Who knows where stories come from. My novel Comandante Ibarra, the first book in a trilogy of three love stories, was about a Mexican rural policeman, or as they say in Spanish a Rural. He had had had a stroke from which he had mostly recovered. But it changed his thinking about the Mexican constitution of 1857 which had not granted many rights to the Yaqui Indians of the Mexican State of Sonora just below Arizona.
For hundreds of years the Spanish crown and then the governments of Sonora in Mexico had been trying to wipe out the Yaquis and take their rich farmlands and water for themselves. And they are still at, the state and the federal governments. Then a few years passed and I began a sequel to the second novel in the trilogy: Playing for Pancho Villa
Frank Holloway, now a gassed and partly recovered veteran of the WWI Battle of Amiens, believed the way to avoid an early death—the clenched heart of his father Francis and his father’s father Edwin—was to periodically cross the border near El Paso and breathe in the fragrance of Mexico’s mountains. Rosa Marta told him he was a fool to risk their life together but that she loved him anyway. He had come down due south from Mogollon, New Mexico, through the mountains to a point he estimated several days’ ride west of Chihuahua City. Somewhere not far from Galeana, along the Santa María River. The kind of softly flowing and peaceful water he loved and where he began the night marveling at the stars, before they disappeared in the glare of an overly bright, rising moon.
The next morning, at home in the world, he swung up onto his mare as he had a hundred times and, seized by cramp on his whole left side, continued rolling, entered what we would call midair and crashed to the ground on the other side of the horse. The mare, who was used to starting forward at the same time she being mounted, stopped and looked around at him.
At first, he could not move. His right foot was caught in his right stirrup, which was twisted backward, trapping the front of his foot against the mare’s belly. He crabbed forward on his elbows to relieve the tension between his leg and the stirrup. The mare blew out, her head turned toward him still. Then she began eating from a patch of dry grass somehow missed by passing goats. She turned this way and that to increase her grazing selection. But did not step forward.
They were not far from the river. The railroad, some sort of mining spur line, skirted the far shore. He remembered seeing young mesquite growing up between the rails. When he turned his head, he could see the tip of at least one of them. Indicating that trains probably passed infrequently. He had approached, descending toward the river when the sun was low in the sky. He had gotten up once from his bedroll during the night to pee and couldn’t remember any moon glint on the rails.
His next thought was what Rosa Marta would do if she never heard from him again? Men would have no idea where to look for him. Plus, it would be too dangerous. These were not the times to just ride into a dusty pueblito and ask about a missing gringo. Just the question was suspicious. What was he doing there anyway? An artillery instructor? An explosives expert who rode through the country blowing up bridges that locals needed to get their goats and corn to market? Any searchers Rosa Marta could muster would know better and politely decline to look for him. In revolution, no one trusted anyone.
Ask a question, receive a bullet in the throat.
As as the morning wore on and the sun burned down on them, Himari worked her way toward the river bank where the grass received more moisture, dragging him along with gentle pulls. He must have passed out at some point. When he awoke, they were at the water. A Japanese mining engineer who was returning to his country had wanted to sell his mare. Frank needed a reliable horse. The man had mentioned something about Himari and water. She liked it or didn’t like it, he couldn’t remember which. He hadn’t been paying attention. He had been too busy wondering how honest the man was and which of the several sides he had been on in the lingering Revolution. And why had he worn a certain knife. Short, with a hook to it. Ideal for peeling back a wire’s protective coating. To better twist the copper around a charge’s terminals. The package placed at the apex, hence backbone, of a village bridge. Arching stones, wide enough for howitzers and mounted troops.
Himari was drinking. Sunflower, in Japanese. He could hear the water gurgling up her throat. She sucked it in, then raised her head, whiskers dripping, to let gravity move the water deeper into her long throat. The heat was intense. She splashed a hoof in the water. Frank tried to loosen his foot. He couldn’t. He clucked, but Himari didn’t respond to clucking. He grunted, “Jale,” and she stepped farther into the water. He grunted again and she moved deeper until Frank’s rear was bouncing across the bottom, and the mare was swimming. And soon after, Frank as well.
He paddled to keep his head above the water. He could feel her rear legs trashing beside him. He tried to stay clear, but her right leg kept hitting his left arm and numb left leg, sending him under. He took what he thought would be his last gasp and realized he was floating backward. His foot had come loose. He grabbed across for Himari’s tail with his right hand, found the very end of it, out of the range of her legs. Soon enough, her feet were touching bottom. And she walked calmly up the far bank.
He let go of her tail at the edge of the water. He rested for a moment then crabbed backward away from the river. Himari had already found grass. Plenty of it. Good for her, bad for him, because it meant there were no grazing animals on that side of the river. No shepherds, not even passing soldiers looking for fodder for their mounts.
He rested for a while. His right side seemed still alive, his left not so much. He worked his way up the gravel rail bed and slowly crossed the tracks. The cross ties were rotten on top, the rails coated with rust. Yet he could smell the mix of old urine and the sweeter one of excrement. A train had passed recently enough that the smell was still there. He crawled down the gravel slope on the other side. There was a wagon road. Rain had smoothed the edges of wheel tracks. But how long ago? He lay himself out in the shade of pines, forty yards up the slope, on his back, and drifted off.
Himari stayed close to him. His rifle was still strapped in its sheath. A 1903 Springfield, disassembled and sneaked back from the war. Modeled on the fearsome German Mauser. His bed roll—an old quilt with pink roses—and his saddle bags were still in place, and now drying in the sun. He worked his way into a splotch of sun to warm up. He slept and was grateful for the Japanese mining engineer. Who appeared to have sold him a horse that wasn’t planning to leave him.
When he awoke, he thought of food. There was a cooked chicken leg wrapped in his old blue bandana in his saddlebags. He couldn’t remember in which one. He found he could prop himself up into a half-sitting position on his right side. He sat up higher. With his right hand, he touched his left leg, beginning at his knee and working upward. Hoping for feeling. His canvas pants were dry, including his crotch. And he decided that was a good thing. He lay back down and unbuttoned his fly with his right hand. Then he rolled onto his right side, took a stone and scratched a small channel in the dirt, to protect his pants, and peed. That part seemed to work as it always had, and he felt thankful. He wriggled his toes on his good leg. He tried it on the other and felt nothing. He focused more. Maybe there was something there. A tingling.
Himari had been grazing toward him, snuffing as she came. He talked to her in English. His mouth appeared to work. He praised her and thanked her in Spanish and English. She looked up, then dropped her head to continue grazing, still advancing.
“Can you help me?” he asked.
She kept coming. He held out a hand. She stretched her neck to sniff it. It was his left arm, come halfway alive. He reached across with his right arm and caught her bridle. She lifted her head. He was prepared and pushed off with his right foot. The power of her rising head lifted him. He hopped a little on his right foot, steadied with his left and kept his balance for a moment, and then dropped back down, still holding Himari.
“Almost,” he said, and released her bridle.
Later, he tried it again and got to the saddlebags and found the chicken.
That night, after filling his canteen in the river, he crabbed his way back across the track and farther up into the the pines. Using a young tree, he stood up and tied off Himari’s Mexican-style, with her head close to the tree, so she couldn’t get entangled in her reins. Then he rolled out his bedroll. With his rifle beside him. Sending a vague, half-remembered Protestant prayer to his left leg.
They slept, her standing, and him lying on his back, listening to the night. Things moving in the bushes, a night bird, a late heron perhaps, perched in a tree along the river. Some kind of frog. Crickets. The murmur of water. A rising moon, melting over the mountains to the north.
Something woke him. He rolled onto his right side and propped himself up, listening. The moon stood over them, exposing their hiding place. Nothing moved. He couldn’t hear the river. He couldn’t see it. Had he forgotten the contours of the land? Had he lost his hearing? His entire mind?
Himari commented. A low nostril flapping. As in, “Why are we awake?”
There was something on the tracks. The air was thick with moonlight. Covering everything as if it were snow. An immense locomotive sat between him and the river. A locomotive and its attached coaler. And three flatcars. The last two with Howitzers, chained tight and no one guarding them.
Nothing moved. No lights, no steam. No firebox glow. No smell of coal smoke. He could feel his pulse thumping in his temple. He saw a man in overalls back down the ladder from the cab, stand sideway, unbutton the bib, push down his underwear, push his pelvis forward, and pee.
Frank lowered himself. Slowly. He felt for the Springfield and placed his finger on the trigger, the back of his hand facing the sky. He rolled to the right so he could look past his feet. He shifted the rifle so he wouldn’t shoot himself in the foot if the rifle went off by accident. He had checked earlier. For some reason he couldn’t remember which way the safety lever should be switched for firing, which for safety. There were five .30-06 cartridges fed down into the chamber magazine. He eased the bolt part-way back. In the moonlight, he could make out the brass shell casing of an already chambered round. He eased the bolt forward. Then remembered. “Safety right, left off.” He watched the man shake himself, bent-kneed, hook the overall suspenders over his shoulders, then climb back up the ladder to the cab.
He thought about Rosa Marta’s first husband, Roberto, the explosives expert who had stopped to pee just before entering the silver mine in Mogollon, New Mexico. He had been the only man brave enough to check on a charge that had not fired and who, after the feared, delayed blast had shook the world, had emerged again as nothing more than a fine red mist.
He smelled them first. He had seen one before. On the first flatcar, in the first cage, a stinking, numbed tiger, pacing back and forth. And something else in the cage. Perhaps a half-eaten burro, the moon flowing through its ribcage. In the next enclosure, a camel, its head swooped low, staring up at him, then fixing her top eye on the moon, as if its light would show her the way back to the Gobi. Which some part of her mind remembered, although she had never been there. And in the last cage, a child, in a white shift, who stood up from a thin mound of hay that had been her bed. She unlatched the cage, found her way to the ladder at the rear of the flatcar and climbed down to the gravel rail bed. Barefoot. She ducked under the car at the coupling and past the canons, perhaps to drink from the river. The man in the locomotive cab had been watching her. His right hand plunged down behind the bib, where it didn’t have to be. He brought it out and turned quickly. Surely heading for the ladder on the other side of the cab. Everything indicating that he would follow the child—not so young as Frank first thought—to the river, where he would find her lying down, drinking from the Santa María.
Frank propped himself up again. A natural response, as if he could do something. He tried to remember. Somewhere behind the front-most truck, the first set of tracking wheels, the steam descended by pipe to the piston box. If he could shoot a hole in the pipe, maybe he could release some kind of screech or hissing. In which case, the man would return to the engine as fast as he could. And then, when he stood in front of the wounded pipe, Frank could then consider whether to put a hole in him as well.
In that moment, the child re-appeared at the coupling she had slipped under to begin with. She stopped in front of the camel’s gate. Huschen. One of the few German words Frank knew. He and a German soldier had landed in the same mud hole. Frank with a full magazine in the same Springfield he held that very moment, plus his bayonet, fixed. The young German, without his helmet, empty handed and gasping for air, as if he had been gassed,
“Are you going to shoot me?” he asked, in English.
“No.” His own voice was shaking.
Huschen. That’s the word you need to learn. The boy babbled away. Hushcen was what hope did when it flitted away. It was the way a sniper’s bullet had approached, but a thousand times faster. It was the way the boy should have disappeared into the mist, toward his own lines, huschend from one shell hole to another, shitting his pants again and again with each bullet that missed him. But he had not been so lucky.
Huschen was the way the girl brought out a key and unlocked the camel’s door and swung it open. The way she pulled out two boards without a sound. The way she ran the camel down the planks on padded hoofs. How she flitted back up the ladder and ran to the tiger’s door. He was waiting. She reached a pale hand through and stroked him on the forehead, inserted a key and swung the door open. Then she ran back to the ladder and scooted down, backward. With one leap the tiger was on the ground beside her.
Himari watched wide-eyed. Frank knew his Springfield was strong enough. He had sworn to never use it. They passed him, not fifty yards away, heading up the side of the canyon. The tiger looked over at him, the camel looked over at him. The girl looked over at him. The girl said something to the animals, and they continued on up through the pines—not looking back.
Himari didn’t make a sound.
A few minutes later, the man appeared at the coupling between the animal flatcar and the unmanned canons. He ducked under. Heavy, he climbed the ladder, entered the girl’s cage, stared at the thin pile of hay, then came out and stood in front of the camel’s cage, then in front of the tiger’s. That’s where he stood the longest. Then he turned and looked up and down the train. His eyes passed over Frank and Himari, and he appeared not to see them because of the pines.
Frank watched from his lying down position. He was trying to decide what to do, if the man started after the escapees or after him and Himari. But the man returned to the locomotive, climbed in, came back down one-handed, with his bedroll under one arm and what looked like a shotgun strapped over the other shoulder. Then he walked at a natural pace to the last flatcar, climbed up and bedded down under the last chained canon.
Frank watched for what he estimated was a half hour. Then he rolled up his own bedroll and strapped it to its place behind the saddle. He sheathed the Springfield but left it unstrapped. He unhitched Himari and wrapped the reins around his saddle horn. Giving her soft commands, as Himari followed him, he crabbed his way along on the ground, parallel to the tracks. Heading north and upstream. Eventually, he found a good rock. With Himari beside him, he got himself up onto it, balancing on one leg and from there flopped across her saddle. He leaned his weight on her neck until he had his boots in the stirrups. Then he continued upstream until he came to shallows, which he crossed. Then he headed downstream again, watching for the train. He gave it a wide birth, when he finally saw it and rode on until dawn began to gray. He listened for what else might be moving through the night of his beloved Mexico, well aware that his forehead felt too hot and his breathing uneven.
On Leaving America, Elena Poniatowska, and Janet Blaser’s Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats
I’ve done this before, in fact, many times over the last twenty years. Leaving what used to be home in northern California and returning to my new home in Mexico. I look at faces in the airport, each time younger. Each time more distant.
I’ve never really known how to bridge the gaps that separate us. The biggest one being America’s brand of alienation, the one I grew up in. Moving through the world in a car, getting out, brushing shoulders with others. But then, not really brushing. More like glimpsing from the side while standing in the Pete’s Coffee or the Starbucks pickup line. What are you like, my fellow corporate customers? I ask silently. We are conjugated, that is all. I consume, you consume, he she it consumes. The Latin of separation in this corporate meeting place. Would you ever even be interested in what I write and think about? Novels about events in Mexican history? Events much like those in US history. Genocide, slavery, civil war—the motives for what are not taught in school or discussed at the dinner table. Should we call it Deep America?
“What has fiction got to do with it,” you ask, as you stir your coffee, without looking at me, without speaking. One moment, please, while I consult my inner muse. The one that dictates the next sentence. The one that is listening to something in my brain. And so, well, aren’t we all living out the plots of our own lives, our own stories? The ones about conflict and struggle, love, cruelty suffered and forgiveness given and received? Aren’t we all protagonists, flawed yet still trying to do the right thing? Trying to find our place.
I am heartened by the children, on this morning, traipsing along behind their mothers, carrying their little stuffed-bear backpacks and their fuzz blankets, trudging along bravely, as if the snow were two feet deep, for the moment protected by the same glittering airport bubble that I too inhabit.
At the same time, as I drink my coffee, I’m holding Janet Blaser’s wonderful Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, the testimonies of twenty-seven women, including Janet, on why they moved from the U.S. to Mexico, looking for a better and more satisfying life. If only I had had this book in my hands twenty years ago, when my love and I took a deep breath and crossed the border at Nogales, Arizona.
If that had been the case, we would have had much insight into what we were doing. But we did not have her book and had to learn everything ourselves and, in the end, over the years, became permanent residents of Mexico, the place we call home.
In her book, before the Preface, Janet quotes from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. “I have an idea that some men (change the man pronoun as appropriate) are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace…Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends them far and wide in the search for something permanent to which they may attach themselves…Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”
Several years ago, Elena Poniatowska, Mexico’s grande dame of letters, gave a keynote speech at the San Miguel Writers Conference, where she read from a long list of foreigners like herself, who came to Mexico, wrote, painted, sculpted and composed and added to the country’s vast cultural richness. Each one of their stories of why they came (and some left) are part of the same kind of testimony you will find in Janet Blaser’s anthology.
Still at the airport, I am going where most of my fellow airport coffee drinkers aren’t going. I am leaving “we” once again and joining “them.” Already, I have to start saying “they” again, referring to my fellow coffee drinkers. If I told them where I was going, they would pause for moment and then politely ask, “Why?” And I would tell them, in order speak a different language and live in a different culture.” And then after another polite pause, and with concern in their voice for me, they would ask, “Is it safe?”
I am familiar with being afraid of Mexico. Years ago, when I was in my early thirties, I flew to Puerto Vallarta—my first time in Mexico—and found my way to the old hotel. I went to my room and closed the shutters, got in bed and pulled the covers over my head in the middle of the afternoon.
It was another thirty years before my love and I crossed the border. The women Jamet Blaser’s anthology are far smarter and braver than I was. They knew something was missing in their American lives, and they wanted to change that. They saw through the mirror that reflected their American culture assumptions back at them. That is not easy to do. We are the dominant culture or, more accurately, the dominant country. As the Mexican saying puts it: “So far from God, so close to the United States.” Dominant cultures tend not to be able to see into other cultures.
I sip my Pete’s Coffee. I guess I could say I’m going to a place where some of the coffee beans that fuel Peet’s and Starbucks are grown and are picked by people whose day wage would not buy even a quarter of a cup and whose lives most of us are not even aware of. They do not figure in the corporate algorithms. Except, perhaps, that you may think they are dangerous. They are not. They are poorly paid workers and kind people.
Truth in advertising: There is a Starbucks in the very historic center of my colonial city Guanajuato. Clearly, corporations are not put off by Otherness and simply hire locals. But there is a choice here. The best coffee in the Western Hemisphere is a few steps up the street at Greg’s Café Tal.
My one recommendation? Begin learning Spanish now. It’s like having a diving bell that lets me sink into the culture. My Mexican writing partner always argues that I have not immersed myself deeply enough, that I don’t always find the precise word I’m looking for. That happens to me in English, too. I started Spanish when I was fifty. He may be missing the point somewhat. There is no bottom to culture. Your intent and persistence is key to communicating and respecting the wonderful people we live among. And so: begin your Spanish and buy Janet Blaser’s book: Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats.
Recently, I wrote about the origins of a short story. How I had been at the side of the Seine, in Paris, on a cold spring morning, beginning a water color sketch of Notre Dame, when a river dredger anchored in front of me more or less and began bringing black silt up off the bottom of the river. Then the diesel shovel, a backhoe, really, brought up a brass bed frame. Who had thrown it there? And why? This is the story.
“The first two weeks of June in Paris were so cold and rainy that I had to go to the flea market at the Place d’Aligre in the 12th Arrondissement to replace the short-sleeved high-desert shirts I had brought with me from Mexico. I paid two Euros for a heavy cream-colored wool sweater that zipped down to my solar plexus and made me look like a small-boat captain at the evacuation of Dunkirk exactly seventy years earlier. I bought a faded green Levi jacket stiff with mildew, which – from too much Marais district Orthodox strudel – barely buttoned over my English sweater. Thus equipped, I went to the Seine to paint. I wanted to see which part of the mystique of Paris I could be part of, to see what lay below the surface of things French.
I had been to the top floor of the Orsay and seen the exhibit of P. H. Emerson, who drew with ink pen over original Heliographic negatives in the 1890s. The ink additions were hard to distinguish from the ghostly landscape backgrounds, especially in my favorite: “Marsh Leaves, Feuilles des marais,” London, 1895. I found it mildly disturbing, this process of super-imposing new representations on older ones, with a different medium.
There is more information you need to know. My great great-grandfather was born in Rouen, in the Haute Normandie. One recent Sunday morning, I had begun chatting with a woman sitting next to me at the Turenne Café, near the Place Des Voges. She was taking her café au lait with a group of neighborhood friends. The conversation turned to where I was from. I said I was from Mexico. But where are you from? they asked. Well, before that, California. But before that? I realized this was a question of origins. Perhaps my flea market sweater was showing and that was a clue. And so I told them about my great great-grandfather being born in Rouen.
“Then you are French,” they exclaimed, in unison. And then in fun: “Champaign all around!” And when I left, one of them pointed to the west and enjoined: “Be French!”
At a certain bench, beside the Seine, on the Ile Saint-Louise, I moistened my squares of color and considered what I saw before me. A dredger, its filling barge and a tug sat under the Pont Louis Philippe, the bridge that crosses to Ile de Cité at the Notre Dame. The dredge itself was what we used to call a steam shovel. This one was diesel, orange, and sat on rubber wheels, on top of it own barge. Six hydraulic arms bent down to the top of the barge to give the machine stability. From the barge, two massive black stilts extended down into the river bottom, to hold the whole floating assemblage in place: the dredge barge, the filling barge, and the tug – the vessel closest to me.
Before I go on, I should mention that I took my friends at the Turenne Café seriously and decided to know more about being French. I went to Rouen in search of Edouard Dupré and stayed a week. I made many phone calls. I knocked on doors. I walked through graveyards and looked at church records. I spent many hours at the Internet site Cercle Généalogique Rouen Seine Maritime.
George Edward Dupré was born in Rouen, France in 1798. He emigrated to Kentucky and owned fifty slaves. He chartered schooners and traded his goods in the Caribbean for tree crotches of sandalwood and mahogany for ship’s knees. On his third voyage, in 1838, his ship, ravaged by a great storm, broke its back against a reef on the coast of Florida. While most of the crew drowned, he and his idiot cabin boy clung to wreckage and drifted ashore, where they were killed by Seminole Indians. He was survived by my great-grandmother Sarah.
He had a brother Clément who stayed in France and produced generations of Cléments, the last of which fought the Germans in Normandy with the Communist branch of the French Resistance: The Front National. French Gestapo agents, a group called the Bonny-LaFont, arrested his love Marie Lambourne and said they would execute her if Clément did not give himself up. An exchange was arranged. Marie went free. Clément was tortured in the basement of 93 Rue Lauriston in the 16th Arrondissement, along with countless others. He gave up no information. Depressed, broken, and alone – with the image of Marie the last thing he saw behind his closed lids – he was guillotined one winter dawn in the building’s courtyard.
I found Marie in Rue Francs Bourgeois, in the Marais, near the Picasso Museum. She was 87 years old, five years older than me. She has a daughter and a granddaughter. Both of them are called Clémentia. I showed her all of my notes. She taught French to foreigners at the Sorbonne for many years. She spoke slowly and clearly, so I could understand. She was gracious and warm. The second bottle of wine – a Mosel – was covered in dust. She said we would not wash it because we were dealing with all aspects of the past. She brought out sheep’s cheese and three-quarters of a prodigious baguette she had purchased in that morning. She said we were cousins of some sort, and she would tell me anything I wanted to know.
I asked her about Clément. He was brave. And very funny, she said. He could blow up trains. He could also make up riddles, if we woke up anxious and afraid, early in the morning. We had a brass bed. She looked me straight in the eye, as she continued.
“There were four things then. Him, me, the brass bed, and the wonderful love we made in it.” I felt I should look away when she said this. But I didn’t.
She paused. Night had fallen. It was cool in the room. She got up slowly and turned on the electric wall heater. Then she sat down at the table again. She poured the last of the dusty wine into our glasses.
“This is the best wine I have ever tasted,” she said. “And I know it is because you have come to hear my story.” I took a sip and put the glass down.
“You probably want to know what happened to the bed,” she said. I said I hadn’t really thought about it. What I had thought about was a young woman with her eyes, together with a young Frenchman who might have looked a little like me, naked and clasped in love.
“When he died, I could not bear to lie in it alone,” she said. “I gave away the springs, and even the mattress. Then I enlisted a friend to carry the brass head frame to the river. I went with him. The Bonny-Lafont never gave me his body. The agent I dealt with said I should look for it in the Seine. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Sometimes the bodies of resistance fighters turned up in the river. So did the bodies of German soldiers.”
She stopped. She took her glass and poured the last inch of her wine into my glass. She smiled, with a face full of a joy I didn’t understand. “I can’t drink anymore,” she said. There were tears in her eyes. She got up. She said she was very tired. She kissed me on both cheeks. She said we were family. She said I was indeed French and that I should take that very seriously. She said she would call me soon.
Two days later, a letter arrived. “I know you are wondering – if you are who I think you are – what we did with the bed. We walked out onto the Pont d’Acole, I think it was, and threw it into the river. Very, very early in the morning when it was still dark. I cannot explain exactly why but it made great sense to me then. Remember we are family. Come visit me soon.”
I know I have kept you sitting, for too long, on the stone bench beside the Seine, waiting to see what I would paint. Also, let me defend myself by telling you that I do not believe in straight connections. It was cold. But I had my Dunkirk sweater and my Levi jacket. The dredge worked under the Pont Louis Philippe. Its steel bucket had four large teeth for rooting and tearing on the river bottom. Over and over, it swiveled and dumped the captured silt into the filling barge along side, swiveled back, dipped in again, like a great mechanical swan feeding on the bottom, and this time – jammed in its teeth – brought up the metal head frame of a bed. The machine swiveled. It shook the bucket over the filling barge like an angry animal, and the bed fell down out of sight into the collected silt.
I know what you are thinking. And I agree with you. It was not the right bridge. The river bottom had been dredged for seventy years. Most of us are not big on miracles. Jung would have called it synchronicity – two events connected by an overly attentive mind, but not connected in actual fact.
At the same time, the main barge – the dredger – raised its two black stilts, and everything drifted twenty feet closer, with the current.
I held my brush in midair. The matter of P.H. Emerson’s heliograph negatives was coming up. The barge drifted toward me, intruding into the foreground I had constructed on my painting. It brought the mud-blackened bed frame closer. And I began to wonder who or what was becoming the dark ink accent on a ghostly Emersonian background.
I could not believe it was Marie and Clément’s bed. But I did have to believe it had been someone’s bed. The same kind of question drifted closer: Who had thrown it from the bridge, and why? What blurred negative lay behind?
When I got back to my apartment – the size of a matchbox – I found another letter from Marie, the handwriting shakier.
“I believe it was the Pont d’Arcole. Very, very early in the morning – when it was still dark. I thought the bed would find him and give him comfort.”
Below these few lines there was a different handwriting.
I am a friend of Marie’s. I do not know what these words mean, but she had already addressed the envelope, and they lay next to each other on her desk. I am assuming they are connected. Marie died peacefully in her chair with a book of war-time photographs on her lap. I am including my phone number, if you would like to know more. Sincerely…
And then there was a name and the date, from two days earlier. I called the phone number, and Clémentia, Marie’s daughter answered. When I told her who I was, she said she already knew and she would like it very much if I would come to her mother’s memorial service; that she knew quiet clearly it would have been her mother’s wish.
At the service, I was warmly received in both word and gesture. Two weeks later, I sent the daughter a narrative similar to the one I’ve just told you, describing everything – except for P.H. Emerson. Two days later, she phoned and asked if I would do her a favor. She said she wanted to see the spot where the dredge had brought up the bed. I reminded her that her mother thought the spot was below the Pont d’Arcole. She said she had already made a decision. And so we met at three in the morning at the north end of the Pont Louis Philippe, where the dredge had been positioned. With the Notre Dame as ghostly background, Clémentia poured her mother’s ashes into the Seine. She held the empty urn – an old tea tin – in her right hand, slack at her side. The other hand, the one nearest me, held the tin’s lid. On an impulse, I put my arm around her waist. She put her lid hand around my waist, and I held her close against me as she sobbed.”
I’m studying Japanese again. I tried it at 55, but was too old. Now I’m 82, and it feels just right. This is a little like saying I’ve started practicing standing on one finger again. Nevertheless, I’m trying to be a good student. My teacher is young and patient with me. We meet one hour a week, one on one. She’s a long-distance runner. There is a special word for it, unless I’ve misunderstood: Ha shi ru, to run through the mountains. Don’t hold me to it. I may have misunderstood. But it’s a word I could adopt to describe my task at being confronted by the Japanese language.
She introduces a concept: ga ski des (“e” as in nest). It means to like/love something or someone. She says, “Homework, five example sentences.”
I go home and set to work. I write my sentences vertically, top to bottom, starting on the right side of the page, one hiragana letter after another. Top to bottom, right to left. I’m a writer, so I’m not satisfied until I’m telling a story. I plunge in. A male figure tells a female voice that he loves her.
He: I love you very much.
She: You love the idea of love, not me. Men hit or pout.
My teacher protests, aside from making massive corrections in red ink.
“We don’t think that way. In marriage, the woman often walks behind her husband. Three to five paces.”
I say, in Spanish or English, “But you might not think that way” — walking behind a man.
She says, “We don’t write it that way.”
She continues reading my play. I’ve plucked words out of my electronic dictionary. It’s like reaching into a box blindfolded and pulling out a raffle ticket.
He: “That’s not true.”
She: “You fear women. You’re incapable of intimacy.”
He: “I like looking at you. I like looking at your smile. You are warm-hearted.”
He: “You are kind and funny.”
She: “Very strange. All of it.”
He: “I am happy when I see you.
My female character is coming around. It appears my man is something more than just hitting or pouting.
The verb to like someone turns out to be an adjective. (I may revise this opinion later when I find out more.) My assumptions about Japanese psychology and culture are also off the mark. I’m having trouble looking across into my teacher’s culture, not to mention her language.
We speak in English and Spanish. I am more advanced in those languages. I don’t correct her very often. I used to be a language teacher and know better. We are also separated by the pronunciation of all three languages. That places a burden on my understanding of things. She can’t say “r”. I can’t reproduce the sounds she makes in hiragana.
I write down corrections or examples in my notebook. I use a 5mm lead in my Parisian mechanical pencil made in China. The lead breaks just when I’m writing down a key point.
It’s hard for me to believe a woman still walks behind her husband. While running through the mountains of Mexico, does my teacher run behind her boyfriend?
I don’t know the answers to these things. If I did, I would write them in my notebook where my teacher could correct them with her red ink. And there might be a brief moment where I would enjoy the illusion of balancing on one finger, or at least on two — when it comes to understanding.
We move on. Last Tuesday, my teacher taught me a new concept.
“Do you like Coke?” she asks.
I say No, then Yes. “Well, yes, I like it but it’s poisonous.” I hold up my two index fingers, making a cross to block the power of the Devil.
“What about beer?” she asks.
“Not very much,” I say. My brother has just died of bladder cancer. I have decided alcohol is not good for my bladder.
My teacher, who is at least forty, if not fifty years younger than me, returns to Coke.
“Say you friend offers you Coke.”
“Your friend asks, ‘Would you like a Coke?’ She has just taken two Cokes out of the refrigerator. Clearly, she likes Coke and is assuming you might like one, too.”
She explains the situation. “You don’t want to drink a Coke, but it would be insulting if you said, ‘I don’t like Coke.’”
She writes quickly in hiragana on the whiteboard. It’s a long string of words with no separations between the letters, written this time from left to right and horizontally. “You have to write it this way, say it this way. You have to say: ‘I don’t dislike Coke.’”
It’s a double negative, with a positive meaning, written with a felt black felt pen, and the letters pass through a reflection from an overhead spotlight, momentarily disappearing. I’m squinting on several levels. I don’t know how the verbs are conjugated, or even if they’re verbs.
“Wa ta shi wa coca-cola ga ki rai ja nai (like eye) des.”
Wa ta shi = “I”
The second Wa = signals that that Wa ta shi is the Subject of the sentence.
Ga = signals a second Subject, although she sometimes calls it an Object. The signal for one or the other is Ga.
Ki ra-eye means Dislike.
I don’t know what Ja is, nor whether it’s connected to what comes before it or after it.
N-eye means Does not.
And Des means something exists.
She asks whether I understand. From my frowning it might appear I don’t. Maybe it’s a more comprehensive squint. I say I don’t understand what the sentence is communicating.
“You’re being polite when you say it this way,” she says.
“So you’re choosing politeness over truthfulness and clarity and your own preferences,” I say.
“You don’t understand,” she says. “You have to be polite.”
I write down the sentence in my notebook. The 5mm lead breaks a few times. I squint the whole time at the hiragana sentence I don’t understand. The reflection from the overhead spot light adds to my need to squint.
“You understand?” she asks.
I’m locked into my frown. I’ve done that all my schoolboy life, especially in algebra classes. I get stuck in Don’t understand.
“You think too much,” she says, encouragingly. “You already know this.”
Actually, there are two elements that are new: “dislike” and “do not.”
“We need more time,” she says. “One hour a week is not enough.” She is sweet and very kind.
If I could have, I would have chosen that moment to say, “I don’t dislike more than one hour a week.” But the truth is, I need a whole week to think about and practice all the things I don’t dislike. Like the sentence on the board. Because the truth is I don’t dislike Japanese. I like it. I don’t dislike not understanding. I don’t dislike a challenge, or even when she says, “Don’t think so much — in Spanish or English. Or: that “dislike” and “do not” hover between adjectives or verbs. I don’t even dislike the reason for saying “I don’t dislike.” Because it seems to capture my New England upbringing, where indirectness was a virtue. One never came out with what or whom one liked. Or even loved.
Eight months before my father died, he had a heart attack. In the emergency room, leaning over his bed and the tubes entering and leaving him, I said, “For all the mistakes I’ve made, I want you to know I’ve always loved you.”
It was a momentary lapse in how we spoke. My father, near Death’s door, replied, “I want you to know I feel the same way.”
For many years, I criticized his inability to speak as directly as I had. But now, with the help of my wonderful young teacher and the Japanese language — and being much nearer to the point my father was at then — I have to admit that I don’t dislike the way he said it. I knew what he meant.
Let me imitate the New York Times’s propensity for little articles on how to, say, get the most out of your cats. In this case, I offer valuable advice on the best way to communicate with your kidneys. And I refer to them in the singular since I suspect they are working together in a, at first glance, female conspiracy.
She is not finished with me yet, my kidney. Only this morning I received a note from her, saying, “For all your ills, I counsel laughter. — Rabelais.”
She wrote this in Morse Code.
It is unlikely, I’m thinking, that she would be reading a 16th Century writer. Except that he was also a physician. One I suspect over-prescribed leeches and cupping. The latter sealed with fermented goat urine.
I had no way of replying, except by resorting to this same code, one I had fortunately learned while stationed off Bangladesh on the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga during the Vietnam War. My bunk was in the bow near a porthole, so you always heard the bow wave thundering like Niagra Falls.
I suppose you’re wondering how it’s done, this encrypted kidney-talk? Well it’s done with densities, that is, by shades of Mexican herbs used to treat any number of illnesses. Tail of Horse (Cola de Caballo), Stick of Blue (Palo Azul) and, most recently, Tea of Sapo. The plant, not the toad himself.
Of these, Palo Azul, left in water long enough, assumes a gloomy orange. While Tea of Sapo soaks to a lighter hew only a little darker than the belly of the above-mentioned creature.
Rather than tap a telegraph key, you click teaspoons as you pick them up and set them down on your dyed cement counter or, as in this case, the rim of the bathtub.
It goes like this. Dip out a teaspoon of Cola de Caballo and pour it down your throat. That would be a “dah.” Then a teaspoon of Sapo. That would be a “dit.” The number of spoonfuls of each will depend on the code pattern. For example, S.O.S., the international distress call, would be dit, dit, dit. Dah, dah, dah. Dit, dit, dit. Or: Sapo, Sapo, Sapo, Co-la, Co-la, Co-la, Sapo, Sapo, Sapo.
Perhaps because of my sensitivity about my kidney’s intentions, whether kind or not – the bit about laughter – I began with a little innocent chatting.
“I read before sleep,” I wrote. “Usually about my dilemma.”
I pause while she filtered my message.
I spread my legs and backed up a little on the toilet seat. I know that’s graphic, but where else would you think I would be able to read her notes?
She replied in discreet spurts of turbid and less turbid, easily read.
“What dilemma?” she wrote.
I clicked back, “Whether to go allopathic or homeopathic. That is to say die by folk swindle or by the side effects of government-approved poisons. What do you counsel?”
My telegraph path hung silent, expectant. A little chilled by the proximity to whirlpools.
Sensing advantage, as an aspiring dominant male, with such a clever question, I continued.
“It appears that government-approved treacles turn resistant when they reach you. Suggesting – you know – the matter of loyalty. That is to say your willingness to apply them, hence undermining the host system. By which I mean me.
I flushed the toilet and waited, relishing the idea that I might have dealt a blow.
The squirts began again, and she wrote, “You understand the part about the host?
That I am one? In fact, to millions.”
“To hostiles,” I wrote back. “Aliens, who must be stopped. Bacteriae hostiles.”
My fingers were tired from clicking spoons.
I flushed, waiting for her reply, warmed above the waistline with male glee. My bit of Latin.
Finally – a wave of slow pulses through my urethra. “You must consult my cousin Señor Próstata.” A pause in the transmission. Then, “Do you have his address?”
It took my breath away, the cruelty of it. As you know, I cannot bring that name across my lips – even in a whisper.
I flushed again, assailed by porcelain drafts.
A series of slow, passive-aggressive turbidities followed.
They said, “I counsel selfies, perhaps a sonogram of Señor Próstata. Perhaps one of me and my friends. And one of where my messages are stored – a sort of womb. Then we can talk some more. To open the conversation, enter the code word – ‘Rebelais’. Followed by ‘Girls rule, boys drool.’ ”
In the book Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, the author explains that young tigers in India and other places, whose mothers have been shot, have a much greater chance of becoming people-killers, because they don’t receive the socializing education their mothers could have given them.
I have been trying to understand how the U.S.’s young shooters arrive at their sad, empty places. It’s confusing because there are always at least two issues: one, our incipient fascism that does nothing to restrain the shooters through the responsible rule of law; the other is the state of mind of these young men and how they arrived at their numbed hostility toward others, especially toward young successful women such as the four young Congresswomen called the squad. Much of it coached by older misogynists.
We are already in a low intensity civil war where we have to make some decisions about how we will save the Constitution and how our children and grandchildren will be able to walk to school and sit at their little desks without fear of being murdered. What do we do? Shall we forgive our disaffected rebels with their 100-round AR-15s and invite them back into the family fold? Or shall we hunt them down and annihilate them with our own violence. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez advocates bringing them back into the family, and I am with her. Continue reading “Shooters and Tigers”
I follow my translator’s recommendations in all matters. He says drink teas of pelo de elote (hair of corn) and cola de caballo (tail of horse.) This is for my kidney infection, which, it appears has grown worse and invaded other areas. Possibly the hippocampus, where trauma is often recorded and rarely forgotten.
Translating what? you may ask. My first novel, Playing for Pancho Villa, from English to Spanish, now with the transfixing title: El Pianista de Pancho Villa.
I know. I have asked myself the same question. If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, why not leave the book alone? Continue reading “Tail of Horse”
If you look closely, you can see a patch of hair under my lower lip. I was going to glue some sort of fuzz there but decided it was just as easy to grow a little of the real thing for the purpose of tonight’s reading. You see, I find myself in the middle of a crisis. Not global climate disturbance. Not unaffordable housing, medical care, college tuition—our oceans choking on plastic. The spread of fascism. No, it has to do with the way I look. Specifically, my face. And whether to grow and keep a soul patch—also known as a jazz patch, mouche, jazz dot, and love patch. Continue reading “Love Patch”