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Short Story Contest Finalist: Mephistopheles in the EPT

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PHOTO SOURCE: http://www.photolibrary.fema.gov/photolibrary/photo_details.do?id=14512
New Orleans, LA, August 30, 2005 -- People sit on a roof waiting to be rescued after Hurricane Katrina.

Last week, we announced the winners of our 2012 Short Story Contest. Today, we’re publishing the third of our four finalists. We’ll continue to publish stories every week for the next few weeks. Read last week’s finalist.

Mephistopheles in the EPT

I moved into the house on Stanton Street during the irrevocably hot month of August.

Andrea, my off-again on-again girlfriend, learned of her mother’s cancer a week into the beginning semester of graduate school & would have to return to Colombia for the last few months of her mother’s life. I became an alcoholic. Hurricane Katrina black eyed New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. Kanye West spat on George Bush’s presidency.

This was the summer of 2005, when I lived in a broke black hole on a broken border of the universe but the broke black hole was actually a desert with a brown dick and a pair of skinny blue jeans dividing garage doors from I-10 & Sunland Park Mall (more commonly known as the Rio Grande River).

The desert broke hotter than the end of the Devil’s cigarette. Burning hot burning cement burning bright in a place where not even Mephistopheles could cross the Stanton Street Bridge without papers. So there he was.

Trapped whore shopping along La Calle Juárez, Mephistopheles contacted my neighbor the coyote & the coyote got him a job as a painter, & the Devil’s messenger sat on my porch steps for a week straight, smoking Reds & leaving extinguished butts on the gravel. I asked him to leave, to get out, to get out.

This was the summer of hurricane, a summer that the ghost of Faustus danced all along my life, all along the coast of Louisiana & pissed gasoline everywhere. I nailed a crucifix over my bedroom door & dreamed of a space rocket to escape the bullets of sweat spent under the spin of a fan. Swamp coolers didn’t make much difference in El Paso.

I read that Eduardo Galeano once said that you can’t be a writer unless you experience death. Previously, my only experience with death was that of my grandfather, who also died of cancer two years before. He contracted throat cancer, most likely due to his tobacco chewing habit. That had been a terrible affair. Not merely because my grandpa died, but because for the first time in my life, I recognized the broken line between my mom and my dad. I saw my father weep & saw a visible fracture in the relationship between him and my mom. My mother stood aside during the viewing & @ the burial, refusing or unable to console him. She spent entire days leading up to the funeral irritated with my father’s family, wishing they would just leave us alone. I don’t remember crying when the coffin was lowered into the ground, but I do remember the person who hugged me tightest was my abuelita, my mother’s mother. I was 22 then.

I was in my second year of graduate school when Andrea’s mother became terminally ill. The cancer started in her stomach. Andrea bought a plane ticket for Cali, Colombia. We packed up her one-bedroom apartment in two days time. I carried a box of her books down the old stairs out to my truck.

-Mom will probably curse me on her deathbed, she said.
What? I asked her, juggling boxes down the stairs. She doesn’t like gays.
-She never got over that. She probably will say that is why she has cancer… but really, I think it is all those cleaning chemicals she used. She was obsessed with cleaning. She made a chemical bomb once. I am sure that is why she has cancer.
And you’re still going to take care of her? I asked.
-Of course, she answered.

We finished cleaning the apartment in Sunset Heights. I pulled out old copies of the Progressive from the back of the closet & took them out to the trash. When I wiped down the mirror in the bathroom, I swore I could still smell Old Spice lingering along the sink, the floor, in the very ghost of the room. Juan, another Colombian writer, had lived in this same apartment for nearly three years. Before him, a Mexican writer named Yuri. I had rented it out for the summer, just before Andrea took up in it. This apartment served as a communal tank of writers for the last seven years. It was sad to say good-bye.

I had spent many mornings on Juan’s old mattress, second hand smoking weed as it crept up under the crevice between my door & the floor. My neighbors across the hall believed in an open-door policy.

I’d miss the black and white kitchen tile, the way the sun would hit the windows around 7 am, and the sight of my beautiful downstairs neighbor Piscis – lounging around the courtyard in her bikini, smoking a cigarette and drinking mate. Before she left, Andrea gave me a book of Baudrillard. To read & educate you, my little monster, she noted. I dropped her off at the airport, & stood outside the gift shop in the El Paso airport, watching her fade into the crowd. She left the city, & the hurricane broke.

Hurricane Katrina dined on the Southeastern coast of Louisiana on a Monday. It was late August, & in El Paso – the heat roared beyond unbearable – nothing unusual considering the 915 is part of the Chihuahua desert, & that the city is a city of asphalt, sand & I-10.

El Paso has been ranked among the nation’s safest cities in the last ten years – a paradox considering the reputation of Juarez as a capital of both femicide & drug turf wars. One is a quiet sleepy city & the other, on the brink of anarchy. I often wondered if the Joker escaped into Juarez & decided to make it home.

I unpacked boxes and put together my room in the front of the house on Stanton. From our front porch, the view spanned across most of the northwest side of El Paso. I hung up my Jaune Rouge Bleu print along the back wall, set up a Skype account to call Andrea, & installed bamboo blinds that transformed my sunny room into a dark black cave.

My life as a vampire began. I hooked up the television and for days on end, glued myself to the reports of the storm, witnessing from a far distance – one of the worst natural disasters in my lifetime in my country.

Baudrillard said that “television knows no night. It is perpetual day. TV embodies our fear of the dark, of night, of the other side of things.” My life began to feel that way. No night. Always day. For the first time in my life, I saw the dark, the other side of things, through a little grey Magnavox.

On the local news, I watched the wreckage. I watched water scorch the 4th Ward. I watched FEMA react like the runt of the litter, last to the trough, no hurry to help. I watched looters, innocents, & the police threaten refugees from the storm.

I watched Ray Nagin try to hold onto a city he had no control over. I watched Kanye West turn in an impassioned plea during a telethon for Katrina victims & make a political statement that echoed the sentiments of many: “I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’ And, you know, it’s been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black… George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded by August 31st. Busloads of homeless folk poured into El Chuco. They congregated around San Jacinto Plaza in downtown EPT, surrounded the fiberglass statues of alligators sculpted by Luis Jiménez. They lined up to get into the homeless shelter on Myrtle Avenue, milled around the 7-11 on Mesa, panhandled for change on the corners of Stanton Street & Mesa.

As the bodies floated around in New Orleans and the corpse count piled higher and higher, our whole nation sighed. For a moment. The seams of my city expanded.

I sat outside on my porch, drinking tea with milk & honey. I ate ramen. The windows of the living room were up, and I could still hear the reporter describing how Michael Brown was in deep trouble.

This isn’t a 9/11 type of disaster, I told Andrea on the phone one evening. No one is reacting that way, I continued. It’s mostly black people. And poor people. Most of them couldn’t even leave. They were bussed here. Or to Houston. Or wherever. Just dropped off. They stayed in the Superdome. If it had been a major city full of white people…

-Oh, little monster, she said, that is because your country is in the beginning of a societal crisis.
Andreita… there are so many homeless people here. Even back home. My mom told me about buses that dropped people off in Lubbock. This… this is crazy. There are bodies floating in the city… People are shooting each other. The police are running out of town. Nobody is in charge. This is what it would like if the world was ending…

Days and days went by. September came. A state of emergency was declared. I visited Chico’s Tacos for the first time after a heavy night of drinking. The tacos swam in red sauce, like logs in an ocean. While I ate, I tried hard not to imagine the waters of the Mississippi River swallowing people. My tacos looked like the bodies floating around the city. I grew ill & never went back to Chico’s. There was no mistake about it.

The devil had not gone to Georgia. He had, instead, paid a visit to New Orleans. I’ve thought a lot about what Kanye West said. I spent as much time turning over the controversy of his words as I did on the phone with Andrea.

Andrea spent most of her days cooking and cleaning and caring for her mother, who was now bedridden. My life became a state of emergency. The house on Stanton Street was quiet. One of my roommates hid in her room, writing her novel. My other roommate slept mostly at her boyfriend’s house. The official season of summer had ended, but the hotness still beat down on El Paso. I still called Andrea nearly every single day. After our phone calls ended, I went out to party, to play quarters with a bottle of whiskey, and to not think at all.

My devoted victim, she once called me. I thought of this as I picked through the book of Baudrillard she left me. We both agreed with Kanye West. That was a given. New Orleans, before the hurricane hit, was 67% African American.

I sometimes thought that Andrea’s trip to Colombia changed the face of our relationship & bonded us over tragedy. But I could also see the cracks in us, just as I begun to witness how the devastation to New Orleans changed the landscape of the city.

According to an article in Colorlines, Alex Jung wrote about the numbers before and after Hurricane Katrina: “The data, compiled and analyzed in a new report entitled “Resettling New Orleans” released by the Brookings Institution, provides a snapshot of the city in 2005 before the hurricane hit and then a year later in 2006. The numbers are as follows: in the city of New Orleans, the Black population dropped from 67 percent to 58 percent while the white composition of the city jumped from 26 percent to 34 percent. These figures mean that Blacks suffered a 57-percent population loss, whereas whites experienced only a 36-percent decline.”

How is your mom today?
-She says she is going to die soon. Just like yesterday. Oh… let’s not talk about that. Little monster, you would have liked what I cooked for everybody. I made rice, plantains, and chicken with vegetables. We went to the market this morning, so everything was fresh. It was delicious. Even my aunt said so, and you know, she is difficult to please.

The Kandinsky on my wall had become off-centered, and though I wanted to adjust it, I could not move from my position near my computer, or take off my headphones. They linked me to Andrea, miles and miles away in another country, another world. She finished telling me that Titi, her childhood nanny, had come from Sevilla Valle to visit them in Cali. She also told me that when she came home, she would return with her little dog, Lupita.

I just said okay, tilted my head so my Kandinsky didn’t look so crooked, and said good bye – I went to my bed, and thought that El Paso always felt like a broke black hole. Everything came in, but nothing ever left, not even light. I thought of the Gulf Coast, and the little towns that vanished amid the storm. And from my window, I saw the eyes of smoke outside on the steps. Mephistopheles sat outside, with his Reds, waiting, just waiting, for his chance to collect our souls. But he would have to keep waiting. After Katrina, I whispered to him, through the quiet desert air, I thought he had collected enough for now.

headshotMónica Teresa Ortiz is a native Texan and based in Austin. She holds a BA from UT Austin and an MFA from UT El Paso. Her work has appeared in Palabra, Raspa, Liberty’s Vigil: The Occupy Anthology, Cipactli Literary Journal, among other publications. She’s been a two time finalist for the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize, and was an honorable mention in 2011’s Texas Observer Short Story Contest.