In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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For Delora Newton Ward
On January 25, 1999, I woke up at 1 PM, showered, and ate a lamb chop boiled in shrimp ramen with cauliflower and broccoli. I started a pot of coffee and studied the central story in my collection, due out in a year with a major publisher, and I saw once again no solution to its flaws other than disposal. Well honed by disappointment, my instincts told me this book contract was not going to work out (it wasn’t) and that the philosophical differences I had with my editor were not going to be resolved (they weren’t). But at the age of forty-three and looking at my first — and maybe last — realistic shot at a career in letters, I was like an old dog not yet willing to let go of a bone.
Through the frosted window of my Kansas motel room I watched a bus bearded in dirty ice streak past on the highway, and I wished I was on it, even though tramping all over America for twenty years had broken me mentally and left me convalescing at my parents’ house. Since settling in Kansas, I’d vowed never to move again. But now that I was recovered and had contractual proof that I was not entirely worthless, I suddenly wanted to be someplace far away. A fellow named Bob who’d read some of my vagabond stories had recently written to suggest I might like the remote central-Mexican town of Jerez, where he and some other American expats lived. He had included rough directions and advice about traveling in Mexico.
The thought of moving to Mexico gave me the collywobbles. Growing up in San Diego, I had been all over the Baja peninsula, but those had been short pleasure trips that hadn’t required much knowledge of the language, laws, or culture. Actually living in Mexico, especially the mainland, presented a host of problems: My limited Spanish would prevent me from asking the locals where I could find a suitable place to live. Nor would I be able to pick up work easily when the money ran out. (I had about four thousand left from my book advance.) Even if I could find a job, I wouldn’t accept the general laborer’s rate of seven dollars a day. And I would have to track down a birth certificate to get a visa.
On the other hand, in Mexico I could live on half my current monthly budget. There would be plenty of peaceful spots, good weather, and inexpensive healthcare. (These chest pains had me a little worried.) Life outside the U.S. promised a host of new experiences and a chance to shed complacency and a recent and somewhat alarming accumulation of unwanted pounds. Along with meth and dysentery, hustling a suitcase all over creation was as surefire a weight-loss system as any I’d ever tried.
Mexico was also where many other writers had gone for creative inspiration. John Steinbeck, Graham Greene, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and B. Traven (author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) had all produced notable work there. What was I going to write about shut up in a Kansas motel room year after year? Still, it seemed more sensible not to throw everything in the air and possibly have to postpone publication of my very first book, maybe even lose the contract, maybe even fall apart completely (as I had before) or contract some disease that would prematurely end my days, like D.H. Lawrence. I decided I had run from my problems for too long and should stick it out where I stood.
That afternoon Jennifer, a welder at the factory where I had previously been employed, came over with a piece of cake. She was the first visitor I’d had in months. Ever since I’d received the book advance and quit my job at the factory, it was as if I’d passed through some mysterious membrane into the upper class. When you’ve gotten the break of a lifetime, how do you talk to people who are still stuck in a low-wage job?
Thanks very much for this, I said, holding up the paper plate of cake.
I just baked it, Jennifer said. It’s German chocolate.
That’s very thoughtful of you.
She asked how the book was going. I told her I couldn’t come up with a single new story, and the thing was supposed to go to press in three months. I asked how she was.
Not so well, she said.
Just feeling down.
I know, I know, I said, and I swung my arm in a circle to indicate the entire motel complex, where every tenant lived alone. (I called it the No-Mate Motel.) Just about everyone in this place feels the same, I said. Life is hard.
She asked what I was going to do.
I’m going to Mexico, I told her, surprised to hear myself say it.
The next day I walked to the bus station. When I told the clerk I wanted a ticket to Mexico, his eyes lit up, and he began to talk about the joys of traveling. He had not actually traveled much, I gathered, but was nevertheless convinced that being on the road was the life. He said you couldn’t beat a Greyhound Ameripass: one month of unlimited trips anywhere in the U.S. for $409. In a month you could go to a lot of places: Spokane to San Francisco. Missoula to Miami Beach. Sleep on the bus. Get a motel every now and then to shower. Hunker down in the winter and get a full-time job at the clown-wig factory. Have a fling with a diner waitress. Save enough for six more months of Ameripasses, and keep on that way till your soul spilled blessedly like bowling pins into the Drifter’s Afterlife.
I’d done the bus-pass thing a few times and found it much more of a grind than a dream, but I wasn’t going to spoil it for him.
A customer jangled through the door and asked if his U-Haul trailer was in. The clerk groaned and said, I forgot. Tomorrow? The customer grunted and slammed the door on the way out. The clerk returned his attention to me. Greyhound could get me to the border in El Paso, Texas, he said, but after that, I was on my own.
I bought a one-way advance ticket to El Paso for eighty-nine dollars. I’d leave in two weeks. I was saving only twenty bucks by buying in advance, but the rent was paid through the end of the month, and I needed to make preparations: scrounge up that birth certificate, brush up on my Spanish, and say goodbye to all my friends and neighbors. Lately I’d gotten in tiffs with three of them and was starting to want to get away, as if I were somehow better than them now that I was officially an author. But isn’t that what we’re supposed to do in America: move up the ladder, seek success, leave the lost, lazy, and lackluster behind? Nevertheless I was dissatisfied with myself as a human being and hoped that a deep plunge into the unknown would shake me out of my funk, break something loose, slap me in the face like a cold splash of aftershave. It had worked before.
I was also drinking too much in the evenings, smoking more than I liked, sleeping in strange shifts, and putting in nine-hour sessions on stories I’d revised a thousand times. My eyes were bloodshot, and I was getting fatter. I always seemed to be taking a walk through the empty town at 3 AM. I had cable TV and watched its ephemeral gush and commercials that were designed to make me feel good about buying products but instead made me feel like kicking a hole in the screen.
The following afternoon I walked to the mall and bought motion-sickness pills, a Spanish-English dictionary, a thick notebook, and some packing tape. I had too much junk to bring with me. I needed to box it all up carefully, label it, and throw it into a dumpster, but I didn’t know what would happen in Mexico. So I paid a storage place thirty-three dollars a month to store a computer, clothes, household goods, and stacks of manuscripts, most of them revisions that were only getting worse for all my effort. Then I went to the liquor store, bought a forty-ounce bottle of beer, sat at my little table by the window to watch the light fade from the sky, and thought about Mexico.
Over the next two weeks I secured my birth certificate, studied Spanish, corresponded from the public-library computer with Bob in Mexico, and fought that sick feeling in my stomach that always accompanied a leap into the unknown. It would work, I told myself. I would write it all down, and, unlike the stories I was composing, every line would be real. For me the better part of success had always depended on putting myself in the right place. Then maybe, just maybe, I might write something good.
It took me a week to throw away everything I didn’t need. The purge was satisfying. In the spirit of catharsis and renewal I even threw away a pen that wasn’t out of ink. I didn’t feel too sentimental about leaving my neighbors, co-workers, and friends — most were good people, but none understood what I was trying to do. I had no romantic prospects either. My love life had been an across-the-board disaster, and now that my life was at least half over, it was a relief to think I would probably spend the rest of it alone. Wanting to be as healthy as possible for the trip (those chest pains again), I also quit smoking.
I don’t like wearing watches, but the night before my departure I decided I needed a clock. I didn’t want to wake up in a dark Mexican hotel and not know what time it was and have to ask someone ¿Que hora es? and probably miss my bus. So I walked across the railroad tracks to the grocery store and bought a plastic Chinese dashboard clock for $1.96. When I got it home, I couldn’t figure out how to set the time. After pushing all the buttons for half an hour, I tried to break it with my hands. Then I began to stomp on it. Eighteen times I stomped on it before I threw it, intact, into the trash. A few minutes later I carefully read the instructions on how to set the time and retrieved the clock but was still unable to set the time, which led to my stomping on it and throwing it into the trash once more. Then I noticed that the time display was a decal (never mentioned in the directions). So I peeled off the decal and set the clock with ease.
Does this sound like someone who’s ready to travel by himself to a foreign country?
I packed six ham-and-Swiss sandwiches, a bag of baked and salted acorn-squash seeds, and two marshmallow pies. This was supposed to last me until El Paso, where I intended to start a fast to lose weight, but all my food was gone before I arrived in Denver. At the terminal there I was greeted with a two-hour delay. I also encountered Mr. Rapid Gestures, whose nervous disposition was possibly caused by amphetamines. He was off to seek a lost ghost-town fortune in the Dragoon Mountains of Arizona. This will be the third time I have faced death, he announced. He asked where I was going. Not wanting to sound like one more treasure seeker with a doomed plan, I replied simply, El Paso.
Except for the disproportionate number of tuneless whistlers, the blind man carrying a pink suitcase, and the attractive woman who was escorted off the bus by sheriff’s deputies, the trip from Denver to Albuquerque was relatively uneventful. At a bus-stop restaurant a sign under the cash register read, “Workers wanted, 8 weeks, heavy lifting, $5.25 an hour, archaeological dig, Jan 25–Mar 15,” which made me think of Mr. Rapid Gestures and the tragic and elusive nature of all earthly reward: even if you find your treasure, the rain of dust and time will eventually bury it again.
By the time I got to Albuquerque, it was 8:30 AM, and I was so heavy I needed two seats. Fortunately, because it was winter, the bus was not even half full. My little finger was sore from where I’d tried to smash my Chinese clock to smithereens. Travel nerves, quitting smoking, and watching my once-in-a-lifetime book deal recede from my grasp were not the best recipe for equanimity. I was short-tempered, an obscenity on the tip of my tongue, and my self-loathing was at an all-time high when a panhandler trying to get to “Cortisone” (or, at least, that’s what it sounded like) asked me for some change.
Can’t help you, man, I replied, not caring what city named after a hormone he might be going to. I added vindictively that I might help someone in need, but not someone wandering the bus depot at 9 AM looking for money to buy a drink.
There were four people on the bus to El Paso, one a mother who kept shouting at her child, Behave!
Behave how? I wanted to ask.
The El Paso station had been renovated — and possibly relocated — since I’d last seen it three or four years earlier, but it was still small. In the lobby a girl of no more than sixteen was wiping away tears and telling her friend: I’m getting out of here. You won’t see me tomorrow. I’m getting the fuck out. I’m leaving. You won’t miss me. You just wait and see. No one is going to miss me.
A ticket for the bus across the border into Ciudad Juárez was five dollars. Anxious about carrying nearly four thousand dollars on my person, I had divided the sum into three pockets, my left sock, and the bottom of my right shoe. The bus stopped just on the other side of the border, and everyone got off and stood in a line. I was last. Each passenger in turn pushed a button that activated a stoplight. If the light went green, the person returned unmolested to the bus. If it turned red, the individual’s luggage was inspected. If it was yellow, you were executed on the spot. No, that’s a joke. The customs agents lost interest by the time they got to me, and I didn’t even need to push the button.
Only by running into an American woman did I find out how to get my tourist card. I followed her to a small office staffed by three agents. She and her son were not granted a card, and she was furious. I don’t know if the agents knew what asshole meant; if they did, they took it well. When it was my turn to apply, I blundered through my rehearsed speech in Spanish and received a sixty-day card.
Back on the bus, the man selling tickets to our next destinations seemed surprised when I said Zacatecas, where I would transfer to Jerez. The fare was fifty-seven dollars. I paid him and, with my rudimentary Spanish, understood him to say that the bus left at 5:25 pm. I checked my clock: 5:07 PM. We were stuck in a tunefully anarchic Mexican traffic jam, and I worried I would miss my transfer. Sure enough, we didn’t arrive at the terminal until 5:30 PM, but the bus to Zacatecas was still there, and I scrambled aboard, took the last seat, and looked out the window to see a billboard that read, in English: Microsurgery Vasectomy Reversals.
My new bus smelled like perfume and had two drivers, like a pilot and copilot. Through a doorway that separated them from the passengers, I glimpsed two vases holding pink paper roses on the dash. The bus was unlike any other I had ever traveled on and featured actual legroom, two TVs playing movies, and curtains on the windows. I was the only gringo aboard. The sun went down as we made our way through the giant, industrial city of Juárez.
My seatmate was a garrulous secretary from Aguascalientes, who ate one piece of fruit after another and talked to me in rapid Spanish as if I understood every word. I riffled through my Spanish-English dictionary, trying to assemble sensible replies. (The novice speaker must be cautious; note the subtle difference between cortesanía — “courteous” — and cortesana: “prostitute.”)
Soon it was darker than dark outside, the kind of impenetrable darkness you might encounter after your car breaks down a mile from the isolated mountaintop castle of a legendary vampire. At our first stop somber children boarded the bus with covered baskets of food and bottled water for sale. I got off to use the facilities. No one said where we were or how long we’d stay. I have only one piece of advice if you plan an expedition to Mexico: bring your own toilet paper.
Most Mexican roads and highways have no shoulders, and livestock routinely roam about unfenced. I had heard stories of buses wrecked or robbed, so it seemed something of a miracle to be roaring hour after hour down these roads without incident. My seatmate fell asleep, and I watched two American films on the TV: one a shoot-’em-up-blow-’em-up, the other a forgettable drama with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. I studied the subtitles, trying to improve my Spanish. The sun rose in the sky, and, according to my trusty, indestructible Chinese clock, I slept for one hour.
Zacatecas is over eight thousand feet above sea level. Despite its reputation for being one of the coldest cities in Mexico, the February morning was pleasantly warm as I stepped out of the Central de Autobús. Though I was supposed to transfer here and keep going, Zacatecas looked right, and I decided to stay for a while. In the distance I spied a man washing buses with a long-handled brush, and I went over to ask if he might recommend a hotel. He unleashed a stream of magnificently unintelligible syllables, which I pretended to understand. Luckily he was kind enough to point. I thanked him and, moving in the indicated direction, immediately came upon the San Carlos, a large, fancier-than-I-was-accustomed-to hotel.
After getting a peek at my wad of American cash, the desk clerk seemed to adjust the price for a night’s stay, though I was in no position to argue. For all I knew, he lowered the rate. In any case, I secured an upper-floor room for twenty dollars. When I got winded climbing the marble stairs, I blamed it on the altitude. My room had pink-marble floors, a color TV, two double beds, and an elevated blue bathroom with cracked plaster. (Cracks in walls are a signature feature of Mexico.) The room was painted beige and green with a decorative lavender frieze and a fly smashed in the middle of a shoe print on the ceiling. I had a partial view of the city below, the prettiest Mexican city I’d seen so far, though some of the buildings had succumbed to disrepair and looked as if they’d been bombed. In the distance a collapsed sidewalk gave way to a sheer cliff.
I felt the heightened senses and surge of vitality that always came with arriving in a new place. It was what I had lived for most of my life: a short-lived ecstasy bordering on madness that soon faded into mundanity — until the next move. I had lost track of what day it was, then realized that I was seven hundred miles into Mexico, in an unexplored city, and in no hurry to get anywhere. I had enough money in my pockets to last a year, if I did it right. It didn’t matter what day it was.
I heard a knock at my door. It was the clerk, out of breath from the stairs, coming to bring me a towel and two bars of soap. I tipped him excessively, since I’d worked many jobs whose wages relied on tips, and then I turned on the hot water. After a long wait and no hot water, I took a bracingly cold shower. Just as I was finishing up, the hot water came on.
Invigorated from the shower and that familiar taste of madness, I took a walk through town. I had not converted any dollars to pesos yet, since I’d been told the exchange rate would improve after I got to less-touristy areas. But the currency-exchange booths that were abundant everywhere else in Mexico were scarce here.
I saw a woman in a restaurant grilling fresh tortillas and suddenly realized I was famished. I told her I knew nothing and to please give me something good. Everything is good, she said. I pointed to beans, eggs, and beef, and she fashioned for me three gorditas for fifteen pesos. I told her I had no pesos. She didn’t know the exchange rate, so I gave her four dollars and still felt I got the better part of the deal. My American money was not common, or even particularly welcome, outside the border towns, so she was doing me a favor. Also the plump and savory gorditas came with a big mug of sweetened chicory.
On the way back to my room, I stopped at a bank and converted a hundred dollars into a handful of colorful bills and odd coins. My efforts to sort them out would provide much amusement to clerks and merchants in the days to come. The teller told me I was the first Americano he’d seen in weeks. I told him that I had seen a fat one in the mirror only an hour before, but he did not laugh.
Later that day I went out with my notebook and my temporarily manic personality to see some local color: the assembled brass band with the animated trombonist warming up to play; the children building a fort in the trash; the dejected young man with the black eye walking along the street with his companion; the man sitting in his dark, empty shop, smoking a cigarette; the pretty but hard-faced prostitute in a short black dress and a fur coat; the orange-pink Spanish colonial church at the top of the hill; the basketball court on which kids played soccer.
At a place called Tacos, I had two tacos.
At a place called Bar, I had two beers.
Two tangerines cost two pesos. The clerk giggled as she plucked the coins from my hand. I ate the fruit on a bench by a lake whose shore was crowded with pigeons, which I learned were entirely uninterested in tangerines. A sweet-eyed dog, also indifferent to tangerines, came over to say hello and followed me back into town. He was mine, I supposed, if I wanted him. I passed a place that sold pastries and longed for one, but I thought the sign in the window — ABIERTO — meant “closed,” so I didn’t go in. Then I remembered abierto means “open,” which explained why the place looked open. I went in, and when I came back out, the dog was waiting for me. I gave him half of my sweet roll.
A parade appeared, and festivities broke out for no reason that I could determine. Church bells rang, and people began to line the street. The band with the animated trombonist at its center swung into view. The hard-faced prostitute draped in fur now wore a smile. I turned to see where my dog had gone and came face-to-face with a child looking over her mother’s shoulder. She stared through me with her burning black eyes, and we shared a secret moment of joy.
After spending a Sunday in the emergency room because my vision had suddenly clouded over, I went home with instructions not to read anything for the rest of the day. But the February 2018 issue of The Sun was beckoning. When I saw Poe Ballantine’s essay “A Short-Lived Ecstasy Bordering on Madness” in the Contents, I cheated. A patch over one eye and reading glasses propped on my face, I managed to read his hilarious essay while squirting drops into my eye between paragraphs. I laughed until the tears started filling my eye patch. This may not have helped my vision, but it sure lifted my spirits.