national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010

National Pastime


Nun 1, Julia Ponzek

Ash fell from the sky. Three guys sat on a porch, smoked cigarettes, drank beer, and watched the fires from a distance. The last night of June in Riverside, California, the hills burned like a road flare, bright against the sky, no moon, no stars. There was smoke from fires on the hills and fires at the ends of their cigarettes. None of their faces revealed much. Everything was outlined by the light of the fire so far away. It was hot, the beers were cold.


I played baseball in Los Angeles, but I also presided over the whole world and all the cosmos from the Heavens, because I’m God and that’s what God does. Tonight I’m watching these three guys and giving you the play-by-play, like Vin Scully or something.


So it goes.

“Don’t give me any of that fancy shit,” Aaron said. He grabbed a Budweiser from the cooler. He could have chosen the Heineken that Brad offered.

“Whatever,” Brad said as he put the Heiny back in the cooler. “You’re trashier than—” but Brad couldn’t think of anything grotesque and clever enough to say.

“Wait,” Rami said, “I’ll take that.”

“Eat the fucking pizza,” Aaron interrupted, “Fucking terrorist.”

Rami said, “Don’t mess with the terrorist. I’ll shoebomb the shit out of you.”

“You guys are awful,” Brad said.

Aaron leaned back in his chair and opened his beer. He was satisfied with Brad’s response. Brad offered Rami a beer. He took the beer. He also looked at the pizza. He must have been hungry, as usual. He took a piece, said “fuck it,” and ate. It had pepperoni sausages, which Rami was not supposed to eat because of his religion. Drinking beer was also against his religion. He thought about taking the sausages off, but he didn’t. He never does. He didn’t think twice about drinking the beer.

So Rami is going to spend eternity in Hell—obviously—with the rest of the infidels, if you believe in that kind of thing—and most of Rami’s people do, but most of Rami’s people—Americans—live by a very slightly different set of standards and myths.

But Rami won’t go to Hell for another fifty years.

Brad won’t go to Hell for another thirty years.

And Aaron won’t go to Hell for another seventy years.

I should know. I play for the Dodgers, and I’m God.


You see, by conventional standards they’re all sinners. And I—the One some believe to be the Creator of all things on earth—judge not by conventional standards and precedents, but by each person’s own inner conscience and the standards he sets for himself to live by. People make the rules and I simply apply them. The three guys are going to Hell because they all believe that is where they’ll end up (or maybe they felt they never left).

And so these are their lives:

 

Aaron Wyman

Aaron was a mistake, born at the Budget Inn and Suites off U.S. Interstate-8 in El Centro, California on March, 5, 1987. Elsa, one of the motel’s maids, heard someone cry and scream while she cleaned the room next door. She dropped the bed linen she carried, walked next door, and went in. She saw Aaron’s mother in labor, sprawled on the bed, bloody and wet, messy, with no one else in the room. She cried, “¡Oh, Dios!” and called 911. She stroked the laboring woman’s head—Aaron’s mother had a fever of 102—and whispered, “It’s okay bebé, it’s okay bebé,” over and over again.

Aaron’s mother was slenderly built, but bulged with child. Her eyes were wide, swelled and pulsing. She was 20 years old and thought she was going to die and that Elsa was an angel. And as far as she knew, or would remember, Elsa was.

A fire truck came and a man named Fernando got messy and delivered the newborn. It was 10 p.m. An ambulance took Aaron and his mother to a hospital about 15 minutes away. They spent the night in the hospital with heroin in their systems. Aaron almost died.  He was hooked up to all sorts of machinery. It cost the state of California a lot of money. That same night, the state of California spent more money to arrest Elsa because she was not supposed to be in the United States of America. She was a United States of Mexico national. It was a long night for Elsa and it was a long night for young Aaron, because he felt as though he had been born and placed in a frayed and itchy black blanket instead of a soft and cozy blue one.

Aaron’s mother passed out at about midnight, but she woke up at five past four in the morning, looked around, didn’t know where she was—this confused her greatly—and walked out of the hospital. Aaron never saw or heard from his mother again.

Aaron was placed in the custody of the Imperial County Department of Social Services the next day where Monica took care of him. Monica worked there, but quit after a year because she couldn’t pay her electric bills and found more profitable work waiting tables in San Diego. After no one stepped forward to claim fatherhood, after his mother couldn’t be found and after no one claimed custody of Aaron, Cara, a 65-year-old social worker, gave him the surname Wyman, because it was the name of a famous country singer who had passed through the town fifty years earlier, and Cara always believed she and Mr. Wyman were tied together in a de facto sort of holy matrimony ever since—even though they had only known each other between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m. the night of October 5, 1937.

Aaron grew up moving from foster home to foster home. You could say that he knew the Imperial Valley better than anyone in his time. He ran away from the department of social services after his tenth foster home placement at the age of twelve. He graduated from sixth grade and school had been easy for him. He even learned to speak Spanish fluently, but he always got in trouble and grew tired of rules or anything that structured his life in any way. He knew where to find illicit drugs. So he took up the business of selling them. That’s how he got by.

He was homeless for the longest time. Sometimes he slept in houses, apartments, on the shores of the Salton Sea and the banks of the Colorado River. He preferred sleeping outside, especially in the fall. He thought the stars were their brightest in the fall and that the air was less dry. He was 13 when he lost his virginity to a 55-year-old woman he never knew by name. She was five feet, two inches tall, weighed 300 pounds, and was missing her left leg. She had a quiet face, big nose, brown eyes, and streaks of blonde in her brown hair. She owned a mobile home in Desert Shores. It rained outside. After she fell asleep, Aaron sat on the bed, smoked a cigarette, looked out the window and watched the rain fall on the Salton Sea. He was dry and satisfied.

By and by he got pretty good at selling things, especially to kids his own age, and he did just fine until he sold methamphetamine to an undercover DEA agent outside Calexico High School. It was June 2004. The United States of America stepped up its effort to stop Aaron’s sort of enterprise.

Aaron had heroin in his system when he was arrested.

With the help of a competent attorney ad litem and the blessing of a judge, Aaron spent the rest of his juvenile months at Teen Challenge in Riverside California. He was miserable, but clean.

He checked out of Teen Challenge shortly after his 18th birthday with a basic understanding of automobiles. He also passed the GED and landed a job at Ford Motors in Riverside where he worked in the garage for five years. He was sober most of the time.

On the night of May 8th 2011, Aaron, Rami and some other friends went down to Rosarito to watch the welterweight title bout between Hector Moreno and Floyd Mayweather Jr. Just a couple days later, after a long night of touring the Rosarito strip clubs and donkey shows, Aaron was offered a very profitable business proposition, but it meant he had to leave right that moment with a man named Ignacio. A day later he found himself in Guadalajara holding an automatic firearm. He worked for the Ciscos gang for four years and never saw Rami again.

Aaron continued to survive until he drove his car into a tree after a long night of drinking at the Damned Side Inn in Hell, Michigan. He died on impact. He was 92 years old. There was no service.

 

Rami Haddad

Rami was born December 15, 1987, in Riverside, California, to Lebanese and Palestinian immigrants. He was raised in a very religious household, so he was always superstitious. His parents went through a nasty divorce when he was 13 and that changed everything. Rami was westernized.

Rami played football, started on the Riverside Poly High School team’s offensive line, and earned a spot on the Riverside County All-Star team his senior year. He once scored a game-winning touchdown.

This is what the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper had to say about that:

“It seemed all was lost for Riverside Poly when running back Jamar Frazier fumbled the ball on Riverside Ramona’s two-yard line with the clock expiring.

“But as both teams pounced on the loose ball, it suddenly shot out from under the pile and landed in the end zone. Offensive lineman Rami Haddad, the only player not lying on the pile, picked up the ball to give the Bears the score to defeat the Rams 33-28 Friday night.

‘I don’t know what to say,’ Haddad said of the score. ‘Just blind luck I guess.’”

That was Rami’s moment of fame.

Then the All-Star team lost to the San Bernardino County All-Stars and he gained thirty pounds over the summer of 2006. That was the end of his football career.

Shortly thereafter, he started work at Ford Motors. He liked the smell of the garage and he liked the intricacies of an automobile’s transmission. Cars and trucks and SUVs were his books and he knew them inside and out. He never went back to school after he failed to make the Riverside Community College football team and he spent the rest of his life happily working for Ford. (He also raised two children, married a woman and divorced her twenty years later, but these people were of little consequence.)

Despite his dislike of readers and writers, Rami liked Brad, even though Brad was a college boy. They had been friends ever since they developed a conscience. Rami was sad and surprised when Brad died. Rami quietly passed away in his sleep 20 years after Brad’s death.

 

Brad Anderson

Brad came into the world via Caesarean section September 28, 1987, so he didn’t see a vagina until he was 18 years old.

Both of Brad’s parents were professionals and Brad was raised in Riverside’s wealthy Arlington Heights district. A few blocks away were the Mexican ghettos of Casa Blanca, and just a couple miles down the road were the Black ghettos of East Side. Everyone went to the same school. Because of his exposure to class and racial diversity, Brad felt he was worldly and understanding by the time he was 13. But he didn’t know shit, and perhaps it was telling that his two best friends, whose surnames were Westphal and Heinburg, were as pale as mayo on white bread.

Brad went to Victoria Elementary School, Mathew Gage Middle School, and Poly High School. He met Rami on the first day of kindergarten when they were both five years old. The two children played with Legos, and years later they’d make pyramids out of empty beer cans at parties after football games.

The Andersons were Presbyterian by faith and their church was not partisan to any race or sexuality. There was a lesbian couple who joined the church with their adopted son. This was a source of much contention among the churchgoers, but the Andersons were decidedly in favor of letting the young family join. “Even if homosexuality is wrong,” Brad’s mother said to the presbytery, “it is a far greater sin to deny these people the word of God. And who’s to say that homosexuality is any greater a sin than eating pork or wearing clothing made of two different types of cloth? Only the Lord can judge these things.”

The night after his high school graduation, Brad drank more than he had ever drunk before and wound up losing his virginity to Amanda Reid. Amanda was captain of the cheerleading squad. She had blonde hair, a body like an hourglass, bronze skin, large breasts and a face that said, “Fuck you, because I’m gorgeous.” Amanda was the sultry object of most men’s imaginations and, like most girls from Riverside with her disease, she wound up living and working in Las Vegas for the rest of her life. She died at the age of 35 and her body was never found. Brad never slept with another woman.

Brad enrolled at the University of Michigan and started attending classes during the fall 2006 semester. He studied law and was good at it. When his undergraduate studies were complete, he went to law school and earned his JD at Harvard. He liked school so much that he decided to continue studying at UC Berkeley. He earned a PhD. His doctoral dissertation was entitled, “Single Mothers, Child Support and the Advantages of Pro Se Litigation Inter Alia.” It won national acclaim within the academic community, and was widely cited by family-law lawyers.

Brad chose to teach at Yale School of Law, but after he was passed over for tenure, he accepted a teaching position at the Duke, where he thrived. He published five essays and a book over the next six years and earned tenure.

Brad became president of Chapman University School of Law in Santa Ana, California, two years later. He was back in southern California and happy. But his father died a year later in a car accident while driving to Santa Ana to visit Brad and his mother was badly injured. His mother died a year later.

Brad became further engaged with his work.

Brad died on August 22, 2041, in Lone Pine, California. He was supposed to give a lecture on preferable equitable distribution deposition methods to a group of Inyo County lawyers in Independence, California. His body was found naked in room 54 of the Best Western Frontier Motel. He had been strangled and about one-and-a-half tablespoons of semen were found in around and around his rectum. The 17-year-old boy Brad had paid to strangle him was arrested the next night and spent the rest of his life in prison.

Both Brad and the boy had crack cocaine in their systems.


The three guys were each on cigarette and beer number four, and the hills were still on fire. The lawn chairs were uncomfortable and they squeaked. The freeway sounded a constant lull and crickets chimed in the background. It was a warm night. Time and the guys’ voices came and went like the rise and fall of a good melody. Occasionally the headlights from cars passing by lit up the backyard. A dog barked.

“You know, Rami,” Brad said. “You really should get a refrigerator for your back porch. The whole ice chest thing sort of sucks.”

“Yeah,” Rami said. “And where do you expect me to get that kind of money?”

“Come on, man,” Aaron said. “You don’t have to spend your whole damn paycheck on your truck every month. What, you buy new rims one week, then the next you have to purchase bumper guards and then it’s on to a new stereo. You can afford a fridge for the porch.”

“First, my truck is my baby. Second, how often do we drink out here? Is that even worth it?”

“Are you kidding?” Brad asked. “Like three times a week over the summer.”

“And then when you go back to school?”

“Then you can keep your nuts in there, because Lord knows you never use them.”

The guys laughed and Rami insulted Brad’s inability to fornicate with a woman and Brad refuted Rami’s claim and ranted about all the girls he’d slept with. Aaron asked, “Why have we never seen any of these girls?” Rami said it’s because the girls are named, “Mrs. Righthand” and “Miss Lefthand.” The guys laughed and found that they were all out of beer and had only five cigarettes between the three of them. They each lit another cigarette.

“So, have you guys heard or read anything about the Honduran crisis?” Brad asked. “I guess the president over there was overthrown by a military coup.”

No one spoke for a few seconds. Aaron took three drags from his cigarette, Rami took two and Brad took one. Aaron said: “What the hell makes you think we’d know something about that?”

“I don’t know, I was just wondering.”

“What are you going to do—lecture us about why we should care?”

“No, it’s just interesting that’s all.”

“And then are you going to ask why we didn’t vote? Because you’ve already given us that lecture.”

“Ya know, you’re just an ignorant motherfu …”

And then Rami said: “Hey, come on, who cares about any of that.”

Rami took a drag, Aaron took one and Brad took two quick drags. Rami said: “The Dodgers are kicking ass.”

“Yeah, they are,” Aaron said.

“They couldn’t be hotter,” Brad said. “They’ve won something like five straight.”

“And have you seen how well Manny Ramirez has been playing?” Rami asked.

“Yeah,” Aaron said. “Manny’s God.”

“Yeah.”

“Yup.”