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



When Skies Were Blue
E. McKenzie


Excerpt from Merit the Name
R. Miller

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

June 19, 1987
Linda – Barcelona

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 det- onate in Hipercor’s garage, underneath fifteen stories of grocery, clothing, appliances, and housewares. Because of my advance warning, the department store would be evacuated long before the bomb went off—but things don’t always go as planned.

First of all, 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 had 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.” Finally, a raspy male voice answered. “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 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. Again, I recited my warning. “A bomb will detonate at your location in one hour.” I paused and checked my watch. I realized that one hour was, by then, inaccurate. They only had thirty minutes. But before I could say anything else, the manager snapped, “You prank callers are driving me nuts.” He shouted at a secretary to get him more coffee, and hung up.

I walked to an apartment building a few doors down from Hipercor on the opposite side of the street, ensuring I was outside of the approximate blast radius. Going through the service entrance at the back, I accessed the roof, and set- tled in to monitor the store’s main entrance.

Using binoculars, I closely observed the customers entering the store, hoping that I would see the same peo- ple running out any minute now. I preferred a calm, steady stream of departing shoppers, but a mob pushing and shov- ing 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 hold- ing 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 the disconnect between what should be happening and reality. Another family approached the store, their school-aged kids clearly pleased about their imminent shopping experience as they rushed toward the doors—though 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, the old woman wore a dark wool suit, a scarf, and a wool hat. She sailed through the door like she was Queen Isabella.

I lowered the binoculars to wipe my forehead awk- wardly 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 num- bers 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.

Self-conscious and excited about their new bodies, two teenage girls pranced up to the store’s doors like poodles then paused to confer. Their feathery bangs, their long permed hair, their black eyeliner, their midriff tops, their cutoff shorts—their style was carefully identical, as if con- formity would keep them safe. One of them whispered in the other’s ear; they giggled, then in unison they looked behind them to make sure no one had heard.

I started pacing. I could understand the police being totally incompetent, but what about the others? Wouldn’t the newspaper, chasing the story, have called the store and the police by now? That would have made it obvious to everyone that this was serious.

Ten more minutes went by. 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 my sweaty face. At 3:25 p.m., I finally saw two police officers strolling sedately towards the store’s entrance, where they stopped, looking irritable and bored. They smoked exactly one cigarette each, then left.

Diesel fumes from a passing truck floated up from the street. I felt nauseous. I’d started having misgivings about this job from the minute José, The Galician, was assigned to our ETA cell. ETA stood for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, a Basque independence organization. Bernard and I had given José the nickname, The Galician, as a joke. José was actually from Navarre, not Galicia, but he looked a lot like Francisco Franco (Spain’s former dictator) who was born in Galicia. José was short like Franco, had Franco’s bushy eyebrows that perched like sad caterpillars over his eyes—but the most annoying similarity to Franco? José’s constant bragging about his pre- vious exploits. Bernard and I found this to be in bad taste. What’s more, it violated ETA’s guidelines. We weren’t sup- posed to know about other jobs done with other cells, in case one of us was later caught and tortured.

The bomb was supposed to have a small impact—a bou- tique bomb designed to cause only some minor property dam- age, nothing more. But as we prepared and planned the job, The Galician appeared to have different ideas, which we found confusing at first. We had thought he’d misunderstood the directive; José’s dialect was different enough to occasionally cause some confusion. But no. Too late, we realized that The Galician was going rogue. He wanted to make a big splash.

“Only as powerful as it needs to be” had been our motto up until then. Bernard, our cell’s bomb specialist, was a huge hairy bear of a guy who spoke as little as possible. I’d worked with him several times. We trusted each other. 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. 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 Guar- dia Civil vehicle was passing. The explosion killed a partic- ularly energetic and well-known torturer of ETA members. The Guardia Civil—the Spanish Civil Guard—were like the FBI and CIA combined; a powerful, awful entity that had sur- vived, despite the definitive end of Franco’s regime in the 1970s, like a malignant cancer. We in ETA firmly believed we functioned as chemotherapy.

The point is, normally I had confidence in our work. But the day had gotten off to a bad start. Around 4:00 a.m., Ber- nard 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. But it was too late to fix whatever The Galician had done to it. We decided that perhaps it didn’t matter that the bomb had a bigger payload than planned, since we figured the building would be evacuated ahead of time. So we simply agreed on a back-up plan.

My forearms were turning 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 wait any longer. I ran across the roof and down the stairs, pulled my shirt up over my nose and mouth as a makeshift mask, and dashed across the street to Hipercor’s entrance. I stopped short. I wanted people to leave the build- ing. But how could I make them leave? If I was caught, the Guardia Civil would surely torture me, thus exposing Ber- nard and all my other ETA contacts, who would in turn be arrested and tortured as well.

I didn’t know for sure if the bomb would actually deto- nate, either. Who knows what else the Galician had messed up? I turned away from the store. I hurry-walked down the street, pulled out my pager, and sent an emergency code to Bernard to activate the backup plan.

At the next corner, 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 wait- ing 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 transportation and roads leading out of the city. I looked in the rearview mirror and could see a giant plume of black smoke forming in the sky.

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. We ended up hopping a freighter bound for Cuba. On

the freighter, I managed to snatch a newspaper that a sailor had left behind in the head. Splashed across the front page were photos of the destroyed department store. The article reported that the Ford Sierra at Hipercor 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 if the bomb hadn’t been radi- cally 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 freighter crossing. Not in Cuba, where our ETA contacts helped us procure a rubber raft that got us to Mex- ico. 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.

There was no boundary between the manure and me, because I felt dirty inside. I imagine Bernard felt the same. We came to appreciate our bed of shit for two reasons; the first reason became apparent during our cross-country road trip. The Mexican highways were pitted with potholes, and as we bounced along what felt like the surface of the moon, the manure helped cushion the ride. We didn’t discover the other reason until the end of our journey.

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 disem- barked in San Pedro, California, and hopped a freight train that brought us directly to the center of Los Angeles—to the City of Merritt—where we’ve lived ever since.

The second benefit of spending eleven hours hiding in manure was that we had lost all aversion to unpleasant odors. This turned out to be extremely helpful when it came to living in Merritt.

Even though we were reborn into our new American identities, and we had managed to avoid torture and lengthy jail time in Spain, we still felt permanently incarcerated with self-loathing and regret. We never spoke 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.

Twenty-two years later, all that changed after we set fire to this lady’s house.


When Skies Were Blue, II
E. McKenzie


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.

Make art and/or writing. Send it to [email protected]. We will publish submissions in this ezine or in our first limited edition handbound chapbook. 

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