The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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When I first came to this mountain town in central Mexico a year ago — bored and dissatisfied with myself and my American surroundings — I was eager to learn about a group of thirty or so imigrantes, American expatriates, who gathered daily in the lobby of the Hotel Jardin. I imagined them to be desperadoes, dope dealers, derelicts, CIA operatives, war criminals, and colorful revolutionaries. I was somewhat disappointed to discover that every one of them was retired, a responsible pensioner, the youngest of them fifteen years my senior. Nevertheless, expatriate being a polite term for misfit, I fit right in and made lasting friendships all around.
On a Saturday morning in late February, my tenth month living in this town, I walked the mile from my house to the hotel in search of a poker game. Eight or nine imigrantes, armed with coffee cups, were assembled in the lobby. I gestured to the sweet-faced waitress for coffee and took a seat next to Tomás, an eighty-one-year-old retired welder and bar owner from Arizona. He had just returned from three months in San Francisco, where it had rained the whole time and his daughter had kicked him out of the house.
“Thought there might be a poker game on,” I said.
Tomás turned toward Joe, who was sitting across the lobby, and called out, “Let’s play tonight!”
Old Joe was a retired mapmaker, tall and rail thin, with owl-like spectacles covering his frosty gray eyes. He shook his head. He did not like unscheduled events. An ex-Marine, he was almost ritualistic about his daily routine.
“C’mon. I’ll give you the money,” offered Tomás.
Joe lifted the Reader’s Digest that he used as a lid to keep his coffee hot and took a sip. “Monday,” he said.
I think Joe liked me, though you never knew for sure what he thought or felt, since he volunteered almost nothing about himself. He had a New England accent, but only by his license plates did I know he was from Vermont. He sat every morning in the hotel lobby, gaunt and straight, hands on knees, offering little but the occasional dry joke. At noon, he went to lunch, then repaired to one of three bars, where he sat like a granite sculpture until dinner. He was not close to anyone. There had once been a woman who was going to join him in Mexico, but Joe had stopped talking about her two years ago.
Recently, Joe had surprised me by offering to get me some peyote. Ever since I’d read Carlos Castaneda’s magic “anthropology” books at age nineteen, I’d longed to try that granddaddy of psychedelics. I had sampled nearly every other drug of my generation, including forty types of LSD, “green mescaline,” indolealkylamine-soaked table mushrooms (passed off as psilocybin), and methylene-dioxyamphetamine — all molecular imitations of mescaline, the active component in peyote — but the genuine article had always eluded me. Many people in the mountains of middle Mexico use peyote in solution to treat arthritis. It is also central to the religious practices of the Huicholes, a local Indian tribe. I wondered if Joe had arthritis; he didn’t seem the type to be experimenting with hallucinogens. I imagined he had a Huichol source. He said the peyote would cost me five pesos, about fifty-five cents. I think he was going out of his way for me.
At a Super Bowl party a few weeks later, I saw Joe sitting at the kitchen table playing dominoes. He gestured me over and produced a plastic bag with what looked like a moldy orange inside.
“Here’s what you wanted,” he said.
“Thanks a lot,” I said, thinking it was a joke, somebody’s lunch garbage. I wasn’t thinking about the peyote. I gave the bag back.
About three weeks later, at a poker game, I mentioned the peyote to Joe again.
“I gave it to you already,” he said.
“I gave it to you.”
“At the Super Bowl party.”
“That was peyote?”
I’d never seen peyote before, but I knew it came in “buttons,” not big, moldy greenish balls.
“I told you it was what you wanted,” he said.
“I didn’t know it was peyote,” I said. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“What was I supposed to do? Advertise it to everyone?”
“Do you still have it?” I said.
“Sure, I’m using it for a doorstop,” he said.
On Monday, Tomás and I drove over to Les’s house at the edge of town for the poker game. Big Les was a retired safety inspector from Oklahoma who’d once been offered a contract by the Green Bay Packers, and the last person you’d expect to see wearing a dress, but there he sat, counting his pesos at the kitchen table, with a slinky silk sarong wrapped around his waist. To the right of Les sat Ismael, a retired logger with dual U.S.–Mexican citizenship. He had recently totaled his truck on the way back from visiting his daughter in California, and now he had to wear a neck brace, though he could stand to have it on only about two hours a day.
“I hope you brought plenty of money with you,” Ismael said.
“Deal the cards,” said Tomás.
For the first time in anyone’s memory, Joe was late. The four of us kept turning our heads toward the door, listening for the squeak of the iron gate.
“Not like him,” said Ismael.
“Maybe we should go over and get him,” I said.
“No, he’ll show,” said Les.
To the east, the sky grew dark, and thunder rolled. Ismael drank two of my beers, and I walked to the store to buy more. The wind blew in stiff gusts that seemed to come from every direction at once. The air was heavy and damp. A flash of lightning split the clouds. Everyone in these mountains knows that when a storm appears to the east, it never rains. Also, rain in late February is rare in that part of the country. On the way back, I asked two men huddled against a cement wall if they thought it would rain. They said it would.
“I guess Joe is not going to show,” Les said when I returned.
“He probably forgot,” said Tomás.
“Too bad he doesn’t have a phone,” said Ismael, peeling off his neck brace and setting it on the floor.
Raindrops began to tick against the dusty windows.
On Tuesday morning, I went to the Hotel Jardin, and someone mentioned that there had been no sign of Joe since Saturday, three days ago. Concerned, Les and I drove over to Joe’s apartment. Like many American expatriates, Joe lived alone. The windows were shut tight. His ’89 Mercury Sable (with vanity plates that read, AMIGO) was parked out front, still splotched from the previous day’s rainstorm. Les and I knocked on the door and tried to peer in through the windows. We made more excuses for him: He’s off on an excursion. He’s met a little lady. He’s on a drunk. He’s at the cathouse.
“But what are the odds of any of these?” I said.
“Pretty slim,” Les admitted. “Sometimes he goes to the border without telling anyone, but he would’ve taken his car.”
We talked to the woman who ran the little grocery store next door, where Joe went every day for cigarettes and beer. She, too, had not seen Joe for three days. She seemed worried. We knocked once more on Joe’s door.
“Do you smell anything?” said Les.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“I’ll stop by later tonight,” he said, “and see if there’s a light on.”
I said I would come by after school and check on him — I tutored local students in English at night.
“If he doesn’t show up,” Les said, “we’ll come over in the morning and find the landlady.”
I walked away, my head filled with questions: What if he’s inside and disabled? What if he’s had a stroke, or slipped and broke his hip in the shower? How long would he last? What would he think of his friends laughing and sniffing indelicately outside his door? Why am I not doing something? What if that were me in there?
But then I thought: How many times have I let my imagination get the better of me? How many times have I thought the worst and been wrong?
It was a hot, sunny afternoon, February 29, the odd day of the leap year. At my local grocery store, I met a thirty-six-year-old man who was celebrating his ninth birthday. I drank two Victorias with him in honor of Gregorian calendar reform. Then I bought a six-pack of Milky Way bars, a mango, a bag of limes, and three serrano peppers. It felt unusually good to be alive.
On the way home, I ran into Bob, a retired typewriter repairman and porno novelist, who was headed on his bicycle down to the town’s only car lot. A road crew was just finishing up a four-lane road in front of my house, and a man roped horizontally to the tailgate of a slow-moving truck was using a spray gun to carefully lay a perfect coat of yellow paint over the new curbs. The air smelled dizzily of fresh paint. Bob and I swapped a few toxic-inhalant stories, marveled at the ingenuity of the road crew, and remarked that the town was beginning to look a little like Bakersfield.
“I heard Joe hasn’t been to the hotel for three days,” Bob said.
“That’s right,” I said.
“Not like him,” he said.
“Les and I went by his place today. Shut up tight. Car still out front.”
“Probably took off for Michoacán or something.”
“Probably,” I said. “Couldn’t possibly be lying dead in there. . . .”
That night at the school, I had a lull between two of my four scheduled students, so I went down to chat with Tomás, who sat in the plaza every evening and passed the time with Raymundo, the shoeshine man. When I told Tomás about Joe, he mentioned that Joe had a heart condition but refused to take his medication. A normal pulse rate is sixty to eighty beats per minute. Joe’s was 110. He was also a heavy cigarette smoker. We both shook our heads. I lit a Delicado, a cheap but hearty unfiltered Mexican cigarette with sugar in the paper. Raymundo watched us intently, not understanding our conversation, but knowing something was wrong.
“He’s probably dead,” said Tomás.
At eight o’clock, my last student canceled. On the way home, I stopped at Joe’s apartment. The place was ominously dark, still shut up tight, without the faintest sign of life. The car was still there. I knocked, waited, knocked again. I thought I smelled something now, though that neighborhood was always full of strong odors: the slaughterhouse was not far away; the “river,” though dry, was essentially an open sewer; and the so-called humane society was constantly poisoning stray dogs, whose corpses were not always immediately recovered. I wondered if Les had been by yet. I knocked again and compiled another list of frail excuses.
I walked home distractedly, knowing that, whatever happened tonight, I would not sleep. Ismael lived two blocks from me. I saw him sitting out front, visibly sore-necked and not wearing his brace, talking with two of his Mexican neighbors. I went over and told them about Joe.
“He lives alone?” one neighbor asked.
Ismael’s neighbors began talking rapidly to each other about Americans who came to Mexico to live alone — something that was unthinkable to them, a disgrace reserved for locos and drunks. They talked as if living alone were a cause of death in itself. All the while, I was nagged by the possibility that Joe might be alive, a dim spark in the darkness, a flutter of fingers, a moan.
“What are you going to do?” asked Ismael.
I told him that Les and I were going over in the morning to find the landlady.
“I’ll go over with you,” he said.
I stared at the ground for a minute. “I think there’s a chance he might still be alive,” I said. “If he’s alive now, he probably won’t be tomorrow.”
Ismael glanced at his watch. “What do you want to do?”
“I think we should act.”
“It might be too late to find the landlady,” he said.
“Why don’t you call the police?” suggested one of the neighbors.
A good idea, except I wasn’t prepared to make it official, and besides, I didn’t trust the police in Mexico. Any man who is paid the equivalent of two hundred dollars a month and equipped with a gun in a country where graft is the rule and no one else is permitted to have firearms can only be expected to behave like a highwayman.
Nevertheless, we went inside Ismael’s house and called the police. The first three times, we got no answer. “Of course. Who would need a policeman at 8:30 P.M.?” grumbled Ismael.
On the fourth try, we got through.
The police arrived in a brand-new white Ford F-250 pickup. I rode in the back, clutching the roll bar, the wind pressing back my hair. The cop in back with me asked, in Spanish, “You live here?”
“Where are you from?”
“I was born in Denver.”
“Oh.” He nodded with a kind of polite geographical indifference. “Colorado.”
We were at Joe’s apartment inside of two minutes. I hopped out and knocked on the green metal door again, certain that gaunt and imperturbable Joe would answer in his maroon terry-cloth bathrobe and make a fool of me. The geographically indifferent cop grimaced and waved his hand in front of his face. “The smell,” he said. I still thought the smell could be coming from elsewhere. The cops jabbered on their radios and interviewed the woman who ran the store next door. Neighbors appeared in doorways, arms folded over their chests. We crossed the street and rapped for ten minutes on the door of a neighbor who supposedly knew the whereabouts of the landlady. Roused at last, she gave us the address of the building’s owners, who lived across town.
Two officers were dispatched to locate the owners and retrieve a duplicate key. I bought a pack of Delicados at the store and stood with Ismael at the edge of the street. He was plainly distressed. Bad things happened to people who lived alone, and he lived alone, too — one of several unfortunate habits he’d picked up during his thirty years in the States. “I don’t have the stomach for this,” he said, tugging down on the bill of his cap. I kept lighting up Delicados. I was nervous because I knew that if Joe was dead, I would have to identify the body, and if he was dead, he had probably been dead for a long time.
A German shepherd patrolled the flat rooftop of Joe’s apartment, barking at all the activity. (Barking rooftop dogs are a common presence in Mexico.) The crowd of spectators grew. A parade of police units passed us by, radios chattering. The geographically indifferent policeman explained to us that someone had been stabbed in a bar on the other side of town.
The building’s owners were found, but no duplicate key. Ismael knew of a way into Joe’s apartment from the rooftop, which was accessible through the store next door. Three policemen entered the store and appeared a few minutes later on the rooftop. I didn’t believe they would get into Joe’s apartment. Hours seemed to pass before one of the cops, a thickset man with a Stalinesque mustache, reappeared at the edge of the roof with a handkerchief over his mouth. He spit over the side. “Está muerto,” he announced: He’s dead. “Está in la cocina”: He’s in the kitchen.
It should not have been a surprise. Where did I think Joe would be: sitting in a thatched bar in Puerto Vallarta with a lovely divorcee from St. Bernard, Wisconsin?
Another ten minutes passed before the lights went on in Joe’s apartment. The front door burst open, and the three policemen exited, coughing and watery eyed, as if they’d been gassed. They left the door open. I felt lost.
The thickset policeman came over and described the scene to us: Joe had been sitting at the kitchen table doing his taxes — “Probably what killed him,” Ismael muttered — and had fallen somehow. There was quite a bit of blood on the floor. He had been dead for two or three days.
Now all the policemen drew notepads. They needed to know Joe’s last name, age, marital status, occupation, next of kin, and so on. I was ashamed that I could answer none of their questions. I had talked to Joe on a hundred occasions, sat with him for hours at the hotel and at poker games, and I’d never even learned his last name. I guessed that he was sixty-seven. I was fairly certain that he’d been born in Boston. I thought he’d flown a fighter plane in the Korean War.
Ismael didn’t know the answers either, but he thought Les might. A policeman gave me a ride over to Les’s house. Les lived alone, too; not even any pets — his dog had recently been poisoned. He didn’t appear to be home. Probably dead, too, I thought. Then I saw the television glowing in the darkness. I knocked, and Les answered the door shirtless, buckling his pants over his big belly.
“Joe’s dead,” I said.
“I knew it,” he said.
“I thought you might be able to tell the police who he is.”
The cop followed me inside. Les wrote Joe’s last name on a napkin, then put on a shirt and went to get his shoes.
Les knew almost as little about Joe as Ismael and I did. The three of us stood in the middle of the street staring at the open door. By now, there were a dozen cops, four or five emergency vehicles, and twenty or thirty bystanders gathered. A woman barely five feet tall appeared and began interviewing us. She had the collar of her jacket pulled up over her nose as if she were braving a Siberian snowstorm. At first, I thought she was a curious bystander, but she turned out to be the leader of the operation: the queen of the ghoul crew. She had an entourage of seven humorless plainclothes officers, one of whom had an automatic pistol stuck conspicuously down the front of his pants.
Hours passed. The air grew cold. The stars in the sky glittered like crushed blue ice. Countless cars, half of them with Texas or California plates, went by playing incongruous accordion-and-trumpet music. The door to Joe’s apartment was still wide open. Most of the police officers assigned to the scene were sitting on the curb, smoking and talking among themselves. I gave up trying to understand what we were waiting for. Les and Ismael began telling jokes. Les rattled off several consecutive Martian jokes. I didn’t laugh. “What’s the matter?” he said. “Don’t you like Martian jokes?”
“Our friend is lying in there dead on the floor,” I said, “and you’re telling jokes.”
“What else are you going to do?” Les said.
A kid sailed by on a bicycle with a shining, metallic bag of chips in his teeth.
Ismael said that he thought Joe had a daughter.
“What if that daughter were here now?” I said. “This is inhuman.”
“It’s just Mexico,” said Les.
“I hope I die before my children do,” said Ismael.
The vehicle that was to take Joe to the morgue arrived around half past midnight. There was no indication that the investigating medical team would be any more expeditious than the droves of officials who’d preceded them. All of us, police, friends, and even the bystanders, were weary by now. We wanted to be done with it. Dust to dust. Call the daughter. Sign the death certificate. Hoist a farewell drink. Sometimes I wonder if one of the functions of bureaucracy in such cases isn’t to numb the bereaved.
Joe was in ghastly shape. He lay on his side beneath an empty bird cage; Sonny, his songbird, had died two months before. I had seen corpses before, but never one ripened three days in a warm, shut-up room. The smell was overpowering.
Photographs were snapped, examinations made, and more reports filled out. Les battled for Joe’s wallet — he knew it was unlikely that the money would be returned — but the queen of the ghoul crew insisted the police retain it. It would be returned, she assured us. (And it was, sans sixty-five dollars.) While the medical team worked on Joe’s bloated body, we sorted through his belongings looking for letters, address books — anything on which a relative’s name might be found.
Finally, the body was loaded into the wagon for transportation to Zacatecas, the state capital, where an autopsy would be performed and the body stored in a freezer until we could notify next of kin. Since Ismael was a native, he took legal responsibility for settling Joe’s affairs in Mexico. We decided to call the relatives in the morning. It was almost 2 A.M. Joe had been dead for three days. Another day wouldn’t matter.
On Wednesday morning, we notified Joe’s girlfriend, the closest person to a relative listed in his nearly empty address book. This was the woman who had promised to come live with him in Mexico. She didn’t seem surprised at the news. Then came the warm gleam of sadness in her voice. She said Joe had a surviving brother and sister, neither of whom he’d been close to. He had also once been married, but that was long ago, and there was no sign of the ex-wife. The girlfriend said she would notify everyone concerned and get back to us about the arrangements. She had never even come to visit him, though they had lived together in Vermont for seventeen years.
When we got to the hotel that morning, almost everyone had already heard the news, but the story was oddly altered: Joe had bled to death. I was the one who had climbed down through the rooftop and discovered the body. A passerby had recognized me among the throng of police and reported that I’d been arrested. I would not have been surprised to hear that I was the prime suspect in the case.
For those who hadn’t heard the news, the first question was: How did he die? We said we didn’t know — we were waiting for the autopsy results — but we were fairly certain it was a heart attack or a stroke. He had probably died instantly. We attempted to minimize the amount of blood, any suggestion of struggle, and the state of decomposition. It’s all right to lie when painting the last scene for friends.
The mood was somber at first, a kind of pallid, labored clapping of the eyelids. You could almost see the inward mortal thoughts of Joe’s fellow gringos, all of them retired, all far from home, many living alone: Should I move back in with my children in Austin? Should I swallow my pride and marry that old girl in Los Alamos? If I died or fell in my kitchen, how long would it take for someone to find me?
But, gradually and steadily, the mood improved. News of the death of someone not terribly close to you is often vitalizing: Old Joe is gone, but I live on. Gary, a retired newspaper editor who had recently decided to return to the States for surgery on a cyst that he was certain was cancerous, began to laugh. His big teeth glittered. His eyes danced with light. Gary laughed because he had thought it was his turn. Joe had died in his stead. Joe had died for us all. There was much levity all around, the energy of the blood sacrifice.
The girlfriend called back that afternoon and said she would be flying down. Les described the three options for disposition of the body: shipment in a coffin to the States, which might cost as much as ten thousand dollars and take as long as six months; local burial, the conventional choice; or cremation, which was almost unheard-of in Mexico. We needed to move soon, he said, before the state took Joe’s body. A state burial, he explained, was not desirable.
For the rest of the day, Les, Ismael, and I lingered behind the tall gates of bureaucracy in various unlabeled rooms where teams of typists hammered away under high white ceilings, taking down the same information the cops had gleaned from us over and over in triplicate the night before. It was almost dark by the time the carbon was pulled from the last typewriter, but we had hardly begun. We had no death certificate, no medical report, no documentation of authority for the disposition of body or belongings — nothing, really, but a Delicado headache and a firm distaste for ever dying.
The three of us drove to a good restaurant with fifty unoccupied tables. Ismael said dinner was on him. My friends’ faces were radiant, like those of lost boys gathered around a campfire in a dark forest. I could not help but admire the chef in his immaculate cook whites working busily among the shining pans, so happy that we had come to eat in his empty restaurant. Les told a joke about a disgusting baker: The punch line was “You think that’s bad, you should see him make doughnuts.”
“Why do the Americans always live alone?” asked Ismael.
“Because relationships in America are impossible,” I said.
“They’re not impossible,” Les said. “I’ve been married three times.”
The next morning, we went over to clean up Joe’s apartment in anticipation of the girlfriend’s arrival. The kitchen smelled like a butcher shop. The blood, about a pint’s worth, had hardened into a brick-colored puddle on the tile floor. Les reached down, plucked Joe’s red-dipped spectacles out of the dried pool, and set them on the microwave. Except for the spilled blood, the place was very neat. There was a solitaire game, of a form unfamiliar to me, in progress on the glass-topped kitchen table. The tax forms had been pushed aside. The face-up cards were all clubs and spades.
We emptied the refrigerator: a jar of strawberry mermelada, a quart of milk, sliced hard salami, Fud (pronounced “food”) brand hot dogs and bacon, smoked chuletas (pork chops), about two pounds of good Veracruz coffee, a package of individually wrapped American-cheese slices, some curling-from-age corn tortillas, a moldy piece of cheese, two withered red apples, a small plastic bottle of Thousand Island dressing, a packet of Blue Ice. No peyote.
I filled a bucket with water, poured in half a cup of Clorox, and began to mop at the blood, which behaved as if it were dried red paint. Les and Ismael returned to municipal headquarters to joust with the civil servants. Tomás showed up and rummaged disinterestedly through Joe’s belongings. Tomás’s two best friends had died recently, six days apart, one in similar circumstances to Joe (it had been five days between death and discovery), and he seemed only weary of death. I poured one bloody bucketful of bleach water after another down the kitchen sink, managing to spill some on my shorts. After the mess was cleaned up, I began to look idly about for the peyote, not stating my intentions to Tomás; I didn’t want to look like a scavenger. I surreptitiously peeked in hats and boots and plastic containers. I sifted through drawers. No luck.
A few vultures flapped around the open front door. “Any items for sale?” they inquired. I set the box of groceries outside.
Later that day, we learned that the girlfriend was not coming after all. Ismael was given power of attorney, by fax from the brother, to dispose of Joe’s worldly possessions, which were: a stove, a small refrigerator, a microwave, a small television set, a bed, an outboard motor, an ’89 Mercury Sable, a glass-topped kitchen table with chairs, and miscellaneous tools, books, clothes, and household goods. Ismael assured the brother that the sale price of the car would cover the cost of the funeral. More power-of-attorney documents were faxed. A will was discovered: Joe had requested that his ashes be scattered over a lake in Middleton, Vermont.
On Friday morning, the medical report finally appeared. Cause of death was listed as myocardial infarction (heart attack) compounded by atherosclerosis (Marlboro Lights and Fud hot dogs).
Shortly after noon, we drove to the capital city of Zacatecas, about forty-five minutes away. It was a crisp, bright blue day. Zacatecas, half again as high in altitude as Denver, Colorado, is reminiscent of San Francisco, with its steep, winding, narrow streets. The crematorium was a sprawling new facility, as empty as a funeral parlor on the moon. The proprietor gave us a short tour, informing us that the ovens alone had cost 193,000 to build. (I wondered if he meant pesos or dollars.) He said there had been only a hundred cremations in the past two years, about one a week. Despite the Pope’s reluctant stamp of approval, Mexicans were still pretty cool toward cremation, the proprietor said, but Catholic sentiment and Mexican tradition would probably change. Especially since it’s only three hundred bucks, total package, I thought.
We followed the hearse through the hilly, crowded streets to the morgue, which was heavily guarded by smirking plainclothes officers who seemed to enjoy telling us we could not enter. “All we want is a dead body,” we said. They told us to park up the hill while they let the hearse through. Joe, who was supposed to have been stored in refrigeration (I’d pictured a nice, clean drawer, tag on left toe), had been dropped on the tile floor like an old bowling trophy, seemingly unmoved since the day they’d transported him. Badly distended, he was balloon bellied and toad black. His nearly severed tongue lolled out the side of his mouth, probably the origin of all the blood. His bulging, frosty eyes were almost colorless. None of the policemen was interested in helping us load him into the hearse. There is nothing on earth to match the smell of a decomposing human being, going on the seventh day.
The proprietor of the crematorium told us it would take four and a half hours to incinerate the body. Les asked if it would be possible to retrieve Joe’s Marine Corps ring. As a piece of jewelry, it was virtually worthless, but Les thought it might be important as a memento. The proprietor explained that the ring could not be removed because of the advanced state of rigor mortis. Les suggested that the finger be cut off. The proprietor said he was not in the habit of mutilating corpses.
“You’re going to turn him into a pile of ashes anyway,” Les said.
The proprietor shrugged.
Whatever is left of that ring probably lies in brass beads at the bottom of a lake in Middleton, Vermont.
Late Saturday morning, we returned for Joe’s ashes. They were in a square, brown, wood-grain polystyrene box, like something from Radio Shack. Joe weighed about eight or nine pounds, all told. I considered the cremation scams that had been uncovered lately by war-starved investigative journalists. Whose ashes were these, really? But then again, what difference did it make? Ashes are ashes. The real Joe, the quiet, dry-witted retired mapmaker and ex-Marine from Vermont, was already long gone.
On the ride back, I thought about how little Joe and I had in common. Our ages, tastes, geographies, and backgrounds were all different. But one day someone would probably find me sprawled over a table in a motel in North Dakota, or swollen like a blackberry on the floor of a hut in Thailand, one more cold, dead American, alone and far away from home.
On Sunday, we sorted and divided Joe’s belongings. The apartment now smelled only cheesy. As legal executor, Ismael took Joe’s car, microwave, refrigerator, camera, and tools. Les grabbed the stove, color TV, outboard motor, and two harmonicas with instruction books (How to Play the Harmonica in One Hour with Your Eyes Closed, or something like that). Another imigrante showed up with a truck and some helpers to get the furniture.
I, the superstitious one, took nothing. The idea of deriving benefit from someone’s death seemed distasteful. I wanted only the peyote, which was technically mine, anyway. I intended to write an account of Joe’s passing titled “Essay Written on a Dead Man’s Peyote,” a magical memento mori that, even if it wasn’t any good, might succeed by virtue of its title alone. I was still convinced the peyote was somewhere in these rooms, carefully hidden, a little ready-made packet of unrevealed truth.
“Seems a shame to leave all this stuff to the buzzards,” Les said to me. “At least you knew him. Don’t you need anything?”
I did need razor blades, which were expensive in Mexico. And I took the razor, because mine was shot. After that, it was easy: a radio/cassette player, a stack of towels, a twelve-pack of toilet paper. I also grabbed a five-gallon water bottle and Joe’s beautiful Indian-blue fleece pullover (made in Taiwan, washing instructions in Spanish), which I thought I would give to my father. Most of Joe’s books were westerns or adventure novels, but there were a few exceptions: an anthology of Latin American short stories; Death Ship, by B. Traven (who wrote Treasure of the Sierra Madre); and The Old Gringo, by Carlos Fuentes, a novel prophetically punctuated by the line “The Old Gringo came to Mexico to die.” I put all but the water bottle in two American Tourister suitcases, which I imagined would come in handy when I moved, as usual, in a few weeks.
After that, I went home and sat alone in my rooms among the inventory of a dead man’s belongings. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” John Donne wrote. Especially after I make a cheap run on his personal effects, I thought. I was unimpressed with myself, as usual, and after a while I went to bed, something people who live alone often do in the middle of the day.
I was tired and fell asleep easily. I had a dream that I found the peyote in one of the suitcases. The “button” was chocolate covered and packed with useful fortune-cookie phrases, none of which I can remember. Then Old Joe came to me out of a river of fog. He was spectrally thin and dressed like a parson, and he had a stack of maps under his arm. He was “in a hurry to get to work,” he said, but he wanted to let me know that everything was all right. “How are they treating you?” I asked, but he just nodded, already fading. I managed to scribble down some of what was written on the maps under his arm: secrets of the realm beyond. I put the scrap in my left pocket. When I woke up, all the windows in my house were dark.
As a sixty-eight-year-old lifelong smoker with a penchant for fast food, I found Poe Ballantine’s tale of a friend’s lonely death from a heart attack [“An Unfamiliar Form of Solitaire,” August 2001], by turns moving and frightening.
Like the author’s friend, I live alone, having lost my beloved wife of forty-seven years just twelve months ago. Unlike poor Joe, who died thousands of miles from his family, I have loving and caring adult children no more than an hour away, but I talk to them only once every ten days or so. Though I work four days a week, my colleagues have no idea where I am Thursday through Sunday. Should I die on a Thursday evening, I could, like Joe, lie on the floor undiscovered for three or four days, glasses knocked from my face, with only my hungry, thirsty cat to witness my demise.