How come I'm in the Mayo Clinic, and not at AWP? Well, one
night 18 wires, glued to my scalp and chin, cheekbones and
shins and ribs, record a few zillion twitch-and-dream-impulses.
All on account of the tale one oximeter told. Next day, over the
phone, the tone of a busybody, who feels obliged to call, is
sandpaper, cat's tongue. But I do get a $6000 gov't. apparatus to
increase my oxygen intake at night, including a Fearless-Fly
mask. And while studying the Manual I'm reminded all over
again that, in Spanish, sueño, that noble word, means both sleep
and dream, while our peasant English makes you say one or the
other, you dream or you sleep. Raising my oxygen intake will
improve how well I sleep, everybody agrees, while remaining
cheerfully noncommittal as to what I'll be able to dream about,
or of, which probably owes to their enviable tact, these self-effacing,
wry men who attend the working class elderly. Gotta love that CPAP
machine, though. My hillbilly hookah. All this I send from my I-Pad.
Next day, leaving the clinic - it was founded thru the
stubbornness of an immigrant Spanish nun, as well as that of the
two doctor sons of a British immigrant - my wife says whatta
relief, because wherever else you look in this damn country, the
only product is another sales pitch. My only response is to point
out a UPS delivery guy, one of those beautiful round unshaven
Minnesota faces, an ol' boy no doubt capable of appearing
ingenuous, endlessly, as well as sometimes even of being
ingenuous. Ok, I say. You know how come we see so few
mexicanos hereabouts? She doesn't. 'Cause somebody taught
the 'weejuns how to work! A family joke, doncha know, with
her born a Hemmingson, and right up the road in Roseau.
Though who am I to talk about immigration. If I speak only the
two languages I grew up around, that is because mine was an
extended childhood. But no matter. We're leaving in good
health. May God love the poor fucks who don't. In the elevator,
when she notes the low moan it gives off, I recall - from 36
years ago! - the wail that express elevator made in whichever
one of those two World Trade Center towers it was that I used to
sell commodities futures in.
Ok, so what if they served - in the Grand Grille, in Rochester,
Minnesota - Chipotle Spiked Mac and Cheese? Context is
everything. I grew up on either side of that eight-million-dollar-
a-mile Anonymity Project they've got running from Brownsville
to the Pacific. Context, and more context. I gotta hunch that a
certain NewJersey doctor, because he had to speak French to his
Puerto Rican mother - and Spanish to his English-immigrant dad
- was able when grown to write, as they say, with the tongues of
men and angels, but I could be wrong.
After grad school, I went to El Paso and met the woman who
wonders, in “The Desert Music,” why any man would want to be a
poet. He made me sound kinda dumb, said Eleanor, and he did.
The poem is Williams at his self-conscious worst, the tinny,
contrived part of him, the one that fretted about the place of
poetry in society. I am that he whose brains are scattered
endlessly, he writes, or so I remember. I haven't read the poem
in years. “Tract,” on the other hand, I know by heart.
Testimonio is a habit that Spanish-speaking people have of
speaking out, of getting something off the chest, of renouncing,
denouncing, or going on record to say. It is an ad hoc ceremony.
It is speaking what you think is truth to what you think is power,
and calls for unbearable sincerity. You might as well announce
that, whatever happens in the dark, when the sun comes up, and
reveals some stranger on a stretcher, you will quit talking, and
pick up your end.
... where livelihood may be obtained
only under great hardship.
-- Online Etymology Dictionary
The Iron Age arrived at these shores one morning when an
elderly woman, out walking, mourning her dead brother, found,
beached on the sand, a whale carcass. But wait, no, no it was a
canoe, huge, except that two trees were growing from it.
Walking upright, two furry-faced creatures came ashore and
built a fire, over which they put some kind of container, into
which they put yellow pebbles that soon exploded, one by one,
into tiny fluffy white spheres, which they proceeded to eat.
They gestured to the crowd, gathering closer, they wanted water
to drink! Then, before anyone got a good look, the huge canoe
burst into flames. In the words of an elderly man -- to Franz
Boaz, in 1899 -- it burned like fat.
By now, we know the two surviving sailors, subjects of the
Spanish king, were on their way to, or coming back from,
Manila, where New Spain's silver paid for China's silk. They
were part of the free-market whirlpool that blended Western
Europe and the Americas, except that now, alas, they were
shipwrecked, a curiosity for kids to pinch. Enslaved. To a
lessee-faire thee well. While teenage girls flirt, the village chief
studies their hands, and declares that they are human. But when
it becomes clear that these two guys know the secret of shaping
iron, their value skyrockets. Bottom line is, these two
mexicanos - for what else could they be? - knife blade by knife
blade, one axe head after another, go around introducing iron to
a culture already ten thousand years old. One guy disappeared
without a trace. All that remained of the other was the name that
his grandson mentioned to Lewis & Clark, one afternoon, as
they limped across the Columbia Plateau.
It was late summer. We know their party paused, and looked
down into the Kittitas Valley, where several thousand local folk
had gathered to race horses and gamble, to barter and dance and,
in general, to give thanks for another year on this difficult earth.
I like to think it was right then - with sagebrush and basalt and
blue sky in every direction - that a new word entered the English
Good evening. Suppose you were diagnosed, like me, at age
two weeks, with cradle-cap and immortal longings - such an
elaborate buildup! - but somehow life passed you by. What do
you say to the readership you address late in life, the men and
women to whom your most heroic implications are, by now,
tame, everyday stuff...
Another robust authorial intrusion! Permit me. I present, to
you, don Fulano de Talvez - my personal cover story, the cranky
anciano that I improvise in order to manage my days and nights
here, to imagine myself in a narrative flow in part, at least, of
my own making. Those around me are convinced I'm writing a
book. But so what, they say, although he for sure confuses
names, sometimes even on purpose, in the interest of what is
interesting. Am I on thin ice, or walking on water? Ask
anybody: this guy pretty much reveals, intact, a set of feelings
peculiar to the outcast trailer-park version of life we inhabit.
Don’t expect detachment.
And who is interesting, at the moment? Why, neighbor Ella,
that's who. E-L-L-A. A weird metaphor of a person, she thinks
that of herself, a hybrid no matter how you pronounce it, get it?,
a person in one language, a pronoun in the other. She never says
any of that out loud. Everybody used to agree Ella was so hot
you could of baked a potato in her hip pocket. Not like she
cared. She was just another kid in tight jeans working after
school in a produce section, but the spray on the broccoli made
her glow. Quite a few moros fell in love, but did she know?
Even the elderly on park benches quit talking when she went by,
la gente mayor uncles grandpas padrinos, all of them shook their
head in a way she didn’t really understand till years later. And
her from a family of tinfoil-sniffers! With a skinny pitbull
chained to a clothesline, and apparently unlimited willpower,
she made it sound as if she blinked and got a GED, and next
thing she knew was reading Othello, in a community college
class, trying to pin the instructor down. How did he want her to write this essay?
When she was just a kid, a panel of peers at the laundromat
voted her Most Likely to Be Trespassed Against, aka most likely
to wake one morning age forty with La Vida Loca tattooed on
her ass. Otherwise, as to her name, por que me pusiste asi?, she
demanded? Pos’, de broma, mother always said - it was a joke.
Because people said it different in Spanish and in English. That
was the whole thing. It made her feel like two different people.
Her mother just laughed. Maybe they named her after a hillbilly aunt.
She is convinced señoras like her leap from childhood to middle
age with no intervening bloom of good looks, no ingénue or
femme fatale camera angles, straight from youthful promise to
resignation. That is how come she grew up adoring a crippled
aunt who once removed her artificial leg and rendered some
brute of a bartender unconscious. Somebody to notice it when
you die, that same aunt said, under her breath, is the best a
person can hope for. A large, gloomy woman, famous for what
she said about the war in '68, sometimes I think well, and other
times I just don’t know. Hers was the bearing of a person
certain that her every deed - she meant the stuff in between
kinky and kind - would last a long time in family memory, and
did it ever. She was a one-legged lesson in perseverance. To this
day little girls in that family wear a sense of humor that works
like wings. At least one baseball-cap-on-backward boyfriend is
impressed. So how’s that for genetics?
But do you really care what secret trickles out a few generations
later? After all, we live so briefly, a secret way of talking
around corners, along with a hunch it is never too late, is all that
allows any part of us to regain its footing, breathe, and step into
another generation, like it was a baptism current, left with so
much unseen, overlooked, named wrong. Plus the occasional
flashpoint when The Lord - your overactive fantasy life
notwithstanding - clearly plays favorites, when somebody you
are talking to isn’t that person at all, when someone for a
nanosecond radiates importance - body outlined, words
unrecognizable - until you can’t shake off the thought.
That's all, and thank you for coming. Soft now, to your places.
Kindly imagine, on your way out, an elderly gent enjoying a lap
dance in the stairwell.
Our great unacknowledged treatise about the right to bear arms
is a book named Don Quixote. The contrast between Quixote
and Sancho, of course, is considered the main point of the book,
idealism vs. pragmatism, lofty diction vs. crafty cliche. Book
learning meets real life, and neither is ever quite the same.
Enchanters exist - several orders of magnitude more chicken shit
than ruffians, highwaymen - only to gobble up the naive. The
most conspicuous victim of enchanters is that dip-shit college
boy, Sanson Carrasco, afflicted with higher-ed vanity, a certainty
that kills what it loves. The bumptious Sanson sets off to cure
the old guy of his manic fixation on being a knight.
And don't kid yourself. Sanson is literate enough to know that
Quixote will die rather than renounce his mission to glorify a
woman he's never met. Sanson has to beat him at his own game,
and plays accordingly. He will oblige the old man, by the code
of combat valor, to retire, if he loses, from all combat for a year
- a period long enough to bring him to his senses. And so,
disguised as the knight of the Wood, Sanson lays in wait one
night, challenges the old man and, in a surprising turn, loses to
him. When his horse balks, Sanson forgets to raise his lance to
call time out, whereupon Quixote unhorses him, and the fall
knocks him out. Quixote, on lifting the visor of the knight he
has vanquished, is amazed to find the enchanters have made this
assailant resemble his neighbor Sanson!
Sanson's response to his own defeat, in the weeks that follow,
says worlds about him. He acquires an expensive suit of armor,
plus a powerful horse, and dedicates himself to revenge. His
slipshod, trial-and-error approach to learning weaponry contrasts
with Quixote's long and torturous years of study - of reading,
and re-reading case histories of the application of arms. For
Quixote, books of chivalry are manuals that indicate limits on
the use of force. Precisely because it involves use of deadly
force, the profession of arms resembles no other line of work.
Those who devote years to its study - one that can resemble
religious devotion in the severity of its demands - know that,
unlike the tools of a carpenter, weaponry is unforgiving. But
they know something else as well. They know that weaponry
subtly changes the feelings of those who bear arms. Close
scrutiny of the chivalric code makes a person aware of the
weapon's psychic effect on its bearer. But Sanson hadn't the
patience to learn. He went off, as we like to say, half-cocked.
He shows up at at the end of the novel in tears, grieving at his
Remember when twenty kids, ages six and seven, died at the
hands of a twenty-year-old nerd who borrowed his mother's
Games of chance. Right off the freeway
in a casino, people lining up
to watch. When Victor would get hot with dice,
after a week bucking hay, or win 500
at Hold ‘Em, everyone would sidle up.
No wonder ancient Greeks used to gather
around any guy or gal inhabited
by an immortal. Anyone that hot,
driving a chariot, drawing a royal
flush, I mean anyone, there’s a god in them.
People stood three deep to get a look.
No one could say what was different.
Victor would get a few hundred ahead
and be in a zone - observing himself
from outside, he put it - then announce,
luck hell, he was from Michoacan,
a natural gambler, uidi, uidi,
till whatever sponsorship it was
would leave him at 5 a.m on foot
without a dime on a road shoulder between
the Saddle Mountains and the Columbia River.
On the tightrope empathies of daily life.
My neighbor Lupe is desperate for $300 to pay the lawyer who
arranged her husband's release on immigration charges. She sets
out to return, to Fred Meyers, two weeks of purchases. She
wants a refund to her credit card. She gets the refund, but they
credit her for only $150. She returns twice to plead her case.
On the third time, she asks me along. We enter, and she freezes
at the sight of the Assistant Manager. That fellow has refused
her twice already! He's a tall, soft-looking kid, mid-twenties,
behind a tentative goatee.
He remembers her, and she and I wait through a complicated
explanation of register printouts and billing cycles. The young
guy is courteous, impassive. He comes up with one explanation
for the discrepancy, and then, when I ask a couple of questions,
presents what sounds like an entirely different explanation.
Followed by a couple more questions, at which point he shrugs,
and says he knows what must've happened. He prints another
slip, one giving her credit for $110 of the $150 she wanted, as
well as a $20 gift certificate. And his apologies. He really
doesn't know what to think, he says, he studied two years of
Spanish in high school. He looks away. To me, it feels like he's
embarrassed, but Lupe is certain, on our way out the door, that
no, the guy is dishonest. But why would he try to steal your
money? He doesn't even get to keep the money. That is exactly
my point, says Lupe.
Me, I see in that young fellow a learned behavior, a trained
demeanor - an attitude the company no doubt taught him to call
professional - but, well, it comes off, to Lupe, as disdain. Muy
seco, is what she said. Stiff, ugly, graceless. The problem,
overall, is that his institutionalized, pre-fab responses have been
cut to a design that ignores the working-class mexicano
blueprint that she will bring to them. It is hard to pin down the
difference, except to say that whoever designed the official tone
this guy has been trained to adopt didn't take into account one
problem. That tone will sound like the same disdain that people
who speak little English are used to having trained on them.
Will Lupe ever be able to hear the Asst. Manager's tone as
merely neutral, respectful even, professional? Of course she
will - when she learns more English. Part of speaking English is
acquiring an ear for that tone.
An alternate scenario, by the way, has the Asst. Mgr. hanging
around mexicanos long enough that he learns patience, and the
importance of eye contact.
And the alternate alternate scenario? Well, that one has me
simply unable to see the genuine ill will the fellow trains on her.
It has me seeing a guy turned inside out, embarrassed, vaguely
ashamed, inadequate - rather than a malignant nerd. It also has
me realizing, as a nasty afterthought, that Lupe came out $20
Maestra Guadalupe Villareal, interviewed at home in
Coatlinchán, Mexico - and quoted in Proceso, April 5, 2014 -
makes it very clear: they got the wrong rock. They figure they
got Tlaloc himself, the Lord of thunder and drowning and
mushrooms - all 168 basalt tons of him - on display before the
National Anthropology Museum. But they don't. The real Tlaloc
is still here in Coatlinchán. They nabbed the wrong monolith.
They got his sister, Chalchiuhtlicue.
It'll be fifty years, on April 16, since prehispanic deity
Chalchiuhtlicue was plucked from her ancestral home to be
displayed before the National Anthropology Museum. La
maestra, a native of the town, a retired schoolteacher, was
eyewitness to the day the army carried off the goddess. People
wept with rage, she recalls, but nothing could be done, the order
came from President Lopez Mateos.
Nowadays, the path to where the stone lay reveals squatters
from the Francisco Villa Popular Front, trucks hauling and
dumping trash where the river used to run. To get to the site,
you walk half an hour from downtown Coatlinchán, or ride a
taxi for ten minutes, up to the foot of the mountains. A few olive
trees remain from those brought by the Spaniards. The plots
have been split up and sold to developers. Years ago, she nods,
we used to wash down there by the river. She was born in
Coatlinchán, and nostalgia takes over. It was a paradise:
boulders like prehistoric beasts, forested right up to the foothills,
aqueducts brimming over. And all of that is over.
I wrote a little piece about local water rituals and weather
oddities, she continues. It follows Chalchiuhtlicue - from where
they dug her up all the way to the Museum. Here's where they
found her. They trashed the place. Right there, where they
pried her out, is where they hold the rites for Our Lady of the
Ditchwater. La maestra takes a couple of steps, points way up
on the hillside and says, up there, that's where Tlaloc is buried,
Lord of the Sky Waters. My ancestors, who worshipped him,
said he was lonely and needed somebody. But they put her
down here, where the river winds downhill like a snake and ties
La maestra points out that that couldn't be Tlaloc, not out in
front of the Museum. No, it's gotta be her, as Tlaloc is still
buried, and she was always above ground, no one ever
uncovered her. When she was here, we held Catholic
ceremonies, in an alpine grove, with a river winding off through
bushes. And on the other side, Tlaloc's hills, descending to a
broad path, which led to her. Maybe we could recreate it on a
computer. She lay on one side. That business at the Museum is
all wrong. It felt like a coliseum here. It is all destroyed.
It happened under López Mateos, she recalls. He told Pedro
Ramirez Vasquez, head of Museum works, he better bring in a
statue or something to represent different cultures. They looked
everywhere. Finally Lopez Mateos recalled, as a student,
visiting Coatlinchán, where there was just the piece. He sent
them here to take a look, and they said no way, the road was too
narrow, the piece too big and too heavy, but he said do it
anyway, and then local people said no, and he said o.k., he
wanted no problems. So when Ramirez Vazquez announced
they would seize it anyway, people said good luck, you think
you can find it? And so they dynamited paradise, and said they
had carried off Tlaloc. We never signed a thing. That goddess
lay on her side, down here, head to the south. Tlaloc is way up
there, at 4175 meters, highest ceremonial center in the world.
Higher than Machu Pichu. La maestra recommends caution,
though. When she visited, as a girl, she heard giggling all
around, maybe from duendes.
Is Chalchiuhtlicue ever coming back? No! When they carried
her off, says la maestra, I was off at college. I got back about
four p.m., with the church bells tolling, and saw this huge
platform. People were already organized. They told the work
crews to go away, that this wasn't Tlaloc. If they wanted him,
they should go get him. And good luck finding him. Children,
boys and girls, old folks, everybody filled the plaza, some
wanting to trash the platform, others ready to shoot it. By
midnight, people began to trash it. The stone was in a kind of
sling, and nobody had tools. All night, todos a dale y dale, and
about five a.m. the stone fell, pum, and the ground shook. But
by ten a.m. - I've got the fotos! - the Army pulled up, and troops
scurried out like cockroaches. Locals had dynamite, and said
they'd as soon blow it up as let that stone leave, but the soldiers
were real shit-heels. Loaded it on a special-made platform, and
pulled out behind tractors. People came running, weeping. The
soldiers shouted to get back. And guess what? A record rainfall
saw her leave, and another, at the capital, greeted her arrival.
Here in Coatlinchán, says la maestra, the elderly merely say that
Porfirio Diaz once promised that stone to the United States - but
the deal fell through, and fifty years ago, somebody else came
and got it.
After a summer of radiation, of people bathing and feeding her -
one room from where her mother fell thump dead on the living
room floor - she herself has died, la maestra Carmelita. My
sweet-and-salty and not-a-moment-too-soon-retired grade school
science teacher buddy, in Morelia, has leaped clear of a life that
went seventy-something years, from country kid to jilted young
mother to retired oracular schoolmarm. I am grateful for twenty
years of wisecracks and sighs, for airy corrections of grammar, a
sniff and dismissal of someone as común y corriente, even for
how she hunched over her steering wheel to weave through
traffic muttering aii buey, aii buey.
Survived by her brother Porfirio, seventy, who married a husky
local girl of 25, and at the moment lolls on a half-unraveled
lawn chair, his boots unlaced, with a daughter of two and a son
of three, both on his lap. On a bright morning in the patio, with
a TV set in the doorway of a dark bedroom. He's teaching his
kids to watch Sat morning cartoons.
Survived as well by her sister Maria, married to Silvio the
curandero. Runs a corner store that sells beer and soda pop and
snacks. They live behind it in tiled rooms with gauze curtains,
loud birdcages, and an altar where Silvio mutters half-hour
incantations to rid the neighbor lady of a rash on her private
parts, then to lower her blood pressure, then to help her husband
Survived by her ex, Ricardo. Who seemed like the right guy, so
her mother bought him a furniture store downtown to run, which
he did, and a baby was born. But la M. grew suspicious of him
and a new bookkeeper he hired, and one afternoon downtown,
after a doctor’s apt., she happened to see the two of them
window shopping. And she knew, just plain knew, and so
Ricardo’s clothes and golf clubs awaited him that night on the
sidewalk in front of the house - which her mother had also
bought for them - and she lived the rest of her days as a single
mother, teaching two shifts, taking in boarders, fretting at house
taxes, the price of a cylinder of gas, all night, hollow-eyed and
hoarse by noon. Hours at the dining room table reading
homework assignments left her one long cramp from fingertips
Aaay que Carmelita! Given to purple blouses and sweaters and
slacks, or well-cut suits, deep red lipstick and nail polish, fingers
thick, pantyhose over hairy shins, slacks later unbuttoned for
comfort, as the evening went on and she permitted herself one
and even two menthol Benson & Hedges 100's, wiping the
ashtray clean with a dinner napkin. Recalling how bitter her
brothers and sisters were that she didn't quit teaching to care for
their aged mother. How one relative couldn’t write down a
phone number she gave him because, in his whole house, there
wasn’t a single scrap of paper, not one writing instrument.
Carmelita with her telenovela episodes of cruel stepmothers with
lovers, of benevolent millionaires with dissolute sons in love
with the poor but beautiful orphan brought to the great house
under mysterious circumstances, until a beautiful but scheming
niece arrives one night to seduce the tipsy son, her own cousin!,
and claim she’s pregnant, and marry him and die, leaving him to
marry the poor but beautiful childhood love, who bears him a
son, only to lose her mind when he accuses her, through a
misunderstanding, of having cheated on him, but later regains
her senses after having given away their son to a neighborhood
woman who sells lottery tickets.
It was her all-time favorite soap. I said it was both ridiculous
and touching. I was not the audience, she said, no matter which
side of the border I thought I came from. I said I came from
neither side. Aaay buey!, she said, from both. Es Ud. de los
My own way of going with some show of inconvenience is
to put on a clean shirt. Today's funeral is for a kid delighted,
one fall, by a William Carlos Williams poem. Yes, I knew the deceased -
her unforgettable name, Zilpha, aka Zippy - 18 years old with a note
book of poems, utterly flipped out o’er a page of the Norton Ethnology,
right? Went around for days with a smile quoting the pebbles
and dirt and whatnot of that lovely, eerie, small-town lament,
And sure enough, her sisters and my daughter and I, forty-two
years later, stand over crumbs and empty coffee urns in a
meeting hall named for a dead Republican congressman.
The sisters have spent the afternoon listening to people try to
articulate stuff they can’t exactly say, one eulogy after another.
Zippy would say we have it over a troupe of artists. But
gathering in public is how we make a point that simply cannot
be entrusted to words: park out front, walk in, sit down,