FIRST SERIAL RIGHTS
2005 BY Larry Schulz
CHILD OF EDEN
By Larry Schulz
The "Emergency Book," a thin, tattered, notebook filled with the names of my aunts, uncles and grandparents, was my protector that eighth summer when the river held all the secrets of the world. It was my guardian whenever my parents were not present. They made sure I never ventured outside of the house without it on me. The "Emergency Book" meant safety and my safety was always as near at the "Emergency Book."
These names, addresses and telephone numbers were inked in large, bold print on a piece of paper kept in my wallet telling me that I was connected to many others.
We were a large family living in a small area near the Los Angeles River. I, the eldest on of this new generation, was looked upon as the rectifier for the mistakes, tragedies and injustices besieged upon those names.
"It will be different with you, Ray-Ray," they would tell me at baptisms, communions, weddings and funerals (the four gathering places for my family). "Just wait and see. It will be different here. It will be better." So I, being this rectifier, would smile with the child's belief in adults who know best about the future and what will become of it.
Now let me tell you about the river.
In those days, it was hidden beneath a lush, green darkness. It was buried in parts with bamboo shoots and palms. Tall pampas grass and strong willows would shield it way form most eyes and then in would reappear in spots with resplendent blues. It would hearken to the hot summer afternoon of siestas when the Spaniards ruled here, and it would say in wind whispers "I am much older than you know." If I dared follow its path through the underbrush
and swamp marsh, it would speak again saying, "don't go any further. I am primordial. I am that which will be forgotten. I am you. You can see yourself in my water...but don't go any further." Then it would disappear. I would then touch my "Emergency Book" filled with the promise of safety and run toward home.
In this book, there was one name that never appearedonly talked about. It was the name of my uncle Reynaldo. A name not mentioned in my family without bringing its share of snickers and shaking heads as if all the dark, misfortune of our past, had been harvested and bestowed on one person. Reynaldo was my father's eldest brother. Twice before that eighth summer, I had seen him. Bearded, heavier and darker than my father, he had come to our store on Wilmington Avenue. My father would say few words to him, then reach into his wallet and give him what money he had. Reynaldo would take the money, and then leave without thanking my father. Once, he saw me standing behind the counter next to my father. Before leaving, he looked at me with the same caution a man looks at a dangerous stranger. "So this is your son, Raymond." His voice rolled with a think slowness of timber dragged through mud. His face moved closer to me. "So you are my brother's son. You are the child of Eden. A child most blessedonly to be most cursed."
"Get out of here, Reynaldo," my father blared with an unfamiliar harshness that frightened me. Without expression, my uncle would turn away still clenching the bills like a rope given to the drowning.
In summer eight, somewhere at baptism or funeral, I heard the words "Reynaldo" and "living like a tramp by the river." On the way home, my mother asked me not to go near the river. My only response was "why?" My parents looked at each other as if both could bring forth instant adult reasoning to my question. "Just don't," my father responded in the same tone he had used on his brother.
That was all I need to know to understand that the rest of that summer would be spent searching for my uncle by the river.
* * * *
At times brashness marches arm-and arm with stupidity; and that summerwe ran together. The evening wind rose from the river, spreading its green musk through the air. However, the smell of this freshness would soon disappear as I approached the trashy shores littered with debris from the encroaching city. Torn mattresses, discarded engines lined the banks along with recent deposits of trash. The meandering curves and overflows of the river seem to mock a city that would soon pride itself on its logical growth and development. So, as if to damn its beauty, what could not be used in progress was thrown here.
Later, I was to see the depravity of something discarded and forgotten for no reason, but this summer even the trash and junk held its own mystery. As I walked the banks in my new tennis shoes, I tired to see my uncle, try to see anybody. But the river in the early part of evening was empty of others, only flies and mosquitoes. In the distance, the mild roars of cars at an intersection a mile away. It reminded me of what I heard before about the river---no one comes down here "except tramps and scum to see what they can find." Of these tramps and scum: "They would eat dog shit if any dog was dumb enough to shit by the river."
To my relief in my first search for my uncle, I had found no one. And coming back home for dinner (another family gathering point) my mother would ask me where I was. In truth I could say "just playing" for that is what I didbut another visit to the river would soon end all that.
* * * *
The world changed on the coldest night of August on my third visit to the river. I had put on my bright, blue windbreaker my parents had given me last Christmas. The weather reports had mentioned something about a summer cold front and talked about how "unusual" it was for this time of year.
The search had become boring so I began to think of a dozen more adventures ready to fill up what was left of my summer. My uncle was not here at the river. He wasn't anywhere. He was a myth, a legend, a story made up by the rest of my family to keep me in my place so I could obey them. I started back to the house. Clouds from the pending storm had turned the early evening sky into a fast preview of fall. Gusty kicks of wind spilled trash into the river. Willows swayed massive green, shredded flags. I put my arms closer to my body to bring warmth and found a path that led from the river to a gravel paved road that would lead to a street. The gravel made a crunching sound under my feet and the wind was kicking its loose parts into my face. Suddenly, I head a word from behind a cluster of eucalyptus trees. At first I thought it was just the scraping of branches against other branches. Then I head "kid" come from behind a tree to my right. I took this as imagination mixing up with my fear of the storm so ran faster. The clouds had turned the sky into night and I thought of the safety of my family's dinner table and all those dull, boring rituals that now seemed cherishedyet so far away.
Then more words broke from behind the tree: "hey, kid come over here." I focused on the road looking at it as if any distraction was unnatural. Again, the voice from behind the tree: "I said come here, you little bastard. Come here now!"
On this planet, in all of its history, there was never such a youth as foolish as I. So foolish to come down here for the shake of having something to tell my friends when I returned back to school next month. But it made no difference now. I would not be going back to school. The man who called me "bastard" wanted me dead. "You answer me when I call youyou snot nose prick." With those words I was lifted off the ground by my windbreak and help up to look at an ugly Cretan with a face distorted by his desire to kill the small and helpless. Bloated, fat and reddened in his checks. His breath smelled worse than the afternoon river and a face with the blank expression from one who had killed and who must kill anyone and
Pg. 5 anything for his own, private reasons. "No need for to be afraid now," he said as I flung my fist against him. "Don't fight mein a few seconds you're going to hell like the rest of us." A word started to climb from within me. A word that I never thought I would hear myself saying to a stranger. No scream, only the word "please." The polite word I was taught to say. This word that my parents told me, had promised me, would open doors and gets me what I wanted from anyone made no difference now. As if that would make a different now that I saw a glint of steel knife from my left.
".Pllllk" came to my throatjust as two meaty palms collided to the side of the man's headand life rolled out of the stranger's eyes. I heard the sound of flesh crushing against bone and felt the grip vanish. I saw his eyes slide upward to white as both of us fell. I landed on my feet and looked at him, his face now buried in the gavel. He wore a torn, lose jacket that looked like it had been found in the trash by the river. His shoes caked mud brown. His hand held a knifea butter knife; and I thought of pancakes. A man had tired to kill me with the same instrument I use to butter my morning pancakes.
I looked up. There stood a giant. "Glad I could help out, hero," the giant said. "This is yours now for coming to rescue me." The giant dropped a small box on the road. I lifted it as if it were manna from the heavens. "I might drop by to pick it up later, hero. I got some other great stuff for you. Anytime you need a rescueyou call on me hero. I'll be there like a sandwich." He turned away and ran into darkness.
On the coldest night of August I had been saved from a man who wanted to kill me with a butterknife; and given a box by my uncle Reynaldo. He had killed the tramp, saved my life, called me a hero, given me a gift then disappeared.
A smart boy would have let this adventure stop here. I had more than enough to tell my friends once September rolled along. But I, being the most foolish and now the luckiest of all boys in history, did not want the story to end here.
I wanted it to go further.
* * * *
"I was at the river and something great happened."
These were the first words out of my mouth as I came into the house late to the dinner table. The usual mad, feeding frenzy stopped. My parents both looked at each other. My brothers kept munching away without swallowing their food.
"What did we tell you about going there?" my mother yelled.
Yes, I knew what they had told me about going to the river, but this was too important. I started to reach into my pocket to show them what my uncle had given me and to explain that I had seen my father's brother and he had saved my life.
None of these things happened. I heard the words "You go to your room and stay there. I'll deal with you later when the family gets done eating." My father returned to cutting his food and my brothers returned to swallowing while my mother looked away.
That night in my room, I held the box my uncle had given me. My parents had kept their promise to come yell at me, but I was too amazed by all that had happened to care about their warnings. After they had left, I opened the clean, white box and removed a square patch of cotton and held the medal to the moonlight. I felt the ribbon that was attached to it. Silk smooth, made from the finest cloth I had ever touched. My fingers moved over the embossing on the medal as it swayed back-and-forth. Once, it had to be pinned on the uniform of a solider. I recalled something about my uncle being in a war, something about him being lost, something else about him being forgotten then found again. Was it all a story? All I had of him now was this medal. He had saved my life and given this to me. And the promise that he would see me with more great stuff. I dreamed that night of the treasures my uncle would bring me once I saw him again. These were the things September stories were made of.
I made a promise to my parents I would never go to the river again. And for three days I kept that promise. Two days after the incident, at my father's business, a customer came in and told the story about how a dead bum was found at the side of the river, completely naked. All he said is that the bum had a knife in his hands and that was it. I wanted to tell him that it wasn't a knifeit was a butterknife and that bum was going to kill me. Sometimes, even in the young, wisdom shows up in small increments called silence.
* * * *
I went down to the river again. Searched the same road and found no trace of him. No footprints, clothing. But I did come up with one discovery...the butterknife. It was at the edge of the muddy marsh glistening in the late afternoon sun like a mirror. I picked it up. Like my visit to the river, it showed nothing of my story. I stuffed it in my pocket and returned home. That night, as I lay in my bed, I took the small box out of my dresser table next to my "Emergency Book." Flecks of clouds drifted across the moon and I tried to see if I could read the words that were on it. That's when the giant appeared from outside my bedroom window and blocked out the moon. I jumped back and stuffed the medal back into its box and grabbed the knife. The giant waved its finger in a "nonono" in front of the window. Then he lifted a hand up to the air as if to motion me to open it. Since I was alone in a separate bedroom away from the rest of my family, they could not hear me. I opened the window to see my uncle dressed in the jacket of the tramp he had killed earlier.
"So this is where you live, huh?" He was here, liked he promised. And there was a whole history I wanted him to tell me. There were stories I wanted to hear about places he had been. And I wanted to learn why everyone laughed at him. "Come out here where we can talk. I got some stuff for you, hero."
He must have crawled over the fence, I thought. I stared to climb out the window; but he grabbed and pulled me all the way out and set me on the grass several feet away. His face
Was like the face of my father only with lines deeply cut on his forehead and dark skin, in need of a shave. But what I could smell of him amazed me. He smelled as I imagined the river must have smelled years before people had arrived. He smelled like the freshness of cold water running on hot nights and thick green trees sending off their blossom into the evening. He smelled of all things fresh, new, clean; yet he looked like everything old, worn, used.
"You still got my little box, the one I gave you?"
I pointed to the bed in my room and answered "It's there."
"Shh," he whispered. "Not so loud or else they'll hear us. The enemy is all over the place tonight. If you talk loud they'll come down and capture us."
I smiled thinking the only enemy around were my parents; but Reynaldo seemed nervous, as if someone had chased him to this place.
"Look at this," he clenched his chest with his right hand. I heard paper shuffle inside. "Look, I have some plans I want to give you. I made them myself. It is all I got left and I wanted to give them to you so you could pass them down when you have your children. "
He reached into the jacket and pulled out an envelope. "Here, this is for you, hero. You got to keep this hidden from the enemy. They find outyou know what will happen?
We were playing a game like he was still in the army. "Don't worry about me Uncle Reynaldo. They will be safe with me."
"Uncle Reynaldo?" he repeated the name softly as if he were trying to remember a code. "Back home my brother has a son named Raymond Junior. I think they call him Ray-Ray. But you"
His eyes scanned the area around us as if looking for someone. "I came here so I would not be forgotten. That's the one thing in life I'm certain of. It's up to you, you know"he whispered.
I didn't know why it was up to me; but I accepted it. "Sure, I know."
"You got the box. The one I gave you." I was about to answer when he went on. "The enemy is all over the place this night. They could be here at any second."
"Yeah," I said. "They are all over the place, but I think we are safe here."
His face flashed anger at me. "Safe? Here? We are never safe anywhere when the enemy is all over the place." His voice was getting louder.
"Uncle Reynaldo, it's me---me, Ray-Ray." I searched for something that would make him focus on me. "Remember one time you came to the store to see dad and you told me I was the child of Eden."
His laugh started in small gasp of air until it turned into a belly roar. This would wake up the whole area as well as my family. He stopped and grabbed my shoulder as if the next words were the most important ever spoken. "Child of Eden," he said. "You are the first born of this family in this country. First to be most blessed to take all of its freedom for it gives freedom to everyoneand then it gives you nothing in return. There is danger in the first of anything for all the promises and hopes are always the first. First born to be most blessed, only to be most cursed for you seeeveryoneeveryone must leave Eden. So you see the first to be most blessed is the first to see this beautiful world for its possibilitiesand the first to see it disappear."
He lifted his arms away form me and said "This is the way the world is when you are no longer a child of Eden. A most cursed placeand they will curse you. But while you are a child of Eden, here you are most blessed. Everything is yours to enjoy. You are the joy of night and day."
He then took all the papers and gave them to me. "This is yours to enjoy, yours to enjoyjoy, joy, joy." The words trailed off into a mumble as I took the papers as he said." Take this hero. Make sure the enemy doesn't capture them. But if they do, remember do everything so I will not be forgotten. Remember: I will not be forgotten!"
He ran toward a fence that separated our house from an abandoned field that was planned for a housing development but then he stopped short, faced me again and screamed these final words to me "I WILL NOT BE FORGOTTENBY ANYONEANYMORE!"
And with that he vaulted over the fence in one smooth motion. The lights came on in the house and into the yard.
"Ray-Ray, you out there," my mother's voice rang while my father belted out "RAY-RAY!"
When they did find me staring outside, their anger turned into concern when I told them
"He was hereuncle Reynaldo, I talked to him. He was here. He gave me these."
I pointed to the fence and then showed them the papers.
My father, upset yet controlling it, said "Get inside and stay with your mother. " My mother touched my shoulder and in a voice as different my father's harshness said, "It is very dangerous outside. Come on, Ray-Ray let's go inside and go to sleep. Go to sleep and dream of angles."
But how could I sleep and dream when tonight I had seen a legend?
I turned to see my father as I entered the house only to see him standing by the fense, waiting as if something that had been lost for so long had returned for a moment and in an instanthad vanished.
* * * *
The next morning, I took the papers my uncle had given me and laid them out on the floor. I also took the box with the medal and put it on the floor. The papers had the dirt on them, but it made no difference, I looked forward to a series of stories from a man who was a legend in a different world, a world away from the same names in the "Emergency Book." On the crumpled sheets of paper, he had written stories about his kidnapping by aliens' form another planet and how they left him alone near Pluto to starve. He extended his adventures with drawings of these space creatures. On other pages were street maps where Pancho Villa was suppose to have put the treasures of Jaquine Murietta by the downtown city hall when he sailed to California. Other pages showed inventions for incredible machinery that ran on the power of moonlight. According
to my uncle, a strange man with long fingernails who had visited him while he lived in Mexico gave these to him. The other pages were scribbled with half drawn people and machines with notes in elaborate handwriting under them. These were the secret papers my uncle had given me because I was his hero and he was amadman, a genius, a crazy person, an inventor, fool.
Or maybe just one more tormented soul who had managed to put his demons on paper and given it to a child who had taken the time to talk to himto look for him. I took the medal out of the box and touched the smooth lining and the thick rim. I started to read the words outloud when I heard my father's voice.
"The Medal of Valor For Bravery In Combat," my father said. "Your crazy uncle, my brother, is a veteran. He didn't have to go. It was a Yankee's war. Not our war. They never cared about us. Never will. But your uncle thought differently. He told me, 'Raymond, we are here in this country because we will be blessed. We will be citizens and follow their laws no what it requires of us."
My father lifted the medal as if it weighed ten times more than it did. He lifted it to his face and studied it for a long time. "I thought he was a fool for feeling this way."
Then there were no words from him, only silence until he told me the story of my uncle. And the story of my uncle began with these five, sad words:
"Once there was a war"
* * * *
He told me of a place called Burma and how my uncle had led his patrol into a jungle. During one night of heavy shelling, my uncle's combat unit was destroyed. He told me how my uncle was the only survivor and for a year, he followed a river to avoid the enemy. "He lived like an animal to survive until the enemy took him prisoner and held him captive until the end of the war."
"And what happened then to him?" I asked.
"After the war he was taken into a veteran's psychiatric hospital. That's where they treat people who have been hurt by the war. They call it shell shock. It's a bad disease, a bad disease in the head that makes him act this way." He pointed to the papers and then looked away back toward the fence.
He drifts in-and-out of life," my father said. "Sometimes for days he's fine; but most of the time---especially lately---he just thinks he's back in the jungle. He still thinking he's out fighting the enemy, hiding, trying to stay away." Then my father looked at me with a sadness that made him look much older than my uncle. "That's why it worries me about you going to river and looking for him. He still thinks everyone is the enemy. He thinks that if he follows that damn river it will save him. He'll stay that way for awhile then he'll snap out of it. Then he'll go live in a hotel somewhere downtown. Until it hits him and he'll step back into the shadows and goes back to the river."
I looked at my father and pleaded "But he told me he's doesn't want to be forgotten. He screamed that to me."
My father looked at the medal again "He was forgotten. This country forgot him. His family forgot him. I am trying to forget about him. If we are going to live here and get along with people, Ray-Ray, it is best to accept responsibility or to forget what we can not do. I have a family now. I can not bring my brother's mind back. He is in his own world. He still thinks the river will lead him out of the jungle and save him and take him to paradise. If could bring back his mind I would. What can I do now?"
And the words "what can I do now" seemed to have come for the lips of a stranger. Those words came from the voice of a man who must accept the consequence fate bestows upon him no matter how much he wants to deny it.
I looked up to my father as if trying to comfort him and said, "You could try to find him. He could live here."
My words were that of a child. "Get rid of those papers, Ray-Ray," my father said handing them to me. "You can keep his medal, but you'd better get rid of those papers. This is the work of a crazy man. Forget him."
* * * *
And I, being the most foolish of all boys, didn't get rid of the papers, but hid them deep in my closet away from other eyes. I needed to return the medal to my uncle. To find him meant one more journey to the river, so I went again the last week of summer vacation to find him.
Starting in the late afternoon, I found the river had subsided into a trickle in some parts because of the heat. What had once been a riverbank with mud was now dirt that swirled dust in the air with each footstep. I jumped over sinks and old auto parts. I went behind fallen eucalyptus and bamboo and found a place where cans of beans and corn had been partially eaten. I thought this was a sign that he had been here. I followed the river until it disappeared under thick bushes several yards away from the debris.
I knew he had been here. I knew he had left. And I knew he would not be coming back here again.
I returned to the spot where I had found the cans and picked them up. They smelled of my uncle. They smelled of freshness yet all that is primordial and new at the same time.
I left the box with the medal on the ground, drew an arrow with a fallen tree branch and pointed it toward the medal with the words "For You Uncle Reynaldo." It became difficult for me to write my name. I couldn't put he word "hero" because I wasn't a hero and my real name he would probably not remember
Instead I wrote the words "Child of Eden" as my farewell to him. He would know me by this name. This is the way I wanted it.
I left paradise with a slow walk, taking my time. I was not expelled from the river. Instead I choose not to return to its dankness, to its secrets, to its beauty. I choose not to find my uncle again, and left him with the river.
That night in my room alone, I opened the "Emergency Book" and put my uncle's name in bold, bright letters under "H" for hero.
Another person would have let this story end here. But I, having become the most foolish of all adults, must tell you one more story about my uncle and the river.
As the city grew, the river died. It was dammed-up and cemented over. The trash removed, the trees, brushes, willows all destroyed. Most people in this area forgot that there was a river that once flowed free from the mountains into the ocean and before this river had a name or this place had a name. Once, it was called wilderness and spoke of all things before time.
I still drive over Eden every day on my way to work; trying to forget there is a river here.
And it was not until the rains of last season when it all changed.
The rains poured water into places where water had not been for years. It caused floods. It took lives. It did what water does when it can not be controlledit flows free and plentiful in places where it should not exist. I thought of that driving over the place where the river use to be. I stopped my car on an overpass right during rush hour and saw how the rain had cracked a hole in the cement and was starting to make the water flow free again. The cars behind me were honking and people were cursing at me. I did not hear them. They were cursing me as if I was the one who had chosen not to bring back this Eden. The crack widened. The noise from the rain grew louder. Their shout had all become gibberishand then it all became silent.
The crack widened. The noise became gibberishand then became silent. The
River had returned again. And I had arrived in Eden once more.
And I watched the water riseI heard the river speakand it shouted its whisper: "Remember me. I will notI will notI will not be forgottenremember me!"