Swimming with the fishes

Timar was brutally drawn into a nightmare. This was the first time he’d been out at night in Libreville. Everything was unrecognizable under the moon.

— From Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon.

* * * *

Similarly, another traveler found himself in Port-au-Prince. It was 10 p.m. on the main street, which was broad but without lights. Only the moonbeams of Haiti.

Hundreds of people lay in the sidewalk shadows, lined up like corpses but not dead, simply asleep or nearly so. All was quiet and poor.

They were homeless in the capital of the black dictatorship.

Twelve hours earlier he had taxied to the dock, passing a shoe-less soldier carrying an antique carbine and wearing a ratty uniform. Guarding God knows what.

Our traveler stepped onto a small boat full of whites in swimsuits. They chugged toward the coral reefs off the coast. Then, with snorkles and masks, they swam with the beautiful fishes. But he swam alone. All alone with the fancy fishes.

A decade later in a smaller boat, a skiff really, he headed toward the coral reefs off Isla del Espíritu Santo in the Sea of Cortéz.

Just him, a woman and the kid steering the skiff from La Paz.

Again, with snorkle and mask, he swam with the beautiful fishes. And the woman who was later to leave him. To her regret.

After a few hours he stood alone on a high desert hill, naked but for the swimsuit.

The woman was down on the beach, and the boy was watching the boat bob on the blue waves. The desert island next to the sea was pure white sand and cactus.

The sky was clear. The breeze was perfect.  He stood on that hill, knowing it was the most wonderful place he had been in all his life.

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Victoria and the cowboy

A Latina, she was born in a black barrio in a huge American city. She was the oldest of many because Latinos are like that, but she had a different daddy. She was the only one.

And the only one later with a university education and a stylish job. But in her late 20s, she married a jealous, drunken man, and supported him. Women do that. But not for long, if smart.

She divorced in her early 30s, roaming free. In a similar sliced vein, a cowboy was strolling a downtown street in that same huge city, aimless.  Both their hearts were broken. They collided.

Their eyes turned yellow, and fur grew on their backs, their legs, hands and tails. And their teeth grew long and sharp.  Their minds melted, and their hearts pounded.

Their lives cracked in two, the days in a fog of normalcy, it seemed, their nights dropped into the jungle. They crept amid the helliconias, the kopoks and tree frogs.

They snarled and bit each other’s necks and flexed their claws. Rainwater oozed from the walls and slid down to the carpet in the dark where candles were lit and savage music sounded.

Things grew better and worse simultaneously, and lunacy blossomed as Springtime neared. The cowboy learned how murder for love could seem a reasonable solution.

She sank into her rumpled and wet sheets and cried, made immobile by her heart. This cannot go on. They say you cannot burn candles at both ends, and it is so.

Neither can you juggle a billion candles, all burning at both ends and in the middle, tossing them from one lover to the other like beggars on a Mexican street. All will fall and melt.  So they walked in opposite directions by necessity, a matter of survival.

It had come to that. And it clawed their hearts.

The cowboy looks back at times, wondering how it might have gone on, maybe forever. They could have ridden horses to the Cape, hiding as stowaways on a rocket toward the moon.

After clearing Earth’s orbit, they could have shredded their clothes with extended claws, grown back their fur, lit every candle in the black universe, brought rainwater down the spaceship walls, all like before.

And in that far space with no time, no days, no nights, just endless forever, it could have gone on.  And on and on and on.

Just Victoria and the cowboy.

(Here´s an earlier Tale of Victoria.)

The Algerian

He downed four cold Dixies in the bar on Canal Street during his lunch break as the sun pounded the pavement outside. It was sticky summertime.

Fortified, he rode the black BSA back to the office and bid the boss goodbye. Four years at the desk were quite enough.

But he still had to eat. You can’t dodge that.

Yellow Cab hired him for the early shift, leaving him work-free by mid-afternoon. He always walked the heat-cracked sidewalk to a close-by tavern from his shotgun duplex on Verret Street. It was Algiers Point, a ferry ride across the murky Mississippi.

Every afternoon he sat in that bar inhaling cold Pearls and quail eggs, blowing the taxicab tips.  The air-conditioning was terrific.

The duplex was dusty, stuffy and sparsely furnished. A table and two chairs adorned the kitchen. A fridge chilled cold cuts and gin. The ceiling was old pressed tin, and the windows were very tall.

There were two rockers on the front porch for air and a mattress on the bedroom floor. That completed the Louisiana decór.

A wanderer girlfriend visited now and then. She was eye-bogglingly beautiful and sat cross-legged on the floor in the darkness combing her long blonde hair as Leonard Cohen sang Suzanne.

(He ran into her again a few years later at a news stand. She was Easyrider magazine’s cover girl. A photo spread inside showed her half naked dancing atop the bar in a tavern somewhere in the Gila Desert of southwestern Arizona.)

Two months later a call came from the Caribbean. A better job. And soon after, the BSA swayed in the hold of a Sealand freighter churning toward San Juan in the Antilles.

And he was flying high, skirting the Bermuda Triangle and sipping a cuba libre the silky stewardess had sold him.

A first step into America Latina.

(Leonard Cohen sings Suzanne.)

Looking back

Sometimes we wonder if we´re just wasting these days. Shouldn´t we be doing something important? Saving the world?

Would Mother Teresa have spent these kinds of idle hours?

Not likely, not her.

If the end comes in a hospital bed or in the Ranchito´s king bed, will we spend days, or weeks or even months, thinking of important things we didn´t do?

Or if the end comes in a flash, perhaps amidst crunching metal or with that telltale pressure on the chest, passing down the left arm, will there be just enough time, perhaps an instant, to ponder those important things left undone? Regret?

The orphans we did not save. The widows we did not feed. The rain forests chopped down around us as we sipped another cafecito. The famines we ignored, all those refugees.  Sometimes we wonder.

And then she leans over the armchair to whisper:

Thanks for giving me this life.

And we remember our motto, a gift from Emily:

If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.

There is no waste in that.

Flight of the black moth

La pollila negra flits into the terraza and vanishes into the roof tiles. The hour is late and dark.

The ignorant eye first thinks: small bat. The hour is right but the flitting is wrong, far too gentle and lovely.

It’s a black moth.

We have a relative on the Plaza Grande, a woman fearful and sad, though potentially attractive. She fears many things, and is the only person we’ve known who’s afraid of butterflies and moths. Is there a name for this? May we paste a psychiatric label on her?

It´s the dust of their wings that gives her the willies. Isn’t that captured pollen, or are butterflies naturally dusty? Like some snazzy tropical women.

Nonetheless, seeing a big, black moth briefly in the darkness as sinister clouds approach does stir a certain unease.

The Argentine Firecracker

Bouncing down stressed-out streets on a mountainside rimming Morelia, we are visiting relatives.

A new construction is spotted, a poor place but with a porch soaring high, offering a spectacular vista of the valley of Morelia. It brings back memories of Calle Norzagaray in Old San Juan in Puerto Rico.

A stretch of buildings there also offers, from the highest perches, stunning views of the ocean, the old Spanish forts, the slum of La Perla, and at night cruise ships, lit like candles, sailing out into dark seas.

I lived there in a penthouse apartment with the Argentine Firecracker: Silvina of Buenos Aires.

She was 20 years old, and I was 30. She came to Puerto Rico on a tourist visa and let it lapse, choosing to work in a smoky bar.

She was young, beautiful, intelligent and very rebellious. Perfect for me at that time.

But it only lasted six months.

Fading memories bring back breezy tropical nights out on the patio, swaying in a hammock. The Firecracker handed ice-cubed cuba libres through a stained-glass window to waiting hands.

We listened to Vinicius de Moraes or Atahualpa Yupanqui on the record player as the night waves pounded La Perla far below.

But rebellious youth, booze and confusion buried us. I flew off to Florida, leaving her there. Not long after, she had a child with a Puerto Rican waiter.

Then she was deported back to Buenos Aires, babe in arms.

Wind of the night train

Almost a full moon, so we set out afoot down the dark street, about 9 p.m.

Hand in hand, we turn left at the first corner.

Passing the Abarrotes Gonzales, we come to the track just as the train arrives.

Walking near, we feel its warm wind. It is dark, and we see the last car swaying uncertainly in the dim distance as it manages a corner, barely.

There is no flashing light nor descending barricade. Only us two.

After the train thrills subside, we cross the tracks. The street is dark and quiet. The roof dogs are dozing. It is Monday night, the quietest of the week in our rinky-dink town.

On the left, abutting the rail line, is a house under construction, quite elegant for our barrio. It is dark, so we sneak in for a tour. I tote a tiny flashlight, always.

Surprisingly, we find a big living room with vaulted ceilings and a rock fireplace that rivals our own at the Ranchito.

Heading back toward Vieja Street, we hang a left. The street lights are new but dim.

Another block brings us to the Plaza. We circle the new clay-tile sidewalk. It is big, beautiful, silent and still this evening. Nobody but us. There are autumn leaves.

On the southeast corner of the Portales is an ancient room where we hear the music of perpetual practice. It´s a band of trumpets and drums. Probably a tuba, too.

The recently renovated, wrought-iron bandstand is lit and lovely. We stop at the ancient church and peer up at the bell tower.

No bats, but the moon to the left paints a postcard scene.

As we pass the Plaza´s corner, retracing our steps, a couple of women suddenly move into the street and curse loudly at one another.

One calls the other a pinche cara de culo! Oh, my.

No matter. We continue homeward, my lovely wife pausing momentarily to pinch a little vine that is falling over an old rock wall toward the street.

Ladrona de plantas. A plant thief in the shadows.

Moments for Mahiya

One awakens at 5:33 and notices something magical.

Silence. Strange in Mexico.

Lie here some moments and revel in it. Like an ashram in Mumbai.  No trains, no dogs, no chickens, no burros, no Catholic church bells from down on the Plaza, nada.

It is a little early for roosters, but trucks are persistent. The highway from Pátzcuaro to Morelia skirts our barrio, curving up and around a hill not far behind the Ranchito.

The truck brakes often make a scandal in the night as they maneuver the bend. Luckily, the road is far enough back not to present a real problem. But you can hear it. But not right now.  And there is the occasional romantic rumble of the night train.

rich aural environment. Usually.

But now, a odd calm covers our land, and most are asleep, missing it.

A few are in nightmares. If someone nudges them, they will awaken into this silent dream of ours. And their hearts will settle.

And in an instant, it rains, a muted downpour. No thunder, no lightning, just a susurrant waterfall, bringing sleep again.

The last decade?

The father was 6′-3″. The son too. The father was a newspaper copy editor. The son too.

The father drank too much. The son too.

The father knocked it off, went dry, in his early 50s. The son too. The father retired early. The son too. The father then focused on his way with words. The son too.

The father turned gray before his time. The son too.

The father could be a smart-ass. The son too.

On the telephone, you could scarcely tell them apart. And they looked alike. The father died at 75 from a heart attack. The son is 65 and has a heart problem.

Which leads the son to wonder: Is this his last decade?

But then the son focuses on the differences. The father drank way too much. The son far less. The father married just once. The son three times. The father would never have considered moving to Mexico. The son did just that.

The father had no sense of adventure. The son does in spades. The father was quite the nervous nellie. The son has piloted planes, ridden motorcycles too fast and loves roller-coasters. The father never drank coffee. The son likes a hot cafecito.

The father never liked travel. The son loves travel. So this is not precisely a case of parallel lives. But even so.

The father died unhappy. If the son dropped dead mañana, he would have a smile on his face. But even so, even so.

If these are the last ten years, that´s okay. The son will not die unhappy, which is more than many can say. The smile on his face would be wide. And his final words might be in Spanish: Estoy felíz y te amo.

El Morro sunrise

The fellow dismounted the black BSA on Calle Del Cristo in Old San Juan on the coast.

The hour was dark, and there was a bloody rip in his foot. Kickstarting a motorcycle barefoot, especially when the rubber pad is missing, is always a stupid idea. Only a drunk would do it.

He crossed the street of blue cobblestones, made of old ballast from Spanish galleons, and entered the bar El Batey for a cuba libre.

The beefy blond owner with the name of Davey Jones said hi while Jimmy Buffett sang Margaritaville from the jukebox.

The fellow took a barstool next to the deep window, the one where Luis Muñoz occasionally entered when on a bender. Luis Muñoz was the middle-aged, troubled son of Puerto Rican patriot-hero Luis Muñoz Marín, a fact that haunted him always.

Luis Muñóz and the fellow worked together on The San Juan Star.

Now and then, after work, Luis Muñoz invited the fellow home for post-midnight supper of sausage quiche prepared by his girlfriend Ana, a petite ballerina of renown.

They would sit under candlelight at the long table, the three of them. Two were drinking, but the ballet dancer would be half asleep.

The thick-walled building was ancient, and they would dine to backdrop tunes of tiny tree frogs called coquíes, hidden in damp vegetation of the open patio where late-night rain often fell.

Luis Muñoz was an artist, and one soused night he gave the fellow a print of two nude lovers sitting on the step-street next to the Hotel Convento there in Old San Juan.

Three framings and 40 years beyond, it hangs in the Ranchito stairwell, sunlit in daytime via the glass bricks just above.

A few cuba libres later, the fellow lurched from El Batey and limped to the BSA across the cobblestones. He made it home as dawn began to frame the fortress of El Morro.

Later that day the bloody foot throbbed like nobody’s business.

* * * *

(Note: Luis Muñoz Lee died in 2003 in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. He had been born in San Juan in 1921.  I never saw him after 1975. He was a grand guy.)

Doomed romance

She crossed the threshold of the motel in Cowboy Country, in his arms. Lovely and slightly loony, with long black hair, she often said she was too young for him. But not that night.

The rear of the motel room sported a large glass door with a view to the mesquite grove where the ghost of Jesse James, or the Younger Boys, sailed silently. Maybe. You never know in those parts.

They had supper at a Yuppie restaurant in the small town nearby.

It was on a hillside that sloped down to a river’s edge. Really no more than a clear creek in the tall green trees of April.

Enjoying blackened catfish and green salads, they spoke little, touched fingers, and listened to the tinkling of silverware and wine glasses from other tables where more normal couples sat.

Later, back in the mesquite grove, they watched Bette Midler play Janis Joplin on TV and, after that, she danced shyly in shadows to music from the little stereo they had tossed into the pickup. He laid on the bed with his arms behind his head, smiling.

The next morning, the mesquite trees shone under sunlight, and they drove back to the Big City. It ended shortly after, leaving him distraught but with a passion for lovely Latinas that would drive him far south one day. To greener pastures and hot tortillas.

* * * *

(Here’s another tale of Victoria.)

Bullet wounds

Small and beautiful, she had three bullet scars on her back, parting shots from her former husband.

A few years later, she encountered a tall blackbeard on St. Patrick’s night in an Irish Channel saloon. On Magazine Street, just a few blocks from the famous river curve.

Their celebration continued through several more dives, and that evening ended at his home near Bayou St. John where both passed out stone drunk.

She had a part-time job, descending into black holes. She was a chimney sweep, the only one he ever knew. And the most lovely.

Squeezing into those sooty spots served a therapeutic purpose, one imagines. It seemed too obvious to ignore. But the bullets had damaged her soul. She vanished.

Blackbeard kept her photo for decades, smiling at the camera with a pencil in her hand, touching her lips. She was a writer most of all.

That snapshot sailed away like most of his possessions just before he boarded the jet that took him to Guadalajara.

The transfusion

The scarlet carpet where he lay was soft, and he closed his eyes in order to see.

Blood began to flow, pouring down from above, from an unseen place. A rejuvenating cascade, fresh and cerise.

A voice spoke, not an audible one but a felt voice, quite clear: Time to grow up, it said.

He began to laugh. And laugh. And laugh. Drenched in blood.

Someone told him later of the laughter because he did not hear it. He only felt the feeling. It was sensational.

Things changed after that, after the transfusion a decade back on a summer hillside of pine trees descending to a mirror lake where a lone fisherman enjoyed the Florida afternoon in a rowboat.

On the floating, shapeless oceans,
I did all my best to smile
till your singing eyes and fingers
drew me loving into your eyes.

And you sang, “Sail to me. Sail to me.
Let me enfold you.” *

* Song to the Siren by the Cocteau Twins.

The Christmas card

The Fancy House was a hair up San Justo Street from the Malamute Bar. I often headed to the House after work, about midnight or so. I went for two reasons:

Amateur anthropology and cuba libres.

The Fancy House was a social study, fascinating in part due to downing cuba libres till the walls started dancing before my eyes. A tango at times. Often a waltz.

Most of the working girls came from the Dominican Republic across the Mona Passage. But some came from South America, flown up by Latino gangsters with a contract to fulfill.

The young lovelies learned to ignore me sitting solo at the bar facing the twinkling lights framing the broad mirror, with cuba libres and the waltzing walls, dancing before my eyes. All the lovelies save one.

South American, she had milk-white skin with freckles and long black hair. She was bright and liked to talk, a rebellious and adventurous lass, hardly out of her teens, there on a lark. The kind of girl to give nightmares to a wholesome mama.

One December night she walked to my bar stool and handed me an envelope. Inside was my only Christmas card that year.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. It touched me.

The walls ceased swinging . . .

. . . and started singing Silent Night.

Pruning of the rose

Lying in cold sweat and with heart racing, the fellow opened his eyes. It was Sunday, early.

The Valium had worn off.

He got up, showered and dressed. The pants were clean. Perhaps the shirt was white. One forgets. It´s been a long time.

Leaving the chill, high-rise condo where he lived alone in another land, he hobbled two blocks to the Methodist Church. He was no Methodist, but it did not matter.

He liked the sound of the sermon, posted outside: Pruning of the rose.

The pastor spoke of rose bushes and the call to prune. Cut back severely, he said, and when springtime comes, you´ll see the flowers, red and happy. It also applies to people, he added. The fellow already knew that. He was pruned. Cut bad.

Years later, he packed two bags and headed south toward the sunshine, dreaming of mariachi songs and romance.

And one morning, a cock crowed on a backstreet in Mexico. The fellow awoke, sighed, and flexed his petals. It was springtime. And at his side stirred a dark tropical orchid.

The sands of Santurce

The fellow sat at the large round table in the dining room. There was the Remington portable and a cuba libre.

He was writing a woman named Lane back in New Orleans.

A ceiling fan blew downward, and the smell of the sea and sand just outside entered the wide Spanish windows.

It was Puerto Rico on the beach in Santurce.

Working nights at the San Juan Star left the days of perpetual summer free. He lived in a guesthouse fronting the sea, the beach being just a stroll across the parallel street.

This beach was nothing to brag about, not like lovely Luquillo up the coast with its powder sands, palms and crystalline waters.

But it was the beach he had, closer to town.

The landlord was an old New Yorker with a yearning for young boys who rode their bikes slowly outside in the soft afternoons. He beckoned them to his boudoir an hour or two every day, different boys, and they left with a few bucks in their pockets.

Another boarder was a girl from Santiago, there without papers. She was short and beautiful with big green eyes. She spoke no English, but there was no need.

Shaped like a porn star, which she wasn´t, with a rack that looked fake, but it wasn´t, she would don the slightest of bikinis, and cross the street to the sand, bringing traffic to a halt as Puerto Rican boys squeezed their steering wheels and howled.

A sportswriter owned the house next door where he lived with his dusky girlfriend from La Republica Dominicana.

He once asked: “Do you think this will be a problem back in Alabama?”

He married her anyway.

His boarder was a Ranger captain stationed at Fort Buchanan, a huge handsome hulk with a red Pontiac GTO, just back from Vietnam where he had slept in the jungle with a Bowie blade.

One night a Puerto Rican ne’er-do-well from a nearby housing project crept through a window and entered the Ranger´s room while he slept. A mistake.

Within a screaming second the captain was cocked with his Bowie, and the shocked intruder ran straight through a latched screen door, leaving his outline like Wilie Coyote.

The fellow met a woman named Mary from Brooklyn. She was blonde and attractive, living alone with her cat Montserrat in an upstairs duplex on Mango Street.

She was a secretary at the San Juan Star.

Across from her apartment was a small diner where they ate chicken and rice and listened to Johnny Nash sing “I Can See Clearly Now” on the Rockola.

Back outside the guesthouse on the sidewalk bordering the beach was an old man with a white cart who sold snow cones, which were always great in the heat.

(Note: Johnny Nash still seeing clearly.)

The taxi ride

He was a capitalist Gentile from New Orleans, and she was a communist Jew from New York.  They stepped from their office around midnight and into the taxi.

The windows were wide open.

Soft Caribbean air caressed their faces as the cabbie sped down the broad Avenida J.F. Kennedy.

She was married, but he stroked her hand anyway. Her husband, a communist Puerto Rican activist of local renown, did not know — and no one was going to tell him.

They got out at the capitalist’s place on Calle San Sebastian. She and her husband lived just a few blocks farther, but hubby believed her at work still.

After a few Cuba libres, her backside was stroked. Then they got up, dressed and walked toward her nearby home facing the sea. Amid the sound of waves, they kissed and said hasta mañana.

Filling the political gap in the Old Town with a twist of limón.

Dancing the Hassapiko

 

greece

Virginia Hope Powell has died at the age of 90. We called her Dee.

She was sharp as the proverbial tack almost to the end, her little gray cells fed by political obsessions. She was an FDR-style liberal Democrat to her core.

deeBut parenthood for her ranked ahead of politics. Her score there was mixed, a score shared by most everyone, so we can’t really complain.

Family rumor has it that she almost married the mortician in Sylvester, the small town in rural southwest Georgia near which she sprouted way back during the First World War.

Her life likely would have been happier with the undertaker. Instead, she married a brilliant, handsome man whom she met at the University of Georgia, inserting herself into a decades-long drama of booze, confusion and poetry.

She was an only child, and her daddy was a cotton farmer. Her mama was a housewife with a college degree. Rare back then.

She spent 95 percent of her life in Georgia because the handsome man loathed travel. The other five percent was just over the state line in Florida, an insignificant jaunt.

She long dreamed of visiting the Greek Isles but never did.

Her primary accomplishment was two children, both of whom resemble their father far more than their mother, a recipe for more booze, confusion and poetry.

Due perhaps to having virtually no religious beliefs, she was hesitant to die. Her handsome man was hesitant too, but that did not save him from the heart attack on Mother’s Day in 1991 when he was 75.

She could have gone to the Greek Isles then, but after almost seven decades in Georgia, she simply didn’t know how.

Alas, she lived too long.

In the final years her small family splintered, spiraling into rancor. It would’ve been better if she hadn’t seen that. She would have died in peace perhaps.

One by one, we quit drinking: The handsome man, the daughter, the son. Dee didn’t have to stop because she never started.

But our late-blooming sobriety came too late. We three re-entered sober life like battered space shuttles covered with heat tiles bought from the lowest bidder on a back street in Bogotá. Our spaceships spun out into sharp shards.

* * *

Pray that Dee begins her next life far away from Georgia, perhaps in Antipaxi, Corfu or Samothrace, the salty breezes from the Ionian or Aegean seas caressing her soft childish cheeks.

And later may she marry a plain and kind man who sells calamari on the coast, dances the Hassapiko and strums the Bouzouki.

And may he be quite allergic to ouzo and all strong spirits.

(Died Jan. 8, 2009. The date of 2006 at the top of the post is a technical glitch.)

Toro! Toro! Toro!

The Old Man awoke beside the Beautiful Woman as a blood-red sun rose over the Cerro de Chiquihuite.  It was bullfight day.

They breakfasted on bread from Bisquets Obregón. There was raw honey and black cafecitos, just like back at the Ranchito.

A few hours later, the Silver Meriva barreled south down Insurgentes, past the naked protesters who never give up, past the Paseo de la Reforma where jet planes crash.

Past the World Trade Center, and right on the Eje 5 Sur.

There it loomed: Plaza Mexico, the biggest bullring in the world.

It’s a massive hole, not obvious from inside or out, where it still towers into the sky. Most seats are below street level.

The Plaza holds 48,000 bullfighting fans and passing dilettantes, but it’s rarely more than 25 percent full these days. Interest in bullfights is waning.

Hemingway´s days are gone.

Sundays from November through March at precisely 4 p.m. a bull comes charging through the gate. And he’s really pissed off.

Fighting bulls are not simply big and angry bulls. They are a breed apart. Their wives, the cows, look like dykes and have tiny udders.

This may add to the moodiness of their menfolk.

The Old Man and the Beautiful Woman sat on cement seats pretty close to the ring, but not too close. They purchased cushions from a street vendor, ten pesos a pop.

Vendors strolled about offering hot dogs and hot cappuccinos. Cappuccinos?! And beer, of course.

A bullfight consists of three matadors fighting six bulls, two to a man. The matadors on that day were:

1. Uriel “El Zapata” Moreno.
2. Leopoldo Casasola.
3. Guillermo Martinez.

The Old Man and the Beautiful Woman had been standing in the scattered crowd outside the ring when Casasola arrived in the passenger seat of a new, cream-colored Lincoln Navigator.  The matador game pays good.

He was young and handsome in his Suit of Lights, flashing a killer smile, so handsome the Beautiful Woman seemed to consider a swan dive through the Lincoln´s window into his lap.

But she did not, perhaps because Casasola is young enough to be her son. Perhaps because her Old Man isn’t chopped liver but Southern paté, tasty on cornbread.

She stayed true.

As expected, the first bull thundered through the gate at 4 p.m., right on time like a Fascist train.  The goal is to tire the bull, break his spirit and kill him.

First, one or more picadores decked out like Sancho Panza on heavily padded and blindfolded horses taunt the bull till he charges. It doesn’t take much. He´s on edge.

The picador stabs the bull in his hump with a short-pointed lance. Sometimes the bull knocks the horse off his feet. Score one for the bull, but his victories come hard.

Next, the bull gets stuck with pairs of banderillas, which are delivered by the matador or one of his helpers.

These are pointed sticks that are far shorter than the picador’s lance, and they are delivered as the matador or assistant and the bull run directly at each other.

By this time, the bull has run around the ring a lot. He is overweight. He has been stabbed in the back by the picador. He has banderillas hanging from his hump.

He is bloodied, tired, and nothing is going right for him. He is having serious doubts about himself. His ego is deflated. It´s a bad day.

He needs a therapist. But not even Dr. Phil can save him.

Instead, the heavily panting bull faces a man decked out like a Christmas tree in a leather bar, holding a big red cape and sword.  It’s killing time.

Ideally, one quick sword thrust over the bull’s lowered head brings him down rapidly. That only happened with one of the six bulls that day. The others went down slowly and messily.  And that’s the norm.

Casasola was the best of the three matadors and the only one tossed by a bull. Twice! Luckily, he dodged the horns both times, only injuring his dignity.

The dead bulls are dragged out by a horse team and sold to a butcher. Waste not. Bloody sand is swept up.

The Old Man and the Beautiful Woman rode the Silver Meriva to Titanic Hamburgers on the dark, night median of Margarita Masa de Júarez. Perhaps they ate one of last week’s bulls.  With lettuce, onion, tomato and mustard.

And a side of fries with blood-red ketchup.

Last train to Holyhead

Swaying in the hammock softly with Rosamunde Pilcher.

Though wet June is weeks away, there are rain clouds.

But the hammock is safe under the roof tile.

Pilcher’s book Under Gemini is set in Scotland, my ancestral home.

Look here on this page: The rain had turned to a soft blowing mist which was beginning to smell of the sea.

If it rains here now, it will smell not of sea, but of mountains. You will hear soft sighs of parched plants, see the settling of dust.

Under Gemini was published in the mid-1970s, and at that same time I was alighting alone from a train at the Inverness station, just up from Edinburgh.

Stepping off another car at the same moment was a California woman on the very eve of her 40th birthday, also alone.

She was a professor of anthropology, attractive, headed slowly, with backpack, toward a conference in faraway India. We ended up in the same guesthouse, dining together after passing through a few dark pubs.

We found each other engaging, and spent the next five days as constant, carefree companions, becoming one.

After Inverness, our train headed west to the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides. And later, there was the big smokestack boat that carried us south through the Sound of Isleat to a railhead at Mallaig.

We held hands on deck and smiled as our ship steamed through watery mountain passes. It was cold October, and we were the only tourists.

At Mallaig, we caught another train, continuing on through Fort William, Glasgow and finally, leaving Scotland, to Chester, England.

It was a five-day romance with no time for pains, sorrows or regrets.

Until those final moments.  I had to return to London. She continued on to Holyhead on the windy Welsh coast, a roundabout route to India.

We kissed and waved goodbye as the old train chugged from the station in medieval Chester. Her window was open, and she leaned out, like in those old-time movies.

We never mentioned our last names and, even now, her first name, like her face, has faded. But not the memory of those final moments. Definitely not that.

The sweetness spiraled into sadness.

There is thunder here now. Let’s head inside the house.

The Rachmaninoff cowboy

We lost a good guy this week. Al Kinnison died here in Pátzcuaro in his rambling Colonial mansion on Calle Navarrete. He was 79.

Al was a crusty fellow, a Libertarian, a keen intellect and, most of all, an Arizona cowboy.

He believed in guns, self-reliance and freedom.

He and his second wife, Jean, moved to Pátzcuaro about seven years ago. Jean died last year of a heart attack. Al had cancer.

A former mining engineer and naval officer who spoke English, Spanish and a little Japanese, Al did not care for government, which was one reason he moved to Mexico.

He was against the Iraq war, but before you label him a liberal, know that he was also against government doing much of anything. Al just did not want to be messed with.

Ultra-polite, Al always stood for a lady. He did it even if you were not a lady. Opened their doors. He accepted no crude talk around them either. No, sir.

He often spoke of his desire to move to Guatemala. Government interference is increasing in Mexico, and it would be less in Guatemala, he believed.

Guatemala was his final dream.

His preferred mode of moving to Guatemala would have been on horseback.

A Winchester would have been bouncing off the horse’s haunches. A Colt .45 would have been bouncing on his own hip.

Al was like that. Don’t be fooled by that prissy French beret in the photo. Al almost always sported a cowboy hat.

But that was just one side. Al was a Rachmaninoff man . . . and romantic, though he would not have admitted it readily.

He and Jean were often seen walking hand-in-hand through the plaza. So Al was a fighter and a lover. He enjoyed listening to Rachmaninoff quietly in his final weeks.

Al Kinnison was a classic example of the Gringo oddballs one sometimes finds in Mexico. Al was a great oddball, a rare one, a wonderful guy, and will be sorely missed.

(Al died in December of 2005, five years after I met him.)

Pass the tortillas

became a Mexican citizen today.

I feel more macho. I plan to grow the moustache longer, either upward with two cocky swirls, or downward and bushy.

Though married, your new hombre is planning on lassoing a girlfriend or two or three. It’s the Mexican way. Well, maybe not. I’m not all that frisky.

I’ll buy a guitar and croon in the plaza with my pals.

I’ll purchase a big truck, drive fast, always in a rush. I’ll change lanes with a carefree abandon, eyes closed. The stereo will be full blast.

I’ll sip mezcal, chewing the bottle worms.

Cutting back on chicken and veggies, I’ll chew more cheese, bifstek and chiles, perhaps gaining a paunch and a cocky walk.

I’ll need cowboy boots, a huge sombrero and charro pants, jingling spurs, a pack of cheroots in the slit of my vaquero pocket.

There will be Brylcreem in my hair, the slick, sexy look.

Change is good, and I’m swaggering into the future.

This feels really fine, mis amigos, so watch out!

* * * *

(Note: I became a Mexican in 2005. This does not replace U.S. citizenship, of course. Many folks have dual citizenship.)

La tristeza del otoño

The leaves are falling on the Plaza Grande in Pátzcuaro, so autumn has arrived again.

Sitting alone on a bench, I watch a raggedy man sweeping the plaza with a massive palm frond.  Passing on the sidewalk is a 15-foot-high clown, a fellow on stilts with a sad face — his own — juggling for pesos.

There are lots of tourists today, families, children, and most appear happy. How not?

However, autumn to many is a mood piece, and the mood is not a chipper one. Sadness instead. The carefree days of summer are over. The chill of winter looms. Autumn, being the bridge, oppresses the heart for many.

Sadness is no stranger to Mexico.

Much of what passes as local color, jugglers and fire-eaters at intersections, clowns, folks dancing in Indian attire, old ladies sitting on the sidewalk selling, actually are needy people doing what they can to put tortillas on the table.

Tourists come and go, loving the local color, rarely seeing the sadness . . .

. . . la tristeza del otoño.

The falling leaves drift by the window,
The autumn leaves of red and gold.
I see your lips, the summer kisses,
The sun-burned hands I used to hold.
— Johnny Mercer.

The bat and the cat

My wife’s at the gym, leaving me sitting on the terraza, watching the fading light of 8:30 p.m. The grass is damp from rain. Roof dogs bark in the distance, as usual. The chickens are quiet for now.

Green tea in hand, I’m in the wicker rocker, just looking.

Zoom! A little bat zips from right to left inside the tile-roofed terraza, then outside, increasing suspicions that he may live down on the end in the tile somewhere.

It could happen. In older, less-loved, residences, rats live in the roof tile. There is space.

Occasionally, I have found what appeared to be mouse droppings there in the very corner. What’s a bat but a little winged mousie?

He seemed to appear just now from that corner, but he could have angled in from outside, jamming a hard-right rudder. A fighter pilot in pursuit of mosquito.

Aha! Here comes the kitty from next door. She’s half grown and, even though we are surrounded by a high brick wall, she gets in.

La gatita is a mixed blessing. She harasses our birds and lizards. That’s bad. But she discourages rats. That’s good.

We haven’t seen a rat here since the Ranchito was completed. But before, we saw plenty in the then-vacant lot. And, even now, in the far corner of the property, there are suspicious holes.

We sit quiet and still. La gatita is sashaying up the Romance Sidewalk in this direction. She thinks she is alone. She is carefree, unaware. Characteristics of youth.

She knows, however, that she is unwelcome here. Birds and lizards win out over rats.

She jumps up on the rock ledge of the terraza, very near, still clueless to her company, lurking in the shadows, yours truly.

We hiss a mean-spirited maldicion! In Spanish, so she knows the seriousness of her situation. She turns tail, literally, and runs to the far end of the yard, skulking behind a leftover wood beam, lying on the ground. No more trouble from her end.

Whoa! In comes the bat again, from the same side he had exited. Instead of heading to his suspected home, he does indeed bank sharply 90 degrees and goes out the other side of the terraza. A deft, marvelous maneuver.

It’s just a tour of duty, not a homecoming.