In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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This is my ninth day at the Hotel Río Mortero next to a bus depot in Jerez de García Salinas, a high-mountain Mexican town that smells of tortillas, onions, roasted peanuts, and straw. It is early February 1999. My room is sixty pesos a night (about seven dollars) and has a stone floor, two plastic deck chairs, two beds, and a solid steel door like a bank vault with a gap at the bottom big enough for a rat to waltz through. The TV gets three fuzzy channels, and now and again I glance nervously at the brick ceiling, which I imagine will bury me alive at the slightest seismic tremble.
Einstein said that time moves at different rates throughout the universe. He must have been to Mexico, where time not only moves slower but has an altogether different texture and flavor than American time. I’ve decided to stay in Mexico for a while, since I’ve got some money for a change, from a book contract that isn’t going half as well as I’d hoped. In fact, it is doomed. If I appear to be running away from my problems again, it’s because I am.
It’s cold here at night at six thousand feet, and the buildings in this part of the world are generally unheated — not much point with three-inch gaps at the bottoms of doors — so I sleep under the blankets from both beds. But right now it’s pleasantly warm. One in the afternoon is a little early to be drinking, I know, but I’ve grown bored in this long, splendid yawn of time. I’ve got myself a liter of Familiar, which reminds me of Coors, only sweeter. I sit in the doorway in the sun and go over my notes from the last few months. Every few pages I find a line like “It is over,” or “My life is done,” or “I am done.” The individual days are tolerable, but the sum of the days and the writing I’ve produced against the standard I’ve set for myself and the bleak picture of my time ahead makes me want to end it all.
So I’ve come to Mexico looking for a new beginning. As always when I start over, even though I’m forty-three and this latest chapter in my life looks like a carbon copy of every one before it, the novelty and challenge of being in an unfamiliar place will distract me for a few weeks. A jackass brays. A flock of chickens pecking along the side of the road scatters at the backfire of a passing truck. I debate whether to take a nap or get another liter of Familiar.
Ismael stops by and asks if I want to go with him to his hometown of Juanchorrey, a pueblo about forty miles southwest of here. I hardly know Ismael, having talked to him only twice at the hotel where the gringo expatriates convene every morning for coffee. He is in his late sixties with long, white curly hair, and he wears a ball cap that reads, I DON’T HAVE A DRINKING PROBLEM. I GET DRUNK, I FALL DOWN, NO PROBLEM. His thick yellowish-white mustache is precisely trimmed. His nose is flat and coarse. He wears dentures and smokes Mexican Marlboros at a rate of about two packs a day. He is argumentative, speaks excellent English with a distinct Mexican accent, and uses words such as subterfuge and verisimilitude.
I ask why he’s going to Juanchorrey, and he says he has hand-carved some wooden doors for the new home of his daughter, who made a small fortune in real estate and tortilla bakeries in Gilroy, California, and he wants to see how well the doors have been hung, having had some disagreement with the carpenter. He says the round-trip should take no more than three hours.
Ismael negotiates his old Ford pickup through narrow brick streets that were built for horse-drawn wagons but now are packed three- and four-wide with automobiles. In some places there is only an inch or two of clearance to pass, and his side mirror clicks the side mirror of a parked car, tipping both askew.
As we drive slowly by the market, I spot a caged ostrich with a sign around its neck. Having no interest in seeing animals held captive for entertainment, I don’t bother trying to read the sign. The ostrich bobs its head up and down and blinks its bright, buggy eyes. People seem amused. Ismael chuckles and says something in Spanish that I don’t understand.
This part of Mexico is very much like Southern California, where I grew up: exposed granite; sage and chaparral; orange and lemon trees; thin, hot sunshine; deep, pale, cloudless skies; mauve smudge of mountains in the distance; even the same lizards, scorpions, and spiders that I captured as a child. The only difference is there are a lot fewer Mexicans here than in Southern California.
As we leave the city, we pass an abundance of deserted homes, their siding spray-painted with the legend EL BARZÓN. Ismael explains that El Barzón is an organization of debtors who were bilked by banks that jacked up interest rates, making it impossible for the homeowners to pay their mortgages. To discourage others from buying or renting these foreclosed properties, and to get back at the scheming banks, El Barzón displays its name in large block letters on the outsides.
I don’t know why Ismael has sought my company, considering he distrusts the other sixty or so American residents in Jerez. Maybe he can tell I am interested in him, as I am interested in all people, and that, like him, I have been an itinerant laborer and outsider most of my life. I also make an effort to speak Spanish and study verb conjugation and vocabulary nightly. And it’s possible that he knows I am a writer and envisions himself appearing in one of my books down the way.
Winding along a cobblestone road through a small valley, we pass a pueblo that looks like a miniature city built behind stone walls, the windows of every dwelling barred. The grave markers along the road, Ismael tells me, are there to remind those who do not know they have died the names of their souls, which makes me think of the time I drove back drunk from Tijuana: I was stupid and reckless and should have died, and now I think maybe I did die. That would explain my restlessness and lingering solitude, my ability to move unnoticed through crowds, and why my life since has felt so much like a troubled dream. Perhaps I am simply roaming the earth, looking for that marker inscribed with the name of my soul.
A few more miles down the highway, just past a crude sign that reads, FRY CHICKEN Y SPAGETI, Ismael turns onto a dirt road.
I’ll take you the long way, he says.
The mountain-desert landscape is populated with thirty-foot-tall pale-green saguaros. We pass a mule standing by the roadside and two kids in sunglasses riding bicycles. Ismael has to stop and wait for a slow-moving herd of cattle, and he expresses disdain for the farmers: he says every year they try to grow corn here, and since there is no irrigation, they pray for rain. Faith in God and submission to nature, attitudes I’m unaccustomed to in the U.S., are objects of Ismael’s scorn in Mexico. Though born here, he has spent more of his life in the States, and he attained U.S. citizenship in 1975.
The road ends at a washout, so Ismael turns around and heads back to a rural tienda — a country store. Out front are two soft-eyed dogs and three children playing balero, a cup-and-ball game. Their expressions are somber and hard, but when I smile at them, their faces reveal a delightful innocence. We climb the stairs of the grocery, order two Indios from the proprietor, and stand at the counter in stripes of dusty cantina sunlight.
I quit smoking and haven’t had a cigarette in more than two weeks, but my compulsive mind quickly makes the case for starting back up: this is an adventure after all; I’ll quit again tomorrow; a man under this kind of pressure deserves a little relief. I’m like that ostrich in a cage, only with a book contract instead of a sign around my neck.
I buy a pack of Mexican Marlboros.
Two indigenous women enter and don’t even look at us. Ismael explains that their old men will kick the shit out of them if they do. They are Chichimecas.
Nomads, he says with a smile, like you and me.
Like just about everyone I know. The story of America is not about finding your place but leaving it, and if anyone’s done that more times than I have, I’d like to meet them.
At last Ismael and I arrive in Juanchorrey, a town of a few hundred. On the outskirts, a sufficient distance from the poor, is his daughter’s million-dollar rancho, a palatial purple hacienda with fountains, statues, and newly planted trees. Ismael inspects how the carpenters have hung his hand-carved doors, each of which took him a month to make. The vast rooms are opulently half-furnished, and a bottle of expensive tequila sits on the burnished oak dining table. The ostentatious display of wealth makes me so weary, I want to curl up and go to sleep on the nearest couch.
Ismael pours himself a glass of the high-priced tequila, mixes it with tap water, and says, Not bad. He does not offer me a glass.
Born in this town in 1930, Ismael is a self-taught master of many trades. He spent time in the U.S. as a laborer when Mexicans were first brought legally by the trainload to take the agricultural jobs vacated by the interned Japanese and by the farmers and farmhands who’d gone away to fight and die in World War II. He was a general laborer in Texas and California; a union logger in Olympia, Washington; a carpenter in Ithaca, New York; a wood-carver in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Once, he carved a headboard commissioned by Hollywood actors Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange. While living in Santa Fe, he had a small part in Robert Redford’s The Milagro Beanfield War, delivering one spoken line in the church scene: “Let’s form a committee.”
Ismael recounts one story after another about living in the States in the forties, fifties, and sixties: As a picker in Texas in 1954 he was making fifty cents an hour, working twelve to fourteen hours a day, when he began to notice his daily checks were each short by about two hours’ pay. He confronted the bosses, who said it was just the way things were done around there, and if he kept quiet about it, they would give him an extra five dollars a week on the sly. Ismael agreed, though, as I calculate it, the sum of the bribe amounted roughly to what he was owed in the first place.
We go into town and sit on the steps of a green-stucco tienda for a beer, then two, then three, the shadows getting longer as the afternoon light fades: four beers, five, six. The townsfolk convene. Ismael knows them all, and their fathers and grandfathers, too. His stories unspool effortlessly, and just by the way they sound in my ears, I believe they are true. His comical asides to me in English are like an actor breaking the fourth wall. Knowledgeable in science, geography, and math, he peppers his talk with numbers and facts, trying to instruct his listeners in the ways of Western science as well as entertain them.
I call him El Hablador, the Talker, but he corrects me. El Hablador, he says, is the Liar. El Narrador is the word I want: someone who can hold his audience captive for as long as he likes. In this town, where the living is harsh and the opportunities are scarce, Ismael is like a war hero triumphantly returned home. He speaks with tears in his eyes of his mother, gone now two years.
Seven beers, eight. So much for a three-hour trip. But I have nothing to do anyway except observe and absorb, and it’s episodes like this, along with the drastic change in scenery and lifestyle, that I’m hoping will put me back on track with my contractual obligations and end my creative hiatus, even if the former is the cause of the latter. This will take me a while to figure out, as a man stumbling alone across the desert will always walk toward an oasis in the distance, even if he knows it is very possibly a mirage.
I am introduced to uncles and aunts, cousins and friends, most of whom don’t speak a word of English. Ismael calls me El Escritor, the Writer, though until I publish a book, I won’t consider the title official. At this point I am not even El Narrador.
A herd of cattle, driven by two women with sticks, clatters down the main street in front of the tienda. A great-tailed grackle squeaks and whistles at me from a TV antenna atop a building, as if amused by the number of beers I have drunk without falling over. The children come around to stare at me, poke me, play games with me, and make me wonder how innocence emerges without fail in a world so deeply immersed in predation and sin.
I feel I could sit forever on this stair step in front of the mint-colored tienda, drinking Coronas and flipping Mexican Marlboro butts onto the brick street while the cows go by and the people stop to chat or simply sit and listen.
It’s good to be away from the States and all its “news” and ceaseless blaming and complaining; its competition and achievement and acquisition; its impotent jabber about happiness when it has no serious investment in happiness. The U.S. is about competition and achievement and acquisition, all of which are antithetical to happiness. Happiness is simplicity and submission to fate. Happiness is the front steps of the tienda in Juanchorrey, and I half hope I will sit here, with Ismael handing me just one more beer and the shadows growing longer, until the end of Mexican Time, but he decides to give me a tour of his hometown.
Stop one is Juanchorrey’s first two-story building, built by Ismael’s grandfather. The placard above the door gives the date of construction as 1925. I ask why he never speaks of his father, and he says his father left when he was nine. More questions on my part lead to a drive to the graveyard. The sun is setting, and the brick-walled cemetery is crammed with monuments, statuary, vases, and floral arrangements. A Coke bottle lies on the ground. The wind has overturned baskets of flowers.
Ismael has tears in his eyes. His emotions have caught him by surprise. I don’t believe he intended to visit the graveyard on this trip, but I kept asking him about his family, especially his relationship with his brother, which has been strained since his mother died and the brother took the house and everything else.
We stand at the grave of Ismael’s mother. He carved her tall, intricate stone memorial himself, and he talks in loving detail about fashioning it and engraving the initials of his siblings — two brothers and one sister — in a secret spot, and how he will never tell them about it, and after he is gone, no one will ever know.
He tells me of his mother: a midwife, counselor, and advocate for clean water after the typhoid epidemic that struck here when the first wave of laborers returned from the States and installed American-style toilets in homes. No sewer, septic, or sanitation systems accompanied the toilets, and the untreated efflux went straight into the stream, from which everyone continued to drink. Ismael is angry about the many lives needlessly lost through ignorance and heaps more scorn on the Mexican way of life.
The last bit of sun turns ocher, melts into the horizon, and spreads golden across the surrounding fields. I have lost count of the number of beers I’ve had, and I take a slug of the warm one in my hand and tell Ismael that the townspeople could not have understood about sanitation; that the same thing happened in the States when fully half the settlers who traveled west in wagon trains died of waterborne diseases — cholera, in particular.
Unconsoled, he asks if I’ve ever been depressed.
I reply, Yes, most of my life.
Enough to end it all?
He asks if I think it takes more courage to live or to die.
To live, I say, to myself as much as to him. I add that I believe he will see his mother again.
Not where I’m going, he says.
I tell him it’s probably easier to get into heaven than he thinks.
He squints at me, incredulous. Do you really believe that?
He expounds upon the fallacies of religion while extolling the virtues of astrology. I’m fascinated by this contradiction. He is a Gemini, he explains, a naturally conflicted personality.
In the same Gemini breath he asks if I believe in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, and I say no, but it is clear to me there is a Creator.
He says he believes in a Creator, too, but he could never believe in a Catholic God.
I say that I don’t understand how any creature with a blink for a life span and a brain like the spark of a distant star could ever hope to comprehend God.
He seems, for the moment, appeased — not, I’m sure, because I know anything, but because I care.
Dusk filters down. Birds with white-tipped wings float and wheel in the shimmering thermals like an illustration of joy. Ismael thanks me several times for accompanying him. At that moment I know we’ve somehow become lasting friends.
I will spend hundreds of hours with Ismael, driving all over Mexico in his truck or sitting in his small rooms, surrounded by his beautiful wood carvings in progress, drinking tequila or mescal, listening to classical music, eating tacos de adobada from Arnufo’s or sopa de mariscos at El Tigre Del Mar, “arguing” politics and religion and playing Scrabble or pinochle. He will play poker every Friday night with the expatriates, never missing a game except when he breaks his neck in an automobile accident. He will proofread some of the stories and essays I write during the two years I am in Mexico, correcting my deplorable Spanish. He will often relate to me with great fondness his memory of sitting under a shade tree in Juanchorrey as a young child with a hatful of peanuts in his lap. And he will confide to me many of his secrets, such as the time he felled a tree that killed a fellow lumberjack in Washington. He will sob openly when he tells me this story.
Lonely, he will marry, to his everlasting regret, and move into a large house with his young wife and stepdaughter, rescuing them from extreme poverty. Like many people I’ve known who were abandoned or betrayed by a parental figure at a young age, he will have trouble finding peace; trouble trusting and accepting; and, most of all, trouble dealing with an emptiness, an anger, that he cannot understand.
He will also continue to smoke those noxious Mexican Marlboros. His grandfather — Ismael’s role model, hero, and de facto father — smoked two packs and drank a quart of tequila every day and lived into his nineties. Ismael believes he can do the same, setting the stage for emphysema and congestive heart failure and many trips to the U.S. for treatment under Medicare.
And then, on one such trip, he will stay and never return to the land of his birth. Legs so badly swollen he can barely walk, he will spend his last days in California with his daughter, who, as far as I know, never moved into her purple palace in Juanchorrey.
But now we are in the graveyard at dusk. He picks up the Coke bottle, tosses it over the brick wall, and says in frustration and sorrow that the reason he won’t be able to go to heaven is because he is just a Mexican.
It is my turn to scoff. He is a modern man, I remind him, well acquainted with science, so he knows full well that there is only one species of Homo sapiens on earth, and the differences between the so-called races are superficial. He has traveled and seen enough personally to know that this is true.
He watches me for a time, then lights a cigarette, turns to his mother’s grave, and admits that I am right.
I admit that my being right doesn’t happen very often.
He laughs and asks if I’m ready to go. I’ll take you a different way home, he says, and I’ll buy you dinner.
Back in Jerez, at the restaurant on Calle Guanajuato, we encounter charming, ninety-two-year-old Monford. Educated at Yale, he’s lived in this town for seventy years and raised two adopted children, who both became medical doctors. Monford is having a brochette and watching Latin CNN. Ismael orders us chiles rellenos, a dish so difficult to make properly it is rare on restaurant menus in Mexico. Over more beer we talk with Monford about volcanoes, Wagner, mountain passes, and God.
The rellenos are out of this world, and I can tell that every detail — the egg whites whipped to a high froth, the yolks folded back in at the last minute, the fresh roasting and peeling of the chile, the cleanliness and temperature of the pan oil — has been assiduously attended to. Little Rogelio, a fair-eyed child from the city of Zacatecas, comes over and speaks with us in a most engaging and reverent way about the recent rare snow, the road ghosts of Malpaso, and the mythical land called America that he hopes someday to see.
Ismael pays the bill. Like many Mexicans, he does not believe in tipping, so I leave twenty-three pesos on the table. Then I shake his hand and thank him for the dinner and the day. He asks if I want a ride home, and I tell him no thank you; I need the exercise.
Across the way in the plaza, I sit unnoticed on an iron bench in the shadows of the amber-lit central gazebo and admire the promenade of young lovers, some paired, some yet to be paired, a courtship ritual long forgotten in the U.S. and soon to be forgotten here.
G.K. Chesterton said, “Poets do not go mad; but chess players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not . . . in any sense attacking logic; I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.” I think he’s saying: If the objective truth cannot be known, why strain over the facts? Or if believing in the truth means happiness is always just out of reach, what’s wrong with a modest and carefully measured self-deception?
In other words: Why take everything so seriously? Maybe I need to start deceiving myself about things that don’t matter, exaggerating my role in the universe, believing that what I do is important. These trips, the people I meet, the notes I take, the beautiful children, the otherworldly rellenos, the book I am working on (even though I will eventually lose my book contract and return to the U.S.) — maybe all of it is special. That’s a truth as valid as “My life is done.”
For now I am content to be in one more place I don’t belong, the closest thing I have found to freedom.
I will never tire of the quixotic journeys of Poe Ballantine. In his essay “Nomads” [January 2019], one sentence in particular leapt out: “The U.S. is about competition and achievement and acquisition, all of which are antithetical to happiness.” This sentiment flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught to believe, and it’s what makes him so refreshing.
Only Ballantine would see an “ostentatious display of wealth” like his friend’s daughter’s million-dollar home — complete with statues, fountains, and expensive tequila — and find it all so tiring that he looks for a couch to take a nap on. You’ve got to love a guy who thinks the way he does.