Author Archives: johnclintongray

The Porcine Pendant

A non-native but well rooted Vashon Islander and long-time friend sent us an extraordinary and unexpected gift last Christmas.

Cliff had previously bestowed on us a small tin of “Last Supper Dinner Mints” with a miniature resemblance of da Vinci’s famous painting on the lid, and, on another occasion, an Edgar Allen Poe hanging car freshener, which actually worked. To receive another marvelous oddity from him was not a generic surprise, but we couldn’t wait to see the specific.

Cliff is known for his large, generous heart and Yoda-like wisdom, his endearingly oddball humor, and his nearly astounding ability to discern the perfect weird gift.

Retrieving the thick Washington-postmarked envelope from the mailbox, Pamela and I were already smiling in anticipation of whatever it might contain. We imagined Cliff had been again to a certain favorite shop in Seattle, purveyor of a plethora of eclectic, humorous eccentricities. I slit the envelope open, and a slender cardboard sleeve slipped out. It was about the size of a fat pocket comb, but noticeably weightier. On it, a sticker proclaiming “Vashon Pharmacy” revealed that the source this time had not required Cliff a water passage to reach it. Evidently the Puget Sound cultural phenomenon had spread, and Vashon Island residents now support the oddity trade.

I drew the object from its sleeve, and stared at it, realizing what it was: a Christmas tree ornament. An artistic, creative, hugely funny, Christmas tree ornament. I was awed by the perfect genius of it. There in my hand was a five-inch long, red, silver, and black, stylized but identifiable, metallic strip of bacon. Through a small metal eye attached to one end a seasonally colored loop of string passed, to expedite evergreen hanging. Bacon with bling!

You know you have a good and understanding friend when you can thank him for his quirky generosity and tell him your intent to immediately re-gift the object, both in the same message. I assured Cliff that our giving the bacon to our daughter’s family would double the joy he’d already conferred.

You see, our son-in-law and our grandson are both serious, lifelong bacon-o-philes. Their love for the salty, smoked-and-cured delicacy runs very deep—deeper, even, than their common love for anything chocolate, vanilla bean ice cream, and pepperoni pizza. Pamela and I were certain Wes and Caden, especially, would receive the ornament with even greater awe and wonder than we did. Melissa, our daughter, might roll her eyes, but our urge to hang it on their Christmas tree was irresistible.

So, on Christmas Eve the bacon ornament passed to future generations. Wes was most admiring and appreciative. Caden declared it “cool” and went back to his new digital game, yet another Mario variation. Melissa not only did not roll her eyes, but emitted the most enthusiastic gratitude of the three. Three-year-old Kylie knows both bacon and Christmas trees, but didn’t make the connection. She smelled the shiny ornament and turned away in disinterest. Princess dolls are way more important.

But a tradition has begun. The nearly numinous bacon strip was hung in a place of high honor on their fir, and pointed out to visitors. Already, it has the aura of an heirloom.

Thank you, Cliff!

Coming of Rain

A Short Story

In the pre-Andean foothills above San Isabel, midsummer’s dawn banishes what little coolness it takes each morning all night to earn. Heat and humidity build to a smothering swamp by midday. In early afternoon even the breezes siesta, and a patina of sweat forms on everything.

Most afternoons, the aging señora spends three or four hours in her suite in the hacienda. Her household staff, vineyard workers, gardeners, and grooms are freed to take their meals, sigh, and rest. For some, however, these are lesser reasons to anticipate the interlude. For Pablo and Carlota, it is their time.

Pablo washes himself after the morning hours spent tending malbec vines. As almost every afternoon, he walks through the laundry and enters the linen room inside it. Sometimes Carlota is already there, but today he’s arrived first. He slips off his shoes, slides them under the cot with his foot, and folds his pantalones on the straight-back chair. He stands at the linen room’s small window, his back to the door, removing his shirt. The window frames a massive mango tree. The room glows white, redolent of clean cotton.

Hearing the door he turns as Carlota peeks in, enters, and locks the door behind her. She is already hastily shedding her pechera, the formal maid’s uniform la señora insists she wear on duty. Pablo’s breath quickens. Despite the heat, he shivers when Carlota smiles at him with her whole body. He holds her flashing gaze. Her softness melts against his chest. Their contact ignites the wildfire they share, and it engulfs them again.

A drumfire of thunder echoes from the hills. San Isabel waits, hoping rain will come soon to bring sweet release from the imprisoning heat. January days always hold the prayer of an afternoon shower, but often the possibility dissolves as clouds rush east to dissipate over the plains, leaving behind flaccid air and but a tease of rain. Today, though, a thunderstorm amasses beyond the mountain and moves down, soothing the parched sky in its path. Locals know this one is big enough to boom and blow, burst and soak. Anticipation tingles through the village.

Carlota and Pedro listen to the storm’s quickening breath, and each other’s. Their bodies engage in a practiced dance on the cot’s damp sheets.

The storm sweeps over the hacienda, its winds making the house shiver. Booming thunderclaps come close together. Pablo is glad Carlota need not be quiet today. To the tempest’s urgent rhythm, their taut, wet skins slide against each other.

The storm’s intensity crests in a finale of electrical discharges and rippling thunder. The hacienda, and the cot, shudder. Outside, first large drops announce the downpour. San Isabel sighs, and the rains come.

Review of Gift of Seeds by Sandra C. Lopez

Monday, August 12, 2013
Review: GIFT OF SEEDS – John Clinton Gray

In these essays, we are strolling through 5 decades of memories starting from the 1950’s; it’s like a walk in the park.

“We were hooked [on sugar] from the time we were old enough to play outside on our town, until puberty arrived and changed the world forever.” (4)

“Little kids were exempt from their bullying, but the day came when we had grown into suitable prey.” (4)

“Row Row was a caricature kid caught in adolescent hell, random body parts maturing while others waited.” (49)

Full of honesty, this book is a captivating coming-of-age narration from boyhood to manhood. John Gray is a poignant and funny character, which is revealed in his short, quirky ruminations about life and experience.

The reader becomes a traveler in these tales—we go from the farmlands in Delaware to scouring pipes in Levittown sewers to meeting Columbo on a flight to JFK. Admittedly, however, some stories were not that interesting, like the baseball one, for example (but that’s just because I’m not really into sports.) At times, I felt that the details got a little too technical with dates and historical facts—a few too many numbers, if you ask me. And why was there a recipe?

“Companion Flier” was, by far, my favorite story—simple, quick, and hilarious!

“Maine Event” was another great one about John’s first love and first heart break at 12-years old. “Boys at that stage know all about boners, but only theory about what the equipment is for.” (250)

“Novel Idea” illustrated the pivotal essence of the whole writing experience that EVERY author goes through from the inception of an idea to the turbulent trials of developing a story. “Some successful writer wrote that writers just write. Even if we go back and delete most of what we pecked out and start over, we write. Even if we feel depressed and unworthy, we write. Even when we’re arrogant assholes, we write. Well…WTF…I’ll just start.” (266)

Even though this is a non-fiction account of a man’s life, Gray writes with the heart and skill of a story-teller.

Brad Now

I posted “Brad,” a chapter from Gift of Seeds, a few days ago. The tractor ride I described in it took place almost sixty years ago.

Yesterday, Brad phoned.

After my uncle Everett died in 1960, my grandmother leased her fields to other farmers, and my uncle’s right hand man had to find work elsewhere. The last time I saw Brad was at my uncle’s funeral. He stood off to one side with his wife, Ivory. I hardly recognized him in a suit and without a sweat-stained cap.

After Gift of Seeds was published, my sister gave me the address and I sent an email to Everett’s daughter, my cousin Mary Ann, in Milford, Delaware. I wrote her about the book and the people she knew who appear in it, including her father and our Grandma Stayton. Months later I received an email from Mary Ann’s adult daughter, Stephanie. The email address I’d used is actually hers. Seems Mary Ann isn’t much on email “but she’d love to talk,” her daughter wrote back, and gave me the phone number.

We talked. We scarcely knew each other as children. Now, more than half a century later, we had our first conversation. The next day she called me, and we talked some more. I was lucky to remember half the people she was bringing me up to date on.

“Bedie died, must be ten years ago now, and Herbie’s long gone. Janet lives somewhere in Arizona; I’ll get you her address. Aunt May and Uncle Tom’s farm was sold off in parcels, I don’t know whatever became of Martha or Dickie; Clint and Jane live right next door; we tore down grandma’s old barn last year; the only thing left standing of the farm buildings is the milk house; and Doug—remember Doug?—he lives over to Frederica; my husband Sam’s mom, Mother Day, lives with us. She stills drives to bingo in town at the senior center. A while before Stephanie was born I had a miscarriage, but the year grandma passed, I had my hysterectomy, and Aunt Zena died too; it was a bad year…”

A dust devil of details later, Mary Ann said, “Brad lives right here in Milford. I run into him once in a while.”

“Do you have his address?” I asked.

Mary Ann looked up “Bradie Worthy” in the phone book. I heard her flipping pages. She gave me his information right then. The next morning I mailed Brad a letter with a copy of Gift of Seeds, intending to wait a week and then call him.

He called me first. My cousin had given him my number. My smarter-than-me phone already knew the call was from an unknown number in Milford, but only I knew it had to be Brad.

“Jack? That you?”

His voice touched a gossamer wisp of memory, but this was an older, rural-sounding man, articulate, his tone gravelly but distantly familiar. He knew me by Jack, my childhood nickname.

“Brad!” I exclaimed.

“Yes it is! I got your book. Thank you! Thank you. I’ve never been so surprised.”

“Nobody ever wrote such nice things about me. Brings me back to a finer time, a happy time… Your grandma and your uncle were good people, and real good to me…”

We exchanged memories about family and friends, past and present.

“I read other stories in your book and liked them, but I keep going back to ‘Brad’ and reading it again. I’m still just soaking it up.”

I had thanked Brad in my letter to him, saying the meaning and importance of that long-ago time have stayed with me and influenced how I’ve seen the world ever since.

“Please accept this Gift of Seeds with my profound gratitude for the positive, formative part you played in my upbringing,” I inscribed in the book I sent him.

After a short silence, Brad said, softly, “I had no idea, no idea… no idea at all…”

I could almost see him slowly shaking his gray-haired head in time with the words he dropped one by one into the phone. From a deep well, a lifetime of feelings rose. His voice trembled. I teared up, too.

We’d both had no idea, until now.


A Chapter Excerpt from Gift of Seeds by John Clinton Gray © 2012

I watched Brad eat his midday dinner at the small table in the kitchen of my grandmother’s central Delaware farmhouse. If he knew I was glancing sidelong at him, he didn’t let on. The rest of us ate at the big oval dining room table. The kitchen and dining room were actually one undivided space, but a Grand Canyon yawned between the two sides during those afternoon meals. Delaware borders the South, Brad was a black man, and that’s just how it was. When I innocently asked Grandma Stayton why, that was her answer. Something the grownups accepted as natural felt unnatural to me.

Outside the house, my uncle Everett treated his only full-time farmhand as a friend and co-worker. I think Everett trusted Brad with his life—at times literally, when they worked on dangerous machinery together. He gave him an acre and built a home for Brad, his wife, and their children on the farm—a neat, small, white house, half a mile up the dusty road on the edge of the woods. Race was never talked about. That’s just how it was. It was a different world from my all-white suburban neighborhood in New York, but for several weeks a year it was my second home. When I think of Grandma Stayton’s farm, Brad is always there, part of it all.

At seven, going for a tractor ride was a big deal. My uncle or my dad would usually accommodate my eager begging, as long as it wasn’t too often. On a warm afternoon after dinner, I asked and asked but both uncle and father were busy with something. Then Brad offered to take me with him when he went back out to cultivate a soybean field. My dad and uncle nodded.

I was elated. I’d never had a tractor ride with Brad before. We walked a long way out into the south field where he’d left the tractor, stepping over young plants, row after row after row. The dirt had a dry, crunchy crust but with each sneakered step my feet broke through to yielding soil.

Brad wore soft, dusty denim overalls and scuffed, wrinkled work boots with leather laces. Through a cut on one toe I could see shiny metal. He had on a faded long-sleeved shirt despite the warm weather, and a once-green ball cap. It wasn’t a baseball cap like my favorite New York Giants hat. It had a bill like a ball cap, but there was white stuff all around the headband, even across the front where it read “Milford Feed & Seed.” I asked, and Brad told me it was sweat. I thought sweat was wet, not white.

We reached the tractor. Brad climbed up on the metal seat mounted on a giant spring, then helped me up to sit between him and the hot, black steering wheel. Brad leaned over me to put his thumb on the worn metal starter button. He was warm and smelled good of dust, engine grease, and sweat. His left arm was around my waist like a seatbelt, and I felt secure and happy up on my tractor perch. A short whine later, the tractor’s loud motor rumbled, black smoke briefly spewed out a pipe on top, and we set off down the soybean rows.

The day was sunny, humid, breezeless. Haze blurred the distant woods. Brad drove slowly, straight and true. Below our feet I watched the cultivator’s metal points slide smoothly through the soil. A four-row-wide wake of freshly turned earth stretched out behind us, perfectly framing three lines of soybean green.

When we got to the edge of the field where it met the hedgerow, Brad turned the tractor in a tight semicircle, and we headed back straight in the opposite direction. The dry, weedy dirt ahead was transformed into fragrant, fecund soil as we passed. The soybean plants would be happy, I thought.

Brad didn’t talk. His arm remained around me, firm but gentle. The tractor’s motor droned. I felt like a barnyard cat stretching placidly on a warm, sunny ledge, and sleep took over.

I awoke on the sofa in my grandmother’s front room. Brad had carried me to the farmhouse and passed me to my dad, who’d laid me there, all without disturbing me. For years later the men recounted how funny they found it all. I had wanted that tractor ride so badly, and then didn’t last two full passes in the field before conking out cold on Brad’s lap.

Forty years later my sister attended a Stayton family reunion hosted by my uncle’s adult children. They had invited Brad, and were surprised and delighted when he showed up. Then in his seventies, Brad jokingly introduced himself to younger folk who didn’t know him as “the black sheep of the family.” He would never have said that back in my grandmother’s day! But times had changed, and to our generation he was part of the family. He just never ate at the big table.

A Book Worth Reading

I went to hear Héctor Tobar speak at University of California, Riverside last month and bought a copy of his novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, which he kindly signed with “a big abrazo.”

Having just read the book, I realize how big that abrazo was and is. Tobar gathered a whole lot of what I love about Southern California and about Mexico in a strong, broad embrace and hugged it (and me) long and masterfully, unwinding a loving, lingering tale.

Lady Pamela and I have been fortunate to travel fairly extensively, and thirty or so years ago spent enough time in a language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico to coax my high school Spanish to a reasonably conversational level. We lived with the Arillo family, who became lifelong friends. They had little need of English, living an hour over the mountains south of Mexico City, and my longing to communicate more deeply with them was impetus to aprender más su idioma. Eric Crocker, a closer friend, was a Uruguayan-born bi-cultural American who lived his final years with his wife on a beach north of Acapulco. I do not have raices latinos myself, other than honorary, but I feel as deep a kinship.

In The Barbarian Nurseries Héctor Tobar pulled me into the contradictions and paradoxes playing out in the hearts and minds and actions of his richly conceived and developed characters. His writing deserves all the accolades he receives, which are many. Reading Tobar is a big abrazo!

Sweet Memory

Invented in Coney Island, New York, in 1912, Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy was a staple in one of the basic food groups of my childhood. It went off the market after sixty years, but the original-formula taffy was brought back in 2010. I just learned this in a throwback candy store in Old Town Temecula, California. A girl of five or six passed between me and the glass display counter with a partially unwrapped, familiar-looking candy bar in her hand and a halo of pale brown around her lips. Before the visual impression even registered, the unmistakable perfume of chocolate Bonomo’s reached my nose. So characteristically cloying and wonderfully redolent of secret ingredients, I didn’t have to taste it to know what it was. The olfactory intrusion brought back a complete multimedia memory, recollected for the first time since I was a little kid in Levittown, New York.

I was flat on my back on a warm asphalt street with Susan Weiss on top of me, holding me down. We were both in the third grade, but Susan had already grown larger, stronger, heavier. She sat on my legs and held my arms down with hers, pinning my scrawny T-shirted body helplessly to the pavement. I could do nothing to prevent little blonde Ellen from sneaking up and kissing me on the right cheek, her lips sticky with chocolate Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy. At age eight, being kissed by a girl is not something most boys welcome, or would admit if they did. When we were teenagers, Ellen and I tried it again without the bondage or Bonomo’s, and it was much better. Six decades later, we’re still friends.

This morning I am soaking in my back deck hot tub, and in the growing light from beyond Mount San Jacinto. Being perched on the eastern slope of an inland hill allows a long view of the arriving day. I muse about memory. If just a scent—or a sight, sound, touch, taste—can “bring it all back,” where was it? Back from where? Was it here all along, masquerading as past but just reposing in a timeless magnetic field, waiting to be activated by a waft of taffy? They say our brains have mapable neurological pathways, but the memories reached thereby are ethereal.

John Clinton Gray
March 8, 2013

An adapted excerpt from Gift of Seeds by John Clinton Gray