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Casual bettors, who picked Silver Sunsets by his number or the way he looked in the post parade, are tearing up their tickets in disgust. In thirty seconds, they will regret this act. They will watch, in utter amazement, as Silver Sunsets begins a furious stretch run, weaving in and out of traffic, passing horses as if they were standing still, crossing the finish line in first place.
Silver Sunsets was a top-ranked thoroughbred during his two-year old and three-year old racing seasons. I remember him now, twenty years later, because of the lessons he taught me. Be yourself and; it is never too late to do your thing.
I turn left on the two-lane road leading to the town of Sedona. The world outside transforms into something much different than the one I am accustomed to.
Towering red-rock Mountains appear unexpectedly. The striped hills are radically different from the ordinary-looking mesas overlooking the surrounding terrain. For the first time, the advertisements promoting this area ring true. I get the distinct impression there is something special here. There is suddenly hope the three thousand mile plane ride and the hotel suite awaiting my wife and I will prove to be a wise investment after all.
Sedona is a spiritual spa for die-hard vacationers as well as world-weary travelers searching for a way to resurrect their lives from an assortment of disappointments and failures. I am not here to seek advice from healers, psychic or life counselors. I am here to discover the heart and soul of this city out of time without the help of a tour guide.
Sedona is amazingly clean. There are no signs of litter in the streets or sidewalks, no unsightly garbage dumps to mar the town’s bright aura. The buildings, homes and streets all look brand new. Most of the architecture is a sort of southwest modern with earth tone colors alternating with pastels. It seems as though a beautiful, uniquely designed church abides on every street corner. No two homes look alike, yet no building seems out of place. There is an underlying unity of design but not at the expense of individuality.
The single-story adobe-style homes at street level and the larger mansions in the mountains have no bars on their yawning windows. They all look expensive, probably worth hundreds of thousand dollars each upwards into the millions. Incredibly, you don’t see gates in front of the winding driveways. There are no traffic lights clogging the two-lane road running throughout the town. Instead, they have what the locals call “round-a-bouts.” Here, the visitor finds an honor system where vehicles yield to the one reaching the four-way intersection first. Anyone who doesn’t obey the code is sure to be a tourist.
I spend most of my time here in art galleries and walking around slack jawed, agape at the rock formations, multi-colored mountains, and fiery sunsets. I feel “buzzed” every waking moment. Even shopping, which I normally hate, feels like an acid trip. The town itself, I think, is one huge energy vortex.
Young people flock here as if drawn to the area by the magnetic power of the town’s famous energy vortexes. Many of the transplants have fled small towns where they grew up throughout the west to taste big city life. After living in places like Houston, Phoenix, and Santa Fe, they search for something else. They find it in Sedona, where small city values couple with new vistas of financial and cultural opportunity.
Everyone you meet here seems to be from somewhere else. Heaven is likely to be quite similar, come to think of it.
The words resounded against the dripping walls. “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.”
Blood trickled from the corners of Trevor Hartigan’s mouth. His awareness flickered from the pain coursing through his broken fingertips to the oppressive heat in the room, to the crooked expression on the interrogator’s ugly face.
“If you lie to me again, you’ll beg me to kill you after what I do next,” the Confessor snarled, baring his nicotine-stained teeth.
Trevor’s spine ached from about a half-hour of confinement lashed to a straight-backed wooden chair. The duct tape wrapped tightly around his upper body dug into his back and chafed the skin on his abdomen. It seemed he had been sitting in this tiny dungeon for hours. He cursed himself for whatever carelessness had landed him in this predicament. He suspected it was the girl. He had let down his guard in a moment of weakness. Blanca had to be one of their spies. He worshipped her, had asked for her hand in marriage, and she had betrayed him.
He focused on the gap between his tormentor’s chipped front teeth. The gap reminded him of a missing board in a white picket fence. He imagined crawling through the hole in the fence to freedom.
“Save your energy and kill me now,” Trevor said in a low voice.
The pain in his body only served to sharpen his mind and resolve. He carefully hid this fact with every word out of his mouth, every subtle gesture. He had to convince the Confessor he was telling the truth.
“I’m a professional, Hartigan. I’ve seen every trick in the book.” The Confessor picked up a scalpel from a row of surgical knives glinting on a steel tray next to Trevor. “You’ll tell me what I need to know or I’ll cut out your eye. I want the names of your confederates.”
Beads of sweat ran from Trevor’s forehead. He blinked reflexively to keep the moisture from stinging his eyes.
“I’m a loyal citizen of the Conglomerate, Brother Confessor. I’ve been falsely accused by inferior minds jealous of my position.”
“You are a traitor and a fool, Hartigan. You enjoyed wealth and privilege as the Conglomerate’s Master Architect. You had the opportunity to design buildings that would have lasted for centuries. Your fame would have spread around the world. You threw it all away when the girl convinced you to join the resistance.”
The Confessor ripped off his cowl. His head began to transform into the head of a Praying Mantis. Long, spindly legs sprouted underneath the Confessor’s navy blue robe. The garment burst apart as the insect grew taller. The roof of the room suddenly blasted skyward, as if it were the second stage of a rocket.
Trevor was so terrified his heart nearly stopped beating. Blanca had told him the resistance knew very little about the aliens due to the group’s limited resources. Trevor imagined no amount of training or preliminary briefing could have prepared him for what was happening before his bleary eyes.
The Confessor-turned-insect continued to grow past the height of the former ceiling. Trevor stared upwards just as the giant creature’s claw reached down to pluck him out of the cell, chair and all. He turned away, unable to look at the monster’s bulging eyes and chewing mandibles. He felt certain the Mantis was preparing to eat him alive.
Looking down from the twenty-foot high vantage point in the giant insect’s grasp, Trevor saw a honeycomb of cells on the ground similar to the one he had occupied seconds ago. On either side, a straight rock face soared hundreds of feet from a makeshift pine wood floor. It was hard to make out more details in the bluish-gray light emanating from a source somewhere above them.
Trevor figured the interrogation installation had been carved out of a massive cavern somewhere underneath the city. A huge construction crane positioned in the middle of the complex plucked the triangle-shaped roof off another interrogation cell with its multi-story steel arm. Another poor soul was about to be scared further out of his or her wits, it appeared.
Trevor thought of Blanca again. It was impossible to keep her out of his mind for more than a few minutes since the time he had met her. How could she have done this to him?
“The girl isn’t a double-agent, as you suspect,” the giant Mantis said. She will be arrested soon after she leads us to more members of the resistance.
How could the creature know he was thinking of Blanca?
“To answer your question, I can read a human mind when I get in the same room as one. Your thoughts during our session have revealed most of the useful information you have to offer. This final stage of the interrogation process makes any remaining secrets as easy to suck up as fresh meat off a dry bone.”
All of the nerve-endings in Trevor’s body went numb. “I’m glad Blanca showed me I was working for a race of alien monsters instead of what I thought was a multi-national energy corporation.”
“You are the monster,” the Mantis said. “The Conglomerate will soon be well established in every country of this world as more of us arrive. In ten years, it will no longer be necessary for us to transform into human form. The human race will cease to exist.”
Trevor heard his bones cracking as the creature’s claw closed around him.
“Shut up.” The harsh voice came from far away.
Trevor’s eyes opened. The first thing he saw was the gray ceiling of his solitary jail cell. He rolled off the bunk bed and sank to his knees on the cold concrete floor. The smell of disinfectant and urine filled his nostrils. He moaned.
“Shut up, goddammit.” The guard appeared on the other side of the bars dressed in a gray shirt and olive pants. His right hand rested on the .38 revolver strapped to his waist.
All of the colors in this hellhole are drab, Trevor thought. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since he had taken to wearing bright colors shortly after meeting Blanca. After a year of dating, they had decided to marry. He had never been happier in his entire life.
“Quiet down and go back to sleep,” the guard said. “You make any more noise an’ I’ll call the shrink back in here to shoot you up with sedatives. You’re gonna’ learn to settle down and do your time quietly, if it takes a fist in the teeth to teach you how. You got that?”
“Yeah,” Trevor croaked.
The guard stepped away. His boots made a hollow echo down the concrete and steel corridor.
They had placed him on suicide watch. He had tried to hang himself with a belt. They stripped his cell of anything he might use to end his life. Padding protected the walls of his eight by ten foot cell. He had no such protection against the recurring nightmares and the memory of the accident. That night replayed in his mind like an endlessly looping horror film.
They had gone out with some friends to celebrate the latest job offer. He remembered Blanca pushing back her silky red hair and laughing gaily all night long. They drank and ate at the South Beach bar and restaurant until two o’clock in the morning. The hours swept by and the drinks went down without Trevor taking much notice. When the time to leave arrived, Trevor was too embarrassed to admit he was higher than a kite.
At first, Trevor thought an animal crossing the road had hit the front tire when he heard the thunk on Blanca’s side of the car. Blanca turned to him, wild-eyed. He had never seen the pedestrian jaywalking across the deserted street. Trevor had been speeding through the residential neighborhood to make it home in time to get a few hours of sleep before his nine A.M. job interview. He never made it to the interview.
The victim was a man in his early thirties, the father of three children. His wife was waiting for him across the street at the front door of their home when the accident occurred. She told the police exactly what happened. The man died from a brain hemorrhage on the way to the hospital.
He had dreamed about a career in architecture from boyhood. After completing Architecture School with honors, he had received job offers from the top firms in Miami. He looked forward to bringing beautiful buildings and bright, creative children into the world with the passion he felt for his work and his soul mate, Blanca.
Now, all he had to look forward to was a fifteen-year prison sentence. After the accident, Blanca wanted no part of him. His future as an Architect looked dim at best. What firm worth its salt would hire an inexperienced, middle-aged man with a felony record?
One careless act. One night of celebration. A single, poor decision. The lives of six people tragically altered forever. If he had the chance, Trevor would gladly change places with the man he had accidentally killed. But now, it was too late for remorse.
We sat on a flat rock overlooking the pond with the lines of our fishing poles dangling in the fresh water. Actually, the poles we used were not real fishing poles. They were made from tree branches strung with nylon lines and hooks my Zeda bought from a nearby bait and tackle shop. My Zeda could not afford to buy real fishing poles, so he made them instead. I didn’t mind. He said they would work just fine.
The early morning sun glinted off the pond and the side view mirror of my grandfather’s 1953 Plymouth sedan. The reflected light was so bright I had to squint to see. My stomach rumbled. I thought of the roll beef my mother had packed for lunch. The roll beef and Kaiser roll sandwiches wrapped in wax paper sat in a brown paper bag next to my grandfather. We had found one of the only shady places to sit in this tiny corner of the Essex County Reservation. We had the pond all to ourselves.
“You said we would have a better chance of catching fish if we got here early. I think you were right, Pop-Pop.” I always called my grandfather Pop-Pop when I wasn’t calling him Zeda.
“The water is cool near the surface in the early morning,” Pop-Pop said. “Fish like cool water. They go deeper in the pond as the sun rises and the water near the surface gets warmer.”
“I hope we catch a lot of fish,” I said.
“A good fisherman is always patient, tateleh. It is important to remain patient in any situation and twice as important when you are waiting for a fish to bite.”
I wasn’t used to sitting still for very long. It was almost magical, however, how calm I could be when spending time with my Zeda. I found everything that came out of his mouth interesting. I loved the way he played the role of different characters in the stories he told. He could do anything he put his mind to. Right at the moment, he was fishing with one hand, reading from a small book in the other, and talking to me.
Something big crashed into the mirror of the pond’s surface.
“Pop-Pop. I think a meteorite just fell. We learned about them in school yesterday. The big meteor comes into the atmosphere and breaks up. Then smaller pieces fall out of the sky.”
“It’s not a meteorite, bubaleh. The fish are happy. They freulich in the water and jump out when the spirit moves them.”
“Wow,” I said.
There was a second splash about a hundred yards away. “There goes another one. I’ll bet they all start jumping now.”
“They aren’t going to make it that easy for us to catch them,” Pop-Pop said. “Fish have more brains in their Kuphs than the average person gives them credit for.”
“If fish were stupid, it wouldn’t be fun to try and catch them, right Zeda?”
“Correct,” my boy.
“Could we go fishing every day before school and on the weekends too?”
“Well, we could go on any day during the week, but not on Saturday. Saturday is for the mitzvah of observing Shabbas—something your parents seem to have forgotten, ankeleh.”
And so it went, back and forth between us the rest of the morning, until it was time to eat our delicious roll beef sandwiches. We didn’t catch any fish that day. I can’t say I was disappointed.
Chaz Mena is a man of passion. Whether it is creating roles for the stage and screen or spending time with family and friends, there is nothing this forty-one year old, Cuban-American actor does half way.
Chaz was born and raised in Miami, Florida where his earliest memories included scenes of his parents and grandparents telling each other stories of daily life in their long lost homeland of Cuba. Today, the population of South Florida is predominantly Spanish speaking. A large segment of the Hispanic population is Cuban-American. This is the exact opposite of the situation in the early Sixties. At the time, the first waves of Cuban exiles were literally lost in America. Chaz remembers “coming alive” when listening to the colorful stories his family members acted out on the front porch of their two story home in “Little Havana.” In hindsight, Mena realizes that telling these stories in a theatrical style enabled his family members to reconnect with their history and culture. These childhood experiences and an innate drive to tell a story that creates a shared experience have made Chaz Mena the man he is today.
After completing an MFA in Drama at Carnegie Mellon University, Mena arrived back in Miami with eighty thousand dollars in debts from his undergraduate and graduate studies. Even worse, he didn’t have a single lead or personal contact that might lead to gainful employment. It took a full week of sleeping in bed and the encouragement of wife, Ileana, before Mena was able to face the situation. He had been brought up to be a man of action rather than words. This led him to bravely pursue his childhood dream of becoming an actor without worrying about the consequences. Now, the first of many gut-wrenching reality checks Chaz Mena would have to learn to deal with waited unannounced on his doorstep.
By working odd jobs, Mena scraped together a nest egg of three thousand dollars. He set sail for New York City to establish himself as a legitimate, working actor. Chaz leased an apartment and began searching for an agent and acting roles. A few months later, Mena was penniless. All he had to show for his earnest efforts was a case of walking pneumonia. Then, serendipity or something akin to Divine Intervention changed Mena’s fortunes. While auditioning for a stage role, Chaz met the manager of the Spanish Repertoire Theater. The manager, whose name was Gilberto, recognized Mena’s family name. It turned out Gilberto had gone to college with Chaz’s father. He liked the father and enjoyed having his son, who bore a striking resemblance to Gilberto’s old college mate, around. “It made him feel young again,” Mena explains. So Chaz became a regular member of the theater company, which gave him the opportunity to play as many as six roles at a time in classical and contemporary Spanish speaking plays written by Spanish playwrights.
The Spanish Repertoire Theater was the vehicle that launched Mena’s career. He began landing roles on TV and in Independent films. Mena was now living his dream as a respected and well-reviewed New York actor. Yet something was still missing.
Mena says he felt like “a fisherman constantly casting his line for roles with no real anchor. “ It isn’t hard to understand this statement since most actors live from role to role in their working life. One night, as Chaz was lamenting about the situation to his best friend Juan Carlos, something amazing happened. Instead of commiserating with Mena, Juan Carlos came up with an inspired idea. He knew Chaz had been, from early boyhood, a fan and avid reader of the work of Jose Marti, a 19th century Cuban Poet, Humanist, and Revolutionary. Juan Carlos suggested that Chaz write a one man play about Marti and act the role of the man whose ideas were instrumental in helping Cuba win independence from Spanish colonization.
Chaz’s response to his friend’s idea might have been, “Are you kidding?” if not for the fact that Juan Carlos was a member of the Board of Directors of the Florida Humanities Council. All Chaz needed was his resume, some head shots, and of course, the play, Juan Carlos explained. He chose to ignore the fact that Chaz had never written anything for the stage or screen before in his life. Nevertheless, the next morning, Mena woke up with the first sentence of the play in his head: “Jose is still with us.”
Nowadays, between stage and screen roles, Mena travels to colleges and universities to enact the one man show with the sponsorship of the Florida Humanities council. As part of the presentation, audience members can ask questions and hear a carefully researched answer from the actor who has brought a great historical figure and his ideas to life. Getting into character, Mena expresses a “Martiano” idea: “That which is beautiful is moral. That which is moral is beautiful.”
If you are an educator and would like to invite Jose Marti to your school, please contact Chaz through his web site http://www.chazmena.com/.