Goldman, Francisco author photo credit - Mélanie MorandI fell in love with the writer Francisco Goldman in 1992 when I read his semi-autobiographical first novel The Long Night of White Chickens, in which a young man who is half Central American and half American Jewish becomes obsessed with the political murder of a Guatemalan woman he has adored since childhood. Since then Goldman has published the novels, The Ordinary Seaman (1997) and The Divine Husband (2004), a nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder (2007), and the very autobiographical Say Her Name.

Goldman, Interior Circuit jacket art 9780802122568From the air, on a flight in, what the eye mostly picks out from the megacity’s stunning enormousness is a dense mosaic of flat rooftops, tiny rectangles and squares, and a preponderance of reddish brown, the volcanic tezontle stone that has forever been the city’s most common construction material, also other shades of brown brick and paint, imposing an underlying coloration scheme. But there are also many concrete and metallic surfaces and many buildings painted in pastel and more vivid hues like bright orange, and rows of trees, and parks and fútbol fields, and modern towers rising here and there, in Polanco, Santa Fe, and the august Torre Latino Americano at the edge of the Centro, and the straight and snaking traffic arteries, beady and silvery in the sunlight, and an infinite swarm of streets. You think, of course, awed, of the millions and millions of lives going on down there. (I reflexively think, as I have for years whenever flying into the city, that she’s down there somewhere, living her mysterious life beneath one of those tiny squares, her too, and also her, Chilangas, female residents of the DF, who over the past two decades I’ve met only once or twice but who left an impression, women who almost surely no longer remember me.) From the air, perhaps because it is such a predominately flat city and almost all the roofs are flat and because so much of it is brown, Mexico City looks like a map of itself, drawn on a scale of 1:1, as in the Borges story “The Exactitude of Science,” which refers to “a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point.”

Cornmeal laminating our tongues, we snake the streets aimlessly, but with a vague feeling for the Zócalo. It hides its skewed quadrilateral just out of sight, guarded by row after row of apartment, bank, food stall, market, stacks of carpeted speakers, their black and red wires massing for some kind of tangled revolution. On one street corner, a tight unit of white people. We hear their teenage English on the hot wind, too loud, oblivious. Various accents—East Coast, Midwestern, Southern… Their chaperone, a middle-aged woman with a Bostonian bent, bears the thick-necked, thick glasses, stiff perm of their church group leader. Her forehead is pursed, placid but purposeful. Clearly, she feels there are people here in need of saving.

One boy with oversized teeth and pimples on his ears spanks the ass of a willowy girl in black stretch pants. She turns, raven-haired and red-faced to him, as he high-fives another boy with a side-turned ball cap. In her look is patience, pity. She shakes her head and says, “Stop,” meaning, You’re lucky I don’t take your balls, buck-tooth. Another girl, hay-bale blonde, shows her something on her cell phone. A photograph. I’m guessing it’s of the man before us, rolling along the vaulted arcade across the street. Both girls giggle, then turn away from him, possibly ashamed, but too young to admit it. They cross the street, and we cross too, but we keep our distance. We don’t want to be too near these other Americans. As nucleus, as core, Mexico City is leagues ahead of Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

When we step before the arcade on the other side, the sky goes glassy as bath tile, and the beggars jockey for space and attention. This arched passageway seems shadowless, holds more light than the sky itself, sponging the sun. The man, the one who the girls likely photographed can’t be dated. He seems to have side-stepped definition-by-age in that way that people with missing limbs often do. When there’s less of the actual body, there’s less to determine age by. A lack of evidence. He is without arms or legs, perched on a palate of wood with crooked wheels and somehow propels himself along the arcade with his stomach muscles and the remains of his pelvis. The buck-toothed boy looks at him, then immediately turns away. He does no imitation, no virginal air-humping, and I am happy for this. The palate of wood is decorated with a few odd coins, almost enough, I hope, for one tamale. Happy…

Two women who look far too old to be the mothers of infants, parade with their babies, holding them out to the passers-by, imploring looks burned into their faces. They do this for a few minutes, then, as if their shifts are over, their faces melt into smiles as they approach each other, swap stories, regain a measure of youth. When this brief break is over, they age their faces again, sadden their eyes, lift the wriggling children, wrapped in pink scarves.

One of the church group boys spits to the stone and I know he means nothing by it; he’s used to spitting on sidewalks and lawns; to him, it’s habit, reflex, but the people here take notice, scowl as he passes, his in-process backbones poking from his jersey, a grounded bird, amputated wings. A man in a rickety wheelchair, the seat constructed from an onion sack, clasps his hands in prayer or deference as we pass. He is legless, but has flipper-like feet at the bottom of his torso, the toes fused, the nails haphazard like a handful of coins tossed into cement and left to dry where they stuck. He is smiling, graying stubble surrounding his mouth, a patron saint of manners. Hands still clasped, he nods to us and utters the most optimistic “buenos tardes.”

Bells are ringing in the distance, penetrating the city with some ancient music, Mexico City giving itself over to all reverberation and gong. Even the pollution seems to get along with the sky, agreeing to elicit this palest of blues, some estranged dropout cousin to some brighter ocean. A hunched old man in a torn navy windbreaker holds a shaking hand to us as if caught in the sound-wake of the bells. I think of my aunt with Parkinson’s, of everybody’s aunt with Parkinson’s, as his fingers dance and his torn windbreaker voice manages, “por un taquito, por un taquito.”

The entire world is this small rolled-up tortilla, deep-fried in bell-music and the grease of beautiful dirty sky. Of ancient excavations and cathedrals that had to see blood before they saw worship. But as if to rail against it, to assert some stubborn human force, surely destined to fail, but packed with electricity, so many men playing so many accordions, so many upturned hats not yet full of paper, violins and saxophones and guitars beating back the invisible bells, the stupid nervous double-dog-dared hands of all buck-toothed white boys with the most melodic of the world’s Fuck Yous, holding the fort so the captain can emerge from his sentries. And here he is: just a teenage boy himself, standing behind a pot-bellied beast of an instrument—wide as a park bench, the sickly premature offspring of piano and violin, and he’s cranking the shit out of it, eliciting the most pathetic circus music, one of miserable underfed elephants, their ivory dying and sloughing into the ring, just out of sight of the audience, deep into their popcorn, these elephants who the ringmaster loves, his only real friends… Drawn closer, we can see, printed on the front of the instrument in gold lettering, the words, Harmonichord and Berlin.

It’s the sort of instrument that should require at least two people to operate, to make this kind of sound, but the boy is doing it without sweating. How it got here from Germany… The pigeons are log-rolling overhead, preparing for back-flips over the chimneys and spires, rolling their throats like mantra. The flies are closer to us, circling our scalps as if runways, places to rest. To them, I whisper, “Medieval,” “Organistrum,” “conquest.” Louisa mutters something in her first-language about love and learning. I feel I am learning to do both, to open up, to ornament my vocabulary with Sí, Sí,, Sí, but it’ll take some time. We wipe our faces with our shirt sleeves. A small girl blows soap bubbles at us through a blue plastic wand. She wears no shoes. Walks the arcade stones in white cotton socks. Her mother, younger than we are, touches Louisa’s hand, says, in barely-accented English, “Don’t be sad.” In our chests, the elephants stand on their hind legs, perform their best trick. In this, what can do but age, look like our parents? I pull a handful of coins from my pants pocket, not sure yet what to do with them. I am learning, but it will take some time. So much to clap for.

 

It would pain us, years ago, not to touch one another. In Key West, maybe a couple months after we met, Louisa and I celebrated an early-love sort of holiday—you know, the eight-week anniversary of the first French kiss, or something blissful like that—with a dinner at the now-defunct Cafe des Artistes on Duval St. Atypical for me, I remember little about the actual food, though snapshots of warm foie gras, port wine reductions, diver scallops and saffron decorate the memory, accurate or not. More than anything, I remember the size of the table, a massive dark wooden number, way too big for a two-top, Louisa and I perched at opposite ends. It took our full wingspans to reach one another across that expanse, surely dodging fresh flower, the vase that held it, and burning candle. All for a mere brushing of the fingertips, an actual, if chemical, recharging of our batteries, our blind feet searching in vain in the gulf beneath the white linen tablecloth.

It was a window table, and I remember looking through it at her standing in streetlight on the sidewalk, enjoying her mid-meal cigarette, her blonde hair glowing orange in the night. Somehow, even though it was Key West, and probably at least 70-degrees, I impose, in memory, snowfall on this scene—some dramatic anomaly, some fictional meteorological introspection, the kind of nostalgia that, for a Midwestern boy, can only reside in light ice falling beneath the orange pool of a streetlamp, smoke pouring from the lips of an early lover in the dark, through a restaurant window, at a too-big table pushing flutes of hazel champagne into the air.

Often, it’s still like this—how we’re driven by the need to touch, how our memories are inflamed sometimes by this lack, the distance we must breach. Here, on the other side of the Zócalo tracks, there is no distance at all to breach; we are wallpaper-glued together and we cling to one another not out of need, but incidentally. Actually, we cling to a whole bunch of people, the streets jammed with the chaos of familiarity—the kind that represents a close-knit neighborhood. Really close—like someone’s-knee-in-another’s-tailbone close. I think of my ancestors in the Jewish ghettoes of Poland, the wild social structures and hierarchies within. Here, in Mexico, land of living ghosts, I commune with them. Some apparitional great-aunt with ham-hock arms juggles pierogies, catching them in her mouth before they fall. Her smile bears the sheen of sour cream, bridging Poland and Mexico with a single ingredient. I want to wrap my arm around this burly ghost, sway, gather the streets into a frenzied We Are the World.

But all we can do is succumb to the rhythm, decide not to fight the current. My great-aunt’s ghost fades into the multitude. In these streets, the Cafe des Artistes two-top would be ground to sand. The undertow carries us into Tamale Alley, literally an entire street lined with outdoor food-stalls, each of them peddling their unique takes on the corn-husked delight, not a single one stuffed with huitlacoche. When we ask for it, utter those four corn-smutty syllables, we are, each time without fail, greeted with wrinkled foreheads and dismissive waves. We are obviously absurd foreigners, belted with occasional bursts of tamale steam as the vendors lift the tin lids of their water baths. Crowds of mid-day eaters huddle six-deep, eating together in front of the stand from which they bought their food, pulling bits of golden cornmeal stuffed with mole negro chicken, carnitas in salsa verde, whitefish in mole amarillo, from the corn husks wrapped in greasy crinkling waxpaper, laughing, arguing, working things out. One portion of the alley prepares only mole negro, another the amarillo, another the verde. Tamale Alley has cliques, cornmeal turf wars.

Cars, bikes, mopeds, garbage trucks, skinny shirtless guys hauling cardboard boxes on dollies cascade around the standing diners, swinging wide to avoid them, snaking sidewalk and street, wherever there’s a breathe-hole, a crack of space through which to push. No table gulfs here. No place to put your elbows except against your ribcage, your wrists doing the all the work, fingers pulling strings of meat from the husk, dripping with psychedelic sauces. The smells of garlic and diesel commingle overhead.

Commingling beneath, Louisa and I push to the front of a tamale stand, dare not ask for huitlacoche. Deep in her handbag, our stone knife is surely twitching, longing to halve some brave foodstuff. From a fat old woman we purchase two mole negro tamales. An old sinewy man in a dirty Chicago Cubs baseball cap begs two pesos from us for a tamale of his own. And we dine together silently, the three of us wrapped in crowd on the street. Louisa croons. The old man smacks his lips. I save my energy for the unwrapping of the corn husk, wet with a tawny grease that runs along my wrists as I lift the pillow of cornmeal to my mouth. It gives easily to my teeth, bursts with an outer earthiness—the smells of the Midwest, drives along the farm roads of Central Illinois, Indiana, the sun reflecting from armies of silos. But inside, it’s all Mexico, the molasses sap of the mole negro, penetrating as fresh oil, tar, all sweet burn and toast, the threads of chicken soaked with the charred sauce, lingering flavors of grassy chile, sesame, almond, raisin, cinnamon, chocolate. This is a tamale to span the length of all meals—it is amuse bouche and appetizer and entree and dessert. It is a four-hour meal at a giant table, and your lover pulling the last drag from her last cigarette beneath some final moon. In this tamale, the swings of Buffalo Grove’s Tartan Park regress, go squeakless again, and the tornado slide cleans itself of the old purple of all childhood blood. In this firecracker mole negro parents live forever.

With one hand, I snake Louisa’s thigh. With the other, I raise the tamale to my mouth for a second bite, wondering what this one will evoke. Louisa, nearly finished already, throws her head backward and knocks the old man’s Cubs hat to the asphalt.

An old man with six fingers total saws lugubrious anthems of loss and love on a zither with a caved-in box and crooked plectrum. His only lyric: ¿por qué? repeated over and over like incantation. He sits on an old barber’s chair perched against a crumbling wall along one of the Zócalo walkways. He has breadcrumbs in his moustache, and the graffiti behind his sombrero’d head, reads, in Spanish: Fuck Your Mother. We drop a few sweaty coins into the empty yogurt dish at his feet. His eyes drop like bats feeding.

Vendors flash their wares. Leather wallets with big silver snaps. Purses of all sorts of hides bearing the ecstatic faces of the toothy gods, handbags made of tortoise shell and obsidian. Earrings of snail shells, snakeskin belts. Something about this commerce stirs in us a sly uneasiness, but admiration. This is a market without middleman, and the directness of it—the chance to place the pesos for a turtle purse into the durable hands of the man who, just last week, ripped the small wriggling body from the shell—is chilling, as it is alluring.

Like somnambulists, we zombify the market, wide-eyed and stiff-legged, not saying a word or looking at each other, Mexico City the only reaction shot we need. I want to know everything Louisa is thinking, if thoughts of Chicago evaporating like tea steam rush her with their thin whistle, if she is only in the moment or already forcing upon it reflection from some unknowable, but probable future. I want to know, but stare straight ahead until she speaks.

“I’d really like an agua fresca.

Her voice is like the hand that pulls me from the bottom of the pool, where I lost myself gathering pennies to the point of drowning; the same penchant for blind engrossment that caused me as a child to piss myself while watching Sesame Street. I suck air. It’s filthy and wonderful. All sewage and roasting corn.

“We have to find the kind that’s all fruit, or mixed with milk,” I say, “the ones mixed with water can hurt us.”

“It’s so tempting though,” she whines, gesturing to a stand mixing prickly pear drinks, cantaloupe, coconut, tamarind.

“Those are the water ones, baby,” I say, “Trust me, you don’t want to get sick.” And immediately I hate playing the role of reason, of lack of surrender, but I’ve been struck with parasites many times before; once, years ago in Mérida, Yucatán, when I couldn’t help but eat a guyaba berry rolled in chile powder, handed to me by a cloaked 100-year-old Mayan woman sitting streetside on a blue plastic crate. I paid for such surrender with high fever and higher intestinal duress for weeks, cut with no sleep and freezing cold sweats. It was only later that I found out that, in Taíno mythology, that the guyaba was typically reserved for opías, or the walking dead, who would parade the Ceiba forests and make of the berry the edible centerpiece for their night-feasts, taking the form of pale navel-less humans, or bats. In fact, according to the legend, the ruler of these dead bore the name of Maquetaurie Guayaba, Lord of Sweet Delight. The nectar of the berry was often used as the base of a black body paint used to evoke the nature of death in various rituals and rites. So, maybe that had something to do with it.

“Oh, I know,” Louisa croons as we pass the fruit drink stands, “but they look so good.”

Restraint, especially when it comes to ingestibles, when we’re traveling has thankfully never been our strong suit as a couple. But pass the stands we do. Soon, as if antidote, we’re looking to buy a knife from a short middle-aged man in a tank-top, serpentine scar tattoos adorning both of his shoulders, moustache guyaba berry-death paint-dark, straw sombrero ripped open at the top, exposing his wet knotted hair. Surely we need something sharp with which to excise our agua fresca loss. We make this transaction wordlessly. The scarred man shows us various knives—thick-bladed, thin-bladed, switch-bladed, stone. Bright knives inlayed with jewels, knives used and stained with old blood and rust. When we shake our heads, he retrieves a new one from its slumber on his crowded blanket. He is barefoot and his foot-tops bear old puncture wounds.

After seven failed attempts, he retrieves a stunning obsidian knife with an Aztec design carved handle of green onyx. It is ancient-looking and beautiful, fresh from some painful sacrifice—agua fresca or otherwise. This is the one. The eyeballs convince us; carved into the handle, they bug-out at us, hypnotic enough for Louisa, continuing our opera of silence, to grab my unscarred shoulder. The man sees this, nods, and immediately wraps the knife in bubble-wrap and scotch tape. We pay him the 150 pesos (about twelve bucks) without bargaining, he touches our scalps as if blessing us, his tepid hands the texture of hessian, and we move on to the section of city on the other side of the Zócalo, where we have not yet been. Stone knife safely sheathed in packing material, we stroll the streets, teeming with life and neighborhood, dollies overloaded with wares of all kinds—carpets, jugs, cow heads, clothing—small cars honking, open flatbeds rattling, bicycles swerving, barely navigating the madness of street stand and pedestrian. We think of that man and his zither, can’t decide whether everything or nothing we see answers his endless question of Why? We barely navigate this madness ourselves, oblivious to the rules, the imbroglio of smell and sound, looking for anything alive to eat.

A Rebuttal.

To the recent short essay by Tawni Freeland, “Let the Eagle Sour, Er, Soar” (and an excellent one, at that) concerning the employment of fireworks by the local citizenry.

Back when I was young, my father went on sabbatical from the college and packed us all up and dragged us down to Mexico.

Tell us about yourself.

I was born in a little log cabin in Kentucky in 1822.

You’re often described as “unknown,” “someone you’ve probably never heard of,” and “obscure.”

As long as I’m “often described.”

You’ve published four books with Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon.

Yes, two true-story collections and two novels. Things I Like About America was my first and most popular non-fiction work. It addresses among many other things, losing my virginity with a psychopath, wrestling on a porch in the rain with a junkie, battling crack addiction, and finding a friend of mine in Mexico who’s been dead two days. God Clobbers Us All was my second book with Hawthorne: it’s a death, surfing and LSD novel. Then came Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire, a tropical island love triangle with obeah damnation and a sexy but sometimes headless jumbie. My last book was 501 Minutes to Christ, where I hop a freight train to France, try to kick meth, and talk about what it was like to lose a multiple book contract with Houghton Mifflin, though I never actually use the words Houghton or Mifflin. My Dutch isn’t that good and it gives me the hiccups.

Tell us about your upcoming book, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere.

Basically it goes like this: the newly arrived math professor from our state college in Chadron, Nebraska, a terribly nice fellow who lived two blocks away from my family, disappeared one day without a trace. Ninety-five days later he was found burned and bound to a tree in the remote hills about a mile south of campus in what was then an incinerated prairie forest. A number of news teams, law enforcement officers, and bloggers, including psychics and ghosthunters, exhausted themselves in the so-called investigation, but this case remains unsolved, a profound mystery. Since I knew almost all the players, the police, the Sheriff, the math professor and many of his colleagues and friends, and every last one of the “suspects,” I became the natural repository for this story. Love and Terror is also about my quaint High Plains small town, its eccentric residents, my rocky marriage to a beautiful Mexican woman, and my exceptional, purportedly autistic son, who was four years old at the time.

What do you think happened up there, I mean with the math professor?

“Twilight Zone Shit,” is what my friend Sheriff Karl Dailey calls it, and though I don’t pretend to know, I do include the body of forensic evidence and the full spectrum of possible scenarios, including prairie dragons and space aliens.

Did you work with the math prof at the college?

I don’t even have a degree. I was cleaning floors at Safeway at the time.

Tell the two or three readers who haven’t put this interview aside a little about your writing routine.

I try to write four hours every day, mornings if I can. Most of what I write is discarded. Jack London used to set a goal of a thousand words a day before he gave in to the first of his twenty-six drinks. I might get down six thousand words, I might record twenty-two. I don’t force things because the next day I know I’ll just have to throw it away, and I’m not pressed by the need for a drink, wealth, or legitimacy. Production in writing is often about the acceptance of moving backwards. I am developmentally slow and usually have to go through at least ten major versions of whatever I’m working on before I start to see the gleam. I’ve been working on Love and Terror now for five years, and I thought it was done three years ago. One thing I’ve learned through the “creative process” is that most of the time you don’t get a say.

Do you use notebooks?

Extensively. I have about a hundred notebooks arranged in such a manner that I can never find what I’m looking for.

Do you have a method for beating that little voice that snags and blocks the whispers of the muse?

I write as fast as I can, which is why I like a computer.

But when you started writing, personal computers didn’t exist.

No, ink pens had just been invented and most people were switching over from papyrus. I teethed on a Royal manual typewriter, then moved to an electric Smith-Corona, followed by an IBM Selectric (also an electric typewriter), then it was a 286 clone (a computer I bought in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1989). I had a ThinkPad for a time. For many years I composed whole pieces including novels in longhand, but I can’t write fast enough to do that anymore.

Who are some of your influences?

My earliest influences were John Steinbeck and Pauline Kael.

Pauline Kael?

Yes, I learned a good deal about structure and atmosphere from her movie reviews.

Name some books worth reading twice.

Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Mockingbird Wish Me Luck by Charles Bukowski, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, The High Window by Raymond Chandler, Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy, The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson.

Those are all old books.

Yes, I don’t read a lot of new books. I don’t have the time to sort them out.

Can a secret about the vital inspirational force be divulged?

Don’t just watch the river, jump in.

Why did you travel for nearly three decades, living on four hundred dollars a month without seeing a dentist for sixteen years, when you could’ve gotten yourself a comfy job teaching?

I am easily bored and not much of a joiner. In Mexico, by the way, I lived on three hundred a month.

Your work is often compared with Bukowski’s.

Bukowski derived from Henry Miller, who I’m also occasionally compared to, and there are similarities. Both men came from working class backgrounds, both started and published late, both traveled widely and lived lustily among the poor, wrote with humor and heart, worked a number of mundane jobs, were totally ignored for years by the mainstream literati, and both rejected convention and academia. I’m also often compared to Kerouac (another disciple of Miller), I suppose because he traveled.

What do we look forward to seeing from you?

I have two stories upcoming in the Sun magazine, a story in the 2011 Spring edition of Ecotone, Love and Terror is slated for 2012, following that a novel in 2013 called Rodney Kills at Night, about a Lakota Indian boy who accidentally kills his stepfather and flees the reservation to become a standup comedian in Las Vegas. Al Saperstein just finished a great documentary on me, “Poe Ballantine, a Writer in America,” available soon. I’ve also just made a big pan of chicken enchiladas. You’re welcome to as many as you like.

Thanks but I’ve got to catch a plane. One last question before we go: what advice would you give the young would-be writer?

The difference between the writer and the person who wants to write can be reduced to one word: work. The devotees have significantly better odds of success than the dreamers whose mouths never close. Luck, timing, passion, courage, and talent all play a role, too. So does a complete investment in the truth. I wouldn’t for a moment recommend that you pursue literature, since it’s been replaced for the most part by visual media, but if you learn to trust your instincts, if you give everything you’ve got, if you don’t quit, if you really love what you do, if you’re willing to put your ass on the line, you might produce a work of note or at the very least learn something valuable about yourself. Good luck, however, avoiding the nervous breakdown.

In the stone courtyard before the Zócalo’s Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, three children—2 boys and a girl—take turns with an elm branch, poking a small beige dog who looks about dead. In its eye, the wetness of the doe-eye, the reflection of a coming fly. Its tongue-tip rests on the stone, leaving a dark salival mark, some small oasis of shade for the molecular things we can’t see. The girl kisses one boy on the cheek, who raises the branch and beats her between the shoulder blades with it. The dog’s flank rises just slightly, as if assuring us he or she is still breathing, with us.

You, Two.

By Zoe Brock

Travel

You are still a woman, at least you were the last time you checked. You check again, just to make sure. While you’re at it you admire your tan lines. Yup, doing good.

If you were the sun you’d kiss you too.

Day four.

You sleep badly but it’s of no consequence. To awake with a faceful of such beauty is almost visually jarring, then immediately soothing. Nature can really blow the socks off you sometimes, even when you aren’t wearing any, like now, because it’s too damn hot. The thought of socks makes your toes twitch. If your toes had faces they’d be frowning.

You are not alone. Your friend is asleep next to you, travel weary and slightly late to the party, but determined to make up for it. She arrived last night, an angel in a shuttle, coasting along a tar-black road on a tar-black night. The generators were down and the hotel was saturated in darkness. You’d given up waiting for her and were heading out for a drink, and you knew, the second before it happened, that when you stepped out of the shadows and into the streetlight, you’d find each other. It was so. The bus lights illuminated you, you both screamed with joy.

Kismet. Boom. Welcome to Tulum.

Now there are two.

You look around. This is, quite honestly, the sexiest room you’ve ever stayed in. You decide to stay another night, even though you can’t afford it, because life is short and there’s no use hoarding your nana’s fine china for special occasions. You’ve got to bust that shit out and let it get used and chipped and broken. The ancient Egyptians were wrong, you can’t take stuff with you when you die, and money is no exception. You think this, and you wonder, ruefully, if you’ll feel the same thing in a week when you check out your depleted bank balance.

You shrug.

Bartender!?

This morning you swim and wander, meeting people and making new friends. You run into friends of friends from Burning man and the synchronicity of everything reaffirms the right-on-ness of your decision to come here. You’re blessed to have your partner in crime with you. Her spirit helps to elevate you. She is a torch shining light upon you whenever your darker side appears. You are grateful.

You teach two people to bodysurf and watch your friend whirl topless cartwheels in the sand. This is the day you almost drown in the unforgiving ocean from uncontrollable laughter. It would not have been a bad way to go.

Day five.

At some point in the night the wind stops. At first this feels like blessed relief but soon you become aware of two things: it’s much hotter now, and, the mosquitos are coming.

Itchy, you seek solace in the ocean. You delight in confusing the swarming halo of bloodsuckers that hover overhead by diving beneath the waves and appearing elsewhere. Karma is a bitch.

The wind picks up before noon and blows your angelic crown of little devils away. Good riddance.

It’s time for a frosty beverage and you go inside to help prop up the bar. You’re selfless like that.

You hear that one of your heroes has passed away. Gil Scott Heron, ivory tickler and deep throated poet, a man who inspired you with his blunt honesty and heart stained sleeves. Gil always told the truth. Always. About his drug use, his mistakes, his lessons learned.

You drink a beer in his honor and play “Give Her a Call” before you sleep. It makes you feel sad and small and you miss the person you’ve been missing even more. You wish he would listen to that song. You wish he would really listen to it. Your heart hurts and you fall asleep with one hand on your heart and the other between your legs, holding yourself together, fearing you may break in half.

Day six.

You escape the beach and drive inland towards the ruins of Coba. You pass small villages where small statured women in bright dresses beat rainbows of hanging rugs with wooden poles and skinny dogs dart into traffic, trying to give you a heart attack and make you accountable for the portion of the car insurance that Hertz said isn’t covered by the ‘full liability coverage’ you purchased. Oh, Mexico.

In Coba you visit an ancient Mayan ruin dedicated to the honey bee. It makes you happy that an entire race of people worshipped the tiny creature you consider your totem. You hug the temple. It feels old and warm.

You ask a Mayan what he thinks about the paranoid among us who believe 2012 will be the end of the world. He laughs and says people should chillax. The world will keep on bumping along, long after we’ve killed ourselves off, he tells me. So there you go. Straight from a Mayans mouth.

Afterwards you drive to an underground cenote and jump 30 feet from a platform into cool fresh water while bats circle stalactites and small, fearless fish nibble your toes. It is quiet down there. It’s like a church. You’re in a holy place and you let the solitude and quiet envelop you until other humans come and break the peace. You leave.

The drive back is marred by the deaths of hundreds of butterflies. Perhaps thousands. They fly with such grace and beauty across the road ahead of you, and hit your windshield with such violence that it’s impossible not to gasp at every splat. Little yellow wings dot the asphalt. It’s carnage. There is nothing to do but grip the wheel and drive.

You make a pit stop at the police station on the way back to the beach to retrieve your license plate. The police have been kind enough to hold it for you after they removed it from the front of your car as punishment for a parking violation. They look so officious in their uniforms. You are tempted to do something weird so you can be thrown into a Mexican jail, just for a few hours, because you know what an awesome story it would make. Nothing like that happens. You pay your fine and retrieve your property.

Back at the hotel you are offered a cookie.

What kind of cookie, you ask.

It’s not peyote, you are told.

Seriously, what’s in it, you insist.

Everything, and nothing, comes the reply.

You eat the cookie.

The cookie messes you up.

You regret the cookie.

Bad cookie.

Day seven.

You are both awake at dawn, fuzzy-muddle-muggle-headed and confused from the night before. You watch the sunrise from different vantage points along the beach. You’re hungry and wish ceviche was on the breakfast menu. There is not enough ceviche in Mexico to satisfy your cravings for it.

Today you receive the most perfect massage of your life. You are a professional massage receiver, so this is no mean feat. You climb a ladder into a tall tree house and lay down on a bed with a view over the jungle and cenotes to the west. You undress and allow a gorgeous man with soulful eyes to manipulate your body and sing into your soul. When it ends you are happy. He is named for a holy book and for a minute you think about suggesting unholy things for the two of you to do together. But you don’t. Despite the mastery of his touch your body still feels like it belongs to another.

You drive back to your hotel to pack your things and prepare for an early departure. You watch the sun set and dream of never leaving. This place has captured a part of you. You run your fingers through the sand and find a pale pink shell. You let the shell slip through your fingers and into the foam. Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints, you murmur.


In the morning you’ll be gone, but you know you will be back. You’ve made too many friends here.

Day eight.

You rise again at dawn. The drama of the sunrise sucks a gasp from your breast as you lay beneath a light blanket on a beach chair and watch it all unfold. A scoop of pelicans flies low over the breaking waves, heading North for breakfast, and two beach dogs play and chase each other with early morning abandon. You, a golden girl, swim in a pink ocean, wearing nothing but pink panties, watching pink light dapple the clouds above.

It’s time to go. Back to reality, back to life. Back to a new job and new beginnings. It all feels strange. You are excited and replenished. You love new things but you dream of beginning again something old, of making that precious thing new and improved. You take a deep breath. What will be, will be. You are deserving of love and lust and luck. You believe in yourself, perhaps truly for the first time.

Viva Mexico, where the police are thieves, where colors heal, where there’s no such thing as “margarita mix”, and where old VW Bugs come to die.

Hasta la vista.

Gracias.

You

By Zoe Brock

Movies

YOU are a woman.

You might not have been a woman before you started reading, but for now, you most certainly are. Have fun with it, you slut.

You are a woman.

Continued from here

The Place

We woke up early the next morning to check the surf. It was smaller than yesterday and all blown out.

“Looks pretty shitty out there,” Marty said. “And the tide’s low. Maybe we should head south and get our morning session in someplace down the road.”

I agreed. I’d break my neck on that reef if the waves any shallower than yesterday.

Not yet anteater boot-top-deep in suicide art and esophageal cathedral, the open rush of mole negro alley and chipped abalone shell catching the sun in its drying marine mitt, strange creams and Aztec knives—long-gone virginal—loved, hated, ignored, we ditch, thanks to Juan Pérez’s biscuit-faced generosity, our suitcases behind the Rioja’s front desk for the day—our flight to Oaxaca City only at 9:00pm tonight, and sup from Ciudad de México/Méjico/Distrito Federal, this triple-named beast of a metropolis, its belly heaving with street-scene and food and market and fake snow in 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and Juan Pérez’s patulous hugs (He actually runs his hands over the backs of our heads, kisses us on our cheeks, his lips warm and smooth, his face prickled with graying stubble, rife with effluvium—clove, citrus peel, musk, the back of a grandparent’s closet, the mothballs there and peeling floral shelfpaper, the spice of age and the uncontainable joy that can sometimes penetrate loneliness, calling to my own grandparents long-lost in their Long Island deathbed Yiddish mumblings and sweet neuroses bound to triple-checking the thermostat before bed, and Louisa’s, their quiet passings after being robbed in Johannesburg, handcuffed to their toilet), and stepping from the lobby, our ultra-temporary home, our one-night sanctuary and port in the educational protest deluge, we are naked and stuffed with beating hearts, two turkeys bloated with garlic and apple and breadcrumb and quick pace, heated demeanors, breasts drying out in this city-oven, juices running clear and exhilarated over the haldz and pupik of Avenida Cinco de Mayo and the corners we have yet to turn.

We blow kisses to the Virgen de Guadalupe calendar, the nightstands that once, if only for a storied night, held our books and our beer. The courtyard inhales, inflates its ribcage and we stare upward to its lack of ceiling, the sky washed-out, pale and filthy. We slip sheets of yellow paper beneath our suitcase handles with our Mexican names: Mateo y Luisa Franco. Wheel them behind the front desk. Juan Pérez implores us with a string of ten cuidados, clapping the air between his thick hands in applause or prayer, we can’t tell. We assure him we will be careful, our breaths sick with cheap toothpaste, his with cigar tobacco, leaf-acrid and heady, and step in toward those celestial embraces. He will not be here when we return, his shift over, his forty-minute drive to his ample wife and one daughter who still lives at home (of his remaining seven children, only two reside in Mexico City, and one of them in Chicago! which injects our goodbye with the additional five minute fever of memory and a list of stateside Mexican restaurants; Juan Pérez tells us he has never traveled north to visit. Muy caro,” he laments, rubbing his fingers together, empty of the many dólares he would have to spend to get there, my hometown, his son’s apartment, the last place my parents will likely live). We will retrieve our bags from that reincarnated eagle of a front desk clerk we saw briefly last night. In Juan Pérez’s adiós, the weight of the caretaker world.

We step, again, into the street, carrying with us our own decades in the service industry—my sixteen years in the restaurant trade, my start at age eleven, washing dishes in a fast food chicken shack on the outskirts of Chicago, moving through the worlds of server, busboy, wine grape picker and cantina floor mopper in Italy, line cook, garde manger, sous chef, sommelier, manager, catering business owner; Louisa’s journey including much of the same, though peppered with au pair in Israel, counselor to teenage drug addicts and prostitutes in South Africa (which temporarily earned her the status of nun), laundress in Key West (where she and I met in a Latin jazz bar called Virgilio’s, indelibly earning her the status of Fallen Sister Louie); our lives now in academia and massage therapy and, in Mexico, wherein we step toward the Zócalo, Juan Pérez’s graciousness still clinging to our necks like barbate scarves.

He makes us miss the service industry. We talk of this as we walk, our pace enflamed with our forthcoming evening plane ride, how the past has its sneaky ways to force us to desire it, return to it, even though we know disappointment imminently looms.

“Human nature,” Louisa says, as we pass an old woman playing the xylophone at the street curb, “we always want to be what we’re not, sweeten the things we used to do.”

“Or where we used to be,” I say.

Chicago asserts itself in the distance—some prohibitive force, forever muy caro.

When we emerge from skinny side-street into the behemoth Zócalo, we see at its center, on this 80-degree day, a snow machine spewing its cold manufactured flakes into the air. A team of smocked employees works with inadequate gloves to mound the snow into piles from which children, for a few pesos can pack snowballs for the throwing. The line to do this is obscene and snaking, two hours long at least, but oh, sweet novelty! This is the white sand beach to Siberia! All we can do is stop to watch a seven-year-old girl finally reach the line’s front, fork over her mother’s coins, and build a pathetic eight-inch snowman with the aid of a rigid burlap mold, under the supervision of a beautiful red-vested employee with matching red Santa Claus barrettes.

To her mother’s snapping camera, the girl beams as the barretted employee supplies her with a small pieces of cork and a reusable string of carrot, mounted on a long pin to stick into the molded snow-dwarf’s face, machine-pumped flakes waltzing around her head, collecting like diamonds in her black hair. Though this world is melting quickly, and she’s already being ushered out to allow for the next child, her face, as if trapped in a mold of its own, will not lose its smile. This is a past that may not require sweetening. Louisa and I take each other’s sweating hands. It’s been a strange winter.

The Pharmacy

“Let me get this straight,” the pharmacist said, “you have a drivers’ license from Virginia, an address in Orange County, and you’re here in Encinitas to pick-up a prescription written by a dentist from Utah.”

I didn’t mention that I’d been diagnosed by a radiologist from Louisiana.

“Here’s the thing.” Marty said, “The kid works for me. That’s the thing.”

It didn’t help that Marty held the biggest, cheapest bottle of vodka in the store with one hand, his credit card in the other hand.

For the last year and a half I have been obsessed with the violence in Mexico and the cartel-fueled drug wars.  There is a character in my new novel named Violeta.  She lives in the midst of the blood drenched chaos and I felt I had to be familiar with the horror of her day-to-day life so that as I could write her story.  I have spent a lot of time down on the border, interviewed people whose lives have been affected, visited the sites of savage brutality.  I start each morning with the Mexican blogs where I read about unspeakable atrocities and look at gory photos.  Mass graves keep popping up all over the country in which 20, 30, 70 tortured bodies are discovered.  At first I was able to keep my boundary intact.  The crimes committed against innocent people in Mexico were upsetting but they were happening in a foreign country—not here in my life.  I was safe.  But slowly the reality of Violeta’s life started to color the way I looked at the world.  Everyday I viewed pictures of headless bodies and crying families.  I read accounts of barbarous torture and saw that the cartels were engaged in a monstrous competition, each group trying to  out do the other in order to prove that they were most fierce and therefore most powerful.   I got depressed.  Was this the end of western civilization, as we know it?  Had human nature devolved to such a level that we were slaughtering each other over drugs and money?  I decided to take a look at history in order to put things in perspective.

Young men in purple bandannas stare at us, younger mothers with toddlers draped like minks over their necks glare while pumping their worn fists into the air. Who the fuck are we, indeed. In the stomping of countless feet, caught somewhere in the middle of this river of people, our hearts are clobbering our chests, hearts that have seen Chicago, and are now seeing this. An old man so clean-shaven his cheeks bear the sheen of a newborn puts his arms around us, we novelty gringos, and tries to shout something into our ears above the roars of the mob and the megaphones. He fails. His voice reaches us all creaky basement door, wordless and unoiled. His arm feels damp like snakeskin on my neck.

We can’t quite see beyond the crowd now, walled in by scarred bare shoulders and flailing bronze forearms. The sky flashes its body above us, indecent, pleading for beads. Behind us, a strange commotion, panic, defiance, and I pray no one has died. Louisa pulls her blonde hair into a ponytail with her right hand, holds it a moment as if a life-raft, then lets it go. The crowd behind us begins to part, fissured as if by a series of barges with flashing red lights, sirens calling like wounded crows. The police cars charge into the belly of the protest, and a family of twelve, each in straw hats of varying sizes rushes toward the curb to make room for them. Others, behind the squad cars, kick at the slow-going tires, spit onto the rear windshields.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

At set intervals, the cop cars discharge teams of officers in riot gear, machine guns raised in their hands. They begin to line the sidewalks, facing us, trapping us, their guns at us, black-gloved fingers on the triggers. Their heavy boots, jangling belts, underscore our chanting with some evil bass note, dissonant, threatening to kill the song.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“This is not good,” Louisa says.

She’s seen her share of death in South Africa, narrowly escaped two attempted carjackings, guns held to her head both times. The cops’ faces are hidden behind plastic facemasks, pulled down from their helmets. The sun, still above the rooftops, reflects from them. They are faceless, balls of light atop torsos. Their machine guns remain dormant but poised, and I feel nauseas. I burp a quiet breath of pig brain into the wet rear hairline of a middle-aged man in a denim button-down, his cardboard sign bowing forward in the stench, his hands wrapped tightly around the tree branch upon which it’s mounted. I can see the black hairs on his thumbs dance. Alive.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

Miraculously, the crowd ignores the police presence, the machine guns merely baleful par for the murderous course. Tonight, these people—protestors and police alike—will be sopping beans with corn tortilla, sipping bottled beer and fresh watermelon juice and life will go on. This is what I tell myself, but I have to be honest with Louisa.

“No,” I say, it is not.

“We should get out of this,” she says.

But how? The cops have boxed us in, human velvet ropes with bullets inside. This is terrible potential energy, and I try to take momentary refuge in a memory more benign—my junior high penchant for flinging rubber bands against the back of Amanda Berman’s head in Social Studies; the sweet joy of the band stretched back, held, ready, not yet released. Strange how these things amplify. Today, in the emancipation of this potential, we will be machine-gunned. I am not ready to be Amanda Berman, watch people fall like trees; hear shouts morph into screaming. There’s no one here to report these guys to the principal’s office, to call their mothers at work to tell on them, to punish them with a grounding, a ban on T.V. and chewing gum for a full week.

“I know,” I answer, but panic about the how.

The protest takes a right turn and we are obliged to turn with it, part of something larger now.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“And I’ve got to take a shit,” Louisa says, and in an instant, all perspective seems to shift away from the probable danger, and toward the celebration of all human things. We are still alive in Mexico City, young, stupid, bidding some—albeit misguided and overzealous—goodbye to the shell-selves we became in Chicago. We are being filled up again, injected with lead. Yes: Public education should be defended without military-lead recompense. An old woman waves her colorful sign in our faces and, as she pulls it back, holds it over her head like some digesting pelican, whistles what sounds like the Beatles’ “Let it Be,” barely audible over the crowd’s incantations.

And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree,

there will be an answer…

As she passes, disappears into the sea, I see, plastered to the stone of streetside building, the blue sign depicting our location. Avenida Cinco de Mayo. And up the street, perhaps a mere 50 feet away, the shabby black and white beacon: Hotel Rioja. The river has led us home.

Taking Louisa’s hand, slick with marching sweat, we jump the line, push through the protesters, fragments of hair-bun, orange shirt sleeve, bedsheet corner, sandal, hat brim, moustache, young breath, wrinkled hand, and make for the curbs, lined with the police, and the promised land of sidewalk beyond, now larded with onlookers.

Por favor, por favor, por favor, por favor, lo siento, lo siento, gracias, con permeso, por favor…

When we approach the police blockade, we don’t think, just move.

Hola, hola, por favor… Gringos coming through…muster your dumbest smile, wave, even… Hola, hola, gracias, por favor…

We push between two flashlight-faced officers, the ample butts of their machine guns tapping our triceps. They are heavy and cold, but we are through, into the realm of the sidewalk spectators, one of whom is Juan Pérez. He sees us, and waves both hands over his head. He is in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. Louisa and I rush to him. He is today, our grandfather. While Louisa runs into the sepulchral lobby for the stairwell and our tiny room, her steps resonant and yawning, I stand with the man watching the crowd pound past, on and on and on, all of the earth collected into this one street now, oozily deist, and, perhaps it’s only because we’re in front of a hotel, and because we’re leaving, but something invisible that once surrounded us, warm, but suffocating, lifts, evaporates, checks-out.