T H E
H A M I L T O N S T O N E R E V I E W
Summer 2010 (Issue No. 21)
Up to Nothing
Jean-Paul sits in our Subaru Outback, staring hard through the rain-drenched windshield. He is driving us north from Boston to New Hampshire. Last night we packed two large duffels with the usual gear – camelbacks, Gortex boots, windbreakers, energy bars. Our plan for the weekend has been set for months. Today we will explore the Sunapee region. It’s been a long time since I’ve been back there, but I’ve mapped the trip out in my head. First we’ll check in at the Burkehaven Inn and unload our clothes and our gear. After exploring the town and visiting Lake Sunapee, we’ll have dinner at a lakeside restaurant with a bar on the deck. Tomorrow we’ll hike up to Mount Sunapee’s summit. According to an Internet site that I found, there is a trail through the woods near the ski slopes. The views are spectacular at the top. After we’ve absorbed all of that, we can hike back down, maybe sip a cold beer in a lodge at the base.
I want to enjoy these images of the weekend ahead, but I keep thinking about leaving my mother-in-law. David, Jean-Paul’s uncle, is visiting from San Antonio, so Judith will not be alone. Still, she did all she could to make this difficult. Her eyes turned red and filled with tears when my husband told her we’d be gone for a few days. She slumped in her wheelchair with her shoulders forward and her head hanging down. Then she said in a voice both childlike and angry, “What if I run out of medicine?”
“David is here,” Jean-Paul reminded her.
“I don’t want to ask David to do things,” she spat.
But you don’t mind asking us to do everything, I thought, feeling bitchy.
“I’ll be happy to get you your medicine, Judy,” David said, trying to soothe her. Jean-Paul’s uncle is in his mid-seventies, retired from the Air Force, tall and slim. He works out every day. For a weekend he can handle his sister’s needs. Still, she put her head in her hands and sobbed, as if her son had announced he was abandoning her for good.
Judith was an unusual person before all of this happened, statuesque and slim, quirky and self-centered, temperamental and creative, subtly controlling. Sometimes, during the two years I knew her, she surprised me with unexpected kindnesses -- thoughtful gifts on holidays, toys for our cats.
I think back to the day we learned Judith had brain cancer. She was scheduled to have a benign growth removed from the lining around her brain. Just a few days before the operation, the neurosurgeon sat in a chair in her hospital room and looked her straight in the eye. “You do not have cancer,” he told her. “You won’t die from this.” He was wrong.
He discovered his mistake in the operating room. Realizing the tumor was inside the brain, he performed a biopsy and closed up her skull. Jean-Paul and I, married just three months at the time, had been driving around Cambridge. We were waiting for news that the surgery was over, thinking things were going according to plan. Judith was wheeled into the I.C.U.; a nurse called to beckon us back to the hospital. Something in the tone of her voice made us nervous. When we walked into the waiting room, the surgeon motioned for us to join him in a tiny side office. We sat in two wooden chairs pulled up to a desk, and he told us what had happened. He shook his head. If the tumor was what he suspected, a glioblastoma, Judith had maybe eighteen months to live. Tests on the tissue would take a few days. Jean-Paul and I were silent at first, in shock. We asked a few questions. I stepped outside the office to let Jean-Paul handle details. Then I leaned my back against a wall, and cried.
I visited Judith everyday those first months. She was, after all, my new mother-in-law. I cleaned her small, empty house and picked up her mail. I fed, then adopted, her cats. She was moved from the I.C.U. to a regular room before being admitted to a rehabilitation facility. Bleeding after the biopsy caused swelling in her brain and paralysis on the left side. Judith spent months recovering what movement she could for whatever time she had left.
The social workers at Park Avenue Rehab told us to expect certain emotional stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Judith went from shock to denial and coupled that with rage, and has stayed there for more than a year. She refuses to believe the doctor’s prognosis. She has spent forty thousand dollars on home renovations, ignoring the reality of the time she has left. She demanded her staircase be rebuilt three times before finally admitting she would never walk up the stairs. That made her so angry she threatened to sue the contractor. She can’t get in or out of her house without help, yet insists on living alone. She can’t shop for herself or count her own pills. She relies on us for all of her errands. “I hope this happens to you someday!” she screams at her only child, Jean-Paul.
I know that Judith is not who she was; but the truth is neither am I. The person I was would feel guilty, even sad, leaving a sick person behind. I don’t feel those things. I feel numb, I feel tired. I even feel angry. All I want is to get out of Boston.
The rain started before dawn this morning. It hammered the roof of our house as we pulled ourselves out of bed, dressed in warmer clothes than we had thought we would need, and sprinted in and out of the house to load up the car. By the time we slid into the front seats we were soaked; our faces were cold and dripping with rain. The downpour has continued throughout the drive, but we are on an adventure and thrilled to be getting away.
We exit the highway after two hours and follow a small, winding road to the Burkehaven Inn. An online search led me here; the Web site depicted a charming hotel nestled in a valley, surrounded by woods. It was close to Sunapee’s mountain and lake, and the white wood siding with red trim gave it the look of a classic Colonial inn.
As we pull into the driveway, I notice that the grounds have changed since the photos were taken. A tall house has been built just below the inn on what was once part of the spacious green lawn. The house almost blocks the view of Mount Sunapee, and it’s not the only building nearby. Homes with paved driveways and fenced-in backyards line the streets near the inn. Apparently we’ll be staying in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
The inn itself is what I expected, if a little small. It is L-shaped and single-level, with the exception of a second-floor addition above the angle in the L. We park in front of a sign that says “Lobby” and dash from the car to two glass doors, our heads bent against the still-pouring rain. The lobby is empty, but a note next to a telephone on a desk instructs visitors to call a number for assistance. Jean-Paul dials, and I hear a man on the other end of the line say he will be right with us.
A few minutes later a large red pick-up pulls into the parking lot. A man about our age, in his forties, hops out of the truck and jogs across the parking lot through the rain. His face is half covered by a dark beard, and he wears a light jacket over a red flannel hunting shirt and blue jeans. He nods as he enters the lobby and heads for the desk, then scans a reservation book and asks, “DesPres?”
We both nod, and he jots down a note in the book before handing Jean-Paul a room key.
“Looks like we’re not too lucky with the rain,” Jean-Paul says.
The innkeeper shakes his head and replies, “Well, what can you expect in May?”
Back in the car, I say to Jean-Paul, “I really thought it would be sunny and warm. I wanted to go to the lake and sit outside.”
“I don’t want to hear anything negative,” he says. I understand the note of annoyance in his voice. I haven’t been particularly cheerful lately. Judith’s condition has worsened, and her tantrums and demands are affecting us both. I walk around our house like a cat with the hair on my back always up. Every time our phone rings I literally jump. Either it is Judith raging on the other end of the line or the hospital calling to report she has fallen, called 911, and been admitted again.
“She’s insane and I can’t take it!” I often yell in frustration.
“She’s my mother,” is all he can say.
My husband is a gentle soul, the child of divorced parents. His father died twenty years ago; it has been just Jean-Paul and his mom since then. For a year he has been more parent than child, but my guess, from the little I knew of Judith before, is that he’s familiar with the role. I admire his ability to weather her outbursts and run her errands without losing control. But I do wonder lately if he’ll break down at some point, or if he will simply explode.
Room #1 is the last room at the far end of the inn, near the driveway. We transfer our bags quickly inside. A king-sized bed with a thick wooden headboard fills about a third of the room. A gas fireplace lends a cozy feel, along with a round breakfast table with two matching chairs, and an easy chair in front of an old TV set. There is a coffee pot and small refrigerator. I decide the room is nice, and Jean-Paul agrees, but we are anxious to get on with our day. We leave our things still packed in the room, dart back outside through the rain to the car, and head toward the center of town.
Sunapee is deserted. Wooden buildings seem to lean against the wind and the rain as it washes the old empty streets. The lake is dark and restless. Restaurants are closed, doors locked, windows shuttered. Sailboats rock in the marina, firmly tethered to wooden docks, sails rolled up against the bad weather. There will be nothing for us to do in Sunapee.
We drive toward the next town and stop at an open tavern along a rural road. A noisy crowd fills most of the tables, but the hostess leads us to an empty wooden booth. We order sandwiches and local craft beer from a waiter who moves quickly between the tables, balancing a tray on his arm. I watch him, amazed at how waiters do that, and get caught up in the swirl of activity. Our sandwiches are made with thick, fresh-baked bread and the French fries are hot and brown. The atmosphere is jovial among the local crowd. We smile at each other, and Jean-Paul tips generously. But when we step outside the rain is still pelting down.
“The innkeeper said there’s a cinema center half an hour away,” I say, trying to keep the disappointment out of my voice. I didn’t drive two hours or spend money on a hotel so we could waste the afternoon in a movie theater, but I can’t think of anything else to do. Jean-Paul nods and pulls the car back onto the road, turning west toward the Vermont border. He remembers the innkeeper’s directions, and we find the cinema center in a non-descript, cement strip mall in the middle of nowhere. The only film showing at that hour is “Iron Man,” starring Robert Downey, Jr., a movie about a comic book hero who battles global terrorists. It’s not my kind of movie, but we don’t have much choice about what’s happening to us today. We buy two tickets and go inside.
It is early Sunday morning, and I’m sitting in front of the door of our room, hoping my half-hearted attempt to wipe down the white plastic chair on the wooden front porch made it dry. We discovered last night, after returning from the movie, that we are the only guests at the inn. Our Outback, lonely and wet in the rain, is parked not far from my chair. The only other vehicle in sight is the red pick-up truck, which the innkeeper drove up here a short while ago. I saw him pull out of the driveway of the house down below, drive up the road, swerve into the hotel parking lot, jump out of the front seat like he did yesterday and disappear into the lobby. I hear the faint clattering of dishes as he prepares our breakfast.
It is seven o’clock, and Jean-Paul is asleep. Eternally restless, I wake up early; mornings are when I sit and think. I prepared hot coffee in the coffee pot and poured it into a Styrofoam cup. A quick sip tells me it has a bitter, chemical taste and is rapidly cooling off. I listen to the rain trickle off the roof, watch the drops form small pools in the gravel at the edge of the porch.
Jean-Paul joked yesterday that he would sit on this porch and enjoy the sunset and view if it killed him – even if he couldn’t see the sun and there was no view. The rain had persisted and the temperature by then had dropped down into the forties. He bundled up in layers, opened a bottle of Red Zinfandel and sat where I am sitting now. He sipped wine from a plastic cup and stared into the mist.
For four days now, since David arrived, someone else has been by Judith’s side. For these few brief days we have been almost free. But our freedom will be short-lived; it will end in just forty-eight hours. We’ll go back to Boston and David to Texas. Thinking about this, I take a deep breath and try to stay calm.
I hate the exhaustion, the resentment I feel. Judith refuses to pay for assistance, when we know she easily could. She insists we handle everything and gets angry if we try to make time for ourselves. The lawn at our house is overgrown, tangled like an abandoned schoolyard. I’ve wrestled it all spring with a heavy old push mower, but last week it was hot and I was tired. I asked Jean-Paul to do it for once. Judith accused him of lying when he told her he had to stay home. She resents my marriage and my house, tries to shove them into insignificance. Any effort to protest is considered self-centered. It occurs to me that I am trapped in the ultimate amplification of an age-old battle: mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law. But my mother-in-law has a brain tumor. I am forced to forfeit.
Are these thoughts really crossing my mind? The woman is dying and I am arguing with her. More than that, I am competing with her. I am ashamed that I feel this way. I don’t even recognize myself.
Rivers of rain run down a cluster of white birch trees growing next to the porch. Tiny leaves bud on the branches, not yet open to the sky. The air, though damp, tastes fresh when I draw it into my lungs; I take slow, deep breaths, try to relax and get lost in the rhythm of the rain. It is cold, but my fleece jacket protects me from the chill. Thin cotton gloves shield my hands.
When I was a child I spent four weeks every year near this town, walking barefoot on sawdust paths, swimming in the cool, brown-tinted water of Baptist Pond. I dipped my hands in wet clay to make crooked pots, sang folk songs around late-night campfires, lay awake at night and stared at the stars through old window screens. Our camp was advertised as a “creative place for growing” and run like an anti-war peace rally. There was a lot of laughing and hugging and talk about friendship. We were encouraged to love one another like sisters and brothers. It was the freest, happiest time of my childhood. I climbed Mount Sunapee every summer back then; I wonder if that’s why I am drawn to it now. I feel a need to put one foot in front of the other again and go up, up, up to the place we once found, rescue myself from what feels so heavy and hard on the ground. I need to know there is still beauty somewhere. I need to know I am still capable of finding it, feeling it. But when I planned this trip, I didn’t count on the rain. I didn’t count on the way the tips of my fingers are turning icy and numb beneath my gloves right now. It feels as if fate always laughs in my face.
Just as the thought crosses my mind, something shifts. I hear it first, then see it. The hard pattering turns into pittering. The raindrops slow to a light drizzle. The ripples in the pools at the edge of the porch are less frequent, and soon disappear. Drip by drip the rain stops. The fog begins to lift, and I look out across the valley. Mount Sunapee has emerged from the clouds, its slopes wide and dramatic, green and dark, finally visible through the mist.
Jean-Paul’s face breaks into a smile, something I haven’t seen in a while. The weather has cleared, and I see the sun reflected on his cheeks as he steps out onto the porch. “Time for breakfast?” he asks.
Our footsteps echo on the wooden front porch as we make our way toward the lobby. Glancing up as we enter through the glass doors, the innkeeper greets us warmly from the office nearby, where he is doing paperwork. After checking out the offerings, we pile English muffins, butter and strawberry jam onto plates and sit down at the edge of a stone fireplace. The butter and jam taste sweet and sticky in my mouth, and the fresh-brewed coffee is smooth, piping hot. Colorful magazines advertise horseback riding, white water rafting, antique stores, and other summer attractions. I notice an ad for the Craftsman’s Fair, which will take place again this August.
The air is still humid and cold when we step back outside, so we dress in warm layers and hiking boots back in the room. Water, cheese, crackers and energy bars all go into the day pack. It’s time to climb the mountain.
Mount Sunapee is the centerpiece of a state park just a few miles away from the Burkehaven Inn. There is a huge parking lot at the base, but today, like the lake, the mountain is desolate. The lodge and restaurants are closed; everything is silent and still. Now just three cars are in sight, dotted around the edge of the parking lot. They look like shapes in the corner of a cubist painting, lonely, abandoned, a little forgotten.
The base of the mountain, much wider and grander than we can grasp from our vantage point inside the car, rises out of the ground toward the sky. We roll down our windows and lean out for a better view, but can only see a few hundred feet up the slopes. “I wonder if there are rules about hiking the mountain during the off-season,” I say, noticing no staff or park rangers in sight. Jean-Paul shrugs, uncertain.
We hear music coming from somewhere. Looking around, we realize the sound is pouring out of the windows of one of the restaurants, so we drive to the opposite side of the parking lot to investigate. Jean-Paul shuts off the engine and steps out of the car, walks over and knocks on the door. No one responds. He returns to the car and settles back into the driver’s seat. I look up again, notice that thick patches of wet, dirty snow still cling to the side of the mountain in spots, stubbornly resisting the onset of spring.
We sit silently for a couple of minutes, wondering what to do. Then a man emerges from behind one of the buildings. He is wearing a dark blue rain jacket, jeans and hiking boots, and is carrying a water bottle. Jean-Paul starts the car again and drives over to the man. “Hi there, do you know if it’s all right to hike up the mountain?” Jean-Paul asks, leaning his head out the car window.
“I just did,” the man responds with a smile. “No one ever bothers me. Do you know where the trail head is?” We shake our heads, and he points to an area behind an empty building which appears to house a closed ticket office or snack bar.
“It’s back there; there’s an orange traffic cone that marks the beginning.”
We thank him, park the car, and unload our daypack. Jean-Paul agrees to carry it first. He swings the pack over his shoulders and we start walking toward the trail.
The hiking trail on Mount Sunapee is not especially steep, technical or difficult, but any uphill climb takes time, especially when conditions aren’t perfect. We expect the hike to the summit to take two hours. Every inch of the trail is covered with exposed tree roots and thick piles of damp leaves. Navigating the path involves stepping over streams, circumventing fallen trees and occasionally stubbing our toes on wet rocks. We slip, time and again on dark, eroded soil. The effort requires concentration and persistence, so we plow forward largely in silence, pushing ourselves ever higher at a steady pace, breathing hard. Sometimes I find myself gasping for breath and have to stop for a minute. Now and then Jean-Paul pulls a water bottle out of the daypack so we can drink. I have a tendency to keep moving when I hike, to push and push and push to the top, because hiking is hard for me. I don’t have naturally strong lung capacity, and I’m afraid to admit it when something is hard for me. I don’t want to disappoint other people or myself, be something less than I’m expected to be, so I hike and I hike and I hike and I hike. My companions have to stop me and say, “Breathe, take a drink.”
Sweat pricks at our necks and dampens our backs. The air is fresh and clear, scented with pine, and Jean-Paul and I breathe it more deeply into our lungs. We can’t see much along the trail; a moody light trickles through the early spring leaves on either side of our path. Birds call to each other from the branches above our heads. With every step, my body and muscles feel warmer. My light rain slicker comes off first. I stuff it into the daypack. Further up the trail, I pull off my fleece and tie the sleeves around my waist. I no longer feel the cold, even on my face.
To be nearly alone on the mountain is eerie; toward the beginning of our trek one lone hiker nodded a silent hello as he passed, walking quickly, on his way back down the trail. About a half hour later two athletic, gray-haired women strode by with their dogs trotting happily down the mountain beside them. Since then we have encountered no one, and have hardly spoken to each other. We trudge on, put one foot in front of the other. Up, up, up.
Jean-Paul stops and points out a chipmunk he has noticed skirting through some leaves in the woods. I stop, too, and watch for a minute. We have been walking for nearly two hours now, and my muscles are tired. I am increasingly anxious for the end of the trail. Another hiker, the first one we’ve seen for ages, approaches on his way down the mountain.
“Are we close to the top?” Jean-Paul asks the man.
The hiker smiles, indicating with a quick nod the direction from which he just came. “It’s just there,” he says.
Just a few yards ahead, the trees recede. Suddenly we sense space all around us. We are at the summit, standing in front of a mountaintop ski lodge, surrounded by wide expanses of green. Breathing hard, I look around eagerly to see the view, but beyond the lodge and the lifts I see nothing. A thick gray mist still hangs around the mountain. I can see that Jean-Paul has noticed the same thing.
My eyes meet his, and we burst out laughing. All that hard work for nothing! We’ve hiked to the top, and there is no view. We laugh and we laugh. It is just too much. Maybe, in the end, there is no reward. Still, we jump, one by one, and land with our legs spread out and our arms stretching up to the sky. None of this is what I dreamed it would be, but suddenly that is okay.
Jean-Paul is here. The mountain is here. I am still here. We celebrate as if we’ve reached the top of Everest.
Memory for A.V.F., Jemez Pueblo
Late afternoon, March. Snow fell hard in Santa Fe’s Old Town square, chunks tumbling past adobe walls. The Indian vendors sat on the wide stone floor Palace of the Governors porch displaying silver and turquoise jewelry, pottery, blankets. The artists leaned against adobe walls, wrapped in blankets. The few tourists wore fur hats, puffy down jackets and sheepskin boots, strolled and chatted, glancing down at the wares. But to touch the merchandise, they must bend over, or squat. I’ve never caught any of the vendors grinning, but their eyes twinkle.
You were almost at the end of the row, beginning to pack your painted clay figurines in old newspaper. I sat at your blanket’s corner, away from the walkers. You told me the stylized painting on the turtle’s back is a daisy; I liked the look in her eye and your signature on the bottom, and paid you without quibbling.
Three women-in-a-hurry stopped, grabbing three figurines each, standing up to show them to each other, chirping about the prices. They juggled the clay, asked about prices, bumped each other, reached for their purses, asked again, offered less.
You triple-wrapped my turtle. I nodded and smiled; you smiled back. The women shuffled money as I struggled upright, cold stabbing my knees.
Our fifty-mile drive to Albuquerque took two hours in the four feet of snow. Newscasts narrated the problems: roads closed, houses snowed under, electricity off, residents out of wood. I looked up Jemez Pueblo: Closed to the public says my guidebook. Good.
“How do you kneel on this cold stone all day in this weather?” I’d asked.
“Because I have to,” you answered.
Timmy, who sits in front of me on the bus, has fuzzy cropped hair that’s so white it’s almost transparent. After school, we sled down steep hills, throw ice-hard snowballs, get lost in the frozen woods. All winter we are safe. Then, in April, on a hot, green afternoon, a softball slams into Timmy’s head. He’s in a coma for two weeks, then dies. Our teacher says the death of a child is the worst kind of sorrow. For the rest of fifth grade, nobody sits in front of me on the bus.
Pacing the banks of the Hudson, starving polar bears wait for the Bay to freeze so they can stroll to where ringed seals maintain breathing holes in the ice cover. When the 200-pound seals surface to breathe, the bears will hook and swat them from the sea, send them flying across the ice, fight them to their death. Until the Bay freezes, however, the great white bears must conserve energy. Sows lounge on snowbanks: listless cubs somersault slowly; yearlings nap on mattresses at the town dump; boars pace: They wait for ice: thick thick ice.
We depart from the biological station for the Bay in a Ford Bluebird, tractor tires on the wheels, steel bars across the windows, carbon-dioxide exhaust fumes opaque in the chill. Polar bears gather around the bus. Do we smell like seals, laugh like seals, and, like seals, watch them with nervous, unblinking eyes? They study the steel bars across the windows, wondering, perhaps, how to slip an arm through so they can fish one of us out. When one bear presses his nose against my window, I sorrowfully notice that the white fur on his snout and forehead is transparent.
Days And Nights Of San Miguel
Roosters crow and the plaza comes to life every morning with newsboys, tourists, pigeons and grackles, prayers of the pilgrims, the balloon man, the cigarette lady, the horse with his blinders. Men stride through dressed for business in fresh-shined shoes. Cement façades are yellow gold, burnt red/orange, and keep still as clouds drift across the sun and shadows hover, persist. Rays of light fall from the sky, which is deep blue where it is not white with giant cumulus puffs. Black rain clouds move in, threatening, wind blows balloon streamers, smoke rises from tortilla barbecues, heads turn upward. The spires of La Parroquia point ever upright, smoothed by time and wind, pink walls muted by the rhythmic fall of light and shadow, day and night. San Miguel de Allende, where they were digging up the cobblestones that year, stabilizing foundations, replacing stones in the exact same spots, to be walked on, driven over, neglected, smoothed by footfall, tire treads, time and sunlight. Every gallery is full of art; each generation interprets same sights in new styles, with fresh eyes, pens, techniques, and shades of green. Silver is mined and shaped anew, to suit new tastes, fashions, geometries: spirals, hands, triangles, squares. Earth renews its gardens, women nurse newborns, they cry, learn to walk, trail clowns on wheels, run off, kiss, take vows, photograph moments, die, and nothing changes. Roosters crow and the plaza comes to life every morning, rays of light fall from the sky....
In the air "As Time Goes By," a sentimental version with flute and violin. Everyone has been here before, lulls and conversations, foreign tongues, sizzling food prepared, consumed, discarded: lunch in the courtyard. Steady flow of a fountain, circulating water up and over round carved stone stacked in layers. Someone has placed a bouquet of flowers, pink daisies and a single rose, under the wet stream; they are drenched in the sun, dying, and they soak it all in. A cactus garden, tile landscape mosaic, yellow finches in cages on the garden wall, carved-out log spilling moss, sprouting ferns, bougainvillea and geraniums blooming in large pots, burlap strung from eaves and hung parallel to the sky providing shade, wind chimes dangle silent, awaiting breezes. Everything about the future feels possible, everything about the past nostalgic.
On summer streets at 11pm all kinds of people are out walking, arguing, kissing in doorways, searching. Follow ears to music, it spills from doorways, blares from cars, pulses like heartbeats. Restaurants line the streets, a bevy of choices, crowded with hungry humans seated outdoors. The night is warm, groups down shots of tequila, pound glasses on tables with loud exhales and drama, couples quietly sip liqueurs, families fidget over late meals. In each place: a keyboard, saxophone, guitar, violin. Blues ("no blues tonight"), jazz ("too sedate"), Mexican rock ("harsh") then, at the last small restaurant ringing the plaza, a female vocalist crooning gypsy salsa. Exotic, dark-haired beauty with crocheted black blouse and red bell bottoms, super high heels, breathes into the mike, dark body all dynamic charge. Enter the sphere of music, encompassing rhythm, everyone drinking, talking, loudly singing along when they know the words. In ones and twos they start moving in time. That beautiful Spanish man in the corner is moved, he strides across the space, asks with his eyes then extends a hand. As time goes by now the two dance as everyone does, smiling and alive in the steamy nighttime air
The nights are lit by candles, moonlight and stars, flare of cigarettes, neon. Music, always music, at a distance now, in some late-night disco or aimless cars bumping over uneven stone streets, songs flying from windows. Dark past midnight and walls come down, restaurants close, lock up, carts wheel away. Couples go home. Singles wander. The night is a pitch black beast humping itself, life force gyrating bodies in after-hours clubs, new couples groping in backseats and alleyways, tongue lashings on street corners.
"If you love me," the teenage girl says, "you would.... "
What? The conversation drifts in passing.
If he loved her, what would he do?
The taxi is waiting, her girlfriend says, "Come on...."
She leaves the boy with that big if....
He doesn't know what she wants.
... is on its knees with nothing, in the aisle of the giant church. Outside the tourists stroll, pockets full of money. Faith the beggar is young and her baby is already standing, reaching for empty breasts. She is on her knees in the church aisle with the hungry baby reaching, praying.
In the front chapel, rows of arms raise to the ceiling, imploring in Spanish, for what? Faith?
... is an old lady pinning her dead girl's photo to the robe of bleeding Jesus, whose eyes pay no attention but the statue is covered with pinned photos of gone children.
Faith is in the confessional, genuflections, the sign of the cross, a poor woman feeding pesos into a collection box, rosaries on rearviews.
The smallest children work the streets: a shoebox of small painted turtles with bouncing heads, an arm lined with cheap stringed beads, penny-sized packets of Chiclets. They don't know faith, already know life takes work.
Old old women crouch in doorways, hands out, holding faith: some passerby will discharge himself of the weight of foreign money and deliver coins to their palms on his last day in town. Old old men will crawl along the filthy ground of the mercado at the end of the daywhen the vendor has already sold the best goods and long gone home, leaving scraps of wilting greens, chamomile flowers, lettuce, delivered from yesterday's harvest. The gleaners arrive after all the money has been exchanged, when what is here will become theirs if they drop to their knees to pick amongst the discards.
The flower seller has faith, the purveyor of masa, the clown, mariachi...
Gringos pass by, smiling, faithless. They have everything they need, except faith.
Twilight in the jardin, saxophone notes: summertime and the livin' is easy, far away then the player shows himself: tweaker teen, same in all countries: tattooed, long hair, Give Peace a Chance tee shirt, hangs with buddies, brash and shy. Balloon man finally makes a sale: green inflatable dragon. Couple on bench in silent fight, tense unspoken, she wronged, him guilty, at impasse. Beggar ladies recognize each other, chat nonstop, gesturing, smiling with crooked teeth. Sunset glows over rooftop terrace bar. Crowds gather for Festival de Santa Beatriz, surround three-stories-tall iron structure they spent the day assembling, lying on its side on the church plaza then embedded upright in the middle of the street on one of the busiest corners in town. Loud trumpet, Mexican band demands attention then first sparklers are lit as men hold matches to strands of the structure and it whirls, throws debris, sparks magic. Oooh aaah as it spins, rows of whirls ignite, explode, shoot off one by one, whoosh on up to the topmost circle of lighted stars and then a final extravagant display leaps to sky. Boom boom the music plays, smoke burns eyes, boys bike through flights of fire, sparks fly near electric wires, falling embers shower the crowds, and all is well in San Miguel.
Men carry sleeping children home, hold their aging mother's hand.
Men slouch with caps on backward, pierced eyebrows, pants hang low.
Men slink, invisible, pretend to be no one (like the writer).
Days they pound sledgehammers on stones; middle of the night they're all flesh and bones.
In the dark the candles burn themselves out. The roosters aren't crowing yet. The streets are momentarily quiet.