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.

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.

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.


This is Rock ‘n’ Roll, but not rock ‘n’ roll music. This is some heroin addict losing a thumbnail on a G string, Al Green on his knees, Sleepy John Estes alone beneath a streetlight screaming, “Aaahh’m just a pris’ner!” into a Coors Light bottleneck. This is Mick Jagger finally castrated and Marianne Faithfull juggling his balls and a chainsaw. And this is accordion. Just accordion played by a Zapotec girl in a night alley that has no business being this orange.

You should know this: My wife is asleep in a Oaxaca motel named for the swallows who shit there, and I have what looks like blood on my hands; that the motel has no A/C, and a hot plate where we cooked our dinner, and the blood on my hands is just chioggia beet and not blood. This is nothing like the church group accordion that the upper middle class men played (in lederhosen) when I was a child at Strawberry Fest in Long Grove, Illinois, when polka was still as exotic as whiskey. This is accordion that virtuoso Guy Klucevsek can only swallow with an avant garde sleeping pill and a Transylvanian whore.

I am in Oaxaca City and I have to take a picture of this girl and her accordion, and the red cup that has only one peso in it, and the kids up the street destroying a piñata and eating its sweet organs, the simple pleasures of balloon and lightsticks occupying the children in the Zócalo before they take their shifts behind tarps, bearing clay burros, and yellow scarves, and wool carpets for sale to the tourists.

My wife and I are in Oaxaca trying to find our place in the world again, aged after a year of dealing with our sick parents. We force ourselves to shed hesitancy and over-protectiveness, and all manner of adult things behind food carts steaming with pigs’ heads, girls’ fingers dancing over keys that were never mother-of-pearl. My wife sleeps and I walk, stop for this girl—motherless, pearl-less—and it’s all I can do to pull out my camera.

I’m hungry. For dinner tonight: only two passion fruits and a cherimoya, a sautéed beet, the chile relleno with salsa roja my wife and I split at the Mercado Benito Juarez, passing so many stalls where intestines hang like ribbons. We’ve slept little, listened to so much music. But nothing like this. This tiny voice perched as if on a water-lily, driven by some failing engine—a horsefly with too-wet wings, food for some larger animal with a poisonous tongue. This asthmatic accordion scoring its attempts to fly, right itself; the instrument itself failing, played-out after one too many cigarettes—dirty and ugly and struggling and beautiful. There’s a reason why Tom Waits has a pathos Celine Dion never will. That reason is this girl’s accordion and its emphysema.

It’s all I can do to say, “Foto?” and I feel immediately blasphemous for doing so. You should know this: my wife is asleep and she cried before sleeping. Something to do with the bald old woman selling green maracas. Something to do with her knowing, in likely dream, that her husband is interrupting a nightsong.

She doesn’t stop playing, but nods, her little sister running out of frame, standing beside me hugging my leg and the flash explodes. Only a few months earlier, this street saw the local teachers’ strike lead to violent protests, riots, cars set aflame, rocks hurled, barking guns, military intervention. I wonder where she played then. Now, only the firing of my camera, her little sister hanging on my forearm, reaching to see the photo, her feet off the ground. I’m glad it’s blurry.

On the outskirts of town the streets turn to dirt, three-wheeler moto-taxis, stray dogs and squatter camps in the valley before the mountains. The buildings here spew their exposed steel cables like industrial squid, the cisterns slanted on the roofs, holding, for now, their collected water. I begin to wonder when dark becomes too dark; what the accordion player’s name is. Because I’ll never know, I give her the name I’ve always wanted to give a daughter. This is the word I will wake my wife with.

Returning to town, the bustle has become a chug. The push-carts of ice cream and mezcal and flan in plastic cups return home, their bells feebly ringing. At the cathedral-tops, bells more obese announce the crooked arrival of something holy: music or midnight.

She is gone, but something of her endures—something beyond music and the instrument that acts as intermediary, beyond buttons and bellows and small fingers that can only press. In this accordion is translation. A language that can stave off, just as it ignites. In it is all music—the stuff my wife snores, the shitty Laura Branigan cassettes my mom kept in her car when she was well enough to drive, when Branigan was alive and sexy and rife with the lovely strength required to belt-out crappy songs.

I head for Hotel Las Golondrinas, something of clove and orange peel in the air. Tomorrow, we are going to Santa Maria del Tule, to the church grounds there to see the Montezuma Cypress whose trunk has the greatest circumference of any tree in the world.

My wife is sleeping, so I am quiet when I enter the room. I take a long pull from the ass-pocket of mezcal on my nightstand; the ass-pocket we bought at a market on the grounds of a different church. I need a sink, and its cold water. In the bathroom, I wash the beet from my hands, wonder what the accordion girl will have for breakfast tomorrow. I’m pulling for bananas and cream. I have no idea where she sleeps tonight, or where—if—she wakes up. Because I know there will be a fence around the trunk of that giant tree, because I’ll never know, I knife her name into the bathroom door.