him that Dad had passed away, he amended his question, directing it solely to me. Despite finally recalling who I am, he seemed suspicious of my presence. Out of the woods appeared his nephew and grand-nephew, neither of whom I’d met before. We introduced ourselves, and the three of them began talking about the lily pads, questioning their inception and why they’re so big this year. The nephew, in matching Cubs shirt and hat, kept on and on about those lily pads, dominating the conversation in a way that smelled of nervousness. Rather than enjoy the tune of nature, he filled it with words. It angered me because I wanted to sit at the dock in silence, even for five minutes if I could have the chance. But he kept on about the damn lily pads, like he was gonna put on a pair galoshes and chop them down himself.

 A lady appeared from the evergreens at the top of the hill. Apparently some family friend, who knows my Dad’s relatives well, but I’ve never met her. She came to drive Doc somewhere, and joined in on the conversation about the lily pads and how big they are. She claimed that the lily pads are cutting the oxygen supply, and Doc said he would spray ’em. I tried to interject, but the nephew promptly broke the brief silence, and continued talking, this time about the swans.

 They went on and on until Doc said it was time for the lady to take him wherever he had to go. He invited them in the house for something to drink. He told me to come out fishin’ sometime. That was his way of saying goodbye.

 Once I walked up the hill, I took one hard look at the waters of my youth. It’s the only relic of my upbringing, a place that’s bigger than photos or knick-knacks, that continues on as I remember it.

 Doc and his nephews and the lady entered the porch for a seat, and poured themselves glasses of water. I got in the truck and left. On the way home, I thought of stopping wherever I could get a fishing license. I’ll be needing one if I fish anywhere but Doc’s lake.

Rudy & Apollonia

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 On Monday, I finally purchased the domain name for my site. It has been seven years, and registering my eponymous website has always been an afterthought, albeit a persistent one that I never stopped thinking about. With all due respect to WordPress, I have wanted to eliminate their footprint for some time, if only to validate my site as something that is exclusively mine (even if they are the host).

 Throughout the week, I have perused the features available to premium bloggers. Nothing spectacular in the gallery of blog themes. My current theme was officially axed last year, so if I choose to change this template, I’ll never regain it. I’m not impressed with the newer templates. I thought I might find a new minimalist theme, much like the one I’m using, but none of the free templates are as barren as this one. I’m almost content with this theme (Manifest, by Jim Barraud), but I’m annoyed by the barely noticeable beige rectangle which sits below my name, the header at the crest of the page. I understand that the beige bar is for menu options, or “pages,” and for years I maintained two menu pages: “About” and “Downloads.” Today, I decided to remove them, because they felt too promotional. The “About” page was a furtive description of why I started this blog years ago, followed by a even more furtive update from earlier this year. Included were two photos of me, which I feel are unnecessary, too. “Downloads” was a page containing my rudimentary cover art and links to my e-books on Amazon and Smashwords. To my chagrin, eliminating the menu pages did not remove that damn beige bar.

 Once I shaved what I deemed as eyewash and nonsense, I quickly reverted back to the guy who wants to fill empty space. The Manifest theme doesn’t allow for much personality, but I learned that I could insert a header image to the site. I thought of using a photo of one of my many aquariums, and perhaps I will in the future. At least one post of mine includes a photo of a fish tank that has been since redecorated and dismantled. Recently I snapped a few pictures of my geckos, Rudy and Apollonia, as they emerged from their favorite cave as I served their dinner of crickets dusted in vitamin powder.

 Rudy is an African fat-tailed gecko. Geckos are unique for lacking eyelids, hence why many species lick their eyes with their tongues. However, fat-tailed geckos are one of the few species of eyelid geckos. Also, unlike many species, fat-tailed geckos have clawed feet, whereas most have padded toes containing innumerable microscopic “hooks” that allow them to climb vertical surfaces, such as walls. When I was very young, my first gecko was an African fat-tailed gecko. I named him Clyde.

 It’s rare to find fat-tails in pet stores anymore, likely due to the popularity and color variants of their relative, leopard geckos, which are also eyelid geckos with clawed feet.

 It was hardly a week following the death of my Father when I stopped at the Petco where Dad bought food for his dog. Petco was celebrating their fiftieth anniversary with various half-off sales in certain departments. That particular weekend, all reptiles were fifty percent off. Coincidentally, there happened to be a baby African fat-tailed gecko. I promptly bought all of the equipment I used to have for Clyde, went home to set it all up, and when the store opened the next day, I met the employees at the door to take Rudy. I stop there regularly, usually for dog food and bric-a-brac for my aquariums, and never have they kept a fat-tail since. In fact, no big-box pet store or mom ‘n pops shop ever carry them. So I guess it was less a coincidence and more of a serendipitous fate to find Rudy.

 About a year later, I attended the North American Reptile Breeders Conference. It happens twice a year, not far from Chicago, and draws in enthusiasts and pet shop owners from all over the Midwest and East Coast. The one and only time I ever attended was with Dad. He took me to one of these expos when I was thirteen. One of the highlights was petting a twelve foot long alligator. It was a domesticated alligator, if you can believe it. In October of ’16, I thought I’d go again.

 I bought Apollonia from a company that specializes in dart frogs and vivarium supplies, like forest floor substrates and leaf litter. A pet shop owner from Miami wanted to buy twenty leopard geckos for his store, and didn’t care which ones he took with him. The guy behind the table noticed me looking at Apollonia, a rainwater albino leopard gecko, and offered her to me for twenty bucks. I took him up on it and stopped at another booth in the convention center, where I bought a larger terrarium. I intended to take the chance and keep Apollonia with Rudy in the same enclosure. Typically, it wouldn’t be advised to pair leopards and fat-tails together, as their humidity requirements are slightly different, but I established a terrarium which suits them both.

 Rudy and Apollonia were shy to one another at first. Each kept to themselves in two separate caves before eventually sharing one. Weeks later, I decided to double the size of their terrarium, allowing them variations in temperature, humidity, as well as three caves and a large, shallow water dish. Pro-tip for any gecko enthusiasts out there: an alternative to keeping a water dish in terrariums is to mist dried leaves with water, for I’ve observed that they enjoy licking the water droplets, which I presume is more instinctive to them compared to a water dish. I use magnolia leaves because they’re hardy and don’t crumble like other varieties of leaf litter. Apollonia is much more active than Rudy, and it often leads to her getting more crickets than him. I buy crickets a thousand at a time and keep a large aquarium like a cricket farm of sorts. At every feeding I ensure that enough crickets are shared between them, since he doesn’t care to chase them like Apollonia does. For every feeding, I dust the crickets with a sort of multivitamin powder made especially for insectivorous reptiles, by Repashy.

 Overall, they get along fine together. They sleep and hunt and wake up together. Most of what they do is sleep, and they’re nocturnal, much like I am.

Gelasimus

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The male fiddler crab seeks
to entice
his mate with the twang
of his dominant claw. It is a
useless appendage otherwise,
too cumbersome to graze
the beach
for detritus like
fish carcasses or the nuclei
of microbial tide
surfers. Upon the sand he
scurries,
wearing
his masculinity
on his arm, dragging
it when he’s drowsy,
post coitus, starving,
dying.

The young metamorphose
soon enough
to eat his corpse
if the birds
don’t have it first.

It is virtually
impossible to breed
fiddler crabs in captivity.
Their young, once hatched,
are little more than beads
akin to plankton, thrust by
waves into the abyss of open sea,
at the mercy
of Nature’s divinity,

it’s lawlessness.
Inedible to us,
they are collected for
the pet trade as an exotic
alternative.

A tepid curiosity.

Still, the male fiddler
plays a tune, alone
in a sullen contrivance

of his beach

where he was master.