We're collectively willing to do something, so long as our lives look exactly the same as they do now.*

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Art

When Skies Were Blue
E. McKenzie

Fiction

Excerpt, In Vernon

S. Miller

Editor’s Note: What follows is the Prologue to S. Miller’s novel, In Vernon. Future issues of Behind a Door may include more from In Vernon.

I warned them about the bomb a full hour in advance. Using separate phone booths for each call, I notified the police, the newspaper, and the Hipercor superstore itself. If everything went according to plan, the bomb would detonate in Hipercor’s garage, underneath fifteen stories of grocery, clothing, appliances, and housewares. By then, the department store would be empty, evacuated of all shoppers and employees. 

Things don’t always go as planned.

It took some time to walk to each phone booth. Though plentiful in Barcelona back in 1987, phone booths weren’t on every block. The calls took far more time to complete than I expected. The minute I said the word “bomb” into the phone, I’d hear, “Please hold,” and I was transferred, over and over again. When I called the police, they shuffled me around until finally someone who sounded half-asleep got on the line. I hung up on him when he started asking questions about my identity. The same treatment happened at the newspaper—“Please hold…please hold…please hold”—then a sarcastic reporter answered, who said, “You know, there’s other ways of getting a man’s attention. A short skirt, a low neckline—it’s not that hard.” I could hear male laughter in the background. I hung up. Lastly, I dialed the department store’s number, went through the transfer maze, and finally got Hipercor’s general manager. My relief at being able to finish my sentence—“There is a bomb that will detonate at your location in one hour”—quickly turned into dismay, when the manager snapped at me, “You prank callers are driving me nuts.” Then he shouted at a secretary to get him more coffee, and hung up.

Finally done with the calls a full half hour later than planned, at 3:00 p.m. I walked to an apartment building opposite Hipercor, a few doors down the street. Going through the service entrance at the back, I accessed the roof, and settled in to monitor the store’s main entrance.  

The police didn’t arrive when I expected, either. Using binoculars, I closely observed the customers entering the store, hoping that I would see the same people running out of the store any minute now, possibly screaming in terror. I preferred a calm steady stream of departing shoppers, but a mob pushing and shoving each other out the front doors while screaming in terror would also be fine, just as long as they left the premises.

I watched a pregnant mother approach the entrance, trying her best to push a stroller while managing a daisy chain of two kids under five. An older boy held onto the stroller with one hand, and his younger sister was holding on to his other hand, pulling as hard as she could in the opposite direction. Her efforts had no effect on the forward progress of the family caravan, however. I wondered at first if the young girl was psychic, then I realized she had locked her sights on a pastry shop just to the right of the entrance. Who wouldn’t want to be fortified with sugar before having to endure endless shopping inside a fifteen-story store? I didn’t blame her. I could have eaten several donuts in that moment, myself. I tended to stress-eat in those days. But the mother wasn’t having it, and in they went. 

The afternoon sun was unrelenting, and there was no shade to be found on the roof. I couldn’t take my eyes off the entrance. I felt hypnotized by what wasn’t happening. Another family approached, their school-aged kids clearly pleased about their imminent shopping experience as they rushed toward the doors, but then they stopped abruptly when their mother yelled at them to step aside. She opened the door for an elderly lady trailing behind, whom I decided must be her mother-in-law. Despite the summer heat, she wore a dark wool suit, a scarf, and a wool hat, and she sailed through the door like she was Queen Isabella. 

I lowered the binoculars to wipe my forehead awkwardly with the short sleeve of my polo shirt. Where were the police? Where were the bullhorns and traffic cones?  

I looked closely at my watch. The second hand marched along, blithely ticking away in lockstep with the bomb’s timer across the street. I imagined the timer’s glowing numbers barely illuminating the outlines of the bomb, which was nestled under a tarp in the back of the Ford Sierra parked deep inside Hipercor’s garage, underneath the store. Tick, tick, tick. I checked my beeper. It showed the exact same time as my watch. 

An hour’s advance warning about a bomb detonation is fairly standard practice. But okay, maybe because of the staggered timing of the three calls, “one hour” was more like forty minutes, depending. It’s possible I could have been clearer. Maybe the authorities thought they had more time. Also, it was Spain. We treated any appointment time as a guideline, not a rule. 

Two teenage girls arrived at Hipercor’s front doors, wearing identical outfits of midriff tops, cutoff shorts, and sandals. They wore their permed hair long, with puffy bangs, as was the style back then. They pranced like poodles, self-conscious and excited about their new bodies. I watched one of them whisper in the other’s ear, who then giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. She looked behind her to make sure no one was eavesdropping. 

I started pacing. I could understand the police being totally incompetent, but what about the store management? The newspaper should have called the store and the police to chase the story. That would have made it obvious to everyone that this was serious. 

Ten more minutes went by, with no change in the situation. No panic, no reporters, and no police. Far more shoppers were entering the store now, and almost no one was leaving. I swatted at flies orbiting about my sweaty face. At 3:25 p.m., I finally saw two police officers show up. They waited around for five minutes, smoked exactly one cigarette each, then left.

Goddamnit. I started having misgivings about this job from the minute José the Galician was assigned to our cell. Bernard and I called José “The Galician” as a joke. José was actually from Navarre, but he looked a lot like Franco, who was from Galicia. He was short like Franco. He had Franco’s bushy eyebrows that perched like sad caterpillars over his eyes. José often bragged of his previous ETA exploits. Bernard and I found this to be in bad taste. What’s more, it violated ETA’s guidelines. We weren’t supposed to know about other jobs done with other cells, in case one of us was caught and tortured. 

As we planned and prepared for the job over the next few months, it became clear to Bernard and I that the Galician wanted to make a big splash. Since José’s Navarre dialect was so different from standard Euskera, for a while we thought he had misunderstood ETA’s directive. This bomb was supposed to have a small impact—a boutique bomb that should cause only some minor property damage, nothing more. Too late, we realized that the Galician had understood the directive perfectly, and was going rogue. 

Bernard was our cell’s bomb specialist. He was a huge hairy bear of a guy who spoke as little as possible. I’d worked with him several times. I myself didn’t doubt that Bernard would build the bomb to spec, and it would detonate on time, because Bernard knew what he was doing when it came to making bombs. One time, he and I collaborated in Pamplona on a job where we had concealed one of his bombs inside a streetlight. That bomb exploded right at the moment a Guardia Civil vehicle was passing, killing a particularly energetic torturer of many of my ETA comrades. “Only as powerful as it needs to be,” was our motto.

The point is that normally I wouldn’t have been this anxious. But the day had gotten off to a bad start, and it hadn’t improved in the slightest. Around 4 a.m. that morning, Bernard had quietly knocked on my bedroom door, and when I opened it, he whispered, “Bomb is different.”

“Different how?” I whispered back, trying not to wake the Galician, who was sleeping in the adjoining bedroom.

“Too much,” he said. Clearly, the Galician had modified the bomb behind our backs. It was too late to do anything about it, so we agreed on a back-up plan.

My forearms were brick red. Sweat circles bloomed below my bosom. The flies had multiplied. When 3:40 p.m. came and went, I wondered if, when the Galician modified the bomb, he’d also messed up the bomb’s timer.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I pulled out my pager, sent an emergency code to Bernard to activate the backup plan, and got the hell out of there. 

I ran down the stairs from the roof and hurry-walked up the street to the next corner, where I caught a taxi. This was easily done, because Meridiana Avenue was a main thoroughfare that led straight to the train station. At the station, Bernard was waiting for me behind the wheel of a hired car idling in a loading zone. I had just opened the passenger door and was about to get in when I heard a deafening roar. I thought the ground was shaking too, but no, it was just my legs turning to jelly as I collapsed onto the passenger seat and shut the car door.

We took off and managed to get on the autovía before the police blocked all roads off leading out of the city, halting trains and buses. They were clearly at a disadvantage because they hadn’t taken me seriously. I looked in the rearview mirror and could see a giant plume of black smoke forming over the city. 

I pointed it out to Bernard, who said again, “Too much.” 

“Too much… property damage?” I asked.

“It was wrong. Like napalm,” he said, shaking his head. I could taste the acid rising from my stomach. Later, the papers reported that the Ford Sierra had been filled to the brim with ammonia, gasoline, and soap flakes. Innocent people carrying their groceries to their cars in the parking garage were asphyxiated by the bomb’s toxic fumes. Those people might have survived, had the bomb not been radically modified. The bomb’s explosion opened up a crater in the ground and created a ball of fire that blew through the garage’s ceiling. 

Bernard and I never spoke about that day again. Not during the entire freighter crossing to Cuba, where our ETA contacts helped us procure a rubber raft that got us to Mexico. There was certainly no chitchat while we made our way westward, hiding under burlap on top of a pile of manure, in the bed of a rickety truck. The Mexican highways were pitted with potholes. As we bounced along what felt like the surface of the moon, I was grateful for the manure, because it helped cushion the ride. 

In Puerto Vallarta, our ETA contacts outfitted us with new identities. Posing as janitors, Bernard and I boarded a cruise ship bound for the US. Two days later, we disembarked in San Pedro, California, and hopped a freight train that brought us directly to the center of Los Angeles—to the City of Vernon—where we have lived ever since. An unexpected silver lining from that endless truck trip hiding in shit was that we lost all aversion to unpleasant odors. This turned out to be extremely helpful when it came to living in Vernon. [1]

We didn’t speak of what happened in Barcelona in 1987 because it had swallowed all of our words. We were afraid that if we weren’t careful, we’d lose ourselves along with them. Even though we were reborn into our new American identities, and we had managed to avoid torture and lengthy jailtime in Spain, we still felt permanently incarcerated with self-loathing and regret. Twenty-two years later, all that changed after we set fire to this lady’s house.

[1] Rendering Facilities, South Coast Air Quality Management District

Based on a true event. Further reading: The Hurt of Hipercor, Barcelona History Museum

Art

When Skies Were Blue, II
E. McKenzie

Recipe

Srutih’s Chili Crisp
S. Colbert

What is it? A vegan, spicy, crunchy, umami, addictive condiment. 

What do I do with it? Add to eggs, kichari, noodles, or rice. Sprinkle over meat, pizza, baked potatoes, or avocado toast. Spread on a peanut butter sandwich. Pour over cream cheese, Brie, or feta. (Violife vegan feta is amazing with this). 

Origins and adaptations: My chili crisp is based on a recipe from www.seriouseats.com, which was based on the original Laoganma’s Spicy Chili Crisp from China. In my version, I leave out the Sichuan peppercorns, and instead use Guajillo and California chiles. I also add pine nuts, sesame seeds, and toasted coconut. I use avocado oil for the base, and the rest of the ingredients are: salt, cardamom, ginger, black pepper, star anise, roasted peanuts, porcini mushroom powder, fried garlic, and shallots.

The last time I made this, I adapted it again. I used Sichuan peppercorns to provide the heat; subbed macadamia nuts for pine nuts; and I switched to olive oil for the base. The addition of orange zest gave it a lovely fragrance and flavor that nicely balanced with the spice.

Bees, working during pandemic. Rainier Beach, Seattle, Washington, 2020.


* Issue 029’s title is a quote from the photographer, E. McKenzie. McKenzie and 029’s editor were emailing about Big Problems, and when she read this line, your editor thought it made a good title.

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