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TO MAKE A LONG STORY SHORT” by Stephen Jackson Powers

It’s cold but not cold by any normal standard. The weather in November in Santa Clarita would be considered spring in most other parts of the country.

Service is prompt at the dealership on Saturday morning and there is only one car in front of me. I wanted to be first because I’m a fast, in and out kind of guy. Most people, if you ask them, would say I’m either conceited or indifferent. Beneath my shell has grown a habit of staying by myself, laying low, avoiding interaction. When I was much younger I was what they now call agoraphobic. I was so frightened of people I cringed at any circumstance which tore me from my world of model airplanes and old Warner Brother movies, and as I grew older playboy magazines. I was frightened to death that someone on a bus might speak to me. It was very painful. More than most people would imagine. I became an actor partly to overcome this great fear. Alcohol in my teens became a quick refuge. So, it isn’t unusual for me to go an entire day without any social interaction.

As I entered the waiting area I noticed someone had paused in the task of making coffee and two stained carafes sat on the counter full of murky water. I nodded to a friendly oversized man and sat down to make as good a one page synopsis of a script I wanted to send to a film company representative I had recently met in a five-minute “pitch fest” meeting at screenwriting conference two weeks earlier. I had been able to locate him on linked inand because he thought well of the story I did pitch him though he did say it probably would not be bloody enough for his company, Lions Gate. This one I was working on was an old one I had written seven years ago when my marriage was in trouble and I was certain I could write something “commercial”. An agent, who did not represent me, read it, and said it was not up to my usual standard. So here I am trying to resurrect the dead story and there’s this guy across from me and I’m already thinking I’m an jerk for not engaging him in a conversation since I’m plugging away seeking insight, the perfect set of words that will make the Lions Gate rep drop what he’s doing and request the script. A few phrases come together. A fresh look at what, exactly, was I trying to write back then when I was functioning on something they put in batteries which had been prescribed for my manic-depression. I get a little way and say what the hell. I recall an old Ian Fleming story about James Bond having to spend a weekend aboard a yacht with two boring people. When he settled in and heard their story his presumptions about them were turned upside down as they recounted what, to him was the most exciting life he had ever heard about in real life or in fiction. So I look up. He’s looking at me. “Sure is cold” starts us off and in a few minutes he relaxes and we reminisce about our youth. Viet Nam leads to what were you doing and how did he miss it? He’s a chef, and a teacher, and had worked in an insane asylum in Mexico City. I say I’ve been through there and also where he lived in Nayarit near Mazatlan where I was almost killed, but I don’t talk about myself. We talk about him. I find myself not wanting to talk about myself. I find myself wanting to talk about Jesse. I add only what is necessary to keep the flow. If Jesse mentions Guadalajara I say my car broke down there. Jesse talks freely about himself and I think I am not the first person to hear his stories. As he unveils

one episode after another he punctuates his stories frequently with “to make a long story short”. I am not intrigued, but I am certainly engaged.

It turns out that Jesse worked for many years as a chef. Where did he learn it? Mexico City. He would work at an insane asylum during the day and study culinary arts at night in the kitchens of various high end hotels. “They have you peel potatoes at first and you just watch.” He had started out in Los Angeles at a technical school, but then an opportunity to go to study in Mexico came. Nayarit is a small city on the coast near Mazatlan. There he had an Uncle or the wife of an uncle who had passed away. From there he traveled to Mexico City.

The sixties in Mexico, particularly Mexico City were turbulent. There were student revolts. During one the Mexican Army came into the University, closed the gates and mowed down the demonstrators with machine guns. Walking to school Jesse saw three students hide themselves under a car. The soldiers came along behind them and sprayed machine gun fire under the car killing them all. Word did not come out immediately in the press but word of mouth spread the stories of atrocity like flame to dry grass. Jesse would go work, to school, lower his eyes, and pretend not to notice. After all he was a naturalized American citizen. Was it really any of his business? But, his conscience bothered him at things he saw. The manner of the police and the military enraged him. He became aware that an orderly had gotten one of the girls in the asylum pregnant. She was only fourteen years old. He had known her and the actions of the man who had done it appalled him. He summoned up his courage and reported it to the authorities. An arrest was made and the man was brought to trial. He was convicted on Jesse’s testimony. By this time Jesse was actually teaching cooking at the college. One day the Dean summoned him to his office and asked to see his visa and teaching certificates. After the man examined the documents he tore them in half. “What are you doing?” Jesse cried out! His voice brought an armed man into the room who stood behind him. The Dean said he was in Mexico and should have been more careful. The man convicted of raping the retarded girl was the Dean’s brother. In Mexico he was told, “Blood is thicker than the law”. He was told to leave the city immediately or he would be killed. Jesse turned as the man behind him moved his hand over the handle of his holstered revolver. Jesse raced to the house of his aunt. As he arrived shots rang out and bullets pieced the stucco on the side of the front door. “What’s going on?” his aunt yelled. “They are trying to kill me!” “Yes she said someone had called and said pack your things. You are leaving or by night you will be dead. She thrust six thousand pesos in his hand. Jesse grabbed his suitcase and jumped out the back window to an alley. He saw a taxi and ran for it. Take me to the airport! Quick!, he told him. When he arrived he saw the man who was in the Dean’s office with two other official looking men positioned at the entrance. “Back up! Turn around!” he blurted to the driver. As the driver hastily reversed the taxi he asked him where he was going? “Tijuana”, Jesse told him. “I know someone who can take you there”, said the taxi driver. He’s a crazy old Gringo.”An hour later they were parked at an old private airport that was mostly abandoned. When the plane landed the tallest man Jesse had ever seen exited the plane spitting out tobacco juice as he walked to the hanger. After their introduction Jesse explained that he needed to get to Tijuana and they arrived at a price. The man’s name was “Spit” Williamson and flew all over the country in an Old C-47 he bought at a government auction after World War Two. “More than twenty years later she still flies like the day she was built”. Jesse hopped on board for what he thought would be a short flight to the US border, but learned from Spit that yes, they were going there, but not today. “Grab a seat” Pit said and Jesse looked around the cargo area amidst the crates of chickens and goats. There was no other seat. Next to Spit was a

large empty paint container for spitting in. The seat Spit was referring to was an apple box. Jesse sat down, grabbed a hold of the fuselage and held on for dear life. Three days later after criss- crossing Mexico from Guadalajara to Mazatlan to Vera Cruz and then back to Mazatlan he arrived at Tijuana and realized he did not have his green card. He called his father who asked him where the hell he had been? Jesse told him and his father told him to wait there he would be down the following morning. I asked him if he kissed the ground when he arrived back in the States? He said yes, but I don’t think he did. From the size of him I think food was foremost on his mind back then.

Food is still on Jesse’s mind forty years later as he still works part time as a chef in a restaurant in Valencia. His career path continued after he arrived back in the US and he became a chef at an exclusive Japanese hotel in downtown Los Angeles. He has not given up teaching. He teaches mentally handicapped children emotional skills at a high school in the city.

We parted and he encouraged me to write his story if I found it interesting. “Maybe one day I will see a movie and say, hey, that’s me.”