As a man, and regarding rape and Dr Ford, I know one tiny fraction of what it’s like. I am 81 now. I was in my early forties or younger when it happened. I was a strong man and agile. I was canoeing down the Petaluma River in California with two or three of my students. They were older, thirties maybe. At least one was a woman. We had eaten a snack on shore. Out of the blue one or more held me down and the others tried to pull my swim shorts down and off. I fought back and threw them off. But the point is I felt the most horrified and panicked violation while it was happening, and I know it was a small event compared to what so many women have experienced. I have never spoken publicly about this. Why would I? There’s some sort of shame attached to it that I don’t understand. But this is a good occasion to bring it up. If I could sit in front of the old white (all) men senators, I would say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You have no idea what this is about and are unqualified to make any decision to seat this man for a lifetime appointment. You are criminally uninformed. And we will vote you out.”
“Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs.” But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dish washing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do.
We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but “we”, as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them—and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films.
So, why don’t we love Mexico?
We throw up our hands and shrug at what happens and what is happening just across the border. Maybe we are embarrassed. Mexico, after all, has always been there for us, to service our darkest needs and desires. Whether it’s dress up like fools and get passed-out drunk and sunburned on spring break in Cancun, throw pesos at strippers in Tijuana, or get toasted on Mexican drugs, we are seldom on our best behavior in Mexico. They have seen many of us at our worst. They know our darkest desires.
In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs—while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us. The effect on our society is everywhere to be seen. Whether it’s kids nodding off and overdosing in small town Vermont, gang violence in L.A., burned out neighborhoods in Detroit—it’s there to see. What we don’t see, however, haven’t really noticed, and don’t seem to much care about, is the 80,000 dead in Mexico, just in the past few years—mostly innocent victims. Eighty thousand families who’ve been touched directly by the so-called “War On Drugs”.
Mexico. Our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace. Look at it. It’s beautiful. It has some of the most ravishingly beautiful beaches on earth. Mountains, desert, jungle. Beautiful colonial architecture, a tragic, elegant, violent, ludicrous, heroic, lamentable, heartbreaking history. Mexican wine country rivals Tuscany for gorgeousness. Its archeological sites—the remnants of great empires, unrivaled anywhere. And as much as we think we know and love it, we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is NOT melted cheese over tortilla chips. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply “bro food” at halftime. It is in fact, old—older even than the great cuisines of Europe, and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated. A true mole sauce, for instance, can take DAYS to make, a balance of freshly (always fresh) ingredients painstakingly prepared by hand. It could be, should be, one of the most exciting cuisines on the planet, if we paid attention. The old school cooks of Oaxaca make some of the more difficult and nuanced sauces in gastronomy. And some of the new generation—many of whom have trained in the kitchens of America and Europe—have returned home to take Mexican food to new and thrilling heights.
It’s a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for. In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, and was there—and on the case—when the cooks like me, with backgrounds like mine, ran away to go skiing or surfing or simply flaked. I have been fortunate to track where some of those cooks come from, to go back home with them. To small towns populated mostly by women—where in the evening, families gather at the town’s phone kiosk, waiting for calls from their husbands, sons and brothers who have left to work in our kitchens in the cities of the North. I have been fortunate enough to see where that affinity for cooking comes from, to experience moms and grandmothers preparing many delicious things, with pride and real love, passing that food made by hand from their hands to mine.
In years of making television in Mexico, it’s one of the places we, as a crew, are happiest when the day’s work is over. We’ll gather around a street stall and order soft tacos with fresh, bright, delicious salsas, drink cold Mexican beer, sip smoky mezcals, and listen with moist eyes to sentimental songs from street musicians. We will look around and remark, for the hundredth time, what an extraordinary place this is.
The received wisdom is that Mexico will never change. That is hopelessly corrupt, from top to bottom. That it is useless to resist—to care, to hope for a happier future. But there are heroes out there who refuse to go along. On this episode of “Parts Unknown,” we meet a few of them. People who are standing up against overwhelming odds, demanding accountability, demanding change—at great, even horrifying personal cost.
This show is for them.”
While in Toledo, Spain, I rushed to the Museo del Ejercito, the Museum of the Army. I had barely a half hour. As I went, I asked attendants where I could find things having to do with the period 1936 – 1939. The Spanish Civil War. “There’s very little,” said one woman. I watched carefully to see whether she was also expressing an opinion one way or another as to whether that was a good or bad thing. Eight or ten years ago, I went through the Catalonia Museum in Barcelona., again looking for the civil war. There was one small room with a few photos on two walls. People in that museum’s book store told me they had very little written on the war; and that it depended on who was in power when it came to choosing a version of history. If any at all.
In Toledo, it appeared to still be something of a stalemate. I found a few rooms. I also intended to look for photographs that would speak to the war and to events made up (from research) in my third novel, The Queen of the Pánuco. I did run across a photo and took out my camera. I was alone, but a group of visitors, led by a guide, was approaching. I could hear them just around the corner. I clicked and put my camera away, turned and left.
I knew I had a good photo of a photo taken more than eighty years ago—thinking it was going to speak to the Republican (non-fascist) narrative that occurs in my novel. But I’m afraid that’s not the case. Since being in Toledo, I’ve learned the museum itself was the site of a heroic nationalist/fascist defense of the Alcázar, a stone fortress at Toledo’s highest point. (Earlier, the site of a Roman palace; then residence of Spanish monarchs after the reconquest from the Moors; and a place where Charles I received Hernán Cortés, after his conquest of the Aztecs. Heinrich Himmler visited General Moscardó in the ruins of the Alcázar in October 1940) The fortress suffered shelling and bombing and Republican ground attacks from July 21 – September 27, 1936. The latter were ultimately unsuccessful.
The people in the photo have to be nationalist defenders (the 500 women and 50 children were not allowed to participate in the defense) The Republican militias were never able to breach the defense and get close enough to eat things in calm with women amid the rubble.
At one point, the Republican officer in charge of the siege, Commissar of the Workers’ Militia, Candido Cabello, telephoned the defending officer Colonel Moscardó and said he would execute Luis, the Colonel’s captured sixteen-year old son, if Moscardó didn’t immediately surrender. At least, that is what www.wikipedia.org claims as history. According to this history, Moscardó told his son “that he should die like a patriot, while he shouted ‘Viva Christo Rey!’ and ‘Viva España’ and ‘The Alcázar does not surrender.'” “That I can do,” he is said to have replied.Supposedly, he was shot immediately; or “maybe a month later.”
It has the ring of legend. Definitely of slant. The ww.wikipedia text also suggests the Republican militias shot nationalist/fascist prisoners. According to much historical research since the war, both sides executed prisoners. The fascist more so, right up until Franco’s death in 1975. It is probably fair to say that www.wikipedia, at least, has added a pro-nationalist/heroic fascist slant. The article also suggests that the defense of the Alcázar (then relieved by fascist General Franco’s Army of Africa) was an important propaganda victory for the nationalists, and disheartening for the Republican attackers, who didn’t have enough forces left to stop Franco’s race toward Madrid, which he held under siege for three years, before the final fascist victory.
Last night, precisely at the hour that the cucarachas in my house rose from their daylong slumber, I wrote a poem for you, Mother, celebrating my origin, when I slipped past your scaly loins and gave my first half-throttled scream. In spite of what others say, my skin was tender and the edges of your eggs, ragged and unforgiving. I cannot tell you how long it took me to unwind and find my tail. To see it quivering with new strife. I, your young Fliegengott, God of Flies, charged by you to bring war and darkness to all of life. An honest offering, when compared to the promises of the Bearded Fellow in the sky, whose plans you say I am tasked to disrupt. I, Lord of Rats, patron saint of the Long Tails of New York, Southern District, who pressure me with their Rule of Raw and the Triumph of Tooth during this Age of Lies. To whom I respond, Wouldn’t it be too bad if I asked you, my Mother, to drop down into the electric soot beneath Time Square and make lumpy digestive juices of them all. I have tried to tell them they are mistaking me for someone else. That it is not I whose squinty sun rises puffed and orange over Manhattan each morning, breathing in its own self-delighting smells. That we and they and the Old Man in the Sky are the only ones who stand between this bloated Faust and the sweet fifteen-year-old’s of our democracy. And so, Mother, I ask you to hold your snout and approach this high-rise, stale, bedpan stink and enter that chamber where humans purport to think, and swallow his dark pulp, make it your own, so that the status antequam can return to when it was mainly you and I and the Man in the Sky who determined the outcome of the struggle between good and evil, and not this amateur who would supplant us all. Therefore, let us ally ourselves with the Long Tails of the Southern District and, after you have supped, let them finish off what is left in the cup.
from Him who aims to please,
Your Devoted son,
Young Count Mephistopheles.
(Take a meditation pose)
You’ve caught me at the hour of my meditation,
the moment my mantra and I meet each other
Diese schwankenden Gestalten
These swaying approaching forms.
I am not authorized to tell you her name.
Except that it sounds like
Eritis sicut Deus,
scientes bonum et malum,
but it rises up like a whisper
from my inner Snore,
also known as my Mother
Die Schlange—The Serpent, which is just one of her forms
It’s from Her I have my name:
Fliegengott, (bat at my head) God of Flies,
Lügner, Liar, Mentiroso, Menteur
Herr der Ratten, (pick up feet) Lord of Rats
(Smile! Hold up forefinger!) Do not be frightened,
my young silphs and squawks.
What you’ve heard so far is little more than spiddle-spuddle,
A bit of limping, farting hibble-hobble.
Better to fix on my Spanish heels and purple tights,
my ruffled frock,
the yellowed teeth,
my pinkish lids,
around my waist the gleaming sash of slipple-sklock.
But can you see her now?
This time she stands a full quarter of her length and flicks her bifurcated Zunge (point to tongue), and softly thistles,
“You are part of the Kraft, the power, that pursues evil, but produces good. You are the Spirit that negates the world. Nice going, snakelette!”
To keep her here, I hum my pantra, “Eres sicut Dea,
sciens bonum et malum.
But mostly malum, since no one knows more about coitus more ferarum, congress with animals, than you, Tlacuáche-Pache, Oppossom bitch.”
(Raise forefinger again, as if teaching)
Hissing, she contin-you-z her guidan-sez.
“Because all that emerges,” she thims,
“Must go to dust.
And therefore, would’nt it be better if nothing came into existence?”
“My boy,” she swines, “everything you call
Sin, destruction, Evil—
All this is my nest primeval. My status antequam,
the way it was before.
the best slave-softened cotton,
ante bellum and Boll-weevil.”
How I love her, my Mother Constrictor, who sang to me when I had no height and couldn’t sleep!
Coiling around me, and pulling tight:
(sing with rasping sound) “Sluffle, sluffle, little peep,
if you do not wake in the morning,
still, your soul will keep.
Blood and feathers, forever weep.
Close you eyes, my darling, and become the seep.”
A plumpy tale to digest, you’ve got to think!
(nod your head like an idiot)
Have you guessed my name, for Him who can not be named?
From all of these?
Well, it is I, of course!
His Eminence, the redoubtable, slack-socked Count Mephistopheles!
At your service!
I am not used to writing about people who are actually dying. I kill people off in my novels. But it’s fiction, written with the assumption that the book and I will continue. But this important and wonderful book, Fragments of Loss by Annie Smith, written in lovely, clean free verse, is about someone dying who really dies. Her husband Jack. It is a different kind of writing. It makes my fiction writing seem suspect, slightly disingenuous and make-believe. Her book is about the real thing. Something that will happen to me—and to you. It’s an event I have been pushing back down into my unconscious my whole life. Into the drawer labeled Denial. I suppose I do it through my writing, as well. Maybe that’s one of the functions of writing, of art and creativity in general. Perhaps along with everything else we do. To not fully consider the reality of one’s coming end. To not include it in the list when we look forward into the future.
And yet, two things. In my case, it’s no longer working. I am bumping up against the end of my life, like a rowboat drifted ashore, the waves not yet strong enough to drive it all the way up on the beach. And, two, I was lucky enough to come across Fragments of Loss and realize, just in time, I will need it for the next step, for what will happen to me and those I love.
Don’t get me wrong. This is no westernized Tibetan Book of the Dead that guides our consciousness through the interval between death and the next rebirth—an interval they call the bardo. That was what we read in the Sixties, thinking it would help us find our way. In fact, rebirth or any other form of continuing is not part of this book’s thread. Except for those who are not dying.
And, of course, that is where the difficulty lies. The idea of not continuing. If at this moment, your impulse is to run, I urge you to first buy this gentle, beautiful book and keep it for later. Because this is a subject that will not go away. And someday you will need someone wise and truthful who has gone on before you. In the meantime, I’ve been finding both comfort and humor in Mark Twain’s words: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” And we’ll be dead for billions and billions of years afterward, so why should that bother us either?
Annie Smith invites us to learn things as she takes us on her journey. Things like the gradual loss of intimacy—but not of love—with someone we have slept beside for years, whose heartbeat we’ve felt, who has been our friend and warm harbor. About the loved one’s gradual withdrawal, as they use more and more of their energy to face the task of leaving. This is just one of the insights Annie Smith shares with us. She knows more than I do about dying, and am willing to let her lead. I wanted to call her something like a thanátogogue, a word I made up. Thanatos (θάνατος), the Ancient Greek word for death. Plus, Agogue (ἀγωγός), the word for guide. But it’s too clumsy and not clear enough. I prefer the word doula, a female slave in ancient Greece. In the modern sense, a woman who supports the birthing mother before, during and after the birth, offering continuity and peacefulness. Ensuring that the birthing mother is protected and has a chance to have an experience that is deeply spiritual. Which is not something likely to happen in a hospital.
I like the idea of substituting dying for birthing. In the first case, the doula helps us emerge. And then, when the time comes, she or someone like her helps us depart. That is what Annie Smith and her book offer: the example of the doula who, at least metaphorically, protects the process, for herself and for Jack, to the best of her ability. Letting it take place at home and in the context of discovered rituals that, given free course, are both spiritual and comforting. It’s as if she leads us through scenes of a play, where we are spectators who are invited to get involved.
Scene 1. And the first lesson. She is not allowed to talk about what was happening to Jack, because he remains in disbelief. Hence, and she feels shut out. “Adding to the growing distance.” Bladder cancer had escaped and was on the loose. And he is dying. Losing control over his body. First in the hospital, then at home, as the body was trying to shut down. The difficulty of keeping food down, of getting air. At least three things were happening. Trying to keep Jack with her. At the same time, letting him go, and admitting to her own denial and deepening dread.
Scene 2. Her home is threatened. Home is the place where your loved one is. When’s he or she’s gone, will home be gone, too?
Scene 3. On hearing the diagnosis, Jack lists of all the foods he wants to eat before the time comes. The essence of contradiction. Because food is emblematic of continuation. Death, of non-continuation. A juxtaposition hard to contemplate for those of us who continue to continue.
Scene 4. Where will you choose to die? Jack chooses Mexico as a better place to die. Annie measures the time left. “Will this notebook be full?” by then, she asks. And what will she do to keep from running from it all? She chooses qigong, meditation, writing and reading. She keeps a journal, from which come, years later, these shared insights. At the same time, like a spider, she weaves threads to things that sustain her and keep her in the world. The moon at dawn, “a thin lunar cup.” While listening to Jack moaning nearby.
Scene 5. There’s room for resentments. At so many little things to constantly do, like refill Jack’s green oxygen bottle. In the next moment to be filled herself, with sadness. Things grow in the garden, reassurance that life continues. As Jack goes in the other direction and “rides the cramps of life’s contraction back to its rest place.”
Scene 6. Part of the terror, his and her, is Jack’s panic. His phlegm-clogged lungs, not being able to breathe, being breathless and scared. I am told Morphine can take the edge off this panic. Annie feeds him a marijuana cracker with cheese. It gets him through the night, keeps him from waking up in terror. This gives two nights of respite. She considers the coming change in pronouns. Foreseeing I, not We.
Scene 7. Thanksgiving. Twenty-seven people come to celebrate, knowing it will be Jack’s last. He chooses the idea of food over its pulverized, hence edible version. Afterward, she closes up the house alone. A truthful, surprising, subtle commentary. “There’s a certain excitement in being so close to the spot where death will close in.”
Scene 8. Jack withdraws to his bed, the party continues, later he tells Annie he might like to have pie for breakfast. Annie wonders whether, in his shoes, she “wouldn’t give up, ask for something to end it.” She hasn’t brought it up, though years ago they “promised to help each other if life became unbearable.”
“Jack is still here after a night where he woke up
not being able to breathe
a loud noise in his ears….”
I insert myself here. Surely it is a time for Morphine or doses of Marijuana. In my case, that is what I would leave written instructions for. Enough for comfort, acceptance. For participating in the leaving.
Scene 10. Annie sleeps in a back room, where
“(I can enjoy) the view of the stars from my bed
I find that comforting….”
An important piece of guidance from the doula, for herself and us. It is all right to balance Jack’s approaching death with taking care of herself—separating, as he goes, and she remains.
Scene 11. Jack hangs on. On December 1, Annie gets out of his bed to shower. He wants her to stay. She goes anyway. Hospice, she writes, claims that our energy leaves our bodies from the bottom up. Jack puts a pillow over his head, perhaps so he will still be there when she gets back. It is late in the day. Night is falling as she returns from the shower.
Scene 12. Annie’s words move from free verse to prose. Jack wants to sit in his rocking chair. Once there, he faces one of his paintings. “He stared intently into the painting as though he recognized something or someone. His feet began to run in place and, to the extent he was able, he leaned forward. We held his hands telling him over and over that it was ok to go.” Annie switches back to free verse.
“(We told him) That we loved him
there were three ragged breaths
one more startling breath
Scene 13. The neighbors come. They light candles. Drink margaritas. “We told loving, humorous stories about Jack.” And then they ate dinner. In an extraordinary scene. “A chicken dish with tomatoes and curry that Jack had liked. We all ate at a large table next to his bed.”
Scene 14. She asks the doctor not to come until the morning to pronounce him officially dead. “Now we could have this one last night together.”
“I lay on the couch right next to his bed
eventually I fell asleep
happy he was finally at peace
goodnight my love”
Scene 15. That night, Jack lies dead in the bed next to her. Again an extraordinary scene.
“Candle light smooths the walls
rests on the mystery in his paintings.
I can almost see him breathing
see the covers rise and fall.”
Scene 16. When the van comes the next day and they take the body away, and
“the room spills it emptiness into me
my body was heavily here
with the knowledge
that I would never touch him again
never again be touched by him
Scene 17. She spends the day touching his clothes. As I did all night long the night of my father’s death. He, in a cooler at the hospital, I sleepless in his bedroom. I suppose looking for him, I who did not see him die, nor any trace of him afterward.
Scene 18. Passing in and out of the horror that your loved one’s body has been reduced to ashes. Like
A pale peach silk bag
resting on my lap
than a newborn baby.
Annie Smith’s brilliant grouping of words. And characteristic of her poetry in this book. And meaningful, because we know from earlier in the book that she had once brought a baby boy to full term, only to be born dead.
Scene 19. Another lesson. A “deep body grief” is inevitable, but it was not as bad as she thought it would be.
“I have always had a distance
that separates me from people.”
An important honesty for the rest of us. A protection from endless grief.
Scene 20. Also, the tide will come back in, eventually, if we sufficiently choose life.
“I woke up this morning
filled with happiness
for the first time in weeks.”
Scene 21. But where is Jack? And where was my father? I wish I had had this book then I was trying to understand.
“It’s time to recognize Jack inside me
that Jack is in my cells
I want a relationship
with that Jack
Scene 22. Over time, she experiences an emerging sense of freedom. She can go to New York, Santa Fe, Greece or Rome.
“He is no longer a reason
for what I can or cannot do.”
She chooses healthy continuation. But she still keeps a vigil, looking for Jack,
As the moon crosses over his studio
and slips behind
Scene 23. She writes a letter to Jack, in prose. On a Christmas eve. They had cleaved together, she writes, “and death does not have the power to undo that.” The whole family was wounded by his leaving. “Death wounds the way pruning wounds. It may be the best thing but it hurts and bleeds.”
At the end of the letter, with the power of the poet, she enjoins him: “My art is words. Help me with my words. I call on your love to be here with us this Christmas Eve 2003 and for all our lives.” At the same time, she sends him on his way, or shares him with the world. She leaves his clothes on a table in the patio, and people come to take what they want. “So at times I think I see you turning corners up ahead.”
Your clothes left your closet
in a soft warm tide
spreading across town
Scene 24. When my father died, and I was looking for him that night, really only his smell was left, and I recognized that it was the same smell I got when I rubbed my own scalp. She keeps Jack’s brush and glasses.
I could always smell
when you had used my brush
testosterone has a distinctive scent
which I inhale deeply now
Scene 25. Listening for the loved one’s car. We will think we hear his or her foot steps, or the key in the door. That is something that will not go away very soon. We listen for it. And that is a good thing, and should not surprise.
Scene 26. There is a well known phrase: “Oh, Death, where is thy sting?” Corinthians 15: 55-56. It takes on a specific meaning for me now, after reading Annie Smith’s Fragments of Loss. Her book takes the sting out of death, tames it to something which can not terrorize, now that we know so much more about it. A wonderful and important contribution to the biggest and most profound experience we will ever have. The one that walks along with us, holding our hand, our entire lives.
Only a fool would choose the desert entrance to Real de Catorce, when they could take the 2-kilometer long wormhole through the bedrock instead. I’m talking about the one-lane tunnel that was unlit on a recent weekday, when even cell phones weren’t working. Events triggered, according to superstitious locals, by up-coming tectonic clashes or political upheavals. Or both.
And so now you had to take the baton from the man at the entrance. And if, God willing, you came out the other out the other side, as most people did, you handed the baton to someone else. A rational system, and democratic like the tope, where even the President of the Republic has to observe the laws of physics. If not necessarily any others.
The Governor of an unspecified state arrived on that Wednesday. The poorly paid tunnel attendant greeted the first car, a bodyguard with a bull neck and expensive dark glasses, and explained that the tunnel was in use and, after that, it was the other side’s turn to come through. The bodyguard checked with the Governor, a man of ample girth, who was hungry and had been looking forward to a long meal at the little Swiss-run hotel at the other end of the tunnel, renowned for its thick steaks and fine wines. And afterwards, to a nap in the usual charming, top-floor bedroom along with his adoring, young, light-skinned secretary.
“Aren’t I the Governor,” he asked. And gave the signal to proceed.
His security men were Mexican ex-Marines, but not all-knowing. Because, with about the same frequency, the odd narco warlord also liked to eat thick steaks in the little Swiss-run hotel—and to wash them down with 100-Euro Spanish Riojas, which he brought along in his black Ford Expedition—while his bodyguards, in their SUVs, carried equally generous supplies of lightly greased 7.62 x 39 mm rounds for their Chinese-made AK47s.
The difference was that the Governor, though married, was hungry and in love, and “Chuy,” our narco warlord of the Soft Waist, was already full of steak and premium Rioja and drowsy with satisfaction—when the lead car of each party spotted approaching headlights and had to come to a stop. The guards got out. The Governor ordered that the citizens blocking his way should reverse direction and clear the tunnel. And so his Marines, holding all kinds of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, approached Chuy’s group. While the latter’s sicarios kept their AK-47s out of sight, so as not to alarm any citizens who might run out the other end and phone the Army which would then happily descend on the Chuy from both the East and West with their nopal-green HumVees and mounted Browning heavy machineguns that fired .50 rounds as long as your hand.
In the meantime, the poorly paid attendant on the Swiss hotel side, who had stood back as Chuy’s group entered the tunnel, decided to seek invisibility among his goats higher on the inner canyon wall. And so he was not present when the Butane truck from the Sonigas rumbled up to the tunnel. Its driver—the father of four hungry children under the age of ten—was eager to get out of Real de Catorce and away from the pinche tourists and their fat wallets. With no one to warn him otherwise, he entered the tunnel, and used his powerful headlights to fill the darkness with Butane-generated brightness.
By that time, the gunmen from both caravans were brandishing their weapons, and the Governor and Chuy, from behind their over-sized SUVs, were screaming obscenities at each other, forgetting that they had cooperated with each other over the last three years and belonged to the same moño-waitressed country club. Their respective lieutenants begged for calm. A significant current of mountain air was sucking through from the Swiss hotel side, they said, and would serve as God’s own bellows, if their military-grade bullets hit any of the eight, nearly full gas tanks and ignited the white fire that would cook them to termino medio in the singe of an eyelash.
That was when word spread that a Butane truck had pulled up behind Chuy—upwind from all of them, with enough explosive power to blow them all out the Governor’s end of the the tunnel, along with their SUVs and what remained of Chuy’s 100-Euro Riojas and the Governor’s unfulfilled condoms, Sico brand, Ultra Sensitive, “designed to let you feel the warmth of your partner,” in a bursting grand finale to the sound of a soprano’s wavering high C and an impressive short-lived roaring between the ears.
Chuy had just screamed something like “A huevo y, si no, a balazos!”
Which was something like “You’ll back the fuck up, or I’ll blow your heads off!” Only stronger. A getting-to-yes formula perfected during the Mexican Revolution—just as he began to understand what the Butane truck meant, and remembered that he had the Governor’s number under Contacts on his new iPhone. Which he smashed against the tunnel floor, when it didn’t work under the one thousand meters of peña above him. Instead, in the light of his headlights, and though his hands shook and affected both his syntax and spelling, he scribbled a note to the Governor—in which he apologized for being a pendejo. And ordered the bodyguard he trusted the least to deliver it, hoping some good might come of the attempted negotiation. But that man returned without bullet holes in him, and delivered the reply, in which the Governor also apologized and said they should have drinks at the Country Club and discuss what they could do to make sure that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that corrupt Communist shit, didn’t win the Presidential election in July and legalize drugs and grant a general amnesty to narcos everywhere.
Whereupon, both parties switched their assault weapons onto Safety and slowly backed out of the tunnel the way they had come in, bashing fenders as they went. A fifteen-minute operation, with headlight blinding everyone. Twenty minutes for Chuy’s group, because the Butane truck driver was nervous—given the extra dimensions of his truck—and because one of Chuy’s men, the one with half an ear missing, sat too close to him, holding a 9mm Beretta automatic up against his own perfectly in tact right ear.
Once outside, the Governor, his jowls sagging with resentment, repaired with his secretary to a modern, characterless Motel with a poolside bar on the main trucking route in Matehuala.
And Chuy, in a better mood than before, descended the lovely dirt road to the West, where it is said you can buy peyote buttons for meditative experiences and where small inns with nothing to offer still managed to get fruit to grow to maturity in clear glass wine bottles affixed to the pear trees that grow there in quiet courtyards. And where Chuy could linger a while, sip a lukewarm Coke by himself and breathe in the smoky scents of the Potosí desert and dream of the young, dark-skin beauty he would marry someday—and make as happy as he could.
Am I sitting in this table-wobble Bohemia café in a colonial Mexican town recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site, embarking on the one sentence I am allowed for the evening, as I listen to Andreas Scholl sing Bach cantatas in his countertenor voice, which sounds like a castrato but isn’t, yet prompting my friend, a retired, down-to-earth officer of the British Royal Navy, to make silly, limp-wristed gestures with martyred, up-turned eyes as if appealing to God to join him in rejecting the whole idea of this kind of music, while of course the whole time the real target of his ridicule, his gentle jab, is someone close to me, if not identical, the one who loves listening to Andreas Scholl, about whom I know nothing at all, except that he has a long and distinguished career in the Music World and is surely one of the most talented in his field, again about which I know very little, except for once in an ancient abbey, Maguelone, on the French Coast near Montpelier when a another friend and I—he had painted the abbey many times in wonderful studies of light and dark, as if the building, surrounded by Maritime Pines were a ship of lesser tonnage, not English, approaching through a thinning fog, backlit by a weak sun that had forgotten that it was a Mediterranean sun—were sitting, he and I, in the middle of the empty pews, when a similar voice, carried on perfect acoustics, filled the abbey for several minutes, followed by a silence during which I waited for the mezzo-soprano to emerge from somewhere above and behind the altar, which happened, but as one of three young men—not a woman—grinning at their daring contribution as they passed by, and we, marveling, smiled right back at them, enchanted that a male voice could sound like that, in an abbey surrounded by dark Maritime Pines that had survived Roman shipbuilders—I’m talking about masts—all of which made me wonder whether the Roman soldiers, sitting around their campfires, wiping thick, heathen blood off their broadswords, had asked their own castrato or falsetto warrior to get up and sing a tune to relax his exhausted comrades, whose eyes would have been a mixture of Germanic Blue and Mediterranean Brown, or Cow-Eyed Limpid Umber—Homer’s phrase—if they were of Greek descent, and who didn’t think for a second of their singers as menso, zafado, loco, missing a wooden screw, or as someone whose goats had gone the mountains, hence Mexican for wacky, but just singing with vocal cords designed differently from yours and mine, hence completely undeserving of ridicule of any kind, least of all by me toward myself for going on like this without the usual punctuation, since Andreas Scholl, surely not dressed in a leather Roman battle skirt, has been stringing me along, as well as allowing me to make whatever I wanted to of his voice and of the mystery surrounding it, as well as of these Maritime Pines (gesture) made into tall masts, ghosting toward me, approaching off the coast of Montpelier, carrying a delegation of people I wouldn’t know but who are mezzo-sopranos and Hermaphrodites who can sing like Andreas Scholl and have been hoping for some time to find a writer wanting to write to their cantatas, which also go on and on, as their voices caress first the abbeys, then the Pines, and finally the mountains where my goats have gone when I listen to this music, which, as far I’m concerned, I wish would never end.
My friend likes to meet once a week to discuss important things. Like the trips I am planning to take. He has all kinds of questions. First of all, why am I going? Especially when I could stay home. I say we’re going to Madrid for a month. Maybe to Dubrovnik, too. He wants to know how to spell Dubrovnik. I tell him. D-u-b-r-o-v-n-i-k.
My friend is a very good writer, as well as a tireless reader. And highly literate. But he can not get beyond the –D-. I think it is because it is a city that is somewhere else. Where you have to travel to get there.
I do not press him. I had a father once who was also hodophobic. “Hodo,” Ancient Greek for “road.” Someone who is afraid of travel. Which doesn’t quite fit my father, who loved to drive the back roads of our New England stomping grounds. I use that word for lack of a better word. Though now I’m beginning to have my doubts. Like who did the stomping? The Original Peoples who lived there, as part of religious or cultural celebrations? Or the original dirt farmers who stomped their floors into harden earth in place of wooden floors. Or was it a more powerful group that came along afterward and stamped out the people I mentioned?
In any case, it was a limited area, circumscribed by my school, the bank, the factory where my father presided over the braiding of nylon filaments to make saltwater fishing line. A sand pit where we shot at each other with .22 rifles aimed wide. Jacob’s Pond. And my Uncle Ed’s house—which reminds me of fruit cake at Christmas, it’s dollops of hard sauce, and the unsettled brandy flame that flickered on top like St. Elmo’s Fire. My Uncle Ed had bad circulation in his legs and fell dead while mowing his lawn in 1955.
At the other end of the Known Area—the opposite boundary—were bright beaches where you had to have a membership and not be a minority. Then the salt tidal river accessed through the home of one of my father’s classmates, Harvard 1923. Then over to the yacht club in a neighboring town, where I heard something about Jews being discouraged. My best friend lived across the street from me. My mother explained pleasantly that he couldn’t go to the river with us because my father’s Harvard 1923 classmate’s wife didn’t feel comfortable having my friend there. Same for the yacht club, I knew, although no one ever said as much. My friend was black. And he was my stomping ground.
In New England, it seemed, there was a stark difference between the Known and the Unknown. My father delighted in the Unknown, the back top roads that led outside of Our Area. Together, he and I, in his old station wagon, we would drive through the mottled light, under over-arching Pine, Beach, Maple, and Birch, and my father would point out small farms he wouldn’t mind living on. Past fields that were surrounded by ancient stonewalls, where he could see his Black Angus cattle grazing, if he had them, and dream of the other women he had known but not married. Something I made up later, when I decided to call myself a writer. That’s how strong the unknown was in my mind, even when it was partially true, I think. And there was usually a porch where they could sit and just look out over Known New England while he smoked his pipe. The one my mother said never left his lips. The one whose stem, levered against his upper teeth, pressed down on his lower lip and gave him a look of comfortable authority. And innocence. And finally killed him with a series of heart attacks punctuated by final stroke. That made him act indecently in his final bed. So that my mother had to cover him with his sheet and blanket.
“Why go to Dubrov….?” my friend asked, “when you could go to Norway?”
I replied that I could go to Norway later.
“It’s very cold there,” he said.
“I could buy a coat.”
“That would weigh you down.”
“I could buy it there.”
“But you would have to bring it home.”
“I would give it to a Laplander,” I said.
“That would be cultural appropriation,” he said.
“Then maybe ask him for one.”
He was silent, considering my reply.
“Plus, I’m not even going to Norway,” I said.
“You could give it to a poor person in Oslo,” he said.
“I think I’m going to Dubrovnik.”
“Do you know anyone there? In Du…?”
“…brovnik. No, I don’t.”
“Then why are you going?”
I was beginning to lose my urge to travel, to have adventures. To see something different. Plus, Dubrovnik would be overwhelmed by aggressive tourists bent on having too much to eat, talking too loud,
and on taking a hundred and forty perfect photos. It would be hard to get away from them.
“Why not take me along?” he asked.
“You don’t like to travel.”
“I don’t know, I’m kind of interested in Du….”
He was quiet. Happy, I would say, at the prospect of seeing something I wanted to see.
“You know,” I said, “the Croations were allies of Hitler in the Second World War. They did terrible things to people. Ustaše fascists murdered outsiders. People who were different. Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Genocide. Of the 22 concentration camps, two of them were for children.”
“Yes…and they speak a different language. And you have to wear special trousers. There are pickpockets everywhere. And they haven’t removed the land mines from the last two wars.”
My friend was smiling at me. “You’re trying to talk me out of traveling with you to Dubrov…nik.”
Something had gone wrong in the course of the conversation, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
“There’s a good chance we’ll go to Norway,” I said. “My wife and I.”
“Because of the coat?” my friend asked, nodding wisely.
“Yes,” I said. “Because of the coat.”
Yesterday, I put on my old German Expressionism 1930s leather jacket and, full of questions and expectations, rushed to the recital being held in the diminutive upstairs Foro Cultural 81 concert hall at calle Positos 81, Guanajuato, Mexico—wondering whether I would find a seat, be able to see, feel ensconced, anchored, tethered to the mast in such a way that I could, if I had to, resist both high c’s and the overall complex seduction of opera. The occasion was a master class given by James Demster, an esteemed voice coach from Mexico City with a very long list of distinctions, among which—the one that caught my eye—is having been piano accompanist for Plácido Domingo. I suspect the event was arranged by city treasure Kate Burt of Ópera Guanajuato. Maestro Demster was a slim, refined looking man who clearly loves the human voice and, as far as I could note, guided each participant with equal gentleness and respect as he accompanied them on the grand piano. I have had the great privilege of having had teachers like him but in Latin, Greek, German and French—not in music, about which I know very little. Except that when I write my fiction, I listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, or Mozart’s Mass in C Minor or, best of all, to famous opera duets.
I sat in the front row. Which placed me about eight feet from each singer. A station that carries with it certain restrictions. I hesitated to wriggle or move, uncross and re-cross my legs while the young divas were singing, or clear my throat during a pause. I didn’t know whether to look at them, or look away. Because before each one began, she had to gather herself together, looking down at the floor—wrapped in a private moment of composure—then up again when she was ready for the maestro to begin the accompaniment. There were fourteen or fifteen singers, all sopranos with one or two mezzo-sopranos sprinkled among them. They came forward in an arranged order. The less experienced first; the more advanced, afterward. So no one had to follow a devastatingly stronger performance. I have been around long enough to know that it takes enormous courage to stand in front of an audience and try to perform to the highest possible standard. To render the music so that the notes are strong and gentle, absolutely in tune and rich in tone variations. I heard high notes that were strained, lower ones that were more beautiful. Each singer warmed up and did better and better as the moments passed. And I, eight feet away, was more and more conscious that something special was happening. The presentations became more and more powerful, more sure-footed. With me, they have the effect of calling forth figures from my past whom I had not expected at the recital. I thought lovingly of my father who was my extended family’s best singer, once someone gave him a beginning note. And my mother, who, in contradiction to all my fault-finding, would open her mouth and transcend her Puritan constraints in a voice that was clear and passionate and foreign to me. In that moment, she was someone who was not my mother, perhaps someone else’s mother, or not even a mother at all but an independent and unknown person, who led a secret life apart from my father, my brother and me. A life that was magical and beautiful. And unassailable.
Other visitors appear, from much further back. As much as thirty years back, I sat in the middle pews of in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, just after the fall of the Wall. It was late morning on a week day. A voice from above and behind me, in the choir loft. A woman’s voice, a mezzo-soprano, as exquisite as anything I had ever heard began singing “Agnus Dei” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor. In the very church where Bach had been the Cantor for many years. It was a chance moment and as spiritual a one as I have ever felt. As if the Past were the Present, and as if I were inside the music Bach had written back in the first half of the Eighteen Century. Or it was inside me.
You ask, how can I compare that experience to the recital of the fourteen young singers at Foro 81? Easy. I sat right in front of the recitalists, and it was as if my ears were laid back by the passion coming at me from each one of them. That is what is grand about young actors and singers. And I suspect that is something Maestro James Demster may have taught them. That it is not possible to sing opera with complete sincerity without giving it everything you’ve got. Or, put another way, truly good opera will not be good opera if it does not come largely from the heart. The effect on me is transformative and I am back in a Thomaskirche and part of something so much greater than my own little struggles. Part of all the composers, singers and musician that ever risked trying to create beauty. I feel immensely lucky, privileged. And, for a man who is not religious, I find myself resorting to religious vocabulary. Feeling blessed. In a state of wonder. Being as close as I could imagine to that which is spiritual. Standing outside of myself, as in the Greek ecstatic. In a state of rapture and delight. Along with others in the audience, daring to softly cry “Brava!” over and over. Praise that surely registered with no one other than myself. But sincerely meant from someone who knows so little about music.