We wake after a rough night of strange noises, mild indigestion, dream-lightning, shadow-ghosts, the Virgen de Guadalupe morphing into a howling wolf and back. This morning she clings benign and glittery to her wall calendar, but last night she was feeding, out for blood and the red meat of our sleep. We wake feeling chewed-up and are shocked the puncture wounds are only spiritual.

In daylight, we can now see that the Hotel Rioja has no roof. What we took, in darkness, for the roof, was really the night sky. Once we step from our room into the courtyard, look down upon the bald head of a different front desk clerk, we can see that, one floor above us is an open-air rooftop garden overlooking the city, the bone spires of the Catedral Metropolitana fingering the polluted bruise of the sky. Last night, the street noise did not cease, and we lay in bed wondering beneath colorful blankets why it was so loud. We thought thin walls, but never expected no roof. Further, the entire building, heaving like a whale’s belly, magnified every cough from below, the mutterings of the night clerk coupling with the walls and becoming bellows. The Hotel Rioja, it turns out, is one big fucking amplifier.

Louisa rubs her eyes red. “Our first day in Mexico,” she says, any excitement swallowed in the rasp of her morning smoker’s voice, which today, here, seems to come straight out of some childhood fairy tale, something with an easy moral at its end.

“Our first day in Mexico,” I confirm, in a voice that flattens the moral like a cockroach before it can be read. Here, our only signpost for living is a still-twitching antenna, and yellow insect guts. In short: just right. We pour like coffee sludge from our room, jonesing for some real coffee sludge. Our footsteps boom along the marble stairs, some marching band percussion section, surely waking the last of the sleepers.

The day clerk, yet another old man in a white dress shirt, runs his fat hands over his gleaming scalp as if waking his brain for conversation. As we reach our final step, about to plunge onto the ground floor, the man clears his throat in a lion’s roar and booms to us, “Hola, hola, buenos días!”

His words break into the courtyard all tongue-tip and hard palate, his obese bifocals threaten his nose and his face, spherical as any globe, fatter than four swallowed oceans, bursts with a sling blade smile. We’re dying for coffee, coffee in Mexico, but I must try to talk with this man. There’s something of the wizard in him, a peace that can come only from good spells. I wave and step toward this man, and he responds by flexing his right bicep, which appears, beneath his stiff white shirt, as soft as a throw pillow.

I laugh and he laughs. He claps his hands and I clap mine. Louisa blows him a kiss and he thumps his fist over his heart in the sound of rocks falling into a bucket of water. I love this. This game of charades. We’re already friends. It happens so fast and wordlessly here. All it takes is the body and the occasional nonsense vocable. Soon, the man breaks our game with a sing-song, “¿Cómo te llamas?”

We tell him our names, and find out his is Juan Pérez, after the composer, not the conquistador, he assures us. For composer he saws at an air-violin with his globe head tilting on its axis, his long-lashed eyes closed. For conquistador, he grits his small teeth, growls and duels one of the hotels weaker ghosts. He wins. I nod and tell him I think I understand.

“What did he say?” Louisa asks.

“I think,” I mumble, “that he’s named after a violin player and not a sword fighter.”

Juan Pérez nods and calls, “Sí, sí,” to the sky, then throws his hands in the air and shouts, “Louisa! Louisa! Este es el nombre de mi hija.”

“Oh wow,” I say.

“Wow,” Juan Pérez affirms.

“His daughter’s name is Louisa,” I say.

“Buono,” Louisa smiles at him.

“That’s Italian,” I tell her.

“Whoops.”

Through the open front doors, people crowd along the sidewalks, balloon salesmen sharing space with families on cell phones. We bid farewell to Juan Pérez, his searchlight face beaming as he coughs, surely trying to dislodge Pangaea from his throat, and soon, we’re in it, the sidewalk parade, elbows in, jostling for space. Somewhere in the distance, the music of horns and drums, the static of meager fireworks, and around us, the orchestra of traffic and voice, street food carts whispering with meat steam and cool salsas. Louisa somehow finds enough room to light her first Winston of the day, her inhale an agitated sigh, her exhale a sigh post-coital. We take each other’s hands. Louisa’s eyes shed the last of their sleep, her lips seeming to lead her, and me, through the bowels of Avenida Cinco de Mayo toward the promise of caffeine and a stunning Mexican breakfast.

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Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (W.W. Norton: Liveright), Pot Farm, and Barolo (both from the University of Nebraska Press), the poetry books, Warranty in Zulu (Barrow Street Press), The Morrow Plots, and Sagittarius Agitprop (both from Black Lawrence Press), and the chapbooks, Four Hours to Mpumalanga and Aardvark. Recent and forthcoming work appears in The New Republic, Field, Epoch, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, Seneca Review, Crazyhorse, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, The Best Food Writing, The Best Travel Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Gastronomica, and others. After spending over 17 years of his occupational life in restaurant kitchens—from fast-food chicken shacks to fine-dining temples of gastronomy—he now teaches creative writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of the literary journal, Passages North. This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish liver ice cream. It paired well with onion bagels.

25 responses to “The Composer, Not the Conquistador”

  1. As usual, your language is a revelation on each line. You manage to squeeze more life into a moment waking in a hotel than I’ve read in many novels. Gorgeous.

  2. Matt says:

    Damn, there are so many beautiful turns of phrase here I really don’t know where to start. Such a wonderfully evocative piece. I’ve had a few mornings in Mexico not unlike this.

  3. Judy Prince says:

    A breathing bit of work, Matt! I totally loved “the red meat of our sleep” and “his searchlight face”. You get us right into the open-sky sleep place, the loud footsteps, the crowds and the swelter. Oh yes!

    • Thanks, Judy! I try to make red-meat comparisons whenever possible.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Any way you decide to hype red meat, Matthew, I’ll be eager to read it!

        Juan Perez has *got* to be a featured character in another of your posts—-he’s too gorjus to be lost to us.

        I second all of the commenters here who’ve been stunningly engaged in your writing.

        I’m currently reading an entertaining and wordsmithly thoughtful book by Carol Drinkwater titled *Olive Farm*, now part of a trilogy on the subject of her and her partner, (Frenchman) Michel’s, purchase of an abandoned olive farm in southern France and their restoring it to producing life.

        Drinkwater is a terrific, stand-out actor (played “Herriot’s” wife in the first 3 seasons of BBC’s “All Creatures Great and Small”) and gifted writer. I thought of you when I opened the book this morning, figuring that you probably have read or heard of it. If not—–it’s a thoroughly delicious reading-anchor for your bedside table.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    I read your pieces and marvel at your ability to see and feel and sense so much about any given situation. Your powers of observation are truly inspirational. I wonder if it is ever overwhelming for you to see such colour in the world?
    Maybe your senses are more in tune with things because of your history with cooking and your love of food and wine. You really describe everything in a way that feels so incredibly sumptious.
    Love, love, love your writing…

  5. Jordan Ancel says:

    Wow, Matthew. I feel like I’m there with you. This is beautifully written. I immediately was taken back to San Miguel de Allende, the way you’ve artfully painted this.

    You’ve captured Mexico City (?) masterfully, and the feelings one has when waking there after the first night of travel.

    We pour like coffee sludge from our room, jonesing for some real coffee sludge.

    Brilliant.

  6. I’ve never had much luck translating my time in Mexico into words. So I really like this little postre. Great language. It captures the exuberance that makes being American elsewhere bearable, and the ludicrousness of it as well. Maybe most importantly, the first Winston of the day. Except mine was a Farolito. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Sean. You make me want to seek out Farolitos– I find now that the word translates into English as “paper lantern…”

      • Well, in this context it means “little lighthouse”, but I think I like “paper lantern” better. And, no, you don’t want to seek them out. Unless you’ve got a hankering for smaller, cheaper, more sawdusty versions of 1972-era Lucky no-filters.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    This! This right here:

    “For conquistador, he grits his small teeth, growls and duels one of the hotels weaker ghosts. He wins.”

    You goddamn son of a bitch, Frank. I hate what you do so much. Every time, I read one of your pieces I think Asshole… it’s back to the drawing board for me.

  8. Irene Zion says:

    The pictures your words conjure up in my head are so packed and rich.
    Louisa is a lucky lady.
    You are a lucky man.

  9. Thanks, Irene! I’m luckier.

  10. Jude says:

    There’s so much in your writing. I only have one word that can describe adequately…beautiful!

  11. The first paragraph may be my new favorite first paragraph in the English language. Excellent piece.

  12. Ryan Day says:

    Waking up to no roof. I love that image. It’s very surreal and sets up the meeting of the composer not conquistador perfectly. It’s has the feeling of a brief moment in a very long novel that I’d like to read. Like Cortazar carved out a little corner in a Marquez novel.

  13. Marquez is one of my favorites. I’m hoping this will grow into a long piece. Thanks so much for your commentary, Ryan!

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