Monday, November 15, 2010
The Miracle of the American
When he gave his name, the officer consulted his list and said, "Ter-ro-rist". One of the other prisoners, who had since been known only as the professor...took a step forward, raised a philological forefinger, and said respectfully, "Not terrorist, tou-rist," and stepped back into line. The officer went on with his check, and as he was leaving, glared round the room and shouted with angry contempt, "Tourists, the lot of you!"
- Andre Malraux, Anti-Memoirs
Three great golems of igneous rock guarded the little bay; and the beach -- littered with elliptical blue stones like finely crafted tomahawk heads; and the town, whose adobe and corrugated tin houses, each the color of sour milk, were encrusted with the shit of endlessly wheeling gulls. Strangely, if you asked the resident of the town for the legend of the guardian rocks, seemingly ossified in the denouement of some crucial drama -- young lovers, perhaps, found out by a cruel, caped father, or the drowning of an old, frail king by two conspiring courtesans -- you would receive nothing but blank stares. For while the town's people were rustic in every other way, they were not, by and large, storytellers.
Petulant, paint-peeling storms swept into the town's narrow streets in the afternoons and rattled the tin roofs in imitation of thunder. Evening brought a vapid, listless mist, which chilled the air and fell in gauzy veils until the tender blue and pink shimmer of morning. The town was pressed up against a range of craggy hills as inglorious as the jagged edge of a copper key. Where the mountains sloped into the interior of the country there were ruins of ancient temples, some excavated, many still hidden beneath anonymous hillocks. Because of these ruins, lonely, drunken archeologists would sit in the town's pulqueria in the afternoon, dusty fedoras limp and black from rain, their faces long and jaundiced. They held their stomachs and forced the pulque down by pounding on their sternums with their fists. They filled their cheeks with air and exhaled purposefully like cartoons of gray clouds brandishing wind.
Although a travel baedeker might tell you differently, the people of the town did not share any innate personality traits. They were not what you'd call a friendly people and they did not possess that smiling reticence so valued by tourists. They simply treated strangers as if they did not know who they were.
Perhaps they were a bit defeated by the incessant storms which seemed all the more furious for having to squeeze into the bay through the great tableau of posed rock. But they were not sad people either. Perhaps they drank too much of the foaming, milky pulque, flavored with the feces of dogs, old pants and tree bark, and ladled from wooden barrels by toothless half-wits made nearly blind from the drink and nearly deaf from inbreeding. But they were not, overall, prone to sickness or mental instability. Perhaps, due to their isolation from the brooding Catholicism that reigned further inland --the Sweating Christ, Christ of the Blisters, the Swaying Virgin of Mexico City, the Perspiring Virgin of Yucatan, the Weeping Child Jesus of Toluca, and the crucifix that suddenly opened its eyes in Durango -- they were not fanatically religious. But they were not a godless people either, and the town's whores wore the medallions of the Virgin of Soledad around their necks to protect them from the clap. Many tourists and archeologists found these medals -- dangling gold between spice-brown breasts, slick with a patina of sweat -- a mesmerizing adjunct to the sexual transaction. They would kiss the Virgin of Soledad as they made their final, gasping thrusts. This enticing bit of trivia was, however, neglected by the authors of travel brochures.
The American stranger found her beautiful, but it was more her lot in life than any physical charisma that charmed him. She represented to him the cool air after a storm, the brutal fists of plateaus, the ivory snails of clouds, the dinosaur footprints along hill slopes, the sun-up petrol station attendants fossilized behind child-smeared glass counters stocked with Black Jack gum, human skulls, and dusty hangover cures. The mountains made a lonely, barren sound: an owl, a train, wind passing over the mouths of caves. The moon still out on those pink mornings, like a misshapen ghost. Yellow smoke hung in the sky like jellyfish.
Her tongue flashed over her lips like a lizard tail. She floated through the graveyard, an armor of obsidian hair always concealing one eye. The head of a crow on the body of a mottled swan. Her old mother coughed, low and yipping like a coyote cackling in the short grass, pawing the coarse yaupon and spiny glasswort. They walked side by side, the old woman using a length of steel pipe for a cane.
The stranger's 1966 Plymouth Satellite bottomed out in the mud flats north of the town, where tanned skeletons in straw hats and frayed cowboy shirts stuck their hands up to the elbow into the black, bituminous sludge for clams. They stood for hours in the unmerciful heat of midday and waited for small, rainbow-tinted bubbles to rise through the muck. They slogged home with their rusted iron buckets when the everfalling drizzle turned to sheets of windswept rain.
He marched around the car, trying to kick it, but his feet sunk further into the mud with every step, until he collapsed against the steaming hood, exhausted.
The clamdiggers stood up straight, emaciated shadows ten yard apart. He wasn't sure they weren't scarecrows. He put his hand up to his forehead to see block the glare and see if they were staring at him, or had even noticed him. He waved tentatively.
"Hey," He yelled. "I thought it was dry. It looked dry."
His legs sank deeper into the mud.
"There were cracks, cracks in it," He pointed at the fissures in the mud, like the cracks in a pumpkin pie. "I thought it was the desert."
A gust of rain washed across the flats and the Plymouth was enveloped in steam.
The clamdigger closest to him picked up his iron bucket and proceeded towards the steaming car and the frantically gesturing, corpulent stranger. At least the Mexican appeared to be getting closer. The only movement the stranger actually saw was a slight twitch in the knees of the digger's gray trousers. His progress was erased as he advanced, mud closing instantly on the sucking wounds.
The stranger felt like an idiot waiting there by the car. Maybe he should move forward to intercept the clamdigger, help him with his bucket or something. And maybe the digger was not coming for him at all, maybe he'd just trudge past, oblivious. The digger was now a few feet away, but it was still impossible to tell if he'd seen the stranger or not. He set his bucket down and waited, as if for further instructions from whatever chess player moved these pawns through their daily, filthy enterprise.
"Can you help me here? Maybe tow me out? I've got some chain in the trunk. Comprende?"
The digger removed his straw hat and ran a thin blue chamois across his bald head.
The steam dispersed into tiny ball-bearings that freckled the mud like the buds of steel flowers.
They had no luck getting the car to move, but two of the diggers took the stranger by his elbows and helped him out of the clam pit. Another one pulled his suitcase out of the back seat and followed along behind. Big drops of rain were driven along by a high, howling wind and slapped against the earth when the gust lost its force. The party was drenched by the time it reached the dry land. The diggers handed the stranger his suitcase, touched the rims of their hats when he thanked them, and walked off toward the tavern.
It was then he saw the girl and her mother, the mother pecking along with her steel pipe and the girl distracted and beautiful, shaking the rain out of her hair.
The stranger owned four dark suits and four emerald-green ties. Two of the ties had on them the symbol for an atom, the intersecting ovals and orbiting particles. One was decorated with a blue fleur-de-lis, and the other was without filigree. He owned two pairs of black wingtips. In his suitcase was $20,000 U.S. dollars, an S & M magazine with captions and brief stories written in Spanish, a blue Llama Comanche double-action 357 revolver with a walnut grip, and nickel-plated Rossi .38 Special he purchased from a German businessman in Hermasillo. Sewn into the lining of the suitcase was a black leather satchel tied up with a red ribbon. In the satchel were the surgical instruments, many still crusted with reminders of past procedures. He felt for the satchel through the padded nylon lining as he unpacked his things in a boarding house that had been built right up against the hills.
From the rickety balcony that circled the house it was an easy leap right onto the hillside and into the clotted thickets that clung to the crumbling ascent. He saw his car in the distance, fused with the mudflats forever. Clinging tightly to the balcony railing he walked around to see the ocean and the monumental sentries that were disappearing in the twilight fog. He wondered what their story was.
During the clear mornings, before the rain began, he walked around the town, daubing his sweating forehead with a linen handkerchief. He hoped to see the girl again. He dreamed of her as a variety of animals -- crow, swan, lizard, coyote. He wondered if that was a disservice to her actual nature. If he told her what a phantasmagoria of natural shapes shifted and transformed in his mind when he thought of her, would she be flattered or would she think he was mad.
He wouldn't be surprised if she began to crawl on her belly, or if she suddenly took flight. If she burrowed into a mouse hole, or stood panting over the carcass of a heat-exhausted burro, nipping at the exposed ribcage with her bloody canines, he wouldn't be alarmed. Looking out at the mudflats he saw diggers pecking around in the open crevices made by his car tires. The clams were drawn to the shade of the Plymouth. The diggers joked and chatted. The car's chrome flared in the morning's uninhibited sunlight, fractals of violet and pink and deep green bubbled off the metal in overlapping discs of spectral brilliance.
A dull-sounding bell tolled from the tower of the small church, its timber supports creaking and yawning as the bell swung lazily back and forth. Graffiti was splayed across an adobe wall. The stranger was trying to puzzle it out when a shrunken old man approached. His left eye was missing and his left arm was shriveled into a fleshy tentacle. His left foot was wrapped in a ball of brown rags. The right side of his face was bearded, the left cheek smooth with scar tissue.
The old man stood behind the stranger and read the graffiti aloud, as if it were his civic duty: "Trabajadores: El Boicot Lo Hacen los Ricos Catolicos, Lo Sufrimos los Pobres de Todas las Ceencias."
"It is to the workers," The old man did not struggle with the translation. "The church is to blame for everything."
"You are American?"
"Where in the state?"
"No," The old man coughed and laughed at the same time. The stranger laughed also.
"Si. More like Besconsin."
"You want a drink, old man?"
A sudden gust of damp wind made the old man's tentacle flutter against his side. He smiled and took an invisible drink with his good hand. He licked his lips.
"Well then." The American gestured forward.
"Pulqueria, si." He drew out the words musically.
"No. A bar. American whiskey. Beer. None of the cactus shit."
"No." The old man shook his head and made a face.
"Si. Si. Si."
The old man laughed and coughed.
"Si. Si. Si."
They wound up in front of the pulqueria anyway. A protoplasmic haze, like fumes from petroleum, hung outside the door. Flies and bees foamed in the cloud as if trapped in transparent amber. Dogs loped around the entrance, occasionally thinking to enter but whining at the door and moving on. The folds of their brindled fur were tinseled with moisture and their hind legs circled in slow motion, waving off flies. Their tongues slid around in spiny red boats of slobber from one side of their mouths to the other. They whimpered, bounced their skeletal tails off the dirt and virtually fell off their front legs trying to scratch, chins landing in perfect furrows between their black paws. Music came from inside, a tinny, scattering signal from Mexico City that sounded more like a fly zapper than a radio transmission. A large window faced the street and was encrusted with remnants of a logo, just angular hieroglyphs once red, outlined in gold, and a decomposed parade of leering calavera. Masking tape layered on masking tape layered on duct tape, each layer oozing adhesive, held the pane of glass in place. On a shelf in the front window was a little coffin, propped up by a stack of phone books in which insects had built elaborate hives and tunnels. The coffin was wrapped in shiny pink Christmas foil, torn away in places to show slats of wood. Roaches flitted in these bare spots. The foil rippled with the motion of the insects underneath, almost imperceptibly. In the coffin, its head turned to the side on a dusty white pillow, was the corpse of a baby. On its back were pinned a pair of big hawk wings, spray-painted silver. A chicken wire halo stuffed with cotton, with tiny rhinestones glued on, was mounted on the infant's gray skull. Its little hands, like bird talons, held faded prayer cards bearing the image of the Virgin and three Mexican bingo cards showing a heart, a rooster, and a stumbling drunkard. The sun, beating through the warped glass had mummified the child.
The stranger stared, his eyed like goose eggs, fascinated, fixed on the thing.
"They buy the angelitos. Angelitos for big business."
The old man rubbed his forefinger and thumb together. "Cash money."
"Not in Wisconsin."
"Si. Not Mexico City even. Here, here is not over."
When he was young, the old man was a drunkard and he spent all his days in the pursuit of money with which to be drunk. He roamed the streets of Tzotzil at night, running with the other drunks, fighting and stealing for money. They were treacherous and bold and worse than animals. At home, their families wept and prayed for their souls, prayed for them to abandon the pulquerias and the saloons and come back home. During Holy Week it was possible to get money. In those times there were religious fanatics who would pay large sums of money to drunks if they would play the Judas figure in parades, wear cactus and allow themselves to be whipped and stoned and spit upon.
The young drunk was hired as a Judas but, because of his drinking, he had not kept up on the times. Religious hysteria was rampant. The Indians -- his people -- wanted a Jesus of their own, an Indian Jesus. A beautiful brown Jesus. Legends were circulating. For the Aztec Nahua came a tale about a crucifix that was mounted on a hillside whose Christ came unnailed and walked among the people, his complexion as brown as theirs. The churches had so many converts from paganism they were afraid to stop this madness, no matter how much it came to resemble idolatry.
On the day of the parade, the man drank a great deal and placed the cactus crown on his head. The other drunks were jealous and threw stones at him before the parade even began. Where the parade commenced, on the Street of Wood Owls, women stood holding disciplinas and snapping them in the air. Men, who wore skull masks and held fighting cocks above their heads, fell in behind the drunk Judas. They shouted, "Hail, most Holy Mary, the cocks are coming!"
The drunk heard the cocks roosing loudly over his head and their umber feathers floated down around him. the disciplinas slapped against his arms and back and he went. People swore loudly in his ears, calling him "bastard traitor". Monstrous images passed before him: toothless women spit chewed green chili peppers into his face; white-robed penitents danced around him in trances, pissing themselves, spots of blood flecking their togas; death himself wore a sombrero and clacked his papier mache teeth at the Judas. A whore fell down and kissed his feet but then was dragged back into the crowd. He was glad to be drunk now and he was glad he would be drunk later, and for days to come.
But the fever of the crowd grew and, though drunk, he could tell something was amiss. What had been hysterical and chaotic was becoming focused. A mission was developing. A crowd of masked Indians cut him off from the cockfighters behind him and the papier mache angels ahead. He was being borne along independently of the parade. He tried to turn back, to stop himself, but he realized his hands had been tied behind his back. He was no longer moving on his own feet either. The crowd carried him like a battering ram.
The hollering became whispers and bells began to ring, the pulse of a dirge, the pulse of the whispered invocations to Mary, and the whispered chanting of some even more primitive canticle. The street was dark now except for candles. He couldn't tell what part of the city he was being taken to. Perhaps he was on the Street of Lost Children, perhaps on the Street of Sick Mothers. Either way, he was no longer on the scheduled parade route. He tried to kick his feet, but they were also tied with leather thongs.
This newly-formed, macabre parade stopped just outside of town, on a hillside. The masked Indians swarmed around him. He could only see their eyes, eyes as wide and frightened as his own. They untied his arms and feet but held him fast. Relieved, he began to beg for drinks, even for water. A hand reached out to him, holding a flask and someone pulled his head back. The frothing white pulque burst onto his tongue. He gagged at first and then took in as much as he could without vomiting. He was being lowered as he gulped. The stream of pulque stopped flowing and he realized he was lying flat. Something sharp was placed in the palm of his hand and instinctively he attempted to pull away. The hammer stroke was quicker. He screamed and vomited the pulque over his naked chest. He kicked one foot free but the spike shattered the bones in the other. His heel smashed the nose of a young man.
Some of the Indians were saying Hail Marys, but many were saying other, more obscure, things. He caught the name "quetzel." The drunk remembered, from the little schooling he'd received, the words of Cortez to his ancestors. He repeated them over and over now: "I am not Quetzalcoatl! I am not Quetzalcoatl!"
Some members of the crowd began to raise the cross on which the drunk was dangling, only partially nailed to it. The right side of his body swung outward, causing seizures of agony up his left arm and leg. He heard gunfire, the shouting of soldiers, and he became gloriously unconscious.
The stranger heard this story as he drank with the old man in an astoundingly clean tavern only a few blocks from the sickening pulqueria. They sat in a courtyard next to a fountain. The stranger couldn't tell if this were really a commercial enterprise, or just the home of the old man's friend. The iron-jawed woman who brought the drinks did not seem particularly friendly. He guessed that it was the house of someone who would never refuse some extra money. If an American or German came through, the door was open for drinks or a meal.
"I am not a drunk now," The old man told the stranger. Indeed, the stranger noted, he did not indulge desperately. He didn't cling to his glass like some. He sipped at the whiskey, and later the brandy, with bird-like precision. His good hand did not shake. The tentacle lay curled in his lap.
"No. I don't think you are," The stranger motioned for another round.
"What do you do in America?"
"I'm from Wisconsin."
"Si, and there was trouble..."
"In the clam pits."
"No, no. In Wisconsin."
The old man shrugged, indifferent to the teasing.
"They will save your car."
"When you have spent more money."
The stranger had figured that.
The rain began to fall and they moved their little wooden table onto a covered porch. The serving woman did not lift a hand to help. She stood in the doorway, her arms crossed, wincing up at the rain.
In the middle of the afternoon, the beautiful young girl appeared in the doorway, upset. Her mother was nowhere to be seen. As she crossed the courtyard, the stranger could smell her: ocean and cumin and the musty odor of wet clothes. This was why it was so difficult to find true love in the United States, he thought. The perfumes and the deodorants and douches cover up the scents that draw one animal to another. The mystery of attraction. In this country he wouldn't have wasted his time on Angela or Lena or the other two, the biggest mistakes of all. He'd have known they were wrong from what his nose told his heart. But these smells...cumin, ocean, mold, milk from the teat, wet sand.
She grabbed the old man by the ear, and led him preposterously across the muddy courtyard and out into the street. He was waving goodbye and grinning ear to ear as he went.
The stranger jumped from the hotel terrace to the hillside. It was drizzling but he really didn't mind. There were gnarled, hunched trees in the hills. He could hide under one, or perhaps in a cave, if a storm broke. In his breast pocket he carried a pint of bourbon. Tucked into the waist of his pants, the 357. He hoped to shoot a beautiful snake or an animal with exotic fur, something to give to the girl. The hills were steep at first and the butter-colored ground gave way beneath him often. He steadied himself with weeds and rocks. Finally he reached a plateau where he removed his wingtips and continued on barefoot. He was sweating abundantly but it felt good. Storm clouds rolled over one another in the distance, black on gray on white on black, but they remained out over the guardian rocks in the bay. Even up in the hills he could hear waves thundering against them. Gulls circled the rocks, screeching and diving. It was pouring rain out to sea.
As he made his way across the plateau, the clouds over the ocean began to separate and move one at a time inland, like armies. He would have to find shelter soon. In a shallow valley he found a cemetery, with vaults above the ground. A man with a long, narrow shadow yanked at some stubborn doors that seemed to enter the earth itself. The stranger ran as best he could down the slope, waving his arms. The storm crossed the foothills and billowed up like smoke. The sheets of rain came. The cemetery worker pulled on the doors with all his might and finally they flew open. The wind slammed them on the ground and the cloud of dust this stirred was immediately beaten down by curtains of water. The Mexican waved the stranger over and hurried down into the earth. The American followed and muscled the cellar doors shut behind him. He was surprised to find himself in a long hallway whose stone walls were mortared together recklessly. No stone precisely matched another. For that matter, no stone even approximately matched another.
The cemetery worker was nowhere to be seen. Pale light shone into the hall from clerestory openings covered with wax paper, which the rain beat upon like toy snare drums. The stranger carefully proceeded along the dim hallway, which eventually connected with another. In this adjoining corridor ten or so men stood leaning against the wall. He assumed these were field workers taking cover from the storm. The dingy light and the amorphous shapes of the huge raindrops falling onto and running down the translucent wax paper made it difficult to see the features of the men. He stuck his hands in his pockets and marched ahead, whistling, as if his presence was the most natural thing in the world. The feel of the gun against his back was comforting. He stopped just a few feet from the first figure. The men looked as if they were in line to enter a door at the end of the hall. He waited for some sign, an invitation to join them. Perhaps they'd smoke and drink from his pint bottle. He took the bottle out and wagged it in the air to show the men he'd come prepared. He made a big show of opening it, drinking from it, and smacking his lips after.
"Warms the bones," He said. "Calaveras calor..."
He knew the Spanish was off, but hoped it was close enough. The men remained motionless. Rainshapes fell across them like organisms on a microscope slide.
"...or something." He took another pull off the whiskey, this time without the show. Fuck them.
"You think they can talk, amigo?"
He realized one of the figures was seated, his knees up to his chin, a hat over his eyes. The voice seemed to come from him.
The seated man pushed the hat up from his eyes and began to wheeze or laugh or some combination of the two.
"Senor," The man sounded apologetic. "They cannot drink whiskey."
"I see, they're working..."
"Not working, senor. They are dead."
The man took hold of one of his friends' dangling hands and hit it against the stone wall. It made a sound like dice being rolled on Formica.
The Mexican crossed himself.
Their skin was deep brown and shiny as were their grave clothes. Cobwebs grew from their skulls and necks and between their legs.
"Si. Mommies. Boris Karloff," He put his arms straight out in front of him and swayed back and forth where he sat.
They weren't quite mummies though, as they varied in their states of decomposition. Some retained a little grayish flesh. On most of them, though, the skin was hard as a bug's shell.
"Why aren't they...buried?"
"No deneiro, see? Five year, sometimes less. Then, they don't pay."
The rain spread in these magnified blobs across them. The mummies stood like they were waiting in line. The stranger offered them cigarettes, which sent the caretaker into a jovial coughing fit. When the rain stops, he thought, they'll all shamble out into the desert, into the mountains, and...
"First time rain makes it over the hills, six months."
The stranger saw a picture in his head. He saw the crow and the swan and the dead baby with angel wings and the half-crucified alcoholic. He saw the sweating Christ. He saw the wooden Christ that turned black so the lucky bishop would not kiss its poisoned toes. The sun flashed against his eyes but the hall was bleak and narrow and the shadows of dead men flexed and pulsed with the fall of every raindrop.
"This place," He said.
Like the rain on the car windows as he worked with his instruments. He could make believe it was washing away the blood as it ran. Everything was shadows so he just worked on her until the shadows made sense, took form. Like a slab of marble, there was another shape in her waiting to show itself. That would never happen again, he thought. He'd created enough art on this trip. When he started, six, eight, months ago, he didn't know the journey had a destination, but here he was. This place was like the place deep inside his head. He could do what he wanted and they would accept him. How could they not accept him?
The caretaker fell asleep and began to snore. He was just dozing away a rainy afternoon in the company of mummies.
"Quanto deneiro?" The stranger asked.
The snoring did not seem attached to any particular body. The hall was snoring.
The stranger saw a vision of the little baby in its foil coffin. He saw its safety-pinned wings twitch and fold in the wind from the pulqueria's grunting ceiling fan.
The Mexican made a sound, between whimsy and sleep.
"I have money..."
"Si. You do."
"I have money for the..."
The stranger waited, as if the others present might have a bid of their own. Some looked up and some looked down, some stared straight ahead. He wondered if their demeanors were chosen before internment or if their heads had sagged, turned, and fallen backward when they were evicted from their proper crypts.
Here, it's art, the American thought.
"Senor, senor. No comprende...Si?"
The stranger dug around in his suit coat and began waving money around.
The caretaker began to laugh, suddenly quite awake now.
The floating bulbs of rain began to shimmer and then tingle at the edges with amber and pink. Sunlight ran off the wax paper, caught in dissolving desert raindrops and soured to brown. The stranger and the caretaker loaded the mummies into the Mexican's red Chevy pick-up. They slapped each other on the back and drank whiskey like old friends. the American told him to be quiet, he must be quiet. The caretaker swatted this off and laughed even louder. He pointed at the stranger and laughed and laughed. He shook his head and counted again the money in his pockets.
The Mexican sat on the floor of the stranger's hotel room, wheezing and laughing still, until it was impossible to tell his mood.
Two of the mummified corpses leaned against the wall, shaped by candlelight. A warm, sleepy wind massaged the air. Another body, once a man, with a shell now like a locust, lay on the bed. His fingers were permanently laced together. His burial clothes were woven through his waxy flesh like the slats of a Japanese lantern. The grave keeper drank bourbon while the stranger removed the leather satchel from the lining of his suitcase and held the scalpels up to the candle light, jabbing them into the darting flame.
In an hour, the mummies were open down their middles like the shells of giant beetles. Dust and moths from inside the chest cavities filled the room, particles and wings made gold by the candles and the sunset which spilled across the terrace. The caretaker sneezed and sneezed, slapping his knees and dancing around the room drunkenly. The stranger bent over the bodies with a paint brush, carefully decorating a cadaver's shrunken, desiccated organs, which dangled from what looked like shriveled tape worms. Then he began to filigree the brown, rustic bones, each saber of rib, cup upon cup of the spine. The grave keeper sneezed and swatted at the golden moths.
Very early the next morning, the stranger marched his suddenly sober cohort into the hills at gunpoint. The Mexican knelt in the butter-brickle dirt, wiping his nose and trying not to sneeze. When he could not hold it anymore, he opened his mouth wide and sucked in breath and the bullet as one.
The stranger awoke with the faces of the villagers at his windows. The people were crowded onto the hotel balcony. He lay exhausted on the bed in his plaid boxers and a white, sleeveless undershirt. All these toothless, brown faces: clamdiggers, bartenders, drunks, hunchbacked women, sleepy-eyed patriarchs. Some had their faces right up to the screens. They chewed on desert thistle, elbows planted on the window sills. Others stood back, milling by the balcony rail restlessly. They spoke in whispers. The stranger rose and dressed. The dust had settled on the wood floors and the moths were still as decorations on the ceiling. It was a beautiful morning, the sun seeming to twirl in the air like a firework spewing waves of warmth and sparkling light with each revolution. He stepped out of his room and onto the crowded, buckling balcony.
"Buenos dias," He said to any face that offered him eye contact. Many turned anxiously to look off into the hills or up into the sun.
They let him pass, but sluggishly. He met with every sharp elbow and shoulder as he made his way along the balcony and down the stairs to the street. He walked leisurely towards the sea, lighting and cigarette and whistling. The villagers followed along, some clacking their teeth together, but no words coming out. He whistled a song whose words ran like this through his head:
Way up on Clinch Mountain, I wonder alone,
As drunk as the Devil and a long way from home.
Oh (hiccup) Oh Lordy! How sleepy I be!
Oh (hiccup) Oh Lordy! How good do I feel!
He kicked a stone down the street as he went. He felt the sweat run down his back in an outline around the 357. Gulls wheeled dizzily through the sun's shower of sparks. He passed his car, which had been excavated early that morning, once news of the stranger's true nature had spread. It looked as if it had been dropped from the sky, sitting there in the middle of the main street, sideways, blocking all other traffic. He was searching for the girl, for her mother even, or the drunk old half-Christ. Then, he saw them. They were on the beach, staring at his night's work. His night's work, mounted on the sea wall. Three bodies mounted on the sea wall, leaning forward like mastheads, each intricately painted. The American had found the geometry in the jumble of withered human anatomy, accenting each sac and shadow, each tooth and tube and eyehole. Each surface a story in yellows, reds, majestic blues: crucified drunks, humping jackals, baby angels circling above ruined taverns, mummies playing poker like bulldogs on saloon tapestries back home, shotgun-waving madmen on the highways, pyramids crowned with spectral eyes which, in turn, were the wounds in the heads of the brothers Kennedy, lizardbirds tearing the hearts from beautiful women and feeding them to gluttonous conquistadors, golems of rock coming to life and trudging in from the haunted sea.
The girl, the old woman, and the half-Christ stood sadly on the shore, wrapped in shawls and blankets, shivering, holding one another.
The American ground his cigarette into the gravel with his heel and stretched out his arms. He stuck out his chin proudly. Turning slowly, he saw his work, his car, the people of the village, the sour milk houses, his hotel in the distance, the mountains, this work, his car, the sun, the girl...
He let his arms fall at his sides, got into his car and in a moment it shook to life. The villagers closed in, hands touching the hot steel hood and falling back so the next wave could have a chance. Each man, woman and child touched the car briefly, as if it were a talisman. Children's hands brushed along the tinted windows, clamdigger hands with thick, luminous veins and marble-sized knuckles, clattered on the hood. The stranger drove slowly and let them all have their touch or rub or brush or caress. He kept his eyes straight ahead and his chin up until the crowd around him dispersed. Then he looked in his rearview mirror and spotted the girl, the old woman, and the half-Christ moving up the beach where several tall, lean men were taking his beautiful mummies down from the sea wall.
At the ancient city of Teotihuacan, just north of the largest city on the planet, nestled under a black, febrile volcano called Cerro Gordo, for which many legends exist, there is a bar inside a cavern. The bar consists of hundreds of small tables with bright red, yellow and blue tablecloths. The cavern walls are wet and the ceiling cannot be seen it is so high. Those who wander in, mostly Americans, are blinded by the trickplaying sun. One moment it seems there is a great space between the hot white sun and the dazzling blue sky, the next moment it's as if the sun was sunk deep into the blue. Then again, it's as if the sun is nothing but a hole, cut cleanly into tempera-violet construction paper. And in this case, you could walk up the ancient Street of the Dead, up the thousand giant steps of the Pyramid of the Sun, and enter a fluorescent hallway of senseless beauty. Instead, you see this dark hole in the hillside and the international symbol for food and drink. After days of driving through the shadeless desert heat, welts have risen in the paint on your car hood. Just to think of a drink and shade makes the sweat cool on your forehead. Instead of climbing up the pyramid and into the sun, you climb the narrow, winding steps to the bar instead. It is off-season and only a few tables are taken. Of these, only one serves a couple. The rest of the tables are occupied by lone drinkers, each indulging in some manner of alcoholic affectation. One is drinking right from a carafe of tequila and using the glass for a solitary game of spin-the-bottle. One is having his beer in a very small, very delicate liqueur glass. One is pouring whiskey into coffee and stirring it with his finger. He blows on the finger when he's done. You instantly love them all, their picturesque desperation is appealing. They are waiting for something and it's easy to make up all kinds of stories for them.
He walked in, in his dark suit and his bright green tie. He was, of course, momentarily blind, but he felt their eyes on him. Another ghost from off the desert. The dimness was like a salve. He felt the muscles in his temples relax, the pain at the back of his head lessen. He blinked away the blazing white circles that had been forged onto his retinas by days of driving. That one is German, he thought. The jutting chin and wild eyebrows. That one is beyond knowing. That one is a fucking animal.
He found what he believed to be another American, a thin and bright-eyed creature with a look of omnipotence and a clean shirt. He said, You an American? You speak English? I have to tell you something, something extraordinary. I am blind but now I see. I was lame but now I drive. I was deaf but now, now, you listen. You listen here...
for my father
-Charles Lieurance/Boulder, Colorado 1983