“Hey, Pichi, what are you doing?”
“Nothing, mama. Just taking a snooze. And doing a little homework for my English class.”
“Dreaming, Pichi, always dreaming. Sueños inútiles.
It is afternoon and the Imperial Valley pants softly under a late sun. A smoke slick hangs over the fecund fields toward Holtville. In the sky there is a single cloud, like a discharge, moving in the direction of Mexicali. From the Salton Sea come silent wings of scavenger gulls.
I put down a few more sentences in the notebook, and wait—wait for the sounds to come to me, the words.
Meanwhile I can hear mama padding around the kitchen in her bare feet. Her body is a lava flow of flesh under the National Dollar Store print dress. Her hair is knotted into a crooked bun; there are streaks of grey in it. “I never been the same,” she would always say, “since Bertha was born.” That was four years ago, in 1964. Now her body is too tired for more babies, even if she wanted more.
Papa is groaning faintly in his sleep. He lies on the cot in the front room. Great colored drops fall from his face, like drops of blood. Papa has been sick for a long time. Doc Skrye says there is something growing in his liver. Pain comes to Papa in barrages, withering him; mama holds her ear to his body, listening, and is frightenedshe thinks she can hear the last febrile thrust of his heart.  His face is yellow and dry, soft as finished fruit in the mark-down bin of El Rancho market.
On the low table next to where papa is sleeping there is a recent photograph of the Gonzaga family. The only one missing is Lidia, my older sister. There is Maruca, two years out of Brownlee High, my brother Carlitos in his soldier suit with Pichi by his side. Then, in stair-steps, Patricia, Lalo, Roberto, Donato and little Bertha. Papa looks well and vigorous; he does not yet carry a cane. Mama is wearing a sack dress covered with yellow orchids and there is a bandanna around her neck. We do not look happy. We look like someone has just died.**


  The Trash class meets every day at Continuation. The real title of the course is English Fundamentals. A cozy world has been created there for the pupils of Mr. Nathaniel Trash. (“Have your laugh now, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, Anglo-Saxon names often have startling and inappropriate meanings, like the impecunious Mr. Rich or the timid Miss Wilde, or our substitute teacher Miss Prone who, some say, is often supine; but if she were Supine you can bet she would be prone. You laugh at me, Nathaniel Trash, but not at Eloise Escobar next door; but you would howl if I called her my dear Miss Broomfield.”)
It is a small class. There is Maclovia “Mac” Dumas. Elena Parker. “Mueca” González. Skunk O’Leary. We get a chance to talk whenever we want and Mr. Trash reads aloud to us a lot. “Literature,” he calls it, releasing his beatific smile. Whatever it is, we like it, even Mac who moves her lips when she reads and Elena who can absorb only a word at a time. Mueca and Skunk prefer Mad comics but they still sit with their mouths hung open when Mr. Trash gets carried away by the Genius of the Moment.
Mueca and Skunk loll zonked at their desks, their faces smeared with sweat from recess volleyball. Their lips curl serenely as if, below the surface, they were making it. Mac and Elena hold hands. We glance—rotating—at the louvered window, at the blackboard, at the clock, at Mr. Trash, at each other.
Time etches by. Hardly a fragment of air slips through the windows. An odor of creosote and fungus rises from the floor and there is a stench of pencil sharpenings, mingled with the madness of body odor. A fine dust filters from the chalk trough and drifts through sunlight to the linoleum.
Mr. Trash is talking about James Joyce. His finger points to a passage in our paperback Dubliners. He speaks of the Irish, of Catholicism, of Celts. His voice is cultivated, mellow, drunk with sound. Mr. Trash is about thirty, an ageless and pallid thirty; and when he speaks of love or death it gives you a crumbly feeling inside—maybe the effect of his big vague eyes which rest on ours, one by one. Finally, they settle on Maclovia Dumas.
“Maclovia, are you amused by Mr. Joyce?”
“Is he funny, Mr. Trash?”
“Very, Maclovia. You should take him—you should never take him—seriously.”
“Snow,” she murmurs. “Gawd, I never seen snow in my life.”
“What’s snow got to do with it?” Mueca whinnies. His eyes are wet and his gaunt legs yearn apart as he laughs. A chewed Eagle is clutched in his bitten pincers. “What’s snow got to do with it?”
“We’ll soon find out, won’t we, Maclovia, if Mr. González will give us half a chance.”
“Well, is he funny, Mr. Trash?”
Her earnestness—bordering on anxiety—makes Mr. Trash smile.
“I said it and I meant it, Maclovia. Of course James Joyce is funny, but not always—like us. He is not too funny in the snow, Maclovia.” His five foot five frame whisks toward the window, where he stands wrapped in thought for a dramatic moment or so.
“You can know snow and you can know fire,” he says at last, “without having touched them, Maclovia, through the medium of the printed word.”
Mr. Trash’s fine arms are covered with long silken hairs, blond, and he raises these arms now.
“You can know anything, Maclovia—In a sense—by reading about it. Literature is a lovely substitute for lots of things. Will you remember that, do you think?”
“If literature is all you got,” Skunk O’Leary says to his ornately carved desk.
“Do I catch an undertone of double meaning?”
Skunk has a white streak down one side of his red hair. Mr. Trash examines this streak at a distance. A marked man: the snigger of the Celtic race. Mr. Trash weighs his words.
“We all must make do with substitutes, Skunk. You’ve got your substitutes and I’ve got my substitutes.”
“Old lady Prone who comes in when you’re sick?”
“This class, for example.”
“What do you mean by that, Mr. Trash? You putting us on?”
“This class, I say, instead of a regular class at Brownlee Union. But this class, this substitute, is better than the real thing, believe you me.”
“You only think it is maybe.”
“Some substitutes end by becoming the real thing, Skunk. That’s something that Henry James learned that you would do well to remember, too.”
Elena’s eyes are flowing shut under soft brown Indian lids, lids rolling softly over soft brown eyes. Her nose, wide and slightly swollen by a pink pimple, expands.
“Elena was fascinated by Joyce.”
The class titters, and Elena’s eyes focus faintly on the form before her. Her breasts under the flimsy Newberry dress move of their own accord.
Mr. Trash drifts about the room now. He is graceful yet clumsily put together, and his crepe souls shriek on the linoleum.
At the window now, his hand still clutching Dubliners, badly dog-eared, he begins to talk of fatal love and one’s family. At the blackboard he talks of Dublin, Paris and the Lost Generation, mentioning someone called Sylvia Beach. (In my mind a sparkling stretch of hypnotic sands opens up.) A dozen names, a dozen books Mr. Trash has given me, quiver in the unknown—In the confused darkness of the world outside Brownlee. I think of the quiet breathing in the stacks at Brownlee’s Public Library, where you can watch through the screened windows as the sparrows scratch and argue in the Brownlee Public Park.
A far whistle notes the hour.
“The frailty of human perception,” Mr. Trash is saying—and the phrase lingers on in all our minds.
Skunk fumbles with his fly. Maclovia yawns into a Kleenex. The clock jumps spasmodically. We are caught in the Trash class, in a terrible kind of freedom that we have won for ourselves.
“One sentence, one phrase—or one mere touch—Is enough to change your life forever.”
“Amen,” Mueca sniggers, squeezing himself.
Suddenly I think of last night and flush with guilt, because I will never be able to tell anyone about it—least of all a priest—but Cuca no doubt will make up for that.
Once I was pursued by guilt, until I had to let it out, but not in Mary-Margaret to a priest I knew. Across the border, in Mexicali.**

“The sleeting of immense powers pierces us,” he says—obviously still into the chill symbolism of Dubliners. He pauses astounded by his own phrase.
We give an answering shudder of puzzlement. Maclovia cleans a nail. Skunk fashions square knots and undoes them. The very stars, Mr. Trash makes us feel instinctively, are almost perversely meaningful—capable of destroying us or raising us to heights unknown before. He gazes skyward through the faint moss of the ceiling.
“If we only realized. If we only had the ability to see.”
“To see what, Mr. Trash?”
It is Elena Parker, on the point of tears.
Mr. Trash smiles down at her, showing a tiny row of teeth.
“The power of inanimate things! And yet, some fortunate souls are able to feel these powers, and they rise—emerge—to the level of thinking men. They help us to realize our own poor powers, sensitive but second-rate.”
“You mean artists, Mr. Trash? Writers?”
Mr. Trash wheels, his soles a symphonic squeal. There is no need for his lips to form the words. Everyone in the classroom jumps at the jumping of the minute hand.
Then Mr. Trash sinks to his chair beside the desk. He is never behind the desk; there is never anything between him and us. He leans his elbow against a pile of illiteracy.
“You probably think I’m totally off my nut,” he says suddenly.
He stares hard at Elena Parker’s Indian-Mexican face and his gaze makes her—and everyone else—nervous. Her hands with their fat beetle-like fingers twitch. Her eyes are ready, as usual, to overflow.
“Do you think I’m off my nut, Elena?”
“No, Mr. Trash. Oh, no.”
Her smile is so beautiful it gives me a lump in the throat. Her “crime”—In the eyes of the school district—had been an inability to adjust to human time. At Brownlee Union she was always wandering off and not showing up for class or, when she did finally make it to school, spending her time in Make Up. Yet she has never been late for Mr. Trash’s class at Continuation. She opens her mouth and a small pink object inside struggles to get out.
“Well, Elena understands me if none of you others do.” He waves his left arm hopelessly. “Don’t worry about it, though. You don’t have to absorb everything.” A smile, weak. “A single sentence will do, if it slices through that armor; and if it pierces, ladies and gentlemen, you will never be the same again. Thanks to Mr. Trash who is off his nut.”
Mueca blows his laughter into a tight fist.
“Mr. González, it seems, has been pierced.”
“Aren’t you going to read to us today, Mr. Trash?” It is Mac, pleading frankly.
“I’d love to, dear, but it’s too late. And there are even limits to nuts.”
Somewhere, far off—In another world perhaps—a bell is ringing.
“Maybe tomorrow?”
“I liked Flies better than Dubliners.”
“Yeah, Skunk likes them flies.” Mueca grins.
“You will see how much better Joyce is when you settle down to the language, kid. I’ll make you see it—tomorrow; and maybe Pichi here would do us the favor of reading one of his compositions.”
Mac gasps in anticipation.
Mr. Trash is lit by the sun that slants through the blinds of the Continuation classroom. It is broken—vicious—school light, a fluid matter changing places slowly, despairingly unwarm.
While we sit there in our last delirium we are assailed by the increasing rasp of bells: prison alarms. Elena takes Mac’s hand, Mueca glances uneasily from beneath his straight black lashes, Skunk zips and unzips and zips. Pichi Gonzaga is lost in the flower patch of his thoughts. In another life—some weeks from now—he will be free of Continuation and of his past, married to Cuca Ximénez and laboring at the ice plant.
What began when he was fourteen has no importance because no one knows.


William Bryant lived and worked in the Middle East for many years. He has done a stint for the Saudi Navy, worked in the petrochemical industry, and shown the same propensity as his inspiration T.E. Lawrence for “plunging crudely among crude men.” He has written biographies of Alfred Russel Wallace and Roger Casement and several novels. Ross was his first published novel.
**Portions of this piece have been edited for length.