Modesta Avila


Modesta Avila
     First felon of Orange County – 1889

Thin columns of rising smoke
trace the mesh of railroad racks
out across the scrub and farms
of the ranchos of Southern California.

Stubby black engines pulling
cattle hides and oranges
spurt rhythmic blasts of exhausted steam
and startle the jackrabbits

in a mundane daily working way,
as if the sleepy donkey carts
of the land-rich Californios
had last rolled centuries ago.

Modesta’s teenage eyes flare out,
steady in the booking photo;
her crime       she dared to string her laundry
across the Southern Pacific tracks,

an eighteen year old       Mexican,
upturned by the shifting tide,
tired of the incessant grunt
of indifferent locomotives

sealing her childhood beneath the rails,
unable to see a world beyond,
a woman knowing no way to stop
the hard steel wheels of the passing trains,

willing to lose the sunsets
glowing orange in the ocean air,
or trade the sight of butterflies
drifting from fresh spring grass,

or       rage welling in her neck,
nothing more than wanting,
wanting just one chance to say
this land        it was my father’s.

Frank Kearns 2014

Making a City

One summer August when I was about twelve, my brother and I embarked on a grand undertaking. We decided, in a dusty second floor room in the abandoned shed attached to our old farm house, to build a civilization. We had a large flat space. We had paper and glue. And we had, wonder of wonders, access to my father’s office mimeograph machine. On a grid, maybe four feet by four feet, we laid it all out: main street, side streets, houses, yards, shops.

I think of this, standing under the sun outside my office building, looking across the parking lot, across the boulevard, to the blue sky above the strip mall restaurants. A grid city, laid out and planned with restaurants here and a gas station there, patterns repeated over and over beneath the glare of a nine zillion watt light bulb.

There is Sweetie Thai, with white table cloths, tea lite candles, thin waitresses moving in the dimness of the dining room away from the glow of the windows. Carl’s Junior. One of a thousand in Orange County, and the California Fish Grill, where every Tuesdays fish tacos are half price. Every Tuesday one of the ladies asks around the office. She collects the orders and makes the call, and then we walk across the street, talking of home repair and children. The smell of some exotic oil on a hot pan floats from Sweetie Thai. Inside the California Fish Grill, the noise of clanking spatulas and the sizzle of batter are background for the chatter and laughter of a hundred people jostling around the island filled with pots of salsas and cilantro.

In that dusty room we placed the people, two types of men and two types of woman, a boy and a girl, several hundred copies run off on the mimeograph. We had cars, complex folds and strategic spots of glue placed after cutting along the blue lines duplicated on a pile of paper. There was a bank, with lots of tiny money, and a restaurant and a factory where the cars were made, a couple of folded houses and a restaurant, which we thought was really pretty close to everything that we needed to complete our little world.

It all lay silent as the next school year started and dust filtered in through the shed. And now, as I stand on the concrete side walk, press the metal button and wait for the walk light, I think about this rolled out city under the sun, and realize that in my long lost little world, I didn’t know about the sizzle of batter, the smell of fried shrimp floating across lanes of asphalt, and the lady who gets up from her desk about eleven every Tuesday to collect the fish taco order.