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You should never go back to see the person that has inspired one of your stories. If you do, you should never mention it to anyone at that place.

Five years ago, in a bustling Mexican city, a waitress served me tea, which I had ordered, and two fluffy orange-flavored muffins, which I had not. She had struck me somehow—a unique face, dark, perhaps Indian, a pronounced jaw, an air of sadness. Dignity. Like the other waitresses, she wore a black dress with white trims, a short white apron tied around her waist.

Now, five years later, I asked the cashier about her.

I added that I had written a story about her—an imprecise and disastrous choice of prepositions. About her.

The cashier knew exactly whom I was talking about. She described a person that was slim, dark-skinned, and raised her hand palm down to indicate a certain height.

I said that might be her, but that I hadn’t seen her that morning.

“She works in the afternoon,” she said.

I thanked her and sat down again with my love. Then something occurred to me. I got up and approached the cashier again.

“I don’t know her,” I said. “Perhaps it would be better if you didn’t mention me. I don’t want to cause her embarrassment.”

I left out that would come back that afternoon.

My companion and I walked to a hill a mile or so west of the city center. I wanted to see the spot where a European monarch and his two loyal Mexican generals absorbed the bullets of a Mexican anti-French firing squad. The sun was lovely, the jacarandas billowing. A Soviet-style 43-foot statue of Juárez the Avenger loomed over us. I could not feel the executed monarch’s spirit.

Afternoon came, and my companion went on an errand.

I walked back to the café.

The woman behind the cashier’s booth looked down a little too quickly when I walked in. The coffee counter was topped by clean cappuccino glasses, white cups, and drifts of paper napkins—and just above those, the heads and shoulders of three afternoon waitresses whose eyes glistened with suspicion.

One of them came close to fitting the description of the woman I was looking for, except that she wasn’t as slim and pretty as the woman in my story—and no longer as young. While I, on the other hand, had remained roughly the same age as the narrator in the story.

I ordered a cappuccino. The woman in question turned her back to me.

“Chico o grande?” asked another, younger waitress asked.

The situation was out of control, and I didn’t know how long I would be staying.

Still, I said, “Grande.”

I sat down and took out my La Jornada, Mexico’s national left wing newspaper. The Legislature, it reported, was blocking any discussion of widening ownership of the airwaves—radio and television—beyond the monopolists Emilio Azcárraga and Carlos Slim, men of privilege.

I abandoned La Jornada and took out my notebook instead—to show I was a writer, not a pervert. It was part of a current manuscript, about a National Rural Policeman in the 1890’s who discovers the Yaqui Indians are human and deserve the rights guaranteed in the Mexican Constitution of 1857—my protagonist rural, a man who admired Sherlock Holmes.

But I decided he wouldn’t have known any better than I how to extract himself from the situation I was in.

I wrote for about an hour. I never looked at her. God knows what they were thinking. Eventually, M—I think that’s what the cashier said her name was—came out from behind the coffee counter and began waiting on people.

The city was filled with wedding parties. Twice, while I was writing, groups of young women, in their twenties and thirties, dressed expensively and to the nines, in heels too high and grooming too perfect, perhaps still unmarried, came through the door, and filled the room with an air of privilege and desperation.

When I got home, I wrote a letter to M—in Spanish—and sent it to my friend, who said he would print it out and hand deliver it.

~ Estimada Señora M, I began.

Please forgive me for the considerable discomfort I believe I caused you last Saturday. I am the gringo that entered the café and asked after you.

Five years ago, I sat down in your café and could not help but observe some of the people chatting there, drinking coffee, and giving you little orders as if you were there to serve them in all ways—not just in things they would eat and drink. I did not think they were aware of the assumptions of privilege behind their behavior—which may have been obvious to a person who was waiting on them.

Someone like you—a person of dignity, kindness, and beauty—also, humor. When I paid for my tea and the two orange–flavored muffins I had not ordered, I said, “They were a awful temptation, so I ate them.”

And you had said, with a smile, and without missing a beat, something like, “Yes, but the storm has passed now and life can go on.”

Then I went home and wrote a story about a person similar to you—but not you.

It was a love story. The narrator recognizes a woman in the Zócolo in Veracruz who works in the café where he has had breakfast. She is wearing a simple, lovely dress, red hibiscus against black, and high heels. It is an evening of danzón, and the plaza is filled with spectators seated in metal chairs watching the dancers.

The woman seems to be waiting for someone, who finally arrives. They dance together with much pleasure in each other. The man is tall, attractive, his clothes are still dusty from work. Although the dance form is formal, one can nevertheless see they adore each other. Still, something seems to be separating them, perhaps an unhappy marriage on his part.

There is a sad parting, with few words. He leaves on old black bicycle.

After he has left, she feels the narrator’s eyes on her, recognizes him, gets up and comes over to him, indicating that he shall dance with her.

He says he doesn’t know how. She insists, and teaches him the basic steps. After two or three dances, she says it’s time for her to go.

“It was a temptation,” she says.

“You’re not talking about the muffins,” says the narrator.

“No,” she says.

“And not about me,” he says, with a smile.

“Tampoco,” she says. “No.”

Then she leans over and gives him a peck on the cheek and walks away in the opposite direction from that taken by the man with the black bicycle whom she obviously loves.

This story came solely out of my imagination, but also—in a way—honors you.

I wrote the story in English, but if you find a way to forgive me and want to read it, I will translate it and send it to you— by the same courier friend that is bringing you this letter now.

My behavior last Saturday was clumsy and inexcusable and put you in an impossible situation.

I asked the cashier not to tell you I was coming to catch a glimpse of you again. I suppose I was also coming to see someone I had created in my story. I told her I did not know you and did not want to bother you or cause you embarrassment.

She, on the other hand, felt a warranted obligation to warn you that a stranger was asking about you—perhaps some sort of stalker or crazy person, or worse, a chupa-almas—someone that sucks on people’s souls for their stories.

I did not include this last phrase.

I knew as soon as I entered the café that the cat was out of the bag, and that you knew about me and that I was a suspect—that I was the observed one, instead of you.

I did not know what to do, and for that reason I began writing in my notebook—not about you, but about the situation.

You must have thought I was out again to steal one more part of your privacy, your dignity or your soul.

After paying my bill, I turned around and you were standing ten feet from me, looking at me, full on, with a face that was striking in the sense of being stricken—a dark brow full of anger, outrage, confusion or perhaps disappointment that I was not decent enough to speak to you directly.

I do not know what you were feeling. And I could not step out of being a writer to being a person and simply ask you.

Please forgive me. It was not my intention to cause you such unhappiness.

Nor to become just one more of your clients that shows a presumption of privilege—in my case, that I should presume to spy on one of my inspirations as if they were some sort of trinket of literature and not a person with feelings and rights.

Please forgive me.

Sincerely,

And then I wrote my signature and mailing address.

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Somehow, when I was growing up, I neglected to get the full story of how my mother met my father. You could ask why it wasn’t the other way around: how he met and pursued her. But it didn’t happen that way at all, and if you had known him, you would understand why. He was not a man who was capable of pursuit. He was a man who only knew how to love. And my mother, a profoundly private person – while still giving and generous to all who knew her — I think wished to protect that part of him from all scrutiny, including from her own children.

I knew it had something to do with an animal, but I didn’t know exactly which one. Because there had always been so many of them around our home and family. Pensive, conversational Rhode Island Red hens who, generation after generation, had the wisdom to get the roosters to perch on the outside, so the raccoons would take them first. A drop calf now and then, that grew into an 800-pound friend that always had to have her ears scratched. Goats that stood on the chicken house roof when it was time to milk them. And a pig or two that loved holes with water in them, so they could romp and splash and squeal and carry on in the heat of summer.

It was none of these. I know, because I asked her about them – albeit at twenty-five year intervals. But she was always cagey. She brought such inquiries to a swift conclusion. I’ll tell you when it’s the right time, she would say. Not now. Not while your father’s alive. But when he died, and she went on living, I forgot to ask again, and another twenty-five years went by. And then it was too late.

Not too long ago, an ancient aunt of mine died, at the age of 96, and her daughter found a book: “David Copperfield,” by Charles Dickens. With my father’s name written on the first leaf. In my mother’s hand, with the words: “To the man who loves me so well.” And then the date: 1962, when my father was also 62. And then my mother’s name: “Elizabeth.”

Yellowed and pressed between the pages of that novel – this much I do know, it was always my father’s favorite book – was a short manuscript written by my uncle Ed, my father’s devoted younger brother, who died many years before my father. At the top of the first page was a note: “For their children, when the time is right – and when I have Elizabeth’s permission.” And then the text, in the measured, if no longer steady, hand of a man who had already had more than one stroke.

This is the text of that manuscript, the one in our Uncle Ed’s trembling hand, otherwise impossibly neat, for us – our parents’ children – explaining how they met, our mother and our father, and told without our mother’s permission. The friend referred to, the “travel writer,” is none other than my own father.

“He was a man who looked good with a cat under his arm.
The trouble was his propensity for wearing them on his head. Some say this was because he lacked so much hair. He didn’t really do it that often. More on festive occasions. Once it was other things. A goose, white with an orange knob where the beak met the skull. Once an otter that had come up the stream, climbed the small plank dam, and entered the pond. It was a young one, ill with an infection, from a bite to the head by our domesticated Canada goose, who did not tolerate innocence. Mr friend, the travel writer, nursed the young otter, befriended it, coaxed it out of its wildness, and eventually – and this is the truth that I’m telling you, whereas before I took some leeway – so eventually this otter and my friend’s delights coincided, and the otter rode – his favorite place – with his hind feet splayed out, one on each shoulder, his forepaws across my friend’s bushy blond eye brows, and its warm belly draped over my friend’s bald and otherwise usually chilly head.

This is how my friend came to meet his wife Elizabeth, the great beauty of our town, whom men in suits and with education and shining cars and clever language traveled miles to visit and impress and court, to the extent she would let them.

It so happened that one day my friend went on a trip – to the neighboring large city, took the ferry, he rode the tram and, dressed in his best clothes – a shapeless tweed jacket, dark slacks, and the blue shirt with the least fraying around the edges of the collar – entered a well-known theater. Holding a lump of something in a raincoat he had brought along, he seated himself and watched “The Importance of Being Earnest,” by Oscar Wilde.

The play brought much laughter from the finely dressed, elegantly poised audience: the men with broad, confident, indulgent grins; the women with their long necks, strings of pearls, and hair piled stylishly but not too primly on their heads. If you had sat behind my friend, who was enjoying himself immensely and laughing along with the rest of the audience, you would not have been able to tell him from all the other women, because he too would seemed to have been simply another woman with her hair piled fashionably on top of her head.

It so happened that Elizabeth had gone to the same play in the same city, escorted by a man of stature, income, wit, and breeding, and was sitting two rows and directly behind my friend. The laughter had affected everyone, and people turned to each other, shaking their heads and remonstrating that the situations in the drama were just too funny. Perfect strangers exchanged warm, even defenseless smiles and appreciation – when a small cry appeared between the moments of laughter, punctuated the space between two spoken lines. A woman cried out, a muffled shriek I suppose it was, commotion and pointing, heads bending toward each other to confirm what had been seen – a strange animal climbing down from a man’s head and then reappearing, peeking backward over the man’s shoulders, first this side then the other and once, it seemed, looking straight at Elizabeth, who, it turned out, loved animals and especially otters.

Her escort snorted and said, Did you see that? That man is very strange. The things people do to get attention. Parrots on their shoulders, and so forth, but this is really obnoxious. At the intermission, Elizabeth and her escort – his name was George and I am told he is not a bad fellow – moved toward a table and bought wine – red wine for Elizabeth and white wine for George, and watched people and talked. But the whole time Elizabeth watched for the man with the otter. She did not see him, nor did she see him after the play. At the posh delicatessen where the after-theater crowd went, she didn’t see him either. On the ride home she didn’t mention him. She listened to George. She tried to pay attention to what he was saying but she found it difficult. She declined to go to his home in the country not too far from our town. She did not return his call the following day and put him off for several days with various excuses that would seem plausible and in a manner that she could barely explain to herself.

George fell silent, punishing her, she was sure. She was relieved. Again she did not know why. The following weekend, declining all invitations, she spent time by herself. She took walks, visited an old schoolmate, a woman who was an artist and a very good one, and they enjoyed themselves, drinking a whole bottle of Merlot, sat in mottled sunlight, listened to the rustling poplars, walked together in the growing shadows, and finally parted.

Elizabeth strolled through the town and past the local theater group, who were performing Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” and on an impulse she went in. The play was nearly over. She asked if she could just watch the last bit of it and was given permission. The actors were not professionals, and yet, as is often the case, they seemed fresher and more alive. They delivered their lines with great skill, and she regretted not having come earlier. She was glad to be alone, enjoying the play, the humble building and stage, the phenomenon of small town drama, and being with the kind of people who could relish Shaw and not have to wear suits and pearls and drive shining cars and make glittering conversation.

In the middle of this appreciation, this moment of thankfulness, she felt a tug on her jeans. She was sitting in the back row on the right, on the center isle. She looked left, then down. An otter stood on its hind legs with its front paws on her knee, and the friendly bright curious face was looking up at her and seemed, she thought, to be smiling at her.

She sensed the person coming toward her. I’m sorry, he whispered, reaching over and lifting the otter and cradling it in under his arm. I’m really very sorry, he whispered again. You really don’t have to be, Elizabeth whispered back. I saw you in San Francisco, I think.

The Importance of Being Earnest? he said. It was not only a question, it was the beginning of a conversation, a fact not lost upon a large woman in the row in front of them, who turned part way around and said, Please!

Elizabeth stood up and walked out through the door to the lobby, with my friend and the otter, under his arm, following. He, my friend, and the otter, too, Elizabeth told me later, seemed to be smiling the same smile as they approached her.

And Elizabeth said something very simple and truthful. She said, You look good with an otter under your arm, and from that moment on they were together and have, I can attest, carried many kinds of animals under their arms and, when the occasions warranted, on their heads as well – and only with less frequency when they began to carry their children in those places, who – I have always been convinced – learned that position through the imitation of animals they had seen riding there before them.”

That was my uncle’s text. But story is not quite over. Years after the first stroke, that took my mother’s speech, and after many succeeding smaller ones, that paralyzed her right arm and shoulder. And long after she appeared to no longer recognize her children — including me, it seemed, I was summoned by the nursing home staff to my mother’s side. It was about 3 AM on a Monday morning in April, in the midst of our apple blossom period. It had been no more than a month since my Uncle Ed’s manuscript had come into my hands. My mother lay on her back, shriveled and small and, as far as I could see, uncomprehending.

I sat with her, holding her good hand, which she held in a fist, I supposed, because of another small stroke. I cupped it with both my hands, and we sat that way, watching each other – her eyes clouded from cataracts, mine from lack of sleep. I must have dozed off at one point. I felt a tugging, and I brought my head up with a jerk. She was trying to move her lips, and then whatever effort she was about became – unmistakable – a smile. And her good hand, her left one, opened slowly, as slow as dawn, as slow as apple blossoms in the hills around us. Her hand opened and my cupping hands opened with it.

And on her palm – that leathery center – lay a small, smooth, carved stone animal – an otter – no bigger than half a thumb. I picked it up and held it and turned it, and then did as I had been trained over so many years to do – through imitation, I agree – placed it on the top of my own balding head and kept it there to her quite clear delight and toothless old smile – until, after some minutes and tugs at my hand to show her pleasure, her hand began to relax in mine and her old smile – I mean the one I’ve always known –changed, and she grew serene. And I returned the otter to her palm, pressed it into its rightful place, and watched as the old good hand slowly closed back over it, until her eyes – still watching mine – were calm, and finally still.

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When my father died there was a long period of sadness in our family. My mother sat on the verandah on summer evenings, gazing out over the lush grass and waterways, listening to the frogs and owls and crickets, as the moon rose, first a sliver, then half, then full, and eventually as absent as my father. If I moved correctly and found the angle, I could tell she was weeping, and she would look at me and smile, and I would not ask her to explain. It was obvious that no one could have loved a person more, or missed him more, than my mother did my father.

When the time came, she asked me to clear out his desk and bureau drawers, a task too painful for her to perform herself. And so I waited until she found a need to finally be with her sister, on the coast, in the city of trolleys. Then I drove the four hours up to the old house – the one I had grown up in, crossing over the bridge at the stream, on down through the fields and irrigation ditches. She had gotten a neighbor to take over the task of managing the cattle. All twelve of them. They were Black Angus, and the day I arrived they dotted the field, black against green, standing in water and lush grass, with mountains rising in the background — some of them still streaked with lingering snow fields.

The desk was in his study. They key was where it had always lain, on a ledge that divided the pine paneling that stopped three feet from the ceiling. It was a cherry wood desk with drawers that curved outward, instead of being flat across the front — a piece of furniture I cherished and hoped I would someday inherit, depending on the whim of my older brother, who lived in New York and, because he was my older brother, would probably get the first choice.

I went through the entire desk, beginning with the pigeonholes, the drawers above them, and finally the lower drawers. I placed the contents by category into stationery boxes I found in his closet. I sorted through various instruments for writing, measuring, painting. There were tools and pieces of machinery that he had felt the need of having in a safe, findable place — and probably never used again. As I picked through his things, I smelled his smell — a cross between Edgeworth pipe tobacco and the smell I could glean from my own scalp if I rubbed it with my hand and then smelled my fingers. I think I was looking for him, as I explored, as if he would suddenly speak to me and touch my arm and remove his pipe and smile his guileless smile and say: “Have I ever told you I love you?”

Not that he had ever said that, but it seemed as if he might, as I touched his things — the things that were in his personal, private realm where no women, not even my mother went. This feeling of being close to him increased as I approached his chest of drawers, with its twisting, spiraling columns of mahogany, extending up from the legs to the top surface. There were fluted glass drawer handles the color of mother of pearl and abalone.

Then came the top drawer. This was the inner sanctuary, the place where the smell of him was strongest. This was where his most private self dwelt, the place where he kept things: arrow heads, batteries, bits of pumice, old eye glasses, parts of musical instruments, a pink plastic lobster peg which always said he wished he had invented, an old wooden flute, a compact Leica monocular which also showed where level was, for birding, left to him by a German business acquaintance. And tucked back from the socks he kept in the front of the drawer, under the monocular, I found a package wrapped in light blue onion paper and tied with a piece of honey-colored fishing line his own small factory had braided nearly twenty years before.

I opened the package, slowly, with the apprehension of a thief, suspecting the private the letters they turned out to be – love letters from my mother to him. I made myself a mint tea and took the letters out onto the porch and sat for a while in the chair my mother normally sat in evenings as she wept for him and watched the moon come and go. I suppose I read them with a sense of some kind of entitlement. After all, who of us can quite imagine the intimacy between one’s parents? For which there should be some kind of proof, visited just once, and then the matter would is resolved.

The very first letter surprised me for it frankness. How long could they have known each other, I wondered. She described their evenings together, how they met at the stream between the adjoining farms, the bed of grass, lying among the Indian Paint Brushes, touching each other, joining, on dry land, in lukewarm irrigation overflow, over the roots of poplars. It was shockingly frank. Even the handwriting seemed infected by the directness and seemed foreign and different. And then I slowly realized that the handwriting was too different. And, when I reached the end of that particular letter, there was a name I did not know – only that it was not my mother’s.

I found a date that was only ten years before, and then I checked through the rest of the letters and found they had come as recently as a month before he died and that none of them had been post marked, and must therefore have been left somewhere for him.

When I had finished, the sun had set and the cattle had moved closer to the barn to soak up the warmth still reflected by its grey vertical siding. The moon came up, now an indifferent enemy. There were crickets, owls screeching out over the fields, gliding with unfair stealth, and occasionally a frog from one of the ditches whose song, uninvited, mingled with my own soft blubbering tears and confusion. All of which, I suppose, if observed from the proper angle, could have been explained or not, depending on your point of view.

I walked through the silvery moonlight, avoiding cow patties, to the narrow irrigation stream that divided our farm from the neighbors – people I did not know – to the poplar grove where the stream into a pool, out of sight from everything but the mountains and their lingering snow. For a moment, I considered knocking on the neighbor’s door. If a woman answered – the Latina I thought she might be – and she recognized the letters, and if it was safe, I would give them to her. But in the end, I lit a small fire, which reflected orange in the eyes of all twelve Black Angus, who had followed me, I suspect out of curiosity as to why a human would walk their fields at night. I opened each letter, crumpled it up, and fed it to the fire. Half way through, it occurred to me that some of the letters were from my mother to him. But I kept on going. I had already violated his privacy, and now I would restore it – all of it. And as I burned, before my highly interested ear-tagged witnesses, I considered, more calmly now, whether there is such a thing as the mystery of love, complicated but still legitimate, and whether it should be explained or, like my father’s top bureau drawer, even gone into at all.

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