The following excerpts are from The Charmed Life: The Story of a Boy Who Changes by John Graham, one of the historical society's Artists of the Month. The Charmed Life is a fictitious account of El Fornio, California, parts of which were published in Spectrum, Volume 38, in 1996. Spectrum has been publishing essays, fiction and poetry out of the University of California since 1957. Among the writers Spectrum has published are Samuel Beckett, Marianne Moore and Raymond Carver.

Part of “The El Fornio Story Cycle,” The Charmed Life gives narrative to the city and county of El Fornio, as well as some actual events and people, as researched by the author. Particular attention here is paid to Jack Kennedy, the much discussed gas station attendant whom the author describes as the “self identity poster child.” Those who knew Jack Kennedy personally and worked with him claim that in 1984, the twenty-one year old changed enough physically over the period of three months to be able to pass as another person, The author, while surmising and imagining the details of some events, has tried to stick as closely as possible to the facts as given to him by actual witnesses at the time.
  The following excerpts also mention Ed Mister and Abby Goodman, the couple who own the gas station where Jack worked. Also mentioned is Iggy the iguana, last of the El Fornio iguanas originally brought to the region by Juan Bautista de Anza circa 1776. Jack owned the animal as a pet.


 

AS A CAST OUT, JACK HAD HID, living downtown away from El Fornio for several months before coming to live at the station. With no canyons or trees to hide behind, he ate cereal out of little boxes, drank water from odd faucets. He looked in shop windows, slept in mall niches, nearly blind and feeling the world with his hands, wondering when he would be taken away.It was one Sunday afternoon, watching the families lined up for the movies, that he came upon a box of books left in a dumpster. He sorted through the lot, tossing out romance novels, cookbooks, thrillers, ending up with a sturdy load of reference books which he began to read from daily with their classifications of plants and animals, diagrams, captions, explanations and maps. But it was the dark green hardback, Standards & Marks, with its brown-edged acidic pages, exercises with marks about the type, which instructed Jack he might be around longer than he had expected.
There was a time, mid- to late-1800s, when editorial marks used two different kinds of deletions. The first was the mark of total deletion, the well known strike-through line going up then piggy tail exiting right. The second kind--known formally as the conditional deletion or colloquially as the cross-out--was simply a line through the word at the halfway point of the ex-height, as if a long iron poker had been laid across the collected letters in question. The conspicuous absence of the line going up and accompanying piggy tail meant that the word was up for replacement but had a real chance at remaining, with the right editorial jockeying, of course.
The mark was popular with newspaper people as editors and writers used it to comment back and forth to one another--cross-outs being less like REVISION MARKS: ON as they were actually primitive in-boxes where one could leave coded remarks for another to peruse.
The tool was used by the entire graduating class of the ill-fated, one year charter, Free Army Hospital (motto "Audivi ubi fuisset, numero ad duodecim."). Though it was not free, the army or even a hospital, it was a college. Several of its graduates went on to use the editorial style in the professional world, most notably spiritualist/historian Marianne Emily who brought the device with her when she became editor at The Moorish Carriage, a quarterly dedicated to proving the existence and exploits of a Eli al Cambiaz and his pupil, Raafiya.
Legend had it that al Cambiaz and his student charge had survived the onslaught of Isabel and Fernidad's soldiers against the Moors, members of which they may or may not have been as the exact ethnic identities of al Cambiaz and Raafiya have never been established.
After crossing the straits, the two of them regrouped in Chechaouene for a time, where it has been noted that the boy Raafiya was marked in the Berber way, an act which nearly cost him his sight. When he had recovered, the two of them headed north by boat towards Hibernia where they supposedly died en route, drowning when their boat was swamped in a storm. Ms. Emily dedicated the last issue of The Carriage, as it was called by local illuminati, to following up leads in Ireland where one or both of the figures were purported to have actually landed and lived out their full lives, leading one skeptical academic to remark of the story that it was "a Dark Irish myth within a Dark Irish myth."
Unfortunately, Ms. Emily and her traveling companion both died of ptomaine poisoning a week into their trip, bringing an end to both the project and the publication. Records from the local constable point to a feast of bad lamb that went around a festival prepared especially in Ms. Emily's honor.
To this day there are still people claiming to be the descendants of either al Cambiaz or Raafiya. Whether their claims are true or not is still a matter of speculation, although they all share the same common traits: dark skin, noble noses and thick, black almost oriental hair.
A classmate of Marianne Emily's, A. Lee Greynya, used the marking of deletions as well, teaching its usage to the well-known groups of summer and research interns he stocked at his farm during production of some of his more copious and encyclopedic works. His famous Dream Days of the Spanish and The Fisherman, (including the two hundred page introduction) were constructed using the marking of deletions device. His most accessible work, Married to Cleopatra, utilized the nineteenth century editorial teaching as well.
The official use of the technique, (Editorial Standards & Marks, 1945) stops around 1939, when Greynya's son last employed its usage at "Vintners, The Monograph Printers," demonstrating and instructing the technique to the entire editorial staff of three. "Vintners" lasted approximately nine months, with six issues making it into the hands of readers. Half of those were purported to be comps and thumbnail sketches. The total cost to Greynya was just under a fifty thousand dollars of his own money--inherited from his father's now dwindling literary estate--although Greynya, Jr. was able to maintain the buildings and land. The estate was eventually sold by his heirs to the adjacent university which came in, broke up the presses, melted down the type for ceramic kiln ballast and turned the buildings into the school's new computer lab--not even a thought given to changing of the guard ceremonies.
The marking of deletions was lost with the break up of the last of the Greynya editorial teams. Only the cosmos ever thinks about it any more, as Jack was certain he was not marked by a cumulonimbus-inspired god and his towerly pen but by all his dire angels and dominions, powers and thrones who rolled out the goodies like a traveling theater group, saying these are the truly godly things--the rocks and sand dollars, black widows and oak trees, bones, baseball gloves, vulture in his warm arroyo with the Troll and the Invisible Ones--they are the most important. The world cannot have just one god as it needs all the imaginary fairies it can conjure.
Over Jack these principals fought. He had lasted the rounds of discussion and drink, smoking and late night calls to home like an argument ironed out just minutes before the presses rolled. The piggy tail mark was erased, leaving only the straight line through.

* * *

A NOTE ABOUT THE GARDEN out back of the gas station. It had been built up substantially over the years to become what it was now. Ed and Abby hadn't created it so much as they maintained and restored the little kingdom from what it seemed to have once been.
When Juan Justo passed away the land sat for some years. By the time the sweaty regional managers of Claymore 37 set their eyes on the property, as it had become 1542 Juan Bautista by this time, the garden was a bit dilapidated, large rocks falling out of place and with them the earth held secure. Underneath that dirt was the shell of the original mound that Juan Justo's great, great grandfather had built on top of. The tactic was to hide not just what was under the mound, but the mound itself. The mission dignitaries loved a garden and it was felt that if their attention could be kept on the codex of plants and brilliant rocks on top of the mound, then the mound itself would not be disturbed, nor those below it. To complete the illusion, a nine foot oak cross was placed at the top. The mound had come close to giving itself away only after Juan Justo died, as the intermittent downpours eroded the cover so perfectly built and cared for during the generations of Justos which had watched over it. Until construction of the station--with the sinking of the fuel tanks, modification of existing barn, addition of the car bays--only the occasional cactus thief or M-80 blasting teenager had any inkling as to the mound's contents. Certainly a few toe-head buzz cuts had toted away an arrowhead or two.
The original mound had not been covered with the variety of cactus it was now host to. Local plants like toyon, a juvenile oak, white, black and chia sage were some of the original embellishments. Around these was placed a nice smattering of deep green, white and purple datura, or "Momoy" as the Justo's gave name to it (as the Justos were then the Pespibatas and everything was called differently). It wasn't until February of 1776 that the mound received its first cacti, donated by Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza and his entourage. Anza had just come into Mission El Fornio by way of Mission San Gabriel and the Mojave Desert. There were over two hundred of them--men, women and children--and they arrived with cattle, cactus and more than a handful of iguanas.
The viceroy in Mexico City had sent Anza, with his soldiers, wives, children and volunteers, off to found a colony on what is now San Francisco Bay. Seems the English and particularly the Russians had an eye on the area for themselves, but the Spanish wanted to have it all to themselves. Why let the English or Russians christianize and work the native population to death when they could do it alone. Little did they know that within fifty years it would all come apart, only the place names of streets and towns left behind, that and the red tile roofs, the Inquisition architecture stolen from the Moors who they had managed to treat even worse than the locals.
It was from this set of iguanas Iggy came. Anza's group had picked them up as pets and food way back around Tubac, from where they started. But the iguanas themselves had only made it there by way of traders. Originally they had come from the southern jungles of what is now the Chiapas state.
The locals at Mission El Fornio thought of them as food too, until they saw what great companions they made. When the young boys around the village, playing hoop and pole, saw how enthusiastic the iguanas could be chasing the hoops as they rolled by, they cried to their mothers and fathers to spare the little four-legged green race from the dinner table. By next season, with little iguanas running around in the dust, ducking in and out of the rocks and plants on the mound, it became rather cute and the appetites of the elders every so often got the best of them.
From that point only three major challenges faced the iguana population at El Fornio. The first was the secularization of the missions. By the time the padres lost the backing of the Spanish government, locals like the Pesbibata clan--now outwardly Justo--were becoming more and more marginalized and the iguanas less and less familiar with those who came to greet them. By the time the so-called Halcyon days of the Spanish were over, and the Mexican rancheros had moved in, many of Iggy's forebears had gone to the stake, hunted, filleted and roasted. If it were not for the canyon behind the mound from where they had established their original nests, they would have had no where to hide.
The second challenge faced by the El Fornio Iguana, and the least noticed by them was in-breeding. Jack could have told anyone that. Iggy was not particularly on the ball or, as his cousins were, on the hoop. There was only twelve original Anza iguanas to begin with--all El Fornio iguanas being related to them--which is a lot of genetic collision for one species to handle. Some, for instance, had small tails so with little to balance themselves, they walked peculiarly. Many had lost the crest on their brows and maintained only a clump of skin cells which, grudgingly, might even be called a crest. These would have been amazingly difficult attributes to overcome in a regular field--from a sexual selection standpoint--but fortunately beauty was not what an El Fornio female iguana used to choose a mate. How could she? Some of these guys were common clumps of clay when it came to aesthetics, and with little consequence. It wasn't until the early 1900s, when male El Fornio iguanas tried to mate with the common opossum (another transported species) that problems for the breeding group reached their climax. Two centuries of inbreeding had either made an animal so physically distorted it couldn't tell itself from an opossum, or it had made something so intellectually inferior it didn't matter. Either way, the sperm didn't reach the pocket it should and when it did, it all too often didn't matter. Again, Iggy, pet of Jack, was the most modern example: he had found no mate when he was alive, and he couldn't trick himself.
The third challenge was like the first--a changing of the guard spelled disaster for the iguanas. When Juan Justo died, having outlived everyone, the iguanas had no one to look after them. Although they had slipped into the canyon by this time, becoming nearly feral, they were still dependent upon people. Justo had fed and watered them as if they were horses, and like horses the iguanas came back each day to wait for him, even in the weeks that followed Justo's death, meandering about famished until, in their lizard brains, they realized that their only hope was back in the canyon where beetles, wild cucumber, toyon, elderberry and even datura leaves waited. It was hard living in the elfin forest, but the getting could be good.

* * *

ED MISTER WAS A PICKLE-BARREL CHESTED MAN who came from a long line of short fingernails, akin to the Prince of Wales and that kind of inbreeding. He was also premature gray, as was most of the family. When she was only eight years, his older sister was so gray that she was given a cigar and handshake at a voter rally in Echo Park.
That day they headed out to Alhambra in Uncle Raymon's swimming pool-sized Oldsmobile, Uncle himself visiting from Europe where he lived with his short fingers and stubby nails, still in the service with, by this time, cloud white hair. He had the peculiar habit of keeping his thumbs covered by his front fingers--not a fist actually, but a device he had discovered to shelter the grenade pin of his horror, wars domestic and abroad. The older relatives sat with Raymond and their own even whiter hair looking like the Frost People, able to look into each other's scalps and see things like blue birds, hard water, freezing wind.
Ed's hair made him a default leader of sorts for whatever activity he became involved in. Since he lacked the spark of actual charisma, his were the congenital duties that went along with premature graying, like being the first to buy alcohol, first to outgrow girls and the first to have to talk to police.
"So you know these boys from where?" taking the overgrown, salt and peppered adolescent by the elbow. The cops would shake their hips and give the old buddy-buddy wink to one another when capturing the young Ed as if they had finally suckled on to something truly deprived in their law enforcement careers. Their disappointment in discovering the boy wasn't that old was matched only by the disappointment Ed experienced missing out on his adolescence. From a signs-and-symbols standpoint, he went straight from being a prepubescent boy scout to signing VFW petitions all within three years.
Ed reached the rank of Seaman First Class in the Coast Guard by the time he left with his GI bill and blown-out shoulder. "Drunken one-armed push-up contests," muttered to Jack and Abby one afternoon. With the bill and a cash loan from Richard "Dick" Leak--a USC asshole Ed knew from Venice High--he was able to secure the down payment on the station . . . Leak had scored most his legitimate capital in auto parts and sand when Ed was in the Guard, so he thought of parking lots and service stations as investments in his future.
Ed had occasional semi-total body failure once or twice a year. Some calcium fault or retro-virus would consume him for two or three days, maybe a week. It would look bad, then he'd rise out of it, as if it were an aberration, a slip on a banana peal internally noted but forgotten.
In kind, Ed had sporadic and nubby three millimeter moles rising from his neck. One day Jack would note a long strawberry-colored one like a floppy tire nipple, then the next it would be gone--perhaps a red dot in its place. Where they went Jack wasn't sure and Ed never talked about them, although a few were certain to have fallen into the radiators and engine blocks he'd worked on during the week. Jack imagined the neighborhood ladies in their four-doors driving around with the roasted nubs of Ed's wart-moles resting in their engines.
Between the red rubbery moles on his neck and arms slalomed the lines connecting Ed and Jack. They shared the zealotry which said there were no new tattoos. From the second the artist pulled the needle and wiped the dermis, Captain Spermis--maybe clean with alcohol--it was like the Caltrans man marking the pavement with his spray cans. This is where that is buried and that is where this is buried, red and blue paint flares in the hands of the lineman marking along what he already knew was underneath: fists clenched in front of thin belly, elbows to tightened biceps, eyes traveling across . . . Deed done, the marks might as well have been there forever. Who was to say they hadn't come from birth, other than the general notion that children aren't born lke that and if they are it is only one child who is born marked, his or her three matching numbers more passť than the old skull n' cross bones, ship, shamrock, reaper or heart.
Although Jack and he liked tattoos, there was a difference between them. Ed was from the blue ink generation, as if all the imagination had gone out of the activity by the time his grandfather, father and he were sat in the chair and needled cobalt-blue and red, the red, beyond iron-oxide, red as the blood of the vanquished put into the body, reversing lots of racial superiority claims--we declaim you but we mix with you.
London sailors in certain days let the tribesmen put it under their skin with nails and mallets, pit, pit, pitting away, tapping designs in their hide for lost and local loves (mixing again). There were men who put their whole lives into it that way, bloody as slaves and puffy.
With Ed, Jack reckoned there was no consideration for another way. They were just boys, misled by men, going off somewhere else again, eternally . . . Perhaps a yellow or green Japanese ink would have been construed as less than manly by the lot of big chested guys who held tree trunks in their arms and ate them like carrots. They were just trying to be Men and it can be very difficult when one is just trying to be a man, the real virtues with women and all.
Well, yes and no. Ed wasn't that manly--by male-game standards. The only "action" he ever saw was rounding up a lot of protesting naked hippies in dinghies off Point Vandekamp one night, some prototypes for the modern ICBMs ripe to be launched. Under the rockets red glare a little inadvertent spanking here and there had occurred, but it was innocent, really, as Ed was in no way perverted, hardly even kinky, wouldn't think of dollying a sphincter, morally bound to such activities as he was. "No, really," he explained desperately to Abby one night of confidences. "You try it yourself self some time, all wet wanting to catch them as they go up the beach. Those rockets whistling over head--you become something you hadn't planned on!"
Ed got his GI bill, and he got his marks. When he stood in the sun all day they glowed like tiel worms. Jack swore he saw them lit one evening at the beginning of last summer when he was scrubbing the blacktop at the end of the day. "Ed, you," Jack thought. "I've got better colors in mine." He looked at the reds, yellows, pitch blacks, greens and blues thick on his arms.
Some afternoons Jack had a de'Chirico view of things, all the shadows long, as he would have a moment of pride, a finger licked and motioned like a point made. "Put one down for me!" as Ed walked past him, Jack trying to put his arm next to Ed's to compare, Ed stopping to see Jack was up to something, maybe thinking too much. "What, Jack? What?" He looked at him incredulously. "Can't you act normal once."
Jack smiled, and fortunately. The drunken little boy inside him knew the body was not a canvas when it came to important markings. He had his own ideas about how to decorate. In a daydream, he often found himself with Flipper, the TV star, laid out in his lap like a German shepherd would abiding you time to find its ticks. Jack would take a marker along the thick watermelon sides of the popular sea mammal, squeaking black strands parallel to latisimus and dorsal lines, following the muscles.
Standing out on Pump 6, Supreme, Jack laughed. It was so silly to be writing with a big black marker on the dolphin, but he was getting his point across.
Ed wiped his brow with a doily looking at the young man there on the island, wondering if Jack was getting to him. "I've heard of the goddamn Trickle Down Theory," he said to himself. "But, bud, you're the Trickle Down Reality."
Jack leaned against the pumps, looking at Ed, out with a cig to torch.

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by JOHN GRAHAM


Copyright © 2005, The El Fornio Historical Society
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Contact John Graham at john@elfornio.com