Gregory Orfalea
The Fiends

Life is good and terrible. Because rain lightens, the kiss deepens,
and the wound heals, it is good. But it is terrible, terrible
when rain fells the hill on the house, the kiss stops, and
the wound of wounds won’t dry.
I have been tending to wounds, mine and my mother’s. Life was
surely terrible last September when I rose off the floor at the Pentagon
cloaked in dust and what had to be asbestos. Inhale, desk soldier!
It did no good to be Lazarus. The neighbor to my left, Smith,
Smitty to all, Smythe to me since I like to locate the distinct watermark
of a person, Smythe was dead. Dead upright in his chair.
There was no blood. He just plain had a heart attack. He’d been
predicting it and now it had happened. The attack was like an “I
told you so.” Reminded me of Monk Dickson who told First Army
exactly where the Germans were coming in winter of ‘44–“The
Ardennes!” and they laughed “More of Monk’s shrubbery?” and
gave him leave to Paris. Maybe just the “pernicious inertia inherent
in any massive human organization” as Dupuy et al put it.
Smythe wasn’t on leave. Just a civvy like me, short-sleeved shirt
and tie. Upright.
Coughing was universal. Maybe this is a new way to speak, I
thought, coughing out my share of the blasted barriers. The thick
wall to my left was gone and the sky gaped through, a presence so
startling I figured I was dead and had against all odds made it to
heaven. The walls of my own cube were roger and my ears were
ringing. I have something called tinnitus caused by shooting a .45
at target practice. The DIA—Doubtful Intelligence Agency—let
me stop these outlaw rehearsals inside five thick walls.When the
airplane rammed us, I heard Beethoven’s Fifth for a bad long second.
Slowly I pulled the mask of dust off my face (wasn’t this how
Christ made a new life?) There sunk in a dust-covered arm blown
of a shirt was a flange of glass. I pulled it. Blood ran down my arm
onto my pants. I walked on shards, dripping.
“You cut, Matter?” called the neighbor to my right, Tinsley.
“Think so.”
“Don’t know. Believe Smythe is dead.”
“Christ. Hell.”
My arms were reddening with more than blood. It was the heat
flooding my way, a heckuva tanning parlor. Down what used to be
a hall, a fire opened its jaws for more oxygen. I did the natural
thing. I raced it to blow-hole in the wall and stepped right out of
there, tumbling two stories to the tarmac. Lucky to be only two
stories.And then I ran and ran, thinking, strangely, of high school
laps for something done wrong.
I was no hero that day, but I did rip off what was left of my shirt
and pants to beat the flames of one poor ignited fellow. He was
taken away, his flesh falling off the bone. I got off easy—the one
big glass cut and smaller ones in my arm and leg and a facial tan
for a brief look at hell, not nearly as unlucky as Lot’s Wife, who
really was taken with all the destruction.
I wasn’t. Sickened, as anyone with a belly. But it was no surprise
to me. Intel deals everyday with terrorism, that great bent-out-ofshape
word, with no apparent ignition in anything we do, at least
the way we look at it. Too bad for our sped-up world—you can’t
push a button for love but you can push several for hate. It didn’t
take too much reading of the tea leaves to know someone in the
Muslim world was going to lash out at us in a way commensurate
with our own veiled lashing. Smythe knew. I remember him once
turning to a bunch of lunchers at Farragut Square downtown, asking,
“Do you know we killed 20,000 civilians in Lebanon?” It was
the summer of 1982. He got a great collective blank. I watched
people in the know in meetings tell him, Come now, Smythe, that
was the Israelis. Self-defense, man.
Taking his cue about self-defense from us and our partners,
some not-so-crazy crazy connected the dots, knew where the
money and the F-15s and the settlers flowed West to East and took
a long hard look at the boy under the weathered wing of his father
huddled against a clay wall in Jerusalem cut to ribbons by bullets
on television, a scene played over and over with no answer from
the bullets’ sponsor but silence. Suppose that’s where this Atta guy
had had enough. Of his crummy little unemployed engineer’s life,
his miserable dusty Cairo neighborhood, the lid on his sky, the
hardness on TV, and he wires the Nut of Nuts, “I’m ready. Let’s hit
them with everything we’ve got.”Which meant their hollow lives
and our planes.
Horror of horrors come home.
I didn’t have too much time to think about these things, or even
grieve for my office mates, some of whom agreed with Smythe,
like me, in whispers, and died, and some of whom vehemently
didn’t and were spared, as me, if spared it be to turn all this over
and over in the gut of the night because your family came to this
country long ago from the Arab world to be safe. Or at least unknown.
Not now. Known, if not suspected.
I didn’t have much time to think about whether I might lose my
job or get interrogated or who knows what Molotov cocktail in
my mailbox (like my Uncle Mort got 30 years ago in L.A., poor
fellow, for the ad my father took out in the Times telling his fellow
Americans to wake up—“They sure woke me up, Omar!” Uncle
Mort cried out, shaking the Los Angeles Times in his fist that morning
on the steps of our Burroughs home).
There was no time to assess the intel or call up the wives of my
colleagues who’d lost their lives in the firestorm (Would they accept
my sorrow? Would they say—“He’s a sympathizer, his concern
is phoney”?). No time at all to regard this moment in history,
the crossroads in relations between East and West, the free and
the unfree, the lame and the speedy, the computer and the abacus,
the language that goes right and the language which goes left, the
thinking and the unthinking (sometimes in the same bed). No time
to think: History is always at a crossroads when your loved ones
The fact is my mother in Los Angeles was dying. It had nothing
to do with September 11. This was September 12. I had just replaced
bandages after my first shower when I got the call from the
family out West. Her car had been hit broadside by an SUV driven
by a 16-year-old boy who had just gotten his license and was out
joy-riding. Riding next to Mother, her best friend Dottie Balanian
had been practically cut in half.
The red-eye deposited me the next morning at LAX, and soon I
was at Northridge Hospital at the northern neck of the San Fernando
Valley racing up to the emergency room.There was a muted
mini-convention of the Matter and Wadi clans at the glass doors to
the masked nurses. Little Uncle Bo, my mother’s older brother,
stood with his pot hanging out of a white windbreaker, white cabbie
cap drooping, feeling his worry beads. He looked at me as I
hugged his tall wife Carmelo, as calm as Uncle Bo is feisty and
talkative. But he was not talkative today. His eyes, looking up balefully,
said:You are too far away.
“Go to her,” he said, kissing me on both cheeks. “Your mother.”
His voice cracked. Bo, an Antiochian Orthodox Christian, played
the Muslim worry beads like a rosary.
“Look, she’s taken a big hit,” said Uncle Ernie, the meatiest
brother with a grey brush of a moustache, the Wadis’ own Saroyan.
Hit as if she were a tall building, a fortress, instead of five feet
of flesh.
“What happened?”
“Look, Frank, get a hold of yourself.”
“I’ve got a hold of myself. That’s nothing to crow about. Tell
“She was out with Dottie.”
“Dottie? Nobody told me about Dottie.”
“Well, I’m telling you,” Ernie raised his voice slightly and his
wife, huge in flowery kimono, put the finger to the mouth. “You
wanna hear?”
“Yes. I’ve not come 3,000 miles for euphemisms.”
“No big words, Frank. It’s hard on all of us. Dottie is dead.”
“Your Mom was taking a left at the corner of Reseda and Ventura
where Reseda turns into Mecca.You know?”
“Yeah. Too well.” It’s a classic bad corner, full of blind spots. I
later found out the Department of Transportation had been writing
it up for years, pleading with the higher-ups for left turn signals,
to no avail.
Uncle Ernie with his strong, sizeable hands, sawed the air, this
way, that way, describing how Mother had inched out into the intersection
and begun to turn as the light went from yellow to red.
She was rammed shotgun side by the speeding kid in the SUV,
Ernie’s stiff hand, palm out, jabbed into the other hand.
“Keep it down, Ernest,” hissed Aunt Liza. “Why don’t you let
Frank go in?”
“Okay, okay.”
“Where was Dottie?”
“Passenger side. She was dead like that.” Ernie snapped his fingers.
“And Mom?”
“They said the Volvo was thrown 10 feet in the air and 30 feet
out of the intersection into that Shell station there.”
“Holy God.”
“I don’t know about Holy God,” Uncle Bo was weeping, pocketing
the beads.
Harry, my youngest uncle, came forward, the closest to me in
age.Harry led me quietly to the ER glass doors, calling on the wall
phone for entry. I sensed these three men’s lives hung in a kind of
balance. They had lost their mother, my grandmother, a few years
back, the last original immigrant in the family, and Lily Matter,
their only sister, was one mother too many to lose. In many ways,
she was their American mother, born in Brooklyn with no Arabic
accent, no struggle for the right word that my grandmother, an
excitable and illiterate woman, often had. The last tie to the Arab
world had been cut. Now, were they to lose this one with America?
Without her deep-dug love, I thought, where would I be?
Would home finally be lost to me? Where is the sun if the keeper
of the sun dies?
I was led to the last room. There Mother lay. Black nicks and
blue welts covered her face and arms.A tube ran to the foot of her
bed and an urn of blood, a freeway orgy of tubes going in and out
of her. Seeing the mint-colored oxygen mask over that torn face,
I genuflected, mumbling something that might stop an angry god.
“You’re Catholic,” the nurse put her hand under my forearm, a
little behind my rise.
“I heard you were coming. Is your name Frank? She was whispering
it during the operation. I heard you were at the Pentagon
two days ago.”
“Yes.” I had almost forgotten. None of my uncles or aunts had
mentioned it.
“We are so sorry.”
“How is my mother?”
“She’s. . .she’s struggling. She’s had extreme trauma to her internal
organs, especially the spleen and one kidney. Both were
torn.We have slowed the bleeding but she isn’t out of danger yet.
Better than yesterday, though.Yesterday, I thought we’d lose her.
But today I have hope.”
“Thank God.”
“She has seven broken bones. Three in the hip, one in the leg,
one in the arm and hand.”
I pressed my lower lip with a fist.
“Frank, I’ll let you stay 10 minutes. But no one else comes in
here longer than five minutes and please tell your people, only
one at a time. I think they think this is a circus.”
“I doubt that, ma’am. In a pinch, they just like to congregate.
Kind of like human gauze.”
“Gauze? More like pokes at her nerves. I’d heard you were a
writer. How does a writer work at the Pentagon?”
“Some other time, Nurse.”
She checked the level of blood in the urn, marked her clipboard,
and left.
I touched my mother’s purple hand near the bruises, gently, as
one walks between cracks, and spoke quietly that I was here. Her
eyes fluttered.With all the equipment, her neck turned slightly.
When she saw me she smiled weakly and even as she passed out
her pinkie linked mine, a custom we have shared at church since I
was a boy. The pinkie went limp.
Over the coming week her condition fluctuated wildly. Here a
second operation to pin the hip, there a third to stitch the ceaselessly
bleeding organs, the heart rate good, the heart rate racing,
oxygen off, oxygen on. My body filled up with iron. After a few
days at the ER, I could barely move or talk. Some nights I slept on
the couch, others I’d make it home in a trance using the little red
car of one of my Matter aunts lost in a nursing home. So much
aging life!
I stayed at the family home in Burroughs with its marvelous
pool. At first, I barely had enough energy each night to check in
with my wife and our boys back East before falling asleep without
undressing. For that first week in the ER, I hardly noticed there
was life in the San Fernando Valley, being in a tube of my own
By week’s end, she rallied. The bleeding had begun to subside,
her pulse rate stabilize. One morning she briefly lifted the oxygen
mask and asked, “Winter oranges?” then fell back to sleep. I began
looking for fruit on the streets of the Valley as I drove to and from
the hospital. Here and there in front yards, a lone orange tree, sole
survivors of groves long ploughed under. A deep longing in me
Aromas of my youth pulled: oranges through barbed wire at the
one surviving grove on Bothwell; oleanders along the electrical
grid at Linnet; the yeasty sycamores, older, fatter, yet smelling of
first sex.
Down Sherman Way I passed through the tall palms that led to
Aunt Jean’s house on Reseda Boulevard, the spot of her old dress
shop now made over by stores sporting Spanish and promising to
cash checks. In the middle of Louise Avenue the massive old live
oak was now a stump with a plaque. I spotted the entry to the
sewer on De Soto where the Fiends—my fateful gang-–would go
“down the tubes.” There was Burroughs Park, and that first kiss
with Bernadette North still stuck in the 100-degree autumnal
heat, there the nursery in Chatsworth where something like a gang
rape hurled one of us to Vietnam and a young grave and the girl—
Bernadette’s best friend—to a succession of hopeless marriages.
And finally, that diving board where one gray November day when
we were 16, I stood with Sal and felt the cold jolt through my feet.
At Mass at my childhood parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow,
I prayed “Spare Mother” to the Gold Christ my father never liked
hanging on bone-white marble. A new pastor from Ireland, intelligent
and committed, spoke smartly into the half empty nave.The
new pastor threw in a few words of Spanish—esperanza, los pobres—
for indeed most of those sprinkled in the echoing marble
church were Mexicans from north of the Boulevard.
Afterwards, I crossed Alhambra Street from the church and regarded
fondly a long, two-story building, its brick still blushing
from some old innocence pierced: Father Junipero Serra High
School where my young years died. The once young palms were
now owlish at the neck. A white iron bar fence, its gate ajar, girded
the entry. I walked past the gym and over the Celt insignia in
mosaic, hand gripping sword above a palm and our Latin motto
(Per mare, par majore mundis). Neither mosaic nor gym existed
in the sixties. Serra, much like the Valley itself then, was brand
new then.We were only the second graduating class. Thus we had
the luxury of forging a tradition and not being crushed or caught
in the hard-flowing tide of an old school. That Western sense of
leaping into the new has never left me. But it is fearful, as leaping
means loss.
Around the track, I caught the running ghost of the friend who
shaped those days, Salvatore Tataglia, a boy who was already a man
before we entered Serra, and who taught me many things that had
to do with courage and heart, for all his dark-alley life. Beyond the
hardpan of the football field, the Burroughs Hills echoed in my
brain with our yells for enemy blood, or at least a good blonde behind
the stands.
I turned and looked up. There behind the smudged glass on the
second floor, our Civics teacher Coach Decker called me “a dirty
Ay-rab,” just for fun, of course, settling his hand on my neck angling
me alone into the athletics office. Down the hall, Fr.
Palooka, the Carmelite who took me under his wing, watched as
I shred my first poems in shame, drilling me with his bottomless
eyes: “Someday, you will take responsibility for your words.” And
there the library where we held our dances. And that last dance
after graduation seered back—June 5, 1967—a day that certainly
changed the world, though we thought then, if we thought at
all, it had only changed the Middle East.
Vietnam marked my generation. One by one after graduation,
it took the Fiends, all but Sal and me. And now Sal is gone. Only
I am here, it seems, to say that though Vietnam was our enduring
wound, the most insidious one—to which the Fiends in California
bore witness—was more ancient and suddenly more present.
That wound was Levantine and had subjected my family to
enough beauty and violence to fling it a century earlier to Brooklyn,
and finally, California. And so you pray, finding yourself along
a mountain and a sea just like those you left, that here, blessings
upon us for all we have suffered, beauty outdoes violence.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t know in the tug-o-war between my American
life and my Arab roots which one had won out long ago. I had
married an American girl with lapis blue eyes and had three athletic
American boys (all dark, those hankering Matter genes!) And
I had done it all far from home and the livening crowd.
Still, I began to recall fondly and with a drop of dread my growing
up in this hot, sad land where the beauty and wonder and
sheer madcap of my youth held the violence at bay for a precious
Come back, I whispered, watching the present day chants for
war in Afghanistan and Iraq stack up. As if the past might be
refuge, or at least teach me why I had come where I had come and
done what I had done. Not to mention my country. Might something
in the remembering heal? Point the way? Could rubbing the
lamp of Time somehow help my own broken mother? Would it
whet or abate my own terrible longing in the East, one I could
hardly name, that literally exploded in flames around me that one
black day and rebirthed me in blood in the middle of my life?
Life, after all, is a high school. Much as we think we have grown
more sophisticated, borne more burdens, left its sophomoric trials
and errors and petty rituals where they belong. Early days run
deepest. Someone hates you. They throw a ball at you. Or a gasfilled
If you’ve got the presence of mind, or a few thousand years, you
find out why.