We sat in the Café Zopilote Mojado. How shall I translate it? The Café Wet Buzzard? The four of us, his wife and mine, sipping cappuccinos and nibbling at a rich, perfect flan. I had also ordered pastel de nuez. Nut cake. My friend, an esteemed veterinarian, said, “You ordered nut cake?” He frowned in bewilderment. “But you don’t even know what kind of nuts.” My friend is cursed with a literal mind, and by a need for certainty.
“No, I don’t know what kind of nuts they are,” I admitted, inviting his skepticism. I know my friend, and I was glad to diddle with his need for verifiable information. I watched him, and took the measure of his doubt.
“Aren’t you going to ask them?” he smiled. He was referring to the two young women who were waiting on us and preparing the food.
“I doubt they know what kind of nuts they are,” I said. His look of bewilderment grew. There was a short pause, while he shook his head.
“You don’t care what kind of nuts they are?” he asked, as if we were getting to something about my character. Like a missing gene. I said I didn’t care, I would accept whatever they brought me.
Eventually, the cake came. Along with my second cappuccino – a luxury I seldom allow myself. I spread out the accompanying whipped cream with my fork, then cut into the cake. There were no discernible nuts. There were many very small dark flakes of something slightly larger than the flour. The cake went down easily. I was quite happy.
“You didn’t get any nuts,” my friend observed.
I nodded, and added that I also didn’t know what kind of nuts I didn’t get. His wife and mine, meanwhile, were having a different kind of conversation. They were talking about how they had met us, the men. He had been studying at the University of California, Davis. They had found each other in a sociology class. Their conversation caught my friend’s attention, and he joined in. He had done post-doctoral studies in literature and sociology in order, he said, to make himself more attractive to women. At that point, our wives smiled, erected a gentle invisible wall, and resumed their own conversation.
He turned back to me. “To snare more beauties,” he said, with a wink and an understood jab-jab in the ribs. His wife clearly had been a beauty and still was in her sixties.
“I had trouble in the literature class,” he said. “But I loved literary criticism.” I had helped him read some Spanish headlines in the Mexican political weekly Proceso earlier in the afternoon. He had thrown up his hands at the first unfamiliar word he came across.
“It’s the same problem I had with poetry, only worse,” he said, referring to the Spanish. “But I loved symbolism,” he said.
I thought about that now. He loved symbolism, but not vagueness, and not any kind of delay in understanding, not puzzling out meaning, whether in poems, or articles in Proceso. I could not resist my lower nature. I said, when I had his attention, “According to the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a symbol changes a phenomenon (Erscheinung) into an idea (Idee), the idea into an image (Bild), so that the idea in the image remains always active and unapproachable, and, though expressed in all languages, including art, can not be put into words. Erscheinung, Idee, Bild.” This was something I had learned in graduate school, and I wasn’t sure I understood it any better now, as I said it, than I had then.
My friend looked at me as if I had just denied the existence of gravity.
“A symbol stands for something else,” he said.
“That’s allegory – the direct knowledge of what is meant. But what we have here – the nuts – is nothing more than simulation.”
He looked at me, uncomprehending, resisting what I had said, but also with sympathy – for a deficiency in me only a veterinarian could sense.
I continued. “If there had been nuts, instead of merely dark flakes, they could have stood for something, like for the essential nature of this cake. That would have been allegory. Nuts stand for essence.”
I was fairly impressed by my discourse, so I continued. “You know, like when Melville refers to the wild watery loneliness of Starbuck’s life. Wild watery loneliness stands for ocean stands for Starbuck’s life. Double allegory,” I observed matter-of-factly.”
At that point, not quite sure about what I had just said, I took a little more whipped cream on my fork, cut down on the cake, lifted the morsel, popped it into my mouth, and slowly chewed. I took a sip of cappuccino.
“They’re symbolic!” my friend said, with a fierce smirk of certainty. “The flakes are symbolic.”
I smiled at him indulgently and did not pursue the matter. He was a man cursed with a literal mind, and nothing Goethe, Melville, or I could say was going to change anything. He had snared his beauty, he was still with her, he had a successful veterinary practice – and he knew a symbol when he saw one.
When he died suddenly a year later, from an unexplained and permanent drop in blood pressure, three unaccounted for older women showed up at his graveside memorial. They were dressed in fashionable black and, like his wife, were enduring beauties. All three stayed in the background, but mixed graciously, when the occasion arose.
My friend’s college roommate, a man of many chins, bathed in a pallbearer’s sweat, explained in muttered confidentiality who the women were. I watched them as the minister spoke inaccuracies and other well-deserved praise about my friend. I could not take my eyes off the women. How had he done it? What explained this cadre of attractive women that had come to mourn him? There was some explanation, some cohesion of significance that hung just at the edge of my grasp. For some reason, I recalled the conversation mentioned earlier. Us sipping cappuccinos in the Zopilote Mojado, The Wet Buzzard. And now I did not know whether I stood before symbol, or an allegory. All I could think, as I watched his casket sink down out of sight, and what I heard now in my mind, was that he had been right about the nut cake, and that it had represented something more than just nut cake. But beyond that, I could take it no farther, other than to say that he was a man who, in the end, had been blessed with a literal mind, and had represented something I understood but could not express. Least of all in words.