It’s 2:00 in the afternoon somewhere just north of Mexico. I am leaned back in my chair, feet up on an old cable spool, holding my beer up to the light and watching the sweat drip off the bottle and onto my forehead. Mesquite trees punch out of the dirt like escaping zombies to block the sun, letting just enough blue sky through to make the day perfect. Sam and I are on tour in South Texas and today is almost good enough to make me forget yesterday.

This juxtaposition on the road is something I am familiar with. All too often a horrible day is followed by a surprisingly amazing one. You never know. You can’t predict it. Even when I return to places I’ve been before the experience is always different. I have walked into gigs in dive bars expecting the worst and had some of the best shows of my life. I have also driven places thinking that nothing could go wrong and had the world explode in front of me like a landmine.

You just never know.

I’ve done this run through the Rio Grande Valley before, and while I can never quiet nail down what the crowds may be like, I can always count on at least part of the trip to work out for the best. Isaac owns the theater downtown that I am playing tonight. One of the greatest perks to traveling like I do is that I’ve made friends in every corner of the world –happy souls in Africa and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Japan that I always attempt to spend time with when I make it their direction. The same holds true in the States, and even more so. I get to meet people I would never run into otherwise and sometimes those people work themselves into my circle. Isaac is one of those people.

We’re staying at his house while we’re in town. No half-star hotel room for these few days – his house in inviting and comfortable, eclectic and interesting. Mexican art hangs on every wall, some his, some other artists. Crosses dot the few empty spaces on the walls and skeletons and statues and sculptures sit on antique tables in every corner. The front door is carved ornately and looks a thousand years old. In every room the walls are one deep, rich color or another. It is not museum-like – projects sit half-finished if you stop to look. A sketch in progress. A pot on the stove. Instrument cables run to amplifiers from a makeshift jam session in the living room. The bench sits pulled out at the piano. A speaker stack is set up in the corner for no apparent reason at all. The place feels used, like a sports car that the owner actually drives.

Isaac is many things: a musician, an artist, a chef, a nightclub owner, and a complete free spirit. The first time I met him we sat on the patio at his restaurant and ate paella and fried cilantro, and after so many trips through this area he and I have become friends. That’s why we’re staying at his place this week. I need to press reset after the first night out here.

The Valley is basically just North Mexico. Violence hovers like a cloud at the border. I usually slip into Reynosa or Progresso for street tacos and a cheap beer while I’m down here, but not this time. I couldn’t even escape tension on our side of the river. After a surprise change in our itinerary, Sam and I showed up a day early for a last minute extra gig in a neighboring city. The hotel that the promoter booked for us was a crime scene. Literally. It was fairly evident that someone might have been killed there in the last few days. Denzel stayed in better hotels in The Book of Eli. I rarely walk barefoot in hotels to begin with; socks just seem safer. I kept my shoes on in this one.

The first key they gave me led to an already inhabited space, though the tenants were either dead or gone or both. Smoldering cigarettes in the ashtray filled the room with smoke, a hazy veil hanging in the air like an Ecuadorian forest, and on the other side of that fog could have been anything from a murdered body to an old Chinese man selling gremlins. Scattered clothes and toiletries littered the room. The space immediately downstairs was occupied by a dog, a German shepherd from the sounds of it, which barked incessantly. Throaty woofs and growls pierced the walls as I went back to trade in my key for another room, though the new one was no cleaner than the one with the missing people in it. It’s one night, I told myself. Just one night. Suck it up.

I awoke the next morning to a sound at my door. Growing up with three brothers has made me a light sleeper. A noise is an attack. I go from catatonic to alert instantly. My subconscious always seems to know when something is not right, and something was definitely not right. It wasn’t a knock at the door that woke me up, but something much more subtle. I slipped off the side of the bed and stole a glance around the corner. The door was open slightly, as far as the security latch would allow anyway, and a hand was reaching through attempting to flip that latch open. I took two quick steps and kicked the door violently and the hand crunched and popped loudly as someone on the other side screamed in pain. I held my foot in place as the fingers twitched.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled, keeping my weight against the door.

“Housekeeping,” came the pained reply. I pulled my leg back, flipped the bolt and jerked the door open.

“Have you lost your fucking mind?” I said. The man pulled his hand in to his chest, cupping it like an injured bird with his good hand. His manager strode over, a cocky looking, Napoleonic half-man with a deep Indian complexion.

He ignored his employee with the injury like it was a battlefield casualty. “Checkout was at 11:00,” he said. “Why are you still here?”

“Checkout is at noon,” I shot back.

“No, it’s not.”

“It’s on the sign on the back of this door you fucking idiot. And it is 12:06 right now”

“Oh, well, that’s wrong.”

“So that’s why you’re breaking into my room?”

“We knocked and no one answered, so we assumed someone must be passed out in the room.” He was smug. He’d been called on this before and didn’t care. Call the police, his face said. I dare you.

“That was your immediate assumption? Why didn’t you call?”

“Your phone must be broken.”

“Like your friend’s hand?” I asked, and flung the door shut. “Give me a minute,” I yelled through the closed door.

Sam met me in the lobby, only to share his own story. He was in the shower when he noticed a shadow through the shower curtain. Another employee had bypassed his safety lock in a similar fashion and caught him off guard.

Sam left to pull the car around as I made my way around three of the owner’s friends that were trying to bar my exit. “What you wanna do bitch?” one of them asked, posturing in front of the other two while the owner stood by and watched. A single tear tattooed on the man’s face indicated that if things escalated this wouldn’t be his first violent altercation.

“Seriously?” I asked, and tried to limit myself to just that one word. There were three of them and I can be dumb sometimes when I’m angry. I walked to the car while they circled, expecting a punch to be thrown though one never came. They got louder as I got in the car, and I popped back out of the passenger seat to yell something in reply but was stopped by Sam. No one ever believes that he is the calmer of the two of us when we’re on the road. Looks are deceiving I suppose.

So now, I am better. Isaac’s girlfriend Ceci is cooking a homemade Mexican dinner for us back at the house. From inside the bar, far across this wide open back lot, some country song plays on the jukebox and the crack of pucks on the shuffleboard table float out of the open door and off into the air. Another round of beers comes out.

I mention the hotel story to Isaac. “That kind of thing is getting worse down here.” he says. “They buckled down on the gangs and cartels on the Mexico side so now they just bring it here. Happens all the time, too. That lady whose husband got killed on the jet ski on Falcon Lake? The investigator on the Mexican side got his head cut off. They’re ruthless. There was a guy down here that got in trouble with one of the cartels and they kidnapped his baby and fried it. Literally, like fried it.”

“You’re kidding,” I say.

“No. I wish I were. It’s bad bro.”

“They fried it.”

“I’m serious.”

“They don’t even do that at the fair. I mean, they’ll fry butter or Oreos…”

“You’re sick bro. You know that, yes?”

And I do know it, but it’s how I deal with things. I made a fried baby joke. I take a sip of my beer and think about that for a second. What kind of person does that? As I mull it over I hear Sam doing an impression of a mock Visa commercial.

“When you come to Mexico make sure you bring your Visa card, because they’ll take your baby… but they won’t take American Express.” I laugh harder than I should. This is what it’s like, like it or not. Yin and yang. Good and bad. They always talk about paying dues on the road, and while I have certainly paid my share – more than enough to not really have to deal with subpar accommodations anymore, much less gang-run hotels – when those moments do surface I have learned to take them in stride. That’s one of the costs of getting to stand in front of the bright lights on a concert stage and listen to a theater full of people applaud.

“That fried baby joke was fucked up, bro,” Isaac says, laughing.

“It’s good to see you again, too,” I reply, and we clink bottles, content to wash away the Valley with cold beer and camaraderie.

“It was kinda funny though,” I say. “Wasn’t it?”

Surrounded by the fresh smell of cotton steamed under the iron, I’m listening in a conversation between my mother and my husband, Hector. My fingers caress the cuffs and collars of Hector’s Guayabera shirts as I iron them. It’s Haitian Independence Day, and Mother, who is visiting us in Pembroke Pines, is helping Hector with the traditional Joumou soup. The two of them milling around, laughing and talking, the fragrance of garlic and piman—all this gives it an authentic Haitian feel. Their tongues roll around the Creole syllables with delight, and the warm cadence of their voices bring me back to the Caribbean mountains of my childhood. A soft, but unapologetic roll and clipping of words. Deep, modulated voices.

Mother has been working on her family tree.

For the last year, I’ve been doing research for my new novel, tentatively called “La Rumorosa”.Part of the book is set in Mexico and I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of the border interviewing people and listening to their stories. I’ve scouted the mountainous route that my character is going to take on her illegal journey to California. I’ve read everything I can find about migrant issues, contemporary life in Mexico (especially women’s issues), drug trade and human trafficking. I start each morning with an assortment of Mexican blogs that focus on cartel activity throughout Mexico.Every single day I see pictures of decapitated and mutilated bodies, bloody video-threats sent from one drug cartel to another, and I try and understand how a character like mine would cope with such insanity.

In Mexico City, something’s clotting in the streets—clotting with banners and drums and megaphones, people ripping the clothes from their own bodies, waving them overhead like pirate flags. This is angry unrest, scabs picked, coming to a boil, salt added, running over onto the sidewalks. We have caught up to the protest and it has gained in momentum. Hundreds of thousands are marching, the parade backed up for over a mile. Blood seems likely to spill.

The bedsheet banners, splattered with red and black paint letters and stenciled guns blotted with Xs tell part of the story. Peligroso! Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización! I lean toward Louisa, speak into her ear so she can hear me over the melee.

“Defend public education! No to militarization!” I translate.

She raises her eyebrows. This seems like something we can agree with.

While we were in Chicago, taking care of my sick mother, much happened in the Mexican educational system. The government, passed into law an edict demanding 10.6% of the teachers’ pension fund, raised from 3.5%. President Felipe Calderon apparently sealed this deal with Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), the National Education Workers Union, promising to use that money to increase retirement benefits and repair a broken health care system. Instead, the protesters allege the money went to pay off Mexico’s debts to the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund. In fact, according to a July 19, 2007 article in The Economist, Gordillo may have used some of these funds (perhaps as much as $70 million) for personal reasons, like, say, satisfying her desire for a $5 million mansion in San Diego, California.

Later, after we have safely returned to the Hotel Rioja for our very, very tardy checkout, which concierge Juan Pérez in his infinite graciousness will forgive, he will fill us in on these sociopolitical details, declaring how this pension fiasco is merely the newest offense perpetuated by the government against teachers. He will nod solemnly, almost spitting when uttering Gordillo’s name, clasping his hands in flat prayer when discussing his sister’s involvement in such protests. Luckily she has yet to be injured, or killed.

“Mi hermana es una maestra,” he will say. His sister is a teacher, so she knows, he knows…

When we will tell him we are headed to Oaxaca, he confirms some of what we already know. That the educational protesting and striking situation was much worse there—more violent. The “No to militarization!” portion of the bedsheets refer the fact that police officials in Oaxaca City opened fire on what began as non-violent protests of the local teachers’ union. Certain reports indicate that the police were also instructed (allegedly by Oaxaca’s governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz) to open fire on paramedics who attempted to remove or administer treatment to wounded protesters.

What began as a plea for a raise in funding for the rural schools of Oaxaca, and, as Juan Pérez speculates, a voice of dissent against the seeds of Mexico’s Alliance for Educational Quality (somewhat akin to the controversial U.S. No Child Left Behind Act, about which Gordillo, via a PR flunky, philosophized, “Education is an opportunity, not a right…”), became, after the police intervention, a demand for the ousting of Governor Ortiz.

Here, Juan Pérez will cough into his hand as if catching some terrible regret like a dove in his palm. Or terrible confusion. He will proceed to tell us of the escalation. How the dissent became blanket. How, after Ortiz laughed off the call for his resignation, various members of Oaxaca’s small towns and unions, families and small businesses coalesced and called themselves Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca. Juan Pérez will flash his fat fingers into the air twice—first all ten digits, then seven. This is his representation of June 17th, 2006, his thumbs sizzling in the polluted air like breakfast sausages simmered in smog. On this date, three days after the police intervention, the APPO set up camp in Oaxaca City’s Zócalo—fathers, mothers, children, grandsons, granddaughters, pubescent nephews, drunken uncles, estranged nieces, spinster aunts, the horrible lines for the public bathrooms, the little spoiling food and no sleep, the wrapping of howling babies in thin yellow blankets, the dust, the megaphones pounding, the closed stores—and called themselves the new government of Oaxaca. Civil revolution ensued, much of the city choked with barricades, some erected by the APPO, some by the police. Word got out, and other states and cities in Mexico began to express their empathy in protests such as this one in Mexico City. For the people here, this is not after-the-fact. The facts, as to the residents of everywhere, always continue, evolve, devolve. Here, history is present, and the present.

On July 2nd, Ruiz Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party was voted out of power for the first time in Oaxaca in over 70 years. In morbid celebration, the APPO prevented certain festivals from taking place, barring entrance to buildings with heaps of garbage and upended flaming buses. Graffiti declared intolerance for tourists, demanding they return home, packing their ugly capitalism into their already bloated suitcases. The souvenir as Molotov cocktail…

Fleeing Oaxaca, Ruiz Ortiz hid-out in Mexico City for a handful of months before fleeing once again. Though the battles with the state police continued, the APPO declared themselves in control and began to make new laws, commanding radio and television stations, which anti-APPO outfits, along with police in civilian clothes, would blitz deep into the night, spilling blood, smashing broadcast machinery. The casualties escalated, included Brad Will, a visiting journalist from New York, and Emilio Alonso Fabián a professor from Los Loxicha, gut-shot twice by plainclothes policemen.

The Mexican government claims that each was killed by the protestors and not the police, in spite of Will’s recovered photographs, taken moments before his death, depicting the protestors armed merely with rocks against the policemen’s guns. Later, Will’s recovered video footage, according to local news, revealed his killer—Pedro Carmona, member of Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party, mayor of the Oaxacan town Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and newly-crowned soldier in this urban paramilitary.

Boys and girls lay in the streets nursing broken arms, leaking skulls, bullet wounds in their thighs. Old Zapotec women prayed upward, blood pools browning on the stones where they once spread their blankets, sold their weavings to the occasional tourist, before being trampled. It took Will’s death for President Vincente Fox Quesada (who turned over the office to Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa on December 1st of that year) to dispatch the Federal Police to Oaxaca. Nearly 10,000 Federalies and military police forcibly dragged protesters from the Zócalo, backed-up by additional army troops. The still-functional APPO radio stations warned of the raids. As a result, helicopters clogged the sky over Oaxaca City, dropping tear gas grenades. Reports of military police kidnappings ensued. Rumors of body-snatching and cover-up cremations crackled over the pirated airwaves, inflaming the protests. The Catholic Church of Mexico came out in support of the Federal Police. Protestors, academics, and students took refuge Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, an “autonomous” university that barred police entry. Though the police surrounded the University, they were, in turn, surrounded by a larger group of protestors (who were alerted to the location via APPO broadcasts over the University radio station), and forced, if only for the moment, to retreat.

Here, in Mexico City, numerous bombings ensued, one of which destroyed the amphitheater that served as Partido Revolucionario Institucional headquarters, others blowing up portions of banks and restaurants. On my birthday, November 25, 2006, while Louisa and I listened through the bathroom door to my mother vomiting nothing but tapwater, a Saturday (my father still working, their three large dogs dozing in the sun, waning earlier and earlier…), a renewed attempt at a peaceful protest in Oaxaca’s Zócalo was thwarted when the police unleashed a sprinkler of tear gas, rubber bullets, water-cannons, and bulldozers, tear-gassing, rubber-bulleting, water-cannoning, bulldozing people. Protestors answered with rocks, bottles, water balloons, and pipe bombs. Cars and trucks were toppled and set ablaze, buildings were attacked and set on fire, frenzied crowds looted businesses and hotels. On this day, my birthday—my mother sick in the bathroom, Louisa and I rubbing each others necks at the kitchen table, my father stuck in rush hour traffic listening to sports radio, the sleeping dogs, my pregnant sister— the Federal Police succeeded in subduing the APPO, making arrests, forcing numerous leaders into hiding, castrating the Sagittarius, stapling the gargantuan sack to the city gates in governmental warning. The University radio station was once again returned the headmaster, and the conflict, for better or for worse, was once again shoved beneath the surface of everyday life, for the moment contained in its churning. The problem lidded. Unsolved.

Juan Pérez will shrug his shoulders, as Louisa and I flank him in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. He will say something I don’t quite understand about plight. But for now, watching this Mexico City protest escalate, our stomachs digesting the pumpkin flowers of breakfast, we don’t know all of this, haven’t yet spoken about it with Juan Pérez; we merely recall some vague news report about the Oaxacan unrest, stirring worry about our travels in my exhausted mother, ignorant beyond what we can read on bedsheets. “Defend public education! No to militarization!”

Up the street, a great cracking sound. The earth opening up, or a car being tipped over.

“Should we join them?” Louisa asks, “I mean, you’re a teacher…”

I love my wife. I look at my shoes. They are filthy, broken-laced, perfect for marching. As if empathy can reside in simple career choice and dress. Louisa is wearing her blue Israeli clogs. I meditate a few moments on her footwear—how clog-fighting was a traditional method for settling disputes in Europe, drawing such a mass of onlookers, that bets were laid; how they served as foot armor in mines and mills; how, in 18th century France, poor factory workers would protest corporate mistreatment by throwing their protective work gear—especially their clogs (sabot, in French)—into the assembly line engines, damaging the equipment and, via this protest, inventing the word sabotage. Inadvertently, she is well prepared for this. Inadvertently, we are ignorant fucking tourists. Idiots filled with food who, via footwear analysis and the intoxication of overseas, think they can empathize with some real kind of plight. Who the fuck do we think we are?

The thing is: we don’t. We don’t think we are. We don’t think we are anything. We are all dumb impulse and young traveling lover. We join arms. If we had talked to Juan Pérez in that doorway before this, learned of the nature of things, we probably would not have done this. But, you know, we may have anyway. Sometimes dumb impulse, especially when traveling, is a conscious choice. The sky is a drowning blue. The river of protestors continues. We lift our feet, hold, as if on the edge of a high-dive board, our breaths. We look for a way in, and leap. We splash into the center of elbows and noise, wild shards of banner, bare-chests, laser light, bottle, balloon, fists, spit, and the static of mad human chorus. We sink into this pool of cause, try to swallow any reservations about effect, however chlorinated, however Peligroso!

We ooze ourselves from restaurant to street, two thick-ass snakes of toothpaste from a fat-bottomed tube. Husband and wife, bound by fluoride and fullness. Residents hang on the street corners like ornaments, eating their late lunches from the stalls, kissing their girlfriends and boyfriends, playing with wind-up toys in the squares, dropping their ice cream cones to the city ants. It’s almost noon, almost time for us to check out, and we don’t want to abuse Juan Pérez’s kindness. We have a 9:00pm flight to Oaxaca City, our intended destination, but Mexico City, our mere layover is creeping into our blood like plaque, arresting us, seducing us.

We circle a maze of backstreets, hoping to find an alternative route back to the Rioja. We walk quickly, whizzing past the music stores blaring with recorded trumpets and snare drums, rail-thin clerks polishing the speaker-tops with blue rags. We try to make it back by check-out time. We really do. But we turn up a pedestrian alley, paved with ancient gray stone, and see a round old jelly doughnut of a woman, her entire torso hidden beneath the spill of her breasts, silver hair crested with a lace bobby-pinned doily, pressing fresh blue corn gorditas in the street.

She coughs like the proverbial mother hen laying the spiciest of eggs, and my fears are confirmed. I have, indeed, lost all restraint. I am pulled into her orbit, some feeble Millennium Falcon caught in the Death Star magnetism of her spanking the blue corn dough.

“Are you serious?” Louisa asks.

“How can I pass this up?” I say, digging a few sweaty peso coins from my pocket.

“This is all you.”

Soon, we’re in front of her, her face beaming as we take in her chalkboard easel menu. I recognize the names of all of the gordita filling options—carne asada, carnita, barbacoa, pollo, hongos, rajas—except one. The last one on the list, resting like the black sheep underdog of Mexican street food, hiding its deliciousness at the back of the line. Sesos de cerdo. So euphonious. What can this possibly be? The music store trumpets fire away behind us, underscoring the mystery. Sesos de cerdo. I imagine the words crooned by some dime-store romance novel Latin lover, blue corn tortillas stuffed with rose petals, pomegranate, Spanish fly… In these three words, the sky goes emerald green with aphrodisiac blister beetles. Surely this woman hides the ashes of the Marquis de Sade in her pendulous bra. Surely, I must order this final item.

“Hola,” I muster.

“Hoolaa,” she calls, rocking on the balls of bare feet, rectangular as mud bricks.

“Puedo tener una gordita con, uh, sesos de cerdo, por favor?”

And I love saying it, those three words leaking like oil from my mouth.

“Oohhh!” she clucks, “Te gusta los sesos?”

“Sí,” I say.

Of course. How, in the symphony of the word, can I not like sesos?

She curls her lips downward, impressed. This should be foreboding, I tell myself, but somehow, on this dusty stone, Louisa’s eyes narrowing to my left, purposefully deciding to check-out late due to this gordita audible, it’s not. The sky is exactly white, tough to stare into, and Louisa is pulling on my sleeve. I turn to her, follow her eyes to the squatting woman. We watch as she dips her hand into a filthy white bucket marked—in English of all things!—with the words, Pork Brains.

My once excited stomach now recoils into the recesses of my ribcage, all euphony now metamorphosing into some broken dish clatter, hellish and ear-curdling. These words have duped me. Deep into this woman’s cleavage, the ashen Marquis de Sade is surely having his last laugh. Retreating from the bucket, the woman’s fat bare hand bulges with wet, grayish chunks of porcine cerebellum. A few drops of brain juice drip from between her fingers to the stone, and even the ants run for cover. She tosses the gray matter onto her comal and they steam with foul stench, dusty, organic, almost deciduous.

Louisa is enjoying this immensely, my face as white as a sheet. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-brain, but the ingesting of pig brain, as street food, in Mexico, strikes me somewhat…well…hasty, a perfect recipe for a tough day tomorrow in Oaxaca. But I’ve ordered it, told this sweet doughball of a woman that I like it. And I must admit, I’m nervous, but curious.

Louisa mimics a gagging sound.

“Don’t do that,” I beg.

She lights her Winston and wanders up the street, stares into the window of a flower shop. In the distance, somewhere behind the ornate stone of these buildings, I can hear a group of people chanting, “Peligroso! Peligroso!” Dangerous! Dangerous!

Oh shit, what have I done? Haven’t I learned to listen to ghosts by now? With a long spatula caked with charcoal sludge, she scoops the pig brain into a lovely puffed vessel of blue corn and hands it me smiling. I pass her the five peso coin. For a few seconds, all I can do is stare at it, feel the ample weight of it in my hands. In my nose, death and ammonia, mold, blood, earth soured with standing water.

“Te comes,” she says, and my mother, still young and healthy, her arms locked with the boarder, and my giggling little sister, joins in: Eat it, eat it…

And so I do, open my mouth like a drawbridge, the rust of it creaking at the corners, and take my bite. Pig brain squirming in my mouth like a guppy, some intellectual ejaculate, the tofu of the head, I close my eyes and bite down, releasing the penetrating taste of coal-smoke and egg white. This is not good. This is tough. I grit my teeth and try to mask it as a smile. The old woman laughs and kisses her dirty fingers.

“Sesos,” she says.

Yes. Yes they are. Fucking sesos. Swallow and walk away, beaten, bullied, duped again by false euphony. I silently apologize to each pig I’ve ever eaten. Revenge, Sus scrofa, is yours. Good for you.

I catch up with Louisa who knows what my face is saying, and I hers: You asked for it. I run to the nearest trash can, entertaining a capacity crowd of horseflies, turn behind me to make sure the woman isn’t looking, and empty the gordita of its brains. The fresh blue corn shell, in spite of the rank juice that has soaked into it, is so impressive, that I force myself to finish it.

Mexico is pretty much the only thing I think about these days.In my last novel, Point Dume, I had a character named Felix Duarte who came across the border to grow marijuana in the hills of Malibu for a Mexican drug cartel.Felix did not live to see the end of that book and frankly his death broke my heart.It also broke the heart of his girlfriend Violeta, his mother, sisters and brothers, and all of his friends.They never found out about the fire that killed him.He was used and discarded by an organization that does not value human life.His loved ones didn’t even know where Felix was when he died.He left home one morning and disappeared from their lives forever.The story of Felix’s life and death is a very common one.Mexico is in a state of complete chaos and the reality of day-to-day life for the average person is hard to comprehend.

As children, my sister and I would fight mercilessly for the dining room chair with the armrests. My parents had a mismatched set—2 chairs with them, two chairs without. One of the prized chairs went to my father, always. The other one remained up in the air. We had to devise our complaint plans carefully. If things escalated past a certain point of shrillness, or, heaven forbid, reached for tears, the up-for-grabs chair with the armrests would go to my mother.

“Settled!” she would yell, plopping herself down as my sister and I, defeated, scowled at each other and struggled throughout the meal with where to put our stupid little arms.

Here, in México Viejo, I feel like I’ve won for good, been granted the lifelong vindication with which I can now, via my penchant for self-satisfied teasing (a characteristic necessary to any successful older brother), torture, if only in some unspoken way, my sister back in Illinois. The armrests here are huge enough to house our old seven-year-old bodies comfortably, and I feel compelled to use the space, soak up the luxury, slide my arms from the inside edge to the outside and back again.

“Why are you doing that?” Louisa asks, “You look like some demented chicken.”

Through a screen of pickled nopal cactus salad with tomatillo, garlic, and cilantro, I muster my best, food-drunk, “Bok-bok-bokaaaaaahhhk!” to Louisa’s shaking head.

The cactus leaps in my mouth quite unlike any chicken-feed, food-drunk or otherwise, gives-in to my teeth like something vaguely marine, the soft interior organ-gum of some aphrodisiac crustacean, reached only through a sharp, poisonous shell. I soak the nopal salad’s skinny juice with the remains of the corn tortilla that once held my roasted chile rajas taco, crowned with paprika-crusted goat’s milk queso anejo and blackened mushrooms. The chilies and mushrooms held within them that clandestine cooking aqua vitae soaked up from the surface of the comal; the serum released from countless meats, oils, spices, vegetables who came to perfection on the hot griddle, leaving trickles of their best selves behind. With each bite, these juices stream into my mouth like some liquid encyclopedia of culinary history. Chapter One: Fuck, this is good. Chapter Two: Oooooohhhh…

Louisa and I work our way through, as if in competition, mounds of pickled pigs’ feet with onion, chile chilaca, and epazote; pink-rare tuna in tomato-jalapeño broth; miniature corn tortillas topped with red chile beans and cotija cheese… As we move from the bottom of the L-buffet to the table equivalent of the letter’s vertical pillar, we fill our plates further with chilaquiles en salsa verde, what the taco lady refers to as, the classic Mexican hangover breakfast—strips of fresh tortilla cooked in oil with tomato, onion, garlic, chiles and eggs. We heap the slow-roasted marrow-sticky blackness of barbacoa de borrego next to the chilaquiles—marinated pulled lamb shoulder packed with the vegetal density of its cooking accompaniments—carrot, celery, onion, poblano chile, garlic, tomato, cilantro—all enfolded into a banana leaf and cooked over low heat for ten hours.

Eating it, our lips bear a sheen that teeters on the verge of the sexually aroused and the sexually satisfied—right there in the middle, where all the good stuff is. I want to kiss marrow residue from my wife’s lips. Thank you, Mexico City! I stand, woozy, Louisa stares at me in disbelief.

“You can’t possibly be going back for more,” she says.

I respond in the only way I can, full to the point of stretch marks, intoxicated on chile spice and fruit vinegars, but determined to taste two more things, two more tacos: with a lisp.

“I can pothibly,” I muster, and make a beeline for the taco lady.

She must be about my mom’s age, but packed with a compact vitality. Everything about her is bright and small—her eyes like dimes, ears like dwarf Seckel pears, a nose I can swallow with nary a sip of water. She explains in a unicorn voice my options: lime-marinated chicken, carne asada… I choose this time one taco with chorizo and queso fresco, the other with flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower). As she prepares my tacos, a little cuerno pastry of a girl—she can’t be more than eight years old—approaches me from my blind side, taps me on the butt-cheek and sings, “I can speak a little English.”

My heart leaps. I look down and see her scalp first, her hair perfectly parted down the middle, held into place with yellow beaded tree-frog barrettes.

“I can speak a little Spanish,” I say, “Por ejemplo: pollo, carne asada, queso…”

She giggles, “You can only say food?”

I shrug and she asks where I am from.

“Los estados unidos,” I say, “La ciudad de Chicago.”

“I hear of Chicago,” she says, “It is very big?”

“No tan grande como aquí,” I say, indicating with my hands that Mexico City is bigger.

“Your Spanish is not very good,” she says, and takes her plate of tortillas and beans back to her table.

I can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed, and I turn back to the taco lady, who smiles at me, lips like a silkworm. She holds her hands toward me, fingers balancing the two finished plates. I take them from her, our hands brushing, and in our touch, something sparks; something in me, as if emulating her, reaches for smallness—not heart or appetite, but resolve, my already diminutive ability for restraint. I am a little afraid I will not stop eating.

As the chorizo’s allspice and apple vinegar run into my mouth, the corn tortilla heavy with its orange grease, Louisa holds my hand as if I am on a gurney, having a piece of me excised, sans anesthesia, with a scalpel.

“Whew…” I say, and finish the pumpkin flower, the delicate flavors of soil and sweet summer plant coating my tongue, stirring some childhood memory—the first taste of zucchini perhaps, or the happy winning of the armrest chair. I swallow and see long-dead constellations.

“You are done,” Louisa commands, a leaf of cilantro plastered to her front tooth.

I smile. I decide not to tell her.

“Yes,” I say, sputtering into my chalice of carrot juice.

We lean back in our chairs, arms reclining like spent suntanned lovers, watching the restaurant become more and more festive by the moment. Toward the rear of the place, a massive wedding table hugs the orange wall, and twenty people pound their fists on its surface, rattling the clay bowls of caldo de res beef stew and menudo tripe soup in red chile brew, as the bride, in her white gown and veil whips her napkin like the blades of a linen helicopter over her head, lifting the dress train to expose the full mahogany of her gartered thighs.

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

I love doing research for my novels, especially if it involves jumping on an airplane or saddling up the car and heading out into the great unknown.A good portion of my life is spent wandering around.I love the details of other people’s lives, new subjects, thorny issues.I like the coffee makers in motel rooms and cheap bars of soap.There’s nothing better than sleeping under the stars on a warm night out in the middle of the desert—just me and my taser.I love talking to strangers about intense situations and high drama.I notice that I often adapt a slight southern drawl when ordering my breakfast at truck stops.I like to arrive in a new town, read the local paper and dive right in. There’s nothing better than jumping into the middle of a crisis, transforming myself into a character, and finding out how all the elements will impact my developing story.It’s the particulars of a situation that make the moment real for me; the way things look or taste or feel, are what allow my people to breathe and function.Usually I wear cowboy boots and jeans when I’m doing research–sometimes a big belt buckle.It helps.

We’ve been on the sidewalk for five minutes and have moved about fifty feet. Pedestrian traffic on this main thoroughfare near Mexico City’s Zócalo is at its rush hour peak. We turn around, as if searching for a way out, some secret exit ramp, some side alley that will carry us like the matron saint of shortcuts, to a breakfast table and a bosomy pair of steaming mugs. Instead, over the tight parade of purposeful people, we see fat-handed Juan Pérez, beaming his biggest smile of the day, leaning against the doorway of the Rioja, watching our backs.

He sees us turn and raises his arms over his head about to take flight, or, flight-lazy, command the sky and its tenants—sun, moon, stars, Venus—to come to him, drop themselves into his ample palms and drive us walkers to some eternal fiery last meal. He shakes his arms, shuddering in their dress shirt sleeves, and Louisa and I do the same, nearly getting trampled in the process. We right ourselves, face forward again, and immediately miss the sight of our new friend, some good luck charm in concierge clothing.

On a lark—Skylark, Crested Lark, Calandra Lark, whichever species croons the most extravagant coffee-song—Louisa and I push a group of teenagers aside, hip-check their outermost member, and turn left from Avenida Cinco de Mayo onto the slightly less crowded Calle de Monte de Piedad. We read in some guidebook that there’s a restaurant near here that, when available, serves huitlacoche omelets.

We became obsessed with huitlacoche in the first few months of our relationship, having supped on it in Chicago two nights after Louisa met my family for the first time. We stole away to Frontera Grill, just the two of us, Chicago’s famed authentic Mexican restaurant, and were lifted into orbit by the plateful of the oil-black huitlacoche crepes with rich poblano crema. Seeking it out with obsessed fever since then in Mexican groceries throughout Chicago, we could only find it canned—still delicious, but leagues away from the explosiveness of the fresh stuff.

Huitlacoche, revered by many, reviled by many more, is also know as corn smut, dirty, evil, guilty pleasure of the fields, temptress blight, husked pornography… It is a greasy black fungus that results from maize disease, routinely cursed and trashed in American farming, but greeted with biblical gratitude in the fields of Mexico. Linguistically, as seems typical in Mexico, the gravity of such gratitude is coupled with an affirming observational humor; huitlacoche directly translates from Nahuatl into English as raven shit. Louisa and I know it as the truffle of Mexico.

We knew this would happen—that we would come here and spend many an hour, most of them likely fruitless, crisscrossing the city in search of fresh huitlacoche, affirming something ourselves: that after a year trapped in Chicago beneath the wet cloak of mother-disease, each action damped by death—driving, watching television, eating—we still have the ability to revise our priorities, to again shove taste upward, and climb, even if over a mountain of bones, to reclaim it.

And climb we do with protesting stomachs, lean headaches whistling for café con leche, along the shopfronts of Calle de Monte de Piedad—doorless convenience stores peddling magazines, thin-wrappered candies, cans of beer, middle-aged women with suckling infants strapped diagonally to their flanks with green scarves selling woven change-purses and belt buckles on the sidewalks in front.

Soon, the crowd clots like blood, the entire city wounded it seems, and it’s up to us, we melee-ensconced foot travelers, to see, with our body heat alone, that it doesn’t turn septic.

“Why have we stopped moving?” Louisa asks, her voice thick with desperation, all sustenance seeming further and further away now, as supernatural demands are placed upon us walkers to do the sustaining.

I wipe the sweat from my forehead and swear I can hear the stamping of combat boots, a massive collection of angry chants. I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, and panicked; I wish Juan Pérez were here to explain, to smooth the edges of this human blanket and turn everything placid again. I wish the people we loved would never get sick.

The crowd pushes together and soon, we’re in the middle of a street protest, bulldozed forward and to the right. I reach for Louisa’s hand before we can get separated and wonder if those feeding infants can make it through this, still cling fast to the breast. She catches my thumb and uses it to scale my arm. The line of people leading the protest pushes through in the street, carrying signs painted onto bedsheets, words that I can not read. They shout into their megaphones, and the following mob repeats their credo in deafening unison. Banners are tossed into the air, along with bottles and water balloons.

All side streets pour into this one, everyone interrupting their day to see what’s happening. Pedestrians—single, couple, family—stop along the sidewalks and curbs to watch. A father hoists his daughter onto his shoulders so she can see the throng simultaneously hoisting their fists into the air as if striking some invisible overhead drum. People stop and take their breakfasts standing up against the shopfronts, arrested, a multitude of tacos, enchiladas, tamales, held aloft, stopped short on the way from hand to mouth. The tiny women on the street corners freeze in front of their hot comals, their fresh rounds of masa dough only half-pressed into tortillas.

The call-and-response continues in rhythm, some of the marchers bearing angry faces, some excited smiles. And in between such extremes, the breaking of glass, and popping of balloon rubber, urgency and innocence commingle and take Louisa and me into their embrace. Our hearts are boiling and our mouths are confused—Scream? Smile?

What they don’t do, is chew, sip, kiss. But they will again, and will again soon. Yes: this is a place of gravity, gratitude, affirmation, humor, and faith. Faith that food will again fill us, coffee will keep us from sleeping on our feet. We will live today to change our socks, ascend the Rioja stairwell, this time as if from the penetralia of the earth.

The marchers pass, the megaphone sparkling now two blocks away. Louisa and I look to each other and don’t say a word. Somewhere above, a big black bird must be releasing into this world its holy shit, carrying with it the essential nature of division and protest, and we know, we just know, bedsheet-less and without bullhorn, still far below all plummeting excrement, that we will find our elusive huitlacoche. Looking up, we do with our mouths the only thing we can. We open them.

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.

When I was three, maybe four, my parents moved from a basement apartment in Skokie, Illinois into their first house, built just for us, in Buffalo Grove. My sister was just over a year old. In the apartment, we shared a bedroom, crib-to-crib on the yellow shag carpeting, and I remember peering up from the mattress to the ceiling-high windows. The sidewalk bisected the pane, and I would watch the meditative parade of winter-booted feet stamp the snow dirty, the orange of the streetlight pooling like the color of memory itself.

I remember listening to my sister sleep, breathe, as orange coins fell from the unseen sky, landed on the sidewalk, and called themselves snow. Perhaps, still in close proximity to the womb, this age and this scene rested, and still rests, in some escaped safety, the kind we spend the rest of our lives, in vain and occasional depression, in more than occasional delusion, chasing.

We left that apartment with my mom one morning, leaving the tiny kitchen where our toys were kept on the shelf that most people would have used for spices; where my parents stored only four glasses, one for each of us, mine a plastic yellow cup, my sister’s a plastic green; where, in the living room, on that same shag carpeting, I lay on my stomach watching Sesame Street, and pissing myself. My mom, when recounting this story, overused the word engrossed.

She had long, straight, middle-parted brown hair, a high forehead, coffee-coaster glasses tinted rose like wine, and wore wool, button-down sweater jackets, sewn with orange and blue diamonds. My father had then peaked at 240 pounds, his curly nest of brown hair and full beard that ran from bottom lip to Adam’s apple, underlining his role as sleepless podiatry student. Everything about his appearance exemplified the words internship, residency… and perhaps, as I later learned, prescription drugs. Together they looked like a 1970s-era Diane Keaton and her sasquatch lover leaving the Skokie apartment landlorded by the Papiers, an elderly Polish couple who survived the Holocaust, and who would sing opera together upstairs, my mom holding me by the armpits up to the radiator vent to hear.

My mom drove northwest with my sister and me to check out the Buffalo Grove house in its skeletal stage, a two-story raised ranch, done in what my mom referred to as “mock-Tudor style.” I confess I don’t know what mock-Tudor style means. Either it’s Tudor style or it’s not. I also confess that I frequently imagined a series of hecklers pointing and laughing as Henry Tudor fought the War of the Roses. This was only after I learned to read though.

With my mom, my sister and I tramped along the floors and stairs—still in their plywood stage—of what would be, and still is, my parents’ home. During the first couple years of home ownership, strapped for cash, my parents took in a boarder. She was beautiful, in an elfish sort of way—large mahogany eyes, large ears, and large hoop earrings through which I would snake my four year old fingers, pulling just gently enough to watch her lobes droop, then snap back into place. I remember she had a freckle on one earlobe, left or right I can’t be sure. And I remember raking my pointer over it, marveling at the way it would catch then release the fingernail like some small speed bump of the body. She must have been in her early twenties and wore her brown hair short and bobbed, down to her ear-tops, and bangs that sometimes ran into her eyes. She would blow them out again with her breath, her bottom lip extended, pink and a little frightening. I remember her without a name, though it could have been Susan, and with a received sensuality that I couldn’t have possibly felt at four, could I?

But I remember lying with her in her room—the room that my father would later turn into a tribute to exercise, with a dumbbell rack, rowing machine, treadmill, weight bench, where he overzealously designed and lorded over my sister’s and my workout regimen, which began at age five. But before this strange childhood horror, I would lie with the boarder on the high bed that my parents supplied her, with frilly-edged sheets and blankets and pillowcases of the same orange and blue of my mom’s sweater jacket. We would lie on that bed of petticoats and talk and touch each other’s skin, before my mom would call me upstairs for dinner. She seemed then my touchstone, my point of entry into the world. She stayed with us for about six months, I think, and then was gone. I don’t remember saying goodbye to her. One day she was there, and the next, she was not, the bed empty, soon to be sold at some garage sale.

Though I didn’t speak of the boarder again for many years, until I was probably about her age, twenty-six and poised to marry Louisa, I recalled her fondly, breezily at intervals throughout my life, in some hazy and delicious sense of loss, so sweet it hurt, some engine driving perhaps, the wanderlust that led me from place after place after place to my wife. When I brought her up aloud, Louisa and I were having dinner at a steakhouse with my parents, my sister and her fiancé, my mom beginning to feel the stirrings of illness that were for so long misdiagnosed as polymyalgia or “general malaise.” Perhaps it was this upsweep of togetherness, of having arrived as a family at some sort of initial platform of…well…arrival, of love, of partnership, of complicity, of medium-rare ribeyes and loaded baked potatoes the size of footballs, of rocks glasses filled with whiskey and vodka, of blue cheese-stuffed olives and the silverware din that releases the mystery endorphin responsible for over-indulgence, but I asked at that table, if my parents knew what became of my beloved boarder and her elastic earlobes. I imagined her happily married to a lucky, lucky man.

A little drunk, my parents laughed and wrinkled their foreheads, confused, my mom’s eyes snapping open and looking healthy for the first time in months. Swallowing, they told me they never took in a boarder at all. That I had imagined the whole thing. It became a joke at the holidays, during Louisa’s and my once-a-year trip into Chicago. Have you talked to the boarder lately?

I can’t explain this. Whoever or whatever she was, she ignited something in me, some sugared longing that Mexico helps put into context. Here, wandering the middle of the night streets of Mexico City, full of food and aphrodisiac elixirs, out of sorts with the love of my life, the world seems full of ghosts. They are almost pedestrian here, not one of them dominating another, and all we can do is submit to their distant sirens, flashing Zócalo lights, legless beggars, orange stone churches, silent bells, Aztec sun gods perched at the dark rooftops.

I take Louisa’s hand and we walk back to the cavernous Rioja. I wonder what is real and what isn’t. I wonder what Louisa sees, strokes, says goodbye to, that I can’t. At a certain age, the world’s radiator vents close themselves, climb too high, and we’re far too heavy to be lifted by the armpits. I wonder what I’m looking for up there anyway, or down there in that inscrutable bedroom; where, in this life, I have yet to board. A wild energy runs into my legs and Louisa must feel it too, thick as crude, because we simultaneously quicken our pace, rush like erogenous ghosts back to our room of echoes. We pass two ancient Aztec women, hunched and tiny. They whisper secret operas to each other, hiding their answers, and perhaps ours too, in the thick black of their braids.

The night sky smells of rain, but there’s no rain, there is to be no rain tonight, and this makes me think of ghosts and their smells, ghosts and meteorology, which of course stirs me to think of lightning; how one’s hair must smell after being struck in someone else’s country, long after the street-food stalls have closed, and options are limited, and there’s too much sulfur in your blood. I’m hungry and irrational, and after we dump our suitcases in the room, Louisa takes my hand, leads me to the marble stairs and we go down, down, down to find food.

Blood sugar dropping like sycamore leaves in a hurricane, I begin babbling about lightning, smells of rain. Louisa has gotten used to this. Back in Chicago, with its chemotherapies and countless scans, with its bald-mother heads and deflated fathers, I was like this most of the time.

“You know, men are struck by lightning four times more often than women,” I say, our footsteps booming in the after-hours hotel, the old eagle reincarnate thumbing through a magazine behind the front desk. Even though he wears reading glasses, his nose is nearly pressed to the page. I resist the temptation to make some “eagle-eye, my ass” joke, and stick, perhaps irrationally, to lightning.

“Do men spend more time outdoors?” I ask, “holding lightning rod-like things, like golf clubs? Or is lightning drawn to testosterone?”

“Weather must be a woman,” Louisa confirms, and I know, I just know she resists her own temptation to say something about the penis as antenna.

“Well, I’m fucked,” I say.

Louisa pulls me past the old man at the front desk—she knows my compulsion to strike up a conversation, show off my shattered Spanish, will outweigh even my lust for food right now, to my blood sugar’s detriment. Soon, we’re on the street, surprisingly quiet for a metropolitan area of nearly 21 million people. It is, I suppose, a Tuesday night in December—Wednesday morning really. Graffiti slithers along the buildings’ bases, day-glo snakes rushing for their holes—eyeballs commingling with lowercase Gs, whose tails extend like tongues. Either this graffiti is unusually erotic, or my need for food is approaching desperate, critical. Only hospital designations will do…

We choose the first open restaurant we see, a small beacon of muted yellow light a couple blocks from the Rioja. It’s Potzolcalli, and we’re among the last two tables of their night. In their overblown laminated menus, and table tents advertising fluorescent drink specials, the place strikes me as the Friday’s of Mexico, a bit cookie cutter. I’m not surprised to later learn the place has 18 outlets throughout Mexico City, but am immediately sated not only by the proximity to food, the smell of roasting corn driving the phantom-rain back into the atmosphere’s afterlife, but by the decor, rife with big-eyed clay animals, half burnt candles dripping their red wax down the yellow walls, giant wooden chairs with armrests wide enough for our legs, carved Metapec life trees capturing, in pottery, the seductive árbol from which Adam and Eve biblically suckled.

In situations like this, I typically order what I don’t know, welcoming the surprise, even if it is less than tasty. This had led, of course, to many a food-borne illness. But perhaps the same chemical that makes me vulnerable to lightning can successfully fight gustatory bacteria, allowing me always to eat and eat and eat another day.

I order a mysterious elixir called Garañona, which, the skinny twenty-something waiter assures me, his cheekbones poking from his face like chicks too weak to break the membrane egg, contains about a dozen herbs and barks, lots of sugar, and serious aphrodisiac properties. He transfers this last description across language by pumping his fist horizontally through the air, surely coupling with the windblown dust mites.

“Oh, great,” Louisa protests, “That’s just what you need.”

Our eyes narrow with exhaustion and, in this light, we feel airborne ourselves, and microscopic, dizzy with the first eight years of our marriage, uncovering the world with each other, and in each other, excavating with our tiny brushes the small truths in small sanctuaries, wherein all we can do is consume together, two cannibals against the world, all food the border we must balance upon between civility and the civil right to voraciousness; to eat and to eat each other. Our eyes narrow, and I think we realize all this, wordlessly in travel-and-hunger dementia, love ardor, and that smell of roasting corn. This, even before we leash our bodies to the weather of tonight, the next eight years, and the Garañona, and cerveza Bohemia and strawberry milkshake and tacos with carne asada, tinga, pollo con mole poblano, cerdo con mole verde, chicharron, epazote and sweet pickled onion…

Fires

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Travel

The fire-eaters, fire-dancers, and fire-spitters decorate the street corners. Beneath each traffic light: hordes of vendors peddling scratch-off lottery tickets, caramel candies, paper flowers. Louisa and I watch from the taxicab windows as the heart of Mexico City, even at midnight, beats as if riddled with morning coffee. Pockets of deafening horn-driven music ignite then die as we push slowly through the crowd toward Hotel Rioja. The city seems to glow as if with silver foil, peeled back just enough to reveal this contained and somehow irreverent human vitality, left to thrive on its own beneath Mexico City’s infamous ceiling of pollution. When we are hidden from the stars, we’re safe to engage what obsesses us, and here, shooting from a side street into the ballooning Zócalo square, what obsesses us seems to be essentially good.

After confronting my mother’s mortality head-on in Chicago, Louisa and I are more receptive to things like caramels and paper flowers—the small beauties that allow us our small joys, which are, after all, the stitches that hold us together, keep our blood inside us. We’re receptive to things like the Christmas light sculptures and façades that decorate the Zócalo’s Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María cathedral, the Aztec Templo Mayor, the National Palace with it’s mansion-sized Mexican flag. The flag’s emblem, as dictated by Aztec legend, was a gift from the gods. The gods told the Aztecs to found their city on the land where they were to spot a chimerical eagle, clinging to a prickly pear tree, gorging itself on a snake. It was here, in this same square where a skinny mother and her toddler son now peddle oranges from a green blanket to the midnight citrus snackers, that the Aztecs fulfilled the vision. This is the square where Moctezuma II had his houses, and in these garish light decorations, we can sense the ancient Aztec belief that this was, indeed the center of the universe. I reach for Louisa’s hand, wondering, in the Aztec scheme of things, which animal we are; which one my mom is.

And steering us through it, as celestial as the night scene itself, is an old bald man pointing with cigar-stub fingers to each building, each lamppost, each greening sculpture and muttering explanations as mysterious as wormholes in lisping Spanish, spittle adorning his words like gold tinsel. I lean forward to hear him, a series of pathetic fireworks explode their white light as benign as camera flashes to our left, and can only make out the muffled, but reverently spoken word, “Zócalo.” His mouth squashes the word like a cucaracha and it sounds, in this tiny cab as if pressed through the static of a shortwave radio.

Louisa touches the window as if attempting to get closer to the action. Tiny women in impossibly blue kerchiefs carry obese bundles of rolled bathmats on their backs. Children swordfight with pink glowsticks. The old man circles the square twice for us, making sure we take it all in, which, of course, is hopeless. We’re weary and hungry, and sinking into that wonderful hot-tub of travel, snapped out of our comfort zones, and light-headed. It’s unwise to keep our hearts beneath the surface of the water for too long. We might just die dazed and elated.

We turn onto one of the many dendritic side streets that extend like cephalopod arms into the roaring night-ocean of Ciudad de México. Hernán Cortés once described these roads as having the width of jousting lances. Surely, just by driving it, we cave in the chest armor of some benevolent ghost. Soon, we are parked in front of the Hotel Rioja—an old whore of a place, skin peeling, watermarked, skeleton pressing from beneath, but bearing a defunct regality, operating from the tender misconception that lipstick masks all age. I want to hug this hotel, deserving of both our generosity and respect.

Around its hip-corner, I will soon buy my Leon Cervesa Negra for about thirty cents. But first: dinner. And before that: shaking hands with the cabbie who sandwiches my fingers in his palms, stands on his tiptoes to kiss my wife on her cheek. We roll our suitcases over marble and step into the scarred belly of the whore, where even our breath echoes, and another short old man in a white dress shirt steps from behind the front desk, beaming like some reincarnated eagle.

We made our connecting flight to Mexico City from Guadalajara by, quite literally, one minute. This small, by-the-skins-of-our-teeth success involved our best broken Spanish, hand-holding, puppy dog eyes. Landing in Guadalajara an hour and fifteen minutes behind schedule, realizing that we late arrivals may very well have to finagle a different flight out of here in a language neither speaks fluently, I swallowed my excitement at Louisa’s studying of the landscape beyond the runway, her face filling the small window. To a girl from Johannesburg, Mexico oozes the exotic, fuels the othering nature we so shun out loud, as we wonder—how terribly wrong is it to fetishize that which we are not? We are cultural voyeurs, international peeping toms, fogging the windowglass of the world with our aroused heavy breathing.

But now, we’re nervous. Or at least I am. Louisa is the calming force in our relationship, and I do my best—sometimes purposefully, most times inadvertently, to agitate that force. This is an incredibly slow taxi to the gate and I stare down my wristwatch every ten seconds.

“We’re going to miss our fucking flight,” I grumble, amid the remainder of the infuriatingly calm passengers, “why aren’t we moving?”

“Look,” Louisa says, her finger greasing the window.

To my right, in the aisle seat, an old woman folds her fingers together in her lap. Her eyes are closed, and I bet she’s praying for something far less mundane than making a connecting flight. I’m not sure, what with all this engine noise, but I think she may be humming.

Louisa is pointing to a decrepit old AeroMexico plane, missing one wing, ditched defunct on the outskirts of this outskirt runway. The savannah desert tallgrass seems to be devouring it like some multi-legged sea creature—a giant hybrid of the millipede and the octopus—a millipus. Surely we are bearing witness to some spectral battle—nature versus machine. And the machine—this old plane that bears the brand of this younger one that transports us, ever so slowly to some still invisible harbor—is certainly losing.

Our faces come together in this tiny window as we watch the old plane. I swear I can see it rust before my eyes. I remember my countless road trips along the blue roads of the U.S., the rural towns in which I saw so many collapsed school buses, cargo vans, pick-up trucks parked on so many collapsed front lawns. This airplane seems the natural, if not operatic, extension of those lesser dead vehicles. This airplane, fighting in vain for its life against the strength of the landscape, knew once what it was like to fly.

“It’s moving even slower than we are,” I tell Louisa, and we sneak a kiss while the aisle lady’s eyes are still closed.

Soon, we’re running in the airport, the whirl of airport lights, the smell of roasting airport meats, the loudspeaker crackling its static, the music of Spanish spinning around us, running with our boarding passes in our sweating hands, our backpacks bouncing on our shoulders, to make it to the front of the customs line. Given our nearly decade-long battle for Louisa’s citizenship, anything bearing the word customs, sours in our mouths like lemon rind. And, of course, we have no idea where we’re going.

Soon, we make it to our official, an open-faced young man named Ricardo, laughing with his fellow officials about something I can’t quite understand. I make out the words pollo and estúpido. Something about a stupid chicken. I hope they’re not talking about me. Regardless, I decide to beg.

“Por favor, Señor. Uh, uh, tenemos billetes para México D.F. uh, uh, pero llegamos tarde…”

I’m trying, but he’s smiling at me like I am, indeed, that dumb-ass chicken, trying to talk his way out of the axe. I can’t quite tell whether his smile is genuine or condescending. If we were in the U.S., it would be condescending for sure. Louisa hugs my arm. Ricardo takes the boarding pass from my hand, shakes his head, clucks his tongue. This can’t be good. Surely, we’re to be decapitated and plucked, quartered and eaten—our punishment for our narrow-minded gringo othering.

“No es correcto,” he says.

“Fuck,” I whisper.

“What?” Louisa says.

“The gate’s wrong. It’s the wrong gate.”

Ricardo organizes for us an especially speedy backpack search, and tucks his electric body-wand into his hip sheath. Then, in a swell of philanthropy that’s all but gone the way of the dinosaur in the States, he leaves his post, motions for us to follow him, and walks us across the airport to the revised gate. His body-wand slaps against his hip, his small metal pieces of customs agent flair rattle like tambourines on his chest, and somehow, in our racing to keep up with him, the loudspeaker belching monotone Spanish above us, families reuniting and kissing without reservation, children scrambling with yo-yos, old men in massive straw hats groaning with their leather bags, young women in stunning woven dresses stretching themselves earthbound again, Louisa and I are struck with a sense of celebration. We’re surrounded by all kinds of music, by customs-agent smiles that actually are genuine; by a place that values humanity over procedure; where humanity is the procedure.

Ricardo delivers us to our gate and actually shakes our hands, wishes us good travels. We watch as he turns for the ten-minute walk back to his post. His gait is downright placid. Even from the back, I can tell by the way his neck tightens that he is smiling.

The woman who accepts our boarding passes is, according to her gold nametag, Luisa. That she bears my wife’s name at once quickens and calms my heart, and I mentally, and briefly, engage in some eponymous ménage à trois. Luisa explains to us in broken English, “We try to wait. You make it by one minute.”

I turn to Louisa. We are travel-drunk and delighted. We share a row with a young man with black-painted fingernails buried into his headphones. They’re so loud, I can hear the Spanish-language death metal. We’re still stationary, but the engines begin to whine. I lean in to Louisa’s window-seat and kiss her. As if to test Luisa’s proclamation, we try to hold it for sixty full seconds.