“What the fuck happened to your hand?” I asked.

“Red Sox.”

“Yeah… I hear ya.”

***

In the spring of 1988, I was a sophomore at a small Catholic liberal arts college outside of Boston. Although I majored in Classics, my attentions were overwhelmingly devoted to rugby. I craved the social dimensions of the rugby lifestyle as much as the bone-crushing action of daily practice and weekend matches. And while our club were admittedly the poster boys for hooliganism (a decidedly un-Catholic brand of leisure), we nonetheless took our sport very seriously. We played fall and spring seasons, practicing nearly every day of the week and playing matches every weekend.

As one of the better teams in the Northeast, we competed against some of the best colleges in the country. This meant that while the rest of the school were filling up pubs and parties on Friday evenings, we were all laying low, saving our bodies for the games the next day and our livers for the post-game drink up with the other team.

My priorities were out of whack, I dedicated my time to battering my body from all sides, and I missed out on many traditional college experiences for the sake of my team. But man, I loved those years.

***

On your average American college campus, Saturday mornings are left to scholars and athletes. The former are jockeying for the prime study spots in the school library (wherever that is), and the latter are putting their pre-game mixes together, their game faces on, and if their nerves allow for it, addressing the most important meal of the day.

It was on a Saturday morning that spring that I bumped into Jim in front of the school cafeteria. Jim wore the school’s baseball uniform, with a shiny purple pitcher’s jacket fending off the spring chill. I wore purple and grey rugby sweats over my uniform, my gear bag slung over my shoulder. We nodded and trudged up the stairs together, two soldiers preparing for battle.

***

Jim and I had known each other for years, growing up in the same part of the city and attending the same classes in high school. He wasn’t one of my closest friends, but we hung out occasionally, always having great chats about baseball and music. Inevitably, the discussion would always land on The Cult and their 1985 classic album Love. I was a big Cult fan too, but nowhere nearly as intense as he was.

One day in high school, Jim plopped down next to me on the school bus. He looked concerned.

“Man…”

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I heard something kind of fucked up.”

“Yeah?”

“Ian?  Ian Astbury?”

“Yeah, what about him?”

“I heard he might be gay.”

“Really?  No shit?’

“Yeah.”

“Wow.”

“You know what? I don’t care. He fucking rules.”

This was significant to me, because we went to an all boy’s Catholic high school, where jocks were placed on pedestals and phrases like “fag” and “gay” were recklessly and spitefully used to demean anything perceived to be different or, God forbid, weak. It would have been socially risky to embrace an openly gay artist in that environment at that time.

But Jim didn’t care. He knew who he was and he knew what he liked, and if his favorite vocalist turned out to be gay (which Ian Astbury is not), so be it. Jim loved the music and that’s all that mattered.

Jim was bad ass.

***

As we met on the cafeteria steps that spring morning, I saw that Jim’s hand was freshly bandaged.

For the second time in as many weeks, Jim’s frustration with our professional baseball franchise had taken on a physical manifestation, with Jim pitting his pitching arm against an inanimate object. Predictably, the conflict was brief, painful, and humbling.

I had witnessed the first incident about a week before, when I dropped by to see if he was up for a party. I heard The Cult’s “(Here Comes the) Rain,” halfway down the hallway and found him standing next to his stereo, breathing heavily and seething. The floor was covered with a gaggle of items that clearly belonged on his dresser, but which had recently been swept to the floor.

“Sox lose again?”

“Yup.”

“Hey. You up for heading off campus?”

“Nope.”

I left him to search for acceptance.

On this recent occasion, as we picked up trays and entered the kitchen (Jim holding his tray in his good hand), Jim explained that on the evening before, it was a window pane that received the brunt of his ire. It had been 70 years since Boston had won the World Series and it appeared that 1988 was not going to be the season to end the drought.

As we sat across each other in the cafeteria, Jim’s primary concern was how he would explain the consequences of his choice to his coach.

Jim was expected to pitch that day.

I don’t recall if I was playing at home or away that day. In fact, I don’t remember who we played or whether we won or lost. I just remember sitting across from Jim and shaking my head as I commiserated with his predicament.

***

A few days later, they found Jim’s body.

He had taken his own life in our dormitory.

Having just seen Jim only a few days before, seemingly fine, apart from his concerns with the Red Sox, I was at a loss for explaining what had happened.

I entered the Kübler-Ross grief cycle when my roommate found me in the library.

“Joe…” he began breathlessly.

“What’s up?”

“It’s Jim… He’s dead. They found him in the dorm…”

Shock.

The kind of shock that blocks out all sound and sends the room spinning.

“No fucking way,” I protested.

Denial.

“Yeah man, I just heard. It’s him. Some of the guys are in [another friend’s] room now if you want more info.”

The other friend was one of our buddies from high school. There were fifteen of us who went on to this small college, and we were all relatively close.

On the way over to my friend’s room, I skipped the bargaining stage and dabbled in anger.

That selfish prick,” I thought, “what a gutless way to check out. Why didn’t he come talk to any of us?” I wondered.

Anger soon subsided and depression hit me like a rogue wave when I entered my buddy’s dorm room and walked into a circle of tear-stained faces. There was no testing stage at that point- just acceptance.

***

Jim was not the first suicide in college.

One year before, another guy from our high school, who was one year ahead of us, took his life while visiting his family for the weekend.

Mick was a year ahead of us in high school. Captain of the football team and coming from a long line of jocks, he was cocky, popular, and most beloved by the coaching staff and faculty.

Mick went on to the same college I eventually did, settling in as a smaller fish in a quite larger, co-ed pond. By the time my friends and I arrived on campus, Mick had toned down his swagger. He seemed more subdued and approachable. Certainly not morose. It felt more like he was simply feeling more comfortable in his own skin.

News of his suicide rocked my friends and me. Here was a kid who seemingly had it all- looks, popularity, grades- nothing but pure potential ahead of him. There were no signs- just the final sign off.

Mick’s funeral was packed. My friends and I sat in the back of the church, all breaking down as Mick’s older brother himself lost it, telling his brother’s coffin how much he had always enjoyed tossing around the football before Thanksgiving dinner.

It was an awakening- an unwanted and unforgettable lesson that you never know what someone is enduring at any given moment.

***

I was told that Jim left notes, though the contents were never fully revealed to me.

I know one was to his family, and another to his girlfriend, whom Jim had dated for some time and who was a classmate of ours. Most unsettling however, was the note that he left for Mick.

None of us could get our arms around that. To our knowledge, Jim had not been all that friendly with Mick. Certainly no more or less than any of us. Not to mention that Mick had been dead for nearly a year by the time Jim took his own life.

This detail unnerved me. It pushed farther away the possibility of understanding Jim’s mindset in those final days.

News of this note caused me to consider the possibility that Jim might have been mentally ill, which was not at all easy for me to stomach. Even to this day, the possibility sits like an unwelcome visitor in my mind. Yet one who has a right to be there.

I had always assumed that people who took their own lives were selfish and narcissistic, yet somehow clear minded and therefore responsible for their actions. Conveniently, this also made them responsible for my feelings.

As more sketchy revelations emerged, we all realized that we would never understand what had happened. Acceptance of this uncertainty was our closure.

***

On the afternoon of Jim’s death, I sat in the window of my first story dorm room, staring out at the plush green hill across from the building, doing my best to process what few feelings I could identify.

Then I saw a ghost.

From around the corner of the dorm came a kid with curly blond hair and the red baseball jacket of our high school. Same eyes, same nose- it was Jim.

It was either a bad dream or a horrible joke.

I looked closer as he walked up to me- it was Jim’s younger brother, still in high school. He was an eerie clone of his brother. Despair held his head down like a yoke. I wanted badly to leap out of the window and run over and hug him. Instead I sat there.

“Hey… I don’t know what to say… I’m so sorry about your brother…”

“Do you know why he did it?”

He was somewhere between depression and testing.

“I don’t. I have no idea. I’m sorry.”

He looked down at the ground and continued to walk, as if the answers to his questions had a physical location.

I swung my legs back into my room, put on Love and let the tears rain down my face.

***

I have many regrets from my college years. I should have been a Modern Languages major instead of Classics. I should have drank less and studied more. I should have visited home more on the weekends.

But one of my biggest regrets is that I don’t remember my final moments with Jim more clearly.

I don’t pretend to think there was anything I could have or should have noticed that morning- something that I might have used to prevent Jim’s death. It was clear, even at the time, that Jim’s fatal impulses were well-kept secrets held only by him.  Jim had a plan and he wasn’t going to let anyone try to talk him out of it.

I just wish I recalled more about that breakfast. I wish I could remember more vividly remember Jim talking about his hand. What inning it was when the game went south. Which player’s mistake had been so costly. Who they were even playing.

I wish I could remember what we talked about, period. I just remember sitting across from him in the middle of an empty school cafeteria, looking at his hand. That’s it.

Yet at times I wonder if that final meeting was actually perfect. Two friends sitting across from each other in a near-empty dining hall early on an overcast spring morning, each in our purple and gray uniforms- two soldiers in the same army, heading off to different battles. A private moment that was exquisite because it was so ordinary.

Two buddies having breakfast.

The most important meal of the day.

A few months ago, in the dead middle of a Phoenix summer, I got up at 6:15 on a Sunday morning to fulfill a breakfast date with my father, stepmother, aunt and uncle.I’d finally given in to my dad’s nudging, he seemingly oblivious to my protests of “Who meets for a meal at seven in the morning by choice?”

This is mariachi operetta, nervous breakdown, a broken spirit stitched with corn silk. And this is breakfast. Breakfast after losing ourselves in the streets, after shedding the snakeskin of the guidebooks, dodging glass and flying water. Perhaps we will find our huitlacoche one day, but it won’t be today. Perhaps that’s the last anniversary a couple has before they die, no matter their age: the huitlacoche anniversary, attainable only on the verges, rendering in a smear of its black smut, the others obsolete: paper cotton leather linen wood iron sugar steel huitlacoche huitlacoche huitlacoche…

Louisa and I nearly fall from the street into the restaurant, México Viejo, Old Mexico, and are berated by its pottery, its orange walls, contained pockets of steam kicking like the tar pits into the yellow film of iron chandelier light. This is, after all, the best buffet we’ve ever seen, and the place is stuffed with patrons—families with freight trains of kids, business-suited groups basking in the lunch break, old men eating alone, old women staring them down from behind blue clay bowls of caldo de res.

The host, a barrel-chested man with a thick moustache, comes at us with a puzzled look. He stands about as high as my sternum, and I am only five feet, seven. He says nothing, carries no menu, and shrugs. I look to Louisa for help and, miraculously, she says, “Dos.”

“Una mesa para dos personas,” I say, needlessly, forcing my remedial Spanish onto anyone willing to listen. Yes, I am a gringo, I want to tell them, but not one of those gringos, you know? ¿Verdad?

The man nods, his moustache appearing to take flight, leave his face like some hirsute moth and flit about the room. He sits us at a wooden table as squat as he is and gestures, almost dismissively, toward the buffet with the back of his hand.

“Muchas gracias,” I say.

Here, the man stops and manages a smile, his moustache returning from its flirtation with some underage mamacita in a corner booth, once again perching on his face like some gothic canary. He parts his lips. His moustache flaps for dear life.

“De nada,” he says, or growls, or rasps. The words sound forced through knife-cut vocal cords and tracheotomy, plopping into our ears, rheumatic, robotic, phlegmatic, sweet. And we do, we do feel welcome.

Our waitress, a young, curly-haired woman in a flowing brown dress so diaphanous, she should be our waitressssssss, steps to our table with two mugs of coffee before we even order it. This is assumption of the highest working order and I want to stroke her hair, if only to test the perfect spring of the curls. Louisa blows her a kiss and descends into a clatter of South African-accented “Gracias, gracias, gracias…”

Our waitressssssss laughs, her voice carrying into the air like a coffee percolator run on helium, and disappears again into the psychedelic madness of the restaurant. Louisa and I look to the buffet, an L-shaped number covered in white tablecloths, different stations manned and womanned by the staff, clad in purple button-down silk shirts bearing white irises, the women with red flowers pushed behind their ears, flattening masa dough for fresh tortillas, searing various meats to order, juicing papayas and carrots, unraveling spools of white cheese, roasting green chilies until their skins blacken and blister, this tiny opera of food played out on a pot-bellied guitar, and we don’t now what to do, how we can accommodate all of this food, taste everything made to order, taste everything premade and marinating in pottery pots and bowls, painted garishly with fat women hauling grapefruit, with Jesus bleeding on the gustatory cross, his crown of thorns replaced with a mass of seething beans. All the juices, all the soups, each diner bearing a calm that we can’t seem to enforce upon ourselves, our hearts festering in pots of their own, the gas-heat turned up way too high, burning to the bottoms.

“Oh my god,” Louisa says, and she’s absolutely right. The best of nervous breakdowns. Of broken spirits stitched with corn silk. We stand. We step toward it, this burbling beast of breakfast. It opens its arms to us like the obese aunt, over-make-upped, over-perfumed, we only see at holidays. This buffet, before we are done, will surely pinch our cheeks red. I feel off-course, having jumped the tracks. I don’t know where to begin. Louisa slaps me on the ass, and rights me with a word.

“Taco,” she says.

Again, she is absolutely right.

 

**NOTE** Please forgive me if I do not respond to your comments.  I am presently on the road for my BAROLO Book Tour.  If I’m coming to your area for an event, I’d love to extend you an invitation!

Tour schedule here: http://matthewgfrank.com/?page_id=101

Info. about the book here: http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Barolo,674189.aspx

Thanks!  -MGF

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.

At the end of Via Crosia, at least a kilometer past the Macelleria, but before the vineyards, the street’s rose cobblestone is cracked with anthills. Surely these bugs are, right now even, communing under the town, perhaps under a single block, waiting to bore holes through the bathtubs of Barolo, Italy.  In one of these homes (we can only hope), someone will be washing for work—an Elena or Francesco, Valentina or Beppe—dreading the sight of silver tray, meat case, trade show badge, and tractor. By the time the ants reach the white-green tile, this person, whoever they are, will recall their breakfast if only with their throat: the buckwheat flour, egg, and water gelling inside them to spawn something entirely new.

At least a kilometer away—maybe even more—the temperature drops one degree over the grapevines and the wind brushes them into hair. The last of the colony, having just dined on a white truffle crumb, folds full and thorax-first into the anthill. Signaled from the front of the line, the last ant knows that at least a kilometer away, someone is afraid to bathe, can’t afford to fix the hole in their tile. This person, whoever they are, can not wash away breakfast’s hold, lest the ants, with the water, rise from the drain like palm fronds, slow in destroying the foundation, but surely building something—the spindle-laddered metaphysica of the flightless insect, perhaps. Yes: they rise, craving the mask of spiders, a banana tree sprouting in fast forward to bite cacti-like at the soft dough ends of Italian toes.

Breakfast will reassert itself with the fundamentals. Everything must evolve: the eggs, the hens that laid them, the naked stomach snapping back on its food, and fear. That too.