Tag: Guanajuato

Japanese Class

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.”

She: “Incapable.”

He: “You are kind and funny.”

She: “Very strange. All of it.”

He: “I am happy when I see you.

She: “Really?”

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.”

I nod.

“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.

Tail of Horse

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”

A Small Matter

My wife was visiting in the north, helping our friend, who is Mexican, married to a Frenchman and living in Madrid, research Mexican engineering students studying in the U.S. in the 19th Century.


I stayed home in my small colonial city, practicing no longer being dependent on my wife, as well as exploring solitude, bachelorhood and cat farming. The latter can be explained by the fact that a small stray cat family that lived next door decided to live at our house. My neighbor, who had given sanctuary to the family—on her laminated tin roof held down by stones borrowed permanently from our property—argues that it was enticement. Not by us but by our cat, an earlier immigrant. Who always leaves food in his bowl. Hence, enticement.


The new family consisted of a mother with a brown moustache, a doting father and two young ones. Then one day I reported to my traveling wife that the mother cat appeared to be pregnant. And after a bit more time, that she appeared to be un-pregnant.


“Did you look for the babies?” my wife asked from the archives of one of M.I.T.’s libraries.


I said no I hadn’t. I had more important things to do. Like Yoga, writing, getting a massage, and finding a place to eat lunch, followed by a nap, putting together something for supper and watching horrible news from the country she was visiting.


“Have you looked for the babies?” she asked from the archives at Cornell.


I said I hadn’t and wasn’t going to because they could be anywhere, near or far.


Then one day, after climbing the 203 irregular Mexican steps to our house—plus long, steep, slanting stretches—I came through the garden gate, then the garden itself, and spotted them. Two little things, on a patio. I counted them again. Two. I had expected more and was relieved to arrive at the same count.


I climbed some outside stairs to the terrace off our main living level. The house is small but has two main levels and three terraces, two terraces on the lower level and one on the upper. Sometimes I call them patios. When I reached the terrace on the upper level, my neighbors’ seventeen-year old son Evan was standing on his flat roof—which we call an azotea here—which is level with our top living level.


We both heard a third kitten, but it was not clear where the sound was coming from. Evan kept looking at a drainage hole near the top of the stairs I had just come up. I climbed our iron spiral staircase, thinking the crying was coming from our azotea (an Arabic word). The crying was weaker. When I descended the spiral staircase again, I saw Evan still staring at the drainage hole. That was where the kitten’s cries were coming from. Somehow it had gotten up to our upper level—I suspect his mother—and then entered the hole and dropped twenty feet down the 4” PVC drainage pipe. And was trapped—essentially entombed by tons of cement and brick.


“What are you going to do?” my wife asked.


I said I had snaked a thick rope down the pipe, and if the kitten couldn’t climb up it, it was going to die.


My wife said I should call the builders who built the house. I said they would never be able to find the exact spot where they could break through to the kitten.


“Do you want me to call them?”


My wife is the most take-charge person I know, and at eight-thirty the next morning our two chief builders and a helper were at the front door. They had dropped whatever other project they were assigned to by their boss, who is our former presiding builder-architect. At the same time a close family friend—a great animal lover—called to see whether he could help. I told him how hard I thought it would be to reach the kitten. That the rope I had worked down the pipe was synthetic and therefore too slippery for the small frightened claws.


My friend is a busy artist. “I’m coming up,” he said.


Including me, five men were now working on the matter. The helper unlatched a heavy case and brought out a powerful hammer drill, something like a small jackhammer, and began chipping away at brick and cement.


My wife was calling every half hour. She told us to drill in an area circumscribed by the circumference of a quarter circle radiating from where two walls met at a ninety-degree angle. The pipe had to be in that area. We could not miss, she said. Unless, I thought, the pipe had not dropped straight down.


The first mason left to go to work on their current, official project. I think he had only come to reassure me and make sure the correct measures were being taken. And because he feels we’re part of his family and he’s responsible for us.


After more than five hours of pounding with a sledge and chipping and drilling away with the machine, we could not find the pipe. And I ordered a halt. Everything else had failed as well. My next-door neighbor, who argued enticement, helped me wrap strips of cloth around the slippery rope. That didn’t work. The cloth bunched up and wouldn’t descend. She then started making a cloth rope. I rigged a weight to carry it down. The weight wouldn’t go around the corner just in from the entrance hole. We tried a chain as a weight. That worked, but the kitten’s cries had weakened and then ceased when the chain descended. I was afraid the chain could pin the kitten and keep it from breathing. The masons tried to snake black half-inch PVC tubing with a sharp end down the pipe. It wouldn’t go around the first corner. Plus, I was afraid it could injure the kitten.


At the beginning of all this, my friend the artist took off his clothes, donned my bathing suit and went down into the cistern on the lower living level patio, while I drained the sludge-fermented rain water from the cistern down into the garden.


There were two drainpipes entering the cistern, and my friend was able to determine where the kitten’s cries were coming from. They got stronger during the blasting and drilling, as the kitten fled the noise and came closer to the cistern.


I went into my shop and built a bridge that extended from the entrance pipe the kitten could approach from to the rebar ladder that descended into the cistern. I rigged a piece of screen so the kitten could climb the ladder. When everyone had left and I had thanked them and arranged for payment, I placed a frozen salmon patty and some dry cat food at the end of the pipe entering the cistern.


I was beginning to realize the kitten’s plight. It hadn’t drunk or eaten for thirty-six hours now. I went up to the upper level and poured some purified drinking water down the pipe. Not a lot, but enough to lick, at least. Then some dry kitty food. Whenever possible the kitten’s mother had hung around the fatal opening and made encouraging noises. So I blocked off the opening. I want the kitten to go in the direction of the cistern and not linger at the mother’s end of the pipe twenty feet above. I also didn’t want a downward air current carrying the smell of salmon away from the kitten. I rigged what they used to call a trouble lamp in the cistern—a light bulb with a screen around it, equipped with a hook. I wanted the kitten to see light when it was night and everything was completely black.


My neighbor had been up on our roof watering plants, which is part of her job. The water had run off, I realized, passed around the kitten and had started to fill the cistern. Where the kitten would drown, if it missed the bridge and fell in. So I drained the cistern again.


It was all I could do. Survival now depended on the smell of salmon and dry food, the kitten bridge and the trouble light. I went to bed and slept fitfully, worrying about the kitten. It’s crying had grown weak, and I wasn’t too hopeful about its escape.


At four-thirty, I woke up and heard it crying, seemingly close by. I hopped over to the bedroom window and listened. The cries were coming from the cistern. I got my flashlight and went barefoot down to the lower level and stuck my head down into the cistern. Its cries were very loud, but there was no little head at the point where the pipe entered the cistern.


Then I realized the cries were coming from below the pipe opening. I shined my light lower, and there in the far corner at the bottom of the cistern, in the mud, was the three-week old kitten. My bare feet hurt on the narrow rebar ladder rungs as I descended. I squished through the mud to the far end of the cistern, had a moment of hesitation when I considered whether little wild thing would claw me, but picked it up anyway and held it to my chest to give it warmth and to calm its shivering.


I climbed the rebar ladder with my left hand—with the kitten and flashlight in the right, but I needed more of my right hand to get up onto the patio above me. But each time I set the kitten down on that level, it ran back toward me, I suppose to not lose contact with me. So I put the flashlight down and held the kitten and I finally managed to get my bottom up onto the patio floor, my knees under me and stand up.


I unplugged the work lamp and went upstairs to the higher living level, found towel and dried off the kitten. I wrapped it in the towel, found an eyedropper, warmed some soymilk and slowly squirted the milk into its mouth. When I thought it had drunk all it should have after a period of starvation, I found a plastic bottle, filled it and heated it in the microwave. I found a shopping bag, lay the warm bottle on one fold of the towel and the kitten on the next and wrapped it and the bottle with the rest of the towel. I hung the bag on a knob of cabinet at the foot of the bed. The kitten cried softly maybe five or six times and then was silent. And slept for more than three hours.

I sent a telegraph to my wife (via WhatsApp), announcing that the kitten had walked through the pipe, fallen into the cistern and was now safe, fed, warm and asleep.


Later that morning it, I placed the kitten near where I thought the mother and other two kittens had their den. It started to cry immediately when I put it down. The mother eventually approached, nosed it, and then hopped up on a sifting screen that placed her a good three feet above her baby. The screen rested against the vine-covered, twelve-foot wall at that end of the garden. With mother always above her, the kitten managed to climb up through the vines until it was about six inches from the top. At that point, the mother reached down, took it by the back of the neck with her teeth and hopped a few times until she entered her leaf-covered hiding place. Silence ensued and I was sure the mother had started to nurse her wayward kitten.


An hour later, I heard the kitten crying again. I looked down from one of the patios and saw that it had fallen down the other side of the wall and was lying on one of several old chicken cages. That’s when I began to form the theory that the kitten didn’t see very well—as many don’t, I later learned, at a young age. It had fallen three times. Once twenty feet down the drain pipe, once from my bridge down into the cistern and now down the other side of the twelve-foot wall. I remember mumbling something like, “Oh, God, you’re on your own now. Either you climb up the wall or your mother goes to get you. Or natural selection takes its course.”


A few hours later, the kitten was on the other side of the wall again, crying for its mother. It was there when night fell, and I carried it to a cat bed on a couch under our arches, wrapped it up with a warm bottle and small blanket. When I got up the next morning and checked, only a small portion of its head was exposed to the morning chill. I peeled back the blanket enough to see that it was breathing. It opened its eyes and said something to me. I took it upstairs to feed it warm soymilk, which my wife told me by phone was not good for kittens.


Eventually, the mother took the kitten back into good standing and kept hiding the three babies every time we tried to check on them. Now they all eat dry and wet kitten food from the palms of our hands. The mother supervises but does not hide them. The rest of the family serve as loving, concerned aunts and uncles, or half-sisters and brothers. We tried various names for him (his sex having been determined), settling on something that sounds like Tooby for the kitten that fell down the tubo, the pipe, but saved himself with a little help from others who felt it was no small matter.


The Devastating Power of the Bow Tie in the Time of Guanajuato Swing

Dressing up for a Lindy Hop “social,” I thought I’d bring out my only bow-tie, which had been slumbering, inverted, in my wardrobe for years. And I mean years. Maybe thirty or forty. And, of course, I found out I had forgotten the motor memory in my hands and had no idea anymore how to tie it. My love of many years figured it out in seconds, and so we cast off for the social with me flying my “moño,” which is what my fellow dancers called it in Spanish. Although I thought, from quick research, that that meant “bun,” as in a woman’s hair. Waitresses in the famous restaurant Cafe de Tacuba in Mexico City wear large white moños, and those are bows. My dictionary calls it a “pajarito.” A little bird. I think of it as a bat that has come out, taken on color and reformed. You can see the effect it has on women fifty years younger than me. The lesson was taken, and at the next social, in the space of a day, two young men showed up to Guanajuato Swing wearing moños or pajaritos or murciélagos, the latter being my favorite word in all of Spanish. That made the three of us leaders in Mexico’s newest, most important revolution, one that brings hope to partners everywhere.


Black Dog Enters the Café

I’m sitting in my favorite café in my colonial Mexican city. I think of it as a very small Paris. I am going over the Spanish translation of my first novel Playing for Pancho Villa. I must have started this project a year or more ago. My wonderful translators, a Mexican poet and a French professor of French, have long since finished the translation—an enormous job. And then I have to come after them, checking each word for its fullest correct equivalent. I am on my last two chapters out of thirty-two. I am hoping the huge Spanish speaking world will read this novel more than English readers have. Its plot and general flavor may seem less foreign to them.

The dog, a bitch, tail wagging and delighted to see us all, a sort of Labrador mutt—I have since learned her name is Chia—comes through the always open door. She goes to everyone in the big room, mostly university students working at things and drinking tea. Several young women are hanging an exhibition of photographs and calling out adjustments across the room. A small film crew comes in and sets up in the middle of the gentle chaos. A young woman sits across from me, brushing on makeup. What? To make her more pale, remove any blemishes? Perhaps they are making a one-day movie. It is the end of the annual Guanajuato International Film Festival, and little groups of young filmmakers are competing to win in that category.

Everyone—including myself—reaches down to Chia, who I now realize is attached to a familiar young painter family and their two children, several months and two-or-so years old. Chia obits around this attractive young family. What strikes me is how each of us in the room wants the same thing: contact with this happy, tail-wagging ambassador. And then, after a half an hour or so, everyone except for the one-day filmmakers leaves, including Chia and her family. And I am left to listening to “Belle Nuit, Ô Nuit D’amour,” Les Contes D’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach and to continue with the translation Playing for Pancho Villa. When I finish, we will sit down together, the three of us, the translators and me, and we will decide on the final changes and adjustments in another quieter café.

Le Couleur de Chipotle Seco

(Another attempt at translating one of my short pieces—”The Color of Dried Chipotle”—into French, as a language learning exercise, with much help from my tutor, whose name I will not mention—to protect him from scandal if the translation is just too horrible, to the extent that, if exposed, French cows would fall over dead.)

SIMIPAG c’est le nom du système d’eau dans ma ville coloniale. Cela signifie le Sistema de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado de Guanajuato—le système pour la distribution de l’eau et pour la re-distribution des eaux d’égout. Des générations de travailleurs se sont constamment précipités dans les quartiers ou l’un des fluides avait empiété sur l’autre.

Par hasard, j’ai rencontré un homme dans le café délabré où j’écris, qui avait travaillé pendant des années pour la ville et maintenant, dans sa retraite, était le seul et l’entièrement inconnu historien des sombres cours de l’eau navigable de la ville.

Luís est accro au café et à l’histoire. Son père Juan Gabriel a commencé à travailler pour la ville dans 1916 à l’âge de 17. Il portait un lourde barre pour ouvrir la chaussée et une pelle et marchait derrière son chef, les deux en répondant aux cris de cette señora ou à l’autre qui a signalé que les eaux usées coulaient dans sa maison.

Arturo n’était pas aussi intelligent que son jeune assistant Luís mais il avait la grâce de s’en remettre au jeune homme dans des matières des directions dans lesquelles coulaient des choses et dans d’autres problèmes de la physique. Peu de temps dans le milieu de la nuit—c’était le temps de leur travail—c’était Arturo qui allait chercher un sac de ciment et du sable, pendant que Luís perplexait sur l’emplacement des tuyaux et commencait à ouvrir le callejón avec sa barre de fer. Quand il soulevait le morceau de pierre sur l’endroit où il supposait qu’il avait échoué, il mettait la lanterne de plus prés et observait le mouvement autour de la fuite qui coulait au loin de la conduite et se jettait dans la maison voisine, dont la señora était à la porte qui les avait en premier lieu appelés à la catastrophe.

Elle portait son châle autour de ses épaules, en se plaignant de la fuite, la pluie, l’oscurité, la rapidité de leur progrès et des imbéciles que se propageaient la révolution dans l’état.

“On dois les pendre tous,” a dit-elle. “Il faudrait tirer sur leurs enfants et violer leurs épouses. Dieu va les brûler en enfer, vous verrez.

Luís a gardé ses opinions pour lui. Pendant sa seule nuit de repos semanal, il portait des armes à travers les ruelles, en le faisant vers l’aube quand même la police était endormis.

Pendant que la femme fulminait, il tenait la lanterne prés du tuyau cassé, où toutes les choses se déplaçaient comme il le faisait dans la nuit. En sous-sol, on peut dire. Sauf qu’elles étaient de la couleur de chipotle seco ou de sienne brûlé, comme le dit son ami le peintre—tandis que Luís était de la couleur d’un petit cheval brun. Elles avaient des antennes, probablement pour trouver leur chemin dans l’obscurité pendant qu’elles mangeaient de la merde humaine, combattant entre elles sur les meilleurs pièces qui glissaient dans le tuyau entrainées par la chute d’un seau d’eau d’un lieu plus haut ou bien par le ruissellement de la pluie.

La maison de la señora était en fait assez belle, comme son châle couteux qui brillait à la lumière de la lampe, pendant que sa bouche bougait, en disant des choses sur lui méme et Arturo, qui disait t’elle avait été là una fois avant et qui n’avait pas pris la peine de se laver et quel niveau de scolarité avait-il, Luís, jamais pris la peine d’obtenir; ou pensait-il rejoindre à la revolution et venir dans la nuit l’assassiner dans son lit, en soulévant de côté soigneusement le chat Lobo avant de plonger son couteau dans sa poitrine?

Les insectes grouillaient dans le trou en face de de lui, rouges et rapides dans la lumière de la lanterne. Il pourrait fixer des petits messages sur leur dos, qui diraient aux autres comme lui où vivait cette femme. Ou, plus important, où des armes étaient nécessaires. Des Winchesters, Springfields et Mausers. Sous la ville grouillait un millard des coursiers possibles, qui bougaient où personne ne les pouvait voir, transportant des informations sur comment pénétrer la ville pour le enfoncer l’épée dans son coeur comme dans l’arène des toros.

Il observait de prés. Les insectes haïs semblaient pulser et sautiller. Hop, hop, hop! Arturo ou quelqu’un d’autre s’approchait. Les bêtes le savaient à l’avance. Cela aussi pourrait étre utile quand la ville essayerait de se defendre contre lui même et ses confrères révolutionnaires.

Aruro a mis le ciment sur la ruelle, recouvert d’une bâche. Ils ont mélangé le ciment et le sable avec le fuide de la canalisation rompue et fait la réparation, replacé les pierres et ramassé la lanterne et ils sont repartis, pendant que la femme appelait en disant qu’ils étaient aussi inutiles que les personnes qui complotaient de prendre la ville.

“Cafards!” leur criait elle. “Cafards!”

The Color of Dried Chipotle

SIMAPAG is the name of the water system in my colonial city. It means Sistema de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado de Guanajuato—the system for the distribution of water and the re-distribution of sewage. Generations of workers have rushed continuously to neighborhoods where one fluid has encroached upon the other.

By chance, I met a man in my dilapidated writing café who had worked for the city for years and now, in his retirement, was the sole and entirely unknown historian of the city’s darker waterways.

Luis is addicted to both coffee and history. His father Juan Gabriel began working for the city in 1916 at the age of seventeen. He carried a heavy iron pry bar and a shovel and walked along behind his boss, both of them responding to the shrieks of this señora or that who reported that sewage was pouring into her home.

Arturo was not as smart as his young helper Luís but had the grace to defer to the boy in matters of which direction things flowed in and other problems of physics. Soon, in the middle of the night—since that was when they worked—it was Arturo that went for a bag of cement and some sand, while Luís puzzled over the location of pipes and began breaking open the alley. When he lifted a chunk of stone over the area he surmised had failed, he brought the lantern closer and observed the movement around the leak that flowed away from the concrete pipe and into the neighboring house, in whose door stood the woman that had fetched them to the disaster in the first place.

She stood with her rebozo around her shoulders, complaining about the leak, the rain, the dark, the speed of their progress, and the fools that were spreading revolution through the state.

“They should hang them all,” she said. “Shoot their children and rape their wives. God will burn them in hell, you wait and see.”

Luís kept his opinions to himself. On his one night off each week, he carried weapons through the allies, always toward dawn when even the police were asleep.

As the woman ranted, he held the lantern closer to the broken pipe, where everything was moving much the way he himself did at night. Below ground, so to speak. Except that they were the color of chipotle, or burnt sienna as a painter friend said—and he Luís was as brown as a small Mexican horse. They had feelers, probably to find their way within the darkness as they ate human shit, fighting over the best pieces as those slid down the pipe, flushed by a bucket of water in a house higher up the alley or, in this case, by the runoff from the rain.

The woman’s house was actually quite fine, her rebozo expensive and glimmering in the light of the lantern, her mouth moving, saying things now about him and Arturo who she said had been there before and didn’t bother to wash, and how much education had he Luís ever bothered to acquire to advance himself. Or did he maybe think he would join the Revolution and come and murder her in her bed, carefully lifting her cat Lobo to one side before he plunged his knife into her breast.

The insects swarmed in hole in front of his eyes, red and quick in the lamplight. He could attach little messages to their backs, that would tell others like him where this lady lived. Or, more importantly, where weapons were needed. Winchesters, Springfields and Mausers. Underneath the city teemed a billion possible messengers, moving where no one could see them, carrying information on how to penetrate the city and pierce its heart like in the bullring.

He watched closely. The hated insects seemed to pulse and hop as one. Now, now and now. Arturo or someone else was approaching. The bugs knew ahead of time. That too could be useful when the city tried to defend itself against him and his fellow revolutionaries.

Arturo set down the cement, covered with a tarp against the drizzle. They mixed it with sand and fluid from the broken pipe and made the repair, replaced the stones, picked up the lantern and left—with the woman calling after them that they were as worthless as the people who were plotting to take over the city.

“Cucarachas!” she yelled after them. “Cucarachas!”

My Visit to America

Cache Creek Swimming Hole Cache Creek Swimming Hole

I use the word loosely.

I’m talking about just one of the Americas—the one we always see on top, a cartographical positioning that was chosen by a culture that assumes itself to be dominant, i.e. “on top,” the world’s default world view. The rest of the globe appears to have politely accepted European-North American on-top-ness, just the way it has accepted Greenwich Mean Time. Nice of them, but perilous for those who assume that their cultures can’t help but be the measures of all others; and perilous for the “southern” cultures who twist themselves inside out trying to adjust.

I flew from León/Guanajuato to Los Angeles, then on to San Francisco, where I rented a low-slung Ford Focus—which seemed to have no maximum speed for taking curves—and drove to Sacramento, to the 2014 Western Writers of America conference. I never had to ask a soul how to get there because of my portable GPS whose lovely female voice my love had switched to French—which added linguistic anxiety to general GPS anxiety. “Dans huit cents mètres, tournez à gauche.” Turn left in 800 yards! Leaving Sacramento, I insisted on continuing north on Route 5 to take the long way to Sonoma County through Williams and Clear Lake, instead of the shorter southern one Mademoiselle had plotted as shorter and more practical. As I passed by each possible exit, she instructed with increasing insistence, “Tournez-vous immédiatement! Tournez-vous immédiatement!” Turn around immediately, turn around immediately.

But back to the conference. I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps people smelling of cigarettes and beer at nine in the morning, pushing pulp fiction consisting mostly of Bodice Rippers and Armed Male Heroes on Rearing Horses, holding Rifle Aloft. But what I found were kind, knowledgeable, intelligent writers, agents, publicists and publishers. I went to almost each session on the theory that I would pick up something useful whatever the topic. Which proved to be the case. I schmoozed and handed out my postcards that pushed my own Armed Male Hero with Moustache and Sombrero and brought up, whenever I could, the idea of the Mexican western, a concept I found not widely held among my fellow conference goers. In fact, the whole country seemed just slightly beyond my companions’ consciousness. Which is a whole topic in inself—one which I hope I will come back to later in this screed, but may not.

What I liked most about the conference was the hotel where the sessions held and where we stayed. I like to refer to it as the starship or maybe space station Double Tree Hilton, which consisted of several buildings connected by covered causeways, so that you never had to leave the building—which I hardly did over four days and five nights. The food available was delicious and reasonably priced. Especially the breakfast buffet, where I took huge servings of fresh blueberries and strawberries each morning, while others seemed more interested in the biscuits and gravy, eggs, bacon and sausages.

I was assigned a mentor, a kind man and good writer, who introduced me to various publishers and editors—for whom I felt no fear because I wasn’t offering them a manuscript with hands atremble. I had my own novel Playing for Pancho Villa—which I was now pushing as a Mexican western—and another book in gestation, which I would also bill as a Mexican western wherever that description seemed socially acceptable.

As I mentioned, Mademoiselle GPS et moi, headed north after the conference, quarreling all the way. I wanted to follow a route to Sonoma County I took in the old days when my two boys and I returned from Ishi country, as we called it, between Mill and Deer Creek, northeast of Chico, where we would commune with that fine man, a Yahi Indian, who came into the white man’s world, starving, when none of his people were left.

In Williams, I got off the freeway, probably to Mademoiselle’s relief and went into a hardware store for a piece of nylon rope from which I could hang my hand-washed clothes. Three men sat around the check-out counter, watching the World Cup on an overhead screen. The young Mexican team was trying to keep its miraculous one point lead over Holland. I concluded my purchase. All three men spoke Spanish and I asked in Spanish whether they knew where I could breakfast and watch the game at the same time. They said, almost in unison, “Nowhere.” Which was to say, We are not Mexico, where every eating place will have some sort of TV placed—even outside—for people to watch the most important game in four years. A game on which rode the entire nation’s self-esteem.

I went to the local Trading Post, or whatever it is called, where all the passing tourists were eating heavy and then buying overpriced packaged luxury food items that weren’t good for you. I had Eggs Byzantine or Florentine, or whatever you call it when there’s no ham. The sweet waitress automatically brought me ham. She was equally sweet when I sent her back to remove the ham and replace it with sauteed spinach.

After paying, I walked out into the entry area and found someone had turned on an overhead television. There was a bare table; three men sat at it in three chairs; I settled into a fourth empty chair. They were all over fifty: one man, Dutch; one South African; and one that looked Latino. They were watching the same game—Holland vs Mexico. I joined them until the enfant terrible Robben appeared to fake a foul in the penalty area and thereby win a scoring penalty shot. Holland won two to one. I didn’t want to hang around and live Mexico’s disappointment. I got into the Focus; and Mademoiselle and I headed due west. After a few side roads, she gave up trying to head me off and fell into a brooding silence. As a way of protecting her dignity, I shut off the GPS.

We entered the hot, dry, lovely hill country west of the Sacramento Valley and approached an area I knew used to have streams that the boys and I had swum in. At Cache Creek, North Fork, to the right, I saw a glorious swimming hole, with little kids—closely watched by mothers—leaping off a bank into the clear water. I drove on, looking for a way in, and found nothing. I turned around and passed the swimming hole again. I couldn’t find an entrance, and began to think it must be private property. At the creek bridge, on the right, the opposite side of the road from the swimming hole, I saw a State Park sign that said Cache Creek, Rose Bud Trail or Trailhead, and I drove in.

There was a parking lot, a small bathroom house, and various covered displays telling about the site, the fauna and flora, the site’s history. I parked Focus and headed straight toward Cache Creek to see if I couldn’t find my own swimming hole. Which brings me to my religion and the spiritual epiphanies it offers: skinny-dipping in California creeks, rivers and ponds. Then getting out and feeling the effect of water drying on my skin. That is the image and sensation I hope I call up in the moments before my death.

The first part of the creek I came to served perfectly well; not exactly a hole, but deep enough to swim twenty feet, then stand in the dry air and feel my gods breathing against my skin. One of the displays back at the parking lot had explained that Tule Elk had been released there in the Twenties and that, protected, they had flourished since then and could be seen grazing on the hillsides in the green of winter. As I dried, I wished for the appearance of one of the large creatures, preferably a gentle one—since I thought I might be swimming in one of their watering holes, without permission.

A car door banged; and then two others. I had just slipped on my clothes. Two women with children had stopped to use the toilets. The spell of being alone in an Ishi spot had been broken.

I had spent most of my life being alone in the woods in New England and then in California. There were certain spots that seem holy: a dark glacial pond with turtles; a beech grove with smooth gray trunks, far from a highway, let alone a freeway; a stream where Ishi had fished. That may be a condition of spiritual moments, that one is alone. It is hard to do in Mexico where one is never alone; where there are just too many people with a claim on the land, no matter how remote it may seem. Poor countries, the ones “underneath,” have very few protected wilderness areas, where it is possible to be alone. There is always someone moving through a landscape, sharp-eyed and intensely curious to know what you are doing in the same area.

Except in cars, where one is often alone. In Mexico, you watch for people and animals on the side of the road. They appear in abundance. At night it is quite dangerous. In California, I was alone and car-bound for much of my adult life, with National Public Radio figures as my closest companions. In Sacramento, I saw people walking in parking lots at Whole Foods and REI—but nowhere else. I miss casual contact with people when I’m in the States; I see few people walking, in contrast to Guanajuato, which is a walking city with few roads. I feel lonely in the States; I feel crowded in Mexico. But in that moment, when the toilet visitors were in their car and drove away, I resolved to visit America more often.

Just to be able to dunk naked in Cache Creek again—waiting for the elk.

The Youngest Parisian

V. had been visiting us, along with her mother and father. Her mother is Mexican, her father French. V. is a baby of six months. We last saw her three months ago—half her life time ago. She lives in Paris, and that is where we visit her and her parents. It is better that way, because then we are not tourists. We are unofficial visiting grandparents and, not being tourists, our activities are more satisfying. V. lives near the Bibliothèque Mitterand, not far from the Seine. Three important places, side by side—V. and the other two.

We are all in love with V. As she throws things on the floor, we all hop to pick them up and set them on her highchair table again. All of us, her lovers, we swoon looking at her, focusing on her eyes, each of us making faces that we hope will make her smile. The house is in chaos—in more chaos than usual. Her things are everywhere: toys, commercial and improvised—she prefers the latter—parts of her bottles, her powdered organic French lait, plastic spoons the width of a baby’s mouth in red and green, jars of Blédina—sans additif—without additives—baby food unopened, opened, emptied, unwashed, washed, gooey remnants hardening from exposure to high desert Mexican air. Little baby jars carried all the way from Paris.

There are blankets on the kitchen floor for her to wriggle around on. Nearby dishes and food containers have been relocated. We pick up her chupón—pacifier—for the thirtieth time, and wonder each time whether we should rinse it off with filtered water. Her father, the French banker, rubs it against his shirt, then pops it back in her mouth. I pour whatever I’m drinking over it, over my glass, hand the chupón back to her, then drink from my glass.

She spits the chupón back out, or keeps it, depending on her mood, of which there are three main ones. First, buoyant, flirting—after waking up from a good nap, being washed, changed and dressed, the fewer clothes the better for her preferred sense of freedom. Second, fussing, writhing in the arms that happen to be holding her. This means she’s hungry, not hungry, tired, unchanged or teething, which is happening right now. She already has two lower front teeth. They are as sharp as razors. Do not put your finger in her mouth. All kinds of French teething potions stand on the kitchen counter, to lessen the discomfort. And three, not getting what she wants, which usually is the right to stand up or, failing that, being carried around in a place where there are interesting things to see, like human faces and cats. We have two of them, cats, and when V. arrives, being plopped down on our bed, they slink away, insulted by and wary of anything that looks like a child that might chase or replace them.

This afternoon, V’s mother’s friends gathered for a last visit at the local French restaurant in Guanajuato. In attendance around a table were a French artist-sculptor, a Belgian jewelry maker, a French film maker, a Texas book keeper, my love who is a community organizer, French student, architect and writer—myself, also a student of French, and the writer of this deathless prose, and V—all women, except for myself and a young man whose connection at first I couldn’t quite ascertain. Because of his light skin and red hair, I didn’t know whether he was French, American or something else. He appeared to be speaking a native Spanish, but I suspect one of his parents was French. Conversation occurred in Spanish, French, some English and V’s exclamations—upper register grunts that are designed to make her admirers jump in feigned surprise.

V’s mother was leaving in the morning for Aguascalientes on Primera Plus—a bus line—taking V. from us, abducting her as far as we were concerned. V’s father had flown back to Charles De Gaulle the night before—in-people don’t have to mention the name of the city, Paris. This was the last chance to see V’s mother, a former model of mine (painting), and—of course most important of all—V.

I don’t know how to describe it. It was as if we had all come to see and be in attendance to the baby Jesus—except, in this case, it was the baby V—and, for some reason, no less worshiped. Not in the religious sense, but more in the spiritual—as if we were celebrating the crown princess of our futures, an heir apparent, a child as innocent and sweet as her mother was funny, ironic, irreverent, smart and good-natured. It is hard to explain what V. means to us that we coo so much over her. While there are natural reservations and boundaries between friends—and even more between friends of friends—there are none around V. And we fall all over each other trying to make her respond to us, to make her smile or, better yet, laugh—to gain her recognition. And perhaps acceptance and trust. All of us united in this one purpose, to make her happy and protect her.

And to make us happy.

I have since done some research and found there is a part of the human brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex. We react quickly to visual information with that part of the brain. Apparently, when looking at a baby, the reaction is accelerated and the cooing impulse starts in one seventh of a second. In addition, even the smell of a baby, even at a distance, can activate brain waves associated with good feelings of the kind we have around food we want to eat. Fortunately, the reward-pleasure impulse overrides the impulse to eat—thus sparing the child from being a meal.

While we were waiting with V and her mother for their bus to Aguascalientes at the central—bus station, three young middle class Mexican women sat across from us in the waiting room. They made faces, bobbed their heads and played hid and seek in various ways, all directed toward V. She was tired and a little squirmy, but she indulged them and brought out their smiles and delight with her proportionally large eyes, fat cheeks and Rubens-like mouth, granting them the connection they sought. Unknown to them, with the youngest Parisian in Guanajuato.

Underground Amphibians

Guanajuato, Mexico has a lovely rare book library in the Jardín Reforma, mildly rococo, smelling of bee’s wax, with wooden balconies for book access. It is reminiscent of the eighteenth century, oval Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany, before its devastating fire in 2004. It is part of La Dirección de Archivos y Fondos Históricos (DAFH), The Office of Historical Archives and Collections, of the University of Guanajuato. To touch a book, you must wear sterilized gloves.

My neighbor works there as an archivist. She once asked me to help them translate the titles and tables of content of old German books, to facilitate their cataloging. I dropped in unannounced, so they had to run around and assemble the books I was to work with. This took a little time. While I waited, my eyes fell on a folder that lay on the great oak table in front of me. To pass the time, and being by disposition nosy, I opened the folder a little and looked inside.

I found several yellowed pages of an article that had been submitted to what must have been an earlier version of the Chopper, the city’s thin weekly for history, news, and cultural events. The title of the first page read “Anfibios Subterráneos,” “Underground Amphibians.” A neat pencil annotation gave the date 1945, followed by question mark–which I thought might apply to the subject, or to the reliability of the date.

After performing my German translations, I asked my neighbor the archivist if I could photocopy the article. What follows is a rough translation of a text written by a Miguel Ibarra Chico, a state mining archeologist whose job had been to explore and map the 300-odd kilometers of tunnels and shafts that lay below the municipality of Guanajuato. This is his text:

“José Luis María Finbar was the name of a miner who works at the Canadian-run mine Las Torres, in Calderones, a few miles up above La Presa. His ancestors lie in the quiet, shaded English miners’ graveyard that looks down from the bluff above Real del Monte, on the outskirts of Pachuca. Finbar is the man who was once fired for bringing a turtle to work.

Tall and broad-shouldered, with a spot of white in the front of his red hair, he confessed that he put the turtle in his lunch bucket and brought it out for the break at approximately four in the morning, one quarter of a mile or 402 meters below ground. The temperature at that depth–although it was January and wintry on the surface–was 45.5 Celsius, or 114 degrees Fahrenheit, even with the pumped-in ventilation.

The turtle, still young and as long as a thumb, grew active in the heat, crawled through the muck toward the shaft head and the horizontal blast hole Finney had just gotten through drilling with the company’s very expensive Hendy caterpillar drilling rig. The miners–six of them, seven of them including Finney–watched the turtle’s progress. No one moved. It was the break, after all, and it was quiet, except for the hiss of the carbide lamps on their helmets. All seven beams focused on the turtle as it crawled forward.

At such depth, miners can form quick attachments to living things, and so they were concerned when the creature found respite from the heat by crawling into the blast hole.

For some minutes, they sat on their buckets and chewed on their cold aguacate and frijol tacos, until one of them said, “Finbar, you’ve lost your turtle.”

Finbar approached the hole, some seven centimeters across, took off his hardhat, got on his hands and knees in the muck, held the reflector of the carbide lamp and the hardhat up to the hole, and looked in behind it. He saw nothing. For all he knew, the turtle had crawled to the far end of the drill hole. He estimated it could be three meters away from him. It was four fifteen in the morning. They were to back out the driller and set the charge and be ready to give the signal–a simple electric bell–at four thirty.

The shot setter Francisco Ramirez unwrapped the charges. He looked at Finney. “What are we going to do?” he asked. Finney studied the hole, without replying. The turtle was his friend, and he wasn’t going to blow it up just to get at the silver. The other six miners looked at Finney. They were leaving the decision up to him.

Francisco Ramirez sensed the drift things were taking and began carefully repacking the charges in their brown waxed paper and lay them gently back in their wooden box. The miners picked up their lunch buckets. Finney backed the driller away from the shaft head, making them all cough from the fumes. At the proper distance, he shut it down.

A light came down the shaft. The Canadian supervisor asked, “What’s going on, Finbar?”

Finney didn’t know what to say. It was hard to think in the heat, standing in the warm muck, turning things over in his mind. The other miners respected life below ground. Sweat lines streaked their dust-covered faces. They could barely hear the supervisor’s voice. The roar of the driller had deafened them. They dreaded what was about to happen.

“Finbar!” they saw the supervisor mouth.

To Finbar, the priorities were very clear. A frown covered his entire forehead. In distress, and showing the whites of his eyes, he bellowed, “The turtle is in the drill hole.”

The supervisor had jowls. He stared at Finney, trying to understand. He spoke slowly. “You have twelve minutes to set the charge,” he said, holding up a finger.

The other six miners’ lamps turned toward Finney, who was considering his choices. Ursula and he had no children. She worked at the Presidencia. Her job was secure. She would be angry and make the house chilly for a week, but she loved him and would stand by him. He could kill the Canadian supervisor. But that broke the commandment about life below ground. Still, in the heat, he saw it as an option. But the man had three children, and he couldn’t blame them for being gringos. Or, he could feign mental illness. He could drop in a faint. He could pretend a heart attack.

The supervisor followed him, stumbling back over the hoses, through the muck and debris, to the shaft head. The bobbing lights of the other six miners came along behind. The turtle had not emerged, and Finbar made his decision. He turned around and walked past all of them, with a strong step, and accepted the supervisor’s pronouncement to the back of his head that he was fired, and wasn’t it stupid–all for a pinche tortuguita, a little goddamn turtle.

A new light bobbed toward them, passed Finney in the tunnel, and stopped in front of the supervisor. There had been a phone call, said the new arrival. On a level below them a small turtle had come walking out of a crack in the shaft head, and did the supervisor know what to make of it?

The supervisor knew exactly what to make of it. Finney’s self-propelled Hendy driller had drilled into a void of some kind: a geological fault, an ancient landslide, a washout millions of years old, or an mine shaft from earlier times, for which any record had been lost. The void, through which the turtle had passed, vented out onto the working level below Finney’s level. That meant that, if the shot had been fired, and if the blast had not been burdened by solid rock around charge, Finney’s shaft level, the one below it, and maybe one or two above it could have collapsed, crushing god knows how many men, and taking all kinds of machinery with it.

When Finney stepped out of the lift cage and out under the morning stars, he was greeted by miners from the new shift, who all took off their hard hats and looked at him with stunned expressions. Word had already spread, somewhat altered, that Finney’s turtle had saved them from being buried alive. Finney interpreted their looks as censure and walked straight ahead toward the dressing shed. When he came out, he found his supervisor standing in front of him. The supervisor held the little turtle up for Finney to see. More and more miners, the new shift and now most of the old shift, had gathered.

The supervisor–impressed by his audience–held a speech in which he extolled the value of turtles in mine shafts and how it would be the company’s policy from now on to introduce small turtles into blast holes to explore for voids. The assembled miners nodded their heads politely, but then shifted their eyes to see Finney’s reaction, which was not long in coming.

Finney reached out for his turtle, put it in his lunch bucket, clicked the top, turned around, and marched up the hill toward the bus stop, but not before exclaiming that there were enough living things at risk underground already, and that they didn’t have to add defenseless amphibians who were innocent and would be sacrificed by the thousands unnecessarily, and that the company should map the mines better and study the void phenomenon by making use of scientific breakthroughs which would be able to look through rock and see the dangers.

No one knew what he was talking about, but after a week had passed and Finney had calmed down, the company operating officer, recognizing a leader of men when he saw one, went to Finney and Ursula’s green cantera–rock–house in Calderones and hired him back on as a supervisor. Finney accepted but only on the condition that the company raise the wages of all the miners four pesos per week and renounce any plans for the exploitation of underground amphibians, including snakes, mice, and wild birds other than canaries.

From then on, miners under Finney’s supervision called him La Tortuga, the Turtle. That year, he was awarded the Miner of the Year Award by the president Manuel Ávila Camacho himself, in the capital’s Zocalo, before thousands of miners who had been bussed in by PRI officials, who hoped to co-opt Finney into serving their political ambitions. When interviewed by the press, Finney observed, when asked about it, that he had little interest in running for president of the country as long as miners continued to risk their lives unnecessarily below Mexico’s hallowed ground for still below-subsistence pay. At which point, all of the major political voices, not just the PRI, warned that La Tortuga was a populist who threatened the nation’s institutions and stability and was therefore an insult to the dignity of Mexico.”

That is the end of the text. I returned several times to Guanajuato’s rare book library, to help with the volumes in German. The last time, I found a folder with a picture of Finney standing with his three children–late arrivals–at the side of a large tortoise, at the León zoo. Underneath it, there was a second clipping, bordered in black, about a failed blast in the Las Torres mine, which vented into a unknown void and dropped six meters of peña, bedrock–the length of four railroad cars–on twenty five miners and their supervisor, one José Luis María Finbar, also once known fondly as La Tortuga.