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Recent Work By Matthew Gavin Frank

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…

You brushed your teeth nude this morning in front of the full-length mirror.  As a memoirist, what are three adjectives that you’d use to describe that experience?

I have to admit, I’m a little uncomfortable with this question.


Why?

Because you know the answer already.


Be that as it may, I believe it’s a valid question.  Besides, a few other people may read this interview.  You can’t ignore your audience.  As a writer, you should know that by now.

OK.  Fine.  Now it’s my turn: Be that as it may, I’m not necessarily comfortable describing my naked body at the bow of an interview.


Bow?  Like the front of a ship?

Yes.  I like maritime references.


But you can’t swim.

No, beyond the doggie-paddle, I can’t.


Do you think your fondness for maritime references lies in this strange lack?  Are you compensating for an inability to float on the surface of water?  I mean: you can’t swim?!  How pathetic is that?

(Silence).


Is your reluctance to answer my first question related to your being uncomfortable with your body itself?

A little, maybe.  Yeah (clears throat), I suppose.


Stop being such a woman.

Oh my god.  I can’t believe you said that.  Not only is that a bit sexist, but you’re starting to sound like my father.


Pu-pu platter of Daddy Issues, anyone?

Shut up.  Look, I don’t need this.  (Standing from chair, hands on hips) I have plenty of other shit to do…


Ok, ok, sorry.  It’s just that I know what gets a rise out of you.  I couldn’t resist.  Sorry.  I’ll stop.  Sit down.

(Sitting, harumphing) Alright.


Can I provide a little advice on how to answer the question without you getting all up-in-arms?

(Folding arms over chest, quite aware of the body’s psycholinguistics) I’m listening.


Why don’t you do what you often do in your writing—choose words or descriptions that make little sense as a direct answer to the question, but allow for reader interpretation, thereby making you seem smarter than you really are.  In this case, describing yourself naked in the full-length mirror, brushing your teeth, pre-coffee, jetlagged after having just retuned stateside from Barolo, Italy where you celebrated the publication of your new book, do you think big words may be appropriate?

(Unfolding arms) Yes, I do.  Two of the three should be big.  Four to five syllables.


Go ahead.  Close your eyes.  The mirror.  The Mentadent.  The ribcage. The shoulder blade.  The SoniCare you got at a discount from your dental hygienist sister.  Three adjectives.

(Eyes closed, rocking forward and back in the chair) Bored, ecclesiastic, heretical.


Ha!  Now that’s a body I want to see.

(Eyes opening, sultry like Jessica Rabbit) Well, if you play your cards right…


I must admit.  After bored, I thought you were going to go for ponderous and incantatory.

As you know, those were my second choices.


Moving on: What does the word peripeteia mean to you?

Can I have a moment to look it up on Dictionary.com?


No.

A fat heirloom ox.


Oh, you mean like the Italian Piemontese bue grasso?  Is this some shameless way to segue into a discussion about your book, BAROLO, about your illegal work in the Italian Piemontese wine industry?

Well, I’m glad you asked.  It’s about more than that really—about a culinary evolution, and uncovering identity via sense, about falling in love with women and place and food and wine and lifestyle, about hedonism colliding with loneliness in a rural Italian cage match—no time limit and no disqualification, replete with the weaponry at hand: heavy logs of truffled salami, sachets of hazelnuts…


(Interrupting) Let me stop you there.  You’re doing it again.

What?


Being unnecessarily arcane.  I mean, what?  You want to sell some books, right?

(Sheepish) Yes.


(Like the wolf who swallowed the sheep) So why don’t you mention that BAROLO is a food-and-wine memoir, how you describe your six months living in a tent in the garden of a local farmhouse, picking wine grapes, mopping cantina floors, apprenticing in restaurant kitchens, and butcher shops, and bakeries, discussing your developing relationships with the eccentrics who inhabit the town, etcetera?  Why don’t you name-drop M.F.K. Fisher for Pete’s sake?

Oh, I do love M.F.K. Fisher—she drives Nascar-fast into the human and the sensual and I feel freaking gypped by my birth-year because I never got to eat with her, never got to French-kiss her.  I adore, of course, “The Gastronomical Me,”


(Interrupting, eyes rolling) Oh, of course…

…and her lesser known “A Cordiall Water,” which discusses all sorts of oddball medicinal recipes and traditions, across place and time.  The book made me not only want to place-travel, but to time-travel as well—


(Under breath) So you drive a DeLorean?

…which can still be done in certain parts of the world it seems, like rural Africa, where my wife, and your wife, is from—places that float outside of time, which, in a way, allows the traveler to similarly float, providing for future awkward conversations with folks who self-identify as “grounded.”  So yes:  Fisher was an inspiration to me when writing BAROLO.  My favorite anecdote in “A Cordiall Water” details Fisher’s conversation with this ninety-year-old woman at a bus stop in Dijon.  The woman talks of her granddaughter’s death; how the entire family gathered with some impotent doctor in a tiny, hot room around her deathbed; how the old woman went outdoors and collected a bunch of frogs in a burlap onion sack and laid it on the dead girl’s chest.  The trapped frogs hopped around in a failed attempt to restart the girl’s heart.  Then, the old lady then got serious.  She captured a pigeon and, with a fillet knife, sliced it open vertically, unfolded its body from its organs, and placed its still-beating bird-heart onto the sternum of the dead girl.  In an instant, the girl came back to life, sitting up with a deafening inhale.  This story made me want to go to Dijon.  That Dijon.


Good mustard there?

There is good mustard there.


What’s your favorite Italian-y thing to see in a kitchen?

An obese salami as long as an arm, cut off at the bottom and strung from a nail in the wall, a piece of butcher’s paper on the floor to collect the fat drips as it dries out over the course of a season, and an open bottle of Luciano Sandrone 1990 Cannubi Boschis Barolo uncorked and opening-up on the adjacent counter.


That’s two things, really.

OK.  Just the salami then.


You worked in the restaurant industry for over fifteen years.  What are your favorite Italy-inspired recipes that you’ve created?

As a first course: Chicken Liver Ice Cream with Maple-Caramelized Cippolini Onion, Hazelnut, Blood Orange, Pancetta, and Prosecco Jelly.  In Italy’s Piedmont region, chicken livers are really big, especially in this fabulous dish called finanziera, which stews all sorts of bird organs and cock’s combs with vegetables in Barolo wine and Barolo vinegar and such.  As a desert course: Revisionist Caprese Salad: Basil Ice Cream with Buffalo Mozzarella Syrup, Oven-Dried Sweet Tomato, and Tomato Rock Candy.


Wallace Stevens once said, headlocked and bloody-nosed, by Ernest Hemingway on Duval Street in Key West after midnight, and after too many Triple Dickels, “you write from the armpits, motherfucker.”  What do you think he meant by that, and do you write from the armpits?

I think he meant that as a compliment, except for the motherfucker part.  Knowing Stevens’ work, inherent in his outcry is the veiled notion that the writer has to allow for stink, can’t cover it up and PH-balance it.  Our pores must be open, and our lives never anti-perspirant.  Picturing the two of them together like this, I can’t help but feel a quiet intimacy—the genius of all seas singing into a bucket of bull’s blood.  It’s some weird-ass literary bumping-and-grinding.


A quick follow-up:  What the fuck do you mean?

I mean as a writer I try to be open, listen to language and description leak from the celestial monochord, and to practice writing enough so that I can distinguish between the good leaks and the bad.  It takes practice, observation, and trust.  And risk.  Writing is not only, “Raise Your Hand, Raise Your Hand If You’re Sure!” but if you’re unsure as well.


Can you give us one more deodorant commercial reference please?

Um…


Take your time.

“Secret: Strong Enough for a Man, Made for a Woman.”


Now who’s being sexist?

Proctor and Gamble.


You once mentioned that you thought M.F.K. Fisher had sexy armpits.  Care to elaborate?

I never said that.


But do you take issue with the thesis?

Well…not necessarily.


Do you consider yourself an armpit fetishist?

Not really.  But I’m a man of eclectic tastes.


This shows in BAROLO.  You tend to navigate between a tone that’s brash and smart-ass, and one that is earnest and damn-near ecstatic.  Are you trying to suffuse Anthony Bourdain with the language of the lyric?

Hm.  I never thought about it that way, which is strange considering we share one brain.  Maybe so.  But you make it sound like I’m administering a suppository.


What specific food/wine-related memory is your favorite from your time in Barolo?

Oh hell.  This is a tough one.  In Alba, Italy, in October, the white truffle conquers the area—festivals, fairs, carnivals, markets all devoted to this delicacy.  I remember bushwhacking the streets and running into this canvas truffle tent set up in Alba’s middle on Via Vittorio Emanuele.  Streaming rain.  The narrow alleys.  The risk of being harpooned by a Versace umbrella-top.  Inside the tent, row after row of truffle hunters (or “trifolau”) displayed their wares—the truffles they unearthed just that morning with the aid of their hunting dogs.  Ridiculous sensory overload.  But again, you know all this.  You know how I bought an entire white truffle the size of a duck egg from this red-bearded pirate of a man, and how he threw in a black truffle for free.  Only in Alba.  And then, of course, you know of the night I apprenticed in the I Cannubi restaurant kitchen with Chef Ercole Musso.  And how Ercole translates into English as Hercules, and how this is actually linguistic understatement.  You know: The madman worked me to the bone—to the circulatory system!—in his kitchen for eleven hours, then we adjourned to the empty 1:00am restaurant, ate a four course meal—bread and local cheese, fresh pasta with sage and butter and braised veal, persimmon panna cotta, local pears and hazelnuts.  And we polished off three bottles of Barolo.  Then, Ercole, in his endless quest for further indulgence, forced upon our “meal” 50-year-old Jamaican rum, 60-year-old Amontillado Spanish sherry, Cuban cigars and, what he described in his very limited English as Moroccan Tobacco, which was a spliff of hashish.  The chests of our shirts were stained with olive oil.


When Ercole actually said the words, “Moroccan Tobacco,” opening and closing his Cuban-cigarless hand like a sock puppet, his inflection reminded you of an event in your past.  Why don’t you tell us about that?

OK.  When I was eight-years-old, I slept overnight at Jason Brand’s house.  He was my best friend and, like most pre-adolescent best friends, he lived across the street.  It was my first time sleeping anywhere but my own bedroom, which I was reluctant to do, mostly I think because of my eyesight.  Like you, I started wearing glasses at age five, and contact lenses at age eight.  My eyes were degenerating at such a rate that the optometrist told my mom that I would likely go blind by age thirty.  That he was wrong was something we couldn’t predict.  As a child, I used to practice being blind by walking around my parents’ house at night, in the dark, honing my other senses.

I had just woken up in the middle of the night with a wicked pee in Jason Brand’s strange bedroom, his aquarium gurgling and whirring away in the corner, and struggled, in a dream-haze, to find the door.  My heart began to sprint in my chest.  Finally, fingers tracing the wall, I found my way into the hallway, lit only with the dim orange streetlights leaking through the window-cracks, and I saw the bathroom holding itself at the foot of his parents’ half-open bedroom door.  I took careful steps along the carpet, listening to his father’s snores, when, in front of me materialized the indistinct gray, green-eyed shape of the Brand’s cat, who, after having been bitten twice by similar neighborhood pets, I had developed an irrational fear of.  Well, rational, really.  Squinting, I looked into what I felt was its face, and it looked back at me, eyes streaming light into the otherwise dark hallway.  Then, it opened its mouth and crooned a deep, slow, throaty robotic Me-ow.  My heart leapt fifty feet into the air and stayed there, hovering over the chimney of Jason Brand’s house.  Breath erratic, skipping like a record.  The meow was not a cat’s meow.  It was a human’s.  It was spoken in the deliberate voice of a person trying to communicate.  This cat was talking to me.  A chill shot from my lower back to my neck and spread upward to my ears.  The cat continued to stare at me.  I’d heard the cat mewl before, but this wasn’t its voice.

“Sebastian?” I whispered, “Is that you?”

Me-ow,” the cat spoke again, low, laggard.

My heart dropped through the chimney, beating like a snare drum, and back into my chest.  Without going to the bathroom, I ran back to Jason Brand’s room with my eyes closed.  I held it until sunrise and gave myself a bladder infection.

Ercole said it in the same voice as Sebastian’s terrible Me-ow.

”Moroccan tobacco.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

None of the aforementioned truths are self-evident, I once touched Bruce Springsteen’s ass, and a pinch of salt.


When we become one again, after one more line, will you be mad at me?

A little…  No.


My memoir, BAROLO, about my illegal work in the Piemontese Italian food and wine industry was recently released.  Check it out!

BAROLO is now in stock and available here:

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.

As we loaf near midnight in our first bed in Mexico City, Louisa’s kiss cooling on my lips, the red scrolled metal of the bed frame screeching like so many rodents each time we move to scratch, drink, caress, I hear through the skinny walls the laughter of the nighttime desk crew. It’s not a laughter I’m used to, not one I’d typically hear from the many nighttime desk crews I’ve encountered on my many car-bound U.S. crossings. It’s not a laughter that gels with the Motel 6s and sub-Motel 6s that have borne witness to much of my sleep.

This room has no TV, but has beautiful wooden nightstands. Over mine, the sole wall decoration hangs—a calendar boasting Diciembre, the Virgen de Guadalupe looking down upon the meager squares, doing their best (and failing) to represent our days here, her eyes deflating as gold rays shoot from behind her like the kitschiest sun in the galaxy. She must know what it takes to laugh like this. She must have the ability to describe it in a way that doesn’t point from a distance and exoticize. But I don’t. I am an otherer. And this laughter is other, and exotic as hell. It’s as simple as a pink balloon. This laughter is the toddler joy of dragging one’s fingers over balloon skin, eliciting from the thin rubber, that dribbling, speed-bump frictive joy. Simple as a light-stick. A set of iridescent jacks.

I try to commune with it, stick my tongue between my lips and blow. I haven’t done this in years, and the vibration is exhilarating. Louisa looks up from her book, Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” and smacks me on the shoulder. This is the first time my South African wife is traveling as a U.S. citizen, a status we jointly pursued throughout seven years of marriage and thousands of dollars and now, here, in this cheap, ornate, cavernous Hotel Rioja just off the main Zócalo square in the Centro Histórico, each laugh-echo from the courtyard serves as our payoff.

Beneath the orange and green wool blanket, she brings her knees to her chest and asks, “Are you spitting at me?”

How do I begin to answer this? I’m exhausted from traveling all day, too exhausted to sleep. How to I go about telling Louisa of my stupid attempt to commune with this new laughter? That spitting like a toddler at a teacher is my only touchstone. The only way I know how…

“I’m must be tired,” I say, and I’m happy I do because she leans in and kisses me warm again. Behind us, on the wall, the Virgen doubtlessly gives us her garish blessing. Louisa goes back to Barack, I go back to jotting a few innocuous lines into my notebook, cracking, with a low hiss the can of Leon Cervesa Negra I picked up for about thirty cents at the convenience store on Avenida Cinco de Mayo. The beer is lukewarm, tinny and just what the doctor ordered. To be sure, it’s my only hope for sleep. Soon, the laughter dissipates, but the construction of Hotel Rioja amplifies the most meager of actions. I can hear the old hunched desk clerk click his pen open three floors beneath us. Our room is on the indoor courtyard; if we dared step from our cracked wooden door, we could peer over the railing down to the nucleus of the place, meditate on the smooth bald head of the desk clerk whose small coughs sound in this place like the roars of Armageddon. The traffic outside could be under our bed.

Louisa and I need this—our first time overseas after spending a year in Chicago nursing my mother back from cancer, a year confronting the demons of my childhood bedroom, a room I hadn’t regularly slept in for fourteen years; a room bearing the obsessions of my youth, a past I only thought I had moved beyond; a room far more forbidding than any Motel 6; a room that signified, in it’s Alyssa Milano-circa-Who’s the Boss pin-ups and autographed pictures of Walter Payton, the loss of our marital sanctuary.

We need this. A room with walls that lets Mexico in, that allow our remembered lives, remembered selves to seep through its pores, where we can collect them into this bed, this can of beer, these quiet swallows between kisses. Above us, another couple, having found sleep, snore a telenovela through our ceiling.

Dessert

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Travel

In Alba, Italy, rain and a market. In my hands, the white greased paper that once held an entire rotisserie rabbit. Its bones clack together as hooves, a horse in the distance. I clutch this paper coffin to my chest, as if for warmth, and scan the piazza for a garbage can. My hunt for refuse carries me into the covered pulse of the marketplace, and I have to blink to focus. Now unburdened by my desire to eat a whole animal, I am able to assimilate this lovely and special chaos. There are hundreds of vendors—fruit stands, fish stands, meats and cheeses; rounds, bricks, entire civilizations of cheese, octopus, persimmon. I toss my trash in a can beneath a string of blood sausage.

“Hey! Hey!” I hear someone shout.

The voice opens like the lid of an ancient hope chest, rides its dusty remnants and long dead dreams on the rain. If I were to look inside this voice I’d expect to find centuries-old taxidermy, owls with shellacked eyes and sawdust in the feathers. I hear it again, this time in triplicate.

“Hey! Hey! Hey!”

I have no reason to think it’s directed at me, but I turn to face a tiny knuckle of a man, dressed all in white, head so perfectly circular it could have been designed with a compass.

“Hey! Viene qua!” the frump calls from behind his fruit stand.

I turn and point behind me, my forehead certainly a mess of wrinkles. People cascade in circles, not one of them standing still. I turn back and touch my chest.

“Io?” I ask.

“Si, si,” he creaks, “Tu.”

I move forward and, as if stepping on a hidden button in the cobblestone, I activate this man to produce a baseball-sized fig from his fruit pile, bust it in half with his thumbs, and shove both bowled sides into his mouth at once. As if a magician waiting for applause, he, less than a second later, waves the cleaned purple fig skins at me as theatre curtains.

“Wow,” is all I can muster.

He holds a fat palm open to me. I freeze into position. He turns and retrieves another intact fig, this one even larger. Again, with his cigar-stub fingers, he breaks the fruit in two, its swampy sweet cilia waving yellow at my nose like a sea anemone. Soon, his hands are in mine, wet with warm rain, rolling the fig halves into my drenched palms.

“Prego,” he offers, but it could easily have been, “Abracadabra.”

I want to match his magic, so I shove both halves into my mouth. The music of the fruit shrieks soprano with cherry and yeast, the texture of limp comb teeth. This is a fig to resurrect the dreams of a great-great-grandmother. This is a fig to make her a little girl again, stretch her hair from stiff gray to blonde braided pigtails. I think of the tango and pull the stripped skins from my mouth. The frump actually applauds, laughing.

“Bravo! Bravo!” he bellows.

I laugh knowingly with him, having shared in his secret bag of wizard’s tricks.

I reach into my pocket, expecting a string of scarves, but produce only my wallet. When I flash a few coins, he shakes his head, a bowling ball on shoulders, and turns to help another customer, a middle-aged woman with a faux-snakeskin umbrella.

I feel large, and somehow filled-out, rounded, fat-handed, aged and neckless. This is a market without illusion. The magic here is real. Over the reptilian umbrella, I watch the man hoist a watermelon into the air.

 

This piece originally appeared in Brevity and was reprinted in Creative Nonfiction (The “Best of Brevity 2005” issue).

In Alba, Italy’s rain, my hair flattens wet against my skull. Hugging the shopfronts of Via Vittorio Emanuele, I see a white triangular peak in the distance. It could be anything—a downed mountain bowing to commune with this street, the cobblestone river that carved it—except, glowing with rain, it looks to be made of canvas. I know.

I know. It is October. This is Alba. Simple arithmetic: October + Alba = Truffle Fair. Math never smelled so good. I thank the wet heavens for this day off. I am in Italy’s Piedmont region to work the seasonal wine harvest, sleeping in a tent in the garden of the Il Gioco dell’Oca bed-and-breakfast. But today, I am relieved of my grape-picking duties, and the white truffle beckons.

The truffle is an underground fungus of the tuber genus (some call it an underground mushroom), found beneath the bases of oak, linden, poplar, elder, willow, and wild hazelnut, where they establish a symbiotic relationship with the tree. They enjoy a cool soil about eight to ten inches below the earth’s surface. The truffle’s roots are as strong as its perfume. They are incredibly thick and intricate, surrounding the “fruit” or “gleba” with a cortex called a “peridio.” These characteristics vary greatly among the varieties of truffle, distinguishing each gem to the scrutinizing eye of the truffle hunter.

Truffles themselves are surrounded by legend. A famous Italian tale from the Piedmont regionclaims that truffles make their homes in the graves of dissipated gnomes and that their often-irregular shape is a result of the heartbeats of soon-to-be-sleeping plants. Truffle hunters, or “trifolau,” have always had their quirks and secrets, and their own fair share of lore. Often disguised as a man and his dog strolling an autumn hill at night, the trifolau are reputed to walk with lighter steps than the rest of us, and speak only with necessary words. The truffle-sniffing dog or “tabui” is calmer at night (hence, the typical night hunt); also, the night protects the trifolau and tabui from the imploring eyes of others. (Pigs can also be used to detect truffles, but dogs are preferred since they are less likely to eat the reward).

This peak in the distance is the demure cap to Alba’s famed truffle tent. Polar, bearish, the fur on the back of my neck stands up.

Soon, I am at its entrance and, ducking my head like a linebacker preparing to unleash a bone-crunching tackle, I dip my white face into the seas and come up with a salmon, flapping into U, inverted-U, U, inverted-U in my jaws.

Umbrellas woosh open and closed around me, people entering, people leaving. What an indulgent invention the umbrella seems in a tent so connected with the soil—with these personal hand-held awnings, nobody gets wets, and in turn, nobody dries off.

I shudder from the waist up as a dog shedding a rain-sheen onto a business suit or two, and survey this white vacuum of aroma and taste and commerce. Row after row of truffle vendors chat with a clamorous array of buyers, displaying their wares that they dug from deep earth oak tree bases with the aid if their sniffing dogs. And now, these black and white delicacies, the essence of earth and epitome of fungus, lie platter-lit under glass containers, exhumed by the merchants to be held, like their children, to the noses of probable patrons. This is the second coming through a kaleidoscope.The dirty gray rock-like truffles, so much like figs, play their cards close to their chests until the glass container is lifted and aroma spills the room like oil.

There is something in the contained stoicism of a red-bearded man in the tent’s west corner that makes me want to buy a truffle from him. He, unlike the operatically effusive majority, seems to share the wise hermit nature of the truffle itself. He knows. That’s all.

I walk to him, the sea of people and their downward-pointing umbrellas rushing from my heels like jet smoke. His red face, unearthed just this morning perhaps, spreads in a bread-and-butter grin.Wordless, he reaches for his platter, left hand bracing its bottom, right hand poised on the container lid. This is potential energy as it should be. Two steps later, the lid is off, the sweet white truffle smell of soil and mushroom, corn husk and asphalt gift-wraps itself bowless over the back of my head, grabs me my the ears like a schoolyard bully. I am thrown face first into this silver platter’s playground dirt. This is not fair. I’m telling on you. I want my mom.

In what sounds to me like a blubbering cry, I ask, “Quanto per uno?”

He waves his chapped hand over the pile, indicating that I choose my favorite. Always the champion of the underdog, I choose the second one from the top, a battered golf ball of a tartufo boasting the elegance of the clubs that hit it. Red-Beard, with a thumb and forefinger, lifts it from its family litter.It wriggles and wags like a puppy. The next thing I know, it’s in my hand. Its touch is gold and scab, bottlecap and skipping stone.

Once a white truffle touches your skin, a strange symbiosis ignites. A purchase is inevitable, even for those with a psychotic regard for self-denial. Rough, dimpled, irregular, geologic, its bloom waits for contact with a truffle shaver and a quail egg, a plate of ravioli, a loin of venison. I’ve never felt the stirrings of fatherhood before, but…

And just like that, he picks it from my palm as a poppy, weighs it, and writes £80,000 on a slip of blue paper. Forty dollars for an entire white truffle—worth about $1,800/lb. in the U.S.—forty dollars for a tongue’s meditation stone that will span a week’s worth of dinners. I want to weep. I want to pray. I want to, and do, hand him the money, and he proceeds to wrap the sweet baby in a fan of white tissue paper, then places it into a tiny paper bag. I hold the bag to my face and breathe as if hyperventilating, as a horse licking the first or last oats from its feed-bag.

Then Red-Beard, perhaps as penance for his namesake’s pirating, perhaps due to my treasuring of his ware, removes a plum-sized black truffle from another platter, wraps it, and hands it to me without so much as a “Prego.” I match his silence, my hands go numb, my hair most assuredly turning white.I am in a place where the purchase of a white truffle gets a black truffle thrown in for free. This place is Alba, Italy. $19.95 for twenty steak-knives be damned. I reach my bagless hand to Red-Beard and he shakes it, his palm rough as cornflakes, eyelids drooping nearly to the corners of his mouth.

Retreating to the tent’s entrance, the other merchants thrusting, then cradling their truffles under my nose, offering their perfume, my eyes begin to water, my breath shortens, my head spins in a wild vertigo. This is sensory overload at its best, the ripe fungal blossom of the tent tattooing itself into my nostrils. I need to take a breath of rain.

And in a step, stutter, step, I am back in it, iron pencil sky relentless in its spewing. I tuck the truffle bag into my windbreaker’s heart-pocket and make for the bus back to Il Gioco dell’Oca, where the kitchen will hopefully be empty, and my tent, most certainly, saturated.

The fluorescence of one room bleeds into another with only minor differences: a blinking flicker here, a snoring hum there. I sit again beneath these flickers and hums, just past 9:00 pm, in thesalamina da sugo workshop, ready for the gentle myth, ready for some anarchy. This is the Salone del Gusto, the Slow Food Movement’s Salon of Taste and, while this is also Torino, Italy, the rest of the world, via its respective culinary delights, trickles in through the cracks in the mortar.

Tonight, a hush falls over Ferrara, a small city in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. Talk of its indigenous salamina da sugo rarely breaches its borders. Perennially crowning the Christmas tables of the Ferrarese, the mysterious and controversial dish remains out-of-reach for the rest of the world.

The salamina was first documented in the 15th century letter from Lorenzo il Magnifico to Duke Ercole II d’Este. Apparently, the first to produce the product were the “porcaioli” of the Trentio and Bormio mountains. Pork artisans. Porcine Michelangelos. (Somebody stop me—I can go all day…).Eventually, they migrated into the Po valley, and then into the area that was to become Ferrara. Not a single discovered document mentioned salamina da sugo again, until 1722. Capturing the artistic heart and palate of writer Antonio Frizzi, salamina da sugo became the object of his poem, “Salamoide.” Frizzi writes, “I mix the pig’s liver with its meat, put an iron on top, and step on the iron.” Frizzi went on further to speculate that the pigs destined to become salamina are born carrying the spirits of all dead women. (Insert your own necrophilia joke here). In tasting it, the headphones proclaim, one has difficulty separating flavor from verse.

Often invoked as an incurable aphrodisiac, the salamina (or salama, as it is often called) was a popular meal at wedding banquets and brothels. The dish was reputed to soften the skin and add life to the blood of newlyweds, as well as prepare the “ladies of the night” for their customers. Here, tonight, call me Madam.

The night outside Torino’s Lingotto building stretches its legs, brothel-less, blows its yawn over the old Fiat factory, and the edifice itself seems to settle in a post-tasting bliss. This is the last workshop of the day, and it is run by representatives of the Slow Food Movement, their Italian taking the form of culinary protest. The translation whistles flute-like into my ears, discussing this nearly extinct breed of sausage, stirring the Slow Food Movement to educate the masses in an attempt to lift it from certain death.

This salamina is commercially-illegal. The Slow Food Movement had to hew through bureaucratic barbed-wire just to get this workshop off the ground. It is virtually number-one on Slow Food’s endangered foods list, holds a top-shelf position in their Ark of Taste.

The dish begins with the grinding of the “less noble,” but more flavorful parts of the pig: liver, tongue, belly, shoulder, chin, top neck, throat lard, cheek, thigh. The ground meat is then coupled with an array of spices—types and amounts differ with each producer. Typical spices include salt, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and garlic. Red wine (approximately two liters per ten kilograms of meat) is added to the mixture—usually a Sangiovese, Barbera, or Semisecco del Bosco Eliceo.Certain producers also add rum, grappa, or brandy.

The mixture is then packed into a pork bladder, tied with twine, and traditionally divided into eight segments. In a well-ventilated, dark chamber, at about fifty-degrees Fahrenheit, the salamina is hung to ripen and age for at least one year. During this time, the salamina is periodically brushed with olive oil and vinegar.

Once sufficiently aged, the salamina will bear a protective coating of white mold. Prior to preparation, the mold is rinsed away and the cased meat is soaked in lukewarm water for at least twelve hours. After the soaking session, the salamina is placed inside a cloth bag which is then tied to the center of a long wooden stick. The stick is draped across the top of a large stockpot, so that the salamina bag is hanging in the middle, away from the pot’s bottom and sides. The pot is filled with water, and the salamina cooks for about four hours at a low simmer. Once ready, the salamina is cut from the bag and gently removed from its casing with a spoon. The salamina’s wine is released during the cooking process, yielding a viscous and spicy sauce.

Three types of salamina line the plate in front of me, each cresting a small mound of mashed potato.The first is anarchic; Slow Food’s own farmers producing their ideal version, sans governmental regulation. It is pink and brown, and dripping with its internal, natural “sauce.” The next is a small farmhouse version, produced, as it has been for Italian centuries, against the rigid health department standards, left to hang for months from pig-sty rafters. The truffle of the barn. The final slice is an industrially-produced, commercially-regulated sausage that does its best to mimic salamina da sugo.The Slow Food Movement wants us to know the difference.

We lift our forks in choral unison and, slowly, like the simultaneous bowing of fifty veiled heads, bring them to our plates as we are instructed to taste the first. Upon biting, the salamina oozes smoky gravy into our mouths, collecting a texture somewhere between ground meat and rose-oil. If this sausage were a cheese, it would be baked brie. Just by chewing together, with our arsenal of taste-buds, we march on Roma with torches ablaze.

The farmhouse salamina a little less sweet, but just as runny, scampering over the tongue like a mouse, feet soaked in licorice. Together, we burp terrestrial elegies. The industrial version is tasty, but common, a mere smoked sausage injected with hormones and cardboard crumbs. We sneer. We save the whales.

We have tasted, the thin, black-haired representative declares with a snap of his fingers, what may be the last barely legal taste of salamina da sugo, ever. After this Salone del Gusto, the book may very well be closed. I imagine an Underground, gathering in windowless attics, reading by candlelight, ancient farmland recipes, and passing samples of this banned foodstuff. We will weep over the crushing of pleasure in favor of the illusion of health. We will smoke banned cigars, drink banned liquor, and toast to anarchic sausage. We, and the salamina, will survive in the basements of the world.

This black-haired representative of Slow Food widens his eyes and stares, cultishly, into the ceiling’s holy, but fleeting fluorescence…

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

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

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


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.

For dinner we have masa harina corn cakes with herb sauce and a dilled potato salad. Johanna, though dejected at another day of meatlessness, eats voraciously. We all do really. She and I sit at a rust-painted picnic table with Lance, Crazy Jeff and Gloria, Hector, and Charlie the Mechanic. The field crew eats with hunched shoulders, cramped forearms, aching lower backs. Johanna sits abnormally straight, exhibiting her self-described “perfect body mechanics.” We all swat at the flies and mosquitoes as we eat with the exception of Charlie the Mechanic who seems oblivious to them. He is oblivious also to the mayonnaise in his beard.

Hector hates the insects the most. A short stocky man in his forties, he waves wildly at the bugs with both hands, dropping his plastic fork to the ground, retrieving it, and wiping it on his pants, only to begin the process again a moment later.

“These fuckin’ bugs eat more than we do,” he shouts, frustrated.

“It’s the truth, man,” Lance says. He speaks in a voice that forever sounds as if it’s about to drop off to a decades-long sleep; a voice that sounds at home. Or rather: at hoooooome…

“I’m serious,” Hector stresses, “When these fuckers bite us, think about the equivalent. I mean the food they eat compared to the size of their bodies, and the food we eat compared to the size of ours. It’s ridiculous.”

Hector’s hair, jet black and tightly curled wobbles as one contained unit as he speaks, swats at his ears, drops his fork, and picks it up again. I have previously encountered such a head of hair only on my late grandmother. I wonder if Hector spends his Saturdays in the beauty parlor, his hair liberally doused with hairspray and pulled at with a fuchsia teasing comb. If he, like she, will argue with his offspring for hours about the thermostat setting, will leave bed in the middle of the night in house-slippers and house-frock and, with hunchback catching the moonlight, raise the temperature a couple degrees while everyone, but the grandson, is sleeping.

“Yeah,” Lance snores, “The equivalent. It’s totally unfair.”

They both pronounce the word, equivalent, as if they had invented it, just moments ago. In their mouths it seems so new, deserving of endless repetition. Of course, they’re probably high. Of course, I may be too. Who remembers? When a brain cells falls into to the cerebral spinal fluid, and not a single of his compatriots is alive to hear it, does he, in attempting to recall the truth, make a sound?

We make up one table of about twenty. The conversation for such a crowd, and such a crowd of societal rebels, is surprisingly hushed. To generalize: much of the crew involves the type of folks who call their uncles, Unky, (as in: Unky Paul touched me), but not in some po-dunk toothless sort of way; more in some postmodern ironic self-aware hick-as-hipster sensibility, like the Rolling Stones in “Dead Flowers” and “Far Away Eyes,” et al.

During our meals, we are not making any large statements, not changing the world or subverting any governments. We are farm laborers, famished and tired, chewing more than we speak. At least at the meal’s beginning…

Charlie the Mechanic burps demurely, Crazy Jeff laughs to himself, Gloria rotates her head in a circle with an audible crack, and Johanna touches my leg under the table. We can’t see the stars beyond the white ceiling of the canvas tent, but, out here, tonight, I’d bet they’d be huge.

“Piece of shit bugs,” Hector says more calmly, “and they’re better than us, too.” He shoves another wedge of corn cake deep into his mouth.

Hector was born in Chiapas, Mexico and became an American citizen through, according to him, “some deal with the U.S. Army.” His military tattoos cover his thick arms with a sickly vein-green, as if he had some adverse and irreparable reaction to an intravenous medication. I remember, in our first few days here, he told us stories about how, as a child, he would stalk leopards through the Chiapas jungle, not far from the Guatemala border. I believe him. His military training, and perhaps his résumé as leopard stalker, earned him a place in the treetops. As a Treetop Sniper at Weckman Farm, he serves as an armed guard, keeping watch for trespassers, marijuana-poachers, and law enforcement.

Trust me: This whole sniper thing made Johanna and I, at the beginning of our stay, incredibly uneasy. Johanna, particularly has an aversion to guns. One of the reasons she fled her home country was the second attempted carjacking she faced, during which, like the first, she had a semi-automatic held to her temple at a stoplight. And, as during the first, she floored the gas pedal, narrowly averting cross-traffic, and ran over the guy’s foot. She told me this on our first real date, a breakfast in Key West (where we were both working in restaurants at the time), detailing the image that still plagues her at night of the perpetrator falling over into the street and she watched in the rear view mirror. And I have never, as Paul Hamby, Juneau, Alaska fireman, said as I served him his blueberry-pecan pancakes in the Channel Bowl Cafe (where I worked prior to meeting Johanna)discharged a weapon. But after having dined with Hector a few times, we soon grew accustomed to the notion of “sniper-as-sweetheart,” and other such anomalies unique to Weckman Farm, and this particular line of work.

Hector has an eight-person tent set up at the Residents’ Camp, though he rarely stays the night, and when he does, he sleeps in the large tent alone. Sometimes, the picking crew can become indignant regarding Hector’s clearance to leave the property, while we are bound to it. On his tent’s door, he has attached with a staple, a laminated postcard of the Virgen de Guadalupe, garlanded with pink carnations. I’m so glad that’s true. I’d feel like a stereotyping asshole if I made it up.

One night in our tent, before we went to sleep, Johanna asked me, “Do you think he comes from a family of eight? Do you think he gets to sleep imagining the seven other people? Or that the space reminds him of his family?”

Johanna has enough heart for the two of us, though, for the sake of tone here, I’m trying to keep mine at bay. (As my editor keeps telling me: brash sons-of-bitches sell, invoking, whenever possible, the spirit of Anthony Bourdain).

“We don’t even know if he has a family,” I said. (Hector, not Bourdain).

“We should ask him,” she said, fatigue pouring itself into her voice like motor oil.

I love it when her voice sounds like this—it’s so tired-sexy, but I’m too sore-hungover to do anything about it.

“If I catch him without his rifle, I’ll ask him,” I said.

Johanna said nothing. I paused, listening to the night-sounds—wind, frogs, insects, the breathing of the crew in their tents.

“I just wonder where he goes at night,” I said.

Johanna let out a dull, elongated violin snore.

Now, as Charlie the Mechanic burps at the dinner table again, this time flamboyantly, turning his head to the side and pursing his lips as if sipping from an imaginary, mid-air water fountain, Johanna touches my leg all the more mightily.

“Shiiiiiit,” Lance moans as if the word were four syllables.

“That’s it, brother,” Charlie rasps.

Lance taps me on the shoulder. When I look up from my paper plate, he says nothing, just sits there nodding with both his hands flat on the table.

Lance is only twenty-four, but this is his fifth season working at Weckman Farm. This makes him a Field Manager or Head Trimmer, both titles referring to the same set of duties: he tells, in his cat-before-a-nap sort of way, the Virgin Pickers (as they’re called) how to carefully trim the plants so as not to lose any of the “medicine. This is very, very important.” He takes his time with the “verys,” his shoulder-length blond hair swaying with his voice, calling to the oceanic Southern California rhythms that reportedly encompassed his formative years. This is Lance: slow tide in, slow tide out.

Like any good-looking young guy in a position of authority, Lance is a combination of annoying and enviable. As with at lot of the surfer interviews I’ve watched, I struggle between these two positions: wanting to be that surfer; wanting to punch him in the face. Lance probably never knew what is was like to be a nerd, favoring classic rock when all his cool classmates were listening to Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet.” In the junior high school gym class locker rooms, he probably never had to pretend to be familiar with lyrics that he had never heard (pleading: Shot through the heart! Shot through the heart!), just so Ricky Meyer wouldn’t throw wet wads of toilet paper at him and, potentially, bodyslam him onto the changing-bench. I heard that Ricky Meyer is now a millionaire. I hate it when bullies become successful. It’s so uncinematic. Except in Back to the Future II, I guess.

Lance belongs to one of two factions of the crew who choose to be paid in marijuana. The first is a group who tend not to spend the night at the Residents’ Camp, known at the farm as The Patients. The Patients, many of whom work as Pickers, use the marijuana to alleviate the effects of illness. (Despite her agony, I couldn’t have possibly convinced my mom to go this route, because “it’s illeeegal”).

In the Residents’ Camp, adjacent to the shower sheds, Lady Wanda supplies her crew with a sizable A-frame cabin known as the Sofa Room. Television-less, but stuffed with board games and lined with windows, the Sofa Room has become, either out of respect or necessity, the solarium lounge for many of the tired Patients in need of a cushioned respite at day’s end.

Into the Sofa Room, Pickers both past and present have placed various “healing” artifacts. The shelves are lined with miniaturized busts of the Venus of Willendorf, Buddha, Shiva, Ganesh; tin chickens and earthenware piggy banks, brass candle-less candlesticks and polished water-less river rocks; a salt-and-pepper shaker depicting a morose Roman-nosed planet Earth reclining in a celestial armchair; Kokopelli charcoal-drawn on a sliver of sandstone; rusty horseshoes and red sequined burlesque garters; coconut shells painted to look like fish, ceramic fish painted to look like gods. It’s a silver-haired new-age guru’s wet dream and a Midwestern cynic’s excuse to perfect his eye-roll, and then, because he feels guilty for being intolerant and judgmental (maybe this is where the Jewishness comes in), nods and smiles, and, overcompensating, accepts the fact that he has a lot to learn. Just as an aside: according to my computer, Jewishness is not a word. Some suggested alternatives for this “misspelling”: Jadishness, Juiciness, Jewfishes. (I’m thinking gefilte). Thank you, Jewish readers, for your token giggle there.

I first met Crazy Jeff and Gloria in the Sofa Room one night while searching for Pictionary. Johanna and I had long been fostering an addiction to the game, and it was in our characters to throw, on occasion, one of the drawing pencils across a room in a fit of excitement or frustration. We had convinced Lance to be the all-time drawer so Johanna and I could play one another.

Gloria was sleeping on an orange loveseat next to the board game closet, her head teetering between her own shoulder and Crazy Jeff’s. Crazy Jeff sat next to her staring at the exposed wood ceiling as if the beams were tea leaves.

At this point, somewhere into my first week at Weckman Farm, rumor had it that Crazy Jeff was a former cocaine addict who still had the occasional lapse and Gloria was a paranoid schizophrenic. The rumor went on to speculate, in nervous-excited whisper, that, although Crazy Jeff preferred men, he took Gloria as his lover in order to live off her social security checks.

Many of Weckman Farm’s crewmembers thrive on perpetuating and adding to the fictions of their co-workers. Perhaps the temptation to create legends of themselves to a pair of newbies is too much to resist. Perhaps the realities of farm work, when taken hour-by-hour, are just too mundane. Anyhow, I am their digestive system here, processing what they have to offer, adding some enzymes for flavor, and shitting it out, hoping the stench is, if nothing else, memorable. (You can’t imagine the restraint it took not to substitute nucleotidal for memorable there).

Crazy Jeff, we came to discover, was never a coke addict, though he did cop to a few dabblings. Gloria, while eccentric, does not have paranoid schizophrenia. They have become wonderful friends, but they are not lovers. Crazy Jeff and Gloria are both Patients, living with HIV, and numerous unnamed afflictions, for fifteen and ten years, respectively.

Without breaking his gaze from the ceiling, Crazy Jeff cleared his throat and said, “Only Scrabble’s left, ha, ha, ha, ha ha!”

Soon, while Gloria slept—her black hair stiff and straight, her nose wailing like a pennywhistle—Crazy Jeff and I began talking about how Lady Wanda paid him for his work.

Crazy Jeff (called Crazy, due to his frequent bouts of often-unprovoked maniacal laughter) had told me, “I get a little over three grams of the good stuff an hour. Like an ounce a day. For this stuff, that’s like five-hundred bucks! A day!”

Approximately, eighty-five to ninety-five percent of Lady Wanda’s seasonal yield will be sent on to medical marijuana hospices and dispensaries, sold at “retail prices” (about five-hundred dollars an ounce). The remaining five to fifteen percent goes to pay workers like Crazy Jeff on a collective basis. The rest of us, of course, are invited to toke from their joints.

“Can you believe that?!” Crazy Jeff cried, “There’s nothing more physical than physics!”

Of course, he descended into a disturbing bout of giggles which he staunched, as if hiccups, by meditatively rubbing the cysts that plague the undersides of his ears. Each cyst is about the size of a halved wine cork, and Crazy Jeff often keeps them covered with circular Band-Aids. For this reason, some of the less kind of the Pickers refer to him as Frankenstein, an insult Crazy Jeff is prone to dismiss with a wave of his hand and a sharp, singular, “Ha!” He’s in his upper forties and, though balding and unwell, he looks young for his age. I never amassed the courage to ask him about his laughing, the reasons behind it, but Johanna theorized that he took the “laughter is the best medicine” advice far too literally. He aggravated her far more than he did me.

He shifted in the orange loveseat as his laughter subsided. Gloria woke up, disheveled, blinking like Olive Oyl after unusually good sex with Popeye. She looked at me, then Crazy Jeff.

“Whaaaaat?” she demanded.

Lance is part of the second group who chooses to be paid in pot, a group Charlie the Mechanic affectionately dubs, “The Bud-Fuckers.”

“That’s all they do. They fuck bud. The sons a-bitches love their weed more than I do,” Charlie would say, his voice struggling through an electronic-sounding rasp. Lance would often counter by accusing Charlie, being a mechanic, of reconstructing his own throat with a series of screws. Charlie would counter back.

“You got it, little man. And fuck yourself.”

Lance and his fellow marijuana enthusiasts, ranging in age from eighteen to seventy, choose to be paid solely in pot for the sheer enjoyment of smoking some “really exotic stuff. Connoisseur stuff, man. Real delicacies.”

So as I said, in not so many words, Lance is a beautiful man, blessed with feminine features, a jaw-line so sharp it could double as a letter opener. I think most of us on Weckman Farm were drawn to him in one way or another. His draw, for me, was one of the lustily platonic, if I can get away with that. Ogled by crewmembers male and female, gay and straight, Lance is the fun-loving target of equally fun-loving harassment. He is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed demigod of countless teen idol pin-up magazines, his lazy pot-fueled speech easily mistaken for a confident drawl. Like a photo, his face is glossy and permanent. Like the often-photographed, he’s come to depend on the attention.

Lance claims to have grown up in Southern California, near Pasadena, but these claims are often mumbled and unspecific, and Charlie the Mechanic routinely dismisses them as bullshit.

“The boy’s a surfer wannabe,” Charlie would say, “but he ain’t never lived in Southern California. He’s always been here.”

Lance would counter this with a stunning silence, during which he swayed all listeners to his side.

It was by means of Charlie the Mechanic’s ridiculing (ridiculing that I’d like to believe was good-natured) that Lance earned his third title, one which he wore like a badge and bragged about. Lance the Field Manager. Lance the Head Trimmer. And Lance, King of the Bud-Fuckers. This was how he introduced himself to Johanna and me—yet another crewmember stoking his legendary status, earned or unearned, I couldn’t yet tell.

At the dinner table, Crazy Jeff is holding up a baggie that must contain twenty freshly rolled joints.

“Whoo-hoo! Whoo-hoo-hoo!” he cackles to no one in particular, “funny cigarettes!”

Charlie the Mechanic is in the middle of telling Johanna, “Boutros Boutros-Ghali is the Antichrist.”

Sadly, I didn’t hear how this conversation got started. As a matter of fact, most of this dialogue is half-remembered by a half-stoned guy who wrote many of his notes in the Coleman Cimarron tent after dark, without turning on the lantern and risking disturbing his slumbering wife (pardon all theing words there—I promise I won’t mention ping-pong, maybe for the remainder of this manuscript).

“Uh-huh,” Johanna musters.

“And I am the Sun-God!” Charlie follows, to the delight of Lance.

In my notebook, in crooked blue Papermate, after-dark handwriting, my note of Charlie’s strange claim borders on the illegible. I am the Sun-God could easily be I am So Good, but why would I have made it a point to write that down? Plus: Charlie would say things like that all the time, situating himself in the realm of mythology. According to my notebook, he also once said, unprovoked, “I got lightnin’ in me!” but I’m not certain how to work that into the story.

Lance high-fives Charlie and I finally chime in, “I don’t know what the fuck any of you are talking about.”

If I had to guess, I was a little stoned, and Johanna was too. Maybe that’s the reason behind our attraction. We both saw, early on, the potential in the other to one day become an unreliable narrator.

Hector smashes a mosquito against the side of his face with an audible slap. He laughs at me, “Dude, it’s the end of the day. Who does?”

“Well…” Gloria says.

“So. So,” Crazy Jeff interrupts, trying to get my and Johanna’s attention, “I’m sitting in Trax [a Haight-Ashbury bar] and the bartender puts down three drinks in front of me. And I look around…”

Here, Crazy Jeff looks around Lady Wanda’s carnival dinner tent with eyes and mouth agape. The twenty tables surrounding ours are holding their own courts, filled with their own din, and the soothing sound of plastic silverware clicking against a chorus of teeth. At one table, an unseen male voice, with a slightly Germanic accent, bellows to his giggling audience “I am a doctor!”

“…and I say to the bartender,” Crazy Jeff continues, staring wide-eyed at the center of our rust-painted picnic table, surely envisioning those three glorious drinks, his voice growing louder, “I say, ‘I didn’t order these.’ And the bartender points to three different guys in the bar and I think: This is the curse! This is what my father was telling me about!”

As if on cue, Crazy Jeff falls into laughter and begins rubbing his cysts. Then, he points with one hand to three different tables under the tent, mimicking the bartender’s long-ago indication of Crazy Jeff’s triple appeal. He’s smiling like a boy. We all laugh with him. I feel shell-shocked and look to Johanna to see if she feels the same. She shrugs with her eyes, but she is laughing. I feel the urge to hold her hand with my right and Crazy Jeff’s with my left. Instead, I use my hands to slap my legs, hoping that this gesture will allow me to laugh harder than I am. I think it actually works.

Hector shakes his head, a tiny explosion of blood holding to his cheek where he smashed the mosquito. I wonder if Hector is thinking about “the equivalent.”

When Crazy Jeff ends his crazy laughter with an exasperated, “hoooooo,” the table goes quiet for a moment. In this time, the night temperature seems to drop ten degrees. Johanna kisses my ear in a way that’s pleasurable in its wetness, and painful in its loudness.

“Well,” Gloria says.